May 2005 -- Alex's Clinic
May 13 , 2005
Hmmm. This isn't starting well. I thought the clinic was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and instead it's Saturday, Sunday, Monday. So I have to stay an extra day. Of course, it could be worse -- I could have screwed up the other way and missed a day!
On the bright side, my motel room had a lovely view of Mt. St. Helens.
Saturday, May 14 , 2005
I guarantee that Alex's clinics are unlike any you have ever gone to before. Where else would you spend three days of a riding clinic at the walk??
Everything Alex says resonates in my soul. I wish, wish, wish I was able to study more closely with her.
Anyway, here we go...
At this seminar we have lots of horses and people in different stages of training/learning. Alex said that many people get frustrated with clicker training horses because they feel like there are just disconnected exercises, not a true progression. Alex said that isn't true and plans to go over the progression this morning.
There are many ways to get behavior, but some are dead ends, meaning they won't help you in the next step of the progression. The methods Alex will share will get us to the next phase. She'll give us the roadmap (her progression), and each person must pick the place on the map that they want to concentrate on this weekend.
Don't rearrange the furniture until you see what room of the house you're in.
Alex said that one of the big problems horse owners who clicker train face is dealing with the enthusiasm. Horse people are used to the shut down horses that traditional training produces.
Alex told the group about TAGTeaching (http://www.tagteach.com). A system of clicker training physical skills in humans. I mentioned that there's a tagging seminar in Washington state in July. She showed the new Clicker+, and told us about observing a group of people tagging each other. One used a box clicker, one the Clicker+, and one a verbal "Yes." She said it was really clear that the "Yes" just didn't penetrate the trainee's brain the same way.
After the introduction, Alex showed pictures. She started with a photo of Nuno Olivero on a horse that she considers the ideal form. His methods of achieving that perfection weren't gentle though.
Two experiences shaped what Alex wants in her own horses. First, she trained with Bettina Drummond. During one lunge line lesson, she experienced a moment of magic when everything gelled. That feeling became her ideal. Alex's passion is the balance and equilibrium of the horse. The second experience was that a horse came to Bettina lame in all four legs. Bettina organized the mare, and she was able to move soundly. When Bettina released her, she was lame again. Alex saw the mare a few months later, and there was no lameness. She thinks this method can be good for the horses on the level of Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, or the Alexander Technique for humans. She used this to heal her own horse, Peregrine, of his stifle problems.
When sharing clicker training, she first shares safety. She wants the horses to be fun to be around and comfortable in their own bodies. This is common ground for all the people who attend her clinics no matter what discipline they ride, they all want the horses to be fun and safe. This part of the training makes the horses good partners.
After the partnership/safety part of the progression comes the form. She showed pictures of Julie Varley and Allie and told their story. She said when you watch Allie what you get is a sense of serenity. Next she showed pictures of Deb and Magic. Mastering head down changed both Magic and Allie. Deb noticed the same physical changes in Magic's expression that Karen had noted in her horse. The last pictures were of Julie Jacobs and Amy. Amy was starved and abused and responded by becoming fearful. The before and after photos are amazing - it's hard to see them as the same horse.
You don't have to have an expensive warmblood to get the magical frame and movement. You can have a backyard horse.
Next clicker basics. Horses are not dogs. In Karen Pryor's "Clicker Magic," there's a typical adolescent golden, leaping and bouncing off everyone. She compared that dog to Sarah's Gregor, who was a stallion who demonstrated essentially the same behaviors. It's clearly a lot easier to handle and accept the behavior in a dog than in a horse. This is why Alex begins with protected contact.
Timing issues. When you use pressure/release of pressure, the "reward" is delivered with the release. So if you have good timing, the reward is delivered at the moment the desired behavior occurs. It's harder to deliver a positive reinforcer at the exact moment that the desired behavior occurs. So this is why we use the clicker. The clicker bridges the moments between the behavior and the delivery of the treat.
Alex introduces the clicker with targeting. She chooses targeting for several reasons. It's a clean-slate behavior, not poisoned. It's black and white with a clear clickable moment. It doesn't require a lot of trainer skill. And it enables a high rate of reinforcement.
