What to Leave Behind and What To Take With You: Part 5

Teaching Creativity Creatively

This is the last installment of a five part article.  If you have not read the previous articles, I suggest you begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on September 9.  The article was originally written for the discussion group for my on-line course.

Lots of Questions
We began with one of the on-line course participants asking a question.  How should she respond to her young horse bolting off when she was trying to turn him out.  I haven’t given her a “recipe” answer.  Rather I am asking everyone to think about their own training principles.  What techniques are okay to use?  What parts of your previous horse training tool kit do you want to bring with you into clicker training, and what parts do you want to leave behind?

There are no right and wrong answers in this.  It depends so much upon what you are looking for in your relationship.  What are your performance goals?  How do you balance those with the relationship you also want?  Does your training support both or are they in conflict?  How much does traditional make-it-happen horse training influence your choices?  Do you consider this to be a good thing or is this something you want to move away from.  I have lots of questions. I’ll leave it to each of you to find your own answers.

Let me end this series of articles with a story from a recent clinic.

One of the attendees brought her charmer of an Icelandic.   She had done a lot of natural horsemanship with him.  The result was a polite horse who was very easy to be around.  Space management was definitely not an issue.  But he was drab.  She wanted more sparkle.  She didn’t want him simply saying: “Whatever you want is fine with me.”  She wanted him to engage actively in their relationship, not simply passively follow directions.

The first day of the course is what I always think of as the data collecting day.  I want to see what the horse knows and where he is emotionally.  What carries over from the work someone has done at home to this unfamiliar environment?  Is this the horse you have at home, or does his worry or excitement over being in a new place bring out issues you don’t normally have to deal with?  In other words what is our starting point and what “tools” in terms of the behaviors the horse knows do we have to work with?

The Icey’s owner set out a pattern of mats and cones, and he followed her through them, stopping on cue, backing, coming forward again, even picking up a cone when requested.  This can be one of the hardest types of clinic horse to work with.  You can so easily say what’s wrong with this picture?  What is there to change?  He was doing everything that was being asked of him politely and willingly.  The horse that is falling apart emotionally or pushing through the handler to grab for treats is a much easier clinic project.  There’s so much that needs sorting, it’s easy to come up with things to work on.

But this horse was already polite.  He was coping well emotionally.  The big hole was his balance.  He tended to stand all higgledy-piggledy with his legs going every which way.  Overall his balance was down, forward and leaning on his inside shoulder.  This really matters for small horses, even strong small horses like an Icelandic.   The more he learns to carry himself up in good balance, the easier it will be to carry a rider, the sounder he will remain, and the better he will gait for her.

Following Directions Versus Initiating Behavior
Now I could have approached this conventionally.  I could have set out a circle of cones and gone straight to work on lateral flexions, but if I did that, I risked falling through the trap door of obliging a response.  He would not have been solving a puzzle and offering behavior.  He would not have been becoming increasingly body aware.  He would simply have been following directions as he had been doing for years.

I always use the analogy of following the car in front of you back to the hotel you’re both staying at.  The first night you follow the the car in front of you from the clinic barn to the hotel.  The second night you follow again.  On the third night that person has to stay behind to check on something.  You head out on your own, but you end up sleeping in your car because you never do find the hotel.  You were relying on the car in front of you to get you there.  You weren’t paying attention to any of the turns or landmarks you passed.

Adding “Stuff” to Become Creative
This horse could follow direction, but he wasn’t used to initiating behavior.  That’s what his person wanted him to explore.  So we changed course.  I had her get lots of horse-safe stuff and scatter it around the arena.  In addition to the usual mats and cones, she added some dog toys, a beach ball, several hula hoops, a jacket, a bandana, and her rubber rain boots.  In general the more stuff you have the better.  This isn’t so much for the horse as it is for you.  More stuff helps you to be more creative.

What can you and your horse do with a hula hoop?  What can you do with a beach ball?  Each item separately will produce a list of behaviors you could go after.  Take a moment to think about what would be on your list.

Now what can you do if you have both a beach ball and a hula hoop?  The options and possibilities just expanded.  Put two objects together that you haven’t combined before, and you may see even more new things popping out.

Teaching Creativity Creatively
So here’s what happened: The first day the Icey was hesitant.  He pushed the ball ever so politely.  “Am I really supposed to be doing this?  Is this really what you want?”

Years ago another of our Click That Teaches coaches, Debra Olson, demonstrated for a clinic group how she teaches creativity.  She was working with another of these very polite, but very drab horses.  Her prop was a large beach ball.  Now most of us would have no trouble teaching a horse to push a ball.  We would set it down near the horse.  If the horse sniffed at it, click, we’d offer him a treat.  It wouldn’t be long before he would be nudging it to get a goody.

