Wing Management


There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly
– Buckminster Fuller

Cycles of Development … from Simple to Complex back to Simple Again

We all want to advance training from where we are right now. But in order to make deep, internal changes regarding how we do what we do, it becomes necessary to slow down first. We all begin cycles of change by going back to very simple work but with a new, internal awareness. As internal habitual responses are changed through each small cycle involving simple work, we automatically expand into doing more complex work while retaining new habits of balance.

Goals are complex. The steps to any goal are simple. We learn how to break big goals into the simplest components possible and discover how our internal habits and our horse’s internal habits relate to our ultimate goal. By segmenting the complexity of any goal into its simplest parts, we begin to see how internal habits related to the very operating system of our mind and body need to be adjusted in order to reach our goal in a way that sustains balance and harmony.

If our complex goal involves winning a competition with our horse, then that competition will involve the simple components of halt, walk, trot, canter and steering left and right. If our horse’s internal habits reflect balance in mind and body, then all of those simple steps are easy and support health. In this case, the challenge is maintaining both The Learning Frame of Mind and Basic Balance while learning a specific pattern or navigating obstacles involved in the competition. If we are trying to compete while our horse feels fearful, then our goal is compromised. If Basic Balance is not the habitual coordination for our horse during all gaits and directions, then our goal is compromised or achieved at the expense of our horse’s health.

We learn to improve balance during the simple components of any complex work, to the point that balance becomes the habit of the individual’s very operating system. These established, internal habits related to how we feel, how we think and how we coordinate movement are what allow us to automatically maintain balance while focusing on more complex tasks, new challenges or various environments. Habits are unconscious. Taking time to practice the skills required for balance until they become unconscious responses means that we no longer have to think about balance and X. Instead we automatically, unconsciously operate in balance no matter what we are doing.

We and our horses need a bit of patience and time in order to gently replace any internal habits regarding how we think, how we feel and how we move. We all discover that simple does not mean easy! Replacing habits related to internal unconscious responses driven by the very operating system of any individual is a process riddled with challenges. Each cycle of change mastered, even if extremely simple, expands our ability to maintain balance during more complex endeavors. By working with what we can do authentically in balance, we slowly strengthen all the body systems and develop the capacity for more complex work with ease while supporting long term health.

Learning is the same process for us and our horse. Horses just change a bit faster than us because they are less complicated. As soon as our horse feels safer and feels more ease during motion, learning gains traction and cycles speed up. If we can learn to let go of old beliefs and ways of doing things, we can change as fast as our horse.

The Stages of Competence model was developed by Noel Burch in the 1970’s. This is a very useful way to understand what we all experience while learning, especially when we decide to learn a new skill and practice until it becomes an internalized habit. This model describes how we feel while learning and helps us understand what our horse is feeling while learning new skills and developing new habits.

Unconscious Incompetence

We don’t even know what we don’t know. We are unaware of skills needed, unaware of information as a solution to a current challenge or have not even considered different perspectives regarding what we think we know.

This stage feels pretty good. We might be in the bliss of our ignorance, patting ourselves on the back. If there is a problem, we are struggling with a challenge that does not appear to have a solution. This is the stage where we are blamed as riders by instructors or we blame our horse with labels of bad conformation, untalented or bad behavior. If we resist blaming anyone, then we begin to seek new information and find new solutions.

Conscious Incompetence

We are now aware of what we don’t know or that we can’t do something. We are aware of new information, some skill we need to work on, or aware of habits that we would like to replace. We are fully aware that we need to change our focus and work on something new, but time suddenly stands in our way.

This stage feels very uncomfortable! This is the stage where we choose to embrace change and begin learning or we fight changing and find excuses. We now recognize what we need to learn and that we are not good at it yet. The bell has been rung, but we only smell hard work and often feel deflated, as if all of our past efforts led to nothing. This uncomfortable feeling is really the very first step of learning for everyone. The truth is that everything we have already learned in the past plays an important role. Nothing is lost when it comes to learning, we can only add. When we recognize that we are in this particular stage, we have to make a choice. We can use our complex brain to beat ourselves up or we can choose to just get on with things and take the time we need for learning something new or changing habitual responses.

Conscious Competence

We now know or can do something, but it takes a lot of concentration. The new skill still feels awkward, slow and requires mental focus during practice. We are aware of old habits sneaking in and have to redirect ourselves or our horse frequently in order to practice the new skill. The new information is recalled and the new skill is achieved, but only with a lot of effort.

This stage feels awkward but rewarding. This is the stage where we can feel frustrated and wonder if we are wasting our time. We are not efficient, it does not feel easy, but if we think in terms of cycles, then we can stick with it. In the beginning of this cycle more time is spent correcting errors, slowing down, redirecting and using effort. With conscious effort, we finally begin to notice less error and more competence. Old habits are easier and faster to redirect. Rewarding moments of competence shift from infrequent when starting the cycle into gradually more frequent. With each practice session we find moments where the new skill feels more natural or we can do it longer. A desired change of habit is even the first response once in awhile. If we continue to practice slowly, with mental concentration, then less and less time is spent feeling awkward while more and more time is spent feeling ease.

Unconscious Competence

We no longer have to concentrate so hard on new information or a new skill, it becomes automatic. The new skill has become a new habit. We have practiced to the point that we no longer need so much effort because the information or skill is established in our nervous system and feels natural, feels easy to access. We just know something or do the new skill automatically and unconsciously.

This stage feels great at first and then we tend to take it for granted. We no longer feel frustrated because the skill now feels easy. We are thrilled. We have completed the cycle of learning when the skill feels easy most of the time with only a few moments of concentration required. New automatic responses are offered to the same old stimuli because a new neural pathway has been formed. Practice has shifted the response from conscious effort into an unconscious habit. We feel competent and our horse consistently offers this new response without a lot of guidance.

We often forget how challenging it was to learn something because it now feels so natural to us or is so easy for our horse. We become unconsciously competent at walking, swimming, riding a bike or driving a car, even though they are all skills that we once had to practice, with a lot of concentration, before they felt easy and natural to us. All horses have to learn how to carry a rider and thrive in domestic environments by developing unnatural skills. For some it comes easy while others require more practice.

How we think, how we respond emotionally and even how we coordinate physical movement are all deeply ingrained habits established early in life for us and our horse. We take those internal skills for granted and forget we can choose to change them. In order to use the essential operating system of mind and body more efficiently, according to its design, we must consciously choose to develop new internal, habitual responses for ourselves and help cultivate new habits for our horse. We can choose to experience balance, with feelings of emotional stability and ease of motion as a new part of our life. We can choose to help our horse discover balance. Guiding our horse into experiencing those same feelings of safety and ease of motion is how we support our horse’s health and gain our horse’s willing cooperation as a partner in the journey.

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