Oct. 2004 -- Alex's clinic

October 8, 2004

I wasn't going to write today, because other than quickly attending to the horses' care this morning, the only "horsie" thing I did today was drive to Toutle, where Alexandra Kurland's clinic will be held this weekend. I just had to whine though... the 150 mile trip took nearly FIVE hours! Rain, rain, and more rain plus Friday afternoon traffic led to accident after accident, backup after backup. My car is a manual transmission, and this kind of traffic made the drive feel like city driving. My knees and shins were killing me by the time I stopped.

Okay, enough whining. On the positive side, I'm staying in the cutest little cabin. It's rustic... no phone, no A/C, no clock... but it has a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchenette. It's clean and cozy. I'm looking forward to three nights of uninterrupted, no-dogs-waking-me-to-go-outside sleep. (I'm kind of worried about the no clock thing, though. My cell phone gets no reception out here, so I can't use that, and I don't wear a watch!)

October 9, 2004

Today was the first day of Alex's clinic. This is an advanced clinic, geared to the needs of individual participants rather than preset topics. I didn't bring a horse this time; I'm just watching and learning.

There's a new set of both beginner and advanced clinics next year, beginning in March. I can't decide which I should sign up for. I'm not a beginning clicker trainer, but I'm new to clicking horses. If the clinic were next month, I'd definitely choose the beginning clinic, because I'm new to horses, and my horse is new to clicker training, but the clinic isn't for five months! It's likely that we'll both be pretty comfortable with the method by then. But, the beginning clinic might identify holes in his training, or present things in a more basic way that would give me a better foundation than I would get if I just jumped into the advanced clinic. Decisions, decisions.

The rain and the threatened volcanic eruption cut down the clinic attendance. Five people were there initially, but two more came in later in the morning. Only four have horses with them.

We started today by going around the room and giving Alex our "wish lists" for the seminar. She said she wanted to know the "because" in the sentence, "Gosh, that was a really great seminar, because...." My wish list was to build my confidence, work on basic mechanical skills, and discuss my horses' training plans.

(In this write-up, I'm going to have some description of what happened, but I'm going to have a lot of "random" notes from conversations. I'm warning you now that it will be disjointed.)

Julie (I think) asked Alex to explain "backward traction." In the ensuing explanation, Alex gave an example of "compression" in dressage where the rider drives the horse forward with his seat but then holds the horse back with his hands. Backwards traction occurs when the rider asks with pressure and "holds" the horse in the movement, not releasing. The horse gets heavier, not lighter.

Alex talked a bit about how horses react to clicker training. She likes to start with targeting because it's a completely new behavior that hasn't been tainted by other experiences. Also it's a very black/white criteria and requires very simple mechanical skills from the trainer. After targeting, she moves on to "The Grownups are Talking," which teaches the horse to stand still and not mug you for treats.

She said there are four ways a horse may react to this new training:

  • The horse loves it. He's in the game trying to figure out the rules. (Blue and Guin)
  • He doesn't want anything to do with it. He goes to the back of his stall and turns away from you to avoid playing.
  • He becomes emotionally angry and reactive. This (and the previous also) happens frequently because they've been punished in the past for mouth behavior or for offering behavior. They try to resist the "set up" for punishment, but they're being "teased" until they react.
  • The horse becomes so enthralled by the food that he can't concentrate on anything else. (Quincy!)

These first two behaviors (targeting and no mugging) are most like "normal" clicker training -- shaping, rewarding offered behavior. Then she teaches backing up, which melds in the concepts of regular horse training -- yielding to pressure and release of pressure.

What she does after that depends on the individual horse. Some need emotional control. Heads down helps, as do tricks. (Playing as instrument desensitizes a horse to sound. Playing with toys desensitizes him to novel objects.) Ultimately, she wants to get to weight distribution (leading, shoulder-in, haunches-in, leg yielding, etc.) because these are the basis of dressage.

Leslie mentioned that she was using the clicker because she was done getting hurt by horses. I said that I hadn't been hurt, but I was done too -- and emphasized that I was serious. The group said that they understood and that the clicker was a wonderful tool for that. Safety above all. Deb said that she lives by John Lyon's rule that if you feel any fear, it's a sign that there's a hole somewhere.