That’s not what Debra did.  Debra is a professional artist.  When she was first getting herself established, she taught art to young children – not the tedious draw-inside-the-lines type of art class I endured in school, but real creative work.  She used some of the same techniques with this horse that she had developed for the children.  Instead of plunking the ball down and going through the standard clicker approach, she first rolled the ball back and forth.  Then she very deliberately set the ball down in front of the horse.

The horse sniffed it.  Click and treat.  She nudged it tentatively a couple of times, click and treat.

Then Debra took the ball away and sat on it.  She bounced it a time or two and then again very deliberately set it down in front of the horse.  It was as if she was saying: “This is what I can think of to do with this ball.  What can you do?”

If we had filmed just the mare’s interactions with the ball and compared them to that of a more conventionally-trained horse, they would not have looked that different.  (By the way I love the idea that we have been clicker training long enough to call something conventional!  When we were first figuring out how to teach behaviors with the clicker, this simple teaching strategy would have been considered ground breaking.)

In that one session Debra had with this mare you could not say for sure that anything life changing had occurred, but I know Debra’s horse, Magic.  I know that this approach creates a horse that is exactly what his name suggests – magical.

So this was my approach with the Icey.  We first let him explore the objects at liberty to see if he had any preferences.  He passed by the dog toys and showed some mild curiosity about the rubber boot.  It wasn’t enough to sustain any real interest.  He was waiting to be told what to do.  Instead of going down the conventional route, I picked up the boot and tossed it to his person.  Click and treat as it landed in her arms.

The game was on!  In that first session he was tentative, polite, unsure if he was really meant to nudge the boot.  On the second day he was much more engaged.  He had picked out his favorite toys, the hula hoop,  the beach ball and the rubber boots.  He was doing his best to imitate tossing the boot forward.  He couldn’t quite get the coordination down, but with a little more practice I think he would be able to toss the boot to us.

On the third day we continued to play with the toys, but now I added a new element.  We played for a bit, then I held my hands gently around his face.  I waited at the point of contact.  I wasn’t forcing or telling.  I was waiting.  It was up to him to experiment and offer.  He found the first tiny give, click and treat.  Within just a few more attempts he was presenting me with clean, clear, consistent, self-mobilized gives of the jaw.  That’s the first rung on the ladder that leads to brilliant performance.

Find the Other Way
We were back to performance work, but we had gotten there in a very round about way.  If I had gone there directly, whatever I got from him would have been false because it would not have come as an offered behavior.  He had to play with the toys first to discover that offering was safe, offering was even fun, before we could move into performance-related requests.

People sometimes say that clicker training is too slow.  I would say it only seems slow because we want so much more.  And because we want more, we put in more steps.  Someone watching these sessions might have thought his owner was wasting her time.  She could be riding!  And instead she was playing catch with a rubber boot and watching her horse push a beach ball.  But she understood what we were after.  She loves to laugh.  It was a joy spending the weekend with her.  She was always bubbly, always smiling.

She could always ride.  She wanted something more precious.  She wanted her horse to be able to laugh with her.  What a great gift to give to the horse she so clearly loved.

In shaping we know that there is always another way to train everything.  The challenge we all have is finding the other way.  The gift we give ourselves and our horses is finding the other way.

When we figure that out for our horses, perhaps we will have the skills to apply it to people.  Around the planet, it is certainly something we need to figure out how to do.

Alexandra Kurland

What to Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Part 4

Part 4: Find The Other Way

This is the fourth part of a five part article.  If you have not read the previous articles, I suggest you begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on September 9.

Three Keys To The Kingdom: Summary
We’ve been exploring three keys to training success:

1.) The first key replaces make-it-happen tactics with patience and persistence.  Those two qualities help set your learner up for success.  They also lead you straight to the second key.
2.) The second key is staying true to clicker principles.
3.) Which brings you to the third key: managing the environment well.
The three keys taken together help you to find creative, new training solutions.

Find the Other Way
Clicker training for many is something they slip on easily like a well fitting glove.  For others it represents a real U-turn in their thinking.  They have become comfortable with their current tool kit.  Swinging a lead doesn’t feel forceful.    It’s just how they use leads. The horse complies.  Everything is light and polite.  They don’t see the lack of sparkle as a problem.  Until you have experienced the contrast, how do you know that something is missing?  If I don’t know how much better a cake can taste when I add butter and cream and chocolate to it, I won’t mind the bland flavor and heavy consistency.

If you bring your old habits of thoughts with you into clicker training, you can still end up with that bland product.  You may be mixing in the “butter and cream”, but you won’t see the result.  It will get lost under the weight of the other, heavier ingredients.

