By Helen O’ Hanlon

Barriers to Learning – Part Three


Societally, perfectionism is encouraged from a young age; be good, work hard and never give up. An individual who is described as a perfectionist is generally being labelled with this term in a positive light, the desire to meet high standards with our horses and ourselves is laudable, but it can also be problematic and act as a barrier to learning.

The constant need for perfectionism can leave us in a constant state of striving and forces us from the present into the past or future, desperately scanning for threats to our perfectionism. When we are in a constant state of striving, it causes us to lose touch with the present moment and it does not allow time to savour in our successes and achievements. For long term motivation we need to savour our successes before moving onto our next goal or project.

When we operate in a state of wanting perfectionism it shuts down many learning opportunities and can eradicate any risk-taking behaviours. When we take risks, it could mean that we might get something wrong and stray away from our desired state of perfectionism, this limits our choices and behaviours, but also shuts down opportunities to learn new things and develop our practices (Kohn, 1999). When we strive for perfectionism it repeatedly steals our joy, this is often manifested in the form of people looking back on their career and remarking that at the time of monumental achievements they did not savour their success. Our joy as equestrians is not a destination, but rather a practice whereby we recognise and savour the positives on a daily basis. Failure and making mistakes are part of learning, one cannot exist without the other.

The need for perfectionism often worsens with the more success we have attained. We hear so many stories of equestrians that always wear the same socks or put on the same boot first, which is often humorous and in operation at an unconscious level, however it can be useful to unpack some of our actions and assess what values and beliefs they reveal.  Do we believe our success is dependent on outside influences? as opposed to depending on our ability to control what we can and authentically flex to the horsemanship challenges that arise. It is easy to take risks when we have no track record, nothing to prove and no outside pressure. 

A mindset makeover can be a beneficial tool to launch in the face of perfectionism pressure. The notion of fixed and growth mindsets has been hugely popularised by Carol Dweck – professor of psychology at Stanford University. Dweck believes that two types of mindset exist, the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset relies on the idea of talent and ability as a finite resource. Furthermore, effort is not seen as having influence over an outcome and in essence causes us to abandon our sense of autonomy. The fixed mindset sounds like ‘I’ll never get it.’, ‘I am just not talented enough to be successful with horses.’ Or ‘It doesn’t matter how much I try I will never be able to understand my horse.’.


The growth mindset celebrates the idea that I may not be there ‘yet’, but ‘I can achieve my goals if I work hard and put effort in’. When we embody the growth mindset it allows us freedom within our learning process and helps us to avoid the perfectionism trap (Dweck, 2012). We do not need to be perfect to succeed, in fact perfectionism is a threat to our success.

In a bid to move away from the need for perfectionism we can strive to be ‘Good Enough’. The renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term ‘The Good Enough Parent’ whereby parents will never get things perfectly right in every moment, but when they get things good enough most of the time, they are creating a secure solid base for their children, one where the child can thrive and develop. This gives rise to my concept of ‘The Good Enough Equestrian’. As with all sports we will not get everything correct all of the time, after all equestrianism pairs two sentient creatures who do not speak the same language in partnership, there are bound to be some miscommunications and that is perfectly normal.

If we spoke to a number of Olympic winning equestrians, they would all volunteer parts of their performance that was short of ‘perfect’, but they still won an Olympic medal so their performance was clearly ‘good enough’ to win a medal but most definitely not perfect and free from any error. 

This constant need for perfectionism is not always our fault, high standards are expected from parents, care givers, teachers, coaches and instructors, of course it is good to set the bar high and want the best from our students and clients, but when we rank those we work with solely on their performance, their value can easily be attached solely to performance and not the individual as a whole (Kohn, 1990). Living up to the need to be the perfect athlete or equestrian leaves very little room for development and evolution and can be a hugely claustrophobic space to exist in. We need to give ourselves and our clients the space to make mistakes, learn and grow. Active learning cannot exist within a space that demands perfection. Striving for perfectionism not only steals our joy as equestrians, it creates a cycle of never feeling enough. Our horses are sentient beings that so easily feel our intentions and emotions. Auditing our mental and emotional state is beneficial to both horse and human.

So next time you feel yourself or your clients measuring up short, remember that we are all human and need to be accepted as flawed individuals for us to thrive and develop.


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