Sunday, August 29, 2010

Taking the "Make it Happen" out

This post will include some assumptions on my part. There are, of course, as many different theories on training horses as there are horsepeople. The popularity of Natural Horsemanship has opened up many new ways of looking at things but the varied opinions among those specialties is wide as well. Clicker Training differs from most, if not all, Natural Horsemanship approaches although some individuals combine the two. The critical component to Clicker Training is the use of Positive Reinforcement...misunderstood by many. While pressure and release of pressure is a reward system, it is Negative Reinforcement, not Positive Reinforcement. Pressure and release is the traditional way of training horses- use of leg pressure for going forward or sideways, rein or rope pressure to ask for turns or stops, as well as seat pressure. Natural Horsemanship has helped some people refine that technique- improving one's feel and response. But the "make it happen" for many is still in there...the pressure remains or is increased until the horse responds. Then and only then is the pressure removed.

Escalating pressure is one of the things that drives people to turn to Positive Reinforcement. Some horses (dogs, etc) do not respond to levels of pressure that their handlers are comfortable using. And when we feel ourselves increasing that pressure or being coached to increase that pressure in order to get our desired result, we can't bring ourselves to continue. Unfortunately there are many "tools" which allow us to deceive ourselves about the level of pressure we are using. Bigger bits and spurs, tighter nosebands as well as devices which trap a horse in a certain position (side reins, martingales, bitting rigs) all allow us to use the same amount of muscle, but these devices transfer that pressure into much more serious levels of discomfort for the horse.

This is not to say that Clicker Trainers never use pressure and release techniques. But the more one practices, the more ways one finds to teach things without it. The harder thing for me has been to change my internal approach. Over and over I have found that the techniques are very different depending on your mental approach. You hear people speak of "asking" a horse to do something. But it's sometimes difficult to see the difference between asking and telling. Is there a threat behind that ask? What happens if the horse says "no"? If the horse knows that saying no will result in punishment or escalating pressure, then we really aren't asking. However, if the horse knows that nothing will happen if he says no, but good things will happen if he says yes, that gives him more of a choice in the matter. That is the core of the switch from a horse who is truly working with you, looking for things to do that will please you, as opposed to a horse who has shut down and will do nothing unless told to...because he fears the consequences.

So what happened at the clinic with Alexandra Kurland to make me review this whole topic yet again? We were practicing her rope handling techniques. She has a great exercise which demonstrates how much more sensitive we (and horses) are when we are relaxed. Tightness and tension block our ability to feel. She also has her Tai Chi wall technique which turns a simple cotton lead into a solid wall to prevent a pushy horse from going over top of you...
maintaining a quiet and calm presence without having to get "big" or "loud". While doing this Tai Chi wall exercise with some of the participants who had not done it before, I was having them pretend they were differing temperaments so I could put different amounts of intent into my response. While explaining this to Alex, I said I still felt like "muscle" was my focus. I found myself preparing for the Tai Chi wall by planting my feet and tightening up my arms in preparation for a pushy horse. She worked with me for a while and simply said "take the make-it-happen out of your request". And then she had me go back to the previous way I had been doing it. One of the other participants (Caroline, the wonderful organizer of the clinic) said she could see my body language change as I went from one approach to the other. I could tell I had to intentionally shake off the tension in my body to remove the "make it happen". Alex had Caroline and I work with each other for a while (amazing what you can learn and practice about working with horses without even have a horse present). Caroline could easily feel when the "make it happen" was present or not present in my request. The more I did it, the more I realized there was, as I called it, an "invitation" within my movement. It just seemed like I could slide down the rope and not hesitate at all and blow right through the invitation spot to go directly to back up. Or, I could slide down the rope, and during the moment of contact, hesitate for a nanosecond to say "are you there?". That nanosecond made the difference. It felt to me like I was inviting the horse (or the person playing horse) to work with me, rather than telling.

So, where do we draw the line between this and just letting a horse walk all over us? What if the horse says no to the request or doesn't even listen to the request? I'm not sure I can put that into words. There is still intent in the request. One of the reasons it's hard to put in words is because the words have been used before and with different meanings. I want to say I am still the "leader" in the relationship, but that has all kinds of connotations from various professionals. There is definitely a feeling of confidence involved, but not one that is derived from having successfully "won battles" in the past. Rather it's a feeling of confidence that comes from having a tool box full of techniques (as opposed to a tack box full of weapons) that I can use to develop a relationship with a horse that involves the horse looking to me for good times. It's the difference between being invited to do something by someone you like and enjoy spending time with versus being invited by someone who has been unkind or rude or demanding of you in the past.

