The making of an Expert

To learn it more deeply, teach it.

Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’ is one of my favourite books. It is a goldmine of tips on developing skill. It debunks the myth that talent is born. Instead, demonstrating through examples of the author’s research, how talent is developed. Ten thousand hours of deep practice is the core premise of becoming an expert.

What is deep practice?

Deep practice involves struggle. It is a cycle of paying attention to errors and practicing again by making a correction in the quest for a better attempt.

The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.

Daniel Coyle

The theory is pertinent to any skill being developed. We often classify our skill level based on years of experience. However, this is not a true measure of skill. The amount of time spent gaining experience is only worthwhile if the practice involves extending your capabilities by making mistakes and being particular about correcting errors.

I have posted previously with some thoughts on how we can be misled into discouragement. Expert information is powerful and let’s be honest, it’s something that some experts try to protect for their own security. We need to debunk some myths on that journey:

  • Years of ‘experience’ by itself does not make an expert. The willingness to struggle over and over learning from mistakes is the key to becoming an expert. Reaching the top level of talent takes about 10,000 hours of this process.
  • It is not a linear process. Change follows a very chaotic pattern which is mostly hidden from view in the recounting of how people reached success.

In Daniel Coyle’s book he has researched some of the talent ‘hotbeds’ where exceptional skill is mastered; the soccer schools of Brazil, the tennis academy in Moscow, the writing of the Bronte sisters. The author has found similarities in all of these skill incubators – Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching.

Ignition is the energy, passion and commitment. It is the motivational fuel to make the struggle worthwhile. In my own experience of running a grassroots vaulting club, the ignition is absolutely critical. It is the first part of developing skill. For our club to begin, we looked to the top performers to provide our ignition. They were the inspiration where we could see the future possibilities. Our vaulting club was started in 2014, the year that the New Zealand vaulters competed in the World Equestrian Games in France.

The other part of the developing exceptional talent is the coaching. One important skill of the coach is that they are absolutely committed to the development of their students.

One does not become a master coach by accident.

Daniel Coyle

The skills of master coaches are not grandiose and a mere radiance of their presence. This is why a highly acclaimed expert is often not the most successful coach. Master coaches have the following similarities:

  • Listening far more than they talk.
  • Older and reserved.
  • Less inclined to give inspiring speeches and pep talks.
  • Spending the most time offering small and deliberate alterations to student practice.

Our Real Life Experience – the making of a vaulter

The journey of my daughter, Jasmyn, is a great example of some of the concepts in this post. Our vaulting journey began in 2014 when we attended Equidays and Jasmyn met the Kapiti Vaulting Club team that had represented New Zealand at the World Equestrian Games. In this video Jasmyn is trying vaulting for the first time as part of the youth camp at Equidays.

From then on Jasmyn was hooked, the ignition had been started! She had two collaborators to help her in this journey – me (Mum) providing the resources to allow her to practice, and her younger sister who was equally keen to do gymnastics on horseback.

Then came five years of practice. Jasmyn wasn’t afraid of making mistakes and trying again. In fact she had printed out a saying and posted it on her wall.

Don’t be afraid to fail

(jasmyn’s wall quote)

That quote served us a few times in our struggles and suffering of major setbacks. We tried to create a financially stable club – we failed at that, but continued using our own resources to keep vaulting and train others. We were privileged to be given a trained horse, but he had difficulties and we ended up having to retire him early. There were consequences for our lack of funding and after a few tries, we decided that it was not viable for us to run camps. But we took every opportunity that came our way, from performing at local events to attending the vaulting camps and club competitions at the Kapiti vaulting club and eventually joining them to perform at Equidays .

Our little club that was operated from our home barn gained a presence in the online vaulting world with videos of our training sessions on Muriwai beach. This attracted some highly experienced European vaulters to stay with us while travelling in New Zealand, providing us with expert coaching. Our lovely 18.1hh horse, Tiny, gifted to us from the Kapiti Vaulting club, was certainly a catalyst on this vaulting adventure.

After sending Tiny on to live a more relaxed life with a new family, we only had our smaller Clydesdale crossbred horse, Hugo, to carry on our performances. As Hugo became slower with age we even had our little 13.2hh pony in some events. It was not ideal, but Jasmyn and our small group of vaulters continued despite the barriers, and driven by the inspiration of the Kapiti Vaulting club and the vaulters who had came to coach us. The calendar of the 2014 performance at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France was still hanging up in our hay barn beside the vaulting barrel and a wall mirror for perfecting those moves on the barrel. Our skills at performing to music were improving as we showed up at more events doing our own performances and watching other performers, learning from mistakes and also successes. We studied what others were doing, and also developed our own flavour and creative skills. The following video shows the girls practicing one of the performances, as they did judiciously for hours on the barrel in the barn. It was later performed on Tiny at his last vaulting event.

