Metaphors Matter: What Are Your Metaphors?

Metaphor: noun – a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.

Which image describes you? Are you:                                                                                                   set in stone; or growing and changeable like an oak sprouting from an acorn?

Do youstone believe that intellectual abilities or athletic talent are something you’re born with?  If you weren’t born smart, or fast, or coordinated – oh well, you just aren’t going to be able to excel.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist teaching at Stanford University, calls this a Fixed Mindset.

tree seedling

Or do you believe in neuroplasticity?  Do you believe that your abilities are not fixed rigidly by your genes but can be developed over time through deliberate practice?

Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

Dweck has done a number of fascinating studies showing the impact that these two mindsets have on performance.  In one study involving 400 5th grade students from all over the US, students were brought into a room one at a time and given ten problems to solve.  On completion the students in one group were praised for their intelligence.  They were told they had achieved a really good score which meant they must be very smart.  The students in the second group were praised for their effort.  They were told they had a really good score which meant they must have worked really hard.

The students were then given another test, but this time they could choose which test to take.  The first option contained a set of problems that were similar to the first set.  They were told they would almost certainly do well on this test. Or they could work on a much more challenging and difficult set of problems that gave them the opportunity to learn and grow.

Can you guess what the results were?

If you said the students who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier test, you would be absolutely right.  67% chose this option.  In dramatic contrast 92% of the students who were praised for their effort chose the more challenging test.

One little phrase: you’re really smart or you worked really hard changed the choice they made.  Here’s the explanation Dweck gives for this difference:

The children who were praised for their intelligence thought that’s why others admired them.  They didn’t want to do anything that would show that they weren’t really that smart, so they played it safe.  They developed what Dweck refers to as a Fixed Mindset.  Instead of challenging themselves with the tougher set of problems, they chose the option that would support the self-belief that they were smart.  The result was they limited the growth of their talents.

The students who were praised for their effort received a very different message.  They heard that it was their hard work and the strategies that they chose that created the good result.  Instead of thinking that mistakes would show that they weren’t smart and talented, they looked at challenges as opportunities to grow and become more talented.

In the next part of the study all the students were given a truly challenging test that was beyond their current abilities.  The students who had been praised for being really smart became frustrated and gave up early.  The students in the second group worked longer and reported enjoying the process.

In the last phase of the study the students were given a test that was at the same level of difficulty as the first test.   The students who had been told they were really smart showed a decline of on average 20% in their scores while the students who had been praised for their effort raised their score on average by 30%.  That’s a whopping 50% difference between the two groups – caused by just a few simple and in both cases well-meaning words.

Changing Mindsets
So what do you do with this information?  How do you help someone shift from the limitations a fixed mindset creates to the open-ended possibilities of a growth mindset?

Dweck conducted another study that sought to answer this question.  She and her colleagues took a group of 7th graders who were doing poorly in math and divided them into two groups.

The first group was given an intervention in which they were taught better study skills.

The second group was taught the same study skills, but they were also taught that the brain was like a muscle.  It got stronger with use.  When they were working through a challenging problem, the neurons in their brains were forming new connections.  Those new neural synapses were helping them to become smarter.

The results of these two interventions created very different results.  The first group continued to show a decline in their math scores, while the second group improved.

school desk plus interventionMetaphor Matters
Current research in neuroscience has given us the metaphor of neuroplasticity. Our brains continue to grow, make new connections, change in response to the learning challenges we take on.  When a student is faced with a difficult math problem, instead of cringing away from it, she tackles it with enthusiasm.  When she hits a stumbling block instead of quitting in frustration, she thinks of the new neural connections that are forming in her brain, making her smarter and able to tackle even tougher problems. This is what Dweck’s study showed.

Metaphor matters.  So what metaphors do you have?  What works for you? And how does this carry over to your horses?

The Mindset Trap
Do you have a fixed mindset for yourself?  For your horse?

Years ago I had a client who was frustrated by the length and shape of her thighs.  “If only they were longer, if only they were thinner,” she would lament, “then she would be able to ride the way she wanted to.”  But alas, she was short and no matter what she did, she would never be the tall, long-legged, naturally-gifted rider she envied.  Her fixed mindset kept her stuck.  She was a good rider, but she was never able to enjoy her achievements.

She had a similar fixed outlook for her horse.  She couldn’t afford the big, fancy warmblood the long-legged riders all had.  She could only afford an off-the-track thoroughbred with poor feet and some undiagnosed hind end issues.  She was constantly feeling frustrated and stuck.  How could she ever progress given the way the cards were stacked up against her?

My thoroughbred was never on the track, but he certainly had major hind end issues, and yet I didn’t crash up against the same glass ceiling that hung permanently over my client’s head.  My passion was learning.  Peregrine presented me with many struggles and many frustrations, but always with the opportunity to learn.  In many ways because Peregrine had such severe physical issues, he freed me up to experiment.  I’ve encountered so many people who have finally bought the horse of their dreams.  They have a beautifully trained, athletic horse who can carry them forward to their performance goals – and yet they are frozen.  They become completely dependent upon their trainers, unable to risk any experimentation for fear that they will mess up their horse.  In Carol Dweck’s studies the performance scores of the children with fixed mindsets declined.  I’ve seen the same thing with the riders who are trapped by fixed-mindset belief systems.

The Journey to Excellence

Where did this trot come from?

 

Harrison and warmblood

 

This warmblood stallion is expected to be brilliant.

 

 

 

Would you at first glance expect the same of this horse?

 

 

So again – where does talent come from?

You could answer this by saying that his owner, Natalie, is a naturally gifted animal trainer.  She’s one of those people who just seems to have a way with animals, who can bring out good things in every animal she works with, be it a horse, dog, cat, or guinea pig.

Or you could say that it comes from Natalie’s willingness to work hard no matter the conditions.  Many is the video she’s sent me where she’s out in the snow on a cold winter day training her horse.  Others would be inside by the fire, but she continues to work regardless of the weather.  Her talent comes from that hard work diligently applied over a long period of time.

But that still leaves the question: where does this growth mindset come from?  And how can you strengthen your own growth mindset so you can be on your own journey to excellence?

Are Your Metaphors Up To Date?
Are your metaphors up to date, or are you stuck in old belief systems that no longer serve you well?  Science changes.  Have you changed along with it, or do you still believe in old, outdated theories?

What we were taught in grade school in so many cases no longer applies. Consider genetics.  In school I remember learning about Lamarck and his giraffes.

Lamarck and his giraffesIt was a lovely, simple metaphor.  The giraffes stretched higher and higher to reach the upper branches in a tree. As a result, their necks grew longer, and they passed on this trait to their upward-reaching offspring.

We were taught to laugh at Lamarck.  What a silly notion.  Much better was Mendel and his peas.  We learned about recessive and dominant traits, and we learned how to do the formulas that would predict how many peas would be short and how many would be tall.

