Seeing Steps

We’re Mid-way through May.  Time to send another thank you out into the world to all the people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.

1998 was very much pioneer days.  There was no trail ahead.  We were blazing it.  Everyone who went out to the barn with a pocket full of treats and a clicker in hand was truly a pioneer.  We were stepping out into unknown territory.  The first people who went on that journey with me were my clients.  These were people I saw on a regular basis, some of them I had been working with for years.  They were familiar with how I operated.  I’d read a book, I’d go to a clinic, I see some interesting training, and then I’d try it out.  My horses were always the first guinea pigs.  If they liked what I was testing, I’d share it with a few of my clients, and, if they liked it, I’d share it with everyone.

That’s how clicker training got started, first with Peregrine and then with a few of my client’s horses.  That’s all it took to get the snowball rolling down the hill.  The first few steps into clicker training were easy.  You taught basic targeting.  You cleaned up the horse’s manners around food, and then what?  That’s was what my clients were helping me to figure out.

So this month belongs to them, to all those willing pioneers who joined me in that first approximation in.  As usual, I am going to single one person out, but in doing that what I am really doing is saying a huge thank you to all of my many clients who followed me into this exploration of clicker training.  So this month I am going to introduce you to Sharon and her Arab Missfire.  They were the inspiration behind Chapter 5 in “Clicker Training for your Horse”.

The title of Chapter 5 is: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting. You could say Chapter 5 is about teaching your horse to stand still at a mounting block, or you could say that it is about breaking training down into small steps.  Both would be right.

Sharon was a first-time horse owner who kept her mare at home.  She had what was a very common situation.  She had a couple of small fenced-in fields with access to a run-in shed, but no separate designated training area.  All the work was done out in Missfire’s paddock.  Missfire didn’t come with too many warning labels attached.  She was comfortable being groomed, okay to lead, she was afraid out on trails and would rush for home, but in her home paddock she was safe to ride.  The problem was she frustrated Sharon.  It was all the little things that Missfire didn’t do well.  Yes, you could groom her, but she fidgeted.  Yes, you could put a saddle on, but she fussed.  Yes, you could get her to the mounting block, but getting her to stand still long enough to get on was a challenge.

Sharon was a special ed teacher.  She taught math to teenagers who had been removed from regular classrooms because of their disruptive behavior.  When I first introduced Sharon to clicker training, I thought – she’s going to love this!  This will be right down her alley.

I was right.  She did love clicker training, the parts of it she understood, but oh how she struggled to make it work.  She just couldn’t see the steps.  She understood the overall concept, but she needed me to guide her through each lesson.  In between my weekly visits she was still struggling with her horse and feeling frustrated.

Clicker training has brought me many great things.  I’ve been able to travel and meet people I would never have connected with if not for the adventure called clicker training.  One of the connections I very much treasure is that with canine trainer, Kay Laurence. Kay feels about dogs the way I feel about horses.  The species we are passionate about may be different, but our regard for the animals we love is the same.  It was Kay who highlighted for all of us in the clicker training community the difference between guided and self-directed learning.

There’s a time and a place for both.  Knowing which to use when is the skill.

In the horse world many traditional riding lessons are designed to create dependent students.  There is a very clear hierarchy.  The trainer is the expert.  The learning is very much directed.  In group lessons you’re told when to trot, when to canter.  You’re not taught to become an independent thinker.  When you buy your first horse, you are still very much dependent upon the trainer.  You need him/her to fix things when the training goes wrong.

Clicker training changes that.  The role I play is that of guide not guru.  My favorite definition of a teacher is “someone who started before you”.  When someone asks me to help them with a horse, that’s all that I am.  Someone who started before that individual.  My job is not to make that person dependent upon me.  It’s to help her realize that she can be a teacher for her horse.  She can be an active, effective problem solver.

Even someone who has limited handling skills can be a good teacher.  The first requirement is understanding how to apply basic principles.  It’s: safety always comes first.  It’s: train where you can – not where you can’t.  If you don’t have the riding skills yet to handle rough terrain, sudden surprises, and an excited horse who wants to bolt for home, then ride where you can be safe.  Ride in your home paddock.  Or ride from the ground first.  Remember – ground work is just riding where you get to stand up.

Here’s another core principle: find a step in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer.  If you are just learning how to handle a horse, what CAN you ask for?  It might be as simple as having a horse touch his nose to a target.  That may not seem like much, but it’s a beginning step.  Each step opens the door to learning new skills which you and your horse are learning together.

The stumbling block that many people encounter when they are first experimenting with training is they become very outcome oriented.  Instead of focusing on the process, they want to jump to the end result.  That means they tend to lump criteria, and they miss seeing all the places where the horses are asking for more information.  That’s where Sharon was.  When she brought Missfire up to a mounting block, she expected to be able to just get on.  She was missing all the small steps that could be inserted into this process.  She just didn’t see them.

This was over twenty years ago – long before any of us knew about Hogwarts and Harry Potter.  But thinking back on it, that’s the image that comes to mind.  When I stood on the mounting block next to Missfire, I could see all the steps, but it was as if there was an invisibility spell cast over her when Sharon stood in the same place.  She just couldn’t see all the little questions she could be asking Missfire.

Can I put my hands on the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I wiggle the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I touch the stirrup leather?  Yes.  Click and treat.

