Slow Down. Learning Takes Time!

Most of us have experienced a teacher who presents too much information too quickly. Steps one, two, and three are explained but before you have time to fully understand them, the instructor is on to steps four, five, and six. Then, while you scramble to catch up, the teacher moves on to steps seven, eight, and nine.

When information is dished out in this manner it’s nearly impossible to understand, much less use. We’re left confused and, in many cases, doubt our ability to learn. We might give up and drop out of the class.  

So, what about our horses? Do they experience information overload during training situations? Absolutely they do. And way too frequently!  A horse in this situation might become physically tense, spooky, or dull and emotionally checked out. These reactions interfere with learning. They also result in the horse losing trust in the handler.

Understanding How Humans and Horses Learn

We know that studying small amounts of information – often called bite-sized pieces – makes learning easier. Breaking up a task into easy steps is important. There are several other ways to support successful learning, however, that are rarely discussed. These simple ideas, often game-changing, apply to humans and horses.

How Does Eating Relate to Horse Training?

As it turns out, the events that support learning in ourselves and our horses is like the process of eating food. When we eat, we need to take in small bites of food and chew thoroughly. Then, it takes time for the food to travel through the digestive system and carry the nutrients to organs and structures inside the body. Another essential part of healthy digestion is quietness. For our bodies to successfully process food (an internal activity), we need to limit our physical activity, such as jumping around in an aerobics class, (an outward activity).

Likewise, for people and horses to focus and learn, we need to receive bite-sized pieces of information and sensations. We also need time for the information to flow back and forth between our brain and body. It takes minutes, even hours, for our nervous system, tissues, and psyche to fully absorb an experience so it can be used moving forward. And like the digestion of food, this part of the learning process benefits from a quiet, low-energy, safe environment.

Feldenkrais Work: Small Movements Plus Rest

I learned the importance of combining small doses of learning with quiet time while studying the Feldenkrais® (pronounced Fel-den-krise) Method of human movement education. This method is gentle and amazingly effective. It helps people improve their ability to move. It often reduces pain and improves movement for those with injuries, stroke, and other problems.

Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the method, designed several processes. One is called Awareness Through Movement®. During a lesson, the teacher guides students through a sequence of small movements of an area of the body. The goal is to move slowly, with focus and within a comfortable range of motion. Each group of movements is followed by a rest period, which lasts from 30 seconds to two or three minutes or longer. Then, the student does another series of movements, followed by another rest period.

Rest Periods are Vital to Learning

In a paper discussing the neurological reasons behind the success of the Awareness Through Movement lessons, the author commented about the time students spent lying down or sitting quietly in between the movements. He suggested, with humor, that perhaps it was the resting period, and not the tiny movements, which was the critical element in relieving pain and improving coordination.  

In my experience, limiting the amount of information in each part of a lesson AND adding a rest period following the activity is what supports learning. It also reduces the stress level. First, I repeat a movement slowly, just enough times to give my body a sense of it. Then I relax for 30 seconds, one minute, or longer. After this quiet time, once I start moving again, I often feel an improvement in my movement.

I rarely make progress if I repeat a movement over and over nonstop. In fact, repetition is boring. I start daydreaming and lose the mental connection to my body. My movement gets sloppy. Also, due to my injuries, repetition puts too much strain on my muscles and joints, creating soreness instead of health.   

Mix Activity with Short Rest Periods

After I experienced Feldenkrais movement education on my body, I experimented with how I taught horses. I would ask a horse to move in a certain way – giving his mind and body a specific physical and intellectual experience. Then, I gave him quiet time to relax, think, and physically take in the lesson.

Here’s an example. When I’m riding, I might guide the horse through a focused exercise like trotting a figure eight several times. Then, I him to walk around on a loose rein for a minute or two before picking up the reins and asking for another task. Or, following the trot sequence, I might walk for 30 seconds then stop the horse and ask him to stand still while I sit there and breathe or pet his neck or hindquarters (see photo at right). Then, I move the horse into another period of focused activity, followed by another rest period.

Handsome rests during a groundwork session with Diana.
Diana gives her gelding Handsome a rest break during a riding session.

The same mix of activity and rest takes place during a groundwork session. I might ask the horse for an active walk or trot, do some inside turns and pole exercises, then ask him to stand still. During this quiet period, I stand six to ten feet away from the horse and relax my body. I usually allow the lead rope or long line to rest on the ground (see photo at left).

Another choice, which works with busy horses who have short attention spans, is to do some groundwork, then put the horse back into his stall or turnout for five minutes of quiet time before taking him out for another short session. You could also give the horse a break by allowing him to roam free in the area where you’re working, then continue the lesson.

How Long is the Quiet Time? The Horse Will Show You

The horse’s body language tells me how much quiet time he needs before he’s ready for another dose of information. I watch for changes in the horse’s eye (is it soft, worried, or hard?), his breath (is it quiet and rhythmic, short and fast, or minimal and tense?), and his muscle tone (is it soft or tense?).

When a horse is processing information, he often gets very quiet and internally focused. Then, when the input from the lesson has finished its route through the body, the horse wakes up and looks around as if to say “I’m back. I’m ready to go.”

Summary

When I carry out training sessions that mix activity with short quiet periods, my horse remains calm and willing to participate. He’s not made anxious by a rush of cues and activity, and he’s not bored or worn out by endless repetitions.

Many horse owners and trainers understand how to teach a horse something by breaking a task down into small pieces. What they need to add is the “space” or quiet time in between the asking. Give this process a try. I think you’ll find this slower, kinder process yields long-lasting training results and supports your horse’s emotional and physical health.

Diana's Personal Feldenkrais Journey

My experience with the Feldenkrais Method of movement education began in 1981-1982 when I looked for ways to relieve back pain that had bothered me for years. I took lessons with Feldenkrais practitioners who helped me discover a more graceful, pain-free way of moving. As I practiced Feldenkrais movements for my body, I heard about TTEAM, the work for horses that horse trainer Linda Tellington-Jones developed after a course of study with Moshe Feldenkrais. Note: this work is now called TTouch®.

Fascinated by the connection, I studied with Linda during several of her horse handling clinics. Her revolutionary methods added a new level of understanding and skills to my horse training practice. In 1985, Linda asked me to accompany her to the Olympic Center in Moscow, Russia. We were invited to work with high-level dressage and jumping horses, teaching the TTEAM methods to veterinarians, trainers, and riders. It was a fascinating experience that I will treasure forever.

During our work, the Russian veterinarians monitored the behavior, performance, and blood chemistry of the horses. They reported several positive outcomes, including a reduction of the stress hormones in the blood. You can read about the results of that study at the following link under the title Horse 1985 Stress Reduction Study.

Injuries Respond to Feldenkrais

Several years later, in 1987, a severe car accident left me with a life-changing brain injury, inner ear damage, and tissue damage in my neck and right shoulder. I went from training horses full-time to staying at home, living in almost constant pain. The muscles and joints of my neck could hardly hold my head up.

My right arm and hand were so weak I had trouble picking up a pen, much less lifting my hand above my shoulder. I had trouble walking without losing my balance. Being around horses was out of the question. Doctors said I would never ride again.

Desperate to regain my health, I tried several physical therapy methods with little success. I turned to the Feldenkrais method. I worked with individual practitioners and completed two years of Feldenkrais practitioner training. Slowly, but surely, I regained the ability to walk in a straight line, use my right arm almost normally, and thank heavens, ride a horse.

Today I use Feldenkrais movements and principles to maintain my health. I also use the Feldenkrais approach, along with acupressure, massage, and other methods, to help horses move their bodies in healthy, relaxed, graceful, ways.

Feldenkrais Resources

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