Two weeks ago I audited an awesome clicker training clinic with horse trainer Alexandra Kurland. If you are not familiar with Alexandra Kurland, I highly recommend checking out her website, The Clicker Center, as well as the books and DVDs that are available on her site. Alexandra has developed a comprehensive training program for using clicker training to develop a horse who is smart, physically and emotionally balanced, and fun to be around.
This was my third clicker training clinic with Alexandra Kurland. The Houston area has a great group of horse clicker trainers and Alexandra typically does a couple of Texas clinics in this area every year. This was a fun clinic because all of the participants have been studying with Alexandra for some time.
We were able to spend the weekend really diving into some advanced training ideas and concepts. I was only able to stay the first two days of the three-day clinic. Still, I learned a whole lot! I have plenty of good ideas now for things to try out with my horses, as well as a better idea of the purpose behind some of Alexandra’s more advanced exercises.
I’m dividing my notes from the clinic into three posts, as this will hopefully make them easier to read than one very long post. This first post will be about balance. Tomorrow, Thursday, I’ll post Part 2 of my notes, which will be about cues. And Friday I’ll post my final notes from the clinic, which will be a “catch all” post for everything fun that didn’t fit into the first two posts.
What is Balance?
This post is about balance, which was a big theme at the clinic. Balance can mean a lot of different things during clicker training. Because most people ride their horses, trainers need methods to teach horses to be physically balanced. Years of riding can do a lot of physical damage to a horse if the horse is constantly moving incorrectly and out of balance.
Balance also relates to emotions and energy. Many training methods create frustration and stress for the horse and can lead to emotional meltdowns or explosions. Instead, clicker trainers want to set up their training sessions to help achieve certain energy levels and to teach emotional self control.
Finally, we want to balance the behaviors we teach our horses. Clicker trainers who have studied Alexandra Kurland’s work are probably familiar with a mantra she often repeats — for every behavior we teach, there is an opposite behavior that we also must teach. This includes teaching behaviors that complement each other and also knowing that we can ask for certain behaviors when we want them. For example, sometimes a rider wants to be able to ask her horse for a lot of energy, engagement and movement. Other times, the rider wants to be able to tell the horse that it’s okay to take some time to chill out and relax.
Being able to ask for certain energy levels is actually a pretty advanced skill. A lot of horse trainers (and dog trainers) run into trouble because they do not know how to teach this. Think about the animals you see in many of the high energy sports, such as racehorses, barrel racing and other mounted games, and dog agility. Many of these trainers find ways for getting their animals super pumped up and high energy. However, many do not know how to achieve speed and exuberance, while still maintaining focus and precision. Most trainers, as well, do not know how to dial the energy back down and ask the animal to settle and relax after the show or game is over.
With some behaviors the trainer wants high energy and with some the trainer wants low energy but, most importantly, the energy level needs to be manageable. Even more importantly, within the same behavior, the trainer often wants to be able to ask for several different versions of that behavior.
For example, consider asking your horse to step onto and then wait on a mat. Many times, the trainer wants the horse engaged, focused and ready, waiting for the next cue. Other times, however, the trainer wants to park the horse on the mat while she spends a few minutes rearranging the jumps and other toys in the arena. In this second situation, the trainer might want to be able to tell the horse that it’s okay for the horse to take his focus off of her and just chill out and relax for a while. Depending on what the trainer is working on, there could be lots of other variations of the focus and energy level that trainer wants when the horse is on the mat. The key is to recognize the distinctions between these different situations and to train in such a way so that you can communicate to the horse exactly what you want.
One thing we worked a lot on at the clinic was walking. Several of the clinic participants worked on their horses’ walks, both on the ground and under saddle. Many riders dismiss the walk, wanting to work at faster gaits. A good walk, however, is difficult to perfect! More importantly, if a rider can achieve good balance and movement at the walk, the other gaits will come much more easily.
One participant worked awhile the first day on the ground, walking with her horse around a medium sized circle of cones. The horse had a lovely, forward moving, engaged walk. She played with asking for a more collected walk for a while and then asking for a stretched out, more relaxed walk, although still with the same forward moving energy. The difficulty here was in having two different great walks and in being able to ask the horse to switch between them.
Hip Shoulder Shoulder
One exercise we talked a lot about at the clinic was Alexandra Kurland’s Hip Shoulder Shoulder (HSS) exercise. This is actually not an exercise I have played around with much, but I would like to some in the future. The clinic really helped me understand the different variations of this exercise, as well as their purposes. If you are interested in learning more about this exercise, Alexandra has a whole DVD about it and discusses it in her riding book.
The barebones basics of the exercise, for those who aren’t familiar with it, are that the trainer starts by drawing the horse forward, then asks the horse to swing his hips away, then asks for several steps backward. The inside hind should really be stepping underneath the horse and over in front of the other hind.
If taught using clicker training, Hip Shoulder Shoulder is both a safety exercise and an advanced performance exercise. As a safety exercise, if a trainer can ask a horse to take his hips around, she can stop him from bolting off or barging over her. Training and practicing safety tools are important when working with a 1000-pound animal. If you can ask the horse to take his hips around and then back up, you can control his movement and get his focus back on you.
Alexandra teaches taking the horse’s hips around as a forward moving exercise. This means that as the horse is yielding his hips around, there is also some forward motion. The trainer uses this exercise to redirect the horse’s movement, not to completely stop or block movement. Especially with a stressed or frustrated horse, completely blocking the horse’s energy and movement can make the horse feel blocked and trapped – the horse becomes a coiled spring, waiting to explode. By allowing some forward motion, the trainer can use HSS to spiral down the horse’s energy and help the horse to relax and settle.
The second version of HSS, at the level of refinement, is an upper level performance exercise that can lead to better gaits and performance. For both versions, the trainer wants this to be a forward moving exercise. This is much more comfortable for the horse and doesn’t lead to the horse getting jammed up.
On the first day of the clinic, one participant worked on HSS with her high energy Arabian-pony cross. The pony was a very smart little mare, but at the beginning of the session was very unfocused and also a bit nippy. The trainer would let the pony move around her, then would ask the pony to yield her hips, back up, and then lower her head.
During the head down potions of this work, the handler spent lots of time stroking and scratching with the horse. She was looking for clickable moments where the horse’s eyes would soften or lips would wiggle. This participant had done lots of practice at home with HSS and head lowering, so she was able to use these exercises as management tools to allow the horse to move, while also bringing the horse’s energy down and the horse’s focus back onto her.
Alexandra discussed the importance of learning to carefully observe the horse’s body language and emotional cues and to recognize signs of worry and stress before they build. At some time, we all will probably encounter frustration, ugly faces or emotional meltdowns from our horses. So, trainers should think about and train management tools for when horses are excited, high energy, or unfocused. If the trainer can be accurately reading the horse and using her clicker training tool box, she can lead the dance, even with a horse who’s behavior was drifting toward out of control.
Practice Balancing with Human Horses
On the second morning of the clinic, we played around a bit with HSS using human horses. What this means is that one person would hold onto the lead rope and pretend to be the horse. Before attempting an exercise with your horse, it’s a great idea to practice it first with another human. We talked a lot about the human’s physical balance and also about mechanical skills. If the human is balanced and has good mechanical skills, it will be much easier for the horse to figure out what is wanted and to keep his body balanced.
With the human horses, we tried to find the “sweet spot” during HSS. The handler would ask the “horse” to take one step forward at a time, brining the horse around in a small circle (similar to asking a real horse to yield his hips around). As you do this, there comes a point where the horse shifts his weight, realigns himself, and is ready to back up. If we can catch the horse at this point, it only takes a tiny suggestion and the horse can easily float several steps backward. If we don’t find the right spot, asking the horse to go forward and then back can feel sudden and jammed.
