Thank YOU!

I’m taking a brief detour from the Goat Diaries.  2018 is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  To celebrate every month this year I will be writing an article about one of the many people who have helped me bring positive reinforcement training into the horse world.

Last month I told you about Bob Viviano and Crackers.  Bob was there literally at the beginning of my exploration of clicker training.  Ann Edie joined us a short time later when she started taking lessons from me at the barn where I boarded my horses.  This month I want to turn the spotlight in her direction to thank her for the enormous contribution she has made to the development of clicker training and for 25 years of friendship.

Most of you know Ann through her guide horse, Panda.  Ann has big horses as well.  We seem to share our equine family – at least that’s how it feels.  Ann’s first horse, Magnat, is our one in ten thousand horse.  That’s how I think of him.  He was originally my school horse, but he was such a great match for Ann, in 1996 I gave him to her.  In 1999 he was joined by our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur.  Panda joined the “herd” in 2001.

I’ve written so much about Panda, I’m going to shine the spotlight instead on Magnat.  He played such an important role in the early development of clicker training it is right that he should get the attention as I celebrate twenty years of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.   There is so much I could write.  I’ll just share a couple of favorite Magnat stories.

Remembering Magnat

Magnat is an Arabian.  He came to me through clients of mine who wanted a weekend trail horse for their guests.  Several months and several disastrous rides after they got him, they discovered that he had a severe heart murmur.  My clients were in a dilemma.  They didn’t want to keep him as a pasture ornament, but they couldn’t ethically sell a horse with such a severe heart condition.  Who would want such a horse?  The answer was I would.

So Magnat became mine.  One of my favorite training mantras is:

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

I didn’t need to ride fast to enjoy a horse.  Magnat and I were a perfect fit.  I would love to have reserved him just for myself, but he was such a great school horse.  I began to use him to give lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I could not have asked for a better co-teacher.  This was in 1994.  I had just begun the year before to explore clicker training with Peregrine.  I was having such good success with it, I had started to share it with all my clients.

Pretty soon the only horse who wasn’t clicker trained was my own school horse.  I was reluctant to introduce it to him.  I had all the questions that everybody else has when you first start introducing food into your training.  What if he got mouthy?  He was so polite now.  I didn’t want to risk messing up my one and only school horse by teaching him clicker training!

When someone is hesitant to give clicker training a try, I get it.  I had the same questions and concerns that most people have when they first encounter this work.  But I really couldn’t go on encouraging all my clients to give it a try and not follow my own advice with Magnat.

I needn’t have worried.  For Magnat it barely caused a blip on the landscape.  He was polite before I introduced food, and he remained so even when my pockets were bulging with treats.  He was never muggy.

There are lots of horses who go through a very rocky transition stage.  The food does get them excited.  They frustrate easily and often older behaviors that have been suppressed through punishment resurface to create problems.  Magnat showed none of this.  That isn’t to say there weren’t changes.  My solid, reliable lesson horse truly began to shine.  If he had been good before, now he was outstanding.

Throughout that first winter he helped me teach people the basics of single-rein riding.  There’s a great expression:

The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll see that it gives you.

One of the good things the basics of single-rein riding produced for Magnat was collection.  The beginnings of two favorite behaviors popped out: piaffe and canter in-hand.  This later is a gorgeous behavior to have in repertoire.  Magnat became so balanced and collected, he could canter while I walked beside him.

It was around this time that Ann came to the barn wanting to take lessons.  Ann was not a beginner.  She had ridden as a teenager, but then like so many others she gave up riding when she went off to college and never got back to it once she started raising a family.  The challenge for me was Ann is blind.  I had never worked with a blind rider before.  This was a new frontier for me.  But I assumed my job was teaching her to ride.  Ann would take care of the rest.  If I taught her the way I taught everyone else, we’d come out okay.  It turned out I was right.

I started Ann the way I start all riders who come to me.   It doesn’t matter how many years you have ridden or how experienced a trainer you are, if you are going to ride one of my horses, you start with a pony ride.  I guide the horse from the ground.  All you have to do is sit and enjoy.

As the rider becomes familiar with the horse’s communication system, and understands how to cue the horse, I gradually turn over more and more of the control.  So at first I have the reins, and I’m working the horse in-hand with a rider up.  Then I hand the reins over to the rider, but I stay close so my body language continues to support the rider’s cues.  Then I gradually fade out and the rider takes over completely from me.

This worked perfectly for Ann.  Having Magnat as my co-teacher made all the difference, especially since he could canter in-hand.  For teaching that made him worth his weight in gold.  I wish I had learned how to ride on a horse like Magnat.  Ann has such a relaxed canter seat because she learned the rhythm of the canter from him.  Starting out she never rode a bad canter.  All she had to do was relax and enjoy.  There was no struggle trying to get him into the canter, no trotting faster, faster, faster like a plane taking off.  There was no leaning sideways through unbalanced turns.

Magnat canter

Instead there was just the relaxed rhythm of a collected, glorious canter.  And then there was the piaffe and the passage.  It was Ann who was riding the first time Magnat succeeded in mobilizing into piaffe.  I was working him from the ground while she helped manage his weight shifts.

We were figuring out how to teach riding with the clicker.  I gave Ann the lesson, and she taught Magnat.  They were such a good match, I decided after their first winter together to give him to her.  It gave me so much more pleasure watching them develop as a team than I ever would have had riding him for myself.  And I had Peregrine.  He and Magnat became riding partners.  For the next sixteen years while we kept the horses at the boarding barn, Ann and I shared our evening rides together.

They were an unlikely pair, my thoroughbred, her Arab.  But it turned out that each horse gave their best to the other.  Magnat gave Peregrine the confidence to move forward again after a long, hard recovery from the aftershocks of Potomac horse fever.  And Peregrine taught Magnat about collection.

Magnat lived in a small paddock with two other horses.  I’m sure you can picture what he looked like during mud season.  Every night Ann would spend an hour or so grooming him and by the time he was ready to go into the arena, he was snowy white.  I don’t know how she did it!  When I brush my horses, the dirt moves from one spot to another.  When Ann grooms, the dirt leaves!  And a horse isn’t clean until her fingers tell her he’s clean.

Early on we taught Magnat to retrieve.  There’s a picture of him with a wooden dumbbell in his mouth on the cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  When Ann brought him into the arena, he would ask to be turned loose.  She’d let go of his reins, and he’d go out in the arena and bring back to her all the things the previous riders had dropped.

