Clinic with Alexandra Kurland 3

On Sunday morning, we went out onto the lawn for a T’ai Chi session. Alex took us through several exercises that help to find balance within your own body and exercises that help to extend the range of movement in your joints. We did hip rotations, shoulder rotations, located the four balance points in our feet, and learned an exercise that extends the range of movement in your neck. Everything is done by bone rotations, muscle doesn’t come into and as a consequence you can’t overdo these exercises as there is no force. It all felt very good and gentle, but the effects were powerful. We did the T’ai Chi walk, and focused on what the body needs to do when you want to walk a circle, which leg initiates a turn, what happens in your body when you halt and then walk backwards. All of this we can take back to our horses, because how we hold our own bodies and when we ask a horse to do something all affects the horse, both in groundwork and in the saddle.

Then we paired off to practise rope handling again, with the experienced participants helping the beginners. It was enlightening to be both handler and horse, to experience how much it matters how the rope is handled. I had already been the horse on Saturday when Alex wanted to demonstrate what a difference it makes whether you’re tense or relaxed. She asked me to hold the end of the rope between my hands, stretch my arms forward as the horse’s neck and close my eyes. I had to tense up and tell her when I could feel her sliding down the rope towards me. I closed my eyes and when I thought I felt something, I said “now”. Alex had her hand right under my hands. We repeated it, but this time I had to relax all my muscles. This time I could clearly feel her coming. I opened my eyes and saw that Alex had barely started to slide down the rope, and the belly of the rope was actually on the floor. This is why it is so important to always slide down the rope slowly, so that the horse can feel us coming and won’t get startled, especially if the horse is tense. I really like this way of rope handling, the slow sliding makes it feel polite and safe, whereas when someone just takes hold of the rope it feels abrupt and rude.

After lunch, we went back to the horses. This time Alex let us work on our own, and she gave us her feed back afterwards. All three beginner horses (and handlers) were showing how far they had come over the course of the weekend. Unfortunately, Máire and I had a long drive ahead, so we couldn’t stay to watch the advanced horses. Before we left, Alex asked us what was the most important thing we had learned that weekend. I had to think about that for a moment. It was impossible to pick a single thing. The whole weekend was a constant stream of information and experiences, and the amount of learning was incredible. I really came to understand not only the importance of the Foundation Lessons, but also the depth of them; there are many layers to the lessons. And although I wasn’t able to bring Cassie this weekend, I came away from the clinic with a much better idea of how to proceed with her.

Looking back, I realise that the clinic with Alex was a real paradigm shift for me. Clicker training is not something you can switch on and off; you can’t just take your horse out of the field, do a clicker training session and then put her back. It is not about how far you can take your horse in a traditional sense, it is about how you build your training plan. It is a mental attitude. What you think affects your body, which affects your horse. You have to be balanced yourself, in body and mind, before your horse can be balanced. As Alex says, everything is connected to everything else.  All I have to remember now is to take those treats out of my pockets before I throw my clothes in the washing machine!



Clinic with Alexandra Kurland 2

When we got up early on Saturday morning, the sky was blue and it was already warm. There was a stiff breeze, but not a cloud in sight and it looked like we had another beautiful day ahead of us. At the Centre we were greeted by our horses who were eagerly awaiting their breakfast. Minnie seemed more settled now and some of her restless energy had quieted down a bit, so I was able to groom her at liberty. She stayed with me and showed no sign of wanting to wander off and I was able to find my way back into that very easy and intuitive connection I have always had with Minnie. I was so impressed with how she had adjusted.  I took her away from home without any preparation, put her in a strange place where she had to cope being surrounded by other horses, being moved from place to place during the course of the day and lots of people coming and going. On top of that, Minnie had been out of work for a very long time indeed and she had no experience of clicker training other than some basic targeting and watching Cassie. I was asking a lot of her, but she rose to the challenge magnificently. She handled what would be a very stressful situation for her extremely well, and I felt really happy that she was there with me for the clinic.

We started off the day with more discussions. One of the advanced participants told us how she came to clicker training. Initially she was not interested. She had an extensive background in traditional horse training, had worked with horses for years and she felt that she was an experienced and competent horse woman, who didn’t need any of that nonsense. Then one day she was out riding with a friend whose horse, a Thoroughbred, suddenly lost the plot as highly strung horses sometimes do. As she was thinking about what she should do to help her friend, her friend lifted a rein and the horse plunged its’ head down and calmed itself. Impressed, she turned to her friend and said: “Wow, you have to teach me how to do that!” Later during the same ride, her friend’s horse spotted a terrifying, horse-eating object and had a big spook. She told us that she expected a big scene, but to her astonishment her friend said “Touch!”, the horse went forward and touched the object with its’ nose and they calmly rode on. That is how she came to clicker training. Initially she only wanted to learn those two things, to teach her horse to calm itself and to get it past a spooky object and she was still resistant to clicker training as a method. She said that it took her a while to realise that those two things were practical applications of two of the foundations lessons, head lowering and targeting, and that there was much more to that clicker training than she had thought.

There is a lot of resistance to clicker training. It is viewed as cheating, bribing the horse with food, only good for teaching tricks, or – think about this one – ok for dogs but not for horses. Why? Alex explained that it is because society on the whole is punitive and clicker training, with its use of positive reinforcement, is outside the cultural norm.  It is easier for us to criticise than to compliment.

