In the first of this two-part series, Helen O’Hanlon investigates learning barriers that might be inhibiting our ability to access and incorporate new learning into our horsemanship practice.

Helen O'Hanlon, accomplished equestrian coach and mentor, gracefully rides a majestic horse in a scenic countryside setting.


In our modern times, the notion of continuous professional development and learning are terms that have become part of the professional lexicon. Lifelong learning is now the norm and no longer a term reserved for those formally attending educational establishments. This gives rise to the question - how can we be successful lifelong learners and what are some of the barriers we may encounter on this journey?

Learning and education have never been more accessible and with modern-day technology, we now know more than ever before about human and equine psychology and behaviour. This challenges us as equestrians to keep up to date with new research and practices to ensure our approach is well-informed and produces optimal results for both horse and human.


Understanding the Fear of Judgement


The fear of judgement is regularly stated as a barrier to learning, but what is judgement and what does it do to our ability to learn and move forward in our equestrian journeys? Judgement exists in all areas of life but plays an integral role in obstructing our learning efforts. Judgement exists on two levels: self-judgement and the judgement of others. When we judge we form an opinion either positively or negatively about the thoughts, beliefs, opinions or actions of others or ourselves. When we feel judged it can have devastating effects on our self-concept as a learner and our ability to move forward on our learning journey.

When we are judged by others it has the ability to separate us from the group or tribe, and this separation exposes us without group support and protection. This segregation sets us apart and leaves us open to further judgement and alienation. This private or public scolding process discourages us from breaking the group’s norms and code of conduct, and encourages a culture of compliance and harmony. This harmony is often at the cost of our self-development. Judgement reduces our confidence to move forward in our learning, whether this results from our own judgement or the judgement of others. When we feel under threat, the brain’s amygdala fires and causes us to feel fearful regardless of whether the threat is physical or emotional (Jensen, 2015).

The vast majority of group behaviour is habitual and through repetition is normalised, so when an individual disagrees or disengages from group practices, the habitual nature of behaviours and actions of the group are normalised and used as a technique to reintegrate the rogue group member. Phrases like ‘we always do it this way’ or ‘it’s just the way it is’ are used to discourage new approaches and modalities. This normalisation of certain behaviours or approaches can overcome our own values and beliefs, as well as our wishes and goals. In an equestrian context, this is regularly seen at yards and barns where someone wishes to change their training approach or investigate other avenues of training only to be harshly judged for their attempts to stray from the status quo. The influence of the group can be so powerful that it can pervade our common sense and cause us to participate in activities that do not align with our principles, much like the adolescent experience of being pressured by peers into making questionable decisions (Jensen, 2015). If you find yourself in this situation it is important to be compassionate with yourself and recognise the power that group membership holds is very powerful indeed.


The Impact of Group Culture on Learning


When we endeavour to make changes in our lives, we can attract the judgement of others - this can be extremely painful and hurtful as we can feel judged and shamed for only wanting to change our own behaviours. As individuals, we feel we only want to create change in our own lives and how can this be such an emotive topic for others? It can be emotive because our change or shift can be perceived by others as a direct judgement that what they are doing is wrong in some way and calls the culture of the group into question. From an evolutionary perspective, being wrong in the past meant almost certain death, a mistake on the battlefield or out hunting may have had fatal consequences. As a result, our ego desperately wants to protect us from feeling wrong or incorrect in any way.

Unfortunately, when the culture we find ourselves in does not support our new growth and diversification we need to find other methods of gaining support, which can be through like-minded peers, an instructor or a coach that supports our new thoughts and beliefs. This does not mean that we have to disown old friends, but what it does mean is that we need to create a sacred learning space that we are accepted in when we make mistakes, try something new or want to ask a question. We can be vulnerable in our learning, but only in a safe learning environment. It can take time to curate a tribe of people that support our goals and aspirations. Furthermore, it is not our job to vehemently defend our values, beliefs and practices to each naysayer we meet, however, it is our responsibility to be a good example of the approach we are pursuing. Actions speak louder than words.

Belonging to groups and teams often exists with multiple layers of spoken and unspoken rules and regulations, and as a coach, I refer to this as the secret life of groups. It is often when one of these unspoken rules or cultural non-negotiables is breached that we feel the judgement or scolding of the group. Being expelled from a group or team can indeed be a lonely and nerve-racking experience, and again one that dates back to our evolution, whereby if we were not part of our extended community group, then our safety and mortality were instantly jeopardised.

Belonging is a human need and one that often supersedes our desire to learn or grow. Group experiences can amplify our experience both positively and negatively (Thornton, 2016). When we understand the often silent or unconscious culture of groups and teams it gives us an opportunity to acknowledge how difficult making a change or embracing new learning can be, particularly in equestrian spheres where culture and tradition are held in high esteem. However, with modern-day science and technology and the information it provides, we are held to a higher welfare standard of care and training for both horses and humans.


Confirmation Bias in Equestrian Learning


Being human leaves us open to predisposed bias, and particularly confirmation bias. Confirmation bias exists on the premise that we aim to support our values and beliefs by constantly scanning for evidence and material that supports our worldview. Furthermore, any information that may challenge our worldview is discounted. Confirmation bias is supported by our peer group, the books we read, the clinics we attend, and the social media platforms that we follow. When we audit our world view we often find that our views are supported by our environment, and while this is generally positive, it can also act as a barrier to new learning and opportunities.

With the rise of social media, we are inundated with new visuals and data that relate to equestrianism. With such a high volume of data intake, our brains need to take processing shortcuts and quickly grade and stereotype the information we receive; this leads to bias on a rapid-fire level.

A huge amount of bias operates on an unconscious level, but even having an awareness of confirmation bias gives rise to an opportunity to audit our values, beliefs, practices and emotions. Acknowledging that we are all susceptible to bias and stereotyping allows us space to view information differently and unpack this information with greater openness.


Jones, J., (2020) ‘Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship’ London: Trafalgar Square.

Peters, S., & Black, M. (2012) ‘Evidence Based Horsemanship’ USA: Wasteland Press.