Conscious and Unconscious Competence

Please can you tell me more about the levels of conscious and unconscious competence?

There are four levels to this:

1. Unconscious incompetence—You don’t know what you don’t know.

2. Conscious incompetence—You are very aware of what you don’t know.

3. Conscious competence—You are very aware of what you do know.

4. Unconscious competence—you can use your knowledge without thinking about it.

I understand that this fourth level is also ‘instinctive riding’  but thinking about this and applying the aids: Does there come a point where this limits you as a rider and a trainer?

I don’t think so.

The best rides come when I am not thinking about my (or the horse's) every move. It happens. It flows. It just ‘is’. The myriad of adjustments are made without conscious thought.

At a clinic, I once rode an 8 yo Lippizaner, who’d had no-one else on her back, apart from her owner. The owner asked me to ride her and assess what the horse was doing when she rode her. I walked and trotted her and did a couple of turns and circles. I could hear murmurings from the owner and the next rider waiting by the gate. I stopped the mare and her owner said: “What were you doing to get her to go like that? I couldn't see you doing anything.”

If I were a natural rider my answer would probably have been that I wasn’t doing anything. But the owner had asked for analytical feedback so I was very aware that the mare was ‘trying me out’. She was looking for my weaknesses and she was looking for them in the same places that she knew she'd find them in her owner. She was consciously going through her own check list. After she'd run through it twice and not found the chinks she was looking for she softened and began letting me direct her. There were no visible goings on, but boy was she giving me a workout. Individual muscles and groups were firing off all over the place.

I couldn't think as fast as my muscles were reacting, which is when riding becomes ‘instinctive.’ Yes, I've had to learn those reactions, but they are so well wired in now that I don't have to consciously think: Horse has done A; therefore I must counter it with B. It became a game of point, counterpoint that didn't even show as an visible resistance,  I was feeling her tighten a muscle and I tightened (or released) in response the muscle/s necessary.

If you apply the aids without thinking then you are not aware of what you are doing?

‘Without thinking’ it isn't a ‘thoughtless’ action. Maybe ‘processing speed’ would be a better description. If we compare it to computers it may make more sense. A fibre optic internet connection processes information far quicker than standard broadband (or if you’re old enough to remember Dial-up!).

As a rider, I have to logically, progressively and unconsciously think about what am asking the horse to do, his response (quality or lack of) and my next action to his reaction. When this thought process become conscious, it also becomes laborious, which is why when we ‘try’ to do something we often fail in what we were attempting to create.

When thought comes to the conscious mind it becomes a left brain analytical thing where the thought is processed in sequence. When it stays in the unconscious mind, it becomes right brain holographic. It processes the ‘wholeness’ of the input.

If you are used to instinctive riding can you analyse what you are doing enough to find the solution to this particular horse. Would you not need to become conscious of what you are doing at some point to take your skills to a new level?

If you were a true natural you would instinctively find the right response anyway. I used to be a natural rider until I suffered a severe head injury caused by a fall from a horse. I had to relearn how to ride. I knew ‘what’ to do, but could not tell my body how to do it. Like the people who now come to me for help, who were not born natural riders, but are striving to become natural riders, we make mistakes. We bring the thought process to the front and analyse, sometimes for the good and the new process gets wired in, sometimes for the bad and we get stuck in ‘trying’ mode for awhile.

For unconscious competence there seems, from what you are saying (unless I have got it wrong) to still be a thought process going on analysing what the horse is doing. Consciously aware of what the horse is doing?

Yes, though I suppose there may be a better term for it. The rider is thinking, but on a subliminal level. I wrote something similar about Formula 1 racing drivers earlier in the year. Scientific studies have shown that they drive in an ‘unconscious’ state (not literally!). So much of the information that the car relays is ‘known’ to them that they don't have to physically be aware of it. They ‘know’ where the car is on the track, they ‘know’ how it's performing, they ‘know’ when to change gear/brake etc. This leaves them to consciously think about where the nearest driver is to them, what their race strategy should be, etc.

Or are you talking about the rider not even thinking about what the horse is doing and just reacting without paying much attention to the horse?

There are probably only so many evasions / resistances / defences that a horse can show, so with time these become programmed into a rider's brain and the solution / reaction is triggered quicker than the thought process. There is a something to be said for using visualisation techniques as science has proven that by consciously thinking about performing an activity a person is actually forming pathways in the brain—just make sure they are good visualisations!

How unconscious is unconscious competence?

Re: the F1 drivers; Not as unconscious as, perhaps, the word suggests. It is a state where ‘processing’ much of the input is done without (conscious) thought because certain actions are now ‘programmed’ into your body’s computer and you react automatically.

Have a question of your own?
Please use the email link in the left sidebar—or the address on the Lessons page.


If your browser doesn’t open your email client, click here)

Classical Dressage Notebook

© 1998 -2017 All rights reserved.
The ‘3 Black Horses’ logo and the ‘email’  logo are trademarks of Classical Dressage Notebook