A Summer of Adventures!

scenery whales conference horses

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.

giant tree with caption

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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

Today’s Peregrine Story: #8 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 young handler struggled to get the job done.

I couldn’t help asking 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 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 became a wobbler. That is exactly what the name suggests. She sustained neurological damage as a result of that incident. She couldn’t tell where her hind legs were so she wobbled about trying to stay on her feet.

I learned over time just how profoundly compromised she was. Eventually it became hard for her even to walk without falling. All the dreams I had had for her as a riding horse were set aside as I tried to help her learn the most basic of motor skills. It was my early training experiences with her that taught me about small steps, and about finding ways around the many “brick walls” that were thrown up in her path. 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.

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 or are you simply always reverting back to familiar patterns?

If you don’t believe that change is possible, you will always be reverting back to the same reality that you currently find yourself mired down in. I didn’t know what change, if any, was possible for her. The vets at the time painted a very bleak future for us. I just knew that I had to deal with the challenges each day presented.

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. Eventually the little things grew into wonderful things. She became my riding partner and introduced me to the world of classical dressage.

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.

Peregrine continues to teach me those lessons his mother began.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine

Words Matter

What Are You Really Saying?
We’ve been having an interesting discussion in my on-line course about the labels people use to describe their horses.
airplane seats multiple rows
Words are so interesting.  Recently I flew on a Delta airlines plane.  Most of the airlines have rows at the front of the economy section that give you a couple more inches of leg room.  United calls this section economy plus.  Delta calls it comfort seating.

Oh dear.

As I walked past the last row of this section to my seat in the middle of the plane, I couldn’t help thinking: “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  If I have just passed the comfort seating zone, what was left – the comfortless seating rows.  Exactly right!

cramped airline seat

Words Matter
Words matter.  Labels matter.  We use language so we are constantly creating labels and attaching them to everything.  We name our family members, our friends, our pets, the objects around us, the thoughts and emotions we’re feeling.

When we talk about our horses, we often find ourselves saying they are dominant, stubborn, aggressive, playful, friendly, submissive.  We stick these labels on the animal, and they become self-fulfilling prophecies. The power of expectations is huge.  Dr. Robert Rosenthal demonstrated this in a clever study done with rats.  Twelve lab techs were each given five rats.  Their job was to train their rats to run through a maze.  Six of the lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that was bred for good performance.  The other six lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that had been bred for poor performance.

rat 2They were given five days to work with their rats, and from day one on there was a significant difference in how the rats performed.  The “smart” rats learned the maze much faster.  Of course, you’ve already guessed the set up.  The rats were all from the same strain.  There should have been no significant difference in performance, but the expectation of the handlers impacted how they handled the rats.  The “smart” rats were handled more gently which resulted in them performing almost twice as well as the “stupid” rats.  The expectations of the experimenters had created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal went on to conduct similar tests of expectations in schools.  In one study all the students in a class were given an IQ test at the beginning of the school year.  The teachers were then told that five of the students had scored exceptionally well on the test and could be expected to excel throughout the year.  At the end of the year, these five students had indeed surpassed all the other students in the class.  And again, you’ve probably guessed the set up of the experiment.  The five children were picked at random.  Their scores were no higher than the rest of their classmates at the start of the school year, but the extra attention the teachers gave them again created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal dubbed the influence that expectation can have on results as the “Pygmalion Effect”.  His work clearly shows us that labels and the expectations they create do indeed matter.

What Are You Attaching The Label To?
Dr. Susan Friedman and other behaviorists remind us that the emotionally charged labels we use don’t describe the whole animal, they describe the behavior we’re seeing.  That shift in focus is important.  If I think of a horse as aggressive, we can both become trapped in this label just as surely as a fly is trapped in amber.

Labels can become dead ends.  An aggressive horse becomes just that.  Even if I modify his behavior, that label remains attached like a permanent brand tattooed around his neck.  He might not be showing aggression now, but watch out, that label warns.  This is an aggressive horse.

