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I've been reading an interesting book - it's called The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self, by William Westney (highly recommended for any musician or music teacher). It's nominally about how more effectively and enjoyably to learn to practice and perform music - I'm an amateur musician myself - but there's a lot in it that can be applied to horsemanship as well, I think: horsemanship is a complex mental/physical task that has a lot in common with making music.
The first thing the book does is distinguish between two types of mistakes - honest mistakes and careless mistakes. A careless mistake is one made with inattentiveness and which is ignored or rationalized/explained away and no learning results from it. An honest mistake is very different:
Honest mistakes are not only natural, they are immensely useful. . . they show use with immediate, elegant clarity where we are right now and what we need to do next. . . Sometimes we have to fully experience what's wrong in order to understand and integrate what's right, and honest mistakes are the only way to do that. [read it on the Kindle so no page references for quotes]
The honest-mistake approach isn't so easy to accept for most adults . . . we're driven too much by our emotional need to control events and avoid embarrassment.I know I often make mistakes when I work with horses - this can include asking the horse to do something in a way that is unclear, inconsistent or ineffective - I ask for A and the result is the horse does B. A mistake that's allowed to be a careless mistake - where the importance of the mistake is suppressed or ignored due to hurry, inattentiveness, shame, fear of failure, external pressures (trainers or observers, for example) or rationalization is unfinished business and will undoubtedly reoccur. We often, I think, focus on the destination we want - accuracy, control and refinement - but these are the destination, not the starting place, which is fully experiencing and trying to understand our honest mistakes.
Be detached. . . . Don't take the outcomes personally. This isn't about our egos, it's about gathering objective evidence. Observe in detail, not in general terms. . . . Find out what the mistake is telling you today, and let every mistake be a juicy, revealing one.
To accept responsibility, to achieve and maintain total self-honesty, requires mental energy, focus, and - above all - a kind of courage.This is why attention is so critical - the book discusses the concept of "tracking", which involves performing an action - say asking for a left lead canter depart - and attempting to feel precisely in our body what we are doing and where areas of tension may be, and feel in our horse's body the response, and then understand what is happening as the mistake occurs. This will usually require us to make a change in what we are doing with our body, energy level or focus to change the result, but we can't make that change unless we fully understand what isn't going right, without judgment.
Some other thoughts from/ideas that emerged from reading the book:
- The idea is to get to a place where we can let the outcome we want happen instead of making it happen.
- The idea of breaking things down into smaller pieces is very important, since it allows you to clearly understand what goes into a particular movement or action by the horse and you together, and therefore allows you to break down your asks and guidance into clear, manageable bits.
- Taking breaks allows for mental and physical relaxation - for both horse and rider.
- Removal of conflict/tension and unimpeded flow of energy will change the quality of the physical actions.
- When something you try works out, make a note of how that feels inside - not just the muscular actions. To repeat successfully, stop relentlessly trying to produce the correct outcome and instead focus on how the moment feels.
In conclusion: don't preempt the feedback you get from an honest mistake - if you ask for A and the horse does B, listen to and feel what the horse is telling you - the "mistake" has value precisely in the information you can get from it. Don't let those mistakes get away - they're valuable. Be honest, open and unafraid of what you may learn as you make honest mistakes in working with your horse.