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.


Goat Diaries Day 10: Distractions!


I’ve been distracted by several projects this week so I am a bit behind getting these Goat Diary reports posted.  That seems very appropriate somehow because today’s post is about distractions!

In one of his Clicker Expo presentations Ken Ramirez talks about the importance of introducing distractions into the environment.  When he was the Director of Training at the Shedd Aquarium, he instructed his trainers to make changes every day to the training environment.  He wanted the dolphins and belugas that were used in the public demos to be so comfortable with change that if a tornado ripped the roof off the Aquarium, they would just think – “Oh look what our trainers have done for us today”.

I have always loved that image.  It creates a high standard of creativity and  consistent good training that is worth aspiring to.  With the goats at this point in their training it was easy to introduce change – essentially everything I did with them was new.  I wasn’t yet thinking about adding distractions as an active strategy.  I was starting with fearful animals so I knew I had a long way to go before they would be comfortable in a changing environment.  In their evening session I was about to discover just how easily something that I didn’t consider a distraction at all could completely derail their eagerness for training.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! – And People, Too!  The July Goat Diaries: 7/14/17 7 pm session

In a previous post I shared with you what a happy goat looks like (  I had taken E and P into the arena and watched with delight as they turned the mounting block into a playground.  I wanted to share the fun with Ann.  She can’t see their antics, but she can certainly hear the laughter in their feet as they run across the mounting block.

Ann came in the evening to visit with Fengur.  While she was playing with him, I sat with the goats.  When the arena was free, I set up the camera and brought them in.  Ann stationed herself beside the camera well away from them.  After my big build up about how much fun they had running over the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies.  There was no energy, no joy, no laughter, no interest in the mounting block at all – just a cautious inspection from a distance of Ann.  What was she doing out in the middle of the arena?  Having a new person in the arena was clearly a concern.

After a few minutes of non-performance, I decided to put them back.  They followed me into the barn aisle and went eagerly into their stall, knowing that I would be dropping treats on the floor.  It turns out that I neglected to turn on my camera, so none of their non-interest was recorded.

I let the goats settle back into the comfortable familiarity of their stall, then I took them out again individually for another leading session.  The main focus of the session was on treat delivery and their behavior around food.  I was continuing with the work I described in the previous two goat diary posts. (  and

A Panda Story

This focus on treat delivery and the time it takes to establish good manners was reminding me of Panda’s early training.  Cold winter days are a good time for stories, so I’m going to indulge in a couple, beginning with a favorite Panda story.  Panda is the miniature horse I trained to be Ann’s guide.  I remember when I first started working with Panda, she was as eager as the goats were to get into my pockets.

A week into her training – at about the stage I was now with the goats – I took Panda with me to a clinic I was giving at a barn that was about an hour away.  Ann rode in the front seat with her new guide dog curled between her feet.  Another of my clients was driving.  I was in the backseat with Panda essentially in my lap.  I was definitely a captive audience.  Doing a short session and then putting her back in her stall to process was an impossibility.  I had an hour’s drive with a horse in my lap!  What’s more I had a horse who knew I had treats in my pocket.

For the duration of the drive I clicked and treated anytime Panda’s nose moved even fractionally away from my pocket.  The idea was to keep her on such a high rate of reinforcement that she didn’t have a chance to mug me.  Over and over again, through the food placement I was saying to her – this is where the treats are delivered.  Going to my pocket gains you nothing.  Out here away from me, this is where you will find treats.  You might as well keep your nose here and not waste your energy going to my pockets.

Ann was in the front seat listening to the constant barrage of clicks.  I know they were making her anxious.  She had only recently taken on a new guide dog.  Everything about this dog was a struggle.  He should never have been placed.  The school was hoping that because Ann was such an experienced guide dog user, she would be able to make him work.

“Make the dog work” was truly the philosophy behind this dog’s training.  The result was a dog who showed extreme avoidance behavior.  Ann had one problem animal.  She didn’t want another.  How could she have a guide who needed to be clicked and treated every couple of seconds?  Ann knows how training works.  She knows that we would be building duration, but in that stage where the mugging is still such a strong reaction, the future good manners can seem impossibly far away.

Good manners emerge over time.  They are the result of consistent handling and a growing confidence in the learner.  By the time I handed Panda over to Ann, the guide dog had gone back to the school to be re-trained for a different job.  He went into search and rescue work, a job that suited his temperament much better.  And Panda became Ann’s full time guide much sooner than we had originally planned.

We celebrated the transfer by going out to dinner.  Panda kept her nose to herself and stayed quietly by Ann’s side throughout the evening.  Even when the salad course arrived, all she did was have a curious sniff before ducking her head back under the table to continue her nap. That’s great duration in a behavior that had begun with barely seconds between clicks.

Good manners emerged for Panda, and I was confident that they would also become the norm for the goats.  Time and consistency would create the behavior I wanted.

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Dining out with Panda

(If you want to learn more about Panda and her training, read the Panda Reports on my web site:  Some of her early training is also featured in my DVDs: An Introduction to Clicker Training and Lesson 4: Stimulus Control.

Treats: Whatever Is Logical Do The Opposite

At some point in the distant future, it might be fun to travel with the goats in my car.  But at this point the thought of spending an hour trapped in the backseat of a car with an eager, greedy goat sounded exhausting.  We had a long way to go before they would be as settled about treats as Panda.

