In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 9

Part 9: Practice Excellence

This is the ninth and last installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 8, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices.  It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”
This section looks at the three tiers of deep practice Coyle identifies in “The Talent Code”

Part 9: Practice Excellence:
The series concludes by looking at the difference between mindless drilling and practicing for excellence.

Part 9: Practice Excellence

Harrison  trot sequence pretty

Such Perfect Unison is the result of Deep Practice Excellence

How We Practice
Coyle cited an interesting study done by Barry Zimmerman of New York University.  Zimmerman asked a simple question: can you judge ability solely by the way people describe how they practice.  In other words, without seeing someone perform, can you accurately predict their level of expertise if all you know about them is how they practice?

Zimmerman and his colleague, Anastasia Kitsantas, chose volleyball serves as the skill they would evaluate.  They interviewed expert players, club players, and novices.  They had twelve measures for evaluating serving practice.  Based on the answers they predicted how each person would perform when their serve was evaluated.  They then had the players execute their serve and their actual performance was compared to the predictions.  Ninety percent of the variation in skill could be accounted for by the players’ answers.  The conclusion: experts weren’t better because they were more gifted.  They were better because they practiced differently.

Practice brings with it images of endless, boring drilling.  I remember at school sitting in French class repeating over and over again the same phrases.  It was the opposite of deep practice.  We may have been saying the words slowly but it was mind numbing – not mindful.  I could pass every test with flying colors, but I learned nothing, except perhaps to hate French class.  Thankfully I did not learn to hate repetition.  Other experiences have taught me to value mindful, thoughtful repetition.  “Nothing you can do — talking, thinking, reading, imagining — is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing the errors, honing the circuit.”

Maintaining Myelin
Coyle posed this question: What would be the surest method of ensuring that LeBron James started missing jump shots or that Yo-Yo Ma missed chord changes?  The answer: don’t let them practice for a month.  That’s all it takes.

Myelin like all living structures needs maintenance.  Daily practice doesn’t just grow new insulation, it also keeps the existing myelin in a state of good repair.  That is particularly true as you get older.  Myelin production slows down as you age past fifty.  You can still add insulation, but the process is slower.

Coyle quoted the pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, who continued to play into his eighties: “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices.  If I skip practice for three days, the world notices.”

More is not Better.  Better is Better.
If you were the victim of mindless drilling, here’s some good news: more is not always better.  Doing six more push ups won’t help if you are no longer paying attention to your technique.  Mindless drilling is just that – less.

Deep practice doesn’t require that you spend hours on end walking around your arena in the t’ai chi walk.  What it does require is that you spend your practice time in what is referred to as the sweet spot, that point at the “edge of your capabilities where you attentively build and hone circuits. . . . When you depart the deep practice zone, you might as well quit.”

At the music camp one of the instructors teaches a course in how to practice.  She urges her students to “find a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately.  If you hear a string out of tune, it should bother you.”

Patterns
This resonated so strongly with me.  This is why I have people work their horses through patterned exercises.  I take the time to pace out circles and mark the circumference with cones.  I have paced out hundreds of circles.  I could get lazy and just put the cones out in a rough approximation, but I don’t.  I pace out the circle so people can develop a feel for what it means to be in balance.  When their horses drift slightly off the circle, I want that loss of balance to bother them – a lot.

Over the years I’ve become hyper-tuned to balance.  When I work with horses and feel them lose their balance, I can’t help but wonder how can people not feel this?  It’s like finger nails on a blackboard.  That tuning is always with me.  When horses fall out of balance, when they drift over their outside shoulder, or lean in to the inside, I notice just as surely as a musician notices when an instrument is out of tune.  The horse isn’t literally going to fall down – not at the pace that we’re going, but add energy, add speed, and what might seem at first like a trivial loss of balance becomes the reason the horse can’t hold the canter through a turn, or find his stride going over a jump, or keep you safe negotiating steep terrain.

Big problems have their roots in little things.

Turning Inward to Find The “Sweet Spot”
One of the challenges for beginner trainers is knowing how fast to progress.  If you go too fast, you’ll encounter resistance.  On the other hand, if you stay too easy, you won’t progress.

The people in the talent hot spots were looking for the sweet spot: “that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where reach exceeds our grasp.  Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle which involves a cycle of distinct actions:

1.) Pick a target [behavior].
2.) Reach for it.
3.) Evaluate the gap between the target behavior and the reach.
4.) Return to step one.”