Alex talked about training logs. She said she made a rule that she couldn't do anything that she couldn't explain in her journal as "good training." It really made her accountable.

Leslie and her Andalusian/Thoroughbred, Bri's (pronounced Breeze), were first up. Leslie hadn't been in an Alex clinic before, so Alex first took her through her pre-ride checklist to see how far they were. (They were much further than where Alex started, but Leslie hadn't trained things "in order," so there were holes to fill.)

Is the horse clicker trained? (Does she know what the click means?) Yes.

Can you stand with goodies and not get mugged? Bri's was reasonably polite about her mugging, but she did mug, and she didn't like to stand still. She's very busy, very nosey. So Alex worked on "the grownups are talking."

She said to imagine a box in front of the horse's head, and to click when the horse's head was in that box. Feed in the box as well.

Hands are very important. Their position (folded across the chest/abdomen) is a cue for this behavior. Also they anchor the lead rope if the horse moves.

To raise criteria, add distance or duration.

Beginners should use a mechanical clicker until their hands are so busy that they can't use a mechanical clicker anymore.

Next they moved to mat work. This combines well with the grownups exercise, and teaches emotional control.

Click and feed to keep the horse on the mat, and then walk off. Don't feed on the mat so much, that the horse won't leave. For every behavior there is an opposite that balances it.

After the initial attempts, don't click pawing at the mat.

Don't forget to work both sides!

Next we played with her soccer ball, a behavior she really enjoys. Then we went back and stood on the mat. This is tough, because she can see the ball, and she'd rather do that. She's learning that doing something she'd rather not do can be reinforceable too, and she doesn't have to get mad and emotional about it. When she stood on the mat well a couple of times, she got to go play with the ball some more.

This is a similar conflict to how she feels when she wants to go play with her buddies but mom wants her to work.

Be sure to release the lead when she gets on the mat.

Have an "all-done" ritual.

The pre-ride checklist makes sure there are no holes that will matter when you get to the harder stuff. Complete checklist:

  • Is the horse clicker trained?
  • Can you stand with goodies and not get mugged?
  • Will he follow a target?
  • Will he lower his head?
  • Can you get him to back up, come forward, move his hips to the left or right, move his shoulders to the left or right?
  • Can you get him to stand on a target?
  • Will he stand still for grooming?
  • Can he walk around the perimeter of your training area on a loose lead?
  • Will he stand quietly at a mounting block?
  • Will he do all of these things in different environments? With distractions?

Next came Julie and Aimee, a beautiful chestnut Arabian she rescued from starvation. During this segment I learned I absolutely suck at video taping.

They worked on leg yields, though Alex was hesitant to call them that, because the term is used incorrectly so frequently. Alex instructed her to walk down the long side of the arena on the "quarter line," meaning a line about 20 feet from the wall, which was 1/4 of the way across the arena. She was to go all the way to the wall, make a good bend, walk the short side at the wall, and then up the quarter line on the other side.

To do the leg yield, she was instructed to make the bend around the corner onto a long side (quarter line), straighten, and then use her lower leg to ask Aimee to move out toward the wall. The challenge was for Aimee to "lead with her hip" rather than falling into it with her shoulder (or to turn toward the wall). Step with the hip, and then bring the shoulders across.

Alex told her to give the cue and remove it upon compliance. Leaving it on causes a horse to be heavy, not light -- there is no reward. If the horse stops doing what you've asked, you simply ask again.

Julie was instructed to open her outside rein, but to leave her inside rein still and a little low. Bringing it over as well causes too much bend. Don't take her out with that outside rein. Open it, and let her step under it, which will put your hands back in position.

In training, we don't want to make the horse "wrong" for doing something he has been deliberately taught.

Do one step and straighten, then another step and straighten, and so on. This helps the horse engage her hindquarters and build balance. The goal is for her not to fall into it with her shoulder.

Next: Deb (our hostess!) and Magic, her lovely Tennessee Walking Horse.

