JOY FULL Horses Part 3: How Clicker Trainers Play

Five Go To Sea
If someone had asked me a few years back what the likelihood was of ever finding me on a cruise ship, I would have said you had a better chance of winning the lottery – the real one, not the kind I described in the last section.  But in the spring of 2014 that’s exactly where I was.  Kay Laurence had decided to celebrate her sixtieth birthday in style.  She was going on a Caribbean cruise, but not just any cruise.  She invited Ken Rameriz, Dr. Jesús Rosales Ruiz, and myself to join her on a Five Go To Sea conference/cruise/adventure.   I’m really not sure what to call it, so I’ll just settle for amazing!  That describes it the best.

I’m sure you’ve done the math.  Kay, Ken, Jesús and myself make four not five.  Number five were all the other conference attendees.

Before I plunge into describing the conference and all that we learned, let me set the stage by describing the ship we were on.  Prior to going on the cruise, I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew cruise ships were enormous, but this ship dwarfed anything I had imagined.  I looked up it’s dimensions.  It was 127 feet wide and 1047 feet long. Some people think in terms of football fields.  I translate dimensions into riding arenas.  The ship was twice the width of my indoor arena and more than eight times as long!

Now take those dimensions and stack up 14 floors of guest accommodations, restaurants, theaters, pools, meeting rooms, dance floors, lounges, spas and all the other amenities a cruise ship has to offer, and you’ll begin to get a sense of the size of the ship.  And however big it was from the ground floor up, there was that much again below to accommodate the crew, kitchens, engines, fuel, water, food storage and everything else that it takes to provide for well over 4,000 people. My barn looks like a big building sitting by itself on the side of a hill, but it would be easily swallowed up inside the belly of this ship.


Most of the 4,000 people who were vacationing on the ship were there for the spas, the theaters and all the other guest amenities.  And then there was this rather odd group of clicker trainers who completely baffled the staff.  We weren’t sleeping in after a night of partying.  Instead we were getting up at the crack of dawn to meet up for a morning t’ai chi and body awareness session.  Instead of lounging for hours at a time by the pool or gambling in the ship’s casino, we spent the days at sea in the conference room.  That was our idea of fun!

“Riding” the Ocean
I know heading into the cruise many of the conference attendees were concerned about being seasick. I can now tell you that yes, you do feel the pitch and roll of the ocean. Was anyone sea sick? On the first day some people were definitely feeling a bit queasy. Experienced travelers like Ken Ramirez had taken precautions and were wearing motion sickness patches.

What did I experience? I can now say that I loved being out on the open ocean. Was the rolling of the ship fun?  Absolutely! I loved it!  It felt like riding!  I might have a different tale to tell if we’d been crossing the north Atlantic in a winter gale, but I loved the rolling of the ship.  When you ride, you let the motion of the horse take you.  It’s not about blocking the energy or keeping yourself rigid. You let your joints follow the forward and up of the horse’s back. The ship was like that.

There’s an exercise I teach called the “four points on the bottom of your feet”. It’s a Feldenkrais exercise.  You begin by noticing how you move, how you shift your balance as you roll around the four points on the bottom of your feet (inside toe, outside toe, outside heel, inside heel).  How do you shift your balance forward and back, side to side? How do you send and receive these shifts in balance?

In the “Four Points” exercise you are asking yourself:  Where does the movement begin?  Where does it stop? What blocks it?  What could I release, what could I find that would let me flow more easily around the four points on the bottom of my feet?

The roll of the ship let me explore those questions.  I loved the feel.  The ship would pitch to the side, and I would roll with it, catching my balance at the top of the swell and rolling down with it.  I kept thinking how boring it was going to be to be back on land that didn’t roll and sway under my feet.  I loved “riding” the ship.

I suspect the people who were feeling a little “green around the gills” were wishing I would stop grinning like a Cheshire cat each time the ship pitched up over a wave. There’s nothing so annoying as someone who is having a good time when you’re feeling miserable – especially when what is making you feel sick is the very thing they are laughing about.

I do think it is a great example of how we create our own reality.  I went into the cruise expecting to have a great adventure.  I could have stiffened against the pitch of the ship and made myself miserably sick.  Instead I flowed with it and had a grand time “riding”.

I love exploring balance.  On that first day at sea I had a hard time staying balanced.  I could roll around the four points just fine, but I couldn’t stand with my feet together.  I had to keep stepping out wider to catch my balance. There was also no walking a straight line down the endlessly long corridors of the ship.  I swayed from wall to wall looking like I’d just downed a bottle of Caribbean rum.   But a couple of days later, not only could I stand feet together, so could everyone else. I led the group through the beginning steps of learning to stand balanced over your feet.  On day one this would have been a challenge for all of us.  But on day three of the conference everyone had gained sea legs.

The Conference
We do create our own reality.  Kay Laurence discovered she likes cruises, so she created a conference cruise to celebrate her 60th birthday.  She designed a conference like no other.  We had overall themes for each day, but we weren’t tied to particular presentations.

Normally at conferences the organizers want to know what you’re going to talk about months ahead of the event.  I understand their perspective.  They need to advertise the event, but eight months out I don’t know what is going to be inspiring me.

