Alexandra Kurland – The art of asking questions

Recently, I was reading over some of the posts from my conference and clinics notes page. And I realized that I had never finished posting my notes from the 2014 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference! So, I’ll be sharing notes from the last three talks this week and next week. You can find all of my conference notes on this page.

ORCA conference at UNT 2014

Training with tactile cues

Alexandra Kurland began her lecture by discussing tactile cues. Almost all trainers use at least some cues that involve physical contact and touch. However, horse trainers tend to use more tactile cues and use tactile cues in a slightly different way from other trainers. For example, if a rider leans back slightly and shifts a bit more weight into her heels and seat, this might signal the horse to slow down from a fast trot, to a slower trot. Or, if the rider shifts her hips, turns her chin to the left, and raises the left rein an inch, the horse feels these movements and understands to start circling to the left. A tremendous amount of subtle information can be exchanged through touch and tactile cues.

One of the problems with tactile cues is that horse trainers have traditionally trained these cues using physical force and coercion. The horse learns to obey a tiny, subtle tactile cue because if the horse doesn’t, the trainer turns to a bigger, more forceful way of telling the horse what to do. For example, if the horse doesn’t turn to the left when the rider shifts her weight and lifts the rein, the traditional rider might then pull hard on the rein to get the horse to turn, yanking the bit in the horse’s mouth.

Part of the puzzle for horse clicker trainers is finding ways to teach and use tactile cues and touch cues in such ways that they are only informational cues that “ask,” and never warning cues that “demand.” This means that the horse perceives the cue as information only and does not associate the cue with any kind of pressure, threat, or force.

Alexandra Kurland said that when training an animal, trainers always need to be evaluating whether they are “asking” or “telling” the animal. For example, the trainer can “tell” the horse to shift his weight over so that the trainer can pick up his foot. This can be followed by a click and treat that says “Thank you” to the horse, but the trainer’s intention was still to tell the horse, rather than to make a request. If “asking,” the trainer might instead ask for a series of behaviors related to whether the horse can shift his balance and pick up his foot. During this process, the trainer discovers that the horse will pick up his foot, but that it is uncomfortable to the horse if she holds the foot a certain way.

The art of asking questions

So, how do you make sure you are asking and not telling your animal to do something, particularly if you use tactile and physical cues? How do you interact with an animal in such a way that you are making requests, rather than placing demands? How can you turn training into a two-way conversation?

Alexandra Kurland discussed at length an example of a big buckskin horse that did not like to have his ears handled or to have certain parts of his body touched. The videos in this part of the presentation were probably my favorite part of Alexandra’s lecture, as it was really interesting to see how she opened up the conversation so that this horse was participating in the training, rather than having things done to him.

Alexandra Kurland says that trainers have to approach training playfully. When you are in a play state, you can come up with creative solutions. With the buckskin horse, Alexandra started by completely ignoring his ears. Instead, she started by asking different questions. She did this by working on a handful of different tasks, using her hands as targets. She asked the horse: Can you touch your chin to my hand? Can you touch your nostril to my hand? Can you touch your cheek to my hand? Then, she started building duration with each of these behaviors. By asking questions with a variety of different body parts, the horse started participating in the training process. This made it much easier when she did go back to working with the horse’s ears.

In a second video, Alexandra was working on touching the big buckskin horse on his hindquarters and tail, two areas where he was also very hesitant to be touched. Once again, Alexandra started by asking questions. However, this time she did so in a slightly different way.

For this task, Alexandra started by setting up a predictable chains of behaviors that she and the horse did together, before she would move toward his hindquarters. This set up a system for asking questions. Because the horse understood the routine, Alexandra could ask questions at certain critical steps and wait for the horse’s permission before she moved forward.

For example, in one part of the chain, Alexandra Kurland would stroke down the horse’s back. This was a cue for the horse to lower his head, but also a question. If the horse did not lower his head, Alexandra would not go on to the next step. If the horse lowered his head, Alexandra would continue stroking back toward the horse’s hindquarters. By asking questions and listening to the horse’s answers, Alexandra was able to assess the horse’s comfort level and how she should progress with the training.

What questions should you be asking?

Alexandra Kurland listed a handful of training questions that you can ask when training. These are particularly well suited for tactile cues and for when we are touching the animal and feeling the movement of the animal. Here are just a few of the questions she gave:

What do I feel in my hands?
Where does the movement begin and end?
How does the behavior change with repetition?
Is the movement the same from both sides?
What else moves when the animal does this behavior?
Is there another way this behavior could be done?

One problem with tactile cues is that it can be quite difficult to teach another person the skills of giving and interpreting tactile cues. This is because a person observing someone else cannot feel what is happening. Often these skills are learned over time through experience and much trial and error.

One of Alexandra Kurland’s recommendations is often to put the horse (or other animal) back in the barn and work on your mechanical skills and observational skills first with another person playing the role of the animal. This can then make it easier to use and interpret tactile cues when working with a horse (or other animal). For example, I’ve been at clinics with Alexandra where we have worked on rope handling exercises with another person as the “horse.” During these exercises, Alexandra sometimes has people take turns closing their eyes. In this way, you really learn to “listen” to the tactile cues that are coming from the other person!


Near the end of her talk, Alexandra Kurland said that “When there is no fear or pain, learning can occur immediately.” I think this is so important to remember, no matter what species you work with. Learning will happen much faster when the animal is willing and happy and is not anxious or afraid. When training your animals this week, think some about how you can be sure that you are asking questions and not placing demands.

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  • Hertha

    Hi Mary,
    Thank you for another great summary. When I was busy with long-reining Boots when I taught her to pull a cart, I went along to some driving club activities. One was a little long-reining course. I was hoping to introduce the concept of long-lining each other to see how it felt because of how much my friend and I learned from the experience. Only two people were willing to try it and only if I was the horse. What I mainly came away with was that I was sure glad I wasn’t a horse belonging to that woman! There is nothing quite a effective as doing simulations. It sure gives a big insight into the sort of questions we can ask in order to progress at a pace that the horse is comfortable with.