Monday, November 12, 2012

Deep Practice

If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.

Do you feel that even though you ride every day, and want to improve, it just isn't happening at the speed you would like, or maybe isn't happening at all? The problem may be in how you are practicing. There is a saying that practice makes perfect, but actually you only perfect what you practice. In this article I want to make clear why this is so and how you can shift your practice so each ride is a positive step toward improvement.

From recent neurological discoveries, scientists have learned how skill-building can be accelerated.  In fact, the people we call talented have learned how to speed up their skill-building process by doing what author Daniel Coyle calls deep practice. In his book, The Talent Code, he describes the process of deep practice, through which talent is made, not born.

We used to say we have muscle memory, but now we know that muscles have no memory, and instead are controlled by the brain. Every skill, whether it’s riding a horse, playing the violin, or playing tennis, “is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically, a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers…, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electric impulses from leaking out."
 Each time we practice correctly, our myelin responds by wrapping layers around the neural circuit and reinforces the pattern. Vice versa: if we practice incorrectly we also wrap myelin that reinforces the wrong pattern. Unfortunately we cannot unwrap myelin, we can only wrap it, so if we want to change a pattern, we must slow down, notice we are doing the wrong thing, stop, and repeat it correctly. This is what is called deep practice. All elite athletes do deep practice.

Often riders get frustrated when things don’t go well in a ride. Now, we can look at what we would call a mistake or an incorrect response as an opportunity to change an old pattern, and replace it with a new and more correct version. Our sport is a little more complicated since our horses also have myelin. We must first make sure as riders we are doing things correctly. Then we can, through horse training techniques, start to build the correct myelin in the horse.

For example, let's imagine a rider who uses this concept of deep practice to improve both her patterns and her horse's responses. This rider is in the beginning of her ride, and her goal is to get the horse to reach his neck forward and down for his warm up (so he can develop his top line muscles and become connected correctly to the bit.) The rider uses posting trot to organize the horse. She starts to trot, and for a while all is well. She is getting to the top of the rise, she is landing very lightly on his back, and is in charge of her horse's speed. The horse is starting to reach his neck forward and down, and lift his back up. Then the horse sees something and starts to rush. The rider gets left behind and falls back, which causes her to have a hard time getting to the top of the rise. Now she can no longer organize the horse, since the horse is in control and has lifted his neck and dropped his back. There the rider makes a decision to come back to walk, since she has lost her ability to control the horse's speed and now must regroup. She first fixes her position (her lower leg has slipped forward, and her arms have come back). Next, she starts to take control of the speed of the horse in the walk. When she is able to organize the horse in the walk, she goes back to the trot, and is able again to get her posting correct, then get the horse to lift his back and reach his neck forward and down. Both rider and horse are building the correct myelin.

Mary Wanless has coined the phrase “got-it-lost-it” to describe this way of practicing. When we have good speed control, we could say, “got it;” when the horse starts to rush, we could say, “lost it.” Or we could focus on our ability to get to the top of the rise and land lightly in our posting, evaluating our performance in terms of  “got-it-lost-it.” Correct myelin is built when we are in “got-it” mode.

In the above example, we are assuming that the rider has correct posting trot mechanics, and also the ability to organize the horse's speed with a strong and stable posture. But if the rider is still learning, say, how to post correctly, then the best way to own that pattern is to find a good biomechanics coach who will give her ongoing feedback on the elements necessary to post correctly. I use lunging to develop this skill, since it is sometimes difficult to steer and control the speed of the horse while learning how to post correctly.

It may seem at first that this process goes slowly, but in fact by training and practicing this way, you will be building the correct myelin in your brain, and also in your horse. In the long term you will progress further in less time.  As Daniel Coyle says, “targeted, mistake-focused practice [is] so effective…because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over.”  This new way of practicing will lead you toward reaching your goals. Now, instead of being frustrated when something is not quite right, look at it as an opportunity wrap the new myelin and improve both your own and your horse's skills.

Erica Poseley

1 Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 5.
2 Ibid., 34.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Ride With Your Mind"

    I am very excited to have been accredited by Mary Wanless as a "Ride With Your Mind" coach. There are only four accredited coaches in the U.S.,and I am very proud to be a part of this method of teaching dressage.
   A wonderful example of an elite rider who has been a long time student of Mary's is our own Pan Am Team Gold Medalist Heather Blitz. Mary has helped her understand how subtle changes in her body influence the horse.Heather is so highly skilled she can make riding her 18 hand horse look easy.She is able to achieve this by her ability to be so still that she can let her horse express his beautiful gaits,without getting in his way. To me ,the picture of her riding Paragon is one of harmony,power,and what good dressage is all about.
  Mary's approach to understanding the mechanics of elite riders,which she then breaks down into easily understood skills,is revolutionizing the teaching of dressage. It is cutting edge. As teachers we have a responsibility to keep increasing our skills,so we can give each rider an honest appraisal of what is going on now,and help them understand what needs to be changed. It is so exciting for me to see a rider realize  how making a small change in their position results in a big change in the horse.
  I will be continuing in my ongoing education to improve as a teacher,so I can help more riders have fun,and enjoy their journey to achieve whatever their goals may be.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Got Core?

We hear on our riding lessons push the horse into the contact or push the horse more forward. Unfortunately most riders react by leaning back and shoving with their seats very heavily into the horse's back.
 Now imagine someone was trying to push you backwards ,and you did not want to fall back. What would you do?You would use your core and thigh muscles to resist against them. You definitely would not lean back and tuck under with your seat .
 So the next time your instructor says push the more forward, try to engage your core,stay more upright ,and you will get a much better reaction from your horse.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Change Is Fun

I love teaching. I love seeing a happy rider and especially a happy horse. I love sharing my knowledge to help the rider change their body often a very tiny change and seeing big changes with the horse. Here is a story of my last clinic in Santa Rosa where both rider and horse were smiling after the lesson.
This rider is a very strong fearless jumper rider who is now doing dressage with an ex jumper horse about 15 years old. He is extremely sensitive and prone to melt downs. She wanted to  improve her seat to ride him  more effectively. Her main issue was that she tended to push her legs forward, especially the left one . This caused her hot horse to shoot forward on his forehand. In canter it was even more apparent. We worked hard for 2 days and get her legs under her hips. On the third day we tackled the canter.To help her change this pattern , I had her get off her horse and practice canter on the ground. The canter pattern is more clear when you canter yourself . Remember how you cantered around as a child on your stick horse. You would step on your back leg and immediately lift your front knee up. This feels like a skip. You just repeat this over and over and to change leads you switch leg positions.
We took that feel back on the horse. It took her a while not to push her inside leg forward, and to instead just sit on her outside seat bone, put the  outside leg back and lift her inside knee up when she asked for the depart. He went from leaping into the canter and having to be controlled with a very strong rein to softly lifting himself up to the canter,because he did not feel pushed or shoved into the canter. By the end of the lesson she did 2 perfect canter walk transitions off her seat with no hands . Change the rider a little get big changes in the horse. We all had big smiles: me,my rider and her horse. That is why I love teaching.
This student was super fun to teach. She was very receptive to trying new things and really enjoyed the journey.
Erica Poseley