The Equestrian Mind

When I was young we didn’t have personal computers, we would play pinball machines in diners. They were our computer games. You would fire a steel ball from a spring launcher to the top of a ramp, and on its way back down it would hit and bounce off various pins and flippers. The ball’s bouncing path reminds me of the way a horse’s brain responds to its environment. As a vegetarian who historically is food for carnivores, his survival depends on split second decision making, while in flight. These decisions are built into the horse’s brain, in other words, instincts. He doesn’t think, he reacts. The results of patterns of action/reaction get recorded in his incredible indelible memory. Whereas we think our way through a problem, the horse reacts or “bounces” through, much like the pinball. Then he records the result in his memory for future reference.
When we train a horse we are working to load that horse’s memory with useful patterns of behavior. A simple example would be teaching a horse to respond to pressure on the bit by lowering his head and neck. We take ahold of the reins and maintain moderate, steady pressure, enough for the horse to feel slight discomfort and to want to escape. Like the pinball, he bounces right, tries to twist left, he even raises his neck, but only when by random trial he goes downward, even a little bit, do we release the pressure. Now he will load into his memory groove “feel pressure on bit – go down to get away from it.” After 100 repetitions this pattern will become increasingly fixed. It will become a habitual response. You helped him get there by “visualizing ” a desired result. He found it by making multiple random choices, driven by the instinct to escape pressure. In the end his “steel trap” memory now has loaded a useful behavior.

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