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
Getting Out Of The Cloud
Systems biologist, Uri Alon has given us the image of the cloud. As a young graduate student studying physics, he found himself in despair over his research. Assumption after assumption had failed. What he thought was a reasonable hypothesis led him nowhere. The cloud became his metaphor for the state of confusion that sits at the boundary between the known and the unknown. When you are in the cloud, you know you are getting closer to discovering something truly new.
When one of his graduate students tells him that he is in the cloud, Alon understands that this is a normal part of the research process. Knowing about the process doesn’t take away the negative feelings, but it does tell him how to help that student.
Alon: “Just knowing that the cloud is normal, that it’s essential, and in fact beautiful, means we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society. It detoxifies the feeling that something is deeply wrong with me.”
Instead of being defeated by the cloud, Alon and his graduate students use it to find creative solutions. How did Alon find this creative solution for his teaching when other researchers did not? Innovations rarely come from within a field. They come from bringing in fresh ideas from other sources.
So what was the fresh idea Alon brought to his research?
At the same time that he was working on his Ph.D, he was also studying improvisational theatre. As an actor, he was actively taught how to deal with failure. One technique for going into the unknown was saying “Yes, and . . .” to what other people offered.
Alon: “Yes and . . .” means agreeing with and building on another person’s offer. If an actor says: “Here’s a pool of water.” and the second actor says: “No, that’s just the stage.” you have nowhere to go. The second actor has created a dead end for your idea. The improvisation is over, and everyone on stage feels frustrated. That’s called blocking: saying no to the other person’s idea.
If instead you say:
There’s a pool of water.
Yes, let’s jump in.
Look, there’s a whale.
Let’s grab it by the tail.
It’s taking us to the moon.
That way you unlock hidden creativity building on each other’s ideas.
In science there’s a lot of blocking and no mindfulness for this form of communicating.”
Silencing the Inner Critic
We have an inner critic that keeps us from grabbing the whale by the tail because we don’t want people to think we are ignorant, stupid, or foolish. Saying “yes, and . . .” by-passes that inner critic.
Saying: “My horse can’t pick up his right canter lead” is limiting and creates dead ends.
Saying: “My horse can’t pick up his right canter lead – yet” opens the door to possibilities.
Now we have another powerful phrase borrowed from the sciences. Uri Alon has given us: “Yes and. . .”
“Yes And . . .” instead of “No, Not That”
The horse world is full of: “No, not that.” We are the ones on stage saying: “no that’s not a pool of water. Don’t go there.” We are actively taught to block.
We slide down the lead asking for movement and our horse takes a step – just not in the direction we want him to go.
We say: “No, not that. That’s not the way to go.”
He tries again. “No, not that.” We keep shutting him down and shutting him down. Is it any wonder we see so many horses who have lost all the sparkle in their eyes. What we love most about horses, their spirit, we rob from them with all of our “No, not that” blocks.
How much better to say: “Yes, and. . .” That’s how we should be shaping behavior. This is what the best shapers know how to do.
They set up the training environment so they can ask for tiny slices of behavior. Each slice is greeted with a “yes, and . . .” Yes, you shifted your weight. That’s great. Now what else can you do?
Recently I was working with a group of horses who I have come to know well. When I first met them, they were saying: “No, not that” to me every time I slid down a lead. I could tell from their responses that they had encountered a lot of blocking in their past. The lead didn’t invite movement. It stalled them out.
We’ve had a great many roundabout conversations about lead ropes and the cues they can give. On this last visit the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. We had our first true “yes and” conversations via a lead. Each time I slid my hand down the lead, I was inviting movement. I was answered with a positive response. I might want more of a step to the side, but instead of blocking what they gave me, I accepted the offering and built on it.
I had a whale by the tail, and it was taking me to the moon. What a delicious feeling! As I was working with these horses I was thinking – how on earth do you teach this! Blocking is easy. How do you teach someone how to accept and flow with each changing step? And then I listened to Alon talk about “yes, and . . .” That is the metaphor that describes the dance. My partner is never wrong. “Yes, that’s right” is so much more supportive than “No not that.” These horses initially expected the “No.” Now they understand “Yes.”
Clicker training gives us the freedom to say “Yes, and . . .” The horse training I originally learned was all about saying the opposite: “No, not that . . .” I think this is a huge dividing line between what clicker training offers and what traditional training encourages. We look at what we want our animals To Do, and we say “yes” to their offerings.
While I was working on this article, I took a break from the computer and went out to give the horses their lunch. While Peregrine ate his mid-day mash, I cleaned stalls, checked the water, refilled the hay boxes. By that time Peregrine was done. I opened his stall door, and Robin went in to make sure that Peregrine hadn’t left anything that needed cleaning up. I fixed a cup of tea and was heading back into the tack room when I heard Robin calling to me from the arena.
I looked in and both horses were waiting for me. The tea could wait. I went in to the arena. Peregrine started offering his octogenarian version of Spanish walk. Robin circled around us in his beautiful collected trot and ended by positioning himself in perfect heel position by my side. I found myself laughing as I thought “Yes, and . . .”
Next time you are with your horses say “yes and . . .” to them. Grab the whale by the tail and see where they take you. To the moon and back is a wonderful place to go when it is in the company of a horse.
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:
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.
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.
Fixed, 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.
Growth 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.
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:
In 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: With 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: