Helping Our Horses (and Ourselves!) Learn

IMG_2260smLearning can be difficult. Just think of a subject or skill that you had a particularly hard time getting the hang of – and that’s assuming you didn’t give up when it got tough. ‘Cos let’s face it – giving up is way easier that pushing through that initial learning curve.

Now take a moment to imagine what it is like for a horse. You’re just minding your own business, grazing or having a nap in the sun, when here comes this human who unceremoniously  puts all this stuff on your face and takes you away from whatever you were doing. Not only that, they are poking and prodding and pushing and shoving and GETTING ON YOUR BACK omg what’s happening.

Horses cannot speak the way we can. We cannot say to them “this is what we’ll be doing, this is how I’d like you to do it please.” We have to use other forms of communication to send instructions. Something that we often completely miss, is that learning is a process, especially for the horse who doesn’t know what is going on until you find an effective way to show them.

Something invaluable that my teacher (Patsy Devine, of Triple H Horsemanship) taught me, and Philip Nye taught to her (he also developed this, so thank you Philip for this nugget of gold), is what is called the Learning Zone Model – and this has helped me enormously to put into context the process of learning that the horse (and us too) goes through. Or at least, what they should go through when they are not being pushed too hard, too fast.

Learning is a process, it cannot be rushed. When we are not learning, you could say that we are comfortable, we’re in our comfort zone. Nothing is being asked of us, nothing is happening that is forcing us to do something unfamiliar. Now, when we start learning something new, we get a little uncomfortable, this is pretty much inevitable. We are doing something we’ve never done before. We are awkward, clumsy, we get it wrong, we make mistakes, we struggle to understand – this is all part of the learning process. Our horses go through exactly the same! Too often will we rush them through this important first step to learning something new, and they end up not understanding, being uncertain, being anxious, and often doing the task incorrectly.

One of the principles within the Learning Zone Model is to gently move the horse through that period of uncertainty (learning), so that BEFORE they get anxious confused, stressed – you are already removing the pressure and allowing them to go back to their comfort zone. In practice this would look like: start to take the horse through a new exercise, allow them to fumble and make mistakes, let them get just one or two steps right, and then reward them by stopping. This also is done at a “low energy”, such as in halt or in walk. Then once the horse has had a moment to process, or in the following session, you again teach the exercise and ask for a little bit more (maybe one more “correct” step).

In so doing, you are slowly moving the horse in and out of their comfort zone (into the learning zone), and each venture into the learning zone is a tiny bit longer than before (do not expect or push for more than a 2% improvement from last time!). As you do this, you will see your horse slowly becoming more comfortable within the exercise. You could even say that their comfort zone is expanding to include or envelop that exercise. Once they have mastered it in halt or walk (whichever is applicable), teach it again in a higher energy (eg walk or trot). We often assume that because the horse has mastered the exercise in walk, they will immediately be able to master it in trot or canter – but this is very seldom the case, and it is unfair to expect that from them. The same exercise at a different gait can be a completely different process and experience for the horse, so we must be patient in taking them through the learning process once more in order to solidify their confidence and performance of an exercise.

learning zone model
Example of Philip Nye’s Learning Zone Model

In the Learning Zone Model above you will see the red line, which represents the initially very brief visits into the learning zone, and then as the horse’s understanding and confidence grows you ask for more and more. Eventually, the comfort zone expands, and your horse becomes more confident and less anxious in similar situations (most of the time!). You’ll see that beyond the Learning Zone is the Wild Zone – and that is a place you (almost) never want to go. There is nothing constructive that takes place there, as the horse is acting purely from it’s instinct to survive. In some rare cases (such as an abused horse), you may find that their comfort zone and learning zone is very small – in other words, it doesn’t take much to send them into the wild zone. These cases require patient, confident and practiced support.

Please do let me know if anything didn’t come through clearly, I will gladly expand on it.

Thank you for reading.

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