Mendel and his peasMendel’s was also a lovely, simple metaphor, only now with epigenetics coming on the scene we are discovering that maybe we will have to dust off poor old Lamarck and take another look at his metaphors.

Science Changes and So Must We
The point is our ideas about how the world works change over time.  We come up with new, better metaphors to describe our current, best guess at how things work.  We use these metaphors in many ways.  And sometimes we go back and dust off old metaphors even when we know they aren’t correct.

The world is flatIn 2005 economist, Thomas Friedman, wrote “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”.  You might well ask: did Friedman not know that Christopher Columbus didn’t fall off the edge of the world?  In grade school had he not learned about Magellan circumnavigating the globe?  Did he truly believe the world was flat!? Of course not. He was using the image of a flat planet as a powerful metaphor to help us understand economic globalization. Because we know the world really is round, Friedman’s metaphor is all the more powerful.

This to me is a great example of how we use metaphors and how role of science is to provide us with new, better, different ways of perceiving the world.

If I were trying to find the cure for cancer, I might take umbrage at this view of science.  I would be looking for The Truth – whatever that means.  Instead what I want from science is a more useful story.

I want images and metaphors that help me:

  • Better predict how an animal is going to behave, especially in response to my actions.
  • Provide me with better ways to explain my training choices to others.
  • Motivate people to develop their own skills so they can become better caregivers and trainers for their animals.

the talent codeThe Talent Metaphor
I can’t talk about the question of where talent comes from without bringing up Daniel Coyle and his book, The Talent Code.

Coyle is not a scientist, but like me he is a user of the metaphors science provides.  His book is brimming over with great metaphors, many of which I have been borrowing of late.  In The Talent Code, Coyle poses the key question: where does talent come from?

The old metaphor was talent was something you were born with.  Mozart was born a musical genius.  The fact that his father was also a musician and began rigorously teaching his son from infancy on is irrelevant to the metaphor of genius as an innate gift.  This image of Mozart the musical genius is one many people firmly believe.

mozart on tour

The OLD metaphor: talent is something you are born with. If you aren’t one of the gifted few – oh well, too bad.

 

 

 

mozart on tour

The NEW metaphor: talent is the product of deep practice techniques that develop well-myelinated nerve fibers. If you aren’t one of the gifted few – don’t give up, just find better practice strategies for achieving your goals.

 

 

 

The Myelin Metaphor

attic insulationIn the neuroscience courses I took way back when I was in school myelin got a cursory mention, nothing more.  Myelin insulated the nerve fibers – end of story.  No one really talked about what this really meant. Why was it important for nerve fibers to be insulated?  What did that do for a nerve fiber?  If I thought about it at all it was to picture a nerve cell wrapped in a bundle of attic insulation.  I never really thought why a nerve cell needed to be kept warm!  It was a word that was tossed out and then quickly glossed over.  All the focus was on the nerve cells themselves not the myelin that coated them.

So here’s the modern, updated short course on neuroscience – with apologies to any neuroscientists who may be reading this:

nerve cell 2

Put very simply nerve fibers carry electrical impulses through a circuit.

nerve cell 5

Myelin wraps around those nerve fibers,           insulating them so the electrical impulses
don’t leak out.

myelin sheathThis illustration depicts the multiple layers of myelin surrounding the inner nerve axon. The thicker the myelin sheath – the faster and more efficient the nerve fiber becomes.

When nerve cells fire, specialized glial cells respond by wrapping layers of myelin around that neural circuit.  The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster the electrical impulse is transmitted.

diagram of nerve cell firesThink of the difference in speed between the old dial-up modems and the new high-speed fiber optic cables of today.  The sweetest sound in the morning used to be the high-pitched squeal that signaled a successful dial-up connection.  I remember the slow load times and the long waits for even simple functions.  Very little of what I use the internet for today would be possible at those old, slow speeds.

Just as faster connections give us a much more talented internet, faster nerve fibers give us a much more talented individual.  Here’s where the myelin metaphor takes us:

  • Every thought, action, or emotion depends upon a precisely timed electrical signal traveling at high speeds through a chain of neurons.
  • Myelin insulates the fibers and increases signal strength, speed and accuracy.
  • 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.

This doesn’t happen just for the talented few.  Myelin is universal.  We all grow it, and it impacts all skills – physical, emotional, and intellectual.  Understanding the role myelin plays in nerve functions gives us a metaphor to create growth mindsets.

Questions
So let’s ask:

How do you build super-fast, well-insulated neural networks?

The answer, according to Coyle, is you focus on your errors, but you do it in a very structured and specific way that he refers to as Deep Practice.  I wrote about this in detail in my recent post: In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice (Nov. 16, 2014).

biplane crash

How do you build skills in an activity where mistakes can get you killed?

The answer here is you use simulators.

There are many very high-tech riding simulators now on the market.  This is not the kind of simulator I have in mind.  I’m thinking of some much more low-tech, but still very powerful ways of developing your skills separate from your horse.   Again, I wrote about this in detail in my recent post.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handling

In brief: practicing your rope handling skills first with a “human horse” is a great way to develop your skills.  It keeps you safe while you are learning, and it lets you experience the effect of different actions from both the horse’s and the handler’s perspective.

 

 

combine ingredientsWhen you combine “equine simulators” with the new research on myelin, you get people focusing with much greater intent on the work.  Just like the students in Carol Dweck’s study whose scores improved after they were taught about better study skills and neural plasticity, the riders who engaged in horse simulator exercises after learning about myelin, deep practice techniques and the connection to talent hotspots, showed much more engagement in the process.

Seeing these connections has led me to my new favorite training metaphor:

3 layer square cake

Deep practice through myelin mastery creates growth mindsets and leads to excellence.

Deep Practice
It turns out that there are three tiers to Deep Practice.  I described them in my previous post, but we’re going to revisit them here.  I’ll be illustrating them with lots of new metaphors.  Hopefully you’ll find them of value.

For each tier I’ll give the overall definition, then I’ll look at how this applies directly to clicker training, and then specifically to horse training.

cake with three tasks

1.) Look at the task as a whole:

You have to have some sense of what you are building before you can begin.
stairs

The Translation to Clicker Training: Training Plans.

Good shapers have a training plan that takes them step by step towards their goal behavior.  Often the analogy of a staircase is used to describe this planning process.

The Translation to Horses:

Find a look that pleases your eye.  Collect images that inspire you.  Paste them on your refrigerator, your bathroom mirror.  Decorate your desk at work with them.  Put them by your bedside table.  Make them your screen saver.  Create a gallery of images that make you smile and say: I want that.

horses like imagesAnother Great Metaphor: Mirror Neurons

mirror reversedWe are wired to imitate.  That’s been another interesting discovery – mirror neurons.  They fire as we watch someone else perform.  When I’m coaching someone, I don’t just see their ride.  I feel it.

