Learning Theory in Context for the BHS at Enniskillen College, CAFRE.

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On Friday 28th February I spent the day at Enniskillen College delivering CPD (Continuing professional development) for around sixty British Horse Society, Horse Sport Ireland and Pony Club coaches. The theme for the day was learning theory in context and served as a practical follow up to the chapter on learning theory that I wrote for the BHS book Complete Horsemanship Volume Four, published in November 2019 by Kennilworth Press. I’ve already blogged about how important it is to look at learning theory in the context of emotions, stress, motivation and body language. Applying, for example, operant conditioning, in a mechanical way, without understanding the relationship to classical conditioning and the impact we are having on the horse in terms of stress and arousal levels, is a very risky thing to do. Of course we all want to promote safety, both for horse and rider, and more importantly, we want to ensure that the horse’s wellbeing and welfare do not suffer as a consequence of our training choices.

I was delighted to be able to explain learning theory and how it applies in context, in the real world, for the coaches. We started in the lecture theatre with an introduction to the nervous system, arousal levels, understanding body language, and the impact that training has on the horse.

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Following lunch, we headed out to the indoor arena to look at three different horses and their reactions to a range of circumstances. The focus was on interpreting the horse’s body language. Often coaches and other equine professionals can have a good implicit understanding of how a horse is feeling, based on a lifetime of experience and often learned through the school of hard knocks. However, when coaching, it isn’t sufficient to say the horse is happy or unhappy. We need to be able to explain to clients what signs we are seeing and what they mean, in order that they can learn to recognise them. The better we can help clients to be at reading and understanding what the horse is telling them, the safer we can keep everyone concerned. So the emphasis was on describing what the horse was doing/ showing in terms of body language that led to the interpretation of how they were feeling and what was happening in the nervous system.

We then looked at the impact of different kinds of stimuli and how the kind of training we use can change the way the horse is feeling about those stimuli, for better or worse.

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The day provided food for thought for all the coaches, and I got great feedback at the end of it all. We’ll hopefully be running another one at Kildalton College in Kilkenny, probably in the autumn once the coronavirus pandemic settles.

I’d like to say a huge thankyou to students Ruby and Daria who did a fantastic job of organising the day, to the staff at Enniskillen College for the wonderful facilities and horses, in particular Jenny Richardson who worked hard behind the scenes to support the students and ensure everything ran smoothly. Most of all, a heartfelt thank you to Susan Spratt, Regional Manager for the BHS, who has been inviting me to do presentations and courses for the BHS in Ireland since I began my business in 2003!

Also thank you to the student volunteers and their horses that acted as guinea pigs, and to Nicky Mummery who was an expert umbrella wielder.

The fantastic photographs were taken by Daria Fidgeon, email: fidgeondaria@gmail.com, follow her on Instagram @photographybydaria

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