The Goat Diaries Day 10: You Can Never Do One Thing

The July Goat Diaries

I don’t know which label to give this session:

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

You can never do one thing.

These both work.

E was very cautious around people.  He had shown me that many times over.  When Panda first arrived at eight months of age, she was more than cautious.  She was afraid to the point of charging anyone who leaned over her.  She hadn’t shown this behavior when we first met her in July, but it’s what she arrived with in September.  Panda was a Florida girl.  That’s where she was born.  We had to wait the extra two months for it to be cool enough to transport her North.  She arrived sporting the most gorgeous show clip.  Because she is little, I suspect the clipping was imposed not trained.  She was probably the victim of the “three men and a boy” school of horse handling, meaning she was wrestled into submission and made to stand still while someone towered over her with a pair of clippers.

So the horse we received in September pinned her ears and snaked her neck out whenever someone came near.  If I had seen any sign of this behavior when we looked at her, I would have passed on her as a potential guide.  But here she was.  Florida was a long way away, so this was the horse I was going to train.  I had enormous confidence that clicker training would get this sorted – and of course it did.  Not only did Panda become a super guide, these lessons led to her favorite game – Panda catch.

So now with E I had a goat who was afraid of people.  I found myself using many of the lessons that had worked so well with Panda.  Who knows how many good things these simple lessons would bring us.

E’s 7 pm session
I brought E out on a lead into the arena.  He was very good.  He showed me that he was understanding the morning lesson.  When I clicked, he was moving away from my treat pocket to get the treat.

Ann joined us in the arena.  I led him up to her.  He reached out cautiously to sniff her.  Click, treat.  I repeated this a couple of times, then he decided he wasn’t interested in going towards her again.

If his caution had been only that, discovering that approaching Ann produced treats might have been enough to break the ice.  But his caution was a reflection of real fear.  I have to be careful under these conditions.  If I am afraid of cats, but I really need the fifty dollars you are offering me if I touch the hissing kitten, I might do it.  I’m still afraid of all things feline.  Take away the fifty dollars, and I won’t go anywhere near the kitten.  That’s always a question when you are using positive reinforcement to get an individual “over” their fear.  Are you really changing the underlying concern, or are you just masking that worry?  And is it really fair to ask someone to make that choice?

It is possible that when I touch the kitten, it turns into a soft ball of purring contentment.  Instead of being afraid, now I’m enchanted.  Being clicked and reinforced for approaching the kitten has shown me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

Being clicked and reinforced for approaching Ann, was not enough to convince E that she was harmless.  I changed the game.

I clicked E as he walked beside me keeping slack in the lead, but instead of giving him the treat directly, I walked over to Ann and put the treat into her outstretched hand.  She was now the “food bowl.”  The first time I had to hold my hand over hers to get him to approach and take a treat.  After that he was willing to eat directly from her hand.

I wanted E to discover that people can be the source of good things.  I did a lot of this with Panda.  It began just as I was doing here.  Gradually, as Panda became more comfortable approaching people, we added in more people and changed the game to a targeting lesson.  At clinics I would have people form a large circle.  Each person would have a target, but only one person at a time would hold out the target.  When Panda approached and oriented to the target, click, that person gave her a treat.  Then that target disappeared, and someone else would hold out a target.

This game gradually morphed into its current form.  Panda gallops from one person to the next.  As she approaches, she runs around behind the chosen person and comes to a halt neatly at their side.  Very fun!  They click, give her a treat, and then off she goes – galloping to the next person.  If you asked her, she would say she invented the game, and in many ways she would be right.

I was borrowing from the beginnings of Panda catch to help E make several important discoveries.  I was hoping this lesson would help him to become more comfortable approaching people other than myself.  I also thought it might direct him away from my treat pocket.  When I clicked, I immediately headed over to Ann.  This took the focus off my pocket.  It wasn’t click and then zero in on my hand reaching towards my pocket.  Now it was click and follow me to the “food bucket”.

After he got his treat, he had to decide what to do next.  Should he stay where he just got fed, or he should follow me?  Decisions, decisions.  The choice he made was to follow me.  Excellent!

So now we had a new game.  I used the lead to direct E away from Ann.  I was careful not to drag him.  If he didn’t follow right away, I waited.  The contact from the lead told him I wanted something.  It was up to him to figure out what – and to be willing to do it.  As soon as he moved towards me and away from Ann, click, I walked the treat back to her outstretched hand.

Once he had his treats, I used the lead to ask him to move away from her hand and to come to me.  I know many dog trainers use versions of this game.  They’ll toss the treats so the dog has to move away from them to get them.  Or they’ll have the treats stashed in a bowl.  When they click, they’ll take the dog with them to get the treat.  These are all good strategies for keeping our animal learners from becoming locked onto our pockets.

The photos below show a wonderful progression. E gets a treat from Ann and then walks off with me.  Click!  (Fig. 1 – 4)  We return to Ann.  (Fig. 5-8)  But now when I ask E to leave, he’s conflicted.  Ann has the treats!  Here again the rope handling becomes important.  It would be so easy to pull him into motion.  The learning for him in that case would be follow or be dragged.  That’s not what I want him to learn.

Instead I wait for him to make his own choice. (Fig. 9-13)  E walks off with me. Click. (Fig. 14)  E watches me hand the treat to Ann and walks with me so he can get to her. (Fig. 15-17)  This time when I ask E to follow me, he backs with me away from Ann.  (Fig. 18-19)  We walk back to Ann.

Walking back to Ann gives E more practice walking with me.  That’s one of the great benefits of this process. (Fig. 20-22).  E is becoming comfortable enough with Ann for her to be able to stroke him.  (Fig. 23) This time when I ask him to walk off with me, he leaves readily and we walk a large circle past Ann.  Click!  (Fig. 24-27)  We return to Ann for a treat. (Fig. 28-30)  That’s a lot of progress from sequence to sequence

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When we left the arena, E was in a hurry to get back to the stall. I did a lot of stopping and asking him to come back to me.  As he came off the pressure of the lead, click, I gave him a treat and we continued on.  We hadn’t gone half way down the aisle before he was walking beside me keeping slack in the lead.  These goats are such fast learners.  He was becoming a pleasure to lead.  Gone was the sled dog impersonation we had started with.

The Goat Palace – Current Training

In my previous post I shared a story about Thanzi and Trixie dating back to the end of December.   January was a brutally cold month here in the Northeast.  The temperatures stayed in the single digits often dipping well below zero (Fahrenheit).  Training sessions shrunk down to the bare minimum.  It’s so easy to think that you aren’t getting anything done during these long stretches when the weather is against you, but the reality is good things emerge out of little steps.

So I described in the previous post how I reinforced Thanzi and Trixie for staying on their platforms and waiting patiently for their treats.  Every time I fed them, I would open their gate and let them out into the hallway.  While I was filling their hay feeders, they were waiting for me on their platforms.  It was bitter cold, but how could I resist?  So I would spend a couple of minutes clicking and reinforcing first one, then the other.  I wanted them to learn to take turns.

We are now in February, and it is shedding season.  This is very relevant because these are cashmere goats.  Their fleece has to be combed out of their coat and collected.  I was not looking forward to this, especially for Trixie who has been so body shy.

Sister Mary Elizabeth came out last week to check on their coats.  They weren’t yet starting to shed, so we sat and visited with them instead.  As she told me about Trixie’s background, she remembered that she had been one of three goats who were attacked by a dog last summer.  She wondered if this contributed to the fear Trixie often showed.  It is certainly possible.

A couple of days later Trixie started to let go of her coat.  She and Thanzi were on their platforms.  I started to comb across her back.  She stayed on her platform!

Thanzi has just started to shed as well.  Yesterday both goats took turns.  I would comb Thanzi while Trixie waited on her platform.  Then I would comb Trixie while Thanzi waited.

This was a huge step for both of these goats – to let me comb them without any restraint was an enormous gift.  To have it completely volunteered turned what could have been a horrible struggle into something all three of us can look forward to.  Instead of destroying the good work I had been doing with them, the combing was building trust.

This is what I love about positive reinforcement training.  You ALWAYS get more good things than just the one thing you are focused on.

These two photos tell the story.  I love how patiently each goat waits while the other is groomed.  And I am delighted that I can lean over them to comb out their fleece.  All that patient prep was paying off!

And by the way, not only do I not want to stress them.  I don’t want to stress their babies.  Both goats are due in March.  It won’t be long now before we have baby goats in the barn!

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries: Day 11 – A Walk in the Park

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there:   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.


Cues Evolve: Part 4

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

In the previous post I shared with you some stories from Panda’s early training.  Panda’s manners developed over time because she lived in a world of total consistency.  Throughout the early part of her training I was the only one who handled her.  She didn’t have to figure out how the rules worked with different people setting different standards.

Ann’s first guide dog, Bailey, had been a great guide.  I learned a guide’s job in part by watching him.  The job description is pretty straight forward.  The real key to training a guide is consistency.  I knew that Ann would never be able to see the raised curb in front of her, so I knew that Panda and I always had to stop at each and every curb.

By the time Panda went to live full time with Ann, it was actually a relief sending her off.  Maintaining that level of consistency when you yourself don’t need it is a challenge.  There is always the temptation to cut across the parking lot because you’re in a hurry instead of following the edge the way a guide should.  I remember being at a conference where there where several guide dog trainers in attendance.  One of them spotted us and cut through several rows of empty chairs to come talk to us.  She had a dog with her who was about a week away from being placed.

I was horrified.  I would never have cut through those chairs with Panda.  We would have walked to the end of the aisle and gone through all the navigational checks that a blind handler would use to move to a different row of chairs.

There’s a great horse training expression that applies here:

“The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count” John Lyons

The more consistent I was, the more consistent Panda was going to be.

Over-eager Students
But what happens when you can’t maintain this standard of handling?  What happens when clicker training isn’t a consistent part of a horse’s life?  That’s often the case with the horses I work with.  I see them for short periods of time, and then they are back to handling as usual.

Pico head down 1One such horse was Pico, a wonderfully clever horse who right from the start adored clicker training.  I began with him, as I do all horses, with protective contact, but I quickly moved to a larger work space where he had more room to move.  We worked on basics – grown-ups, targeting, the beginnings of mat work, backing and head lowering.

On my first visit I spent four days with him during which time he had two short sessions per day plus some casual interactions over his stall door.

