The keys to qual­ity feed­back

EQUUS - - Contents - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

A ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of brain science can help you to re­ceive and ap­ply the best ad­vice for im­prov­ing your rid­ing.

From green­horn to grand prix, all rid­ers need feed­back. We just don’t al­ways know it. Many eques­tri­ans pre­fer to work un­der a trainer’s su­per­vi­sionon most of the time. Oth­ers li­kee a knowl­edge­able ob­server to take a gan­der now and then. In ad­di­tion to im­prov­ing our horse­man­ship, qual­ity feed­back builds con­fi­dence, self-es­teem and re­silience---traits that spell suc­cess on both sides of the arena fence.

In­struc­tors, train­ers, judges and event or­ga­niz­ers who fol­low the prin­ci­ples of feed­back can im­prove ed­u­ca­tion and eval­u­a­tion to truly ben­e­fit both horses and rid­ers. In ad­di­tion, rid­ers and par­ents who un­der­stand the ba­sics of qual­ity feed­back tend to se­lect the best ad­vi­sors.

We might think that most peo­ple take up sports to build fit­ness, win com­pe­ti­tions or have fun. But we’d be wrong. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study, the top three rea­sons that Amer­i­can youth sweat their way into a life­long sport are to ex­pe­ri­ence good sports­man­ship, to ap­ply ef­fort to a worth­while goal and to re­ceive pos­i­tive coach­ing. They leave a sport when they no longer en­joy the ac­tiv­ity, but they don't pur­sue it strictly or plea­sure.

Pos­i­tive coach­ing ap­plied to equine sports is a method of ed­u­cat­ing and en­cour­ag­ing eques­tri­ans of all skill lev­els to per­form at their best, both on and off the horse. And cog­ni­tive science of­fers many ways to im­prove coach­ing. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you strive to win the Te­vis Cup or re­lax along an easy trail; the is­sue is sim­ply whether you wish to im­prove. Let’s look at the brain science be­hind ba­sic prin­ci­ples of feed­back---the ones we take for granted and too of­ten ig­nore.


To gain from qual­ity feed­back, rid­ers must want it. Some don’t. They might not re­al­ize they need to learn more. Or they feel the coach in ques­tion is not the right per­son. Maybe there’s a per­son­al­ity clash, a doubt re­gard­ing the trainer’s com­pe­tence or con­cerns over the cost of lessons. Good train­ers can kin­dle mo­ti­va­tion only if there is a spark to ig­nite, a fun­da­men­tal will­ing­ness to ac­cept the guid­ance of a more ex­pe­ri­enced in­di­vid­ual.

A pos­i­tive coach be­gins by ask­ing

new stu­dents why they want to ride and what they wish to learn. You can ask th­ese ques­tions of your­self as well. What are your goals? Do you ride for plea­sure, for fit­ness, for com­pe­ti­tion, for mas­tery? Can your horse meet your goals? What is your cur­rent skill level? What are your strengths and weak­nesses as a rider? Which prob­lems do you ex­pe­ri­ence? How much time and ef­fort do you wish to in­vest in rid­ing? Th­ese are ques­tions that ev­ery rider will want to pon­der once in a while, whether seek­ing a trainer or not. The an­swers re­set your brain for en­hanced learn­ing, fine-tun­ing the mind­set that al­lows you to ac­quire skill and knowl­edge.


Most of us know that feed­back is most ef­fec­tive dur­ing or im­me­di­ately af­ter a per­for­mance. The rea­sons are less ob­vi­ous. They in­clude the pro­cesses of mo­tor mem­ory, the ef­fects of de­cay and in­ter­fer­ence on mem­ory, and the de­lay be­tween ini­ti­a­tion and dis­play of a prob­lem.

Peo­ple of­ten as­sume that all mem­ory works the same way, so that re­mem­ber­ing the words of a song, the smell of a rose, the square root of 16 or the move­ment re­quired to sit a trot are all func­tion­ally sim­i­lar. But that’s not true. Mem­ory for mo­tor per­for­mance (pro­ce­dural mem­ory) uses dif­fer­ent struc­tures and pathways in the brain than does mem­ory for facts or events (declar­a­tive mem­ory).

Declar­a­tive mem­o­ries form quickly, but they’re fleet­ing. Re­mem­ber how study­ing hard for a few days be­fore a fi­nal exam could earn you an A or B, but af­ter the test the knowl­edge just floated away? Mo­tor skills, on the other hand, are re­tained for decades once they have been learned. You can leave horses for many years---although I can’t imag­ine why you would---then hop on and still re­mem­ber how to ride. Your mus­cles will need ton­ing, of course, but your brain will not have forgotten how to di­rect your body to con­trol a lovely an­i­mal.

