Do You Like to Learn?

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the November 1998 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


Four years ago, two riding pals asked me to write an article about learning. I did not consider them students, although one would ask for a little help occasionally and the other set up a lesson a couple of times a year, if that often, for which she insisted on paying. When she finally explained that paying for the information meant that she would learn, I stopped protesting. It was my first exposure to this sort of thinking. I did not understand it, but I wanted to.

They were both good riders who'd learned "the old way" and they wanted to improve. They pressed me to share with them anything I knew about learning how-to-relearn to ride. I told them I also had questions--more questions than I had answers. This struck me as a good opportunity to ferret out some answers, so I started researching this article right then. It began with a short interview and a few days later I interviewed three more people we knew. It was a simple interview: one question. "Do you like learning?" Their five unanimous answers stunned me.

They all answered with the question: "What do you mean?"

What did they mean what did I mean? Apparently, not one of them understood the question, not even the friends who wanted me to write an article about learning in the first place. It was as if they hadn't heard or could not believe they'd heard what I said. So I rephrased it. I asked, "I mean, do you enjoy the process of learning?"

Some wanted still further clarification of the question, and a couple asked me to set parameters within which to frame--I presumed--an acceptable answer. I had no answer in mind whatsoever. I was simply doing a little research. After more discussion, the answer eventually came out and it was also unanimous. The answer was "No."

My interest in this "assignment" was now piqued. So I took the next logical step. I asked them all, "Why not? What is it that you don't like about learning?"

Their answers varied and generated a few more questions from my side. They agreed to supply me with written recaps of their positions that I read over afterwards, and these alarmed me. Two of these people were parents, one was a school teacher and two held positions in their work that involved supervising the work habits and production efficiency of other people. And not one of them enjoyed learning, so they said.

If afraid to fail means afraid to try...then learning is out

I'll summarize the reasons they gave for their collective "No" reply. At the top of each person's list was the fear of making a mistake. I told them that I thought it said a lot more about their teachers than it did about them. Only one woman took me up on that line of thought for further discussion, and it didn't go far. I realized then that teachers--even when they are not effective at their job--hold a sacred position in the minds of many people. Teachers, they told me, are authority figures. I concluded then that trying to learn in a state of fear was more common than I thought. Up to that point, I only knew it had not worked for me.

The second reason given was a different fear. They all said they feared "being" or "appearing to be" stupid. Those are very different things--being and appearing to be--but, nonetheless, that's what they said. These people are not stupid, nor, to my knowledge, do they appear that way. They are all bright and they are all over-achievers.

The third reason was fear of yet another stripe: this being the possibility that the learning process would expose them, ultimately, as being unreachable. Three of them contributed "evidence" to validate their shared concern. "I don't test well." "Well, I'll never learn it all." "I don't have to be that good at it."

If the mind is well-stocked with fear-based beliefs and a plan to substantiate these with failure... doesn't that pretty much guarantee that learning will be unpleasant$quot; If the hoped-for results are not even imaginable, then what is the point of trying?

Then came the fourth reason, and this is the one that really knocked it out of the park for me. Two people said that, in addition to one or more of the above reasons, they were afraid that they might become better than their teachers. They said they didn't want that to happen. Neither one could say why.

From these interviews came a new awareness. It suggested that people who want to learn the most, and even the people who are motivated to learn about the process of learning-to-learn, and learning how-to-relearn, are compromised because their approach is shrouded in fear: fear of failure, fear of success and a strong dose of self-doubt.

On the positive side, they all did have some confidence--and by that I mean real sureness--about a couple of things. But since that was 1.) unequivocal certainty about their mental and/or physical inadequacies, and 2.) their carefully documented capacity to fail, it carried zero weight with me on the plus side.

Born to learn...

I always thought we were born with a learning frame of mind. The infants and toddlers I've known always appeared to have one, and baby animals certainly do. Then apparently something happens. Sadly, in very short order, it seems to diminish or altogether disappear.

I concluded from these short interviews that because of what some people learn early on about learning, as they are instructed in the performance of simple tasks or guided towards the fulfillment of a modest goal, their instinctive capacity to learn efficiently becomes an experience to be avoided altogether. When it cannot be avoided, it is thwarted by self-sabotage. This is nothing short of a travesty.

If left alone, this instinct and capacity to learn becomes a way of being that is fueled by a joyful spirit and strength of purpose... if you look around you can find examples of it out there. It's unfortunate that those people and animals who exhibit this way of being sometimes become the target of resentment and ill will.

Where "failure" to learn something is the result of one's best effort to learn it, perhaps some things are missing: 1.) a burning desire to learn, 2.) qualified help, and 3.) enough time to practice or study. Bill Dorrance claims that successful learning requires all three.

"Even under the best circumstances," Bill says, "with any one of these elements missing the process of learning whatever it is you're trying to learn is apt to be disappointing."

Cry out, reach out...

Consider some of our earliest learning projects. Crying and reaching, for example. What inspires this$quot; Hunger, the need for warmth and physical contact, basic curiosity about the nearest moving object--and there must be other reasons, too. Shortly after we reap the harvest of well-timed crying and reaching, we learn other things that are connected to our survival. In ascending order, we learn to crawl, sit up, stand and then we learn to climb. In descending order, we learn how to fall, then to fall without hitting our heads, then to stumble without falling, sit down, bend over and so on. In short, we learn to focus our attention and to mobilize and direct our energy. We learn to balance.

Most people spend two or three years learning these things. By comparison, the equivalent of these basic maneuvers, and a lot of other great moves, takes a healthy colt that has enough room to move just a couple of days to sort out. And, in a couple of weeks? The moves are mastered.

As we developed these abilities, a burning desire to learn them may not have been in the forefront of our awareness. But it wasn't entirely lacking, either. Time to practice was essential. Someone to imitate played an important part in this, too. It's no different for a colt.

After these earliest lessons, most of us went on to hold a bottle, and then a spoon. Then we started taking off our clothes, and no sooner did we get the hang of that then we were taught to put them on again until--somehow--we either survived or thrived in elementary school and social situations throughout childhood. Onwards from there we learned--somehow--to look after ourselves, raise families and hold jobs. And some people went on to become instructors, showing others how to do what they were taught. Understandably, most people teach the same way they were taught... until it comes full circle.

I suppose, I do not know, that those who teach anything to anyone without probing into the foibles of their own learning process as they pass information on, are perhaps also teaching their students what they learned about learning whether they intend to or not, and for better or for worse.


This horse and handler are standing near each other, but mentally they are not as close as they will be someday. Mrs. Aaslaug Bull from Oslo rode for many years, twenty years ago. "Now I am learning to ride again," she said. " I really like this horse, but I have trouble to keep his attention."

In his upcoming book, "True Horsemanship Through Feel", Bill Dorrance talks about instructors. "This person needs to be able to answer any question that's asked in a way so that the person asking the question can understand that answer. That takes an unlimited amount of knowledge. You need to understand horses and people to be able to do this in a way that's fitting to the public. "He continues: "There's an unlimited amount of things with their horse that need to be understood... (and) the instructor, and we'll say a good instructor because we really aren't talking about the other kind, he really wants to help a person so that when they get home they'll have some idea of how to get these things that we're talking about applied--applied through feel, of course. But this takes time and the process should not be rushed."

The best teachers...

If we are to believe the best horsemen, they say the horse is the best teacher.

Horses learn fast and they learn well. They seem to forgive readily but rarely, if ever, do they forget. You can always find a good horse to buy. Well trained horses are a little harder to afford, but good horsemanship is not for sale. For some people, good horsemanship might involve a decision about their frame of mind. For other people, the definition of good horsemanship could be the process of learning to live in the moment and to learn the lesson of the moment, like a horse does.

Good horsemanship has its unpleasant moments and there are certainly times when one's best efforts yield less than the best results. I think of good horsemanship as an approach to learning that combines the flexibility of thought and actions with a willingness to experiment and to indefinitely postpone negative judgment. Judgment of the horse, of one's self, the previous owner, the last trainer--all of them and all judgment. (I hasten to add that I cannot yet do this very well.)

hrs16 02Getting the life up in this horse is "no problem" says his owner, Katrina Andersson, an adult rider who learned 'the old way'. "The problem is that he likes to fight me with his front legs." Her new plan is to redirect his attention and energy so they can have some fun together--safely!

Perhaps, in the process of experimenting, we could experiment with the idea of replacing the fear of making a mistake with a relaxed, upbeat approach to trial and error. If we follow the path that far, we might decide to take another lesson from the horse... who never seems to learn much when he is afraid, except to be afraid.

e8c3a5782aIt was a pretty laid back clinic in Drammen, Norway (August 15-16). Getting the life up in those horses was a bit of a problem. The horses were not sick.

And then, too, there's that thing that Bill said about the three essential elements: a good teacher, plenty of time to practice and a burning desire to learn more about the thing you love, whatever it is. "Those things really need to figure in there," said Bill.