When I started Peregrine under saddle, my trainer said to me that he didn’t have the back strength to perform all the movements of upper level dressage, but he could still carry himself in the equilibrium of a high school horse. She didn’t mean in a few years. She meant now, as a young horse, we could expect him to lift up and carry himself in an engaged equilibrium.
This obviously isn’t Peregrine, but these two photos show clearly what is meant when I say he learned to lift and carry his own balance. The photo on the left shows Oliver, a percheron/quarter horse cross, as an almost two year old on day one of his first clinic with me. The photo on the right is also of Oliver. Look at how much more up and lifted he is throughout his body. He looks much older, but this picture was taken just twenty-four hours later. This beautiful balance comes from the lessons Peregrine has been teaching me.
That became the training criterion. When Peregrine was engaged, his stifles didn’t lock. I was learning to manage him so our rides no longer felt quite so on a knife’s edge of control. When I first started riding him, his stifles would lock up without warning. He would release them by catapulting me forward in a hard, rolling buck. As long as he was engaged, I could keep him from locking up, and he was a lot of fun to ride. But as soon as I got off and left him to manage his own balance, his stifles would be locking again.
He was eight years old. Clearly he was not going to outgrow this condition. And then he got Potomac horse fever. And then he was laid up for seven weeks with foot abscesses. And then we started exploring clicker training.
There had certainly been lots of people before me who used clicker training with their horses. So why did it stick with me? Why was I the one who buried herself in a computer for two years writing that first book on clicker training horses? And why have I continued to be so fascinated by it? The answer lies with Peregrine.
He was an interesting mix. He was a well trained horse, but he was also a horse with a lot of issues – all stemming from his locking stifles. I also had a huge repertoire to work with, both on the ground and under saddle.
1993 Peregrine in-hand – working on the lift needed for Spanish walk.
Ground work for me meant a lot more than lunging. It also meant classical work in-hand and a huge liberty repertoire. As Peregrine recovered from his hoof abscesses, I began to add the clicker into all of this other work. Before his lay up we’d been working on Spanish walk. I reshaped the leg lifts using the clicker. He was so elegant, and he clearly enjoyed the new way this lesson was being taught.
Spanish walk required a huge shift in his balance. In order to lift up into the front leg extensions, he had to engage his hind end to free up his shoulders. This was taught in conjunction with all of his other in-hand work. It was not presented as a separate “trick” behavior. I was asking Peregrine to carry himself forward in engagement – something the guidance of the marker signal helped him to figure out.
I was a month or two into this work when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Peregrine lock in his stifles in quite a while. I started paying more attention. I was right. His stifles weren’t locking – not under saddle and, even more telling, not on the ground, either.
For eight years we had been battling his stifles. After just a few months of clicker training, they had stopped locking. That’s when I knew that clicker training wasn’t simply another way to teach behavior. Yes, it’s great that we have a kinder way to teach horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, or to load into a trailer. That’s important, but clicker training goes deeper than that. It awakens our horses’ intelligence. I say it in this way because so much of training teaches horses only to follow, not to take any initiative. Clicker training lets them to be full partners in the learning process. They truly own what we are teaching them. The lessons aren’t simply things you do when someone directs you. Peregrine was learning how to manage his own body to keep himself more comfortable – all of the time – not just when I was around.
If clicker training had simply been another way to teach standard behavior, it would have been an interesting stepping stone, but it would not have held my attention in the way that it has for over twenty years. Peregrine showed me that it is so much more.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. What a wise horse you are. Thank you for being my teacher.
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In 1993 when I went out to the barn with my pockets full of treats, I had no idea the journey that first step was going to take me on. I wasn’t thinking about writing books, making videos, traveling to clinics and conferences, sharing clicker training on the internet with people from around the planet. I just wanted a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was laid up with foot abscesses.
As he began to recover, I used the clicker to reshape some of the many things I had taught him over the years. Clicker training had landed in a good place. I had a lot in my tool box to play with. In 1993 if you said ground work to most people, that meant one and only one thing – lunging. It’s no wonder when I started to write about using clicker training to improve ground work so many people ran in the opposite direction. It wasn’t just the treats that they didn’t like, it was lunging. Rarely did you see it done well, with a real understanding of a horse’s balance. It was used to “get the bucks out”. In my area the norm for lunging was horses racing around, out of balance, being jerked on, often in side reins. It was at best mindless. At it’s worse, it was a physically exhausting battle between horse and handler, repeated daily before the rider dared to get on.
I was learning something very different. For starters I had raised both Peregrine and his mother. Ground work for me meant so much more than lunging. It meant all the early handling and socialization. It meant teaching horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, to stand well for grooming and saddling and all the other basic handling you take for granted when you’ve only had older horses. It meant going for walks together to learn about the world. Peregrine’s mother had spinal cord damage – the result of a handling accident that occurred shortly before she became mine. So for her ground work meant even more. It meant literally reteaching her how to walk without falling.