I much preferred Kay’s approach.  Creativity comes from combining familiar elements in new ways.  All four of us had heard each other speak before.  We were familiar with the material that was going to be presented, but in the format of this conference we had so much more time for conversation and discussion.  We could expand on ideas presented and adjust our choice of presentations to follow up on topics that were of interest.  That meant the impact of the presentations went beyond that of most conferences.

What emerged from those talks was a true Caribbean treasure trove.  If you asked each of the participants who went on the Five Go To Sea cruise what the highlight of the trip was, I’m sure you would get dozens of different answers.  For some it might be an adventure they had on one of the excursion days. For others it might be a dinner time conversation with one of the speakers. For me I would say the cornerstone of the event was Dr. Jesús Rosales Ruiz’s talk on resurgence.  In the previous unit I talked about Kay Laurence’s microshaping.  This is very much linked to the concepts Jesús introduced us to in his talk.

Kay wants a 98% or higher success rate.  To get to that you need to thin slice your criteria.  If you’re sloppy, if you’re waiting for your animal to offer behavior, you will end up with a hodgepodge of clicks.  You’ll miss clickable behaviors.  You’ll click for a head turn this time and a foot lift the next.  Kay calls this dirty shaping.

For both Kay and myself clean, elegant shaping evolves out of microshaping.

Reaction Patterns
Micro.  That’s always been the direction I’ve looked.  Remember Dr. Susan Friedman’s phrase – level of analysis.  ( She talks about that in reference to the focus someone has.  If you are looking through a Caribbean pirate’s spy glass, are you focused on the distant horizon or the bird that’s skimming across the water just a few feet out from your ship?   When you consider why a certain behavior is occurring, are you trying to figure out what part of the brain is activating and what individual neurons are firing?   Or are you looking at observable events that surround the behavior which might be effecting the frequency of it’s occurrence?

Levels of focus very much relate to training.  You can go macro and be outcome driven and send your horse directly over fences.  If you and your horse are bold and athletic enough, you’ll be successful.

Alternatively, you can go micro and look at the reaction patterns that will allow you to jump those fences successfully.  (I discussed reaction patterns in the previous post.)

going-micor-textGoing macro prematurely can lead to crashes.  Going micro will produce the macro outcomes without seeming to work on them directly.

Most of us have been told that we need to walk, trot, and canter our horses in both directions every day for training to advance.  But if your horse is out of balance in the faster gaits, practicing them just makes the balance problems more entrenched.

There’s a lovely expression that sits at the core of my training:
“The walk is the mother of all gaits.”

What this means is you can focus on the underlying reaction patterns that lead to great balance in all three gaits without needing to go out of the walk.  When you do ask for the trot or canter after a hiatus from these gaits, it will feel as though you have a completely different horse under you.

Going micro gives us something else.  It allows us to transform the make-it-happen force and violence of traditional horse training into clicker-compatible good technique.  It is this transformation that makes true play between horses and humans possible.

To get there we need to look at extinction and the role it plays in shaping.  To help us we’re going to return to the Five Go To Sea cruise and sit in on the lecture Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruis gave on Extinction and Resurgence.

So get out your notebook, pull up a chair and join us on the cruise.  You’re about to be treated to a gem of a lecture.

Coming Next: Resurgence and Regression

P.S.: We so enjoyed the conference cruises that Kay came up with yet another innovation: a land cruise. We had our first Training Thoughtfully Land Cruise in the UK in January 2016.  In 2017 we will be holding our second.  This one will be October, 20-22, 2017 in Milwaukee WI.

If you are thinking Milwaukee seems an unlikely place for a land cruise, one of the reasons for picking the locations is Kay and I want to use these conferences to provide a stage for local talent.  People often feel that there is no one close to them they can go to for help.  These conferences will help connect people to their local training resources.  At this conference two of my Click That Teaches coaches, Jen Digate and Natalie Zielinski, will be presenting, along with several dog trainers Kay knows.  All of them are local to the Milwaukee area.

Anticipation is a wonderful thing.  If you are reading this in November 2016, there is currently an early bird special available for the conference registration.  Visit for full details.

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:          

JOY FULL Horses: Unit 10 – Part 2 of 5: What We Say

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

What We Say
It’s ten p.m., an hour at which I should be heading off to bed, but I can’t leave yet.  I’m sitting in the faculty lounge at the Clicker Expo.  We’ve just come from dinner and a presentation by this year’s guest speaker.  After a full day of presentations you would think we would all be ready to call it a night, but instead we’re just getting warmed up.

Around the table with me are Dr. Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez,  Eva Bertilsson, Kay Laurence, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, and Laura Monico Torelli.

We are discussing terminology.  Eva got the ball rolling with a question about chains. We are wrestling with the different definitions of chains that are in use.


Dr. Friedman is defining a chain from the perspective of a behavior analyst.  A chain has a very narrow and very specific meaning.  For a true chain, you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

This type of chain can be very elegant to watch.  Imagine a series of agility obstacles set out in your arena.  You give your horse a cue that sends him out to the first obstacle, a small jump.  Just beyond the jump is a cone.  Your horse spots the cone as he clears the jump.  The cone itself serves as the cue for him to trot over to it, and pick it up.  Nearby is a large bucket.  He walks over to the bucket, drops the cone into the bucket.  A few feet past the bucket is a large platform.  Your horse now walks over to the platform, steps up onto it with all four feet, and lifts one foot high into the air while you click and run over with his treat.