Changing habit patterns takes time.  For clicker training that often means changing the environment in which you work as well as changing how you work.  I saw a great example of just how powerful habits can be during one of the first clinics I gave out in the western part of the country.  I was in an area where people use their horses for back country riding.  When meeting a grizzly bear on a trail is a very real possibility, you want a reliable horse.  The horses in the clinic were all used to traveling.  They knew how to come into an arena and go right to work without any emotional drama.  They knew how to stand tied for long periods without fussing.  They knew how to be ridden, how to load onto trailers.   They were the kind of horses many people long to have – safe horses you can just get on and ride.  They were also horses without sparkle.  They did as they were told, but no more.  When they were unsaddled and turned loose, the relationship ended.  They weren’t interested in being with their people.

Changing Habits of Thought
For many in the clinic this was their first introduction to clicker training.  We spent the weekend immersed in the basics.  This was the first time – perhaps ever – that many of them had gone an entire weekend without saying “No” or “Don’t”  to their horses. It was clear this represented a huge cultural shift.  One woman in particular stood out for me.  She was an experienced horse rider who was well trained in traditional “make it happen” methods.

For her it wasn’t just clicker training that was new.  She also did very little ground work.  So all the foundation lessons were completely foreign territory for her.  She had no habits of thought or action to get in the way of learning these new skills.  She did a wonderful job and her horse really blossomed throughout the weekend.

Monday afternoon the course ended and people began to leave.  I was chatting with someone else when she came up to ask if it was all right if she rode her horse.  We had been so busy with foundation skills, there had been no time to ride during the clinic.

The course was over.  It was her horse.  Of course, she could ride.  She could do anything she wanted.  She didn’t need to ask my permission.  She led her horse into the arena and swung up into the saddle.  It was like watching one of those science fiction transformer movies.  As soon as her seat was in the saddle, she changed.  She became an enforcer. Everything about her posture and her actions was different.  Her horse started to walk off and she snatched at his mouth with the rein.  Old habits suddenly swept away a weekend of thoughtful handling.

Her conditioned responses were the strongest when she was riding.  Sitting in the saddle ignited all her old triggers. To really embrace clicker training she would need to postpone riding for a while until her new habits were strong enough to be there ahead of her older “make it happen” reactions.

This is one of the reasons I rarely have people ride in their first clicker clinic.  Yes, we have a lot to cover and we normally run out of time before we get to the riding questions.  But more than that, people need time to shift their habits.  It doesn’t happen instantly.

Shifting habits is also one of the reasons I like to use the single-rein riding to reintroduce riding to both the horse and the handler.  It is different enough that it sidesteps old riding cues.  It doesn’t trigger old reaction patterns.  That’s as true for the horse as it is for the handler.

We can be caught up in these old thought patterns without even realizing that we are.  They are the comfortable norm.  We wear them like a familiar old sweater.  We don’t notice that the sweater has become so tattered that it no longer keeps us warm.  And then someone gives us a new sweater that fits even better.  The wool is soft, the colours bright.  It provides real protection against the wind.  You wonder why you have kept using that old sweater.  You never really liked it in the first place.  How did it come to be the one you wore so much?

Creating New Habits
So what do you do if you think you might be wearing that “sweater” without intending to?  Change things.  If you normally carry a whip, leave it in the barn.  Can you figure out how to communicate without it?  If you normally direct with a lead, take the lead off, or change to another lead that feels very different.  Whatever tools you normally use, change them.  And check to confirm that you really are changing your tools and not just transferring them to something else. If you take off the lead, you could simply be transferring your “make it happen” cues to your body language.  They are linked together.  Working at liberty is no guarantee that you will be changing the true meaning behind your ask.

When I was first introducing the microshaping strategy, I worked with a client who had done a lot of ground work with her horse.  I wanted her to freeshape backing.  She couldn’t do it.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t get her horse to back.  That was easy.  What I mean is she couldn’t keep herself from prompting the behavior through her body-language cues.  Her horse was following directions not figuring out a new puzzle.  We had to put a barrier between them and plant her against a fence post to remove all the familiar prompts.

So if you are used to working at liberty and you are using cues that were derived from escalating pressure, putting away your leads and other tools may not be enough.  Try sitting in a chair.  Now how are you going to structure your training so your horse responds in the way that you want?  How are you going to get the behavior when you truly can’t compel it? Can you still train with a high enough rate of reinforcement so that your horse does not become frustrated?  And do you know how to move your training along so the behavior evolves both in terms of quality and duration?

