Thank YOU!

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

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

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

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

Remembering Magnat

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

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

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnat canter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

JOY Full Horses: Pt. 1 Ch. 6: Being PLAY Full

Play Full
The dictionary would tell me that I should write this as playful.  But just as Panksepp wants to emphasize that when he writes PLAY in capitals he is speaking of one of the seven fundamental affective systems, I want to remind you that playful means we are full of play.

The six properties of PLAY which I wrote about in the previous section remind us why being PLAY FULL with our horses is important.  Being full of play helps us find creative solutions to training problems.  It keeps us in a relaxed mental state that makes it easy to reach for the positive solutions instead fear-based corrections.  Play creates a safety net for our horses.  Especially when you are working with difficult or potentially dangerous situations, being in a play state helps you find horse-friendly solutions.

Playing with Horses
But how do you play with a horse?  After all safety always comes first. I can’t play with the Icelandics in the same way that they play with one another.

sindri Fengur rough play

Horses at play

At a recent clinic I was sitting in the host’s living room. Her three dogs were having a rough and tumble play session.  It looked for all the world like a miniature version of the Iceys.  There were the same mock bites, the same leaps up into the air.

My host walked boldly through this maelstrom bringing me a cup of tea!  If they had miscalculated and bumped her leg, the worst that would have happened was the tea would have been spilled on her carpet.

Cindy with her dogs

Dogs at play

If the Iceys miscalculate, I could end up in a full-body cast. So what is the answer? How can I safely play with my horses?

Playing with Behavior
Without a great deal of skill and experience, I may not be able to engage with my horses via their natural play behaviors, but I can play via the behaviors that I teach them.  That’s the beauty of clicker training.  If I am in a state of play as I teach new behaviors to my horses, they will turn those behaviors around and use them as a way to play with me.

Even seemingly hard behaviors can function in this way.  Playing a Beethoven concerto can seem like either an onerous task imposed by your teachers or the greatest joy in your life.

How a behavior is perceived is more important than what it is. Our senior horse Magnat loved to piaffe.  Give him the least hint that piaffe might be on the table, and he would be offering it with gusto.  He also loved to retrieve.  At the start of a training session in the arena, he would insist on being turned loose so he could retrieve any dropped objects that might have been left in the arena by others.

Magnat belonged to Ann Edie.  Ann is blind.  Many know her through her other horse, Panda, the mini she uses as her guide.

Panda great walk

It may look like a casual walk, but Panda is guiding her blind handler.

For years Ann and I boarded our horse together in a large lesson barn.  The Iceys and Magnat belong to her.

Playing with Play
Because Ann is blind, it was very useful to her to let Magnat clean up the arena at the start of every session.  She was handed gloves, riding crops, Kleenex, cones.  If there was nothing else to retrieve, he even brought her larger than normal pieces of the shavings that made up the arena footing.

Piaffe and retrieving are two very different kinds of behaviors.  Retrieving was taught in an afternoon.  Piaffe took many months of structured work, but for Magnat they were clearly both regarded as play.  They were taught with laughter and they brought laughter.

CTFYH cover with caption1

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 7: Training Playfully Mixed with a Little Science

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

Futsal for Horses

Fred Icky  futsal article

There’s a connection between the horse on the left who is learning to step onto a mat and the horse on the right who is learning to piaffe. To find out what they are – read on.

Piaffe Discovered
One of the highlights of the 2014 travel season was a trip north to visit with Monty Gwynne and her beautiful Andalusian, Icaro – or Icky as he is called in the barn.

Monty has been building the components of piaffe, and during my visit all the elements fell into place for Icky to produce his first, clean steps of piaffe. When you reach this milestone, that is always a cause for celebration and celebrate we did.  Icky certainly must have thought Christmas had come early given all the treats he was receiving.

Icky’s success provides me the perfect way to talk about two very different types of skills that are needed with horses.  Whether you are aiming for piaffe or just a simple walk down a country lane you need to develop both.

Shannon whisper country lane

Deep Practice
In my recent post, “In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice” (Nov. 2014), I wrote about these two types of skill and the techniques used to develop them.  These are the techniques described by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Talent Code.

