In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes

This is the sixth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 5, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to to with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handlingAlex rope handling German clinic

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes
Next I’ll look at the same steps from the handler’s perspective.  What do I need to build to be a good “dance partner” for my horse? Perhaps it is my rope handling.  I’ll practice sliding down the lead, again teasing apart each small segment and rehearsing it in slow motion.  I’ll notice that feeling of awkwardness when I switch sides and work on the right. Again I am attending to mistakes.  That is different from focusing on what I don’t want.  I notice that bit of awkwardness.  Perhaps I’ll switch back to the left side and look at what my hands do that feels so smooth.  This is the practiced side where the myelin wraps are thicker.  I can feel the effect of all that good practice.  When I switch over to the right, I get to experience the awkwardness that is the result of thinner insulation.  The rope-handling pathway is not as well formed.  What a wonderful opportunity to take the time to build a good circuit!

I know how easy it is for people to jump into clicker training without fussing over all these details.  They click and hand their horse a goody without attending to any of these nuances.  It’s sloppy – but who cares.  It’s easy, it’s fun – that is, until it’s not.  Every time someone gives their horse a treat so that his head comes around to them, they are reinforcing him for falling onto his inside shoulder and coming into their space.  Click and treat, over and over, they are insulating circuits that they are not going to want.

Myelin wraps nerve fibers.  It insulates them well to build strong, high speed habits.  Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.  So you want to build good habits sooner rather than later.

Deep Practice for Horses
The deep practice doesn’t end there.  Once the handler has worked on her own skills, we return to the horses.  The brilliance of clicker training is how easily it creates thoughtful, deliberate deep practice for the horses.  We studied our own balance. Now we can do the same for them.

Every time you click the clicker and your horse stops to get his treat, you are creating a deep practice step.  Ask him to take a step forward.  How does he initiate that movement?  Ah, he begins by letting his weight drop into his inside shoulder so he comes slightly into your space.  Your practiced hand will catch that loss of balance, and gently redirect him back to the beginning of the movement cycle so he can begin again.  Now as he comes forward in balance, click, he gets a treat.

Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.

As you highlight those adjustments, he will become aware of the changes. Good balance will become something he owns for himself.

Sebastion Si before Sebastian Si after fall 2014

Here’s an interesting before and after.  The photo to the left was taken at the beginning of a session.  Note how much this horse tends to lean in and down onto his inside shoulder.  The photo to the right shows the change in his balance after some deep practice work together.

Coding for Excellence
There aren’t specific genes that code for chess geniuses, tennis superstars, or rocket scientists.  How could there be?  But there is this very adaptive mechanism that allows someone who focuses on chess, or tennis, or rocket science to become a superstar in their chosen field.  The system lets “our needs and our actions determine the skills we grow.  It is flexible, responsive, and economical because it gives all human beings the innate potential to earn skill where needed.”

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 5

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin

This is the fifth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 4, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to to with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Icky piaffe! color adjusted

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin
Coyle summarizes skill acquisition with the following:

1.) Every movement, thought or feeling is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a chain of neurons.

2.) Myelin insulates the nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.

3.) The more a particular circuit is fired, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

I have just gotten a new computer.  I’m not altogether convinced that all of its features are advantages, but the one thing I do like is the speed.  My old computer had slowed down to the equivalent of an elderly person using a walker to get around.  The wait times for even the simplest of operations were horrendous.  This new computer is lightening fast.  There are no wait times.  I’m not spending half my morning watching the little wheel circle round that tells me the computer is working. Like the little engine that could, my old computer would eventually manage to bring up the file I needed.  This computer has it up on the screen instantly.  That I like.

That’s the metaphor for the effect deep practice has on the speed of transmission of the electrical impulse traveling along that network of nerve fibers.  It transforms it from the dinosaur days of dial up modems and slow computers to the blazing speeds of this new computer.  The efficiency that creates for me is enormous.  There’s no more stop and go interruptions as the computer tries to run the programs I’m working on.

Again, as Coyle defines it: “Skill is built from myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits.”

In the talent hotbeds Coyle visited he saw very deliberate, mistake-focused practice.  The current understanding of myelin and the role it plays in nerve-fiber conductivity seemed to explain why this type of training is so effective.

To build high speed circuits you need to activate the circuit, address any mistakes, and then activate the circuit again – over and over.

I have always valued persistence and that other key ingredient – passion – or as the writer Joseph Campbell put it – “following your bliss”.  Why is this important?  Wrapping one or two layers of myelin around a nerve fiber is a good start, but it takes a lot more than that to develop a high speed, super efficient circuit.  It takes time and it takes energy.  You need a passion for your chosen interest in order to sustain the level of commitment it takes to build a super star circuit.

The translation to Horses
So how does this relate to clicker training?  We’re used to hearing that we need to focus on what we WANT the horse to do, not the unwanted behavior.  We don’t generally talk about mistakes – that’s focusing the spotlight on what we don’t want.  Or is it?  I think there is a difference between looking at where you currently are with all the unwanted behavior your horse is throwing at you and attending to mistakes in a deliberate, focused, chunked down process.

Suppose a horse is crowding into me, leaning into his inside shoulder, and swinging his head in to swipe at my arm.  Focusing on this behavior will suck me into the drama of a confrontation, and it may blind me to the solutions that will shift this horse out of my space.  In this scenario what myelin circuits will I be firing?  What myelin circuits will I be strengthening?  That’s an interesting and important question to ask yourself.  Remember it isn’t just the circuits for physical actions that are strengthened.  Myelin also effects the pathways that regulate emotional responses.  So every time I get frustrated or angry with that horse when he crowds in on me, I’m strengthening that response.  I’m making it easier and easier to become angry.  I’m creating the very thing I most want to avoid – a hair trigger for anger.

So I want to make a sharp U turn and shift my focus to what I want.  In a broad brush description of what I want, I would say that I want my horse to keep his head straight, and to walk forward with his weight evenly balanced between his shoulders.  The result will be that he’ll stay out of my space.

So now I apply deliberate deep practice techniques to building those skills.  I begin by putting my horse away and working out the details of what I want by miming both my actions and the horse’s.  I’ll slow everything down so I can really understand what is needed.  I’ll pretend that I am my horse.  What happens to my balance when I lean in on top of my handler?  How does this effect my ability to walk forward?  How does it make me feel?  What do I need to do to change out of this balance into a more desirable balance?  How does that make me feel?  Always I pay attention to these emotional shifts.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that they track very accurately the changes in my balance.  Physical balance helps to create emotional well-being.