That’s a technical chain.

Now imagine a different scenario.  You send your horse out over the first jump.  Just beyond the jump are two cones, a green one and a red one.  As your horse jumps, you shout “green”.  You’ve added a cue to tell your horse which cone he’s to pick up.  He heads straight over to the green cone, but now there are more choices.  Instead of one bucket, there are two identical ones, except one has a symbol of a circle painted on it, and the other a triangle.  As he picks up the green cone, you shout “circle”.  He walks over to the correct bucket and drops the cone in.

After this he again has more choices.  There are two platforms, one to the right and one to the left of the buckets.

You shout “Left”, and he walks over to the platform that’s off his left shoulder and steps up on it.

If you are using scientific terminology, this very sophisticated series of behaviors is not a chain because you are cueing each one.  It would be considered a sequence.

Our discussion rolled on around these two terms.  We all understood the distinctions.  The question was how fluid and flexible should we be with the language we use.

The Meaning of Words
In the field of learning theory scientists took for their own use many terms which already had a common-usage meaning.  Punishment is a great example.  When someone says we need to punish a child, a criminal, a terrorist, another country, the meaning is clear.  There is a moral element to it.  You don’t simply want to stop the behavior.  You want to impose a penalty.  You want the person to suffer in some way, to “pay” for his offense.  You are punishing the individual, not the behavior.

When a behavioral analyst uses the term, the meaning is very different.  There are no moral overtones of retribution.  If you smack a horse for biting, and the behavior decreases, you can say that the smack punished the biting behavior.  If the biting continues, the smack did not punish the behavior.  It may have annoyed or even frightened the horse, but if the behavior of biting didn’t decrease, the smack wasn’t a punisher.

When scientists take words that are already in common usage and redefine them, we can get a muddled result.  We also have confusion when scientists use words that we’re sort of familiar with, but not really.

A great example is operant conditioning.

That’s the big umbrella under which clicker training sits.  Operant sounds like operator.  And conditioning we understand from fitness programs.  But what do those two words put together really mean?

Look at what else happens when scientists start combining words we thought we understood.

Consider the four quadrants of operant conditioning: there’s positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment.

Positive punishment!?  Really.

Okay, the scientists explain.  The positive means simply that something has been added.  You’re adding something the horse doesn’t want and that stops the behavior, at least for the moment.  You add the smack of your hand when your horse bites you.

That’s clear enough, except it’s hard not to feel the harsh “take that” edge when you even just think about smacking your horse.  We can say we understand the plus and minus of the terms, but we still experience emotions we’ve come to associate with the words: positive equals good, negative equals bad.  Of course people get confused by these terms!  They understand them intellectually, but they experience them emotionally.  The only term that matches up and creates no conflict in meaning is “positive reinforcement”.  The rest get us into a real “knickers in a twist” state of confusion.

Negative Reinforcement
I was listening to the conversation, but I was also keeping an eye on my watch.  Eleven o’clock.  I had presentations to give the following day.  I should be calling it a night.  I decided to stay just a few more minutes.

Eva was asking more questions.  Now we were talking about negative reinforcement, a subject that always gets my attention given it’s connection to horse training.

When horses are handled with conventional training methods, rope handling is a very clear example of negative reinforcement.  The horse can avoid/escape the threat of escalating pressure by moving in the direction the handler wants.  As the horse learns to obey, the pressure diminishes to a subtle command.  The work looks soft, but the threat of escalation remains.  The soft command tells the horse how to avoid the escalating pressure.

Often people watch the finished result and think the trainer is very soft and kind.  This is very much a case of don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The handler can look gentle because the horse understands the threat of escalating pressure that’s hidden inside every soft request.

That’s very straight forward.  If the handler is skilled, many horses thrive in this kind of system.  They know what they need to do to stay out of trouble. There’s no guess work. The commands are clear, the consequences are swiftly applied. Respond well, the pressure goes away. Fail to respond, and it escalates.  If you can figure out what is wanted – and if you can physically do it – you can stay out of trouble.

It’s easy to understand this kind of handling.  It’s textbook negative reinforcement.  And it’s also standard-issue horse training.

So what do we call it when the pressure doesn’t increase? When there is no threat of escalation, what is it?

I’ve always kept the use of the term negative reinforcement when I write about clicker-compatible rope handling.  I do this in part because I want to remember our history.  I want to remember where so many of the techniques that we use evolved from.  I want to remember so I won’t ever be tempted to go back there.

I have always combined pressure and release of pressure with the clicker.  You could say that I am simply piggy backing the clicker onto existing training systems, and that’s not really clicker training.

Perhaps, but it is a bridge.  If I am working with a rider who has spent years perfecting her horse-handling skills, I don’t want to say: “Throw all that away.  You won’t be using leads, or reins, or anything else you’re familiar with.”  That’s a great way to lose someone before they’re even out of the starting gate.

