The keys to quality feedback

A basic understanding of brain science can help you to receive and apply the best advice for improving your riding.
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A basic understanding of brain science can help you to receive and apply the best advice for improving your riding.

From greenhorn to grand prix, all riders need feedback. We just don’t always know it. Many equestrians prefer to work under a trainer’s supervision most of the time. Others like a knowledgeable observer to take a gander now and then. In addition to improving our horsemanship, quality feedback builds confidence, self-esteem and resilience---traits that spell success on both sides of the arena fence.

Instructors, trainers, judges and event organizers who follow the principles of feedback can improve education and evaluation to truly benefit both horses and riders. In addition, riders and parents who understand the basics of quality feedback tend to select the best advisors.

We might think that most people take up sports to build fitness, win competitions or have fun. But we’d be wrong. According to a 2014 study, the top three reasons that American youth sweat their way into a lifelong sport are to experience good sportsmanship, to apply effort to a worthwhile goal and to receive positive coaching. 

They leave a sport when they no longer enjoy the activity, but they don’t pursue it strictly for pleasure. Positive coaching applied to equine sports is a method of educating and encouraging equestrians of all skill levels to perform at their best, both on and off the horse. And cognitive science offers many ways to improve coaching. It doesn’t matter whether you strive to win the Tevis Cup or relax along an easy trail; the issue is simply whether you wish to improve. Let’s look at the brain science behind basic principles of feedback---the ones we take for granted and too often ignore.

Factor 1: Desire

To gain from quality feedback, riders must want it. Some don’t. They might not realize they need to learn more. Or they feel the coach in question is not the right person. Maybe there’s a personality clash, a doubt regarding the trainer’s competence or concerns over the cost of lessons. Good trainers can kindle motivation only if there is a spark to ignite, a fundamental willingness to accept the guidance
of a more experienced individual.

A positive coach begins by asking new students why they want to ride and what they wish to learn. You can ask these questions of yourself as well. What are your goals? Do you ride for pleasure, for fitness, for competition, for mastery? Can your horse meet your goals? What is your current skill level? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a rider? Which problems do you experience? How much time and effort do you wish to invest in riding? These are questions that every rider will want to ponder once in a while, whether seeking a trainer or not. The answers reset your brain for enhanced learning, fine-tuning the mindset that allows you to acquire skill and knowledge.

Factor 2: Timing

Most of us know that feedback is most effective during or immediately after a performance. The reasons are less obvious. They include the processes of motor memory, the effects of decay and interference on memory, and the delay between initiation and display of a problem.

People often assume that all memory works the same way, so that remembering the words of a song, the smell of a rose, the square root of 16 or the movement required to sit a trot are all functionally similar. But that’s not true. Memory for motor performance (procedural memory) uses different structures and pathways in the brain than does memory for facts or events (declarative memory).

Declarative memories form quickly, but they’re fleeting. Remember how studying hard for a few days before a final exam could earn you an A or B, but after the test the knowledge just floated away? Motor skills, on the other hand, are retained for decades once they have been learned. You can leave horses for many years---although I can’t imagine why you would---then hop on and still remember how to ride. Your muscles will need toning, of course, but your brain will not have forgotten how to direct your body to control a lovely animal.

People who suffer amnesia almost always retain their ability to perform the physical skills they learned prior to injury. So, with a hard knock on the head, you might not remember your name, address or experiences with horses. But if you are plunked in a saddle, you’ll still know how to ride. And without declarative memory for the events that developed that ability, the skill will surprise you.

Most of us express our memories of facts and events in words, talking about a historical era or the effect of a rubber donut in a side rein. Procedural memory is much more difficult to express verbally. The motor skills themselves are preserved, but our ability to convey them in language is ephemeral. So, the sooner you discuss motor performance with your trainer, the better.

Let’s say you’ve just completed a hunter round. You can still recall the fine points of the ride in verbal form. But allow a little time to pass, even a few minutes in the mayhem of a horse show, and those declarative details are lost. When feedback is delivered late, you can’t recall as clearly the particular detail to which a trainer is referring. “You’ve got to keep your upper body closer to the vertical to avoid that chip on the fourth fence,” he says. Hmmm, the fourth fence. Which one was that again? You’re already trying to memorize a new course for the next round. Wasn’t my body near vertical throughout that last round? You might be able to piece together the feedback, but it takes effort. And understanding feedback shouldn’t be hard; hard is saved for applying feedback.