With the horses we have to be careful that we pick target behaviors that contain steps that they can reach and succeed at.  We need to be able to keep the rates of reinforcement high.  After all it is our goal not their’s that we are reaching for.  We want the pretty canter depart, the perfect shoulder-in.  They have no notion of these things.  But they do understand our enthusiasm, and they do come to love the game of figuring out what earns clicks and treats.

“One of the useful features of myelin is that it permits any circuit to be insulated, even those of experiences we might not enjoy at first.”

Coyle wrote this in relation to practice.  You might not enjoy it at first, but as you repeat the process and myelinate the circuits, you build a habit.  Practice may have been something you wanted to avoid at first, but now you find yourself craving your practice sessions.

At a talent hotspot music school the new students at first struggle to understand the deep practice process.  Slowing music down to the point where it becomes unrecognizable is hard work.  Revealing all the errors in your technique is also hard.  But most of the students come to enjoy the process very quickly and their learning accelerates accordingly.

Owen Carman, the director of the school referred to it as: “a turn inward; they stop looking outside for solutions and they reach within.”

Finding Joy: Where the “Sweet Spot” Takes Us
For our horses this looking inward is critical to success.  Yes, you can have instructors who can give you broad brush coaching, but good riding is internal.  It is about breath control.  It is about letting go of force and make-it-happen energy.  It is about subtle balance shifts that the horse can feel but an observer cannot see.  It is about thinking and having the horse respond. It is about lightness, grace, and love.  These things must be found within.  Deep practice gives you a route in to find them.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercenterblog.com
theclickercentercourse.com

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 8

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

This is the eighth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 7, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices.  It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”:
This section looks at the three tiers of deep practice Coyle identifies in “The Talent Code”

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

3 layer square cake

Deep Practice – The Three Tiers
In the talent hotbeds Coyle visited he observed that deep practice was three tiered.  First, the learners looked at the task as a whole – what was the mega-circuit they were attempting to learn? Second, they chunked things down.  Third they played with time.

The First Deep Practice Tier: Find A Look That Pleases Your Eye
You have to have some sense of what you are building before you can begin.  This can be a challenge in the horse world.  So often what we see around us is not what we want.  You can watch world class competition and walk away shaking your head, saying: why would anyone want to spend so much time, effort and money to achieve that?  You see the wringing tails, the tight jaws, the unhappy horses.  If that’s the whole, why would I want to study the parts?

I was lucky in that I did find a visual image that made my heart sing, and I was even luckier that I was able to spend many hundreds of hours watching good training, absorbing the images of beautiful movement.  But I know that’s not the only way to achieve this.  A single photo pinned to a bathroom mirror where it is seen every day can inspire and help train the eye.

Whether it’s a photo, a video, someone you saw riding who inspired you, find a look that pleases your eye.  You don’t have to know why it pleases you.  It doesn’t even have to be performance oriented.  Perhaps it is a picture of someone sharing a quiet moment with their horse, sitting beside them while the horse takes a nap, or walking together down a country lane.  Collect these images.  Make them your screen saver, pin them up on your kitchen cupboards, stick them to your refrigerator, put them on your desk at work.  Let these images accumulate and inspire.  Over time they will fill in the picture of the mega circuits that you are trying to create.

We are prewired to imitate.  Filling your life with these images will allow this process to occur almost without your being aware of it.  But because we are pre-wired to imitate be care full of the images you watch.  Normally this is written careful, but I want to emphasize this point.  Be full of care.  Especially today with such easy access to all kinds of images via youtube, in your search for your own state of excellence, be care full what you watch.  If you find within a few seconds of watching a dressage ride, that you aren’t liking what you see, turn it off.  You don’t need to watch it through to the end.  When you focus on what you don’t like, you’re still absorbing those images and myelinating those circuits.

When you find images you like, that’s the time to linger, to let them permeate through you and become part of you. When you practice, you will find yourself mirroring those images even if at first you aren’t aware that you are.

Mirror Neurons
When I first began teaching, I taught private lessons.  I loved those lessons – until I started teaching clinics and then I liked them even more. There are many advantages to private training, but there is one huge disadvantage – people aren’t engaged in deep practice observation.  During the clinics people get to watch each other.  There is a huge gain in learning efficiency when you have seen several other people working through a particular lesson before you attempt it yourself.  I’ve know many horse people who tell me they can’t learn by watching.  They have to be doing to learn.  I always think what a hard belief system they are creating for their horse.

