Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #3

The third and final day of the clinic was a rainy one. This didn't affect the learning possibilities in the least. Alex actually likes rainy days because it means we can spend more time on the people. Since it is the people who work with the horses, they need to learn it first. The facility which hosted the clinic does have an indoor arena so that was an option and one horse and handler pair did take advantage of that. The rest of us worked our horses in the stalls. Percy has never been in an indoor and this one was not attached to the barn but a short walk up the hill...further than I had taken him. He had settled in so beautifully by this point that I did not want to throw anything newly stressful into the situation. I wanted him to get on the trailer that afternoon thinking "well, that wasn't so bad- actually it was kind of fun!". This way, he does not need to fear or worry about where he is going the next time I ask him to get on the trailer.

Another area in which Alex has done amazing work is Microshaping...or Pony Pilates. She has a wonderful DVD on the topic which is such fun to watch and study- all her DVDs and books can be purchased at her Clicker Center website . Through microshaping, or shaping movements in tiny little increments, one can actually teach horses to activate individual muscle groups. I had given this a try with Percy earlier in the year, and once again, he caught on quickly and took it to such an extreme that I dropped it because I didn't know where to go next. I had focused on his pectoral muscles in his chest and in no time, he would stand and make those little pec muscles jump like a body builder trying to impress. When I tried to go on to other areas of his body, I had a hard time being in two places at once and also felt I needed some guidance as to where I should be focusing. Since we had decided to stay in the stall that rainy Sunday, I showed Alex what we had and asked for her help in where to go next.

I was very glad that I hadn't done more with him because she was concerned about his getting jammed in his spine, putting as much "oomph" into these little muscle contractions as he was. She asked him to target her hand with his chin, effectively bringing his chin back toward his chest. I say TOWARD, not TO. This was a full body movement for him, rocking onto his hind end a bit, lifting his back, and stretching at the poll. Alex made it look as easy as falling off a log. I could certainly step in and ask him to target my hand but two things happened: one, his movement was much less fluid and two, he didn't quite get the stretch through the poll we were looking for. I think I got better at it through the session, but it was a good final lesson for me because it summed up a few themes that had been brewing for me over the weekend.

First, I need to channel Alex when I work with all horses, but especially Percy I think. She has such a quiet, fluid way about her which in no way do the horses perceive as indicating a pushover. A significant realization in this came for me when I watched Emily, the woman who was using my Kizzy pony for the clinic. Unfortunately I didn't get to watch her much because I was usually preoccupied with Percy who was across the aisle and needing some attention. Emily is a relative newcomer to Clicker Training and her first lesson was working on organizing herself for the foundation lessons. She struggled a bit, as we all do- it looks so easy and then you get all tangled up in clickers and ropes and treat pouches etc! But the second day, she was transformed. It was amazing to watch her move. We had spent the morning working on the rope handling skills and there had been the usual connections to Tai Chi. It turns out, Emily has been studying Tai Chi and once she made the connection, her movements became smooth and graceful. Kizzy responded accordingly. I have done a little Tai Chi myself and the slow movements of this Chinese martial art intended for defense are really wonderful for working with horses. Moving in this way negates any need for swinging ropes or blatant body positions. The horses instinctively understand and respect it without becoming alarmed or fearful. So- more Tai Chi for me.

Secondly, microshaping. I told Alex afterward that just when I thought I understood baby steps, she unpeeled another layer for me. Her reply: "there are always more layers". I guess the way I have defined it for myself is that baby steps are about chunking the training down into smaller and smaller steps, whereas microshaping is about focusing on the tiniest of physical movements. One of the horses which Alex worked with in the stall that day was Georgia. Georgia (and her owner) had come with a pretty solid understanding of Clicker Training even though she'd never been to a clinic before. But Georgia overdid it when it came to the flexing and bending. She curled her head and neck way down and around so the first couple days had been spent working with her to straighten her out. On Sunday, Alex showed how tiny a flexion she was looking for, asking with the rope and halter. It was so tiny that sometimes we couldn't even see it, but she could feel it. Why? Because it was a correct movement which would lead to greater things. The gross movements skip all the little steps in between. Alex took us into the tack room and once again guided us through people exercises. I was fortunate to be one of her "horses". Standing behind me and placing her hands on the base of my head, she guided me through tiny movements to the right: a slight turn to the right, a slight tip of the ear and a slight drop of the chin. We repeated this several times while observers oohed and aahed over how much softer I was looking....!?!? I couldn't feel it happening but there it was. When she was done, I could turn to the right feeling soft and relaxed, but still felt stiff (though I wouldn't have described it that way before) to the left. Lesson learned- these exaggerated over bending and over flexing things we do with our horses are unnecessary and unhelpful. Or at least that's where my thinking is right now.

Lastly, there is no "right" position. When the subject of frame or positioning comes up, Alex says, "find an image that pleases your eye" and work toward that. In addition, horses come in all shapes and sizes so it makes sense that the balance point is going to be slightly different for each individual. So when working with Percy and microshaping, I need to think more of flexibility that I can mold to my choosing, rather than trying to find the "just right" spot. I need to be able to ask for him to put his head at any height I ask and flex just as much as I ask- but not in a demanding way. More of a "try this" way so that he frets less about being "right" and instead thinks about his own body and comfort.

Certainly plenty to work on but I already can't wait for the next clinic. Many thanks for Caroline Albert of Click for Confidence for organizing this clinic!!

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