'Sport' dressage v's crystal meth

Dressage test June 2017.jpg

This blog is NOT intended to offend anyone so if it does that to you just scroll on by ....

In February I entered Chiron Horse and Becca into an Intro dressage test offered through The Mane Show. It's an on-line horsey dressage and showing competition and I chose to do it this way so that there was non of that faffing around with plaiting, hoof oil, we could use a bitless bridle, it was okay for Chiron to be un-shod, we could use my own Total Contact Saddle (BD is sniffy about all of that) and it was a video entry so we could avoid all of that poncing around that goes on in horsey competitions. I thought it would be good for horse and rider development and some learning along the way. We had great fun learning the test and laughing around at how Chiron Horse would sometimes take it upon himself to go 'free style' and just do his own thing and great progress was made in the time that we had available to practice bearing in mind the dreadful weather we had in February. After a couple of false starts I even managed to make the video camera behave and we had a video that I sent off to Katie at The Mane Show with my £11 entry fee. Now the results are in !!

Chiron Horse and Becca scored 52.61%. Hmmm, I thought and sent it off in a message to Becca. She came back and both of our reactions have been interesting. Her first reply went along the lines of, "What went wrong ?". My initial reaction was, "I thought what I sent off was better than that". We had a bit of an exchange of messages and I considered making another entry for March to get a better score next time even though time would be limited to practice - school time, rider availability etc before the entry deadline. Then it dawned on me that both of us had fallen head first into the 'being judged by another' trap. You see we'd been seduced by the numerical figure given to us by someone we'd never met (and probably never will) and we'd forgotten about the fun that we had in practicing for the test. We'd also forgotten the other achievements along the way that would seem insignificant to anyone else: the fact that Becca remembered a whole test and this was her first formal one to enter; that Chiron had remained (largely) rhythmic in trot all the way through the test and this was the longest he'd trotted without pausing, well, forever really; that both remained focused in the test; that both had learnt a good deal along the way about how to support each other; that we'd had fun practicing for it and probably a whole load more achievements that I can't think about right now. Thinking about it I now recall wondering if we should do 'one more video' or 'one more practice session' to make things even better(er) than they looked. I was beginning to be hooked on this stuff ! The comments on the score sheet were secondary to the affirmation of the score and, with the best will in the world, they were hardly detailed enough to really give us focus for the future (that's not a criticism of the judge but the system). My attention was being repeatedly drawn back to the score and then how it might be possible to make this higher: what if we did this at this point next time then we might make that 6 an 8 etc and how could I get us into the rosettes next time. It wasn't about the fun it was about the number and that external validation of performance by another and this must happen in all situations where external validation with subjective numerical values are placed on performance .... doesn't it ?

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For more years than I care to remember I practiced a non-sport style of Martial Art karate (Shotokai karate-do) and the awarding of black belt grades (Dan grades) was handled in a very different way. Because it was non-sport there was not another person to 'beat', there was no points to be awarded by some external judge. The achievement was all internally generated (self against self) and Dan grades were confirmed not 'won'. The confirmation was important, and I believe deliberate', as one was not invited to grade but the event was a celebration of what one could do (in front of the rest of the organisation) that followed a number of sessions and conversations to make sure that the person was ready for this step ('Dan' means step in Japanese). There was a set of criteria to demonstrate on the day. So in a way the pressure on the day was less on external validation but on celebrating the person's ability and a confirmation and the certificate to confirm the grade was worded as, 'this person has been practicing at the grade of XYZ Dan for sometime and this was confirmed on ....". In this structure I was confirmed as a 4th Dan. I've had to edit the next bit of this blog as I originally typed, "there are only 5 Dan grades in this style". Now why did I do that ? Did I type that to show the reader that I was nearly at the pinnacle of the grade structure ? Was I looking for some sort of validation from the reader ? If I was then you wouldn't know that to get a 5th Dan would mean a good many years at 4th Dan and much more than just physical practice to be shown but it might show you how I thought about my position in the organisation structure. Hmmm, .... maybe I'd been tasting the 'crystal meth' and my attention was being distracted to a higher achievement (again) ? But it doesn't just happen in sport does it.

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For a number of years I was a higher education equine lecturer. Assessment is a major part of any degree programme to 'test' the student so that a degree classification is awarded (1st, 2.1 etc) which shows their ability in the subject. But does it really do that ? Maybe what it shows is that some people simply have a better memory to 'spew' out facts and figures in the pressure cooker environment of an exam hall ? When I found myself in a position of some authority (albeit it limited as it turns out but that's for another blog !) over the syllabus and curriculum of several degree programmes I set about changing the heavy weighting of exam scores to those of course work and practical activity so that the student could actually SHOW what they could do not just what they knew. Alongside this I encouraged the team to spend time giving feedback on assessments so that future activity could be improved. We used the 'Continue', 'STOP', 'Start' format to give feedback ('do this some more because it's good', 'don't do this anymore because it not right', 'to make it better try doing this'). It worked and marks and ability improved and the students' appreciated the clear feedback. There was still one problem though. On giving back an assessment the students would still mostly pay attention to the % number on the feedback sheet; indeed I saw some just look at the figure then put the feedback sheet into their rucksack ! They were hooked on the 'crystal meth' of numbers. The number was usually compared to those of others as well as they sought to see where they were in the cohort. To try and get around this, and get the student to focus on the feedback instead, I tried giving out the number AFTER they'd read the feedback and comments and even discussed them openly as a group. It did have an effect, and I felt better about spending ages writing it, but the number was still eagerly awaited - damn but that 'crystal meth' stuff is strong eh ! It was interesting, however, to see that the students who paid most attention to the feedback comments improved the most from one assessment to another - I then became 'hooked' on my own numerical journey by watching eagerly as cohort marks went up after my efforts and more 1st class degrees were awarded year on year. It's so hard to give up the meth !!

I think The Mane Show method of engaging folk in horsey competition is good and I like the relaxed view of the dressage 'rules' on tack etc. I still don't think I'd do the showing classes as I think this devalues the horse to be just a thing to show off (I don't like Crufts etc for the same reason) and I dislike all of the faffing that does go on with baby oil, chalking on white legs etc to make the horse look better than the others. Having said that I think I'll do the dressage test again - maybe in the April round - but I'll be (even) more aware of the need not to lose sight of why; horse and rider development, the personal challenge, the fun of doing it, okay and my personal challenge to make the video camera behave eh Becca. The score will be interesting, however, now I can recognise the 'crystal meth' effect I'll be more aware to do all I can to avoid it. Maybe The Mane Show will send the score sheet out with no number of it and send it later - okay, probably not. It's been an interesting reflective exercise though and a valuable one. The joy of being with, inter-acting with and just hanging out with Chiron Horse is much more important than any numerical external validation. Maybe he's taught me something (again !). Thank you for being a great Teacher fella ....

Chiron 8 Oct 2015.jpg

Just for info !! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP8_s3mu_8M

Stuart Attwood