When she introduces the target, she watches the horse to learn his emotional state and how he learns. She starts in protective contact and stays there until she feels there's no danger from the horse.
She discussed different methods of getting behavior. Using pressure and release with the clicker is "sugar coating same old, same old." Still, it's much better than just using same old, same old. But, if that's all you do, you're missing out on much of the magic of the clicker. Early on she saw people who did a lot of shaping and had a lot of uncontrolled offering of behavior. Those people needed to impose more structure and to teach more self-control behaviors.
With some horses, when you take away the threat of punishment, they feel free to express their emotions and they don't necessarily have very nice things to say. So she starts with targeting, learning about any emotional states that might create obstacles to developing a relationship.
The next foundation lesson is happy faces. This is shaping the horse to have his ears forward. This lesson helps people become more aware of body language and details.
After happy faces comes "the grownups are talking; please don't interrupt." She puts on a halter and cotton lead, and adjusts the length so the horse can't graze and self-reinforce. The handler is instructed to stand in a neutral body position with hands crossed and held close to the abdomen. This gives limited surface area for nibbling. The body language becomes a cue for standing still. This is also a good exercise for manipulating rates of reinforcement.
Click for action, feed for position. Be sure to have a neutral body position BEFORE clicking. She uses duct tape as a target for her hands - her treat hand must come to a neutral position on the duct tape target before she can click again.
The horses will tell you what they need to work on.
After she gets some duration to Grownups, she adds happy ears and other precision elements. She stacks criteria by priority.
Alex works 20 treats at a time. She counts out the treats, does a quick session on one behavior, then while refilling her treat pouch both gives the horse a mental break and has a chance to evaluate what she has done (and plan where to go next).
Alex then went back to targeting and discussed using food delivery to her advantage. She showed how to feed in the horse's chest to get him to back out of her space. This is good to prevent mugging. This also teaches the handler to use his body to move the horse. Don't just use your hand - use your whole body.
At this point she begins head down and backing. You can use the target to get head down initially. Then it's easy to transfer the cue to pressure on the poll. Alex teaches several different cues for head down.
She starts backing with the feeding after targeting, but eventually she transfers that to lead rope pressure.
Some mechanical skills are more clicker compatible than others. Shaking the lead rope to get the horse to move backwards is not clicker compatible. Some traditional skills poison the experience.
We then moved to the arena to do some mechanical work. When a horse is tight he cannot feel you, and when you are tight, you cannot feel him. Being able to slide up and down the lead rope is the number one clicker-compatible rope handling skill. To have a soft, light horse and then be rough with the rope is rude.
Next we did an exercise with moving our hand to the jaw and "rotating our bones" to ricochet our energy. We'll use this, coupled with our own forward body energy, to send the horses around. It's not aggressive just a burst of energy.
The horse's gaits are a reflection of the tension and energy of the rider. Soft horses will stay sound longer because they're not pounding into the ground.
Next Alex moved into riding performance. She had two people form a "horse," and she guided them through her progression.
I was taking pictures and missed much of this. However, I did get the complete list of her progression:
Balance your behaviors - Every behavior has an opposite. For example, if you teach the horse to stand still, teach him to go forward.
When riding you have both where and how. If you focus on where, it will deliver how. However, the opposite is not necessarily true.
Next we went to the arena and people evaluated where they were with their horses
Marla and Dublin. Dublin has trouble moving away from Marla, so they used a circle of cones and encouraged him to work outside of them.
Judi and Marico. Marico gets fast when asked to shoulder in. So Alex gave them a lunging assignment. This is a repeat of an exercise Alex gave Julie and Amy in October, so copying from my notes from that clinic...
Working in patterns like this helps the horse. Because he can anticipate what's required, he can concentrate on the learning and cues and such.
Deb and Magic. Magic hasn't been working, and he had some unevenness that was unusual. So Alex instructed her to get on and walk on a loose rein and just ask, "How do you feel?" Alex told her to listen to her own body. Anything that doesn't feel like you is Magic.