That’s great.  That was a nice unit.  Now I’m going to step off the mounting block, and we’ll walk off together in a big circle so we can go back to the mounting block and ask those same questions – and maybe one or two more – all over again.

Slowly the invisibility spell lifted.  Sharon saw the steps.  She got it.  She was able to take Missfire to the mounting block and ask these small questions.  She was understanding how these small asks accumulated into a solid owning of the behavior – for both of them.

The following week when I arrived Sharon showed me how she had taught Missfire to “self bridle”.  And the week after that she showed me another new skill they had worked on together.  She was owning the process!  She was becoming what clicker training allows us to be – our horse’s teacher.  She wasn’t dependent upon me.  We still enjoyed our visits together.  There were lots of new skills that I could help her to learn, but she didn’t need me.

In “Clicker Training for your Horse” I used specific lessons such as foot care or the mounting block lesson to teach broader principles.  Sharon’s struggle with the mounting block became the inspiration for a chapter in “Clicker Training for your Horse“.  The week after her lesson I wrote Chapter 5: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting.

Here is the opening section from that chapter:

“Some of you who are more experienced may glance at this and think: a whole chapter just on getting your horse to stand next to a mounting block!  You’ve got to be kidding.  When is she going to talk about some real training?

This book is intended for people of all experience levels.  In my own teaching I work with many highly trained riders and instructors, but I also work with beginners and first-time horse owners.  If you haven’t spent much time around horses, no exercise is ever too basic to be taught.  I’ve given lessons in how to lead a horse into a barn, turn it around, and close the door behind you.  Sound simple?  If you’ve been around horses for years, of course it does, but to a timid, first-time owner with a pushy horse it can seem like an impossible task.

You may know how to teach your horse how to stand quietly while you get on.  It’s no problem for you, but for someone who has never dealt with this issue, it can be extremely frustrating.  You may take bridling for granted.  Then you buy that green, three year old you’ve been dreaming of for years, and he throws his head up into the rafters whenever you come near him with a bridle.

I don’t know what issues you’re struggling with, or what you already know, and what you don’t.  I don’t want to skip over anyone, so I’ve chosen to talk about some very basic training issues here.  That way everyone can participate.  Embedded in the discussion are the principles and concepts that will help you with every step of your training.  If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll be able to generalize easily from these examples and apply the principles to your own training situation  .  .  .  .  Foundation is everything in horse training.  So even if you’re working with upper level horses, I think you’ll find a great deal in this chapter that will interest you.

Training is easy once you know where to begin.  Getting started is the hard part.  You want to ride.  You’ve got a picture of your dream horse in your head.  You can see yourself clearing every fence on the course; galloping along a winding trail; or executing the perfect canter pirouette.  That’s your dream, but right now you and your horse are just starting out together.  What are you going to work on today to get to all those wonderful tomorrows?  What are your immediate training goals that address the issues you are working on today?

Goal setting is an important part of training.  When I’m working with someone on a regular basis, I’ll ask them what they want to focus on today, in this lesson.  Very often they’ll say they don’t know.  They have an overall dream of what they want to do with their horse, but they don’t have a specific goal in mind for that day’s training.  That’s fine.  The horse will always tell us what he needs to learn.

We’ll take him out to the ring and he’ll refuse to walk up to the mounting block.  Great.  He’s just given us the lesson for the day.  Yes, we could get on somehow, but we’d be missing a wonderful opportunity to train.

We might have been planning to work on canter departs, but that’s not what the day’s lesson is going to be about.  We’re going to teach him to stand next to the mounting block.  In the process we’ll be working on leading; on ground tying; on lateral work; on loading into a trailer; and, oh yes, on canter departs, and even on flying lead changes.  How is that possible when all you’re doing is getting on?  The answer is, you can never teach just one thing.  You’ll see what I mean as we go through this lesson.”

It’s great fun reading this chapter so many years after it was written.  I feel as though I could be writing it today in response to someone’s email query.  The words wouldn’t be that different.  I may know a lot more ways to teach the lessons I was writing about, but the core, underlying principles are the same.  What Sharon showed me was the power of those principles.  When you learn how to use them, they set you free.

So this is my thank you to Sharon and to all my other clients who showed me how to transform these principles from words on a page into actual practice.  Those pioneering days were great fun!  I am glad we took the journey together.  Many of you have split off and gone off on your own.  That’s as it should be.  The best part of clicker training is it teaches you how to forge your own path.  We will be friends always, and I am sending you a thank you for the time we journeyed together and the discoveries we made.  Thank you for helping to bring clicker training into the horse community.

Have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering

Each month this year I’ve been writing a post in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  These posts are thank yous to all the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  In January I began with a tribute to Bob Viviano and his horse Crackers.  February belonged to Ann Edie and Panda.  Last month I turned the spotlight on all the clinic organizers.  To represent them all I singled out Kate Graham and her horse Lucky.

This month is different.  April can belong to no one else but my beloved Peregrine.  April 26, 1985 was his birthday.  For thirty years I celebrated that event with him.  Now I remember the day without him.  Today I am getting ready to fly out to California to teach a clinic.  Peregrine put me on the path to all these great adventures.  I learned about clicker training for him, through him.  When I went out to the barn all those many years ago with treats in my pocket and a clicker in my hand, I had no idea of the journey he was sending me on.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother, I promised her I would write her a love story.  I didn’t know at the time what form that would take, just that I would do it.  My book, “Clicker Training For Your Horse”, was that love story.  It was written for her and for Peregrine.  Clicker training was not a story to keep to myself.  I have been sharing it with all of you because of them.

