Step 1 – Set Your Intention

Perfect Practice Starts With A Goal

Setting your intention is the first tool in your arsenal. The work you are going to do will help you clarify your goals, uncover your true motivation and give you the roadmap for growth.

The Science Behind Practice

The systematic approach that experts in their field use to push past the boundaries and reach the highest levels of their sport was uncovered by physiologist and researcher Anders Ericsson. His research has consistently found that once we reach a level of “acceptable” and automatic performance, additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.

[We] assume that someone who has been driving for 20 years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five… But no.” In fact, the person who has done the same thing over and over for 20 years is more likely to be worse due to gradual deterioration.

Anders Ericsson, Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Switching to a systematic training approach, one that focuses on building a mental database of creative solutions to solve whatever scenarios may arise before they happen is the way that master horsemen approach horsemanship. You hear it again and again when top professionals speak of the lessons they learned from this horse or that horse as they rose. The best horsemen are able to internalize those lessons and come up with a set of operating principles that allow them to solve problems before they become problems so they consistently get top performances from their horses.

In order to know where you are going, you need to know where you are right now. Read the definitions of the three types of practice that Ericsson identified in his research to get an idea of the type of practice you have been engaging in.

The three Types of Practice

1. Naive Practice – This is the practice we do when we are beginners, building the basic levels of knowledge to ride our horses. Things like balance, starting, stopping, steering, posting, etc. Everything is new and scary and our brain is naturally attentive to every detail as we work hard to understand the basics. Once we get past that first scary part and become good enough to stay on the horse and guide him through some basic moves, we repeat this over and over until it becomes automatic.

Once we become “good enough” and feel relatively confident guiding our horse around the ring or on the trail at a walk, trot and canter our improvement stalls. At this point, you have become comfortable managing a reasonably calm, well trained horse in whatever environment that horse is most comfortable in. You don’t push him to go past the scary end if the arena or take a new trail when hacking out. You certainly aren’t pushing yourself to try a more challenging mount or to enter a competition. You are are going though the motions and for many people that is fine.

For those of us got into horses because it is possible to constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills Purposeful Practice is for you. It is about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.

2. Purposeful Practice – Getting outside your comfort zone in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals while monitoring your progress and maintaining your motivation. There are 6 elements that define purposeful practice.

  1. Must have a specific goal
  2. Engage in focused practice
  3. Receive quality feedback
  4. Continual pushing out of your comfort zone
  5. Formulating creative solutions to work though any plateaus you hit
  6. Maintain your motivation

For many next step involves some sort of competition, trainers, instructors and/or coaches.

For others that next step will be outside of the show pen, maybe it involves learning to traverse a tricky mountain pass, a water crossing, or becoming a true partner with our horse.

Incorporating the elements of purposeful practice will put the vast majority of equestrians on the right track to improve their horsemanship and thrive in competitive and challenging environments. But there is a third level of practice that can help you move up the ranks from handy amateur to confident expert. That rare horseman or woman who can apply their expertise to a wide variety of situations and horses. These are the top trainers and competitors that we see at horse shows. Mostly people who have decided to make a living off of horses and the very few top amateurs competing at the highest levels in every discipline. These are people who have turned purposeful practice into deliberate practice.

3. Deliberate Practice – Includes all the elements of purposeful practice and adds the following three points:

  1. It is done in a well defined field where it is possible to differentiate between a novice and an expert.
  2. An experienced trainer or coach is involved, helping to tailor practice and learning techniques.
  3. They have learned to harness the power of mental models, or visualization, while they perform.

So what do you do if you have stalled out at either naive practice or purposeful practice and want to move up to the next level? Breaking out of whatever mindset you find yourself in is the short answer. Fortunately and Unfortunately our human brain is hardwired to turn repeated behaviors into habits. The more you do something, the more likely it is to become a habit.

If we can wire our brain unconsciously to pick up certain habits, we can consciously can rewire our brain to pick up new habits. This is where purposeful and then deliberate practice come in. The difference between “automatic” repetitive practice and the more purposeful “deliberate” practice comes down to knowing where you need improvement and focusing intensely on getting better in that area. instead of going out to the barn and doing the same thing over and over and over you will need to make the decision to set some goals that are just outside of your comfort zone and then engage all the elements of purposeful practice.

Next you will learn how to narrow your focus, set a goal and then break that goal down into attainable steps.

If you have hit a plateau with your horse or you keep running into the same issue with every horse you ride. Maybe you are taking lessons or have your horse in training but aren’t seeing the kind of results you would like to. This is a common pitfall for riders, they don’t have a clear vision of where they want to go so they have no roadmap to get there and get lost in the journey. This lesson is not going to give you horse training or riding tips, rather, it is a program to help you find the clarity your need to put you on a clear path to your destination. It will help you determine the areas you need to focus on to meet your long term goals.

  • For a first time rider I will generally give them a starting goal of being able to control the horse and give basic steering commands at a walk, trot and canter along with a timeline of one year to reach this goal. Then we want to discuss why that goal is important, at that level safety is the primary concern but it will also help them feel secure and set them up to get to the fun part… riding a horse with confidence.
  • Once we know our goals and timeline we can talk about the capabilities needed to get there. And, here I help them figure out the skills they need and the order we will want to achieve them. A novice would want to learn balance, starting, stopping, steering, posting, moving in rhythm with their horse. We may also uncover things like physical fitness or fear issues that the rider will need to work on while they are off of their horse. 
  • After we have defined the capabilities needed to reach the goal we want to put them in a logical order and define the the areas they are weak in that they will need to focus on for improvement. A middle aged beginner is likely going to have to start with getting more physically fit and will need to start a fitness program to improve their strength and/or flexibility in order to ride with balance and prepare for the more rigorous demands of trotting and cantering. A rider with fear issues will need to start dealing with their fears, maybe that means they take several lessons learning to work with horses on the ground before they get in the saddle or if they have had an accident, learning the tools they can use to change their story.
  • The final step is to list your mini goals. You want to make these small steps that are attainable in a short period of time. My novice rider would set a series of mini goals beginning with incorporating 20 minutes of strength training into their exercise routine three times per week. Every three weeks increase the weight by three pounds until I am able to lift x lbs of weights. Learn to go from a walk to a halt using my seat and keeping my torso upright (not pulling myself forward with arms). My fearful rider could set a mini goal of using visualization three nights per week for 10 minutes a night to change the story around their fear. Learn how horses express emotion and practice reading my horse’s emotions during my lessons.

You will want to revisit your mini goals frequently and update them as your skillset improves. If you find that a mini goal is taking more than two to three weeks to accomplish you may need to revisit it and break it down further. I will frequently set a goal for a training session with a horse and then realize that it is too much to ask of that particular horse on that particular day and amend my mini goal on the spot. When I am working with a horse or client I want them to come away from each lesson feeling like they have made progress. I often say that I give easy As and I don’t mind one bit making the lesson easier for my learner. The purpose of the mini goal is to help you take small steps in the right direction, solve problems, build your database of knowledge and, if necessary, course correct so that you ultimately meet your much larger and loftier goal. 

Now it is your turn to download The Clarity Tool PDF and get started building your personal roadmap.

Continue on to the Level 1 Horsemanship Course
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