Several pairs Bo and Shauna, Jeanne and Laddie, and Laura and Shimmer played the "Why would you leave me?" (WWYLM) game. In this game, the handler leads the horse and asks him to give and put his nose in an imaginary four-inch box in front of the handler's abdomen. If the inside shoulder drops or leans into your space, use the lead rope to rock the horse back a bit. This teaches the horse to bend. They did three releases and then changed direction - a preparation for 3 flip 3.
In 3 flip 3, the handler asks for three gives good, better, best. Good means the jaw tips toward you. Better means the ear tips toward you. Best means the poll tips toward you. Then you ask for the hip to yield. The inside shoulder should lift, not go over and down.
Before you move to 3 flip 3, the horse needs to be remaining in the lateral flexion between gives.
The pieces of the puzzle evolve - you don't make it happen.
There is no ideal count in a pattern like this because it depends on the mechanical skills of the handler and where the horse is in his body. The better the balance, the tighter the count.
The walk is the mother of all gaits.
The click happens where you need to insert information.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
This morning we're going to start with the mechanics of picking up the reins. The reason the mechanics are the way they are is because of the nature of forward. When you send a horse out on a lunge you're saying, "Go away but not too far." When you get the balance right, the horse is on the circle, soft and balanced. You want him to move the hind end but soften the front end. WWYLM (Why would you leave me) teaches this concept.
The reins affect four things. The inside rein affects head elevation and bend. The outside rein affects engagement and leg speed. Leg speed is cadence - rhythm and suspension.
If you apply pressure to the horse's nose, the normal and natural reaction for the horse is to stiffen and change leg speed before giving at the poll. We're trying to change that with these exercises. We want him to bend at the poll first. All of these exercises are designed to teach the horse to go forward but also to soften back and flex.
In all there are definite mechanical skills. In single rein, Alex doesn't want to ask for forward until the horse can soften. In lateral flexion she wants flexion and softness before they pick up leg speed.
Lifting the buckle is a cue for the horse to tuck and engage his hindquarters. When you lift the buckle, the goal is that the horse comes alive with energy. To do the exercise: Lift the buckle with one hand. The other softly meets it at the belly button. As the first hand lifts the buckle, the second hand slides down and stabilizes on the saddle where there is no slack in the rein. Then the rider rotates his bones so he adds slight tension. When the horse softens and gives, release. As the horse becomes softer, he will release sooner, before stabilizing. Great - release early.
Don't take out so much slack that you move the horse. He should offer.
When holding the rein, use the little finger!
We took a fascinating tangent then where we discussed tack. Some of the bridles are incredibly heavy, as are the slobber straps and reins. This is not necessarily comfortable to a soft horse.
When you activate the hip, lift the hand and look over your shoulder - don't twist down to look at the hip.
Alex has found that when people spend a significant chunk of time working on single rein riding, they forget how to organize two reins. She demonstrated: Lift the buckle and stabilize it on your torso until the horse flexes at the poll. Then slide one hand down to the saddle and stabilize. Gather BOTH reins in that hand, then move the first hand down. The hands shouldn't initially be even. The outside rein will be higher (until the horse learns the cue) to cue the inside hind to lift.
Up is up. When you pick up the rein, up means up, not forward. You'll encounter resistance initially because this is new to the horse, but you need to wait for him to give instead of you going to him.
So we practiced picking up the single rein
First tag point:
Hands together at belly button.
The first rein you pick up is the "inside rein." This is how, not where. Inside doesn't necessarily relate to the track - the horse could be on a counter bend.
What's necessary at this point is for your body to energize your horse.
Discoveries during the exercise
In the afternoon we took the lateral flexions we practiced in the morning onto the horses After people rode, I asked them to describe what they did and what they learned. After dinner, Alex asked them essentially the same thing. I've compiled the conversations for each person below.