We boarded in a barn where there was a very active after school lesson program so there were always dropped riding crops, gloves, hats, kleenex.  Ann never knew what she was going to be handed.  Magnat was very diligent in making sure that he had found anything and everything that might get in their way.  In so many ways he was Ann’s first guide horse.

When the arena was clean, he would walk with her to the mounting block and line himself up.  Now the real glory of Magnat shone through.

Ann understood that clicker training means so much more than just using a marker signal and treats.  Clicker training for us is synonymous with good balance.  It was a joy to explore with her what that meant for our horses.

When Ann first started riding Magnat, she couldn’t manage his trot at all.  He bounced her out of the saddle.  It was the most jarring, bone rattling, uncomfortable trot imaginable.  That was because for her Magnat wasn’t yet balanced.  She didn’t yet understand how to use lateral flexions.  When she asked for the trot, she got the hollow-back, high-headed, stiff-legged trot that is all too often associated with Arabs.

As she learned how to use lateral flexions, Magnat relaxed and lifted himself up into a magic carpet ride.  The transformation was so black and white.  Ride him without asking for the lift that comes through the lateral work, and he would jar you right out of the saddle.  Ask for collection, and you were in heaven.

I taught Magnat lateral flexions before I began to explore clicker training.  He understood what I wanted and was a willing student.  Often people seek out clicker training because they are struggling with a horse.  That wasn’t the case with Magnat.  He could have gone through his whole life without ever needing to be clicker trained.

Before clicker training he was a good, solid-citizen riding horse, but that’s all he was.  Without clicker training he would have remained a nice, but ordinary horse.  With clicker training he shone.  I used to say he was a one in a million horse, but as the years went by and he just became more and more wonderful, not just to ride but to be around, I changed this to a one in ten million horse.

But I really shouldn’t be the one to describe what it was like to ride Magnat.  He was Ann’s horse.  Here is how Ann described him in a piece she wrote for my riding book:

“It’s always a dilemma to describe the experience of riding a truly extraordinary horse who has had the benefit of several years of clicker training.  Although many technical components go into the production of a really memorable ride, the irrepressible smile, the feeling of wonder, and expression of “WOW!!” that arises so regularly these days when I ride Magnat simply cannot be described in anything but poetic terms.

Yes, athletic talent and neuromuscular conditioning are part of what makes the ride so special; and yes, many hours of repetition over many months have gone into it; and yes, there is extraordinary lightness and balance.  But this is still far from the sum total of the experience.

Musicians have described a great melody as “ a journey which has many familiar passages, and which also contains some wonderful surprises which cause you to look at the world in a completely fresh way and gives new meaning to life.”  This is the best description I can find of what it is like to ride Magnat.

Magnat comes out into the arena every night feeling relaxed and eager to work.  He knows he will be appreciated and reinforced for his performance.  He knows that he is a respected dance partner and member of the team, not a mere subject of training.  This awareness and active participation on the part of the horse is one of the benefits bestowed by clicker training.

Our rides begin with warm-up exercises.  In the course of executing figures or doing simple softening and balancing work, I will pick up on the reins and suddenly feel the most indescribable lightness!!!

We may be in a super-buoyant, floating trot, a deliberate, balanced, ballet-like piaffe, or a heavenly rocking-horse canter.  Whatever it is, it will feel as though I am floating on a magic carpet.  He is so responsive in these moments.  It’s as if there are clear filaments of two-way communication from my finger tips to each of Magnat’s feet.  The slightest breath of a touch on one of those lines will be answered by an immediate floating response.

The musicians described music as a journey which “contains some wonderful surprises.”  That’s how I feel about riding Magnat.  Each ride contains surprises and special pleasures we have not experienced before.  It is like coming around a bend in the road and seeing a spectacular sunset, or a grove of awe-inspiring redwood trees, or the grandeur of an ancient castle, or the peace and cool of a Buddhist temple.  It truly takes the breath away!  It creates the deepest joy and aliveness in my heart!

These moments have totally changed the way I think about riding.  I feel such awe for Magnat and for what we create together.  In this moment I know, without the slightest doubt, exactly what I ride for – it is just this amazing feeling of total balance, effortlessness, lightness, and energy.  Magnat seems to feel the same excitement and joy, for he literally beams with pride, and recently he has begun uttering deep chortles in his throat at these moments.

I let the magic moment go on for as long as I dare, wanting it to continue forever, but knowing I must capture it with a click, before it disappears like a soap bubble or a delicious dream.

The click creates a pause in the music.  Magnat comes to a halt; I throw my arms around his neck in a huge hug, shower him with lavish praise, and empty my pockets of the most desirable treats!

The “WOW” feeling is definitely addictive.  The glow of the experience lingers and stays with me long after the ride.  Our whole horse-human relationship is one of appreciation, respect, and awe.

This is, for me, the great gift of clicker training.  When taken to the high-performance level, it creates transcendent moments of great joy”

Ann Edie – written in 2005 for “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker

Ann’s words express so perfectly why we have both worked to bring clicker training into the horse world.  If clicker training had just been about teaching tricks, and finding kinder way to get horses onto trailers or to stand for grooming, I would have moved on years ago.  Instead clicker training takes us on a journey to Joy.  It connects us deeply to our horses.

This is what Ann and I wanted to share when we wrote about our horses.  It is what I am celebrating in this twentieth year of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It is what we hope others will find as they explore clicker training: the great love and wisdom of horses.

Sadly we lost Magnat in 2011 not long after we moved to our new barn.  He had reached the grand age of 33, but it wasn’t enough.  We were both hoping he would be one of those Arabs who live to be forty.  Sadly he had cancer, and we had to say good-bye.

Ann has shared so generously her horses.  Magnat and the Icelandics have served as my school horses.  I’ve written about them, and they have appeared in the books and DVDs.  Sindri, our Icelandic stallion, was my riding horses.  Thank you Ann for that great pleasure and honor.

And then of course there is Panda, Ann’s guide horse.  Ann is a very private person, but she has shared Panda literally with the world.  We’ve had journalists from as far away as Japan and Australia come and do stories on her.  Ann has always been a good sport, and so has Panda!

What many people don’t know is Ann is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. Without her help, the barn would never have been built.  Thank you Ann for this.  And thank you also for teaching me how to play scrabble and for occasionally letting me win.

