Think Riding is Hard? Try Teaching It

In a recent BestHorsePractices post, we wrote about Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do. It discussed the challenges of thinking, balancing, and connecting with your equine partner.

We then heard from several clinicians who talked about the challenges of nurturing that complicated, multi-faceted horse-rider partnership and communicating effectively enough to be understood and appreciated.

West Taylor, who with Dr. Steve Peters will present at the Horse Science Seminar next month in Park City, helped articulate the challenges.

Taylor shared these thoughts:

My horse training program broken down to its simplest form is: Pressure, Release, and Seeking Relief.

  • Pressure motivates the horse to “find something.”
  • Release tells the horse “you have found the answer.”
  • Allowing the horse the time to “seek relief” after the release of pressure puts it together with a reinforcing dose of dopamine.

From the time I release pressure, that horse is the seeking relief. I don’t know how much value there would be in the release if there weren’t time for that relief. However, if at that time the horse and rider are in a getting-something-done situation, then it’s different. As horsemen, we tend to toggle between these two situations.

I focus on Timing, Balance, and Feel.

Read more about Mastering the Elements here.

There is timing with pressure, timing with release, and timing with balance.

What does the balance of pressure mean? That’s knowing for example when to put on a little pressure and when to add more.

West Taylor’s client at work with her horse

Feel is everything, right?

As in:

  • What do I feel like this horse needs right now?
  • What’s the feel in watching the horse seek relief?

I might ask a horse at liberty to walk across a tarp. The feel to me here is in the observing and reacting:

  • Do I have to step back one step, two steps, five steps?
  • What do I need to do for the horse to be able to do what I’m asking it to do?

Will I need to take two big steps away in order for it to lick and chew?

That’s the feel to me. I see a lot of clients that miss the feel. What I want my clients to find is that feel, that observation. Rather than tell them A, B, and C, I’ll ask them, ‘What did you see?

With clear communication, you will see the results. But can the clients see it?

When something happens with the horse, I like to say:

  • How did you cause that?
  • What did you not support?
  • What did you not adjust to?

From a pro-active standpoint, we need to see how we set it up or how we got in the way. How did we cause an action or behavior? I just keep asking them. Often clients just don’t know. That’s why they are here. That’s what they learn. Teaching horsemanship is the most masterful game of chess that we can play. It’s leading the horse and person to the right moves.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert, along with Neubert’s daughter, Kate, will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage. Kate Neubert was just a girl when she visited with the Dorrances, but she, too, is a product of their teachings.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!

 

Amy Skinner’s Young Horse Basics

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on starting young horses.

She writes:

Starting a horse is about providing a good foundation for the rest of its life. To help prepare it, I want to make sure it’s exposed to as much as possible and to instill confidence and curiosity at a young age.  I can’t prepare it for everything it will encounter, but if I can get a good mix of curiosity and confidence overall, the colt will have what it needs to tackle new obstacles.

The Challenges

Whether it’s a future dressage horse, jumper, cutting horse, or trail horse, I believe every young horse should know how to:

  • walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein
  • ride out alone and with friends on the trail
  • move a cow

All part of the process. A young horse learns the feel of a saddle

When a young horse is getting started, it can overwhelmed with new information quickly.  It has to learn to:

  • carry a saddle,
  • wear a bridle and bit
  • carry a rider

It has to learn to interpret the scary, funny feeling in its mouth when the rider tries to direct it. And it needs to do this while managing the rider’s moving weight on its back.  It has to handle being exposed to new and scary things: different places, obstacles, scary corners in the arena, cows, and more.

I hope to provide the horse with plenty of information for it to digest and to learn in a productive and confidence-boosting way. Starting, no matter how well you go about it, can be stressful on a horse. Young horses are still learning to balance themselves and you’ll often see them move in silly, awkward ways.  Their bodies aren’t fully developed and they can experience fear or concern while carrying the extra weight of a rider.

Providing Advantages or Dealing with Handicaps

Horses raised outside in a healthy herd dynamic and exposed to varied terrain and diverse situations are invariably easier to start.  These horses have a better sense of balance and a better awareness of their surroundings.  This is a totally natural development for a horse.

Unfortunately, many young horses are born in stalls, brought into stalls daily, and spend most of their time in small, groomed pens or sterile arenas with flat and soft footing.  This scenario offers the young horse no advantages. I’ve found these horses to be more nervous and less capable than a young horse raised outside in a more natural environment.

Horses raised in ‘positively unpredictable’ environments are also quicker learners, as they have had to adapt faster and learn to trust their instincts.  Stall-raised young horses are often shielded from unpleasant stimuli and never have to adapt to survive.  While learning to tolerate fly-spraying and blanketing may have some small benefits, humans take the more crucial adaptive abilities away from these horses, making them worse off.

