The Four Levels of Competence - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 11:18 AM Thread Starter
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The Four Levels of Competence

Please note: I did not write this; I just found the article on the internet.

I decided to post this in Training, as it seems appropriate. While I don't agree with every single thing the writer said, I thought this was interesting and I think many horse owners would be doing themselves and their horse(s) a favour if they stopped and looked at themselves for a moment.

***Be warned: this is a VERY long read!***

__________________________________________________ __________

The following information is a model about the four stages of learning and how it relates to horses:

1- Unconscious Incompetence (I don't know what I don't know)
2- Conscious Incompetence (I know that I don't know)
3- Conscious Competence (I know what I know, when I think about it)
4- Unconscious Competence (I know without thinking, instinctive)

A lot of horse owners think they are in stage 3) Conscious Competence. They conclude this by the fact that they have bought a horse, read a book, rode a few times, attended a clinic or have owned horses their entire life. They have the attitude that they have been there, done that, and know all there is to know about horses. This prevents further learning, since they are unwilling to admit their lack of knowledge or the importance of this unknown knowledge. They are really in stage 1) Unconscious Incompetence, but until they admit this, they cannot move to stage 2) Conscious Incompetence. When people operate in stage one, horses and people get hurt and horses are blamed for the person’s unconscious contributions to any accident or injury.

Some people can get stuck in stage 1 for a very long time. It takes practise, feedback and critique for a person to move on to stage 2. Stage 2 is a very popular stage which can last on and off for a very long time. One of the main reasons people remain in stage 2 is simple laziness.

You must be able to admit that you don’t know it all, in order to begin to learn something new. If you continue to blame the horse for your mistakes, then you will never move up to “Unconscious Competence” level. The following explains all four stages with examples of horse situations at the end:

Stage 1 - Unconscious Incompetence
-- You are not aware of the existence or relevance of understanding the horse, how it thinks and how it reacts, and you do not care, since you have not seen a horse get killed or a person get seriously injured, or since you have been lucky and not hurt yourself.
-- You are not aware that you have a particular deficiency in understanding horses and may believe you are at the “conscious competence” level.
-- You might deny the relevance or usefulness in understanding horses since you think you already know how to “show the horse who is boss” or control the horse with a chain or big painful bit.
-- You must become conscious of your incompetence before learning can begin, until then, this is where people say “ I have owned horses all my life”, therefore I know it all or enough and there is not need to learn more.
-- A trainer or horseman must try and move you into the “conscious incompetence” stage, by demonstrating the skill and getting you to recognize that you are the problem and not the horse, they must get you to admit your incompetence so you can move to sage 2) Conscious Incompetence, where you open your mind and learning can begin.

Stage 2 - Conscious Incompetence
-- You become aware of the existence and importance of understanding the horse, its prey instincts and how it lives with pressure.
-- You become aware of your deficiency in the knowledge about the horse and know you can get hurt if you don’t develop the skills to safely handle a horse.
-- You realize that by improving your knowledge of the horse, your ability to safely control the horse and your effectiveness with horses will improve.
-- You have a measure of the extent of your deficiency in understanding horses, and a measure of what level of skill is required for your own competence.
-- You make a commitment to learn and practice understanding and thinking like a horse and to move to the “Conscious Competence” stage.

Stage 3 - Conscious Competence
-- You achieve “conscious competence” in handling, controlling and riding horses and can perform it reliably at will.
-- You will still need to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill and it has not yet become second nature.
-- You can handle most any horse without assistance
-- You should be able to demonstrate horse handling to other, but are unlikely to be able to teach it.
-- You need to continue to practice handling horses and commit to becoming “unconsciously competent” with horses.
-- You need to practice since it is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4.

Stage 4 - Unconscious Competence
-- Handling and dealing with horses becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain and it becomes “second nature”. (Common examples are driving, sports and typing.)
-- You can handle multiple horses or horse situations at the same time, like holding a horse and giving directions to someone riding or lounging or while you are riding.
-- You may now be able to teach others how to effectively handle and train horses, after time of being “unconsciously competent” you might actually have difficulty explaining how you do it, since the skill has become largely instinctual. (Reactionary or without thinking)
-- This arguably states the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked and periodically tested against new standards and new methods.

So let's talk about some examples:

1) I have owned horses my entire life, so when I lead three horses and drop the lead rope, the horse steps on it and rears and I get hurt from a horse head to the face, I blame the horse for pulling the rope out of my hands and for not knowing how to lead. (Unconscious Incompetence)

2) I get on a new horse that I know little about and it gets scared and runs, I can't stop it and it runs into a fence and gets hurt. I blame the horse for not listening to me when I told it to stop. (Unconscious Incompetence)

3) I am picking my horse's feet, I am talking to friends and not paying attention, another horse walks by and since I was not paying attention or did not know or see the signs, my horse kicks at the other horse and kicks me in the leg. I blame the horse for not respecting me or for kicking or being stupid or scared. (Unconscious Incompetence)

4) I put up hotwire and don't teach my horse what it is or how to move from it and the horse gets shocked and runs through it, tears it down and tears up the fence. I blame the horse for being stupid and not knowing how to avoid the hotwire. My attitude is the horse will learn when he gets shocked. If he gets hurt, it is his fault for being stupid. (Unconscious Incompetence)

5) I go to get my horse out of pasture and when I open the gate, I let another horse run out or over me. I blame the horses for not respecting me or being mean and I blame the owner for not teaching their horse not to run over me. (Unconscious Incompetence)

6) My horse spooks at a scary plastic bag. So I am going to show my horse that I am boss and he can't be scared so I put 50 plastic bags in his stall and on his walls. I'll show him for being scared and being a horse, this will teach him a lesson and he learn not to spook at plastic bags. (Unconscious Incompetence)

For each of the previous situations, I will explain the difference in response for the different levels so maybe it will be clearer as to where you are and where you want to be and where others are:

Situation 1: Horse steps on lead rope, rears and hits me:

Conscious Incompetence: I know that accidents happen with multiple horses, I know I get uneasy with multiple horses, so I only lead one horse and if I lead two and something happens, I know it is my fault and not the horse's. I try and do better next time and learn from it. I may ask other experienced horse people to help me.

Conscious Competence: I know the capabilities of each horse, I am aware of my lead ropes and keep them out of the way of the horse. I am consciously looking for things that may spook the horse and cause an incident. I am thinking ahead and being aware of all lead ropes, all horses behavior and know to stop and re-evaluate the situation if it looks like a wreck is about to happen. As soon as I see a possible problem, I take steps to give direction and avoid the wreck and help the horse stay calm.

Unconscious Competence: I lead three horses knowing that if I drop a rope the horse will react, how he will probably react, I stay of the way and am ready to move, I keep rope and horses controlled and are ready for unplanned events. I do this without looking like I am thinking about it and it is almost second nature, so when something might happen I react faster, without thinking and prevent it from escalating and getting worse. Since I am so confident the horses feel safer and see me as a strong leader, so they are less likely to react and get into trouble.

Last edited by pintophile; 08-17-2011 at 11:24 AM.
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post #2 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 11:19 AM Thread Starter
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Situation 2: New scared horse won't stop and runs into fence:

Conscious Incompetence: I know the horse is new and make sure he stops in the arena and around barn. I know my riding is not that good to stop a runaway horse, so I don't take horse anywhere that is not comfortable for me or him until I can read and control the horse better. I realize that my horse or I can get hurt if I go too fast or push too hard, so I go slow and set my horse and myself up for success.

Conscious Competence: I know new horses can get nervous and scared and I am aware of his behavior. I pay close attention to him so I can read him before he bolts and redirect his nervousness before the horse reacts. I am constantly looking and reading my horse for "tells" about what he is seeing and thinking. I am actively aware of my surroundings and my horse's demeanor. I pay close attention to his ears, tail swishing, speed, how high his head is and other things he does before he runs off, since I have worked on this and know it is a area we are still learning and dealing with. I know if I put the horse in a situation and he runs off, it is my fault for not seeing it or preventing it and it is never the horse's fault.

Unconscious Competence: I am always expecting the unexpected with new horses or any horse in a new place. I look for and unconsciously feel when my horse is about to react and I redirect him to a place of comfort and safety, so he will not react. I do this without thinking about it since I have done it a 1000 times before, I have trained my body and eyes to read horses without thinking about it, it is second nature and I know horses are always communicating and telling me what is going on around them. So even if I am talking to someone else, I can feel if my horse is excited, nervous, anxious or not comfortable. I can sense this without trying or thinking about it, since it is second nature. Then I do little things, that most people would not even notice, to bring the horse mentally back to me.

Situation 3: Picking a horse's feet and he kicks at another horse and hits me by mistake:

Conscious Incompetence: I am aware that my horse does not like other horses or that he may kick if provoked, I am on guard and make sure I am aware of other horses that may be approaching. I don't get into conversations since I have seen my horse kick and know that all horses will kick, so I am actively thinking and aware so I can move out of the way or try and be ready to react and warn others. I realize I don't have control over this so I just try and avoid it.

Conscious Competence: I know my horse or any horse may kick and I look for signs that he is not paying attention to me, I keep his attention on me, I give him direction when I see him paying attention to other horses, I secure his foot and prevent a kick if he starts to kick. I may warn the other approaching horse or owner to prevent this. I know if my horse kicks, I know I can get out of the way or prevent it. I make sure I am in a position to stop it or correct it and give my horse direction so the kick does not happen or it is stopped before a second or multiple kicks happen.

Unconscious Competence: I move around the horse with confidence, the horse sees me as his leader and knows to pay attention to me, the horse will not kick since I have made my position known and that I am higher in the herd and my horse will not kick when I am holding his leg. I am reading my horse without thinking about it, I can sense what he is thinking and what is about to do before he does it. At the first sign of trouble, I am confidently moving to a position of advantage where I can prevent it, stop it or correct it. My body position becomes more dominant and my horse sees this and pays attention to me and not the other horse. My horse and I are constantly talking and communicating with our bodies, so others may not see or know what is happening, but my horse knows. All of this happens without much thought and almost instinctive and it all appears normal and most people (even people who have owned horses their entire life) will never know it is happening.

Situation 4: I put up hotwire and the horse runs through it:

Conscious Incompetence: I know that horses are reactionary creatures that flee from pain. I ask advice of others, I do research about the pros and cons of hotwires, I may try other things to stop the behavior so not to get into trouble or get my horse into trouble. I know if my horse gets hurt and scared he will react and I may not know how to handle it so I try and go slow and prepare as best I can.

Conscious Competence: I know horses don't react to pain well and have learned that horses stop learning with pain. I may try other methods, that don't involve pain, to stop the unwanted behavior. If I decide to use hotwire, I will introduce it slowly and help my horse understand. I will put it up and teach my horse to move back from it when it gets shocked. I may try and set it low so the horse can learn at a low shock and then turn it up as the horse learns. I won't allow the horse to be set up for failure and allow him to run through it and learn a bad behavior.

Unconscious Competence: I have seen too many horses get hurt due to hot wire, they get trapped, they stuck, they panic, it normally creates more problems than it fixes, half the time it does not work or breaks or grounds, so I know horses learn to test it, horses get bored and will try and go around it and get caught and react to the shock and it will cause more problems than it will fix, so only use it as a very last resort and in an open area where if it causes a reaction, there is less chance a horse will jump, roll, fall or get trapped (like in a small stall). I know hotwire is cheat that is easier for me and rougher on the horse, so as a horseman, I don't use cheats to set my horse up, I take the time it takes to fix the problem in other ways. I know how a horse thinks, I know if I was a horse how I would want to be treated, so I try and do what I would want done to me.

Situation 5: I let a horse run over me while getting my horse out:

Conscious Incompetence: I know that I am not that good at backing up horses. I know that some horses intimidate me and that I lack the confidence to control multiple horses at a gate at feeding time. I approach the situation with the knowledge that this can go bad, that horses are going to try to get out and I have to be ready to stop, to close the gate or to try and get aggressive and back the horses away from me. I may take someone with me it looks too bad or wait until I have help. I know if I get over my head that I can't blame the horse since I caused it.

Conscious Competence: I know horses will be horses, I expect horses to try and test me at the gate. I am confident that I can back a horse away so I approach the situation with an expectation that this will happen and I have a plan that will work and has worked in the past. I am thinking of different things that can happen and which horses will be more aggressive and which ones to do I need to concentrate on. I enter the gate and pasture with authority and confidence and I know most horses wont' test me, but I am ready with my plan for the one that does. And when a horse tries, I know it is not personal he only being a horse and I have to be smarter and not blame the dumber animal.

Unconscious Competence: I am fully aware that all horses like to come in to eat, I expect it, I understand it and I would do it if I was a horse and knew I had fresh hay and grain waiting for me. So enjoy watching the horses be horses. I approach the gate sending clear body language that I am the herd leader and I have a mission. I enter the gate confidently constantly sending non-verbal (body language) that I am the herd leader, give me space, don't approach me, I am giving stern looks to horses that are overly excited and wanting to approach me, I am ready and may move aggressively or swing a rope to make a point, I will not focus on any horse that is being respectful and not pushing or trying to approach me. I do all this without thinking about it, it is almost natural and second nature. People watching will not see it or know I am doing it, but will make comments that "horses like me". If a horse gets out, I take full responsibility for not preparing or being aware enough and for letting it happen and never blame the horse.
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post #3 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 11:19 AM Thread Starter
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Situation 6: I put 50 plastic bags in my horse's stall since he spooked:

Conscious Incompetence: I may think this is teaching the horse a lesson. I may take it personally that the horse had the audacity to spook at plastic bag with me. I don't understand why the horse did it and think that if I put plastic bags in his stall it will show him not to be afraid of them. If I see the horse is nervous and can't relax, I will take them down and realize I am making my horse more fearful and this is not working and I may need to ask someone for help with this problem.

