JOY FULL Horses: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

To Love A Horse
This is the final installment of the JOY Full Horses posts.  I know we are in the midst of the Holiday season, and it is hard to find time to read things on the computer, but I hope you will find time to read this final post.

It contains a request on behalf of Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse.  This past May Panda became very ill.  Her health issues have been on-going and the vet bills have mounted up.  The details are in the post.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  To contribute go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

If you go to Panda’s youcaring.com page, you can also read a letter from Ann describing the work Panda does for her and the relationship they have.

And now for this final chapter of the JOYFULL Horses posts:

I have thought about this final chapter so many times, but I have never yet put the words down on the page.  Now that I have come to the end of these JOY FULL Horses posts it is time to say this.  On September 10, 2015, as he was coming up the hill into the barn, Peregrine had a heart attack and died .  My very good friend, Bob Viviano, found him when he checked on the horses mid-day.

I was out of the country.  I had left the day before.  Where I was staying during the first part of my trip didn’t have an internet connection so it was two days before I could be reached.   By then it was too late to get home to see him buried.  All I could do was continue on.

They put him next to Magnat, our senior horse.  I planted 500 daffodils for him, and in the spring, while I was publishing the first section of this book, I watched them bloom into new life.

Much of my life is very public. My horses have been my teachers so it is often their stores I share.  When I write about clicker training, I am writing about them, but this time I chose not to share.  I wanted private time to remember Peregrine.  When you have had the privilege of loving someone for thirty years, they are your heart.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother I promised her I would write her a love story.  That love story was clicker training.  She began it.  Peregrine continued it. All that I have written, all that I have shared through all these years has been my love story to them.  Clicker training means many things to many people, but that is what it means to me.  Woven into every lesson are gifts of love from my horses.

Remember that as you are using it.  For those of you who have taken my work and given it your own twist, your own names, by all means build on this work, but treat it well.  What you are building on came from them, it came from a very great love.

I began writing JOY FULL Horses when Robin was in hospital, recovering from colic surgery.  I finished it during Sindri’s long illness.  I wrote about that when I began sharing these JOY FULL Horses posts back in January.  It was a book my horses gave to me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.  And then I lost Peregrine, and I knew.  This is his gift. That’s why it was important to share his book with all of you through these bog posts.  With each post I have been remembering him, honoring him.  He was the first of our clicker trained horses.  For thirty years he was my teacher.  I have been pleased to share his lessons by giving you these JOY FULL Horses posts.

It is a gift, but as I said at the start of this post, I do now have something to ask of you.  This has been another very hard year.  In May Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse, became ill.  She had an intestinal blockage.  Without the surgery she received, she would have died.  Her recovery has been a long, hard one.  She was in hospital for three weeks following her surgery, and then at the end of June she developed pneumonia and had to be readmitted to the hospital.  She was on IV antibiotics for a week before she was finally well enough to go home.  She remained on antibiotics through the rest of the summer.

In September she developed severe diarrhea and had to be hospitalized again.  She spent another six weeks in hospital.  She is home now and doing okay.  She’s well enough to go for walks around the neighborhood with Ann, but she can’t yet resume her full role as her guide horse.

I’m sure you can imagine how fast the vet bills have added up.  The vets have generously given Ann a service animal discount, but even so Panda’s bills have risen towards a staggering $30,000.  The amount is unthinkable, but even more unthinkable would have been giving up and losing Panda.  To help out I have just started a youcaring.com fund raising campaign.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  Please share this through your social network so we can help Panda and Ann.

The fund can be viewed at:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

Peregrine and I thank you for your help.

Happy Holidays

Alexandra Kurland

JOY FULL Horses: Doorways

I Can’t Do What You Want
“I can’t do what you want.”  What I wanted was for the horse’s owner to show some enthusiasm, some appreciation for her horse’s good effort.  He was giving her very solid work.  She asked for a lateral flexion. He presented himself in good balance.  Click and treat.  She handed him a single slice of carrot.  He barely bothered putting it in his mouth.  She asked again.  He responded.  Click.  “I gave at the office.”  That was his level of interest in the exercise.  He was shutting down.  Why?

Remember you always want to tell a story that works in your horse’s best interest.  Was there something physically amiss?  This was a three year old.  Were his teeth bothering him?  He was certainly of an age where this could be the case.  He was a big horse.  Was he going through a growth spurt that made the work difficult?  Did he simply not like carrots?

I filled my pockets with the same treats he had been getting from his owner, and took a turn with him.  I asked for a lateral flexion.  It wasn’t great.  To me he felt a bit like a car with four flat tires, but it was well within the range of the work I’d just been watching.  Workmanlike but not brilliant.  I clicked.  I gave him a couple of carrot coins – and I made a fuss.  I scritched his neck.  I told him he was clever.

I asked again.  He gave me an okay response.  Click – carrot coins and more fussing.  He ate the carrots and went straight back to work.

His “tires” were beginning to inflate.  He took his treats with enthusiasm.  He interacted with me.  The work became more fun for both of us.

“I can’t do what you do,” his owner told me.  “I can’t be happy.”

Our horses bring us to our truth.  He needed her to do more than give him carrots.  The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation.  They are an expression of that love.  In my book “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker” I wrote:

“Before I ride, I fill my pockets with appreciation.  That’s what the treats I feed my horse represent.  Each time I click, I’m providing my horse with information: “That step you just took was a good one” or “I liked the extra lift I just felt in your back.”

Appreciation is information, and it turns into love.  With the clicker I’m not just telling my horse he did something that will get reinforced, I’m also thanking him for a job well done.”

I would add – I am telling him I love him.

Finding Joy
Every time I fill my pockets I am filling them with appreciation.  At times I may be on a fast rate of reinforcement.  It may be click – treat – repeat with no time for extra scritching, but my focus tells my horse that he is doing great.  And when we take a break, I tell him he is “so smart!”  I tell him he is wonderful.  I turn every session into a time of play.  That’s when I do my best training.

Sometimes I am tired, or just distracted by “Life”.  I forget to play.  I give a horse a work session.  It is competent, fair, even productive, but it is not creative.  And it’s not really even any fun.  It is what I do “at the office.”  That’s not the training I want to share.  I want people to see the joy of clicker training.  Play gets us there.  It is a doorway.  You step through it into love.

Play is important for so many reasons.

We learned from Stuart Brown that it is a dress rehearsal for life skills.

We learned from Jaak Panksepp that it is one of the seven core emotional systems.  We need it for good brain development.

But this last reason, play is a doorway that can open up our hearts is the what our horses teach us.

For all these reasons we need to play.  We need to be PLAY FULL.

I am writing this sitting in the stairwell of my barn.  It’s early morning,  June, 2014.  From my perch on the middle landing, I can watch Peregrine and Robin dozing in the barn aisle.  They have just come in from grass and are taking a nap side by side.  I can also look out over the arena.  The long side is open so I can look out over the trees and listen to the early morning bird song.  I would like to say it is otherwise very quiet but in the distance I can hear a tractor.  One of the local farmers is cutting hay.

It’s going to be a warm day, but sitting here in the shade of the arena, I get a soft cross breeze.  I have a cup of tea, my horses are nearby.  It is a perfect place to write.

Peregrine and Robin have helped me face many of my own truths.  They have shown me that what I want by myself is not as important as what the three of us can want together.  I want to ride.  I love to ride.  But riding has never been about me.  It has to be about us, what we can do together.  They are herd animals.  They love doing things together.  They love to play.  That’s one of the great truths of horses.

Peregrine is teaching me a new truth.  He is 29 with some health issues.  He has a heart murmur and other metabolic issues.  I don’t ride him anymore.  When I wrote about the similarity between extinction and grief, I know what those emotions feel like.  There is a grieving process when you can no longer ride the horse who has been your teacher and partner for almost three decades.

This is a quiet time for us.  The barn is organized around Peregrine’s needs.  He wants Robin for company. He gets Robin.  He needs to be able to move around the barn.  He has the freedom to do so.  The doors are left open so he can choose where he is the most comfortable.  He can hang out in the barn aisle or take long naps in the arena.  He can sun bathe in the barnyard or wander out for grass.  It is all available to him.  He wants to play clicker games.  I play with him.

This could so easily be a sad time, or a time to set aside my old friend in favor of younger, stronger, rideable horses.  Instead we share the joy and comfort this great truth brings us.  We have learned to Play, and it has opened many doors.

Coming Next: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

Stepping Stones

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 10 of 12

More To Learn
In the previous section I described the profound difference TTEAM training made for Peregrine’s mother.  Peregrine, on the other hand, didn’t like TTEAM body work.  I remember feeling so frustrated with him.  Here he was with his own private body worker, and he wasn’t interested.  There were so many horses who loved and benefited from the sessions I gave them.  Peregrine fussed and refused to participate.

So I put my antennae up and went looking for solutions that he liked better.  I didn’t reject TTEAM work.  I didn’t say it was wrong or it didn’t work.  It had given me far too much to ever turn my back on it. Peregrine was simply telling me there was more I needed to learn.

I think of all the elements that have gone into my horse education as stepping stones.  I’m never regretful of any of my stepping stones.  There may be things I don’t use any more, techniques I disagree with now that I have more experience, but each of those stepping stones gave me something of value.  When you are finding your way over uncertain ground, you don’t always find the clear path right away.  Learning where you don’t want to step – and why – helps guide you to the secure footing of a path that’s worth following.  TTEAM was definitely a path worth following.  Because I stepped on that stone, I found all the others that set me in the direction of clicker training.

Remembering Play

poco-in-hug

Poco

Today if you watched me working with horses you wouldn’t see very much that would jump out at you as TTEAM work. But every now and then I’ll have a horse who brings out my TTEAM background.  Poco was one of those horses.

 

poco-ear-shy

Poco showing us his concern over having his ears touched.

I introduced you to Poco earlier.  He’s the ear shy buckskin who I had been watching over a period of several months progress from being a completely don’t-touch-me horse to one who could tolerate being bridled and handled around his head.  But tolerate was the key word.  He was by no means comfortable, especially with people he didn’t know.

I was itching to play with him.  I’d watched his handler give him some great work sessions, but that’s not what he needed.  He didn’t need to work.  He needed to play.  Or more to the point, he needed US to play.

When you play, you become creative.  You take elements from different parts of your life, and you combine them in new ways to come up with solutions you haven’t tried before.  Your stepping stones become important.

Getting “Yes” Answers
During one of his work sessions, Poco’s handler was called away to check on something in the barn.

“Would you mind holding him for me?” she asked.

Big mistake.

You never want to hand me a horse – not if you want to get him back any time soon.

I began in a round about way with Poco.  I knew I wanted him to target his ear to my hand, but I also knew I couldn’t begin there.

Never start with your goal.

That’s one of the rules of good training.

I couldn’t go directly to his ears, but I could teach him the overall concept of body part targeting.  There wasn’t much I could get a consistent “yes” answer to, so I began by simply grabbing his nose firmly between my hands and squeezing tight for the briefest of brief seconds.  Click and treat.

Now that last sentence doesn’t sound very clicker compatible.  Grabbing his nose between my hands sounds rather rude and abrupt, but I’ve found that this is often an effective way to begin.  I am in effect saying to the horse:  “This is what I want to do.  This is what it will feel like.  There’s nothing else that I’m going to do, just this.”

Training Choices
I could have gone through a shaping process to teach Poco to bring his nose to my hands.  That’s another, very valid approach.  With Poco I went the more direct route.  Sometimes it is important to show the horse that what he’s worried about really isn’t all that bad.

If I shaped him to bring his nose towards me, I might have been bringing all his worry and concern right along with the rest.  “Yes, I’ll bring my nose closer to you because I want the treat, but I really am still afraid.”

Sometimes what the horse discovers through the shaping process is he really doesn’t have anything to worry about and his fear melts away.  But sometimes the worry stays locked in.  It twists its way around each reinforcer just as surely as a vine twists around the tree that supports it.

With Poco I also knew I didn’t have much time with him. I needed to explain to him fast what I was going to be asking him to do.  So I reached up and held his nose firmly between my hands.  I gave him a solid squeeze.  I clicked as I released the pressure.

I thought of Temple Grandin and her description of the comfort she felt from being squeezed tight in an enclosed space.

Who knows how horses experience this, but I have found that a firm squeeze around the nose helps to settle many anxious horses.

This quickly evolved into my asking Poco to target his nose to my hand.  The first couple of times it was more a matter of my bringing my hand to his nose than the other way around.

poco-touch-nose

It was touch his nose fast – click treat. Note he is wearing a bridle because his handler had been working on bridling when she was called away.

It was touch his nose, click fast before he could pull away.  Treat. Touch his nose again.

I used a verbal cue.  “Nose”  It began as a signal of my intent.  It meant: I am going to reach out and touch your nose.

Telling him in advance what I was going to do gave him time to prepare.  I wasn’t sneaking up on him so it actually helped him to accept the contact more calmly. He knew exactly what I was going to do, and he also knew it wasn’t going to last long and the contact would be followed by a treat.