I’ll imagine again that I am a horse standing in reasonable balance.  My handler will be asking me to walk off maintaining this good balance.  How does my weight need to shift to create that first balanced step?  Remember I am miming all of this, moving in slow motion so I can notice all the tiny details, all the changes in balance that will become more automatic as I speed things up.

Building a skill follows a curious trajectory.  I’ll begin with this very chunked down, slow-motion process where everything is noticed and nothing is automatic.  How do I shift my balance to begin to lift my foot so I can take a step?  Where does the movement begin?  What allows it? What blocks it?  Everything is noticed.  But this isn’t where I am going to end up.  Thank goodness!  I’d never be able to walk if that were the case.  And that’s the point.

As a skill develops, you become less and less aware of what you are doing.  The skill becomes automatic.  There’s a name for this: automaticity.  We need skills to become automatic so we can attend to other things.  If I had to think about every tiny detail of how I walk every time I took a step, I would never be able to work with my horse.  So I analyze this process away from my horse.  I build the circuit I want, strengthening it with repetitions until it begins to feel automatic.  That’s when I am ready to explore the next step in the process.  When I have strung enough of these chunks together so the entire flow feels smooth and automatic, I’ll ask my horse what he thinks about all this deep practice.  Has it made me a better dance partner?  His feedback will tell me what I need to work on next.

Coyle made the comment that the process of building brain circuits accompanied by automaticity yields a curious result: as we build these enormous and highly detailed circuits, we’re simultaneously forgetting that we have built them.  Perhaps this is the reason people are often reluctant to begin the deep practice routines of miming in slow motion the skills they want to build.  They have forgotten what it is like to be a complete beginner and the work that’s involved in learning a new skill. None of us like the feeling of being clumsy and awkward.  It’s an uncomfortable place to be in. We want to move out of that zone as quickly as possible.

There are two ways to do this – the first is to avoid exploring any new activity where you might experience being a beginner without well-insulated myelin circuits to guide you through. The other way is to build good circuits through an efficient, effective process.  The deep practice techniques give you the fast track out of this zone, and they do it oddly enough by slowing everything down.  That’s the paradox.

So in my deep practice approach to developing good training skills I’ll continue to explore balance from the horse’s perspective.  I’ll begin by shifting my weight so I can step off with my outside foot.  Oh no, there’s a slight bobble as I begin the shift. Left unattended that will snowball into my falling over my inside shoulder.  As I pretend to be a horse, I’ll feel crowded by my handler who will be trying to push me back. We’ll both be heading down a well-myelinated track of annoyance that was built up via our previous training encounters.  So I’m going to notice all those tiny losses of balance, attend to them, and now that small part of the circuit can fire without the error.  I won’t be triggering that older habit pattern that leads to annoyance.  Instead I am building a better “expressway”.

Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.

I’ll repeat this segment, attending to the nuances of the balance shifts until I have a clean circuit.  The myelin pathway that I am strengthening is building towards excellence.

Coming soon: Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part Four

Part 4: What does Soccer have to do with Horse Training?

This is the fourth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 3, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Merenaro 2014-11-03 at 8.17.32 PMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.19.48 AMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.20.16 AMmerenaro spook 2014-11-08 at 9.20.35 AM
Building Skilled Responses To The Unexpected
To illustrate how the decision-making skill can be developed to a state of excellence Coyle looked at how Brazil’s soccer stars develop their lightning fast footwork.  Brazil became the country to beat in world-class soccer not because their players were genetically more gifted, but because Brazil’s young players grow up playing a game called Futsal.

Futsal is played in a much smaller court than regular soccer.  It “compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems.”

In futsal players touch the ball 600 percent more than they do in regular soccer.  600%.

Of course, the young Brazilian players learn faster, and develop sharper ball handling skills than their American counterparts who grow up playing on full size soccer fields.

I had never watched futsal before, so I looked it up on youtube.  I was astonished.  It was like watching the Harlem Globe Trotters but with the players teasing their opponents with a soccer ball instead of a basketball.  Or imagine watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing while keeping a ball in motion between their feet.  It was astonishing the skill these players had.  If you haven’t seen futsal, here’s a quick link:

Horse Simulators
How is all this fancy footwork relevant to horse training?  In our “horse simulator” exercises I can let someone experience a horse who is spooking or pulling on a lead over and over again.  It’s like the futsal court that lets the player practice his ball handling skills many more times than he would on a regular-sized field.

I’m good at copying what horses do.  I know what it feels like to have a horse leaning in on me, or trying to scoot away.  I’m good at “being a horse”.  I can slow the movement down, make it less abrupt or less forceful so a new learner isn’t as overwhelmed as they be by their actual horse.  I can fall into their space and see how they respond down the lead.  That was too slow, try again.  Better.  Try again.  Now what happens if I make a slight change?

Our “horse simulator” practice is comparable to futsal.  The handler gets in many more practice rounds so she is better prepared for the real thing.  We’re improving her underlying technique and sharpening all the quick decision making that has to occur as she partners her horse.

Accelerated Learning
Translate this type of deep practice to horses and see what you get.  Now simple reaction patterns are repeated many more times than they would be in a more conventional approach to training. That describes very much what we do in clicker training.  We often marvel at the accelerated pace of learning in our clicker-trained horses.  But is it any wonder?  From the outside looking in people see training that is made up of interrupted flow.  I don’t put video up on youtube of riding training sessions because I know people won’t understand what they are seeing. The horse is constantly stopping.  How can that possibly be right?  I know that’s what they are thinking.

The myelin model of skill building explains why this is more than right.  It is the road to excellence.

I’ve used this example many times.  Suppose you are teaching a young horse to pick up the canter under saddle.  In normal training you would get the canter and then insist that the horse keep going.

In clicker training, as the horse transitions into the canter, click, within a stride or two he would be stopping to get his treat.

How is he ever going to learn to canter with all these stop and go interruptions?

The answer comes when we project out what happens over the course of this training session and the next ten.  The first horse will be made to stay in the canter for longer and longer duration.  Over the course of his training session let’s say that he does five transitions.  That number will actually be going down as the rider builds duration in the canter, but let’s say the rider keeps track and asks for five canter departs in each ride.  Repeat that for ten days and this horse will have done fifty transitions into the canter.  That sounds like a lot, but let’s see what happens with the clicker-trained horse.

