A Summer of Adventures!

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Labor Day weekend seems like a good time to post this report on the Five Go To Sea conference and the August clinics. It’s taken me a while to put it together.  The problem with heading off on a summer of adventures is at some point you come bumping back into reality.  That happened to me when I returned from three weeks of travel.  I got home to find the hot water heater in my house was leaking and the tank was sizzling ominously.  I turned off everything I could find that was even remotely connected to the hot water tank and headed off to spend the night at the barn.  Thursday got the hot water tank replaced.  Friday a repair man came to fix the snowblower that wouldn’t start last winter.  I know the first snowfall is still a fair way off, but waiting until November to get it fixed is a bad idea.  Just to round things out, I also took my aged truck in for servicing.  I was learning that these machines have one thing in common with our brains.  They all operate under a use it or lose it principle.

Our brains thrive on novelty and that was certainly provided by the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  The first cruise took us to the Caribbean. This year we sailed up the Alaska coastline.  The route the ship took was through what is referred to as the inner passage.map with caption
It travels between islands and through spectacular fjords so it doesn’t matter where you are on the ship, there is always something breathtaking to look at.  Our conference room had floor to ceiling windows so we didn’t miss out by being in a conference.   By the end of the first day, I think we were all in agreement that every conference from now on should provide a similar spectacular backdrop.  It certainly gave us some memorable conference moments.conference attendees 3

One such moment occurred during a presentation Kay was giving on PORTL, a training table game.  Kay was in the middle of a demonstration.  She was working with one of the conference attendees showing everyone how to get the game started.  Her learner made an unexpected move that Kay had not planned for.  Kay began to talk about these “oh, oops” moments.  Do you have a strategy in place to deal with this kind of situation?  How do you move on without confusing or frustrating your learner?  She had barely posed the question when one of our keen spotters cried “whale!” and everyone, Kay included, rushed to the windows.  Apparently, that’s what you do.  By the time we returned to the game the sticky moment was completely forgotten!

whale watching during conferenceIt helps to bring along your own naturalist on these cruises.  Ken Ramirez isn’t just a first class trainer.  Not surprisingly, he’s also an expert whale spotter, and he could tell us what we were looking at based on the size and shape of a quickly glanced spout.  My first whale sightings were just that.  A fleeting glimpse of a very distant spout.  But in Juneau I joined four of the conference participants for a whale watching tour.  In addition to seeing some spectacular scenery, we had close up views of hump back whales.

whale watching collageOther trip highlights included a hike through the coastal rainforest.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  Moss covered trees created a magical landscape.  I spotted a large hole disappearing under the roots of one massive tree.  “What would live in there?” I asked our guide.  She gave me a general answer, running down the list of small mammals that inhabit these forests.  What she left off her list were elves, brownies and fairies.  In a woods like this they were just as likely to be the inhabitants of this hidden cavity as any martin or rabbit.

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At Skagway I boarded a train that followed the route the “Stampeders” took in the late 1800s on their journey to the Yukon in search of gold.  You have to wonder at the mass insanity that overtakes people.  Riding in the comfort of an old-fashioned train, I could marvel at the beauty of deep river gorges.  But if I had to carry a year’s worth of supplies up these same mountains, would I have thought they were beautiful?  The train was built in 1898 to carry the Stampeders to the gold fields of the Yukon.  Today it brings gold in the form of tourist dollars into the area.

railroad 4 photos tain picturestrain follows same routeminers narrow trail 2ghost bridge 2climing into the clouds 2The train passes through a section of trail called “Dead Horse Pass”.  It’s estimated that over three thousand horses and mules died along this stretch of trail.  Ignorance was the culprit.  The shop assistants and mill workers who were racing to the gold fields knew nothing about how to balance a pack.  They didn’t even really know where the Yukon was or what kind of conditions they were heading into.  Pictures taken of them in San Francisco before they headed north to the gold fields showed prospectors posing in front of painted mountain scenes with palm trees in the foreground!  But it wasn’t palm trees that they encountered as they drove their over packed horses up the White Pass Summit.

I thought of these horses as the train passed through this section of the trail.  I think of them now as I write this in my barn where my very pampered horses get to live a life of great comfort.  Perhaps it balances the scale just a little.  Throughout our history with horses we have a lot to answer for.

We met a very different kind of horse in the Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia.  Along with a delightful giraffe, a camel, an ostrich, a reindeer, and a large cat with a salmon in its mouth, the horses pranced around an old-fashioned Carousel.  We wanted to ride them all, so we ended up taking several turns on the Carousel.  I rode a rabbit and, in honor of Kay, a large white dog.  One of us should have ridden the Orca, but we were running out of time.  The garden closed at nine, and we didn’t want to miss the bus that would take us back to the ship.carousel butchart 2

Did I mention that we also spent our days at sea in the conference room?  Ken treated us to an update on the training he’s been doing teaching dogs to count.  I had requested that for the day that I organized.  The results of his experiment are impressive, but what I particularly wanted him to include were the preliminary steps he goes through to design a good training set up.

So many of us simply jump straight into training.  We find out too late that we can’t really manage our props, that our set up is clumsy, and we haven’t given any thought to all the things that can – and now are going wrong. Ken showed how a bit of training practice without any dogs revealed some major issues in his original set up.  He also showed his clumsy first attempt when he was still evolving the best training procedure to use.  He refers to this as exploratory training.  What do you need to change before you begin the real task of training and data collection?

