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:

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

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