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!!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #2

On the second day of the clinic, we spent the morning doing people work. This portion of Alex's clinics may look the least appealing to the inexperienced but anyone who has felt what the horses feel by walking through her many exercises comes away a better handler/rider and grateful for it. Below is a photo of Alex demonstrating the slide down the rope utilizing Tai Chi bone rotations on a "horse".

Percy had settled down wonderfully in 24 hours. There was a window in his stall that he could put his head out of and view most of the farm. This was wonderful because he could study it all he wanted and nothing looked different when I took him out to work. In addition, I was on "farm time" and was awake well before everyone else each morning. I took advantage of that to get Percy out to hand graze. It couldn't have been more peaceful and he could eat and look and walk and eat and look and walk. Each day he ventured a little further but he really didn't want to go very far- his eyes needed to get full with right where he was!

When it was time to work horses, they had all been brought in from the paddocks and were dozing in their stalls. I chose the area right outside the barn to work this time. There was a little more room and he had had time to settle in and observe the goings on there. Plus, we were easily in sight of the other horses so there was no whinnying back and forth (to give Percy credit, Kizzy would whinny to him each morning when I took him out to hand graze but I didn't hear Percy make a sound all weekend). Everyone was assembled on the grassy hill to observe our session and I brought Percy out the door and down the little slope to where Alex and I had set up the cone circles and mats.
As I brought him down this tiniest of slopes, Alex commented, "He doesn't know how to go down hill".
"How can he not know how to go down hill?", I exclaimed, "he grew up in Vermont!".
I was picturing the side hills he played on daily in turnout, the hill I had to lead him up and down just to get to some of the paddocks, and the steep little thistle patch he'd been BORN on.
"I don't know," she said, "but he doesn't know how to go down hill in balance".

Thus began the day's lesson.

We took turns working him in small circles on this tiny slope. As Alex explained the exercise, he had to coordinate himself going just a couple steps down hill, then he got to go across the hill, then a couple steps coordinated up hill and then a couple more across the hill again. What I began to see was the way he'd let his body tumble down the hill once he got going. He did not maintain a steady rhythm of footfalls down hill and he'd speed the tempo up going up hill. This is another example of the beauty of Alex's work. Outside people looking in may see Clicker Training as tricks or even behavioral work; Alex is all about Classical training- building a horse who is strong, coordinated and aware of his body. It is why I couldn't wait to get Percy to a clinic with her. I was starving for this sort of thing with him so he'll have a head start when I really start to ride him. I'm not interested in just getting on his back and going- I want that beautiful piece of art underneath me. And I want his development to help keep him sound for many years to come. By teaching him how to use his muscles and joints, he will be less likely to break down.
In this photo, you can see he has begun to pay attention to his body. There is slack in the rope but he is stepping under himself (not completely, but at least his hind end isn't trailing), his body is bent gently toward me from poll to dock and his topline is slightly raised, rather than hollow. This was achieved not just with practice going up and down hill (he's been practicing all his life after all), but by carefully observing him and clicking for the correct moments. When I worked him, I wasn't completely sure what I was looking for, but observing Alex and re-watching the little video clips Sarah took (thank you Sarah!), I could see that when she had him, she was asking him for lateral steps on that hill. At the end of the session, she had people walk down a slope, feel our thumping steps, then practice a couple circles of lateral work, to return to the down hill and feel how much more balance we had in our own bodies.

I realized that as much time as I have spent leading him up and down hills, my focus has been on his behavior, not his body. I have been dealing with a youngster who desperately wanted to get out on his grass paddock and all the attention was on keeping the marbles in place. Now we have something else to work on. I have done it since getting him home and he is ever so much better. By giving him his body to focus on, he forgets about the silliness and we get both body and mind under control.

Oh- and he did get to practice his colors and standing on a mat for break
s from his hill work!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #1- Magic

In our area, there is an amazing magician whom you can hire for entertainment at parties and such. He also works the tables at a local restaurant on Sunday nights and I love to watch the faces of people as he performs his tricks- especially kids! He's no simple magician- this guy is good. Last time we watched him, he had a diner draw a card from a deck, look at it, and replace it. The magician then pinched the flame on the table candle...and 3 appeared in a blister on his finger and the spade symbol appeared as a blister on his thumb!!! (and yes, the woman's card was the 3 of spades). This weekend, Alexandra Kurland worked similar magic.

Saturday morning was the first day to work horses. We had turned everyone out and the trick was to find a place to work Percy that would be least upsetting to a young boy on his first overnight. We chose the driveway between the barn and paddocks, hoping his turnout time had allowed him to get a good look at that area and it also kept him fairly close to Kizzy (who had come along as companion) in the paddock nearby.