Marla worked on getting Dublin to stretch out to the contact while giving softly so he can step through with his hind end. Dublin uses flexion to avoid forward. So she was trying to get him to give to the inside and stretch forward to the outside, all the while keeping contact between the two hands (Tai Chi wall). Then the outside rein could go in or out to enlarge the circle or keep his outside shoulder from falling. Marla had to work with the two reins, and had to develop the mechanics to keep her shoulders and elbows in place. Also Dublin's engagement doesn't match his amount of flexion, so she had to work on increasing his engagement. When it worked, it was like she had all this power under her, but he was floating with her. The key was to use her seat to activate longer, more forward energy. Also, she caught herself leaning forward, and when she brought up her head, he came up several inches.
She said Beauty was awesome. She was best at one end of the arena. She took her to the other end and did head down. So she did a version of "squashed roadkill." Finally she got soft and relaxed and she could stop and take treats. Then they moved into the center of the ring and did an exercise with Alex. She was glad she had done squashed roadkill first! The exercise was one rein riding in which she was trying to stop Beauty with her nose pointing a cone in the center. She wasn't working in a circle, but she would work back and forth and try to come back and stop near the cone. At the cone she would always change the direction in which she was asking for the give. Little by little they got closer to the cone, and when she got closer to the cone, Marla would let her rest. When she got calm and relaxed, Marla began to ask her to leave from the halt with an energetic walk. She was able to stop facing only one direction. She learned that she needs several more hours of this. She thinks this would be good for a horse who bulges through the shoulder. It gives you lots of practice with baby gives. This exercise isn't about getting to the halt fast - it's about getting the halt softly. The rein will both energize and shut down energy.
Bo worked on WWYLM, and then worked on the beginning of 3 flip 3. Her mare's hip wasn't coming underneath her. Then Bo realized that she wasn't sitting on her right seatbone, and when she corrected that, her mare's hip came underneath. Shauna's right side isn't as soft, but Bo noticed improvement as they worked. Sitting on the right hip really made a difference. By the end Shauna was holding the pose on her own, and Bo was picking up the rein just to get the give. Bo learned she really needs to ride more. It feeds her soul. She learned how important it was to use both sides of her body and to practice both sides.
Alex read a passage from "The Tipping Point" about what happens when people talk. He discovered cultural micro-rhythms that underlie conversations. He took an ethological approach, watching until the order emerged. He found these rhythms in body language, latency, speech rate, volume, and pitch. What we're looking for when we interact with our horses are synchrony and micro-rhythms. Don't mistake the choreography for the dance, the notes for the music.
Judi worked on good, better, best with jaw flexion. She learned how little it took to get the proper flexion and how easy it was for Marico to get overflexed. Judi said working on the mechanical skills were helpful and FUN. She has gotten all kinds of ideas of things she can work on with Marico. She said the 1, 2, 3 is like a waltz step. She has known Marico her whole life, but in a way, they're just getting to know each other. It was interesting to feel her to leave and come back. This is neat because it builds in the direction she wants to go.
Deb worked Magic on changes in bend, shoulder in, counter shoulder in, haunches in, and haunches out. Some of these were new to her, but the pieces to do them were all there. Magic looked and felt great today!!
Mary learned a lot about her shoulders. She wants Alex to work on her shoulders. She learned a lot from the moment when Jeanne got OFF Laddie. Mary had, like all of us, been taught that you don't get off when you're scared - you ride through it. But that's incredibly stupid. She had an experience where she ignored that voice telling her to get off the horse, and it turned out that the horse was being "girth galled." For her this is more than clicker training it's about good horsemanship.
Alex says you start with a belief system, and then come principles. She believes that horses are intelligent and deserve respect and kindness. That's the underlying belief system. The principles are things like "safety comes first."
Laura likes the "belief system then principles" piece. She said it will be important to her students. Laura was disappointed to find that Shimmer had thrown a shoe and was ouchie. She put on a hoof boot and was able to work in hand. What we did this morning cemented a lot of the pieces for her, which made her anxious to ride. Years ago, she had a big problem with Shimmer running away, which always began with her horse falling on her forehand. Today she had the same problem with Shimmer wanting to fall forward on her nose and getting fast. Her tendency was to take an outside rein, but Alex pointed out that would hide what's really there. So Alex took Shimmer and modified the rein position a bit. Shimmer needs to get her poll higher and organize herself.
