Using the ideas/techniques from Learning How to Learn course to improve your skills at training horses
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, October 26, 2023 07:23 PM
Nobody argues that human children and adults don't know everything, must learn and it is important to teach effectively. Surprisingly, same ideas are not necessarily applied to horse training which leads to false concepts, instant "trainer celebrities", confusion and unhappy horses. Studying the LHTL course by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski (Coursera) I was amazed how the simple and effective techniques are relevant to not only humans but horses too.
People often afraid to train their horses because they think that you must posses some magical qualities and often watching demonstrations of finished product leave people in awe. It is a similar situation when a human is faced with very difficult project, subject, problem, etc.
It is important to approach teaching a horse in simple small steps creating chunks of easy to understand information. As Barbara Oakley said chunking requires practice and repetition. So, does horse training. All aspects of effective way to acquire initial knowledge are the same - working in a quiet environment to minimize distractions, focusing well, setting time limit like in Pomodoro technique, not worrying about end product but repeating the process until recalling the information becomes easy. Rewarding a horse at the end of a short session with relaxed time, something the horse enjoys like a carrot, running around playing with a ball, going for a walk.
Mindlessly repeating same thing for a long time will really lead to choking, loss of interest and loss of focus exactly like with humans. Overlearning occurs even faster in horses because they have less brain capacity to retain information. It is much more effective to do spaced repetitions and as the knowledge gets solidified spread sessions even further and challenge the learned info with interleaving (mixing different learned skills together) and working on it in unusual places where distractions can make it harder to remember. Over time horses learn to combine simple chunks into more elaborate, complicated tasks so single cue can call it up and observers sit in awe because they didn't see the long road that led to it. :)
Humans have only four slots of working memory. I do not know if horses have less. I do know they have very good long term memory because they do not reconsolidate it in their mind at all, so they do not corrupt their memory. However, they are, like humans, must repeat learned material regularly to built solid neural connections to be able to perform the task quickly regardless of circumstances. Because of their good long term memory but not very good reasoning teaching horses requires establishing calm environment. Similar like humans their memory and learning abilities are tied to emotions and emotional state of mind. Stress diminishes their ability to learn good stuff but they will remember bad stuff for a long time. Positive emotions and rewards enhance good learning. Making it fun improves understanding and retaining of information.
Humans who work with horses often end up procrastinating due to fear of making mistakes. Mistakes are integral part of learning. When mistake is made it makes us more alert, we start looking into reasons and working out the solutions. It becomes much more deliberate practice. A wonderful book on the subject is "Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle explores that in great detail. We can go as far as to say that learning is moving from one mistake to the next until it becomes much more smooth road. Procrastination happens when not only our brain sees the task as something unpleasant (to the point of seeing it as painful) but also because of a chance to make a mistake. Barbara Oakley describes procrastination as a habit that has four parts: cue, routine, reward, belief. Mistake falls into last category, it is a belief and it holds people back to try new things. Horses on the other hand don't have such believes, they procrastinate because it is their lifestyle :) When horses make mistake and shown correction they simply try again. And exactly like humans they learn from it! Preventing horses from making mistakes is really wrong approach. Another side of the fear of making mistakes is einstellung, staying inside of the known, comfortable box instead of looking for novel, untried solutions.
One thing of working with horses that I love the most is they do challenge humans to become more disciplined, creative, positive, stretch their comfort zone and imagination. :) Training a horse is like growing a garden. While attending to it every day it is hard to notice the progress. However, as time passes by the fruits of that care are plentiful. Leave the garden unattended and weeds and draught will choke it.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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