In 2017 we purchased a big warmblood called Chico to replace Tiny, but we were sadly misled in this purchase, costing us quite a bit of money for a horse that was not suitable for vaulting – in fact he was a rehabilitation case and we ended up exhausting our finances trying to help him. The vaulting club pretty much ground to a halt in that phase. We gave a big push to reinvigorate it by offering vaulting barrel lessons, but that didn’t take off. Another fail.

Jasmyn kept going though. While our vaulting club had come to a demise, she looked further afield, setting her sights on making the New Zealand team that was aiming to compete at the Vaulting World Championships for Juniors in 2019. At 14 years old she was invited to Kapiti, with a host family arranged, and she went to train with the club in their build up to the World Champs. She had some catching up to do, not having done canter vaulting in a while and having started vaulting a few years later than most of the team. The determination was there and she was selected to the New Zealand team, culminating in her international vaulting debut. Jasmyn went to compete in Europe in 2019, with only a few chances to practice before this competition on a completely unfamiliar horse (and she exercises her motto with perfection here, keeping going after a fail).

Jasmyn had been an integral part of the Waimauku Vaulting Club, teaching others at clinics and lessons over the years. We went on that journey with her, keeping the motivation around for her to reach upwards. Her vaulting continues now through the Kapiti Vaulting Club. There are still momentus barriers from our little island in the Pacific where there is no formal competition, and the recent world pandemic state has isolated us even further from aiming for another achievement. But maybe it’s a little ‘hotbed’ for vaulting here in New Zealand? The ingredients are here and the struggles and failures are certainly real. Perhaps that makes us all that more determined to get there in the end.

Even the most creative skills—especially the most creative skills—require long periods of clumsiness.

Daniel COYLE

Honing into your Intuition

One of the hardest things to overcome in training your horse, is feeling like you’ve got to be ‘up there’ with the rest of them. When you succumb to the pressure of taking shortcuts or forcing something to happen, it never seems to work out for the best in the long run.

I have a couple of ‘rules’ to try and stop myself from falling prey to this human tendency.

  1. If I cannot show up with the right mindset for my horse, then I need to take a day off riding and horse training. This includes being too tired, because that can be a minefield, one minute you have patience and the next minute a short fuse reduces you to the epitome of what you know is the wrong way to train your horse.
  2. Always falling back on my intuition. If it doesn’t feel right then stop doing it (no matter who is giving me instruction).

I recently broke both of these rules. There are many horse trainers who won’t tell you about their negative experiences. This does create a sense of awe for their competence from us mere mortals. BUT really, behind the scenes, there are many negative things going on. The key to a good horse trainer is that there is growth from those experiences.

Advice should always be put through our intuition filter. Firstly, we need to put the information into perspective – does it follow our principles and objectives in what we want to achieve. Secondly, we may not be at the stage where the suggestions will be useful. Thirdly, the negative experiences have probably been omitted to make it seem like the process was more simple than it actually was.

I’m finding that even though I believe in my own horse training abilities, and I have the desire to keep learning and growing, I can get side-tracked by self-doubt at times. Staying the course of this journey with my horse is a test of my discipline to not let an overly anxious ego get in the way. Yes, I want to prove that I can do it. And No, I don’t like showing mistakes or negative experiences. However, it is the way that we learn. It comes with the journey. We are where we are right now for a reason. A person who is on the road to self-mastery will appreciate the downs as well as the ups.

Take it one step at a time, and look for those small improvements. Those are the celebrations. And when things turn out in way that wasn’t planned or expected, there will be a silver lining in there somewhere. We just have to look.

Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.

John Wooden – Hall of Fame American Baseball Coach


Change is not linear progression. It looks like this (yes I drew that myself!).

Acknowledging this messy and chaotic way of development is hard for us when we are wired for perfection. This can make us give up! Others tend not to divulge this process as they work their way through something, because it can be interpreted as failure. People might try to step in and help us when they see this happening…not always actually helping, but sometimes even hindering us. So, don’t be afraid of mistakes and setbacks. They are a normal part of growth, a frustrating part, but nonetheless necessary.

People take the longest possible paths, digress to numerous dead ends, and make all kinds of mistakes. Then historians come along and write summaries of this messy, nonlinear process and make it appear like a simple, straight line.