Deb and Magic also worked on leg yielding. Some additional notes:

Deb wanted to work on getting Magic to walk straight on the quarter line (with no wall to guide him) before doing the leg yields. Alex assured her that this exercise would improve straightness, and it did! She said, straightness is the perfection of left and right.

Even when the horse is moving straight, there is a bend. If the nose and tail are at 6:00 and 12:00, the body will still have a curve. Knowing this and making the "right" bend on the straight is important. The canter, for example, comes out of the bend.

As Magic got more proficient with this, he collected and balanced better, and seemed to "grow" during the leg yields. So the yields become and exercise of "up and over."

Lastly came Marla and Dublin, a gorgeous Irish Sport Horse (the first I've met!), who also worked on leg yields. I haven't gotten to chat with Marla about her or Dublin's background, but she seems well-versed in dressage, and he is well-schooled. Lovely, lovely horse.

In the very beginning, Dublin was slow to pick up impulsion, and Marla was using a lot of lower leg. Alex counseled her to keep her lower leg still except when asking for "up and over" during the leg yields. If she forgets the release -- removal of the lower leg -- he stalls out.

Dublin had a hitch in his rear leg that they both feel is from lack of balance, but they're going to do a flex test with him tomorrow.

Since he had this hitch, they switched to shoulder-in. Inside hand is down and steady. Outside hand is up and active. Seat pivots.

For a collected start: Pick up the buckle to get the horse back. Slide down the rein to get the bend. Then ask for forward.

October 10, 2004

We started with Tai Chi. Tai Chi is valuable for the horseman because it increases balance and flexibility, and thus improves communication with the horse. Alex related stories of how her riding improved and the visible improvement in her horse created by specific Tai Chi exercises. Clicker training, she said, is easy. It's the Tai Chi that takes you to excellence.

Here are some photos of some of the exercises:

Alex tests Leslie's balance point.

Sid and Marla stretch their hips.

Julie and her "energy ball."

Tai Chi walking!

After Tai Chi we did a little more groundwork. First, we did a fun game where we hand to hold hands in a circle and pass a hula hoop all the way around without breaking the circle. (We were good, I tell you!)

Hula hoop fun

Then we practiced our mechanical skills with the lead rope. This starts with a basic demonstration of how tension affect our responsiveness. The exercise was simple: One person was the horse, and held the lead rope out in front of herself (her hands acting as the horse's head with halter and lead rope attached), and closed her eyes. The other person held the other end of the lead rope and lightly slid her way down the rope with one hand toward the "horse's head."

Setting up for the lead rope exercise

The object was for the "horse" to tell us when she felt the hand sliding up the rope. First the "horse" was to tense up. When I did this, I didn't feel the hand on the lead until a split second before it touched me. Then the "horse" was to relax. When I was relaxed, I felt the hand on the rope almost as soon as it touched it. Look at the picture of Julie and Anna above -- that's quite a difference in distance in the two exercises.

Next we worked on some leading exercises. Still one person was the horse and the other was the handler. The handlers practiced making smooth, fine-motor-movement slides up the rope, ending by targeting the pinkie side of our sliding hand with the snap on the "halter." This enabled us to "rotate our bones" -- a concept out of the Tai Chi exercises -- which let us redirect the horse's energy backwards. When the horse responded by backing up, we released the pressure as a reward. One method of blocking the horse's forward momentum is to use the "Tai Chi wall."

Sliding up the rope. Note the loose hand.

Incorrect. The side of the hand should go all the way to the snap on the halter.


Rotating the bones to get leverage to "ricochet" the horse's energy back.

The complete Tai Chi wall. Lead rope should be taut between the hands.

The Tai Chi wall illustrated on Aimee.

The first horse up today was Bri's. Alex laid out four poles in a square to simulate the four walls of a stall. Leslie's goal was to teach Bri's to back around the corners of the stall. The first step is to get the horse comfortable with backing. The handler faces the horse, slides up the rein, and asks for the step back, releasing when the horse responds. The handler then feeds back at the front of the stall. Why? Because until your horse is ready to back around a corner, you don't want to get him stuck against a wall where he might feel trapped.