For four days his world was completely turned upside down.  He was singled out from a group of fifty horses for all this special attention.  Every morning I greeted him as I walked into the barn.  I gave him extra attention.  He got to play this very neat game out in the arena.  He had the goodies, all the social interaction, and then I left and there was nothing.  From his perspective I simply disappeared. What a topsy turvy world it must have seemed to him.  I was gone.  There was no morning greeting, no play time after coming in from the day’s turnout.  Nothing.

I was gone for about a month, and then I suddenly popped back into his life.  Pico was so excited he could barely think straight.  During my first visit he’d been a superstar, but now he was a mess.  He was in my space, mugging my pockets, forgetting the manners he’d been showing me so beautifully before.  He was truly like a small child the day before Christmas.  He was just so excited, he couldn’t do anything right.

I certainly didn’t want to punish this enthusiasm, so I turned it instead into a game.

The game was: “What’s the new cue?”

I thought of it for Pico because I truly enjoyed his company.  I wasn’t training him.  I wasn’t working him.  “Working” opens one set of files.  It gives you access to tried and true methods.  It doesn’t open the creative files that bring you to new solutions.  Those are opened only when you are playing.  Play and creativity are like two vines that have grown together and hold one another up.

Creating New Cues
So what is this “What is the new cue” game?

It is based on the process of creating a new cue for an established behavior.

Here’s the process:

Suppose you have taught a puppy to sit.  You’ve added a cue to the behavior.  When you say “sit”, your puppy sits readily.

But now you would like to change the cue.  There are many reasons you might want to do this.

Your puppy may at first have sat with his hips off to the side.  That’s how young dogs often sit.  Over time you’ve cleaned up the behavior for the show ring, and he now sits with his hips squarely under him.

By changing to a new cue, you are creating a performance cue that refers only to this tidied up version of sit – not the original sloppy sit.  If you kept the original cue, under the pressure of competition, your puppy might revert back to the first-learned version of the behavior.

Or perhaps you have been sloppy with your stimulus control.  “Sit” means sometimes, if you feel like it, when the spirit moves you.  It doesn’t mean now.  So you tidy up the behavior and give it a new cue that has none of the old sloppiness associated with it.

Or maybe your puppy sits just fine.  There’s nothing wrong with the original cue, but you’d like to do some freestyle with your dog, and you’d like to use some props.  When you knock over a suitcase, you’d like your puppy to sit.

You can come up with lots of different situations where changing to a new cue for an established behavior would be useful.  Whatever the reason for wanting a new cue, they all depend upon the same process:

1.) Build the behavior.

2.) Attach a cue to the behavior.

3.) When this first cue is solid, you can begin to transfer the behavior to a new cue.

You’re going to give the new cue first, followed immediately by the old cue.  This will trigger the behavior – click then treat.

Repeat this process several times.  You will begin to see the animal initiating the behavior before you can give the old cue.  So now you can give the new cue and get the behavior – click then treat.

So it’s:

transfer cue process

Sleight of Hand Magic Tricks
This is the underlying process I used for Pico to turn an unwanted behavior – mugging my pockets – into the cue for a desirable behavior – head lowering.

That’s straight forward enough.  What changed was turning this into play.  The end result was great manners taught without the frustration of extinction.  I didn’t want to just fold my arms and wait for Pico to stop trying to get past me into my pockets.  As excited and eager as he was, that would have spoiled his game.  From his perspective he’d be saying: “I put my quarter into the candy machine.  Why isn’t my carrot bar coming out?!”

What do we do when a vending machine isn’t working?  We get frustrated.  We jiggle the vending machine, and if that doesn’t work, we bang on it harder.

Eventually, we’ll give up and leave, but we’re not going to be very eager to try again.

This was not the downward emotional spiral I wanted for Pico.  I loved his enthusiasm.  I just needed to redirect it.

So I began with head lowering.  I used my hand as a target.  I invited him to drop his head by following my hand down.   Targeting made the behavior “hot”.  Follow my hand down – click and treat.  Easy.  The cue became the combination of my targeting gesture and a slight bend of my body.

Next I transferred the cue to a light touch on his poll.  I reached out towards him and rested my hand briefly on his poll.

By itself this is a very standard “horse training” way to ask for head lowering that can be easily adapted for clicker training.  You rest your hand lightly on your horse’s neck just behind his ears.  Your horse won’t at first know what you want.  The most normal reaction is he’ll lift his head up, or he’ll brace against you.  You’ll follow his head movement, keeping your hand in place with a steady, neutral pressure.  You aren’t trying to push his head down.  That’s his job – to drop his own head.  You’ll simply wait with your hand on his poll.  Eventually, he’ll drop his head, and you’ll remove your hand.  If you’re a clicker trainer, you’ll add a click followed by a treat.

This strategy is based on the following:

A little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.

Understanding Pressure
If your cat is sitting on your lap while you read this text, eventually, no matter how much you love her, you will need her to move.  A little bit of pressure from her curled up on your lap has created a very great need for a change.  You’ll be squirming out from under her.  (Of course, she will then go to work training you.  She will turn into a boneless rag doll and very mysteriously manage to pin you down even more.  And she will charm you into providing even more of a lap to sit on by purring loudly.)

Your horse will eventually get tired of having your hand resting on his head.  Up doesn’t dislodge you, so he’ll try down.  At the slightest drop of his head, you’ll take your hand away. Click then treat.

This method works, but it can take a lot of patience on the part of the handler.  What usually happens is the person gets impatient and begins pushing down.  The horse pushes back, and suddenly you’re moving a long way away from play.

Play and the Transferred Cue
So instead of waiting for Pico to discover the answer, I used the transferred cue process.  I put my hand on Pico’s poll, but I didn’t linger there.  I wasn’t trying to trigger the behavior by leaving my hand there.

I rested my hand on his poll long enough for Pico to be aware that I had done so, then I offered him my hand as a target. He dropped his head.  Click then treat.

I repeated this process:

Hand on poll graphic

After the third or fourth repetition, I hesitated just fractionally after reaching out to his poll.  He dropped his head.  Click and treat.

After that, all I needed was my new hand-on-poll cue.  If he hesitated at all, I could offer a reminder by shifting to the hand targeting.  I only needed the reminder a couple of times before the new cue was solid.

So then I moved to the next transfer.  I used the simplest version of asking for head lowering from a lead.  I milked the line down.

This is a curious expression.  It means I slid my fingers along the line to create a slight downward suggestion.  My hand didn’t close around the lead.  I stroked down a couple of inches and then brought my hand back up to the snap and stroked down the lead again.  But remember this was a transfer-cue process.  I wasn’t waiting until the stroking of the lead triggered the head lowering response.  Instead I stroked the lead just a couple of times, and then I reached up and touched his poll.

He wasn’t expecting that, so I continued on back through my chain of cues and targeted him down with my hand.  He dropped his head, click then treat.

milked line transfer cue

On the next repetition I got as far as my hand on his poll before he dropped his head.

And then he had it.  As I milked the line down, he dropped his head.  Very neat.

The Transfer Continues
We practiced this for a few more reps, and then I made the next transfer.

Now the cue was a bump of my hand against his nose.

So here was the sequence of cues he knew:

transfer cue full sequence

I could go as far back into this sequence as I needed to trigger head lowering.

I thought of it like learning how to say “horse” in five different languages.  When I say “horse” as part of a children’s game, you’ll point to the picture of a horse – not the cow or the sheep.

Pferd is the German for horse.

If I say “pferd”, I want you to point to the picture of the horse.  At first, this odd word won’t mean anything to you, but if I say “pferd”, then “horse”, you’ll point to the picture I want.  Click and treat.  I’ll only need to repeat this a couple of times to have you pointing to the horse when I say “pferd”.

Okay, got that.  Before I need to remind you what pferd means, you’re pointing to the picture of the horse.

Caballo is the Spanish for pferd.

So now I say “caballo”, followed by “pferd” and you point to the picture of a horse.

“Caballo”. You don’t need the extra hint. You point right away to the horse.

Cavallo is the Italian for caballo.  So again I say “cavallo” followed by “caballo”.  The new word trips you up for a moment, so I continue on to “pferd”.  Now you have it.

“Cavallo.”  You point to the horse.

Cheval is the French for caballo.

So now I say “cheval” and you point to the horse.  This is an easy game – as long as I don’t mix in other farm animals.  That’s when it becomes a real test of memory.  Right now I am simply transferring the cue through a chain of words.

By the time I get to cheval, you’ll have no trouble making the switch.  You know the game.  Pointing to the horse is the hot behavior.  Played at this level of difficulty, this is a game you are guaranteed to win.

Pico was guaranteed to win.

I bumped his nose – he dropped his head, click and treat.

Sleight of Hand Magic – The Trick Revealed
Now if you are thinking all of this was built over a period of many sessions – think again.  These transfers happened in rapid fire succession, one after another.  It was like watching a magician’s trick.  Where’s the quarter that was just in my hand?  Oh look!  It’s on your shoulder.  How did it get there?  And how did your watch get on my wrist?  You weren’t watching.  Oh look!  When I bump his nostril, your horse is dropping his nose to the ground .  That’s a funny reaction!

So now I could fold my arms into “grown-ups”.  If Pico bumped me looking for treats, his own mugging behavior cued him to drop his head.  Magic!

But then it’s all just child’s play!

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue

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

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:          

Cues Evolve: Part 3

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

The previous post introduced the concept of tap root behaviors.  You strengthen a base behavior by returning frequently to it.  Like a well-nourished tap root, it keeps getting stronger.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.  In this next section we’ll build on the solid foundation of good manners that approach creates.

Saying Please and Thank You  
Suppose a friend is visiting you with her four year old daughter.  The toddler sees some toys you have in a basket.  (We won’t tell her mother they’re dog toys you keep there for your other friends and their canine companions.)

The child asks to play with the toys.  Immediately, her mother is saying “What do you say?”

“Please,” the child answers.

You hand the child a toy to play with (a new one that hasn’t yet been chewed by your canine guests).

Again, the mother prompts, “What do you say?”

The child parrots out the answer: “Thank you.”

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t just for toddlers.  She isn’t learning to say these phrases just to satisfy her mother.  They are the glue that holds our social lives together.

We ask permission.  We don’t demand.

We say thank you in appreciation for all the little gestures of accommodation that make life easier.  It takes time for please and thank you to become habits, but once learned and understood, it becomes second nature to include them in conversations.

Good Manners are a Good Habit
Grown-ups is similar.  At first you have to keep reminding your horse that manners matter. He can’t just go straight to your pockets for goodies.  It takes a while for good manners to become a good habit.