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

What Is Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 3 of 12

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In the previous section I introduced you to Poco, an extremely ear-shy horse.  I ended that section by saying: “Poco wasn’t going to be helped by following old recipes, but by coming up with solutions that were tailored to his needs.  To do that we had to look more broadly at all that clicker training means.”

I put my first JOYFULL horses post up on January 2, 2016.  This far into the book may seem like an odd time to be asking such a basic question: what is clicker training?  But this question refers to so much more than just the surface definition of clicker training.

The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor.  In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant condition in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.  In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.

For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training.  What you do is so much more than clicker training.

I always throw this right back to them.  What would you call it?

I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck.  So many of the words that describe my work have been used, abused, and over-used.  Or they are too specific to a narrow area of horse training.

Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning.  You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership.  They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t.  Sigh.  Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.

When I first came across clicker training, it had no associations attached to it.  It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training.  I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around.  I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad.  It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.

For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal, but it has grown to have many more associations for me and for others.  If someone has seen clicker training applied badly, just the mention of the name may send them over the edge into a long diatribe against it.

I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label.  It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.

What Clicker Training Means To Me
I’ve experienced so much joy both in my own horses and in sharing the work with others that I don’t want to walk away from the label.  Instead I want to make it clearer what clicker training can be.  I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.
icky-what-is-clicker-training-3
My clicker-trained horses make me smile.  I hope how I handle them gives my horses the equine equivalent of those happy feelings.  That’s what I want to share with others.

In 1993 when I started experimenting with clicker training, I didn’t head out to the barn thinking – “I’m going to write a book about this.”  I just wanted to find a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was on stall rest.

There weren’t other people clicker training horses who I could turn to as role models or who could provide how-to instructions.  That meant I got to invent my own version of clicker training.

Defining Clicker Training
If you were to ask me to define clicker training, I would begin with Karen Pryor’s definition: clicker training is applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.

That gives us an operational definition, but clicker training is so much more than that.  I see it as a huge umbrella under which I can fit many different approaches to horse training.  For example, I studied for a time with Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM, so I fit her training under the umbrella.  I also put the work I learned from John Lyons under this same umbrella even though Lyons himself is not a clicker trainer.  These two training methods represent fundamentally different philosophies of horse training, but I was able to draw good things from both and adapt what I learned to fit under my clicker umbrella.

When I think of clicker training, I see a complete and very structured approach to training that results in well-mannered, happy horses.  I think of beautifully-balanced horses who are both having fun and are fun to be around.

Lucky with caption

That’s what I see.  But if all you’ve seen of clicker training is someone using it to teach simple tricks, you may see the fun – but not the balance.  Or maybe you’ve just seen someone who was fumbling around the edges of clicker training.  Your picture of clicker training may be a frustrated horse who is acting aggressively towards the handler.

Creating Stepping Stones
The more people who encounter clicker training the more different images of what it is there will be.  Clicker training will evolve and morph into something else.  That’s the nature of all creative work.  It is never static.  Clicker training, which seemed so revolutionary, so very much on the leading edge of training when I first encountered it, will become mainstream.  It will be the stepping stone to the next leading-edge idea.

We can’t yet know what that idea will be, not until it has had time to evolve.

This is the nature of the creative process.  Humans thrive on creativity.  This is part of play.  You are exploring two separate ideas and suddenly you see how you can put them together to create a completely original combination.  Both ideas by themselves were great.  Combined they are transforming.

So let’s look underneath the clicker training umbrella and see what’s really there.  Let’s also ask the question: are you a clicker trainer, or are you someone who just uses a clicker?  And what is the difference that that question is seeking to answer?

(And yes, I will get back to Poco and his ear-shy problem.)

Coming next: Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: The Runway Lesson

I ended the previous section by saying the lead tells a story.  I want my lead rope to be a welcome tool, one my clicker-trained horse is completely comfortable with.  That’s the goal, but it’s often not where we begin.  Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Lead ropes have been used for correction and punishment – so the horse is defensive.  He’s telling me about is history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

I want to show him that the defenses he’s thrown up aren’t necessary.  The castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play. Mats are going to be the training tool I use.

To introduce a horse and handler to clicker training I focus on six foundation lessons.  Teaching a horse to stand on a mat is one of those lessons. The mat is what the word implies.  Think door mat, and you’ll have the right sort of size.  You can use plywood, carpet squares, rubber mats.  They all work as long as they contrast well with the surface they are on.

They are lots of different ways that you can teach a horse to step on a mat.  Over the years I have used a variety of approaches, tailoring the choice to the needs of the team.  But my favorite way, and the way I generally choose first is to imagine that the mat sits at the end of a runway of cones.   I am trying to line up straight to my runway so I can bring my horse to a safe landing on the mat in the same way a plane would line up to a real runway. Here’s the lesson:

The Runway
Instead of castle walls with the mat as a drawbridge, I imagine an airplane runway.  The sides of the runway are lined with cones that form an open V, funneling us down towards the mat at the end.

Robin waiting for me in runway 2016-06-18 at 6.05.54 PM

My horse, Robin is going to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  He’s going to show you what the lesson looks like with an experienced “copilot”.  I’ll also be describing what the lesson is like when you’re working with an inexperienced horse.  I’ll be taking you from the first wobbly “flights” down the runway to the finessed balance that evolves over time. For now Robin is waiting expectantly for the game to begin.

If Robin is one of our equine teachers, let’s suppose the other is a pushy, somewhat nervous horse who has gotten into the habit over several years of dragging his person pretty much wherever he wants to go. In this lesson the pilot (me) is approaching in her single engine little plane (the horse).  I’m being buffeted by strong winds.  The plane (my horse) is rocking from side to side, trying to drag me off course.  Can I even make the top of the runway?  No!  I abort to try again.  I circle around, and this time I manage to get the nose of the plane, i.e. this horse, pointing into the open V of the runway.  Click and treat.  The wide end of the funnel helps me to be successful.  I want to find ways to say ‘yes” to this horse, so I make the lesson as easy as possible by making the opening of the funnel extra wide.  I’m setting up the environment to help ensure success.  A narrow funnel would be much harder to get to with my determinedly pushy horse.

I had originally wanted to show a video of an inexperienced horse using the runway lesson, but computers being computers my editing program isn’t cooperating with that intent.  So instead I enlisted Robin’s help.  He’s my “dance partner”, or to stick with my metaphor of the runway, my copilot.  I filmed him going through the pattern, and I’ve pulled still photos from the video to describe some of the key elements of this lesson.