We are wired to imitate – all of us.  That’s been another interesting discovery – mirror neurons.  They fire as we watch someone else perform.  When I watch great figure skaters, I feel different afterwards.  It is as if I had been out on the ice jumping with them.  I don’t know how to skate, but I don’t just see the triple axel, I feel it.  We are wired to imitate. Part of the training process in clinics is learning to become a better visual learner.  How do you watch so that you see the small details that are important?  How do you watch so that you also feel the movement?

The Second Deep Practice Tier: Chunking Things Down
Second, they chunked this circuit down into the smallest possible units.  In clicker training I would say for every step that you find, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller step that you can break something down into.  We want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until we find a step where we can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If we find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, “no” answers, the slice we’re looking at is still too large.  Looking at training from the perspective of myelin makes clean loops all the more important.  You want to be insulating pathways that fire off patterns you want to build.  If you allow in little bobbles, little bits of almost-good-enough-but-not-quite, those errors will become insulated along with everything else.  They will become stronger, easier to access, harder to avoid.  Remember, myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.  A habit formed is a habit kept.

The Third Deep Practice Tier: Playing With Time
The third element Coyle identified was “playing with time” – “slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn the inner architecture.”  In clinics we put the horses away and practice our handling skills, slowing down, speeding up our movements to learn the secrets of good balance.  At a Russian tennis school that has produced numerous top players there is one court only.  Players learn not by playing, or even hitting balls, but by swinging imaginary rackets.

At clinics we put the horses away and we practice our handling skills, miming the actions with only imaginary ropes in our hands.

At the Russian tennis school students practice without rackets “rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball.  All players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. . . There are no private lessons. Students practice in a line. . . It looked like a ballet class; a choreography of slow, simple, precise motions with an emphasis on technique.”

None of the students are permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of their study.  “Technique is everything.”

At clinics technique is everything because that is what the horses have told us.  They notice everything, so details matter.  How you hold a lead matters.  How you stand, how you breathe – horses notice so we need to as well.

At a music camp that has produced such great musicians as Yo Yo Ma and Isaak Perlman the instructors cut up sheet music into strips.  The strips are then thrown into a hat and the students pull out at random the line they will be working on.  They don’t just learn to play it as we will eventually hear it.  They slow it down to glacial speed, slower than many of the students would ever have thought possible.  The music becomes unrecognizable – more like whale songs with long drawn out notes than anything you would hear in a concert hall.

Playing this slowly reveals mistakes in technique that playing faster would hide, but accumulate enough of those mistakes and even someone as non-musical as I am will begin to notice.  Eliminate them through these deep practice techniques and what myelin begins to insulate is the perfection of world class performance.

I have learned horse handling by slowing myself down and attending to details.  In the “t’ai chi walk” which we practice at clinics I am sure there are many who don’t see the point. “How can you work horses like this?”  People who are new to this process feel awkward stepping out so deliberately, so slowly.  They bobble from side to side as they try to follow my lead.  It feels awkward and unfamiliar.  “How much longer do we have to do this?”  I know, I know, but the ones who stay the course see their horses change.  Now we have a good explanation for why this happens and it is based in neuroscience. Or should I say myelin science.

When you work slowly, “you attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing. . . When it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. . .  It’s not how fast you can do something.  It’s how slow you can do it correctly.”

Going slow also helps the learner develop a “working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints — the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”  Here’s what that means.  When you work slowly you are observing, judging, adjusting your own performance.  You are becoming your own coach.

I can teach you the overall technique, but I can’t possibly tell you every little adjustment YOU need to make in order to handle a horse well.  I couldn’t write out instructions that are detailed enough and specific enough to your situation – and even if I could, you wouldn’t be able to remember and follow them.  So I give you a process.  I show you how to step away from your horse and enter the world of deliberate, deep practice.  I show you how to use the t’ai chi walk, to slow everything down so you can observe how YOU move.  I show you how to become your own best coach, and in doing so I liberate both you and your horse from a dependency on constant external coaching.  Now you can learn together, teaching each other what it means to flow together.

Deliberate deep practice takes you to excellence.