In that first ride the horse picks up a canter and gets clicked before he’s gone more than a stride or two.  He gets his treat and the rider is immediately asking for another set up into the canter.  It’s quite possible that in the same span of time that the other team worked, this horse could do twenty or thirty canter departs.  So over the next ten days instead of doing 50 departs, he’ll be doing 200.  That’s a huge difference.

So now we can ask the question: which horse is going to understand canter departs better?  Or if we ask this from the perspective of myelin and skill development – which horse is going to have the better insulated myelin?  Which horse is going to pick up the canter faster, with better balance, without seeming to think about it?  It’s an easy answer.  The clicker-trained horse.

With people the myelin model makes us rethink what it means to be a prodigy.  More and more researchers are understanding that long-term success grows out of deep practice, not some innate talent.  Hmm.  No wonder we have so many clicker trainers with their “common” backyard horses doing amazing work. Yes, it is wonderful to have a “fancy” horse whose parents have won all sorts of trophies and honors, but that natural athleticism is meaningless unless it is paired with a style of training that can develop the horse’s talent.

Coming Soon: Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

Part 3: Equine Simulators

This is the third installment in a nine part article.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 and 2, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handling Mary C Aoiffe Helen House horse
Part 3: Equine Simulators
How do you learn to ride and to train horses when mistakes can result in serious accidents?  You create simulations. These days there are mechanical simulators.  I’ve sat on a few of them, and the good ones really do feel as though you are riding a horse.  You can spare school horses a lot of miles carrying unbalanced riders through the use of these machines, but that’s not the kind of simulator I am referring to here.  The kind that I’m talking about don’t require any special equipment.  In fact at first they don’t require any equipment at all. That’s another thing we have in common with these talent hotspots – the training doesn’t rely on expensive, specialized equipment.  Anyone can have access to these methods.  That means anyone with the passion to pursue excellence can succeed.  You don’t need to have a fancy horse or fancy stable.  You just have to have the desire to do better.

In clinics we put the horses away while the people work on their handling skills.  Instead of making their mistakes with their horses, we use each other as the “equine simulators”.  I’m sure people who are new to my work must at first be somewhat baffled.  They’ve come to the clinic expecting to see horses being trained.  Instead they are going through a series of t’ai chi warm-up exercises.  What has this got to do with horse training?

It turns out everything.  I’m taking them through a multi-step process that Daniel Coyle would recognize as deep practice.  To learn more about training plans and learning theory we play PORTL (Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab) and other training games.  To learn better technique, first, we set aside lead ropes and all other equipment so people can become more tuned in to their own balance.  We explore balance through a series of questions: How do you move? What is connected? Where does a movement begin?  Where does it stop?  Movement is slowed down so it can be broken down into tiny weight shifts.  We are building skills myelin layer by myelin layer.

Next we practice with one another.  One person holds the horse’s end of the lead while another explores her handling skills.  How does the lead feel to the “horse”.  This is the time to make “mistakes”, to experience what it feels like to the horse when someone is too tight, or too quick, or so soft they are absent.  What happens if the “horse” leans into the handler, or spooks suddenly?  What response does the handler make?  Over and over we can repeat patterns, until responding to a horse’s sudden movement becomes second nature. That’s what we want.  With the “equine simulators” you can test out your technique before it’s the real thing.  The “simulators”  give you a safe way to develop your skills. Clumsy handling doesn’t just frustrate your horse, it can get you hurt.  Practicing beforehand means you can be more successful the first time out.

I liked reading in the “Talent Code” that this somewhat unconventional approach to training would seem very familiar to the coaches in : Coyle’s talent hotbeds.  We’re building two types of skills through these exercises.  The first is the technical skill – the details of communicating clear messages to your horse via body language and leads.  The other skill involves all the quick decisions you have to make when handling a horse.  We’re building the ability to make those quick decisions and to respond effectively to the unexpected.

Coming soon: Part 4: “What Does Soccer Have To Do With Horse Training?”

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 2

Part 2: Deep Practice

This is the second installment in a nine part article.  If you have not yet read Part 1, you should begin with that:

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Counting Treats with a very interested audience

A very interested observer

Deep Practice
Here’s how Coyle describes deep practice:

“When I started visiting talent hotbeds, I expected to be dazzled.  I expected to witness world-class speed, power, and grace.  Those expectations were met and exceeded – about half of the time. But that was only half of the time.  The other half I witnessed something very different: moments of slow, fitful struggle.  It was as if a herd of deer suddenly encountered a hillside coated with ice.  They slammed to a halt; they stopped, looked, and thought carefully before taking each step.  Making progress became a matter of small failures, a rhythmic pattern of botches. . . . The talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising.  They are seeking out the slippery hills.  They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will make mistakes, and somehow making mistakes is making them better.”

The question Coyle wanted to understand was how?

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a different way, experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”

Most of us would read this and want to run the opposite way.  Struggle.  Mistakes.  That’s not how we want to learn.     And it certainly doesn’t sound like clicker training where we work hard to avoid putting our animals through frustrating learning experiences.  Is there a contradiction here?  It turns out that the deep practice techniques Coyle described actually fit beautifully into a clicker training framework.

The Sweet Spot
We may want to learn without struggle, but according to the researchers who are discovering how myelin works – it’s a terrible way to learn if you really want to become good at something.  Coyle quoted Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA:

“We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong.  It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build.  The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”

The key to deep practice is picking a goal that is just beyond your present abilities and targeting your efforts towards achieving that goal.  Or as Bjork put it:

“It’s all about finding the sweet spot.  There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do.  When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.”

That sounds like a good training plan.  The sweet spot is the puzzle we set.  Find the answer, and, click, you get a treat.  If the puzzle is too easy, the learner won’t progress.  If the puzzle is too hard the learner will get frustrated and quit.  The sweet spot stretches the learner just enough so he is always reaching for the next small increment of success.

Coyle summarized the discussion of myelin and deep practice with this:

“Deep practice is a strange concept for two reasons.  The first is that it cuts against our intuition about talent.  Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it’s vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability.  Deep practice raises an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself.

The second reason deep practice is a strange concept is that it takes events that we normally strive to avoid – namely, mistakes – and turns them into skills.  To understand how deep practice works, it’s first useful to consider the unexpected but crucial importance of errors to the learning process.”

