Just a relaxed mind can learn at its best!
Really? Relaxation is important for learning?
If we think about learning from a human perspective, we know we can just "absorb" and process a certain amount of information until we feel tired or we get the feeling our head will " explode" lol.
Why do we still demand from our horses to be able to focus for one hour constantly within a training session or riding lesson?
For our horses this amount of time is too long, if there is no proper resting/relaxation time within.
No resting periods result in bad learning or no learning at all. So you start all over again with the same stuff all the time. Frustrating for you, but also for the horse.
So, why are resting periods and breaks so essential for our horses learning ability???
Learning means, creating new connections within the brain. More connections within the brain creates more experiences ( hopefully positive ones...), more experiences result in confidence and more "knowledge". Horses create connections within their brain through exploring (moving) and problem solving (how to use the mechanical water hole, how to open the gate to get to the other pasture, how to open the bin lock to get the grains lol...) Some horses even have figured out how to untie the lead rope from the pole. They are driven by curiosity and then try to "solve" the problem.
Exploring and problem solving also gets the highest release of Dopamine ( the feel good hormone).
Dopamine is so reinforcing it can even override fear.
Another reason why we want to create curiosity in our horses. Curiosity makes them start to explore and expend energy. This will help them to downregulate their brain, the curiosity helps to release a big amount of dopamine and the horse feels great again.
If you have pushed your horse ( mentally) too far, you have to back off and let your horse find its mental balance again to regulate the nervous system and enable learning again.
And by the way, its very helpful for us too to have a moment of a break to reset ourselves as well.
We, as the riders can often get a bit too ambitious, wanting a little bit more, try something else as well because the horse is doing a great job. Please remember, if the horse is doing something good, let him have a rest to process. Or even stop for the day and let him have a break in his paddock, pasture etc.
Nobody needs to always ride for an hour to practise jumping, dressage tasks, groundwork etc.
Often less is more, because it enables learning for your horse long- term and it can memorize what he learnt that day. This will keep him motivated and engaged with you and the learning progress will be much better each time.
Relaxation is connecting time for the brain. Leave your horse alone in peace for the relaxation.
No grooming, touching etc. Give him time and space to "re-think", " replay" the task you have been working on, so the brain cells can built up a stronger connection, a pathway and the learning outcome will be much better.
If you want to train your horse, you need his attention.
For his attention he needs to feel safe with you. Get your horse motivated through problem solving tasks.
Examples for problem solving training on and off the horse:
So, stay curious and inspired. For your horses.
See you next time here at my Blog,
Training by rewards is automatically associated with feeding the horse treats, carrots, apples or biscuits.
This is NOT meant by training with reward in this context.
It means: Encouraging horses to learn by consequences.
Training by reward needs more attention to equine behaviour than negative reinforcement training.
Its important to notice the horses subtlest test to be able to appreciate the good manner. Offering rewards at the wrong time or for the wrong reason teaches the horse bad habits.
Some reasons why edible treats are not helpful:
So what is a suitable reward for a horse???
Suitable is everything that is desirable for a horse.
What is happening in a horses brain when learning by reward?
The secret that makes reward so powerful is DOPAMINE. Its a natural chemical made by the brain, the "feel good" chemical. Humans produce that chemical too in their brain. Everything that gives satisfaction, such as food (when hungry), water ( when thirsty), listening to our favourite song, kissing our loved one, etc. All these feelings of satisfaction come from the dopamine that's associated with them. Dopamine is also the basis for developing an addiction if we constantly evoke pleasure through a drug, gambling etc.
Dopamine is a strong brain chemical.
Training by reward activates much greater dopamine release than training by negative reinforcement.
That makes lessons much pleasurable to the horses and more important for the brain. This makes the learning effect long term more effective.
But please note: There is a fine line here.
The first reward (e.g. praising your horse with a stroke on the neck) for a given behaviour is the strongest, because your horse does not expect it. It is a surprise, this boosts the Dopamine release.
The power of reward gets lost when it comes all the time ( "over praising").
We know this from humans: When we get praised all the time for the same action its nothing special anymore to get the positive feedback. Its " normal", so no big Dopamine release anymore that makes us feel good. The neural power of a strong reward is lost.
To keep your horse interested and engaged, reward new achievements instantly to built a learning effect. Then you praise the increase or next level of the achievement etc.
Often we give animals treats to make ourselves feel better. But there are a million ways to show your horse love and praise. Spend five minutes scratching his favourite spot, spend time to hand out in the paddock together just relaxing, go for an easy walk together to explore the environment. Food is just a "short term pleasure" and can create bad habits and begging attitudes in the horse.
Non - edible rewards built long term connection and trust. Relaxed gait, loose rein, a gentle stroke on the neck and a calming verbal praise have long-term positive effects.
Create power moments in your riding/training:
If your horse shows a very nice canter for a few steps, end the session, cool your horse down on a loose rein, then dismount, get the tack off, bring the horse back its pasture. These are all great moments of comfort for your horse and a great reward for the few great canter steps. Next time he will show a few more of those ( to get this great reward again...), great learning effect!!!Lots of Dopamine release.... Probably in your brain as well, as you will be happy and smile all over the face about this great canter and your success as a team.
Stay curious! Next Blog will be about the importance of relaxation within training.
For the love of horses,
When it comes to training, there are a lot of different approaches out there.
Positive reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, training by reward, clicker training, liberty training....the list is long....
Lets have a closer look at some of the training approaches from a horses way of learning, in relation to how their brain works: Part 1 : Negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement relies on the use of pressure and timely release of pressure to train horses.
It's only called “negative” in a mathematical sense because something (pressure) is taken away during the training process to reward the horse for a correct behavioural responses.
Example: If your horse walks and you apply pressure with both legs your horse might change to a trot. You remove your legs, and your horse thinks "that feels good". Next time you apply pressure with both legs your hose will speed up, hoping it will achieve the same good feeling/release.
Lets have a look how that responds with the equine brain:
Negative reinforcement works best, when applied in a form that suits the horses nature.
Horses are familiar with displacements ( move away from pressure, or apply pressure to displace another horse/ human). They do this within a heard all the time.
Dominant mares pin their ears to displace another horse from the food, horses move/displace us with walking into us, swinging their head or hindquarters towards us etc.
If we apply pressure on the right side of the horse to move it , it will move to the left etc etc.
There are many more examples.
The important part is , to release the pressure immediately.
If we release it too early, the brain cannot relate the pressure and release, if its too late the moment of relating is gone. Timing is EVERYTHING!
Using negative reinforcement to correct Misbehaviour:
Another form of pressure for a horse is to work. Having a break/ rest is a sort of pressure release.
Thinking about a misbehaviour such as bucking under saddle when starting to ride. Of course bucking can have several reasons ( discomfort or pain, not fitting saddle....), just lets assume it is not a health or tack issue: If we push the horse into work, more forward, on a circle etc. when he start to buck ( if you are experienced and confident enough to do that, if not please ask trainer for help!!!!) he will associate bucking with more working.
As soon as he stops bucking around, you stop him and let him have a break.
Learning effect: Bucking- pressure, not bucking- release/break.
Then you try the manoeuvre again. If he bucks again, let him work harder, as soon as he stops , release him and have break. Your horse will learn that bucking is not a good idea as it leads to more work. Horses are energy saving orientated ( its their nature), so he will choose the more "relaxing" approach in the future. Remember, learning takes time, especially re- learning or " overriding" old/bad behaviour. Consistency and patience is the key.
The downside of negative reinforcement:
This training approach is effective but the release has to be done immediately. A lot of riders are not experienced enough to get the timing right and have issues with their own body coordination.
Think about riding lessons: Often we need the help of the instructor to tell us when to apply more pressure or release it as we are too busy in balancing our own body and coordinate our limbs on each side. It even becomes more difficult if you need to time the pressure and release simultaneously with your own body awareness and coordination.
Negative reinforcement is often used incorrectly when riders apply constant pressure but fail to release the pressure when the horse responds. This is a fatal mistake as it leads to "neural fatigue".
Signs of neural fatigue: The horse will stop trying to please, some will become nervous, others will start to buck/rear/bolt or start to fight.
When a touch becomes a constant pull on the bit it will annoy and even hurt the horse and human strength will be placed in competition with the horses strength. Not a good solution. Your horse will become "numb" in the mouth area, built up too much tension within the neck and will develop performance issues that will end up in sore muscles and the inability to perform at his potential.
Another problem is "accidental unintended reinforcement".
An example: You are cantering and want to start riding in a circle. You grab the left rein to begin a circle, but you grab it too hard and your horse turns too much and you fall out of the saddle onto the ground. By falling off, you relieved pressure of the rein which is a "reward" for the horse. Your horse learns that this is what you want, so it does it again next time.
