Author’s note: I’ve been publishing my new book, JOYFull Horses in this blog. This post is different. July was packed with great training adventures. I wanted to share, so this is a slight divergence from the JOYFull Horses posts. Enjoy! Alexandra Kurland
When I was in eighth grade, my science teacher set up a competition in the class. Given the same components (balsa wood and toothpicks) each student was to build a bridge which would then be tested with progressively heavier and heavier weights to see which bridge was the strongest. It was a great assignment. Or it would have been except the competition was open only to the boys in the class. What did the girls do instead? Our assignment was to create a stain booklet showing how best to remove different types of stains from soiled clothing.
This sounds like the dark ages, but it was really not that long ago. I’ve been thinking about that science teacher this week because of the Democratic National Convention. I was traveling last week so I missed most of the Republican convention, or I would have been writing about that, as well. I’m one of those people who actually enjoys listening to political speeches (at least the well-crafted ones). I like talking about politics, even – and especially – with people who have views that differ from my own. I try not to mix too much politics into what I write about horse training, but every now and then it is important to pause for a moment and step outside the barn door.
One of the clips the news feeds played from Tuesday night’s roll call vote was that of a delegate who was 102 years old. She was born before women had the right to vote. That stopped me in my tracks. I know the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in 1920, but that’s just an abstract date. Hearing her speak made me realize that there are many women alive today who were born into a world in which their mothers were not allowed to vote. It brought home to me how recent these changes really are, and how important it is that finally, finally we have a woman nominated to run for president of the United States.
Whatever you may think of Hilary Clinton, however you are planning on voting in the fall, this is a milestone that is worth celebrating.
In eighth grade the boys in my class took shop. They learned how to work with power tools. The girls took home economics. We learned how to cook what was at the time considered a healthy meal: chicken ala king – essentially a can of cream of chicken soup poured over chow mein noodles. Curious the things we remember. We were to fix it for lunch and serve it to the boys in the class. As a vegetarian, I refused to participate. I was allowed to skip the preparation of the main dish and was relegated instead to making a salad – iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. We then had to serve what we had made to the boys in the class.
The message was clear. The world may have been changing. Many of our mothers had advanced degrees from universities. They were working outside the home in professional jobs that only a few years before would have been closed to women, but we were still expected to be homemakers not world changers.
The school gave one message. My family gave me a stronger one. We can create our own realities. I wasn’t allowed to build a bridge in that class, but that didn’t keep me from building them later. You can walk over my bridges without any fear of falling because they are bridges that link what we knew then about how to handle horses with what we know now.
This month I had the very great privilege to meet some other bridge builders. One of the most surprising was a lion trainer I met in Germany. I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that one!
I’m just back from attending Anja Beran’s annual workshop on classical dressage. Anja has a long standing relationship with the Krone Circus. She trains their dressage horses. The horses stay with her for roughly eight years, and then they are sent to the circus where they continue to perform well into their twenties. When we walked through the barns at the circus, we saw horses who were 25, 28, even 30 years olds. They all looked great. They were a good weight, with healthy backs, clean legs, shiny coats, and brights eyes – and they were all still performing.
That was one of the main messages from both the circus and Anja Beran’s workshop. When you build a strong foundation for a horse, you will have a horse who can stay sound and in work for many years to come. This has always been at the core of my work. My horses are family. It matters to me that the work I do with them isn’t just for my entertainment. It has to benefit them, as well. One thing Anja Beran and I share is a deep understanding that good training helps horses stay sound. Horses thrive when training is done well.
We hear so many sad stories of competition horses breaking down because they are rushed through their training. At the circus we met horse trainers who value a good foundation because they love their horses. Yes, they value performance – but not at the expense of the horses.
We also met Martin Lacey, a trainer who loves lions. In the morning before the circus opened to the public Anja had arranged for us to watch him work with his lions. I don’t think many of us were truly looking forward to this part of the program. Yes, it was lions, but we all had images of the old-style circus training with its cracking whips and sad-eyed lions.
Martin Lacey built a bridge for us into another world. He loves his lions. That was clear. He grew up in a family that owned several zoos in the UK. For him lions were part of his family. That’s how he talked about them. He had 26 lions and tigers with the circus, and all of them were animals he had known since they were cubs.
He showed us how he began their training, teaching them a very natural behavior for cats of any size. He had the lions follow a moving target stick. Correct responses were reinforced with meat held out to them on the end of the stick.
Everything Martin Lacey showed us was so very familiar. He used mats in very much the same way I use them for the horses. He arranged the environment so his lions were successful. He wanted to show people the power and graceful movement of the lions so he taught them to jump from one platform up onto the metal panels of their enclosure and then down to another platform. In the show it was very dramatic watching lion after lion leaping up onto the side of the enclosure. They would hang for a moment high over the heads of the audience before jumping down onto the next platform.
Lacey showed us how he taught this behavior. He begins by having his lions follow a target stick from platform to platform. When they are confident, eager jumpers, he has them leap from one platform onto a higher one that is hung from the enclosure wall. As the lions become confident with this jump, he slants the platform down slightly so now they are landing on a sloping surface. He lets them build their coordination and confidence at this level of difficulty, then he slants the platform down a bit more. Gradually over time the platform hangs straight down, but now the lions have the strength and the skill to leap directly up onto the vertical wall of the enclosure. It is just shaping through small approximations, something every good trainer understands.
Some of the behaviors Lacey teaches are based on very traditional circus tricks. He has his lions sit up on their haunches and swat at the air to show off their enormous claws. The behavior may be old-style, but how it is taught is not. When Lacey first teaches his lions to sit up, he provides them with an elevated T bar for them to rest their paws on. The T bar gives his younger lions the support they need to keep their backs straight while they are developing the strength and coordination to perform this behavior correctly.
