There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.

–Jiddu Krishnamurti

Long before I joined AERC’s Education Committee, I’ve been a teacher.

I come by it genetically, I think.  My mother was a third grade teacher and my Dad has a gift for sharing ideas and telling stories to illustrate a point. So I combined my passion for horses and teaching by becoming a certified riding instructor during college before realizing that health insurance and a steady income were going to be beneficial to a theoretical ‘grown up.’

But even as my career changed and evolved to what it is today, teaching has been what I love to do. I think part of it is because I am addicted to learning; I sometimes think I got caught in the intellectual curiosity of a 4th grader.  I want to know why and how.

One of my favorite models about learning is the Conscious/Competence matrix, which has been attributed to several different individuals. Never mind that, I think what’s most fascinating is how it fits in with our sport.

We all know that endurance riding has a steep learning curve; I don’t know a single endurance rider, even those with great success, who will not admit to having made dozens of mistakes at the start of their career.  Most of us will admit that we still make mistakes, and sadly, most of these come at the expense of our horse’s well-being and therefore we try hard not to make the same mistake repeatedly.

As we’ve begun formalizing and encouraging members to conduct Endurance Clinics and mentor new riders, one of the phenomena I notice is where riders seem to fit in the below matrix:

The model assumes that we all start out in a new endeavor with what is called “unconscious incompetence.”  [Please remove from your little brain all negative associations with the word ‘incompetence.’ It simply means that we lack a skill or understanding and is not a judgment of character, nor is the term ‘unconscious’ any sort of slam.]  Simply, unconscious incompetence is being in a state of “not knowing what we don’t know.”   Some riders compete in our sport for years in a stage of unconscious incompetence.

Examples in our sport:

  • A rider, brand new to our sport and not realizing how long it takes for tendons and ligaments to harden, and thinking that it is all about ‘the race’ takes their four year old out and conditions it hard, fast and frequently, resulting in a “one season wonder” when the horse ends up getting a suspensory strain at its second ride.
  • A seasoned rider, not realizing the implication of their crooked riding, has a horse who is routinely sore as a result of carrying a less-than-balanced load.
  • Another rider, unaware of their ignorance about trail etiquette, finds themselves ‘chewed out’ more than once about their behavior in competition.
  • A control judge, new to the sport, is uncertain how to treat a metabolically compromised horse at a ride.

Signs that you are having moments in this phase of learning:

  • Someone (or more than one someone) suggests that you should consider riding lessons, or have a chat with your farrier after looking at your horse’s shoeing job (or even suggests you get a new farrier) or that your horse might “need a break” from competition.
  • Your horse is telling you he needs your help to feel better: He is intermittently lame, he refuses to be caught, his heart just isn’t in the job, he’s having behavior problems at rides, or he’s having trouble keeping weight and making heart rate recoveries ‘like he used to.’
  • You cannot figure out why you have such “bad luck” in picking endurance horses after going through several horses in the time that your friends have been competing on a single horse.

Conscious incompetence is typically the result of what my good friend Oprah likes to call “a light bulb moment.”  (Of course, those in denial about their incompetence can stay in the unconscious incompetence stage virtually forever.)

Conscious incompetence begins when you are made aware, or have a realization, that there is something you need to know more about.  Some of these realizations can be self-motivated, sometimes they are the result of an incident.


  • Your horse’s back is sore and you realize you don’t know a thing about saddle fitting and that perhaps it’s time to get some riding lessons so that you can help your horse rather than hinder him during the long miles you compete
  • You hear about a Beyond the Basics Endurance Clinic coming up in your area and decide you want to “up your game” and attend to see what you can learn
  • You end up with heat exhaustion at a ride and realize that you’re going to have to learn how to take better care of yourself in order to take better care of your horse
  • After a treatment scare at a ride, or a pull at the finish, you realize you need to learn more about exercise physiology or electrolytes or sport horse nutrition or hoof balance and care
  • A head control judge takes a new vet aside and explains that there are very specific and important protocols for treatment of often-dehydrated endurance equines
  • Your horse knocks you in the nose, breaking it, as he throws his head in the air in competition and you realize that you are going to need to teach him to travel in a different (and safer) posture down the trail
  • You are new to the sport and you are overwhelmed by everything you need to know about this challenging sport and you are petrified you are going to inadvertently hurt your horse so you seek out information on the AERC website or sign up for an Endurance 101 Clinic

This is where the learning starts, and the stage where I think most healthy endurance riders spend the majority of their time.  And by healthy I mean constantly seeking to learn more.  For me, the most frustrating competitors are those who seem to believe they already know everything while many around them are shaking their head and wishing they would ‘get a clue.’

