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Mary Wanless


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Mary Wanless on ‘Conscious Competence’

In this excerpt from the book The New Anatomy of Rider Connection, renowned clinician Mary Wanless shares the reasons for her success in the saddle.

Photo by Peter Dove.

Not enough riders realize that every riding breakthrough begins when you notice what is actually happening now. This is the famous “Aha!” moment, which takes you from being “unconscious of your incompetence” (the state where you do not know what you do not know) to being “conscious of your incompetence” (where you get to know what you didn’t know). This can be shocking; but the realization that “I just curled my toes,” “I stopped breathing,” or “I hollowed my back” is enormously empowering. As your skills improve, you begin to notice how your horse played a role in disorganizing you, and you learn how to beat him to it, making a correction before you both go wrong. After enough repetitions new pattern begins to function in “unconscious competence.”

Riders develop skill and feel most effectively when they work at the “edge” of their existing skill set, and practice “getting it” and “losing it.” This is the state of being “consciously competent.” If you had arrived at “unconscious competence” without going through “conscious competence” (like a child at play) you would be a supremely talented rider who wonders what is wrong with the rest of us! We have to proceed laboriously, from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and through conscious competence to finally arrive at unconscious competence. But take heart from the elite golfers and tennis players who talk publicly about “rewiring” their shots through this process! The best coaching invites even elite riders to do the same.

K. Anders Ericsson used the term “deliberate practice” for the stage of “conscious competence.” It was termed “deep practice” by Daniel Coyle and popularized in his book The Talent Code, which I highly recommend. Ericsson’s research suggested that it takes 10,000 hours of deep practice to become elite at any skill. That means noticing for four hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks of each year for ten years! Few riders come close to this, in either time, or focus.

It is important to realize that mindlessly riding round and round does not count, and also that practice makes perfect what you are actually practicing, not what you ought to be practicing or wish you were practicing. Sadly, you can practice bumping until you bump permanently (and perfectly)! In addition, you cannot improve by only practicing what you already do well.

“Checking in” occasionally does not count either and, unfortunately, the adult brain is easily tripped up by thinking about the past or the future, perhaps with special emphasis on what might happen. You might be wondering who is watching you and what they are thinking, or whether your horse will spook at something. You might be watching the scenery. You might be planning tonight’s supper. Or you might be trying harder, with all the angst and willpower that this implies. Even distractions that appear to be external exist primarily inside our heads (only we gave them that status), and perfect (deep) practice is a meditative art form. Simply noticing your body’s perceptions is a primary skill for riders.

If a riding career spans thirty years of deep practice, this means that the only thing that changes over time is the succession of “its” that you get and lose, and the sophistication of the nervous system through which you process those “its.” There is nothing else! This explains how, after about fifteen years of us working together, US International Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz could say to me, “It always amazes me how the changes we are making now, which are so minute compared to those early lessons, still feel to me just as huge and meaningful.” She is processing them through the kinesthetic version of a stronger microscope lens, perceiving differences that she could never have dreamed of all those years ago. Her feel and her “kinesthetic intelligence” have developed enormously over time, and that acts to magnify her perceptions. For her, every ride is deep practice, and she has rediscovered the fascination of the young child who is learning whilst playing.

I like to think of the “movement brain” like a manual camera lens. In under-focus, a lot of information is perceived as a blur. Just the right focus brings clarity, but over- focus means that we “cannot see the wood for the trees.” This is what happens in trying. For my generation, who grew up on “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again,” this has been a scourge. However, young people today are equally likely to be under-focused. Without the focus that keeps you noticing in every stride, there is no meaningful (deep) practice.

This excerpt from The New Anatomy of Rider Connection by Mary Wanless is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (