Here’s how er­rors can help you iden­tify prob­lems, man­age fail­ure, di­lute per­for­mance anx­i­ety and, ul­ti­mately, ride bet­ter.

EQUUS - - Eq Tack& Gear - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

The other day, I was rid­ing un­der the sud­den scru­tiny of friends who’ve been read­ing my EQUUS ar­ti­cles. And, well … as hard as this might be to be­lieve, I made a mis­take. Ugly er­ror. Dumb ac­tion. Stupid move. It got me think­ing about the value of mis­takes---a sweet ra­tio­nal­iza­tion, of course, but also a true aid to learn­ing.

Ev­ery­one makes mis­takes. The crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tion is be­tween those who learn from their er­rors and those who do not. Mis­takes help us iden­tify weak­nesses, man­age fail­ure, set­tle our pride, di­lute per­for­mance anx­i­ety and test po­ten­tial so­lu­tions. They’re the bedrock of cre­ativ­ity, al­low­ing us to de­velop new ideas. They’re also ef­fec­tive. For­get to keep weight in your heels? One mouth­ful of sand is worth a hun­dred ver­bal prompts.

Be­fore prais­ing the value of er­rors in de­tail, a caveat is in or­der. Horse brains op­er­ate very dif­fer­ently from ours---they have evolved to scan for any po­ten­tial dan­ger and re­act in­stantly. Be­cause of the horse’s weight and power, th­ese de­fen­sive move­ments can be su­per­sized. Nat­u­ral equine

re­ac­tions in­clude kick­ing, bit­ing, bolt­ing and startling; no evil in­tent is in­volved. Where I grew up, we used to say, “Ev­ery dog bites, ev­ery gun shoots and ev­ery horse kicks” as a re­minder that we hu­mans ---and not the dogs, guns or horses---are re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing our­selves safe.

Learn to read sig­nals of an­noy­ance or fear, but re­mem­ber that horses don’t al­ways warn be­fore they act. Be sure you prac­tice ba­sic prin­ci­ples of horse safety be­fore us­ing er­rors as a tool for im­prove­ment.


With proper safe­guards in place, bloop­ers can ig­nite new ideas. Many use­ful in­ven­tions emerged from er­rors: peni­cillin, pacemakers, mi­crowave ovens, rayon, zero-calo­rie sweet­en­ers and x-rays, just to name a few. Monty Roberts fine-tuned his colt-start­ing tech­nique of Join-Up through a se­ries of mis­takes with deer. In ev­ery case, some­one stum­bled on an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery by goof­ing up---then re­al­iz­ing the mis­take had merit.

Too of­ten, we shut down after a bob­ble. We feel the chill of that surly li­brar­ian from third grade tight­en­ing her lips and shak­ing her head. Or we are em­bar­rassed to be im­per­fect in front of our peers. But the best way to meet a

mis­take is to make note of it. What just hap­pened? Why did I do that? What was the re­sult? Later, we can pon­der the slip more deeply. Do I want the horse’s re­sponse to hap­pen again? Do I want it to hap­pen un­der dif­fer­ent con­di­tions? If not, how can I al­ter my be­hav­ior to avoid it in the fu­ture?

Un­in­tended mis­takes fre­quently ap­pear in pat­terns. Some­times the pat­tern is plain. One day you ride a straight line in a light snow, ob­serv­ing your horse’s tracks. You’re sur­prised to see that they drift to the right. You try again, with­out at­tempt­ing to cor­rect the er­ror, and yep, there’s that same drift. As you con­tem­plate the ev­i­dence, you re­call that Scout also drifts right over fences and falls in­ward on right turns. Hmm.

Study the pat­tern as a whole. Is Scout sore on one side? Does he have scar tis­sue or weak mus­cu­la­ture from an old in­jury? Has he lost a shoe? And, ahem, what about you? Is your right leg weaker than your left? Do you ride with less weight in your right leg? Does it creep for­ward at faster gaits? Any of th­ese po­ten­tial so­lu­tions could ex­plain the pat­tern.


Be­cause of their im­por­tance, er­rors are awarded spe­cial pro­cess­ing in the brain. Buried in the me­dial frontal cor­tex---a blob two or three inches be­hind the cen­ter of our fore­heads---is a bun­dle of neu­rons that fire when we make mis­takes. They laze around the rest of the time, wait­ing for their mo­ment of fame. They’re happy when we mess up, and they love to point fin­gers.

Th­ese cells aren’t named yet, so let’s call them “Oops” neu­rons for fun. There we go, can­ter­ing along to the left all per­fect, our nog­gins mon­i­tor­ing be­hav­ior so we don’t do any­thing stupid, when all of a sud­den, ker-bang. Scout shifts to the right lead. The “Oops” neu­rons are de­lighted---they be­gin jumping up and down, point­ing at the mo­tor neu­rons, grin­ning and shout­ing “Hey, look! Aha! Right there! ER­ROR!!”

