Horses; The Athletes Within- Part 2: The Psychology of Learning

June 12, 2021


How information is delivered, affects how it is received. This is an essential communication rule-of-thumb and in no circumstance more profound than during the process of learning, be it teaching/coaching human to human or training/coaching human to animal. Emotional inflection influences both the mental retainment and physical execution of what is being taught. Where physical training should match the level of physical capacity to get desired results, in order for coaching to be affective it must align with the inherent herd dynamic rhythms of the horse. These two individual growth patterns often happen at different rates and when training over-extends the mental coaching to execute, stress rears its ugly head. 

Learning happens through what I consider two primary avenues, accidental and purposeful. Purposeful learning comprises that which is being taught in a structured and largely controlled environment, accidental learning is everything outside of that. 

If you really want an advantage, coach between the ears, for that is where competitive nature develops into competitive edge. When you build the athlete from within, you’re giving yourself a better chance at true sustainability without outsourcing to artificial elements. Being true to the inherent nature of the horse is the art of horsemanship. Perhaps the question comes down to; Alchemist or Artist?

Training and coaching the equine athlete are developmental processes of physically sculpting while mentally nurturing. Longevity of competitive aptitude and sustainability of physical soundness, though evolved at different rates, find themselves at length, codependent. How horses learn and the degree of which it is independently accessed is contingent upon both their inherent herd dynamic rhythm and the extent of their dependent nature. Without knowing this, any curriculum you create commonly defaults into the category of accidental learning, leaving the door of inconsistency wide open. 

The Process of Learning

In order to understand the process of learning for the horse in any practical sense, we have to first remember that as herd animals, much of their individual “knowledge”, so to speak, is collectively shared through and from the herd as a whole. The herd learns the rules of survival and navigates the environment of life collectively; herd sustainability depends upon it. Innately co-dependent upon each other to varying degrees, which minimizes individual stress and anxiety, when a herd animal becomes isolated, their resource of one another removed, stress and anxiety are introduced with a more constricting tone. 

In isolation learning for the prey animal is often predicated upon the defensive posture of experience; when stress and anxiety come to the party, everything that is being “taught” risks the taint of worry being attached to it. Survival of the herd and the survival instinct of the individual are not the same thing, few horses are naturally equipped to live on their own contently therefore few are naturally equipped to learn in isolation. The process of being taught hinges upon the individual horse’s ability to interpret in a manner that translates to purposeful motion, movement and body control being the measurement of trainability of mind. Teaching consistent and controlled response to particular stimuli runs through the psycho-sensory system 100% of the time. Think of it in terms of holding the remote for a model airplane you’re flying, accept in this case your signals have to run through the mind of the pilot for translation before they get to the body of the plane. 

Before you can hope for consistent physical execution of commands you have to understand the functionality of the operating system you’re coaching, mental preparedness and physical fitness do not always go hand-in-hand. The more sensory sound the horse, the greater their inherent ability to function isolated from the herd environment. Sensory soundness is a key herd dynamic measuring stick for it reveals the characteristics of independence and must be taken into consideration whether recruiting or developing. You cannot successfully coach an individual horse whose interpretation of their world runs primarily through the interpretations of another without incorporating what strengths they have to buffer that which weakens. The results will be random, inconsistent and subject to the influences of the environment, these are key ingredients of performance anxiety. You coach through the herd dynamic; you train through the body. 

For the learning process to take place, to be imparted and imbibed, the space between the external and internal world of the individual horse has to communicate efficiently. When what is being taught is a physical action, it is essential that the psycho-sensory sequence translate the information quickly and completely before the physical act is asked for or required. Horses with more efficient sensory systems can be expected to respond more quickly in a controlled manner, horses with less efficiency will respond with far less consistency and body control. This is a tell-tale indicator that you’re getting a reaction instead of a response. 

The properly functioning sequence of an independently sensory-sound horse operates accordingly: physical senses identify stimulus in the environment, acting not unlike radar or sonar, information is then funneled into the psyche for interpretational processing. Efficiently executed, the horse responds, inefficiently executed, the horse reacts. By degrees the environmental demands can range from the simple and easy singular stimuli to multiple stimulus in a rapidly changing environment. The greater the demand the more pressure to increase the rate of interpretation in order to maintain controlled responses and action. When the primary physical senses are overloaded in horses that cannot interpret fast enough to keep the room empty of clutter, they become reactive. Arbitrary reaction is a result of stimuli being hastened through the interpretation process or skipping it altogether (you can tell which by the level of emotional energy accompanying it). In a coaching/teaching setting, you have to always be mindful that you’re not asking for more than can be transacted. Familiarity with the degree of sensory soundness and the speed of the interpretations is fundamental to the student/teacher relationship. Keeping in mind that in order for any horse to maintain controlled responses, the foundation from which learning is possible, they must identify and interpret at a faster pace than their physical actions; the mind must stay ahead of the body.  

Because the sensory (physical) and psycho-sensory (mental) systems are predicated upon sequencing so should your program be, it is folly to condition the physical athlete without nurturing the horse. In a system where physical response is sustained and controlled through the auspices of mental acuity, where the psyche must clear space for the body to move through, training the horse without coaching the athlete is an infraction against the art of horsemanship.   

Stress, The Great Inhibitor? 

Unsupervised stress can truly be a great antagonist, gnawing away at emotional energy while increasing the onset rate of mental fatigue; mental fatigue drastically compromises the ability to adapt, to be coached, to learn. Minimizing disruptive emotional stress whenever possible is essential but to do this you have ask the question, where does stress enter the picture in the first place? 

Stress itself is not an enemy, yet how it is managed determines the space between fortitude and failure because it is from and through mental attrition that sustainable grit is born. When building the physical athlete, it is from stress that new strength is developed, and when coaching mental fortitude, adapting to unexpected adversity, dealing with the oft times heated exchanges of competitive combat, it is the strength from within that make all the difference. To have mental “toughness” is just another way of saying that you’re able to manage and even capitalize on the inherent stresses that surround you in ways your competition cannot. Part of the sequence between coach and athlete is the presentation of adversity and learning how to assimilate to it and execute with a coolness of mind in the heat of battle. You have to want the ball when your back is against the wall if you dare to compete at the highest levels. 

In order to build upon the inherent reality that stress is going to happen, you have to understand the characteristics of emotional stress as juxtaposed with the individual character traits of the athlete you’re coaching. Fear and anxiety are often at odds with confidence and valor, it’s not enough to leave it to chance; remember there is purposeful learning and accidental learning. One of the main antagonistic characteristics of stress is a build-up of emotional pressure without a controlled outlet for it to filter through, be it learned or naturally occurring. A major component of scouting talent is the determination of tendency under stress, you can ascertain a great deal about an athlete by gaining an understanding of this crucial part of their herd dynamic. 

Stresses manifest in two primary ways, there are internal emotional stresses that come with the herd dynamic and where they rank within the herd environment, and there are external stresses that present themselves for absorption. The tie that binds these two together for any individual is that both forms are run through the psycho-sensory system for filtering and processing. External stress, which is mostly associated with a physical stimulus, is funneled into the herd dynamic via the senses to be processed by the sentient horse where it is comingled with emotion. Internal stresses are emotions under pressure from feel and instinct perceived in the environment. Each form is subject to the filtering process of the individual, the more complete the sensory soundness the higher level the herd dynamic, lessening the tendency to outsource. Everything that is learned be it through purposeful or accidental avenues, positive or negative, is rooted upon the innate premise of interpretation for self-preservation; what you teach must run through their progressions in order for it to be learned. Stress unmitigated affects retention, cloaking the message, especially when the sensory sequences are overloaded above interpretive ability. You don’t want to overcrowd the room beyond its capacity, introducing three when only one gets out will soon see a stress reaction where controlled motion once was. These are the potholes, those disruptions that occur “out of nowhere”.

Co-dependency itself is not the cause of stress that impedes learning however the tendency to outsource risks becoming a roadblock and must be identified to be assuaged. Before you embark on a coaching plan you need to identify the strengths and weaknesses (all athletes have some of each to one degree or another) by determining the efficacy of the sensory system, and a major part of this is in knowing how well the horse is making sensory lead changes. Deficiency in this area is a major source of negative stress and reactive behaviors and a driving force that exposes the horse that is heavily reliant on codependency within the herd for their strengths.   