But if I say the communication system you know still works, we’re just going to teach it very differently, that makes more sense.  There’s still a huge learning curve, but I’m not going to begin by “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

By the way do you know the derivation of that expression?  Before the modern era of indoor plumbing, baths were a rarity.  You brought water in and heated it for one bath.  The patriarch of the household took his bath first, followed in rank by everyone else.  The children would be the last ones to bathe.  By the time it was the turn of the youngest babies, the water would be murky brown.  You literally had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

This derivation comes courtesy of the historian, Lucy Worsley and her wonderful book, “If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home”.

Just as we still take baths – but my how they’ve changed – we still use lead ropes and other pressure cues in clicker training. But again – how things change when you take the threat away and make them clicker compatible!

Coming Next: Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

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:          

A Summer of Adventures!

scenery whales conference horses

Labor Day weekend seems like a good time to post this report on the Five Go To Sea conference and the August clinics. It’s taken me a while to put it together.  The problem with heading off on a summer of adventures is at some point you come bumping back into reality.  That happened to me when I returned from three weeks of travel.  I got home to find the hot water heater in my house was leaking and the tank was sizzling ominously.  I turned off everything I could find that was even remotely connected to the hot water tank and headed off to spend the night at the barn.  Thursday got the hot water tank replaced.  Friday a repair man came to fix the snowblower that wouldn’t start last winter.  I know the first snowfall is still a fair way off, but waiting until November to get it fixed is a bad idea.  Just to round things out, I also took my aged truck in for servicing.  I was learning that these machines have one thing in common with our brains.  They all operate under a use it or lose it principle.

Our brains thrive on novelty and that was certainly provided by the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  The first cruise took us to the Caribbean. This year we sailed up the Alaska coastline.  The route the ship took was through what is referred to as the inner with caption
It travels between islands and through spectacular fjords so it doesn’t matter where you are on the ship, there is always something breathtaking to look at.  Our conference room had floor to ceiling windows so we didn’t miss out by being in a conference.   By the end of the first day, I think we were all in agreement that every conference from now on should provide a similar spectacular backdrop.  It certainly gave us some memorable conference moments.conference attendees 3

One such moment occurred during a presentation Kay was giving on PORTL, a training table game.  Kay was in the middle of a demonstration.  She was working with one of the conference attendees showing everyone how to get the game started.  Her learner made an unexpected move that Kay had not planned for.  Kay began to talk about these “oh, oops” moments.  Do you have a strategy in place to deal with this kind of situation?  How do you move on without confusing or frustrating your learner?  She had barely posed the question when one of our keen spotters cried “whale!” and everyone, Kay included, rushed to the windows.  Apparently, that’s what you do.  By the time we returned to the game the sticky moment was completely forgotten!

whale watching during conferenceIt helps to bring along your own naturalist on these cruises.  Ken Ramirez isn’t just a first class trainer.  Not surprisingly, he’s also an expert whale spotter, and he could tell us what we were looking at based on the size and shape of a quickly glanced spout.  My first whale sightings were just that.  A fleeting glimpse of a very distant spout.  But in Juneau I joined four of the conference participants for a whale watching tour.  In addition to seeing some spectacular scenery, we had close up views of hump back whales.

whale watching collageOther trip highlights included a hike through the coastal rainforest.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  Moss covered trees created a magical landscape.  I spotted a large hole disappearing under the roots of one massive tree.  “What would live in there?” I asked our guide.  She gave me a general answer, running down the list of small mammals that inhabit these forests.  What she left off her list were elves, brownies and fairies.  In a woods like this they were just as likely to be the inhabitants of this hidden cavity as any martin or rabbit.

giant tree with caption

nurse tree with caption2

At Skagway I boarded a train that followed the route the “Stampeders” took in the late 1800s on their journey to the Yukon in search of gold.  You have to wonder at the mass insanity that overtakes people.  Riding in the comfort of an old-fashioned train, I could marvel at the beauty of deep river gorges.  But if I had to carry a year’s worth of supplies up these same mountains, would I have thought they were beautiful?  The train was built in 1898 to carry the Stampeders to the gold fields of the Yukon.  Today it brings gold in the form of tourist dollars into the area.

railroad 4 photos tain picturestrain follows same routeminers narrow trail 2ghost bridge 2climing into the clouds 2The train passes through a section of trail called “Dead Horse Pass”.  It’s estimated that over three thousand horses and mules died along this stretch of trail.  Ignorance was the culprit.  The shop assistants and mill workers who were racing to the gold fields knew nothing about how to balance a pack.  They didn’t even really know where the Yukon was or what kind of conditions they were heading into.  Pictures taken of them in San Francisco before they headed north to the gold fields showed prospectors posing in front of painted mountain scenes with palm trees in the foreground!  But it wasn’t palm trees that they encountered as they drove their over packed horses up the White Pass Summit.

I thought of these horses as the train passed through this section of the trail.  I think of them now as I write this in my barn where my very pampered horses get to live a life of great comfort.  Perhaps it balances the scale just a little.  Throughout our history with horses we have a lot to answer for.

We met a very different kind of horse in the Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia.  Along with a delightful giraffe, a camel, an ostrich, a reindeer, and a large cat with a salmon in its mouth, the horses pranced around an old-fashioned Carousel.  We wanted to ride them all, so we ended up taking several turns on the Carousel.  I rode a rabbit and, in honor of Kay, a large white dog.  One of us should have ridden the Orca, but we were running out of time.  The garden closed at nine, and we didn’t want to miss the bus that would take us back to the ship.carousel butchart 2

Did I mention that we also spent our days at sea in the conference room?  Ken treated us to an update on the training he’s been doing teaching dogs to count.  I had requested that for the day that I organized.  The results of his experiment are impressive, but what I particularly wanted him to include were the preliminary steps he goes through to design a good training set up.