“Oops” neu­rons dis­tin­guish among var­i­ous types of er­rors. They ac­ti­vate im­me­di­ately when a mis­take pro­duces an un­planned out­come like the lead change. But they op­er­ate at a three-fold de­lay when the er­ror fol­lows neg­a­tive feed­back or un­cer­tainty within our own minds. This dis­tinc­tion in re­ac­tion time helps our brains fig­ure out what went wrong and why.

Once ac­ti­vated, “Oops” neu­rons slow our minds by in­hibit­ing other brain cells and re­duc­ing heart rate. To learn from a bun­gle, we need time to as­sess the prob­lem and change strate­gies. Uh-oh, my horse just switched leads. Why? Oh, my right leg wasn’t ap­ply­ing enough pres­sure to hold him on the left lead. Why not? Maybe the darn thing’s weaker than the left one. Huh! OK, let’s in­crease right leg pres­sure and see what hap­pens. Ah, there we go, he switched back. Now, let’s main­tain that pres­sure in the lower right leg, and wow, the whole leg moved back a smidge. Scout’s can­ter­ing in much bet­ter bal­ance than be­fore, he’s stay­ing on the cor­rect lead, and I feel more sta­ble in the sad­dle. Presto, we’ve just iden­ti­fied a mis­take and de­vel­oped a strat­egy to cor­rect it.

We don’t al­ways suc­ceed this quickly, of course. “Oops” neu­rons slow our brains for a brief mo­ment so we can rec­og­nize an er­ror and try a known re­sponse. If we aren’t aware of a fix, we have to pon­der so­lu­tions later. Thanks to “Oops” neu­rons, our brains are giv­ing us the chance to learn from our lapses. All we have to do is ac­cept the invitation.


As crazy as it sounds, some­times we make mis­takes on pur­pose. In­ten­tional mis­takes let us test po­ten­tial so­lu­tions. (Be­sides, as you clam­ber up spit­ting dirt after a face plant, you can tell on­look­ers you were just test­ing an idea.) Sup­pose Scout con­tin­ues to switch to his left lead even when your leg pres­sures are cal­i­brated per­fectly. You haven’t lo­cated a so­lu­tion from more ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers, and the vet­eri­nar­ian finds no med­i­cal rea­son for Scout’s be­hav­ior.

Pull up an arm­chair and gen­er­ate some ideas. Could he have de­vel­oped a bad habit while your cousin was ex­er­cis­ing him last month? Does he switch leads in both di­rec­tions? Are your hands po­si­tioned evenly? Is your back still weak on one side where you pulled that mus­cle near the belt line? Is this strictly a lead prob­lem, or are other is­sues crop­ping up, too? After he switches leads, does Scout en­joy the rest when you stop to mut­ter curses un­der your breath? And so on.

Now test each pos­si­bil­ity. Watch your cousin ride Scout, and see whether the prob­lem is in­creased or de­creased. Con­sider the num­ber of un­re­quested fly­ing changes he pro­duces in each di­rec­tion. Study a slow-mo­tion video of

They ac­ti­vate when a mis­take pro­duces an un­planned out­come. But they op­er­ate at a three-fold de­lay when the er­ror fol­lows neg­a­tive feed­back or un­cer­tainty within our own minds.

your hands and Scout’s mouth, recorded when the er­ror oc­curred. Go to the gym and com­pare how much weight you can lift with each side of the low row. Look for lat­eral shifts at trot, walk and re­verse gaits. Seek mis­takes ac­tively. One way to an­a­lyze and con­trol a prob­lem is to try to make it hap­pen.

Once it does, some cre­ativ­ity can solve it. Most peo­ple as­sume cre­ativ­ity is like magic---ei­ther you have it or you don’t. But, in fact, we can all learn to think cre­atively. Let your mind wan­der, free-as­so­ciate un­re­lated links, crank out analo­gies, take a walk while the puz­zle sim­mers, jot down vague no­tions. Even the wildest ideas are fair game in cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing. Then switch to trial and er­ror to test your ideas, start­ing with the ones that are safest, sim­plest and most likely to work. If the first ideas fail, try oth­ers. Even­tu­ally, you’ll stum­ble on a so­lu­tion.


“Oops” neu­rons are pretty cool. But there’s more. Another set of cells lo­cated nearby go on alert when pos­i­tive feed­back is re­duced. Let’s call them the “Where’s my treat?” neu­rons. Pos­i­tive feed­back in­cludes any­thing de­sir­able: For a hu­man, it could be praise, recog­ni­tion, friend­ship, blue rib­bons, im­prove­ment, cold wa­ter on a hot sum­mer day. For a horse, it might in­clude treats, strokes, sooth­ing words, re­lax­ation, green grass or a re­turn to the barn.