You meet your learner where he is not where you want him to be.  When I took P back into the arena, the session was very much focused around food delivery.  The children in the 4-H program may have giggled and let him snatch pretzels from their mouths.  With me P was learning that we played a very different game.

I brought P back out on a lead.  He continued to show good progress. He backed away from my closed hand.  He did a bit of head flinging which means he was feeling frustrated by having to back up.  I’m sure it did conflict with how he thought things should be done.  He wanted to push forward to get to the treats.  That’s what he had always done, but now he had to remember to back up instead.

Whatever is logical, do the opposite.  I could sympathize with his frustration.  From his point of view it made no sense that backing should work.  Going forward was how you get children to spill treats all over the ground.  Why should backing work?!!  We have all been given directions that make no sense.  Why should turning left instead of right get us to our destination?

And how many of us turn right because we’re convinced that should be the correct answer.  Even when we do turn left, it feels wrong.  Surely we’re heading in the wrong direction.  This can’t be right.  We’ll never get there.  Oh look, there’s our destination just ahead. How did that happen!?

It can take a while to relax and trust the directions.  That’s the stage I was in with P.  With a little more reinforcement history behind us, he would relax into the confidence that treats were coming.  There was no need to rush to get them.

The Goat Palace written Dec. 27 – Our Animals Always Tell Us

Meeting your learner where he is, not where you want him to be makes me want to share this story.  It was prompted by the goat’s current training.  If E and P’s treat taking manners were reminding me of Panda, a session I did with Trixie and Thanzi at the end of December made me think of Robin.  There are several of training mantras that apply to this session:

Our animals will always tell us what they need to work on next.

You get what you reinforce. 

My favorite, though, is this one:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

Before I describe the goat’s training, here is Robin’s story:

Over the winter when Robin was still very new to clicker training, he started to snatch his treat from my hand.  I’d click, he’d grab, and then he’d eagerly be offering me the next clickable behavior.  I ignored the snatching.  He was eager.  It was cold.  He was offering lots of great work.

The snatching increased.  You get what you reinforce.  I didn’t like the snatching, but if it was getting worse, something in our interactions was reinforcing it.

I ignored it.  Robin was eager.  It was cold.  We were having fun – until I wasn’t.  The snatching was becoming more than annoying.  I was starting to count fingers after I gave him a treat.  It was time to do something about the way he took treats.

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

I’ve told the story many times about the way I solved this particular problem.  It’s detailed in both my Riding book and The Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures.  I went back to basics.  I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door.  I stood across the aisle from him and held out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots.  Robin stretched his neck out to try and reach it.

I immediately turned my back, removing the carrot from sight and counted to three.  Then I turned back and held the carrot out again.  Robin stretched out his nose.  I turned my back and counted to three.

I again offered the carrot.  This time Robin hesitated ever so slightly.  I clicked, reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot. I was using negative punishment.  I was taking away something Robin wanted – the carrot – to decrease a behavior I didn’t like – the reaching out towards me to get a treat.

(When an activity decreases – it is being punished, either by adding something unpleasant or by taking away something the individual enjoys (positive punishment and negative punishment – it’s just math adding or subtracting).  When an activity increases, it is being reinforced, either by adding something the individual wants or taking away something he doesn’t like. So again there is positive and negative reinforcement.  When the behavior increases it is being strengthened, i.e. reinforced.  When it decreases, it is being punished.  In both – the positive and negative refer to adding or subtracting, not value judgements.)

I offered the carrot again.  Robin hesitated.  Click, I handed him a piece of carrot from my pocket.  Robin is a super fast learner.  He had the dots connected.  If he drew back away from my hand, he got treats.  I could hold the carrot directly under his nose and instead of snatching it off my hand, he arched his neck and drew up away from it.  Click and treat.

I was enchanted.  He looked like a beautiful dressage horse.  Robin being Robin, he quickly made the connection.  If he arched his neck, click, I would give him a treat.  He wasn’t snatching anymore.  Instead he scooped the carrot slice gently off my hand with his enormous soft lips.

He started to offer what I have since called “the pose”.  When I walked by his stall, Robin would draw himself up and arch his neck.  Click.  I’d pause in my barn chores and give him a piece of carrot.  Through the winter I reinforced him a lot for this behavior.  I might have begun with negative punishment as I tried to stop an unwanted behavior – snatching treats off my hand.  Now I was actively reinforcing him for something I wanted – “the pose”.

I should add that this is not the way I teach the pose today.  It popped out when I was working on something else.  Now that I know this behavior is worth going after, I shape it more directly, most often with the aid of targeting.  And in general, when I find myself reaching towards a negative punishment strategy to solve a problem, I go have a cup of tea instead. I think about what I want and look for reinforcement-based teaching strategies instead.

The “pose” is not the best name that I could have come up with for this behavior.  For many people, a pose is a fixed, rigid, stilted posture.  It’s that awful grimace so many of us have when we’re forced to have our picture taken.

Instead, for me, the pose is a very dynamic behavior.  For Robin it has become a default behavior.  I was the cue.  In the absence of any active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  It meant that if he wanted attention from me, he could get me to engage with him using a behavior I actively liked.

