Monday, April 24, 2017

Don't Knock Recipe Training

Have you heard the term "recipe" to describe training? I've heard it as a marketing tool: "recipe for success" and also as criticism: formatted training without considering individual conditions.  

I've been thinking about it recently because I find myself hooked on "The Great British Bake Off". I'd never watched a cooking show of any kind until a recent long flight. After watching a movie, I had enough time to watch an episode of "Cupcake Wars" before landing, but it was too ridiculous to even finish. I'm still trying to figure out how Netflix knew which seat I was in on that plane to then offer me "The Great British Bake Off" once I was home. The photo of the tent in that beautiful English countryside sucked me in to the first episode and after that I was hooked. 

It's tempting to tell you about the cakes, pies, pastries, tarts, chocolate, sugar work and more, but this is supposed to be about horse training. What fascinates me about this show is that for the first time in my life I am appreciating the Science behind baking. I love to bake but I have never before taken the time to think about how it all works (beyond knowing a couple basics). I see something which looks good, follow the recipe, and hope for the best. I'm fortunate to have a husband who will eat anything I put in front of him, and is very appreciative of baked goods. Appearance is not an issue. 

The phrase "you've got to have style and substance in your bakes" made me think of horses. Some have style: shiny coats and fashionable tack, but are stiff and tight in their movement. Others have a flashy way of moving but an educated eye sees the incorrect biomechanics. And then there are the horses with the substance of nice conformation, correct movement, and training, but no one has taken the time to give them a decent grooming and trim, so they lack the visual finish.

Any one of those horses might be enough to please the owner, impress the friends, and even win ribbons in competitions. But I'd rather be in that tent with the Bake Off bakers. All amateurs, they nonetheless have an understanding and appreciation for choosing ingredients, cooking methods, decoration, and presentation. They understand which ingredients and methods yield the best structure. They know how to plan and organize their time and their workspace. Isn't the same true with good horse trainers?

Even with a clear understanding of those skills, these bakers still use recipes. I'm sure they could create something out of their heads, but the Bake Off judges are skeptical about "winging it" with any aspect. The bakers have to say ahead of time what they will do, what the flavors will be and how each bake will be decorated. They have to have a plan. They need to know ahead of time what the end result will look like and taste like. 

The same is true for training. If you don't know what you want, how can you possibly expect the horse to figure it out? Something as simple as turning around after going through a gate can be done with the legs all higgledy piggledy, or it can be done with a focus on balance and coordination, if you've done the work. 

How do the bakers know what to do? Like us, they study, practice, experiment and do it again. They know the science of a strong flour and a soft flour (huh?), the gluten contents of each, and how they both interact with yeast. We should know how a horse moves and how that is affected by tension. We should know the different kinds of tension and whether they help or harm our training. 

And we must know how the horse learns. Just as chemistry and math factor into baking, behavioral science is critical for training.  

Amateur bakers start with someone else's recipe, see how it turns out and then do it again, with a different flour or spice. They learn how chocolate affects the basic ingredients, how fruit and vegetables affect the structure and how the room temperature affects the way the butter and flour interact. We can practice with basic training recipes while we observe how the environment affects our training. Weather, distractions, hurrying or taking time to breathe with the horse: all these things can be studied on basic training plans. 

We have the shoulders of trainers ahead of us to stand on. They have given us many recipes to try. They explain the science to us in hopes that we pay attention. By knowing the science of behavior, we can understand why the recipes work. We should practice those recipes until they are familiar and we understand them. Then we can tweak them a bit and see what the result is. 

I think both baking and horse training should be appreciated as a blend of art and science. You can make cookies or train a horse without them. But they come out better if you include them both.