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  • Writer's pictureKaren Pyra

Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks

Many of us have seen or experienced this scenario. The riding student finishes her lesson with her riding instructor and as she leads her horse back to the barn, she is feeling frustrated. She wonders why after five lessons where it seems the instructor is teaching exactly the same skill, she cannot seem to adequately perform this one simple thing.

We all know that it takes time to learn something new. And that children seem to learn new things faster than adults. But why is that?

It has to do with something called “neuroplasticity.” Our brains actually physically reorganize themselves as we learn new things. New connections happen between the neurons in your brain as you learn something new, and existing connections are sometimes reorganized. This appears to happen faster with children compared to adults.

There is a great video produced by Smarter Every Day that demonstrates this concept brilliantly. In the video, an engineer designs a bicycle that works opposite to the way that normal bikes work. When you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel turns right and vice versa. Everyone who knows how to ride a bike simply cannot keep their balance on this bike. Two people who practice daily finally master the skill, only to find out that they now cannot ride a normal bicycle – because their brain has reorganized neural pathways to learn the new way.

There is also evidence that experts in a particular skill have larger parts of the brain associated with that skill when compared to non-experts. Dr. Pascale Michelon* notes that professional musicians who practice at least one hour a day have a larger brain cortex than amateur or non-musicians.

Neuroplasticity has several implications for people who ride and for people who teach riders. Sometimes we get frustrated with ourselves when we cannot master a skill we are taught in one lesson, or two lessons, or ten lessons. But the reality is that it takes time for your brain to reorganize itself to learn new skills, and everyone’s brain grows new neural pathways at different speeds. Accepting that it takes time to learn can help reduce frustration, and reducing frustration is important because it is a great impediment to riding for a whole host a reasons.

The fact that it takes time to learn also explains the importance of regular practice. This is true of every skill. However, often in the equestrian world I come across people who ride once a week and are frustrated that their skills are not progressing. In order to build new neural pathways, regular practice is critical, and that means riding often to practice specific skills. If riding more than once a week is not possible, then it is important to adjust expectations about progress to match what is physically possible for your brain.

Take home message for equestrian educators:

We have to be creative in helping our students learn the art of riding, to ensure that we teach in ways that match the learning style of each rider. But we also must be aware that learning involves a physical change process in the brain. It may take some students many months to learn a new skill, and that may have absolutely nothing to do with how well they listen to your instructions or focus while in a lesson. It may have everything to do with the fact that their brain is taking time to develop new neural pathways, and this is why it is important that instructors not get frustrated with students if it sometimes feels like you are teaching the same lesson over and over again to the same student. Sometimes that repetition is necessary to support the growth of new neural connections. And then one day – voila! The connection will be established, the skill will be there and the student will have what we often call an “aha!” moment.

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