Horses are always doing something.  A horse in a stall has a long laundry list of behaviors to choose from.  Some are behaviors that I like, some are behaviors that I can ignore, and some are behaviors that I never want to see.  The laundry list includes taking a nap, eating hay, having a drink, watching the activities in the barn aisle – all perfectly acceptable and easy to ignore.

A horse could also be fighting with his neighbor, kicking the stall door to get attention, cribbing, raking his teeth up and down the wall, pacing, weaving.  These are behaviors I definitely do not want.  But if I fuss at a horse when I see him engaging in them, I could easily be reinforcing them through my attention.  Think of the small child who bangs the kitchen pots and pans while mother is on the phone.   Even negative attention is attention, and that can be better than no attention at all.

Robin doesn’t have to kick the wall to get me to notice him.  All he has to do is pose.  Click and treat.  I love having behaviors which my horses can use to ask for my attention. They know I will always acknowledge their request for connection.

Think of all the ways people interact with one another:  “Good morning.”  “How are you?” “Never better.”  These quick exchanges connect us.  Think how chilling and unpleasant an environment becomes when these social pleasantries are absent.  We need them to tell us things are okay between us.

Robin says good morning by posing.  I respond with a click and a treat.  All is well between us.  Our social bond is strong and getting stronger with each click and treat.

I reinforced Robin for the pose because he looked pretty.  I wasn’t heading for anything in particular beyond that.  This is what makes training so much fun.  Sometimes the next unexpected piece just pops out.

Here’s what happened to the pose.  One evening I had Robin in the arena.  I was asking him to trot around me on a circle.  He was giving me a nothing of a trot.  He looked like an old plow horse.  There was no energy, no pizzazz, nothing I wanted to reinforce.

Robin was expecting me to click.  He went once around the circle.  Nothing.  The way I tell the story was you could all but see the cartoon bubble appearing above his head.  “I’m not being reinforced.”

He went around again.

“What can I do to get reinforced?”

On the third time around he had the answer: “I know! I’ll try the pose!”

The way Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz tells this story is this: by withholding the click I was putting Robin into an extinction process.  He began to regress back through behaviors that had been successful in the past.  The pose had been highly reinforced, so it was the first thing that he tried.

Whichever version of the story you prefer, Robin had to add energy to the trot in order to get into the pose.  Suddenly, his trot looked as though it belonged on a magazine cover.  He was gorgeous!  I clicked and gave him a treat, all the while gushing over how pretty he was.  I sent him back out around me.  It took him a few strides to find his balance, but he once again added the pose to the trot.  It was just one stride that I was clicking – but wow! What a gorgeous stride it was!  The rest is history.  Robin led the way.  He showed us that we could shape the beautiful, suspended balance of a classical dressage horse just through well timed clicks and treats.

Why am I telling this story? Because this morning’s session with Thanzi and Trixie made me think of Robin and the pose.  It reminded me of the expression:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

In December I had been trying to work them individually.  We had snow Christmas eve and then the temperatures dropped and the wind rose.  Trixie was nervous about being out in the hallway by herself, so I let Thanzi join her.  Suddenly with two goats I had lots of crowding.  Hmm.  You get what you reinforce.  I knew at night when I was tucking them in, I was in a hurry.  It was cold.  It was late.  I just wanted to get done with the final chores and get back inside where it’s warm.  Had I been letting them crowd me and hurry the treat deliver?  Apparently the answer was yes.

I needed to sort out the crowding so in this session I set two mats out face too face.  Trixie hopped on one, Thanzi on the other.  I stood in the middle with both goats crowding into me begging for treats.  I waited.

“Oh right.  Crowding doesn’t get treats.”  They took their noses away from me.  Click. I reached into my pockets.

They were right back, pushing against my hands.  I got the treats out of my pockets and then drew my hands together.  I stood as though in calm meditation, waiting.  First one then the other took her nose away.  I waited until they were both good, then held out the treats to them.

They got their treats, and then they were right back crowding me, pushing against me with their muzzles.  I waited.  They took their noses away.  Click.  Get the treat.  Wait again with hands held together in quiet meditation.  They both drew away from me.  I held out my hands and let them take the treat.

It only took a couple of repetitions. They were both working so hard to stay away from my pockets.  Click, pause, feed.  They were both so good.

I left them in the hallway while I filled their hay feeders.  I was just finishing up when I looked out into the aisle.  They were standing each on her own platform waiting for me.  How can you resist?  I went out and did another round of paying attention to their good manners.

Your animals always tell you what they need to work on.  I don’t know where this will lead me, but I know it is what they need.  If it makes me think of Robin’s pose, I must be on the right track.

Staying Consistent

It’s easy to be focused and consistent through one training session.  It’s much harder to maintain that consistency over time.  When we transferred Panda full time to Ann, it was actually a relief to hand her over.  I missed her constant presence by my side, but maintaining the level of consistency that is needed for a guide was demanding.  When you can see, you don’t need a guide to tell you that you’ve come to a curb. If I started cutting corners in Panda’s training because I didn’t need all the things I had taught her to do, it would undermine her performance as a guide.  Ann would never be able to enjoy the luxury of seeing the curb that’s in front of her.  She would be relying on Panda to point this out to her.  A horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count so it always has to count.  I followed that mantra throughout Panda’s training.