Ken is such a skilled and creative trainer, it was good to see things going wrong for him in this early phase of the training.  This isn’t to gloat but to understand that this planning phase is part of good training.

He also shared with us his recent foray into butterfly training.  He couldn’t show us any video, but his detailed description of the training process was a definite trip highlight.  I don’t know which surprised us more – that butterflies could be trained or that butterflies could be bullies.

Kay focused much of her time on the training game, PORTL.  She divided people up into groups of three: a learner, a teacher and a coach.  The first tasks were fairly simple.  The teacher was to introduce the learner to the game.  Kay instructed them to plan thoroughly before they brought in their learner.  What were they going to do if their learner did something unexpected, if there was a bad click, if they got stuck and needed to consult with the coach?Portl planning session 2With Ken’s emphasis the day before on planning the teachers and coaches took this training prep very seriously.  Normally people rush through this part of the process.  They jump right in with their learners and then don’t have any plan for dealing with the unexpected.  You see that kind of approach creating a lot of frustration on both sides of the table.kay coaching Portl planning sessionNot so with this group.  More than half an hour went by and none of the learners had been called in.  The teachers and coaches were still engaged in careful planning.  The poor learners weren’t sure what they were supposed to do.  No one had anticipated this contingency – that the prep would be so very comprehensive.  The advantage of being on a cruise ship is we could send them off to get a drink or to whale watch while the rest of their team planned out their training strategy.

break time at the conferenceWe learned from this experience.  On the last day of the conference we again played PORTL.  This time Kay set more challenging tasks which definitely required some planning time.  I took the “learners” through some body awareness/training exercises.  That produced some interesting results.  When the teachers came to get their learners, people didn’t want to leave to go play the game.  One “teacher” ran into a training puzzle and needed a moment to think.  She told her learner that they would only be a couple of minutes.  She could stay at the table while she consulted with her coach.  “Oh no”, her learner told her.  “Take your time.” She was going back to rejoin the body awareness session.

Ken coaching POrtl standingPortl plan first then playI must say having the backdrop of the open ocean created the perfect setting for body awareness exercises.  The gentle pitch and roll of the ship added to the proprioceptive experience.  Even the occasional “whale” cue which sent us all rushing to the windows contributed to the learning.  How quickly could you come back from a mammoth distraction into a state of calm balance for your animal?  And since I was among those who rushed to the window I couldn’t fuss when others did the same.

(I’ll write a separate post on some of the work I covered during the conference, including the body awareness exercises.)

The cruise ended all too soon.  When we docked back in Seattle early on Friday morning, I felt as though I could easily have set sail again.  Alaska is a landscape I could easily become lost in.  We are talking about where to go next.  What adventure should we have for our next cruise?  I could easily return to Alaska to sail up through the inner passage and see again those magnificent fjords.

For those who don’t want to go on a ship, Kay is talking about a land cruise next winter in the UK.  I’ll enjoy that as well, but I will also be looking forward to our next ocean adventure.

The cruise was over, but not my travels.  I headed next to a small clinic at Monty Gwynne’s, one of my Click That Teaches coaches.   Many of you have met Monty through her wonderful PRE Icaro.Monty and Icky 2 photos

Icky is only one of the many horses Monty has trained.  She also has a barn full of ponies who have all learned lateral work.  They made my job so easy.  They were the true teachers.  I simply stepped aside and let them teach people how to dance with horses.  On the third day we brought three of the horses into the arena for the start of a quadrille.  We had originally planned on having six horses working together for our drill team, but two of the participants had to leave early, and the third was busy attending to her own horse.  So we settled on just three horses which was enough for everyone’s first attempt at working in sync with one another.

Watching them coming down the long side together in shoulder-in was the highlight of my entire trip.  What a treat!  Monty has a treasure trove of wonderful horses.  If you want to explore what the combination of clicker training and an understanding of good balance can create, you should plan a trip to visit Monty.drill team Monty's ponies

I flew home on Tuesday, spent half a day catching up and then drove to the Cavalia Retirement Farm for a three day clinic.  It was another great event.  Several of the attendees were brand new to clicker training so the focus this time was on foundation work.  One of my Click That Teaches coaches, Sue Bennett, joined us.  Having Sue there to help meant we could split up into smaller groups to give people lots of one on one coaching.

Bilbo enjoying the clinicThe star of the clinic was Bilbo, an enormous Ardennes daft stallion.  When Bilbo enters the arena all eyes are on him, and it isn’t just because he’s so big.  Bilbo has charisma.  We generally save him for the end of the day.  We let him play his version of Panda catch.  He’s not as good at it yet as Panda.  She runs at full gallop from person to person.  I am glad to say Bilbo chooses a more sedate speed.  His reward for moving from one station to the next is not just a click and a treat.  He also gets a back scratch from everyone in the clinic.  He’s so big you can have the entire clinic group around him and everyone can find a spot to scratch.  Did I mention that Bilbo likes clinics and wouldn’t mind if they happened every weekend?favorite photos from 2015 clinics 2

I enjoy the clinics and all the other adventures, but it is good to be home for a bit.  I have pastures to mow, plumbing to fix, and horses to enjoy.

Alexandra Kurland