I get many emails from riders all over the world. Many of them have really interesting questions or riding problems they have taken the time to share with me. But one question I get over and over again is how to develop a plan to fix training problems.
The thing is, every training problem can look slightly different, so I can’t really outline every possible problem and the process I go through to fix each of those problems. Not right here, anyway. But what I can do is share with you my own personal process for dealing with any problem and bringing it to a successful resolution. For the purposes of this article I must be quite general, of course, but I do give a couple of brief examples of how the process can look in certain scenarios.
For learning the actual hands-on process for dealing with specific riding problems, you will need to study the components of each problem to determine the components of each solution.
7 Stage Workflow Process
- Collect information
- Process their meaning. Determine what is relevant and actionable.
- Organize the results into projects
- Determine the desired outcome for each project
- Create action items
- Do it.
- Review & Reassess.
Stage 1: Collect information
Collect ALL of the available information without discriminating. That means taking a step back and looking at every observation, gathering it all together regardless of whether it seems relevant or not. At this stage, just gather everything. Much of it very well may be irrelevant, but if you discriminate at this stage, you might miss data that actually is relevant. So here, gather it all. It can help to list it all out on paper, for instance. I recommend writing it down because this clears your mind of the responsibility of holding on to all the little bits of data, which opens it up to revealing other more subtle bits of information.
Brainstorm everything that comes to mind. Even if it seems initially irrelevant, trust your intuition and trust that it might lead you to something interesting.
Perhaps as you are going through this process, something irrelevant suddenly comes to mind. Even if it seems totally strange, write it down. This is often your intuition speaking. Off-the-wall thoughts are not guaranteed to be relevant, but do not immediately disregard it just because it might seem totally unrelated.
What can this look like? Let’s say you are dealing with the issue of your horse suddenly becoming very spooky in the work. Write down everything that comes to mind.
When did it start? How did it start? What preceded it initially? What happens? What are the other circumstances? What happens right before he spooks? At what point in the work session does it happen? Is there any predictable pattern? Are there any other symptoms? How do you react? How does he react? How does he react if you try different ways of dealing with it? How is he, otherwise, in the work? What is he struggling with? What other problems are you having? What are you noticing in the training? How is he reacting to the work, in general? What do I think he feels about the work? How is he outside of the work? What is going on in his life? Have any other factors changed recently? Are any other factors in need of changing?
As you are answering these questions and any other questions that come to mind, you might get a flash of some other thought. For instance, maybe with the spooky horse suddenly you remember you need to feed the horse. It might seem like a random thought, but don’t disregard it. Just write down “feed” and brainstorm that topic and everything potentially around it. What about feed? Has the feed changed recently? Or is it in need of changing? Are the feeding times less predictable than the horse would prefer? Has the person who does the feeding changed? How is the feeding done? If you get other flashes that come to mind, follow them and explore where they might lead you.
It can be helpful to spend several days on this part of the process. Take paper with you or use the note-taking function on your smartphone because you will find that thoughts will come to you at odd times and you want to make sure you have a way to catch all of these thoughts.
Stage 2: Process their meaning. Determine what is relevant and actionable.
This is the stage where you start to organize all of this data. Look at each item individually now and determine its suitability, relevance, and potential.
You might not have realized until you jotted it all down on paper together that the onset of his spookiness, for example, may have coincided with the feeding program changing. Or perhaps it started soon after you started working with a new trainer or working towards a new goal. Or perhaps it coincided with the onset of new crookedness symptoms, maybe of which you didn’t even recognize as crookedness issues until you got it all down on paper.
Relevance. Now we look at each of the items and groups of items and we ask ourselves, is this relevant? For instance, if you wrote it down but looking at it you realize it really is irrelevant data, trash it.
Actionable? Is it something you can do anything about? Or perhaps you realize that it is potentially useful but you can’t do much about it right now or something you do not WANT to do much about right now.
The things which ARE likely relevant and ARE actionable are the important pieces of data to keep. In most situations, there is not just one factor involved. There are a number of factors that are resulting in the problem situation, and you will need to address the problem on a number of levels.
Stage 3: Organize the Results into Projects
From here, you can group the items of information into related topics. Organize them into categories, if that suits your thinking. Looking at it all, you will start to see connections. For instance, everything about the care of the horse could go into one category. Everything about the riding could go into another. These become your project categories. The items which are theoretically actionable but you can’t do much about it now, or don’t want to, can be put into their own category to be reviewed and reconsidered at a later time.
Within each of these topic categories, you can now determine which are the most pressing and significant factors. For instance, perhaps you realize the person feeding your horse changed at the same time your horse began his spooky behaviors, and you realize this person is rushing about their tasks and is a little too abrupt and chaotic for your horse. Perhaps this frightens him and makes him uneasy about his entire care and support. Or perhaps this person has misunderstood that your horse is supposed to receive one handful of oats and has been giving him a large scoop instead.
This is where you define the nature of each “project.”
Stage 4: Determine the Desired Outcome for each Project
This is where you define the goal for each project which is a big step towards defining the solution.
These can inform you about what outcome you would like to have for each project. For instance, you might determine that you want your horse to be fed quietly and calmly. You might determine that you want to correct the crookedness problems that have been cropping up recently in the training. You might determine that you want to move the horse to a barn without so much noise from the neighbouring property. Etc.