I remember when I first started working with Panda, Ann was worried about her interest in my pockets.  Ann was struggling with her new guide dog.  He came to her with a total lack of basic living-with-humans manners.  Her previous dogs had always had the freedom of her house.  This dog had to live either crated or behind baby gates.  If he was given free access to the house, he would turn anything that wasn’t tied down into a chew toy.

This can be a problem for anyone living with a dog, but for someone who is blind it is especially so.  Every time you hear your dog chewing something, you have to check to see what he has. It could be your best dress shoes, a harmless dog toy, or a pill bottle filled with medicine that could kill him.

Manners matter.  This dog was supposed to be showing me the model to copy for training a super guide.  Instead he was showing me everything you didn’t want.  Ann didn’t need two problem animals.  When a very young Panda wanted to see what else we were hiding in our pockets, I could feel Ann tensing.  She had enough trouble with this dog.  She didn’t need a pushy horse, as well.

I’d only had Panda a week when we had our first long car trip.  I was teaching a clinic at a barn that was about an hour from my home.  We were quite the Noah’s Arc heading off that day. Panda was still learning how to ride in a car, so I sat in the back seat with her.  Ann sat in front with her guide dog wedged in between her feet.  And another client drove us.

Panda was essentially right in my lap so my pockets were at nose level for the entire trip.  I couldn’t be more vulnerable, and there was no putting her away and taking a break.  For the entire hour’s drive we worked on grown-ups.

Each time Panda took her nose away even for a second, click, she got a treat.  What Ann was hearing from the front seat was a rapid-fire barrage of clicks.  She’s an experienced clicker trainer so she knows how training works.  You begin with high rates of reinforcement for little things, and you gradually expand them out.  But I knew she was worried.  Her shepherd was supposed to be a “trained” dog, but everything was still in the “terrible twos” toddler stage with him. How was this going to work for Panda?

Panda was our true “toddler”.  She was only nine months old on that first car ride.  Just like a human child, she needed a lot of reminders to say “please” and “thank you”.  She was learning that mugging my pockets not only never got her treats, it wasn’t necessary.  There were so many other, great ways to get me to click.

The Grown-ups Really Are Talking
Panda was also learning that she didn’t need to bang the proverbial kitchen pots and pans to get attention.  She got plenty of attention, but sometimes my focus needed to shift away from her.  She was learning at those times it was okay to take a nap.

Panda asleep 5 photos

By the time she went to live full time with Ann, the grown-ups really could talk uninterrupted.  We could go out to dinner with Panda as Ann’s guide.  She had learned to stand next to Ann’s chair dozing while waiters set yummy smelling food on the table.  Panda would occasionally poke her nose above the table to check out what was on the menu, but she never interrupted – not until after the desert course, and then it was only to let Ann know she needed to go out.

(By the way – if you want great service, take a guide horse with you.  It was always great fun watching the waiters competing to see who got to serve the table with the mini horse.)

Great Service
This reminds me of a great Panda story.  The very first store we took Panda into was Lowes Hardware.  We quickly discovered that Panda loved to shop!  I don’t know what there is about the long cavernous aisles of the big box stores that she likes, but from the very beginning Panda has always enjoyed her trips to these stores.

She had trotted down several aisles before we found the PVC pipe we had come for.  Ann and I were discussing what size we needed for our project when I looked up.  Normally you have to hunt for someone to help you.  Not this time!  We were surrounded by twelve sales clerks.  One of them said, “We heard on the walkie-talkie there was a horse in bathroom fittings.”

I could just imagine what they were thinking – some idiot has brought a full sized horse into the store.  They had all come running.

Of course, we got great service!  And think of the conversations they must have had that night around the dinner table!

Coming Next: Consistency

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

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:          

JOYFULL Horses: Cue Communication Continued – Part 3: The Mounting Block Lesson

In the previous section I described how I taught Peregrine to line himself up to a mounting block.  He was already an experienced riding horse who was familiar with mounting blocks so this was an easy lesson.  I used two targets to bring him into position.  The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.

Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days.  The lesson is called: “Capture the Saddle”.  (Refer to Lesson 11 in The Click That Teaches DVD Series: “Capture the Saddle”.)  It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting.  I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before a rider gets on.  The lesson shows how well connected you and your horse are to one another.  BEFORE you get on and need to rely on them for your safety, it confirms that you BOTH know how to communication via the reins and are comfortable with their use.

A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work will breeze through this lesson.  The prerequisite is a lesson that I have named: The “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.  I will refer you to the DVD of that name for the details on how to teach this lesson.  (This is Lesson 5 in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series)

The “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
The overall description is this: the handler sets out a circle of cones and then leads her horse around the circle.  The basic question is: can the handler let go of the lead/rein and have her horse stay with her like a dog heeling at her side?  Or when she let’s go, does her horse wander off the circle, lag behind, rush ahead, or push into her to cut across her path?  Where is his attention – with her or elsewhere outside of the circle?

Robin wwylm far end collecting 1 at 11.59.50 AM

Robin has his attention on me as we walk around the “Why Would You Leave Me?” circle.

It doesn’t matter if the horse can do this perfectly at liberty, wearing nothing on his head.  Lots of things change when a horse is “dressed” for riding.  The horse that walks beautifully by your side when he’s wearing nothing, may become an anxious freight train when he’s wearing a bridle.

Bridling 2

Some people may jump to the conclusion that a horse who becomes anxious when he’s wearing a bridle dislikes having a bit in his mouth, but that may be a red herring.  If we went back to that horse’s first encounter with a bit, we might discover that he was one of those youngsters who always seemed to have something in his mouth.  His handlers were forever taking lead ropes, brushes, halters out of his reach.  If you left anything close enough to grab, he would have it in his mouth. So when he was offered a bit, there was nothing unpleasant about it.  It was something he could put in his mouth, and finally his people didn’t snatch it away from him!

But then the reality of riding set in.  Riders bounced uncomfortably on his back.  His saddle pinched his shoulders, and worst of all, when he guessed wrong or headed off in his own direction, his riders jerked on the rein so the bit hurt his mouth.  It wasn’t long before someone approaching him with a bridle became a predictor of unpleasant things to come.

Of course, this isn’t the only outcome for riding.  The sight of the bridle can mean a fun clicker game is about to begin.  But for a horse who has been ridden with corrections, the bridle often triggers unpleasant associations.

You could decide to work exclusively at liberty, or you could help this horse out by explaining away his anxiety about halters, leads, bridles, and saddles.  Every time you explain away a fear, you remove a potential source of stress for your horse.  That’s a process that’s worth doing.

When I first get on a horse, I like to walk off from the mounting block on a loose rein. (And yes I do use mounting blocks.  I feel very strongly that they are a courtesy to the horse.  They save strain to his back.  You save strain to yours, and you protect your saddle from becoming twisted.)

Icky at mouting block 2 photos at 11.18.23 AM

I want the horse to stand patiently at the mounting block until I signal to him that I am ready for him to walk off.  I’ve watched too many horses who barely let the rider settle into the saddle before they take off.  The rider is snatching up the reins and blocking the horse before they’ve even gone two steps.  The horse protects himself by throwing his head up and tightening his jaw which then hollows his back.  The ride has barely begun, and already they are in a training hole.  It’s a long way from play for either horse or rider.

When I get on, I expect my horse to wait patiently while I get myself organized and settled into the saddle.  I appreciate these good manners, so I always click and treat the horse for standing well.  I’m sure there will be some who feel that the horse should not need to be be reinforced for behavior that he knows well, but I like to say “thank you” by marking good responses with a click and a treat.  It costs so little to maintain this ritual.  I ride with clicker treats at the ready.  Offering one as a thank you takes no real effort, and it means that my horses can be trusted to stand quietly at the mounting block.

When we are ready, I cue the horse to walk off.  I want him to walk off on a loose rein.  On a green horse, this may not be possible.  Two steps on from the mounting block I may be picking up the rein and sliding down asking for the hip, but the goal is to have a horse who leaves the mounting block in an energetic, but relaxed walk.  The reins are long.  I don’t want to be shortening them up and restricting the walk in any way.

This is important.  It gives me time to evaluate how my horse is feeling on that day.  Where is his back?  Does everything feel as it should, or is there a stiffness or an uneven feeling that I need to be aware of?  What is his energy level? How does everything compare to previous rides?  Can I feel the effect of the previous lesson in the start-up?  What is available to me?  What do I need to work on?  As Mia Segal (June 9, 2016 post)  would say, if you know the questions, you have the lesson.

Walking Off Casually and the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
Walking off casually gives us time to come together as a riding pair.  It gives me time to evaluate where my horse is on that particular day, both physically and emotionally.  But walking off casually is not a given.  It is something I have actively taught to my horses.  It begins on the ground with the very first leading lesson and is further expanded upon in the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.

This lesson is best taught on a circle.  Every time the horse takes his focus away from the handler and begins to leave the circle, the handler slides down the lead and brings the horse back onto the circle.  The handler is essentially asking the question: why would you leave me?

This is such an important question to ask.  Are you leaving because the environment is too distracting? In that case perhaps the best option is to move to a less distracting location.  And note the distractions could be from things the horse is afraid of and wants to get away from, such as a tarp that’s come loose over the shavings pile.  Or it could be things the horse wants to go towards, such as grass or his pasture buddies.

Are you leaving because you are so full of energy that you can’t walk at my pace?  Are you leaving because you aren’t balanced enough to stay on a circle?  Are you leaving because you’re afraid of me?

wwylm collage

Robin begins by being momentarily distracted by something out the back door, and ends with some lateral work and a beautifully balanced, connected trot.

These are all questions I want to ask and have answered before I put my bones up on the horse.  That’s the purpose of the “Why Would You Leave Me” game.  The end result will be a horse who walks with you without needing to be held there with a lead.

We begin on a circle so the loop keeps repeating itself.  If your horse tends to crowd into you as you pass by the gate, and you missed noticing until he was already pushing you off the circle, don’t worry.  You’ll come around to that point again, and you will be better prepared to ask for what you WANT him to do.  Eventually,  you’ll be able to leave the set pattern of the circle and walk complex patterns.

In this video Panda shows off her “heeling” skills.  She’s working with Sue Bennett, one of the coaches for my on-line course.  Sue and Panda have just met, but that doesn’t matter to Panda.   She’s happy to stay connected.  Why would you leave me? For no reason at all.

My thanks to my coaches: Michaela Hempen and Asfaloth for the bridling pictures; Monty Gwynne and Icaro for the mounting block; Sue Bennett and Panda for the heeling video (and Ann Edie for letting Sue play with her guide horse); and Robin for the “Why Would You Leave Me?” photos.