So many of us simply jump straight into training.  We find out too late that we can’t really manage our props, that our set up is clumsy, and we haven’t given any thought to all the things that can – and now are going wrong. Ken showed how a bit of training practice without any dogs revealed some major issues in his original set up.  He also showed his clumsy first attempt when he was still evolving the best training procedure to use.  He refers to this as exploratory training.  What do you need to change before you begin the real task of training and data collection?

Ken is such a skilled and creative trainer, it was good to see things going wrong for him in this early phase of the training.  This isn’t to gloat but to understand that this planning phase is part of good training.

He also shared with us his recent foray into butterfly training.  He couldn’t show us any video, but his detailed description of the training process was a definite trip highlight.  I don’t know which surprised us more – that butterflies could be trained or that butterflies could be bullies.

Kay focused much of her time on the training game, PORTL.  She divided people up into groups of three: a learner, a teacher and a coach.  The first tasks were fairly simple.  The teacher was to introduce the learner to the game.  Kay instructed them to plan thoroughly before they brought in their learner.  What were they going to do if their learner did something unexpected, if there was a bad click, if they got stuck and needed to consult with the coach?Portl planning session 2With Ken’s emphasis the day before on planning the teachers and coaches took this training prep very seriously.  Normally people rush through this part of the process.  They jump right in with their learners and then don’t have any plan for dealing with the unexpected.  You see that kind of approach creating a lot of frustration on both sides of the table.kay coaching Portl planning sessionNot so with this group.  More than half an hour went by and none of the learners had been called in.  The teachers and coaches were still engaged in careful planning.  The poor learners weren’t sure what they were supposed to do.  No one had anticipated this contingency – that the prep would be so very comprehensive.  The advantage of being on a cruise ship is we could send them off to get a drink or to whale watch while the rest of their team planned out their training strategy.

break time at the conferenceWe learned from this experience.  On the last day of the conference we again played PORTL.  This time Kay set more challenging tasks which definitely required some planning time.  I took the “learners” through some body awareness/training exercises.  That produced some interesting results.  When the teachers came to get their learners, people didn’t want to leave to go play the game.  One “teacher” ran into a training puzzle and needed a moment to think.  She told her learner that they would only be a couple of minutes.  She could stay at the table while she consulted with her coach.  “Oh no”, her learner told her.  “Take your time.” She was going back to rejoin the body awareness session.

Ken coaching POrtl standingPortl plan first then playI must say having the backdrop of the open ocean created the perfect setting for body awareness exercises.  The gentle pitch and roll of the ship added to the proprioceptive experience.  Even the occasional “whale” cue which sent us all rushing to the windows contributed to the learning.  How quickly could you come back from a mammoth distraction into a state of calm balance for your animal?  And since I was among those who rushed to the window I couldn’t fuss when others did the same.

(I’ll write a separate post on some of the work I covered during the conference, including the body awareness exercises.)

The cruise ended all too soon.  When we docked back in Seattle early on Friday morning, I felt as though I could easily have set sail again.  Alaska is a landscape I could easily become lost in.  We are talking about where to go next.  What adventure should we have for our next cruise?  I could easily return to Alaska to sail up through the inner passage and see again those magnificent fjords.

For those who don’t want to go on a ship, Kay is talking about a land cruise next winter in the UK.  I’ll enjoy that as well, but I will also be looking forward to our next ocean adventure.

The cruise was over, but not my travels.  I headed next to a small clinic at Monty Gwynne’s, one of my Click That Teaches coaches.   Many of you have met Monty through her wonderful PRE Icaro.Monty and Icky 2 photos

Icky is only one of the many horses Monty has trained.  She also has a barn full of ponies who have all learned lateral work.  They made my job so easy.  They were the true teachers.  I simply stepped aside and let them teach people how to dance with horses.  On the third day we brought three of the horses into the arena for the start of a quadrille.  We had originally planned on having six horses working together for our drill team, but two of the participants had to leave early, and the third was busy attending to her own horse.  So we settled on just three horses which was enough for everyone’s first attempt at working in sync with one another.

Watching them coming down the long side together in shoulder-in was the highlight of my entire trip.  What a treat!  Monty has a treasure trove of wonderful horses.  If you want to explore what the combination of clicker training and an understanding of good balance can create, you should plan a trip to visit Monty.drill team Monty's ponies

I flew home on Tuesday, spent half a day catching up and then drove to the Cavalia Retirement Farm for a three day clinic.  It was another great event.  Several of the attendees were brand new to clicker training so the focus this time was on foundation work.  One of my Click That Teaches coaches, Sue Bennett, joined us.  Having Sue there to help meant we could split up into smaller groups to give people lots of one on one coaching.