And then he asked what to me was a key question where horses are involved: “How do you get good at something when making a mistake has a decent chance of killing you?”

Coyle used as his example the high death rate for pilots in the early days of aviation.  How do you learn to fly when mistakes can be fatal?  The answer was you develop simulators.

“The Air Corps pilots who trained in the first simulators were no braver or smarter than the ones who crashed.  They simply had the opportunity to practice more deeply.”

Coming Soon – Part 3: Equine Simulators

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice
By Alexandra Kurland
written October 2014

I wrote this article originally for my on-line clicker training course.  It’s a thirty page article so for this blog I have broken it up into 9 parts.  

Part 1: “The Talent Code”

This is the first installment in a nine part article
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Clinic Fun: Let the Equines Watch While the Humans Learn

Discovering Why Things Work
I love finding books that agree with me!  Who doesn’t.  It’s good to get outside confirmation that you are very much on the right track, especially when the track you are on is one you are pioneering. The horses tell us when we’ve chosen well, but they can’t always explain why something is working.  That’s been the case with many elements in my work.  I often know something works before I have figured out why.  For example: we know the click in clicker training is powerful.  Jaak Panksepp helped us to understand why.  The puzzle solving nature of clicker training sparks the SEEKER system, one of seven core emotional systems he has identified.

Another example are the bone rotations.  The horses told me that they worked, but I needed a t’ai chi specialist to help me understand why and to spot the universality of bone rotations in so much of horse handling.  Even something as basic as how you deliver treats has a bone rotation embedded in it.  When you discover the rotation and include it in your food delivery techniques, your horse has a much better shot at developing good treat taking manners.

The horses could tell me that letting them take a nap while the humans practiced their rope handling skills was a good thing.  That seems obvious enough.  Working out what you are going to do before you apply it to the horses makes sense.  After reading Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, I now have a much deeper understanding of why.  I also have an even greater appreciation for the teaching process that I have been developing over the last twenty odd years.

The Talent Code
One of the long held beliefs of our society is that some people are simply born more talented than others.  Pick a great sports star.  We believe that person was born with the talent that let him run faster, jump higher.  Or pick a world class musician or dancer.  Those individuals have some innate talent that lets them play a violin better than anyone else, or dance more beautifully.  Yes, they had to learn their art. They had to practice – but there was some special, innate gift that set them apart from all the others who were learning and practicing. Or was there?

Certainly genes are a factor.  If your genes are coded for five feet not seven, it will be hard to become the next world class basketball star, but there are plenty of seven foot players who never make it to greatness.  What is the difference between them and the people whose names we know?

Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”, provides answers to this question.  Coyle would say it comes down to three elements which he calls: deep practice, ignition and master coaching.  All three come together to build skills.  In his book Coyle described what he referred to as talent hotspots: training centers that have produced an exceptionally large number of superstars.  He described a tennis camp in Russia that has produced many of the world’s top players.  Students don’t spend their training time out on a court hitting balls.   Instead they are lined up in rows, like so many ballet dancers, practicing their swing – without rackets, without balls.  He described a music camp not far from where I live that ranks among its alumni Yo Yo Ma and Isaak Perlman.  Students there practice music so slowly that it becomes unrecognizable.  Familiar pieces sound more like the drawn out notes of a whale song than anything you would hear in a concert hall.

These practices grabbed my attention.  They were so familiar.  This is how I teach.  Like the tennis players who learn their technique first without a racket in hand, I have people learn their handling skills while their horses take a nap in their stalls.  And like the music students who slow down their music to reveal every note, we slow movement down to reveal every weight shift. I have been developing these teaching techniques over thirty years of teaching.  I know they work.  I see it in the elegant dance that emerges between horse and handler as their skills are perfected.  Now Coyle’s book has helped me to understand better why this approach works so well

It turns out that talent isn’t something you are born with.  It’s something you build.

Coming Soon: Part 2: The Myelin Factor

What to Leave Behind and What To Take With You: Part 5

Teaching Creativity Creatively

This is the last installment of a five part article.  If you have not read the previous articles, I suggest you begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on September 9.  The article was originally written for the discussion group for my on-line course.

Lots of Questions
We began with one of the on-line course participants asking a question.  How should she respond to her young horse bolting off when she was trying to turn him out.  I haven’t given her a “recipe” answer.  Rather I am asking everyone to think about their own training principles.  What techniques are okay to use?  What parts of your previous horse training tool kit do you want to bring with you into clicker training, and what parts do you want to leave behind?

There are no right and wrong answers in this.  It depends so much upon what you are looking for in your relationship.  What are your performance goals?  How do you balance those with the relationship you also want?  Does your training support both or are they in conflict?  How much does traditional make-it-happen horse training influence your choices?  Do you consider this to be a good thing or is this something you want to move away from.  I have lots of questions. I’ll leave it to each of you to find your own answers.

Let me end this series of articles with a story from a recent clinic.

One of the attendees brought her charmer of an Icelandic.   She had done a lot of natural horsemanship with him.  The result was a polite horse who was very easy to be around.  Space management was definitely not an issue.  But he was drab.  She wanted more sparkle.  She didn’t want him simply saying: “Whatever you want is fine with me.”  She wanted him to engage actively in their relationship, not simply passively follow directions.

The first day of the course is what I always think of as the data collecting day.  I want to see what the horse knows and where he is emotionally.  What carries over from the work someone has done at home to this unfamiliar environment?  Is this the horse you have at home, or does his worry or excitement over being in a new place bring out issues you don’t normally have to deal with?  In other words what is our starting point and what “tools” in terms of the behaviors the horse knows do we have to work with?

The Icey’s owner set out a pattern of mats and cones, and he followed her through them, stopping on cue, backing, coming forward again, even picking up a cone when requested.  This can be one of the hardest types of clinic horse to work with.  You can so easily say what’s wrong with this picture?  What is there to change?  He was doing everything that was being asked of him politely and willingly.  The horse that is falling apart emotionally or pushing through the handler to grab for treats is a much easier clinic project.  There’s so much that needs sorting, it’s easy to come up with things to work on.

But this horse was already polite.  He was coping well emotionally.  The big hole was his balance.  He tended to stand all higgledy-piggledy with his legs going every which way.  Overall his balance was down, forward and leaning on his inside shoulder.  This really matters for small horses, even strong small horses like an Icelandic.   The more he learns to carry himself up in good balance, the easier it will be to carry a rider, the sounder he will remain, and the better he will gait for her.

