A hard lesson in motivation
Being involved with horses is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. On a massive high one day, desperately struggling the next. There is so much that we can’t control that staying motivated and really loving it sometimes seems more down to luck than anything we can do.
A big learning experience for me came when I went to have showjumping lessons with one of my horses many years ago. We were doing really well in the local unaffiliated classes, and we generally won everything up to 1.15m. A local instructor persuaded me that what I really needed was some lessons to get us to the next level and compete in affiliated classes. Within two months I had totally lost my confidence, my ability and my motivation. I should have read the warning signs when he said that I ‘needed him’ to be successful, that I could never do it on my own. My need for autonomy is high and I know I struggle with any threat of losing it.
To be honest, I thought that I could protect myself from the negative effects of his coaching as I knew that it was not intentional. He passionately believed in what he was doing. As an experienced coach myself, well versed in motivation theory and sports psychology, I believed that I could anaesthetise myself from the negative motivational impact. But I couldn’t. Even with all that awareness, I couldn’t stop being affected. The experience really brought it home to me that our motivation and confidence is not just ‘in our heads’, but part of our interaction with the world around us, socially and physically.
This might seem like a daft question but, do you know what really motivates you?
Have you always thought that your motivation is simply a result of your own behaviours and attitudes? Perhaps you sometimes feel guilty for not being as motivated as you would like to be? Research into motivation and behavioural regulation (controlling our own behaviour) suggests that we are very much influenced by how we feel about the support we get from those around us, particularly people who are important to us such as parents, partners, teachers and coaches. Understanding this can help you to create a more supportive environment for yourself and boost your self-motivation and enjoyment.
|Our motivation is influenced by our perceptions of the support we get from those around us. Particularly people who are important to us like parents, partners, teachers, and coaches.|
The joy of being with other people who are passionate and skilful. Lusitano English Class, Royal Windsor Horse Show. Justine Armitage and her support team at Aintree International. Photo by Simon Armitage
As a coach, my interest in studying motivation was initially influenced by the way my son responded to the learning environments he experienced when he was young. One, in particular, stands out. At the age of eight, he asked if he could go to the local canoeing club with his best friend from school. I thought it was a great idea. He had played for years in boats with me and really enjoyed it, surely it would be so much more fun with his friends!
I went to pick him up after the club session expecting a happy excited little boy. But he had hated it. When I asked him why, he told me that canoeing was boring; they were not allowed to play like he did with me, they didn’t let him do the things that he was good at, or be with his friend. Not only did he not go back to the club, but he also lost interest in canoeing with me too. Then, ten years later, after a conversation with total strangers, he joined the Bangor University canoe polo club for a practice session. One day with them and he was hooked! He learnt quickly, become very skilful and ten years on he is still playing.
I was curious… How could one experience put him off so completely, and another inspire him so much? What was so different about the two experiences? If we understood what was influencing our motivation, could we be more savvy about ensuring that we have positive experiences (& our kids too)? After my experience with the showjumping lessons, I reflected again on my son’s experiences. I began to really focus on the motivational environment that I created with the people that I was coaching, and eventually, it inspired me to go back to university and do some more research.
There are many theories about motivation, but the one we’ll look at here is particularly useful for sports. It is called the Self Determination Theory, or SDT for short. SDT is made up of a number of micro-theories one of which is called the Basic Psychological Needs Theory. According to the Basic Psychological Needs Theory, motivation to engage in an activity is influenced by the support, and subsequent satisfaction of, three innate basic needs. These are the need for:
- Autonomy (a sense of control over your own life and personal volition),
- Competence (the need to be effective and skilful),
- Relatedness (the desire to feel connected to, and cared for, by others).
Motivation to engage in something (anything) can be increased by the satisfaction of any, but optimised by the satisfaction of all three, basic psychological needs. Interestingly, the satisfaction of these basic needs is not only very important for motivation, but also for overall health and well-being.
How does satisfying our basic needs influence motivation?
As human beings, we are inherently driven towards being creative and curious. This means that we will actively seek opportunities to satisfy our needs; to be masters of our own destiny, to be effective and feel connected.
If we do something that leads to our needs being satisfied, our motivation increases and we become more self-determined (self-motivated). You might have started riding horses because your parents did, or maybe your parents took you to a riding school, or your friends invited you to have a go. I’m guessing it was a good experience if you are still riding now.
Marianne Davies and Dysgu having fun in the water at Somerford Park
Your motivation to continue to ride is likely to have become more self-determined over time because you were within a rewarding social context and your basic needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy were being satisfied.
Changing your motivational environments
Let’s look at a few examples of how you might make your own environment more supportive:
Your social groups
Have a think about your relationship with the people you ride with, train with and/or compete with. What about the people you spend time within your local riding club? Do you share ideas and values? Are you part of a supportive group of riders who celebrate each other’s success? Being amongst like-minded people is very important for your perceptions of relatedness and feeling valued, which in turn will increase your motivation. And being around people who are passionate and skilful has a positive effect on everyone.
The joy of being with other people who are passionate and skilful. Lusitano English Class, Royal Windsor Horse Show. Photo by Simon Armitage
For those of you who don’t have your own facilities, a big challenge for your motivation is the whole complex environment of the livery yard. From the other livery owners and the yard owners to the rules that are in force on the yard. Is it somewhere you love being and can’t wait to get to every day? A big and important part of your social life? …or is it somewhere that causes you stress and anxiety?
