For many people, riding and showing horses is the culmination of a lifelong dream. For others, it’s a passion they have been pursuing for decades. Whether you are new to the sport or a veteran, one question you are likely to ask yourself at some point is “is this all worth it?”
At one time or another we have all felt like our horse life has stalled out, struggled, or in some way not lived up to our dream.
It’s easy to wonder, is there a “special secret” that some people know and others don’t? Is high-level success reserved for the “lucky few” with natural talent?
It turns out the answer is “no.” For decades, psychologists have researched the science behind these questions. In 2006, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck published the results of her research into the mindset of success.
Dweck’s research paints a picture of two opposing mindsets—fixed and growth. A person with a fixed mindset believes that we are born with all the ability and intelligence we will ever have. They tend to avoid challenges and are fearful of failure. In short, the fixed mindset values being a natural talent.
The growth mindset believes that ability and intelligence and are changeable through perseverance and hard work. These individuals are less afraid of making mistakes, and view failure as a necessary ingredient in the success formula. The growth mindset recognizes natural talent, but it acknowledges that hard work and dedication can improve talent.
In the sports world, the two mindsets translate into being “coachable” (growth), and “uncoachable” (fixed). As a general rule, coachable players accept criticism and feedback, are open to doing things differently, trust the coach, and value hard work.
“Uncoachable” players exhibit the opposite set of traits.
In the horse world a growth mindset rider might say something like, “I’ve never showed at this level before. I feel like anything is possible, I’m just not quite there yet. What can I do to step up my game?”
A more fixed-minded rider might seem almost disappointed that they have earned their way out the lower levels. “I just got lucky for a couple of shows, and now I’m out of the Rookie. I get to the shows, and my confidence evaporates. When I look at the competition, I don’t see how I can ever beat them.”
The Profile of a Coachable Rider
Coaches across all sports agree that coachable athletes exhibit some key traits. In the horse world, trainers and riding instructors consistently cite three traits shared by their most coachable students:
It’s important to note at this point that “coachability” is not an all-or-none trait. Riders can fall anywhere along a spectrum from totally un-coachable to completely coachable.
Totally un-coachable riders often fall prey to some common myths. They may believe coaching is only for beginners, or feel that they already have all the knowledge they need—they just need to apply it. These riders take failure personally, and tend to look for external factors as the reason they don’t succeed.
Further along the spectrum are the “somewhat coachable” riders—some days they may take feedback and incorporate it, while other days they remain indifferent. In other cases, they may do what their trainer asks, but in a hesitant way. They doubt the instruction if it doesn’t net them immediate success.
At the far end of the spectrum is the fully coachable rider, who accepts criticism and feedback, incorporates it fully, and trusts the trainer to guide them. This rider will try new things, accepts failure as a valuable resource for improvement, and is willing to put in the work needed to improve.
No one is perfect. The ideal, totally coachable athlete probably doesn’t exist. To a varying degree, we are all somewhat “fixed” in nature. But once you understand the concepts, you can do something about it.
Check your ego at the tack room door.
"You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup."-- Zen Master Ryutan
NRHA Professional Bruce Liggett immediately alluded to the above quote when talking about coachable riders. “You have to empty your mind. Forget about what you think is right or wrong, especially if you are starting in a new program or with a new horse. Empty the cup.”
Our conscious mind acts as a filter. Its job is to receive information, analyze it, and send it to our subconscious mind, which looks at the big picture and decides where the information fits. It’s a bit like an ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle. As adults we have a lifetime of experiences and perspectives which make up the puzzle pieces. So, even if you are quite open-minded, it’s still possible to fall into the trap of making false assumptions about new information.
Liggett added, “You are likely an expert in your business or career. You can be a very intelligent, highly educated person, but this is a new game for you. If I stepped into your world, the tables would turn for me. I would need to set aside my pride and start from the beginning.”
The best way to avoid this pitfall is to check your ego at the tack room door, and to pay attention to your interior dialogue during your lesson. Be aware of thoughts or phrases like these:
“I already know this.”
“This is too basic for me.”
“Yes, I understand that, but here’s what I’m actually trying to do.”
You might also feel defensive when receiving feedback or criticism about your riding. If you find yourself having an emotional reaction to your trainer’s instruction, it’s a sign your mindset might need a tune-up.
Thoughts and emotions like these are the gremlins of an un-coachable mindset. Once you are aware of them, it takes effort to put a stop to them. One way to do this is with a catch-phrase that’s designed to interrupt the negativity.
A rider might say to himself, “Let it go” as a way of banishing negative thoughts and reactive feelings. Some athletes combine the phrase with a physical gesture, such as opening their hand and letting the negativity drop into the dirt where it belongs.
The next step is to replace the negative phrase with something positive.
“Give it a try.”
“I’m open to new things.”
“I’m refining my understanding of this concept.”