Following Directions Versus Initiating Behavior
Now I could have approached this conventionally.  I could have set out a circle of cones and gone straight to work on lateral flexions, but if I did that, I risked falling through the trap door of obliging a response.  He would not have been solving a puzzle and offering behavior.  He would not have been becoming increasingly body aware.  He would simply have been following directions as he had been doing for years.

I always use the analogy of following the car in front of you back to the hotel you’re both staying at.  The first night you follow the the car in front of you from the clinic barn to the hotel.  The second night you follow again.  On the third night that person has to stay behind to check on something.  You head out on your own, but you end up sleeping in your car because you never do find the hotel.  You were relying on the car in front of you to get you there.  You weren’t paying attention to any of the turns or landmarks you passed.

Adding “Stuff” to Become Creative
This horse could follow direction, but he wasn’t used to initiating behavior.  That’s what his person wanted him to explore.  So we changed course.  I had her get lots of horse-safe stuff and scatter it around the arena.  In addition to the usual mats and cones, she added some dog toys, a beach ball, several hula hoops, a jacket, a bandana, and her rubber rain boots.  In general the more stuff you have the better.  This isn’t so much for the horse as it is for you.  More stuff helps you to be more creative.

What can you and your horse do with a hula hoop?  What can you do with a beach ball?  Each item separately will produce a list of behaviors you could go after.  Take a moment to think about what would be on your list.

Now what can you do if you have both a beach ball and a hula hoop?  The options and possibilities just expanded.  Put two objects together that you haven’t combined before, and you may see even more new things popping out.

Teaching Creativity Creatively
So here’s what happened: The first day the Icey was hesitant.  He pushed the ball ever so politely.  “Am I really supposed to be doing this?  Is this really what you want?”

Years ago another of our Click That Teaches coaches, Debra Olson, demonstrated for a clinic group how she teaches creativity.  She was working with another of these very polite, but very drab horses.  Her prop was a large beach ball.  Now most of us would have no trouble teaching a horse to push a ball.  We would set it down near the horse.  If the horse sniffed at it, click, we’d offer him a treat.  It wouldn’t be long before he would be nudging it to get a goody.

That’s not what Debra did.  Debra is a professional artist.  When she was first getting herself established, she taught art to young children – not the tedious draw-inside-the-lines type of art class I endured in school, but real creative work.  She used some of the same techniques with this horse that she had developed for the children.  Instead of plunking the ball down and going through the standard clicker approach, she first rolled the ball back and forth.  Then she very deliberately set the ball down in front of the horse.

The horse sniffed it.  Click and treat.  She nudged it tentatively a couple of times, click and treat.

Then Debra took the ball away and sat on it.  She bounced it a time or two and then again very deliberately set it down in front of the horse.  It was as if she was saying: “This is what I can think of to do with this ball.  What can you do?”

If we had filmed just the mare’s interactions with the ball and compared them to that of a more conventionally-trained horse, they would not have looked that different.  (By the way I love the idea that we have been clicker training long enough to call something conventional!  When we were first figuring out how to teach behaviors with the clicker, this simple teaching strategy would have been considered ground breaking.)

In that one session Debra had with this mare you could not say for sure that anything life changing had occurred, but I know Debra’s horse, Magic.  I know that this approach creates a horse that is exactly what his name suggests – magical.

So this was my approach with the Icey.  We first let him explore the objects at liberty to see if he had any preferences.  He passed by the dog toys and showed some mild curiosity about the rubber boot.  It wasn’t enough to sustain any real interest.  He was waiting to be told what to do.  Instead of going down the conventional route, I picked up the boot and tossed it to his person.  Click and treat as it landed in her arms.

The game was on!  In that first session he was tentative, polite, unsure if he was really meant to nudge the boot.  On the second day he was much more engaged.  He had picked out his favorite toys, the hula hoop,  the beach ball and the rubber boots.  He was doing his best to imitate tossing the boot forward.  He couldn’t quite get the coordination down, but with a little more practice I think he would be able to toss the boot to us.

On the third day we continued to play with the toys, but now I added a new element.  We played for a bit, then I held my hands gently around his face.  I waited at the point of contact.  I wasn’t forcing or telling.  I was waiting.  It was up to him to experiment and offer.  He found the first tiny give, click and treat.  Within just a few more attempts he was presenting me with clean, clear, consistent, self-mobilized gives of the jaw.  That’s the first rung on the ladder that leads to brilliant performance.

Find the Other Way
We were back to performance work, but we had gotten there in a very round about way.  If I had gone there directly, whatever I got from him would have been false because it would not have come as an offered behavior.  He had to play with the toys first to discover that offering was safe, offering was even fun, before we could move into performance-related requests.

People sometimes say that clicker training is too slow.  I would say it only seems slow because we want so much more.  And because we want more, we put in more steps.  Someone watching these sessions might have thought his owner was wasting her time.  She could be riding!  And instead she was playing catch with a rubber boot and watching her horse push a beach ball.  But she understood what we were after.  She loves to laugh.  It was a joy spending the weekend with her.  She was always bubbly, always smiling.

She could always ride.  She wanted something more precious.  She wanted her horse to be able to laugh with her.  What a great gift to give to the horse she so clearly loved.

In shaping we know that there is always another way to train everything.  The challenge we all have is finding the other way.  The gift we give ourselves and our horses is finding the other way.

When we figure that out for our horses, perhaps we will have the skills to apply it to people.  Around the planet, it is certainly something we need to figure out how to do.

Alexandra Kurland

What to Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Part 4

Part 4: Find The Other Way

This is the fourth part of a five part article.  If you have not read the previous articles, I suggest you begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on September 9.

Three Keys To The Kingdom: Summary
We’ve been exploring three keys to training success:

1.) The first key replaces make-it-happen tactics with patience and persistence.  Those two qualities help set your learner up for success.  They also lead you straight to the second key.
2.) The second key is staying true to clicker principles.
3.) Which brings you to the third key: managing the environment well.
The three keys taken together help you to find creative, new training solutions.

