Now that Minnie is happy to stay behind when I take Cassie out it has become clear how stressful Minnie’s anxiety used to be for all of us. For the first time I can work constructively with Cassie in the picadero, without either of us being distracted by Minnie whinnying in the background. I feel more relaxed and Cassie is much calmer and far more focussed and her attention is on me rather than back in the yard. The picadero has become a place of learning, instead of the place where I frequently attempted to fly a 500 kilo kite. Those days seem to be over and now we’re making progress. Which is just as well, because in two weeks time, Alexandra Kurland will be in Ireland to give a 3 day clinic at the Irish Clicker Centre , and Cassie and I are going!
I am of course a complete clicker novice, and it is not that easy to teach new skills while trying to learn them myself. Until I acquire muscle memories, coordination is perhaps not my strongest point. I have for instance never been able to learn how to juggle. And I found that managing the clicker, the treats, the target and the lead rope came rather close to juggling, unfortunately. There are skills you just can’t learn from a book. To really benefit from Alexandra’s teaching, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to have at least the very basics in place. Not just for me (although I would of course prefer not to look a complete fool), but also for Cassie’s confidence. Time for a couple of lessons.
Mary from the Irish Clicker Centre has come up twice to give lessons to Maíre and me. The first lesson was about 6 weeks ago and focussed on Alexandra’s foundation lessons and rope handling skills. The second lesson was last week and we refined what we learned in the first lesson and added some new exercises.
Apart from coordination, there were other things I struggled with. Clicker training is not about the clicker. The clicker is just a signal that says; ‘yes, that’s it, you got that right’, then the reward follows. There are lots of times when you need to have your hands free and it is useful to have a vocal bridge; usually a tongue cluck. I quickly found that I was useless. Well, I can cluck my tongue of course, but I can’t keep it up; after a couple of times my clucks deteriorate and start to sound like ‘twugg’, ‘fwlugg’ and ends up something like ‘blweh’. Very confusing for Cassie. On to the next option.
First I considered just saying ‘click’. That would work. Then I pictured myself riding Cassie out on the road. I already have a reputation with the locals for being half-cracked because I ride barefoot and bitless, so imagine the looks if I start saying ‘click’ to Cassie! Definitely not an option. I decided on using ‘ok’. It’s neutral, easy enough to always say it in the same tone of voice and Cassie picked it up immediately. It worked fine when I was alone with Cassie, but during the lesson with Mary last week, I suddenly realised how often people use ‘ok’ in a conversation and even though I used a specific tone of voice, I noticed Cassie’s ears flicking. I pictured myself at the clinic with lots of people saying ‘ok’ all day long and Cassie getting totally confused. ‘Ok’ was out. I went back to just using the clicker so I could think about it. I have a book on dressage at liberty and trick training in which the author explains how useful it is to use a different language for voice commands, because it ensures that the words you use don’t ever crop up in casual conversation. She uses French. I remembered it after the ‘ok’ fiasco. I think it’s an excellent idea. I don’t even have to brush up on my French; I can use Dutch.
Mary made a couple of short video clips last week. It was incredibly useful. It was interesting (even if it did make me cringe) to see myself and Cassie, because it showed me a couple of things I was not really aware of. What struck me most was that Cassie is absolutely not in control of her body. I always knew that Cassie is very crooked and not really aware of her legs, which is why I had been doing the Labyrinth with her, but seeing it on video makes a huge difference and I now actually think that the Labyrinth was too advanced for her. I watched her having trouble organising and balancing herself and I noticed how her hind legs don’t cross over when she’s on a turn. It really reinforced that I have to slow right down with Cassie and give her time to work out where to put her feet.
I’m really enjoying the clicker training. I work with Cassie in the picadero 3 or 4 days in row, then she gets a day off. I think the days off are very important to give her brain time to process and invariably she shows a lot of improvement after her day off. I keep the sessions very short and if she does something especially wonderful, I immediately end the session there and then, even if it’s only 5 minutes after we started. Little by little, we’re improving. It’s coming together. I have a better idea where we’re going, and Cassie is gradually becoming more fluid. It is changing our relationship too; she is eager to come with me. Yesterday, I moved the horses from the back fields to the front. Fresh, green fields. Lots of grass. It’s their favourite area, they much prefer it there. But today, when I walked up and called, Cassie came without hesitation. She lowered her head so I could put the head collar on and calmly walked beside me without a backward glance. Behind us, Minnie and Arrow continued grazing, unperturbed by Cassie’s leaving, confident that she would be back. Such peace!