Coming Soon: Part 9: Practice Excellence

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 7

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice

This is the seventh installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 6, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices.  It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice

Harrison magic hands top of hill

Chunking Things Down – Pattern Recognition
I have always used the term chunking down.  “You want to chunk down that lesson into many small steps.”  I know some prefer to think of thin slicing.  For them a chunk is a big unit.  You have a big chunk of cement.  But a chunk, even when it is made of cement is still only a part of the whole.  You are holding a block of cement in your arms – not the whole wall.  I’m not alone in using the term “chunking”.  Coyle used it when referring to the process of breaking training down that he saw in all the talent hotspots.  To understand how important it is to break skill acquisition down into smaller units he used as his example learning how to read.

“We rode our horses out on a trail.”

If I asked you to remember this sentence, it would be easy.  It has three main conceptual chunks: “We rode”, “our horses”, “out on a trail” are each chunks.

But if you are just learning how to read, these chunks are too big to be processed.  These chunks are made up of smaller chunks: the letters are smaller chunks that you combine to create phonetic combinations that form words.

The pattern of four opposing diagonal lines forms a smaller chunk yet that you learn to recognize as the letter W.

Coyle had a great image for this: “each chunk nests neatly inside another group like so many sets of Russian dolls.  Your skill at reading is the skill of packing and unpacking the chunks – or to put it in myelin terms of firing patterns of circuits  – at lightening speed. . . Skills are the nested accumulation of small discrete circuits.”

A gymnast learns a floor routine by assembling it “via a series of chunks, which in turn are made up of other chunks.  He’s grouped a series of muscle movements together in exactly the same way that you grouped a series of letters together to form words. Fluency happens when the gymnast repeats the movements often enough that he knows how to process those chunks as one big chunk. . . When he fires his circuits to do a backflip, the gymnast doesn’t have to think, Okay, I’m going to push off with my legs, arch my back, tuck my head into my shoulders, and bring my hips around. . . He simply fires the backflip circuit that he’s built and honed through deep practice. . . . When chunking has been done effectively, it creates a mirage. . . Top performers look incomprehensibly superior, yet they aren’t so different from ordinary performers as they seem.  What separates these two levels is not innate superpower but a slowly accrued act of construction and organization: the building of a scaffolding, bolt by bolt, circuit by circuit, or to put it in terms of myelin – wrap by wrap.”

Talent
I learned a long time ago at clinics never to predict who was going to become a clicker superstar.  I might have four complete newbies to the clicker process, each one struggling over the simplest of skills.  I might want to say that the person with the well put together sport horse who was starting out with some decent horse handling skills would   go further that the complete beginner who was tripping over her own feet, terrified of her own shadow never mind her horse. But you never know.  That first person could be at a huge disadvantage.  She might have just enough skills and enough of a comfort level with horses that she skips over the deep practice part of learning new skills.  She becomes competent, but not great and her interest in clicker training wanes.  The payback isn’t enough to hold her interest.

The novice handler has to work for everything.  She has to engage in deep practice just to learn to put on a halter or to hold a lead.  As a result she finds herself leap frogging past her more skilled counterpart.  She not only stays with clicker training, the next time she attends a clinic, it’s to show off her superstar clicker horse.

Beginners

Mauritz on haflinger Franzi's son

Most of us have forgotten what it was like to be a beginner rider struggling to find our balance on the back of a moving horse.  We’ve forgotten how awkward it felt to use the reins, to try to turn or stop the horse.  We may still be taking lessons, we may still be learning new skills, but that initial total beginner stage of awkwardness is well behind us and thankfully forgotten.  But you can easily bring it back.  If you only get on and off from the left side of your horse, next time you ride try getting off on the right.  You’ll suddenly feel a blank canvas of nerve connections.  It isn’t automatic at all.  How do you even begin? How do you tell your left leg to swing over the saddle?  Try to perform any skill other than the way you have programmed it in, and you will feel that blank-slate effect.  That’s what it’s like to be a beginner with unformed, unmyelinated neural pathways.

For years I boarded my horses at a lesson barn for beginners.  I had around me constant reminders of what it was like to learn how to ride. I saw the uncertainty, the awkwardness, the accumulating errors and regrettable habits.  There was no deep-practice training in this program.  The riders gained a level of competence but no one ever rose to the level of expert rider.  You might say that’s because no one wanted to achieve that level of performance excellence – but how do we know?  Why shouldn’t everyone have the same opportunity to gain excellence in whatever area their passion takes them?  Those young riders were putting in the time.  They came week after week for their lessons.  But they never really got to feel what it is like to flow in total harmony with their horses. They never discovered the joy of feeling as though you are moving as one fluid being.  Feeling the strength, the power, the athleticism, the spirit of horses was beyond the experience of their weekly lessons.  If asked, they might say this isn’t why they came every week, but that is only because they didn’t know that this deeper level of experience was possible.

