Not long ago it was thought the human brain finished growing by the age of three, but modern imaging technology has proven that your brain is actually capable of growing (and even changing its shape) well into adulthood. Regardless of whether it’s learning to ride a horse or speak a new language, your brain is capable of growing and changing just like you are. This is called neuroplasticity, “neuroelasticity,” or neurogenesis, and provides scientific proof that the growth mindset is real.

Your brain has billions of neurons, each with thousands of connections to other neurons. They meet at synapses and communicate via neurotransmitters, which ultimately create your thoughts, skills, and behaviors. Every time you have a new experience, your brain creates new connections between them, and every time you have that same experience again, your brain strengthens those connections. In time, these connections become wired together, much like a forest path that gets more defined over time. Eventually, these wired connections allow skills and behaviors to become automatic (muscle memory) because when one fires, so does the other. In other words, neurons that get wired together get fired together.


London taxi drivers undergo intensive training to memorize the thousands of complex city streets. Musicians dedicated endless hours learning their instruments. Perhaps it’s no surprise that MRIs have found larger-than-average memory centers in the brains of London cab drivers, and larger-than-average auditory centers in the brains of musicians.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use certain parts, the more they grow!

The Anxiety Cycle Is Not a Spinning Class!

So, what does neuroplasticity have to do with becoming bolder, braver, and brighter? Well, overcoming emotional challenges like anxiety, show jitters, and out-grouping is a skill, and like any skill, you can improve it by practicing and learning to wire the correct neurons together. But in order for this to happen, you must first overcome something called the anxiety cycle.

The anxiety cycle works like this: When you avoid something scary, your brain releases a surge of relief that makes you feel better, which increases the likelihood of your brain telling you to avoid other scary things in the future. Every time you avoid something scary and survive, your brain links together more neurons that strengthen that habit, even if the scary thing isn’t dangerous (like backing up a trailer, for example). Before long, the anxiety cycle creates neural connections that make you avoid situations that might seem scary. Every time you avoid something scary and survive, your brain says, “Yay, let’s always do that!” Eventually, it becomes a habit because your brain wires scary and avoidance together (wired together and fired together).

The Anxiety Cycle.

The trick to overcoming the anxiety cycle is to just do those things that feel a bit scary (just back up the trailer already!). If you do them and don’t die (spoiler alert: you won’t), your brain says, “What a relief!” and will begin breaking the neural connections between scary and avoidance, and begin building new connections between scary and safe. In the end, neuroplasticity is what helps you to break the anxiety cycle, and breaking the anxiety cycle is what helps you to become bolder, braver, and brighter.

The Learning Ladder

Making anything look easy is hard, because creating bold neuronal connections takes time. That’s why effort and errors are so important to learning. When a mistake occurs, your brain simply says, “Well, that didn’t work so I won’t wire and fire those neurons together again.” Having the patience to wait, and the trust to believe this, are the keys to leaning any new mental or physical skill.

WIKIPEDIA SAYS: Neural Pruning

Your brain deletes neural connections that are no longer useful and builds new connections that are. Learning to face scary situations (instead of avoiding them) is a great example of pruning away the bad and planting the good.

Luckily, the process of acquiring new skills follows four pretty predictable stages. Knowing what they are (and what you should expect to feel during each stage) can relieve much of the anxiety you might experience. It can also help you to manage your expectations, maintain motivation, and avoid thinking self-defeating thoughts.


The learning ladder is a four-step program designed to help you understand the natural thoughts and emotions that can occur when learning a new skill. As you’ll see, some stages are fun while others are frustrating, but all four stages focus on two important factors: consciousness (awareness) and skill (competence).

Stage One: Unconsciously Incompetent (Not Knowing What You Don’t Know)

You’re blissfully ignorant during this stage. You’re new to the skill and don’t feel bad not knowing what you’re doing, because you’ve never done it before! It’s new and unique and exciting, and your expectations are low or even nonexistent. You don’t compare yourself to others or worry you’re not good enough. You’re simply happy because you’re taking part in the activity. This is called the autotelic experience (p. 234) and is what makes the unconsciously incompetent stage fun, carefree, and enjoyable.

