Practice Makes Perfect

Clicker Training Horses

Practice Makes Perfect

I am sure everyone has heard this more than once; practice makes perfect.  And it is true.  If we practice something we create both muscle memory and neural connections in our brain that mean each time we perform the move we can do it.

An example of solid neural connections and muscle memory are riding a bike.  No matter how many years ago we learned how to ride a bike we can still get back on and ride it.  We might not be great at it (due to age, physical fitness, number of years it has been etc), but pretty quickly, with some practice, we can ride it almost like we used to.

Practice Makes Permanent

What if we were practicing the wrong way to do something !?  That thought never seemed to come in to the equation when we were riding around trying to get that e.g. really nice canter transition.  No matter how hard we tried it was just not as smooth as we wanted and our instructor just told us to keep trying.  What were we really practicing ?  We were practicing getting it wrong.

Practice does indeed make perfect, but we need to think about what we are getting perfect at !  So instead shoudl we really consider that practice makes permanent ?

‘Think’ Your Way to Perfection

There are a number of ways that we can tackle practicing the correct thing.  In one of the books I am reading just now a phenomenon that I see in the horses at clicker clinics was discussed….practice makes perfect, with a twist.  Practice being perfect at the behaviour you want to get good at in your head and you will indeed improve.  Science has looked at it and there is indeed truth to this.

One of the examples in the book was as follows; hold your arms out straight to the sides, turn your arms so that your thumbs point backwards.  Now look and see how far your thumbs point back.  Then, lower your arms and think about being able to turn your thumbs even further, repeat this a few times.  Now go back and try the exercise again and see how far you can turn your thumbs.  Almost everyone can turn their thumbs even further than before just because they practiced in their minds.

If you watch the horses at clicker clinics what we see is that we can work on something one afternoon, put the horse away and bring them back out in the morning only to find that they have come on leaps and bounds in the behaviour.  How can that be when they haven’t been physically practicing the behaviour !?  They must be practicing it in their mind.

Horses Do Their Homework

At all the clinics I have been to with Alexandra Kurland we have always talked about putting the horses away and letting them do their homework.  we go back in the morning (or a while later) to see what they did for homework.  In other words, what did they take from the lesson, what did they process, how did they process it etc.  Not only that, it gives us time as handlers to process the lesson as well…we need to do our homework.  We need to think about what felt right, how we set that up, what were we looking for (microshaping) and so much more.

That brings us to the huge topic of ‘horses only live in the moment’.  Surely this goes some way to show that is no the case ?

As clicker trainers we definitely help in the process of getting to ‘yes’ by breaking things down in to step by step lessons for the horse (“be a splitter not a lumper”), and for us.  So that canter transition all of a sudden no longer seems like a struggle because we can start to think about how the horses balance will feel as he sets up for a great canter transition, freeze frame (click), go back and set that up again…in our minds.  We can practice this feeling in our minds and take it to the horses.  That way we can click them for setting up in the right balance and not wait for things to fall apart before we re-set.  Find the smallest correct and reinforce it…starting out with reinforcing it in our minds.

Practice makes perfect.  Keep reinforcing that correct canter transition balance until it comes easily and you are ready to move on to step 2.


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