The same thing applies to the goats.  The same thing applies to the goats.  If sometimes I let them push into me to get treats, I will never get to the consistent good behavior that I want.  But it’s been cold!  It is so easy to get in a hurry and let standards drop.  So their training has been a bit like a yo yo.  I let things slip in my hurry to get chores done and my gloves back on.  They begin to crowd me, but now I am catching it sooner.  The manners pendulum keeps swinging back and forth.  Over time the cumulative effect shows me that the balance is tipping towards good manners.

Just for Fun!

I told you the story of Robin’s pose.  Here’s one of my favorite videos of Robin.  He was only three when this was filmed.  He had not yet been started under saddle.  So he’d never had a rider on his back, and I had never lunged him in side reins or any other type of mechanical device.  This beautiful balance and cadence had been shaped entirely with the clicker.  You’ll see I am holding two dressage whips.  You can call them anything you want, but they are functioning as targets.  They give him points of reference to balance between.  I know the lighting is not good in this video, but this was a long time ago, and this was the best the video camera could do.  Enjoy!


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

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.




Thank YOU!

I’m taking a brief detour from the Goat Diaries.  2018 is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  To celebrate every month this year I will be writing an article about one of the many people who have helped me bring positive reinforcement training into the horse world.

Last month I told you about Bob Viviano and Crackers.  Bob was there literally at the beginning of my exploration of clicker training.  Ann Edie joined us a short time later when she started taking lessons from me at the barn where I boarded my horses.  This month I want to turn the spotlight in her direction to thank her for the enormous contribution she has made to the development of clicker training and for 25 years of friendship.

Most of you know Ann through her guide horse, Panda.  Ann has big horses as well.  We seem to share our equine family – at least that’s how it feels.  Ann’s first horse, Magnat, is our one in ten thousand horse.  That’s how I think of him.  He was originally my school horse, but he was such a great match for Ann, in 1996 I gave him to her.  In 1999 he was joined by our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur.  Panda joined the “herd” in 2001.

I’ve written so much about Panda, I’m going to shine the spotlight instead on Magnat.  He played such an important role in the early development of clicker training it is right that he should get the attention as I celebrate twenty years of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.   There is so much I could write.  I’ll just share a couple of favorite Magnat stories.

Remembering Magnat

Magnat is an Arabian.  He came to me through clients of mine who wanted a weekend trail horse for their guests.  Several months and several disastrous rides after they got him, they discovered that he had a severe heart murmur.  My clients were in a dilemma.  They didn’t want to keep him as a pasture ornament, but they couldn’t ethically sell a horse with such a severe heart condition.  Who would want such a horse?  The answer was I would.

So Magnat became mine.  One of my favorite training mantras is:

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

I didn’t need to ride fast to enjoy a horse.  Magnat and I were a perfect fit.  I would love to have reserved him just for myself, but he was such a great school horse.  I began to use him to give lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I could not have asked for a better co-teacher.  This was in 1994.  I had just begun the year before to explore clicker training with Peregrine.  I was having such good success with it, I had started to share it with all my clients.

Pretty soon the only horse who wasn’t clicker trained was my own school horse.  I was reluctant to introduce it to him.  I had all the questions that everybody else has when you first start introducing food into your training.  What if he got mouthy?  He was so polite now.  I didn’t want to risk messing up my one and only school horse by teaching him clicker training!

When someone is hesitant to give clicker training a try, I get it.  I had the same questions and concerns that most people have when they first encounter this work.  But I really couldn’t go on encouraging all my clients to give it a try and not follow my own advice with Magnat.

I needn’t have worried.  For Magnat it barely caused a blip on the landscape.  He was polite before I introduced food, and he remained so even when my pockets were bulging with treats.  He was never muggy.

There are lots of horses who go through a very rocky transition stage.  The food does get them excited.  They frustrate easily and often older behaviors that have been suppressed through punishment resurface to create problems.  Magnat showed none of this.  That isn’t to say there weren’t changes.  My solid, reliable lesson horse truly began to shine.  If he had been good before, now he was outstanding.

Throughout that first winter he helped me teach people the basics of single-rein riding.  There’s a great expression:

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

One of the good things the basics of single-rein riding produced for Magnat was collection.  The beginnings of two favorite behaviors popped out: piaffe and canter in-hand.  This later is a gorgeous behavior to have in repertoire.  Magnat became so balanced and collected, he could canter while I walked beside him.

It was around this time that Ann came to the barn wanting to take lessons.  Ann was not a beginner.  She had ridden as a teenager, but then like so many others she gave up riding when she went off to college and never got back to it once she started raising a family.  The challenge for me was Ann is blind.  I had never worked with a blind rider before.  This was a new frontier for me.  But I assumed my job was teaching her to ride.  Ann would take care of the rest.  If I taught her the way I taught everyone else, we’d come out okay.  It turned out I was right.

I started Ann the way I start all riders who come to me.   It doesn’t matter how many years you have ridden or how experienced a trainer you are, if you are going to ride one of my horses, you start with a pony ride.  I guide the horse from the ground.  All you have to do is sit and enjoy.

