Unconscious Incompetence and Wilful Ignorance

I was recently talking to a life coach about an interesting theory known as the four stages of competence. A subject highly related to the practice of horsemanship. I won’t go into great details here about all the stages of competence, but want to focus specifically on the first stage – Unconscious Incompetence.

Every horseperson goes through this stage at the start of their journey. But the tragedy is that a great majority of horse people (amateur horse owners as well as professional trainers and instructors) will never actually leave this stage.

Unconscious incompetence can be defined as an individual not understanding or knowing how to do something correctly, as well as not being aware of their own shortcomings. When it comes to training horses this could describe a great number of people. You only really start to grow as a horseman when you acknowledge the fact that there are perhaps answers out there for questions and problems you don’t even know exist – and that there are better techniques to educate horses than you are currently aware of. Becoming aware of this fact would put you in stage 2 of the scale – “Consciously incompetent”.

When starting out in horsemanship, your first goal should be that of becoming consciously incompetent. Meaning you are aware of your limitations, and that beyond your knowledge level and comfort zone there are better training, riding and handling techniques to be discovered (as well as more ideas and information about how horses actually think and behave).

Unfortunately there are a great number of equine professionals who have yet to arrive at this basic conclusion. The fact that so many people are under the instruction and spell of such individuals prevents them from learning anything beyond the limitations of that individual. Unconscious incompetence is something that breeds and grows if the person in the position of authority does not realise their limitations.

If you have been around horses and having riding lessons for years – yet your knowledge and ability around horses has not increased – then you are stuck in the state of unconscious incompetence. If you have been riding for years and your riding ability has not improved, then you are also stuck in this state. One obvious reason for this is that your source of learning and information – your instructor or teacher – is also stuck in a state of unconscious incompetence.

In the horse industry I see this often. I see people in a position of authority and admiration who are imparting techniques, and teaching theory that is actually to the detriment of both the animal and the student. When this happens both the student and the horse suffer – furthermore horsemanship as a growing science, technical accomplishment, and philosophical entity stagnates.

Being an objective and critical thinker will help avoid this trap. Naturally searching for information and searching for the truth will help you realise your shortcomings and you will grow in competence. But a related factor in this is also a state known as wilful ignorance.

Wilful ignorance is simply ignoring information that contradicts your preferred reality. Many instructors or horse people who become aware of their shortcomings may adopt this state rather than confront the reality that they will need to re-educate and improve their skill set. It may also upset the status quo for someone entrenched in a methodology of working with horses – that they should admit their training philosophy or techniques have been flawed in some way.

I get on well with horses, and my horsemanship is better than most, but I hope that in 10 years I will be doing everything different than I am now. I work with the best tools I have, so if in the future I’m doing things differently then it can only mean that I have found better ways of doing things – or I have refined my techniques to better effect. I’ll be worried if in time I am still training and handling horses in the same way as today.

The key to improving competency is to question yourself and what you are doing objectively. Where is your information coming from? What credentials are backing this information up? Are those credentials actually credible? Could your belief in the credibility of these credentials be misplaced? Are there contradictory principles or techniques you have yet to investigate?

Have you grown? Have you improved? Has your horse improved?

When a sport stagnates for years without growth or the widespread implementation of new and improved techniques then there are big problems within the culture of that sport.

If you have been trying to improve and progress in a sport yet this has not happened – first you should get angry at yourself – then you should get angry at your instructor. Finally you should put these feelings aside and move on, taking solace in the fact that by realising this, you are no longer unconsciously incompetent, and things will only improve from that point on.


Thankyou to Brandon McAuslanBMc Horsemanship for permission to republish this here.  Visit his page for more from Brandon, or email him at: brandonmcauslan@googlemail.com

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