Filling your life with the images that inspire will allow this imitating process to occur almost without your being aware of it.  But because we are 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, 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.

rolkuer cut

When you focus on what you don’t like, you’re still absorbing those images and myelinating those circuits.

Be Care-Full what you watch.

 

 

Instead find images you like. Linger over them. Let them permeate through you and become part of you.

mirror plus 3 piaffe panels

When you practice, you will find yourself mirroring those images.

cake second tier

Break each task down into small units.

When you divide a task up into very small units, it is easier to notice the small errors that exist in each of those units.  Highlighting the errors lets you adjust, correct, perfect each of those small units.

The Translation to Clicker Training: Thin Slicing.

For every step that you find, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller bread for futsal articlestep that you can break something down into.  You want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until you find a step where you can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If you find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, the slice you’re looking at is still too large.

 

Loopy training diagram with loop

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.

The myelin model also gives us another way to look at shaping.  Especially when people are broad brushnew to clicker training, they often begin with a broad brush approach to the behaviors they are clicking.  They start with a general approximation and then gradually refine their criteria towards the more polished, goal behavior.  If you are after consistent, high-quality performance, the myelin metaphor suggests that this may not be the best strategy. Instead it tells us why you may find old pieces of unwanted behavior creeping back into your training.  Through this broad-brush shaping process those old patterns will have become well myelinated right along with the patterns you want to keep.

funnel images of shaping

Training Mantras
This myelin model of shaping gives me some new favorite training mantras to go along with my new favorite training metaphors.

Be Care-Full what you myelinate.

Remember myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.

ben franklin

At the risk of sounding like Benjamin Franklin, what this     translates to is:

A habit formed is a habit kept.

 

 

 

 

The Translation to Horses
Horses notice everything.  They are masters at reading body language.  How you stand, how your weight shifts, even how you breath, all these details will be noticed by your horse.  One of the common tripping up points many new handlers have is their body language is telling the horse something very different from their intended message. Taking the time to learn about your own balance means you will be giving one consistent message – not two conflicting ones.

In clinics we explore balance through a series of awareness exercises that are designed to help you communicate more effectively with your horse.  Movement is slowed down into tiny weight shifts.  I want people to experience their balance at a micro level.  It is observe, adjust, perfect.  We are building skills myelin layer by myelin layer.

We move from these awareness exercises to working with “human horses”. Handlers develop their skills working with a partner who can give them verbal feedback and where mistakes are welcome.  What happens when you slide down a lead with tension in your shoulders?  Let’s find out.  What does your “human horse” think of this?  Now release that mad scientist at worktension and see what difference – if any – it makes.  These training games turn us into “mad scientists”.  We can ask questions, experiment, try different strategies.  These same “mistakes” made with a horse could create frustration, even injuries.  Mistakes made with your “human horse” are part of the learning process.  They are part of the growth mindset that leads to excellence.

 

The Click Creates Stepssteps macro micro
Chunking down continues once you are back with your horse.  Every time you click, you are creating a step in the training. With your new-found awareness of your own balance, you can ask more subtle, detail-oriented questions of your horse.  Beginners shape on a macro level.  They ask a horse to back, and they click as they see him take a full step.

Think about what this means for the horse.  Often the timing of the click is late.  The horse is already putting his foot down by the time the handler is clicking.  So the handler wants movement, but the horse thinks he’s being reinforced for stopping.  Oh dear.

Even more confusing the next time the horse gets clicked it’s for taking a step back with his other front foot. That’s a different behavior.

The micro trainer is more aware of small details.  She begins by clicking for just a shift of balance.  Her timing is good and the behavior is repeatable.  The circuits she’s insulating create a clean, consistent final behavior.

 

cake third tier

Playing with Timepocket watch 3
Detecting mistakes is essential for making progress. This error-focused element of deep practice is achieved by playing with time.  Movement is slowed down so small bobbles and losses of balance can be detected and corrected.

 

violin Daniel Coyle described practice sessions at a music school where students played the music so slowly it became unintelligible.  By slowing down and drawing out each note, they were able to notice slight errors in their technique.  If their performance goals had been to play just for themselves and a few friends, those errors might not matter, but when you are training for the world’s great concert halls, they most definitely do.

So again it is highlight, adjust, perfect.  The myelin model tells us that this attention to detail creates clean, highly polished skills.

 

The Translation to Clicker Training  clicker image red
Slowing an action down lets you notice
and attend to errors. Focusing on
errors at first sounds like the opposite
of clicker training.  We want to focus
on what we want the animal TO DO,
not the unwanted behavior.

But that’s at the MACRO level.

At the macro level I do want to focus on what I want my horse to do.  I can’t train a negative.  Saying I don’t want my horse crowding into my space, doesn’t tell my horse what he CAN do.  I can punish the unwanted behavior, but unless I provide my horse with an acceptable alternative, I’m leaving him in a guessing game.  It’s up to him to figure out how to stay out of trouble.  That’s not only bad training, it’s incredibly unfair.  So I need to teach positive actions.  What is the behavior I WANT to see?  If my horse stops crowding me by bolting off, I haven’t solved anything.  I’ve just replaced one unwanted behavior with another.  Focusing on these undesirable actions, turns me into a reactive trainer.  I’ll be forever chasing after these unwanted behaviors, trying to stomp out brush fires before they spread.

What I want to do instead is create an overall macro picture of my perfect horse and then train on a micro level.

clicker image redAt the MICRO level  I can notice the small bobbles and loss of balance that may be part of the root cause of the behavior problem. I can refine my criteria even more until I have a clean, error-free loop of behavior.
So it’s – highlight, adjust, click, reinforce, repeat – until the loop is clean.
Again, the myelin model says that this attention to detail will create the clean, consistent behavior I am after.

Chunking down to micro creates thin slicing and that in turn leads to excellence.

clicker to thin slice to excellence

The Translation to Horses
When you are first experimenting with clicker training, it’s tempting to jump right in and rush past all the details that I find so fascinating.  Initially the focus is on macro behaviors.   It’s easy.  It’s fun – that is, until your horse becomes frustrated by the lack of clarity.  Details do matter.  Every time you click and give your horse a treat just when he’s falling onto his inside shoulder, you are insulating circuits that you are not going to want.

Remember

  • 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.

The myelin pathways I am strengthening by playing with time lead to excellence.
But so far I have only focused on technical skills.  To improve my ability to respond to the unexpected I’m going to play with space, as well as time.

Playing with Space

In “The Talent Code” Daniel Coyle used the example of the incredible ball-handling skills Brazilian soccer players develop by playing a game called futsal.  Instead of practicing on the over-sized expanse of a soccer field, young players build their skills in a space that’s the size of a tennis or basketball court.

soccer field Soccer Field
futsal court 2

 

Futsal Court

 

A futsal player can make contact with the ball 600 percent more than he would in a regular
soccer game.  That’s a huge multiplier especially when you add in the age at which
these players are starting out.  If the above view of the soccer field looks huge to you,
imagine what it must look like to the average eight year old.  That’s a huge area to be running up and down.  But compress that space into the length of a tennis court, and now you have many more opportunities to engage with other players.  There are more quick decisions to be made and more plays to have.  Is it any wonder Brazil is a leader in world-class soccer?