Also please note: I am not attempting to provide complete instructions for any of the lessons I have described in this post.  Nor have I detailed how to ride in a way that is clicker compatible.  That’s not the function of these posts.  You will find very thorough instructions in my books, DVDS, and on-line course.  Visit:

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 4: Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

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

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:          

JOYFULL Horses: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Everything  You Need to Know About Cues
At the end of Part 1 I asked: What are ten things you would want a beginner to know about cues?  That seemed like a simple enough question, but look where it has taken us – to neuroscience and the affective emotional systems, to habits and what maintains them, to TAGteaching and the focus funnel, to guide training for horses, to Feldenkrais work and asking questions, to the Premack principle and the creative use of imagery in training.

All that and we still have only three things on our list:

1.) Cues and commands are not synonyms.
2.) Cues are not just verbal signals.  They can include weight shifts, hand gestures and other body language signals.  
3.) Cues can come from the environment.

And now here’s number 4.) Cue Communication

Icky mounting block - hands up

Cue Communication
We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals.  The behaviors we teach them can be turned around and used by them to communicate back to us.

When we recognize that cues are a two way street, we become much more aware of what are animals are trying to communicate to us.

Panda was the poster child for environmental cues.  She can serve the same function for cue communication.  Guide work is dependent upon the back and forth exchange of cues.  I described earlier Panda’s traffic checks.  That’s a great example both of environmental cues and cue communication.  The moving car is the signal for Panda to stop and back up.  Her actions cue Ann.  Ann must interpret Panda’s sudden change of behavior correctly and allow her to move her out of harm’s way.


Everyday Conversations
Good training is about cue communication.  It’s a two way street.

When novice trainers first encounter cues, they often think that they are something only they give.  Most of us have spent time around dogs, either our own or a friend’s.  We’re used to telling dogs to sit, to lie down, to come, to leave it!  These are all cues (or possibly commands – depending upon how they were taught) that we’re giving to the dog.

But what about that sad-eyed look the dog is giving you that gets you to stop working on the computer, get up, walk to the coat closet, put on your jacket and your outside shoes, take the leash off the hook where it’s hanging, attach it to your dog’s collar, open the back door and take him out for a walk.  That was quite the complex chain the dog set in motion just by raising his eyebrows and giving you “that look”.

He probably further cued the internal components of the chain by jumping up, wagging his tail, running to the back door, sitting quietly while you put on shoes and jacket and attached the lead.

Back and forth throughout this sequence there was a dance of cues.  Some were given by you, some by the dog.  It is so like talking on the phone.  You have a long story to tell.  What maintains the conversation?  The little interjections your listener gives you that tell you she’s still on the line, still listening to you.  The call hasn’t been dropped by your cell phone network, nor has she gone off to feed her horses.  Without those little sounds cueing you that the connection is still active, and she’s still on the other end of the line, your story would stutter to a stop.

“Are you still there?” You may find yourself asking this as you talk on the cell phone.

“Are you still walking to the door?”  Your dog wags  his tail, or goes into a play bow.  Yes!  That just redirected the human from the kitchen back on track to the door.

We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals. When you live with animals, you become as much cued by their behavior as they are cued by you.  We know the look our cats give us when they want to be picked up for a cuddle, when they want to be set down again, or let out, or fed.  We become well-trained humans.

Animal Trainers – The Ones to Really Learn From!
I have always known how much my behavior is being cued by my animals.  I know those “looks”.  I have learned to interpret them and respond appropriately to them.  It’s no good picking your cat up for a cuddle when what she wants is to go out.  She’ll simply squirm out of your arms to repeat – louder – her cue.  She knows what many people who travel in foreign countries also believe.  If the foreigner doesn’t understand your language, repeat what you just said, only louder.  In the cat’s case, this often works!

Cats are superb trainers.  They are experts at arranging their households to their liking.  If you want to learn about training – watch your cats.  You don’t need to go any further to find a master trainer!

A Well-Trained Human
Cats are very good at taking the behaviors we have taught them, and turning them around to cue us.  I became very aware of this when one of my cats was a small kitten.  She wanted to see what I was having for breakfast and perhaps share it with me.  I didn’t want to encourage this behavior, so I took advantage of her interest to teach her to sit.  I followed the same procedure I had seen dog trainers use.  I held a small tidbit over her head.  As she looked up to see what was in my fingers, her hindquarters sank towards the floor.  Click!  I gave her a tiny bit of the buttered toast she was so interested in.

Two or three reps were usually enough to satisfy her curiosity. She would go off and leave me alone to enjoy my breakfast without the constant interruption of a too inquisitive paw pushing its way onto my plate.

Over the course of several days the sit began to evolve.  Now we had a proper down on your rump sit.  Click and treat.

One morning she added a slight paw lift.  I grew that from a slight lift of her front foot into a “high five” wave.   It was very cute.

And that’s when she turned the tables on me.  I was in the kitchen not far from the refrigerator.  She very deliberately sat down, lifted her paw and gave me my cue.  It was so like the dog handlers who cue “sit” and “down” with a hand signal, only in my case the cue set in motion a much more complex chain.  I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in, lifted out the tub of margarine, took off the lid, put a small dollop on the tip of my finger, reached down and let her lick it off my finger.

I had to laugh.  I knew exactly what had just happened.  She had turned everything around, and she was cueing me!

I also understood more clearly than I ever had before that the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to cue us.

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

Using Environmental Cues

Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me.  I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book.  At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues?  In Part Two I began to answer that question.  So far my list includes:

1.) Cues are not Commands.

2.) Cues can be non-verbal.

3.) The environment can be a cue. 

In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide.  Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.  

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.

Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior.  You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues.  They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.

Here are a few examples:

For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat.  Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout.  Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat!  Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game.  That takes the focus off the turnout.  In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.

“Must I go eat grass?  This is so much more fun!”

Shannon mat series

For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway.  Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.

For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.

Magic with ball
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle.  Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat.  Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat.  As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.


For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.

Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues.  Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on.  It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.

(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course.  I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat.  She just couldn’t resist getting on.  I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers.  And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first.  Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)

These are just a few training suggestions.   The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.

When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?

Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course.  How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?

If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.

If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats.  Give him a positive reason to stop.  That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.

If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person.  This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”.  She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling.  At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.


As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses.  What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats.  You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course.  Visit my web sites to learn more:          

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

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:          

JOYFULL Horses: Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

Saying “No”
I ended the previous post by saying that intelligent disobedience shouldn’t just be limited to guide horses.  My wish would be that our big horses could have the same freedom to say “no” that Panda does.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says “no”, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  Choice is part of clicker training.  Real choice only comes when our horses know that it is safe to say “no”.

Saying “no” to cues that are well understood is part of the job description of a guide.  A guide says “no” to the cue to go forward when it would take the team into the path of an on-coming car.  Wouldn’t it be equally useful to have a riding horse say “no” to going forward down a trail his senses are telling him is unsafe?  Wouldn’t it be empowering – not to mention so much safer – to have a horse stop well before a jump he isn’t sure he can clear?

Instead of forcing a horse to go forward into something he perceives to be dangerous, we could become better at preparing him for the tasks we set. When our horses say “no”, there is a reason.  Taking the time to ask what that reason is would transform horse training.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that we can teach them an appropriate way to say “no”.

Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

This is one of my favorite photos of Ann and Panda.  Look at how relaxed they both are.  They have just passed through a construction zone, and they are back on an undisturbed section of sidewalk.  Panda is trained just like our riding horses.  We want connection not pull.  Panda is guiding Ann, providing her with all the information that is needed, but there is no strain in either of them.  They are both able to walk in balance, passing information back and forth through harness and lead as needed.  It looks like what it is: a relaxed, enjoyable outing.

Panda shows how much the environment cues behavior.  Ann can’t see when there’s a curb coming up. She can’t see the trash can that’s fallen across the sidewalk, or the overhead branch that’s been weighed down after a summer’s rain.  Panda’s training has taught her to respond to these environmental cues.

As I write this, Panda is fifteen.  She has been in work with Ann for thirteen years.  Well before this age most guide dogs would be retired, but Panda is still a relatively young horse.  She has a job, but to watch her guide, it would be hard to describe it as work.  Panda was trained exclusively through clicker training.  She was never punished for mistakes.

During her training with me, if she missed an obstacle – meaning I got bumped or I tripped over a tree root pushing up through the sidewalk, we would stop and rework the obstacle.  Normally that’s all she needed.  Once she saw the consequence to me, she would make the necessary adjustments and take me safely around not just this obstacle, but all others that resembled it.  She was wonderfully clever at being able to generalize from one example out to a whole class of similar obstacles.

But, But, You MUST Need to Correct Her
When Ann was first transitioning from her guide dogs who were traditionally trained with corrections to Panda who was clicker trained, she told me about a conversation that was occurring on one of the guide dog users on-line discussion groups.  Ann had been describing some of Panda’s training.  The question people had was how do you correct her?  Ann responded that she never needed to correct Panda.  She would then describe, yet again, how Panda was being trained.

“Yes, yes,” they answered back.  “We understand that’s how you taught her, but what happens when you’re out in the real world, and she makes a mistake?  How do you correct her?”

They were truly insistent.  They needed to know how Ann dealt with these transgressions.

Ann wrote back that Panda didn’t make mistakes.  That sounds very smug, but it happened to be true. That was right around the time the three of us went to the Equine Affaire, the big horse Expo that’s held every year in Springfield Massachusetts.  All day Panda guided Ann through the chaos of the trade show.  She navigated her through aisles crowded with people, and from building to building.  There were plenty of distractions, plenty of opportunities to bump Ann into a pole or miss a curb crossing, but Panda’s focus was on her job, not the other horses in the back parking lot, or the kids reaching out to pet her as she walked by.

She did all that plus she served as my demo horse in the presentations I was giving on clicker training.  In the evening we decided she had done enough.  We left her happily munching hay in her stall while we went out for dinner.  There were several us in the group, and at various points in the evening Ann used us to go sighted guide.  That means she took our elbow, and we served as her guide. Every one of us during the course of the evening either tripped her up at a curb or bumped her into a pole.

As Ann wrote later, she didn’t think punishing us for the mistakes would have helped us to be better guides.  Nor would it help Panda.  If a mistake is made, Panda is not reprimanded for it.  She is simply given another opportunity to try again.  As needed, we break the overall task down into smaller segments and teach her any missing skills.  Once she understands how to navigate through a particular type of obstacle, Panda doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Horses can live a very long time.  Hopefully, Panda and Ann will be partnered together for thirty years and more.  As our cities and towns become even more congested, the challenges a guide faces will grow increasingly complex.  Keeping it fun, keeping it more like play than work is an important part of maintaining this life-long partnership.