Seeing Possibilities
Changing habits takes work.  Why bother doing it?  Here’s one simple answer – it gives you more options.  The old habits aren’t going to disappear.  You will always have your “horse handling” tool kit and your “horse handling” solutions.  But now you may see other possibilities.  For me, the more I look for these solutions the more entertaining the work becomes.  That’s important because I am in this for the long haul.  I’ve been teaching clinics for a great many years, and I think it is fair to say I have never been bored.  How many of you can say that about the work you do?

Alexandra Kurland  Sept. 2014   theclickercenter.com

Coming soon: Part 5: Teaching Creativity Creatively

What To Leave Behind and What To Take With You: Part 3

Part 3: Setting Up For Success: The Second and Third Keys

(This is the third part of a five part article.  If you have not read Parts 1 and 2, I suggest you do so before beginning this post.)

The Second Key
The second key revolves around Ken Ramirez’s definition of an advanced training technique.  Ken is the director of training at the Shedd Aquarium and a favorite presenter at the Clicker Expos.  He defines an advanced training technique as anything that requires experience to use well and which two or more trainers cannot agree on.

I have always loved that definition. In the horse world we really need to pay attention to what Ken is saying.  When someone is greener than green, what are they told?  They need to get tougher with their horse.  In other words, they need to get better at using punishers and space enforcers.  But those are the tools that require the most skill and the most understanding to use well.

At the Shedd Aquarium, novice trainers are not paired up with animals that require advanced training skills.  When Ken gets to this point in his presentation, someone always raises their hand and asks: “But Ken, what if you have a Rottweiler hanging off your leg?”

Ken’s response is: “That animal requires someone with advanced handling skills.  A novice handler shouldn’t be working with it.”

That’s when I always want to sputter, “But Ken, you’ve just described three quarters of the horse world. Look at all the horses that are a mismatch with their owners.  People are forever getting horses that demand more advanced handling skills than they currently have.”

That’s why there are so many sad stories of broken bones and broken trust.  It’s why so many people end up selling their horses or turning them over to trainers.

Setting Up For Success
There are alternatives to selling your horse or handing him over to someone else.  While you are building your handling skills, instead of getting tougher, you can manage your training environment.  Someone might say that setting up the environment for success is also an advanced skill.  Certainly as you practice this approach, you will discover increasingly elegant and subtle ways in which to use the environment to your advantage.    But setting up the environment begins with a commitment to the principles of good training.  By good training I am not limiting myself just to clicker training.

Here are just a few things good trainers have in common:

* Good trainers are splitters.  They look for small steps where they can get consistent “yes answer” responses from their horses.

* If things fall apart, they backtrack through their training to a step where they can get a good response.

* And if one approach is not working, instead of “shouting louder”, they look for an alternative solution.
What this boils down to are these simple instructions:

* Find an environment in which you and your horse are comfortable.

* And then choose a beginning step in which your horse can easily give you a “yes” answer.

Applied to clicker training, it also means that you stay committed to the underlying principles of the work.  You are looking at what you want your horse TO DO, not the unwanted behavior.  You are structuring your training around saying “yes” to behaviors you want, not “no” to behaviors that frighten or annoy you.

Expanding Protective Contact
Time for a story.  One of the Click That Teaches coaches, Marla Foreman, has been working with a group of horses, many stallions included, that had become very difficult for the barn staff to handle.  These horses had all been handled by professionals who were not in the least bit hesitant to use force to control them.  That had worked when they were in full work, but now their retirement “job” was going out every day to eat grass.  With too much energy and too little enrichment in the form of exercise, they had become increasingly dangerous for the barn staff to handle.  Their owner wanted to solve the problem with clicker training.  She didn’t want to look out her office window every morning to see horses being jerked around and threatened in order to control them.

Now Marla is a skilled handler.  She is a clicker trainer with an extensive horse training background.  She grew up on a ranch, and she has spent her adult life learning from a wide variety of skilled horsemen.   She doesn’t refrain from using punishers because she doesn’t know how, but because she chooses not to.  She can handle a tough horse. In fact she enjoys the project of taking on a problem horse and turning it around with skilled handling. But initially it wasn’t safe even for her to lead some of these stallions out.  One of the most difficult was a massive draft stallion who had the odious habit of swinging his head in to bite at his handlers and then bolting away dragging the lead out of their hands.  When a horse weights 1800 pounds and wants to leave, that’s exactly what he does.  This horse wasn’t leaving just to get to his grass faster.  He left because he was angry.

He had already learned the rudiments of clicker training.  He could touch a target for a click and a treat, but he wasn’t impressed.  He was just as likely to bite at your arm as take the treat.