The Translation to Clicker Training

P1070994 newby ridden get treatWhen people first watch clicker training, they are often puzzled by all the stopping for a treat.  How is the horse ever going to go anywhere if he is forever stopping? That’s one of the most common questions that gets asked from the outside looking in.

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

Clicker training is a skill accelerator.  Pick a behavior you’d like to improve. It can be anything – teaching a horse to pick up his feet for cleaning, or a dog to sit, or a bird to come when called.   For this example, I’ll use teaching a horse to go from a walk into a canter.  In a conventional ride, you would normally ask for the canter and then keep going.  Over the course of the ride that means you ask for just handful of canter departs.  In contrast a clicker trainer might focus in on just the depart phase of the canter.  She’ll ask for the depart and – click – her horse will stop to get his treat.  This is what non-clicker trainers find so puzzling.  The horse keeps stopping.  How is he ever going to go anywhere? But what they aren’t considering is how many canter departs that horse is performing.

Let’s compare the two rides:


 

Conventional training ride:                                       Clicker-trained ride:

Ride 1: ask for 5 canter departs.                             Ride 1: ask for 20 canter departs.
After 10 rides: you’ll have 50 canter departs.     After 10 rides: you’ll have 200 departs.


 

That’s quite a difference.  So let’s consider:

Which horse is going to understand canter departs better?
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.  Of course, you won’t be staying at the level where you only ask for the canter depart and then click.  You’ll be gradually expanding your loop to include more strides of canter.  But that canter will be built on a solid foundation of myelin-supported departs.  This is a horse-related example, but the concept holds no matter the species you are working with.  Clicker training is a skill accelerator, and the myelin model of excellence helps to explain why.

The Translation to Horses
The Brazilian soccer players play futsal to improve their skills.  All those quick encounters sharpen their ability to respond to the unexpected.  What do horse trainers do?  They put their horses away and practice their handling skills with other people.  At clinics I’ll play the part of the horse by holding the snap end of the lead while the handler practices her rope-handling skills.   I can let someone experience a horse who is spooking or pulling on a lead over and over again.  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 she would be by an actual horse.  I can lean into her space and see how she responds down the lead.  That was too slow, try again.  Better.  Try again.  Now what happens if I make a slight change? 

These sessions are 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 partnering a horse requires.

Metaphors Matter – Myelin Matters
Where does talent come from?  I asked that question earlier.

The gift of the gifted lies not in genes but in mindset.  That’s what Carol Dweck’s work showed.  A simple phrase – you’re so smart versus you worked really hard was enough to change the outcome of a student’s performance.

The gift of the gifted comes from the messages we receive from family and teachers.  It comes from chance encounters and life experiences that lead us to discover our own powerful metaphors.

Shortly after I posted my recent article: “In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice” – this is what one of the participants in my on-line course sent to the discussion group:

“This post and the book The Talent Code were really timely for me. With the bad weather arriving and our property turning into a giant bog of soupy clay, I’m down to a 14 by 28 foot covered/dry work area. At first I was hugely disappointed to have to postpone the horses’ work for lack of space, but really when I look at it from the perspective of Alex’s post I have my own little futsal court. I set up a miniature cone circle for bending and a mat at one end for balance work and am going thru the blog post and the course in detail looking for exercises we can use for deep practice.”

Metaphors matter.  What are the messages you tell yourself?  Are you trapped in a fixed mindset?  Or like the person in this next post have you found metaphors that create for you a growth mindset?

The Talent Code gave me hope that I do not have to be born with particular qualities to be successful.  That hard work, intelligent practice and learning do make a difference. At about 12 years old I was told to give up my dream of becoming a professional piano player, as “you are not talented enough”. I was stopped the very moment when I was starting to enjoy the piano playing, when piano playing became a lovely activity for me, and not a burden. Thirty years later I can still feel the pain of “not being talented enough”. When I started to work with horses I was obsessed that I did not have the time, I could never be good enough, and performance was not accessible as “I am not talented”. Oh well, I like to believe that I do not need to be talented, I just need to practice and learn deep enough.

And I have found so much in Alexandra’s course to give me hope. I have practiced what she teaches and I am safer, and also I like to believe that the horses I am in contact with are happier.

So thank you Alexandra for giving me the hope that at my age and experience I can still be successful.”

Metaphors matter.  Find the metaphors that open your life and take you to your dreams.

Alexandra Kurland
published Dec. 25, 2014

Happy Holidays Everyone – I wish you the best gift of all – the metaphors that give you a life filled with joy, growth, love – and of course horses!

 

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Futsal for Horses

Fred Icky  futsal article

There’s a connection between the horse on the left who is learning to step onto a mat and the horse on the right who is learning to piaffe. To find out what they are – read on.

Piaffe Discovered
One of the highlights of the 2014 travel season was a trip north to visit with Monty Gwynne and her beautiful Andalusian, Icaro – or Icky as he is called in the barn.

Monty has been building the components of piaffe, and during my visit all the elements fell into place for Icky to produce his first, clean steps of piaffe. When you reach this milestone, that is always a cause for celebration and celebrate we did.  Icky certainly must have thought Christmas had come early given all the treats he was receiving.

Icky’s success provides me the perfect way to talk about two very different types of skills that are needed with horses.  Whether you are aiming for piaffe or just a simple walk down a country lane you need to develop both.

Shannon whisper country lane

Deep Practice
In my recent post, “In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice” (Nov. 2014), I wrote about these two types of skill and the techniques used to develop them.  These are the techniques described by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Talent Code.

The basic premise of Coyle’s book is that people are not born superstars.  There is not a genetic code that says you will grow up to be a world class musician, an Olympic-level rider, a rocket scientist, a basketball superstar.  Not everyone who is over seven feet tall becomes an NBA player.  So what is it that makes someone stand out in a crowd?  Where does talent come from?

To answer this question Daniel Coyle visited what he refers to as talent hotspots, places that were consistently producing people of outstanding talent.  Across a wide variety of activities – both athletic and otherwise – he saw many similarities in the coaching practices.  What he distilled from his travels was a process that he refers to as Deep Practice.

There are three tiers to Deep Practice:

3 layer square cake1.) Look at the task as a whole.  For horses I refer to this as find a look that pleases your eye.  You have to have some sense of what you want before you can go after it.

2.) Chunk things down. In clicker training we learn that for every step you design, 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.

pocket watch 33.) Play with time.  Whether you are a musician, a dancer, a painter, a basketball player, a rider – good technique matters.  When you perform a task at normal speeds, it’s easy to gloss over little mistakes.  When we walk across a room, we don’t pay attention to HOW we walk.  We just walk across a room.  At clinics I slow people down through a series of body awareness exercises.  Now they are paying attention, and through that deliberate focus, they learn about their own balance.  They can notice the tiny bobbles that occur as they initiate movement.  They can make adjustments, get feedback, try again, and through this process perfect their own balance.

When you work slowly you are observing, evaluating, adjusting your own performance.  You are becoming your own coach.  I wrote in detail about this in the previous post (“In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice”; published on theclickercenterblog.com Nov. 16, 2014).  I will refer you to that post for more on the details of Deep Practice.

Technical Skill and Decision Making Expertise
The three tiers of Deep Practice develop technical skills – how you swing a tennis racquet, how you control your breath while singing, how you slide down a lead rope to cue your horse.  That’s one part of the Talent Code process.  The other important skill revolves around the ability to make quick decisions and to respond effectively to the unexpected.  For what are hopefully obvious reasons this later skill is of particular importance when working with horses.

Daniel Coyle illustrated this point by describing what he found when he went to Brazil’s soccer camps. Brazil has become the country to beat in world class soccer.  Coyle wanted to know why.  What were Brazilian coaches doing to produce so many top players?  The answer he discovered was the players grew up playing futsal.

Think of tennis played on a full sized court and now shrink that court down to the size of a ping pong table.  The game speeds up.  With shorter distances to travel the number of volleys per minute increases.

Now translate that to soccer.  Instead of practicing on a huge soccer field, the game is played out in an area that is not much bigger than a basketball court.  This means that players are in much closer contact with one another. During the course of a game they have hundreds more opportunities to make contact with the ball.  In futsal players touch the ball 600% more than they do in regular soccer.  600% is a powerful magnifier.

Imagine yourself back in school, out on the soccer field.  Instead of kicking the ball and seeing it bounce away from you across the huge expanse of a regulation-sized soccer field, now you kick the ball and it goes just a couple of feet before it encounters another player.  In seconds you are right back in the midst of a play.  You are having to make quick decisions over and over again.  When you do play on a regulation-size field, you are so much sharper and more aware of where everyone is on the field.  Your footwork is faster and you aren’t afraid of close contact.

Futsal for Horses
When I read The Talent Code, I resonated with his description of Deep Practice.  Working on technique through the three-tiered process was so very familiar to me.  This is how I have taught myself new skills, and it is how I teach others in clinics and private coaching.  I also resonated with Futsal.  We have our own version of this game.  And surprisingly it sits in one of the foundation lessons: teaching a horse to stand on a mat.

But before I explain how mat work becomes our version of Futsal, let me first describe piaffe.  Most of you have probably seen video of horses in paiffe, the very collected and suspended movement in which the horse appears to trot in place.

Nuno Olivievro piaffe

Nuno Oliviero, one of the great riding masters of the 20th century.

Done well, it is one of the most beautiful of the equestrian arts.  Done well, it can also be wonderfully therapeutic for the horse.  We won’t go into the done badly end of the spectrum.  Done badly everything and anything can become a torturous mess.

No one sets out to piaffe badly.  If piaffe is your goal, you are truly in search of excellence, so we’ll focus on that end of the spectrum and how you get there.

The Four Points on the Bottom of Your Feet
In clinics I guide people through a series of awareness exercises.  We begin with the head and the neck and work our way down to the feet to an exercise I refer to as: “The four points on the bottom of your feet”.  It’s a Feldenkrais exercise I learned years ago from Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM.  It has stayed in repertoire because it is such a simple and yet powerful exercise.

The four points are: inside toe, inside heel, outside toe, outside heel.  As people roll from point to point – inside toe across to outside toe, back to outside heel, to inside heel and back again to inside toe, etc. – I instruct them to observe how they shift their balance from one part of their foot to another.  How do they send and receive their weight?

Stand up for a moment and try it.  Roll around the four points on the bottom of your feet.  How do you send and receive the weight changes?  How do shift from foot to foot? From side to side? From front to back?

And how does this relate to piaffe?

The weight shifts are very similar to the weight shifts we are asking of the horse.  We are asking the horse to shift his balance forward and then back again.  Trot, but transform your energy into upward suspension not forward propulsion.  So it is suspend forward and up and then cycle the energy back around so your balance rocks back and resets you for the next diagonal pair.  Piaffe is very much a sending and receiving of energy.  It is a balancing act for both the horse and the handler.

And it isn’t just physical balance that I’m referring to here.  There is emotional balance to be considered as well.  And then there is the balance between all the quick decisions the handler needs to make.  You have to be a nimble thinker to keep the rhythm of piaffe from falling apart.

Here’s a good way to think of this.  This is the original photo of Icky which I pulled from a short video clip.  I’m working him in hand, and he has just found the balance shift that has allowed him to mobilize into piaffe.
icky piaffe for futsal article 1The photo was a little dark so I decided to use the color adjustment feature that was available to me in the editing program I was using.

Icky piaffe + photo adjust 1Look at all the choices I have, all the dials I can play with.  On my laptop I can only work one at a time, so I begin at the top and play with the level of exposure.  If I move the dial all the way to the left, this is what I’ll get:

icky piaffe for futsal article 2
This is obviously way too dark.  I’ve swung the pendulum too far in one direction, so let me see what happens if I swing the pendulum in the opposite direction:

icky piaffe for futsal article low exposureNow the colour is too washed out.  I’ve gone too far to the right.  But by swinging the dial to both ends of the spectrum, I have learned what happens when I adjust the exposure.

Each element I can adjust gives me a different effect.  Here’s what happens when I adjust for contrast.  All the way to the left washes out the photos .  All the way to the right makes it so dark you can’t even make out the image.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shotsLess extreme is what happens when you adjust the temperature dial.  Again you see the full adjustment to the left and right.

icky piaffe temp 2 shotsObviously I don’t want the extremes for any of these effects, so I begin to play with the dials.  Beginning with the exposure level, I move the dial back and forth around the original point until I find a spot that pleases my eye.
icky piaffe little exposure

This is a little too dark.

Icky piaffe little exposure rgtThis seems better.

Now what happens when I keep that adjustment and nudge the contrast dial back and forth?  The effect is subtle, and there are things I like about both changes, but a decision must be made. I choose to move the dial to the left.  If I were to do this again, I might make a slightly different choice.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shots for futsalI continue on through each of the selections, nudging the dial left and right, seeing the effect it has and then making a selection.  Each choice is effected by all the others.  I go back and forth between effects, moving the dial left and right for each one until I settle on the final combination which produces this image:
Icky piaffe! color adjustedCompare it now to the much darker original:

Icky piaffe! original for futsalIcky stands out from the wall making it much easier to see what he is doing. If I were creating a photo for a different purpose, I might choose to stay with the softer, more muted tones of the original, but for this purpose, for today, the top photo is the one I like.