“Where’s my treat?” neu­rons fire up when a stan­dard re­ward is sud­denly re­duced. We are praised for our solid can­ter ev­ery day, then one day the praise doesn’t come. What are we do­ing wrong? Why is there a change in feed­back? “Hey,” th­ese neu­rons say, “we de­serve our treat!” They sig­nal our brains to al­ter be­hav­ior so we can try some­thing dif­fer­ent in an ef­fort to get the usual re­ward. In ef­fect, the “Where’s my treat?” neu­rons are say­ing, “Look, just hold­ing the lead isn’t enough any­more. We’ve got to put more on the ta­ble, guys. How about a steady lead plus a soft round back?” In other words, when the brain per­forms the same ac­tion re­peat­edly, it ex­pects the same re­sults. If the re­sults change, it sus­pects the ac­tion must have changed as well.

“Where’s my treat?” neu­rons are ac­ti­vated only after sev­eral sub­stan­dard re­wards. That means we can bol­lix things up once in a while with­out de­stroy­ing months of train­ing. Handy, huh? It’s almost like a neu­ro­log­i­cal ba­sis for equine for­give­ness. Cre­ative train­ers of­ten test new ideas on their horses; when it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, there’s usu­ally lit­tle down­side as long as the in­ef­fec­tive ap­proach is aban­doned soon. Horses for­give and try again. They’re seek­ing pat­terns, too.


The brain has spe­cial neu­rons that help rec­og­nize er­rors, but how does it use the feed­back from those mud­dles to al­ter fu­ture be­hav­ior? Part of the an­swer lies with dopamine, a chem­i­cal re­leased in con­nec­tion with re­wards.

Learn­ing from mis­takes is re­lated in two ways to the amount of dopamine in the brain. First, pos­i­tive feed­back boosts dopamine re­lease, while neg­a­tive feed­back re­duces it. Un­con­sciously, we use dopamine to guide our gray mat­ter to­ward im­proved per­for­mance ei­ther by seek­ing the pos­i­tive or avoid­ing the neg­a­tive.

Sec­ond, av­er­age dopamine lev­els vary among nor­mal in­di­vid­u­als. Peo­ple with more dopamine usu­ally learn best through pos­i­tive feed­back---praise, suc­cess, val­i­da­tion---and of­ten have ex­tro­verted per­son­al­i­ties. Their brains are highly sen­si­tive to re­wards but rel­a­tively in­dif­fer­ent to er­rors. In popular

par­lance, this is the happy-go-lucky sort who falls off a pony at the walk and shrugs. To learn more from their mis­takes, th­ese rid­ers should at­tend to er­rors more care­fully and con­tem­plate var­ied so­lu­tions over time.

Peo­ple at the other end of the healthy spec­trum have less dopamine cir­cu­lat­ing near their er­ror neu­rons. They no­tice mis­takes eas­ily and of­ten learn best by avoid­ing neg­a­tive feed­back. Here we have the rider who posts on the wrong di­ag­o­nal for one step, blushes deeply, and vows never to miss a di­ag­o­nal again. Small fail­ures mo­ti­vate low­dopamine types to learn, but too of­ten by shun­ning ac­tiv­i­ties that could lead to a fault. In­stead, th­ese rid­ers should ac­cept er­rors as blips of in­for­ma­tion, al­ter be­hav­ior ac­cord­ingly, and move on. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween learn­ing from a mis­take and dwelling on it.

Seek­ing the pos­i­tive and avoid­ing the neg­a­tive are ef­fec­tive feed­back strate­gies for all of us, but one or the other might work best for you. Pun­ish­ment---although it is one form of neg­a­tive feed­back---is rarely use­ful for hu­mans or horses. Some­times it pro­duces the short-term be­hav­ior we want, but only at the long-term price of anger, frus­tra­tion and fear.

Some­times blun­ders are sim­ply blun­ders. Your hand catches a rein, that rogue foot drops a stir­rup, a hip slips or an el­bow flops. And the same is true for your horse: He steps on a ground pole one day, turns too tight around a bar­rel or misses a jumping dis­tance. Th­ese are not al­ways tests or ideas or lessons; some­times they’re just plain old gar­den va­ri­ety flubs with­out pat­tern or mean­ing. Best thing to do is ig­nore ’em and try again. Both horses and rid­ers need the free­dom to fail once in a while with­out a fed­eral case be­ing made out of it.

Bot­tom line? Stay safe, but feel free to make a mis­take now and then. I’ll keep you company.

“Where’s my treat?” neu­rons fire up when a stan­dard re­ward is sud­denly re­duced.

“Oops” neu­rons dis­tin­guish among var­i­ous types of er­rors.

Once ac­ti­vated, “Oops” neu­rons slow our minds by in­hibit­ing other brain cells and re­duc­ing heart rate. To learn from a bun­gle, we need time to as­sess the prob­lem and change strate­gies.

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