As the rider becomes familiar with the horse’s communication system, and understands how to cue the horse, I gradually turn over more and more of the control.  So at first I have the reins, and I’m working the horse in-hand with a rider up.  Then I hand the reins over to the rider, but I stay close so my body language continues to support the rider’s cues.  Then I gradually fade out and the rider takes over completely from me.

This worked perfectly for Ann.  Having Magnat as my co-teacher made all the difference, especially since he could canter in-hand.  For teaching that made him worth his weight in gold.  I wish I had learned how to ride on a horse like Magnat.  Ann has such a relaxed canter seat because she learned the rhythm of the canter from him.  Starting out she never rode a bad canter.  All she had to do was relax and enjoy.  There was no struggle trying to get him into the canter, no trotting faster, faster, faster like a plane taking off.  There was no leaning sideways through unbalanced turns.

Magnat canter

Instead there was just the relaxed rhythm of a collected, glorious canter.  And then there was the piaffe and the passage.  It was Ann who was riding the first time Magnat succeeded in mobilizing into piaffe.  I was working him from the ground while she helped manage his weight shifts.

We were figuring out how to teach riding with the clicker.  I gave Ann the lesson, and she taught Magnat.  They were such a good match, I decided after their first winter together to give him to her.  It gave me so much more pleasure watching them develop as a team than I ever would have had riding him for myself.  And I had Peregrine.  He and Magnat became riding partners.  For the next sixteen years while we kept the horses at the boarding barn, Ann and I shared our evening rides together.

They were an unlikely pair, my thoroughbred, her Arab.  But it turned out that each horse gave their best to the other.  Magnat gave Peregrine the confidence to move forward again after a long, hard recovery from the aftershocks of Potomac horse fever.  And Peregrine taught Magnat about collection.

Magnat lived in a small paddock with two other horses.  I’m sure you can picture what he looked like during mud season.  Every night Ann would spend an hour or so grooming him and by the time he was ready to go into the arena, he was snowy white.  I don’t know how she did it!  When I brush my horses, the dirt moves from one spot to another.  When Ann grooms, the dirt leaves!  And a horse isn’t clean until her fingers tell her he’s clean.

Early on we taught Magnat to retrieve.  There’s a picture of him with a wooden dumbbell in his mouth on the cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  When Ann brought him into the arena, he would ask to be turned loose.  She’d let go of his reins, and he’d go out in the arena and bring back to her all the things the previous riders had dropped.

We boarded in a barn where there was a very active after school lesson program so there were always dropped riding crops, gloves, hats, kleenex.  Ann never knew what she was going to be handed.  Magnat was very diligent in making sure that he had found anything and everything that might get in their way.  In so many ways he was Ann’s first guide horse.

When the arena was clean, he would walk with her to the mounting block and line himself up.  Now the real glory of Magnat shone through.

Ann understood that clicker training means so much more than just using a marker signal and treats.  Clicker training for us is synonymous with good balance.  It was a joy to explore with her what that meant for our horses.

When Ann first started riding Magnat, she couldn’t manage his trot at all.  He bounced her out of the saddle.  It was the most jarring, bone rattling, uncomfortable trot imaginable.  That was because for her Magnat wasn’t yet balanced.  She didn’t yet understand how to use lateral flexions.  When she asked for the trot, she got the hollow-back, high-headed, stiff-legged trot that is all too often associated with Arabs.

As she learned how to use lateral flexions, Magnat relaxed and lifted himself up into a magic carpet ride.  The transformation was so black and white.  Ride him without asking for the lift that comes through the lateral work, and he would jar you right out of the saddle.  Ask for collection, and you were in heaven.

I taught Magnat lateral flexions before I began to explore clicker training.  He understood what I wanted and was a willing student.  Often people seek out clicker training because they are struggling with a horse.  That wasn’t the case with Magnat.  He could have gone through his whole life without ever needing to be clicker trained.

Before clicker training he was a good, solid-citizen riding horse, but that’s all he was.  Without clicker training he would have remained a nice, but ordinary horse.  With clicker training he shone.  I used to say he was a one in a million horse, but as the years went by and he just became more and more wonderful, not just to ride but to be around, I changed this to a one in ten million horse.

But I really shouldn’t be the one to describe what it was like to ride Magnat.  He was Ann’s horse.  Here is how Ann described him in a piece she wrote for my riding book:

“It’s always a dilemma to describe the experience of riding a truly extraordinary horse who has had the benefit of several years of clicker training.  Although many technical components go into the production of a really memorable ride, the irrepressible smile, the feeling of wonder, and expression of “WOW!!” that arises so regularly these days when I ride Magnat simply cannot be described in anything but poetic terms.

Yes, athletic talent and neuromuscular conditioning are part of what makes the ride so special; and yes, many hours of repetition over many months have gone into it; and yes, there is extraordinary lightness and balance.  But this is still far from the sum total of the experience.

Musicians have described a great melody as “ a journey which has many familiar passages, and which also contains some wonderful surprises which cause you to look at the world in a completely fresh way and gives new meaning to life.”  This is the best description I can find of what it is like to ride Magnat.

Magnat comes out into the arena every night feeling relaxed and eager to work.  He knows he will be appreciated and reinforced for his performance.  He knows that he is a respected dance partner and member of the team, not a mere subject of training.  This awareness and active participation on the part of the horse is one of the benefits bestowed by clicker training.