Find the Other Way
Clicker training for many is something they slip on easily like a well fitting glove.  For others it represents a real U-turn in their thinking.  They have become comfortable with their current tool kit.  Swinging a lead doesn’t feel forceful.    It’s just how they use leads. The horse complies.  Everything is light and polite.  They don’t see the lack of sparkle as a problem.  Until you have experienced the contrast, how do you know that something is missing?  If I don’t know how much better a cake can taste when I add butter and cream and chocolate to it, I won’t mind the bland flavor and heavy consistency.

If you bring your old habits of thoughts with you into clicker training, you can still end up with that bland product.  You may be mixing in the “butter and cream”, but you won’t see the result.  It will get lost under the weight of the other, heavier ingredients.

Changing habit patterns takes time.  For clicker training that often means changing the environment in which you work as well as changing how you work.  I saw a great example of just how powerful habits can be during one of the first clinics I gave out in the western part of the country.  I was in an area where people use their horses for back country riding.  When meeting a grizzly bear on a trail is a very real possibility, you want a reliable horse.  The horses in the clinic were all used to traveling.  They knew how to come into an arena and go right to work without any emotional drama.  They knew how to stand tied for long periods without fussing.  They knew how to be ridden, how to load onto trailers.   They were the kind of horses many people long to have – safe horses you can just get on and ride.  They were also horses without sparkle.  They did as they were told, but no more.  When they were unsaddled and turned loose, the relationship ended.  They weren’t interested in being with their people.

Changing Habits of Thought
For many in the clinic this was their first introduction to clicker training.  We spent the weekend immersed in the basics.  This was the first time – perhaps ever – that many of them had gone an entire weekend without saying “No” or “Don’t”  to their horses. It was clear this represented a huge cultural shift.  One woman in particular stood out for me.  She was an experienced horse rider who was well trained in traditional “make it happen” methods.

For her it wasn’t just clicker training that was new.  She also did very little ground work.  So all the foundation lessons were completely foreign territory for her.  She had no habits of thought or action to get in the way of learning these new skills.  She did a wonderful job and her horse really blossomed throughout the weekend.

Monday afternoon the course ended and people began to leave.  I was chatting with someone else when she came up to ask if it was all right if she rode her horse.  We had been so busy with foundation skills, there had been no time to ride during the clinic.

The course was over.  It was her horse.  Of course, she could ride.  She could do anything she wanted.  She didn’t need to ask my permission.  She led her horse into the arena and swung up into the saddle.  It was like watching one of those science fiction transformer movies.  As soon as her seat was in the saddle, she changed.  She became an enforcer. Everything about her posture and her actions was different.  Her horse started to walk off and she snatched at his mouth with the rein.  Old habits suddenly swept away a weekend of thoughtful handling.

Her conditioned responses were the strongest when she was riding.  Sitting in the saddle ignited all her old triggers. To really embrace clicker training she would need to postpone riding for a while until her new habits were strong enough to be there ahead of her older “make it happen” reactions.

This is one of the reasons I rarely have people ride in their first clicker clinic.  Yes, we have a lot to cover and we normally run out of time before we get to the riding questions.  But more than that, people need time to shift their habits.  It doesn’t happen instantly.

Shifting habits is also one of the reasons I like to use the single-rein riding to reintroduce riding to both the horse and the handler.  It is different enough that it sidesteps old riding cues.  It doesn’t trigger old reaction patterns.  That’s as true for the horse as it is for the handler.

We can be caught up in these old thought patterns without even realizing that we are.  They are the comfortable norm.  We wear them like a familiar old sweater.  We don’t notice that the sweater has become so tattered that it no longer keeps us warm.  And then someone gives us a new sweater that fits even better.  The wool is soft, the colours bright.  It provides real protection against the wind.  You wonder why you have kept using that old sweater.  You never really liked it in the first place.  How did it come to be the one you wore so much?

Creating New Habits
So what do you do if you think you might be wearing that “sweater” without intending to?  Change things.  If you normally carry a whip, leave it in the barn.  Can you figure out how to communicate without it?  If you normally direct with a lead, take the lead off, or change to another lead that feels very different.  Whatever tools you normally use, change them.  And check to confirm that you really are changing your tools and not just transferring them to something else. If you take off the lead, you could simply be transferring your “make it happen” cues to your body language.  They are linked together.  Working at liberty is no guarantee that you will be changing the true meaning behind your ask.

When I was first introducing the microshaping strategy, I worked with a client who had done a lot of ground work with her horse.  I wanted her to freeshape backing.  She couldn’t do it.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t get her horse to back.  That was easy.  What I mean is she couldn’t keep herself from prompting the behavior through her body-language cues.  Her horse was following directions not figuring out a new puzzle.  We had to put a barrier between them and plant her against a fence post to remove all the familiar prompts.

So if you are used to working at liberty and you are using cues that were derived from escalating pressure, putting away your leads and other tools may not be enough.  Try sitting in a chair.  Now how are you going to structure your training so your horse responds in the way that you want?  How are you going to get the behavior when you truly can’t compel it? Can you still train with a high enough rate of reinforcement so that your horse does not become frustrated?  And do you know how to move your training along so the behavior evolves both in terms of quality and duration?

Seeing Possibilities
Changing habits takes work.  Why bother doing it?  Here’s one simple answer – it gives you more options.  The old habits aren’t going to disappear.  You will always have your “horse handling” tool kit and your “horse handling” solutions.  But now you may see other possibilities.  For me, the more I look for these solutions the more entertaining the work becomes.  That’s important because I am in this for the long haul.  I’ve been teaching clinics for a great many years, and I think it is fair to say I have never been bored.  How many of you can say that about the work you do?

Alexandra Kurland  Sept. 2014

Coming soon: Part 5: Teaching Creativity Creatively

What To Leave Behind and What To Take With You: Part 3

Part 3: Setting Up For Success: The Second and Third Keys

(This is the third part of a five part article.  If you have not read Parts 1 and 2, I suggest you do so before beginning this post.)

The Second Key
The second key revolves around Ken Ramirez’s definition of an advanced training technique.  Ken is the director of training at the Shedd Aquarium and a favorite presenter at the Clicker Expos.  He defines an advanced training technique as anything that requires experience to use well and which two or more trainers cannot agree on.

I have always loved that definition. In the horse world we really need to pay attention to what Ken is saying.  When someone is greener than green, what are they told?  They need to get tougher with their horse.  In other words, they need to get better at using punishers and space enforcers.  But those are the tools that require the most skill and the most understanding to use well.