The gift of the gifted few is not their genes.  It is the chance encounters that lead them to deep practice and the opportunity for excellence that grows out of it.

Coming Soon: Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes

This is the sixth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 5, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to to with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handlingAlex rope handling German clinic

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes
Next I’ll look at the same steps from the handler’s perspective.  What do I need to build to be a good “dance partner” for my horse? Perhaps it is my rope handling.  I’ll practice sliding down the lead, again teasing apart each small segment and rehearsing it in slow motion.  I’ll notice that feeling of awkwardness when I switch sides and work on the right. Again I am attending to mistakes.  That is different from focusing on what I don’t want.  I notice that bit of awkwardness.  Perhaps I’ll switch back to the left side and look at what my hands do that feels so smooth.  This is the practiced side where the myelin wraps are thicker.  I can feel the effect of all that good practice.  When I switch over to the right, I get to experience the awkwardness that is the result of thinner insulation.  The rope-handling pathway is not as well formed.  What a wonderful opportunity to take the time to build a good circuit!

I know how easy it is for people to jump into clicker training without fussing over all these details.  They click and hand their horse a goody without attending to any of these nuances.  It’s sloppy – but who cares.  It’s easy, it’s fun – that is, until it’s not.  Every time someone gives their horse a treat so that his head comes around to them, they are reinforcing him for falling onto his inside shoulder and coming into their space.  Click and treat, over and over, they are insulating circuits that they are not going to want.

Myelin wraps nerve fibers.  It insulates them well to build strong, high speed habits.  Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.  So you want to build good habits sooner rather than later.

Deep Practice for Horses
The deep practice doesn’t end there.  Once the handler has worked on her own skills, we return to the horses.  The brilliance of clicker training is how easily it creates thoughtful, deliberate deep practice for the horses.  We studied our own balance. Now we can do the same for them.

Every time you click the clicker and your horse stops to get his treat, you are creating a deep practice step.  Ask him to take a step forward.  How does he initiate that movement?  Ah, he begins by letting his weight drop into his inside shoulder so he comes slightly into your space.  Your practiced hand will catch that loss of balance, and gently redirect him back to the beginning of the movement cycle so he can begin again.  Now as he comes forward in balance, click, he gets a treat.

Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.

As you highlight those adjustments, he will become aware of the changes. Good balance will become something he owns for himself.

Sebastion Si before Sebastian Si after fall 2014

Here’s an interesting before and after.  The photo to the left was taken at the beginning of a session.  Note how much this horse tends to lean in and down onto his inside shoulder.  The photo to the right shows the change in his balance after some deep practice work together.

Coding for Excellence
There aren’t specific genes that code for chess geniuses, tennis superstars, or rocket scientists.  How could there be?  But there is this very adaptive mechanism that allows someone who focuses on chess, or tennis, or rocket science to become a superstar in their chosen field.  The system lets “our needs and our actions determine the skills we grow.  It is flexible, responsive, and economical because it gives all human beings the innate potential to earn skill where needed.”

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 5

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin

This is the fifth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 4, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to to with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Icky piaffe! color adjusted

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin
Coyle summarizes skill acquisition with the following:

1.) Every movement, thought or feeling is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a chain of neurons.

2.) Myelin insulates the nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.

3.) The more a particular circuit is fired, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

I have just gotten a new computer.  I’m not altogether convinced that all of its features are advantages, but the one thing I do like is the speed.  My old computer had slowed down to the equivalent of an elderly person using a walker to get around.  The wait times for even the simplest of operations were horrendous.  This new computer is lightening fast.  There are no wait times.  I’m not spending half my morning watching the little wheel circle round that tells me the computer is working. Like the little engine that could, my old computer would eventually manage to bring up the file I needed.  This computer has it up on the screen instantly.  That I like.

That’s the metaphor for the effect deep practice has on the speed of transmission of the electrical impulse traveling along that network of nerve fibers.  It transforms it from the dinosaur days of dial up modems and slow computers to the blazing speeds of this new computer.  The efficiency that creates for me is enormous.  There’s no more stop and go interruptions as the computer tries to run the programs I’m working on.