Very quickly I could hold my hand ever so slightly away from his nostril and wait for him to come that last little bit to me.  Click and treat.

Building Clean Loops
I progressed towards this in tight clean loops.

We did a cycle of squeezing his nose – click treat, repeat.  Then I’d walk off causally with Poco following behind me on a loose lead.  That gave him a break and set us up for a change in the next cycle.

So now it might be place my hand over his nostril – click treat.  Again, repeat this several times and then walk off casually.

The next cycle was bring your nose to my hand – click treat.

Then it was target my cupped hand to your chin – click treat.

The treat was so much more than just the piece of carrot I was offering him.  The treat included lots of verbal praise –  “Aren’t you great!  You’re so smart”  – together with lots of scritching.

Scritching
Scritching is my word.  It isn’t petting or stroking.  It’s a get-your-fingernails-dirty, deep kneading of a horse’s neck and back.  Think about how horses socially groom one another.  That’s what you are imitating so get in there and get your fingers dirty!  There’s nothing soft or diffident about it.  If your hands are clean after one of these sessions, either you are a superb groomer, or you aren’t doing it right.

I’ve had people tell me I need to come up with a name for the training I do.  Here’s a suggestion: The Dirty Fingernails Club!  Somehow, it’s never caught on.

Sequence Matters
In clicker training we’re used to hearing that timing matters.  The sequence in which you do things matters, as well.

Poco’s handler had done a lot of rubbing on his neck, but she had put it BEFORE the click.  I was putting it AFTER.

Before the click, there was always the question: what more are you going to do?  There was always a bit of guardedness in Poco’s emotional response.

After the click, it was all celebration.  You’re so good!  I wasn’t trying to see how much closer to his ears I could get.  I was simply rubbing and scritching him and telling him he was wonderful.  There was no agenda other than to celebrate the previous clickable moment.  Poco let his guard down.  He melted.  Panksepp could tell us about the dopamine that was being released in his brain.  What I could observe was a softening around the eyes, a dramatic change in muscle tone, an increase in responsiveness towards me.

I wish I had filmed that first session to share with you the change in Poco.  I was opening a dialog.  Because I was in a play state he could stay to listen and begin to let me in past his guard.

You Never Know What You’ve Taught.  You Only Know What You’ve Presented
The next day I did a follow up session with Poco.  I was still a long way from being able to handle his ears so I wanted to continue the conversation I had started.

In this next session Poco was much more accepting of my hands around his muzzle.  I built a small chain.

“Nose”  The cue initially simply told him what I was about to do.  I was going to cup my hand over his nostril.  It grew into Poco actively seeking out my hand.

As soon as my left hand was cupped over his nostril, I said “Chin”.

Poco responded by dropping his head so his chin rested in the cup of my right hand.

Click and treat.

Using Your Head
I wanted to get to his ears, but I had run out of hands, so I used my head – literally.

Nose.” He brought his head into position to meet my hand.

Chin.” He gave at the poll so his chin dropped into the cup of my hand.

As I supported his muzzle between my hands, I leaned in closer to him until I could rest my forehead between his eyes.  Click and treat!

poco-nose-chin-head

“I almost got a kiss!” I told him as I rubbed his neck and exclaimed to him that “He was so good!”

Breath
Building duration was next.  As I cupped my hands around his muzzle, I waited.  I was feeling for the exhale of his breath.

poco-click-on-exhale

I am waiting for Poco to exhale.

If you want to keep your rates of reinforcement high, this is a great behavior to go after.  We want our horses to relax so we like to click behaviors we read as signs that they are “happy” and “at ease”.  So we like to click for things like ears forward, but if the horse is concentrating or listening to activity behind him, you can wait a long time for his ears to move.  And if you withhold the click too long, your horse may begin to feel frustrated.  You’ve suddenly put him into an extinction process that you hadn’t intended.

If a horse has been earning clicks pretty consistently and now suddenly he isn’t, he’s going to become frustrated.  That’s a predictable outcome of extinction.  The more frustrated a horse becomes, the less likely he is to put his ears forward.  So now you’re stuck.

What do you do?  If you wait it out, you could be unraveling all those good dopamine-propelled feelings of relaxation.  You could end up with a frustrated, angry horse who is convinced that he doesn’t want anyone touching him anywhere.

Or maybe in desperation you click him for something, anything to get yourself out of this muddle.  I’m going to come back in a later section to desperation clicks and their fallout.

For now I’ll offer a different approach.  Instead of focusing on his ears – go for his breath.  Unless you are working with a sperm whale, you know he’s going to be exhaling on a regular, easily clickable basis.  So click as he exhales, and you’ll very quickly feel your horse melt even further into your hands.

Now wait for the deep exhale that truly signals a letting go of tension.  He is well on his way to letting his guard down and inviting you in.

Celebration!
Poco would now cradle his nose in my hands.  I could lean into his space, something that would have worried him previously.  And because I could lean in, I could steal a kiss.

Laugh.

Press my forehead against his.  Click. Treat. Celebrate!

poco-hug-1st-day

Press my forehead against his. Click. Treat. Celebrate!

 

Coming Next: Moving On

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

The Teachers We Get Are The Teachers We Need

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 9 of 12

Stories
“She’s just being lazy.”  That was what I was told when I first asked about the way Peregrine’s mother dragged her hind toes.  She was not even a year old, and she had been mine for just a few short weeks.

The vet hadn’t said anything during the prepurchase exam about the way she used her hind end, but then he hadn’t really looked.  This was the first prepurchase exam I had ever seen so I didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve watched many more since, and I can say that this was the sloppiest and most superficial.

She was a weanling.  What could be wrong?  Thank goodness he was so casual with the exam!  If he had looked more closely, he might have noticed the way she was moving behind.  I’m not sure what I would have chosen to do.  I didn’t want a “problem” horse.  I wanted a horse I could ride; a horse who could teach me about great horsemanship.  The Universe was clearly listening because that’s what I got.

While my friends were taking their adult horses off to shows, I was raising my dream horse.  Only there was something wrong.  Dragging her hind feet was the first sign.

“She’s just being lazy.  You need to get after her more and make her move.”

That didn’t seem right.  There was something else going on.  A month or so after I started questioning her movement, I saw her fall for the first time.  I’m glad I didn’t listen to all those well-meaning horse people who had been telling me to get after her.  I had known she wasn’t being lazy.  I knew there had to be a different answer.  I just didn’t know yet what it was.