The basic premise of Coyle’s book is that people are not born superstars.  There is not a genetic code that says you will grow up to be a world class musician, an Olympic-level rider, a rocket scientist, a basketball superstar.  Not everyone who is over seven feet tall becomes an NBA player.  So what is it that makes someone stand out in a crowd?  Where does talent come from?

To answer this question Daniel Coyle visited what he refers to as talent hotspots, places that were consistently producing people of outstanding talent.  Across a wide variety of activities – both athletic and otherwise – he saw many similarities in the coaching practices.  What he distilled from his travels was a process that he refers to as Deep Practice.

There are three tiers to Deep Practice:

3 layer square cake1.) Look at the task as a whole.  For horses I refer to this as find a look that pleases your eye.  You have to have some sense of what you want before you can go after it.

2.) Chunk things down. In clicker training we learn that for every step you design, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller step that you can break something down into.  We want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until we find a step where we can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If we find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, “no” answers, the slice we’re looking at is still too large.

pocket watch 33.) Play with time.  Whether you are a musician, a dancer, a painter, a basketball player, a rider – good technique matters.  When you perform a task at normal speeds, it’s easy to gloss over little mistakes.  When we walk across a room, we don’t pay attention to HOW we walk.  We just walk across a room.  At clinics I slow people down through a series of body awareness exercises.  Now they are paying attention, and through that deliberate focus, they learn about their own balance.  They can notice the tiny bobbles that occur as they initiate movement.  They can make adjustments, get feedback, try again, and through this process perfect their own balance.

When you work slowly you are observing, evaluating, adjusting your own performance.  You are becoming your own coach.  I wrote in detail about this in the previous post (“In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice”; published on theclickercenterblog.com Nov. 16, 2014).  I will refer you to that post for more on the details of Deep Practice.

Technical Skill and Decision Making Expertise
The three tiers of Deep Practice develop technical skills – how you swing a tennis racquet, how you control your breath while singing, how you slide down a lead rope to cue your horse.  That’s one part of the Talent Code process.  The other important skill revolves around the ability to make quick decisions and to respond effectively to the unexpected.  For what are hopefully obvious reasons this later skill is of particular importance when working with horses.

Daniel Coyle illustrated this point by describing what he found when he went to Brazil’s soccer camps. Brazil has become the country to beat in world class soccer.  Coyle wanted to know why.  What were Brazilian coaches doing to produce so many top players?  The answer he discovered was the players grew up playing futsal.

Think of tennis played on a full sized court and now shrink that court down to the size of a ping pong table.  The game speeds up.  With shorter distances to travel the number of volleys per minute increases.

Now translate that to soccer.  Instead of practicing on a huge soccer field, the game is played out in an area that is not much bigger than a basketball court.  This means that players are in much closer contact with one another. During the course of a game they have hundreds more opportunities to make contact with the ball.  In futsal players touch the ball 600% more than they do in regular soccer.  600% is a powerful magnifier.

Imagine yourself back in school, out on the soccer field.  Instead of kicking the ball and seeing it bounce away from you across the huge expanse of a regulation-sized soccer field, now you kick the ball and it goes just a couple of feet before it encounters another player.  In seconds you are right back in the midst of a play.  You are having to make quick decisions over and over again.  When you do play on a regulation-size field, you are so much sharper and more aware of where everyone is on the field.  Your footwork is faster and you aren’t afraid of close contact.

Futsal for Horses
When I read The Talent Code, I resonated with his description of Deep Practice.  Working on technique through the three-tiered process was so very familiar to me.  This is how I have taught myself new skills, and it is how I teach others in clinics and private coaching.  I also resonated with Futsal.  We have our own version of this game.  And surprisingly it sits in one of the foundation lessons: teaching a horse to stand on a mat.

But before I explain how mat work becomes our version of Futsal, let me first describe piaffe.  Most of you have probably seen video of horses in paiffe, the very collected and suspended movement in which the horse appears to trot in place.

Nuno Olivievro piaffe

Nuno Oliviero, one of the great riding masters of the 20th century.

Done well, it is one of the most beautiful of the equestrian arts.  Done well, it can also be wonderfully therapeutic for the horse.  We won’t go into the done badly end of the spectrum.  Done badly everything and anything can become a torturous mess.