When Peregrine turned thirty, I wrote a series of posts in celebration.  They are a tribute to him and a history of equine clicker training.  You can read them beginning with https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/04/13/todays-peregrine-story-early-lessons/ 

For most of his life Peregrine lived at boarding barns.  It was only in his final years that I was able to move him to a home of his own.  The barn is still so full of his memories.  We moved July 4th 2011.  It was truly Independence Day for all our horses.

Peregrine shaped how the barn is used.  He taught me to open all the doors.  Throughout his life he was always opening doors.  The most important one was the door to clicker training.

He is greatly loved, and he will always be greatly missed.

Peregrine Foal and in winter

Peregrine April 26, 1985 the day he was born, and Peregrine when he was 29

“I Need Goats!”

Preparation – it’s a wonderful thing.  All winter long “I need goats!” has been my call to bring the goats back into their pens.  “I need goats!” means food awaits.  Come fast!

Yesterday “I need goats!” was put to a new test.  We took our little herd of seven goats – Trixie and her triplets and Thanzi and her twins – into the indoor.  I put Thanzi on a lead and had her follow a food-in-a-cup target stick.  She boldly – or perhaps I should say greedily – led the way.  Trixie held back but couldn’t resist when all the babies started surging through the outer gate of the Goat Palace.  We had the side door of the arena open so it was a short walk into the arena.

I had put a bucket down with some grain in it.  Thanzi made a bee line for it which helped draw all the others in.

Goats Thanzi eating in bucket.png

Everyone in

We got everyone inside, closed the gate, turned Thanzi loose and stood back to watch the fun.  At first they packed closely together.  Thanzi led them on a survey of the arena.  We’d set out some mats for the youngsters to climb over, but Thanzi and Trixie needed to check out the arena.

Goats - checking out arena.png

Checking out the arena

I left them alone for a bit.  When they had made the full circuit of the arena and they were back by the gate, I wandered out into the center of the arena.

“I need goats!”  It was Thanzi who picked up her head first.  She turned and trotted straight towards me bringing a stream of goats with her.

Goats coming first time 5 panels.png

“I need goats!”

At first Trixie was too worried to come all the way to me.  I clicked and treated Thanzi then turned and walked away from the group.

“I need goats!” They streamed towards me again.  Trixie was becoming braver.  Thanzi was always the first one to reach me, but now Trixie was coming up to get her treat.  When I turned to leave them, they followed behind me.  And when I called, they all came running and clustered around me while the two does got their treats.

Goats clustering around.png

Getting braver!

When I’m trying to teach a horse to be okay riding out by himself, there are times when I wish we hadn’t domesticated such a social animal, but watching as these goats came running towards me all as a group, I could definitely see the benefits of a herd species.

I could also see the benefits of a little preparation.  Without the connection that had been well established, Thanzi and Trixie might have spent their time in the arena keeping their babies as far away from me as possible.  Training – it’s a wonderful thing!

Goats going to far end of arena

goats coming 3 panels

Preparation let me become the Pied Piper of my little goat herd.

We saw another benefit of training when we brought the boys into the arena.  We set the mats out in a line at a distance from the mounting block.  The three of them would run to the mounting block, turn and race back to their mats.  When we first brought the three goats into the arena together, there was a lot of sparring.  Pellias and Elyan would drive Galahad away.  He was interfering with their play.  He was on the wrong mat – theirs, which ever one that was.  And he might just get one of their treats.

Now there was no head butting.  Not between Elyan and Pellias and not between the two of them and Galahad.  Even when they crossed paths, they just kept going without needing to spar.

Training it’s a wonderful thing!

Goats Pellias the acrobat.png

Play Time!

This past weekend I gave a clinic at Cindy Martin’s farm.  We worked with her yearling mule.  Rosie’s mom is a draft cross and her dad is a mammoth donkey, so Rosie is definitely not petite.  What she is is wonderfully endearing.  She is so very sweet.  And so wonderfully well mannered.  We played an early version of Panda catch with her.  All the participants stood in a circle around her.  Each person had a target.  One by one they held the target up and invited Rosie to approach.

Rosie targeting

Darling Rosie approaches a target. 

To keep things safe with so many people around her Rosie was on a lead.  Cindy handled her at first.  As the target was offered, Rosie walked confidently up to each person, ears forward, totally relaxed.  This was a completely new set up for her, but she had no worries about approaching people she didn’t know.  After getting her treat, Cindy asked her to back up.  At first, she was sticky.  Why leave?  As she caught onto the pattern, it was easier to ask her to back up.  Backing led to another opportunity to go to a target.

It’s a great lesson for teaching emotional balance.  Yes, you want to go to the target and the treats, but backing also produces lots of goodies, so leaving the person is okay.

The next day when we repeated the lesson, Rosie was eager to play.  Cindy started her, but I couldn’t resist having a play.  Rosie didn’t know me, but she was very accepting of a new handler.  She very quickly became super light.  A touch on the lead was all that was needed to initiate backing.  We’d back to the center of the circle, then Rosie would put those wonderful mule ears forward and off we’d go to the next target.