I most look forward to using this new feeling with Percy. I know all the horses deserve it but Percy has his mother's sensitivity and is so light already...but that sensitivity can also lead to him being overboard if I'm not careful. I think it will be very important to make sure he is with me at a deep level before I start asking him to do more and more.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

High Rate of Reinforcement- conclusion

I only reported on the first two days of the clinic regarding the high rate of reinforcement. On the third day, I did tack Ande up so that if he was still calmly focused on me I could ride. I think the biggest distraction on that last day was in my own mind. Because it was the afternoon of the last day, I was having a hard time staying present rather than thinking about the long drive home, what awaited me at home (having been gone almost four days) and the fact that I needed to be up and away early the next day to teach at Pony Club camp. On top of that, we had some heavy rains blow through in the morning while the horses were turned out and instead of going in the shed, they chose to race around in it and then stand in the middle of it. After that the sun came out and it was hot and sticky so the bugs came out in full force and when we went to bring them in, they were pretty stressed. They got hosed off and were cool and dry by afternoon but mentally, I was not as composed as I could have been.

I have been saying "they" because I took Mariah to the clinic as well, so that my friend, Sarah Memmi, could work with her. Sarah lives only an hour from me and it's great to have a support person like her so close! She helped me back Ande as well as learn the single rein riding techniques with Smarty. Since I was taking the trailer, it was wonderful to put Mariah on as company for Ande as she is such a steady big girl. Here is a photo of Sarah and Mariah at the clinic. So, back to riding Ande- after the morning romp, Mariah was calling to him more than the previous day so he really did a good job paying attention. Furthermore, I was also concentrating on taking the "make it happen" out of my body language...more on that in another post. So we had a very nice light communication going on but when Mariah would call from the barn, he had a hard time ignoring her. After a bit, Alex and I did agree that I could get on. Alex reminded me of her rule for riding: no one is allowed to fall off in her presence. :)

There was a time or two when I wondered if I had made the right decision- Ande never did anything wrong but that focus was constantly being tested by Mariah's whinnies. Alex talked me through it, having me repeat the exercises we'd done on the ground. I was really happy to get on and test the same things under saddle. Alex pointed out I was not releasing soon enough when I asked for a single rein stop. She said if you really need a stop, go ahead and reach far down the rein but it's very dangerous to hang on to that for fear of flipping the horse. I needed to be more sensitive to when he gave even a little in his hip and let go of the rein then. It's not as if he was taking off with me of course...but he sometimes offers a little jog because we've been working on it at home and initially it got a lot of reinforcement. I am working on putting it on cue so now when he offers it without the leg aid first, I slide down the inside rein for a stop.

One of my questions with him was that when I asked for little gives of his jaw and poll, he would give me the whole thing- a lovely flexion all the way through his neck, stepping up nicely from behind and then softly stepping over laterally. I was making it way more complicated than it needed to be. Alex simply said that I didn't need to keep asking when he already had it down! When I worried about the lateral steps when I didn't ask for them, she simply said "ride him forward". OK, talk about a "duh" moment. Actually, we had done all that on the ground so that when I was riding, all I had to do was think about riding forward, rather than laterally, and he held his lovely balance and went forward when I asked for it, or over when I asked for that.

Such a difference with this approach...I guess I'm just not used to having it be so easy!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Alexandra Kurland Clinic- increase the Rate of Reinforcement

The beautiful site for the clinic!
(see below for details on this great facility!)*
Wow, there is no way I can fit everything into one blog post. It was a full and mind expanding weekend. Some of it was review; a lot was review with amazing new layers and understanding; some was clarification of some things I had read about but not fully understood; and there were some completely new ideas. I'm sure more will come out as I work with the horses in coming days, weeks and months.

I think there were two major points that I brought home. One was taking the "make it happen" out of my requests with horses. The other was that when a horse is distracted, I should request less and reward more.

Ande was the one I took to the clinic. The first evening after arrival, Alex asked us to introduce ourselves and share what we hoped to get out of the clinic. I expressed my concerns about Ande's focus. I don't always feel like I have his full attention and of the three young horses, he seems to be the least interested in working with me. The others clamor for attention and he will also...if there is nothing else to do. But for instance when I let him loose in the round pen, he would sometimes go off and graze along the fence rather than choosing to stay with me. If I kept him busy, he would willingly work, but the other two will continue to offer things in the hopes of enticing me to play...Ande seemed just as happy to be left to graze. Obviously this is a lot better than a non-clicker trained horse who doesn't know how to offer behaviors to entice the handler to play!