Panda Ann Scrabble

Panda gets plenty of opportunities to play as this video shows.  It was taken on New Year’s Day, 2016 during a holiday visit to the barn.

Coming Next: Chapter 2: Using Environmental Cues

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: Visit:

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann written by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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

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:          

JOY Full Horses: Intelligent Disobedience

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

My Cue Trumps Your Cue
In the previous section Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  Among them were curbs marking a street crossing.  Moving cars are one of the many dangerous obstacles a guide has to deal with.  People who aren’t familiar with guides often ask how the animal knows when a light has turned green and it’s okay to cross.

The answer is that’s not the guide’s job.  The guide finds the curb and stops the handler before they get to the edge.  Then the handler listens to the traffic patterns.  When the handler thinks it is safe to cross, she will tell the guide to go forward.  But these days with cars turning on red, and so many people riding bikes, and the new, very quiet electric cars, there are many opportunities for mistakes.

Moving cars trump go forward cues.  If Ann tells Panda to go forward, but Panda sees something coming that will cut across their path, she will stand her ground and refuse to move until the vehicle has passed.  If they are already crossing and a car suddenly comes towards them, she will stop quickly and back up, taking Ann out of the path of the on-coming car.


Intelligent Disobedience
When Ann asks Panda to go forward off a curb, Panda knows perfectly well what she is supposed to do.  When she refuses to move, she isn’t being bad.  She’s doing her job.  There’s a name for this kind of response: intelligent disobedience.

When I took on the project of training Panda, this was one of the areas I was most interested in   There were so many myths floating around about intelligent disobedience.  Ann told me that many people believed guide dogs were especially intelligent and could do a job that ordinary dogs just wouldn’t be able to handle.

There were certainly people in the horse community who huffed and puffed when they heard about Panda.  “If I were blind,” they declared, “I would never trust a horse to guide me.”

I always thought – how sad.  Is that really what they think about the horses that they get on and ride?  How little do they understand the amazing abilities of the horses they say they love.  I would much rather think that I am entrusting my safety to an intelligent animal than one I regard as stupid.

Horses as Guides
As a herd animal, guiding made perfect sense to Panda.  It was easy to teach her the basic elements.  A dog might want to explore the hedgerow.  That’s where the rabbits live.  To a horse it makes sense to go around.  By extension going around other obstacles also makes sense.  And because horses do live in herds, they understand that they need to make room for the person walking next to them.

A dog is nimble and can easily handle rough footing.  So can a horse, but they are very aware of where they put their feet.  Looking out for rough ground makes sense to them.  A broken leg from a fall is a death sentence for a horse.

Dogs are distracted by squirrels, other dogs, pigeons and lots of other things that can run or fly away.  Panda has never chased a squirrel in her life.  She can be distracted by grass, but as Ann has said, the grass isn’t likely to run away.  It’s a much easier distraction to deal with.

Some horses are very spooky and nervous in unfamiliar settings.  Panda seems to thrive on the puzzles they present.  I live not far from Albany, the Capital of New York State. During the time Panda and Ann were first learning to work together, there were a lot of street repairs going on in Albany.  We used to take field trips into the downtown sections where we knew the sidewalks were under construction.  Every visit presented monster-sized challenges.  Sometimes the entire sidewalk would be torn up, and Panda and Ann would have to work together to find a safe way through the construction zone.  I never saw Panda even hesitate.  She would size up the task in front of them and proceed forward. (You can see an example of one of these sidewalk hazards in the video at the top of this page.)

IMG_1991 Panda Ann construction

Panda guiding Ann safely through a construction zone.

Ambulances blasting their sirens just a few feet away, people on bicycles, busy traffic, nothing seemed to surprise or frighten her.  Whatever was in front of her was just another puzzle, another opportunity to earn clicker treats, another part of the game.

Teaching Panda to guide a handler over and around obstacles was easy.  It was really just a matter of supporting the good decisions she was already making.  The outstanding question was would she be able to understand intelligent disobedience?  Could a horse understand this concept?

Evidence in Support of Intelligent Disobedience
Before I ever started training Panda, I already had the answer to this question.  Anyone who rides out has experienced some form of intelligent disobedience.  There are so many stories of horses who have refused to go forward on a trail.  The horse stops, feet firmly planted, his whole body clearly saying “No!”. The rider gets after him, kicking him, maybe even hitting him with a crop or the long end of the reins.  The horse just plants himself even more.  And then a friend’s horse catches up to them and passes them on the trail, only to find itself mired up to its belly in deep mud.  Horse and rider are lucky to escape uninjured.

Of course, the first rider always feels about two inches tall.  Her horse was trying to tell her the trail wasn’t safe.  This is a horse who grew up free to roam over large tracks of land.  He understood the signs that were in front of him.  The second horse may have grown up in a small field and had never seen this kind of boggy ground before.  But the first horse was trying in every way he knew how to say that it wasn’t safe to go forward, and his rider didn’t know enough to listen.

Trusting Intelligent Disobedience
Intelligent disobedience is a wonderful response to build into our horses.  Panda’s training shows us we can do so deliberately.  If I know that I have taught a behavior well and my horse doesn’t respond to my cues, I need to look for a reason.

Suppose I have taught my horse to come to me from the middle of the arena over to a mounting block. If he comes every time, and then suddenly one day, he hangs back, I need to look for a reason.  It may be that he isn’t feeling well, and his reluctance to ride is his way of telling me. It may be that I’m in a grump of a mood, and again, he is letting me know that riding isn’t the best choice for the day.  Whatever the reason, I need to listen and not simply assume that my horse is “testing me” with his disobedience.  That “disobedience” could one day save my life.

Teaching Traffic Checks
Let me describe briefly how Panda’s traffic checks were taught.  The lesson that I followed was given to me by Michele Pouliot.  Michele has thirty plus years of experience working with guide dogs.  She is currently the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind where she has played a primary role in transitioning the training of their dogs to clicker training.

I don’t know if this is still how she teaches traffic checks, but these are the instructions she gave me in 2002 when I was teaching Panda this lesson.

Step 1: We began with a parked car.  We walked directly toward the car.  When Panda stopped in front of it, I clicked and reinforced her.

Step 2: I enlisted the help of one of my experienced clicker friends.  As we approached the car, she began to drive it very, very slowly forward towards us.  Panda stopped on her own, and I cued her to back up.  Click and treat.

Step 3: Panda stopped and backed up without needing to be cued by me when the car went into motion.  Click and treat.

Step 4: We now moved to simulated traffic checks.  Still using my experienced driver, we had her wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway.  (You do wonder what people looking out their windows must have thought!)  I walked Panda along her familiar route.  As we began to cross the driveway, my driver would pull out slowly across our path. Panda backed us up out of harm’s way.

We were essentially teaching Panda that moving cars trumped the go forward cue.  If I asked her to go forward, and there were no cars or bicycles coming, she was to take me across the intersection.  But if there was a vehicle in motion, she was to stop.  She wouldn’t be punished for refusing to respond to a known cue.   Keeping us out of the path of a car produced clicker treats.

Step 5: The traffic checks continued.  We used different cars and different locations.  They became increasingly more like real world situations.

Step 6: Once Panda was paired up with Ann, we went through the whole process again, making sure that the behavior was solid now that the possibility of real traffic checks existed.

Testing the Training – How Strong are your Habits?
Panda was so good at these checks I wanted to get them on film.  Our usual driver wasn’t available so we enlisted the help of Ann’s husband.  We gave him the instructions.  He was to wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway and, as Ann approached with Panda, he was to pull out in front of them.

That was fine.  He knew how traffic checks worked.   The one part of the instructions we forgot to tell him was we only needed one or two traffic checks.  After that he could go home, and we’d keep walking.  Since we left that part out, at every driveway and parking lot intersection along our route – there he was.

Later when we watched the video, we thought we should have the sound track from Jaws playing in the background.  There was the gold van stalking Ann and Panda yet again!  Ann was taking her usual route heading for the barn.  It’s a long walk, and that day we all learned just how many driveways there are between her house and the barn!  (You can see one of the many of these traffic checks in the video at the top of this page.)

All of these traffic checks served them well.  Prior to pairing up with Panda, Ann had had two guide dogs who both failed to stay in work.  They were both very distracted by other dogs, squirrels, really anything that moved.

Crossing streets was always a white-knuckled affair.  Ann would get to the barn with horror stories about missed curbs and missed traffic checks.  Neither of these dogs should ever have been passed by the school that trained them, but they were hoping that an experienced handler like Ann would be able to manage them.  In both cases they had to be returned to the school and re-homed into other careers.   I think both went on to be police dogs, work they were much more temperamentally suited to.

Ann’s experience with Panda was completely different.  Dogs were something you ignored.  And traffic checks – for Panda they were like playing a video game where you’ve reached master level.  Ann would get to the barn laughing, telling me about that day’s adventures.  For well over a year the high school she walked past on her way to the barn had been under construction.  Every day there was some new challenge for them.  One day there would be a sidewalk for them to navigate along.  The next day it would be gone.  All that was left would be a gaping hole and piles of rubble.

IMG_1990 Panda Ann construction

This once familiar landscape has been transformed by construction, but Panda still manages to find a safe route.

Traffic checks didn’t just mean avoiding cars, school buses and the high school track team out for the day’s run.  It now included encounters with heavy construction vehicles and bulldozers. Panda had to watch out for traffic and figure out how to find a route across a parking lot that was completely transformed.  This was nothing like the tidy sidewalks and suburban side streets she had trained over.  All those trips into Albany paid off here.

Saying “No”
I’m writing about intelligent disobedience because this is something we need to be more aware of in our training.  I wish our big horses could have the same freedom to say no that Panda does.  If we’re going to ride a horse, he should be able to say no, not today.  If we’re going to jump a horse, or ride him over uncertain ground, we need to trust those times when he slams on the brakes and says not there. You may not see the slick ground or smell the grizzly bear, but I can.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says no, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  It makes sense to use their senses to help keep us both safe.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that it is okay for a horse to say no.

Coming next: What About Mistakes?  When is it okay for us to say no?  Panda has some things to teach us about that, as well.

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: Visit:

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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

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:          



JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

The previous section began a discussion of environmental cues.