Without determining a clear outcome, you will never know if you have achieved success and completion of your project. What are you really trying to accomplish here? It is a mistake to be too vague or general. When defining your desired outcome, before moving on, first ask yourself, “What does this even MEAN?” If you can define that, then you have adequately defined the outcome.
For instance, having a “happy horse” is all well and right but what does that MEAN? What does it mean to YOU? What does that LOOK like? Define it. Clearly and specifically.
This is closely tied to your purpose. What is your “why”? What are you ultimately trying to accomplish and why? Without clear purpose and intention, you will not be able to define a clear vision and what success looks like. Make sure it is clear and specific enough.
The “why” defines your success. If you have a clearly defined “why”, then you can more easily choose which of the actions are suitable to take. If you really brainstormed freely, you will have some ideas which do not resonate with your why. You will have some which conflict with your core principles. Your core principles combined with your clear vision of success can help you define the parameters of what you are willing to do and not to do. Your purpose helps you choose which actions are the best to take. Your purpose is clarifying. It helps you clarify which actions are not in alignment with your principles and therefore not suitable to pursue. And it helps you define which ones definitely ARE in alignment and helps you define the steps to take to get closer to that goal.
Stage 5: Create Action Items
This is where you move on from determining the problem and defining the goal to putting together the steps you need to take to get there.
With each project, now that you have defined your desired outcome, you can start to determine actions to take. These are your “Action Items.”
Most important, you will need to determine what the NEXT action is that you need to take. You might not yet know the entire process you will need to take to fix the situation. Some of that process will need to be determined from the results of the first action items.
So ask yourself, “What’s the next action required?” This is very important because it is the stage where you can take intimidating, seemingly insurmountable projects and tasks and break them down into the little steps you can actually do and which will actually bring you closer to success.
With our above scenario, you would like to determine that your horse is getting the appropriate care and handling. That would be your outcome. Your next action would likely involve arranging a chance to talk to the feed person to find out what is going on, share your concerns, explain that your horse is sensitive and might require slightly different consideration and handling, verify that the correct amounts are being fed, etc. Perhaps this person needs to be shown how to handle your horse, the correct amount to feed, etc. These are possible action items.
At this stage you might also make some other decisions. You might decide it is better to talk to the barn owner and have them talk to the feed person and handle any re-training. In that case you would be delegating the task to the barn owner. Or perhaps you want to definitely eliminate this possible cause for concern so you might decide to do the feeding yourself for awhile to see if this helps the situation.
Of course, this process occurs with every item or group of items. You might also take on the topic of addressing the crookedness of the horse. You can list out what actions you would like to take about the issue. One of those items might be to consult with your trainer or get better feedback about how to address the crookedness. You might decide to implement specific strategies to address the crookedness. Or you might decide to study the topic more to learn what you can do about it.
Step 6: Do it.
Stop planning. Stop thinking about it. Stop talking about it. Take action.
Take your first action item. And do it. If it is too hard or too much, break it down further into smaller action items. Sometimes the smallest action item is quite literally something as basic as “turn on the computer” or “find the phone number”. Write it down. Do it. Cross it off your list. And define and complete the next action item. Rinse. Repeat.
Step 7: Review, reassess.
Periodically along the way it is absolutely pertinent to review and reassess what you are doing. Most definitely you will need to do this at some point along the way before you can declare success. But even better, you will keep yourself from straying too far off target if you periodically take a step back, objectively review what is going on, the actions you have implemented, and their results thus far. Are they getting you closer to your goal or further from it? It’s not all black or white. Sometimes we do have to take a “side road” before we can get back on the main path, and sometimes that side road will temporarily look like things are getting worse. This is where objectivity is really helpful, because you can assess that carefully and match it with your core purpose and principles. If your goal is to get “there” (wherever THERE is, but that is a different topic!) at any cost, then progress may look very, VERY different at this point than “such and such point with a willing horse” because you may have had to take some detours in order to ensure the “willing horse” part is caught up. That is just one example. There are many, many possible applications.
The important thing is to take that “time out” to reassess things. Sometimes, and it can happen to all of us, we can get so fixated on the mini-action item that we lose sight of the goal, purpose, and our principles. These opportunities to take a step back to review and reassess what is happening are our chance to take a look, reconsider all the criteria and the path we are taking, and redetermine if that is the wisest course of action. Sometimes it is. Sometimes we see in this process that there are some smaller action items we can define which can help us get there more smoothly. And sometimes we realize that we got side-tracked and this is not doing anything to further our actual REAL progress.
Don’t neglect the power of intuition in any part of this process. What I have defined here is a largely logical, right-brained approach to fixing a problem, and I use this every single day. But in real life, I also involve my intuition into my decision-making process in a huge way. It is, in fact, as important as all of the other hard facts and data I accumulate. If I feel like something is not right, then it is not right, even if I cannot specifically explain it. Then it is up to me to figure out why it wasn’t right but I have learned enough over the years to realize that when the intuition says something, I better listen!
Armed with this new perspective and information, you can get clearer about your path and the actions you are willing to take. You can then update your action items lists. Perhaps re-order them. Perhaps break them down further. Perhaps cross some items off which no longer make sense.
And then you repeat this process until you have reached the point which you initially defined as your goal. Success. No doubt, along the way you accumulated some new goals and you may already be, at this point, working on those, alongside finishing up this “project” goal.
This is the process I personally use and teach to my students. I would love to hear what process you use. Do you have anything to add?