Saturday, June 25, 2011

Honest Mistakes

It's two weeks since my accident and I've been gradually starting to do a (very little) amount of exercise - my biggest issue right now is physical weakness and loss of muscle tone and fitness.  I'm taking (very short) walks up and down in front of my house, using a nice tall walking stick just for safety because of the muscle weakness.  I've also started doing a few partial squats, some one-armed push ups off the wall with my good arm and also some standing on a stair step and straightening and bending one leg at a time.  And of course there's a bit of light grooming - I can still only do one horse a day but that's better than no horse. In everything I do, I try to focus on deep, even breathing, even though that still hurts.

* * * * * *
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.


  1. Good post. I believe mistakes are the greatest learning experiences we can have - even careless mistakes as they teach us to be more attentive.


  2. Great post, Kate. One of the first things I do in my comp classes is bring one of our old morgue books in (I used to have a library bindery bind up every issue of the newspaper we printed each year). I open it up and tell them there is a mistake on every single page...whether it's a typo, misspelling, or a design "oops," there is usually something. And I'M supposed to be the "professional."

    I also loved the distinction between a careless mistake and an honest mistake. That's quite profound, actually.

  3. Excellent post, with lots of good insight, as usual.

    Good to hear you are gradually getting your body working again. Wishing you well and hoping those muscles tone up quickly. You were pretty fit before the fall, so that's a big plus now in your recovery.

    Oh, I also find that learning to laugh at myself when I do make a long as it's not a critical one...often helps the learning by taking the frustration away.

  4. Great post and a hearty amen. I tell my kids, my colleagues, my clients that we learn almost exclusively from mistakes. But the point you make is so important. Identifying the mistake can be harder than you realize on a horse, and identifying the solution? Let's just say we are lucky they are such forgiving creatures.

  5. "To accept responsibility, to achieve and maintain total self-honesty, requires mental energy, focus, and - above all - a kind of courage."

    I can sure relate to that quote.
    Great post. Nice to hear you're on the mend.

  6. Oh my goodness, that's my favorite book. You're the only other person I know who has read it now! I have it in hardback and kindle--so I can refer to it whenever I have time. I agree, there is so much correlation to horses and life. I love the way you brought them together in this post. There is, indeed, so much to learn from our "mistakes." After I read that I really opened myself up on the piano and moved more freely. I will certainly start to think about how I can use this information with Beautiful and the rest of the horses.

  7. What a great post Kate! In teaching my husband to ride, I'm dealing with someone who must be perfect. He struggles with doing everything perfect and is scared his mistakes will ruin Rosie.

    I almost always ride with a single goal in mind. With Rosie I keep it very simple, with Bonnie I'm into advanced as well as always going back to the basic building blocks as her main job now is to teach my youngest to ride.

    Good to hear you are moving and getting a little horse time.

  8. Good post, food for thought. I'm glad to hear that you are slowly getting back to being yourself.

  9. Beautiful post Kate.

    Very relevant - especially recognizing / acknowledging careless vs. honest mistakes.

    Glad to hear that you're upping your activity. That must be a relief :)

  10. I'm glad you can slowly start exercising. I know from lay offs how quickly muscles go.
    Great post. The concept of feeling instead of over-thinking and trying to make things happen is very appealing to me.

  11. I like the bit about it being a journey, not a destination in particular, Kate.

    I'm glad you're healing, albeit probably not as fast as you'd like. As a wise man said to me not so long ago, "Give yourself time to heal now, rather than having to heal more later."

  12. Very wise exercise program you are doing. The book sounds very interesting. Nice that you can apply it to horsemanship. Mistakes can be great teachers.

  13. So glad you are feeling better. Having crawled my way back from a muscle disease (among other medical misadventures) I definitely feel for you girl!
    You know, I tend to think that if you aren't making any mistakes you probably aren't learning anything (I make LOTS ;o)

  14. To err is human- to forgive, divine.

    You're not doing anything if you don't make mistakes.

  15. Great post, glad you're starting to feel better.

  16. yes, I agree, we learn so much from our mistakes, especially the honest ones. So it seems that you are still quite busy learning all kinds of things and working it through despite your injury! You are the type of person who cannot be squashed! Bravo!


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