I am on a TED talks kick. ‘TED’ stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and their byline is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Love TED.
The latest TED talk that reminded me of horses is a talk by Amy Cuddy about how your body language shapes who you are. During the talk, she is describing the design of their experiment. The subjects are to go to a job interview, but before they do, they are to be in a power pose or a non power pose for two minutes before the interview. The interviewers have been trained to withhold giving any body language back to the interviewees and only speak to them as they must. She remarked that “People hate this!” and I thought, “Horses do too.”
And now for a break to look at a really pretty horse and William Fox Pitt, a magnificent rider: I made this graphic for another application so it has a few things that are not quite on point, but maybe not a complete bore either. But the point I want you to take from this is that WFP is giving the horse genuine positive feedback.
Now back to horses and feedback. Horses are in a funny position. Even the clumsiest among them can run faster than the fastest among us. Many of them can jump higher than we are tall. Yet, we come along, over-confident athletically untalented bipeds that we are and commence to boss them about in a language they don’t initially understand, and doing so in some cases, in a manner that is too quick and too presumptive. Horses, half of the time, are just trying to figure out what in the heck it is we want from them. The main string they have to play on, being powerful beings of flight, is the one string that most people who ride them don’t want them to play on, ever.
So people ride horses and try to communicate what they want the horses to do, but for the most part, riders default to communicating what they do not want the horse to do. “Now Trigger, don’t buck, don’t rear, don’t shy, don’t go to fast, don’t be barn or buddy sour” and on and on.
It becomes like the old game of Hot and Cold where a group of people is trying to get a player to find an object that the group knows, but the player doesn’t. If the group is required to only direct the person with negative directions, like saying ‘Cold’ when the player is not near the object, but not every using Warm and Hot for correct moves, the player has to keep stumbling in the metaphorical dark and it takes a very long time for the player to find the object. If however, the group can use, Warm and Hot to indicate when the player is moving in the right direction or nearly being successful, the game goes a lot more quickly, and, incidentally, is more fun for all.
That situation is like a rider training a horse. If the rider only uses Cold training, punishing the missteps and ignoring the correct ones, it takes a very long time for the horse to understand what is desired, and it isn’t much fun for either party as the horse stumbles about in the metaphorical dark. But if the rider (who is always training, for better or worse) can use Warm and Hot training, such as “rewarding the try” and giving frequent praise for correct work, the learning curve becomes exponential, and incidentally, is more fun for all.
This video is a case in point. This is me on a four year old OTTB named Merida, sometimes called Monkey for good reason, going over her first cross rail. She wobbles on the approach, but gets over the fence just fine. I praise her immediately. I don’t wait several strides to praise her. I don’t wait until she does it perfectly to praise her. I don’t stop her to praise her. We keep going forward and I let her know that what she did was good. In immediately taking the pressure off her by praising her, she starts to think this jumping thing is something she is good at. Whether she will be or she won’t be a good jumper is dependent somewhat on her physical talent, but whether she will try with her whole heart is dependent on the response she gets from her rider. What we are really doing when we train horses is influencing their minds and growing their confidence. The physical follows.
Now what if Merida had run out and avoided jumping the fence? What does a thinking rider do? I think they make no comment to the horse, make sure that their own riding is correct, and simply re-present to the fence. Why? Because giving no feedback is punishment. Subtle punishment, but just like the above example in the experiment with the job applicants getting no feedback from the interviewers, giving no feedback is very uncomfortable. For a green horse who lacks jumping confidence, the No Comment response is negative enough. For many horses at many times, the No Comment response is negative enough.* Using No Comment for unwanted behavior and praising even wobbly attempts is analogous to playing the Hot and Cold game only using Warm and Hot cues. It goes much faster and is the most fun for everyone.
This way of training, of praising the try and allowing the incorrect to pass, is the opposite of what many riders naturally do: over-react to the mis-steps and under-react to the tentative, wobbly tries. The quickest and most positive way to train horses is to ignore minor mistakes, but immediately retry; and to notice and reward the effort rather than only the complete success.
* For dangerous behavior, very clear negative response of short duration is needed. But most of the time, horses are trying to cooperate.