Being the sort of person who gets completely paralyzed by the fear of failing, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss the necessity of mistakes in the learning process, for both horses and humans.
"Those who aren't afraid to make mistakes and allow their horses to make mistakes learn very quickly, but people who want everything to be perfect almost never get it right."
I can't remember where I read this quote, but I immediately made a note of it. All too often, I find myself trying to prevent my horse from making a mistake and therefore inhibit his ability to learn to do a task using his own thinking process. I also have the bad habit of not trying new things because I am afraid of the mistakes I might make, which might end in frustration, "messing up" my horse, or maybe injury to myself. I am a worryaholic and very easily stop myself from advancing my skills.
I'd like to share some thoughts from an article recently published in a PBS blog, and apply the information to my experiences with horses. A link to the blog is at the bottom of this article. The writer identified four basic types of mistakes, and I can personally say I have made them all and recognizing how they each have helped me has given me a more positive view of error.
The first is "The High Stakes Mistake". This is a mistake that can involve our safety, and practically every decision we make around a horse effects our safety, so we are very justified in being afraid to make an error in judgment. It is this awareness of the risk involved with horses that has driven all of my learning. I figured that any money I spent on educating myself beat the heck out of paying for any more doctors' bills.
Horses, and mustangs in particular, because they are prey animals, perceive almost everything in human world as being a threat to their safety, and therefore they are terrified of doing the wrong thing. Adding to their confusion is the fact that the right answers for living in the wild can be a deadly mistake in captivity. Fleeing is their first instinct, but running into a solid fence can have tragic consequences for a mustang.
Which leads us to our next type of mistake "The Aha-Moment Mistakes". These mistakes are caused by not having enough, or the correct information. Like the wild horse that has no understanding of boundaries lacks important knowledge, when he smashes into fences. He has to process information very quickly to avoid seriously hurting himself. Not knowing what you don't know is one of the biggest dangers when working with horses. I am really surprised I have lived through many of the ignorant blunders I have made! At the same time these are also the mistakes that have been some of the best learning moments, finding out (the hard way) what doesn't work, often caused me to stumble across or search out techniques that do work.
Most lapses from horses are Aha-Mistakes, a horse's view of the world is so different from our own they cannot possibly comprehend our ideas without help. If we don't give them step by step understanding of what we expect, they have no choice but to fail. When they fail, the fault is really our own for not giving them the correct preparation, or not making sure of their understanding before asking for things.
The teaching/learning process is when we run into the third type of mistake "The Stretch Mistake". This mistake happens when you are trying something new or are working at improving a skill. For me it usually goes something like this: I watch some clinician with a technique I want to try. "Yipee! Fresh information! Something new to try!" I run out to my horses and discover that I am completely inept at what the clinician made look easy. I tangle my equipment, my timing is terrible, I trip over my own feet, my horses have a good laugh, or act annoyed, and I end the lesson very glad no one was watching. With practice, muscle memory takes over, the clumsiness fades and we can perform the technique with a growing level of ease, but it takes a lot of oopsies to get there.
Our horses learn so much more quickly than we do. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage. Because they catch on so fast, we can fall under the misconception that their simple clumsy mistakes are "on purpose" and that they are being disobedient. Then, we can feel the need to correct, discipline, or worse, punish these honest mistakes. Horses need practice to build balance and muscle memory, just usually not as much as humans. We should keep in mind how patient our horse is with us while we fumble learning new skills before we are too harsh on their learning errors.
The last type of mistake is usually what happens when we think we know it all. "The Sloppy Mistake" happens when we get lazy. It is human nature to cut corners. Some horses are willing to pick up the slack to take care of us, but sloppy horsemanship will always catch up with you eventually. A mistake, combined with something unexpected, and then mix in a lazy habit or two and you have the recipe for a very fine wreck indeed. Usually, when I reflect after things have gone very wrong, there is almost always a chain of faults, that if any one had been amended, things wouldn't have been so bad. The best, and most irritating, thing about sloppy mistakes is that they are totally preventable. One simply needs to pay attention, and practice proper horsemanship.
Some horses have a greater tendency towards sloppy laziness than others. In my opinion most horses desire to please their human partners. If we accept laziness that is all we will get. So, lazy mistakes on the part of the horse are a reflection of the rider/handler, this should make us mindful of the fact that we need to be observant, yet not overly critical of, not only our own faults, but that of our horses too.
In the end when we choose to handle horses we make ourselves responsible for both our own mistakes and theirs by how we teach and interact with them. Keeping a healthy attitude toward mistakes is vital to continually improving our horsemanship.
Below is the link to the PBS article, for those of you who are interested in reading more.