One of the best definitions of a teacher that I have ever heard is this: a teacher is someone who started before you.  Nowadays, as a teacher, I say to people we need to tell stories about our horses that work in their best interest.  The owner of the barn told the “lazy” story about my filly.  That story leads to the “get after her” answer.

I told a different story.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I was sure there was something wrong.  I had a new vet in the practice come out and give her a more thorough exam.  This one included neurological tests – all of which she failed.

We need to tell stories that help us find good training solutions.  If I say that there is something wrong, I’ll become a good detective.  I’ll take care of my horse’s physical needs.  I’ll make sure my horse’s feet are well balanced, that his tack fits comfortably, that his nutritional needs are met.

I’ll check for lameness issues, for ulcers, and for other health issues that might interfere with my horse’s willingness to work with me.  I’ll break my training down into small, manageable steps.  If my horse doesn’t want to go forward, I’ll explain what I want more clearly.  I’ll find lots of different ways to say “go forward” until they all begin to make sense.

Suppose after all this due diligence, I discover that actually, yes, the reason my horse didn’t want to go forward was he’s lazy.  In that case what is the worst that can happen? He’ll be healthier because I reexamined his overall management.  He’ll be better trained because I explained what I wanted.  And in all likelihood, he’ll be eager to work with me, and I won’t be thinking he’s lazy.  I’ll just be appreciating his level-headedness.

But suppose I bought into that original story – “He’s just being lazy. You should get after him.”  What’s the worst that can happen?

In my filly’s case I would have destroyed all the good will I had built up in our relationship.  She wasn’t dragging her toes because she was lazy.  She was dragging them because she couldn’t feel where they were.  The neurological damage meant she couldn’t feel her hind feet as they landed.

The news was devastating.  But even more was the prognosis.  At that time the vets had nothing to offer.  They told me she would in all likelihood continue to deteriorate until she was no longer able to stand up.  She would become a danger both to herself and to anyone who was near her.  I would never be able to ride her.  The best thing I could do would be to put her down.

I couldn’t do it.

I felt trapped.  I wanted a riding horse, not a pasture ornament.  I couldn’t afford a second horse.  But I couldn’t put her down just because she couldn’t do for me what I wanted.  Her life had value to her.  When she got to the point where she couldn’t stand up and life was hard for her, then I would face the decision to put her down.  That was the future we were looking at.  In the meantime I had to deal with the problems each day presented.

One Day At A Time
While my friends were learning how to jump, I was teaching my filly how to walk – literally.  When most of us talk about teaching our horse to walk we simply mean when we are asking them to walk with a certain energy level and overall balance.  We don’t mean how to put one foot in front of the other without falling.

When you are caught in a situation like this, you try many different things.  It is truly everything and the kitchen sink.  At the universities scientists run controlled studies so they can say this technique works, and this other is just an old wife’s tale.  I wasn’t interested in controlled studies.  I tried lots of different things.  Her condition began to stabilize.  She wasn’t getting worse.  The neurological deficit was still there.  It would always be there, but she was learning how to compensate for the lack of proprioception.

Her balance was better, but not her mood.  She was a terrible grump.  She didn’t want to be groomed.  If you walked past her shoulder, you would get pinned ears and her head snaking out at you to warn you off.  I always had to be careful when others walked past her to make sure she didn’t bite at them.  The barn owner had no use for her.  He made his money by taking clients to horse shows and giving them lessons.  From his point of view she was useless, and on top of that she was bad tempered.

I didn’t see her this way.  She was my beautiful, best beloved.  Together we were figuring out how to manage her condition.  But the grumpiness was a concern.  She clearly hurt somewhere, but she couldn’t tell me where.  As soon as I approached her, she was warning me off.

TTEAM
In one of the many horse magazines I was reading at that time, I came across an article about Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTEAM training.  The article described in detail the TEAM body work.

I was up for trying anything.  That evening at the barn I experimented with the TTEAM circles. You were to cup your hand lightly on the horse.  Then you imagined a clock face.  Beginning at 6 o’clock, you moved your finger tips once around the clock back to 6 and a little beyond, pressing softly into the horse’s coat.  You were to make one circle, and then move on to a different spot, letting your fingers guide you.

I tried it.  My filly melted.  Her head dropped.  Her eyes got soft.  She let me in.

Her whole body didn’t hurt.  Finally, she could show me where the problem was.  I could do TTEAM circles everywhere but one spot on her shoulder.  That was off limits.

Now I could help her.

I didn’t have a lot of money.  Taking on a horse was stretching my budget to it’s limits, but I knew I had to learn more about TTEAM.  I knew I needed to study with Linda directly.

So I did some research, booked a spot on a clinic she was teaching out in the mid-west and got on an airplane.  That was the first of many long journeys my horses have sent me on.

Innovations Come From the Outside In
Whether you are talking about the sciences, sports, economics: whatever the field of study is, new innovations evolve by bringing in ideas from the outside.  We don’t evolve from the inside expanding out.  We evolve by bringing in fresh ideas and combining them with what we already know.  That’s how we come up with completely novel combinations.

That’s what Sally Swift did through her Centered Riding.  She introduced the horse world to the Alexander technique and transformed how riding is taught.

Linda Tellington-Jones did something comparable for how horses are handled.  She combined Moshe Feldenkrais’ work with her knowledge of horse training to produce something brand new and revolutionary – TTEAM.

Linda describes how she stumbled across Feldenkrais.  She and her husband, Wentworth Tellington, had been running a school for instructors in California.  They had 65 horses, plus staff and students, and all the responsibility and work that goes along with the running of a successful program.  Linda burned out.  She divorced her husband, sold off all the horses and went traveling.

As she described it, she put her antennae up and followed them wherever they took her.  I love that image, and I have used it myself many times.  I follow my antennae, and they have taken me on many wonderful adventures.

Following Antennae
Following my antennae took me to TTEAM.  I became a TTEAM Practitioner and in the mid-1980s I began teaching.  That hadn’t been my intent when I headed off on this journey, but people were seeing what I was doing with Peregrine’s mother, and they were curious.  How could she be doing so much more than their own horses when she was so very handicapped?

Because I was willing to travel, I had access to people they didn’t.  I was bringing in new ideas from the outside.  I was still greener than green in so many ways.  Some of my clients could most definitely ride circles around me in terms of their skills on horseback, but I had access to resources they didn’t.  And I was beginning to understand balance in a way that could help every horse I encountered.

The Joy of Discovery
There is a lot to be said for riding lots of horses.  That’s the typical horse background of most professionals.  They’ve grown up on the backs of horses, riding everything and anything that came their way.

