Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Improving Learning In Horses (and People)

There was an interesting article in the newspaper today about learning, and how learning is most effective, in people. A couple of things in this article actually also have some implications for how horses learn, and how they retain what is learned - at least I think so, since they confirm some things I have learned do with my horses. Here's the link to the article.

First, it isn't true that learning things in just one location is best for people - say, a desk set up for quiet study. Apparently moving to different locations improves learning - the theory is that, in part, this avoids the learning being linked to the specifics of the location. This is very similar to working with a horse on an exercise - say lateral work - and always doing it in the same end of the ring, or using only the long sides, etc. As I work with a horse, I always move to different locations in the ring as we work on a single exercise to generalize the learning, and if possible, repeat the exercise in other locations - say on the grass field or on the trail. I think this concept is one reason why horses sometimes "lose their training" when in a different environment - it isn't just distraction or excitement, it's that the horse has learned to do x movement in y place, rather than learning how to do x movement in itself. The neurology is a bit more complicated than that - it's that the horse (or human) learns to associate the task with a number of different sensations attached to a number of different settings, and that this strengthens the learning of the task that's the primary objective.

Second, a particular thing is learned better when it's incorporated into a work session that contains multiple exercises focussing on somewhat different tasks. I usually have several objectives for a work session and alternate working on one task, and then another, and often a third, in brief, intense sets. Apparently switching between tasks, as opposed to drilling a single task, improves learning and retention.

Third, gradual learning - where a task is learned one day, then reviewed/relearned the next session, and so on, produces learning that is retained better. Breaking the learning down into multiple sessions over a number of days is much more effective than working on only one task intensively for a long time. In fact, the forgetting, partial or complete, actually helps learning in the long term, because the repeated relearning/reinforcement cements the learning. So if your horse comes into a second work session on a task, and seems to have forgotten part of what he learned the day before, that may actually be a good thing in the long run!

So, for better learning - in horses or humans - change up the environment, mix up the content and space out the sessions. Very interesting stuff!


  1. This was very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kate,
    These are fascinating, and useful thoughts. I especially like the one about mixing up the content in a given session. It is somewhat counterintuitive to do so - you might think that concentrating on just one task would aid learning - but knowing that mixing it with other tasks is more effective, is very helpful. Understanding how horses learn, and what helps them learn, is a continual topic of interest to me. Thanks for writing about this.

  3. I agree that so many horses learn to do "x" at "y" instead of just learning how to do "x" in and of itself. This was a very good post!

  4. Excellent commentary Kate. I struggle at times to not associate 'x' movement at 'y' location. Lengthenings being the current struggle. It's hard to really lengthen stride anywhere but the long side or diagonal yet the horse soon anticipates the lengthening and does the movement on his own. The interspersing of various movments during a ride has helped, but they're still smart cookies!
    As an aside, Equus had an intersting article in the August issue about the biomechanics of the horse's neck and how true softness and suppleness is often blocked by the rider. I can't get the page to come up at work, but I think it can be found at this site: http://www.zinio.com/pages/Equus/Aug-10/416132382/pg-48

  5. I found this out for sure after I moved my horses. My herd bound mare that was fine leaving her herd at the old barn is not fine anymore. She has to learn it all over again in this new environment. Hopefully this time the training will stick!

  6. Very interesting ideas here, i agree with it totally, horses seem to get forgetful that whoa also measn whoa outside till asked a few times then it seems to come to them that stuff learned in an arena also applies outside.

  7. Excellent post, Kate. When I was studying psychology in college we discussed some of these things, such as the fact that you always learn something better and more permanently if you learn it more than once. Great idea to apply these ideas to horses, and I especially liked your one-sentence summary at the end. I think we can all remember that. :o)

  8. Great info, I shared that link with my daughter. She's training a really nice young horse and I think this will help her quite a bit with some issues she's been having. Thanks.

  9. I am so glad I found your blog because your journey is mirroring the one I was taking with my OTTB and I'm discovering the same things you are talking about. One thing about changing the locations--the horse will learn the test if the test is ridden over and over again. I've seen horses having "discussions" with their riders during dressage tests. ;o)

    Keep writing and sharing your adventures with us, Kate. Learning takes place sitting at the computer reading your assessments, just as it is learned sitting in the saddle and working through a problem or exercise with the horse ;o)

  10. i wanted to say i've had trouble reading your posts lately because of jealousy - i haven't been able to ride. but today that changed and in kate-style, i wrote up a detailed description of my riding lesson: )

    hope to be in the riding set again now so i can enjoy your riding posts.



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