No one sets out to piaffe badly.  If piaffe is your goal, you are truly in search of excellence, so we’ll focus on that end of the spectrum and how you get there.

The Four Points on the Bottom of Your Feet
In clinics I guide people through a series of awareness exercises.  We begin with the head and the neck and work our way down to the feet to an exercise I refer to as: “The four points on the bottom of your feet”.  It’s a Feldenkrais exercise I learned years ago from Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM.  It has stayed in repertoire because it is such a simple and yet powerful exercise.

The four points are: inside toe, inside heel, outside toe, outside heel.  As people roll from point to point – inside toe across to outside toe, back to outside heel, to inside heel and back again to inside toe, etc. – I instruct them to observe how they shift their balance from one part of their foot to another.  How do they send and receive their weight?

Stand up for a moment and try it.  Roll around the four points on the bottom of your feet.  How do you send and receive the weight changes?  How do shift from foot to foot? From side to side? From front to back?

And how does this relate to piaffe?

The weight shifts are very similar to the weight shifts we are asking of the horse.  We are asking the horse to shift his balance forward and then back again.  Trot, but transform your energy into upward suspension not forward propulsion.  So it is suspend forward and up and then cycle the energy back around so your balance rocks back and resets you for the next diagonal pair.  Piaffe is very much a sending and receiving of energy.  It is a balancing act for both the horse and the handler.

And it isn’t just physical balance that I’m referring to here.  There is emotional balance to be considered as well.  And then there is the balance between all the quick decisions the handler needs to make.  You have to be a nimble thinker to keep the rhythm of piaffe from falling apart.

Here’s a good way to think of this.  This is the original photo of Icky which I pulled from a short video clip.  I’m working him in hand, and he has just found the balance shift that has allowed him to mobilize into piaffe.
icky piaffe for futsal article 1The photo was a little dark so I decided to use the color adjustment feature that was available to me in the editing program I was using.

Icky piaffe + photo adjust 1Look at all the choices I have, all the dials I can play with.  On my laptop I can only work one at a time, so I begin at the top and play with the level of exposure.  If I move the dial all the way to the left, this is what I’ll get:

icky piaffe for futsal article 2
This is obviously way too dark.  I’ve swung the pendulum too far in one direction, so let me see what happens if I swing the pendulum in the opposite direction:

icky piaffe for futsal article low exposureNow the colour is too washed out.  I’ve gone too far to the right.  But by swinging the dial to both ends of the spectrum, I have learned what happens when I adjust the exposure.

Each element I can adjust gives me a different effect.  Here’s what happens when I adjust for contrast.  All the way to the left washes out the photos .  All the way to the right makes it so dark you can’t even make out the image.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shotsLess extreme is what happens when you adjust the temperature dial.  Again you see the full adjustment to the left and right.

icky piaffe temp 2 shotsObviously I don’t want the extremes for any of these effects, so I begin to play with the dials.  Beginning with the exposure level, I move the dial back and forth around the original point until I find a spot that pleases my eye.
icky piaffe little exposure

This is a little too dark.

Icky piaffe little exposure rgtThis seems better.

Now what happens when I keep that adjustment and nudge the contrast dial back and forth?  The effect is subtle, and there are things I like about both changes, but a decision must be made. I choose to move the dial to the left.  If I were to do this again, I might make a slightly different choice.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shots for futsalI continue on through each of the selections, nudging the dial left and right, seeing the effect it has and then making a selection.  Each choice is effected by all the others.  I go back and forth between effects, moving the dial left and right for each one until I settle on the final combination which produces this image:
Icky piaffe! color adjustedCompare it now to the much darker original:

Icky piaffe! original for futsalIcky stands out from the wall making it much easier to see what he is doing. If I were creating a photo for a different purpose, I might choose to stay with the softer, more muted tones of the original, but for this purpose, for today, the top photo is the one I like.

All these little adjustments make a good analogy for what I was doing in real time to help Icky find this new balance.  First, Monty had prepared him well.  She taught him the individual components that are needed for piaffe.  Think of it like teaching him how to respond to each of the color adjustment dials.  We can see how he responds to each one.  Now it is time to combine them to create the whole picture.

