The Learning Spiral

I’ve been watching videos of reining horses. They were the best in the business, with blurring spins, sizzling sliding stops, and slight-of-hand flying lead changes.

I thought to myself “I will never be able to do this”. My disappointment was deep and palpable.

Then I watched a couple of videos of a competitor teaching a reining clinic. What I saw there was different. No two attempts were alike. Most of them fell short of being really good. But he never showed negative emotion, never really punished his horse. He just kept coming back and asking the horse to repeat the movement, and rewarded the ones that showed that the horse was “trying”.

Eventually he got one good movement, and he quit working. It reminded me of Thomas Edison‘s remark when he was criticized for trying some thing like fourteen times to make a lightbulb. “You failed fourteen times!” He retorted with “I have succeeded in discovering fourteen ways not to make a lightbulb!“ And we all know, that he did indeed finally invent the lightbulb.

The brain,whether it’s human or equine, has its own way of working at the learning process. It doesn’t learn with steady improvement. Instead it takes slow grinding, barely detectable forward progress, followed by blinding, almost quantum improvement, followed by plateaus, and even major setbacks. Then, once again, progress slowly picks up

I remember that my mentor, Buck Kidwell, would tell me “you’ve got to get them to do it three times, before you quit.” At first I really did not understand what he meant. Many decades later, while watching a John Lyons symposium, I realized that it meant that you work on a resistance, with numerous repetitions, until you begin to feel a “give”. Then as you continue to work, the resistance returns, and you feel like you are starting over.

Then a second yielding, or understanding, comes.

But he admonished us not to quit at that point. Keep working on it. A third resistance will come.

It may even be worse. And you just keep up the mind numbing, even tempered repetition. The horse’s resistance will eventually soften a third time.

The fierceness of resistance that third time, resolving into acceptance and yielding, is called “extinction burst” in psychology.

Then, the movement or response has finally been “learned”.

So it’s not just three actions. It’s three overcomings of the resistance.

It’s called the learning spiral.

But it’s not a spiral like a truck spring, steadily spiraling upward. It’s more like a greenbrier vine, tangling in itself, going up and down, then again up, and again down, then up, until it reaches the top of the tree it is climbing.

It’s not linear progress. It’s more like a graph of the stock market.

If you remain patient, ask frequently, expect little, and continually reward the slightest attempt, you will finally help your horse learn.

My wife said she holds out hope that she will someday see this happen to me as well.

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