How Horses and Humans Learn, Adapt, and Grow
Adventures in Brain Power
By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist
Adaptability is an essential quality we think of in many contexts, and one synonymous with flexibility, learning, and growth. Yet, do we always overlay this quality on our horses and our training, or even more importantly, on the very thing that allows us to be adaptable in the first place — our nervous system? Have you ever met a horse or human who had a hard time learning or retaining a new skill, exhibited “bad” behaviour when under pressure, was challenged by changes such as moving, new environments, or with their schedule, companion, or training routine? I know I have, and I have also been that human, and had that horse. Often, we get labelled as overly sensitive, flighty, or even slow or challenged learners, but the reality is that each horse and human has a unique nervous system that functions, thrives, and learns in different ways and under different conditions.
When I was a teen, I played soccer in a high-pressure and achievement-oriented league. I look back now and cringe, as I remember being skilled and successful in practice only to absolutely bomb in games. My coach, team, family, and myself had no clue how to deal with what was happening. I understand now, 20 years later, that my nervous system thrives in situations that are fun, varied, positive, and low pressure, like in practice. As soon as the game arrived and the external pressure (crowd, teammates, coach, expectations) and internal pressure (inner criticism, judgement) were on, I (my nervous system) collapsed into a puddle of goo. More accurately, I entered a space of parasympathetic collapse and sympathetic hyperactivation, leading to a system shutdown where optimal performance and retention of learned skills were nearly impossible.
Hindsight has taught me a lot about this experience and how my unique system adapts (or doesn’t) and has made me very curious about how humans and horses learn, adapt, and grow. I have also come to understand learning in terms of three zones. Imagine a bullseye — in the middle, the comfort zone; outside of this, the adaptability zone; and beyond that, the freak-out zone, where the nervous system is pushed well beyond its capacity, like Alexa in high-pressure soccer games.
For a long time, training my horses did not equate to thinking about their learning styles, their personal freak-out zones (which are individual for each horse), or unique nervous systems. Instead, I applied what I had been taught by my coach/trainer, and if it really didn’t work (essentially if my horse became noticeably unhappy and resistant), I would try something different, but I would still not think specifically about learning styles. Because I was employing mainly negative reinforcement training, I could usually bully my way into being fairly effective and would see something that looked a whole lot like learning in my now 21-year-old mare, Diva. Looking back, I realize much of this “learning” was done by pushing her into the freak-out zone — through her fears, through her concerns — to desensitize her and “make” her okay with things.
Each horse and rider thrives and learns in different ways and under different conditions. Photo: Shutterstock/AnnaElizabeth Photography
Now in hindsight, as I shift my focus and understanding of learning, I see that in many situations Diva did what she was told, often out of fear, but was not learning and adapting in a significant way. For example, with a basic skill like mounting, I can see that she was not fully comfortable with the process and did not fully understand what was being asked or how she needed to show up. This would present as her wanting to walk off immediately after I mounted, a behaviour that I would either laugh off or address after the fact. Instead, I should have broken the skill down and been clear about what I wanted, assessing what she was comfortable and ready for, and understanding how to prepare her system well for what was being asked.
I see now that Diva learns best just like me (funny that!), in a low pressure, high praise, varied, and engaging/fun environment, where she can confidently and fully learn simple skills that build to more complex skills. She also needs her movement, forage, and friends, and her body comfort needs (aligned spine and balanced cranium) satisfied first to be able to move from her comfort zone to her adaptability zone. She learns best with short 20 to 40-minute focused training sessions that vary from online to liberty to in-the-saddle. It took me only 17 years to figure this out!
Most recently we have begun using positive reinforcement training as a part of our training time, and I have found this very effective for breaking down each skill into manageable and engaging parts to allow the whole to make more sense. This builds her retention and her ability to adapt in a healthy way to new scenarios that require similar skill sets. When I train through negative reinforcement (which I still use at times, with far more intention and understanding), I am acutely aware of whether my horses are actually learning a skill and adapting, or are instead learning to avoid punishment, pressure, or pain.
When we look at supporting optimal learning, one of the biggest components that needs to adapt is us. Without the ability to learn and apply new skills, we are like a hamster caught on the wheel, destined to keep doing the same thing over and over again with similar results. Yet, the science of training and understanding horses is moving forward in leaps and bounds, urging us to diversify our skills and awareness to support our horses. Are you willing to shift the way you’ve always done things in support of a happier horse, a healthier nervous system, and a more connected relationship? If not, what is stopping you? Where is your learning and adaptability edge (your freak-out zone)? What aspects of your environment are supporting you to adapt, or not? Sometimes even our barn environments can be heavily steeped in a traditional way of training horses that can create a fear of trying something new, for fear of judgement or criticism. What supports would you need to break free of old ways in favour of what works best for you and your horse?
Related: Sharing Responsibility
I have included a list of my biggest supports and mentors on this ever-evolving learning adventure (episodes with all these excellent people are on the Whole Horse Podcast at https://wholehorse.ca). Enjoy!
Heather Nelson - Heather is an avid learner and infinitely curious, which I love! She combines liberty training, classical training, positive reinforcement and more, and it works great! She’s on Vancouver Island and has a great YouTube channel.
Connection Training with Hannah Weston - Based in England, Hannah has a book and a great YouTube channel with many basic skills broken down using positive reinforcement training. A great resource.
Elsa Sinclair and Freedom Based Training - Elsa calls her training the slowest training method in the world, and who doesn’t need more slow right about now? Her documentary Taming Wild is incredible and well worth a watch.
Sarah Schlote of EQUUSOMA - If you want to know about the nervous system, horses, and learning as well as the impact of trauma, Sarah is an awesome resource and has some great free sources on her website.
Josh Nichol of A Horseman’s Pursuit - Josh has a way of seeing horses and the world that is both inspiring and practical. He’s producing great content, is an excellent teacher, and does clinics every year all over Western Canada.
Nahshon Cook - His podcast with Warwick Schiller sent a wave through the horse world, and I was honoured that he would share his wisdom with my listeners as well. He blends classical training with a depth of understanding of the horse partnership that is truly incredible.
Main Photo: Shutterstock/Rolf Dannenerg