How often have you heard someone say, "Practice makes perfect"? I think we can all agree that success does take practice, but I think the way that we practice is often not considered as much as it should be. So does practice make perfect or does practice make permanent? I believe that the only way practice would make perfect is if you are practicing perfectly.
Now let me start off by saying that mistakes happen and there is no way to fully avoid them. In fact, they are a big part of the learning process, but practice and learning are two totally different processes. It wouldn't be a good idea to go out and practice something you are not confident with, right? Well, unfortunately, this happens a lot. Think about it this way... there is a reason that you had your learners permit for several months before you were able to go out driving by yourself. Most of the important points of driving were hopefully explained to you during the first few times you sat behind the wheel, but think of the many times your instructor corrected a wrong instinct or reminded you to do something you had forgotten as you developed this new skill. Now put this into riding terms... When I first teach a rider how to ride a leg yield, for example, I have them ride down the quarterline, apply a soft inner leg using their outside rein for straightness and their inside rein for flexion. We start slow and deliberate so the horse and rider can create good muscle memory and learn a correct feel. Sounds simple enough, but while they are repeating the exercise, I am constantly watching the riders aids and the horses reaction to help correct the many possible mistakes that occur while learning. Even though the rider begins to learn what is correct and how to correct faults, they are still very much in the learning stage. If this rider were to go home and began practicing leg yields, would they become perfect just by repetition? Most likely not. Most of us have found out that horses are very good at tricking us! What it feels like and what it looks like can vary wildly at times! This is why having a knowledgeable coach with you during learning phases is very important. Once an exercise or movement becomes second nature, you can go out and confidently practice them.
Consider the way you practice other aspects of the horse and handler relationship as well. Correct lunging habits, ground manners and traveling procedures are imperative to a confident, successful partnership. If your horses ground manners need improvement, consider scheduling a lunge or ground lesson, so that you can begin to form new habits to practice. If you don't have a set plan in mind before you begin a session, it is very easy to become a reactive handler instead of a proactive one. The definition of proactive is being in control of a situation by making things happen or by preparing for possible future issues. If you have had your horse for a while, you probably are aware of his typical reactions, so you should use that to your advantage by practicing how you will react during future issues. For example, if my horse tends to get sticky when he is nervous, I can practice applying leg as soon as I feel an issue begin. It is also important to be aware of your natural instinct as a rider, so that you can avoid future pitfalls. If you tend to get grippy when you feel nervous, practice concentrating on softening those grippy spots on a relaxing day, so you train the ability to do so for the future.
I believe that the most important area that is impacted by the way you practice is in regards to confidence. I often hear riders say that even though they were scared to ride, they did it any ways. This can be a very subjective topic. I am in no way saying that every time you feel a little nervous that you shouldn't ride, but a lot of riders find themselves feeling scared to be in the saddle more often than they feel confident to be there. Horses are powerful animals and their abilities deserve to be respected, so feeling nervous on a cold, windy day or after a big spook is totally normal, but if you are consistently nervous on your horse, you are practicing that state of mind. Fear affects your ability to relax, concentrate and communicate clearly. If you are working though a bit of riding anxiety or have been fearful for a long time, there are many ways to improve your confidence and to begin practicing new habits that will stay with you during even the spookiest of situations! Although horses cannot read our mind, they are very perceptive and need a confident leader in order to feel confident themselves. You do not need to be a naturally confident, "take charge" rider to give your horse confident leadership. There are many ways to build confident habits and reactions that will transfer to every horse you meet.
Next time you work with your horse, take a look at the habits you are practicing, because you are practicing whether you realize it or not and if you always practice perfectly then maybe practice CAN make perfect!