The Uncomfortable experience of being a beginner

“The uncomfortable experience of being a beginner” is a Zen saying.  Learning something from zero is awkward and scratchy.  Whether driving a car, playing an instrument, cooking a meal or speaking a foreign language, you fumble through it, getting things wrong more often than getting them right. 

Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!
Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!

Put in a different way, you begin a new skill in unconscious competence.  You have no idea of just how much you don’t know.  You then, with a few lessons move to conscious incompetence.  Meaning, you now begin to understand what you’ve let yourself in for – just how much learning you have ahead of you.  Conscious competence follows after a lot of practice – you can do the new skill, but only if you really think about it.  And finally, unconscious competence – “Well, I can’t explain how, you just do it…”

How many times do you hear riders, athletes or trainers yelling at their pupils – just make it happen.  Make the horse rounder.  Make the horse more collected or more elevated.  And when asked how, they say, just make it happen.  Unconscious incompetence.  They don’t know what they know.

The problem comes in when an instructor doesn’t understand this. 

Many years ago, I was working with a young instructor.  He was a talented rider but hadn’t taught much.  I was watching him teach a group of beginner kids one day, and he was saying – it’s just trotting, all you have to do is go up and down – come on now, it’s not complicated, it’s just trotting, up and down. 

This was a problem.  No beginner at anything is going to progress by being told that it’s JUST A, B, C, and that they should be able to…  So, we came up with a plan, and took this young coach roller blading.  He’d never tried it before.  Once he’d hopped into his shoes, stood up and uh – fallen over, there were a couple of us yelling, come on, get up, what are you lying on the floor for?  It’s just standing on wheels, it’s easy, look, you just do it like this…

It didn’t take him long to get our point.  A few days later, I was watching him working with a group of young riders, and there he was, patiently explaining, this is what I want you to do, and this is how we are going to achieve it.  Lesson done. 

Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…
Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…

We can never lose sight of how uncomfortable and difficult it is to be a beginner.  It’s awkward and challenging, and it’s a time when we coaches need to be patient and explain, not be yelling, Just Get on With it, it’s EASY.  I try, all the time, to keep doing things that are new or challenging.  By learning new skills all the time, I keep the learning space in my brain open, and remember to be patient with novices. 

When was the last time you tried something for the first time?

Do you know how they save a particularly beautiful or loved tree in the African bush?

Do you know how they save a particularly beautiful or loved tree in the African bush?  They hang a beehive in its branches.  

As you are riding across the bush, you can see these trees, often big Acacia trees, with a hollowed-out tree truck, barrel or box hanging from a big branch.   And how would this save the tree?  Elephants hate bees…

 

As elephants walk across the savannah, they have very few predators.  Not a lot out there can damage a fully-grown adult.  They rule the bush, rubbing against trees and eating a huge amount to fuel their not particularly efficient digestion. 

As they find a tree that buzzes with the sound of a swarm of bees though, they move away in a hurry.  How can such small insects do anything damaging to such huge animals?

If an elephant wants to take the branches off a tree to eat the leaves, he must lift his trunk to use it as a hand – he grasps the branch and pulls it down.  And at that moment, an angry bee can sting him on the trunk.  As soon as he gets stung, his trunk can begin to swell up, and a swollen trunk is useless at gathering food or water.  And so, that little bee can bring down something as big as an elephant.  

(Incidentally, this is why you don’t see drone footage of elephants – when a herd of elephants hear a drone buzzing around above them, they think of swarms of bees and so they disappear in a hurry).  

So, why is this relevant to us?  Well, the first thing that I thought of, was how one small person can make a lot of noise and make a change.  Just because something is accepted as the normal – (why do you do it this way?  Because we always have) doesn’t mean that it’s the way it has to be. I love this quote…

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  ― The Dalai Lama

 

And, in the horse industry, there have been many bees or mosquitoes who have brought about changes.  Off the top of my head, think Mary Wanless with her Ride with your Mind, Mark Rashid with looking at horses as sentient beings, Temple Grandin with her ethical cattle slaughter, and Prince Fluffy Kareem with their project to help the pyramid tourist horses.  Do you feel strongly about something?  Do you sit back and think, well that’s not right…  Or, are you a bee bringing down an elephant?   

Beethoven or Heavy Metal?

I’m sitting cross legged on a veranda, in deepest darkest Africa as I write this.  In fact, here – look at my view.

The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call
The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call.

Not bad, huh?

And, why am I here?    Well, largely for a horseback safari.  Here, Sosian Lodge in Lakipia, Kenya, is one of the world’s premier horse-riding safari locations.  And, it’s simply magic.  There isn’t really another word for it.  But, it makes me think, why do you ride?  Why did you learn your skill?

Everyone learns a skill for a different reason.  Some people are happy reading nothing more than road signs, while others use that reading skill for Shakespeare, War and Peace and Lord of the Rings.  Some people learn to play music to simply practice doing scales, while others play Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi.  Some people learn to drive so they can go 2 blocks to the shops, while others undertake epic road trips across continents.  And riding for me?  Well, I didn’t learn to ride to go around and around for hours, “getting the horse’s head down”…  Riding (for me) is about getting out there, challenging myself, challenging the communication and bond with my horse.  Some riders are happier refining heir dressage skills, thinking that is the art form.  I started my competing mainly in three-day eventing, the ultimate test of training, fitness, stamina, endurance and rider stickability.  Now, I don’t compete anymore, but coming to places like this, this is where some of the greatest riding happens. 

