Some Comments about The Adult Learning Process
Vic Thomas

Hi folks. This is probably an unusual column in a horse publication, but seems quite appropriate in that “horse and rider” includes more than just the equine variable. The other variable is the human and our desire to improve the teamwork between two very dissimilar species. So, shoot … let's talk about us a bit.

We want to learn. Primarily because we have a problem. Oh, not necessarily something like “she bucks when I give the trot cue”, but in the more broad sense of a quest for knowledge that will make the overall relationship more enjoyable, less bruising, and less embarrassing.

As adults, we seek out knowledge. For example: understanding that satisfies a perceived need for problem correction, either real (bucks) or an emotional quest for self-improvement. There are other reasons that we may identify that are just as valid. The “why” someone went to a clinic is valuable to the individual and is valid as long as it can be identified and accepted by the clinic participant. Attendance for a stated purpose that doesn't coincide with the real reason is bound to create conflict in the afterglow, since stated purposes may not match the real reasons. (For example: peer pressure to attend the clinic of a well-known clinician versus attending because we feel comfortable with that clinician's approach and want to learn that approach for self-use.)

This is a “head labor” operation that requires that we clearly identify what we are looking for. The tendency is to identify a specific behavioral aberration that we want to improve, correct, or eliminate in our horse's behavior. Not a “bad” mission at all … just incomplete. For a complete feeling of success (if such a thing is possible), it is important that we recognize that learning comes from many fronts and the value of a clinic or other learning experience is quite broad. Building associations with others who share our passion for the horse, watching, listening, and taking notes related to the other situations presented to the trainer … all create new wrinkles in our brain … or reinforce old ones.

I pay my money, make my reservations, get Mollie groomed, spruce up the trailer, have the truck serviced, get the tack ready, consider water and fuel, and a thousand other preparations for the adventure. Have I forgotten anything? Hoof picks, brushes, buckets, leadropes, etc, etc? What about me? Am I mentally ready? My thoughts race through questions: Will Mollie behave herself? (Lots of people may be watching!) Can I listen and perform in front of them? (“Everybody” has far more experience than I do. Surely I will appear ignorant, or worse … stupid!) What if Mollie relieves herself at a critical moment? Sometimes she spooks at clouds - Oh, I hope it's a clear day!

While these concerns may be valid and require preparation, it is important that we prepare ourselves in another way .. learning to learn.

If we want to maximize the experience and come away with value equal to or exceeding the cost, then learning how to learn, understanding the process, and preparing self before packing the truck makes excellent sense. Way back, before sending in that reservation, clearly identify what you want. If it changes along the way, well, we certainly have the right and capacity to alter our goals. Write it down on your notepad. Bring it with you. Add to it, delete or modify, if necessary. Keep your notes handy in the tack box or with other important stuff.

Side issue: As Linda and I attend clinics, she takes notes relating to process, identified problems, corrections, instructions, etc. (Actually, I think she takes notes in the shower also!) I, on the other hand, am completely involved in the examples of human behavior and tend to watch and take notes about that. I don't see much notetaking at the clinics.

One time, in Minnesota, I spied a character taking notes on the back of a flyer resting on his tobacco pouch, resting on his knee. He looked like he just walked out of a Sam Peckinpaw movie. A hat that was held together with sweat-glue, a mustache that had been a friend for a long time, plaid shirt, collar and cuffs frayed (but soft-looking), jeans that must have been original issue from Levi. His stylus was a lumber marker and as I looked over his shoulder I noted he was printing in bold letters, somewhat painstakingly, key words suited for his purpose. Intrigued, I struck up a conversation with him. Brief it was, as he clearly did not want to miss anything. When asked why he attended this clinic, he answered in a drawl (even slower than mine), “Man can't know too much” Asked why he was taking notes, he looked at me with just a slight expression of “You dumb or what?!” and stated, “Man has a lot to say I can use.” This man either had a hard life of wear and tear or was easily 60 to 65 years old. Over the 3-day clinic, I saw him twice more, picking up flyers from the display table. Yep! I was impressed! Whether he knew it or not, he understood the first principle of learning … he wanted to learn and was preparing for the after clinic reinforcement of concepts.

Then, there was the woman at a clinic where 15 - 20 people mill around on horseback in the arena and get dealt with individually while everyone else waits. I noted that she always went to a specific spot in the arena to park and wait. She turned, facing the same specific direction each time and removed from her jacket pocket a small notebook and pen and took notes about others as they received their instruction.

Oh yeah … had to talk to her. Found her and her husband at their trailer after and got around to her behavior that had impressed me so. Turns out she had parked in a specific place because that was the best acoustical zone in the arena for understanding, thereby maximizing her intake.

