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?”

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