A Lifetime of Learning to Drive

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Just for a second, let’s try to remember back to a time before we were old enough to drive. For most of us, by the time we reached the age of 15 years old we had spent countless hours in the car watching our parents or someone else drive the thing. It looked easy enough. Push the pedals from time to time and turn the steering wheel once in a while and pretty quick you end up where you were going. Nothing to it.

Then came that day when it was our turn to actually get behind the wheel for the first time. For those with no actual real life driving experience, that first time in the driver’s seat seemed pretty harrowing and more than just a little daunting. Suddenly we found the task that looked so incredibly easy when someone else was doing it, wasn’t very easy after all. In fact, it actually took more than a just little thought and skill, not to mention a certain amount of feel and timing.

We had to think about every little thing we were doing, from the amount of strength and length of time we used to turn the key just to start the car, to the amount of pressure we used with our foot on either the break or gas pedal. And we hadn’t even left the parking lot yet!

Those first few times driving on the road took so much concentration – both hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, feet on the pedals, and constantly being reminded by the instructor to check the mirrors. If you happened to be in a group lesson in which other new young drivers were also in the car, and they were talking while you were driving, well, it was almost too much to handle.

But over time – in some cases weeks, months or maybe even years – things got better, easier. With practice our skills improved, we thought less and felt more. We gained confidence in those skills and we had learned how to drive.

Today we jump in the car or truck, turn the key and head down the road, never giving the actual act of driving a second thought. Our vision has expanded to where we not only see what’s directly in front of us, like we did when we first started driving, to where we can also see what is beside us and even behind us. The amount of effort and concentration it takes for us to turn the wheel, accelerate or brake is also nothing compared to when we first started. In fact, we never even think about it now. Our body just automatically adjusts for us. The “feel” that we use now when we drive is so automatic that we would have to concentrate in order to figure out how we are actually doing it!

We got good at driving because we practiced it, and we practiced even though it worried us at first, even though we weren’t very good at it at first, and even though we could have hurt ourselves, the car or even someone else. Sure, we made mistakes from time to time, and maybe we still do. But we learned, we gained experience, and we got better. That’s just how it works…not just when it comes to driving, but with life in general and horsemanship in particular.

Improving our horsemanship is really not that much different than learning to drive. In fact, we use many of the same skills with much the same feel for both. The problem is, we don’t often look at it that way. We see driving and horsemanship as two completely different things. After all, a vehicle is a machine. It doesn’t think or feel or have an opinion about anything – although I have owned a few vehicles over the years that seemed to have an opinion about things! But still, the sensitivity we use when driving is the exact same sensitivity we could be using when we ride or otherwise work with our horses.

Think about it. How does our vehicle respond when we use our hands too abruptly or feet too harshly when driving? How does our vehicle respond when we are trying to accelerate while we still have one foot on the break? What kind of mechanical wear and tear starts to show up when we drive in a careless manner on a consistent basis? How do we feel, both physically and mentally when we drive with undue tension over an extended period of time (such as driving in a heavy rainstorm or on an icy road)? Now, just for fun, let’s go back and ask those same questions again, only this time replace the word vehicle with the word horse, and the word driving with the word riding.

Here’s another question. How many of us have ever thought, or perhaps been told by a riding instructor, that we had “bad hands” and as a result have been riding with a big loopy rein, trying never to make contact with the horse’s mouth? Sure, riding with unskilled hands can be an issue for both horse and rider. However, riding without using our hands does nothing to help develop better skill and feel in our hands, or understanding in the horse.

Another way to look at it, perhaps, is to ask how many of us, when we first began driving and regardless of how badly we drove, were told by the driving instructor not to put our hands on the wheel or not to put our feet on the pedals? My guess is, not very many. That’s because the whole role of an instructor/teacher is to help us go from not knowing to knowing, from having little or no skill to being skillful and to help us gain better understanding and knowledge of the subject at hand. But that can’t be achieved if we ignore those things we aren’t good at and aren’t willing to actually put the work in so we can improve.

That process is usually time consuming and can sometimes be frustrating as a student fumbles their way through the early stages of understanding and skill development. But just like when we began learning to drive, if we seek out good instruction and keep practicing, eventually we will get better – even though mistakes will undoubtedly be made along the way and things aren’t always as pretty as we’d like them to be.

Of course on the other side of the coin is what happens to us when we study under those instructors who teach in such a way that they actually end up removing the student’s individuality – and thus damage, to some degree, the student’s inherent coping mechanism.

Again, using the act of driving as an example, there is actually very little mechanical variation in the way most people drive. This is due primarily to the way the machine itself is set up. The placement and function of the accelerator, brake and clutch pedal and shift levers, are all more or less the same in all vehicles worldwide, as is the steering wheel. As such, pretty much all drivers require a basic understanding of certain universal concepts and physical actions to successfully operate most any vehicle.

I think it’s safe to say that we all probably learned those basic driving concepts and physical actions more or less the same way, at least initially. But over time and once the basics were understood and we had sufficient time to practice, all of us, without exception, began to develop our own driving individuality, and thus developed our own individual coping mechanisms. Basically what I am referring to when I talk about a coping mechanism is our ability to make “real time” adjustments without having to think about them first. In other words, we retain our ability to make our adjustments through what we feel and are experiencing as opposed to having to rely only on what we learned from our instructor.

(As a side note here, if you don’t believe we all have our own individual driving style, think about how you feel when you’re a passenger in a vehicle while someone else is driving!)

You see, I believe that in order for a student to develop their own individuality and skills in any activity (particularly horsemanship) the instructor’s primary role should be to teach the student how to learn, not just how to do, or worse yet, how to mimic. When a student understands the art of learning, they are in turn able to see and understand that very little of what they are being taught is ever carved in stone. Every situation becomes a classroom and all those they come in contact with become teachers. They understand that something can be gleaned from every person (or horse) and from every situation regardless of how positive, negative, significant or not that situation appears at the time.

However, a student’s skills, thoughts and abilities can become severely diminished when an instructor intentionally, or even unintentionally, teaches a student how to simply mimic the instructor’s actions, movement, words or ideas. As an example, these days it’s actually quite easy to pick out which horse trainer, instructor or clinician someone follows just by listening to the way the student speaks, or how they dress or even what kind of tack they use – usually to the exclusion of everything or anything else.

While it’s true that some trainers these days consciously encourage their students to mimic them, thus ultimately hindering the student’s individuality and overall skills, others cause a students’ mimicry unconsciously by using the same phrases, terms and even ideas over and over with very little variation. Eventually the student becomes so immersed in these phrases, terms and ideas that there seem to be no other viable options for them, and they begin to repeat them almost without thinking.

Here’s an example. Some time back a very talented clinician had taken to tying his rope halters on the right side of his horse’s head instead of on the traditional left side. He said he was doing it as a way to get his students to start thinking differently and become more aware of the little things they did with their horses. Almost immediately many of his students all over the country also began tying their rope halters on the right side of their horse’s head. This then begs the question: were these students really using independent thought (thinking differently and becoming more aware) or were they simply repeating a fairly innocuous exercise they saw someone they admire perform?

I suppose in some ways this sort of thing can, and often does, become a sort of badge of honor for the student. Mimicking the words and actions of teacher we admire can be a way of communicating to those around us which trainer we follow without actually ever using the trainer’s name. This, by the way, can be seen in all levels and all disciplines of horsemanship all over the world. However, I think it is important to keep in mind that while imitation is most certainly the sincerest form of flattery, it seldom actually allows for what is really important – a student’s true individual growth.

Other trainers inadvertently hinder individuality by not allowing the student to do the work that is necessary for both the horse and student to progress together. In these cases, when a problem arises with a horse (or rider) these trainers simply take the horse from the student, do whatever work is necessary, and then give the horse back. Often the undesirable behavior will be gone for a few days, weeks or sometimes even months. But it almost always begins to creep back, and when it does, the rider/owner still doesn’t see that they aren’t really properly prepared to deal with it. Stagnation usually occurs and the rider then takes the horse back to the trainer to get a “tune up,” which once again, the trainer is happy to do, and the whole thing starts all over again.

Thinking about this particular scenario in terms of driving a vehicle. It would be like the instructor basically putting the student in the passenger seat and telling them to watch while the instructor drives the car. What the student eventually gets good at is watching – not necessarily doing – and in more cases than not, ends up learning little more than how to just go along for the ride. Eventually, and over time, this practice can create a fear in the student and a lack of willingness to want to step in and really learn what it might take to get better at “driving.” Then, when problems arise, and they almost always do, the student simply doesn’t have the skill or experience it might take to effectively navigate through the situation.

Now don’t get me wrong. We humans are really good at being inspired by, and even learning from watching someone who is really good at what they do. That is a given. But as the old saying goes, there is no substitute for experience. It can be argued that a trainer or instructor who takes the time to help a student figure out how to deal with an issue instead of just fixing it themselves is, as another old saying goes, teaching the student how to fish instead of simply giving them a fish.

Again, remember back to before we knew how to drive. By the time we were old enough to actually get behind the wheel we had logged literally hundreds of hours of watching other people drive. It looked easy. We thought we understood it – and then we tried it. It usually took only a matter of minutes, if not seconds, on that first day, before we found that driving was going to be more difficult than we thought, and it was going to take some time before we mastered it. In most cases, it would take a year of consistent instruction and practice before we got proficient, and usually even longer before we were allowed to think about taking the driver’s test. Even then, many of us were still questioning our skills.

At some level for most of us, on the eve of our driver’s test, I think we knew that we hadn’t mastered the art of driving, and we also knew the person testing us was going to know. But it didn’t stop us. We went in, we took the test (sweaty palms and all) and if we were lucky, we passed. If we didn’t pass, we went home and worked harder to further develop our skills so we could try again. Either way, while we weren’t perfect, we had moved ourselves to the next level in the process – that level where we had gone from minimal or no experience to being marginally proficient.

Horsemanship is no different. Before we can even think about mastery we must first get to the point of simply being able to practice. Before we can practice, we must first focus on developing our own individual skills. We do that in part by finding a teacher who not only helps us understand and work on the feel and mechanics of what we are trying to accomplish, but who is also skilled enough to be able to teach us how to learn and think for ourselves. At the same time, we, as the student, must also be willing to want to think for ourselves, to take that next step in our learning and be able to move out of our comfort zone so that true growth (and perhaps even mastery) can begin to take place.

In the end, we need to be aware that merely mimicking what our instructor says or does, or watching as they improve their skills on our horse really doesn’t help us improve our horsemanship skills all that much. True self-improvement seldom comes that easy.

The kind of improvement I think most of us are looking for in our horsemanship almost always boils down to engaging the same attributes we used when we originally learned how to drive – hard work, dedication and the ability to forgo ego long enough to allow ourselves the luxury of making a mistake once in a while.

It may also help us to remember that we may not have always been perfect back then, but we always kept trying – and it truly is that try in all of us that ultimately generates personal success in each of us.

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