Three Keys To Effective Practice

To improve your riding skills, work with your brain’s natural tendencies to learn and remember.
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To improve your riding skills, work with your brain’s natural tendencies to learn and remember.

Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success was released in 2008, popularizing his belief that people need 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class experts in their field. This assertion was based on studies of chess players, violinists and musical composers, then generalized to other activities. In a society that favors wonder drugs and self-help books, it has become a mantra for success. Many equestrians have applied “the 10,000-hour rule” to riding, but I question its effectiveness in our environment.


Sports can be divided into closed-environment and open-environment categories. A racquetball court is about as closed---or controlled---a sports environment as you can find: It is not affected by weather, its temperature is fixed, it’s well lit, its walls and flooring are even and constant, it’s almost soundproof, it excludes observers, and its dimensions are standard. Balls and racquets are of uniform size, weight and material. If you strike the ball twice in the same way, it responds in the same way. Under these conditions, practice leads to skill in a manner that is predictable. 

By contrast, riding is the ultimate open-environment sport. Footing can be slippery with rain, mushy in mud, hardened with cold, inhaled as dust or buried under snow. Lighting changes with the sun, and temperatures range from below zero to above 100 degrees. Indoor arenas magnify the sounds of wind, rain and thunder, along with all the invisible noises of barn maintenance.

Even on a nice day, a snake might slither across your path on the trail, birds could dive-bomb your horse’s head and stinging insects can buzz menacingly close. The arena might be filled with riders of varying skill moving at erratic speeds in ever-changing directions. No wonder we have to assure our non-riding friends how much fun it all is!

But the most important difference between closed-environment sports and horseback riding is that there are two minds involved in an equestrian partnership. Human minds are hard enough to manage by themselves. But riders simultaneously handle the mind of an impulsive thousand-pounder whose actions cannot be fully controlled. Horse sports are like smokin’ fast racquetball games with wind howling through the court, ice covering the floor, bystanders dashing into the way, and a racquet that bucks. 

Gladwell’s magic number just doesn’t hold up under these conditions. In an über-open environment, 10,000 hours isn’t all that much---it’s the equivalent of riding seven hours a day for about four years. And Gladwell is talking about top-tier international experts. Most world-class equestrians have devoted their lives to horses. They’d scoff at the idea that they were performing at expert level after only four years in the saddle. 

Intense practice over long periods of time is indeed critical to developing riding expertise. But merely punching a time clock is not the way to learn---how we practice is far more important than how long. To build equestrian ability, work with your brain’s natural tendencies to learn and remember. Here’s how.

1. Ride with deliberate intent

Brains are like muscles when it comes to learning: They don’t gain much by practicing skills they’ve already mastered. In fact, expert brains use fewer neurons and less fuel to complete their tasks than do novice brains. To learn, brains need challenge. Instead of practicing the skills we do well, we must practice the skills we do poorly. So, the first step of effective practice is to identify weaknesses and address them with deliberate intent.

Identify weak points by noting problems that seem to recur fre­-quently. Maybe it’s picking up a lead, handling a rope at the gallop, sitting the canter, or walking wooded trails calmly. If you need help identifying your riding faults, consider taking a lesson with a good trainer, who can locate trouble spots and teach you how to correct them. In addition, glitches or shortcomings are often revealed in competition, and short videos or observations from friends offer clues. 

Once a weakness is pinpointed, set deliberate goals so you know what to work on in a given session. Expert riders don’t just meander out to the arena to see what happens. They have a plan in mind and carry it out instead of letting the horse’s response dictate their choice of activity. Each day, stick with your goal. When you reach it, stop. Smile at your success, praise your horse and relax. Too often, the impulse upon achieving a goal is to press on. “Oh, wow, we did it! I’ll just try that again to make sure.…” 

Define victory in small bites so that you improve a little at a time over a period of days or weeks. For example, perhaps you have trouble backing your horse and you’ve ruled out veterinary issues. At first, one step back is worthy of praise. When you are consistent at that, the definition of success expands to three or four steps, then to backing more rapidly. Eventually, you’ll create goals to back between ground poles, with lighter aids, through curves and serpentines, around barrels or over bridges. It takes weeks to train brains using slow progression, but the effects last for a lifetime.

On some days, you won’t achieve your objective. That’s OK; it’s not a race. Just go back one step and practice at the previous level before moving forward again. As in a marriage, problems are usually the partial fault of both parties---your horse’s weaknesses are partly caused by your own, and vice versa. Address both. If necessary, divide and conquer: Buff up your backing skills on a mount adept at the maneuver, while a trainer educates your horse. After a brief separation, you can reunite in triumph. Human brains in open environments can’t produce the daily march of success that mastering a violin does. 

As you overcome one weakness, identify the next one. There’s never a shortage: Just ask Einstein. He said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” Think of drawing a circle around all your equestrian knowledge. The space inside the circle represents what you know. When the circle of your knowledge is small, its circumference---your awareness of what you don’t know---is also small. But as your circle of knowledge grows, its outer edge spreads, too. You become aware of objectives and errors that weren’t on your radar before. No matter how large your circle of knowledge, there’s always another goal, a new horse, a fresh idea to spur your practice along.