Factor 3: Decay

Decay---or deterioration of a memory over time---muddles all declarative memories to some extent. People often say they wish they could remember everything. They forget that decay serves an important purpose. Suppose your recall was indelible for every moment of every day, like a digital recorder. Not only would you recall riding the gorgeous coal-black stallion at Perfection Ranch, you’d also remember the details of each step the horse took, how you responded to them, and how he responded to you in turn. With such extreme memory, you’d be confused, indecisive, nervous and overwhelmed within a week. You don’t need to remember every step of a ride. You don’t need to know where you parked the car yesterday or last year. You only need to know where you parked it today. Decay has a purpose---it frees brain cells for what’s important and allows your brain to create meaningful categories instead of searching a million instances.

Run-of-the-mill memories deteriorate over time, so they’re hazy when a trainer brings them up after the fact. But we don’t often realize just how hazy those memories are. The human brain causes people to believe that even false memories are accurate: As Mark Twain put it, “It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.” With mistimed feedback, you might be discussing an event that each person recalls very differently. And strong emotional memories, like the one where you are sailing through the air headfirst as your equine buddy slams on the brakes at the in-and-out, are filtered by adrenaline. To give and take feedback accurately, we need to be quick about it.

Immediate feedback isn’t always possible. No one at a horse show wants instructions shouted across
an arena while they’re being judged. And we’ve all cringed at the parent who “helps” a young rider by delivering advice from the stands, usually when a potential new boyfriend is within earshot. It’s embarrassing.

Instead, the answer is to provide feedback when the rider exits the arena, or re-create the problem in practice and offer corrections then. A third option is to record the initial performance and analyze the video with the rider at a later time, identifying strengths and weaknesses and explaining how to manage them in the future.

Factor 4: Interference

Quick feedback also reduces the effect of interference on memory. An error approaching the second fence in a hunter round is much more likely to be forgotten than the same error approaching the seventh fence. Why? Well, more time has passed for one thing---that’s decay. But it’s also easily forgotten because the second fence is followed by at least six more. Each event shakes the memory of the ones before it. By the time you reach the end of the hunter round---or speed race or trail competition---your memory of the earlier parts is weakened by interference. As those memories fade, feedback about a specific moment of riding becomes very difficult to use. By the end of a show day, you might have ridden six or eight different patterns, and remembering each one separately will be nearly impossible.

With interference, the neural network holding a memory is diluted by other similar events. Suppose fence two is represented in your brain by 170,549 neurons that fire together in a connected network when you recall that experience. (The average human brain contains somewhere around 100 billion neurons, so this number I’ve pulled from the sky is very small.) Some of those neurons represent general aspects of jumping---your position as your horse leaves the ground, the folding of your hip angle in the air, the thrust of your horse’s bascule0. Others represent specific details of that particular fence---your view of the red stripe on the top pole, the unusual tilt of your horse’s nose to the left, the extra tension in your hand on the last stride of approach, the fact that your hip closed a second too soon as your mount left the ground.

Good feedback addresses those details. But suppose that your hand also tensed on fence four. The same neurons that represent hand tension will fire for your memory of both fence two and fence four. That’s where interference begins. The original network is smeared by the same neurons firing for different fences, and you begin to lose precision in the recollection. After jumping eight fences in rapid succession, the memories represented in neural networks are likely to be mixed up
like cake batter.

Hunter classes are among the worst for magnifying interference effects. Often, three to four classes are held in a division before results are announced. This means that a rider might have ridden four different courses---35 or 40 fences!---before receiving any knowledge of results. She can’t correct problems between one class and the next if she isn’t sure what they are. With last-minute-add policies, that same rider might suddenly have to wait hours to hear her results after all division competitors finish their rounds. That adds decay to the interference.

The problem is exacerbated when results for multiple rounds are announced in one shotgun blast of eight or 10 placings for every class in a given division. The rider is snowed under in the flurry of results. She’s left thinking, “Let’s see, I came in fourth for the second round, but didn’t place in the third round. Which round was it that my mare seemed a little too fast? It must have been the third. Or was it the first?” It’s like the old Abbott and Costello comedy routine, “Who’s on First?”

The practice of announcing results for multiple classes simultaneously also diminishes spectator interest. In today’s economy, the horse industry needs to draw spectators rather than deter them. If Uncle Henry stops by to watch a competition, he wants to know how the participants placed at the end of each class. This knowledge makes the event more interesting and more educational. Uncle Henry, like all of us, can learn a lot by watching a class closely and guessing at the results. When the final placements are announced, observers acquire useful feedback while their memory of the various riders’ performance is still intact.