At the Shedd Aquarium, novice trainers are not paired up with animals that require advanced training skills.  When Ken gets to this point in his presentation, someone always raises their hand and asks: “But Ken, what if you have a Rottweiler hanging off your leg?”

Ken’s response is: “That animal requires someone with advanced handling skills.  A novice handler shouldn’t be working with it.”

That’s when I always want to sputter, “But Ken, you’ve just described three quarters of the horse world. Look at all the horses that are a mismatch with their owners.  People are forever getting horses that demand more advanced handling skills than they currently have.”

That’s why there are so many sad stories of broken bones and broken trust.  It’s why so many people end up selling their horses or turning them over to trainers.

Setting Up For Success
There are alternatives to selling your horse or handing him over to someone else.  While you are building your handling skills, instead of getting tougher, you can manage your training environment.  Someone might say that setting up the environment for success is also an advanced skill.  Certainly as you practice this approach, you will discover increasingly elegant and subtle ways in which to use the environment to your advantage.    But setting up the environment begins with a commitment to the principles of good training.  By good training I am not limiting myself just to clicker training.

Here are just a few things good trainers have in common:

* Good trainers are splitters.  They look for small steps where they can get consistent “yes answer” responses from their horses.

* If things fall apart, they backtrack through their training to a step where they can get a good response.

* And if one approach is not working, instead of “shouting louder”, they look for an alternative solution.
What this boils down to are these simple instructions:

* Find an environment in which you and your horse are comfortable.

* And then choose a beginning step in which your horse can easily give you a “yes” answer.

Applied to clicker training, it also means that you stay committed to the underlying principles of the work.  You are looking at what you want your horse TO DO, not the unwanted behavior.  You are structuring your training around saying “yes” to behaviors you want, not “no” to behaviors that frighten or annoy you.

Expanding Protective Contact
Time for a story.  One of the Click That Teaches coaches, Marla Foreman, has been working with a group of horses, many stallions included, that had become very difficult for the barn staff to handle.  These horses had all been handled by professionals who were not in the least bit hesitant to use force to control them.  That had worked when they were in full work, but now their retirement “job” was going out every day to eat grass.  With too much energy and too little enrichment in the form of exercise, they had become increasingly dangerous for the barn staff to handle.  Their owner wanted to solve the problem with clicker training.  She didn’t want to look out her office window every morning to see horses being jerked around and threatened in order to control them.

Now Marla is a skilled handler.  She is a clicker trainer with an extensive horse training background.  She grew up on a ranch, and she has spent her adult life learning from a wide variety of skilled horsemen.   She doesn’t refrain from using punishers because she doesn’t know how, but because she chooses not to.  She can handle a tough horse. In fact she enjoys the project of taking on a problem horse and turning it around with skilled handling. But initially it wasn’t safe even for her to lead some of these stallions out.  One of the most difficult was a massive draft stallion who had the odious habit of swinging his head in to bite at his handlers and then bolting away dragging the lead out of their hands.  When a horse weights 1800 pounds and wants to leave, that’s exactly what he does.  This horse wasn’t leaving just to get to his grass faster.  He left because he was angry.

He had already learned the rudiments of clicker training.  He could touch a target for a click and a treat, but he wasn’t impressed.  He was just as likely to bite at your arm as take the treat.

So protective contact was very much the first order of the day.  Now I know this is where a lot of people get tripped up.  They see the video clips showing that first targeting lesson in a stall.  They get that part.  They rig up something that passes for a stall guard or they work over a paddock fence, but then they say – I have to take the horse out to turnout, or I have to groom him, or I have to ride him.  And all the while they are saying this, they are dodging the horse’s teeth.

Parting Company with “Have To” Training
This is where I part company with them.  Many of the “have to” things can be postponed until later.  You really don’t “have to” ride.  You may want to ride, but there are so many other things that need your time and attention first.  Once those are taken care of, the riding will be a joy.  Your horse will be inviting you onto his back.

Turn out is definitely important, but you don’t “have to” lead a horse to get him there.  There are creative alternatives.  With this stallion the alternative was to use temporary fencing to create a runway from his stall, through the barn aisle and on out to his field.  The barriers guided him along the path he was to take just as surely as the barriers set up in the airports told me which passageway to take.

Marla used simple targeting the first couple of times to show him the way out, and after that he found his own way.  There was always a hay pile topped with carrots and apples waiting for him so everyday he put on a wonderful show, galloping both in and out to turnout. Whenever I visited, I always made a point of pausing in what I was doing so I could watch him gallop, mane flying out on either side of his massive neck.  It was quite a sight, especially since it was his choice, and he was running with such obvious joy.  He’d slow himself down at the barn door and then walk through the aisle back to his stall and the waiting pile of treats.

Once he’d come in from turnout and had his dinner, Marla would take him out into the arena and work on clicker foundation skills.  We wanted to find a way past his anger so we turned going to mats into a game for him.  Marla explained the “tai chi wall” in minute detail.  She showed him first that she wasn’t a threat, and then that she was actually entertaining.

In one session we did together, to help teach him to step laterally out of the path of a handler, I held a food bucket under his nose while Marla walked beside him.  We marched around our circle of cones (actually it was a square but that detail doesn’t matter) with him eating the entire time.  Whenever the bucket was empty, Marla would toss in more treats.  I couldn’t manage the treat toss.  It was all I could do to hold the bucket up under his nose.  The full weight of his massive head was pushing down into the bucket.

We only did that once but afterwards Marla reported that he was much easier to displace laterally. Something shifted for him emotionally.  When she slid down the lead to ask him to step over, instead of threatening to bite, he moved out of her space.  If he did swing his head towards her, it felt more like the hiss of a kitten than the roar of a lion.  Leading him with a bucket of treats under his nose may not have been a “horse training” solution, but it certainly helped us peel another layer.

Marla began with protective contact.  She expanded the use of protective contact to help her with everyday management.  She chose times of the day to work when he could be the most cooperative.  She chose carefully where she worked.  She used mats and other props to help explain what was wanted.  She stayed true to the core principles of clicker training.  She also learned a lot about being patient, persistent – and creative! The result is a stallion that can be handled safely, not just by her, but by other members of the barn staff.

The Second Key
So the second key is staying true to clicker principles – no matter the challenge.  It may seem easier to slip back into old training habits, but that wasn’t going to help this stallion.  It might have gotten compliance – for a short time – but it would only have cemented his anger.