I directed people to shift their position on the circle.  Through a series of small weight shifts I asked Rosie to yield her hips.  That lined her up with the next person on the circle.  Each one of those weight shifts was clicked and treated so for Rosie a serious lesson remained a playful game.  Softening her neck and stepping under behind will let her handler interrupt her should she want to head off in a direction other than the one indicated.  It also lays the ground work for lateral work.

She was such a delight to work with.  Preparation!  It’s a wonderful thing.

That’s what Rosie and the goats were showing us.  Training usually feels as though you aren’t doing much of anything.  You’re teaching your young mule foal to follow a target. You’re calling your goats in from a play session.  Little things add up.  It isn’t just that you now have an animal that stays with you and responds to your cues.  What really stood out for me with all three of these groups – the does and their babies, Pellias, Elyan and Galahad, and now Rosie – was how solid they were emotionally.  Because of the training, they were able to handle changes in their environment.  The does became much more confident in the arena.  Their babies switched from being worried to being playful.  The boys could play without fighting, and Rosie could be a superstar learner.

Training.  It’s a wonderful thing.  Don’t leave home without it!

Rosie walking to a target

Good training.  It’s a wonderful thing!

Learning Fast!

Learning!  That’s what we’re born ready to do.  That’s what the baby goats are showing me.

Thanzi’s twins were born on Wednesday, March 21.  On Friday, March 23 I was on a plane heading to the Art and Science of Animal Training conference so I barely got to say more than hello to them.

At the conference I presented a new program on a very familiar topic – balance.  I had some great before and after photos showing how much a horse’s balance can be transformed just using the foundation lessons.  I also had some new videos showing how those changes were made.  You don’t need advanced skills and complex lessons.  You just need to direct your attention to your horse’s balance to make a huge difference for him.

By the time I got home, Thanzi’s twins had met Trixie’s triplets.  The two family groups were living and playing together in the front pen.  And it was still cold.  In fact it has continued to be cold even into April.  This morning when I looked out there was fresh snow on the ground!  Not much, but still it snowed overnight – and it’s April.  The cold limits how adventurous I want to be getting them out.  But it doesn’t limit their need for enrichment.  So every morning I have been building a new play ground for them to explore.

For Trixie’s triplets, their very first obstacles had been my outstretched legs as I sat with them in the hay.  They were determined to master climbing up and over.  And they delighted in trying to climb up onto my shoulder.  Patience, in particular, was determined to get to the top of the “mountain”, even if it meant stepping on Felicity who preferred to curl up in my lap.

Goats First Obstacles

Their next obstacles were blocks of wood, and then plastic jump blocks. Every day I gave them something new to explore, so for them novelty is something you play with, not run from.

When I got back from the Art and Science conference, both sets of babies were clearly ready for even greater challenges so their playground expanded.  My raw materials were a couple of two by fours, six plastic jump blocks, some odds and ends of wood, and three pieces of plywood.  It is amazing how many different ways you can set up these elements to create a fresh challenge every day.

I began with the two by fours elevated just a little way off the ground.  The goats were immediately testing out their balance.  They wobbled a couple steps along the boards, fell off, got back on again, got bumped off by another goat, fell off, got back on again.  A day later they weren’t wobbling any more.  They could very nimbly walk the plank.

Goats learning to walk the plank

The next morning I added the plywood, but I set it so it sloped from the two by fours to the ground.  The goats slipped and slid down the plywood.  The two by fours were yesterday’s game.  This new challenge had them crowding onto the plywood.  One would be trying to go up the down escalator.  Her feet would be scrambling as she slid inexorably back down the plywood.  Another would be sliding towards her.  They’d collide mid-way, fall off and be right back for another turn.  What resilient, eager learners!

Goats Adding a slide to the playground

Goats every day something newAs their skills increased, I raised the two by fours, and added a couple more props.  One day I made a loop so they could run along the two by fours, slide down to a lower level, bounce from there across a plywood plank to another jump block and from there scramble up another slide back to the two by fours.  They made lap after lap, always with the obstacle of another goat wanting to go in the opposite direction.  Head butting on the slide was the best.  The mornings routinely begin with laughter as we watch the goats play.

Goats the playground changes every day

Goats carboard boxes make great playgroundsLast weekend I shared the laughter with Caeli Collins, the organizer of the up-coming clinic in Half Moon Bay, California.  What a treat it was having Caeli visiting.  She attended the Art and Science conference then flew out last Wednesday to spend a few days enjoying goats and horses.

Caeli is an experienced clicker trainer.  When you are meeting a new group of animals, it is never clear what you’re going to work on.  Will they settle right in and show you the leading edge of what they know, or will they ask for some other lesson?  With the baby goats the goal was laughter.  That was easily provided.

With the older Clicker Center residents there were other important lessons to be explored.  Caeli was learning how to transfer her clicker training skills to animals (and species) she didn’t know.  And I was learning how to introduce the goats to someone new.

On the first day I opened the back gate into the boy’s section to let them out into the hallway while I fed.  They all poured out and raced to their stations.  That was before they realized there was someone new in the hallway.  I filled the hay feeders and then gave Caeli some hay stretcher pellets.  Pellias was willing to take a treat from Caeli, but not Elyan.  When I called the goats back into their enclosure, he scooted past her as fast as he could.  That was our baseline.

