Don't get me started about "perfect practice" - especially when it comes to riding horses!

OK, well - since I'm on a roll already, let's get into the nitty gritty.

I absolutely agree that "mindless" practice is not helpful. There are likely many such examples in your horse riding life - people who have owned horses all their lives and made no progress in their riding skills, in their compassion for their horses or in their ability to improve in their horse management over the past 20 years. So yes, there is such a thing as doing the same thing over and over and getting nowhere.

But let's assume that most of us are interested in self-improvement and do what we can to continually get out of our comfort zones, especially for the benefit of our horses.

How does perfect practice fit in that scenario?

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Hands up if you feel you're ever perfect while you ride!

I bet even our best international riders would agree that there's always something to develop, something to improve, a more subtle aid, a quieter seat, a more harmonious movement. In fact, one of the most agreed-upon tenets of riding (especially dressage) is that "...riding is, therefore, an ongoing, never-ending, challenging process. That aspect makes riding so intelligent and significant an effort. One merely strives, one never arrives." (That's a quote from one of my all-time favorite authors, Charles deKunffy.)

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"Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

Even Vince Lombardi himself, who is often quoted as the originator of the above quote, qualified his statement by saying, "Perfection is not attainable but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." This makes much more sense to me.

So how does perfect practice relate to us non-Olympic-bound, job-and-family-restricted, ride-only-a-few-times-a-week riders?

I have a theory. But perfection is only a tiny part of it.

The Horse Listening Rider Learning Cycle

Start at the bottom.

perfect-practice

This learning scale is based purely on personal observation. There have been no formal studies done! However, I can tell you as an educator and a riding instructor and as a riding student that most people go through similar phases as they work their way toward "perfection." Let's break it down.

1. Recognize

This is the first part of any learning. Before you know something, you have to begin to recognize it in the first place. This is what "developing your eye" is all about. As you learn more about riding and the intricate nuances that go into each movement, you'll be able to observe little things that other people might completely miss. For example, can you actually identify the moment a rider applies a half-halt? Do you know the difference between a "good" trot and a "not as good" trot?

2. Emulate

Once you know what you're looking for, you will have a better idea on what you need to do. Think of Morpheus' quote in The Matrix:

Ah yes, walking the path. One might take it quite literally in riding!

While you may be able to see what is happening from the ground, it is entirely another thing to be able to do it in saddle. At this stage, you are probably putting a lot of effort into your tries, and making a lot of mistakes. Trial and error is exactly what should be happening at this stage (please apologize to your horse as needed).

3. Feel

This is when things get exciting! Those first "feels" are golden moments, especially because suddenly everything comes together and you momentarily float together with your horse in an effortless cloud of movement.

Then it all falls apart!

This is normal too. After you know what you are feeling for, you will be inspired to try, try again to find it again. You'll do it until you think you have it, then lose it again, only to find it even better and more confidently as time goes on.

4. Reproduce

Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, you'll suddenly realize that you can in fact get what you want - quite well, almost all the time! This is when you've learned something so well that you can do it on different horses, under different circumstances (shows or clinics, anyone?) and in front of an all-knowing audience (but you feel confident enough, thank-you-very-much).

This is the stage where you feel so established that you might not want to get out of your comfort zone anymore. I think this is where many of us end our learning journeys simply because everything comes fairly easily and we're safe much of the time.

5. Consolidate

This stage is for the lifelong learners. It's for the perfectionists. It's also for those aspiring riders who do want to perform at the highest level that they can.

This is also where I believe "perfect practice" comes into the scheme of things.

Have you ever done something a million times, only to find a deeper, clearer or better understanding in the million-and-first time? This is the consolidation stage.

You're already fluid, fluent, utterly comfortable - but suddenly, you learn something that changes your whole understanding and/or feel. Just when you think you know it all, you discover how much more there is to learn. But because of your already impeccable skills, you can and should refine, reduce, become more subtle, be more effective, move less... and still work to you and your horse's highest potential.

You can't really get to this stage without aiming for perfection. Even while the concept of perfection might be different between person to person, or within differing riding disciplines, being able to do something really well over and over again is an art to itself indeed. 

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I called it a learning "cycle" because I believe that each and every skill you develop goes through these learning stages over and over again. Every time you learn something new, you start at the bottom and work your way to the top. Some skills may take longer to develop than others, of course.

Perfect practice is not something we can start at the beginning of the learning cycle. We can only begin to perfect our skills once we've achieved a certain level of accomplishment in the first place. And in the end, especially in horse riding, I think it's better to think to work toward excellence - not perfection. Because such a thing surely does not exist.

I'd love to hear your opinion on this topic, even (especially) if you don't agree. Let us know in the comments below.

Horse Listening

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If you’d like a structured, but personal tool to set goals, take a look our Goal Setting for the Equestrian: A Personal Workbook. The pages are designed for you to set and keep track of your progress over the course of a year.

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  • long- and short-term planning,
  • debrief your special events such as clinics or shows
  • reflect on, plan and evaluate your goals
  • sample goals and pages

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white-book-3d-cover-2Read more here:

Perfecting Perfection In Riding: A Lifelong Quest: Another take on how perfection applies to horse riding.

Where Should You Start? It's easy to get caught up in perfectionism.

20 Ways Horse Riding Becomes Life ItselfWhile we develop as riders, we also grow as human beings.

First, Plan Your Ride. Then Be Ready To Scrap It.: It's kind of counter-intuitive.

Drawing A Circle (In Sand): Making the perfect circle while you ride.