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Layers of Equitation Part 6: Finding Flow: Skill vs Challenge

Updated: Jul 23

Flow begins with a state of enjoyment with what we are doing in the present moment. For equestrians to experience flow, 1. we must be riding a horse that is capable of operating at our current level of skill, and 2. we must be riding an appropriate challenge. We can use the Skill vs Challenge Matrix to find flow and advance our performance capability over time.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, researcher, professor of psychology, and author of the book Flow, puts it this way: “Enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever opportunities for action are equal to our capabilities… Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with our capacity to act.”

Flow: Challenge (Action) = Skill (Capability)

Choosing a challenge that is greater than our level of skill will result in worry and anxiety. Choosing a challenge that is less than our level of skill will result in apathy and boredom. Therefore, we should try to choose a challenge that equally matches our current level of skill. As we grow, the challenges should grow. To choose our challenges accordingly, we must be honest with ourselves about our current level of skill.

Pamela Au, author of Zen and the Horse says, “There are three phases to this transformation. First, physical training and self discipline in a given field. Next, study and contemplate to develop a sound moral and ethical foundation, or personal philosophy. Last, there occurs a systematic unconscious manifestation of the fruits of this effort towards personal transformation. Each time this cycle is repeated, a greater understanding and insight into transformation is gained. It can be complex when approached on an intellectual level, but it is extremely simple when undertaken with a strong, sincere desire for self improvement and understanding. This understanding of the basic, yet profound nature of life and self is its own reward.”

When we are in flow, there is a shift in our reality; our body and the horse just do what needs to be done, operating as one unit, we may feel as though we have nothing to do with what is happening, although we had everything to do with how we got there. It can feel like an out of body experience, where normal existence is temporarily suspended. When we are in flow, it’s just us and the horse in that moment; no extra thoughts, no wasted motion, every part of us focused on the task at hand. Horses are a great catalyst to enter a state of flow because for most of us, they are creatures that we truly love and are passionate about. They take us to places that we could not go alone, we become the brains and they are the “brawn,” or the source of energy for us to direct. We become better together than we are separately.

Characteristics of Flow:

  • Completely involved in what we are doing - focused, concentrated.

  • A sense of ecstasy - of being outside of every day reality.

  • Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.

  • Knowing that the activity is doable - that our skills are adequate to the task.

  • A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself, and feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.

  • Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, time seems irrelevant.

  • Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Flow is available to everyone, regardless of their skill level. By choosing a challenge that is equal to our current level of skill, we can promote an optimal flow experience. After a while, we will “outgrow” the challenge. When our skill grows to a new level, we may find that we don’t experience the same enjoyment with what we are doing that we once did. That is a sign that it is time to modify the level of challenge, to push it out there where it is just out of grasp, and then take action and watch as we grow even more.

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