I was having a very different and very unique experience.  While others were off riding at shows, I was piecing together yet another tiny layer of the balance puzzle.   What fascinated me was process.  My clients understood that I didn’t have set answers for them.  What I was sharing was a love of exploration.  I wasn’t giving them recipes: this and only this is the way you train.  I was sharing with them the joy of discovering yet another layer in the training puzzle.

People would contact me because they were struggling with some handling issue.  Usually within a session or two we would be well on the way to solving their original problem, but now they were hooked on learning more.  The adventure of discovery was what I was sharing.  Very quickly they didn’t need me any more for the original problem.  That was well behind us, but they wanted to keep going, to join me on the journey that eventually led to clicker training and all that it represents.

Ready To Teach
Many of my clients became long-term friends.  As their skills expanded, they also became interested in teaching, but often they weren’t sure if they were really qualified to help others.  When someone voices concerns about being ready to teach, I always refer back to my own early experiences.  We are all experts in our own experience.  That is the one thing we can safely say.  I may not be an expert in jumping or team penning, but I am an expert in my own life experience.  That is something I know well and can share.

A teacher is someone who started before you.

I have always loved that definition.  I don’t know where I first heard it or who gets the credit for it.  Whoever it was said a very wise thing.

You don’t have to wait until you are The Expert in your field to have something useful to contribute.  You can teach and share out of your own experience.  As long as people understand that you are teaching process, an on-going, never-ending exploration, you are fine.  You aren’t teaching something that is set in stone and where you have all THE answers.  You are teaching a process of exploration.  You are inviting others to join you on the journey.

Change Makers
These days if you watch me train, most of the time you won’t see anything that jumps out at you that says: she must know TTEAM.

TTEAM was a stepping stone, and a very important one at that.  Linda followed her antennae to Moshe Feldenkrais.  He told her to keep exploring and to create.  She became a Feldenkrais practitioner, but instead of using the work just on people, Linda carried it back to what she knew – horses.  Out of that combination she developed something new.

I remember helping Linda at a clinic she was giving for a university audience in Madison Wisconsin.  It was a large group that included many vets and vet students.  One of the horses she worked that day was a big, raw-boned chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect.

Linda began by exploring his body using what she called tiger touches.  Tiger touches are not meant to be therapeutic.  They are used to collect data.  Instead of the soft circles that I had first tried, in the tiger touches you curve your fingers more like the claws of a cat – hence the name – and you go deep into the muscles.  You begin the exploration up at the horse’s poll and then work your way down his spine, shoulders and hindquarters.

At every point that Linda tested, Perfect reacted.  When she got to his back, he all but dropped to his knees, he was in so much pain.

I listened to a gasp go up in the audience.  Linda was helping people see what had been in front of them all this time.

What they had been taught had kept them from seeing how much pain horses could be in.  We had all been told horses are stupid animals.  Over and over again we heard this.  That was the underlying belief system that dominated horse training.  “Horses are stupid animals and because they are stupid, you have to use force to train them.”  But then this was added: “Don’t worry, they don’t feel pain the way we do.”

A month or so after I watched Linda working with Perfect, I was reading an article in one of the major horse magazines.  It was written by a vet.  In the article he stated that horses do not experience back pain.

That was 1984.  We have truly come a long way, and Linda, I believe, was a major catalyst for that change.

In 1984 we didn’t pay attention to saddle fit.  You found a saddle that fit YOU, and then you used it on every horse that you rode.   I remember being taught to put saddles up on top of the horse’s withers.  When the saddle slid back on our high withered thoroughbreds, we put breast collars on to hold them in place.

It was Tony Gonzales, a farrier from Hawaii, who started to look at saddle placement.  He had people watch how their horses moved when the saddles were placed up on the withers.  Then he slid the saddles back behind the “locking in” point of the shoulder and had them watch again.  The change was often dramatic.  Now that the saddle was no longer pinching their shoulders, the horses could move.

Tony pointed out how uneven our horses often are.  I remember being at a clinic of his that Sally Swift was also attending.  Tony lifted Sally up so she could see down the spine of a tall thoroughbred.  He pointed out how uneven this horse’s shoulders were.

This is general knowledge today, but it took a farrier from Hawaii bringing in fresh information to help us see what had always been right in front of us.

Change Our Beliefs, Change the World
When Peregrine’s mother was first diagnosed, there weren’t any chiropractors, or body workers around to help.  They didn’t exist for horses.  If they don’t experience pain, why would you need a body worker?

But now there are physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, energy workers.  They are there in large part because Linda did tiger touches on a chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect. Together they helped people see what had always been there – horses do experience pain.  It is just as real to them as it is to us.  They are just better at hiding it.

Detective Work
I have always said I was so lucky in my horses, first with the neurological issues, and then later with Peregrine and his stifles.  That may not sound lucky, but at least I knew what I was dealing with.  There was no hiding these issues.  I’ve dealt with so many horses who are puzzles.  You know something isn’t right, but the horse masks the symptoms.  It’s tempting to dismiss the reluctant attitude and reach instead for “just make him do it” solutions.

Again, we need to remember that horses are prey animals that rely on the safety of the herd for protection.  Any animal that looks lame or infirm will attract the notice of predators.  To stay safe horses have to hide their pain.  That doesn’t mean they don’t feel the sharp twinge every time they take a step.  I’ve had lots of injuries that I kept to myself.

If you don’t see the injury, you don’t need to know about it.  That’s how horses operate.  If they look vulnerable, they could be driven out of the herd.  Alone and infirm, they will certainly attract the attention of any predators that are around.

We need to remember this when we go looking for the root cause of our horse’s reluctant attitude.  The big things horses will show.  It’s hard to disguise an abscess or a torn tendon.  But other things they will be reluctant to let you see.

“He’s not right” will be a nagging feeling.  Vets, trainers, other horse people will tell you nothing is wrong, but you’ll still have that gut feeling.  Listen to it.  Be a good detective and tell a story that works in the best interest of your horse.

Coming Next: Stepping Stones
I promised you I would be returning to the ear-shy horse, and now finally in this next post, that’s what I’ll be doing.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

The Clicker Super Glue

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 6 of 12

What Keeps People Interested in Clicker Training?
I ended yesterday’s post with the question: what is the “glue” that gets somebody to stick to clicker training?  What makes someone take more than that first look?  What creates the shift from being simply curious about clicker training, to giving it a try, to becoming an active user, and eventually a clicker trainer?  I think there are four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue.