If you had asked me at the time what I was doing, I would not have been able to answer in any meaningful way.  The conversation that was occurring between Icky and myself was so very complex and layered.  Let’s go back to the analogy of the colour dials.  Imagine, if instead of working on my laptop where I am limited by being able to perform just one operation at a time, I were working at a console where I could move many dials at once.  It would be more like playing a piano where many notes can be played together.  Now I can slide the controls for exposure, contrast and temperature all at the same time.  I can adjust one to the left and the other to the right.

Now imagine that it isn’t a computer responding mechanically to my adjustments, but a horse who is listening,processing and responding to the multiple layers of my requests.  Shift your balance forward, now catch it and cycle it back so you are ready with your next diagonal pair.  In other words, nudge the dial to the left and then immediately back to the right.  Do all this while I have another conversation layered on top of that about the way you are lifting out of the base of your neck.  Add another conversation about the height at which I receive the point of contact, and another on the telescoping of your poll.

That’s piaffe.  It is made up of one quick decision after another.  Linger too long deciding if you like the result of the previous request, and you will interrupt the balance and the flow of the weight exchanges.  Piaffe is for nimble thinkers – both human and equine.

Handlers don’t start out with this ability.  It isn’t a talent you’re born with.  It’s something you learn. That’s also true for the horses.  They have to learn how to process and respond to quick exchanges of what can at first seem like conflicting cues.

Deep Practice and Mat Work
That brings us back around to Deep Practice techniques and mat work.  There are six foundation lessons that help introduce both you and your horse to clicker training.  I should really say there are five foundation lessons, and the sixth – standing on a mat – serves more as an assessment to see if you have understood well what the other lessons are teaching.  It also helps develop the nimble thinking handling horses requires.

When confronted for the first time with a doormat-sized piece of plywood or carpeting, most horses will avoid it.  If you lead them casually along so that the mat is in their direct path, they will step over it, or around it, but they won’t step directly on it.  Unknown surfaces could be covering holes that can break a leg.

If you stop the horse in front of the mat and then ask him to step forward just one stride so his front foot lands on the mat, he’ll over-stride.  He’ll push past you or he’ll sidle to the side so again he can avoid landing on the mat.

Natalie Harrison mat 2 shots for futsal

For a novice handler this can turn into a bit of a mess.  So let’s take a step back and apply both the rules of good shaping and the techniques of Deep Practice.

The rules of shaping tell us that if you are encountering a problem in the training, the solution won’t be found within that level.

It is Albert Einstein who is commonly credited with the brilliant quote:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  If you google this, you will find others who also get the attribution, but whoever said it for the first time, said a very wise thing indeed – especially when it comes to training horses.

When I was first learning about horse training, I saw many who would fit this definition of insanity.  I remember one rider in particular who used to have a major fight every night with her horse.  She would send him toward a fence. He would refuse. She would bring him back through a tight circle, and drive him at the fence again.  He would refuse – again.  She would get mad and strike him around the head.  He would finally crow hop over the fence.  Did that solve the problem and turn him into a reliable jumper?  No.  The next night the drama would play out all over again.  True insanity.

bread for futsal articleWhen you encounter a problem in your training, the best way forward is to break the lesson down into smaller steps.  Keep thin slicing and thin slicing until you find a request that gets a consistent yes answer.

The techniques of Deep Practice also tell us to break each lesson down into small steps.

Instead of beginning with mat work, we’re going to go back several more steps.  We’ll end up using simpler behaviors, so we can work on the handler’s basic skills.

In the ideal world here is what the learning process would be:

1.) The handler watches a video of a horse with great mat manners.  The horse walks with the handler to the mat.

natalie Harrison 2 shots walk togWhen he gets to the mat, he knows what to do.  He steps onto the mat and stops squarely in the middle with both front feet. He waits quietly on the mat, and then walks off readily when his handler asks him to do so.

natalie harrison on mat futsalThe handler watches several other video.  One shows the teaching process that was used to create these great manners.  She also watches several videos in which the mat was used as a conditioned reinforcer.   She’s beginning to understand the many reasons for teaching this particular behavior.  Inspired she heads out to the barn to work with her horse.

coronel crowding lisa futsal2.) The handler sets out a plywood mat about the size of a door mat.  She brings her horse to the mat.  On the first pass her horse crowds her, pushing her to the side so he can step around the mat.  She’s late in noticing his concern, and she feels clumsy when she asks him to stop and back up to move his shoulder out of her space.  He responds slowly to her cue to back.  His feet feel as though they are stuck in cement.  When he does finally back up, he’s crooked, and he ends up several steps away from the mat.  The whole process feels very awkward and clumsy.

