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Two Brains: One Aim


Review by Nancy Brannon

It is apropos that the book reviewed in our March issue is by an Irishman – Eric Smiley, with Ellie Hughes. A world class eventer, he was Irish Field Event Rider of the Year in 1982 and was selected for the Irish team in 1985 for the European Championships at Burghley. He has represented Ireland at two European Championships, gaining team bronze medal on each occasion. He has participated in three World Equestrian Games; has been on four Olympic Teams competing at Barcelona and Atlanta; and has been consistent and regular participant at Burghley and Badminton. He is an FEI International Judge and Director of the International Eventing Forum. I write this to make manifest his lifetime of successful experience with horses. But his eventing background and interests notwithstanding, he writes this book for riders of any/all disciplines. Early on he recounts his encounter with world record-holding barrel racer Nicole Aichele. “The encounter left me thinking how much we have in common despite our disciplines seemingly being worlds apart…”

His aim is clear from the Introduction, and his book could be re-titled “Becoming a Thinking Rider.” His goal is to help riders figure out how to learn. The other goal is to clarify and simplify communication – between rider and coach and between rider and horse. “My life is spent watching horses and riders and how they interact,” he writes.”It is important to understand how we learn, how horses learn, and how information is imparted, retained, and retrieved in a useful way.” His aim is to improve the relationship between coach and rider and horse, and to communicate with more clarity.  By “coach,” he means “whoever in your life provides guidance and advises. …Good horsemanship should be at the forefront of everybody’s mind; it is the art of understanding the horse, his welfare, and how you interact and care for him.”

His specialist discipline of eventing requires him to be “proficient in the training and execution” of three riding disciplines: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. But the principles laid forth in this book apply to all riding disciplines. His book is “designed to help people learn how to process information, understand their horses, and be more self-sufficient in their journey toward becoming [better] horsemen and horsewomen.”

His first chapter is a discussion of how humans learn, which is quite different from how horses learn. Here he offers three methods, or mental techniques, for the input, retention, and retrieval of information, which includes the all important “delete box” – to get rid of the huge volume of extraneous information we receive. Here he delves into the “technological whirlwind” of devices through which we are bombarded with so much information, but it usually comes in the form of “sound bites,” through which we jump from topic to topic. Using this method, we really don’t get or retain much in-depth knowledge of a topic, and it leads us to develop a loss of (or short) attention span. To manage this information, we need “mind mapping,” he says, which is a “filing system” in our brain that “enables us to retrieve information at the appropriate time, when we need it.” In this section he includes a humorous sidebar about “Gimmicky Gadgets.”

Smiley writes: “Education is a subject that fascinates me,” as it does me. I am a constant learner from a variety of sources. Smiley draws some words of wisdom from John Abbott, from his “Battling for the Soul of Education” (The NAMTA Journal, 2015): “…The better educated people are, the less they need to be told what to do…” In that vein, then, Smiley writes that “coaches need to explore the minds of horse and rider, and find a way to enable all parties to have a shared understanding.”

Chapter four explains how horses learn, and his explanation reads a bit like operant conditioning. “Horses live and think in the moment.” As “a horse is given a stimulus (a cue), a neurological pathway is created, and when the correct response is produced repeatedly, the pathway becomes stronger. The neurological process produces a substance called myelin, which wraps itself around the nerve that is delivering the message and insulates it. The more the pathway is used, the more insulated it becomes, so the faster the message travels down the pathway and, therefore, the horse’s reflex becomes quicker.”

In starting the young horse, “understanding the horse’s natural instincts is fundamental to the process,” he writes. “By understanding these instincts, it is possible to avoid the behaviors you don’t want to produce and nurture the ones that are helpful. …The horse has a right to expect that you will be consistent every time you ask something of him. …Horses are very receptive to praise, but they also know when they have not performed well, when the rider ‘growls’ or gives a sharp nudge of the leg aid. It is important to be demonstrative at both ends of the scale so the horse is quite clear as to what constitutes good and bad responses and behavior.”

Next, Smiley goes into a discussion of “partnership vs. dictatorship.” He defines partnership as “when two individuals, each fully understanding their role, work together” toward a common end result. “The only reason that a horse joins your partnership is his generosity of spirit…” From this point Smiley explains how to make this partnership work, and the progressive training process of a series of steps that logically follow one another to build upon a secure foundation. He follows with specific techniques and regimen for building this foundation.

Chapter six offers advice on how to find the appropriate horse partner and avoid the inappropriate partner. Sometimes the combination of horse and rider just doesn’t work! “People often need help and advice to find the right equine partner,” he writes.

The rest of the chapters offer specific skill building techniques and exercises to develop the rider’s skills and abilities of the equine partner – from early training, applying the aids correctly and developing the rider’s seat and hands.

The “Developing Skills” chapter shows how the rider can employ self-assessment to evaluate performance. In this chapter he emphasizes the Training Scale (or Training Pyramid) with its seven qualities that go into producing a happy and well-schooled horse.

“The Gaits” chapter explains how to develop each of the horse’s gaits to the best it can be. For each gait, he tells what to look for and some common problems, followed by exercises to correct these problems and balance the horse.

There are chapters on the benefits of riding dressage outside the arena; on pole and grid work; on the five phases of jumping and details on how to perfect jumping a course of fences; on cross country riding and jumping, which includes a section on temperament and rider position. By the end of the book, you’re “at the competition,” with advice on course walking, whether it be cross-country or show jumping, competition psychology, and rider preparation. He leaves the reader with “the three bucket system” on successful cross-country riding: energy, honesty, and time. “Your aim is not to empty any of them before the finish.”

His “final thoughts” employ the concept of marginal gains, coined by British cycling manager Sir David Brailsford. “If the team broke down everything they could think of that goes into competing, and then improved each element by one percent, it would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.” Smiley agrees that this principle can be applied to equestrian sport. “If you break down everything into its simplest form and then ask how you can improve it by one percent when rebuilding it, your performance can only improve.”

I commend this book to riders of all disciplines because it includes tips, techniques, and training exercises, built on an overarching philosophy and structure that can benefit everyone. I also think this book ties in well with Lisa Spark’s account of Martin Black’s training techniques and philosophy because, despite the differences in riding orientation – working cows vs. eventing – the goal is to have a contented, confident, balanced horse with whom the thinking rider communicates clearly and precisely.

Find out more about Eric Smiley at:

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