The value of mistakes

Here’s how errors can help you identify problems, manage failure, dilute performance anxiety and, ultimately, ride better.
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The other day, I was riding under the sudden scrutiny of friends who’ve been reading my EQUUS articles. And, well … as hard as this might be to believe, I made a mistake. Ugly error. Dumb action. Stupid move. It got me thinking about the value of mistakes---a sweet rationalization, of course, but also a true aid to learning.

Everyone makes mistakes. The critical distinction is between those who learn from their errors and those who do not. Mistakes help us identify weaknesses, manage failure, settle our pride, dilute performance anxiety and test potential solutions. They’re the bedrock of creativity, allowing us to develop new ideas. They’re also effective. Forget to keep weight in your heels? One mouthful of sand is worth a hundred verbal prompts. 

Before praising the value of errors in detail, a caveat is in order. Horse brains operate very differently from ours---they have evolved to scan for any potential danger and react instantly. Because of the horse’s weight and power, these defensive movements can be supersized. Natural equine reactions include kicking, biting, bolting and startling; no evil intent is involved. Where I grew up, we used to say, “Every dog bites, every gun shoots and every horse kicks” as a reminder that we humans---and not the dogs, guns or horses---are responsible for keeping ourselves safe. Learn to read signals of annoyance or fear, but remember that horses don’t always warn before they act. Be sure you practice basic principles of horse safety before using errors as a tool for improvement.

Seeing the good in goofs

With proper safeguards in place, bloopers can ignite new ideas. Many useful inventions emerged from errors: penicillin, pacemakers, microwave ovens, rayon, zero-calorie sweeteners and x-rays, just to name a few. Monty Roberts fine-tuned his colt-starting technique of Join-Up through a series of mistakes with deer. In every case, someone stumbled on an important discovery by goofing up---then realizing the mistake had merit. 

Too often, we shut down after a bobble. We feel the chill of that surly librarian from third grade tightening her lips and shaking her head. Or we are embarrassed to be imperfect in front of our peers. But the best way to meet a mistake is to make note of it. What just happened? Why did I do that? What was the result? Later, we can ponder the slip more deeply. Do I want the horse’s response to happen again? Do I want it to happen under different conditions? If not, how can I alter my behavior to avoid it in the future?

Unintended mistakes frequently appear in patterns. Sometimes the pattern is plain. One day you ride a straight line in a light snow, observing your horse’s tracks. You’re surprised to see that they drift to the right. You try again, without attempting to correct the error, and yep, there’s that same drift. As you contemplate the evidence, you recall that Scout also drifts right over fences and falls inward on right turns. Hmm.

Study the pattern as a whole. Is Scout sore on one side? Does he have scar tissue or weak musculature from an old injury? Has he lost a shoe? And, ahem, what about you? Is your right leg weaker than your left? Do you ride with less weight in your right leg? Does it creep forward at faster gaits? Any of these potential solutions could explain the pattern. 

“Oops” neurons

Because of their importance, errors are awarded special processing in the brain. Buried in the medial frontal cortex---a blob two or three inches behind the center of our foreheads---is a bundle of neurons that fire when we make mistakes. They laze around the rest of the time, waiting for their moment of fame. They’re happy when we mess up, and they love to point fingers. 

These cells aren’t named yet, so let’s call them “Oops” neurons for fun. There we go, cantering along to the left all perfect, our noggins monitoring behavior so we don’t do anything stupid, when all of a sudden, ker-bang. Scout shifts to the right lead. The “Oops” neurons are delighted---they begin jumping up and down, pointing at the motor neurons, grinning and shouting “Hey, look! Aha! Right there! ERROR!!” “Oops” neurons distinguish among various types of errors. They activate immediately when a mistake produces an unplanned outcome like the lead change. But they operate at a three-fold delay when the error follows negative feedback or uncertainty within our own minds. This distinction in reaction time helps our brains figure out what went wrong and why. 

Once activated, “Oops” neurons slow our minds by inhibiting other brain cells and reducing heart rate. To learn from a bungle, we need time to assess the problem and change strategies. Uh-oh, my horse just switched leads. Why? Oh, my right leg wasn’t applying enough pressure to hold him on the left lead. Why not? Maybe the darn thing’s weaker than the left one. Huh! OK, let’s increase right leg pressure and see what happens. Ah, there we go, he switched back. Now, let’s maintain that pressure in the lower right leg, and wow, the whole leg moved back a smidge. Scout’s cantering in much better balance than before, he’s staying on the correct lead, and I feel more stable in the saddle. Presto, we’ve just identified a mistake and developed a strategy to correct it. 

We don’t always succeed this quickly, of course. “Oops” neurons slow our brains for a brief moment so we can recognize an error and try a known response. If we aren’t aware of a fix, we have to ponder solutions later. Thanks to “Oops” neurons, our brains are giving us the chance to learn from our lapses. All we have to do is accept the invitation. 