Leslie backs Bri's, an Andalusian/Thoroughbred cross.

More backing.

To get the horse to back through corners, the handler displaces the horses head to the outside and ask the horse to step back. The horse will turn his hips to the inside to get straight. Click the swing of the hips.

Backing in a square is good for all horses, but it's especially good for those who push over their handlers or who have learned to point their rears at dangerous things in order to manipulate their handlers into moving them.

Remember to release after giving the cue and getting a response. The cue is a starter button, not a constant on cue. If you want more, and the horse stops offering, ask again.

After backing around the stall, Leslie went back to working on an aspect of The Grownups are Talking. Specifically, she needed to teach Bri's to take a step back from her when asked, and then to stay there -- not to yo-yo back. Leslie would ask, and as soon as Bri's came back, ask again, and repeat this pattern until she got some hesitation in the back position. She would click that hesitation. Alex wanted to see the mare's weight in the her hindquarters, not leaning forward. This weight shift exercise was very similar to one we did in Tai Chi this morning.

After this she worked on head lowering while walking backwards in a square. (Goodness, what a combination!) The mare understood the walking backwards in a square, so Leslie added pressure. Specifically, she used a "Tai Chi wall" hand position, and applied contact UP and back on the snap. When the horse lowered her head just a bit, she was to mark and reward with a treat, release of pressure, and the opportunity to stop backing.

Why up? Because that's the pressure a rein would give. This is the first step in teaching a horse to lower his head on cue under saddle. She's teaching her horse to respond to pressure on her head by pulling her head to the ground. This is helpful for horses who rear or toss their heads, and it helps if a horse overflexes when doing lateral work.

Alex said in clicker training what happens is initially people don't click enough, and then they click too much.

Once she got the head to the ground, she worked on adding duration. Duration requires a lot of trust from the horse -- much more than simply lowering the head and ricocheting it back up. When the horse's head goes down, the nose scoops forward a bit before coming up. Click prior to the scoop, because it's part of the "up" progression.

Backing is critical to this heads down exercise. If a horse is moving forward or pushing into your space, get a step back first, not just heads down. A horse can put his head down and still push through you. When the body backs and softens, you can ask for the calming head down. The head down should be soft, not drag you down.

When you take hold of a lead rope or reins, it says, "I want something." When you release, it says, "That was what I wanted." Taking the rope doesn't in and of itself communicate what you specifically want, though many horses will try to anticipate. What you want should be communicated by what else you're doing, not just by picking up the rope.

Next horse up was Dublin:

Isn't he gorgeous? He's an Irish Sport Horse.

They warmed up by doing an exercise over and through some poles on the ground. They didn't walk a specific pattern, but it did require concentration from them both.

Warming up over ground poles.

After they warmed up, they repeated the leg yielding of the day before. Alex made the exercise a bit more difficult by adding some specific patterns. Patterns were the name of the day today. Lots of patterns. The patterns enable the rider to work both sides and to practice the transitions from side to side. Lots and lots of corners too, which gave the rider and horse the opportunity to develop the ability to be "up" and drive with the hip, instead of leading with the shoulder.

Bending for the leg yield at the walk.

The first change to the quarter-line pattern was the addition of a diagonal to change direction. The diagonal is always taken out of the second short corner -- meaning at the beginning of the long side. The rider should ride deep into the corner and ride the corner completely, then take the diagonal. The diagonal should meet the far wall at a spot that enables them to ride deep into that corner as well. Don't cut corners.

The rider should change the bend in the middle third of the diagonal, after he is completely through the turn. He should be completely committed to the new bend before he gets to the far wall.

After riding the diagonal, the rider would take the next quarter line and do another leg yield. If the horse performs well, then he gets to do another diagonal and change direction. If he doesn't perform well, they stay this direction and do another quarter line.

After this pattern, Marla did some "broken line" work, which is taking a straight line and leg yielding right, then left, then right. It's gorgeous to watch.