Day one was spent quietly letting the goats get to know Caeli.  She interacted with Elyan through the fence.  “Hmm.  This person knows how to play the clicker game.  Maybe she isn’t quite so scary after all!”

On day two they could both engage with her a little, and by day three I could step outside their pen and let Caeli train the goats on her own.  She worked with each one on targeting and platform training.  Pellias surprised her by deciding that after he got his treat from her, he should back up to the platform that was behind him.  And Elyan wanted to offer her his foot, something I had been working on a lot with both goats.

Goats Elyan working with Caeli

In addition to training time in the hallway, we took them into the arena so they could run around and play on the mounting block. And we went out for walks with them. We took advantage of one sunny, almost warm day to venture out on their longest walk yet, out into the back field.

And then there were the babies.  Every morning we set up a new playground for them.  As soon as we started moving pieces into place, they would be climbing all over them.  There was no worry, no concern over some new element we’d introduced.  These are confident, eager puzzle solvers, exactly what I want.  So our mornings started always with laughter.  Mixed into that was amazement over how fast they were learning.

Caeli also got to play with horses.  Robin and Fengur thought she was an entertaining guest, but mostly Caeli worked with the newest equine resident in the barn.  His name is Tonnerre.  He’s an eighteen year old, very pretty paint.  In his previous life he worked hard, and he has the stiffnesses and on-again-off-again lameness to show for it.

Through the winter the lameness has been more off than on, so I am hopeful that the microshaping gymnastics will help keep him comfortable.  That’s my main interest in having him at the barn.  I want to document the change in his body over time as he works more consistently with these lessons.

Last fall when he arrived, he really struggled to settle in.  For the first month or more the sessions were all about helping him not to panic when Marla took her mare into the arena.  For the first couple of weeks Marla had to spend most of her training time keeping Maggie in the barn aisle or just going into the arena briefly and then coming right back out again.  Thank goodness Marla was willing to play this game and had the skill to know how far and how fast to take Maggie out of sight.  Both horses were latching on to each other.  If we hadn’t spent the time to build their confidence that the other could go out of sight, we would today have two horses joined at the hip instead of two independent workers.

During those sessions Tonnerre was always loose.  He had his stall, outside run and part of the barnyard to move around in.  I had just pulled his shoes, and I didn’t want him doing a lot of frantic running back and forth.  So I stayed with him whenever Maggie was out and offered him the opportunity to target, to drop his head, and to back up, three very familiar behaviors.  He was able to stay with me, playing the clicker training game and only occasionally would he feel the need to break away and check on where she was.

Gradually, I was able to move away, engage with him less, and Marla was able to work her horse more normally.  It was very time intensive in the beginning, but definitely worth it to have both horses comfortable being out of sight of the other and able to work independently in the arena.

Tonnerre is proving to be an excellent student.  He’s always eager for his training sessions, but he’s not so sure about the goats.  He hasn’t quite come to terms with the strange sounds that come from that side of the arena.  When they are playing, goats make a lot of noise!

The first time he was in the arena with Caeli, they were just making the occasional banging sounds, but the wind was blowing hard. And of all things a squirrel decided to jump into the arena and run up a post into the rafters.

Tonnerre didn’t know Caeli, but he did know this was a scary day.  He wanted back into the barn away from all these strange noises and alarming creatures.  He was at liberty.  The door back to the barn aisle was open, so that’s where he went.  We had our baseline.  Relationship matters.

So we back tracked through his training, letting Caeli and Tonnerre get to know one another through the structure of the foundation lessons and in an environment where he was more comfortable.  It is always: “Train where you can, not where you can’t.”

And it is: “Go to a place in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer and proceed from there.”

Caeli could get a consistent yes answer in the barn aisle which then became a consistent and much more relaxed yes answer when she returned to the arena. Often the most important lessons come not from the fancy “stuff” a horse can show you, but from the simple things applied well.

Caeli and Tonnerre

At the Art and Science conference I talked about balance.  The baby goats are learning fast about physical balance.  When I turned the older goats and Tonnerre over to Caeli, the focus was very much on emotional balance.   Both are part of a complete picture.

I’d like Tonnerre and the goats to be good teachers even for novice clicker trainers.  Caeli was helping them make that leap to being comfortable with people they don’t know.  Her visit showed me that they will all be great co-teachers for anyone who wants to sharpen their clicker training skills – and enjoy some laughter along with it.

I made a short video of our daily play ground for the youngsters.  Enjoy!

 

Caeli wrote a wonderful post about her visit which I am including here.  It is fun to read about the same event from two different perspectives.  And Caeli added in her visit to Ann and Panda – always a treat.

A visit to Alex’s (long) – written by Caeli Collins and posted in The Click That Teaches facebook group April 7, 2018.

I spent four wonderful days with Alexandra Kurland at her barn in Albany just about a week ago. The goat babies were better than a movie, providing endless entertainment as they bounced around. Alex and Marla Foreman built new puzzles for them on a daily basis and they just kept bouncing to the challenge – walking a 2×4, turning a slanted board into a sliding contest, and chewing any clothing we didn’t quickly redirect. We decided a YouTube channel streaming baby goat antics would be a huge stress buster. Trixie and Thanzi are good moms and have amazing patience with them.

