The more we learn the better we get at the process of learning.
Our brains become more efficient at making connections, sorting out relevant information, and creating new memories.
For humans on a societal level, the practice of “higher education” through colleges and universities plays a big role in this. No matter what we study, the process of performing that learning and that study makes us more efficient learners and therefore better equipped for adjusting to a career outside academia.
If we continue to challenge ourselves with continuing to learn outside of formal education, we will retain these skills for learning throughout life.
The phrase to sum up this process is “learning to learn”.
The same happens for our horses. The more they learn, the better they will become at learning itself, and our role as their trainer becomes easier.
This applies to performing routine, necessary behaviors such as stand still, walk forward, stop, back up, etc. It also applies to more advanced movements of the body, such as place your right front foot forward, or lift your back, or shift your weight right.
In this article I want to discuss how taking the concept of “learning to learn” works and how consciously using this with your horse will make them not only easier to train, but also a safer riding partner as they become better at “thinking” through situations instead of simply reacting with old patterns.
Understanding the Brain
Let’s begin with a brief and very simplified description of the equine brain.
The lower regions of the brain process automatic body responses. This region of the brain governs breathing, heart rate, and fast responses. If a threat is detected by the horse’s senses, the lower region of the brain is what sends the message to respond, with a spook or startle.
Next is the limbic system, also called the midbrain. This section contains emotional centers of the brain.
Finally, there is the neo-cortex, large in a human and much smaller in a horse, but the horse’s neo-cortex allows for problem solving and conscious thinking.
The term neuroplasticity means that the brain is always changing. Areas that are being used will expand, but areas of the brain that are not used will be “pruned”.
The brain develops neuropathways – connections where information is passed. The more often any behavior is performed, the stronger that neural pathway becomes.
The process of learning creates new neural pathways, and the learner, the horse, needs to deviate from the old pattern in order to do something differently, and make a connection between cue and response.
This is the science behind “learning to learn”. As the horse learns something new, he creates more connections in his brain to support further learning.
Here is an example of how even the thinking pattern can change. If we pair new (and perhaps previously scary) objects such as clippers, tarps, a strategically placed plastic bag, with something positive, such as a food reward for investigating that object, we teach the horse to approach new items with curiosity and positive expectancy instead of fear. The horse learns to make a conscious decision to use the higher regions of his brain to actively investigate the item instead of startling and running off. We expand the connections in the horse’s brain for “investigating new things”.
Another example could be teaching a simple clicker training exercise such as targeting. The horse learns to offer behaviors – to try different movements and responses – to earn a reward. This ability is then transferred to the next time we are riding and make a request for a new movement, the horse will offer new responses more easily because he will have learned the process of new request – try different behaviors – earn reinforcement (reinforcement could be in the form of reward or release of pressure.)
What Affects Learning:
The Horse’s Participation
In training, there is a term called “choice point.” What this means is that when we can reward the moment when the horse makes a conscious choice to do what we were requesting the learning will be stronger. In essence we are not only rewarding the behavior, but also the thinking.
When the horse is an active participant in the training and making conscious choices the learning happens easier. The horse needs to know that his choices and behavior affect the world around him in predictable ways, including his interaction with us.
Learning, by definition, is making new connections in the brain. New connections in the brain means the horse needs to try new behaviors and movements to find the right answer.
There are several things that will stop the horse from trying new behaviors. The horse’s participation can be decreased, even accidentally, in several ways:
1 – Punishing incorrect responses
2 – Requiring submission, which reduces motivation to try anything new and different
3 – Physically controlling every movement, taking away opportunity for choice
4 – Training when the horse is in a state of stress
When punishment is associated with making the wrong choice, such as a yanking rein or a kicking leg for an incorrect response, not only that specific behavior, but also the more general pattern of “trying something new” is punished. Remember that trying new things is an essential part of learning.
Punishment can have it’s place to reduce unwanted behavior that is potentially dangerous, but it needs to be used with caution that it does not create negative emotion with training or reduce the horse’s freedom to try new behaviors.
Submission & Controlling Movement
There is a focus in many horse training philosophies on requiring submission from the horse. With equipment and training exercises, choice is taken away, and pressure is continued until the horse submits. Sometimes the signs of submission are subtle – a stoic horse who never offers new behavior and complies with listless responses. Other times the submission may be more obvious, such as a horse snubbed to a post being “sacked out” until he no longer resists.
If the horse is offered no ability to make choice in their training, less of the brain is exercised and involved. When they go into a state of submission, they wait for every response to be controlled by the rider, instead of remaining actively engaged in the interaction and the training.
The more the horse has choice and is an active participant in the training, meaning that their actions bring them a reward or release pressure, the more quickly they will try new things, and therefore learn, in the future.
Horses need to know that their choices affect the world around them, including us, in a predictable way. A horse who is controlled and inadvertently forced into each behavior or movement with no reinforcement for the correct response through a reward or release of pressure can develop a condition known as learned helplessness.
This is where the horse feels that nothing they do affects their environment and essentially give up, going into a passive submissive state. In some forms of training this total submission is the goal, but I believe a horse that is making choices, actively learning, and creating new pathways in their brain is going to be happier, better connected, and in the long run, easier to train.
The Horse’s Emotional Levels
Remember that thinking occurs in higher regions of the brain and automatic reactions are processed in lower regions.
As the horse becomes better at learning and thinking, he can start to override those automatic responses.
The initial startle may still occur, but he can switch to thinking about the situation, and as a result of previous learning, make a choice to say, walk towards the piece of plastic caught on the fence, instead of bolting away from it.
When we teach the horse something new we want them to be in a calm emotional state. This makes trying new things easier as their brain is not flooded with stress hormones and pre-occupied with responding to perceived threats.
As a new response is learned it can then be requested in increasingly stressful situations.
The more your horse learns the better he will get at it. He will be easier to train, and will become more skilled at thinking and offering behavior.
Even simple learning exercises, such as touching a target, rolling a barrel, learning to ground tie, or adding another cue for back up will help your horse be a better learner and will then transfer to your riding work.
Now it’s your turn, think of something new you can teach your horse. Leave a comment and tell me what you will be working on!