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.
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.