That was the several-times-a-day funfest. I also got to meet Ann and Panda, and go for a walk with them. Ann and Panda walk out! They walk faster than Sebastian and I doing in-hand trot work. But what I was really, really blown away by was Panda’s decision-making abilities. She watches for unevenness in the road, driveways, changes in slope, finds the crosswalk buttons, moves over for cars and more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to see it in person. They are an amazing pair.

All of this was wonderful, but I was really there to expand my training knowledge and practice, which was so much fun. The boy goats (Pellias, Galahad and Elyan) and a horse named Tonnerre contributed to my education. Tonnerre is new to Alex’s barn since the fall, and is in long-term training with her to be a clicker training school horse (he’s the very good looking paint in the pictures). Alex has been working with him for some time.

My breadth of training is not wide – I work with my horse, Sebastian, and my dogs, but I’ve been a practicing and committed clicker trainer for about seven or eight years. I’m not a novice, but I’m also not a professional. For those of you who don’t know me, I organize and host Alex’s clinic in Half Moon Bay, CA, which is coming in three short weeks.

I learned so much. More than I ever hoped for. For me, it wasn’t about how do I teach shoulder-in or half-pass, it was how can I take what I know and use it with other animals as well as do better with my own. How do I make good decisions about what to work on with a different horse, or a different species. And with the help of Alex and the kindly animals at the barn, I have started on the building blocks to do this.

Here are some of the things I learned:

• Training begins with a relationship. If you are working with an animal you don’t know, you have to get to know each other. It’s that first date feeling, where everything feels a little (or a lot) awkward. And the less experience you have with the species the longer that might take
• Species appropriate foundation lessons are so important. The ones we use with the horses help them establish self-control and give them a measure of control over their learning. All animals deserve that
• Goats are really, really fast. Their heads can go in circles, and it’s very distracting. If I focused on what I was working on, and ignored the bits that don’t contribute I could get past this, but it was sooooo easy to get drawn in. I can see where this is true for my dog and my horse as well.
• Unexpected things happen. Really, they do! Can I be flexible enough to make the learner right? Pellias hit me with one – we were doing a bit of off leash practice and I was feeding where I wanted him to be (by my side) and he turned that into backing to the mat! It was funny and clickable and oh so not what I was thinking, but worth every bit of the click. And that became our routine in that spot, and I learned to take what was offered
• Food delivery is so, so important. The poor goats. Until I got consistent at putting the food where the perfect goat would be, the heads were twisting sideways to get it. But very much like the horses, the right food delivery moved them out of my space and set up the next cue, and calmed some of the frenetic activity down. The food delivery was predictable. It was very cool, and helped establish rhythm and stability

Tonnerre really helped me understand the importance of relationships. He was part of all that I learned, but deserves a few words of his own. Tonnerre can be safely handled, but he was pretty indifferent to anyone but Alex when we started. Alex suggested just grooming him while we got to know each other. There was no ear pinning or any overt aggression but he did grind his teeth. That became my cue that whatever we were currently doing was too much for him. So move to something else, or stop. Mats in the aisle, targets, the pose, walking from mat to mat, targeting while working in protective contact, mats and cones in the arena were all available. Working in the arena was too much, too early, and between a squirrel and noise from the goats he left – back to his stall. But the good news is that he had the choice to leave. Isn’t that cool? How often are our learners given the ability to say “sessions over, I’m done?”

Tonnerre reminds me of Sebastian, only kinder. He responded to short sessions of things he knew and we could expand on those. Alex could coach me on how to work with him, and we both could learn to work with someone new. Since Sebastian started out similar to Tonnere in his opinion of people, only more overt in expressing it, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory to either of us. And now I have better skills to deal with it (however did Sebastian and I survive those early days of clicker training?) and I had Alex there every day to help. And nothing but admiration for how Alex deals with the strange horses she’s presented with at every clinic.

And there you have it. Sorry for the length but it was an amazing, wonderful experience. This write-up was very worthwhile for me – it helped imprint the four days. And there is one other great thing – sitting there with Alex dissecting things over tea, while we took a break.

If you are interested in exploring this for yourself, Alex is doing private/small group sessions at the barn, so please contact her directly. It is amazing, and I highly, highly recommend it. And I can’t thank Alex enough for the opportunity. If I can figure out a way, I will be back.

Caeli Collins

March Discoveries

March is slipping away fast and I have not yet written this month’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It’s been a jammed packed month.  The Clicker Expo and the Art and Science of Animal Training conferences were back to back this year.  Both conferences become endurance tests because I can’t resist the late night conversations with the other faculty members.  We typically don’t stop until one or two in the morning, and then only because we know we have presentations to give the next day.

For most of the month I had the added endurance test of night checks on the goats while I waited for Trixie and Thanzi to give birth.

Prepping for the conferences would have been enough to fill this month, but I also added the launching of the new Equiosity podcast with Dominique Day.

Episode 3 just went live yesterday.  The conferences are done, the goats are all doing great, so finally I can write my thank you to the people who helped open the doors to these great adventures.

It’s always a challenge to pick one person out of the many hundreds who have played principle roles in bringing clicker training so actively into the horse community.   This is the last day in March.  Spring is coming which means the clinic season is about start up again.  So it seemed like a good choice to celebrate the clinics and the many organizers and attendees.  I couldn’t possibly list all the names.  I’d be bound to leave someone out, so instead I am going to thank just one person, Kate Graham who, along with Lin Sweeney, for years hosted the Groton New York clinics.