This first stage is defined by not knowing what you don’t know. You don’t know that you don’t know how to do the skill. You’re just happy you’re doing it! Sometimes your confidence can exceed your ability here, so it’s important to listen to your trainer and behave safely. Unfortunately, very little learning happens during this stage (that begins in the next stage), so welcoming new challenges and building a desire to grow and improve are important to moving on to the next level.

Stage Two: Consciously Incompetent (Knowing What You Don’t Know)

This is the most difficult and disheartening stage of learning because it’s here that you realize you don’t have a skill you wish you had. Even worse, you become acutely aware that other riders can do that skill (and even make it look easy!). As a result, out-grouping usually begins when you enter this stage because you’re given irrefutable proof that other riders are better than you. You’ll likely also experience a little disappointment, defeat, and dejection during this stage because your efforts won’t always match up with the demands of the skill. You’ll put the effort in, but the desired results won’t always come out. As a result, it’s quite common to feel a bit frustrated and cranky (or what I like to call FRANKY). This is the stage of learning where the fear of failure, perfectionism, and defense mechanisms also usually begin.

This stage is defined by knowing what you don’t know, and by the words “consciously incompetent,” alone, it’s easy to see why this phase can be so emotionally difficult. After all, in the first stage you were oblivious to your weaknesses and shortcomings, but in this phase you know exactly what they are! This stage is, however, critical to your development because it’s here that your efforts and errors begin to form the important neutral connections that’ll ultimately make the skill possible. Without this phase, there can be no growth and no continued movement up the ladder. But there’s a problem: Many riders get so disheartened during this stage that they stop (quit) before they can step up to the next rung of the learning ladder.

Stage Three: Consciously Competent (Knowing What You Know)

This stage is going to feel a whole lot better than the second stage, because it’s here that all your hard work and patience finally begin to pay off. It’s during this stage that your previous efforts and errors give rise to the understanding of the skill, because the important neural connections have now been wired together.

This stage is defined by knowing what you know. You now know what needs to be done, when it needs to be done—and you can actually do it! It’s during this stage that you realize you’re capable of doing something that (until recently) you were incapable of achieving. Making the impossible possible is what makes this stage so rewarding. But this stage is only made possible because of tough lessons learned in Stage Two. Without them, the impossible would still be impossible. It’s important to remember that while you’re now competent at the new skill, it still requires effort, and periodic errors will still occur, but with continued practice and patience, you’ll continue to gain more proficiency, and eventually make the skill feel practically automatic (muscle memory).

Stage Four: Unconsciously Competent (Not Knowing What You Know)

When you arrive at this stage, you’re no longer even aware you possess a particular skill. It’s become so automatic and natural that you perform it effortlessly without any real conscious thought or effort. You don’t even think about it—it just happens! It’s now muscle memory. The important neural connections have been wired together and they get firing together subconsciously. You feel completely confident with the skill and are no longer wondering, wishing, or worrying about it, which is wonderful because you had to go through a couple of pretty tough stages to get there. This stage is defined by not knowing what you know. You know so much stuff that you don’t even know it!


The learning ladder can help coaches understand what their students might be thinking and experiencing as they learn new skills. It also helps trainers design specific programs with reasonable exceptions and exercises based on the exact stage of learning for each of their riders.
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Becoming mindful of the Four Stages of the learning ladder can help relieve much of the disappointment you might otherwise feel when attempting new skills, help you understand the emotions you’re likely to experience along the way, and help you maintain motivation throughout the four-stage journey. This is yet another example of how helpful mindfulness can be. Here’s a story that can help you understand the four-stage learning ladder a little better:

STAGE ONE: Unconsciously Incompetent (Not Knowing What You Don’t Know)—Imagine a young rider just starting out. Every second spent at the barn is exciting and new. When she’s not at the barn, she can’t stop thinking about being there, and when she’s at the barn she can’t stop thinking of ways to never leave it. She happily jumps on the back of her pony and giggles her way around the arena, knowing that riding, and that fat pony, are the best things that have ever happened to her.

QUESTION: Does she worry about her posting-trot diagonals?
ANSWER: No … because she doesn’t even know they exist!

As a result, she doesn’t feel bad about not knowing her diagonals, because she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know! This is a super fun stage. No wondering, wishing, and worrying here.