We discussed component parts. In order to solve a puzzle successfully, you need to have all the necessary skills to work out the answer. Eg. to teach a horse to stand on a mat, he needs to understand and be able to follow light cues for forward and backward, otherwise you can’t set the horse up for success. For a first session to be successful the horse doesn’t need to actually step on the mat. Clicker training and the foundation lessons encourage dexterity of thinking; it makes you a better trainer, because you have to find the component parts of any behaviour you want to teach, and realise that components are always made up of their own component parts. Both horses and humans learn better in tiny increments.

When I worked with Minnie that afternoon, we continued with head lowering and worked on my skill of backing her in a square. Head lowering is not a forward motion, so anytime Minnie tried to rebalance herself by taking a step forward, or started to paw, I had to ask her to step back, using a rope handling technique Alex calls the T’ai Chi Wall. For the T’ai Chi Wall, you have one hand on the clip of the lead rope, one hand on the horse’s shoulder with tension on a short rope between. This acts like a trampoline, it bounces the energy back, without adding fuel to the fire. This is incredibly powerful, but it feels safe to the horse, because you use bone rotations, not muscle. It is important to empty all the tension out of your shoulders before you start.

Under Alex’ guidance, I began to understand how backing in a square with the T’ai Chi Wall helps a horse to understand the cue for head lowering from a single rein. With a lifting feel on the clip, the T’ai Chi Wall brings the head to the outside and that swings the hind quarters towards you. It also causes the head to drop down a fraction when it moves away to the off side. As soon as that happens you click and reinforce Then ask again. The horse will go down with the head to the off side. They will try to rebalance by taking a step forward or moving their head up. You move the horse back and ask for head down again. The horse will work out how to balance and bring the head to the near side without coming up – this gives maximum stretch to the spine. I had watched Minnie do this with Alex the day before, but now I could feel all the tiny shifts of balance myself, and I also felt how my own balance affected her. This is why the food delivery is so important; if you’re off-balance when you present the food, you unbalance your horse. If I kept my shoulders and hips aligned and presented the food in balance, Minnie’s  position was balanced as well.

Minnie and I had a good session. She stayed connected to me throughout in spite of lots of distractions on the beach and being sand-blasted by a very stiff breeze. I was very proud of her. My beautiful mare.

Clinic with Alexandra Kurland 1

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.

Coming together

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!

Small pony, big change!

I have often thought that having a foal would be good for Minnie and I seriously considered it. The question was, what would I do with a foal once it was here? There is no market for horses in Ireland anymore, so there is no point in breeding a horse with a view to sell it; the country is full of horses that nobody wants to buy.  I probably wouldn’t want to sell it anyway, even if I had a buyer. If Minnie had a foal I would keep it. But lovely as a foal is, I really don’t need one. I don’t need another riding horse, I already have Cassie, who is young and needs lots of time. I don’t think it’s right to breed a horse just to put it out to pasture. I also think that putting a mare in foal to a nice stallion is easier said than done; there is no way I’d bring Minnie to a place where she’d get all trussed up and hobbled before she is subjected to a stallion whether she likes him or not. And it can cost quite a bit of money too. So, no foal. Sorry Minnie.

Sometimes, when you get lucky, things fall into place and the right thing happens at the right time. Because even if I didn’t think a foal was a good idea, I still wanted to get Minnie a companion. And then Arrow came into our lives. When I put him in with Minnie and Cassie last Sunday, they reacted as I had expected. They paired up and made it clear to Arrow that he was the intruder and to expect no quarter if he crossed the line. Poor Arrow was clueless; having never seen another horse since he was weaned, he didn’t know where that line was and he had no idea how to behave. He didn’t seem to recognise the warning signals either and he made silly mistakes. Trying to get his nose in Cassie’s bucket…not clever. Cassie didn’t accept any excuses of youth and inexperience and taught Arrow a few hard lessons in which he collected several bum bites for his trespasses. But even that first day it was  clear that Minnie was intrigued by him.

The following day Minnie and Arrow had paired up and they spent a lot of time together. Cassie was not interested at all and kept her distance. Then, when I went to check them that evening, I noticed to my astonishment that Arrow was attempting to suckle and that instead of chasing him off, Minnie allowed it and seemed to enjoy it.

It made me feel sad; so many foals get weaned when they are far too young and many of them are put in a field without the company of other horses and as a result are thoroughly traumatized. That Arrow was traumatized by the experience became very clear over the past few days: he has reverted to foal behaviour and he stays close to Minnie at all times. And Minnie loves it. She looks after him and displays a tenderness towards him that I find very moving.

 I have never seen Minnie as relaxed as she is now. There is no need to put her in a stable when I take Cassie out. For the first time ever Minnie can stay in the field and she shows no sign of anxiety at all. She calmly watches me leave with Cassie and close the gate, and then she will turn around and move away, taking Arrow with her. It is such a relief to me. I actually didn’t realise until now how worried I’ve always been about Minnie and how she was always on my mind, even when I was working with Cassie. Now I can take Cassie out and I don’t have to worry or feel guilty about putting Minnie in the stable and as a result, I am far more relaxed with Cassie than before. All Minnie needed was this little pony.