Early on in my horse training experience I was able to spend time with some very skilled horsemen. They didn’t mess around with the kind of small steps I teach today through clicker training. They went straight to the big stuff. Most of the time they were successful because they had the skills to get into a fight with a horse and win. But occasionally things would turn into a train wreck.
I remember one such occasion where a trainer was trying to “sort out” a mustang. This was a powerfully built draft type horse. He’d already come to grief with several other trainers, and now this man was trying out his skills. The mustang came within a hair’s breath of kicking his head in.
I was watching this as a very young and very inexperienced horse owner. My takeaway message was I didn’t want to get into a fight with a horse. Apart from the fact that it was just too dangerous, even then I knew it didn’t create the kind of relationship that I wanted.
I also knew that I didn’t have the skills or the strength to guarantee that I would win. If you can’t guarantee a victory in the big battle – don’t start it in the first place.
I concentrated instead on the little victories. I was boarding at the time in a hunter jumper barn. I saw horses who had never been jumped before being sent over enormous fences. Most of the time they were athletic enough to make it over, but sometimes they would simply crash through the fence or refuse to jump altogether. The horses that stopped or tried to run out past the jump were all treated in the same way. They were punished. They learned fast that no matter how scared they were about jumping, the only safe route for them was straight over the fence.
I was finding a different way. My own, beloved horse – Peregrine’s mother – had neurological damage. Never mind jumping. Stepping over the raised sill of her stall was a daily challenge. She couldn’t go over a ground pole without panicking, but she could step over a line drawn in the dirt. So that’s where we began. Stepping over that line was a first step on a journey that has carried me many places.
It has brought me here to this morning where I am thinking back over the thirty years I have had with the foal that she gave me.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. You are much beloved.
If you’ve read my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, you might have noticed that there are very few pictures of Peregrine in it. That’s because throughout the period that I was working on it, Peregrine was on stall rest. I was writing a book that he had helped in large part to create, but on the eve of having it published it was not at all clear that he would ever be sound again.
The culprit was Potomac horse fever. It had left him with damage to his feet. It was a frustrating situation to be in. Peregrine’s big, gorgeous trot had dwindled down to a shuffle. I would say to my vets, he’s lame, but they couldn’t see it. That was just how the horses that they saw horses moved. He wasn’t asymmetrically lame. What was wrong?
What was wrong was this wasn’t the way MY horse moved. Finally one of the young associates in the practice decided that maybe there was something wrong – with Peregrine’s hocks. Sigh. I knew where the problem was, in his front feet. I could feel it.
Just to humor me the vet did nerve blocks on Peregrine’s front feet. His comment as I trotted Peregrine out for him: “I’ve never seen a horse get so sound so fast in his hocks from a nerve block to his front feet.”
For the few minutes that his feet were numbed and he felt no pain, we could all see the beautiful big trot that was Peregrine’s. And then the pain returned and with it the shuffling reluctance to move.
We tried various strategies. He’d be okay for a little bit and then lame again. Finally his feet deteriorated to the point where we were forced to do hoof wall resections on all four feet. Peregrine was put on total stall rest. The only time he was allowed out of his stall was to walk the few steps down the barn aisle to the wash stall where everyday I had to treat and rewrap his feet. This went on for nine months. By the end I never again wanted to see another roll of duct tape!
Now I am sure there will be people reading this who will be horrified. Nine months of stall rest! Just remember this was over twenty years ago. We might well have better options today that wouldn’t involve confining a horse to a stall, but all I can say is it worked. The new hoof that grew in over those nine months grew in healthy. In December we were ready to let him have some limited exercise. That’s when I got the call from a producer from the BBC. They were doing a series on animal intelligence. Could they come film my horses?
You don’t say no to the BBC. Of course they could come, but I wasn’t sure what I could show them. The day they arrived was Peregrine’s fourth day off stall rest. So far we had walked around the arena for about ten minutes each day.
The first horse I brought out for them was our senior horse, Magnat. He was always our consistent superstar. You could rely on Magnat to show off, and he didn’t disappoint us. He and his owner, Ann Edie, were just learning piaffe. We filmed a short lesson, and then it was Peregrine’s turn.
He came into the arena eager to work. For nine months there had been no clicker training, and suddenly, today everything was allowed. He was tireless. We worked mostly at liberty. Peregrine could have quit at any time. Instead he kept offering and offering.
It was a wonderful experience. This was the first time that I had shared clicker training with reporters, and this producer set a high standard for everyone else who was to follow. He was a superb interviewer. He knew how to ask good questions which made it fun to share the horses with him.
We’d film a bit and then pause to discuss what I would be showing them next. There were six of us in a tight cluster discussing the details of the filming: the producer, his assistant, the camera man, the sound man with his enormous boom, myself and Peregrine. He joined in every conversation, looking over our shoulders, clearly interested in everything that was being said.
He must have been listening because he pulled out all the stops, showing off his canter in hand and for the first time ever producing piaffe at liberty. I had no idea this was in him. We had only worked piaffe in hand or under saddle. This was very much the early days of clicker training. Peregrine had picked the perfect time to show me what was possible.
The video the producer shot that morning was so good he ended up creating a twenty minute segment just on Peregrine. Unfortunately, as he was preparing the final edit, he learned that he had to cut down on the overall length of the series. The easiest way to make the time was to cut out the section on clicker training, so Peregrine never did have his moment to shine on BBC television. That’s all right. He shone for me that day. Somewhere buried in my stacks of old VHS tapes I have a copy of the original program before the producer had to cut out Peregrine’s section. I’m biased, of course, but he should have left it in!
In the horse world one of the deep seated beliefs is that horses are stupid animals. That’s why we need to use force to train them. “It’s all they can understand.” But of course, there’s the corollary belief that horses don’t feel pain the way we do, so its okay.
When I first started sharing clicker training on the internet, people would post about their first clicker experience. These were the early adopters. They had no idea what they were stepping into. Their posts always made me laugh. “My horse is so SMART!!!” they would exclaim. Their surprise and their delight was so evident in their words. Their enthusiasm attracted others and encouraged them to give this strange new way of interacting with horses a try. They quickly joined the chorus of: “My horse is so SMART!!!”
Clicker training helps us to see what I have always known. Only its not just our horses that are so smart. It’s all animals. It was very appropriate that our first interview should be one for a program devoted to Animal Intelligence.
Happy 30th Birthday, Peregrine When I first went out to the barn with clicker in hand, I had no idea all the adventures you would be taking me on me on. Thank you for a wonderful journey!
Years ago I learned to avoid the word “Try”, as in “I’ll try to get that done for you.” or: “I’ll try to make that meeting.” When someone tells you that, “try” translates to you might as well schedule something else. That person isn’t going to be there.
Try is a polite way of saying I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to say so, or perhaps even admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I’m not going to do it.
Why does “try” have such a negative subtext? We were all raised on “The Little Engine That Could”: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Try seems as though it should be one of those words that sits on the empowering side of the equation, not the other way around. How did “try” come to have such a negative association?
Psychologist, Carol Dweck, may have part of the answer. I wrote about the results of one her studies in my previous post. Students were given a test. Half the group were told: “You scored really well. You must be very smart.” The other half were told: “You scored really well. You must have worked really hard.”
Those two simple phrases produced profoundly different results. When the students were given the choice between taking a tougher test that would challenge them or another that was like the one they had just taken and done so well on, the students who were praised for being smart chose the easier test. When asked what they would do in the future if they were given a tough test, those same students said they would probably cheat. When they were given an opportunity to look over the test papers of other students, they looked at papers of students who had scored lower than they did. Looking at the test results of someone who did worse than they did made them feel better about their own performance.
In contrast the students who were praised for their effort chose the tougher second test. And when they were given a chance to look at the test papers of other students, they sought out those who had done better than they did. These students understood that ability was not fixed. Challenging themselves with tougher problems now would help them to perform better in the future. They had what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.
The other students had fixed mindsets. When they were praised for being smart, they became locked in by those expectations. If they took on the tougher challenge and failed, people would know they weren’t smart after all. If you have to work hard to achieve, it means you aren’t a natural, you aren’t really smart. “Try, try again” was for people who needed to work hard, not the naturally gifted.
Fixed, set-in-stone mindsets are hard on horses. If a rider believes that talent is innate, she’ll have to buy a gifted horse, one with a long pedigree of champions behind him. If that horse struggles in his lessons, this rider will frustrate easily. Her horse “should” be able to do this. She’ll compare herself to all “those other” riders are already out competing on their horses, and she’ll feel like a failure.
Chunking down, building a solid foundation, taking the time it takes are all phrases designed to make this rider increasingly impatient. Natural talent doesn’t need to work through those training steps. This is a rider who won’t stick to any one training program. Instead, as soon as she hits a stumbling block, she’s looking elsewhere for answers. Trying again means she’s failed, that her horse isn’t good enough, she isn’t good enough. What a disaster.
Growth mindsets are great for horses. If you have a growth mindset, you enjoy the process of training – not just the end result. You know that it’s okay if your horse isn’t as naturally athletic as your friend’s horse. He tries really hard, and that’s what counts. You know try is like heart. It will carry him a long way forward.