All these little adjustments make a good analogy for what I was doing in real time to help Icky find this new balance.  First, Monty had prepared him well.  She taught him the individual components that are needed for piaffe.  Think of it like teaching him how to respond to each of the color adjustment dials.  We can see how he responds to each one.  Now it is time to combine them to create the whole picture.

If you had asked me at the time what I was doing, I would not have been able to answer in any meaningful way.  The conversation that was occurring between Icky and myself was so very complex and layered.  Let’s go back to the analogy of the colour dials.  Imagine, if instead of working on my laptop where I am limited by being able to perform just one operation at a time, I were working at a console where I could move many dials at once.  It would be more like playing a piano where many notes can be played together.  Now I can slide the controls for exposure, contrast and temperature all at the same time.  I can adjust one to the left and the other to the right.

Now imagine that it isn’t a computer responding mechanically to my adjustments, but a horse who is listening,processing and responding to the multiple layers of my requests.  Shift your balance forward, now catch it and cycle it back so you are ready with your next diagonal pair.  In other words, nudge the dial to the left and then immediately back to the right.  Do all this while I have another conversation layered on top of that about the way you are lifting out of the base of your neck.  Add another conversation about the height at which I receive the point of contact, and another on the telescoping of your poll.

That’s piaffe.  It is made up of one quick decision after another.  Linger too long deciding if you like the result of the previous request, and you will interrupt the balance and the flow of the weight exchanges.  Piaffe is for nimble thinkers – both human and equine.

Handlers don’t start out with this ability.  It isn’t a talent you’re born with.  It’s something you learn. That’s also true for the horses.  They have to learn how to process and respond to quick exchanges of what can at first seem like conflicting cues.

Deep Practice and Mat Work
That brings us back around to Deep Practice techniques and mat work.  There are six foundation lessons that help introduce both you and your horse to clicker training.  I should really say there are five foundation lessons, and the sixth – standing on a mat – serves more as an assessment to see if you have understood well what the other lessons are teaching.  It also helps develop the nimble thinking handling horses requires.

When confronted for the first time with a doormat-sized piece of plywood or carpeting, most horses will avoid it.  If you lead them casually along so that the mat is in their direct path, they will step over it, or around it, but they won’t step directly on it.  Unknown surfaces could be covering holes that can break a leg.

If you stop the horse in front of the mat and then ask him to step forward just one stride so his front foot lands on the mat, he’ll over-stride.  He’ll push past you or he’ll sidle to the side so again he can avoid landing on the mat.

Natalie Harrison mat 2 shots for futsal

For a novice handler this can turn into a bit of a mess.  So let’s take a step back and apply both the rules of good shaping and the techniques of Deep Practice.

The rules of shaping tell us that if you are encountering a problem in the training, the solution won’t be found within that level.

It is Albert Einstein who is commonly credited with the brilliant quote:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  If you google this, you will find others who also get the attribution, but whoever said it for the first time, said a very wise thing indeed – especially when it comes to training horses.

When I was first learning about horse training, I saw many who would fit this definition of insanity.  I remember one rider in particular who used to have a major fight every night with her horse.  She would send him toward a fence. He would refuse. She would bring him back through a tight circle, and drive him at the fence again.  He would refuse – again.  She would get mad and strike him around the head.  He would finally crow hop over the fence.  Did that solve the problem and turn him into a reliable jumper?  No.  The next night the drama would play out all over again.  True insanity.

bread for futsal articleWhen you encounter a problem in your training, the best way forward is to break the lesson down into smaller steps.  Keep thin slicing and thin slicing until you find a request that gets a consistent yes answer.

The techniques of Deep Practice also tell us to break each lesson down into small steps.

Instead of beginning with mat work, we’re going to go back several more steps.  We’ll end up using simpler behaviors, so we can work on the handler’s basic skills.

In the ideal world here is what the learning process would be:

1.) The handler watches a video of a horse with great mat manners.  The horse walks with the handler to the mat.

natalie Harrison 2 shots walk togWhen he gets to the mat, he knows what to do.  He steps onto the mat and stops squarely in the middle with both front feet. He waits quietly on the mat, and then walks off readily when his handler asks him to do so.

natalie harrison on mat futsalThe handler watches several other video.  One shows the teaching process that was used to create these great manners.  She also watches several videos in which the mat was used as a conditioned reinforcer.   She’s beginning to understand the many reasons for teaching this particular behavior.  Inspired she heads out to the barn to work with her horse.

coronel crowding lisa futsal2.) The handler sets out a plywood mat about the size of a door mat.  She brings her horse to the mat.  On the first pass her horse crowds her, pushing her to the side so he can step around the mat.  She’s late in noticing his concern, and she feels clumsy when she asks him to stop and back up to move his shoulder out of her space.  He responds slowly to her cue to back.  His feet feel as though they are stuck in cement.  When he does finally back up, he’s crooked, and he ends up several steps away from the mat.  The whole process feels very awkward and clumsy.

3.) She’s “tested the water”. She knows her horse isn’t really ready for this lesson.  She puts him away while she comes up with a better training plan.  When she watched the videos showing how the mat was introduced, the lesson included setting up a triangular runway of cones that funneled the horse towards the mat.  In the “runway” the handler reinforced the horse for taking only one step forward or back at a time.

Vt mat funnel for futsal

Taken from Lesson 18: Loopy Training in the Click That Teaches DVD lesson series. This video clip is also included in the on-line course.

When she watched the video the first time, she didn’t understand the importance of this step.  She went directly to the mat, but now she understands that the handler was building the skills she would need her horse to understand once they were at the mat.  She needed to be able to ask for one small step at a time to help her horse find the mat.

Now that she’s “tested the waters”, so to speak, by bringing her horse up to the mat, she understands that neither of them have the underlying skills to make this a “smooth sailing” lesson.  If she continues as she is without the necessary preparation in place, she’s likely to get a lot of resistance.  Her horse may even start pawing at the mat, something she knows from others is a common problem.  The horse on the video pawed briefly, but then stopped as he was reinforced for a shift in balance.  This looked easy on the video, but she now sees she needs to work on her own skills before going back to her horse.  She feels clumsy handling the lead which makes it hard to ask for the quick changes in direction that mat work requires.

It’s clear now that she needs two things: a.) she needs to sharpen her own handling skills; and b.) she needs to teach her horse to shift his weight promptly forward and back one small step at a time. It’s clear he needs more work on these component behaviors.  That’s best done first without the mat being in the picture.

4.) The handler begins by reviewing her basic skills.  She is using Deep Practice techniques.  She videotapes herself as she pantomimes asking her horse to back up and come forward.  When she plays back her first attempts, she notices how stiff she is.  The handler on the video was very smooth.  When she turned her upper body, her feet moved as well.  Her body language complemented perfectly what she was asking for down the lead.

Our handler makes use of the body awareness exercises that are taught in conjunction with the rope handling skills.  She practices the “Four points on the bottom of your feet” exercise and the “T’ai Chi Walk” that goes along with.