Jeanne said the morning really helped her this afternoon, and she said it was really helpful to work in teams this morning. She also found the sharing of the emotional responses after the morning session to be helpful.
I've been listening and learning with the intent of applying it to Guin and Blue when I get back. I'm really interested in teaching the horses to bend. Alex said, single rein teaches you to stabilize to a point of contact (and not to go past that), and it teaches you to let go.
Karen learned about the magic that comes from proper alignment - she still feels like she has a rod of white energy down her back (and she'd like more!). She really believes that you should listen to your horse and believe what they're saying. She's also interested in the 3 flip 3.
Alex loved the importance of the tag point of letting the elbows drop that was revealed during Karen's experience this morning. It was such clarity into the importance of the details. There are sequences and steps that must be in place before you move on.
Monday, May 16, 2005
This morning Alex wanted to talk about the disengaging of the hip. It's your pivot point - it gives you safety, gives you collection, gives you upper level work. And if it's not done well, it's a doorway into horse hell.
The jaw delivers the hip, and the hip delivers the jaw.
One of the underlying reasons for 3 flip 3 is that asking for the hip is a fairly rude thing to ask. It's the equivalent of demanding, "Give me your power!" So this is a gentle way to ask: "Here I come Get ready Almost there Give me your hip Was that okay?... Was that okay?... Was that okay?"
Eventually 3 flip 3 turns into hip shoulder shoulder.
You're looking for finesse. If the horse is in an emotional state, the movement is crude. You want to find the dance, the micro-rhythm.
There is an emergency way to compel the give of the hip. Parelli describes the motion as taking the rein like it's a butcher knife and then stabbing yourself in the thigh, and if that doesn't work, stab yourself in the gut, and if that doesn't work, stab yourself in the shoulder. This is very powerful is you MUST have that hip. It's good to know where the power lies and then never use it.
During "good, better, best," you can be gradually picking up more rein so that when you finally ask for the hip you are on a short rein. But if you get the horse overflexed you won't get the hip - you'll get the horse falling out over his outside shoulder. Alex took a broom handle and held it where it would be across the base of the horse's neck. She said not to let the horse's nose come past the broom handle.
If your horse does overflex, you can ask him to straighten by moving your hand forward to the point that the rein is straight above the horse's jaw. Don't cross over the horse's neck though.
Getting gives and softness is not about pulling the horse. "I can always pull. I'm a primate." Going to a point of contact and waiting for a give is a learned response.
We went into the arena and did a few of the basic Tai Chi moves. We warmed up a bit, and then she demonstrated the Tai Chi walk. In this walk, you stand on one foot, and keeping all your weight on that foot, you move the other foot forward. You form the platform and only then shift the weight to that foot.
Alex then combined that with "good, better, best," and showed us how the dance should feel when you ride it. (Amazing!)
During this session, she got into a discussion of how to teach a horse to do an inside turn on a lunge line. The traditional way has a moment of fear before the horse figures a way out of predicament. So Alex watched the traditional technique, chunked it down, and turned it into a dance. She got the technique without taking the belief system!
So to teach the inside turns, she asks for "good, better, best" to start the curve, then backs the horse around the curve, and then asks the horse for forward in the opposite direction.
Time to get the horses. Laura still couldn't ride Shimmer, so Marla generously offered her Dublin. How fun to watch! He's a clown. Again, I asked each rider what she did and what she learned:
Laura loved riding Dublin! Gives come before you do any turns. So when she first got on, she asked for gives and clicked after each, three each side. Then she moved to three gives and a click. The biggest challenge was keeping him forward, because he wants to stall out, but it was her responsibility to keep him walking and stepping up into the rein. She had to have enough connection with her outside rein that it was solid for him, but didn't come so much into her chest that it made her stiff. Elbow in, shoulder down was a big part of the mechanics of that. She had to work on keeping her wrist aligned as well. She learned that as soon as she asked for one give and released, she needed to immediately ask for the next one. She switched sides frequently. She said she learned not to have a long pause between changing sides either. Feel what the horse is doing. She got some really nice lifts from him. Sometimes she could really feel his hind end swing, and sometimes she could really feel him lift his back or his shoulders. Sometimes he would lift and really reach forward for the bit. Once she felt what he had to offer, it was easier to ask for the pieces. Alex told her to really make sure he gave before she released don't just fall into a pattern.