Again, as Coyle defines it: “Skill is built from myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits.”

In the talent hotbeds Coyle visited he saw very deliberate, mistake-focused practice.  The current understanding of myelin and the role it plays in nerve-fiber conductivity seemed to explain why this type of training is so effective.

To build high speed circuits you need to activate the circuit, address any mistakes, and then activate the circuit again – over and over.

I have always valued persistence and that other key ingredient – passion – or as the writer Joseph Campbell put it – “following your bliss”.  Why is this important?  Wrapping one or two layers of myelin around a nerve fiber is a good start, but it takes a lot more than that to develop a high speed, super efficient circuit.  It takes time and it takes energy.  You need a passion for your chosen interest in order to sustain the level of commitment it takes to build a super star circuit.

The translation to Horses
So how does this relate to clicker training?  We’re used to hearing that we need to focus on what we WANT the horse to do, not the unwanted behavior.  We don’t generally talk about mistakes – that’s focusing the spotlight on what we don’t want.  Or is it?  I think there is a difference between looking at where you currently are with all the unwanted behavior your horse is throwing at you and attending to mistakes in a deliberate, focused, chunked down process.

Suppose a horse is crowding into me, leaning into his inside shoulder, and swinging his head in to swipe at my arm.  Focusing on this behavior will suck me into the drama of a confrontation, and it may blind me to the solutions that will shift this horse out of my space.  In this scenario what myelin circuits will I be firing?  What myelin circuits will I be strengthening?  That’s an interesting and important question to ask yourself.  Remember it isn’t just the circuits for physical actions that are strengthened.  Myelin also effects the pathways that regulate emotional responses.  So every time I get frustrated or angry with that horse when he crowds in on me, I’m strengthening that response.  I’m making it easier and easier to become angry.  I’m creating the very thing I most want to avoid – a hair trigger for anger.

So I want to make a sharp U turn and shift my focus to what I want.  In a broad brush description of what I want, I would say that I want my horse to keep his head straight, and to walk forward with his weight evenly balanced between his shoulders.  The result will be that he’ll stay out of my space.

So now I apply deliberate deep practice techniques to building those skills.  I begin by putting my horse away and working out the details of what I want by miming both my actions and the horse’s.  I’ll slow everything down so I can really understand what is needed.  I’ll pretend that I am my horse.  What happens to my balance when I lean in on top of my handler?  How does this effect my ability to walk forward?  How does it make me feel?  What do I need to do to change out of this balance into a more desirable balance?  How does that make me feel?  Always I pay attention to these emotional shifts.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that they track very accurately the changes in my balance.  Physical balance helps to create emotional well-being.

I’ll imagine again that I am a horse standing in reasonable balance.  My handler will be asking me to walk off maintaining this good balance.  How does my weight need to shift to create that first balanced step?  Remember I am miming all of this, moving in slow motion so I can notice all the tiny details, all the changes in balance that will become more automatic as I speed things up.

Building a skill follows a curious trajectory.  I’ll begin with this very chunked down, slow-motion process where everything is noticed and nothing is automatic.  How do I shift my balance to begin to lift my foot so I can take a step?  Where does the movement begin?  What allows it? What blocks it?  Everything is noticed.  But this isn’t where I am going to end up.  Thank goodness!  I’d never be able to walk if that were the case.  And that’s the point.

Automaticity
As a skill develops, you become less and less aware of what you are doing.  The skill becomes automatic.  There’s a name for this: automaticity.  We need skills to become automatic so we can attend to other things.  If I had to think about every tiny detail of how I walk every time I took a step, I would never be able to work with my horse.  So I analyze this process away from my horse.  I build the circuit I want, strengthening it with repetitions until it begins to feel automatic.  That’s when I am ready to explore the next step in the process.  When I have strung enough of these chunks together so the entire flow feels smooth and automatic, I’ll ask my horse what he thinks about all this deep practice.  Has it made me a better dance partner?  His feedback will tell me what I need to work on next.

Coyle made the comment that the process of building brain circuits accompanied by automaticity yields a curious result: as we build these enormous and highly detailed circuits, we’re simultaneously forgetting that we have built them.  Perhaps this is the reason people are often reluctant to begin the deep practice routines of miming in slow motion the skills they want to build.  They have forgotten what it is like to be a complete beginner and the work that’s involved in learning a new skill. None of us like the feeling of being clumsy and awkward.  It’s an uncomfortable place to be in. We want to move out of that zone as quickly as possible.

