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Memories 1 – The Importance of Generalisation

Memories 1 – The Importance of Generalisation

When training horses it is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that they think in the same way we do, and this is a very common fault when it comes to ‘generalization’.

What does generalization mean?
In this context, it just means that what happens in one situation also happens in another situation. When training a horse, we teach it something, then we want it to always respond to what we have taught it, regardless of the circumstances.

For example, we don’t always ask a horse to pick up its hoof in exactly same way, yet we expect it to pick them up when asked by us, the farrier, the vet, or anyone else. We also expect the horse to pick its hoof up in the stable, in the yard, at shows when there is a lot of distractions, or out on a hack if we want to check for a stone.

However, this response doesn’t come automatically, even if we wish it did! I.e. just because we have taught a young horse to pick up its hoof in the stable, it doesn’t mean it will do so in a strange situation for a different person. It has to learn by ‘generalization’ i.e. it has to realise that even though the signals might be slightly different and there might be a lot of other things going on, someone running their hand down its leg and squeezing still means that it is expected to pick its foot up.

How hard is generalization to learn?
The more complicated the task, the harder it is for a horse to learn to generalise e.g. we can teach a horse to relax on a long rein on a walk circle at home. But it is a lot harder for horse to generalise this to walking calmly at a competition or when someone is cantering past, or if it is an army horse on parade in central London.

Unfortunately, many people teach a horse something at home but then expect the horse to do it in different circumstances and may even get annoyed when it doesn’t, especially if the horse is excited or nervous.

In effect, the horse has to ‘re-learn’ the same thing every time the circumstances change. However, it usually doesn’t take as long as learning something initially. For example, although it may have taken a number of repetitions to train a horse to pick up its hoof, it may only take a one or two attempts by the farrier before the horse realises that the slightly different way of being asked by the farrier still means the same thing it learnt in the stable.

What things are important in teaching generalization?
To use the earlier example of walking a circle calmly (assuming that you can do it at home in a particular area when asked), if we want a horse to do this whenever asked and wherever it is asked, then there are a couple of key factors to bear in mind:

  • The same aids need to be used every time. Imagine your boss asking you to do something in English, then getting annoyed that you didn’t do the same thing when asked in French or Swahili!
  • A wide variety of situations must be used during training, not just one or two.
    It is important to realise that you are not just teaching ‘walking a circle calmly’. Instead, the horse has to learn ‘walking a circle calmly … in the arena; in the paddock; in a strange arena; in a strange outside place; on a hack; by itself; when someone is circling nearby; when a horse is moving away; when a horse is moving towards your horse; when lots of other horses are around; when it is windy; when it is raining; when it is windy and raining; when dogs are barking/traffic is going past/ people are yelling/ loudspeakers are going/etc; when the rider is calm too; when the rider is nervous; with a different rider; and so on for every variation you can think of.
  • Be prepared for individual variation and have a lot of patience. Some horses generalise really well, and just accept different circumstances without batting an eyelid (i.e. they act exactly the same as if it was a calm and quiet day at home), but others have more problems and need lots more repetitions before being ‘established’.
  • Keep the steps simple: if the horse won’t walk calmly at a competition, then it isn’t ready to canter and jump (no matter how much you wish it was).
  • Be prepared for setbacks – the horse may be calm and sensible on one occasion but not another. If problems occur, always go back to a simpler task and try again e.g. if the horse is excited going large round a field, then try circling by the gate until it is calm again.
  • If a horse has had a bad experience (e.g. getting hurt while jumping) then it can take a lot of ‘good experiences’ to counter those memories. It may take numerous trips to shows without jumping in order for the horse to become calm and realise that it is not going to get hurt again, as well as a lot of work at home to regain its confidence jumping. Then more time to get its confidence back so that it jumps calmly in competitions again. This is where the patience (and a bit of knowledge and skill) comes in.
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Remember that training a horse is full of circles, both literally (going round in circles) and figuratively (vicious circles):

If you are not calm, then it is hard for the horse to be calm.
If the horse is not calm, then it is hard for the horse to learn.
If it is hard for the horse to  learn, then it is hard for the rider to be calm.