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.”

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