Bilbo enjoying the clinicThe star of the clinic was Bilbo, an enormous Ardennes daft stallion.  When Bilbo enters the arena all eyes are on him, and it isn’t just because he’s so big.  Bilbo has charisma.  We generally save him for the end of the day.  We let him play his version of Panda catch.  He’s not as good at it yet as Panda.  She runs at full gallop from person to person.  I am glad to say Bilbo chooses a more sedate speed.  His reward for moving from one station to the next is not just a click and a treat.  He also gets a back scratch from everyone in the clinic.  He’s so big you can have the entire clinic group around him and everyone can find a spot to scratch.  Did I mention that Bilbo likes clinics and wouldn’t mind if they happened every weekend?favorite photos from 2015 clinics 2

I enjoy the clinics and all the other adventures, but it is good to be home for a bit.  I have pastures to mow, plumbing to fix, and horses to enjoy.

Alexandra Kurland

An Invitation

The series on Resurgence has generated a lot of interest, and I know from my in-box, also a lot of questions.  So I’ve invited Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and Kay Laurence to join me for an on-line question and answer session.  I hope you will join us, as well.

AK JRR Kay on cruiseWhen: June 21, 2015

What Time?  1 pm Eastern Time Zone (Check on line for time zone converters if you aren’t sure of the time difference.)

Cost: $35.00

Space is limited.  If you would like to attend, do sign up early.  The meeting is limited to a maximum of 25 people.

How do you sign up?  Email me at:  I will send you a paypal invoice for the meeting.

What do you need to participate?  For optimum audio quality, a headset is recommended.

What should I bring?  Lots of questions!

Alexandra Kurland

5GoToSea: Part 15: Micro Masters

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past
Part 6: Accidental Extinction
Part 7: Emotions
Part 8: Training With High Rates Of Reinforcement
Part 9: Cues and Extinction
Part 10: PORTL
Part 11: Mastering Extinction
Part 12: Creativity Explored
Part 13: Degrees of Freedom
Part 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence
Part 15: Micro Masters

If you have not read the previous installments of this series, I suggest you begin with Part 1. Part 1 was published on May 21, 2015.

Part 15: Micro Masters

The “Pose”
Jesús closed his presentation with two horse examples.  The first was Robin’s “pose”. I’ve told the story of the “pose” many times.  I’ll keep it brief here.  Robin first learned a stationary “pose”.  It originally was a by-product of cleaning up his treat taking manners when he was two years old.  During the process he started “posing”, arching his neck and looking like a very pretty dressage horse.  I liked the look so I continued to reinforce it.  It became a default behavior.  In the absence of any other active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  I became the cue for the behavior.

Offering “the pose” meant that if Robin wanted to interact with me and engage in the clicker game, he had a sure fire way of doing so.  Even if I was busy doing barn chores, if I saw him posing, I would click and reinforce him.  I never wanted him to feel like the proverbial toddler who is banging the kitchen pots and pans to get his mother’s attention. If Robin wanted attention from me, he had a behavior which he could use to satisfy his need for social interaction.

Because Robin wasn’t ignored, he didn’t go through an extinction process.  I didn’t see a regression into the unwanted behaviors that macro extinctions can cause. Instead I was able to reinforce a behavior I liked, one that was a useful warm up for our formal training sessions.  For his part Robin was confident that I would engage with him when he asked for attention.

Reinforcing him for the stationary pose went on through the winter.  I didn’t have any plans for developing the behavior.  It was simply something I liked.  It was Robin who was the creative one!

It must have been late March.  I was lunging him in the arena one evening.  He was giving me a ho hum trot.  There was nothing there I could reinforce.  Robin went once around the circle, twice, three times without reinforcement.  Normally I would have been clicking and reinforcing him at a much higher rate, but given the plow horse trot I was presented with, there was nothing there I wanted to say yes to.

At the time I would not have described it in these terms, but I was putting him into an extinction process.  I could see him searching, trying to decide what to do.  On the third time round he had the answer.  He would try his pose.  But in order to pose and still stay in the trot, he had to add energy.  Within one stride he transformed into magazine-cover magnificence.  I captured the moment with a click and the rest is history.  The “pose” has evolved into a major component of my work.  Robin showed us that we could indeed shape self carriage.  What began as a happy accident for Robin has become a deliberate and very systematically trained behavior in other horses.

Our Creative Horses
When I first told this story to Jesús, he commented that the pose came out because of resurgence.  At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of what he was saying, but I remembered what he said.  And Jesús remembered the story.  It got him thinking about the procedure and how we might use it to make deliberate use of resurgence.  The result: we now have a systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors. The end result can look like magic, but there is good science behind it.  Here are the steps:

First, you build a strong history of reinforcement for the component behaviors.

Next, you change the situation somewhat so extinction comes into play.

This generates a resurgence of previously reinforced behaviors.  The result: new combinations emerge.  That’s creativity.  The most fun for me is seeing what the horses invent.  They are often so much more creative than their human partners!

Seeing Familiar Landscapes with Fresh Eyes
Kay Laurence might say we are seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Jesús would say you have to understand the process of extinction so you can master it. If you understand it, you won’t be frustrating your animals.  Instead, you’ll know how to use extinction to generate complex behaviors.