It’s been a very long time since I have worked Robin through this foundation lesson.  As always, I found it was worth revisiting the basics with him.  No matter how skilled a horse becomes, the basics always reveal details that need polishing.  So whether you and your horse are a novice team or one that is very experienced, the runway is a great lesson to explore.

Please note: This is not a stand alone lesson, nor is this JOYFULL Horses book intended as a clicker training how-to instruction manual.  The prerequisites and a description of the handling skills needed for this lesson are presented in my DVD lesson series and in the on-line course. I am describing this lesson in detail here not not so much to teach you how to use it, but to illustrate some important concepts that are relevant to all good clicker lessons.

I’ll start with a short video which will give you a quick overview of the lesson.

 

There are a lot of important details in this 3 minute clip.  I’m going to take the lesson apart literally frame by frame.  I’ll be using stills pulled from the video to point out the key elements of this lesson.  Enjoy!

Robin Runway reenter runway 2016-06-18 at 6.11.50 PM

The runway is part of a larger loop.  There’s no beginning, middle, and end.  A horse that is familiar with mats might begin, as Robin did, on the mat.  The pushy horse I am starting with has never stepped on a mat and is worried by them. I would begin with that horse where we are picking up the pattern here, with Robin turning with me into the top of the runway.  Note the slack in the lead.  I probably would not be giving this much freedom to my pushy horse.  he wouldn’t yet know how to read and respond to the subtle signals from my lead and body language.  I would need to slide up the lead to signal my intent to turn.  I would click and reinforce the horse as he responded to my request.  This would bring him to a halt, ready for the next phase of the lesson.

Robin Runway turn to a stop 2016-06-18 at 6.12.10 PM

Note how I have brought Robin into the runway.  I’ve been mindful of the placement of the V. I’ve given us enough room to turn so Robin ends up in line with the mat.  This exercise is about straightness.  It is a wonderful lesson for helping crooked, pushy, unbalanced, nervous, or just plain wiggly horses.

Robin Runway lined up for approach 2016-06-18 at 6.12.22 PM

Here Robin is beautifully lined up to the mat as he completes his turn into the runway.

 

Robin runway off sides 2016-06-19 at 9.36.47 AM

In contrast here I’ve made my turn too early so there isn’t time to line Robin up straight to the runway.  I originally taught the mat lesson without any cones for markers.  People would walk their horses off from the mat and then come back around in too tight of a turn.   There was no way their horses could line up to the mat and approach it on a straight path.  These handlers were setting their horses up for a wiggly, crooked approach.  The mat is about lining up straight to a mounting block, approaching the center of a jump on a straight path, crossing streams and other obstacles, stopping square at X in a dressage test, and performing any other task where precision and accuracy in the approach are needed.  A novice horse needs the extra help that a long runway approach gives him.  I set the cones out as guides for the handlers.  They have to take their horses back to the mat by walking all the way out and around the line of cones.  Targets aren’t just for our horses.  Sometimes they are for us, as well.

 

You’re in the runway.  Now what? This lesson is like a dream where you drift from one scene to another – never questioning the odd juxtaposition of images.  In this part of the lesson I am doing “needlepoint” with this horse.  That’s the image.

needle point pillow

Needlepoint may not seem relevant to horse training, but the individual balance shifts we teach in the runway always make me think of the intricate stitches in a needlepoint tapestry.

Each stitch is an individual action.  Each stitch must be carefully thought through before beginning the next. I may have to change colour often.  I may only want one or two stitches of green before I switch to red. That’s how this part of the lesson feels to me.  I will be asking for tiny shifts of weight.  Each balance shift forms one stitch in this larger tapestry.

When I ask my horse for one tiny step forward, that’s one green stitch.  If I’m working with a poorly balanced or pushy horse, I don’t want to take a step and then follow it with many more.  Instead, just as this horse begins to lift his leg, I’m going to click.  The click interrupts one thought – move forward – and replaces it with another – get your reinforcer.  Before he has even really begun to move, he’s at a standstill again waiting for his treat  He was thinking of barging past me, but that would have crashed our little “plane”.  Instead disaster has been averted.  He has taken a half step forward, and now he’s shifted his weight back slightly to get his treat.

He’s beautifully set up for the next stitch in our tapestry.  I ask for another forward step.  Click!  Again, the power of the click interrupts him before he can charge forward.  He is learning patience.  He is learning self-control.  He is learning to control his movements.  He began with a throttle that was either at full power or completely turned off.  Now we are gaining some adjustability.  I can ask for a tiny amount of energy, and he can give me a soft, half step forward.  Click and treat.

He is doing so well, it is time to land “the plane”.  I put aside one image – the needle point – and we walk casually forward down the rest of the runway.  As we approach the mat, I realize my co-pilot isn’t ready to stop.  I walk over the mat myself and keep going, letting my co-pilot walk beside me.

We circle around back to the top of the runway.  My co-pilot learns fast.  The little plane is steadier now as we bank around the turn and face into the top of the V.  Click and treat.  This time I put red thread into my needle. I ask for backing.  Again, I click on that single stitch.  The plane wobbles a bit and goes off course.  We are no longer pointing straight down the runway.  It doesn’t matter.  The pattern allows for many stitches of red.

Click by click we lay down a line of red stitches.  The backing is smoother now, less hesitant, less wobbly.  We have backed ourselves in a squarish turn that takes us out of the top part of the runway.  I am using skills learned in previous lessons.  My “copilot” may not be able to back straight yet, but I can still keep us in the vicinity of the runway by having him back in a square pattern.  Straight will emerge as he learns how to handle these larger course corrections.

When you put enough of these fine needlepoint stitches together, you get a picture that looks like the one Robin is illustrating for us in this series of photos:

Robin Runway backing in runway 2 2016-06-18 at 6.12.54 PM

Robin’s adjustability and good balance has allowed him to come in straight to the mat.  I’ve turned toward him to ask for one step back with his right front foot.

Robin Runway backing con't  2016-06-18 at 6.13.17 PM

Robin has initiated a step back. As he does, I click and prepare to release the lead.

Robin Runway backing done 2016-06-18 at 6.13.29 PM

Robin has completed the single step back.  You can’t see it, but my hand is opening on the lead even before his foot lands.  What goes up must come down.  It’s important to let go as I click and not to wait for the foot to land.  If I stay on the line, I would be holding on way too long, giving my horse something annoying that he would need to push against.  The timing needed to release a horse into the action you want takes deep practice focus.  If you aren’t sure what I mean by deep practice, read my blog on this subject. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16/)

Robin Runway feed after backing 2016-06-18 at 6.13.44 PM

I’ve already clicked.  Now it’s time to reinforce Robin with some hay stretcher pellets.