Next she added some half turns into the mix, still incorporating all we've done. The point to all the changes of direction is to teach the horse to go through corners "up and over." Alex had us do our own experiment. First she had us turn using our shoulders. The tendency was to lean and be somewhat out of balance -- easy to push over, if nothing else. Then she had us turn with our hips -- "up and over." It was like a dancer (or martial artist) moves, and it was incredibly balanced. Better for our backs too, I dare say.

Alex kept chanting "Inside hind picks up outside shoulder." My brain was getting fuzzy by this point... I know it relates to the turns, but I don't understand it completely. We also had a big discussion about impulsion and how to teach the horse to add forward energy to his gait when he's "stuck," but my fuzzy brain missed that too.

Dublin goofing off playing basketball. What a multitalented horse!

Now it was Magic's turn:

Deb warms up Magic, a Tennessee Walking Horse, in hand.

Deb wanted to know how to teach haunches-in, so Alex showed her on the ground. She positioned Magic alongside the area rail. She bent him in, and used a dressage whip to give a go-forward cue. This is very similar to the setup for shoulder-in, which Magic knows. However this time Alex wouldn't allow him to respond in the familiar way. He had to experiment until he shifted his haunches in. Click! Then she adds the move forward.

Magic got this SO fast, thanks to Deb's many hours of ground work laying the foundation. Alex said Magic is a super star -- he got it as fast as she's ever seen.

Horses need to learn to "solve the puzzle box." A green horse has just one answer. An intermediate horse experiments. An advanced horse reads the clues to figure out what might be wanted.

Alex introduces Magic to haunches in.

Next it was Deb's turn to ride some patterns. Deb rode the same patterns that Marla and Dublin rode, but she was at a different learning stage. Alex had her concentrate on single rein riding and really worked on her mechanical skills of cueing the "up and over" with the reins. Deb's focus was mostly on mechanical skills -- she stayed mostly at the walk so she could concentrate on what her hands were doing.

There was so much more to this that I didn't get. Don't shoot me, Deb. There came a point today where I just got lost in some of the explanations.

Alex explains how to handle the reins on this exercise.

After Magic and Deb, we went outside to get some pictures of Julie and Aimee for Alex's next book. I hope she got what she needed. I got better pictures in the arena. The light was low with harsh shadows when we were out this last time.

Warming up Aimee, an Arabian.

Warming up with some "at liberty" lunging.

Her head is high, but isn't she a lovely mare?

Once she was warmed up, we went back into the arena for more patterns. Julie worked on the same single rein as Deb, but her focus was more on incorporating it all together to get the right response out of the horse. (Does that make sense?) She did lots of diagonals, half turns, and half turns reversed. Alex kept telling her to ride deep into the corners, ride the inside hind deep into the corner. If you ride the shoulder in, the horse will get stuck.

As she rode, she was instructed to give lots of little releases, releasing the buckle all the way to the horse's neck. When the buckle was on the horse's neck, she was to ask for more energy. In a corner, she should cue the turn, release, and ask for energy -- like accelerating through a curve!

October 11, 2004

Ah, the best laid plans. I planned to take pictures all day today, to make this day sort of a photo journal of all the exercises, but my camera battery died before we started working with the horses. I got a few more Tai Chi photos...

No, this isn't Alex and Anna dancing. This is "push hands." It's a game of give and take to teach a person to maintain their grounding. The second picture shows what happens if you don't!

Since my camera battery died, I'll have to give written notes for the day. Bummer, because there were some cool things you really should have seen.

First horse up: Aimee. Julie and Aimee worked on activating the inside hip. Horses are comfortable doing a shoulder-in when they have room, but when they reach a corner, they want to drop their shoulder, lead from the front, and rush through. So we have to teach them to maintain the "rear-driven" behavior -- inside hind picks up the outside shoulder.

The exercise starts by having the horse do shoulder-in in a small circle around the handler. After one revolution, the handler asks the horse for a change of direction. Because of the small circle, the horse turns very close tot he handler. This is actually important -- it lets the handler find out if the horse has any propensity to run over her. If so, you don't continue this exercise.

