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Whether you think you can or think you can't - you are right.
Quote Mark

Henry Ford


The Second of the four Ps


Much talk is made of the "magic pill" – often I accuse equine trainers of offering a "magic pill", or of equine owners for looking for the "quick fix" – the "magic pill", the cure-all solution, and I'm very quick to state there is no "magic pill"; there is no one fix for all problems; if there were, how fantastic that might be.  However, all over the years that I have been working with equines, there are a number of tools that I've come to believe are the essential elements of working and training with equines.  The more I work and study these concepts, the more I realise that they are extremely simple and in essence, when these simple concepts are learnt and practised, they can, in effect produce incredible results and success – not a "magic pill" but certainly, an incredible recipe for success.  Often, I consider the different elements, ideas or concepts that I might practise and teach – it would be like letters of the alphabet – without learning the alphabet, words, sentences and communication cannot take place.  I believe it is the same with the concepts and ideas that I practise and teach – many of them are extremely simple and individually, they have meaning on their own, but when practised and learnt, they can allow the equine trainer much better communication with their animal and also a great deal more success and enjoyment in equine training.  I believe one of the most important concepts in equine training are "The four p's: planning, practise, patience and persistence.  It is these four p's which I would like to take a look at.


Everybody has heard the terms: "practise makes perfect" and "trial and error learning".  However, we need to consider what these statements mean if we are to best help our horses learn and understand.  Having spent time planning the training programme for our horses we must now practise what we have planned if we are to succeed.  Practise has often been seen as a solution to most problems; in fact, any activity that needs to be learnt must be practised to be perfected – no-one would dream of expecting a pianist to play a piece perfectly without first practising for a considerable number of hours.  A musical instrument cannot be learnt without practising.  If we consider a physical activity like swimming – the fact is that to swim well practise is required -  a considerable amount of co-ordination is required to move arms, feet and remembering to breathe before one can become a proficient swimmer.  All these examples are obvious; we understand the principles and the patience that must be required to achieve our goals, but we sometimes neglect the need for practise in horsemanship.


If we look at the purpose of practise and trial and error learning, most commonly we consider that practise should allow us to improve our performance with every trial; that with each trial, each "piece" of practise, we will become progressively better.  Unfortunately, this is not how practise works; if it were, how easy learning would be!  The Truth of the matter is that practise actually requires us to make mistakes, to make errors, hence "trial and error learning".


Often, as children, we are taught inadvertently by adults or peers that making mistakes is something unpleasant, something that might be laughed at, something that can be punished or scolded.  We are encouraged not to make mistakes that others might find humorous.  We come to a point of punishing ourselves whenever we make a mistake.  This punishment usually takes the form of negative thoughts or even negative self-talk, where we label ourselves as "useless", "stupid", "sick".  We become cross and frustrated with ourselves because a task is taking time to learn and we are making many errors.  The use of punishment, as we well know, is to stop the behaviour which is being punished.  In theory, by punishing our errors or mistakes we attempt to remove them from the learning process.  However, what tends to happen is that we actually remove the process of learning because to avoid punishment we stop trying, we stop practising, we stop trying to learn; this way, we don't need to punish our mistakes because it is guaranteed that if we don't try then there will be no mistakes to punish. 


So what is the true nature of practise?  Well, basically, practise involves us in learning and learning requires us to receive information and feedback about the task that we are attempting to learn.  For this feedback to happen we must make a trial; we must actually do something – we must ask the horse to walk forward, to stand still - we must begin our programme of planned training.    The feedback that we receive from the equine allows us to assess what is being learnt and what needs to be changed.  The feedback that we receive can be positive - the equine may take a step forward, stand still for longer or pick up its feet.  On the other hand, the feedback that we receive may be negative – they may refuse to walk forward, they wonder off instead of standing still or even kick out instead of picking up the foot.  Whichever type of feedback we receive, it is the trainer's job to assess what is being communicated by the equine.  At this point, the trainer has the option to assess what they just did, what they could do differently, and to create the next step of training.  If the animal responds positively the trainer may continue to work exactly in the same way.  If the equine responds negatively the trainer may choose to continue to work in the same way giving the animal the benefit of the doubt and allowing further feedback.  Alternatively, the trainer may choose a different course of action, becoming slightly softer, slightly faster, asking more persistently – changing their behaviour in some way to change the outcome of the next trial.


