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.
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:
1.) 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.
3.) 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.
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.
The 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.
Look 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:
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:
Now 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.
Less extreme is what happens when you adjust the temperature dial. Again you see the full adjustment to the left and right.
Obviously 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.
This is a little too dark.
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.
I 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:
Compare it now to the much darker original:
Icky 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.
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.
When 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.
When 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.
The 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.
2.) 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
This 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.
Once 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.
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.
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!
Written by: Alexandra Kurland The Clicker Center Copyright 2014
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