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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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Merlin’s Magic – Learning About Learning from Horses


Those of you who attended this year's Trainersrs' Conference in March, will know that over the course of the previous twelve months, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition. In July last year I bought a previously unhandled horse and started on the journey of training him myself. It's been a thrilling adventure.

I bought my first horse nine years ago as a novice and since that time I've learned a lot about natural horsemanship, a concept I was lucky enough to be introduced to by a friend in Cumbria. My first horse, Bobby, is about 19 now and is a trusting and trusted friend.

In a nutshell, natural horsemanship involves communicating with horses in their own language. It relies heavily on body language but also on a few simple principles based on how horses communicate with each other.

I consider training Merlin to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and the process has taught me a lot about horses. What I didn't expect however, was how much of what I was learning would apply to leading and training people too.

I go into detail about some of the learning points that I can apply to training people below. But, before I get on to those, you might like to view some home movies. My partner filmed me 'at work' with Merlin on two separate occasions and they'll show you something of the journey I've been on. I've added captions too to hopefully help make some sense of what's going on. To view them, click here.

The Learning:

1. Horses learn most when they are right on the edge of their comfort zone. Merlin lets me know when he's at that edge by blowing a little through this nose. At this point he's telling me that he's feeling challenged but he's able to control his nerves. If I push him too far and he becomes scared, he'll panic. At this point anything he learns will be negative as he tries to escape the whole learning experience.

People are a lot like that. No-one learns much when they're in a state of panic and any lessons learned will almost certainly revolve around 'how can I avoid ever being in this situation again'. But we do need to be encouraged to push the boundaries of our existing comfort zone in order to learn and expand it.

2. My role as Merlin's trainer is to help him find his own solutions to the problems I present him. So, when I wanted to train him to jump over a pole, I deliberately took the pressure off when he reached the jump and gave him time to think and work out how to overcome the challenge himself. I also rewarded him each time he completed the task successfully by giving him a little break/time to relax. As a prey animal, horses really value feeling safe and under no pressure.

It's important to make the learning space in organisations safe too; a space that is not demeaning and that is free of recrimination or ridicule. And, whether it's learning a new process or skill or going through a large change programme, people will be motivated if they feel that where they're heading is better than the place they're leaving that they'll feel more comfortable when the journey is complete.

3. Perhaps the most important lesson of all when training a horse is to communicate in a clear and consistent way that the horse understands. I need to use his language, not mine. And my body language and words must deliver the same message.

The same applies to people.

(When I look back on the videos I can see where my communication is muddled or unclear and I can see the confusion this causes.)

4. Reward and recognition is important. Horses can be rewarded by treats but I prefer praise and comfort (which can be as simple as a rest or a stroke) as reward mechanisms.

It's important to recognise and reward people's learning successes too. (Though I strongly recommend you find alternatives to the neck stroke.) And a break from the pressure of learning can be a reward for people too. (I have a few friends at the moment who are doing degree qualifications and I know how much they're looking forward to a break from the essays.)

5. Learning is experiential. You can't explain to a horse how to do something - they have to learn by experimentation and doing. (Try showing a horse how to jump a fence or run at 30mph whilst carrying someone on your back and you'll get my point.)

I have always firmly believed that people also learn best when the learning is experience based, testing and applying their skills, knowledge and beliefs in order to develop them.

6. A pause gives the horse time to reflect on the learning that is occurring. (A horse will often lick his lips when he's processing new ideas or information. It's a sign that he's got it. You'll see he does this in the video very clearly when watching the traffic pass him by.)

Pauses within the learning experience are important for people too; providing opportunities to reflect on what they've learnt and think about how they might apply that learning .

7. Training Merlin involves lots of repetition and review to reinforce the learning and build confidence.

Practice and review are critically important for people too and help to turn ideas into established habit and changed behaviours.

8. When I'm training Merlin, the learning has to be in 'bite size' chunks. It's important to know when to stop in order to avoid confusing him or turning him off the learning experience.

And, once again, the same surely is true of people.

Well, there we go. I knew I couldn't be succinct when on my absolute favourite topic of my horses. And I haven't even got onto to the lessons about leadership, which I'll cover next time.

In the meantime, if you've any thoughts about this blog or want to challenge any of my learning points, let me know.

And if you have any questions about the videos, or natural horsemanship, I'd love to hear those too. It's a topic I'm passionate about.

Rod Webb

Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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