“Don’t be the rider who gallops all night and never sees the horse that is beneath him” –Jelaluddin Rumi

Conscious competence is where you seek out information to learn new skills and start practicing them.  It takes work to learn a new skill, and some diligence, as well as a sense of humble realization that there is always more to learn.  For example, if you’ve been riding crooked all of your life, or simply been hanging on and riding by the seat of your pants, learning to ride straight and with solid equitation is going to take considerable effort and focus.

The skill is not a habit, it doesn’t come naturally like breathing, and thus the phrase “we know we know.”  We are WORKING at it.

For example, I suffered a fractured pelvic rim in a pretty dramatic fall from a young Ned (yes, I’ve forgiven him). Since that injury, I struggle with riding straight (and standing straight and walking straight and sitting straight).  Left to my own devices, I describe myself as riding toward 11 o’clock rather than noon with my pelvis as I travel down a straight trail.  My body lies to me; it tells me I’m straight, but I’ve learned that that is not the case.  If I focus, and ride toward 1 o’clock with my pelvis, I find I can actually stay straight.  But when I get tired, or lose focus, I go right back to my old position.  I do yoga to work on my symmetry but it is a constant challenge.  I need to be conscious in order to maintain my competence.

A non-horsey friend said to me once – “You’ve been taking lessons forever!  Don’t you know how to ride yet?”  I joked with her that dressage is the art of learning new skills so you can realize that you’re still a horribly sub-standard rider.  However, the brutal truth is that if you’re not learning and you don’t have eyes on the ground, bad habits have snuck, or are sneaking into your equitation.

Other examples of conscious competence:

  • You count strides to stay on your left and right diagonally equally at the trot
  • You set an alarm to remind yourself to electrolyte on trail
  • You write down your conditioning (physiological preparation) and training (what goes on between your horse’s ears to mold his behavior) goals and schedule specific cross-training and conditioning sessions to achieve those goals
  • You check in with someone you trust to double check that your:
    • Body is straight while you’re riding
    • Conditioning strategy makes sense to meet your competition goals
    • Horse has balanced feet for the work that he is doing and his conformation
    • Electrolyte strategy is ideal for a specific ride
    • Saddle is fitted properly
    • Horse is in good weight and that his body condition is appropriate
  • You ask for the ‘other’ lead every time your horse offers to canter, thereby spending equal time on both leads and focusing on your horse’s less-favored lead when you condition and train at home. (Bonus points for doing ring or circle work in canter!)
  • You read up on new rules, new veterinary research, and strategies that others are using to train and condition and consider how they might fit into your own plan

If you’re lucky (and not me!) you end up in an idyllic stage of unconscious competence.  At this point your new skills are a habit; you don’t have to focus on them to do them adequately.  And therefore you’re able to work on new or more challenging skills.

  • You’re able to ride straight and switch diagonals routinely without having to remind yourself
  • You see a subtle change in your horse’s saddle fit and have the skills to address it
  • You read your horse and have a ‘sixth sense’ about what he needs or if today is not his day and you should remove him from competition or give him a rest
  • You glance at a horse’s hoof and can guess with fair certainty how the bony structure inside is aligned

Conscientious endurance riders continually strive to learn more and are never afraid to admit that they need to learn more about a particular issue or have challenges that they are addressing.

If you think you have this endurance thing licked and that you already know all the skills and information you need to succeed, you are probably setting yourself up for a hard fall.  Or a rough or shortened career for your horse.

“They say princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.” -Ben Johnson