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  • phdevlin

What We Understand Limits What We See.

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Here is a journey down the rabbit hole, one where I'll gladly escort you.

One thing we all agree on is that riding is one of the most complex endeavours most of us will experience due of course to the nature of the partnership with our horses. Unlike collaborations between humans, with horses we lack the familiar language we use to create understanding and processes to mutual goals.

Whether we get help from a pro, read a book, or we fumble on our own, we all rely on our sensibilities, our imagination, and our powers of observation and mimicry. We build our skill from the resultant comprehension of these processes. We are unique in our capacities to do this, no two people are the same. We are similar in that we all use these processes.

Where we are also similar is in the challenges we face as we build layer upon layer of experience and synthesis that informs our growth. This is natural and hardwired into our DNA so that we might survive. However, in order to teach riding skills we need to take over from the reflex of our base instincts and apply rational thinking to our evolution. Which means we can re-examine some of the layers and question whether they are beneficial or harmful to our pursuit of riding better.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Our rational thought is a process of deriving useful knowledge that is not sensory in nature. We follow our reason as if it is truth, in fact we have built in processes to see that we protect this truth. These are called biases, and we all have them. So how does this impact our understanding? When we get new information from our experiences we need to put it somewhere. It helps to think of this as a library, we have indexes that help us categorize the information. This is our cognitive framework and it is fundamental to our layering process that makes us uniquely who we are.

Sometimes we get information that is contradicting previous information we’ve layered upon and our reason wants to defend the existing cognitive framework. The more educated we are, the more tools we have to protect our current understanding. In addition to our education we have other incentives to protect our understanding which are tied to self esteem or even social status. The more we have to lose, the harder we defend our truths. This is not to say we don't examine new information objectively, because we can and do. It is our objectivity that needs to be challenged. We use measures to verify our truths, we compare against knowledge we already have or if we're open, investigate how that new knowledge can fit in to our current understanding. Quantifying qualities is one rational way of determining the value of new information: This one is faster, so it must be better.

So when we observe another rider, we reference what we see into what we know tending to confirmation from our existing cognitive framework. We don’t know what we don’t know so we don’t ’see’ it. Our sight is not a separate infallible system, it needs our mind to interpret the light our eye perceives before we can process an image that we "see".

In order to make monumental change we need an experience that actually destroys our existing beliefs and ‘opens our eyes’ to things we didn’t ‘see’ before. While we naturally layer our experiences as we grow, we tend to only question the most recent layers. The ability to question deeper layers usually requires significant experience free from rational tendencies that confirm our biases. The more we prove the veracity of our cognitive framework through accumulating quantifiable measures the less we actually learn and the more we have to lose.

If you have been a student of riding for a long time, you’ll know that the actual progress in our collective skills is far smaller than our individual progress. This in part is not because we don’t have examples of superior horsemanship, but that we have inferior frameworks to categorize the information we see and we end up reinforcing these constructs rather than breaking them down and building better ones. Even our most talented riders fall back into explaining what they are doing through the framework they were taught even though their skills clearly demonstrate they perform outside the limits of this framework. Teachers who can tear down what we think we know can create better understanding of what is working so that we are not solely dependent on mimicking riders we admire.

Riding is a fabulous enjoyment and even more so in the discovery and pursuit of doing it better. Let us not be blinded by what we see.

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