Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Clicker Training Clinic with Alexandra Kurland at Cavalia's Home Farm

A distant view of the Cavalia home farm
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending an Alexandra Kurland clinic at the Cavalia home farm in Quebec. I was there as an assistant but it felt like a holiday: the education was of the excellent caliber which Alex always provides; the site was ideal with two indoor arenas, a classroom, dining room and beautiful setting; and we were very well fed throughout! The horses at the farm are magnificent and supported by a team dedicated to their care.
One of the amazing catered meals

Our host for the weekend was Dominique Day, one of the co-founders of Cavalia. A beautiful person, inside and out, Dominique is very involved in the daily activities at the farm. She knows very one of the more than 50 horses on the farm as well as anyone and is both knowledgable and passionate about their husbandry. Dominique was only willing to pursue this dream of a performance show if the welfare of all the horses was at the forefront. She has researched every facet with tenacity. Researching the most humane methods of training horses led her to Clicker Training. Researching Equine Clicker Training led her to "the best": Alexandra Kurland. Dominique says when she met with Alex the first time, she was ecstatic to find a kindred spirit.

Dominique shared some of the history of the Cavalia show and its early development. When they began exploring what was possible, they saw that in traditional circus shows, the horses worked in a small circular stage so they were always within reach of the whips.  That's not what they wanted for Cavalia.  They wanted the horses to be actors just like all the other performers, so they expanded the stage, and took away the whips. If a horse leaves or did extra laps, that's okay and becomes part of the show. They want the horses expressing their personality. 

The Cavalia trainers and show designers have always been innovators. Now Dominique is taking that a step further by bringing Clicker Training to the Cavalia Retirement Farm. The horses at the home farm are the retirees from the show, the occasional layups due to injury and the horses on vacation from performing. Some horses who retire from the shows are adopted out through a very careful process, again overseen by Dominique. Hearing her talk about the requirements for adopting a Cavalia horse, one is confident that she looks into all aspects of the horse's physical, mental and emotional needs before releasing them and she follows up with them. Those who are not adopted out have a home for life. In fact the very first Cavalia horse is still there. You can see a brief video with Dominique and footage of the home farm on youtube.

As you can imagine, horses coming off of a high energy show like Cavalia or Odysseo take some time to adjust to a quieter farm life. If they need to be confined to a stall or hand walking due to injury, the transition is a larger challenge. From daily turnout and handling to veterinary procedures, these horses are managed and enriched with Positive Reinforcement.

Marla and Bilbo
After Dominique's initial meetings and discussions with Alex, she asked her to recommend someone to come to the farm as a full time trainer. Marla Foreman was the ideal candidate.  Having been raised on a remote ranch in New Mexico, with experience in many equine disciplines, as well as being a veterinarian, there isn't much that intimidates her. She had been attending clinics in Washington State with Alexandra for twelve years so is very familiar with her work.

All the horses come into the barn with the energy of a fit performance animal, but they also seem to come in sizes big, bigger, biggest and enormous. From Arabs, Quarter Horses and Appaloosas to Draft Horses, warmbloods and Iberic breeds (with necks that put their heads in the clouds), walking through the barn can feel as if you are walking though a book on horse breeds of the world. The fabulous Bilbo, pictured here with Marla, is a perfect example.  An Ardennais, Bilbo weighs in at about a ton and was one of the vaulting horses in the show. Cavalia retires their vaulting horses after only three years: before they show signs of the wear and tear they are predisposed to from their difficult work. Although a draft breed, Bilbo is fit and quite active; he loves to gallop and play. Marla's excellent skill set lets her work with that energy while still maintaining the soft and and listening demeanor of a Clicker Trainer. 

Rounding out the support team for these horses is the lovely Gabriela as barn manager. With an impressive history in hotel management, Gabriela keeps things running like clockwork. She greets everyone with a welcoming smile; anticipates the needs of her employer, the horses and the guests; and is as much a student of positive reinforcement training as everyone else. 

Being able to attend a clinic with Alexandra Kurland at his amazing site with these amazing horses as demonstrators is an opportunity not to be missed. They are hosting regular clinics and I highly recommend attending! I will save my actual clinic report for a future post.
Gabriela and Alexandra demonstrating the Minuet Dance of working with horses
(more on that in the next post!)