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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Updated: October 2005.