Conscious Competence: I know that horses spook at things. I know that if my horse is confident in me, his spooks will be less and less and I have the ability to control him when he spooks. I will use proper sack out techniques to build the confidence in the horse and remove fear. I know that I can't get my horse to stop spooking at everything, so I just work on how I deal with it. I practice my calmness and keeping and having a good seat when I ride. I work on sacking out routinely. I don't take shortcuts and easy way out. It takes more time to work on sacking out than it does to just throw 50 bags in my horse's stall. So I work on myself and how to deal with my horse's natural fear instinct so we grow together.

Unconscious Competence: I see plastic bags before my horse does since I am always looking for possible dangers, just like my horse. I think like a horse, so if I see something that appears odd, I know my horse may think that way. I have worked on my horse and know that no matter how he reacts to scary things, I know I can control him, I can stop him, I can keep my seat and deal with it. I try and show him that things are not going to hurt him, but I know he is reacting to real fear and I understand this and work with him, together, to get over or to get better. I know I feed my horse hay and he loves alfalfa and is not scared of alfalfa and I never sack him out on alfalfa, but I know that if a flake of alfalfa falls out of a tree while I am riding, it will scare me and my horse. I know we will get through it together and I can't make my horse "bombproof". I can prepare for unexpected things and deal with it fast and instinctively without much lag time for thought since I have done it 1000 times before and it is done without much thought and becomes instinct.

THERE YOU HAVE IT! If you read all of this you should have a better understanding of the horse and maybe will strive to move to the "Conscious Competence" level and over time will naturally move to the "Unconscious Competence" level. You may be at the Unconscious Competence level now in some areas, like putting your horse in a stall, taking it out to pasture, feeding your horse, picking his feet or saddling your horse. Since you do these almost daily they may be second nature and you may not think about them much. Getting to this level in reading your horse and communicating/talking with horse is where you will see your horsemanship grow and advance. But it won't happen if you think you already there (Unconscious Incompetence) or if you don't actively work and practice doing it. Spending time and watching horses is an investment. Study them, read about them, watch them, watch others handle them, handle different horses, ride different horse, ride and work with problem horses (people problem horses), watch others take lesson, the more time you are with horses the more you will learn from them. Hope this helps improve your relationship with your horse and your knowledge about the horse.
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post #4 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 11:54 AM
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WOW--thanks for sharing.
There's a lot to digest. I think the only part I have a little trouble with is:
"You can handle most any horse without assistance." I've gotten hurt several times over the years with this attitude, and now I let the owner walk THEIR horse through it's paces and demonstrate that his/her horse IS manageable before I proceed to further consider a purchase. THEN, I go home and sleep on it, maybe DAYS. I'd rather lose a good horse than be kicked, thrown and broken. OH, and a biter or striker is worth $0 to me.
I need to copy this and re-read it--there's a lot there. Again, thanks.
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post #5 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 02:44 PM Thread Starter
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Yes, sorry-it is a really big read. I didn't think it would be so long-most of it is going over the situations and how each person would handle it.

Regardless, I still think it's an interesting article and worthy of some thought.
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post #6 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 02:51 PM
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Agreed. **hugs**
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post #7 of 11 Old 08-17-2011, 05:30 PM
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That was a long read.

I am definitely at stage 2. At the moment, it feels like I will never be anything better..

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post #8 of 11 Old 08-18-2011, 09:52 AM
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Very good article! It sure is food for thought.

There's nothing like the Rockies in the springtime... Nothing like the freedom in the air... And there ain't nothing better than draggin calves to the fire and there's nothing like the smell of burning hair. -Brenn Hill
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post #9 of 11 Old 08-18-2011, 02:44 PM
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Sure makes you sit back and think. Great post!
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post #10 of 11 Old 08-18-2011, 03:09 PM
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I'm printing this out... more people need to read it!! Thanks! Where did you find the article, pintophile??
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