The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines synapse as “the junction across which a nerve impulse passes from an axon terminal to a neuron, a muscle cell or a gland cell.”
“Interesting!” you might say (or might not), “but what on earth does that have to do with riding?”
“Good question!” I say.
Understanding the concept of a synapse, in structure and function, can help us understand how horses (especially green horses) process the aids. When we understand the way in which our horses understand, we can more effectively apply our aids.
When we apply an aid, there is a delay from the time we apply it to the time the horse is able to respond. That delay — the synapse of the aids — doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It means only that the horse is processing our request and then coordinating his or her body to comply with that request.
Even a highly trained horse must still physically recognize our aid and translate that aid mentally into a physical reaction. The more highly trained the horse, the smaller the synapse. The greener the horse, the larger the synapse.
With the highly trained horse, the synapse may be so small that we don’t perceive it. The time it takes for the impulse to travel across the synapse may be a fraction of a second. With a green horse, it may take a second or two seconds or more.
With a green horse, however, we have less trust that our aids will be understood and that the horse will comply with those aids, so the second or two that it takes for our aids to cross the synapse may seem like an eternity. So we hold the aid long after our horse is already coordinating his or her response. Prolonging our aid in this way can make us insensitive in our training, and make the horse we’re training insensitive in turn.
Most of us learned to ride on horses already trained to the aids, to a greater or lesser extent. So we expect what feels to us (but in fact, is not) an instantaneous reaction to our aids.
If we fail to acknowlege that the horse needs time to process the request inherent in our aids and translate that request from mind to muscle, we might easily conclude that the horse is resistant or doesn’t understand or is “testing us” — a phrase that we often hear but is seldom the case.
If we conclude that the horse is simply not complying with the requests of our aids or cues, it’s natural for us to prolong those aids or cues or make them stronger or make them stronger and longer. Which serves only to confuse or frustrate our horse or dull our horse to the aids or make us irritable.
It’s counterintuitive for us to release our aids before the horse has complied with our request. That’s why it’s important for us to understand that the horse may be complying with our request before we perceive it. We must allow the horse that second or two required for the impulse to pass from perception to understanding to acting in response — and we can do that when we acknowledge the synapse of the aids.
When we release our aid rather than hold it, we show respect for the horse, and the horse appreciates the fact that we understand it might take a second or even two seconds to “connect the dots” and produce the right answer.
“But wait Katie!” you might say (or might not), “aren’t you always talking about how important it is to release as soon as the horse does something correctly? Now you’re saying release before the horse does the right thing? What’s up with that?!”
What’s up with that is the element of trust that comes when you give the horse the benefit of the doubt (and you know I’m always for that). Most horses try for us, given half the chance. If you think you have a horse who isn’t going to try for you, releasing during the synapse of the aids might not work for you (but I think you should try it anyway, because you might discover that your horse is willing to try for you if you are more understanding). If you’re altering an established aid, you might also need to hold your aid past the synapse of the aids, at least at the beginning.
Holding your aid while your horse is working through the synapse of the aid and already responding when you think he’s not, will only make your horse less sensitive, or train him or her to respond less quickly. If you hold your aids after they’ve gotten through and your horse is responding when you think he’s not, you risk having your horse conclude that you lack sensitivity. The perceived lack of sensitivity on your part will be rewarded by an equal lack of sensitivity on your horse’s part. The more sensitive your horse’s nature — either physically or mentally — the more likely this is.
So next time you’re teaching your greenie something, go out on a limb. Trust that your horse hears you. Apply your aid and don’t hold it. See if your horse responds in a second or two. If he doesn’t, try again. If he doesn’t get it after the second time, you’ll have to hold it while it travels across the synapse. That will help him connect the dots. Once that happens, try repeating the aid without holding.
You may be surprised at just how well trained your green horse already is.