I would like to simplify a common teaching misconception that will cause lack of progression and frustration. When horses are learning something new, we must reward for the slightest efforts in order to create a basic understanding of what's required and create interest. But if we were to continue teaching in this manner, our horses would quickly reach a learning plateau and would be unable to progress very far.
There are various stages to the learning process and people tend to get stuck in this initial mindset, which causes difficulties in progression and can lead to unwanted behaviour out of boredom. While it's important to reward for the slightest efforts initially, once they have a basic concept, it's important to begin to ask for more.
Breaking the learning curve into four basic categories will help you to know when it's ok to ask for more and will also help you maintain consistent persistence, providing you are maintaining a mutual discussion throughout and are prepared to slow down and assist where necessary.
1. No Concept - you make all of the decisions
When they are learning something new, it's critical that they are never made to feel wrong and are free to express their opinions in whatever method they choose. You must be prepared to patiently ask for the task to be completed repeatedly, for as long as it takes your horse to relax and make an effort. Be very observant, without . judgement, so you can reward immediately for the tiniest efforts. Helping your horse in this way will set the stage in how they perceive you and for approaching future learning with enthusiasm and an inquisitive mindset. These are new experiences, in new environments and requires them to use their basic senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch in new ways. At this stage, we must praise profusely and often to build trust and confidence.
2. Basic Concept - you make most of the decisions but encourage their input
As semi-consistent efforts are being made to respond to requests, we can now begin to redirect behaviour, but very little. We must still praise often and use an inquisitive mindset to analyze and understand what our horses are telling us. These previously unbalanced emotions will begin to rise to the surface now and cause a roller coaster of confusion that doesn't allow for quick and confident comprehension. If we become impatient and emotional, we can easily overstimulate their senses, causing them to disconnect from us and shut down the learning experience.
This is where confident, smart horses will begin to test the waters just to see what happens. It's never personal, just normal. Maintaining a neutral emotional state will help your horse begin to build confidence in you, themselves, the environment and help them learn to direct those emotions in a healthy and constructive manner.
3. Good Concept - encourage them to begin to make more of the decisions
At this stage, we can begin to redirect more consistently and expect them to begin to respond without assistance from us some of the time. We will slowly begin to build on more immediate responses, focus on us (which will happen without effort if we keep the lines of communication open) and continue to use consistent persistence to insist that they follow through with our requests. It's imperative here to be patient, observe their reactions and continue to rate them using the emotional scale. This will give us a clear indication of when we need to slow down to provide assistance or ask for a little more.
4. Solid Concept - they make all of the decisions
At this stage, we know they have had enough repetition to understand what's being asked and they respond consistently. This is where we can begin to combine and refine tasks and more advanced cues, always being aware of the stage of each individual task and where it resides in the learning curve.
People tend to always want to stay in the No Concept or rush toward the Solid Concept, becoming impatient and frustrated with their horse, but it's important to move forward at the pace your horse sets, not yours. Nobody is good at everything and just like us, different horses will excell in some areas and need more help in others. When we push to move too quickly, we create a loss in confidence and and increase in stress and anxiety, causing development to regress and a complete disconnection from you. This isn't the horse's fault, it's ours and we will have to start over from the beginning to prove to our horse that we can be trusted with their thoughts and feelings. Remember that we can't make them feel or do anything, we must mould their thoughts and behaviour using consistent persistence, understanding and guidance.