This process of learning and practise actually allows us to come closer to the goal of learning. That goal is one of the keys to success with your equine and that key is that we should learn with every trial.  Instead of expecting to improve or become better with every trial, once we accept that the process of learning requires us to make mistakes, to make errors, to correct our course, to receive feedback that may be negative, we may begin to remove some of the emotional content and negative emotions that often surround learning and new activity.


Once we accept that learning contains trials and then successes or errors, we begin to accept that making some mistakes are an essential part of succeeding.  There are a huge range of quotes from great philosophers and thinkers that testify to the fact that those people who have never made a mistake have never made a great success either!  Once we understand the process of practising and learning new behaviours, we can begin to enjoy the process of learning fully.  For a great number of years I was extremely critical of my own artistic ability, primarily because I believed it to be non existent!  However, at school I had always enjoyed working with clay.  Of course, each piece I made – even at the age of 13 or 14 – was not the perfect vision that I had had in my head.  This led me to confirm my worst suspicions – that I have no artistic ability at all!  However, through the process of learning and growing with horses and understanding myself better, when I was 31 I enrolled in a night class in pottery because I had begun to understand that the pleasure to be had from working with clay was not necessarily the finished piece, but the process of learning.  As I began my attempts at learning the potter's wheel and to throw the perfect cylinder I created a large number of bowls, half plates and dishes  that were a product of my mistakes.  The tutor was extremely complimentary of any effort made by the class participants and was quite willing to accept every pot, sculpture and creation as a perfect work of art in order to boost the confidence of those attempting to learn.  She found it somewhat difficult to understand that while week after week I would end the session without a finished product, I wasn't actually trying to create a dish or a bowl and I wasn't unhappy that at the end of a session I might have nothing to show for my work other than my own mental processes of learning.  Each evening I would begin to throw pots like a "whirling Dervish" - learning to centre the clay, use the right amount of moisture, use my hands – experiencing that incredible moment as the pot begins to rise from the clay only to wobble, throw a spiral and then collapse into a heap!  None of this worried me at the time, because it wasn't about the finished product – it was the enjoyment of learning at each and every try.  It only took me 8 weeks to learn to throw a cylinder but the enjoyment was not diminished; it was actually enhanced by understanding that practising allowed me to enjoy what I was doing without the negative self-talk and punishment for errors; that errors were an essential part of learning.  I actually enjoyed those 10  weeks because the sense of achievement, the sense of my own personal success was all the greater for every single twisted, bent, tragic disappointment of a pot that occurred in the previous weeks!


So the skill in practising is not in the technique of handling or control, but in an attitude towards the practise itself - that learning is difficult; that when we are working with an equine, it is not only the equine that is learning but in most cases the trainer is too. There is an old saying in horsemanship: "never put green with green" -  obviously the old cowboys appreciated that a young man still has a lot to learn and would have difficulty in teaching a young horse who also has much to learns for that reason, older horses would be paired up with young cowboys and young horses with old cowboys.  Too many times, people go to demonstrations of horsemanship, attend clinics, workshops, arrive home and want to be able to train at the same level as the clinician or trainer they have just watched.  Of course, what they forget is that that teacher has probably taken many years to reach that level of proficiency; they fail to appreciate that to achieve we must practise and that practise will not be perfect.  We should, of course, always ensure that while we are learning and practising we do not cause our equines undue distress or mental anguish; we must be tolerant with them; we must understand that a large proportion of their errors and mistakes are because the trainer is not practising perfectly.  When I was younger, I remember a sports coach saying to me when we discussed practise making perfect, "Only perfect practise makes perfect".  Now I understand more fully that "perfect practise" is essential for perfect performance but perfect practise actually is about errors, mistakes, success, tolerance and enjoyment of the process of learning, not just about being perfect.


When practising with our equines we must ensure that our attitude towards learning and practise is correct, by enjoying the learning process and removing negative consequences for errors and genuine mistakes.  By removing the frustration, upset and anger that are often caused during the practising process we encourage our equines to be more willing to learn and we also increase our own capacity to learn and to train.  So, once we understand this process of practise we can begin to practise our training, we can begin to practise our learning and this understanding allows our equines to learn also.

© Ben Hart


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