Peo­ple who suf­fer am­ne­sia al­most al­ways re­tain their abil­ity to per­form the phys­i­cal skills they learned prior to in­jury. So, with a hard knock on the head, you might not re­mem­ber your name, ad­dress or ex­pe­ri­ences with horses. But if you are plunked in a sad­dle, you’ll still know how to ride. And with­out declar­a­tive mem­ory for the events that de­vel­oped that abil­ity, the skill will sur­prise you.

Most of us ex­press our mem­o­ries of facts and events in words, talk­ing about a his­tor­i­cal era or the ef­fect of a rub­ber donut in a side rein. Pro­ce­dural mem­ory is much more dif­fi­cult to ex­press ver­bally. The mo­tor skills them­selves are pre­served, but our abil­ity to con­vey them in lan­guage is ephemeral. So, the sooner you dis­cuss mo­tor per­for­mance with your trainer, the bet­ter.

Let’s say you’ve just com­pleted a hunter round. You can still re­call the fine points of the ride in ver­bal form.

Peo­ple of­ten as­sume that all mem­ory works the same way, so that re­mem­ber­ing the words of a song, the smell of a rose, the square root of 16 or the move­ment re­quired to sit a trot are all func­tion­ally sim­i­lar. But that’s not true.

But al­low a lit­tle time to pass, even a few min­utes in the may­hem of a horse show, and those declar­a­tive de­tails are lost. When feed­back is de­liv­ered late, you can’t re­call as clearly the par­tic­u­lar de­tail to which a trainer is re­fer­ring. “You’ve got to keep your up­per body closer to the ver­ti­cal to avoid that chip on the fourth fence,” he says. Hmmm, the fourth fence. Which one was that again? You’re al­ready try­ing to mem­o­rize a new course for the next round. Wasn’t my body near ver­ti­cal through­out that last round? You might be able to piece to­gether the feed­back, but it takes ef­fort. And un­der­stand­ing feed­back shouldn’t be hard; hard is saved for ap­ply­ing feed­back.


De­cay---or de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of a mem­ory over time---muddles all declar­a­tive mem­o­ries to some ex­tent. Peo­ple of­ten say they wish they could re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing. They for­get that de­cay serves an im­por­tant pur­pose. Sup­pose your re­call was in­deli­ble for ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery day, like a dig­i­tal recorder. Not only would you re­call rid­ing the gor­geous coal-black stal­lion at Per­fec­tion Ranch, you’d also re­mem­ber the de­tails of each step the horse took, how you re­sponded to them, and how he re­sponded to you in turn. With such ex­treme mem­ory, you’d be con­fused, in­de­ci­sive, ner­vous and over­whelmed within a week. You don’t need to re­mem­ber ev­ery step of a ride. You don’t need to know where you parked the car yes­ter­day or last year. You only need to know where you parked it to­day. De­cay has a pur­pose---it frees brain cells for what’s im­por­tant and al­lows your brain to cre­ate mean­ing­ful cat­e­gories in­stead of search­ing a mil­lion in­stances.

Run-of-the-mill mem­o­ries de­te­ri­o­rate over time, so they’re hazy when a trainer brings them up af­ter the fact. But we don’t of­ten re­al­ize just how hazy those mem­o­ries are. The hu­man brain causes peo­ple to be­lieve that even false mem­o­ries are ac­cu­rate: As Mark Twain put it, “It isn’t so as­ton­ish­ing, the num­ber of things that I can re­mem­ber, as the num­ber of things I can re­mem­ber that aren’t so.” With mist­imed feed­back, you might be dis­cussing an event that each per­son re­calls very dif­fer­ently. And strong emo­tional mem­o­ries, like the one where you are sail­ing through the air head­first as your equine buddy slams on the brakes at the in-and-out, are fil­tered by adren­a­line. To give and take feed­back ac­cu­rately, we need to be quick about it.

Im­me­di­ate feed­back isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble. No one at a horse show wants in­struc­tions shouted across an arena while they’re be­ing judged. And we’ve all cringed at the par­ent who “helps” a young rider by de­liv­er­ing ad­vice from the stands, usu­ally when a po­ten­tial new boyfriend is within earshot. It’s em­bar­rass­ing.

In­stead, the an­swer is to pro­vide feed­back when the rider ex­its the arena, or re-cre­ate the prob­lem in prac­tice and of­fer cor­rec­tions then. A third op­tion is to record the ini­tial per­for­mance and an­a­lyze the video with the rider at a later time, iden­ti­fy­ing strengths and weak­nesses and ex­plain­ing how to man­age them in the fu­ture.


Quick feed­back also re­duces the ef­fect of in­ter­fer­ence on mem­ory. An er­ror ap­proach­ing the sec­ond fence in a hunter round is much more likely to be forgotten than the same er­ror ap­proach­ing the sev­enth fence. Why? Well, more time has passed for one thing---that’s de­cay. But it’s also eas­ily forgotten be­cause the sec­ond fence is fol­lowed by at least six more. Each event shakes the mem­ory of the ones be­fore it. By the time you reach the end of the hunter round---or speed race or trail com­pe­ti­tion---your mem­ory of the ear­lier parts is weak­ened by in­ter­fer­ence. As those mem­o­ries fade, feed­back about a spe­cific mo­ment of rid­ing be­comes very dif­fi­cult to use. By the end of a show day, you might have rid­den six or eight dif­fer­ent pat­terns, and re­mem­ber­ing each one separately will be nearly im­pos­si­ble.

With in­ter­fer­ence, the neu­ral net­work hold­ing a mem­ory is di­luted by other sim­i­lar events. Sup­pose fence two is rep­re­sented in your brain by 170,549 neu­rons that fire to­gether in a con­nected net­work when you re­call that ex­pe­ri­ence. (The av­er­age hu­man brain con­tains some­where around 100 bil­lion

Run-of-the-mill mem­o­ries de­te­ri­o­rate over time, so they’re hazy when a trainer brings them up af­ter the fact. But we don’t of­ten re­al­ize just how hazy those mem­o­ries are.

neu­rons, so this num­ber I’ve pulled from the sky is very small.) Some of those neu­rons rep­re­sent gen­eral as­pects of jump­ing---your po­si­tion as your horse leaves the ground, the fold­ing of your hip an­gle in the air, the thrust of your horse’s bascule . Oth­ers rep­re­sent spe­cific de­tails of that par­tic­u­lar fence---your view of the red stripe on the top pole, the un­usual tilt of your horse’s nose to the left, the ex­tra ten­sion in your hand on the last stride of ap­proach, the fact that your hip closed a sec­ond too soon as your mount left the ground.

Good feed­back ad­dresses those de­tails. But sup­pose that your hand also tensed on fence four. The same neu­rons that rep­re­sent hand ten­sion will fire for your mem­ory of both fence two and fence four. That’s where in­ter­fer­ence be­gins. The orig­i­nal net­work is smeared by the same neu­rons fir­ing for dif­fer­ent fences, and you begin to lose pre­ci­sion in the rec­ol­lec­tion. Af­ter jump­ing eight fences in rapid suc­ces­sion, the mem­o­ries rep­re­sented in neu­ral net­works are likely to be mixed up like cake bat­ter.

Hunter classes are among the worst for mag­ni­fy­ing in­ter­fer­ence ef­fects. Of­ten, three to four classes are held in a di­vi­sion be­fore re­sults are an­nounced. This means that a rider might have rid­den four dif­fer­ent cour­ses---35 or 40 fences!---be­fore re­ceiv­ing any knowl­edge of re­sults. She can’t cor­rect prob­lems be­tween one class and the next if she isn’t sure what they are. With last-min­uteadd poli­cies, that same rider might sud­denly have to wait hours to hear her re­sults af­ter all di­vi­sion com­peti­tors fin­ish their rounds. That adds de­cay to the in­ter­fer­ence.

The prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated when re­sults for mul­ti­ple rounds are an­nounced in one shot­gun blast of eight or 10 plac­ings for ev­ery class in a given di­vi­sion. The rider is snowed un­der in the flurry of re­sults. She’s left think­ing, “Let’s see, I came in fourth for the sec­ond round, but didn’t place in the third round. Which round was it that my mare seemed a lit­tle too fast? It must have been the third. Or was it the first?” It’s like the old Ab­bott and Costello com­edy rou­tine, “Who’s on First?”

The prac­tice of an­nounc­ing re­sults for mul­ti­ple classes si­mul­ta­ne­ously also di­min­ishes spec­ta­tor in­ter­est. In to­day’s econ­omy, the horse in­dus­try needs to draw spec­ta­tors rather than de­ter them. If Un­cle Henry stops by to watch a com­pe­ti­tion, he wants to know how the par­tic­i­pants placed at the end of each class. This knowl­edge makes the event more in­ter­est­ing and more ed­u­ca­tional. Un­cle Henry, like all of us, can learn a lot by watch­ing a class closely and guess­ing at the re­sults. When the fi­nal place­ments are an­nounced, ob­servers ac­quire use­ful feed­back while their mem­ory of the var­i­ous rid­ers’ per­for­mance is still in­tact.


The tim­ing of qual­ity feed­back has to take into ac­count the de­lay be­tween the mo­ment a prob­lem be­gins and the mo­ment it ap­pears. With the ad­di­tion of an equine mind in the game, eques­trian prob­lems of­ten start much ear­lier than we rec­og­nize. Sup­pose your horse can­ters calmly around the first four

fences of a course,

With in­ter­fer­ence, the neu­ral net­work hold­ing a mem­ory is di­luted by other sim­i­lar events.

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