I first learned about punctuated equilibrium in the context of evolution. It is one explanation for why evolution doesn’t occur in a straight line, or why we don’t see populations of organisms slowly evolving from one form into another. This is because there are long periods of stability (equilibrium), punctuated by periods of rapid mutation accumulation and evolution.
(Don’t worry, this has to do with horses, I promise. It’s not a science lesson.)
I think of progress in riding in this context as well. There’s no straight lines in riding (except on the diagonal maybe), and the path from one set of skills to another set of skills is often somewhat circuitous. That’s because it’s so much more complicated than simply being taught how to do a new thing – “wow, today I learned that if I weight my heels instead of pushing my toes down in my stirrups I’m more stable!” – and actually being able to execute that thing with any level of proficiency.
Obviously the same goes for the horse. We teach them things like “put your head down” or “lift your back up” or “stop taking such tiny, garbage steps, Murray” and expect those lessons to sink in after one or two or three repetitions. That’s totally enough, right? (That’s how long it took you to learn algebra, right?)
Think about how hard it actually is to learn to keep your heels down or your shoulders back or your reins at a consistent length. That shit is hard. And those aren’t even things that require you to really use your body in drastically different ways than we already use it. It just means that you have to pay more attention to what is going on with your heels, shoulders, or hands than you are inclined to until the habit solidifies. So imagine how much harder it is when you actually have to lay down big tracks of muscle and radically change how you fundamentally want to use those muscles.
Add into this equation that muscles hurt when you’re building them, and then you don’t want to use them the way you’ve been using them, oh and also nobody told you why you have to use your muscles this way in the first place, they just keep pushing and pushing and making you do it, and you’ve got the level of comprehension of this process that horses probably have.
I’m pretty sure this is how we learn anything, it just doesn’t feel like it for other skills. But nobody learns to talk after one session, or starts grouping variables one day and steadily progresses until they hit differential equations. There’s times where all you do is practice endless quadratic formulas thinking “why the fuck is my teacher assigning 3-479 odd, does she have nothing better to do than give students busy work?!*”
* Don’t pretend you never said that about a teacher in high school.
I think that we often have an unrealistic expectation of progress because for lots of things the stagnation periods happen on such a small scale that it looks like linear progress. Because the steps are tiny and we forget that it wasn’t just a gradual slide up into awesomeness. But don’t be fooled, there are periods of practice to anything. And if you think about riding with all the tiny little steps you’re actually solidifying one at a time, then that progress does seem a lot steadier and more gradual. We’re just bad at looking at it that way.