I’m choosing Kate for two reasons.  One, the Groton clinics were one of my first clicker training clinics, and the first that turned into a recurring event.  Two or three times a year we would gather in Lin’s living room for the start of a great weekend.  Many people who became very instrumental in helping to expand clicker training were regulars at these clinics.

My main memory of the first Groton clinic was not of horses but of snow.  Saturday night we went out to dinner as a group.  We drove through near white out conditions to get to the restaurant.  In spite of the cold weather that weekend people were hooked.  We’d just scratched the surface of what is possible.  None of the horses in that first clinic had any clicker training experience so most of the training involved basic targeting.  But even so people were excited by the changes they were seeing in their horses.

I will always be grateful to Kate and Lin for saying – “Let’s do this again!”  If I had spent all my travel time just giving start-up clinics, I would never have been able to take clicker training past the basics of simple targeting.  My own horses would have known the joys of beautiful balance and all the other great gifts that clicker training brings us, but I wouldn’t have been able to share it with others through the clinics.  Instead clinic by clinic we moved the work forward.

We had a core group of regular attendees which meant I got to see horses advance through the stair steps of the training.  Katie Bartlett was among this group.  I got to see her senior horse, Willy, turn into a clicker super star, and then I watched her young Dutch warmblood, Rosie, develop from gawky youngster into a beautiful riding horse.

One of Lin Sweeney’s horses, a standardbred named Button, became a school horse for clinic attendees. Button became a super teacher for anyone who wanted to learn about lateral flexions. And then there was Lucky, Kate’s horse.

Lucky is the second reason for saying thank you to Kate.  Watching the two of them together always made me smile.  Lucky was a Connemara cross (or so Kate was told.)  He started with that all too usual story.  The first time Kate rode him after she bought him, Lucky spun and bolted as she was getting on him.  Kate fell off and broke her ankle.

To get him to the point where he could be ridden safely Kate looked at John Lyons’ work.  She found one of his instructors living within driving distance in Canada.  She helped her enormously.  When I first met Lucky, Kate could ride him, but he was incredibly wiggly.  Straight lines were not in his riding vocabulary.

I knew about that stage from my own exploration of single-rein riding.  Teaching a horse to be soft is done through lots of bending into lateral flexions.  Your horse now feels wonderfully light.  He is safe to ride.  You don’t have to worry about the spooking or the bolting off.  Those terrors are now a thing of the past, but your rides seem to be mostly about going in small circles.  Lyons knew how to sort out all this bending for his own horses, but he was just beginning to figure out how to teach it to others.  So Lucky was stuck in the stage where going in circles and wiggly lines was the norm.

I had also studied Lyons work and was familiar with the single-rein riding, so I understood what Kate was working on with Lucky.  Peregrine had taught me how to insert clicker training into the process which dramatically changed the conversation.

With Lucky we began on the ground, first with the basics of targeting and the other foundation lessons.  In 1998 I was focused on three foundation lessons, targeting, backing and head lowering.  It was through the clinic process that I expanded the list to six.  The other three behaviors had always been something I taught, but I hadn’t yet understood how universally important they were.

What did the clinics add to the list?  Standing on a mat, “happy faces”, and the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  Grown-ups gives us a base position, a calm settled launching point to balance out all the more active behaviors we ask for.  It simply means that your horse is standing beside you in his own space with his head oriented evenly between his shoulders so he’s looking straight ahead.  He’s not doing all the “I don’t want my horse to . . . ” behaviors, such as mugging your pockets or crowding into your space.  Grown-ups begins the process of focusing on what you want your horse TO DO, instead of the unwanted behavior.  So it is as much for the handler as it is for the horse.

I gave it that long, somewhat cumbersome name because I wanted to make it clear to people who were peeking in at clicker training that we may be using food, but we are not permissive trainers.  Our horses have good manners.

Getting a horse to stand still beside you can be a challenging behavior to teach well.  It’s easy for force-based trainers.  You simply say to your horse – move and I’ll hurt you.  Say it with conviction, back it up with action, and your horse will stand still until you tell him to move.

In clicker training we are taking away the threat of enforcement.  Instead we reinforce behaving.  Horses get reinforced for offering behavior.  Standing still is very much a behavior.  Getting to a point where your horse will stand still long enough for the grown-ups to truly have a conversation takes time to build.  You have to convince your horse that all those other charming behaviors that you’ve been teaching him – lifting his feet, walking off into lateral work, picking up your grooming brushes, backing up, rushing off to find a mat, etc. none of these things are what you want right now.  Standing quietly beside you is what will get you to click and hand him a treat.

So grown-ups lets you discover how to build duration.  It introduces cues and stimulus control.  It shows you how to balance one behavior with another, and how to expand a simple stand-beside-me behavior in many different directions – from neutral balance into the pilates pose, and from simple duration into solid ground tying.  Through the process it also shows you how the behaviors you are teaching become transformed into conditioned reinforcers which can then be used to help support other newer behaviors.

The clinic horses were helping me to see connections.  I was discovering things about these foundation behaviors that working with my own horses had not yet revealed.  They were showing me details that are now embedded into the core teaching.  They helped make clicker training better, more universally applicable, and so much more fun!