Robin Runway 2nd back 2016-06-18 at 6.14.13 PM

My “needlepoint tapestry” is made up of many stitches.  I’ll ask Robin for another, single step back.

Robin Runway 2nd back con't 2 2016-06-18 at 6.14.22 PM

It may not look as though anything has changed, but Robin has unweighted his right front in preparation for backing.  That’s my cue to be ready to click.

Robin Runway backing step good 2016-06-18 at 6.15.31 PM

Robin has begun to take a step back – Click! Remember it’s important to click as he initiates movement.  I’m not waiting to see the outcome of the weight shift (meaning the completed step back.)  If I click as he initiates a movement, I am saying “yes” to that movement.  This lesson is not about blocking or shutting down energy.  I want energy.  I want behavior.  I want to say “yes” to moving even if the moving is being done by a pushy, inexperienced horse.  When I click as he begins to take a step, I am saying “yes” to movement that in the past someone else may have punished.  An inexperienced horse is expecting a “no”.  Part of his pushiness comes from trying to rush past the obstacles he’s expecting me to throw in his path.  Instead he hears a click!  Surprise, surprise!  He brings himself to a stop to get his treat.  Self control and good balance will emerge out of saying “yes” when what his history tells him to expect is a “no”.    

Robin Runway feed after back 3 2016-06-18 at 6.15.47 PM

I’ve clicked Robin as he began to take a step back.  The click is a cue to me to begin my reinforcement cycle.  I’m reaching into my pocket to get a treat.  But note also what my right hand is doing.  I have moved it forward so the snap hangs straight down.  I am giving Robin the full freedom of the lead.  This is an important part of this lesson and one many people struggle with so I’ll be pointing it out again in other photos.  The snap on my lead is going to become a tactile target for my horse to orient to.  Moving my right hand towards Robin as I get the treat with my left is part of the teaching process that helps Robin tune in to the significance of the snap and it’s orientation.

 

Robin runway tai chi wall 1 2016-06-18 at 9.37.29 PM

Here’s the contrast.  As I ask Robin to take a step, I’m using my right hand more actively on the lead.  If he were a more inexperienced horse, I might need my hand here to help him maintain his balance as he takes a step forward.  Otherwise, he might be falling into me with his left shoulder. (Note: if I were on Robin’s right side, things would be reversed.  I would be feeding with my right hand and releasing the lead fully with my left.)

Robin runway tai chi wall 2 2016-06-18 at 9.37.39 PM

Here’s a common mistake.  I’ve released with my left hand, but I’ve kept my right hand in place on his neck.

Robin runway tai chi wall 3 2016-06-18 at 9.37.48 PM

Even while I am reaching for the food, I am keeping my right hand in place.  I refer to this as driving down a motorway with your emergency brake on.  When a horse is unbalanced and pushing through you, it can feel as though you can’t let go completely.  It takes focus to remember to release the lead completely with your right as well as your left hand.  This is where you learn to truly let go. This is the beginning of floating on a point of contact – a heavenly feel for both horse and handler.

Robin runway tai chi wall feed 2016-06-19 at 11.48.13 AM

After all, you’ve got treats in your hand.  Where is your horse going to go?  This is the perfect time to experience letting go of him.

Robin Runway prepared for next step 2016-06-18 at 6.16.03 PM

The runway lesson teaches the handler to be an agile thinker.  Depending upon what happens with my horse’s balance, I may need to change in an instant the direction I want him to go.  So while I am giving him his treat, I am already thinking about what I am going to do next.  I don’t wait for him to fill in the “dance card” through my indecision.  My body language is signaling the next clear intent.  Can you tell what I’m going to ask him to do next? Answer: walk forward with me to the mat.

Robin Runway release to mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.14 PM

Robin has done a nice unit of “needlepoint stitches”. Now it’s time to let him move.  I am releasing him to the mat.

In the photos it was time to release Robin to the mat.  It is time to do the same for my less experienced horse.  Once again, I’ll set the needle work image aside.  I have asked this horse to stay focused with me through several steps.  We have put down enough concentrated stitches.  Now it’s time to move.  We’ll walk casually towards the tip of the V and the mat.  This time instead of walking over the mat, I may choose to stop on it.  My co-pilot misses the stop and over swings past me.  No problem.  It’s a sloppy landing, but it won’t bring out the fire brigade, at least not this time.  I am standing on the mat, clicking and treating my horse for standing quietly beside me.  He can see that the mat did not swallow me up. Instead standing next to it produces lots of clicks and treats.

In contrast to a green horse Robin shows us a beautifully on-the-spot landing on the mat.

Robin Runway walk to mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.07.24 PM

Robin is showing perfect mat manners.  Even though he is eager to get to the mat because it represents an opportunity for reinforcement, he is walking with me on a slack lead.  Mats are a great tool for teaching horses the emotional control they need to walk politely out to turnout and other exciting places.  If your horse pulls or dances around you when you lead him, working with mats is a great lesson to teach.

Robin Runway one foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.43 PM

Robin knows how to land on a mat.  First, one foot . . .

Robin Runway 2nd foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.53 PM

Then a second foot . . .

Robin Runway both feet on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.08.11 PM

Both front feet on the mat.  Click! and . . .

 

Robin Runway release hand as feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.21 PM

. . . and initiate the reinforcement process.  Note how I release the lead fully to Robin WHILE I reach into my pocket with my left hand to get the treat.  Coordinating these two actions takes deep practice concentration. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

Robin Runway feed 1 2016-06-18 at 6.06.59 PM

. . .  Feed. Note how balanced we both are.  I am encouraging good balance in Robin, AND I am also building a feel for good riding balance for myself.  The mantra is: feed where the perfect horse would be.  In this case that means Robin’s head is in line with his shoulders – not pulled off to the side towards me.  I feed at a height that encourages him to lift up from the base of his neck.  I want to feel him lifting up, supporting his own weight as I feed him.  As he takes his treat, if I feel him leaning down onto my hand, that should signal to me that I need to change what I’m doing to encourage better balance in both of us.

