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?

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