Why note other instruction? “Well, you just don't ever know” was her answer. After she showed me her notebooks from various equine-related functions, I was even more impressed. She, whether she knew it or not, clearly understood a major issue relative to learning: Set it up and wait. (And you guys thought that was a horse training thing!) Set it up and wait in her case meant preparing to learn, capture it when presented, and create reinforcement for after study.

Back to the issue … Ever wonder why a let-down often occurs after the event? The feeling of, almost but not quite, depression. A “blues” sort of thing. Would it help to remind ourselves that this is normal and that it serves its purpose? Certainly not while it's in full swing … so, we should address it prior to the event to minimize, through understanding, its effects.

I gave a speech to a large group several years ago and the results were astounding to me. Folks stood up and clapped. I was shocked. What had I done to warrant such a reaction? Elated was I, handshaking, pats on the back, good job, etc felt good! Three hours later, the blues came rushing in. That feeling that something was amiss, not quite right invaded my thought processes like a dark and foreboding thundercloud. It was a successful speech. Folks liked it and said so. So, what is this going on? Some research was the key to explaining this reaction.

Think of our emotions as having a baseline, basically flat as a norm, but superimposed over that baseline is a true line that fluctuates above and below the base of stability.

We try to maintain a certain baseline of stability but welcome peaks above when we perceive it as positive. Problem is, every high has a corresponding dip; so, even if we had a great success, there will be a downturn of sorts afterwards. This downturn may not go below the baseline of stability; however, its direction IS down from the peak high. We simply cannot maintain that high forever; at some point, we must come down to near norm. Would it help to remind ourselves, once again, that this is normal? Hope this statement sticks, because understanding the process is key to enduring and actually utilizing it.

What to do about it?

  • Recognize that it will occur and plan ahead.
  • Set realistic goals for accomplishment at the clinic. Pursue those goals with determination … understanding that the “problem” you took to the clinic may change. Write them down.
  • Mentally record, or better yet put on paper, news you can use to remind you that small successes are important in the overall picture. Do this as soon as possible at the clinic.
  • Ask questions. We are seeking knowledge but waiting for it to appear is not very effective. Ask the clinician, your friends, others at the event how they do it and fit the answer to yourself. Discard, accept, or simply file the responses you get … but get all you can and record them!
  • After the event (clinic, horse show, wedding, promotional interview, presentation, etc), with an open mind, review your behavior. (We will do this anyway. Why not make it a diagnostic/learning reinforcement event, instead of a downturn?) This is where those mental or written notes come in handy. They allow us to place in perspective what we learned, how we felt about it, and its relative value to the big picture.
  • Give yourself a break! If we were perfect, we wouldn't have needed the clinic. We want to improve our relationship with another species. What a complicated mission we set for ourselves. The number of variables in this partnership defy counting! If I can come away with three behaviors, pieces of knowledge, or good feelings about the process, I feel lucky. Anything over that is gravy.
  • Examine the negative with a corrective eye. Ignoring what we see as a negative behavior on our part merely drives it deeper but does not fix it. View the negative as a stepping stone to correction, not something to “down ourselves” about. We can learn from negative experiences, although the best learning comes from positive ones. If I'm gonna recriminate myself, I might as well turn it into something positive.
  • Accentuate the positive! Look to your notes (how valuable our immediate reactions are, even if we later alter them) for the things that you viewed as good, useful, progressive, will work for you and have merit to your partnership. Decide how you FEEL about the behavior or concept. Not much sense in performing a behavior if “bad feelings” exist. Either correct them or get additional proof of their validity. Many things went on at the clinic. All of them were not bad. A diligent search for the good will reveal considerable value and help reduce the “after-event blues”.
  • Practice what you learned. For any behavior to become a part of our normal routine or “will use frequently options”, we must have proof of its value. We gained some proof when the clinician did it and it seemed to work, but that may not be sufficient for us. Practice helps provide the proof necessary for the behavior change and gives us reward for our quest for knowledge. Note that we must practice what was presented (not some personal derivation of the process)so that expected results match what we were looking for.

Let's recap:
  • Learn to learn - it doesn't just happen. It requires preparation on our part.
  • Identify what you want. It may be a specific behavior correction or knowledge of options or just, plain social value. Whatever. It's yours.
  • Take notes. Prepare to take notes. Take something to write on and with. Write what you didn't know, understand, or have questions about. Find the answers.
  • The “blues” after-the-fact are normal, with varying degrees, depending upon the circumstances. Use them for our own purpose and soon they evaporate.
  • Give yourself a break. Remember that some of this is supposed to be fun.