The sensory lead change is as vital to the ability to learn and execute as a physical lead change is to the efficiency of motion. Whether the horse is moving, the stimulus or both, matters not, how that stimulus moves through the external senses before being funneled into the psyche for interpretation, does. 

It’s true that not all stimuli in the environment are created equal. The harmonic hum of the natural world cruises through the rhythms of each horse and the herd little noted. It is that which disrupts this orchestra that warrants survey, and the ever-vigilant sensory system, the radar of self-preservation, always at attention, springs into action. When any such stimuli are detected, or even suspected, it is given more attention and focus and is absorbed into the psyche for further detailed analysis. When only one sense is required, the horse can clear space using just one sensory lead, pretty basic and straight forward unless the horse and/or the identified disrupter is moving. Movement demands the targeted to be shuffled through more than one sensory aspect before it is funneled into the psyche, thus requiring a “sensory lead change”. Some horse’s hand-off this information smoothly from one sense to another, allowing that horse to multitask and absorb more than one environmental disruption, but many do not. By virtue of this reality, Mother Nature presents to us the herd animal intricately bound by the fabric of codependency. 

With increased demands on the sensory system comes increased stresses, increased stress for the individual is often remedied by the herd. Problems in sensory lead changes occur in horses who have trouble combining their senses to identify stimuli, multitasking. Horses that cannot multitask do not transition stimuli through the sensory compartments smoothly, they instead attempt to reacquire it in each distinctive aspect and often get stuck in one for a random length of time frustrating fluency of motion. This is what we at THT Bloodstock refer to as “bumpy transitions”. In the herd environment, “herd bound” horses simply rely upon their herd mates to bridge these gaps. A prerequisite for outsourcing, it is quite common and in fact all horses do it in varying degrees, knowing to what degree and in what aspect is crucial because it affects how horses learn. You have to allow for and incorporate these tendencies especially in the beginning as you coach the horse through their sequence gaps by creatively filling them. 

In the natural world the rate of interpretation determines the space between horses in the hierarchy, is a key factor in the cat and mouse of breeding, and a line between life and death. Outsourcing after all, is only as effective as the one being leaned on is competent. Mother Nature has provided another tool in the horse’s psychological toolbox to hasten the interpretational process and minimize the total reliance on outsourcing; the Anticipatory Response Mechanism. As a coach/trainer, this can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. But what is it and how does it work?

One of the main components of a horses’ psychological growth patterns as they gain exposure to various experiences along the way is housed within association. Associations play an important role in all of the survival instinct sequences because it is what allows the impressionable mind of youth to knit together their own view of the world. Initially everything is a curiosity and much of the world the young horse knows is understood through the interpretations of their mother. (This of and in itself should never be overlooked in a breeding program). As time goes on and the common environments become dotted with uncommon moments such as unexpected stimuli and the situational chaos that accompanies the mundane, the learning process gets a tutor; the associative aspect. 

In the early stages of mental growth, the associative aspect serves as a mental bungee cord, encouraging the foal to create space between themselves and their mother for longer and longer periods of time. This natural weaning process, which happens at different rates for each foal by nature, eventually transitions the young mind from one that relies entirely on mom to one that seeks independence. The associative aspect before independence still leans on the mare by default, the associative aspect after independence replaces the mare with something new, the engagement of their anticipatory response mechanism. 

In nature this transition takes place only when the foal is psychologically prepared for it, broodmares often instinctively recognize this and apply their own strong encouragement. In domestication where the natural course of time and rhythms of the young horse can be at odds with the calendar of the human world, the road to independence can be bumpy and have profound latent influence on the future growth patterns of the horse. Associations can house hidden stress when they’re connected to a negative traumatic experience as is the case with any emotionally charged being. It must be remembered that the strength of the concrete footer plays a major roll in the sustainability of everything layered on top of it.

As the growing independent mind begins to apply the associative aspect to the interpretations of the world around it, self-preservation instinct jump starts the Anticipatory Response Mechanism.  

The anticipatory response mechanism is where learned behaviors blend with associative triggers to facilitate quick responses, the manner of physical response reflects the manner of its emotional interpretation. The primary function of anticipatory response is to facilitate a required action faster by circumventing interpretation; this process not only manifests from learned experiences but in due time starts to manifest from any associations with it. In nature this is useful for herd survival, built into the individual behavioral genetic code it helps ensure any response to threats, real or perceived, allow the horse to alter physical movement in a controlled manner without the prerequisite of full interpretation. It’s why a horse will often hesitate stepping into a dark trailer or stall, becomes uncertain about footing, gets fractious “out of the blue” and many more examples too numerous to name. Stress and trauma can live here, things that happened many moons ago can by associative trigger cause a reaction “completely out of nowhere”, Equine PTSD finds its home within it.

The learning process is subject to it all, when you’re coaching a horse, you have to be mindful that you may already be up against perception, one bad experience at any time even with something as “simple” as entering an indoor ring, will need to be mentally filtered before you start to teach your horse. It is folly to train any would-be athlete while they are processing emotional stress. By association that which you are trying to teach will be attached to and associated with that negative emotion and subsequently become a form of performance anxiety. In retrospect the opposite is also true, by creating comfort and emotional calmness in all environments associated with task, what you teach can be learned with far less disruption. If your school is inviting, your students will enjoy going to class. 

Because of the function of association and the manifestation of anticipatory responses, the great majority of the time what you see expressed physically is a reflection of the learning process but is not reflective of what has been learned. Learning is an act of psychology and not itself a physical action making the manner in which something occurs more revealing than what has occurred. Things which are introduced to the psyche through the physical vehicle, whether soothing or discomfiture, collect in the associative aspect where they can become learned behaviors and subsequently be anticipated. Like the crackling of the plastic peppermint wrapper, these cultivated behaviors generally fall into the category of accidental learning, and not the purposeful teaching of a specific curriculum. It’s important to note that cultivated behaviors that are not associated with or anticipate a physical action as part of the sequence, leave the horse’s responses to their own devices. This leads the way to bad (spoiled) behaviors, especially in lower herd dynamic level horses; effort then reward coaches better than reward with no effort.

Both forms of erudition are valuable and essential for influencing purposeful physical action, yet it is vital to recognize their differences; accidental and purposeful can be coaching assets, but you do not go about them in the same way. If you do, negative stresses will get in your way and instead of controlling the stress introduced to help develop the athlete’s determination and grit, uncertainty will facilitate confusion and frustrate the relationship.  

The Art of Communication

The art of communication in many ways illustrates the art of horsemanship. Coaching is a deliver and receive transaction, if the manner of delivery does not communicate well with the manner of reception, the learning process becomes frustrated. 

Because there are the two common forms of learning, purposeful and accidental, there are two avenues of teaching and you have to always keep in mind which one you’re going through. Much of what the horse relates to through their physicality, a good scratch or a sore foot, enters the associative aspect through sensation thus it is related to it, that which enters the psyche through emotion is thus related to feeling. Those commingled experiences that have both physical and emotional characteristics will be associated in the horse’s psyche with one or the other and reflected accordingly. Horses, emotionally charged though they are, do not reason in the way we think of it, horses do not separate information to compare it against itself, if it enters together, together it stays. Think of it this way, if I happen to come across someone who is having a really bad day and they communicate with me in a way that is actually counter to their normal manner, I can reason that they’re just “off” and that they’re not really all that bad. If you come at a horse while having a really bad day, and your physical and emotional communication imparts this, the horse is not going to give you a pass and say “well I am sure they’re not all bad, just having a bad day”. You will be associated with what you communicate, each time. 

Though we may be commonly familiar with a horse’s body language, mostly because in our artificial domestic settings there is less natural herd environments than otherwise, horses are extremely fluent in emotional communication. They have to be by nature, it is the quiet language that helps keep the herd invisible in plain sight, for too much of the physical language brings the risk of being singled out by lurking predators. Emotional communication is primary, physical communication is secondary. The accent of whatever enters the psyche slants its absorption and influences its response. You have to communicate with the horse by corresponding with their natural instinct; the information you present for learning will be judged by the mode of its presentation. 

Tone of presentation needs to align with the inherent psychological rhythm lest much of what you hope to teach risks being fragmented, only imbibed in pieces. Pace of coaching needs to adjust to pace of learning, and line of communication needs to match herd dynamic ability. The three herd dynamic rhythms (reviewed in part one), fast, methodical, moderate, each have their own fundamental pace of learning based on that rhythm as well as their own individually unique manner of “comprehension”, so to speak, based upon the efficacy of that rhythm. What is taught needs to fit the mental cycle and how you communicate it needs to mesh with their avenues of absorption, this is the place where training and coaching merge. The majority of learning for an individual horse is a process of adaptive learning, assimilation to environmental changes while in motion. This is because a largely sedentary horse amongst the herd can count on their herd mates for self-preservation, but when in motion, especially in rapid and chaotic motion, self-preservation becomes more self-aware. If you expect your athlete to perform as an individual, you coach them individually and engage their self-reliance that they can naturally find separation from the herd tendency. If you’re needing horses to perform in a team, you coach them in a fashion that leans upon co-dependency where the strength of one can offset any weakness of another. You coach the offensive line as a unit, you coach the running back as an individual.  

Creating the base for the adaptive learning process, (assimilation to controlled environmental changes and situational chaos) opens the door for the horse to reconcile properly and competitively during the accidental learning environment of competition. The key for an individual to excel in a trial of peers is their ability to adapt to situational chaos, this ability is the difference between fear and anxiety or confidence and fluent athletic expression. Each inherent herd dynamic rhythm asks to be coached in the manner that aligns with natural tendency, your ultimate goal being to enhance anticipatory response. This allows for quick and fluent mind to body communication, minimizing wasted motion and honing emotional energy distribution into a purely athletic expression. Physical talent without this, is often potential unrealized.

How much time in motion the athlete has before mental fatigue becomes a risk is one of the first questions that has to be answered; for the psychological athlete, duration supersedes task in the race to the finish line. Incorporating purposeful challenges in a program is a controlled stress environment, the use of multiple stimuli applied in layers is a great way to engage the natural learning processes for they subsequently begin to be anticipated. As you advance your coaching you advance the challenges, increasing stress by degrees, in this way you give yourself the chance to teach confidence to adapt to the unexpected. You can’t prepare for every situation, but you can coach the tools of preparation for handling it through controlled challenges. Too much too soon however, creates negative stress, negative stresses are anticipated negatively. 

By nature, the fast rhythmed herd dynamic responds better to singular stimuli that is identified and interpreted quickly, simple, concise, clean triggers that allow their fast-cycling interpretive aspect to transition with minimal clutter. Layering should be tightly cropped sequences that are easily associated with one another as the horse is coached toward the final result; the athletic expression that is desired. These horses are best served by coaching methods that employ point-to-point stimuli that are closely aligned with one another whether two or ten trigger points are required to reach your goal. Think in terms of the relationship from information to output; in order to maintain fluency from mind to body with controlled physical motion, what you’re coaching cannot clog the psycho-sensory superhighway, you’re merging in a lane of already fast-moving traffic. High emotional energy that is fast paced is streamlined and linear, you’re not coaching versatility where it doesn’t already exist, the fast rhythmed herd dynamic is a “from here to there” mindset that learns to adapt in motion to what is expected to happen better than what might happen. 

Taking the same template but inserting the methodically rhythmed herd dynamic horse, the information you’re coaching is merging onto a highway that is less frantic and more an even hum. In this scenario instead of rapid-fire trigger points tightly cropped to aid the associative aspect, you have to exercise patience. Coaching this rhythm can be a protracted process, you have to give space between inserted stimuli and be certain any commands in motion have been fully interpreted before inserting another. What happens with these horses when given ques on top of one another is that they skim through the psyche without being interpreted, mentally skipped over they never are learned but they do disrupt the learning process. These shuffled through triggers are often expressed by further slowing down the already methodical mind, adding emotional weight to the athlete. These horses are not “slow learners” but the manner in which they learn is at a slowed pace. The space between trigger identification and interpretation has more time involved, they need more ground to cover than fast rhythmed horses to fully execute their athletic expression. These horses can be coached to adapt to and anticipate environmental changes, however if the discipline requires a high rate of physical speed in a minimal amount of time, they’re less likely to fully realize their potential. 