Robin runway on mat grown ups 2016-06-18 at 6.08.50 PM

I want to turn the mat into a conditioned reinforcer.  If it becomes a predictor of good things, my horse will want to go to the mat.  He’ll enjoy being on the mat.  That means I’ll be able to reinforce other activities with an opportunity to return to the mat.  So before we head back to the top of the runway, I cue Robin to give me a very familiar behavior, one I call: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  Than means Robin is standing in his own space.  My pockets are full of treats, but I am not being mugged.  Robin adds the extra flourish of his beautifully calm focus and good balance to this important base behavior.

 

Robin Runway feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.37 PM

It’s click then feed for beautiful grown-ups, and then . . .

Robin Runway invite walk off 2016-06-18 at 6.09.44 PM

I invite Robin to leave the mat and walk off casually with me back to the top of the runway.

My green horse has also been standing beside me practicing good grown-ups.  It’s time to walk off again and head back to the top of the runway.  This time our entry into the V comes out perfectly.  Click!  That brings him to a halt so he can get his treat.  I don’t have to actively stop him, cues he may not yet understand.  That’s what the runway is going to teach him – whoa and go.   As I give him his treat, I am deciding which colour thread to pick up, meaning should I ask him to go forward or back?  I may decide to ask for a couple of green stitches, and then I’ll switch to red.  It all depends upon the response I get from my “co-pilot” and where we are in the runway.

As my co-pilot becomes steadier and better balanced, we can work on an intricate pattern – one stitch forward, one stitch back, each one separated by a click and a treat.  We are building control – not the force-based control of do-it-or-else, but the self-control of good balance.  He is gaining the ability to change his balance – forward or back within a single stride.  He doesn’t have to barge past me any more because he can regulate both his emotions and his balance.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.57.51 PM

So far I’ve asked Robin for a lot of backing.  I need to balance that with requests to go forward – but remember, in the “needlepoint” phase of this pattern I am asking for only one step at a time.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.15 PM

As soon as he begins to initiate a step, it’s click . . .

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.31 PM

. . . release the lead and begin the reinforcement process.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.41 PM

Again note how my right hand moves towards Robin releasing the lead fully to him.  I have pointed this out before because it is a detail many find very difficult to coordinate.  Their focus is on getting the food.  It takes focused practice to coordinate the separate tasks both hands are doing. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.59 PM

Many people push against the use of food during training, but clicker trainers have such an advantage because we feed treats.  In this photo series you’ve seen how I can use the food delivery to help my horse become better balanced.  Here I’ve drawn Robin slightly forward with my food delivery.  This sets me up well to be able to turn into him to ask for my next request – backing.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.18 PM

As he begins to lift his left front foot, I am ready to click and release the lead.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.44 PM

Again, my right hand moves towards Robin to release the lead AS my left hand gets the food.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.58 PM

Even as he is taking the food from my hand, I am setting up my next request.  Can you tell which direction we’ll be heading?  Forward or back?

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.00.19 PM

As soon as I’ve given him his treat, I release him to the mat.  Note: this release to the mat is an important element.  I don’t ask him to keep doing “needlepoint” all the way to the mat.  I want to reinforce the concentrated work with an opportunity to move forward freely.  The mat gives us a destination that offers even more reinforcement opportunities.

Give Them What They Want
For the horse who prefers nothing better than to nap under a tree, all this slow, step by step work is easy-peasy.  It’s all that walking forward stuff to get to the top of the runway that this horse finds wearisome.  So what this game sets up is a bargain.  I’ll let him get all these easy clicks and treats for walking one step at a time provided he will walk with me when I ask him to head back to the top of the runway.

Remember the Premack principle from the previous article? (https://theclickercenterblog/2016/06/09) I’m reinforcing a lower valued behavior – marching on around the outside of my pattern – with a higher valued behavior – getting loads of clicks and treats for taking one small, low energy step after another followed by a chance to stand still at the mat.  What could be better!

For the high-energy, foot moving, impatient horse Premack also works.  I’m saying to this horse: if you will indulge me by giving me a couple of needlepoint stitches, I will not only make it worth your while by clicking and treating each one (thereby upping their value), I will also let you march forward down the rest of the runway.  And if you will further indulge me by standing still on the mat where again I pay really well, I will let you march on, uninterrupted back to the top of the mat.

In both cases the Premack principle is at work.  And in both cases I am turning all the segments of the loop into activities that gain value.  Pretty soon, my slow-moving horse will be looking forward to the march back to the top of the runway, and my impatient horse will be showing me how softly and with such delicate control he can creep down the runway.

Stopping on Mats
For my inexperienced horse it’s time for the game to change again.  I’m going to start using the skills he’s been learning in the runway.
When we get to the mat, instead of stopping so my feet are on the mat, now I’ll change course slightly in the runway so the mat is in line with my horse.  If he steps over it the first time or two so his feet never touch it, that’s all right.  We aren’t yet ready to land.  But eventually, on one of the passes, I’ll do a test run.  As we approach the mat, I’ll rotate slightly towards him as I slide up the lead.  I’m indicating that we will be stopping.  Our needle point has taught him how to listen to these signals.  He’ll stop with his front feet just shy of the mat.  Click and treat.

Here is Robin again showing us how much control and refinement the runway can help us build into leading:

 

Robin Runway walk to runway 2016-06-18 at 6.16.26 PM

I’ve released Robin to the mat.  Note the slack in the lead.  There’s no pulling to the mat, no forging ahead of me.  We are walking together towards the mat.  Exactly right.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.40 PM

I’ve brought Robin up to the mat, but I am deliberately asking him to stop just shy of it.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.16.50 PM

Frame 1: His front end stops beautifully, but . . .

Robin Runway stop before mat hind leg out2016-06-18 at 6.17.20 PM

Frame 2: Robin wasn’t expecting to stop before the mat.  His front end stopped in response to my request, but his hind end took an extra moment to catch up to the change in the pattern.  It’s a bit like a rear end collision at a traffic light.  The first car stopped, but the second one didn’t.  The result: Robin has stepped out to the side with his right hind.  He could have plowed past me to continue on to the mat, but instead he has managed to stop his front end in response to my request.  It’s only his back end that couldn’t quite stop in time.

Robin Runway stop before mat click2016-06-18 at 6.17.32 PM

He may have landed slightly out of balance, but he still responded perfectly to my request to stop his right front and then his left front foot, so he gets clicked.  That’s my cue to begin the reinforcement process. I surprised him with a sudden change in pattern.  That resulted in less than perfect balance in the stop, but he still gets reinforced for a correct response to my cues.