There are two ways to do this – the first is to avoid exploring any new activity where you might experience being a beginner without well-insulated myelin circuits to guide you through. The other way is to build good circuits through an efficient, effective process.  The deep practice techniques give you the fast track out of this zone, and they do it oddly enough by slowing everything down.  That’s the paradox.

So in my deep practice approach to developing good training skills I’ll continue to explore balance from the horse’s perspective.  I’ll begin by shifting my weight so I can step off with my outside foot.  Oh no, there’s a slight bobble as I begin the shift. Left unattended that will snowball into my falling over my inside shoulder.  As I pretend to be a horse, I’ll feel crowded by my handler who will be trying to push me back. We’ll both be heading down a well-myelinated track of annoyance that was built up via our previous training encounters.  So I’m going to notice all those tiny losses of balance, attend to them, and now that small part of the circuit can fire without the error.  I won’t be triggering that older habit pattern that leads to annoyance.  Instead I am building a better “expressway”.

Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.

I’ll repeat this segment, attending to the nuances of the balance shifts until I have a clean circuit.  The myelin pathway that I am strengthening is building towards excellence.

Coming soon: Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part Four

Part 4: What does Soccer have to do with Horse Training?

This is the fourth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 3, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Merenaro 2014-11-03 at 8.17.32 PMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.19.48 AMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.20.16 AMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.20.35 AM
Building Skilled Responses To The Unexpected
To illustrate how the decision-making skill can be developed to a state of excellence Coyle looked at how Brazil’s soccer stars develop their lightning fast footwork.  Brazil became the country to beat in world-class soccer not because their players were genetically more gifted, but because Brazil’s young players grow up playing a game called Futsal.

Futsal is played in a much smaller court than regular soccer.  It “compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems.”

In futsal players touch the ball 600 percent more than they do in regular soccer.  600%.

Of course, the young Brazilian players learn faster, and develop sharper ball handling skills than their American counterparts who grow up playing on full size soccer fields.

I had never watched futsal before, so I looked it up on youtube.  I was astonished.  It was like watching the Harlem Globe Trotters but with the players teasing their opponents with a soccer ball instead of a basketball.  Or imagine watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing while keeping a ball in motion between their feet.  It was astonishing the skill these players had.  If you haven’t seen futsal, here’s a quick link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LG_zukvek0

Horse Simulators
How is all this fancy footwork relevant to horse training?  In our “horse simulator” exercises I can let someone experience a horse who is spooking or pulling on a lead over and over again.  It’s like the futsal court that lets the player practice his ball handling skills many more times than he would on a regular-sized field.

I’m good at copying what horses do.  I know what it feels like to have a horse leaning in on me, or trying to scoot away.  I’m good at “being a horse”.  I can slow the movement down, make it less abrupt or less forceful so a new learner isn’t as overwhelmed as they be by their actual horse.  I can fall into their space and see how they respond down the lead.  That was too slow, try again.  Better.  Try again.  Now what happens if I make a slight change?

Our “horse simulator” practice is comparable to futsal.  The handler gets in many more practice rounds so she is better prepared for the real thing.  We’re improving her underlying technique and sharpening all the quick decision making that has to occur as she partners her horse.

Accelerated Learning
Translate this type of deep practice to horses and see what you get.  Now simple reaction patterns are repeated many more times than they would be in a more conventional approach to training. That describes very much what we do in clicker training.  We often marvel at the accelerated pace of learning in our clicker-trained horses.  But is it any wonder?  From the outside looking in people see training that is made up of interrupted flow.  I don’t put video up on youtube of riding training sessions because I know people won’t understand what they are seeing. The horse is constantly stopping.  How can that possibly be right?  I know that’s what they are thinking.

The myelin model of skill building explains why this is more than right.  It is the road to excellence.

I’ve used this example many times.  Suppose you are teaching a young horse to pick up the canter under saddle.  In normal training you would get the canter and then insist that the horse keep going.

In clicker training, as the horse transitions into the canter, click, within a stride or two he would be stopping to get his treat.

How is he ever going to learn to canter with all these stop and go interruptions?