With each revolution, the handler takes one step closer to the wall. This gives the horse a chance to gradually get used to working in tight quarters. Eventually the handler is right next to the wall. At that point she begins moving the horse in very small semicircles. Imagine the handler and horse standing at the wall, facing each other. The handler then pivots to face the other direction, and moves the horse around with her, so it's facing her on the other side. (See why a camera would be helpful?)

For the horse to make this move, his back end has to swing a lot further than his front end. The clickable movement is any moment the inside hind crosses to swing the butt around. This is "activating the hip."

The trainer continues doing the exercise, now moving one step further down the wall with each change of direction. This gives the horse lots of experience using his hips in close quarters, especially as you round corners.

Aimee has the most beautiful passage. Hopefully someone will share a picture or some video. I asked Julie how she taught the movement. She did a lot of in-hand exercises, including the one we just finished. Also, she did lots of back - forward - back - forward, clicking bounces forward. She did trotting in hand on a small circle and asked for a slower and slower trots. She said teaching "the pose" ahead of time helped too.

There was major improvement when we went back to the exercises we did Saturday and Sunday. Gorgeous turns. Lovely balance. Lovely rein mechanics.

A horse that is physically balanced is going to be emotionally balanced.

Dublin was up next. Marla worked more on increasing Dublin's impulsion. He has gotten stuck between "go forward" and "soften back." The goal is to be able to ask, get, and maintain the forward energy. Send from behind. Inside rein down, outside rein up, ask him to organize -- if he maintains through the corner, that's clickable.

Homework for Dublin is lots and lots of shoulder-in along the wall. Also lots of the exercises they've been doing, setting him up and letting him find his balance.

This work heals horses. If there's a metabolic problem, like Lyme disease, and they feel like crap, no, training won't fix it. But if the horse has physical problems -- even severe ones -- teaching him to use his body correctly can work miracles.

Now it was Bri's' turn. (How does one make a contraction like that possessive?) Alex started by putting orange duct tape in several positions on the mare's body. Each of these spots is a spot that the handler can use to move the horse. Today they concentrated on the spots on the lower hip (to move the body forward) and the jaw (for "gives to the bit). So in hand she moved Bri's forward using the spot on her lower hip, and then asked her to soften her jaw (while staying forward). This is the start of lateral work that will lead to shoulder-in.

There's an order to how she'll bring her head in: nose, ear elevation, poll.

Riding is just groundwork where you get to sit down.

Next they worked on head down under saddle. Alex refreshed the lesson in hand before Leslie mounted. When Leslie mounted, Alex showed her the cue. If Bri's responded to the cue with any head down, Leslie would release immediately, but she clicked only when her head went all the way down. If Bri's didn't respond to the cue, Leslie leaned over and lifted the reins straight up and maintained the contact until her head went home. This helps straighten her head and cue the drop. If her head straightens but doesn't drop, Leslie was to move the rein back and increase the pressure a tiny bit.

Cues grow out of what your body does when you think about and prepare the horse to do what you want.

Deb and Magic were the last pair. Most of their lesson was spent working on haunches in. This gelding really is a super star. They worked both sides on the ground, and then Deb took it under saddle. He got really, really excited -- "I can do it! Just let me do it!" It was fun to watch. He definitely still has some learning to do, and they need to practice, but he progressed SO much. It was really cool to see how fast he picked this up -- all due to Deb's extensive ground work with him.

They also worked a bit on improving his forward impulsion at the walk. Alex said it's really very common for a horse who has been worked extensively on softening back to have trouble with then being asked to have a lot of forward energy.

And then we were all done. We chatted about our Ah-ha moments and generally wrapped up. I had to hustle back, so I could get home at a reasonable time. I was really excited to see my horses, especially since Jay had been leaving me messages all weekend about how good they'd been.

Unfortunately, that ended when I ventured into the paddock to greet Quincy. Blue came over. Ears went back, and they lunged and reared, teeth bared at each other. I ran as they exploded into their running/kicking routine. I was pretty scared -- I was trapped in the paddock on the far side, away from the gate and the barn. I wasn't thrilled about walking through to get out. I didn't want to get run over! I swear they're resource guarding me.

Man, I was shaking like a leaf.


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