Practice makes perfect….or does it?

Practice makes perfect…….or does it?

I often find I have a problem when trainers or people talk about how many repetitions it takes for animals to remember the skills they are teaching.

There you are standing in the school with your horse, thinking about what you would like to do that day, and what you want to achieve on that schooling session.

If you have the idea that repetition and practice make perfect you are already failing your horse.

As humans we are self obsessed and we want things to be perfect. Skills actually take a while to build , fair enough if it is you who are building them for yourself…….Except if you want to be a better rider you had better consult your horse first.

While riding without stirrups is really going to improve your balance your horse has to cope with you while you are out of balance and not really in tune with him. His own balance is bound to suffer for your lack of balance or depth of seat, so 10 repetitions of a transition may well never be that great as he is struggling to cope as you are “improving” your seat.

Repetition and practice are not going to help him in the least and what then do we do if he spooks or becomes hollow while we are working?

Most of us get frustrated.

The horse that falls in at the same corner every time  we ride around it, is not going to benefit from more of the same. If he is spooking or crooked he needs help and understanding and LESS repetition. Remember that your horse doesn’t know what he is doing wrong, and  if you ride a corner in the same way a 100 times then he is going to do the same thing 100 times.

Repetition and practise only perfect the crookedness and avoidance of the corner. When this happens riders are also sometimes advised to shorten the reins and ride into a stronger contact. The result is a horse that finds it hard to step forward and who is restricted. As Charles de Kunffy is fond of saying “all the horse should feel in his mouth is the weight of the bit, his mouth is for eating, nothing else”. Enough said.

And here we still are in the school perfecting our seats, shoulder in or jumping spreads. If your timing is rubbish or your balance is not great, or your horse is just weak , young or just tired he can and never will do the exercise perfectly, or help you to become a better rider.

If your horse is tiring, there will be a build up of lactic acid especially if you are asking him to repeat the same exercise. This means his body is seizing up and he is unable to perform that exercise any better and will gradually and surely get worse as the minutes tick by.

Meantime the body is under stress and he is tiring mentally too. This means release of stress hormones and these cause physical changes –none of which are good. They will produce adrenaline but this hormone is only supposed to be a temporary help while running from the sabre tooth tiger, cortisol is also released, and again it is supposed to tide the body over while in a dangerous situation and is not there to cope with the fact that a rider wants to conquer a particularly tricky spread fence.

However many times you ask, it will not get better. Years ago I witnessed a world class dressage rider do just this. In front of a crowd, his ego would just not accept that the horse had gone past the point that he could perform the exercise to his (*the riders) specifications. It was horrible to watch and nobody (least of all the horse) came out with any positives.

Can I mention learnt helplessness here, and the fact that performing without fault is not always how it looks. Sometimes the horse or dog has shut down and just goes “through the motions”. This is not my idea of harmony or partnership.

How should an exercise be taught?

Build your horse, build the complexity gradually and give your horse a bit of credit.

Build your skills of timing and aiding and be consistently thoughtful as you work.

Change the patterns you ride so that different muscles are being used and if your horse falls in at any one point there are at least 10 different exercises you can use that will help strengthen and straighten. When I was learning how to teach we used to get asked which patterns could be used so we learnt not to drill horses into the ground.  This built our skill and knowledge and allowed us to think about how the horse learnt.

Which by the way is a good moment to mention latent learning.

Look it up…it exists. We all do it.

We look at something and we learn how to do it. If shown correctly and with patience you remember the gist of it. Horses are especially good at this. Teach them something, make it positive and have patience and two weeks later it is amazing how much they remember.

This will not happen if you lose your patience and get frustrated. If you continually ask him  time after time he is likely to tighten his body and feel like he has never been asked before. That is the effect of negativity.

I would also briefly like to touch on anticipation too.

Why do so many people hate their horses anticipating movements? Or anticipating canter at certain places? If you learn to like the anticipation you will have a very happy horse. He is never happier than when the rider is in harmony with him and working with him.

If he has just slipped into canter or onto the wrong lead through loss of balance…guess what? Work with him let him continue and you will build his CONFIDENCE, and teach him to pick the correct lead. There will be a point where you will require counter canter and if he has been punished he will never feel confident or happy.

I love confident horses they are a pleasure to ride. Imagine if you didn’t anticipate the driver ahead when you are in your car, you would have no end of accidents, and each journey would be fraught, difficult and frightening. I certainly wouldn’t like being a passenger in that car either.

This article has been written with several things that were buzzing around my head when I was riding this morning. Learn to communicate with your horse and accept his feedback.

Think about his body language and his reactions and build his confidence by using your mind.

Short sessions are better than longer ones and do not push to complete everything you want in one session.

Make work varied and think carefully about the goals you set and whether they are achievable for your horse and lastly …. analyse why you think the exercise is necessary.What  advantages will your horse have if you insist on a particular exercise, or is it only necessary to you?

The moral of this article is…….put your horse first, analyse what you are doing and learn to ride opportunistically.

 

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