3.) She’s “tested the water”. She knows her horse isn’t really ready for this lesson.  She puts him away while she comes up with a better training plan.  When she watched the videos showing how the mat was introduced, the lesson included setting up a triangular runway of cones that funneled the horse towards the mat.  In the “runway” the handler reinforced the horse for taking only one step forward or back at a time.

Vt mat funnel for futsal

Taken from Lesson 18: Loopy Training in the Click That Teaches DVD lesson series. This video clip is also included in the on-line course.

When she watched the video the first time, she didn’t understand the importance of this step.  She went directly to the mat, but now she understands that the handler was building the skills she would need her horse to understand once they were at the mat.  She needed to be able to ask for one small step at a time to help her horse find the mat.

Now that she’s “tested the waters”, so to speak, by bringing her horse up to the mat, she understands that neither of them have the underlying skills to make this a “smooth sailing” lesson.  If she continues as she is without the necessary preparation in place, she’s likely to get a lot of resistance.  Her horse may even start pawing at the mat, something she knows from others is a common problem.  The horse on the video pawed briefly, but then stopped as he was reinforced for a shift in balance.  This looked easy on the video, but she now sees she needs to work on her own skills before going back to her horse.  She feels clumsy handling the lead which makes it hard to ask for the quick changes in direction that mat work requires.

It’s clear now that she needs two things: a.) she needs to sharpen her own handling skills; and b.) she needs to teach her horse to shift his weight promptly forward and back one small step at a time. It’s clear he needs more work on these component behaviors.  That’s best done first without the mat being in the picture.

4.) The handler begins by reviewing her basic skills.  She is using Deep Practice techniques.  She videotapes herself as she pantomimes asking her horse to back up and come forward.  When she plays back her first attempts, she notices how stiff she is.  The handler on the video was very smooth.  When she turned her upper body, her feet moved as well.  Her body language complemented perfectly what she was asking for down the lead.

Our handler makes use of the body awareness exercises that are taught in conjunction with the rope handling skills.  She practices the “Four points on the bottom of your feet” exercise and the “T’ai Chi Walk” that goes along with.

AK tai chi walk futsal

Alexandra Kurland demonstrating the T’ai Chi Walk: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

As she returns to these exercises over a period of several days, she notices changes in her balance.  And during the day she also notices that she is less tired when she has to stand for any period of time.  That’s an unexpected bonus from her Deep Practice exercises.  It motivates her to keep exploring this work.  She’s eager to apply what she’s learning about her own balance to her horse.  She sees that many of the places where she at first felt stiff or stuck are also places where she feels resistance in him.  Already she’s understanding better what she needs to do in order to help him, and interestingly enough, teaching him about mats will be an important part of the process.

With her feeling of growing balance and coordination, she begins to work directly with a lead.  She hangs her halter from the top of a door and follows a video that shows her how to slide down a lead.  It takes her through the process in very thin slices.  She feels very awkward at first.  She thought she knew how to handle a lead rope!

ak halter on door futsal

Alexandra Kurland explaining the details of good rope handling techniques: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

Because she’s on her own, she feels very free to slow everything down.  Through this process she discovers lots of little details that she is sure will make a difference to her horse.  When she encounters a step that feels particularly awkward, she drops the lead and pantomimes the action, working in slow motion to understand what needs to be done.  Outside it’s raining.  It’s a cold, miserable day.  She’s quite happy to be inside the house, staying warm and dry.  The best part is she can still work on her horse’s training by working on herself.

When the rope handling begins to feel second nature, she enlists a helper to be her “horse”.  She slides down the lead and gets feedback from her friend.  She makes adjustments as needed.