It always makes me a little sad, when people say oh, sorry, I’m just a trail / hacking rider.  Why would you put your self down like that?  Trail riders face so many obstacles that riders who stay safely inside an arena fence wouldn’t even dream of.  Clamber down the bank and scramble up the other side.  Watch the bird who flaps across in front of you, or the dog (or lion) who leaps out of the bushes…  Leg yield out of the way of the oncoming car, and hold a straight line past the scary rock, or black plastic bin bag. 

Riding out challenges your balance in a way that arena riding just doesn’t come near.  It also, very definitely, tests the bond between you and your horse.  If something doesn’t quite go to plan in an arena, maybe your half pass doesn’t come off.  If your horse questions your timing or judgement out on a trail, you can come seriously unstuck.

Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…
Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…

I’m not knocking competitive riders, or riders who love schooling.  There is absolutely a place for it, and honestly, riding out is so much more pleasant on a well-trained, nicely balanced, thinking horse.  And if you are happy spending hours going around and around, go for it.  (As long as your horse agrees about going around and around for hours…) but to me, that is the practicing playing scales before you can play a concerto.  It’s a means to an end.  My horses had to be light, quick thinking and responsive, so they could clear a testing cross country course.  War horses were schooled in Haute Ecole so that they could be ridden into battle.  Fortunately, horses aren’t ridden into battle anymore, but dressage means training – training to enable them to do whatever their main job was.   Training to decapitate foot soldiers, or guard the king, or carry a lady out through the park for taking the air. 

Why do you school your horse?  Why do you ride?  Is it to improve your fitness?  Your non-verbal communication?  Your bond with a living, breathing, non-human being? Is it to do the party ticks, to tick the movements off a to do list?  Or is it so that you can go out for an adventure with a four-legged friend?

This morning I had a great ride out on a lovely mare called KQ.  She was light, balanced, easy and a pleasure to amble with.  She’s not overly confident when faced with a herd of giraffe, which is exactly what happened this morning, and yet she stayed with me, walking quietly, heart racing and snorting a bit, but staying in walk, paying attention.  Would her schooling be tested to that degree in an arena?  No.  Did she need training and schooling to do that?  Absolutely. 

How brave is KQ?

And watching our guide – controlling his horse with one hand, organising us visitors, watching a herd of elephant and reading their movements, and, at the right moment, cracking his stock whip to make sure that a young bull elephant stays back – all while not moving in his saddle – that is a massive skill. 

Is this heavy metal music compared to dressage riders playing Beethoven?  Who knows, but I do know which I love doing! 

So, how do you test your riding?

Have you heard of Body World?

Dr Gunther Von Hagens and Dr Angelina Whalley developed this incredible exhibition and opened it to the public in 1995.  Since then, it has travelled to over 130 cities, and been seen by more than 47 million people.  So, it’s a little bit popular then!

https://bodyworlds.com/

It is designed for (mainly) non-medical people, to teach them more about the human body, how different systems (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, respiratory etc) work together, and essentially how fragile and yet amazing it all is.  Their main reason for being is preventative health care.  Each exhibition is focused on something slightly different – stress, movement or bad diet choices etc.

So, um, how do they do it then?

All of the exhibits are real human bodies.  While alive, the owners of these bodies choose to donate their remains to science, for the good of our knowledge.  The Institute for Plastination where the work is done is in Germany, and the bulk of the remains used are German citizens.  On their death, the remains are sent to the institute.  Formaldehyde is pumped through the arteries to kill bacteria.    The body is then dissected to show what ever it is that the scientists feel it should be used for, possibly a diseased area, a pinned limb or a replaced hip etc, which can take up to 1,000 hours.  They are then placed in a bath of liquid polymer which, over a couple of weeks, impregnates every single cell.  Positioning is next, and, when you go to the exhibition, you will see a massive variety of poses, from dancers, musicians, athletes, chess players etc.    Finally, the remains are set, or hardened into this position.  The whole process takes about a year. 

So, why am I talking about it?  Well, I think its an awesome teaching tool.  I went to see it a couple of years ago in Johannesburg, and again last month in London, which is why it’s on my mind.  The first time, the biggest impact for me, was the strength of our hip flexors, and the massive dome of our diaphragm.  No wonder we battle with our knees drawing upwards while riding, or about the effect of our breathing.  This time, the thing that most impressed me, was how none of the remains where symmetrical.  All could be seen to be more developed through one side of their back more that the other, or one more developed arm or leg.  And we wonder why we ride in a one-sided way?

The other incredible thing to see at the current London exhibition is an actual horse, who was fully dissected, with an equally dissected human rider.  The horse can be seen to have suffered a tendon injury.

Body World Exhibition
Body World Exhibition

Yes, some people will find it morally wrong or offensive.  Some people will be squeamish about going.  But I highly recommend anyone who is interested in riding or teaching better, to keep an eye open for it to visit your country and go and have a wander around.  It really is quite extraordinary!