Once you recognize that there is ALWAYS another way to train everything, it’s easy to find the third key.

The Third Key: Managing the Training Environment
Learning how to arrange the training environment so you can stay true to clicker principles is another of the keys.  This really is one of those areas where you find yourself saying: “trust the process”.  When this stallion was galloping out to turnout, someone could easily have said all you’re doing is “letting him get away with ripping the lead out of your hand.  If you let him run out on his own, he’ll never learn to lead.”  But by side stepping the issue he didn’t have the opportunity to practice what was already a well-rehearsed behavior.  Instead Marla bought herself the time she needed to show him how to stay with her.  More than that, he decided that he WANTED to stay with her.  He likes his clicker games, including the game of walking out politely on a lead, walking calmly through gates, and waiting patiently until the lead is unhooked and he is released to his waiting pile of goodies.

This key fits easily into the third lock and turns the bolt.  The locks fall away and the door opens.  What lies beyond is pure clicker magic – the joy of a great relationship.

The Three Keys
So in summary we have three interconnected keys:

The first key replaces make-it-happen tactics with patience and persistence.  Those two qualities help you set your learner up for success.  They also lead you straight to the second key.

The second key is staying true to clicker principles.

Which brings you to the third key: managing the environment well.

The three keys taken together help you to find creative, new training solutions.  The next section explores our habits.  What habit patterns keep you locked in old solutions? How can you shift your habits of thought so you can find those new, creative training solutions?

Alexandra Kurland

Coming Soon: Part 4: Find the Other Way

What To Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a five part article.  If you have not yet read Part 1, I suggest you do so before beginning this post.

Part 1 began with a search for the first of three “keys to the kingdom”.  I ended that section by posing the question:

As you explore clicker training, what parts of your training background do you take forward with you and what do you leave behind?

The three “keys to the kingdom” help to answer this question.  

Part 2: What do You Take Forward?: Opening the First Lock

Opening the First Lock
I always go back to this:  I did some of my very best training when I knew the very least.  At the time I was surrounded by people who knew how to muscle horses around.  They were perfectly willing to use strong pressure to impose compliance.  I was watching effective training, but I was also watching people who were willing to get into a fight with a horse because they believed they had the skill to come out the winner.  

I was greener than green.  I knew I didn’t have those skills.  I couldn’t get in a fight because I couldn’t guarantee that I would win – and furthermore I didn’t want to fight.  They relied on fear and intimidation.  I relied on patience and persistence.  At the end of the day, those two pillars of good training have taken me further with my horses than they ever went with theirs.

Patience and persistence are two of the three prongs that open the first lock.  

Avoidance or Attraction: Which Do You Want to Create for Your Horse?
Patience and persistence represent what is for many a huge paradigm shift.  It is so much easier to reach for the stick.  That’s what we have learned throughout our lives both in relationships with people and with horses.  We have habits of actions and habits of thought that keep us from seeing or even searching for the creative solution.

Reaching for the stick is actually not the problem.  It is what you do with it that is.  Are you reaching for the stick with the intent to use it – hard – if your horse doesn’t do what you wish?  In other words are you escalating pressure?  That means that the horse responds because he knows he must.  You have introduced fear, pain, anxiety, avoidance, learned helplessness into your training.  You may see compliance and not think about these other things.   To your eyes your horse is responding politely, even willingly. The emotions he’s feeling are hidden well below the level of your awareness, but to the horse those emotions are very real.  

Avoidance is a terrible thing.  It can be a small stress, just a background hum, always there, always eating away bit by bit at your sense of well being.  Think of the things you avoid.  Maybe it is the stack of mail waiting for you at the end of the day.  Most of it is junk mail, of no account, but then there are the bills – the credit card statements, the utility bills, the phone, the mortgage.  It can feel overwhelming so you avoid the stack, but there it sits on your desk.  You can avoid it only for so long and then you have to face it.  That is not how I want my horses to feel about me.  I don’t ever want to be for them that “stack of bills” that they want to avoid, but can’t.

Pressure can also be used gently, kindly. It can be a guide, a gentle nudge in the right direction that brings relief because it brings certainty.  When there is no fear associated with the information pressure provides, it is never something to be avoided.  The hints it offers are welcomed.  They become part of the puzzle-solving process.  They are the clues you are given to find the hidden treasure.  

Recently I was traveling through the Zurich Switzerland airport.  I had less than an hour to get through passport control and get to my connecting flight.  I definitely appreciated the clear navigation cues the airport provided.  Go this way.  Keep going this way.  Now turn here and have your passport ready.  I made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare.  That’s a well designed airport that keeps stress to a minimum.  

I have also had to make connecting flights in Toronto Canada where the signs are very confusing.  I’ve ended up in a muddle, taking wrong turns and having to race to make connections.  The quality of cues matters and how they are presented also matters.  I would happily fly through Zurich again.  I try to avoid Toronto.  Same cues.  But one situation has created an attraction.  The other has created avoidance.

Using a lead in a clicker-compatible way so that you end up with attraction requires patience.  You go to a point of contact and you wait.  In Zurich if I were to try to turn down the wrong corridor, there would be a barrier blocking my way or an attendant redirecting me.  In Toronto I am left to guess.  When I wait with my horse, I can redirect.  If he tries to push forward when I am asking for backing, I can stabilize my t’ai chi wall.  I am saying: “Not this way.  Not down this corridor.  Look at the sign again and see where you need to go.”  I wait for him to read the clues and to solve that tiny piece of the puzzle.  Click and treat.  In the airports I have learned to ask the attendants: “Is this the right way?” even if I am sure that it is.  I like the click and treat reassurance that their yes answer provides.  I am on the right track.  Keep going.

If I become impatient, I will shove the horse back with my lead.  The horse may back, but he hasn’t learned anything except perhaps to allow himself to be pushed. There are times at the airports where you are herded like cattle down long passageways. There are TSA agents everywhere telling you to keep moving.  I don’t like those experiences.  They feel too much like the lead and the whip driving you forward.  Let us find our own pace and our own way along the maze.  Guide, but do not force.  That is so much better.  

Learning to be patient helps you to be persistent.  Both qualities mean you’ll take the time to set things up so your learner gets the support he needs to make good choices. Those are the three prongs of the key that opens the first padlock.  They also help you to find the second key.

Coming soon: Part 3: Setting Up For Success: The Second and Third Keys