Hannah has a wonderful video detailing what the challenge sandwich is.
This is a great way of approaching training, by using an easy behavior as a break from a difficult/stressful behavior. Because horses are often easily stressed out by new, scary or frustrating situations, giving them a break to do something easy really helps them learn faster. It also makes the training a lot more enjoyable!
Why does this work? There are a couple of reasons.
For one, practice and drilling does not always make perfect and number two, the Premack principle plays a part in making something difficult more fun.
Practice: The least effective way to learn is to drill, drill, drill, drill. Repetition is not only potentially boring, but if it is a difficult behavior, it can make the learner actually dislike what they are being asked to do. Unfortunately, drilling is a common human practice. We believe practice makes perfect and therefore you must do something over and over again if you want to get good at it. True in theory but not so true in the brain/muscles.
We are starting to learn that only perfect practice makes perfect. It sound’s counterintuitive but here is the idea: it’s better to do things in tiny steps perfectly each time, than use great big steps and get it done imperfectly, 50 times. Smaller steps make bigger tasks more achieveable, and smaller steps also help make the task easier to learn. It’s like lifting weights: you won’t build muscle if you flail a 10lb weight around in bad form, 10 times. But if you lift a 1lb weight with perfect form 1 or 3 times, you build muscle better and faster. Eventually you’ll get to the 10lb weight with stronger muscles and good muscle memory for correct form. Yes, you still might get there doing it the imperfect practice way too, but it will take longer, you risk injury and you may end up spending time correcting a bad habit later.
The Premack Principle: Now what if the human or the horse doesn’t like the task? Weight lifting isn’t the greatest example here. My favorite example is Hannah’s story about a mother and her two sons. The boys hated brushing their teeth and it was an absolute fight to get them to do it each night. So she decided to let them SPIT all the toothpaste, all over the mirror. A very boy thing to do but they thought it was hilarious and the most fun thing ever. By allowing them to do this they actually started to enjoy the brushing! This is called the Premack principle. By pairing something not so fun with something the learner loves to do, you are making the training more enjoyable and this can even change how the learner feels about it. Instead of dreading the task, they actually look forward to it.
Therefore, the challenge sandwich is a great technique to encorporate into horse training.
Because of the principles behind the technique you will find that the horse learns quicker and is less stressed about training. He may even enjoy tasks that would otherwise be difficult!