Science
The first component of clicker super glue is a love of science.  I’ve already talked about this, but let me expand on it here.  When I talk about a love of science I don’t mean someone who has read the chapter on learning theory in the psychology text book and memorized the four quadrants.  Lots of people can give you the definitions of negative and positive punishment.  That’s simply someone who has done a bit of reading.

A love of science is something more.  It’s that curiosity that has you always asking the “why” questions.  It’s wanting to know how things work.  It’s never being satisfied with the “because that’s the way it’s done” answers.

Someone who is passionate about science is also passionate about history.  You want to know what others before you have said in answer to those “why” questions.  Where did our current ideas come from?  Why do we use marker signals?  Why do we call them bridging signals? Where did that term come from?  What was meant by it, and is it still applicable?

“Just because” isn’t good enough.  How do we test our ideas?   How do we peel back the layers of confusion our words often create and look at what is really going on when we say antecedents set the occasion for behaviors which are controlled by consequences?   Do you nod your head and passively write that down in your notes?  Or do you want to dig down into those words to find out what those relationships really mean for your animals?

People who are passionate about science understand that what is understood today is not fixed in stone.  As we learn more, our understandings change.  In the sciences, as you test ideas and develop techniques that allow for more fine-tuned levels of exploration, ideas shift.  Science is the perfect companion to training.

science is the perfect companionIn both you will hear people saying: I used to follow this line of thought, but then the data showed me that this other was a better explanation/approach.  It offered a more functional interpretation or way of handling the behavior I was seeing.

Nothing becomes entrenched because we are always asking those why questions.

Science alone is not enough.  Think of it like the super glues that come in two separate tubes.  Each tube by itself won’t hold anything together, but combine them, and you have a super glue that will last for years.  By itself science creates an interest in training, but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will turn into what I mean by a clicker trainer.

Relationship
One of the other super glue “tubes” is relationship.  When I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket, I was curious.  The scientist in me wanted to explore what sounded like an intriguing approach to training.  There weren’t any other equine clicker trainers around to act as role models.  I didn’t go out to the barn because I had been watching youtube videos showing me the amazing relationships people were developing with their horses.  It was the science behind the training that made me take the first look.  I kept going because that early exploration into clicker training so enriched the relationship I had with Peregrine.

I started sharing my early forays into clicker training with my clients.  I remember asking one of them what she thought about clicker training.  She said out of all the things I had shown her, it was her favorite.  When I asked why, she said it was because of the relationship it created with her horse.

Repertoire
Two tubes aren’t enough to create clicker super glue.  There is another element that I think is critical and that’s repertoire.

I’ve known many people who were excited to try clicker training.  They introduced their horses to the target, and then they got stuck.  What do you do with it?  That was the question.

When I started with the clicker, Peregrine already knew a lot, but there were glitches and speed bumps throughout his training.  Always the physical issues he had with his stifles got in the way.  As a youngster, he was plagued by locking stifles.  The stifle joint is equivalent to our knee.  When Peregrine wanted to take a step forward, the tendons that ran over his knee cap wouldn’t always release.  He’d try to move, and one or both of his hind legs just wouldn’t bend.  He’s be stuck in place until they let go.  On the ground backing usually unlocked his joints.  Under saddle the solution he was more likely to find was a hard buck forward.

So you could say he was both very well trained, and at the same time very much a problem horse.  On a good day he was a dream to ride, but when his stifles were locking up, he was a nightmare.  His stifles had forced me to learn so much more about training, especially about ground work, just to be able to manage him safely on those bad days.  On the good days, that same training produced some simply beautiful work.

Twenty plus years ago when Peregrine and I were first exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging.  That was all they knew.  You lunged your horse to get the “bucks out” so your horse was safe to ride.

Lunging was often crudely done.  The horse ran around you on a circle, often out of balance, often pulling on your lunge line.  It wasn’t fun for either of you, so if someone said: “we’re going to use the clicker to do ground work”, of course people ran for the hills!  What was fun about ground work?

I’ve raised all my horses.  Peregrine was a horse I bred.  I raised his mother, and Robin came to me as a yearling, so ground work to me has always meant so much more than lunging.  Ground work is the teaching of connection.  Ground work means showing your horse how to get along with people.  It includes basic manners and leading skills, but it’s so much more than that.  For a young horse ground work includes long walks out to learn about the world.  It includes walking through mud puddles and over wooden bridges, meeting the cows that live in the next field over, encountering joggers and bicycle riders.  It means liberty training and in-hand work.  It means learning about your body and gaining control over your balance so you can go up and down hills safely and one day carry a rider in comfort.

All this meant that after Peregrine was routinely touching a target, I wasn’t stuck.  I had a rich and varied repertoire to work with.  I began by reshaping everything I had ever taught him with the clicker.  In so many places I could almost hear him say: “Oh THAT’S what you wanted!  Why didn’t you say so before?”

Everything I had already taught him – the clicker made better. I began by using it as a piggy back tool, meaning I simply added it in to familiar lessons.  I would ask Peregrine to rotate up into shoulder-in much as I had always asked him, and I would click and treat as he complied.  It made him more willing, so it took less explaining on my part to get the desired response.

Reworking our existing repertoire got us a solid foot in the clicker door.  It gave us lots to explore to get us started.  When I’m introducing people to clicker training, I want to help them see all the many possibilities that exist in ground work.  If you equate clicker training just with targeting, you may well get stuck.  Your horse is touching a target.  That was fun, but now what?

The “now what” is finding creative ways to use that targeting behavior.  And it’s recognizing that there are many other shaping methods you can use.

It’s remembering that at one point your horse didn’t know how to pick up his feet for cleaning or to stand quietly while you put on his halter.  Can you use the clicker to make those things better?  Of course you can!  While you are learning how clicker training works, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I like beginning with the “universals”, things we all do with our horses regardless of the type of riding we do.  We all need to clean our horse’s feet, groom them, halter them, and, if we ride, bridle and saddle them.  Below is a fun video from Monty Gwynne showing how a clicker-trained horse takes a bridle.  It’s a great example of turning the ordinary – something we all do on a regular basis – into something with real clicker flare.

Persistence
Science, relationship, repertoire are all important.  There’s one more component to our super glue and that’s persistence.

Training is not easy.  It is not straight forward.  It is certainly not a linear path where one success builds on another, and you never have another frustrating day ever again with your horse.

Training is about running up against a reaction you don’t understand and going off to have a proverbial cup of tea while you figure out a different way to approach the problem.  You have to have persistence to weather these little storms of confusion.  You have to have persistence to learn the handling skills that can make the difference between smooth-sailing success and a stormy ride.

