It seems that no matter how old I get and how much experience I have, I still have more to learn. I started learning how to train with my first horse, who was just green-broke when I got him. I did not have enough money to get him trained and I had to learn training from reading books, trying stuff out on my horse, scratching my head and trying again. Fortunately my green-broke horse was cooperative, intelligent, quick to pick up new knowledge, and willing to forgive me for my frequent mistakes. He taught me how to train, though training my next two horses was not easy. Believe me, working on a calm gelding does not train you to work on a cheeky stud colt or a ill-trained mare with a screw loose in her head. After those two horses it got easier. I never got to learn training from an experienced horseman, I just could not afford it.

Around two years ago I picked up "The Nature of Horses" by Stephen Budiansky which is written by a guy who decided to find out what science had recently discovered about horses. There are many interesting things that scientists have found out about horses, including about how horses learn. One passage I read caused an AHA! moment, apparantly horses have a grammar for learning new cues! During my previous attempts at training I tried various things, some of them worked and other ones did not. Finally I realized why many of my attempts did not bear fruit, while other attempts worked very well. Part of training a horse consists of substituting a new cue for an older, well understood, cue, for instance when we go from using the word WALK to squeezing with out legs as a signal to move forward.

On page 161 Budiansky writes "...having trained a horse to respond to an obvious stimulus (moving forward in response to a whack on the rump), it is fairly easy to introduce a new, more subtle, and different kind of stimulus to replace it (the voice command "walk".) This replacement of an old stimulus with a new one is called trace conditioning; THE NEW CUE IS GIVEN FIRST, FOLLOWED BY THE OLD FAMILIAR CUE, until the horse responds. This is, in effect, a kind of reinforcement in which a new stimulus is associated with an already learned association between a stimulus and a response. Significantly, presenting the old and new cues simultaneously or in reverse order (old first and then new) invariably fails to teach the new cue."

I am sure that most professional trainers figure this out on their own, and don't even realize that they are following a rule of horse-grammar, it is just what has worked. I did not figure it out, I never remember making sure that I followed any particular sequence with old and new cues back when I started training, it is just something I ended up doing most of the time, unconsciously, because it worked. And after thinking about it, this rule of horse-grammar made sense to me, if the trainer uses the old cue first and the horse starts to obey, then the new cue might be perceived as "noise", something puzzling, irritating, and probably meaningless. Any reward would be viewed as a reward for obeying the old cue, since it was the first cue the horse reacted to. When the new cue is given first it is just a meaningless to the horse, but then using the old cue explains to the horse what the new cue means.

Now, when I am substituting a new cue for an old one I religiously follow this rule of grammar, NEW CUE FIRST, THEN THE OLD CUE. The horses understand me quickly, they learn the new cue usually by the second or third attempt, and everyone is happy (this can be a good time to end the lesson.) Not only that, the horses seem to REMEMBER what the new cue means even if I don't get to ride the horse again for months. It is not so much that I am an especially good trainer as it is that I now present new knowledge to the horse in an easily understood manner.

Since I ride other people's horses now I do not get to train a horse every day, and the horses often get ridden by other people. Usually, these past few years, I just ride a horse 1/2 hour a week, and I often have weeks or months between rides. Even though I am spending so little time training I make progress, and the horses understand and remember what I teach. This is a big change from when I started training 40 years ago, when both my horse and I would end up unhappy and frustrated, and it took FOREVER to teach anything. No one had ever told me this horse-grammar rule, I do not remember reading about it anywhere else (I've read about 500 horse books and countless magazine articles), and it has MADE MY RIDING LIFE SO MUCH EASIER. Now, when I train a new cue, I am CONFIDENT that I am doing it correctly, and horses react a lot better to a confident trainer that they do to a trainer full of doubts.




Have a great ride.

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