I would say that monitoring the level of extinction your learner is experiencing is a keys-to-the-kingdom part of good training.  I recently spent a couple of days working with a group of horses I have come to know well.  One of them is a retired performance horse.  Without going into a lot of details, I would describe him as an emotionally fragile horse.  He’s easily worried. If he thinks he has the right answer, he’s a superstar, but I always have to be careful how far I stretch him into new behaviors.  If he thinks he might get something wrong, he worries.  He’s come out of a training environment in which he had to perform correctly or his rider could get seriously hurt. I suspect he was corrected for mistakes which accounts for his worry.

Mastering Micro
This past weekend I was working among other things on this horse’s pose.  He’s very much got the idea that he gets reinforced for lifting up through his topline and releasing at the poll.  I was holding out for slightly better versions.  As I withheld my click, I saw him experimenting. Was it higher with his poll?  Was it more lift of his back? What did I want?

The shifts he was giving me represented micro changes.  The variations were all within a clickable range.  Clicking him for any of these variations would not have been wrong, but I was waiting fractionally to see what else would pop out.  I was using micro extinctions to create the next step.  And because I was thinking about this in terms of extinction, I was monitoring closely how this related to his emotional level. I did not want him to become macro worried.

We were always just a second or two away from a click so I could let him experiment within a micro extinction without risking the emotional fallout of a larger extinction process.

Micro is so very much the key.

Macro extinctions are painful.  Micro extinctions are part of good shaping.

Macro shaping can be frustrating.  Micro shaping is elegant.

Macro negative reinforcement is literally painful. Micro is again good shaping.

When you go micro, your learner is always just a second or two away from a reinforceable moment.  You can cue another behavior.  You can click and treat. Either way, you are saying: “Yes! Great idea!”  Micro mastery is what we should be striving for in our training.  When you say someone is a great trainer, you are saying he is a Micro Master.  In training that’s the “black belt” we should be aiming for.

(Note: this video was taken when Robin was three years old.  He was not yet started under saddle.  Also, he had never been in side reins or any of the other devices that are commonly used to lunge horses.  This beautiful self-carriage was shaped entirely through clicker training.  The dressage whips that I’m using serve as targets.  They give Robin orientation points that help him maintain his balance relative to me.)

This concludes the report on Dr. Jesús Rosales’ Ruis’ 2014 presentation on Resurgence and Regression given at the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.

For information on the 2015 Five Go To Sea Alaska cruise visit

Alexandra Kurland

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

5GoToSea: Pt 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past
Part 6: Accidental Extinction
Part 7: Emotions
Part 8: Training With High Rates Of Reinforcement
Part 9: Cues and Extinction
Part 10: PORTL
Part 11: Mastering Extinction
Part 12: Creativity Explored
Part 13: Degrees of Freedom
Part 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence

If you are new to this series, I suggest you begin with Part 1

Part 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence

Building Unlikely Behaviors with Resurgence
Jesús reminded us that nothing is either all good or all bad.  We want to use positive reinforcement with our animals because we see it as effective and more humane.  But positive reinforcement doesn’t always produce desirable outcomes.  In people it can lead to addictions to harmful behaviors such as over eating or gambling.

Resurgence and regression can be very negative procedures, but they can also be used to produce what might otherwise be very difficult behaviors to obtain.

toy chairJesús again used PORTL to illustrate how this can work.  In one video example, a trainer set a toy chair on the table for her learner to interact with.  The goal was to get the learner to push the chair over the table the way she might push a toy car.  The learner began to interact with the chair, but not in a way that would lead to pushing it. Why?  Because history matters. The learner is going to bring back all of her history, all of her previous repertoire of chair behaviors as she experiments.  Pushing it like a car is very unlikely because that’s not how she would have interacted with this kind of object in the past.

The same would be true if the trainer had set down a dice.  The learner would have tossed the dice or shaken it in her hand because that’s in the reinforcement history of that object.  Pushing a dice over the table like a toy car would probably be much harder to get.

Instead of trying to shape the behavior through small approximations, the trainer used resurgence.  Her first step was getting the learner to touch the chair consistently. The learner in this video was not particularly creative.  She touched the chair, but she didn’t try any other behaviors.  Getting her to push it was going to be hard.

So the trainer took the chair away and set out a toy car.  Using an object that normally would be pushed made it very easy to get the desired behavior.  The learner pushed the car over the table top. Click and treat.

This was repeated several times and then the trainer took the car away and set the chair out. The learner went back to touching it.  The chair accidentally fell over – click and treat.  The learner latched on to that, expanding her repertoire to two behaviors – touching the chair and knocking it over.  She persisted in knocking it over even when she did not get reinforced for the action.  Everything but pushing it like a car was put on extinction – meaning the trainer no longer reinforced her for these behaviors.

To avoid escalating the learner’s frustration, the trainer took the chair away and set the car out again.  The learner immediately started pushing the car over the table top. Click and treat.

To help with the generalization the trainer put a third object out – a small block.  The learner pushed the block.  Click and treat.  This was repeated several times, then the trainer took the block away and set out the car.  The car was pushed.  Click and treat.

The trainer set the chair out and the learner pushed the chair.  Job done.

Resurgence and Dog “Yoga”
Jesús next showed an example of using resurgence to train a dog to step with his hind legs onto a chair.

The dog was taught through a series of very carefully managed steps.  First, the dog learned to stand one foot each on four small plastic pods.  This alone was impressive training.  The pods were the same ones physiotherapists use to help people improve their balance and proprioception.  It took great coordination for the dog to stay balanced on the four pods.  But that was only step 1.  Next he learned to keep his front feet on the pods while he maneuvered his hind feet up onto the brick ledge of a fireplace hearth.

