By Alexandra Kurland
There is an aspect of repetition that I think many people miss and
which very much needs pointing out. When a trainer such as John Lyons
talks about repetition, he is not visualizing an assembly line where
exact replicas of the behavior are churned out time after time. Instead,
he sees a system where one element of a behavior is focused on for an
extended period of time, and in doing so the entire behavior evolves and
becomes much more complex.
Someone mentioned head lowering, so lets take that as an example. Under
saddle you can teach your horse to lower his head by taking all the
slack out of one rein, and releasing it the instant the horse even
THINKS about dropping his head. If you are starting out with a very high
headed, stiff backed horse repeating this request more than once makes
perfect sense. It will take more than one pick up and release of the
rein to get that horse's head down out of the rafters. So, most people
would have no problem repeating this exercise as many times as it takes
to get the horse to relax enough to drop his head below the level of his
withers. It would make sense to them, and they would be able to do it.
Here's how it works: The rider picks up the rein and takes the slack
out. The horse initially resists against the rein because that's what
all of his prior experience has taught him to do. Eventually, either by
chance or deliberate action he will drop his head. This can be a matter
of seconds, or in the beginning with some horses many minutes. The rider
then releases the rein. The action of head lowering is reinforced by the
release. It can be further reinforced by a click and a treat.
As the rider repeats the request for head lowering over and over again,
she will begin to observe a number of changes. She will see that it
takes less time for the horse to drop his head. His jaw will feel softer
when she picks up the rein. His back will no longer feel as stiff and
hollow. He'll feel more relaxed both mentally and physically. All of
these changes are reinforcing to the rider and will encourage her to
continue with the exercise. They are also reinforcing to the horse. He
enjoys the feeling of softness and relaxation that comes with each
release. Dropping his head is a much more comfortable and safe response
for him than the high-headed, nervous state he began with. So, instead
of the repetition being boring, it is very reinforcing to both the horse
and the rider.
As the process continues the horse's head will drop lower and lower and
stay down longer. Eventually, he'll be consistently leaving his nose
down around his ankles. This is where most of us end the exercise. We
think that our job is done, but really we're just beginning. And this is
also where the confusion begins over the value of repetition. Lyons is
right. Most of us don't stay with an exercise long enough to see what it
can really do for us.
Again head lowering is the perfect example of that. We've used
repetition to teach our horse to drop his head. By repeating our request
over and over again, our horse is no longer staring up at the clouds.
Instead he's walking quietly along with his nose down around his ankles,
and we're feeling very satisfied with the result. For most of us we
think it's time to move on to other things, but that's because we've
only trained ourselves to notice and enjoy the gross changes in our
horse. When you start with a stiff star-gazer, it's easy to observe the
big changes that just took place. Now it's time to start noticing the
smaller, more subtle, but often even more important changes.
I've learned to value repetition because I've experienced where it can
take me. So, while most riders are going off to work on other things,
I'm going to continue with my horse to work on the head lowering
exercise. I'm going to pick up that rein and release it a couple of
HUNDRED more times.
I can focus this attention all in one session, or I can spread it out
over many weeks of training accumulating THOUSANDS of repetitions in the
process. How long a session lasts depends very much on where my horse is
in his training, but generally horses have much longer attention spans
than their human handlers.
Is this boring? Not in the least. In fact, for me this is when riding
becomes the most interesting. As I repeat this exercise, I'm going to
feel some amazing changes in my horse's spine. I'm going to feel him
release his back vertebrae by vertebrae. I'm going to feel him align his
skeleton so that the twist he started with where his head joins his
spine disappears. I'm going to feel his shoulders straighten and his
hips align themselves so that he feels square and level underneath me.
I'm going to feel him stretch even further until his nose is touching
the ground. I'm going to feel his weight shift more onto his
hindquarters. I'm going to feel his hindlegs reaching up more under his
body, and I'm going to feel his back lift.
As I learn to "listen" kinesthetically for these changes, I will feel
even more things. I will feel energy coming into the rein each time I
touch it. I will feel him relax deeper and deeper into his body, even as
I feel him walking forward with more energy. I'll feel his attention
shift to me and the internal changes he's experiencing.
Throughout all of this I will continue to focus on just one element of
the training - head lowering, and as I do, the repetition will change
and refine the responses my horse is giving me. This process is
reinforcing to both of us, and I can make it more so by adding in the
clicker to highlight new changes as I feel them occurring. When I see
the horse align his skull on his spine for the first time, Click! I can
reinforce him. What I am doing is drawing attention to that subtle
change so we can both become more aware of it.
This is a wonderful process and one that can become quite addicting.
Think about a child scratching out his first few notes on the violin
versus an accomplished musician. That's the difference in the level of
response we can get from our horses. Many riders never go beyond asking
for gross responses. One reason for this is they simply don't know how
much more their horses can give them. They become satisfied too soon,
and the thought of all that repetition puts them off. Their idea of
repetition is an assembly line stamping out exact replicas of a behavior
until the esponse becomes mindless, automatic, and yes, very boring.
With that kind if expectation these riders often miss all the wonderful,
but often subtle changes that are occurring in their horses. They have
not been trained to observe them. They don't know how important that
little release under the saddle is, so they fail to feel it.
All of this highlights one of the major advantages of the clicker. It
helps us to focus our attention on those changes. A clicker trainer is
actively looking for things to reinforce. We don't just want to release
the rein. We want to click and give our horse a treat. When we feel the
horse lift his back so he can stretch his neck down a little further, we
notice it and we mark it with a click and a treat. Repetition is not
boring. It is the foundation of our training. The horse offers us a tiny
piece of a behavior, and by focusing our attention on that piece we can
cause it to grow and become much more complex in its form.
The click gives the horse milestones along the way that allow him to
internalize and reproduce deliberately these changes we're after. Horses
trained in this way do not act bored. Quite the contrary, they appear
eager and interested in the work. And why shouldn't they? These subtle
changes must feel good to them. If you've ever taken a tai chi lesson or
worked with an Alexander Practitioner, you'll understand why.
The horses are being reinforced, not just by the release of the rein,
but by the click and the treat. From their perspective they are being
very successful. Their rider is being clear and consistent. As the work
continues it becomes easier and easier to give correct responses. Each
correct response unlocks another layer of misunderstanding and allows
them to move with greater comfort and fluidity. I am convinced that the
horses truly enjoy the way their bodies feel as a result of this
process. This is part of my core belief system, and it allows me to find
great satisfaction in a training system that uses repetition. If I
thought my horse was bored, I could never train the way I do.
Our belief systems are important. We very much create our own realities.
If your experience of repetition has been endless drilling without any
seeming purpose, of course you would be put off by someone suggesting to
you that you repeat an exercise not four or five times, but many
hundreds. I've always found that if I continue to be interested in an
exercise, then so is my horse. The moment I lose interest, so does he.
What holds my interest are all the wonderful changes that I feel in my
horse. Clicker training can help you learn how to tune into the subtle
changes that are occurring in your horse. Once you do, it can change
forever the nature of your riding.
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