Dean Kamen

Here’s where I confess my setbacks. Well, I’m running through a succession of them at the moment. From going back to a basic paddock for training (having had to say goodbye to my sweat and tears hand-built sand arena at the farm I have just sold), to a number of unexpected training setbacks with the horses. It has been a lump of them at once and that has dashed my confidence a bit. However, I have pulled some strength out by remembering what has been achieved already. I can look back and be proud of those things which refill my cup as I go into tackling the difficulties I am facing.

This is our new place. A block of grazing land. My former barn and mud-free covered pens has been replaced by a couple of shipping containers with some tape for a makeshift pen on the grass. The electric fencing is a bit light in power and the horses have been breaking through frequently (daily for Gino the chestnut) into the lush grass. Sugary grass = wild ponies.

We’ve been taking it slow in the training department. I like to give the horses time to adjust to new surroundings. It’s been a big shift for all of us, and a break was quite welcome on my part too. But now, weeks in, I’m getting back to some sort of routine. Lily, the black mare, has had to cope with another 5 mares taking the attention of her boys in the next door paddock. She’s been policing the interactions, but Gino is quite smitten with some over the fence smooching. I don’t know if this is the reason that Lily has been a bit shifty and moody. I’ve had a hard time catching her lately. This seemed to intensify after I took her out on the weekend in the horse float (trailer for those outside NZ). She is not keen to get in the float, and it took me a while to cajole her into it on our way there. The methods for asking her to keep going forward (as advised by an experienced trainer) would not necessarily be too harsh when used with most horses, but she is a very sensitive horse. After this incident, I have spent days training her again to be caught with the halter. She had decided to show me in a big way that some trust was damaged. I could approach without the halter and feed and pick her hooves out, but as soon as I came up with a halter she bolted around the paddock, determined to outrun me despite the sweat it was causing her (unusual for Lily as she conserves her energy quite wisely). It just goes to show the level that she is able to communicate with me. It was all about the halter.

I’ve also come to realise that I know my own horses very well, and sometimes I downplay my own intuition when I’m taking advice from someone who seems to have a better skills. Unfortunately my penchant to defer to others does cost me time lost if the method is not suitable for my horse and I now have to undo more issues. Eventually things will get back to normal with patience. We’ve had hurdles before that have been overcome but it has to be in the time frame of the horse. Often we don’t know the agenda behind other people’s actions. You can only take a situation for how it affects your horse and what you are prepared to deal with as consequences.

My main goal is to enjoy my time with the horses. They are an expensive and time consuming hobby. There is no point in being on someone else’s timeline or agenda. This is my hobby, my money spent, my recreational activity. It needs to fit my agenda only, which is to develop a confident horse and a trusting partnership, taking the time it takes on my availability. I’m okay dealing with setbacks – they are not failures of my horsemanship. It’s part of the process.

Overcoming Disruption

One of the most difficult things to navigate in life, I have found, are disruptive people. They use all manner of tactics to implement their disruption. There are those who become involved in building something together, allowing you to depend on them and then withdraw, often without explanation and if one is given it is to assign blame on your part. Then there are others who will belittle and criticise your efforts to develop and grow, either covertly or sometimes even overtly. And then the ultimate disrupters are those who create obstacles and barriers to slow down your progress or even halt it. The latter would be referred to without question as bullying, but belittling also has an element of bullying and so does the use of withdrawl in terms of creating an uneven power balance and the effect of disrupting progress.

My cheeky pony, Toby, came up to me yesterday and bit me on the bum playfully (he didn’t leave a mark). It had been raining and the three horses were excitable and wanting to run around. I chased him away. He went straight over to my mare, Lily, and bit her on the bum. She was not impressed either, although slightly more receptive than I was, offering a bite back to his neck and a stamp of her foot. If only it was that easy to overcome disruptive people!

The key to managing disruptive people is to remove the effects of their tactics. A strong sense of self is required to move ahead without taking personal objection to these tactics. It is common for these tactics to work because of our social structure and high dependence on others for validation. It can literally break us down when we don’t have enough sources of validation. Disruptive people themselves are often seeking validation but they do not use a healthy means of attaining it through merit and mutual support. Instead they want to shortcut the process, usually because of some form of entitlement, and gain validation through means of power over others. Gaining power over others in an unhealthy way is by diminishing others to gain status, rather than earning status by gaining respect.