If you want to have a super learner, an athlete, and a brave and curious horse, do him the favor of being outside without interference.

  • Let him deal with herd members, bugs, wind, hills, and rain.
  • Let him manage around the holes in the pasture. Horses and holes have evolved together over millennia and horses have not been wiped out yet because of them.

‘Going natural’ like this will not only make him healthier, happier, and more mentally balanced, it will make him a better learner and better athlete too.

 

His Rearing was the Tip of the Iceberg

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.

Skinner writes:

Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem.  He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.

“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear.  Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling.  He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.

Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:

— Bellus was used to going in a stall.  As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.

— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.

— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.

— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.

At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.

I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage.  I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.

Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance. 

But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.

With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them.  His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.

Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame.  He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.

With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them.  He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily.  He felt unbalanced and often panicked.  He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation.  In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.

After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements.  He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein.  He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.

In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope.  They asked me to take him. I was glad to.

My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly.  He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life.  As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Bellus returns to the arena with more relaxation

Horse Head Coming Soon!

Next week, we’ll debut an exciting new website for horse owners and riders.

Horse Head will provide features on equine brain science and how it relates to our horsemanship and horse-human interactions.

The new site is a collaboration between Dr. Steve Peters, a clinical neuropsychologist and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, and Maddy Butcher, founder of BestHorsePractices and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit.

Peters and Butcher met years ago over a horse brain. Really. Peters was visiting coastal Maine to present a lecture on horse brain function as part of a Martin Black clinic. Butcher was reporting on the topic for her website, NickerNews.

In 2011, Peters and Black published the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

“With Horse Head, we want to promote the application of horse brain science, consider and support the horses’ best interests, and optimize the horse-human interaction. We can apply what we know in order to get the best outcomes possible for the horses and for the humans,” said Peters, who specializes in dementia, is board certified, and runs the Memory Clinic at Intermountain Health in American Fork, Utah.

Added Butcher: “We would like Horse Head to be a resource for those owners and riders who crave great, science-oriented articles. These pieces will take complicated topics – brain function, neurochemistry, etc. – and relate them in readily applicable manner. We love that more and more riders recognize that licking and chewing is a manifestation of a change in the horse’s nervous system. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to talk about.”

Horse Head is the sixth website established by Butcher, whose Cayuse Communications includes NickerNews, NickerNewsBlog, BestHorsePractices, ColoradoOutsider, and UtahOutsider. She also contributes to Eclectic Horseman and High Country News.

Peters, Butcher, and friends

Horses flourish when humans get the science

If you’ve ever sought a second medical opinion or gotten more than one estimate for a home repair, you know that each vested party has a different take on things.

Dr. Steve Peters

Working with horses, every trainer has a distinguished manner of looking at the horse, of training the horse, and of conveying his knowledge to the audience.

The horse, however, has the facts. Its movements and behaviors are results of the horse acting and reacting to its world as only the horse understands. Thankfully, science is helping us humans have a better appreciation for just how and what our horses are taking in and processing. Science can confirm or refute that what we’re doing is appropriate. Research supports, for instance:

— letting horses live in a group and live where they can move about

— solely offering hay and grass without grain or other condensed food

— when riding, letting a horse have free movement of its head for better balance and vision.

These topics and others have been discussed by Dr. Steve Peters in Evidence-Based Horsemanship, the book he co-authored with Martin Black. Increasingly, clinicians are gravitating to the understandings Peters and Black pioneered. The more the merrier, say the pair. As they write in the book:

EBH is an approach that continually evolves as our knowledge base grows. Finding that one has done something the wrong way may be just as valuable as getting it right if it refines the knowledge base so others do not have to struggle with a similar wrong turn.

This approach is not concerned with arguing over a school of thought or following one trainer over another. Egos, persuasive salespeople, and charismatic personalities would have little relevance to EBH.

With that philosophy in mind, the EBH world is indeed growing to incorporate other clinicians who also have an appreciation for the science. Years ago, trainers at the Horsemen’s Re-Union (including Thomas Saunders V, Bryan Neubert, Chris Cox, and Craig Cameron) absorbed EBH presentations. Said Saunders at the time, “it’s something we were seeing, but we lacked the vernacular for it.”

Jim Thomas

More recently, West Taylor, who works almost exclusively with wild horses, hosted Dr. Peters for a weekend event in St. George, Utah. This week, Jim Thomas will host Peters at the Healthy Horse weekend in North Carolina.

As the book states:

There is room for everyone under this umbrella to educate themselves by asking:
“What does our current scientific knowledge of the horse, when applied and empirically observed, show me about getting the best outcomes possible for me and the horse?
Does it work?
What’s the proof?
What is it based on?”

Mule Notes: Backwards is Forwards

Faithful readers might have wondered about Jolene. The beloved mule, who I’ve come off several times, has gone back to basics with me.

Jolene, the challenging mule

Since an incident that traumatized both of us, I’ve only ridden her a few times. Instead, we’ve done a lot of ground work, ponying, and chilling. Plus, I’ve gotten some help.

Muleman Tyler Willbanks loves Jolene. He loves her so much, he offered to buy her at first sight. Sorry, Tyler, she’s not for sale!

Willbanks has decades of experience with all variety of equines and runs a horse-powered farming operation here in Mancos, Colorado.

Once he started working with us, he agreed that she needed to rebuild her trust and ride-ability. He feels strongly that she has experienced some trauma (probably in Missouri, where she came from originally).

His suggestions are valuable for any skittish

Tyler Willbanks teaches a course on horse packing

equine:

  • Use the round pen for building trust, not respect.
  • Go through a lot of gates (since she can balk at them). Make sure to wait her out and be patient.
  • Give her a rub on her shoulder, but then push her away or move away. Use space as a reward. She appreciates space more than petting.
  • Use a tarp or other objects to put her in discomfort, but don’t let it be you that is the discomfort or the scary object. Have it be something else.
  • She’s stand-off-ish. But be the more stand-off-ish one. She’ll say, ‘oh, wait. I thought I was the stand-off-ish one’ and will be more interested.
  • Back up and have her come to you. Have her back up and give you space.
  • Saddle her every day. If you pony her, pony her with a saddle on.
  • Once you’re riding, Jolene will benefit from moving other horses as well as cows. It will be good for her self-confidence.

Thanks, Tyler!

Jolene as a ponied mule

What is a Good Seat? Katrin Silva explains

Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.

Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

By Katrin Silva

Good riding is always good riding. No matter what riding discipline, we have much more in common than it appears at first sight. All good riders develop a good seat.

But what is a good seat?

  1. A Good Seat is an independent seat.

We can’t expect our horses to carry themselves until we, their riders, carry ourselves. A good rider is in self-carriage, whether she is a hunter-jumper rider in two-point position or a Western rider sliding to a stop.

Julie

If we look at pictures of horses and riders in any discipline, there’s an easy way to figure out whether the rider is in self-carriage: Imagine the horse disappears suddenly, like in a Star Trek episode. Now, look at the rider: What happens when she hits the ground? Does she land on her backside?

During this transition, Julie would fall over backward . . .

Does she fall forward, face-first? Or does she remain standing, with both feet firmly planted on the dirt?

A few strides later, harmony is reestablished. (see second image)

Riders who land standing are in self-carriage. They are less likely to cause pain or discomfort to their horses. They are less likely to struggle for balance, or to hang on to the reins in a desperate attempt to feel secure.

 

We expect our horses to carry themselves, but we have to fulfill our part of the bargain before asking our partners to do the same.

A rider in self-carriage will have a better chance of staying on when young horses get a little scared or excited.

  1. A good seat is an effective seat

I don’t really like to use the adjective “correct” to describe a good seat. It sounds too much like there is only one ideal way to sit on a horse. But it depends on everything from body type to rider goals. A much more fitting adjective is “effective.”

There are many riders whose position in the saddle mimics what they’ve learned from their well-meaning instructors, yet their seat is anything but effective. Some riders have been told to sit up straight so often that they look like they have swallowed a broomstick. They are often so focused on maintaining their “correct” body position that they forget to breathe.

An effective seat allows for good two-way communication

Others have heard that they need to relax completely and to avoid all tension at all cost. That’s good advice, but without a certain degree of elastic core engagement, these riders resemble spineless creatures carried around like so much dead weight. Either extreme is wrong and ineffective. Only an effective seat allows a rider to communicate with the horse.

Communication is a two-way process. An effective seat allows riders to feel what the horse is doing. It’s soft and following. The rider’s core is engaged but not tense; her core muscles tighten and release in rhythm with the horse’s back, picking up the signals it sends without static interference, and without causing discomfort to the horse. A good seat enables riders to link into a constant feedback loop between horse and rider.

An effective seat allows the rider to influence the horse in a controlled way via leg and rein aids. Ideally, this can happen on a more subtle level via the core muscles. The rider feels what the horse is doing, and requests changes of direction or gait primarily through the seat. Accomplished riders on responsive horses can look like they’re not doing anything. What a beautiful sight, like a couple dancing together.

A good seat keeps you in the saddle when the horse spooks.

There are varieties of a good seat when riders sacrifice this level of subtlety for added stability, comfort (their own or the horse’s), or a specific goal like getting out of the horse’s way when jumping an obstacle.

So, the search for the ideal seat must remain in vain. Trying to conform to someone else’s idea of the perfect position can be counterproductive because it keeps us from focusing on feel and communication. But a more independent, more effective seat is something every good rider spends a lifetime developing.

The Brain’s “Low Road” and “High Road”

Mechanics know that one big problem – smoke under the hood – is often caused by tiny, less visible issues. To solve the big problem, you need to understand finer points and foundational concepts. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving the big problem.

The same can be said with horsemanship and the details of horse brain function. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving behavior or training problems.

Two books on human brain function are helping me sort through what I see and do with horses. They are reaffirming some of my techniques while dismissing others. This winter, I’ve read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.

Read about Coyle and Deep Practice here.

While it’s a mistake to interpret animal behavior through a lens of human dynamics, better know as “anthropomorphizing,” it is appropriate to relate basic actions and reactions of horses with humans. Why? We humans share with horses the same primitive layers of the brain: the reptilian system, the limbic system, and the brain stem.

We also share basic neurological chemistry and building blocks. The way our brains grow and function is largely the same.

My partner, Dr. Steve Peters, and I have several rescued horses.

  • Brooke, for instance, was kept in a stall with three other horses for years. At every feeding, she had to fight for her food. Read about her here.
  • Jolene, the mule, was born in Missouri, sold at an Iowa auction, and has a history of bolting at the slightest cue. Read more about her here.

Courtesy of NY Times

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk has helped me better understand the neurology behind their “bad” behaviors.

He explains:

The thalamus, inside the limbic system, receives sensory information from the eyes, nose, ears, and skin. It is the “cook” within the brain. The thalamus stirs all the input from our perceptions into a fully blended autobiographical soup, an integrated, coherent experience of “this is what is happening to me.”

It passes information in two directions, down to the amygdala (the primal “low road”) and to the cortex (the conscious “high road”).

The route to the amygdala is several milliseconds faster than the route to the cortex. In other words, the emotional brain has first dibs on interpreting incoming information.

Don’t be confused by the word “emotional.” It is from the Latin word, emovere, and refers to the limbic system and the Flight or Fight response.

Van Der Kolk continues:

The amygdala is the brain’s smoke detector. It identifies whether or not incoming input is relevant to our survival. It does so quickly and automatically, with help of feedback from the hippocampus, a nearby structure that relates the new input to past experiences.

If the amygdala sense threat, it sends an immediate message to hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole body response. It decides whether incoming information is a threat before we are consciously aware of the danger. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be on the move.

Danger is a normal part of life…[but] after trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system… Every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.

I can’t help what happened in the past, but I can encourage new habits by the way I routinely, patiently encourage them to not hit the low road, ie, by reacting with fear or aggression.

It’s hard work and, in my experience, it takes years to carve out new, healthier, safer neural pathways. Eventually, I’ve observed that Van Der Kolk is correct:

Generally the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don’t hijack us…But the moment we feel trapped…we are vulnerable to activating old maps and following their directions.

Understanding “Deep Practice”

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses the merits of soccer hotbeds in Brazil and training methods of famous pianists. So, what does all that have to do with horsemanship?

Everything.

As Coyle explains, it all comes down to one microscopic detail, shared by horses and humans alike: the development of myelin.

He writes:

  1. Every movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.
  2. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
  3. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

Coyle traveled the world to research what’s called Deep Practice.

Deep Practice is built on a paradox:

Struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.

Experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them…end up making you swift and graceful.

Randy Rieman’s clinic last year confirms this approach. He extolled the virtues of slowing down and getting the fundamentals sound. These basics become habits and movements to build and rely on. Time and again, he had students return to simpler forms in order to work on smoothness.

“When the horses are in a hurry, their minds are uncomfortable because their bodies are uncomfortable. When we break things down and move more slowly through an exercise, we work on removing the anxiety and extending their range of motion. They aren’t livening up and getting tight. They are livening up and getting loose,” said Rieman, who studied at length with Tom and Bill Dorrance. “Tom Dorrance used to say, ‘Do less more often.’”

Writes Coyle in The Talent Code:

“…[T]he best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.”

Why does slowing down work so well?

“ …Going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football

Dr. Steve Peters with Martin Black

coach Tom Martinez likes to say, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practice to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”

At a recent Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, Dr. Steve Peters used a passage from the book to remind students that giving horses the option to seek and search, yields better results. He shared this table:

 

A                                                             B

ocean/breeze                                       bread/b_tter

leaf/tree                                                music/l_rics

high school/college                             pencil/p_per

chair/couch                                          l_nch/dinner

When people were asked to recall the words in each column, researchers discovered they had far better recall from Column B than Column A.

Why?

The process of seeking and problem solving is far more powerful than rote memorization.

“We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn,” said Robert Bjork, a researcher highlighted in the book. “Things that appear to be obstacles turn out to be desirable in the long haul…one real encounter, even for a few seconds, is far more useful than several hundred observations.”

Turns out my cartoon hero, Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame was right all along:

“Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”

Read this week’s related content on Brain and Trauma.

Check out this article on the Cons of Comfort.

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