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

Choosing Your Words, Your Mindset, Your Training Strategies

Try Again
Years ago I learned to avoid the word “Try”, as in “I’ll try to get that done for you.” or: “I’ll try to make that meeting.”  When someone tells you that, “try” translates to you might as well schedule something else.  That person isn’t going to be there.

Try is a polite way of saying I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to say so, or perhaps even admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I’m not going to do it.
Little engine that could
Why does “try” have such a negative subtext?  We were all raised on “The Little Engine That Could”: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Try seems as though it should be one of those words that sits on the empowering side of the equation, not the other way around. How did “try” come to have such a negative association?
Psychologist, Carol Dweck, may have part of the answer.  I wrote about the results of one her studies in my previous post.  Students were given a test.  Half the group were told: “You scored really well.  You must be very smart.”  The other half were told: “You scored really well.  You must have worked really hard.”

Those two simple phrases produced profoundly different results.  When the students were given the choice between taking a tougher test that would challenge them or another that was like the one they had just taken and done so well on, the students who were praised for being smart chose the easier test.  When asked what they would do in the future if they were given a tough test, those same students said they would probably cheat.  When they were given an opportunity to look over the test papers of other students, they looked at papers of students who had scored lower than they did.  Looking at the test results of someone who did worse than they did made them feel better about their own performance.

In contrast the students who were praised for their effort chose the tougher second test.  And when they were given a chance to look at the test papers of other students, they sought out those who had done better than they did.  These students understood that ability was not fixed.  Challenging themselves with tougher problems now would help them to perform better in the future.  They had what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.

The other students had fixed mindsets.  When they were praised for being smart, they became locked in by those expectations.  If they took on the tougher challenge and failed, people would know they weren’t smart after all.  If you have to work hard to achieve, it means you aren’t a natural, you aren’t really smart.  “Try, try again” was for people who needed to work hard, not the naturally gifted.

stoneFixed, set-in-stone mindsets are hard on horses.  If a rider believes that talent is innate, she’ll have to buy a gifted horse, one with a long pedigree of champions behind him.  If that horse struggles in his lessons, this rider will frustrate easily.  Her horse “should” be able to do this.  She’ll compare herself to all “those other” riders are already out competing on their horses, and she’ll feel like a failure.

Chunking down, building a solid foundation, taking the time it takes are all phrases designed to make this rider increasingly impatient.  Natural talent doesn’t need to work through those training steps.  This is a rider who won’t stick to any one training program.  Instead, as soon as she hits a stumbling block, she’s looking elsewhere for answers.  Trying again means she’s failed, that her horse isn’t good enough, she isn’t good enough.  What a disaster.

tree seedlingGrowth mindsets are great for horses.  If you have a growth mindset, you enjoy the process of training – not just the end result.  You know that it’s okay if your horse isn’t as naturally athletic as your friend’s horse.  He tries really hard, and that’s what counts.  You know try is like heart.  It will carry him a long way forward.

Try harder.  Try again.  These are phrases that can make some people wince.  Why should you try harder when what you’re already doing isn’t working?  In a fixed mindset world you don’t believe that trying harder will make any difference.  You’ll run from any suggestion that you should try again.  “Try” is a miserable word if you have a fixed mindset.

But from a growth mindset perspective trying harder is something you’ll embrace. Try is great word. Try implies that you are reaching for something.  You are challenging yourself, stretching yourself beyond your immediate comfort zone.  Try is a great word if you have a growth mindset.

So here’s the question: how do you respond to “Try” – with excitement or glum resignation?

The Power of Yet
“Not yet” is another phrase that Carol Dweck has helped me to understand better.

In a Tedtalk she describes a high school in Chicago that doesn’t give failing grades.  Instead, if students doesn’t pass a course, they get the grade – not yet.

Dweck loves this concept.  As she put it: “If you get a failing grade, you think I’m nothing. I’m nowhere.  But if you get a grade of “not yet”, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It puts you back onto a path into the future.”