Typical traits of people who are disruptive include:

  • lack of empathy
  • excessive needs for admiration and being treated as special
  • difficulty with attachment and dependency
  • seeing their needs as priority and failing to acknowledge others needs
  • fixed mindsets and envy

The most effective way of removing the effects of their tactics is to remove the disruptive person themselves from your sphere of orbit. Often times disruptive people will play on the use of pity to enable them to repeat their process again and again. They will also use tactics such as gaslighting, a technique that denies and twists the perspective in order to cause you to doubt yourself. For example, giving a cruel message and then saying it was a joke. Another example is blatantly denying something happened. Blameshifting is another tactic that disruptive people use in order to avoid responsibility and accountability for their actions. They will often have a severe reaction to your reaction to their initial behaviour. For example, a disruptive person may fail to show up for something important, and then instead of apologising they get annoyed or withdraw when you bring up your disappointment, as well as include reasons for their behaviour that were because of you. “You didn’t tell me….” etc.

In circumstances when you have to deal with disruptive people, it can only be said that you need to get VERY THICK SKIN. Disruptive people try hard to disrupt and it can feel like an onslaught and a never ending battle. Often these people will be very conscious about hiding their disruptive behaviour and their external image will be well crafted to look saintly. Some ways to address it can be to give them minor or few responsibilities so that they do not have the ability to disrupt important things. You can also accept their need for superficial recognition by providing flattery and compliments in higher quantities (as cheesy as that sounds). Ask for their opinions (where you may be able to follow their guidance) and be sparing about offering your opinions to them. From their perspective, their opinion is the only one that matters, so don’t get caught in a trap of giving out information that will be later used against you. The most important factor is not to give up on your goals. Look for ways around the disruptive person to reach your objectives. Eventually, they will tire of disrupting and move onto an easier target.

See the light at the end of the tunnel and keep moving towards it!

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 5

Online Competition

March – mid June 2021

Pas de Deux Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot),Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter between obstacles)

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area (40mx20m) with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Entries for a Pas de Deux (pairs) competition , the fifth virtual competition, have now opened. Follow the facebook page for updates .

Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Entries are closing on June 14th 2021 11:59pm NZT. You will be added to the mailing list for notification of competitions.

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 4

Online Team Competition

January 2021

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot),Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter between obstacles) and Novice level with walk and canter in obstacles and canter between obstacles.

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Entries for a team competition , the fourth virtual competition, have now opened. Follow the facebook page for updates .

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with experienced judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest and see course walk videos for competition 4 (without any obligation to enter). Entries are closing on January 11th 2021 11:59pm NZT. You will be added to the mailing list for notification of competitions.

Impulsion Revisited

My horse, Lily, and I have been investigating the concept of impulsion. This word is part of the “Training Scale” and seems to have different meanings to different people. It is possibly one of the most disputed terms alongside “On the Bit”.

So, beginning on this journey, I have taken a deep dive into the interpretation. I am not wrapped up in FEI Dressage and therefore what is judged in that discipline does not have any particular allure to me. My focus is on training a working and pleasure horse that is nice to ride and uses their body musculature and movement in a way that is beneficial. In Working Equitation impulsion is also judged. My confusion in the term really came from the departure between the FEI Dressage concept of suspension as the interpretation of impulsion and the more literal concept in Working Equitation dressage somewhat more aligned to thrust. In the latter dressage definition it is described as the “desire to move forward, elasticity of steps, suppleness of back, engagement of hindquarters.”

Previously, I have used the word “spring” to describe impulsion. This may be one interpretation under the suspension concept but I’m now revisiting the use of that word as perhaps being too narrow. Literally in English, an impulse is a thrust, a push; a sudden force that impels, an induced motion. It implies that the stored energy (which is also gathered in suspension) is used to provide the thrust of the motion.

Now the big question. Can you have impulsion in walk?

Nuno Oliviera says that impulsion is necessary at all gaits. The German Training Scale implies that it is only present at the suspensory gaits, trot and canter.

“If your horse goes from walk to trot without changing the head and neck position, the walk had good impulsion.”

Nuno Oliviera

Looking from a perspective that is not a judging concept, it would seem that walk can have impulsion. We want the thrust to be carrying rather than just pushing, and therefore in an upwards forward direction. Walk steps can store energy and have a variable thrust power.

Is “power” a good idea to carry around in regards to impulsion?

The limited exposure that I have had to a feel of “impulsion” or my idea of “power” is recognisable in the walk. It also then seems to translate into the upper gaits. To me, at walk it feels more bouncy. That does give an idea of springs and suspension, but more like the suspension on a vehicle that is dissipating the energy rather than taking off into flight. On a horse that energy seems to be moved into the back and wither area. Classical concepts suggest that the energy goes through the riders body as well as into the neck of the horse to provide lift. The energy travels through the riders hands to the reins and bit/jaw of the horse and then back in a circuit to be released in the next step.

I am noticing some change in this area in Lily, by experimenting with this concept of impulsion. As Nuno Oliviera described, the transition from walk to trot is getting smoother, and she is placing her hind feet down a little longer to initiate the thrust. The change in her wither and neck position is visibly moving toward carriage therefore she has less tendency to lift herself by leveraging her neck and shoulders, instead letting the hind quarters provide the power.

I must admit that working on impulsion has been the most frustrating concept for me so far. At one point, I felt like I was ruining the relationship with my horse because I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had to drop it from my agenda for a few weeks, rethinking a strategy for approaching it. When I came back to it again, I put some goals into my riding, to initiate a lighter feeling with my seat. I also found information from the Ritter Dressage online sessions to be useful for techniques in keeping the horses feet on the ground longer in order to generate more uphill thrust.

Here are some of the latest clips of where we are currently in this journey with working equitation obstacles. We are still needing more flow in our trot transition (this may not be the best example that I have taken) but the walk steps have become a little more bouncy and upright as opposed to shuffling her feet. It looks a bit less obvious here than it feels riding her. Lily is starting to “get it” and that is a great feeling.

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 3

Online Competition

October 2020

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot),Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter) and new to this competition will be a Novice level with walk, trot, and canter in some obstacles and between obstacles.

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Follow the facebook page for updates.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with NZ judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest and see course walk videos for competition 3 (without any obligation to enter). Entries are closing on October 19th 2020 11:59pm NZT. You will be added to the mailing list for notification of competitions.

Injuries and Irritations

I usually teach a lesson on Saturday morning but this morning instead I am at the computer reflecting on the up and down world with horses.

Four out of five of the horses at our property have either a lameness or injury type of irritation. Our little pony, Toby, who is normally the lesson pony has decided that he’s not entirely happy with a request to trot with a rider on the lunge, and even less so to canter. He has been making this clear for quite sometime, but being an ever hopeful human as many of us are, I just wanted to put it down to attitude. I mean he’s always had a very firm mind of his own and has really taught us the most about horsemanship. That is, getting the horse to buy into your ideas. It seems that for a small minority of horses, operant conditioning is not enough. From observing his manner over years, Toby has higher than average intelligence for a horse and he is a true blue opportunist. It’s a constant teaching cycle with him.

So, I wasn’t seeing with 100% accuracy what he was letting me know, that is, until I noticed with my own eyes the back muscle atrophy. After a ride the muscle would sink into a dent in his back from supporting the rider either with or without a saddle (ridden more often in a bareback pad than in a saddle). The muscle needed to be gently worked with exercise in order to recover, so I continued lunging without a rider and long reining asking for a posture over his back that would support the muscle. However, a couple of weeks later he didn’t want to bend to the left and seemed a bit stiff in the body on the right rein as well. Not lame and happy to scream around the paddocks. But in circle work he was irritated. What could be wrong with this hardy little pony?

Looking back, he’s always been tender in the lumbar region. He would buck at the canter transition originally when we first got him. He objected with a buck if he took a tight corner (such as barrel racing) or the rider placed weight in the lumbar region. But for the most part he has been quite pleasant to ride, especially for someone who knows him well and has enough strategies to encourage his willingness. The muscle atrophy and difficulty bending however is a new development.

After palpitating his back, it is the area around the ribs close to the flank where he is sensitive. The muscle atrophy is difficult to see with a heavy winter coat.
We played around with using wraps to see if that helps him engage the hindquarters. I really did not notice a difference when lunging with the wraps on (whereas for another horse it has been useful). He seemed to enjoy chilling out while I fussed over him giving some gentle massage and Masterton method ‘wiggles’ for help with his tight areas.

My suspicion is that he is irritated by a gelding scar which is now, at 14 years of age, causing imbalances in connective tissue and musculature his body. The severing of the nerves during that procedure has been found to produce neuromas when the nerves attempt to regenerate into scar tissue. Since there has been irritation there ever since we have had Toby, this makes sense as an avenue to investigate.

In the meantime we will continue exercising in a manner that is less irritating with straight lines and good posture and I will report back on his progress. In my next blogs I may delve into some of the other issues that I am in the midst of rehabilitating with the horses. These can also be found on Facebook under pages created for each horse if you are interested in following our progress.
See the following pages on Facebook:

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 2

Online Competition

July 2020

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter) and new to this competition will be a Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot)

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Follow the facebook page for updates.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with NZ judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest now (with no obligation to compete) for the course walk videos with Maree McAteer. The entry form is submitted after you have filmed your videos and uploaded to YouTube (by 27th July 2020 11:59PM NZT).