Monday, October 10, 2011

Key Concepts: The Learning Zone

Traditionally, horse training in America was called "breaking" and at its best used methods like these:

At its worst, techniques like roping a horse to the ground like a calf or tying her to a post while she struggled to get free, sometimes flipping over backwards or breaking her neck in a panic, were used with a fair amount of frequency.  The idea was to show the horse that the trainer was bigger, stronger, badder and smarter than her so the horse would accept her trianer as "dominant" and submit to his or her wishes.  Sound familiar?  That's right, it's the same old dominance / alpha male theory I talked about a few posts back.

While certainly effective for forcing basic training on a large number of horses in a very short time (think Wild West), there's another reason that these methods are not only cruel but inefficient for today's horse training demands.  When faced with a situation where they feel intense stress or fear, horses tend not to remember anything but the stress and fear and exactly what caused it.  Have you ever walked up to a horse that as soon as it saw you carrying a riding crop freaked out?  This doesn't necessarily mean that the horse has been beaten repeatedly with a riding crop, it may just be that she experienced extreme stress and fear at some point when the crop was used (for example someone yelling at her while showing her the crop, etc...).  So if your horse is panicking while you're trying to teach her, probably the only thing she'll remember about it is that the last time you asked her to do such and such she panicked.

So how can I avoid this trap and try to make sure that Starbuck only remembers the positive things, conveniently forgetting my mistakes or any negative experience?  What I try to ALWAYS is make sure that she's in the learning zone, in other words attentive and aware of my requests but relaxed and breathing normally.  If I try to do something new and she starts showing even the first signs of wanting to run away (ears back, hindquarters shifting away, head raised), what I do is back off to something she's comfortable with and then little by little introduce the new thing until she can be calm while we do it.

I've learned from experience that this may be frustrating at first since it seems like you're going soooooo slow and we humans have the urge to start out with the hardest part first because then the easy part will be way easier, right?  WRONG!  For example the first time I put the leg protectors on Starbuck she was really NOT ready for them and I had to "trick" her in to letting me get them on because I was kind of in a hurry that day.  Thinking that now that she's got them on she'll just realize that they're not going to hurt her and get used to them, right?  WRONG AGAIN!  It took like 3 weeks after that first day of coaxing and friendly game all over her body with the protectors every single day for like 20 - 30 minutes for her to finally get to the point where she's cool with me putting them on.  On the other hand, I really took my time with the saddle the first few times and she had no problem whatsoever with me putting it on her after the first day, even tightening the cinch as much as I can!

Because of this, keeping Starbuck in the learning zone has become a major goal for me every second of every day and I try to never let my own frustration, impatience or fear show through or introduce her too quickly to new things I haven't correctly prepared her for since.

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