This technique of purposefully reframing statements creates new “puzzle pieces” that are fed to the subconscious mind. Over time, this allows your big picture view to be reshaped.
Trusting your trainer to guide the process.
Often, the skillset that got you where you are is not the same skillset that you need to excel at a higher level. Getting to the next level may involve short-term failure, as you learn to refine your feel.
Cutting trainer Ashley Baxstrom agrees. “Once you get a basic skillset, sometimes it can be hard to adapt that as you move up through the levels,” he says. “Your basic idea of what’s correct needs to be refined over time.”
Non-coachable riders tend to shy away from failure, rather than pushing through and developing a more advanced skillset. They tend to rest in the comfort zone of what they know, and operate under the false assumption that their current level of feel for what is correct doesn’t need to change, only that they need to “put it all together”.
These riders often move from tactic to tactic in an effort to find the “magic bullet” that finally lets them succeed. They may lack the trust that their trainer knows how to guide them through the learning process.
It’s interesting to note that these riders are often avid consumers of information, but fail to follow through by acting on the information. They are eager to succeed, they just don’t fully understand the process of learning new skills. Because the fixed mindset favors natural talent, it believes excellence should be effortless, and that having to struggle to grasp concepts is a sign of failure. The attitude is “tell me what to do, so I can get it right the first time.”
Baxstrom emphasized the need for trust between rider and trainer. “Sometimes it seems like non pros get to a certain level of success, and they become afraid to push through that one extra step that would take them to the next level. Trust your trainer. Go all in.”
So how do you create a “go all in” attitude? It starts with your perspective.
Coachable riders view failure in its true light—as a learning and strengthening process. To them, failure is simply information that they can use to improve, not a final judgement on their self-worth. They also understand that as they strive for bigger goals, they will have failures along the way, and as they achieve each goal, the process will begin again. They understand that a good coach or trainer will challenge them, and help to guide them through the learning curves. Failure is necessary.
Cowhorse trainer Erin Taormino agrees, “My most coachable non-pros trust me in what I’m telling them. They believe in what I’m trying to get them to do, and because of that, they see results.”
This is another situation where the conversations you have with yourself are important. The un-coachable mindset views failure as “final”. These riders often say or think things like “I’m just no good at this. I’ll never get it.”
The coachable rider’s attitude is: “I may not have the skills do this yet, but I can learn them.”
They give themselves positive direction for what needs to happen, instead of focusing on the negatives of the situation. Rather than thinking “this isn’t working,” they tell themselves what they need to do. “Right leg back, push his hip over.”
Coachable riders recognize small, incremental gains as success. For the rider struggling with flying lead changes, this might mean understanding that learning to correctly position the horse’s shoulder is a big win, even if you still haven’t gotten the lead change mastered. It’s about creating a mental win and building on it. Your subconscious mind keeps hearing the message “we’re good at this”, and works to make that a reality.
It takes work
All the trainers agreed that finding success takes hard work, and coachable riders are willing to put in that effort.
Taormino says: “With my non-pros, we tackle issues as they arise. Problems are going to get magnified in the show arena, so I make it a point to attack them head on. I do try to make it a point to get in there and work on problem spots, then take a break or put the horse a way. I don’t want myself, my riders, or the horse to get overwhelmed. You can always come back later in the day and do a little more.”
Taormino’s approach highlights an important point about hard work—it’s not necessarily about the quantity of the work, but the quality that’s important. This type of intentional practice, targeted at improving weak areas, is not sustainable for long periods. The mental and physical focus required is best suited to short sessions. Many athletes say that they are more tired after these short intentional sessions than they are after much longer but less targeted sessions.
One way top athletes approach intentional practice is to schedule it and keep a record of it in their training journal. It’s easy to record “rode two hours yesterday” and feel like you put in hard work. But if one hour was a trail ride and the other hour was spent working on maneuvers you are already good at, then you aren’t truly moving the dial towards progress.
It’s important to understand that being a coachable rider doesn’t mean being “spoon-fed”--never taking action or making decisions until your trainer tells you what to do. The process of being coached through learning curves should produce a rider who is more capable and knowledgeable with time.
Being coachable also doesn’t make you immune to frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak. Even very successful riders experience these, they have just learned to handle them in a more productive way.
Finally, it’s likely that advice such as keeping a training journal and using positive self-talk seems quite simplistic. Decades of research have proven that these behaviors produce success, rather than being the products of success.
In the early stages, it can feel very forced. Your mind will resist any attempt to change the status quo, so it’s important that you stick with it. Traditional thinking has been that it takes 21 days to create a new habit, but recent research has shown that the process is likely much longer-- up to 12 weeks or more. Remember, you can jumpstart the cycle of success, sometimes it’s just necessary to do it by hand.
Written by: June Stevens, junecstevens.com
Creating Peak Performances
"If you can believe it, the mind can achieve it." Tonny Lasorda