Moderate herd dynamic rhythms are by nature highly versatile and adaptive making them the most universally coachable. Able to discriminate between and respond to both the tightly cropped triggers and those with more space between them, these horses enjoy the advantage of being able to associate and anticipate situational chaos in a variety of environments. The challenge here is not in merging stimuli into their lane in a way that blends with their herd dynamic pace where anticipatory response picks up and runs with it, but in trying to merge before they anticipate your intention. So environmentally aware is this herd dynamic cycle these horses are equipped with the primary leadership tool of communication, the reading of intent. Because of this, the emotional timbre of what you’re coaching and training is what is being interpreted be it in a purposeful or accidental learning environment. If it’s being interpreted it’s also being associated, if it’s being associated, it’s soon to be anticipated. If the intent of the action you’re trying to teach becomes the trigger, their physical expression is the result of your emotional inflection. 

Moderate herd dynamic rhythms functioning at a high level represent in the horse’s world herd leadership, emotional intelligence starts and ends with one’s ability to communicate. The majority of the time these horses advance their ability to anticipate during competitive stress with little to no human interference, the key in coaching them is in creating an environment where purposeful learning is cloaked in the guise of the accidental. When you insert elements of situational chaos into a controlled environment, you are both masking your intentions from them and challenging their skill of adapting to sudden changes. If you want them to up their game, you have to up yours. 

Closing Thoughts

Teaching is coaching, and coaching the communally based animal on an individual level requires that you identify both their respective strengths and herd-based dependencies. Co-dependency is the fabric that binds, keeping a group of individuals knitted together to form a functioning herd. Because of this natural give and take the avenues of how any horse learns runs through both individual and shared experience. When you’re coaching a horse, you have to be mindful that purposeful stimulus represents self-learning, accidental stimulus represents communal-learning. Both have tremendous relevance in the way athletic expression is executed, regardless of the HD Rhythm of the athlete, the incorporation of each is essential.  

There is a big difference between memorizing and learning, memorizing is reactive response to associated and assumed triggers, learning is controlled response from associative and interpretive. When you employ both purposeful and accidental coaching techniques you are nurturing and developing the psychological athlete through the parameters set-up by nature. These two things counterbalance each other as they meet in the psyche. Though entering in slightly different manners, they mingle within the associative aspect to be governed by the anticipatory response mechanism. The A.R.M. distributes emotional energy through the physical body where we see either purposeful and controlled movements or those that are erratic and reactive. Manifestation of talent and ability is a process that runs mind to body, you’re not training the body to coach the mind where execution of talent is determined through mental ability. You train the physical athlete in such a manner that it is able to sustain and respond to that which you are coaching, not the other way around. 

Every program for any sport where emotions drive the athlete should be built upon a mind-to-body experience. 

One of the most important characteristics we look for at THT Bloodstock are those that indicate where the tendency lean is going to be under stress; is it fear and anxiety or confidence and fortitude? There are base fundamentals that lead down the path of each in every horse’s herd dynamic. As a coach, knowing how the athlete learns helps you when developing their program, and as an owner it helps in selecting a program that compliments the athlete within. 

Ultimately the learning process will only be as successful as the relationship built between teacher and student, no one should expect to be understood if they’re not willing to first be understanding. The rules of accord are clear, when one is giving 80% of effort 100% of the time, the relationship doesn’t work.

~ Kerry

Further Related Reading Suggestions: 

Horses, The Athletes Within Part 1, Herd Dynamic Rhythm

Sensory Soundness and The Psychology of Motion

Great read! Thanks @jonathanstettin Feels like you’re sitting across the table breaking down the day with the expert…

Scott Raymond (@onehorsestable) View testimonials