When you unlock the horse from these labels and describe instead the behavior you are observing along with its antecedents and its reinforcers, you also unlock training solutions that create the potential for lasting change.

Labels can certainly be a convenient short hand.  We all use them, but we need to be mindful when we do of the effect that these labels have on the ways in which we interact with our horses and the training choices that we make.  We need to keep in mind the Pygmalion effect, but that doesn’t mean we mustn’t use labels.  After all, labels – meaning nouns and the adjectives that modify them – are what give meaning and richness to our language.  Without them we would be creating a very drab world indeed.  (Note all the labels that were used just in the last two sentences.  They help give colour to the world we live in.)

So instead of stripping our language down to the bare bones because we are afraid to use any descriptive labels at all, let’s learn instead how to put the Pygmalion effect to work for us.  If our expectations contribute to the outcome we get, then let’s use labels that take us in the direction we want to go.

listen to labels beigeWhen you attach labels, think about what you want to modify.  Are you describing the whole horse or just the behavior you are seeing in this moment?  If you do label the horse, select ones that take you to the horse you want to have.  I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and I love being around smart horses.  The labels that I attach to the horses I’m with reflect this belief system and direction I want to be heading with them.  Listen to the labels that people  use to describe their horses.  They will reveal their underlying belief systems.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
We attract evidence to support our belief systems.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, I will be most aware of experiences that support that view.  Someone else might think of horses as stupid animals.  Guess what they will notice?

We can see the same behavior, and our underlying belief system will cause us to see it in completely different ways.  We’ll each end up attaching labels that support our belief system.  So when you use someone else’s labels, you want to consider their underlying belief system.  Is it a match with where you want to be heading with your horse?

If you try on someone else’s label, examine carefully what expectations that creates for you.  When I say my horse is “smart”, there’s delight and admiration attached to that label.  You might use that label and find that it creates problems.  What happens if your “smart” horse doesn’t understand a lesson?  Do you get frustrated with him because he’s not trying hard enoughHe should be able to get this.  If a label leads you down a relationship path that creates disappointment or conflict, don’t use that label.

Labels are often based on an incomplete analysis of the behavior we’re seeing.  We hear so often horses are prey animals, and they are flight reaction animals.  Lets take those descriptions a step further than these statements usually carry us.  Horses are herd animals. They form social groups to provide safety from predators.  When a predator attacks what do horses do?  Run, of course.  But not apart.  They don’t scatter in all directions.  They bunch together.  Why? Because that tighter bunch makes it harder for a predator to get in close to take one of them down.

So when a horse is startled and crowds in on top of you, is he being pushy, or is he trying to keep you both safe?  When you drive him out of your space because you’ve been taught that this behavior is a sign of disrespect, what must he be thinking?  That you’re literally throwing him to the lions.zebras lion

For obvious reasons we can’t have our horses jumping on top of us, but if I see this reaction as a desire for safety, I’ll find training solutions that support this need.  Our underlying belief systems and our understanding of horses will very much influence how we see this event.  It will impact what labels we attach to the horse and what training solutions we choose.

Through clicker training we are learning to look beyond the easy out of incomplete or outdated labels to the behavior we are seeing. Horses do indeed have very definite personalities.  One of the great pleasures of clicker training is the horse’s personality can be expressed and remain intact.  That makes it very much a study of one – your horse with his unique personality and life history.  When you describe him, use words that lead you to towards the kind of relationship you want to have.

I believe horses are intelligent and my expectations create that reality in my horses.

Alexandra Kurland

Please note: 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

P.S. If you want to learn more about expectations, listen to the January 22, 2015 podcast of NPR’s Invisibilia: How to Become Batman.  You’ll hear Robert Rosenthal describe the study he did with the rats, and you’ll also hear from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck.  I’ve referenced her work in previous articles.