Panda environmental cues

Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provides us with lots of examples of environmental cues.  In this photo there’s no real curb to mark where the sidewalk ends and the driveway begins,  but Panda has stopped exactly where she should.  This section of their daily walk had been under construction for months.  Every day the landscape was different.  In this photo the pavement has been newly patched.  The appearance of the intersection has changed dramatically from it’s previous state, but Panda still knows what to do at this intersection.

Looking ahead to the opposite side of the driveway we see another place where the environment will cue a stop.  Stopping at the far side of the driveway helps her blind handler stay oriented.  The stop on the up-curb side of the driveway lets her know when they have come to the beginning of the next section of sidewalk.

The sidewalk itself is another environmental cue, one which overrides the pull of the grass to the side.  Panda will guide her handler straight along the sidewalk to the next curb crossing.  There are lots of cues being exchanged between Panda and her handler, but it is Panda’s responsibility to respond correctly to the environmental cues which her handler cannot see, and to alert her to any changes or obstacles in their path.

I ended the previous installment by promising you some more Panda stories and here they are:

Goose Neck Trailers
I can’t resist telling one of my favorite Panda stories.  When Panda was first being paired up with Ann, we spent a day at the Equine Affaire, a giant horse expo and trade show that is held every year in western Massachusetts.  It’s a wonderful place to take a guide-in-training.  The concentration of challenging obstacles is a trainer’s delight.  We had loading ramps that could substitute for railway platforms, and garage doors that gave us lots of practice with overhead obstacles, not to mention the crowds of people in the trade show to navigate through.

Panda handled it all with ease.  Late in the day as we were walking through the back parking lot area, we passed a goose neck trailer that was parked alongside the sidewalk.  I decided to put Panda through one more challenge.  I instructed Ann to stop at this point and cross the street.  This would take them directly under the front of the trailer.

gooseneck trailer

The goose neck portion was right at forehead-hitting height, but I had no worries.  Of course, Panda would stop.  Except she didn’t.  I was about to cry out an alarm.  It looked as though Panda was going to crash Ann straight into trailer. But before I could get the words out to say STOP! Panda slammed on the brakes, looked up at the trailer hitch and hastily backed Ann away.

The double take she did was priceless. It was as if she was saying: “Where did that come from! How could I have missed that?!”

It reminded me of those times when I’m driving, and I’ve been so focused on the road ahead that I have completely failed to see a car coming up alongside me.  “How could I have missed that!?” I’ll exclaim as the car comes into view.  I could sympathize with Panda’s surprised reaction to the goose neck.

Now for Panda the goose neck trailer was not a hazard.  She could easily fit under the hitch, but Ann would most certainly have hit her head.  When Panda looked up, it was clear to me that she had seen the overhead obstacle and was backing up to avoid it.

Every class of obstacle requires a different type of response.  Find an empty chair means Panda scans the available seats and takes Ann to an empty one.  She alerts her to the presence of the chair by putting her nose on it.

For doors Panda finds the door and then orients her body sideways towards it so it is easy for Ann to reach out and find the handle.

A Trainer’s Play Ground

Panda descending museum stairs
Stairs present a special hazard.  It’s important that the handler understands that the guide is stopping at a flight of stairs and not at a single curb.  Towards the end of Panda’s training we spent a fun day practicing stairs during a visit to Albany, the capital of New York State.


A photo of the Empire State Plaza taken from the steps of the State Museum. The State Capital is straight ahead. To the right is The Egg, the Center for Performing Arts.

We turned the state plaza into our personal playground.  We were in a huge concourse that serves as a public park.  Underneath the plaza is a maze of offices and shops.  At one end is the state library and museum.  At the other end the State Capital.

state museum

The State Museum with its imposing flight of steps leading up to the entrance.

state capital building

The State Capital Building at stands at the opposite end of the Concourse

These are beautiful buildings, but we were not there for the sight seeing.  The plaza provided us with a wonderful array of training obstacles.  There were stairs everywhere – stairs going up, stairs going down, stairs in all sorts of unexpected places.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the area, so she never knew for certain what was coming up next. I was having a grand time directing her towards every unexpected obstacle I could find, the more challenging, the better.  If you’re given a playground, you should play in it!

Stairs cue a distinct set of responses from Panda.  When she comes to a set of stairs, she will stop before the first step.  At this point Ann will not know what is in front of them.  She will tell Panda to go forward.  In response Panda will put one foot on the first step – either up or down – and again stop.  She will not go forward until Ann has also placed her foot on the step and given her the verbal cue to go. Panda is not to proceed until both of these things have happened.  It’s important that Ann not only knows there’s a set of stairs in front of her, but that she also has time to prepare herself for them.  Panda is not to go forward until Ann tells her she’s ready.

I think we found every set of stairs in the concourse that day, including the long flight that takes you up to the State Library.  I especially liked pointing Ann and Panda towards the stairs that led down into the underground concourse.  Up stairs are more expected.  It’s the ones that took them down below the Plaza that really tested them as a team.

The Herd Horse Advantage
Pedestrians, bikes in motion, dogs being walked, baby carriages, parked cars are all obstacles that cue specific responses.  One of the things that I most enjoy is watching Panda maneuver Ann through a crowd of people.  I will sometimes position myself far enough ahead so that I can see Panda and Ann approaching.

Panda will be scanning what is in front of her.  You can see her eyes moving, taking in all the activity that’s coming up.  She’ll make little course adjustments so there is never a collision.  As a herd animal, she is superb at being able to judge where she is going to be relative to people who are moving towards her from the opposite direction.  The course corrections are seamless.  The only ones swerving abruptly are the people doing double takes when they realize what has just passed them!

Coming Next: Intelligent Disobedience   This is the name given for those times when a guide does not respond to a cue the handler has given, but instead responds to environmental cues.  It might be ignoring the cue to go forward and instead backing up out of the path of an approaching car.  Intelligent disobedience is an important part of every guide’s training.  It is also something we would do well to be aware of in the training of our full-sized 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.

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: Visit:

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

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:          



Shopping for a New Car: Lessons Learned From Clicker Training

Part 1: The Demise of the Panda Mobile

A sad day has arrived.  I have finally declared my reliable, old Mazda unsafe to drive. This was the first car Panda learned to travel in.  I bought it in February of 2001.  Panda arrived in September of that same year.  When I went shopping for a compact car, I never imagined it was going to turn into a horse transport.

Panda arrived in an enormous horse trailer.  It pulled up outside my suburban home.  That got enough heads turning as cars drove past.  But then the back doors of the trailer opened and out stepped tiny Panda!

Her first lesson in car travel began the following day.  I have a wonderful video clip of her trying to figure out how to get in the car.  She was willing.  She just couldn’t figure out where all her feet were supposed to go!

Panda getting in car Panda getting in car2

Panda getting in car 3

Panda figuring out how to get in a car.









When she finally did jump in, my emotions jumped from “Wow! I have a horse in my car.” to “Oh no! I have a horse in my car! Now what!”

Panda shows off her guiding skills by finding the car door for her handler.

Panda shows off her guiding skills by finding the car door for her blind handler.

Because Panda was in training to be a guide, she needed to be able to travel with me wherever I went.  Mostly that meant running local errands and going to the barn.  On our first car trip through town, she didn’t yet have her “sea legs”.  I remember driving like a proverbial little old lady.  I was terrified a squirrel or another car was going to pull out in front of us and make me hit the brakes.  

Balancing on the back seat was clearly not a good option, so we took the seat out and built a platform for her to stand on.  I just reinstalled the back seat.  For a thirteen year old car that’s gotten a lot of heavy use, it’s got to be the cleanest back seat ever!

Panda has changed the way I shop for a car.  I wonder if any of the salesmen noticed the unusual order in which I examined each car.  I suspect most drivers open the driver’s door first.  I opened the right side passenger door because that’s the door Panda uses to get in.  I didn’t tell any of them that I was checking the height of the seat and the swing of the door to see if a horse could jump in.  That would have taken more explaining than it was worth.

In case you’re wondering, in the cars I have checked out so far, Kia’s back seat failed the Panda test.  Mazda’s gave excellent access.  The Toyota Prius would be really hard for her.  The batteries are under the back seat so she would have a big jump up (or more to the point down) out of the car.  Fords were useless.  The Suburus were great.  I have other cars on my list, but I haven’t yet had a chance to look at them.

Panda has also converted me from a manual shift to an automatic transmission.  I have driven manuals all of my adult life.  That was always my driving preference, but Panda has changed that.  She’s such a decadent little thing.  She loves resting her chin on my shoulder while I drive and taking a nap.  In the winter the vents blast hot air directly at her, and in the summer she gets the full effect of the air conditioning.  But, oh dear, every time I need to shift I have to wake her up.  I decided years ago that my next car would have to be an automatic.

Panda’s regular “Panda mobile” is Ann’s family van, but I do still occasionally provide transportation.  I want to keep Panda happy so my car selection is being very much influenced by her.

So what did I buy?  

When I bought my Mazda thirteen years ago, I knew I wanted a small car.  I was replacing a Nissan Sentra that had over 250,000 miles.  It had been a reliable car to own, but dull as ditch water to drive.  I knew I wanted something different so I test drove every small passenger car on the market, foreign and domestic.  I also consulted Consumer Reports and several other sources of car reviews.  

I had fun test driving all those different cars even though it created a great deal of head-spinning confusion.  Almost every car had something going for it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but one by one I was able to cross the different makes and models off the list.  It finally came down to a choice between the Mazda and a Suburu.  The Suburu almost won because of the all wheel drive and, I have to say it, the heated seats.  I live in snow country so the Suburu’s reputation for being good in snow was definitely tempting.  And when you’re out in cold barns all day, heated seats also have a draw.  But in the end I chose the Mazda because, quite frankly, it was fun to drive.

I don’t mean this to turn into a car review, but my Mazda has been the best car I have ever owned.  It doesn’t have as many miles on it as my other cars.  With the clinics scattered as they are all across the country, I am traveling more by air these days than by car.  So it may not be quite a fair comparison, but the Mazda has lasted longer and had fewer repairs than any other car I have driven.  What finally did it in was rust.  It was a victim of too many days spent parked at the airport or sitting out at the barn instead of sheltered in my garage.  

The real hammer blow fell in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy went through my area.  I was teaching that weekend at a clinic in Groton New York about four hours from home.  Over the weekend we kept an anxious watch on the weather channel.  The hurricane was forecast to hit the northeast sometime late in the day on Monday.  I wasn’t the only one who lived in the path they were predicting it would take, so we finished up early in the day to get everyone home before it hit. 