He uses targeting to get them to reach up to the T bar in the first place. Once they can balance resting their forepaws on the bar, he teaches them to swat one paw at a time at a moving target. His skill at delivering timely food reinforcers was impressive, but shrink down the size of the feline, and you would see that any of us could teach our family cats this same behavior – in the same way.
In the show some of his lions still had the T bar set up in front of their station for support. With the youngest lions the T was very long giving them plenty of room on which to rest their paws. The ones who were further along had shorter horizontal bars. The T bar was gradually being faded out. In the show many of his lions could balance without needing any support.
To teach his lions to advance towards him as though they were charging, he used multiple mats. The lions moved from mat to mat to mat. I had to smile. I use multiple mats all the time with horses. When I teach horses to run towards me, to keep things safe as they add speed, multiple mats are a great tool. Predators, prey, it makes no difference. Good training is good training regardless of the species you are working with. One of the hallmarks of good trainers is they are masters at setting up the environment for success.
That was the bridge Martin Lacey was helping us to see. The planks of his bridge were made from the elements good trainers share. I know there are many who oppose the idea of keeping any animals in captivity, especially animals like lions. That’s a different conversation, one I’ll leave for another time.
For now, given that animals are already under our care, the question becomes: how do we manage them?
If Martin Lacey had come out cracking whips and using intimidation to control his lions, I would be the first to say, absolutely not. This shouldn’t be. But that’s not the relationship Lacey has with his lions, and because of that he is an important bridge builder. He is saying to all of us – look at the connection you can have with these animals, a top predator. It isn’t built out of fear.
If Lacey can create this with these lions, what excuse do we have for using violence to control our horses, our dogs, our children?
I think the jury is still out around the question of should wild animals be kept in zoos and circuses. Is it fair to them? What is the benefit to them, to us, to the planet? Where does the greater good fall? There are so many ethical questions involved, but one thing that was clear is Martin Lacey’s message is one we all need to hear. Whatever the species of animal you are working with, the core principles of good training apply. If he can stand in the center of an enclosure surrounded by lions, with a pouch filled with raw meat at his belt, and control them not through fear, but through understanding, that’s a bridge that is worth standing on. If he can do it with lions, we surely can do it with each other.
Anja Beran is another bridge builder. Her bridge stretches back centuries to bring classical riding into the modern world. Her bridge reaches forward into the future as she shows us how the gymnastic exercises developed by the great riding masters can be used for the benefit of horses. So many of the horses in her barn came to her severely lamed by training. Draw reins, heavy hands, rushed training – had compromised the soundness of so many of the horses that she presented during the workshop. With each horse, she showed us how slow lateral work can be used to restore soundness and create performance excellence.
I know there are many people who would say that we should not ride horses at all. But Anja was showing us something that I also know – good riding heals horses. Physically, emotionally, good riding is good for horses. I may add the clicker and all that it represents into my training, but at it’s core what we each teach is not that far apart.
The Science Bridge
Earlier in July I also had the honor of spending time with yet another bridge builder, Dr. Susan Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a professor of Applied Behavior Analysis at Utah State University. Many of us know her through her presentations at the Clicker Expo, her web site – behaviorworks.org, and her on-line course, Living and Learning with Animals, a course for professional animal trainers and veterinarians. Earlier in the month Susan joined me at the Cavalia Retirement farm where we co-taught a workshop.
If Anja’s bridge links us to classical dressage, Susan’s links us to science. When I watch a trainer like Martin Lacey working with his lions, I am smiling not because he is using feel-good words. Lots of clinician-showmen know how to hide their actions behind soft words. I am smiling because I see good training being applied.
What is the measure of good training? Susan helps us answer that question through her understanding of scientific inquiry. She reminds us that science is always self-correcting. What we understood about animal behavior fifty years ago, ten years ago is changing because of the research that is being done. Science connects what I do with my horses to what Martin Lacey does with his lions. When one of my horses makes a mistake, I don’t punish him with a whip. I change the environment to make the lesson easier for him to understand. Martin Lacey does the same thing with his lions. Why have we both chosen to avoid punishment and maximize positive reinforcement in our training? Susan’s bridge takes us to that answer.
It’s easy to nod your head and say, yes, yes, of course we should use positive reinforcement, but so often what we have had modeled for us is punishment. You might be reading this thinking that it’s horrific to have animals in captivity. What do you do? What actions do you take? Do you respond to this post by attacking me? If so, you are acting like an old-time lion tamer cracking his whip and using punishment to suppress behavior.
Susan built for us a very different bridge. Throughout the weekend, in so many different ways, through her stories, her teaching, her thoughtful modeling, she showed us how to be completely congruent with the ethics of positive living. It is all too easy to let a thoughtless word here, a careless action there erode a relationship. Susan modeled for us so brilliantly how to live a life that leaves people shining. She takes care to give every individual the positively-oriented support, attention, and modeling they need. That’s not just a bridge, it’s a gift.
My eighth grade science teacher didn’t build bridges. Instead he broke them down – literally. When the boys brought their balsa wood bridges into class, he kept adding weight to them until, one by one, they all broke.
He broke other kinds of bridges. For many in that class he broke the bridge into the sciences. And most importantly he broke the bridge into kindness. The behavior he modeled was that of a bully. He used ridicule and punishment to control his class, and he ended up being universally disliked by his students. He was a dictator not a bridge builder.
In this world we need people who build bridges, not the ones who tear them down. When you find someone who is a good bridge builder, that is someone you want to get to know better.
Thank you Susan, Anja, and Martin. I hope life brings me many opportunities to get to know each of you better.