Factor 5: Initiation and display delay

The timing of quality feedback has to take into account the delay between the moment a problem begins and the moment it appears. With the addition of an equine mind in the game, equestrian problems often start much earlier than we recognize. Suppose your horse canters calmly around the first four fences of a course, then rushes the fifth. The problem occurred at the fifth fence, right? Not necessarily. Ole Speedy might have been rarin’ to go all along, stiffening her back and neck imperceptibly as she went, but her attitude didn’t materialize until she reached fence five. Good feedback needs to address the root of the problem, not the point at which it is eventually displayed.

The best trainers sense problems before they occur. Horse training is made up of manycharacteristics, but one of the most important is prevention. Rather than solve every problem a 1,200-pound animal can present, we want to prevent those problems from occurring. Seek the horse’s attitude and correct it with proper groundwork, exercise, conditioning and instruction, and you won’t have to solve so many 1,200-pound problems.

Factor 6: Voice

Clearly, timing is important. But to apply feedback, you’ve got to be able to hear it. This principle is so simple that it is rarely given the consideration it deserves. Decades ago, adult equestrians tended to be relatively young. But by 2010, more than 60 percent of adult American riders were over the age of 44. Sad to say, middle-agers just don’t have the super-ears of their teenaged counterparts.

Even under the best conditions---no rock concerts or construction noise---normal human hearing declines daily after the ripe old age of 20. In quiet settings, mild hearing problems don’t affect us much. But push some wind in our ears at the canter, add the hum of observers chatting on a deck and a distraction like that filly bucking on the longe line 20 feet away, and … Houston? We have a problem.

Speech sounds are the first to deteriorate. That’s why old coots think everybody mumbles. An emergency command like “Bail off!” becomes “Payov!” and the instruction to use a “left opening rein” as your horse runs sideways is “lev oab nun ray.” Trying to decipher such mumbo-jumbo under stress is very difficult. And conditions have already deteriorated significantly if your coach is telling you to
bail off, right?

Even in that very rare lesson when nothing is particularly wrong, it’s hard to ride well with your head canted forward and cocked to the side trying to decipher soft-spoken words. Brains have limited attention for incoming stimulation. Straining to hear speech uses some of that attention, leaving less to focus on handling the horse. Able instructors project their voices across large arenas, or they use transmitting devices to communicate clearly. Either way, they are always easy to hear.

Factor 7: Results or Performance

Feedback can be delivered in terms of results or performance. Knowledge of results includes the speed of a barrel race, the score of a dressage test, one’s placement in a Western pleasure class or the number of faults in a jumping round. That information tells you whether you need to improve. Sometimes it tells you where improvement is needed---for example, you might be able to infer from class placements whether your hand gallop was fast enough, your sliding stop long enough, your free walk free enough.

Knowledge of performance describes exact movements that are needed to improve results. Perhaps your barrel race is slow because your inside hip is not low enough coming into the first turn. Maybe you’re riding Western pleasure with contact instead of a draped rein. Possibly your weight drifts back too early in the air over a fence, causing your horse to rub the top rail with his hind ankles. Knowledge of performance tells us what to do differently to get better results next time out.

A competent trainer offers knowledge of performance. When you gallop down the arena and slide to a stop with your horse’s hind legs deep underneath him, she doesn’t simply say, “That was good.” She tells you why it was good, what you did to make it good, and exactly what you can do in the future to make it better. Quality feedback is specific.

Event organizers often have a misplaced notion of how the brain uses knowledge of results and performance. They try to avoid “ribbon collectors”---people who enter horse shows just to build the trophy case---at the expense of feedback that teaches equestrian mastery. There’s nothing wrong with ranking riders at a horse show. We need not hide the rankings by announcing them only at the in-gate and keeping them a secret from interested spectators. Everybody knows it’s a competition. And all participants, child and adult, can learn a lot from the good sportsmanship that accompanies healthy competition.

Dressage tests often supply better feedback than most other equine competitions do. Soon after each performance, a dressage rider typically receives a score as well as a standardized evaluation that assesses every movement in a pattern, plus collective marks concerning gait, impulsion, submission, riding position, use of aids and harmony between horse and rider. The purpose of each test is stated clearly, along with the maximum possible points and acceptable variations in the way the test is ridden. They have their share of other problems, but when it comes to quality feedback, dressage tests have got it nailed. Maybe that’s one reason participation in clinics and dressage tests is up, while horse show attendance is down. People want meaningful feedback so they can learn at home and at competitions.

Seek out quality feedback, and you’ll improve your horsemanship rapidly.
You might choose a daily trainer, a weekly lesson, or a now-and-then clinic. Many advanced riders will offer a word of advice for free. Just ask. And event organizers? Give us a leg up here, by designing competitions that encourage horses and riders to learn.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #453, June 2015.