The Beauty of Big, Huge, Awkward Mistakes

Advanced Level eventer and psychotherapist Andrea Waldo tells us why we need to screw up (a lot!) if we want to be better riders.

Everyone has heard the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” Then, somewhere along the way, someone upped the ante on us and said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” The theory goes that if you keep making mistakes in your practice, your performance never gets any better. This seems to make perfect sense—except for the minor detail that according to the latest research in neuroscience, it turns out to be completely wrong.

Let me clarify: it’s true that sloppy, careless practice produces sloppy results. It’s a waste of time to ride endless 20-meter circles if you ignore the quality of those circles, and repeating the same mistake over and over makes you really good at that mistake. However, endless “perfect” 20-meter circles don’t necessarily make you a better rider, either. There is a time and place for perfection, but there is also a time and place for big, huge, awkward mistakes.

“Perfect practice makes perfect” is true when you are working to maintain or fine-tune a skill you have already mastered. If your goal for the day is to polish your horse’s shoulder-in, and it’s already solid to begin with, then your aim should be perfect practice. Perfect practice is also an appropriate goal right before a show: you aren’t trying to learn or teach your horse something new, you just want to review the skills you’ll need on the weekend to make them as strong and sparkling as possible.

When it comes to learning new skills or taking your current ones to a higher level, however, perfect practice is both unattainable and undesirable. If you’ve never done a flying change before, when you first start to learn how, you’re going to miss—a lot. You might hit a streak of beginner’s luck, and that’s great, but it’s not the same thing as mastery. In order to truly master a skill, you have to make lots and lots of mistakes, and then correct those mistakes, getting closer and closer to performing the skill correctly.

This process can be maddeningly slow and incredibly frustrating. The good news is that the more you make mistakes and correct them, the more your brain is learning and integrating the parts of the skill into its neurological memory. (What we usually call “muscle memory” is actually neurological memory: we develop neural pathways that command our muscles to perform the tasks that we want.)

If you normally post at the trot, think back to when you first learned this skill. At first, you probably bounced all over the place. You might have come up out of the saddle on every third or fourth stride, then banged roughly down on the saddle, where you bounced around some more. Your leg slipped forward, it slipped back, you fell forward, you got left behind.

Eventually, you found the right rhythm, let the horse’s movement toss you out of the saddle, sat back down without thumping, and voila! Up, down, up, down—you could post! This process might have taken hours or months, but you eventually mastered the skill.

During that process, the neurons in your brain were busily developing the network that would eventually become your “posting trot neural network.” With each repetition, the neurons fired to make your seat go up and down. The more those neurons fired, the thicker they became. As you exerted effort to correct your mistakes and refine your movements, those neural pathways got stronger, and they developed more connections to other related neural pathways.

For example, your “stand-up” neurons developed connections to your “hands-still” neurons. Eventually, you acquired a strong, integrated “posting trot” neural network that now functions more or less automatically.

For reasons we don’t yet fully understand, it appears that effort, error, and correction of error are all essential in the process of this neural pathway development. In other words, you can’t get better without screwing up a lot and working hard to fix it. Yes, some things come more easily than others, but in general, the acquisition of new and better skills is achieved in six steps:

  1. Try.
  2. Fail.
  3. Figure out what went wrong.
  4. Try again.
  5. Fail better.
  6. Repeat until mastery is achieved.

It’s vital in this process to operate on the very top edge of your current ability. If the task isn’t hard enough, the brain won’t have to work to strengthen the neural network for that skill. On the other hand, if it’s too far beyond your current capabilities, you won’t be able to improve either, because you are over-faced and don’t have a good foundation to build on.

If I ask you to try flying changes before you have even learned to canter, you’re guaranteed to fail. It’s like lifting weights: if you don’t have to expend any effort to lift the weight, your muscles won’t develop, but if you try to lift way too much, you’ll fail completely. You need to lift an amount that’s hard, but not impossible, in order to get stronger.

This excerpt from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (