Monthly Archives: April 2016

Mammalian Learning Pattern

If you watch the news on TV (which is questionably dangerous to your mental health, by the way) you may have noticed that the stock market goes up and down, but mostly over a long period of time it gets higher in value. This is a characteristic of many functions in nature, feast and famine, with ultimate stabilization. Often patterns in nature are not logical, they are biological. Progressions are not linear, they move forward by starts and fits, by failure, followed by success (we hope).

Mammalian learning has been found to follow a similar pattern, known as the learning spiral. When I first heard the term I pictured a truck front suspension spring, with a smooth spiraling  upward improvement. But that’s not how it works. Improvement or learning begins to happen slowly, then over time the learning becomes more rapid until it reaches a plateau, then it deteriorates, but not all the way to baseline. Then, again, it slowly increases, and then rapidly improves even better than before, until it reaches another plateau, then deteriorates again.  This time it levels out still higher than the second baseline and so on, similar to the pattern made by looking at a children’s slinky toy sideways.

A slinky held in front of old barn wood.

Horse training definitely follow this pattern. The horse takes a long time to catch on at first. As time goes on he begins to learn a subject or to “get good”, much faster, until he reaches a point where appears to no longer improve. This is the plateau. Then it seems that he loses it all, or in the moralistic sounding language of horse trainers “gets bad”. This is the phase of deterioration. Most of the time a horse goes through three “good ” phases followed by three “bad” phases. Just before he gets good for the third time he may get really “bad”, and this is called “extinction burst”, meaning that he is putting on a last ditch stand of resistance right before “getting it”, and when he does “get it”, you see him licking and chewing because that is his way of telling you that he has accepted this new information. If you know how this process works you can be more patient and persistent, knowing what to look for with your equine student.

By the way – you’re a mammal, too!

Eh? What is Nixtamal?!

Horns used to hang items on the front of a chuck box.

Before the Europeans came across the pond to explore and exploit the Western Hemisphere, there was no knowledge of corn in Europe. Corn was a crop indigenous to north and south America, like potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate. After the exploration and colonization of the New World, these crops were taken to the old world and began to be grown there. We are all familiar with potatoes growing in Ireland, and tomatoes in Italy (by the way, whatever did Sicilians use on their spaghetti before tomatoes?).

In Europe, corn was used as corn on the cob, and as ground meal for cornbread and polenta. But there was a problem. People who ate a diet high in corn often developed Pellagra, a disease of niacin deficiency, and worse, many died of a poison in spoiled corn called aflatoxin. The Indians of the Americas had discovered that by treating corn with a strong alkaline solution it both softened the corn, and made the niacin bio-available (though I doubt they knew the chemistry). In addition, this process killed the poisonous aflatoxin. In Mexico this treated corn is called Nixtamal. It is used to make Pozole (Puh-SOL-ee) and ground into flour it is used as the basis for corn tortillas. Nixtamalization made the corn safe and nutritious. We have no idea how the ancient ones discovered this, but they had millennia to do it. In north America this treated corn is called Hominy, and when dried, ground, and boiled in water it is known as “grits”, a staple of Southern cooking and a favorite of some chuck wagon cooks.

No Place to Land

A quintessential West Texas sky.  Mountains at the bottom of the frame and clouds reaching to tens of thousands of feet.

We were riding in the mountains of West Texas, in what is called the “Highlands ” between Fort Davis and Valentine, at the foot of Blue Mountain. My wife was in the lead along with a friend, and they were conversing as their horses were clicking along at a pretty fair gait.  We came to an area where someone had been chopping down a lot of Cholla cactus (Choy-yah) . The ground was strewn with pieces of limbs of the spiny plant. In the old days we used to call this type of cactus “jumping cactus”, because of its tendency to break off and stick to your clothes with only the lightest brush against it’s wicked thorns. What I saw on next made my heart stop! The gray mare my wife was riding suddenly blew up in a furious bucking spree! I was in a panic lest she come off, since she rides not in a stock saddle, but a light dressage saddle. Finally, by jumping off my horse and taking hold of her mare’s halter we got the storm calmed. I looked down, and saw fronds of jumping cactus stuck to the mare’s belly, in very sensitive areas. As luck would have it I was carrying pliers, so I disengaged and removed the pieces of Cholla. I then complimented my wife on her masterful riding of a full-blown bucking fit. She responded by saying,

“All I saw when I looked down was rocks and cactus, and I’ll be danged if I wanted to land on either one! “

How do you make a horse go?

How do you make a horse go? You kick him right? What if he doesn’t go? You kick him again, harder! But it’s like speaking English to a China-man. If he doesn’t understand – yell louder in English!

Basically, horses don’t come from the factory already taught that a squeeze of the leg means to move forward. It is necessary to teach them the meaning of the leg signal. One way to do that is to begin with the round pen or the longe using a stick or dressage whip to shake at the colt, or tap him to get him to go forward, which he will probably do to escape from you. Over time the touch of the stick becomes the cue to go. If you then work alongside the horse from the ground, you can use a tap of the stick to encourage forward movement. I actually add The verbal cue of clucking with my tongue. When he does go forward, I quit tapping with the stick and clucking  the tongue. This way he learns that the way to make the tapping and clucking  stop is to move forward.

Now we get on the saddle. When we’re ready to move we nudge the horse with a soft leg signal. Since he has no idea what that means, we follow it with a tap of the stick and a cluck. When he moves we quit asking, we don’t tap or squeeze the leg anymore. Over time the horse will associate the soft leg signal with the tap of the stick, and you will not have to kick to go, you’ll have a soft “go – button”.