Our rides begin with warm-up exercises.  In the course of executing figures or doing simple softening and balancing work, I will pick up on the reins and suddenly feel the most indescribable lightness!!!

We may be in a super-buoyant, floating trot, a deliberate, balanced, ballet-like piaffe, or a heavenly rocking-horse canter.  Whatever it is, it will feel as though I am floating on a magic carpet.  He is so responsive in these moments.  It’s as if there are clear filaments of two-way communication from my finger tips to each of Magnat’s feet.  The slightest breath of a touch on one of those lines will be answered by an immediate floating response.

The musicians described music as a journey which “contains some wonderful surprises.”  That’s how I feel about riding Magnat.  Each ride contains surprises and special pleasures we have not experienced before.  It is like coming around a bend in the road and seeing a spectacular sunset, or a grove of awe-inspiring redwood trees, or the grandeur of an ancient castle, or the peace and cool of a Buddhist temple.  It truly takes the breath away!  It creates the deepest joy and aliveness in my heart!

These moments have totally changed the way I think about riding.  I feel such awe for Magnat and for what we create together.  In this moment I know, without the slightest doubt, exactly what I ride for – it is just this amazing feeling of total balance, effortlessness, lightness, and energy.  Magnat seems to feel the same excitement and joy, for he literally beams with pride, and recently he has begun uttering deep chortles in his throat at these moments.

I let the magic moment go on for as long as I dare, wanting it to continue forever, but knowing I must capture it with a click, before it disappears like a soap bubble or a delicious dream.

The click creates a pause in the music.  Magnat comes to a halt; I throw my arms around his neck in a huge hug, shower him with lavish praise, and empty my pockets of the most desirable treats!

The “WOW” feeling is definitely addictive.  The glow of the experience lingers and stays with me long after the ride.  Our whole horse-human relationship is one of appreciation, respect, and awe.

This is, for me, the great gift of clicker training.  When taken to the high-performance level, it creates transcendent moments of great joy”

Ann Edie – written in 2005 for “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker

Ann’s words express so perfectly why we have both worked to bring clicker training into the horse world.  If clicker training had just been about teaching tricks, and finding kinder way to get horses onto trailers or to stand for grooming, I would have moved on years ago.  Instead clicker training takes us on a journey to Joy.  It connects us deeply to our horses.

This is what Ann and I wanted to share when we wrote about our horses.  It is what I am celebrating in this twentieth year of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It is what we hope others will find as they explore clicker training: the great love and wisdom of horses.

Sadly we lost Magnat in 2011 not long after we moved to our new barn.  He had reached the grand age of 33, but it wasn’t enough.  We were both hoping he would be one of those Arabs who live to be forty.  Sadly he had cancer, and we had to say good-bye.

Ann has shared so generously her horses.  Magnat and the Icelandics have served as my school horses.  I’ve written about them, and they have appeared in the books and DVDs.  Sindri, our Icelandic stallion, was my riding horses.  Thank you Ann for that great pleasure and honor.

And then of course there is Panda, Ann’s guide horse.  Ann is a very private person, but she has shared Panda literally with the world.  We’ve had journalists from as far away as Japan and Australia come and do stories on her.  Ann has always been a good sport, and so has Panda!

What many people don’t know is Ann is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. Without her help, the barn would never have been built.  Thank you Ann for this.  And thank you also for teaching me how to play scrabble and for occasionally letting me win.

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

JOYFull Horses: Chapter 3: The Time Has Come . . .

The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To Talk of Many Things

“The time has come,” the walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings.”
Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass

In Chapter One of this section I shared some examples of how the environment can cue behavior.  Panda, the mini I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  In the previous Chapter I showed how a combination of mats and strategic food delivery can be used to teach basic leading.

We’ll be building on that lesson is this next unit. Which means the time has come to talk about Premack, Feldenkrais work, asking questions, mats, airplane runways, needlepoint, and creativity.  If you’re not sure what some of these mean or what the link is between them, read on.  And yes, we will be getting back to play and our list of ten things a beginner needs to know about cues, but first let’s set the stage with a discussion of the Premack Principle.

Behaviors as Reinforcers
One of the things that quickly becomes apparent when you start turning training into play is how quickly the behaviors you teach your horse can be turned around and used as reinforcers for other things.

This is not a new understanding. In the late 1950s primatologist, David Premack developed his relativity theory of reinforcement which is better know as the Premack Principle.  Simply put this means that a higher valued, more probable behavior can be used to reinforce a lesser valued, less probable behavior.

If you hate to sweep your barn aisle, but love to ride, don’t put sweeping after riding.  Let riding serve as a reinforcer for sweeping up.  When you finish grooming and reach for the broom before you reach for your hard hat, that puts you on a habit path that’s going to culminate not just in a great ride, but also in a love for barn chores. Clicks for you!

That’s something I discovered when I changed the sequence in which I did my barn chores.  I’ve always disliked sweeping.  When I was boarding my horses, it never made any sense to me that we were sweeping the barn aisle last thing at night.  The only person who was going to see our beautifully swept aisle was the morning stall cleaner, and she was going to begin the day by making a mess.