2. Space work sessions to match your goals

Thinkers since Aristotle have studied the effects of spacing on memory. How far apart should practice sessions be for optimal learning? The annoying answer, as to all scientific questions, is “it depends.” To build new physical skills, we use consecutive repetition followed by short interval training. To maintain existing skills, we employ longer spaces and varied conditions between repetitions. And to consolidate a routine for foolproof retrieval, we tailor spacing to fit personal points of recall difficulty. 

Let’s put that into equestrian English. Suppose you’re learning to cue a horse to lope. Your brain is forming new connections among neurons that will allow you to pick up the lope effortlessly in the future. It’s got to scout around for the cells that supervise lower leg position, calf pressure, hand location, softness in the shoulder and elbow, and weight distribution through the seat. The brain also has to employ those delightful neurons that keep us right-side up instead of upside down. And it has to tell other cells to mind their own beeswax for a millisecond---we don’t want interference from neurons that control our toes or noses. 

Like a harried parent rounding up a herd of rowdy children, your brain has to get all those independent neurons to cooperate. You want to lope now, not next week. The first time these cells fire together, the links among them are very weak. Some move into line quickly; others straggle. A mule cell digs in its heels and refuses to budge. We strengthen neural connections with practice, and in doing so, our muscle movements gradually become smoother and more coordinated. 

Your best bet while the cue-to-lope connection is in its infancy is to practice five or six departs in a row heading in the same direction. In other words, lope off for a few strides, then come back to a walk for several steps and repeat. Reverse and practice five or six departs in the opposite direction. This consecutive repetition should continue daily to fortify the baby network.

After about a week, most riders will have established a functional link among a handful of specific brain cells. Picture a little Christmas tree of lights that all blink on at the same time---that’s what your neurons are doing in this one network. Now’s the time to hone the skill by practicing at short intervals under varying conditions. So throw in some other activities between the departs. Every few minutes (keep it random) ask for the lope, from different gaits and in varying locations. Your horse can’t predict exactly when you will ask, so he has to listen for your cues. And that means your cues need to be clear and correct because the horse can no longer guess what you want. 

When you can prompt consistent departs at random intervals, it’s time to change spacing again. Use the loping cue with longer gaps between repetition. We want to find the point at which your mind has almost, but not quite, forgotten how to ask the horse to lope. This interval changes from one rider to the next, and it lengthens as the individual improves. Once you discover the proper window, increase it slightly each time you retrieve the memory, so that you are activating the brain network at longer and longer intervals. Seek the verge of forgetting, the moment when the network is available in your brain but a little slow to function. 

This kind of variable spacing works because the act of retrieval increases the strength of a memory. If you and your horse have just done something you know how to do, neither of you has to recall it. It’s sitting right there at the top of your minds, waiting. But if you hold off for a while, your brain has to dredge that memory up. That dredging action strengthens the network. It’s particularly effective for remembering factual information and patterned routines, but it helps establish skill as well. Because the technique is based on the general physiology of mammalian brains, it works for all sorts of memories and for both horses and riders.

3. Aim for your best whenever you ride

For the most effective practice, think quality. If you’re working on backing, back well. If you’re perfecting canter departs, ask well. With proper practice, expect your mount to rock onto his hindquarters, lift his forehand and step gently into the gait. Try to perform each movement to the team’s best current capability, even if you haven’t reached the ultimate degree of precision yet. If you’re not sure whether an action is performed in today’s best form, strap a camera to the fence. 

Aim for your best form whenever you ride, whether for five minutes or several hours, in a national show or alone in your backyard. “Form” refers partly to equitation but also to doing the best job you can do to meet your objectives. Equitation developed over centuries to allow horses and riders to achieve tough goals effectively. 

We can grouse about keeping our shoulders open, or we can just try it and discover that our horses’ hindquarters begin to engage from just that one inch of change. It’s a lot simpler to build on the equitation of experts who have come before us than to reinvent horsemanship from scratch.

To achieve quality, precision is more important than perfection. The sky won’t fall if you make an error---I know this for a fact, having made plenty of them.

Because your brain is assembling new networks each time you develop a new skill, precise thought and motion helps it to choose the right neurons for the job. Mistakes have merit in horsemanship as long as we learn from them.Sustaining focus on quality is a mighty task, especially if we have no trainer to call out reminders every few seconds. Human attention flickers. To combat this problem, ride with others whose skill you admire, or imagine that your equestrian hero is watching you perform. Maybe Beezie Madden or Buck Brannaman drops by in your mind’s eye. 

With respected colleagues in your ring or an imaginary star perched on your fence, it’s easier to concentrate on quality. Ride your best every day, and best form will become second nature. You’ll also foster attentional skills that transfer to any endeavor. 

As tempting as it is to invoke a “magic number” of hours that will yield mastery, there isn’t one. Instead of magical thinking, there is an entire discipline of cogni-tive science based on evidence gath-ered from decades of intensive study. It can help us if we use it. Riding with deliberate intent, proper spacing of work intervals, and best form will enhance all efforts to improve our horsemanship. Why? Because these techniques follow the natural function of the brain.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #440.