The Power of Positive Learning

What are you really good at in your riding? What’s one of your strongest skills?

If you hesitated and struggled to think of a response, then you are with the majority of riders I work with.

But you are also affecting your potential as a rider and making the process of learning and improving more difficult.

Why? With a positive focus we learn faster, we retain information, and we make progress.

This isn’t meant to just be a motivational pep talk. I’m going to do more than encourage you to “stay positive and keep trying”. While that’s not bad advice, it’s rather trite, and the truth is it’s hard to always have a happy outlook when we run into persistent challenges.

Implementing positive learning is different than being cheery and happy and saying “well, there’s always tomorrow!”. Again, while it’s a good mindset to have, there are more specific strategies you can use that are backed by research and will impact how effectively and quickly you learn.

We are going to look at three.

  1. Acknowledge what you are good at and celebrate your success.
  2. See humor in mistakes.
  3. Change old patterns or habits using novelty, curiosity, and experimentation.

Riding lessons and clinics are often taught in a way that unfortunately, does not implement these strategies for good learning.

Instructors focus on telling students what they are doing wrong, often without providing a clear path about how to improve it.

 

Let’s begin with the first of these three strategies.

Acknowledge what you are good at and celebrate your success.

When someone compliments you – an instructor or a riding friend says “wow, your hands look so steady” or when you achieve success in something, for example you just maintained a rising trot around a perfectly shaped 20 meter circle, acknowledge it!

Smile, and allow yourself the pride of a task well done.

Notice if your reflex is to respond with a negative comment or thought such as “yeah but I’m still so terrible at trying to sit the trot….”. When you notice this pattern of deflecting a compliment or acknowledgement of success, interrupt it and allow yourself a moment to feel good about your accomplishment.

 

The next step is to continue to picture what you want to do, instead of picturing your problem. You can start to develop a clearer mental picture by noticing your own self talk.

For example, if your canter transitions tend to get a bit unorganized, don’t think “I have got to quit bouncing around and throwing my legs forward at the canter!”

Instead, talk yourself into a better mental picture as you imagine sitting balanced and poised as you ask for canter, your leg under you, sitting tall, and allowing your horse to lift lightly into canter.

To take this a step further, look to develop your visualizations from a first-person perspective. There has been evidence that first person visualization (imagining the scene out of your own eyes) engages more areas of the brain than visualizing from an external perspective.

If working with an instructor, you may need to translate what they tell you into a positive image. For example, if they say, “stop throwing your upper body forward for canter”, translate that into “sit still, allow my horse to lift into canter” or “keep my shoulders over my hips”, whatever phrase and mental imagery makes sense to you.

 

The next step is to see the humor in your mistakes.

The process of learning is full of mistakes. The freer you are to try different things, the more quickly you can sort out what works and what doesn’t.

As the famous quote from Einstein states, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” But that is what happens to so many of us in our riding. We try to stick to the same old riding advice – keep my heels down, keep my hands at the wither, keep my shoulders back – without ever stopping to question those instructions or even to accomplish them in a different way.

We believe that we just need to try harder – get my heels lower, get my core tighter, lunge my horse longer – but trying harder can simply get us more stuck in the pattern that wasn’t working.

To find change, we need to do something different. Patterns are most easily broken through experimentation, novelty, and fun.

Sometimes you need the information a different way – pick up a book, watch a video, join a course.

Other times you need to do something different – try an interesting riding exercise, experiment in other disciplines, change your position and see how it feels.

 

Have fun with the learning process and don’t fear mistakes. The trajectory of learning and improvement is rarely linear – it has ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back, but when you adapt a mindset that there can always be a new way, the solution will come.

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