It would have been much better to sweep up when we first arrived so we could enjoy the clean aisle all evening, but that wasn’t how things were done.  In my own barn I sweep the aisle first and then follow that with cleaning the stalls and paddocks – something I enjoy.  After the barn chores are done, I get to play with the horses.  The result?  I now look forward to sweeping the aisle. It’s a great way to begin my day.

Panda helping me sweep 3

Panda is “helping” me sweep my barn aisle during a visit to the barn.

The same kind of sequencing becomes important when you train your horse.  Think about the order in which you ask for things.  If you’ve taught a behavior well, it can serve as a reinforcer for a newer behavior you’re working on.  Ideally every behavior you add into your training loops should function as a reinforcer for all the other behaviors.  The result: every behavior you ask for will become something your horse enjoys doing.

That’s ideally.  How can you make that a reality for the behaviors you teach your horses?

Turning Mats Into Tractor Beams
For a horse who likes to be actively doing something, what could be more tedious than standing on a mat?  And yet, that’s definitely not how our eager clicker horses view mats.

Mats become like tractor beams drawing the horse in.  They are where good things happen.  You get treats on a mat.  You get lots of attention.  And when you leave one mat, you get to head off to another.  More treats!  Yeah!!

Harrison on mat hug cropped

Mats are where good things happen.

If I teach mats well, they are a source of play not tedium. When I am first teaching mats, I keep the Premack principle very much in mind.  Most horses initially view a mat as something to avoid.  They will step over it, around it, slam on the brakes in front of it, anything but actually step on it.

I’ve taught mats in lots of different ways.  You can freeshape stepping on a mat, but I prefer to put the horse on a lead and turn this into a more directed-learning process.  The reason I do this is because it’s a great opportunity for the horse and handler to become more familiar with good rope handling techniques.

In the horse world the lead is often used as an enforcement tool.  “Do what I say – or else!” If a horse pushes past the handler, the lead is there to give him a quick reprimand.  The handler jerks the lead so the horse feels a sharp bump from the halter.

If a horse doesn’t back fast enough, he knows the lead will be there again swinging threateningly in his face.

That kind of expectation is not clicker compatible.  We need to take the “do it or else” threat out of the lead.  The lead is there to ask questions – not to tell or demand.

What does this mean – the lead is there to ask questions?  One of the best ways to describe this came from a youtube video clip of Mia Segal.  Segal is a Feldenkrais practitioner.  Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais in the mid-1900s Feldenkrais work eases pain or restrictions to movement by increasing an individual’s awareness of small movements.

Feldenkrais Work
Unlike a massage and other manipulative therapies, Feldenkrais work is experienced through self-observation.  You learn how to move with attention.  You become aware of how you move; what parts of your body you mobilize to create an intended movement; how far the movement flows through your body; where it stops; where it is blocked; and what can be released to extend the movement.  It is an exploration of movement in which an individual is guided via questions towards greater self-awareness and well being.

The expression “Where there is no fear or pain, learning can take place in a single lesson.” lies at the core of this training.  Like many in the horse world I was first introduced to Feldenkrais work via Linda Tellington-Jones.  Her TTEAM training evolved out of this work.  Later I was fortunate to have a client who was an Alexander Practitioner and who had also studied the Feldenkrais work.  We did trades, sharing back and forth the new things we were exploring. Through her I learned even more about the art of asking questions.

Asking Questions
Recently a friend sent me a link to a youtube clip of Mia Segal teaching a workshop  (  My friend said it reminded her a lot of my work.  As I watched it, I thought, she’s right.  Mia Segal might have been talking about working with people, but she was describing perfectly my approach to horse training.  Segal was sitting on the floor with one of the workshop participants.  She was clearly in the middle of a session.  Her student was lying on her back, knees up in the air, with Segal comfortably supporting her head in her hands.

Segal was talking about the first time she saw Moshe Feldenkrais working.  It was 1957.  After the session he asked her if she had any questions.  She had so many, but she knew there were other people waiting.  How could he have time for all of her questions?

Feldenkrais answered her – “If you know the question – it will take but a minute.”

The art of training is knowing the questions to ask.  That is as true for our horses as it is for people.

Segal went on to say:

Someone recently asked the question: ‘What is the difference between this work and pilates, yoga, and other physical therapies. Isn’t it all the same?  So you have another method.’  And I thought the biggest difference is this is a method of questions. I don’t have answers, and I don’t want answers.

You ask a person to move in a certain way.  Bend your knees to the right and you ask – ‘How is she doing it?  Is it anything to do with what I feel under my hands?’

How do I feel it in my hands?  How is she coming back?  Does this change anything under my hands?  And do it to the other side – How is she doing it, and does this feel different?

So rather than thinking – Here it stops.  Here it goes.  Instead I just keep putting a little question mark at the end.  HOW does it go?  HOW does it stop?  WHERE does it stop?  WHEN does it stop?  Is it the same on both sides?  And then I have the whole lesson.”

The Translation to Horses
When I slide down a lead to a point of contact, I am listening through my hands.  And I am asking questions.

Merenaro with alex

This horse and I are deep in conversation.  I am asking many questions through my hands.

When I meet horses for the first time, most aren’t used to being asked anything.  They expect to be ordered about.  Some horses are very compliant.  They have learned that the best way to stay out of trouble is to do what they’re told.  They will follow the feel of a rope.  They will be responsive, and light in your hands. They may even seem happy or at least content.

