Little Learning

Robbie has been engaged in behavioral work with horses for many years and is the man behind ‘Little Learning’ which is based on a very simple theory, namely:

  • Set very small targets that you know you can achieve, always reward (NOT WITH FOOD! - more on this later) then verify (repeat).
  • Never set goals so large that they cannot be achieved.
Today there are many teachers passing on their alternative methods of what is sadly referred to as ‘BREAKING’ a horse. One of the best known is Monty Roberts. His methods are respected all over the world and he has turned what he does almost into a science. He is passionate about improving the welfare of the horse throughout the world and is eager to share his techniques with anyone who wants to learn them.

Like Monty, Robbie comes across many owners who are having all sorts of issues with their horses be it: not being able to load them; being pushed around: not getting them to stand still whilst mounting; unable to catch them; unable to touch certain parts of their body; the list goes on and on.

His knowledge of understanding horse behavior started when he was an apprentice to a Farrier in Devon. He was privileged to watch a horseman called Bill go into a field to work with a mare that one week earlier he had tried to trim but found her totally wild and just plain dangerous.

What he learnt that day was to effect the way he would treat horses forever.

This man stood alone in the middle of the field on a wet, windy day, making very small movements with his body but which had an instant and amazing effect on the mare that was standing as far away from him as possible.

All the time Bill was in the field he was talking to the mare, and although no one could hear what was being said, Robbie realized it did not matter as the important thing was he had the horse’s ear.

After what seemed an age and some more small movements, curiosity got the better of the mare and she came to within 30 feet of Bill. Later Robbie was to learn it was at this point Bill knew they would be able to “work together” and what Monty Roberts refers to as ‘join-up’.

He continued to watch as a lesson in how to gain the respect of a horse without having to raise either your voice or a stick, unfolded. Within less than an hour the mare was totally relaxed and happily standing amongst them all. Robbie had no problems in trimming her feet and she went on to be a model horse in every way.

Bill spoke in the most simple but comprehensive way about what Robbie had just witnessed, but his main point was how owners don’t understand what the horse wants from us, because we are so pre-occupied with what we want from the horse!

Robbie decided this was the way he wished to treat horses in his practice as a farrier.

In fact due to that day he was able, some years later at a dinner party, to inspire the writer Nick Evans to write the ‘Horse Whisperer‘. However, he has put on record that at no point did he agree with the methods used in the book or film to train the horse, and believes that it did little to encourage good practice when introducing a horse to humans - not that it was designed to!
Maybe the only good thing to come out of it was people started to realize there were ‘other ways’ to prepare a horse for riding and it certainly introduced the name ‘Horse whisperer’ to a wider public.

Robbie maintains that today so much teaching, whether it is humans or animals, is based on what has been done, without checking whether anything has been learnt, before moving on to the next task.
“Just because you have got a horse or a person to do something, doesn’t mean they have learnt it”, he says.

So what is ‘Little Learning’, and why is it different from other training systems?

‘Little Learning’ is all about achieving goals by breaking the task up into very small chunks so that each step can be easily achieved.
It does not involve any special equipment or gadgets of any kind. It does not rely on using the fear of flight but rather on encouraging the horse to trust and respect you.

For example if Robbie wants a horse to back-up and it puts one foot back even ½ inch then that is a result that will be rewarded and repeated.
Once he can achieve this as many times as he wants, even if it is still ½ an inch each time, he will have already got the attention and respect of the horse who is then happy to perform this tiny movement for him.

‘Little Learning’ is more about your patience not the horse’s impatience.

Like Bill, he always talks while he works with the horses, as he knows how important it is to ’get the ear’ of a horse.

“When setting a small achievable target and then reaching it, you must STOP, reward then verify. To repeat a request and not reward a correct action will distance you from your horse. I see too many riders walking along continually kicking their horse in the ribs. The horse is already moving forward, what more do you want and how confused must that animal be since it is responding to your request but not having the reinforcement of a reward – in this case ceasing to receive a kick in the ribs! It must be difficult for it to understand what is being asked of it, and so many horses just ‘tune out’”.

If using the Little Learning technique, you kick once and the horse moves forward, the reward is that you stop kicking. If the horse stops, you kick again, and then reward the forward movement. Until then, the poor animal hasn’t a clue as to what is required of it!

“I also see owners spending hours lunging a horse without the animal being taught or learning anything, so why are they doing it?”

He tends to spend as much time with the owner as he does with the horse, as he says “What good is it if I am the only one who can get the horse to do what the owner wants”

Robbie is keen to invite owners to re-engage with their horses. “When you are with your horse don’t ever be afraid to start again, to go back to the beginning, to enjoy again that first contact, that real and meaningful moment of respect that you are both due each other.

I love it when I get someone who has owned a horse for many years and invite them to ‘meet’ their animal for the first time, to start a relationship that will lead them down the road of a totally new experience.”

‘Little Learning’ is all done dismounted. It is all about having fun with your horse and getting your horse to think you are the ‘best thing in town’. Robbie is happy to leave mounted teaching to people far more qualified than he.

Rewarding

Any reward Robbie gives is in the form of a rub or stroke, usually where the horse finds it hard to access itself, like the forehead, or in the case of a youngster, the withers as this will often evoke positive associations.

“Giving a horse ‘titbits’ means that you are giving them your food, saying can I be your friend, when instead you should be saying ‘I am the best thing for you as long as I let you be my friend’. If you lose an animal’s trust that’s when they get dangerous, and owners gets hurt!”

When a horse does things for you because it wants to, you will find you can both go to places that were not available when you had to do all the thinking.

For example going into a field and starting a ‘conversation’ with your horse through movement, and realizing that from the moment it sees or hears you he is ready to engage and play!

Robbie insists that ‘Little Learning’ is not about teaching your horse tricks, there are methods that do and he will leave that to those who employ them. ‘Little Learning’ is about addressing some of those things that either annoy you about the behavior of your horse, or that you would like to achieve with your horse, then setting little goals that are easily achieved. Once you have achieved one, you will find other goals get easier and easier.

Watch out for people who say ‘I know what I am talking about’ they invariably don’t!

The ‘Little Learning’ technique is available for demonstration or teaching sessions.

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