Finding the sweet spot where the horse can easily and smoothly access backing means we end up needing to ask much less of the horse, because we’ve set him up so that he can easily do what we want. This was very interesting to do with human horses! For a while, we had the human horse indicate when she felt her weight shift so that she was ready to back up. It was really interesting for the trainer to then get to see if that would have been a point where she would have asked the horse to back up. HSS helps get the horse light in his movements, so that the trainer can easily ask him to shift his balance forward, backward, left or right.
One thing I really like about working with Alexandra is that she teaches the tiny details that can help take clicker training from good to awesome. I trained one of the other human participants for a while. I started at the beginning by asking her to move forward and step around me. But, I wasn’t very organized to begin with and we were quickly spinning in little circles, becoming out of control.
So, we stepped way back and at Alexandra’s suggestion, I worked on just asking her to take one step forward and then I would click (and pretend to feed her a treat). This is a seemingly simple clicker training exercise to do (with a horse or human), but there are a lot of subtle things that can take it from okay to really stellar. For instance, even sliding down the rope to ask the horse to move a step forward takes a lot of practice to get perfect. Sliding your hand down the rope needs to feel smooth and light to the horse and not at all sudden or forced.
We also talked a lot about physical balance while delivering treats. One thing Alexandra said to remember is that food delivery comes from the feet. When feeding a treat to a horse, you need to be balanced all the way up through your body, starting with the way your weight is in your feet and coming up through the rest of your body and spine. You need to be balanced and aligned in the right spot so that the horse can easily take the treat off of your palm.
The human’s balance greatly affects the horse’s balance. If your horse has a lot of problems with a particular exercise or behavior, look at both the horse physically and yourself physically. Does the horse physically have the balance, flexibility, and strength to perform the behavior repeatedly? Are you setting up the situation so that it is physically easy for the horse to do the behavior or does your horse feel like he’s twisting himself into a pretzel?
Don’t feel rushed while delivering treats. If you need a couple of seconds to get yourself in a good position before delivering a treat, do so! Don’t rush and feed the horse a treat in a position in which you are physically out of balance. Poor food delivery can create grumpy and frustrated horses. For instance, if the person is out of balance and feeding too far down or forward, the person can end up throwing the horse’s weight forward on to his forehand.
(For a great example of food delivery, see this short video clip by Amanda Martin. Many people, when on the horse’s left side, deliver treats with their right hand. Notice which hand Amanda uses to feed the treats—her left hand. She rotates toward the horse and then feeds with the hand in the front. This position is something I learned a couple of years back from Alexandra. I’ve found in my own training that this style of treat delivery is much more comfortable for both the horse and the human.)
One thing that Alexandra often repeats is that physical balance creates emotional balance. There’s a lot of truth to this. If your horse feels balanced throughout his body, it will be much easier for him to relax and settle. If the human’s poor mechanical skills are continually throwing the horse out of balance, this is not only confusing and frustrating, it physically just doesn’t feel good to the horse.
One of the most interesting parts about this human horse work was that we were doing it in the clinic host’s kitchen, a small, confined space. So, the handler had to be very precise and deliberate in her cues to help the horse avoid running into things. The puzzle was to create a nice, flowing, dance-like exchange of cues between human horse and trainer, without bumping into the counters or china cabinet.
Good balance and communication between horse and trainer take time and practice to develop. Another mantra that Alexandra likes to remind her students is that the more you stick with an exercise, the more good things you’ll see that will come out of it. This was very true of a lot of the clicker training exercises we worked on at the clinic, particularly Hip Shoulder Shoulder.
Many “simple” behaviors, such as standing on a mat, head lowering, backing, or moving the hindquarters, are basic behaviors many people teach at the beginning of clicker training. These (and other) first behaviors teach the horse and human about clicker training skills and help build a language so that the trainer can communicate successfully with the horse while remaining safe. However, as you work on refinement of some of these “simple” behaviors, you will begin to discover the subtle details of some of these exercises and how the behavior or exercise will aid in developing much more advanced behaviors.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my Tomball clicker training clinic notes, which will be all about cues. I’ll be posting part two tomorrow (Wednesday).
This post is the first part of my notes about a horse clicker training clinic that I audited with Alexandra Kurland in Texas in February. Click here for the rest of the posts in this series.