Robin Runway stop before mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.17.47 PM

Feed so his head stays lined up with the rest of his body.

Robin runway ask to step on mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.18.09 PM

Now I’ll use his “needlepoint” skills to bring him the rest of the way onto the mat. That was the point of my abrupt halt.  I wanted  to create an opportunity to show you how these skills work.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.18.26 PM

Robin responds to very light cues on the lead.  A very small change in my hand position is  all that is needed to request a single, forward step with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 3 2016-06-18 at 6.18.33 PM

Job done with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 4 2016-06-18 at 6.18.43 PM

Now I ask for one step forward with the left front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 52016-06-18 at 6.18.54 PM

Job done again. With a very inexperienced horse I would have clicked and reinforced each footfall.  With Robin I can connect these requests together via cues.  Cues act as both prompts and reinforcers.  I am only clicking after he has both feet on the mat, but I am still giving him plenty of “yes” information via the cues from the lead.  Those cues contain an additional “yes” every time I release the lead. 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.19.10 PM

I’ve clicked so now it’s time to feed.

 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.19.26 PM

I’ll further reinforce his good efforts to get on the mat by asking for “grown-ups”, a well known and highly reinforced behavior.  Note how beautifully he maintains his balance, and his very calm, focused demeanor even though he is just inches away from the treats in my pockets.

Robin Runway back off mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.20.14 PM

I continue to use his “needlepoint skills” to ask him to take one step back off the mat.

Robin Runway back off mat 2  2016-06-18 at 6.20.29 PM

Once he’s stepped back off the mat, I can ask him to come forward again. An inexperienced horse might become frustrated by all this toing and froing.  He might be wanting me to make up my mind and decide which way I want him to go.  But the “needlepoint” lesson in the runway has familiarized Robin with this type of request.  They are just a series of changing dance steps.  They were never taught as corrections.  I want him to see them as a path towards reinforcement – never as a way to avoid punishment.

Robin Runway return to mat 1 mat  2016-06-18 at 6.20.53 PM

His front feet are back on the mat.  Now I’m asking him to step up with his left hind. Click as the leg begins to lift.

Robin Runway return to mat release hand 2016-06-18 at 6.21.09 PM

Again the reminder to release with right hand as well as the left.

Robin Runway return to mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.21.26 PM

Feed for a job well done.

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Ask for grown-ups to create added value for landing on the mat.  Why go through all of this? Compare this photo with the one taken just moments before I asked Robin to step off the mat. 

Robin grups comaprison 2016-06-19 at 3.26.11 PM

In both photos Robin is in grown-ups.  He’s showing the calm focus and good balance that has been consistent throughout this session.  But in the photo on the right Robin shows slightly more lift from the base of his neck.  The difference is subtle, but it is there.  It was created out of the rebalancing steps he took to back off and then, weight shift by weight shift, return to the mat.  The control he has over his footfalls leads to the consistency we see throughout this lesson in his balance.

These photos were all pulled from a video.  Now that we’ve gone through the details of this lesson, let’s have you watch the video again.  How many of the photos you’ve been studying can you spot?  They are just still frames taken from the video.  How much more detail are you seeing now than you did when you  watched this video the first time through at the beginning of the article?  How many of the points that I covered are you spotting?  I’ll bet you’re seeing the very deliberate release of my right hand and the use of the food delivery to help build good balance.  What else pops out at you now that I’ve been pointing out the details of this lesson?

Constructional Training
For the inexperienced horse, as well as for Robin, the work in the runway builds the skills that are needed for the mat.  That’s the strength of this approach.  I haven’t started with the mat where a horse’s concern over stepping on an unknown surface might create problems.  The focus of this lesson is to teach the horse to step on the mat, but that isn’t my end goal.  The mat is a tool. Stepping on the mat is a way to get that energetic walk and those “needle point” skills that I’ll be using elsewhere in his training.  And once my horse is comfortable with the mat, I can use it throughout his training as a reinforcer.

When I first introduced my horse to the overall game which we call clicker training, I had to deal with the food.  It started out as a distraction.  I held a target up for my horse to touch –  which he did, eagerly enough.  His curiosity served me well.  Click and treat.  Treat!  You have food in your pockets.  Never mind the target, I’ll have more of those!

The initial stages of clicker training are really a teaching process that transforms the food from a distraction into a useful tool.  Once my horse understands that he gets the treats by taking his focus off my pockets and offering instead other behaviors that I like, then the game can really expand.  It truly does become a game, a treasure hunt where solving the puzzle becomes even more reinforcing than the treat itself.

The mat works in a similar way.  At first it is something to be avoided – stepped over or around, but never actually on.  Then it becomes something to put a tentative, testing toe on.  Clicks and treats!  This isn’t so bad.  What was all the fuss about!

Pretty soon you’ll have a horse who isn’t just stepping gingerly onto the mat, he’s rushing down the runway to get to it.  Hurray!

Coming Next: Mat Manners. For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement.  The runway lesson has helped create a horse who is eager to get to the mat.  Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.

 

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the previous installment I talked about patience and persistence.  I ended with: “One of the many things that you learn from horse training is the longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things it will give you.  Focus on some little, achievable piece of the training, something you and your horse can accomplish together, and all kinds of other good and often unexpected results will emerge out of it.”

Now in this section I’ll share more lessons my horses have taught me.

“They Don’t Feel Pain the Way We Do”
Shortly before she became mine, Peregrine’s mother was injured in a handling incident.  One of the teenagers at the barn had been given the assignment of pulling her mane.  In case you aren’t familiar with this technique, it is literally what the name implies.  The mane is shortened and tidied up by pulling out the longer strands.

The horses I grew up with never had their manes pulled.  The first time I watched this being done it was to a young racehorse, a two year old who was literally climbing the walls trying to get away.  The trainer stood outside the stall door watching as a groom struggled to control her.

I couldn’t help but ask what they were doing.  It looked to me like some horrific form of torture.  The trainer dismissed my concerns.  “They don’t feel pain the way we do,” he said.  In his view, the mare was climbing the walls not because of pain, but because she was being disobedient.  That’s a great example of the stories we tell ourselves – and come to believe – to make things okay.

Peregrine’s mother wasn’t in a stall the first time someone tried to pull her mane.  Shortly before she officially became my horse, it was decided she should have her mane tidied up.  For her introduction to this procedure she was tied tight to a post supporting a four foot high fence.  To get away from the pain she presumably didn’t feel, she jumped the fence.  You could say it showed how athletic she was that she was able to jump the fence with her head snubbed up tight to the post.  Really, it just says how desperately she needed to get away.