AK tai chi walk futsal

Alexandra Kurland demonstrating the T’ai Chi Walk: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

As she returns to these exercises over a period of several days, she notices changes in her balance.  And during the day she also notices that she is less tired when she has to stand for any period of time.  That’s an unexpected bonus from her Deep Practice exercises.  It motivates her to keep exploring this work.  She’s eager to apply what she’s learning about her own balance to her horse.  She sees that many of the places where she at first felt stiff or stuck are also places where she feels resistance in him.  Already she’s understanding better what she needs to do in order to help him, and interestingly enough, teaching him about mats will be an important part of the process.

With her feeling of growing balance and coordination, she begins to work directly with a lead.  She hangs her halter from the top of a door and follows a video that shows her how to slide down a lead.  It takes her through the process in very thin slices.  She feels very awkward at first.  She thought she knew how to handle a lead rope!

ak halter on door futsal

Alexandra Kurland explaining the details of good rope handling techniques: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

Because she’s on her own, she feels very free to slow everything down.  Through this process she discovers lots of little details that she is sure will make a difference to her horse.  When she encounters a step that feels particularly awkward, she drops the lead and pantomimes the action, working in slow motion to understand what needs to be done.  Outside it’s raining.  It’s a cold, miserable day.  She’s quite happy to be inside the house, staying warm and dry.  The best part is she can still work on her horse’s training by working on herself.

When the rope handling begins to feel second nature, she enlists a helper to be her “horse”.  She slides down the lead and gets feedback from her friend.  She makes adjustments as needed.

Ak rope close up with Sue futsal

Close up details of the rope handling: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

At first, her friend remains passive, which lets her continue to work on her basic skills.  When they have ironed out any glitches they find, they watch the runway lesson together and then go out and try it, taking turns playing the role of the horse.  At first, she asks her friend to be an easy, cooperative  “horse”.  They work out any hiccups in the timing and the rope handling.  They check on the active use of the food delivery.  And then her friend becomes more “real life”.  Instead of walking straight onto the mat, she swerves to the side, pushing into the handler.  Given this type of behavior, decisions need to be made faster.  The handler doesn’t want to be reactive, waiting for things to go wrong before asking for the counter move.  She wants to be there ahead of any problems, asking her “horse” for what she wants her TO DO, instead of reacting to unwanted behavior.

After several rounds of this pantomime, she feels much more confident in her handling skills, and she has a much clearer understanding of the lesson. Because she has gone through all these steps, she now knows what she will be asking her horse to do and why.

5.) She reintroduces her horse to the mat.  This time she takes him through all the steps that she missed the first time around.  She begins without the mat, by reviewing his basic leading skills.  She finds places where he was not understanding clearly what she wanted, but with her freshly honed skills, he learns much more quickly, and she is able to help him out more.

They progress quickly together to the point where she feels as though she is ready to reintroduce the mat.  She sets up a runway so she can ask for one step only at a time.  Asking him to move slowly reveals his balance issues which she can now help him with. Her timing is much better and she is able to make quick adjustments so her focus remains on constructing new behaviors, not blocking unwanted ones.

fred in funnel futsalThis time when she releases her horse to the mat, instead of pushing past her, he steps right onto it.  The lesson could not be more different from that first experience!  She is learning how to ask for quick changes of direction forward and back.  He in turn has become wonderfully responsive.  When they get in close to the mat, he can’t really see where it is, so he’s come to rely on her subtle cues to help him find it.  Instead of resenting all the intervention, he’s enjoying the high rates of reinforcement they produce.

fred near mat futsal articleOnce he’s on the mat, he’s able to settle, so in between going forward and going back is a quiet middle where he is standing beautifully on the mat.

nikita on mat futsal

Mat manners done well can be developed into high art.

Connecting Up The Dots: The link between Mats and Piaffe

Can you see now the link between mat work and piaffe?  Remember how I described piaffe: it is built out of a series of quick decisions. The skills they are learning together in the runway and using at the mat will carry forward to create for them this most beautiful of the equine arts.

That’s still a long way off.  For now all you may think you are doing is getting your horse to stand on a mat.  Piaffe may not even be on your radar.  Your performance goals are for back country riding, or jumping, or pleasure riding – not dressage, but you can still appreciate the need for quick decisions and equally quick responses.  You can see many places where that ability to ask for subtle balance shifts will come in handy.  And who knows, someday you may decide you want to try your hand at teaching piaffe.  What a surprise it will be when you discover that you have already built the necessary components!

Magnifying Your Practice Time
Mat work is the equine version of Futsal.  The Brazilian soccer players magnify the effectiveness of their practice time by shrinking the size of their playing field.  With the horses we use the runway and the mat for a similar purpose.

Handling horses, especially handling them when they are upset and pushing through you, requires rapid-fire decisions.

meranero 3 shots for futsal

A sudden spook gives my rope handling a good test.

A beginner who is still fumbling over the handling of her equipment will find that she’s always behind.  She’s always reacting to her horse’s unwanted behavior, not building what she wants.  Even if she’s using clicks and treats, she’s really just blocking what she doesn’t want.

The mat work helps her stay ahead of her horse so she can ask for what she would like him TO DO.  She’s not waiting for things to go wrong and then correcting them.  She sees how he’s responding, and she’s ready with the next request.  She’s making faster, better decisions.  She is gaining the nimble thinking that not only keeps her safer, but also builds great relationships.  Horses feel confident around confident handlers.

She spent a couple rainy days inside working on her handling skills and what is the result?  She and her horse are gaining superstar skills.  They are both loving the training and loving each other.  What could be better than that!

Harrison hug great close up July 2014

Natalie Zielinsky with her wonderful Harrison

Written by: Alexandra Kurland   The Clicker Center  Copyright 2014

theclickercenter.com     theclickercenterblog.com    theclickercentercourse.com

Event Schedule for 2015

Training Intensives – My 2015 Clinics
Ruth Alex deep practice lead handlingRuth Scilla grown ups
What’s In A Name?
Not too long ago I would have called my weekend gatherings clinics. Now I have a new name for them: TRAINING INTENSIVES.
For years at clinics people have been saying I need to call my work something other than clicker training.
 
“What you teach is so much more than just clicker training,” they would say.
 
I would challenge them to come up with a name. “What would you call it?” I would ask them.
 
I’d get a few suggestions, but none of them had any staying power. I see clicker training as a huge, all-inclusive umbrella. So many different kinds of training activities fit under that name. My passion is balance. That’s what I spend my training time focused on. In truth that’s universal. If you want to jump well, your horse needs to be balanced. If you want to ride out over back-country trails, your horse needs to be balanced. If you want a relaxed companion to walk with you down the lane, your horse needs to be emotionally balanced.
 
Balance
Here’s what I wrote recently about balance: “Balance is everything. It is life-giving, life sustaining. It is beauty, grace, power. It is love.” Those are powerful words indeed, but this is what my horses have taught me. Balance is at the core of everything I teach.
 
