Last Thursday morning, I got up early to get organised to go to the Irish Clicker Centre in Tralee for the clinic with Alexandra Kurland. Máire was coming around noon with Ben and Rosie, who was going to stay with Minnie and Arrow for the days that we’d be away, and I had lots to do before then. The list of things to bring when travelling with a horse for a few days is endless, and I also wanted to move the horses into the back fields, where it would be easier for my husband and daughter to look after them. So I had a busy morning piling up Cassie’s tack and buckets and feed and filling haynets and then I moved the electric fence, and when my jobs were all done I went to get Cassie to give her a nice groom and get her ready for the journey. Except that there wasn’t going to be a journey for her because she came out bobbing her head with every step. She was lame. I anxiously felt her leg, but there was no heat. Well, that was a relief anyway. I lifted her foot and tapped it. She flinched, so the problem was obviously in her hoof. Great! Máire arrived and we had a look at Cassie together, but there was no getting away from the fact that I couldn’t bring her to the clinic. So I brought Cassie back to the field, delighted my husband with the news that he had to look after a lame horse and took Minnie out. By now it really was time to go, so all I had time for was to put travelling wraps on her legs and then I led her into the horse-box and we were off.
The journey down to Tralee was long and hot – after weeks of unseasonably cold weather summer had finally arrived – and there were lots of road works that held us up. I was anxious about Minnie, who doesn’t like being confined at the best of times, and when we checked on them she was all lathered up, but otherwise she travelled well. When we arrived, Minnie and Ben were given time to relax in a field, before we settled them in the arena where they would be staying for the nights during the clinic. There were 6 horses in total for the clinic and the other horses were kept in pens around the arena. This was hard for Ben, who found himself surrounded by geldings who were all obviously out to get Minnie, his mare! There was a lot of squealing and striking with front legs, and Ben made sure to keep his body at all times between Minnie and his adversaries.
After settling the horses, Máire and I went to meet Alexandra and the other participants and observers over dinner. Alex talked for a while about how she likes to run the clinics. She likes to use the first day for collecting information, finding the questions. The second day is for finding answers and teaching, and the last day is for looking at the improvement and how to go forward after the clinic. Then she asked all of us what we wanted from the clinic. When it was my turn, I explained that I had put a lot of thought into what I wanted from the clinic, but for a different horse. That Cassie was lame, and that I was here now with Minnie, whom I hadn’t done any work at all with for months, because I had been so busy working with Cassie to get her ready for the clinic. That Minnie’s only experience of clicker training was basic targeting. I explained Minnie’s background and that what I wanted most for Minnie was to teach her to carry herself better, so that she has a chance to stay sound and pain-free. Alex told me not to worry about not being there with Cassie. “Sometimes these things happen for a reason and it may well be that you are here with the horse that you need to be here with”.
That was nice, because it made me feel a bit less apprehensive of being there with a horse who hasn’t done any of the foundation lessons, but it also illustrated Alex’s attitude. She takes the horses as they come, and works on the issues they present, because that is the lesson they need to work on, without pushing them further then what they are ready for and that also goes for their handlers!
That first evening we talked until quite late, and that set the tone for the whole clinic. Alex doesn’t believe in working 9 to 5; we started early and finished late, with wide ranging discussions continuing during meal times and back to practical sessions afterwards. The first morning, Friday, we started with a theorethical discussion, and then we went to the horses. Of the 6 horses there, 3 were very advanced with experienced trainers, and we started with these. I enjoyed watching these horses in self collection at liberty, but it also made me nervous again, because I was well aware what a novice I am and Minnie had been very unsettled when I groomed her earlier. I also felt very self-consious, because of the video camera’s that were rolling, but when it was my and Minnie’s turn, I forgot about them, because Alex put us at ease very quickly.
She asked me to walk around with Minnie and complimented Minnie on handling the situation well, in spite of being such a nervous horse. At this stage Ben was in a pen at the bottom of the arena, and Alex decided that it would be easier for Minnie to work at that end, so she could see Ben. She started off by holding up a target for Minnie to touch, which she did immediately, and then she used the target to bring Minnie’s head down. Head lowering is a good exercise to calm down nervous or anxious horses, which is why it is one of Alex’s foundation lessons, but Alex explained that it is also one of the hardest lessons when a horse is really anxious, because a nervous horse brings it’s head up so it can check its environment for dangers and when we ask it to bring its head down it can’t see.
We spent some time letting Minnie get used to touching a target near ground level, for which she was heavily reinforced and as an extra reward I walked Minnie around so she could move her legs, which is calming for her. Then Alex took over, and she began to teach Minnie to lower her head from upward pressure on the lead rope. As head lowering is not a forward motion, she backed Minnie in a square, until she got the slightest downward motion from Minnie’s head, then she released and clicked and reinforced. It took quite a while for Minnie to bring her head down, not because she didn’t get it, but because there was a lot going on in her environment. It was windy. There were people and horses on the beach, children, boats. But she came down. And when she did, she did it beautifully.
Alex worked with Minnie for quite a long time. She explained that when horses are nervous, it is important to make sure that the lesson is really understood. Otherwise you are going to leave the horse with more questions, and you’re setting both yourself and the horse up for more problems the next time you go into the arena.
While I watched Alex working with the 3 novice horses, Minnie, Ben and Moffet, a 4 year old cob who was also only just starting with clicker training, I realised that the foundation lessons are about much more. Minnie’s lesson was about head lowering, Ben’s lesson was about food delivery and Moffet’s was about backing. But all these lessons were also about balance and all 3 horses came out of their first session looking better. With Minnie, I could see how she was gradually finding a better way to hold herself and how she was making tiny adjustments that made a real difference in the way she looked. It was amazing.