So protective contact was very much the first order of the day.  Now I know this is where a lot of people get tripped up.  They see the video clips showing that first targeting lesson in a stall.  They get that part.  They rig up something that passes for a stall guard or they work over a paddock fence, but then they say – I have to take the horse out to turnout, or I have to groom him, or I have to ride him.  And all the while they are saying this, they are dodging the horse’s teeth.

Parting Company with “Have To” Training
This is where I part company with them.  Many of the “have to” things can be postponed until later.  You really don’t “have to” ride.  You may want to ride, but there are so many other things that need your time and attention first.  Once those are taken care of, the riding will be a joy.  Your horse will be inviting you onto his back.

Turn out is definitely important, but you don’t “have to” lead a horse to get him there.  There are creative alternatives.  With this stallion the alternative was to use temporary fencing to create a runway from his stall, through the barn aisle and on out to his field.  The barriers guided him along the path he was to take just as surely as the barriers set up in the airports told me which passageway to take.

Marla used simple targeting the first couple of times to show him the way out, and after that he found his own way.  There was always a hay pile topped with carrots and apples waiting for him so everyday he put on a wonderful show, galloping both in and out to turnout. Whenever I visited, I always made a point of pausing in what I was doing so I could watch him gallop, mane flying out on either side of his massive neck.  It was quite a sight, especially since it was his choice, and he was running with such obvious joy.  He’d slow himself down at the barn door and then walk through the aisle back to his stall and the waiting pile of treats.

Once he’d come in from turnout and had his dinner, Marla would take him out into the arena and work on clicker foundation skills.  We wanted to find a way past his anger so we turned going to mats into a game for him.  Marla explained the “tai chi wall” in minute detail.  She showed him first that she wasn’t a threat, and then that she was actually entertaining.

In one session we did together, to help teach him to step laterally out of the path of a handler, I held a food bucket under his nose while Marla walked beside him.  We marched around our circle of cones (actually it was a square but that detail doesn’t matter) with him eating the entire time.  Whenever the bucket was empty, Marla would toss in more treats.  I couldn’t manage the treat toss.  It was all I could do to hold the bucket up under his nose.  The full weight of his massive head was pushing down into the bucket.

We only did that once but afterwards Marla reported that he was much easier to displace laterally. Something shifted for him emotionally.  When she slid down the lead to ask him to step over, instead of threatening to bite, he moved out of her space.  If he did swing his head towards her, it felt more like the hiss of a kitten than the roar of a lion.  Leading him with a bucket of treats under his nose may not have been a “horse training” solution, but it certainly helped us peel another layer.

Marla began with protective contact.  She expanded the use of protective contact to help her with everyday management.  She chose times of the day to work when he could be the most cooperative.  She chose carefully where she worked.  She used mats and other props to help explain what was wanted.  She stayed true to the core principles of clicker training.  She also learned a lot about being patient, persistent – and creative! The result is a stallion that can be handled safely, not just by her, but by other members of the barn staff.

The Second Key
So the second key is staying true to clicker principles – no matter the challenge.  It may seem easier to slip back into old training habits, but that wasn’t going to help this stallion.  It might have gotten compliance – for a short time – but it would only have cemented his anger.

Once you recognize that there is ALWAYS another way to train everything, it’s easy to find the third key.

The Third Key: Managing the Training Environment
Learning how to arrange the training environment so you can stay true to clicker principles is another of the keys.  This really is one of those areas where you find yourself saying: “trust the process”.  When this stallion was galloping out to turnout, someone could easily have said all you’re doing is “letting him get away with ripping the lead out of your hand.  If you let him run out on his own, he’ll never learn to lead.”  But by side stepping the issue he didn’t have the opportunity to practice what was already a well-rehearsed behavior.  Instead Marla bought herself the time she needed to show him how to stay with her.  More than that, he decided that he WANTED to stay with her.  He likes his clicker games, including the game of walking out politely on a lead, walking calmly through gates, and waiting patiently until the lead is unhooked and he is released to his waiting pile of goodies.

This key fits easily into the third lock and turns the bolt.  The locks fall away and the door opens.  What lies beyond is pure clicker magic – the joy of a great relationship.

The Three Keys
So in summary we have three interconnected keys:

The first key replaces make-it-happen tactics with patience and persistence.  Those two qualities help you set your learner up for success.  They also lead you straight to the second key.

The second key is staying true to clicker principles.

Which brings you to the third key: managing the environment well.

The three keys taken together help you to find creative, new training solutions.  The next section explores our habits.  What habit patterns keep you locked in old solutions? How can you shift your habits of thought so you can find those new, creative training solutions?

Alexandra Kurland     theclickercenter.com

Coming Soon: Part 4: Find the Other Way

What To Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a five part article.  If you have not yet read Part 1, I suggest you do so before beginning this post.