You can understand the science inside and out, but your horse may still be turning his back and walking off the minute he sees you coming.  Persistence keeps you in the game, scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next. What do you change?  What do you add?

Persistence is what gets you to clinics and fills your bookshelves with training book after training book.  It is what gets you to tie a lead rope to your fence rail so you can practice, practice, practice your rope handling skills before you ever go near your horse.  And it is what takes you back out to the barn to see what your horse thinks of all the homework you’re doing on his behalf.

Put these four things together and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

Coming Next: Using Clicker Training Versus Being A Clicker Trainer

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

What Is Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 3 of 12

Labels
In the previous section I introduced you to Poco, an extremely ear-shy horse.  I ended that section by saying: “Poco wasn’t going to be helped by following old recipes, but by coming up with solutions that were tailored to his needs.  To do that we had to look more broadly at all that clicker training means.”

I put my first JOYFULL horses post up on January 2, 2016.  This far into the book may seem like an odd time to be asking such a basic question: what is clicker training?  But this question refers to so much more than just the surface definition of clicker training.

The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor.  In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant condition in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.  In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.

For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training.  What you do is so much more than clicker training.

I always throw this right back to them.  What would you call it?

I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck.  So many of the words that describe my work have been used, abused, and over-used.  Or they are too specific to a narrow area of horse training.

Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning.  You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership.  They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t.  Sigh.  Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.

When I first came across clicker training, it had no associations attached to it.  It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training.  I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around.  I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad.  It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.

For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal, but it has grown to have many more associations for me and for others.  If someone has seen clicker training applied badly, just the mention of the name may send them over the edge into a long diatribe against it.

I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label.  It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.

What Clicker Training Means To Me
I’ve experienced so much joy both in my own horses and in sharing the work with others that I don’t want to walk away from the label.  Instead I want to make it clearer what clicker training can be.  I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.
icky-what-is-clicker-training-3
My clicker-trained horses make me smile.  I hope how I handle them gives my horses the equine equivalent of those happy feelings.  That’s what I want to share with others.

In 1993 when I started experimenting with clicker training, I didn’t head out to the barn thinking – “I’m going to write a book about this.”  I just wanted to find a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was on stall rest.

There weren’t other people clicker training horses who I could turn to as role models or who could provide how-to instructions.  That meant I got to invent my own version of clicker training.

Defining Clicker Training
If you were to ask me to define clicker training, I would begin with Karen Pryor’s definition: clicker training is applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.

That gives us an operational definition, but clicker training is so much more than that.  I see it as a huge umbrella under which I can fit many different approaches to horse training.  For example, I studied for a time with Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM, so I fit her training under the umbrella.  I also put the work I learned from John Lyons under this same umbrella even though Lyons himself is not a clicker trainer.  These two training methods represent fundamentally different philosophies of horse training, but I was able to draw good things from both and adapt what I learned to fit under my clicker umbrella.

When I think of clicker training, I see a complete and very structured approach to training that results in well-mannered, happy horses.  I think of beautifully-balanced horses who are both having fun and are fun to be around.

Lucky with caption

That’s what I see.  But if all you’ve seen of clicker training is someone using it to teach simple tricks, you may see the fun – but not the balance.  Or maybe you’ve just seen someone who was fumbling around the edges of clicker training.  Your picture of clicker training may be a frustrated horse who is acting aggressively towards the handler.

Creating Stepping Stones
The more people who encounter clicker training the more different images of what it is there will be.  Clicker training will evolve and morph into something else.  That’s the nature of all creative work.  It is never static.  Clicker training, which seemed so revolutionary, so very much on the leading edge of training when I first encountered it, will become mainstream.  It will be the stepping stone to the next leading-edge idea.

We can’t yet know what that idea will be, not until it has had time to evolve.

This is the nature of the creative process.  Humans thrive on creativity.  This is part of play.  You are exploring two separate ideas and suddenly you see how you can put them together to create a completely original combination.  Both ideas by themselves were great.  Combined they are transforming.

So let’s look underneath the clicker training umbrella and see what’s really there.  Let’s also ask the question: are you a clicker trainer, or are you someone who just uses a clicker?  And what is the difference that that question is seeking to answer?

(And yes, I will get back to Poco and his ear-shy problem.)

Coming next: Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Continued: Part 6 – Just Tell me How You Feel

Listen to Your Horse
I’ve been describing a lesson I call “Capture the Saddle”.  It’s used to teach horses to line themselves up next to a mounting block.  In the previous section I talked about how you can turn this ordinary, everyday behavior into extraordinary “Grand Prix” level excellence.

Even before you have built the behavior to this point, you can use the mounting block as a measure of how your horse is feeling.  If your horse normally lines up well, but today he is swinging out or he’s walking off before you can get on, don’t assume that he’s “testing” you.  Instead ask him what’s wrong?  He knows standing at the mounting block leads to riding.  Why doesn’t he want to be ridden today?

Our horses work so hard to communicate with us.  We need to learn to be better listeners.  When we train them with play in our hearts, they will want to work with us.  If today they are saying “No” to riding, there’s a good reason.  It may not always be obvious, but we need to become good detectives and find the answer.

Detective Work
Ask most horse owners about the ancestral background of the horse, and they can tell you that horses are a prey species that evolved in open grasslands.  What they may not be as clear about are some of the consequences of that background.

Horses are herd animals because there is safety in numbers.  The flip side of this is there is danger in appearing to be vulnerable.  A lame or sick horse draws attention to itself and to the herd as a whole.  Show weakness, and you’ll be drawing in predators, so horses are very good at hiding their injuries.  They are protecting not just themselves, but their whole family.  It takes something acutely painful such as an abscess or a torn tendon to bring a horse hobbling to a stand still.  If they can hide an injury, they will.

So we have to be good detectives.  It may not be immediately obvious what is wrong, but if you keep looking, if you keep collecting data, you may be able to piece together enough clues to discover that the reason your horse fidgets at the mounting block has nothing to do with training and everything to do with the poorly fitting saddle that is hurting his back.

“Just Tell Me How You Feel”
Normally an angry or frightened horse gives lots of warning signals that he is about to explode.  If you punish those early warning signals in an attempt to stop a horse from biting, you can create that most dangerous of animals – a horse that gives no warning signals and goes straight to attacking when he has been pushed over threshold.

Just as horses can learn to withhold these signs of stress, they can learn the opposite.  Instead of punishing them for fidgeting and refusing to step up to the mounting block, if you show them instead that you will listen to them, they will become more comfortable about expressing how they feel.