This example just shows, what happens all the time while we learn to improve our riding skills. It also shows how important our own body awareness and balance is, to train our horses correctly in a fair and horse orientated way.
Finally, Negative reinforcement teaches a horse to OBEY and RESPOND, but it does not really built trust and connection between horse and rider.
It is a more "functional" approach. The horse learns to seek, identify and use humans cues. But your horse does not learn that you are on his side.
It learns to do the job.
Next time I will explain the Training by reward. BUT please leave your carrots, biscuits and apples in the pocket for now. Training by reward does not mean we use treats. More about this in the next blog.
All the information provided is my summary of more detailed information from the fabulous book:
"Horse brain. Human brain" by Janet L. Jones
Any comments, questions, requests please contact me. Always happy to help.
Stay curious, for the love of horses!
How do horses gain knowledge and process what they learn? Read here important insights useful for training and management of your horse!
To improve training and management of our horses, we need to understand how they learn, what they need to be able to learn and how they process and remember stuff they have learned.
With those information there will be more horse orientated training available, the management of our horses will improve and our horses will be happier and healthier long- term. That's what we all want for our horses, right?
When you know better, you do better!!!!!
Learning means building connections in the brain. So, how do horses learn????
Horse learn through these 6 types of learning:
Horses are actually FAST learners as they don't carry the extra " baggage" that humans do, such as cognition, planning, judging, reasoning, doubt, arrogance and fear of embarrassment. All these "baggage" is either part of our future (worrying) or the past ( experiences), but not happening when we are PRESENT. Horses are present all the time as they are PREY animals.
A horses behaviour is the result of past learning experiences in situations in the past. It is not influenced by his " parents expectations" or " boss demands" just as examples, as it is often in our life as humans.
Horses are PRESENT and show us how they are. They do not lie, they might " shut down" but never lie or judge as this is not part of their brain function.
Horse have a good memory, so we have to be mindful what we teach them. Their memory is that great that we will need a long time to unteach them unwanted behaviours or reactions. Those of you who have a horse that has made bad experiences in the past know exactly what I mean.
Also those of you who have a riding school and horses that are working with the riding students know, that it is necessary to ride the horses yourself on a regular base to "correct" them from the influence of the unexperienced rider.
Lets have a look now on the 6 ways a horse learns:
Learning by association happens when two events or ideas are linked.
Example: A hay truck precedes hay in time, means the horse relate the truck to the hay.
If you praise your horse with the words " good boy" and provide a stroke on the neck at the same time, your horse will link the stroke on the neck with that praise.
Learning by consequence is also often called " operant or instrumental conditioning".
What that means is, horses learn by cause and effect.
Example: Horses get fed when coming to the gate in the morning. So they learn, coming to the gate results in having a meal.
Humans learn by observation all the time. Think about children. They copy what they see or hear from their parents all the time.
Horses are experts in learning by observation. Foals learn from their mums that a scratch from a human can be pleasant, the farrier is not a monster and certain objects ( plastic bag) are nothing to be scared of if the mum stays calm. Trailer loading is another example. If a horse watch the other horse walk into the trailer with no issues, chances are it will do the same with no fear.
Strong memories are built by brain chemicals that cause emotions.
So, if your horse experiences fear in a situation it will remember that situation or even the smell, noise or object(9e.g. a trailer...) that was involved with this situation. So, to enable optimal learning create a state in your horse with the emotion of tranquillity, curiosity and trust. Allow your horse to look at you for reassurance and leadership. Feeling safe enables learning and is very important for connection.
Horses are able to find solutions in situations where they feel safe and their curiosity is activated. Thins about the situation where your horse managed to open the gate just by playing around long enough on the chain or handle. Problem solving also occurs when horses are trained new lessons. they try to figure out what we want them to do to fulfil the task.
Most people interpret testing as misbehaviour. But the brain is telling a different story. Testing is is one of the most effective ways of learning in mammals.
We do test ourselves when studying to get an idea of the knowledge we have.
Horses never stop testing as they always learn.
So, next time your horse is testing you, remind him of your expectations so he cannot get away with a misbehaviour. And think about it in a good way, as your horse just asks you want you want, he is just figuring out what you expect from him.
So, when it comes to learning a horse is quite similar in some ways a human learns.
The most important part is, we need to provide an environment that puts the horse in a mental state where learning is possible. So reduce stress, relax yourself as well, and the you and your horse can grow together and live the potential that both of you have.
For happy horses and smiling and relaxed rider.