Light we can measure in terms of how much pressure we need to apply to get a response; how quickly the horse responds; how much weight we feel in the rope as he moves.  Does he move with us, or does he hang back leaving pressure on the lead?  These are all measurable.

But happy.  Who knows. How do I know if you or anyone else is happy?

The “Black Box” of Emotions
How do I know if another person is happy?  I may see behaviors that I associate with times when I have felt happy, but I don’t really know how anyone else feels.  When you say you love your horse, I believe you.  But what does that really mean?  If you tell me you love your horse, but then you sell him so you can buy another horse who jumps higher, I have to believe that that word means something very different to you than it does to me.

So I can say that a horse is responsive – that’s measurable.  I can describe other behaviors that I like to see – his ears are relaxed so they flop back and forth in time with his walk.   Or I might see the opposite.  He has his ears pinned flat, he’s grinding his teeth, and the muscles around his eyes are tight.  These behaviors tell a different story.  I wouldn’t say that’s a horse who is happy.

The Lead Tells A Story
Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Leads have been used for corrections – so the horse is defensive.  He may throw his head up as I slide down the lead, or punch my hand with his mouth.  He might even bite at the lead or at me.  He’s telling me about his history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

The mats are going to help me.  I was about to add the phrase: get past his defenses, but that’s not exactly right.  That would imply that the castle walls are still there, and all I’ve done is found a way to scale them.

castle walls 1.png

Instead, I want to show him that the castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind it aren’t necessary.  They can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play.  In the next installment I’ll describe a lesson that replaces castle walls with airplane runways, and you’ll see how the Premack Principle can be applied to training loops.

Coming next: The Runway

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: 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:          

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

Today’s installment begins a new unit.  So far in my list of ten things you should know about cues I have: 1.) Cues are not commands. 2.) Cues can be non-verbal

This brings us to:

Number 3: The Environment is a Cue

Panda zebra crossing

This mini is a guide horse for the blind.  She’s just done a beautiful stop at the curb, and now she’s guiding her handler across the entrance to a busy parking lot.  Just to add to the complexity of the task, the parking lot is under construction.


Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

Environmental Cues
We seem to have wandered a long way from the ten things I would want a beginner to know about cues.  So let me pull us back to that list for a moment.

Beginners tend to think of cues as something they present to the animal, but cues can also come from inanimate objects.  In fact much more than we may be aware of these environmental cues move us through our day from one habit pattern to the next.

Many of us have experienced this with our horses.  If you work in an arena, you may have found that there is one corner where your horse’s balance makes it easiest to ask for a canter.  Maybe you’re starting a youngster, so setting up the canter out of the short side makes sense.  He pops up nicely into the canter which is reinforcing for both of you.  It gets easier and easier to ask for the canter out of that corner, except now, even when you aren’t wanting to canter, that’s what he’s offering.  That corner has become the cue, not your riding aids.

We often experience the same thing riding out.  The stretch of trail where the path widens out into a gently rising slope over good footing just invites a canter.  Both you and your horse enjoy a good run up the hill.  You don’t even notice that the trail has taken over control of your horse – until you are riding out with a friend who is on a young horse that she doesn’t yet want to canter.  You get to the bottom of that hill, and your horse is off and running – following instructions that you helped to write.

Here’s the mantra to remember:

“Never make your horse wrong for something you have taught him.”

Punishing the canter isn’t the solution.  That may squash the behavior for the moment, but it will have fallout.  For one thing punishment takes you a long way from play.  You may stop the canter in that moment, but the damage you do to your relationship is a price you may not want to pay.

In a later section I’ll describe how you can manage these environmental cues by teaching cues in pairs.  But before I get to the solution to the problem, let’s first dig down a little deeper to see how environmental cues work.

Guide Horses

Panda sidewalk construction

The “Equine Poster Child” for environmental cues is Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide for her blind owner, Ann Edie.

Guide work is dependent upon environmental cues.  It’s the job of the guide to spot changes in elevation, overhead obstacles, moving cars, other pedestrians; to find the door, the stairs, an empty chair; and to point out designated landmarks that the blind handler uses to navigate, such as driveways and street crossings.

The different triggers elicit different responses.  When Panda spots a section of sidewalk that’s been pushed up by a tree root and that might trip her person, she stops and waits for her handler to find it.

As Panda approaches a street crossing where there is no raised curb, she will pull her handler to the left hand edge of the sidewalk.

At the opposite side of the street if she encounters a raised  curb, Panda will stop and tap the curb with her hoof.

Out in the country where there is no sidewalk to follow, Panda will follow the curve of the road past a street crossing and then stop.  She will not go directly across or stop as she might at a driveway.  Following the curve of the corner lets her handler know that they have come to an intersection.

At street corners with traffic lights, her handler will direct Panda to “find the button”, and Panda will take her to the pole with the pedestrian crossing signals.

If they encounter an overhead obstacle such as a tree branch weighed down with snow that her handler won’t fit under, Panda will stop and look up.  The movement tells her handler what sort of obstacle is in front of them.


Coming next: More Panda stories.

IMG_1989 Panda Ann construction

Even when the familiar environmental cues are obscured by construction, Panda still finds the way from curb to curb.


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:          




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