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Tracy Courtney

Learning Curves

I would like to simplify a common teaching misconception that will cause lack of progression & 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 & create interest. But if we were to continue teaching in this manner, our horses would quickly reach a learning plateau & would be unable to progress very far. 


There are various stages to the learning process & people tend to get stuck in this initial mindset, which causes difficulties in progression & 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 us to know when it's ok to ask for more & will also help us maintain consistent persistence, providing we are maintaining a mutual discussion throughout & are prepared to slow down & assist where necessary.


1. No Concept - we make all of the decisions


When they are learning something new, it's critical that they are never made to feel wrong & are free to express their opinions in whatever method they choose. We must be prepared to patiently ask for the task to be completed repeatedly, for as long as it takes our horse to relax & make an effort. Be very observant, without judgement, so we can reward immediately for the tiniest efforts. Helping our horse in this way will set the stage in how they perceive us & for approaching future learning with enthusiasm & an inquisitive mindset. These are new experiences, in new environments & require them to use their basic senses of sight, sound, taste, smell & touch in new ways. At this stage, we must praise profusely & often to build trust & confidence.


2. Basic Concept - we 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 & use an inquisitive mindset to analyze & understand what our horses are telling us. These previously unbalanced emotions will begin to rise to the surface now & cause a roller coaster of confusion that doesn't allow for quick & confident comprehension. If we become impatient & emotional, we can easily overstimulate their senses, causing them to disconnect from us & shut down the learning experience or make a negative association to it.


This is where confident, smart horses will begin to test the waters just to see what happens. It's never personal, just normal for them. Maintaining a neutral emotional state will help our horse begin to build confidence in us, themselves, the environment & help them learn to direct those emotions in a healthy & 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 & 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 & 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 & they are responding consistently. This is where we can begin to combine & refine tasks & more advanced cues, always being aware of the stage of each individual task & 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 & frustrated with their horse, but it's important to move forward at the pace our horse sets, not ours. Nobody is good at everything & just like us, different horses will excel in some areas & need more help in others. When we push to move too quickly, we create a loss in confidence & an increase in stress & anxiety, causing development to regress & a complete disconnection from us. This isn't the horse's fault, it's ours & we will have to start over from the beginning to prove to our horse that we can be trusted with their thoughts & feelings. Remember that we can't make them feel or do anything, we must mould their thoughts & behaviour using consistent persistence, understanding & guidance.