I only learned about it because I saw scrapes on her hind legs and asked about them. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the full scope of the injuries she sustained.  Her spine was damaged in what was a very avoidable accident.  My beautiful, athletic, perfect horse had become a wobbler.  That is exactly what the name suggests.  She sustained neurological damage as a result of that incident.  She could no longer tell where her hind legs were so she wobbled about trying to stay on her feet.

The Evolution of Belief
I learned over time just how severely compromised she was. What began as a slight dragging of her hind toes eventually deteriorated into such a profound loss of balance that it became hard for her to walk without falling.  All the dreams I had had for her were shattered.   All that was left was helping her relearn the most basic of motor skills. It was my early training experiences with her that taught me about small wins, and about finding ways around the many brick walls in her life. Long before I ever heard about clickers and positive reinforcement, she taught me how to break things down into the smallest of small steps.  The power of those lessons formed the core of what clicker training means to me.

If belief is a major part of changing habits, she taught me to believe in the power of change.  You cannot NOT change.  How’s that for a sentence!  But it’s true.  We are constantly changing.  The question is: are you changing towards something new, or are you simply boomeranging back to familiar patterns?

If you don’t believe that change is possible, you will always be reverting back to the same reality you are currently in.  Eventually you may find yourself so bogged down in that state that change truly does seem beyond your reach.

I didn’t know what change, if any, was possible for her.  The vets at the time painted a very bleak future for us.  They told me they could do nothing to help her, and eventually she would deteriorate to the point where she would be unable to stand.  It was a grim future to consider.

Since I couldn’t ride her, the vets recommended that I put her down.  That I couldn’t do.  Whether I could ride her or not, her life still had value to her.  Together we would deal with the challenges each day presented.  When things got too hard for her, that’s when I would make that decision, but until then we would keep going as best we could.

Stepping over the sill of her stall door was hard for her. But it was something she needed to be able to do, so we worked on stepping over ground poles. Those were terrifying for her, so I put a rope on the ground instead.  Even that was too hard, so I drew a line in the dirt.  That she could manage so that’s where we began.

She was showing me that no matter how small a step may seem, there is always, ALWAYS a smaller step you can find.

That is truly at the heart of all good training.  It is certainly at the heart of how I think about clicker training.

Eventually she was able to walk over those ground poles, and the sill of her stall was no longer a problem.  She could even manage a small cross rail.  We didn’t know what was possible.  We just kept working on the little things that challenged her.  Over time the little things grew into wonderful things.  She became my riding partner and introduced me to the world of classical dressage. She was the first horse I ever taught to piaffe.

Balance – The Core of Everything
She is why at the core of everything I teach there is balance.  For me balance is everything.  It gave her life.  When some people talk about dressage, they see competition rings and rosettes.  I see balance.  That’s what dressage means to me.  The end result may indeed take you to the show ring, but first it takes you to a feel that is heaven itself.  Balance is everything.  It is life giving, life sustaining.  It is beauty, grace, power.  It is love.

Some wonderful things have grown out of that terrible training accident, but I am never very far removed from the consequences.  It reached past her life and changed Peregrine’s.   During his foaling, she got down against a stall wall and couldn’t get up.  He was boxed in by the corner of the stall, trapped in her pelvis.  If I had not been camped out beside her stall, ready to help, I would certainly have lost him and possibly both of them.

Peregrine’s spine was damaged by the foaling.  That in turn led to his locking stifles which led to a challenging first few years of training which led – through a series of twists and turns – to clicker training.  So again, good things came out of a hard beginning.

My “Soap Box”
It has also given me the right to stand on the soap box that actively promotes positive training methods.  When I first started introducing clicker training to the horse world, I was very careful what I said about other training methods.  Clicker training was the new kid on the block.  If I came in like gang busters denouncing what everyone else was doing and saying my way is the best, I’d have been pounced on and crushed – and rightly so.  If you push against someone, of course, they are going to push back.

So I chose not to comment on what was occurring in the rest of the equine training community.  At times this was incredibly difficult.  There have been so many emerging trends over the last thirty years.  Many, very horse-friendly advances have been made.  Acupuncture, chiropractic work, physical therapies of many varieties are now common.  But why do we need so many interventions?  It is because we also have so many “methods” that are so very hard on horses. Strip away the rhetoric, and you will see revealed some horrific things being done in the name of training.

The words often sound great.  Everyone talks about partnership, harmony, etc..  But when you turn the sound down on the videos and watch what is actually being done to horses, it is often times nothing more than abuse.

I remember watching one video where the trainer’s solution to a needle-shy horse was to run him to exhaustion in a round pen.  The trainer was riding a stocky quarter horse, controlling from the saddle a rope that was lassoed around the horse’s hind leg. At the other end a strong twenty-something handler anchored down a lead attached to the horse’s head.  Between them he was well and truly trapped.

Every few minutes the trainer would tighten his rope, and the horse would go bucking and pitching around the pen.  Then they would back off and give the horse a short break.  The horse’s sides were heaving as he tried to catch his breath.  The trainer, meanwhile, was telling stories about how much he was helping this horse to get along with people.  He was like a skilled magician distracting the audience away from the things he didn’t want them to see.

After about forty minutes of this, his assistant did indeed manage to wrestle the horse into a head lock and give him a pretend shot. As the horse’s owner walked him out of the round pen, the trainer told her he might be a bit stiff for a few days, and he’d need some ointment for the rope burns on his hock.

I was horrified.  Whatever happened to safety always comes first!?  Whatever happened to common sense and humane handling!?

The trainer never asked about the physical history on this horse.  Did he have any hock or hind end issues that might be made worse by this kind of handling?  Suspending a horse as they did between the two ropes could easily have resulted in an injury to his pelvis, his spine, his hind legs.  He could have ended up with the same kind of neurological damage that had so crippled Peregrine’s mother.  Was it worth it?  All this just to give a shot!  When you see the videos from the zoos and aquariums showing wild animals – whales, dolphins, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons etc. – voluntarily presenting themselves for shots and blood draws, you have to question these methods.

This is a soap box I have earned the right to stand on because for over thirty years I have lived with the consequences of this sort of training approach.  We do get to stand up for our horses and say find a different way, find a better way. Find a humane way.

And always, always – safety does come first.

Coming Next: Standing Up For Our Horses

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com