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Making the Most of Mistakes: Growth Mindset in Riding

A good mistake is the best opportunity for learning. I have used this growth-mindset strategy as an educator for over twenty-five years to develop confident students in my professional practice. The same wisdom and technique applies to training horses.

Mindset means 'how we approach and think about challenges'. Growth mindset is an approach that sees challenges as 'opportunities' to change, or learn. This mindset is the difference between lightness or heaviness. Often, when we make a mistake, our first response is that we 'feel bad'. We wish we hand not made a mistake because that was not our goal. We failed. True as that may be, it is not productive to 'feel bad' about the errors. This goes for mistakes in our riding. It's important to see them as opportunities to learn.

With students working on a Math solution, they might be off track. The solution is not going in the right direction. It's looking 'off'. The student arrives at the wrong answer. Often a student will get discouraged, and feel bad because, after all that work, they got it wrong. Without intervention this student will give up trying. It's vital to point out and reward all that is going right. Equally important is finding the error, and using it as an opportunity to fix the skill they lack. As an educator, my role is not to inform students they were wrong, but to use their errors to inform my instruction, and to support their growth, so they get it right. I need to find the mistake, isolate it and support the skills needed for correction. Many times a discouraged student has brightened up when I explain to them how much they have done right, and that I found exactly where they went wrong!

"Mrs. LeBlanc, I'm not good at Math. I don't understand. I keep getting the wrong answer."

"Ahh, there is so much you have done correctly. But, there's a little error here. Let me help you find it, and show you how to fix it."

Students light up with approach. It's the same with horses. Horses 'light up', too!

Horses have much less cerebral cortex that humans. This makes it more vital that we are clear when we communicate to them, as they have less ability to process information than we do. It is unproductive to ride around and around with the wrong answer and expect the horse to change. This leads to discouragement ,and then, feelings of wanting to quit. Both for the horse and rider. The trainer or coach needs to identify precisely where the horse and rider need support. And help fix it.

'Lightness' in riding is found in opportunities to show the horse and rider when they got it right! It is also equally discovered when we isolate where they are having struggles, and scaffold the correction. I say 'isolate' because it is crucial to take that struggle out of the bigger exercise, and to work on it separately, until the horse or rider has the skill necessary to succeed in the bigger exercise. I will often take a horse or student on the lunge, or in hand to isolate and target specific skills that needs intervention. Get the 'feel' for success. I find it unprofitable to continue repeatedly working an exercise that is 'off' and expect change without finding and addressing the root cause. I often return to the walk or working in hand to isolate a specific skill. In this way, I can make sure the horse or rider feels exactly what 'correct' is. Then i watch them light up! Once a horse and rider have the correct answers and feel confident they are ready to continue on a bigger exercise.

As an example, many horse and rider teams have difficulty with bend. They might be working circles or voltes and there is tension, or poor connection. A lot of different things can cause this, but continuing to ride the exercise until it fixes itself is not the solution. This will lead to confusion, frustration, and ultimately discouragement for both. It's important to isolate the reason or reasons and to work on them outside the exercise. Then, use the exercise to measure if the corrections have yielded success. I might lunge a rider to understand and improve seat, balance. I might suggest strengthening or stretching to address postural needs. I might work the student in hand on the horse to discuss connection, timing of aids. I might work the horse separately in hand , or on the lunge to address tension and resistance. Finding the mistake matters. Using the mistake as an opportunity for learning leads to success. These strategies are the scaffolding that supports growth in riding.

Whenever we are riding horses, it is important to embrace these opportunities for learning and to apply growth mindset. Horses always try until they don't. The way to lightness is to reward their tries, by tell them what is right, and by embracing the teaching opportunities that rise out of errors. Even using this approach for twenty-five years in a classroom did not develop my skills as much as applying them to horses. The horse is less able to process information, so the window to teach is smaller, and the need for immediate encouragement is greater. Following the growth mindset principle allows us to advance, but more importantly, it lifts the horse's confidence and brings Joy and lightness to the partnership.

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