Ak rope close up with Sue futsal

Close up details of the rope handling: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

At first, her friend remains passive, which lets her continue to work on her basic skills.  When they have ironed out any glitches they find, they watch the runway lesson together and then go out and try it, taking turns playing the role of the horse.  At first, she asks her friend to be an easy, cooperative  “horse”.  They work out any hiccups in the timing and the rope handling.  They check on the active use of the food delivery.  And then her friend becomes more “real life”.  Instead of walking straight onto the mat, she swerves to the side, pushing into the handler.  Given this type of behavior, decisions need to be made faster.  The handler doesn’t want to be reactive, waiting for things to go wrong before asking for the counter move.  She wants to be there ahead of any problems, asking her “horse” for what she wants her TO DO, instead of reacting to unwanted behavior.

After several rounds of this pantomime, she feels much more confident in her handling skills, and she has a much clearer understanding of the lesson. Because she has gone through all these steps, she now knows what she will be asking her horse to do and why.

5.) She reintroduces her horse to the mat.  This time she takes him through all the steps that she missed the first time around.  She begins without the mat, by reviewing his basic leading skills.  She finds places where he was not understanding clearly what she wanted, but with her freshly honed skills, he learns much more quickly, and she is able to help him out more.

They progress quickly together to the point where she feels as though she is ready to reintroduce the mat.  She sets up a runway so she can ask for one step only at a time.  Asking him to move slowly reveals his balance issues which she can now help him with. Her timing is much better and she is able to make quick adjustments so her focus remains on constructing new behaviors, not blocking unwanted ones.

fred in funnel futsalThis time when she releases her horse to the mat, instead of pushing past her, he steps right onto it.  The lesson could not be more different from that first experience!  She is learning how to ask for quick changes of direction forward and back.  He in turn has become wonderfully responsive.  When they get in close to the mat, he can’t really see where it is, so he’s come to rely on her subtle cues to help him find it.  Instead of resenting all the intervention, he’s enjoying the high rates of reinforcement they produce.

fred near mat futsal articleOnce he’s on the mat, he’s able to settle, so in between going forward and going back is a quiet middle where he is standing beautifully on the mat.

nikita on mat futsal

Mat manners done well can be developed into high art.

Connecting Up The Dots: The link between Mats and Piaffe

Can you see now the link between mat work and piaffe?  Remember how I described piaffe: it is built out of a series of quick decisions. The skills they are learning together in the runway and using at the mat will carry forward to create for them this most beautiful of the equine arts.

That’s still a long way off.  For now all you may think you are doing is getting your horse to stand on a mat.  Piaffe may not even be on your radar.  Your performance goals are for back country riding, or jumping, or pleasure riding – not dressage, but you can still appreciate the need for quick decisions and equally quick responses.  You can see many places where that ability to ask for subtle balance shifts will come in handy.  And who knows, someday you may decide you want to try your hand at teaching piaffe.  What a surprise it will be when you discover that you have already built the necessary components!

Magnifying Your Practice Time
Mat work is the equine version of Futsal.  The Brazilian soccer players magnify the effectiveness of their practice time by shrinking the size of their playing field.  With the horses we use the runway and the mat for a similar purpose.

Handling horses, especially handling them when they are upset and pushing through you, requires rapid-fire decisions.

meranero 3 shots for futsal

A sudden spook gives my rope handling a good test.

A beginner who is still fumbling over the handling of her equipment will find that she’s always behind.  She’s always reacting to her horse’s unwanted behavior, not building what she wants.  Even if she’s using clicks and treats, she’s really just blocking what she doesn’t want.

The mat work helps her stay ahead of her horse so she can ask for what she would like him TO DO.  She’s not waiting for things to go wrong and then correcting them.  She sees how he’s responding, and she’s ready with the next request.  She’s making faster, better decisions.  She is gaining the nimble thinking that not only keeps her safer, but also builds great relationships.  Horses feel confident around confident handlers.

She spent a couple rainy days inside working on her handling skills and what is the result?  She and her horse are gaining superstar skills.  They are both loving the training and loving each other.  What could be better than that!

Harrison hug great close up July 2014

Natalie Zielinsky with her wonderful Harrison

Written by: Alexandra Kurland   The Clicker Center  Copyright 2014

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