Try harder.Try again. These are phrases that can make some people wince. Why should you try harder when what you’re already doing isn’t working? In a fixed mindset world you don’t believe that trying harder will make any difference. You’ll run from any suggestion that you should try again. “Try” is a miserable word if you have a fixed mindset.
But from a growth mindset perspective trying harder is something you’ll embrace. Try is great word. Try implies that you are reaching for something. You are challenging yourself, stretching yourself beyond your immediate comfort zone. Try is a great word if you have a growth mindset.
So here’s the question: how do you respond to “Try” – with excitement or glum resignation?
The Power of Yet
“Not yet” is another phrase that Carol Dweck has helped me to understand better.
In a Tedtalk she describes a high school in Chicago that doesn’t give failing grades. Instead, if students doesn’t pass a course, they get the grade – not yet.
Dweck loves this concept. As she put it: “If you get a failing grade, you think I’m nothing. I’m nowhere. But if you get a grade of “not yet”, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It puts you back onto a path into the future.”
Students with a fixed mindset feel as though their intelligence is being tested. Failure is devastating because it reveals how inadequate they are, and there is no possibility for improvement. Dweck’s words to describe this were wonderfully evocative: “Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they are gripped in the tyranny of now.”
I was thinking about Dweck’s talk this past week while I was working with some horses I haven’t seen for a couple of months. No matter how many weeks – or even months it is between visits, these horses always remember what we were working on, and they are always eager for more. Their enthusiasm for learning would be any teacher’s delight. On this trip the lessons were mostly in-hand. I was focusing on how soft, quiet, and connected the communication between us could become. For each of the horses it became a dance of cues.
We tend to think of cues as something we give. I cue the horse to trot. He responds by trotting. The cue is a signal. The trot is the behavior I get in response. This is a very limited and limiting view of cues.
Cues are wonderfully layered and complex. The more you learn about cues, the more you appreciate what this means. Here’s an example: we’re not the only ones giving cues. Cues can also be given by our animals. When cues are truly working well there is a back and forth exchange. In fact, one of the fun by-products of clicker training is the behaviors that I have taught to my horse can be turned around and used by him to cue me.
When you recognize that cues are a two way street, you become much more aware of what your animals are trying to communicate back to you. Through this cue communication you become better at listening to your learner and adjusting your training to meet his needs. You’re thinking about the whole animal and not just the isolated behaviors you want to teach.
This raises the question: what is the difference between a cue and a behavior? Could you reach a point in your training where all you really have is just a series of cues?
On a macro scale this is how we normally think of cues:
In this schematic cues and behaviors are seen as two different things. But really a cue is also a behavior. You lift your hand to cue your dog to lie down. That hand signal is a behavior. When the dog responds correctly, that reinforces you for lifting your hand in that particular way and makes it more likely that you’ll do it again. The effect of cues works in two directions. They signal which is the next “hot behavior”, and they reinforce the preceding behavior.
When your dog lies down, we think of that as a behavior. But it’s also a cue to you to click and toss him a treat.
You say “trot” to get your horse to change gait. Producing that sound is a behavior. As are all the weight shifts, the changes of breath, the head tilts and anything else we may use to signal to our intent. But why did you ask for the trot at that particular moment? Were you responding to some subtle signals from your horse that said this would be a good time to trot? When you think about cue communication, this is how the graphic evolves: With people what would we call this back and forth exchange? How about a conversation?
That’s exactly what I was having with these horses. Back and forth – I listened to them, they listened to me. Out of this conversation one of the horses produced the most glorious trot. I was working him in a somewhat unconventional leading position. Instead of being at his head, I was by his hind end. As he trotted beside me, I had my hand resting on his hips.
It was an amazing trot – to the left. To the right he couldn’t manage a trot at all. I found myself saying “yet”. Thank you Carol Dweck. The trot was not there – yet.
I asked. He clearly knew what I wanted. I could have insisted, forced him to make more of an effort, to produce a trot NOW. I did not. Instead I listened to him. I let him cue me. This is how our relationship has always been. He wanted to shift his balance into a lateral flexion. Good idea. Let’s flow with that.
The next day the trot to the left felt even more glorious. And in this session, when I asked for the trot to the right, he went up into it with ease. Not yet had transformed into yes now!
More than that, the trot to the right was even better than it was to the left. The celebration over that wonderful trot was all the sweeter because it had not been there just the day before. I had chosen a teaching strategy that let me listen to my horse, that let me harness the power of yet.
“Yet” is a wonderful word. “He can’t trot to the right” is a door slammed closed. “He can’t trot to the right – yet” is a door held open to possibilities. Which do you want for your horse?
Dancing with Cues:
Here’s a bit of what can evolve when you dance with cues.
Written by: Alexandra Kurland
Published January 12, 2015
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