The answer comes when we project out what happens over the course of this training session and the next ten.  The first horse will be made to stay in the canter for longer and longer duration.  Over the course of his training session let’s say that he does five transitions.  That number will actually be going down as the rider builds duration in the canter, but let’s say the rider keeps track and asks for five canter departs in each ride.  Repeat that for ten days and this horse will have done fifty transitions into the canter.  That sounds like a lot, but let’s see what happens with the clicker-trained horse.

In that first ride the horse picks up a canter and gets clicked before he’s gone more than a stride or two.  He gets his treat and the rider is immediately asking for another set up into the canter.  It’s quite possible that in the same span of time that the other team worked, this horse could do twenty or thirty canter departs.  So over the next ten days instead of doing 50 departs, he’ll be doing 200.  That’s a huge difference.

So now we can ask the question: which horse is going to understand canter departs better?  Or if we ask this from the perspective of myelin and skill development – which horse is going to have the better insulated myelin?  Which horse is going to pick up the canter faster, with better balance, without seeming to think about it?  It’s an easy answer.  The clicker-trained horse.

With people the myelin model makes us rethink what it means to be a prodigy.  More and more researchers are understanding that long-term success grows out of deep practice, not some innate talent.  Hmm.  No wonder we have so many clicker trainers with their “common” backyard horses doing amazing work. Yes, it is wonderful to have a “fancy” horse whose parents have won all sorts of trophies and honors, but that natural athleticism is meaningless unless it is paired with a style of training that can develop the horse’s talent.

Coming Soon: Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

Part 3: Equine Simulators

This is the third installment in a nine part article.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 and 2, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handling Mary C Aoiffe Helen House horse
Part 3: Equine Simulators
How do you learn to ride and to train horses when mistakes can result in serious accidents?  You create simulations. These days there are mechanical simulators.  I’ve sat on a few of them, and the good ones really do feel as though you are riding a horse.  You can spare school horses a lot of miles carrying unbalanced riders through the use of these machines, but that’s not the kind of simulator I am referring to here.  The kind that I’m talking about don’t require any special equipment.  In fact at first they don’t require any equipment at all. That’s another thing we have in common with these talent hotspots – the training doesn’t rely on expensive, specialized equipment.  Anyone can have access to these methods.  That means anyone with the passion to pursue excellence can succeed.  You don’t need to have a fancy horse or fancy stable.  You just have to have the desire to do better.

In clinics we put the horses away while the people work on their handling skills.  Instead of making their mistakes with their horses, we use each other as the “equine simulators”.  I’m sure people who are new to my work must at first be somewhat baffled.  They’ve come to the clinic expecting to see horses being trained.  Instead they are going through a series of t’ai chi warm-up exercises.  What has this got to do with horse training?

It turns out everything.  I’m taking them through a multi-step process that Daniel Coyle would recognize as deep practice.  To learn more about training plans and learning theory we play PORTL (Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab) and other training games.  To learn better technique, first, we set aside lead ropes and all other equipment so people can become more tuned in to their own balance.  We explore balance through a series of questions: How do you move? What is connected? Where does a movement begin?  Where does it stop?  Movement is slowed down so it can be broken down into tiny weight shifts.  We are building skills myelin layer by myelin layer.

Next we practice with one another.  One person holds the horse’s end of the lead while another explores her handling skills.  How does the lead feel to the “horse”.  This is the time to make “mistakes”, to experience what it feels like to the horse when someone is too tight, or too quick, or so soft they are absent.  What happens if the “horse” leans into the handler, or spooks suddenly?  What response does the handler make?  Over and over we can repeat patterns, until responding to a horse’s sudden movement becomes second nature. That’s what we want.  With the “equine simulators” you can test out your technique before it’s the real thing.  The “simulators”  give you a safe way to develop your skills. Clumsy handling doesn’t just frustrate your horse, it can get you hurt.  Practicing beforehand means you can be more successful the first time out.

I liked reading in the “Talent Code” that this somewhat unconventional approach to training would seem very familiar to the coaches in : Coyle’s talent hotbeds.  We’re building two types of skills through these exercises.  The first is the technical skill – the details of communicating clear messages to your horse via body language and leads.  The other skill involves all the quick decisions you have to make when handling a horse.  We’re building the ability to make those quick decisions and to respond effectively to the unexpected.

Coming soon: Part 4: “What Does Soccer Have To Do With Horse Training?”