STAGE TWO: Consciously Incompetent (Knowing What You Don’t Know)—Now imagine that this young rider arrives at the barn one day, but her trainer says, “Today we’re going to learn something called posting-trot diagonals.” This is the day that her riding emotions might take a bit of a turn. Imagine that no matter how hard she tries, she just can’t seem to see her diagonals (or even grasp what they really mean). She does her best, but her best isn’t good enough. She feels disappointed and upset, begins to doubt herself, and starts comparing herself to other riders (“Everyone can do it except me!”). She even starts to lie to her trainer about being able to see her diagonals (it’s a 50/50 chance!) because she doesn’t want him to think she’s incompetent. She becomes frustrated and cranky (FRANKY!), and for the first time, riding starts to feel more frustrating than fun. All because she now knows what she doesn’t know.

STAGE THREE: Consciously Competent (Knowing What You Know)—Even though the bright and carefree emotions of her initial riding experiences have changed to something darker, she doesn’t quit or give up. She trusts her trainer and reminds herself she’s capable of accomplishing difficult tasks, so she continues to do her best—and one day, she finally learns her diagonals! Proud of herself, and equally thankful the struggle is over, she now knows what she knows (her diagonals)!

STAGE FOUR: Unconsciously Competent (Not Knowing What You Know)—Inspired by her efforts and progress, the girl continues to focus on her diagonals until the time comes that seeing them is completely natural and automatic, even to the point where she no longer needs to look for them. She can simply feel them and change automatically whenever needed. The important neural connections have now been wired together (and fired together) without her even knowing it. She now doesn’t even know what she knows!

FRANKY Climbs the Ladder

One of the most important takeaways from the learning ladder is that FRANKY is a part of your future. Every time you embark on the journey to learn a new skill, there’s a chance you might feel a bit frustrated and cranky. Not because you’re incapable of doing the task, but because you’re simply not capable of doing it yet. That will come farther up the ladder. You’ll struggle and fail and fail again, but with a little courage and self-belief, you’ll soon move past the FRANKY phase and onto the other more enjoyable steps of the ladder.

It goes without saying that you’ll want to speed through the FRANKY stage as fast as you can, but the amount of time you spend there is actually up to you. It comes down to a willingness to make the effort and the errors, and to learn from each one of them. Remember, every time you make a mistake, your brain will say, “Okay, that didn’t work. I won’t wire or fire those neurons together again.” Learning a skill like riding isn’t easy, but a willingness to make the effort and the errors is what’ll make it possible.

The amount of time you spend in the FRANKY stage is also directly related to your willingness to be vulnerable (to try new things and push yourself outside your comfort zone). If you’re afraid to try new things or afraid of being vulnerable, it’s going to be difficult to move beyond the FRANKY stage of the learning ladder.


While vulnerability is often misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, it’s actually the complete opposite. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a sign of courage! After all, it doesn’t take any courage to say you’re never afraid or that you never struggle. Anyone can do that. What takes courage is having the self-confidence to admit that sometimes you do feel a bit fearful, frustrated, or vulnerable. Riders who won’t admit that are usually just too afraid to admit it! Allowing yourself to be vulnerable (by accepting your faults and flaws) is a sign of courage and is what will make you bolder, braver, and brighter.

Consider the story of the rider who struggled learning her diagonals. There came a time when she began to lie to her trainer about her ability to see her diagonals. As you can imagine, that only prolonged the amount of time she remained in the FRANKY stage (the longer she lied about it, the longer she went without help), but if she had summoned up the courage to be vulnerable and admitted her shortcomings earlier (by asking for more help), she’d have surely learned her diagonals quicker, and moved beyond the FRANKY stage faster.

There’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to feel a little FRANKY sometimes. It’s a part of every learning ladder. When challenges make you feel frustrated and cranky, remind yourself that you’re just in that stage of learning (just at that rung of the ladder) and that all the other amazing stages of learning are waiting for you. As long as you have the courage to make the effort and the errors, and to be vulnerable, you’ll get to the top of every ladder you ever climb.


Order your copy of Bolder, Braver, Brighter: The Rider’s Guide to Living Your Best Life on Horseback by Daniel Stewart from Trafalgar Square books HERE.