Lucky loved clicker training.  And even more he loved Kate.  Watching the two of them together was always a highlight of the Groton clinics.  It wasn’t just that Lucky was beautiful – which he was.  With each clinic he became more and more suspended, and more and more stunning to watch.  He was a head turner for sure.  But what made Lucky stand out was his sense of humor.  He and Kate laughed their way through every training session.  They never worked on anything I shared with them.  For them it was always play.

That’s the joy they shared and that I have been lucky enough to share with others.  Thank you Kate!  And thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  You played an important role in planting the seed of clicker training.  Look how it is growing now!

Lucky-canter-for-web

This is one of my favorite photos.  Lucky is cantering beside Kate.  I love the canter in hand.  Kate is walking.  She’s not running to try to keep up with a cantering horse.  Instead Lucky is staying beautifully connected to her so she can walk beside him with her hand on his neck.  Talk about an addicting sensation!   You can feel all the power of your horse, and all the control.  It is magnificence itself, an experience like no other, especially when you know that your horse is offering you this connection, not because he has to but because he joyously seeks it out.

Every time I look at this picture I smile.  It represents so many of the good things clicker training can give us: laughter, fun, a great connection with our horses, an opportunity to explore – and succeed in training advanced performance skills, beautiful balance, and most important of all – a happy horse.

Thank you Kate and Lucky, and thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  Your desire to bring clicker training solidly into your own area has helped to build a world-wide clicker training community.

 

 

 

 

Ending Well

Episode #3 of our new Equiosity podcast is now available.  Last August Dominique and I sat down at her dining room table and turned on our microphones so all of you could listen in to what turned into a very long conversation.  Mid way through we took a break to take her dogs for a walk.  Of course the conversation just kept going.  Dominique shared with me several training stories that I thought were worth adding to our recording so when we came back in, the conversation shifted to the topic of how to end a training session – something she’d had to work on, not just with her horses, but with her dogs.

It’s an important question.  We may need to stop to go to work, or to fix dinner, or just to get out of the cold, but our horses want us to keep going and going.  Ending well is the title of this episode, and that’s what we discuss.

I hope you enjoy it.

Visit Equiosity.com to listen to the podcast, or find it on itunes.

Now for a goat update.

I was away over the weekend at the Art and Science of Animal Training conference.  It was a tremendous event.  I suspect it will provide much material for future Equiosity podcasts.  This week Caeli Collins, the host and organizer of the clinic I’ll be giving the end of April in Half Moon Bay California, is visiting.  We started the day yesterday with the triplets climbing all over her lap.  Thanzi’s babies weren’t as bold about approaching us, but three little goats kept her busy enough.

Watching them all play together the challenge became telling everyone apart.  Thank goodness Prudence has a spot of white on her rump and Verity has a pretty white fringe on her forehead otherwise we’d be lost.  Felicity is easy to tell from the others.  She’s the one who wants to be curled up in your lap!  What a charmer.

IMG_2216 baby goats on planks

The girls enjoying the day’s enrichment.

More Fun News!

I have two fun announcements.  I wasn’t sure which I should start with so I tossed a coin, and here’s what I’ll share with you first.

The second episode of my new podcast, Equiosity, has just been published.  In case you haven’t heard, this podcast is my latest project.  I have teamed up with Dominique Day, one of the co-founders of Cavalia, to create the Equiosity podcast.

We taped the first four episodes last August.  They were part of one long conversation that we split into four episodes.  I was in the midst of writing the Goat Diaries, so naturally that was what I was thinking about.  So these first episodes of a podcast that is about horses start out with goats.

That’s not all we talked about.  These first two episodes cover a lot of ground.  The overall theme of Episode 2 is emotional balance.  How can we have the enthusiasm we love coupled with the calmness we need for optimal learning?

You can learn more about the podcasts and listen to the first two episodes at Equiosity.com

The second piece of exciting news is our goat herd has expanded.  Yesterday Thanzi gave birth to twins.  If they were horses, I would say she has a colt and a filly.  Baby goats don’t seem to have names that indicate gender.  They are just referred to as kids.  So I will say she had a boy and a girl, both black, but thankfully the little girl has a spot of white on her forehead.  She will be easy to tell apart from her brother and Trixie’s black triplets.

They came during the day which is good, but at an awkward time for me.  Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment with my tax accountant.  When I checked on Thanzi before leaving for a few hours, she was just starting into labor.  What to do!  At this time of year you don’t cancel tax appointments.  But I couldn’t leave Thanzi.  So my tax accountant, who doesn’t even know about the goats, got what has to be for him a unique excuse for canceling an appointment.  At least it’s better than my dog ate my homework.

Thanzi did great.  I got to watch her twins being born, and thankfully I didn’t have to help out.  That’s exactly what you want.  I helped dry them off just so they would get to know me, and then I stepped back and let Thanzi bond with her babies.

After barn chores were done, I spent the evening with Trixie’s three curled up in my lap.  Thanzi’s newborns were sleeping within reach so I could stroke them as I welcomed them to the world.  We are in for a lot of laughter at the Clicker Center this spring!  Come join us!

Thanzi drying off her twins

Thanzi is drying off her first-born twin.

Thanzi's newborns visited by patience 3:21:18

No, Thanzi didn’t have triplets.  This is one of Trixie’s babies come to meet the new arrivals.

You will need a password to watch this video.  Since it shows Thanzi giving birth, the password is Thanzi.