Bo practiced 3 flip 3 and moved into hip, shoulder, shoulder. Shauna always has her hips underneath her now. Bo wanted Alex to help her break down the pieces of hip shoulder, shoulder so she could really feel all the alignments and misalignments. Shauna's neck is in better alignment than it has been. Bo can really tell by how much mane lies on the off side of her neck. Normally it's about seven inches, and today she got it down to one inch. It may be realigned now, but the muscle needs to be retrained so it can maintain herself. This work is great for it! Bo had a great time this weekend!!!
Jeanne said three people have commented on her own physical change in appearance this weekend. Her goal this weekend was to be relaxed, which is hard on her, and to have these unsolicited comments tells her that she has reached a huge goal - now she just has to maintain it. Working with Laddie, getting him to do the gives and the hip softly, has been huge. Working on the circle going backwards today, she overcame a huge sticking point, and he was able to continue moving. It hadn't occurred to her to use a circle of cones to do this exercise, but found it quite helpful. Alex helped her get really light when backing and when asking him to displace the head. Jeanne felt that riding today was not important, but she was riding on the ground by working on the 3 flip 3 with him in motion. (When she was mounted yesterday, she did three flip three with him stationary.) This was also the first time he has stood on a mat away from home, and she has been very pleased with how long he stood quietly by her side during discussions over the past several days. This is the first clicker training clinic she has attended, and has only been clicker training since January. It was good to have the work she has done acknowledged, and it was a huge step forward for both Laddie and her. Jeanne added, Alex is articulate and humble... We're all striving for better communication and better results!
Judi worked on the baby gives, but what she really concentrated on was her own timing and feel. As she improved that, the gives improved. She said it didn't really matter if they were bad at first, because they improved so much. She said what was really great was how much this settles her. It's a great way to refine your feel.
Marla started with Beauty. She started with the same exercise as yesterday - riding to the cones and stopping. It was much easier from the beginning to get the stop. But she wasn't standing very well. She did notice that when Marla picked up the rein and Beauty bulged out her shoulder, she could maintain the pressure until the horse's body aligned, and then release. That helped a lot - got much better turns. She was trying to send her energy out to the cone, and that seemed to help remind Beauty that they were turning in a forward motion. Then they worked on 300 peck pigeon to increase the standing duration. They still did the exercise of stopping at the cone, but with each rep they increased by one second the amount of duration she stood. She eventually built up to 13 seconds, which is huge for this horse. It was really cool because they began to get a lot better bend and flexion as she worked. In a lot of ways it's just pressure and release with a pattern and halts.
She also rode Dublin. He was just fun today! She really felt a difference after Laura's ride. Yesterday she was trying to get him to come up and around and keep his poll up. Today, after that work, and Laura's work, and her ride on Beauty, it really paid off. She was doing the same thing that Laura was doing. When he reached around for that rein he feels like her has a lot of power. She no longer has to push him forward with her power. He visually looked so much more forward than he had before. She was so excited, she just had to ask him to trot - and he was great. She said she never gets a trot like this initially. It was so great, she had to ask him for a canter. And again, he had all that energy. He had so much energy, he couldn't figure out how to collect it - but he felt so good. Over time, he figured out how to collect it. A couple of times, she clicked, and he didn't stop, which shows how much fun he was having. She said it was almost a little scary to have all that power all of a sudden. She just had to make sure it was controlled energy.
I was ancy to get
home to my family, and so didn't get to talk to Deb and Laura about what
they did today. I'm sorry, guys!! If you want to send me a write up, I'll
be happy to add it here.
List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com