Trial and error

As crazy as it sounds, sometimes we make mistakes on purpose. Intentional mistakes let us test potential solutions. (Besides, as you clamber up spitting dirt after a face plant, you can tell onlookers you were just testing an idea.) Suppose Scout continues to switch to his left lead even when your leg pressures are calibrated perfectly. You haven’t located a solution from more experienced riders, and the veterinarian finds no medical reason for Scout’s behavior.

Pull up an armchair and generate some ideas. Could he have developed a bad habit while your cousin was exercising him last month? Does he switch leads in both directions? Are your hands positioned evenly? Is your back still weak on one side where you pulled that muscle near the belt line? Is this strictly a lead problem, or are other issues cropping up, too? After he switches leads, does Scout enjoy the rest when you stop to mutter curses under your breath? And so on.

Now test each possibility. Watch your cousin ride Scout, and see whether the problem is increased or decreased. Consider the number of unrequested flying changes he produces in each direction. Study a slow-motion video of your hands and Scout’s mouth, recorded when the error occurred. Go to the gym and compare how much weight you can lift with each side of the low row. Look for lateral shifts at trot, walk and reverse gaits. Seek mistakes actively. One way to analyze and control a problem is to try to make it happen. 

Once it does, some creativity can solve it. Most people assume creativity is like magic---either you have it or you don’t. But, in fact, we can all learn to think creatively. Let your mind wander, free-associate unrelated links, crank out analogies, take a walk while the puzzle simmers, jot down vague notions. Even the wildest ideas are fair game in creative problem solving. Then switch to trial and error to test your ideas, starting with the ones that are safest, simplest and most likely to work. If the first ideas fail, try others. Eventually, you’ll stumble on a solution.

“Where’s my treat?” neurons

“Oops” neurons are pretty cool. But there’s more. Another set of cells located nearby go on alert when positive feedback is reduced. Let’s call them the “Where’s my treat?” neurons. Positive feedback includes anything desirable: For a human, it could be praise, recognition, friendship, blue ribbons, improvement, cold water on a hot summer day. For a horse, it might include treats, strokes, soothing words, relaxation, green grass or a return to the barn. 

“Where’s my treat?” neurons fire up when a standard reward is suddenly reduced. We are praised for our solid canter every day, then one day the praise doesn’t come. What are we doing wrong? Why is there a change in feedback? “Hey,” these neurons say, “we deserve our treat!” They signal our brains to alter behavior so we can try something different in an effort to get the usual reward. In effect, the “Where’s my treat?” neurons are saying, “Look, just holding the lead isn’t enough anymore. We’ve got to put more on the table, guys. How about a steady lead plus a soft round back?” In other words, when the brain performs the same action repeatedly, it expects the same results. If the results change, it suspects the action must have changed as well.

“Where’s my treat?” neurons are activated only after several substandard rewards. That means we can bollix things up once in a while without destroying months of training. Handy, huh? It’s almost like a neurological basis for equine forgiveness. Creative trainers often test new ideas on their horses; when it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, there’s usually little downside as long as the ineffective approach is abandoned soon. Horses forgive and try again. They’re seeking patterns, too.

Error feedback

The brain has special neurons that help recognize errors, but how does it use the feedback from those muddles to alter future behavior? Part of the answer lies with dopamine, a chemical released in connection with rewards. 

Learning from mistakes is related in two ways to the amount of dopamine in the brain. First, positive feedback boosts dopamine release, while negative feedback reduces it. Unconsciously, we use dopamine to guide our gray matter toward improved performance either by seeking the positive or avoiding the negative. 

Second, average dopamine levels vary among normal individuals. People with more dopamine usually learn best through positive feedback---praise, success, validation---and often have extroverted personalities. Their brains are highly sensitive to rewards but relatively indifferent to errors. In popular parlance, this is the happy-go-lucky sort who falls off a pony at the walk and shrugs. To learn more from their mistakes, these riders should attend to errors more carefully and contemplate varied solutions over time. 

People at the other end of the healthy spectrum have less dopamine circulating near their error neurons. They notice mistakes easily and often learn best by avoiding negative feedback. Here we have the rider who posts on the wrong diagonal for one step, blushes deeply, and vows never to miss a diagonal again. Small failures motivate low-dopamine types to learn, but too often by shunning activities that could lead to a fault. Instead, these riders should accept errors as blips of information, alter behavior accordingly, and move on. There’s a big difference between learning from a mistake and dwelling on it.

Seeking the positive and avoiding the negative are effective feedback strategies for all of us, but one or the other might work best for you. Punishment---although it is one form of negative feedback---is rarely useful for humans or horses. Sometimes it produces the short-term behavior we want, but only at the long-term price of anger, frustration and fear.

Sometimes blunders are simply blunders. Your hand catches a rein, that rogue foot drops a stirrup, a hip slips or an elbow flops. And the same is true for your horse: He steps on a ground pole one day, turns too tight around a barrel or misses a jumping distance. These are not always tests or ideas or lessons; sometimes they’re just plain old garden variety flubs without pattern or meaning. Best thing to do is ignore ’em and try again. Both horses and riders need the freedom to fail once in a while without a federal case being made out of it.

Bottom line? Stay safe, but feel free to make a mistake now and then. I’ll keep you company.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #442.