As I said before, what I came away with is that in these situations, I should ask for less and reward more. I can't even remember how Alex said this; I just remember putting it to work on the second day. The first day was "data collection", as she calls it. She watches us work with the horses and on other skills in order to decide what to offer us in the way of exercises and conversation. (Note: when you go to a clinic with Alexandra Kurland, she is unlike other clinicians. Instead of getting a lesson or two per day with her, you get HER for the full duration, from when she gets up in the morning until she goes to sleep at night. She has more energy for teaching than any of us do for learning and she makes herself available at meals and in the evenings. She teaches everyone equally, regardless of who happens to have the horse in the ring at any given moment). So that first day I put Ande in the round pen and he wanted to trot around and whinny to his friend in the barn. I explained that this was not typical. Usually I have solid voice commands on walk, trot, canter as well as a pretty good WWYLM (anyone unfamiliar with Alex's work, in simple terms it's an exercise where he walks next to me without any contact on lead or rein, choosing to stay with me).

What she pointed out was that any distraction, whether it was grass or other horses whinnying, was adding criteria to a behavior and so the rate of reinforcement needed to be increased. I knew this...somehow I was ignoring it. I was expecting him to respond in a certain way and rather than starting from a point of success (TAGteach talk), I was trying to wait until he responded correctly. Instead he chose to look elsewhere for his entertainment. Traditionally, I had been taught to "put them to work" when they are distracted. But asking for more simply added to the distraction and unless I was willing to make him respond...not at all clicker didn't encourage him to want to work with me. The ridiculous thing was that as soon as I started rewarding more, I got better performance than ever in a fraction of the time. By holding out for better, I got less. By rewarding more, we shot past previous standards. There was a lot more to Day 1, but in order to stay focused myself, I'm going to go to Day 2 with Ande.

After Day 1, Alex gave us the homework of thinking of other behaviors our horses enjoyed so we could use them as reinforcement. This is under the topic of "hierarchies of reinforcement". I was stuck for a bit because I felt like he would be distracted no matter what I asked for. Then I remembered teaching him last winter to target a milk jug hung on the round pen so that I could put hay down without him pestering me. He seemed to like that and I hadn't done it in a while so he might think it was fun. There were even some targets already hung on the round pen we were using. The exercise we were going to do (possibly yet another blog post of its own) included the mat and Ande does like the mat. I also have used hand targeting successfully in the past. So I had a plan there.

My second task was to get that rate of reinforcement up. I realized I would need to start this from the first second. No lazy horse management. I needed to be training from the second he first saw me in the barn. I also decided to use a box clicker- it would be louder and sharper than my usual tongue click and hopefully grab his attention even a little more.

When I approached his stall door, he backed away as he's been taught- click, treat. I opened the door and he backed another step- click, treat. I could see him thinking, wow, this is easy. Open the halter and he pushed his head into it to self halter- c/t. I proceeded to c/t for everything he did well all the way to the round pen: walking politely, stopping and backing at the gate, etc. If his ears and or eyes wandered to the barn where his buddy was whinnying, I held out my hand for him to target (easy, peasy) and c/t when he did. I had a completely different boy already than the day before. His WWYLM work was lovely- not only staying with me but I asked for and got lovely flexions and lateral steps. Both Day 1 and Day 2 I had not bothered to tack up. I wanted to focus his attention on me on the ground first. On Day 2, Alex paid the compliment of saying "this looks like a horse I would be comfortable getting on". Whoopee! She has pretty high standards for how well a horse should be behaving and responding before getting on. It doesn't matter how young or old, how green or schooled, how many places they've been or things they've accomplished, you don't ride until they demonstrate her standards of safety and training.

I won't say he never looked away, but even when he glanced toward the barn, I felt like his attention was still with me and all I had to do was make a tiny request and he complied. It's so nice to have a horse who is voluntarily working with you. I also think using the target, the mat and the hand targeting were very helpful in keeping his attention. As Alex says, when they do something new or difficult well, we can say, "oh you did such a good job at that, we can go do something I know you like". And standing on the mat is such easy work but oh so handy to have in the tool box.

The "make it happen" post will have to wait for another day-

*Mountain Tide Farm is located in Danby VT. We were treated like royalty- it is a pet friendly site and the owner, Linda Sears, is a great cook! Man and beast could not want for more. There are also trails in addition to the wonderful round pen, arena and indoor. Turnout is spacious, grassy and well fenced. To contact Linda, call
802-293-2339 or email her at

Monday, August 2, 2010


I'm not sure how people access this blog and if you are checking it and disappointed not to see anything recently. If so, I apologize and assure you I have not disappeared. Our son had a serious accident a couple weeks ago and my time and focus have been elsewhere. He is recovering nicely and I hope to have more time to write soon. The clinic with Alex is in 2 weeks and so if I don't write before then, I will surely be sharing experiences from that day!