Always Learning

I have a confession to make. I am not a confident equestrian. Sometimes, I am actually scared by these half tonne beasts and feel completely out of my depth when I’m training them. The fact I own and work with equids is perhaps accompanied by an assumption by others, especially non-equestrians, that I know lots and am fearless around them. In my job, I sometimes get referred to as ‘an equine welfare expert’ and this sets my heart beating a little bit faster with the pressure and expectations of such an accolade. I end up panicking about whether I will be asked something that I don’t know the answer to and suffer from imposter syndrome wondering when my inaptitude will be discovered.

Yet why does admitting this feel like I’m damaging not only my professional reputation but also my credibility and merit as a horse owner? In equestrianism, where there are debatably so many ‘know it alls’, why is admitting ignorance, inexperience or talking about confidence crises such a taboo? We just get told to “not show our fear”, or to “pull up our brave pants” or can even be publicly ridiculed for our stupidity by the rest of the equine community.

Admitting that we don’t have all the answers seems like we are admitting to failures as an owner, especially when something goes wrong and we berate ourselves thinking “well I should have known that would happen”. But how could we possibly know everything about every horse when they are all such individuals with their own stories, likes, dislikes, and quirks and when we can’t predict everything about their environment or situations they might unwittingly face? Could someone who has studied anthropology and human psychology say that they know everything about every human?

I write this as I currently have my own confidence crisis, with my two rescue youngsters, where I am reminded daily about just how much I don’t know and constantly feeling like I am somehow failing them if things don’t quite go according to plan with their training. Training any horse can be a game of trial and error. Their brains might work in similar ways and as an equine professional it is my job to understand how they learn (and arguably my moral responsibility as an owner and trainer) but they will have their own individual motivations, thresholds and coping mechanisms. Part of the fun is exploring this and getting to know them, working out their tolerance levels, what they find appetitive and stimulating, what their normal behavioural responses to new things are. Overcoming obstacles and experiencing difficulties is, I am reminded by friends and colleagues, completely natural, and doesn’t necessarily make me a failure.

The important factor is making an effort to find the answers, to constantly be trying to expand our knowledge, to keep showing up and trying, for the benefit of our horses. Similarly important is to avoid judging those who dare admit that they don’t know something and to make an effort to create a supportive environment, be it at work, at our horse’s homes or online, in which we can all encourage learning together, celebrate our successes, not dwell on our mistakes but use them to help us develop.

Even if we are supremely confident and think that we do know everything, sometimes that can make people extremely resistant to learning and to new ideas that might challenge their existing beliefs, which can result in confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance and be counterproductive to becoming a better trainer, or just a better human for our horse. Perhaps the human and humane thing to do is to remove the stigma, admit that we don’t know it all, that we might make mistakes and are still learning – and that that’s okay. Perhaps approaching horse training and ownership with curiosity, enthusiasm, and a willing, receptive and philomathic attitude to learning might just result in our horses approaching training in the same way, setting us all up for success.

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

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