How do you learn?

I was reading the training principles that Colonel Carde has on his website, and it left me with one thought – if every rider stopped to think about how they learn, and approached teaching their horse as they want to be taught, most of the issues they encounter would be avoided.

Stop and think about the question – “How do you learn?”  By that I do not mean the cliche “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m a kinesthetic learner.”  Take it from this old trainer of people – those learning “styles” have no scientific basis.  The reality is that the most suitable “style” in those terms is based entirely upon what you are learning – for example, new skills are always learned best by doing (kinesthetic).

To get to the answer I’m looking for, consider this – have you ever had a teacher (of any kind) who shouts one command after another?  You’re struggling with learning something new, at top speed.  How was that experience for you?  Did you smoothly perform all of the tasks, and were easily able to repeat on your next attempt?  Or, did you feel harried, and at the end wonder just what you did right or wrong during the lesson?  Unless you are highly unusual, the honest answer would be the latter.

Now, think about a really successful learning experience.  How did the teacher approach the lesson?  Did they introduce a concept, and give you a piece of it at a time, so you could master each one before putting them all together?  Did you get time to evaluate each piece – what worked and what didn’t?  How did that lesson go for you?  Did you end up with a feeling that you understood the concepts, and could possibly repeat the steps yourself?  Did you get the chance to make the mental connection between what they asked you to do, and what the outcome of that was?

A good teacher takes a skill they are teaching, and breaks it down to the parts their student can master individually.  They then build upon the individual lessons, as the student progresses, and begins to put the pieces together to achieve the eventual goal: full development of the skill.  As the lessons go along, the teacher adjusts to the individual student – one student may struggle with one part of the skill, while another sails past that and is stopped in another area.  The teacher is willing to move at the student’s pace, however rapid or slow it may be, until the student has enough confidence to move to the next step.

Now, let’s consider how most horses are trained.  The young horse is mounted, and off they go.  The rider manages to get a walk.  Then, through leg, voice seat … whatever means, they manage to get into a trot.  If it is destined to be a Dressage horse, they will bang around the arena, with the rider trying for a “big” trot, while keeping steady contact.  If it is destined for Western riding, the rider will spend a lot of time pulling the nose around, or down, trying to instill the “frame” they want.  Through all of this, they just keep moving the horse.  As they feel “progress”, the rider will nudge their way into a canter.  Around the arena, around in circles … canter, canter, canter.  Again, with contact in the reins, or active hands, looking for a “frame”.

This pattern repeats daily, all across the globe.  Ask yourself this – what is the lesson that you are trying to teach the horse?  What has the horse learned from what I described above?

Now, what are the real lessons you want your horse to learn?  Here is my answer – the first lessons I want are to have my horse move off of a very light leg aid, turn from a slight shift of my hips, and stop simply when I stop the motion of my seat.  Do I have a hope of achieving that with the scenario I described?  How well would you learn anything subtle if the only message you got was “Move, move, move … keep moving! Turn, turn, turn. Move. Head down. Move, move, move.”  If you need quiet moments for lessons to register in your brain, doesn’t your horse deserve the same processing time?

Some of the most common complaints riders make are “My horse won’t move off my leg!” or “My horse has a hard mouth!” or “My horse won’t stop!” or “My horse leans on my hands!”  All of these come from a simple lack of breaking down the lesson into parts the horse can learn and absorb.  Let’s take “forward” as an example.  The first lesson has to be “when I lightly touch you with my leg, you take a step forward.”  This must be repeated numerous times, until the response is conditioned – every time I lightly press my leg on his side, an immediate step is taken.  If it is not, I will back it up with voice, and then with a light tap of the whip – both of which I conditioned in my groundwork.

It is well worth the time to do something as “boring” as conditioning this “go” response.  Once conditioned, it is fully understood and reliable.  Once reliable at a basic walk, it is then easy to translate into an increase of speed or of gait. “Oh, but my horse already knows the aid to go. We’re past that.” If that is your response, then here is my challenge to you – sit on your horse at the halt, and without doing anything else, very softly close your leg. Did he march right off? Can you reliably, at any gait, apply that same very soft leg and get an increase either in speed or gait? If not, then I would tell you that your horse is not conditioned to the “go” response.

Everything we do with horses can be broken down to three basic responses – go, stop, move sideways. You cannot teach these together. You must teach these each as individually conditioned responses. On my young horses, you may ask one thing, and one thing only. You can ask for “go”, but you do not get to say where. You can ask for a turn – and if they turn but stop, you praise the heck out of them! In the beginning, it’s only one thing per session. Later, it becomes one thing every few minutes. Horses trained this way offer no resistance, because there is no confusion or discomfort (mental or physical).

The first horse that I was this methodical with took far longer than her contemporaries to do basic things, like canter a full circle – but she later “ran” past them on the “hard” stuff. She did a fully correct shoulder-in on her second try, even as my coach was cautioning that it would take many attempts to get it. Our first attempt at canter pirouette resulted in a full, correct, pirouette – leaving my coach whooping in surprise. That was partially the talent of my mare, but mostly because my basic commands were fully conditioned and understood. By applying the right combination of go, stop, and sideways, I could create any movement I wanted.

Literally everything we teach humans is broken down into “building blocks”: alphabet before reading, counting before math, positions before ballet. We have been given that courtesy and time, even as we are being taught by beings who speak our language and can verbally explain. Why is it that we do not extend the same courtesy to our horses? We do not have the luxury of a shared language – we have to create that “language”.  Yet, for them we use the “sink or swim” training method.

Instead, try being a school teacher – break down each lesson into its building blocks, clearly explain each piece until it is demonstrated that it is understood, then build from there. Build a shared “alphabet” that can then be used to build shared “words”.  Slowing down, and taking this approach, allows you to witness your horse’s “Ah-ha!” moments, and will yield a partnership you might never have imagined!

Be good to your horses!


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