Maybe you spend much of your time on your own, intentionally or not. In the modern world of social media, we can create virtual support networks even if we can’t create real ones. Remember that the social environment you are part of is important for your motivation.
A happy yard is important for you and your horse. Photo by ForagePlus
What about you and your horse(s)?
Equestrian sports are unique because our performance partners are sentient animals. Although motivation theories have not been used to explore human-animal relationships, most people involved say that they ‘love’ their horses and value their relationships with them. This means that our relationship with our horse could also affect our motivation. How would you describe your relationship with your horse? Is the relationship part of what you love about riding and equestrian sports, or is it a source of conflict or frustration?
Relationship issues with your horse could impact on your feelings of competence and autonomy too. Sometimes spending time getting to really know your horse and doing something different, perhaps some in hand or liberty work can really improve your relationship.
Sarah Braithwaite and Smurf getting to know each other better in hand. Photo by Forageplus
And what about your goals and aspirations? Is your horse able to fulfil them? Or do you need to re-evaluate what you want to achieve, or what you need to do with your horse to get there?
- Do you and your coach agree long and short term goals?
- Who makes most of the decisions regarding your lessons? Do you have an input?
- Are you able to choose your own level of challenge?
- Do they provide opportunities for you to take initiatives and work independently?
- Does your coach make sure that you have the knowledge and understanding you need to practice what you have been learning between lessons?
- Do they provide competence feedback (acknowledging when you do things well instead of pointing out ‘faults’), and use non-controlling language (no use of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’… etc)?
- Do they promote a mastery rather than ego involvement (developing your own performance and setting up tasks, manège patterns and exercises that allow you to recognise your own improvements)?
- Are you still challenged and supported to be successful?
- Are your feelings acknowledged and respected? Particularly anxiety or fear?
- Does your coach explain the reasons behind what they ask you to do?
- Do they avoid providing support that is not needed, or restricting opportunities to take initiatives, make decisions or be more independent? This is known as ‘controlling-support’.
- Do they interact with you and show genuine interest in you and your horse?
If the answer to these questions is mostly ‘no’, you may need to challenge your coach to change some of their behaviours! If it is ‘yes’, give your coach a hug and keep hold of them! Coaches need motivation too!
Can we apply any of this to understand our horses’ motivation?
Whilst there is no specific research into equine motivation, there is some fascinating research being done at the moment into equine ethology and learning. The work of people like Dr Andrew McLean and Professor Paul McGreevy is of particular interest from a motivational point of view. According to McLean, not only do horses have a need to be free of pain, fear, and suffering but they also have a need to feel in control (have some autonomy) and to have some self-determination.
|A horse’s mental health is linked to their ridden and training experiences.|
McLean also highlights that a horse’s mental health is linked to their ridden and training experiences. Whilst horses have a very different cognitive and learning capacity to humans, there is clear evidence that they do not learn best from simple punishment and reward, but from shaping their behaviour and rewarding incremental success. This is very much a mastery focus for training your horse. Although we know that horses do not think the same way as us, it makes intuitive sense to acknowledge that a prey animal has a need to feel competent in their environment and movement ability.
We also know that horses, as herd animals, need to have strong social bonds to feel safe. Safe with us as their riders and trainers, and safe with a herd that they are able to spend time with.
Your motivation is not only influenced by you having a goal and intentions, but also by the little details of your everyday experiences that can create a supportive environment and satisfy your basic psychological needs. These are the needs to have autonomy, become competent and have meaningful relationships. You might be surprised about how much difference you can make to your self-motivation, and enjoyment, by ensuring that you have as much support as possible.
Sarah Braithwaite fulfilling her goals and supporting the needs of her Arab CSA Maurice. Photo by ForagePlus
Think through all of your equine experiences – which are supportive and which are not? What can you change? If you can’t change something that is not supportive, can you find a different way to make it work for you?
Don’t forget your partner. After all, for most of us, it is the love of our horses that is the most important part of our sport.
The fabulously competent Justine Armitage performing at a dressage Demo. Photo by Simon Armitage
It is interesting for me to think back on my son’s experiences with the two canoe clubs knowing what I now know about motivation and how much it is influenced by the support of autonomy, competence and relatedness needs. His experiences were very much a result of the environments that he was in at those moments in time and summed up perfectly for me how important and influential those environments are to all of us. We cannot become really skilful without passion and motivation, and we can’t develop those without self-determination.
This article is based on my postgraduate research, but most importantly many conversations and the freely given knowledge and passion of too many people to individually mention. I would like to thank all of my friends and colleagues who proofread this for me, those who willingly offered pictures for me to use and the fabulous communities of support and practice that I am part of, both real and virtual. I would also like to thank both Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean for taking the time to proofread the sections about the horse and confirm my interpretation of their research.
Marianne Davies and El Brown having fun at the beach with River Tiger and Dysgu. Photo by Matt Tuck
Marianne has been a coach and coach educator for over 20 years as well as conducting research in motivation, learning and skill acquisition. She is currently at Hartpury University doing a PhD researching skill acquisition in equestrian sports coaching. Her main interests are equestrian activities, climbing, mountaineering, and paddlesports.
MRes. (Distinction) Sport & Exercise Science – Influence of motivation on skill acquisition. BSc (Hons), Sport, Health & Physical Education.
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