Students with a fixed mindset feel as though their intelligence is being tested.  Failure is devastating because it reveals how inadequate they are, and there is no possibility for improvement.  Dweck’s words to describe this were wonderfully evocative: “Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they are gripped in the tyranny of now.”

I was thinking about Dweck’s talk this past week while I was working with some horses I haven’t seen for a couple of months.  No matter how many weeks – or even months it is between visits, these horses always remember what we were working on, and they are always eager for more.  Their enthusiasm for learning would be any teacher’s delight.  On this trip the lessons were mostly in-hand. I was focusing on how soft, quiet, and connected the communication between us could become.  For each of the horses it became a dance of cues.

Bonanza nose target 3

We tend to think of cues as something we give.  I cue the horse to trot.  He responds by trotting.  The cue is a signal.  The trot is the behavior I get in response.  This is a very limited and limiting view of cues.

Cues are wonderfully layered and complex.  The more you learn about cues, the more you appreciate what this means.  Here’s an example: we’re not the only ones giving cues.  Cues can also be given by our animals.  When cues are truly working well there is a back and forth exchange.  In fact, one of the fun by-products of clicker training is the behaviors that I have taught to my horse can be turned around and used by him to cue me.

When you recognize that cues are a two way street, you become much more aware of what your animals are trying to communicate back to you.  Through this cue communication you become better at listening to your learner and adjusting your training to meet his needs.  You’re thinking about the whole animal and not just the isolated behaviors you want to teach.

This raises the question: what is the difference between a cue and a behavior? Could you reach a point in your training where all you really have is just a series of cues?

On a macro scale this is how we normally think of cues:

cue behavior cue graphicIn this schematic cues and behaviors are seen as two different things.  But really a cue is also a behavior.  You lift your hand to cue your dog to lie down.  That hand signal is a behavior.  When the dog responds correctly, that reinforces you for lifting your hand in that particular way and makes it more likely that you’ll do it again.  The effect of cues works in two directions.  They signal which is the next “hot behavior”, and they reinforce the preceding behavior.

When your dog lies down, we think of that as a behavior.  But it’s also a cue to you to click and toss him a treat.

You say “trot” to get your horse to change gait.  Producing that sound is a behavior.   As are all the weight shifts, the changes of breath, the head tilts and anything else we may use to signal to our intent.  But why did you ask for the trot at that particular moment?  Were you responding to some subtle signals from your horse that said this would be a good time to trot? When you think about cue communication, this is how the graphic evolves:
cue behav cue communication graphicWith people what would we call this back and forth exchange?  How about a conversation?

That’s exactly what I was having with these horses.  Back and forth – I listened to them, they listened to me.  Out of this conversation one of the horses produced the most glorious trot.  I was working him in a somewhat unconventional leading position.  Instead of being at his head, I was by his hind end.  As he trotted beside me, I had my hand resting on his hips.

It was an amazing trot – to the left.  To the right he couldn’t manage a trot at all.  I found myself saying “yet”. Thank you Carol Dweck.  The trot was not there – yet.

I asked.  He clearly knew what I wanted.  I could have insisted, forced him to make more of an effort, to produce a trot NOW.  I did not.  Instead I listened to him.  I let him cue me.  This is how our relationship has always been.  He wanted to shift his balance into a lateral flexion.  Good idea.  Let’s flow with that.

The next day the trot to the left felt even more glorious.  And in this session, when I asked for the trot to the right, he went up into it with ease.  Not yet had transformed into yes now!

More than that, the trot to the right was even better than it was to the left. The celebration over that wonderful trot was all the sweeter because it had not been there just the day before.  I had chosen a teaching strategy that let me listen to my horse, that let me harness the power of yet.

“Yet” is a wonderful word.  “He can’t trot to the right” is a door slammed closed.  “He can’t trot to the right – yet” is a door held open to possibilities. Which do you want for your horse?

Dancing with Cues:

Here’s a bit of what can evolve when you dance with cues.

Written by: Alexandra Kurland

Published January 12, 2015

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