“Repetition is the enemy of wonder.” This got me to thinking. Can you think of something that was once exciting and new and pretty soon it was rather ordinary and barely noticed? I think of living by the ocean in San Diego. I lived in a little beach town for about 30 years, driving by the “wonder” filled ocean everyday. Sadly, there are a lot of days when I wouldn’t really stop and be filled with wonder. It was just a part of my day and I drove by all the time running errands, going back and forth to work or visit friends. It becomes so mundane that it was not the same as when it was new or novel. Now, I don’t dislike the ocean, in fact I love it, I just got to where it didn’t drum up the awe it once did. When I spend some time away and get back to it, I am once again overwhelmed with appreciation. Have you ever heard a song that struck a chord with you? You want to hear it all of the time. Then the novelty wears off and you don’t really “hear” it anymore when it plays? Then pretty soon you hear the song and it has become so familiar that you don’t even WANT to hear it any longer and you’ve become are sick of it. Think about your favorite food. What if you had it everyday at every meal? After a while it would most likely become your least favorite food.
I think we’ve all had experiences like this in our lives. Well, when I heard this quote the other day, being the training geek that I am, my mind immediately thought of horse training. I thought about how easy it is for us to take a good thing, something special and fun and turn it into something dreadful. This not only holds true with traditional training but also with positive reinforcement/clicker training. We think it is all honky dory because we are putting something in it that they have shown us they value. Often times we are using food and most horses love food! However, we can override the joy (or wonder) when we practice the same behavior or use the same reinforcer over and over. It then becomes a form of drilling, not anything fun, new or novel. In my opinion, this concept is quite important when we consider training our horses. Repetition and predictability are not as stimulating as variety. That is why a variable schedule/ratio of reinforcement is much stronger that a fixed schedule/ratio of reinforcement. In a nut shell, it means we should be creative when considering our horses lives and when we interact with our horses. By changing things up and trying not to develop predictable patterns we will help to minimize the vises or sourness that can come from boredom. Horses, especially ones who have been taught through negative reinforcement may tend to like the predictability of routine since it can keep them out of trouble…it helps them know exactly what to do to avoid a correction. They are usually happier when the people drop the food (or attention) and leave them alone. Depressed people tend to act the same way. Most emotionally balanced horses thrive with stimulation…they are curious and like to explore and interact with their environment. Since we are the biggest influence on their environment we have a lot of potential for providing their mental stimulation. Being that we have domestic horses in our care, we are responsible not only for their physical well-being but also their mental well-being.
By adding variety into their lives you can improve their over all attitude and quality of life. When I began working with John and Beezie Madden one of the first things Beezie commented on during that first week was that the horses who were being taught to do the positive reinforcement training were markedly better in the arena. At this point, these two events did not intersect at all. I was working on the very beginning of the training, conditioning them to the sound of the clicker and then teaching them to touch their nose to a target. These activities were only done with me while in their stalls. I had not yet done these sessions in the arena and Beezie was not a part of this phase of the training. They were two separate events, yet their attitude had changed in the arena. The change in routine was a welcome change that effected the way they perceived the other aspects of their lives.
More importantly, I think we should consider how we undertake the concept of training. We have a strong tendency to want to work on a behavior until it is perfect. This often results in drilling and can actually reduce the performance as well as attitude associated with a behavior or task. I have experimented with this concept and found that I make much more progress, both in quality as well as effort when I let a behavior go and focus on some other behavior for a while. If I really want to make progress with a behavior I will work on it maybe 25% of the time or less when I am doing sessions. That’s right…by letting it go and working on some entirely separate behaviors, the target behavior (no pun intended!) will improve more than if it is worked on every session or even everyday. According to the rules of “traditional” horse training it seems counter productive. However, as far as their mental stimulation and keeping it fresh, novelty is our friend. John Madden also recognized this and wanted the horses to learn ANY behavior, silly or not, as it improved their attitude about the other aspects of their training.
There are times when we have to help our horse to develop through some repetition, things such as physically building muscles and athletic endurance or things such as husbandry and day to day behaviors. By changing up the other aspects of their training as well as introducing new behaviors, we can keep them looking forward to all of the training. Also, for the behaviors that need to be repeated for physical reasons, varying the reinforcement, changing when, where and for how long, we can still avoid monotony. Mixing in other behaviors to this equation will help to keep things fresh as well. This includes the things we use as reinforcement. Using the same thing over and over can cause something that the horse once valued to lose it’s value…including food. Mix it up. What you feed, how much you feed (per delivery) and how often you feed. Utilize other reinforcers besides food.
This also makes me think of the other habits we get into with our horses. We tend to create habits rather easily. By switching up things like who lives next to whom, when they are exercised, where and when they get turned out or come in (do they come in by themselves or is it always the same routine? Do you always groom first and ride later?) what they do (cross training) and what toys they have…etc. By checking your patterns and mixing it up you will provide much more mental stimulation for your horse.
Remember to slowly introduce change into your horse’s life. If you have taught your horse to expect a certain fixed routine they will be rigid since they rely on the fixed events. Start with slight changes at first. Pretty soon you will see a more engaged horse…not only with you and your training program but with a lot of the other elements of his life too. Your horse will learn that new things are good. He will also begin to adapt better in novel environments and situations, creating a bolder and more confident horse. Variety in itself is reinforcing and will create a more flexible and engaged attitude in your horse when you bother to change things up. Their mental balance and psychological well-being is paramount. It takes time and real effort but the benefits are worth it. What habits have you developed? What can you do to add more variety to your horse’s life?