Percy likes to look at things. He can get his head way up in the air and his eyes open wide. It isn't a matter of just looking for a few moments...he really needs hours to examine a new area. I have confidence that this will change as he gets older and more time off the farm but this was only his second trip "out" and his first overnight. When I brought him out of his paddock, he couldn't decide which way to look first. He wanted to keep on eye on Kizzy on one side, but the other clinic participants were gathered along the barn on the other side to watch. People kept popping around a corner, cats wandered through the scene, more people appeared around the other side of the barn, the tractor was being used to transport manure to the pile, people were carrying chairs and wearing interesting hats. The minimally traveled dirt road was on yet another side and when cars or trucks did pass by, one could hear them coming from a ways away and I could see Percy mentally mapping the area as he first heard a vehicle and then tracked it like a periscope as it came closer and closer. There was a LOT to look at and he couldn't figure out which direction needed most attention. His front feet came off the ground a time or two, but I had to give him credit because it wasn't the full stand I have seen on rare occasions before. He wasn't trying to drag me around or plow me down...but it was definitely borderline meltdown territory. I began trying to run through the foundation lessons in order to get his attention, give him something to focus on and show Alex his scope of behaviors. He did target my hand, back on a light request and put his head down on request, but was so wound up that he wouldn't take the treat as reward- or took it but neglected to chew it. I had to give him a lot of credit for trying.

Alex quickly set out two very small circles of cones and two mats. We made a round of each circle as I used the Tai Chi wall to try to get him to bend toward me and pay attention, rather than stare off to the outside and push in with his shoulder. I told her I didn't consider mat work to be a very strong behavior for him because he tends to try to get his feet "just right" on them, rather than relaxing- but to my surprise, he did very well on them. One was a largish one made of medium width rubber. At one point, he pawed it and it curled up under him so he had to leap away but (on Alex's direction), I took him right back to it and he did stand on it. The other mat was a small (12"?) one of plywood. He stepped right over it, not paying any attention but coincidentally got a toe on so got a click and treat for that. So, he'd made one round of this training "loop" and on a scale of distractedness came down from a 9 to an 8.5. At this point, Alex told me to bring him to the inside of one of the little cone circles where she was standing. I was expecting her to have him target her hand as a simple behavioral reward to keep the Rate of Reinforcement (ROR) high. Instead, she said "Red. Touch." very clearly and presented a red cone from behind her back. Percy loves to target and so while I don't think he even looked at her or the cone, he absent-mindedly quickly reached out and touched the target for a click and treat. She immediately put the cone behind her out of sight again and then repeated the exercise. The third time, after saying "Red. Touch", she brought two cones from behind her back- one red and one green. Percy targeted the red one.

As an aside, this is the way I remembered it after much consideration at 4:30 the next morning when I woke up and thought about it. In all honesty, as it happened, it was as mysterious as watching that magician in the restaurant. Alex was the magician and I was the 6 year old with my mouth hanging open as she taught, in a matter of minutes, my 3 year old, highly distracted TB cross boy the difference between red and green. And Alex got as much of a kick watching my reaction as I always do watching the magician's observers. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Back to Saturday morning. Alex then said "Green. Touch." and presented both cones. Percy targeted the green one. I was dumbfounded as Alex grinned and sent us off for another round of "Why Would You Leave Me" on the cone circles and standing on the mats. We were down to a distraction level of 8- he was still watching the people, making sure Kizzy was in sight, listening to vehicles all while doing everything I asked with a minimum of attention. But he was now taking treats. And we returned to Alex and her red and green cones. He nailed it each time, regardless of whether she said red or green and even though she switched hands behind her back so that green was sometimes on her left and sometimes on her right and vice versa with the red. Off for another round of circles and mats. Now I could get head lowering on the large mat and at least get him to pay attention to the smaller one.

At some point, Alex introduced a yellow cone. At this point Percy made his first mistake with the colors. In the entire morning (which was in some sort of warp time so I have no idea how long we worked him...20 minutes?) he made three mistakes in probably 25 attempts. And I think he only made a mistake when she tried the yellow. She then returned to green and red and for the rest of the weekend, he was error-free.

This entire process illustrates Alex's "Loopy Training" method. She creates a loop of behaviors for the horse to progress through, each one reinforcing the previous one. The loop of

behavior -> click -> treat -> behavior

is the first loop. One looks for "clean" loops. She defined "clean" as fluid and prompt with no unwanted behaviors creeping in. So a simple clean targeting loop would include the horse immediately responding to the presentation of a target by touching it, the handler promptly and smoothly offering a treat which the horse immediately and politely took at which point the handler would smoothly offer the target again. If the horse were to hesitate at either the presentation of the target or the offering of the treat for any reason- unsure, looking away, trying to graze, etc, that would be an example of a loop that is not clean.

She also states that "when a loop is clean you get to move on. Not only do you get to move on, you should move on." Therefore, I asked why she had presented the color training to Percy that morning when, in my opinion, his loops were far from clean. He was looking everywhere but at what he was doing, he didn't consistently take the treats, he tried to wander off and the behaviors he did offer were far from his standard. She agreed completely, pointing out his baby rears. Her explanation was that she felt he was an individual who would benefit from something new and fun. While I can see some horses would become frustrated or worried when asked to do something completely new in a highly distracting environment, Percy loved it and that got his focus when his well-known behaviors didn't. He even became fascinated by something over the roof of the barn while Alex was presenting colors but it didn't affect his success rate.

And that was only Day 1.

This clip was taken the second day after he had calmed down considerably but illustrates the color training.

Thank you to Sarah Memmi for catching this video clip and taking great photos!