Just as we can actively teach a process that leads to intelligent disobedience, we can teach our horses to express more openly how they are feeling.  When we listen to them in a context such as the mounting block, they begin to generalize the concept and offer us a truer picture of how they feel both physically and emotionally.

Peregrine for years bounced from one health crisis to another.  The  aftermath of a bout of Potomac Horse fever sent him on a downward health spiral that took several years to sort out.  During that time I was grateful for his grumpy faces.  I needed to know from one day to the next how he was feeling.

He was never punished for making faces.  The rule was he could make faces.  He just couldn’t act out on them.  Because I was listening, he never needed to.

Saying “No”
Sometimes the reason a horse says “No” to us, is not because there is something wrong with him, but because there is something that isn’t right with us.

This was driven home to me by a horse I met in a clinic many years ago.  The horse was on loan to one of the course participants.  She was a very clicker-experienced horse who was used to being handled by a skilled and very tactful owner.

Some horses are incredibly generous teachers.   They seem to enjoy working with beginners.  They are truly worth their weight in gold as they make up the heart of a good lesson string.  Round-bellied ponies who take care of their young riders are treasures.  Solid citizen campaigners who will take you over your first jump no matter how out of balance or how scared you are are the salt of the earth.

This mare was none of those things.  She was a finely-trained artist who expected a high level of expertise and delicate feel from all her human partners.  Unfortunately the woman who was working with her wasn’t able to live up to this mare’s exacting standards.

They started out well enough.  I had them walking around a “why would you leave me” circle of cones.  The mare started out by offering what she knew – beautifully balanced steps of shoulder-in on the circle.  The handler clicked, gave her a treat and then slid down the lead.  The mare wasn’t happy.  Something was wrong, but it wasn’t clear yet what it was.

They went through a couple more cycles.  The handler slid up the rope, and the mare walked off in shoulder-in, click and treat. Only now she was beginning to grab the lead before the handler could get more than a few inches down the rope.

“That’s as far as you’re going, little miss,” she was effectively saying.

We stopped, put the mare away and worked with the handler.  We had her slide down the lead while someone else held the snap end.  She felt soft enough to us.  There was nothing especially harsh or abrupt in the way she handled the lead.  We made a few adjustments to the details we did notice, and then we brought the mare back out.  Things were not much better.  Hmm.  We put her away again and went back to rope handling basics.

Our handler told us she had the same sort of issues with her own horse.  Clearly both horses were trying to tell her something.  This was a puzzle we needed to solve.

We brought the mare back out, but now we let her be the teacher.  The instructions were to wait until she showed her handler that she was ready to begin a new cycle.  Not until her horse cued her was she to slide down the lead.

They stood side by side.  The handler had her hands folded together about waist height.  That’s the cue for a behavior which I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. It is one of the very first lessons which I teach a horse.  The horse is clicked and reinforced when he keeps his nose pointing forward, away from the handler’s treat pouch.  Over time it evolves and branches off into many different behaviors.

 

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Robin shows us a beautiful baseline for “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” behavior.

The grown-ups are talking:

  • is the formation of ground tying which means, among others things, you can groom a horse while he stands at ease.
  •  transforms from a simple at-ease posture into the pilates pose.  This is a “grand prix” behavior.  The horse engages the same muscles he uses under saddle to collect himself for advanced performance. Only instead of doing this in motion, he is collecting at the halt.  It is wonderfully good for a horse’s overall muscle tone and can help maintain a horse’s back strength for riding.

The Conversation
This mare had a beautiful pilates pose which she normally was perfectly happy to offer.  Now she just stood next to this handler in a flat, at-ease stance.

The handler was waiting in grown-ups for she wasn’t sure what.  She let out her breath, and the mare posed.

“Slide down the lead,” I quietly instructed her.  The handler did as she was told.  There was no biting at her hand. Instead the mare flowed into a beautifully balanced shoulder-in.  Click and treat.

The handler waited again.  Again, she let out her breath, and again the horse posed.  “She’s telling you she’s ready for you to go on,” I told her handler.  “Let the pose be the cue to you that she’s ready for you to slide down the lead.”

The mare had been trying her best to tell us what was wrong.  When this handler slid down the rope, she held her breath.  That made her feel tighter, heavier.  It made her feel as though she was shouting at this very light horse.

Either we humans weren’t as sensitive as this mare, or the handler hadn’t been holding her breath when she practiced the rope handling with us.  But at least with this horse she was definitely holding her breath. Without meaning to she was applying too much pressure.  This horse didn’t like it and neither, apparently, did her own horse.  When we gave the mare a way to signal to us when things were more to her liking, we could not only see what was going on, we could solve the problem.

Fixing the “Fixers”
As I watched this handler more closely throughout the weekend, I saw lots of little ways in which she was keeping the pressure on.  It was so subtle, it was easy to miss.  The pressure wasn’t coming from her hand on the lead, it was coming from her expectations and to be blunt – her neediness.  She was a rescuer.  She wanted to “fix” this mare. But this mare didn’t see herself as broken.

When we gave the mare permission to lead the dance, she was able to show us all that she wasn’t broken.  Her handler needed to breath, smile and set aside the “poor horse” energy that was clogging up the relationship she brought to all the horses she worked with.  She saw horses as sad little infants in need of rescuing and fixing.

If you don’t see yourself as either a baby or broken, you don’t want someone mother henning you and trying to “fix” you.  There are definitely times when my horses aren’t feeling well, and they want to be cuddled.  And there are horses who have fallen on hard times and really do need to be rescued.  But that’s not forever.  At some point that event sits in their distant past, and they are no longer “broken”.  When we surround them with “fix it” energy, some of these horses can begin to feel restricted and annoyed.

It’s very much like a toddler who squirms out of his mother’s protective arms.  “I can do it myself!”  He’s beginning to exert his own independence.  “I can tie my own shoes!”  At some point you have to let him try.

At some point we have to stop treating our horses like infants in need of our constant care and supervision.  They are our partners in the best and truest sense of that word, and sometimes our partners get to take the lead.

This handler needed to play more.  She wanted to be a nurturer, and for some horses that is exactly what is needed.  But every good mother knows there is a place for play, as well.

When my horses wrap themselves around me in beautiful lateral work, they make me smile.  I laugh with them.  We are dancing together, and for both horses and humans there is no better of expression of Joy than that.

 

This article ends this section on “Cue Communication”. 

Coming Next in our list of “Ten Things You Should Know About Cues” is: Number 5: Cues Evolve. 

The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play.  That makes this a very important concept to explore.  

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com