Brains have limited at­ten­tion for in­com­ing stim­u­la­tion. Strain­ing to hear speech uses some of that at­ten­tion, leav­ing less to fo­cus on han­dling the horse.

EQUUS - - Conversati­ons -

then rushes the fifth. The prob­lem oc­curred at the fifth fence, right? Not nec­es­sar­ily. Ole Speedy might have been rarin’ to go all along, stiff­en­ing her back and neck im­per­cep­ti­bly as she went, but her at­ti­tude didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize un­til she reached fence five. Good feed­back needs to ad­dress the root of the prob­lem, not the point at which it is even­tu­ally dis­played.

The best train­ers sense prob­lems be­fore they oc­cur. Horse train­ing is made up of many char­ac­ter­is­tics, but one of the most im­por­tant is pre­ven­tion. Rather than solve ev­ery prob­lem a 1,200-pound an­i­mal can present, we want to pre­vent those prob­lems from oc­cur­ring. Seek the horse’s at­ti­tude and cor­rect it with proper ground­work, ex­er­cise, con­di­tion­ing and in­struc­tion, and you won’t have to solve so many 1,200-pound prob­lems.


Clearly, tim­ing is im­por­tant. But to ap­ply feed­back, you’ve got to be able to hear it. This prin­ci­ple is so sim­ple that it is rarely given the con­sid­er­a­tion it de­serves. Decades ago, adult eques­tri­ans tended to be rel­a­tively young. But by 2010, more than 60 per­cent of adult Amer­i­can rid­ers were over the age of 44. Sad to say, mid­dlea­gers just don’t have the su­per-ears of their teenaged coun­ter­parts.

Even un­der the best con­di­tions---no rock con­certs or con­struc­tion noise--nor­mal hu­man hear­ing de­clines daily af­ter the ripe old age of 20. In quiet set­tings, mild hear­ing prob­lems don’t af­fect us much. But push some wind in our ears at the can­ter, add the hum of ob­servers chat­ting on a deck and a dis­trac­tion like that filly buck­ing on the longe line 20 feet away, and … Hous­ton? We have a prob­lem.

Speech sounds are the first to de­te­ri­o­rate. That’s why old coots think every­body mum­bles. An emer­gency com­mand like “Bail off!” be­comes “Payov!” and the in­struc­tion to use a “left open­ing rein” as your horse runs side­ways is “lev oab nun ray.” Try­ing to de­ci­pher such mumbo-jumbo un­der stress is very dif­fi­cult. And con­di­tions have al­ready de­te­ri­o­rated sig­nif­i­cantly if your coach is telling you to bail off, right?

Even in that very rare les­son when noth­ing is par­tic­u­larly wrong, it’s hard to ride well with your head canted for­ward and cocked to the side try­ing to de­ci­pher soft-spo­ken words. Brains have limited at­ten­tion for in­com­ing stim­u­la­tion. Strain­ing to hear speech uses some of that at­ten­tion, leav­ing less to fo­cus on han­dling the horse. Able in­struc­tors project their voices across large are­nas, or they use trans­mit­ting de­vices to com­mu­ni­cate clearly. Ei­ther way, they are al­ways easy to hear.


Feed­back can be de­liv­ered in terms of re­sults or per­for­mance. Knowl­edge of re­sults in­cludes the speed of a bar­rel race, the score of a dres­sage test, one’s place­ment in a West­ern plea­sure class or the num­ber of faults in a jump­ing round. That in­for­ma­tion tells you whether you need to im­prove. Some­times it tells you where im­prove­ment is needed--for ex­am­ple, you might be able to in­fer from class place­ments whether your hand gal­lop was fast enough, your slid­ing stop long enough, your free walk free enough.

Knowl­edge of per­for­mance de­scribes ex­act move­ments that are needed to im­prove re­sults. Per­haps your bar­rel race is slow be­cause your in­side hip is not low enough com­ing into the first turn. Maybe you’re rid­ing West­ern plea­sure with con­tact in­stead of a draped rein. Pos­si­bly your weight drifts back too early in the air over a fence, caus­ing your horse to rub the top rail with his hind an­kles. Knowl­edge of per­for­mance tells us what to do dif­fer­ently to get bet­ter re­sults next time out.

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