But what “Balance” means to me may not be at all what someone else thinks about when they use that word.  Balance has become an overworked term, as has harmony; partnership; relationship; connection, etc. We all want these things. And we all claim to have them. You can have two trainers working in absolutely polar opposite ways each claiming that their work creates all of the above. So these labels didn’t work for me. I preferred clicker training. That name tells you right away so many things about how I train. You know a great deal about my methods and the type of relationship I am looking for. What it doesn’t tell you is WHAT I train, and that’s a good thing. WHAT I train is not nearly as important as HOW I train. If I can teach you the process, you can teach your horse anything you want. We don’t have to have overlapping interests to share a productive training conversation.
 
What Do YOU Want?
What do YOU want to train? Is it tricks? Is it jumping? Is it dressage? Is it simply polite stable manners? All this and more belongs under the clicker training umbrella.
 
So WHAT I teach didn’t help me to define my work. Yes, my passion is balance.  That is the central core of what I teach, but that isn’t enough to describe the clinic experience. And it doesn’t describe what You are going to be teaching your horse. What do you want your horse experience to be? What is on your wish list?
 
What fits under the clicker umbrella is determined not so much by WHAT we teach but HOW we teach it.
 
How I teach has been evolving over the past thirty years. Long before I had ever heard of clicker training I learned some important lessons that have led to the way I teach today.
 
How I Teach
Central to everything is this: If I want to understand my horse’s balance, I need to understand my own. Out of this have grown three important elements in my teaching:
 
1.) I learned to break lessons down into very small steps – both for the horse and the handler. However small a step might seem, there is always a smaller step we can find. Whether it is learning a new skill to advance the training, or solving a behavioral problem that is blocking progress, the approach is the same: look for the solutions in the underlying layers.  Break your training down into smaller steps. Build the components first, and then assemble them into the desired, goal behavior.
 
2.) The best way to develop new skills is away from your horse. Especially if you are encountering problems, trying to learn new things while you are also trying to manage your horse can create a lot of frustration. The fastest way forward is to let your horse spend the lesson time eating hay. That frees you up to concentrate on the skills you need to learn. Learning those skills BEFORE you go to the horse produces much cleaner, better results.
 
3.) Working slowly leads to faster progress. What do I mean by working slowly? I mean going through “dress rehearsals” without your horse where you literally slow movement down. Doing things fast is a great way to miss mistakes. It’s those mistakes that accumulate one on top of another to create real roadblocks to progress. When you take time to examine the inner workings of how something is done, you find yourself on a compelling voyage of discovery. You learn how to analyze and adjust small details that in the past would have gone unnoticed, but it is those details that matter most to the horses. They notice everything!
 
When I teach, I begin by first asking the handler describe her horse and her training goals. I find out what she wants to achieve. Then I watch them together. I am “collecting data”.  I watch for the little details that can make a huge difference. Does the handler have the skills needed for the lesson she is trying to teach? What training choices is she making? What can I add to make things even better? The first steps towards answering these questions often involves putting the horse away so the handler can focus on what she needs to learn. When we’ve worked for a bit on the new skills, we bring the horse back out and ask him what he thinks. How did we do? What do we need to work on next? Always it is the horse who gets to evaluate our “homework”. He has the final say in how well we have done.
 
Brick Walls: A Training Metaphor
Even before I knew anything about clicker training, this was the approach I used. The metaphor I think of is that of a huge brick wall. The wall is the training problem we’re working on. There will be a few horses who are athletic enough and riders who are skilled enough to go directly over the wall. In other words they will tackle the problem head on. If they’re successful, that will tempt them to take the next horse straight over, and the next. And it will also tempt them to make the wall ever higher. Eventually they will either make the wall so high no horse can jump it, or they will try and force a horse over the wall who truly can’t make it. Either way, eventually they will crash.
 
If you lower that fence, more horses and more riders will be able to jump it successfully, but there will still be some who can’t. They either lack the physical ability, the skills, or the confidence to jump it.
 
Lower it a bit more and some who couldn’t jump it before will now be successful. Turn it into a cross rail and even more will manage it, but even there, you will have some individuals who can’t manage even a small jump. You may have to turn it into a ground pole, or draw a line in the dirt – or you may need to find a way to go around the jump altogether rather than over it.
 
Finding these alternatives are the small steps that we can break any lesson down into. Finding those small steps for our horses builds their confidence and a habit of saying “yes” instead of “no” to simple requests.
 
Dismantling The Brick Walls
When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a behavioral problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks. If you pull enough layers off the brick wall, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful.
In the clinics I show people how to pull the “brick wall” apart and then how to rebuild it in a way that it is no longer a barrier.
 
Talent Hotspots
It turns out I’m not the only one who uses this type of approach. In his book, “The Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle visited what he referred to as talent hotspots. These were places where teachers were turning out a high percentage of world-class performers. He visited a tennis camp in Russia that was producing some of the world’s top players, and a music school in upstate New York that was filling concert halls with the musicians it graduated. Music and tennis may seem worlds apart, but the teaching methods that produced such outstanding results had much in common. At the tennis camp students weren’t out on a court hitting balls. They were inside swinging in slow motion imaginary racquets in order to perfect their technique. At the music camp students slowed single lines of music down so much it sounded more like whale songs than anything you would hear in a symphony hall.
 
Sound familiar? This is very much what we do when we put the horses away so we can work on the handler’s skills.
 
 I do love finding books that agree with me! Who doesn’t. It’s good to get outside confirmation that you are very much on the right track, especially when the track you are on is one you are pioneering. The horses tell us when we’ve chosen well, but they can’t always explain why something is working.
 
The horses could tell me that letting them take a nap while the humans practiced their rope handling skills was a good thing. That seems obvious enough. Working out what you are going to do before you apply it to the horses makes sense. After reading Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, I now have a much deeper understanding of why.
 
Training Intensives
And Daniel Coyle has given me something else, a language that resonates deeply with me. I have words now to describe what I do. Yes, I do indeed teach clicker training, but that is only the beginning. What I am teaching are Deep Practice Techniques. What do you want to learn? That’s the part you bring to the process. How can you best achieve that goal? That’s what I can help you discover. Taken together it’s an exciting journey.
 
I began teaching clicker training clinics across the United States in 1998. Through the work many talented teams have emerged and become ambassadors for clicker training. Now as my own horses advance in age I intend to travel less. I am going to focus on just a few select clinic locations. These will be my “talent hotspots”, places where you can join me for a three day Deep Practice Training Intensive. We will be looking at clicker training through the lens of Deep Practice techniques.
 
I will also be available at my home barn in upstate New York for Training Intensives. This is an opportunity to build your skills through the Deep Practice techniques that I have been developing over a thirty year span of study and experimentation. Come join me to create your own personal clicker hotspot of talent.
Visit my web site: theclickercenter.com for my 2015 event schedule.
 
Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com

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.”