Once home, I decided to spend the night camped out at the barn with the horses.  Quite apart from wanting to be with the horses should anything happen, I decided I was safer weathering a hurricane in my strong, new barn, rather than in my house with three tall pine trees looming over the back garden.  

I wasn’t sure where it would be safest to park my car.  In the end I brought it into the barnyard and parked it under the composter.

I parked my car under the composter and hoped it would survive the hurricane.

I parked my car under the composter and hoped it would survive the hurricane.

Hurricane Sandy went up the east coast causing major damage, especially to the New Jersey coastline and to New York City.  It caused enormous flooding in the hill town communities in Vermont and parts of New York, but in my area we had high winds but no real damage – except in my barnyard.  I don’t know what happened to my poor car, but in the morning it looked as though someone had taken a car key to the paint. 

And then there was the back bumper.  That can’t be blamed on the hurricane.  I don’t know what happened.  I suspect someone backed into it in a parking lot and left without owning up to the damage.  In any event the bumper had a huge crack in it.  I was busy at the time between traveling, the horses, and creating my new on-line course.  I never repaired the bumper.  Big mistake.  The wobble put extra wear and tear on the bolts holding everything together.  They eventually gave way and left the side bumper hanging at a precarious angle.

But I’m a horse person.  There’s always duct tape and baling twine.  I strapped the bumper up with duct tape and kept on driving. 

Held together with duct tape.

I strapped the bumper up with duct tape and kept on driving.

I’ve had to go from regular duct tape to the black gorilla tape to keep everything in place.  This past weekend I was driving back from a long road trip through a bumpy stretch of highway construction.  I bounced along over huge potholes.  My car decided it had had enough.  After jarring over a particularly bad stretch of road I heard a horrible banging coming from the back.  It reminded me of a horse I knew years ago who had shattered his jaw.  When he chewed, he sounded as though he was rolling cracked marbles around in his mouth.  The car sounded like a supersized version of that.  I thought for sure the bumper had finally fallen off, but when I pulled over, the duct tape was still holding everything in place.  I looked at the underside of the car, added more duct tape to the bumper, and drove off.  The rattling continued.  I pulled over again, added even more duct tape and tried again.  It was no good.  Every time I hit a bump, the whole back end sounded as though it was bouncing off the chassis.  And given the amount of rust on the car, that could well have been the case.  But I was two hundred miles from home.  I didn’t fancy being stranded in the middle of nowhere, so I kept going.  Once I got on better roads, the car quieted down and drove just fine.  

It got me home safely, but I knew I was probably looking at the end of the road.  When I took it in the following day to have it checked over, my local mechanic confirmed what I already knew.  It was time to call it quits.  I will miss my old Panda mobile.


Part Two: Shopping for a New Car: Hasn’t Anyone heard of Positive Reinforcement?

So now the search was on for my next car.  I’ve known this day was coming so I’ve been doing my homework, reading reviews and paying attention to the cars I see on the road.  It made sense to begin with the Mazda/Ford dealership since I had enjoyed my current car so much.  It was also the closest dealership to my house. 

I drove my pickup truck to the dealership, so my first challenge was finding a place to park.   My truck is designed for hauling horse trailers, not squeezing through narrow gaps in an overstuffed parking lot.  I headed into a blind alley and spent the next few minutes inching my way back out.  This might have been a Ford dealership, one that sells and services pickups, but there was no room to maneuver. By the time I got inside whatever good mood I’d been in had evaporated.

I was greeted by a salesman.  “Hi, my name is Jim, but everyone calls me Doc.  You can call me Doc.”

Okay, not my style.   

As we were walking out to the lot, he asked the inevitable question: “So what do you do?”

I never know how to answer this question.  I wear so many hats.  I’m a writer, a publisher.   I’m an experimenter, an inventor, a teacher, a coach.  In the end I say what I always say, I train horses.

It turns out that was the wrong answer.  “Doc” had had horses. Years ago he’d owned a couple of standardbred race horses.  He went on to tell me how much money he’d lost on them.  “Those horses cost me a bundle. The only people who got rich were the vets and the trainers.  The horses were always breaking down”   Okay, same species, different world.

We went out to the parking lot.  All the cars were locked.  We wandered around looking at the exterior of cars.  This wasn’t helping.  I’ve seen them on the road.  I know what the cars look like on the outside.  I needed to see their insides.  Whatever happened to show rooms where the current models are on display?  This was beginning to take more time than it should, and I was liking these cars less with each passing moment.  

Doc finally went back to get keys and I wandered around reading price stickers.  At long last we got a couple of cars open.  We looked at the Fords first.  They were quickly crossed off the list.  I didn’t like the interiors.  For me the seats weren’t comfortable, and Panda would never have gotten in.  We went back to the other side of the lot to the Mazdas.  

We looked at the Mazda 3.  Good access for Panda, check.  Comfortable seats, check.  Reasonable instrument panel, check.  Attractive interior, check. The only problem was I hated the overall look of the car.  Why do all these modern cars have front grills that look like cartoon character fish?  Did all the designers grow up on “Finding Nemo”? Whatever car I get I plan to keep for ten years or more.  I’m going to be looking at it for a long time.  I don’t fancy walking out to my driveway every morning and being confronted by a cartoon imitation of a fishy grin.  (My apologies to all the Mazda owners who have never seen their cars in this way and now will forevermore. )

I hoped the drive would make up for the appearance.  I was not disappointed.  It drove like a Mazda which meant it handled well.  This car and mine might be thirteen years apart, but the feel was familiar.  I was glad that Mazda had not messed with that, but still there was the look of the car.  Doc was not helping.  He had to refer to the brochure to tell me anything about the car.  I can read brochures for myself.  In passing he told me had been on the job for only seven weeks.  Clearly the dealership provided very little training for their new employees.  He was trying hard, so I tried to cut him some slack, but seven weeks is time enough to learn the basic facts about each of the main cars that you’re selling.  He also didn’t know how to run a test drive.

Like most dealerships this one was on a busy commercial strip.  You can’t really get a feel for what a car can do in stop and go traffic.  But I know from my previous experience that once you turn up the side streets you can quickly get onto roads that let you really test a car.  Doc hadn’t found those routes yet.

Oh well.  The car was fine, but I left the dealership in a grump.  I had wanted to like the car, but I couldn’t get past my dislike of the exterior.   

Next stop was the Kia dealership just down the road.  I didn’t even try to find a spot for my truck. I parked directly in front of the entrance.  I cornered the first person I saw and asked if my truck was okay where it was.  It turned out I was speaking to the owner of the dealership.  He was in his early thirties, very cordial, very welcoming.  He asked what I was looking for, grabbed a salesman, and told him the cars he should show me.  

I had to repeat everything that had just been said – twice – not because the salesman didn’t hear me the first time, but because he didn’t remember a word I had said. He was too busy drooling over my truck.

My truck is even older than my car.  It’s a 1997 F350 which I bought second hand.  I’ve driven small cars all my life.  Good cars, but not cars anyone ever pays attention to.  No one ever commented on my Mazda or any of its predecessors.  But when I bought my truck, things changed.  Delivery men would stand in the middle of my driveway staring at my truck.  

“Nice truck,” they’d exclaim, drawing out the vowels.  They would stand transfixed, filled with obvious truck envy.

The first time I drove the truck to the local lumber yard I experienced the same thing.  For years the lumber yard had been a place I tried to avoid.  If you were female and wanted service, you had to come with a man – or I now discovered a “nice truck”.   For the first time ever I got wonderful service – once they could take their eyes off my truck.

Not all trucks produce this response.  Years ago I was helping a friend move house.  We stopped at a warehouse to pick up some large packing boxes.  She had her newer, shinier Chevy.  I had my Ford.  The Chevy was ignored.  It might as well have not been there.  “Nice truck,” drawled the warehouse worker, stopping just as all the others had to admire my Ford’s square, old-fashioned lines.

My truck is older now. It has spent the summer under the overhang at the barn so it is coated with dust and pollen.  It was not looking it’s best when I pulled into the Kia dealership, but the salesman still had that “look”.  “Nice truck,” he exclaimed, drawing out the vowels in the same way all the others had.  

(Here’s a tip to Ford motors. You are missing the boat completely with your new trucks.  What were you thinking changing your design?  I do not see men stopping in parking lots obviously struck by truck envy the way that they do when they see my truck.  If you want to sell trucks, reintroduce your old design.)

I had come to the dealership to buy a car. I did not need a salesman who was distracted by my 17 year old truck.  And anyway it was blocking a delivery van so I moved it, inching my way through the narrow lanes of the lot around to a corner spot where it was less in the way.  

Again we walked directly out to the lot instead of starting in the showroom.  And again the cars were all locked.  He showed me the exterior of one car after the other.  I wanted to see the interior.  We marched up and down the parking lot before we finally found a car that was open.  I sat in the driver’s seat and was immediately struck by how stale the car smelled.  “Is this a used car?” I asked.  I hadn’t yet looked at the sales sticker.  He confirmed that it was. 

“Well, it was owned by a smoker,” I declared. 

“Oh don’t worry about that.  We’ll have it cleaned before you buy it.” 

That’s not a smell you get out with a little cleaning – or even a lot of cleaning.  I got out of the car and announced that I wasn’t buying any car that had been owned by a smoker. 

He was clearly annoyed.  He’d found a car that was unlocked.  Now he was going to have to go back inside and get some keys.  

The car that responded to the panic button on the keys he brought back was a Kia Soul.  What a funny looking car – again my apologies to anyone who owns one.  I would struggle with the boxiness of the design.  And for all it’s extra height, the interior was not that roomy.  But I was curious to see how it handled, so we took it for a drive.  I thought it was odd that he did not check my driver’s license first.  Nor did he put dealer plates on the car. 

As we were leaving, a Hummer pulled up to the front of the dealership.  The salesman stared.  Apparently Hummers also produce truck envy.  He was trying to sell me a little car, but all he could say was a Hummer was what he’d buy.   

We weren’t even out of the parking lot before I knew the Kia Soul was not my car.  What a horrible drive.

Test driving cars is very much like riding.  There, I knew I would get around to horses!  It is so much a matter of feel.  This car was wobbly.  The brakes were abrupt.  The steering wheel didn’t give that tight feeling of being connected to the road that I enjoy.  This was not my car.

Next we looked at the Rio.   The way the side door opened would make it hard for Panda to jump in, but I didn’t share with the salesman my criterion for judging a car.  I did want to drive it though, so again he reluctantly went back into the dealership to get keys.  