Part 1 began with a search for the first of three “keys to the kingdom”.  I ended that section by posing the question:

As you explore clicker training, what parts of your training background do you take forward with you and what do you leave behind?

The three “keys to the kingdom” help to answer this question.  

Part 2: What do You Take Forward?: Opening the First Lock

Opening the First Lock
I always go back to this:  I did some of my very best training when I knew the very least.  At the time I was surrounded by people who knew how to muscle horses around.  They were perfectly willing to use strong pressure to impose compliance.  I was watching effective training, but I was also watching people who were willing to get into a fight with a horse because they believed they had the skill to come out the winner.  

I was greener than green.  I knew I didn’t have those skills.  I couldn’t get in a fight because I couldn’t guarantee that I would win – and furthermore I didn’t want to fight.  They relied on fear and intimidation.  I relied on patience and persistence.  At the end of the day, those two pillars of good training have taken me further with my horses than they ever went with theirs.

Patience and persistence are two of the three prongs that open the first lock.  

Avoidance or Attraction: Which Do You Want to Create for Your Horse?
Patience and persistence represent what is for many a huge paradigm shift.  It is so much easier to reach for the stick.  That’s what we have learned throughout our lives both in relationships with people and with horses.  We have habits of actions and habits of thought that keep us from seeing or even searching for the creative solution.

Reaching for the stick is actually not the problem.  It is what you do with it that is.  Are you reaching for the stick with the intent to use it – hard – if your horse doesn’t do what you wish?  In other words are you escalating pressure?  That means that the horse responds because he knows he must.  You have introduced fear, pain, anxiety, avoidance, learned helplessness into your training.  You may see compliance and not think about these other things.   To your eyes your horse is responding politely, even willingly. The emotions he’s feeling are hidden well below the level of your awareness, but to the horse those emotions are very real.  

Avoidance is a terrible thing.  It can be a small stress, just a background hum, always there, always eating away bit by bit at your sense of well being.  Think of the things you avoid.  Maybe it is the stack of mail waiting for you at the end of the day.  Most of it is junk mail, of no account, but then there are the bills – the credit card statements, the utility bills, the phone, the mortgage.  It can feel overwhelming so you avoid the stack, but there it sits on your desk.  You can avoid it only for so long and then you have to face it.  That is not how I want my horses to feel about me.  I don’t ever want to be for them that “stack of bills” that they want to avoid, but can’t.

Pressure can also be used gently, kindly. It can be a guide, a gentle nudge in the right direction that brings relief because it brings certainty.  When there is no fear associated with the information pressure provides, it is never something to be avoided.  The hints it offers are welcomed.  They become part of the puzzle-solving process.  They are the clues you are given to find the hidden treasure.  

Recently I was traveling through the Zurich Switzerland airport.  I had less than an hour to get through passport control and get to my connecting flight.  I definitely appreciated the clear navigation cues the airport provided.  Go this way.  Keep going this way.  Now turn here and have your passport ready.  I made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare.  That’s a well designed airport that keeps stress to a minimum.  

I have also had to make connecting flights in Toronto Canada where the signs are very confusing.  I’ve ended up in a muddle, taking wrong turns and having to race to make connections.  The quality of cues matters and how they are presented also matters.  I would happily fly through Zurich again.  I try to avoid Toronto.  Same cues.  But one situation has created an attraction.  The other has created avoidance.

Using a lead in a clicker-compatible way so that you end up with attraction requires patience.  You go to a point of contact and you wait.  In Zurich if I were to try to turn down the wrong corridor, there would be a barrier blocking my way or an attendant redirecting me.  In Toronto I am left to guess.  When I wait with my horse, I can redirect.  If he tries to push forward when I am asking for backing, I can stabilize my t’ai chi wall.  I am saying: “Not this way.  Not down this corridor.  Look at the sign again and see where you need to go.”  I wait for him to read the clues and to solve that tiny piece of the puzzle.  Click and treat.  In the airports I have learned to ask the attendants: “Is this the right way?” even if I am sure that it is.  I like the click and treat reassurance that their yes answer provides.  I am on the right track.  Keep going.

If I become impatient, I will shove the horse back with my lead.  The horse may back, but he hasn’t learned anything except perhaps to allow himself to be pushed. There are times at the airports where you are herded like cattle down long passageways. There are TSA agents everywhere telling you to keep moving.  I don’t like those experiences.  They feel too much like the lead and the whip driving you forward.  Let us find our own pace and our own way along the maze.  Guide, but do not force.  That is so much better.  

Learning to be patient helps you to be persistent.  Both qualities mean you’ll take the time to set things up so your learner gets the support he needs to make good choices. Those are the three prongs of the key that opens the first padlock.  They also help you to find the second key.

Coming soon: Part 3: Setting Up For Success: The Second and Third Keys

What To Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Part 1

My on-line course includes a very active discussion group.  One of the new members of the course asked for help with her young horse.  She was having trouble turning him out.  Some days he was a perfect angel.  Other days he would bolt off as she was leading him out.  One morning he spun and kicked out in her direction.  Needless to say this shook her confidence, and she was asking the group for help.

She got many excellent answers.  There was a range of approaches.  Some came up with management solutions.  Others focused more on training, and here again there was a mix.  Some offered creative clicker solutions, others drew more on their previous horse training background

I was traveling as this conversation was going on, so I stepped in late.  Catching up usually means that I write lots rather than a little.  That’s very much the case here.  I ended up writing a twenty page post.  What I added to the mix was more general philosophy rather than a recipe driven solution.  The course itself provides lots of “how-to” instructions so I thought this type of response was more useful.

I’ve gotten several requests from people asking if they could share my post with others, so I decided to include it here.  It’s a very long post so instead of putting the whole thing up as one article, I’ve divided it up into five sections.  You will be getting Part One here.

(Note: This post was written for my on-line course.  I am referencing material people will have read in Unit 1 of the course.  I won’t be explaining those references here, but I think you will be able to follow along.)


Alexandra Kurland


What To Leave Behind and What to Take Forward

Part 1: The First Key to The Kingdom

Keys To The Kingdom
Where to begin and what to add to the conversation?  That’s always the question.  I think I’ll begin at the beginning – both of the course and of my own training journey.

One of the on-line coaches recommended that you go back and review the first Unit of the course.  I would second that answer.  I know when people are first joining the course, they are eager to get going.  That first unit can seem so deceptively simple.  It’s easy to read through it fast so you can charge forward into the active “doing” part of the course.  We want to be teaching our horses to touch targets and to line up next to mounting blocks.  We don’t want to be slowed down by requests to just sit and watch our horses.  We already do that!  Let’s get on with it!

I know, I know.  But the keys to the kingdom sit in that first unit.

Think of it like three keys hanging together on a ring.  We might as well get fanciful and picture something out of a Harry Potter type story.  You are standing in front of an enormous wooden door.  I’m picturing oak, with iron hinges.  There are three interconnected locks keeping you out.  But among the many keys on your ring are the ones that will unlock these padlocks.  You just have to find them and figure out how to use them.

The First Key
The first key is quite unusual.  It is shaped more like a trident than a normal key.  In order to use it, you need to understand the discussion in Unit 1 of the three layers that make up every training method: belief system, guiding principles, and training techniques.  It’s easy to learn how to use the techniques of clicker training without ever thinking about the philosophy behind the work.  You hold a target up in front of the horse.  He noses it. Click – you hand him a treat.  Voila! You have just become a clicker trainer!  Or have you?

Understanding the “tools” of clicker training is not the same as “being” a clicker trainer.  That can be a hard difference to understand, especially if you are just beginning with clicker training.  It’s the tools we see, but it is the belief system that holds us.  It’s what keeps us working through the puzzles and the frustrations.  We don’t want the “just make him do it” answers.  We’re heading toward a different sort of relationship.  We want the communication.  We want the connection.  We want the laughter and the joy of clicker training.

Others may simply be satisfied with compliance.  They clicker train because it is effective, but if they see a need for corrections, they will use them.  They will use a target to get a horse on a trailer – as long as it’s working.  But if the horse fails to cooperate, they are perfectly okay with adding force.

World Dividers Or Different Points on a Continuum
We can see this as a world divides scenario.  I want connection, relationship, laughter, love.  They say they have a great relationship but it is built on something very different – control.  Our underlying belief systems are worlds apart.   We may use similar tools but we will use them differently and we will end up with very different relationships.  What I have delights me, but it might not satisfy others.  Who knows what someone else might think of my horses!  Would they think they are charming when they express their opinions and ask for attention?  Or would they think they are annoying pests?  I know the relationship many others create leaves me wanting more.  I want the sparkle in the eye, not just the obedient performance.

We can also see this as simply different points along a continuum.  I have learned horse training skills.  Someone suggested using the lead and whips to make myself bigger.  I certainly know how to use these tools as size expanders to keep myself safe.  I have taught the technique of making myself “busy”, of suddenly swatting away a swarm of imaginary bees.  That definitely keeps horses away!

Going further back into the archaeological dig of my tool chest, I could unearth other, more forceful uses of whips and leads.  Now they were meant to intimidate and to say: do this or else.  I definitely learned how to do that.  Which brings me to one of those quandaries when you are working with horses and their owners.

I think there is value in knowing how to be firm and how to set very strong boundaries.  There are times when you need that with people just as much as you need it with horses.  Bending to others, always saying “whatever you want is fine with me” has it’s place.  It is good to be able to accommodate to the needs of others, but there are times when it is also important to be able to say: “This is my space. This is what I need, and on this point I cannot yield.”

But there are ways and ways of doing that.

Dancing the Dance Instead of Fighting the Fight
The most skilled among us have learned how to make the other person/horse/dog/fill in the _____ feel as though it is their idea to produce the behavior you are looking for.   That means there is never any feeling of one individual having to give up something while the other is forced to take a stand. That’s where clicker training can lead us.  We learn to dance in such a way that no one is leading, no one is following.  Instead both partners feel as though they are being listened to and their needs are met.  It’s a goal.  Which means for most of us we aren’t quite there yet.  It is still out there waiting to be achieved.

In the martial arts they talk about the masters who have learned to fight, but who have also learned a greater wisdom.  They may know how to fight, but they move through life so they never need to.

My goodness how I have wandered off the intended path of this post!  Luckily the martial arts can bring us back to horses because we have the “t’ai chi wall” in the rope handling.  The intent with that is to offer guidance.  It is a powerful handling technique, but it is not meant to be used to intimidate your horse into yielding to your wishes.  That’s not the case with many of the rope handling techniques that I originally learned.  Those techniques had a “do it or else” threat of escalating pressure backing them up.

Expanding Clicker Training Through The People Who Use It
I am glad I learned horse handling skills.  They help me to understand how many people think horses should be trained.  I am also glad that I am learning techniques and patterns of thought which mean I no longer use them.  I can tuck them away in my “tool chest” under many layers of better tools.  They are there as remembrances only.  They are not something I ever intend to bring out again.  But because I learned those skills, they do influence how I move around horses.  They do impact the choices that I see and the way in which I solve training puzzles.  We are a product of our past experiences.  I see that as a good thing even when some of those experiences involved training methods I no longer want to use.

I have always said clicker training benefits the most from two groups.  The first are the experienced horse trainers who bring their horse handling skills and knowledge into the community.  We need people who know what a piaffe feels like and how it is traditionally trained.  We need people who have the timing and the physical coordination to handle the super talented sport horses that are being bred today.

And we also need the complete novice horse owners who never handled a horse before stumbling across clicker training.  They know nothing about how it is normally done.  They don’t know you “can’t do it that way.”  They don’t know you can’t get a horse into a horse trailer by having him push a ball up a ramp.  They don’t know you can’t teach a horse to go forward under saddle by throwing a dog toy out in front of him and having him fetch it for you.  They come up with creative, imaginative solutions that those of us who have more of a horse-training background might never see.

Both groups need each other.  The experienced horse people need to be reminded to set aside their standard tool box.  They need to challenge themselves to come up with more creative, clicker-based solutions.  They need to remember that clicker training isn’t simply about piggy backing the “yes” of the click onto standard methods.  There is so much more to it than that.

The novice horse handler needs to know that not all horse training is abusive.  You can use a lead without turning into a monster.  Learning how to provide guidance via a lead is an important clicker skill.

I want it all.  I want the skills of the experienced horse handler, and the naivete and creativity of the neophyte. This is one of the great benefits of the clinics and of the on-line course.  We have people at all skill levels and backgrounds joining in.  That creates an environment in which we can learn so much from one another.

Over time in clinics I would say I have learned more from watching the horse neophytes than I have from the experienced handlers.  The solutions someone invents who doesn’t know how something is “supposed” to be done can be just the spark I need to come up with a creative new approach to an old problem.

The challenge is always getting the mix right.  You don’t want old, outdated patterns of thought and behavior to get in the way of finding those creative new solutions.  But there’s also a benefit to having a solid framework of horse-handling skills that can support the creative flourishes.  This is in part why I teach clicker training in the way that I do.  I want a solid framework that can support all the many layers of clicker training.

Appreciating Your “Stepping Stones”
I never get mad at my “stepping stones”.  I am never regretful that I spent time learning horse-handling skills.  I have quoted Maya Angelou many times.  “When I was young, I did the best I could.  When I knew better, I did better.”  I learned the skills that others in the horse world were teaching me, but I kept my “antennae” out – looking for more.   What I wanted and what those “horse-handling” skills gave me just wasn’t enough of a match.  As I have learned more, I have left many of the training tools I spent so much time learning behind.

So this is a long way round to ask an important question: As you explore clicker training, what do you take forward with you and what do you leave behind?

Coming Soon: Part 2: What Do You Take Forward?