This was not done as a cute party trick.  The dog’s owner is a yoga teacher.  Her interest was very much the same as mine – helping her animal to maintain a healthy spine.

The last step was setting up a training session next to a chair.  The handler withheld the click, putting the dog into an extinction process.  With very little experimentation, the dog oriented himself so his hind end was to the chair.  He certainly demonstrated the flexibility of his spine by stepping up onto the chair with his hind legs so he was standing hind end up on the chair and front feet on the floor.

Generalization and Creativity
Jesús commented that if we didn’t know about resurgence we would be saying the dog generalized.  But generalization had nothing to do with it.  What we were seeing was resurgence.  Kay added that for her this process is what is meant by creativity.  It isn’t waiting and waiting for the dog to do something new.  Instead we give them a whole range of behaviors, and they come up with a new or unlikely combination.  What Jesús was showing us was a procedure for setting up the creative process.  You give the animal the repertoire, the components of more complex behaviors, and then you set up a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it.

Coming soon: Part 15: Going Micro

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

5GoToSea: Pt. 13: Degrees of Freedom

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past
Part 6: Accidental Extinction
Part 7: Emotions
Part 8: Training With High Rates Of Reinforcement
Part 9: Cues and Extinction
Part 10: PORTL
Part 11: Mastering Extinction
Part 12: Creativity Explored
Part 13: Degrees of Freedom

If you are new to this series, I suggest you begin with Part 1.

Part 13: Degrees of Freedom

Optimistic Puzzle Solvers
How do you help horses and handlers to become more optimistic puzzle solvers?  One way is to expand the repertoire of both the handler and the learner.  The broader and more extensive the repertoire, the more options an individual has.  If a horse knows only two choices and neither of them are working, he’s in trouble.

Jesús referred to this as being coerced by your repertoire.  Here’s the example: suppose a high school student is a great debater.  In fact he’s so good, he’s captain of the debating team. You’d expect someone like that to have a really high self-esteem. He’s so successful how could he not?

But look a little closer, and you’ll see why.  This individual is great at debating, but he’s no athlete.  He’s left out of a lot of other school events.  He doesn’t play sports.  He doesn’t go to school dances.  He has poor social skills so at lunch he’s off by himself.

Yes, in debating he wins all the prizes, but he has only that one skill.  So he’s being coerced into improving his debating skills because that’s all he can do.  He’s the best debater in the school, but that doesn’t keep him from feeling left out and miserable. With only that one skill he has only one degree of freedom.

Other members of the debating team may not be as good as he is, but they are also involved in other school activities.  Compared to him they have three or four degrees of freedom, and they are much happier.

The captain of the debating team is the best, but he’s been coerced into that position because he has no choices.  For him, as well as for our horses, the way to improve his emotional well-being is to expand his repertoire so he has more reinforcing activities available to him.

Kay Laurence confirmed this approach for dogs.  If you’re working with an aggressive dog, you want to expand his repertoire.  Teach him a dozen new behaviors: turning your head to the left, to the right, lifting a paw, walking in a circle, touching a target, etc..  Now in a threatening situation he has a dozen new ways to respond, instead of just the two or three that he started with.

Being Emotional Is Being Alive
Jesús dropped in another gem at this point by reiterating that when we talk about emotional behavior such as aggression, we are forgetting that we are always emotional. It isn’t that now we are happy, and then a switch turns off and we feel nothing.

“Living is being emotional.”

The nature and intensity of the emotions fluctuates.  We experience different degrees depending upon conditions and our reinforcement history. But thinking in terms of “emotional behavior” is too simplistic.  Emotion is part of all behavior.  It is not separate from it.

single suitcaseTraveling helps you to understand how much our emotions are a product of the habit patterns that have formed within our familiar environments and how universally present emotions are. Perhaps you are one of the huge number of people who have more to do than you could possibly accomplish in one day.  You have a family to care for, a house and barn to maintain, horses to feed and clean up after – not to mention ride.  All that and then there’s also an overfull schedule at work.  You’re always under stress, but it’s become so the norm, you don’t pay much attention to how you’re feeling.  A mildly stressed state is the normal background.

And then you treat yourself to the Five Go To Sea cruise where everything is different.  You still have a full day, with more to do and see than any one person could possibly squeeze into a day, but your normal triggers aren’t there.  The phone isn’t ringing.  You aren’t on the internet with the constant influx of work-related emails. Your co-worker’s voice coming through the office wall isn’t annoying you.  All those triggers are gone and now you get to experience who you are and how you feel without them.  You become acutely aware of just how stressed you’ve been now that you’ve stepped out of your normal habit patterns and can experience the contrast.  You’re still emotional, but now the environment is set up to trigger the kinds of supportive, pleasant emotions you want to experience.

That’s the kind of positive environment I want to create for my learners: one in which puzzle solving is fun, and both horses and handlers eagerly seek it out.

On a Caribbean cruise what do clicker enthusiats do for fun? They play PORTL games.

On a Caribbean cruise what do clicker enthusiats do for fun? They play PORTL games.

Coming Soon: Part 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: