top of page
  • phdevlin

Building the Skills to Win?

Deliberate practice is defined as being effortful in nature, with the main goal of personal improvement of performance rather than enjoyment and is often performed without immediate reward.


Any educated skills coach will talk about deliberate practice as the holy grail for acquiring or refining skills. Some sports are further along in incorporating this concept than others. Hockey is very advanced in this for two reasons, one is that puck handling is a large part of the game and individuals can practice to exhaustion how they control the puck and how they shoot it. The other is the incentive money and status provide if an athlete reaches the top level. Few players reach big money status but the industry as a whole, especially in the northern nations, is culturally significant. However, the skills only take you so far, there are many highly skilled individuals that can’t break into the NHL because skill alone isn’t enough. There are many dimensions to the game that need to be there to win, especially the ultimate trophy, the Stanley Cup. Tactical smarts, spatial intelligence, power, and grit. Oh, and teammates just as dedicated and capable as you.


Looking past the waxing poetic on hockey, I am Canadian with no apologies, horses are not anything like hockey. However there are fundamentals in skill development that can be applied to both, and winning in both requires far more than skill alone.

Where horse sports differ is that no matter the goals and determination of the rider, the horse is essentially the athlete their dreams are built on. These skills requires empathy more than grit, flexibility and openness more than conviction. The tactical skills required to win are small compared to the partnership, no effort the rider makes will amount to much without the participation of the horse. The skill in horse riding is underwritten by the ability to dialogue with the horse.


We can achieve victory without developing our horse’s capacity, and we can compete without refining our partnership, but the satisfaction we achieve when we do surpasses any victory we can imagine. Winning as a measure of success can distract from the goal of acquiring the skills to develop the capacity and partnership with the horse. These skills are obtained by uncovering and improving the deficiencies in each horse, not by switching to a horse with fewer. These skills are earned, not purchased.


Deliberate practice is focussing on doing what is difficult until it becomes easy. No amount of willful determination by the rider alone will increase the quality of the partnership. It requires willing participation of the horse. No exercise the rider maps out, no number of repetitions, will produce anything other than mediocre  results until the horse chooses to do them. Unlike hockey puck management skills, riding skills from the first moment to the last, require relational skills. This requires a mental framework of training that is behaviour and biomechanics focused and science based. It requires exquisite coordination and feel. It requires absence of ego, openness to learn from your partner, willingness to let achievement belong to the horse.


I recently completed the training for High Performance Coach Level 1. This would indicate there is aspiration for at least a level 2 but there isn’t anything in place yet. Which in itself could lead us to conclude that it is very difficult to incorporate the science of sport into the culture of horse sport. Other difficulties emerged during the training as well like the direction we’re heading and what paths we have to get there. What the training excelled at was indoctrinating the candidate coaches with a scientific mindset for creating and documenting metrics that inform our training progress. Equine Canada, our sport governing body, is working to bolster the accountability and safety of participants in the industry while celebrating whatever victories Canadian athletes achieve around the world. Which means they are leaving it up to the market to develop the formulas for the development of skill.


The business of any sport is directly proportional to the incentives for reward, measured in money, status, and satisfaction minus the friction of cost and effort. In high level horse sport, the costs and commitment self select participants from our most privileged citizens. Participation itself is not a measure of skill, and looking under the hood of most achievements, you’ll find a solid infrastructure financed either by the business of sport, or by patronage. Elite skill is not necessary to achieve victory, it helps, but not as much as one would believe. I wrote about this in an earlier post, Go, Steer, and Stop. Competitive skill is about using the horse’s existing capacity in a tactically brilliant way. Elite skill is having these tactical skills plus sufficient knowledge of the horse to increase or preserve its capacity while building a partnership.


Every rider seeks to enhance their skills no matter their aspirations. The best teachers have a skill matrix (tool box of experience) adequate to the level they’re teaching. A coach with an elite skill matrix, one with tools to increase capacity and partnership, will always provide more value than a coach with a competitive skill matrix. Winning as a determinate of skill is a suspect measure since achievements are more likely dependent on infrastructure. Riders who have experienced the elation of increasing their horse’s capacity and have earned the willing participation of their partner will never again measure success by their own achievements, they will from this day forward measure success by their horse’s achievements.


In this new era of social media where popularity rises in influence, the measure of quality is quantified by likes. The true masters who were elevated by the appreciation of their peers have been overshadowed by the noise of popularity. As a result, the path to elite skills is fading while the victors write the history and a thousand coaches indoctrinate their students to their narrative, measuring success in the competition arena, not in the health and partnership of their horses.


The riding academies of old, where horsemanship was sacrosanct and masters emerged have been dispersed, supplanted by individuals in search of a community. There is one such group offering scientific and evidence based research, the International Society for Equitation Science. ISES is offering a challenge to skill development by exposing the myths that are foundational to the existing framework. As we learn to better navigate social media, we are able to discern good ideas from popular ones. As we incorporate these ideas into our skills matrix, our horses will benefit, and we will continue moving towards elite status, raising the baseline for even more exciting developments in the future.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page