The car he picked was partially blocked by another car parked in front of it.  I didn’t fancy trying to maneuver out of such a tight spot in a car I didn’t know.  I asked the salesman to drive it forward for me.  As he climbed into the driver’s seat, I heard him mutter, “for someone who drives a big truck you must get stuck a lot.”  Points off for you. There’s no need to be rude.  His job was to get this new car safely off the lot and onto roads suitable for a test drive.  In my previous car-shopping experience the salesmen always drove the car first.  They showed me what the car could do, and then they turned it over to me.  I never drove any of the cars directly off the lot.  Given the congested, bumper-threatening traffic of the commercial strips dealerships always seem to be on, I didn’t mind turning this part of the drive over to them.  Let them be responsible for keeping the car out of harm’s way.

In this case the salesman pulled the car forward out of the parking space, then we traded places.  I headed out of the parking lot, but again I didn’t even make it out onto the street before I knew this was not my car.  I see a lot of Kias on the road.  I will look at them differently now.  And especially in the winter when the roads are slick, I will make sure there is a bit more room between us.  I did not like the handling of that car – at all. Again my apologies to all Kia owners.

We took the short way back to the dealership.  But as short as the drive was, the salesman was clearly bored with it.  He might as well have been a small child in the back seat whining “are we there yet?”  

So the Kias were crossed off my list.  That made it easy, but there were lots of used cars on the lot in makes and models that were on my list.  I asked about a Nissan that was directly in front of us.  He said the obvious.  It was a four door sedan.  I was now getting tired of his lazy attitude.  I had made it clear that I was replacing my Mazda.  I wasn’t window shopping.  I was here to test drive cars and to make a decision about buying one.  

I asked about another car.  Again he said something general about the exterior.  Finally I snapped.  I told him I knew what these cars looked like.  I saw them all the time on the roads.  I needed to see the interiors.

“That means I’d have to get the keys for each one,” he said in a tone that clearly indicated I was being a bother.

“Yes,” I snapped back.  I looked at my watch.  It was close to four-thirty.  He had eaten up over an hour and a half of my time, and I’d only driven two cars around the block.  I’d had enough.  “It’s getting late,” I said.  “This has taken too much time, and now I have to leave.”

So the first salesman was well meaning but inexperienced.  This one was rude and lazy.  

The horses would be waiting for their supper, so I headed out.  I was hoping to return later that evening to continue the search, but a quick check on the internet revealed that the dealerships all closed at 6 on Fridays.   That was a surprise.  I would have thought they would stay open to get a jump start on the weekend shoppers.  What it meant for me was I could spend the evening researching the remaining cars on my list.  

Saturday afternoon the first stop was the Toyota dealership.  This was centered around one of those oversized, glass fronted buildings that declared “we are a modern, up-to-date dealership selling the best cars in the business.”  There’s nothing like a little window dressing for setting the stage.  Inside the cavernous show room was buzzing with activity.  I stopped at the reception desk and was immediately introduced to one of the sales staff – a woman this time.  She was all smiles, welcoming me cordially to the dealership.  

We went through the usual questions: what was I looking for?  She asked if I ever drove a manual. “Yes, that’s what I had always driven.”  “Oh, then I might have just the car for you!”

We walked out to the far side of the lot to look at a Scion.  This was a car that was not on my radar.  It looked less like a fish than the Mazdas and the Kias, so that was a plus.  It had good side door access.  The interior was roomy and pleasant enough, but how would it drive?

As I sat in the driver’s seat checking out the dashboard, she asked what I thought of the car.  I responded that I liked it, but I would have to do some research.  I would want to check out the reviews in Consumer Reports and other sources.  The words weren’t even out of my mouth before she began disparaging reviews in general and Consumer Reports in particular.  Hmm.  Not a good move.  I just let her talk.  Salesmen tend to criticize reviews only when the reviewers don’t like the car, so what was I going to be reading about the Scion? 

Reviews weren’t the only thing she didn’t like.  We hadn’t made it out of the parking lot before she was criticizing how I drove a manual.  I felt like saying I had been driving manuals all my adult life and every one of them had outlasted most of the cars on the road.  

We were not off to a good start, and it went downhill from there.  She had been all smiles in the showroom.  Now she was clearly bored and wanting the drive to be over as soon as possible.  The gas gauge was on empty so she was going to get her wish.  By necessity this was going to be a short test drive.  We turned off the main road onto a side street, made one turn, went a few blocks, turned again, and ended up back on the main road and the dealership.  So much for getting to know what the car could do!  

I had been pleasantly surprised by the Scion.  The price was good.  The drive was acceptable.  The interior provided plenty of room and good access for Panda.  It was something to consider.  But I had come to this dealership to test drive a Prius.

You would think I had to apply in triplicate for the privilege.  We wandered around the lot looking at a selection of Prius cars, but she showed no sign that she was going to get any keys.  As we walked along the lines of cars, she asked what I thought of the Scion.  I told her I had liked it, but I would have to do some reading about it.  

“How long do you think that reading is going to take?” She asked in an annoyed tone.  “How soon do you think it will be before you make a decision?”

What an odd question.  Had I not told her that my car was no longer road safe?  Didn’t that mean that I was a serious shopper?  I was not window shopping.  I was going to buy a car.  She was annoyed that I wanted to test drive the Prius.  She was also annoyed that I hadn’t driven my old Mazda to the lot.  “How do you expect us to look at it, if you don’t have it here.”  Did I not say that it was no longer road safe?  And besides we are a long way from that step.

She asked again how soon it was going to be before I made a decision.  Was it going to be a day?  How long was all this reading going to take?

“Soon,” I told her in a cold voice.  I might not know how long my car shopping was going to take, but one thing was becoming very clear.  Whatever car I decided on, I wasn’t going to be buying it through her.

I was ready to leave, but I was determined to at least look at the interior of a Prius.  She did eventually get some keys.  The Prius she selected was a pleasant surprise.  There was plenty of room in the back and the interior was very attractive.  But the batteries are under the back seat so it would have been a big jump up for Panda.

We took the car for a test drive.  She started telling me an improbable tale of how much you can pack into a Prius.  She’d been visiting her mother who sent her home with a full dining room set, table and four chairs, several floor lamps, big, overstuffed sofa cushions.  The list kept growing.  

“In how many trips,” I asked as I turned a corner.  


“Oh, then you left your children at your mother’s.”

“Oh no, we fit everyone in.”  

We were on a straightaway, a good place to test the steering, but somehow I didn’t want to.  The Prius drove well.  It was certainly a car I could enjoy, but it was not a feel that I loved.  

We went around the block and returned to the dealership.  I put the Prius on the possible list.

We went back inside the dealership.  She disappeared for a few minutes.  When she came back, it was to tell me that her next appointment had arrived.  “Good,” I though. “That’s an easy excuse to leave.” She had wasted too much of my time already.  I might be interested in both the Scion and the Prius, but I would not be working with her again.

Three dealerships. Three strikes.

People complain about the state of the economy.  They blame everyone but themselves.  Sadly, my experience at these dealerships is typical of far too many encounters in our service economy.  It stands in stark contrast to the experience you would get within the clicker training world.  Perhaps that is why these sales associates were so jarring for me.  I know the message I would want to send to all the dealerships.  If you want to increase sales, yes you have to have a good product, but there’s more to it than than.  You have to teach your sales staff how to talk to people, how to listen to their needs, how to be supportive and positive – in other words, you need to teach them clicker skills.  Just think of the staff training our clicker horses could provide!

I left the Toyota dealership feeling fed up with the search and headed down the road to the Suburu dealership.  I almost didn’t stop, but I was going right past it, I might as well turn in.  The dealership was under construction.  In the background you could see the steel frame for yet another huge glass-fronted showcase.  But for now the sales department was crowded into a large construction trailer.  That meant the front parking lot was even more crowded than the other dealerships had been.  But construction requires large construction vehicles.  If they could fit, then my pickup certainly could.  I drove past the construction area and found a spot way in the back of the parking lot.  As I was getting out, I was greeted by a salesman who was collecting empty plastic water bottles from his own truck.  The dealership paid 8 cents per bottle and gave the money to the local humane society.  Extra points for both of them.  

We went through the preliminary questions, and then he took me over to a line of Imprezas.  They all had leather interiors.

I said I actively would not buy a car with leather seats.

“Got it,” he responded and we moved on.  No questions asked.  More points earned.

The cars he wanted to show me were of course locked, but he went off right away in a golf cart to get the keys.  The Impreza he showed me passed the initial inspection.  It’s front grill did not resemble a fish.  The side doors would give Panda room to get in.  The seats were comfortable, the instrument panel uncluttered. He checked my license, put a dealer’s plate on the car, and we headed out of the lot.  

So far so good.  Unlike the other salesmen, he had clearly been selling cars for years, and what’s more, he enjoyed it.  He also knew how to conduct a test drive.  He picked a route that showed off what this car could do.  We didn’t just go around the block, he directed me down a winding side road that gave me a good feel for the car’s handling.  We diverted into a large, empty parking lot where I could try out the car’s turning radius.  It spun on a dime.  What fun!  Maybe it was because I was driving my tank of a truck which has no maneuverability, who knows, but I was loving this.  I spun the car again.  Now I was smiling.  This was the first car that had made me smile.

I’ve grown so super cautious in recent years driving on snow.  The Mazda always got me home, but it was only because in slippery conditions I crawled along at a snail’s pace.  This was a car that handled well and was made to drive on snow.  

We left the parking lot and headed on to a stretch of highway where I could run the speed up.  I continued to like the drive.  We returned to the dealership and I found myself inside buying a car!  Just like that!  So in answer to the Toyota saleswoman’s question: soon apparently meant today.

So I have bought a car.  My first in thirteen years.  I am looking forward to getting it home and taking it for another spin around an empty parking lot!  I am also looking forward to driving it in it’s first snow storm and feeling the extra security the all wheel drive gives me.  There were still cars left on my list that I had intended to test drive, but this salesman can thank his competitors for this quick sale.  He knew what he was doing.  He knew how to present a car well.  He didn’t dither around and waste my time.  He seemed to enjoy the experience of showing off a good car. He made it a pleasant, positive experience which stood in stark contrast to the others.

Perhaps it is simply experience that teaches this.  Who knows how many other salesmen have come and gone from this same dealership, failing in just the same way that the others did.  Or perhaps this dealership really does train its staff.  I don’t know, but I believe in reinforcement.  He had a good car. He presented it well. He treated me well, and for that he earned the reinforcement of a sale completed. There are lessons there for all of us.


The new car at the barn.

The new car at the barn.

Alexandra Kurland