Icelandic Horse Connection

Clicker Clinic Report

By Margaret Leach

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending another one of Alexandra Kurland's fabulous clinics. This is the fourth year that a clinic series has been held at Lin and Sean Sweeney's Irish Springs Farm in Groton, NY, USA.

Alex started the first year with the science of clicker training and devoted the second year to ground work which included control of space, moving the horse's hips and shoulders, and emotional control. Each year the Groton format includes 4 clinics which are roughly two months apart so there is plenty of time to practice new skills between clinics. By year 3, we were actually riding. Hurrah! Our communication system with the horse was in place and we sat on top of emotionally stable horses.

This year we started a new series which will focus on riding in groups as we develop gaits and learn to use clinic exercises to create greater body comfort in the horse. In past years we focused on the externals such as rein mechanics. This year we will be switching to "inside work", working more on our own body awareness. Alex pointed out that we needed to be aware of what we bring to the table in terms of our own body alignment so that we can better sort out the horse's body issues. The horse mirrors our body even as we sense its body, so we need to know what "image" or alignment we are sending to the horse.

This past weekend Alex reviewed cues; what they are, how and when we attach them to behavior and how to do so in a way that keeps the horse emotionally stable. This was a review of material from Video 4 in the series Alex produced if someone is interested in learning more about this material.

Alex went on to introduce the concept of poisoned cues and why it is so important to train with positives. She pointed out that using positives allows us to build long, complex behavior chains and that these behavior chains will break down if we have a poisoned cue in the middle of the chain.

Upping the pressure when a horse fails to perform the desired behavior or using behaviors such as backing as punishment may "poison' the cue. We need to add more steps in the teaching process whenever we are tempted to up the pressure. She called on us to figure out strategies for "unpoisoning" cues for our cross-over horses. She said we need to develop training plans that allow us to get emotional control without poisoning our cues. It is important for us to recognize the power of cues and how they become part of the re-enforcement package.

A very chilly Northeast weekend kept us indoors a good bit of the time but we did get to the arena for a fun "training game" in which trainers trained "horses" that were made up of two people. Alex made up "case histories" of horses based on horses that had appeared at clinics. Whether by luck or design, I ended up playing the role of a horse that was similar in body issues and behavior to one of my two mares.

Even though I have played the training game many times in the past, I still found it an eye opener to feel the influence of intent, rein handling, and cueing on my own emotions, behavior and responsiveness. Alex encouraged us to play this game often with a variety of "horses" so that we could become accustomed to handling a variety of horses and also understand better the horse's perspective.

Alex used tai chi exercises based on Jamie Shaw's body of teaching to help us develop our own internal awareness and improve the flow of energy in our bodies. We also used large exercise balls to mimic the sensation of a moving horse as we practiced both "following" and directing motion in our own bodies. We practiced "still hands" while allowing our shoulders and hips to move freely. We practiced settling our motion into a halt.

We had direct experience of how tight shoulders shut down the motion in our hips which can shut down the horse's gaits. I discovered that I have very tight shoulders and now I have a visceral understanding of how it is that I am having trouble getting my mare to step out, lengthen and move with energy. I am literally blocking her from the saddle. No wonder I have worked so long to get "forward" energy to little avail. Now I know where to focus and how to help the situation.

We did a lot of laughing as we practiced "balance games" in which we sent energy into a person and they learned to absorb it without bracing and to send it back to us. There really is a middle path between "bracing" and totally yielding or being absent. I found it fascinating to experience the power of an energy absorbing but centered stance and was amazed how challenging it was at first for me to find the middle road between bracing and total yielding. I started realizing how much my stiff body had to do with my stiff horse. LOL Happily, I can report that I improved greatly during the clinic with practice and cueing from patient partners.

Alex pointed out to us how practicing the sending/absorbing of energy was really a form of riding and that we had spent the afternoon riding a variety of horses. It was a fun and educational exercise. Best part...I came home and rode my mare and discovered that we now had "on the dime" halts instead of her pushing through the bit as had become her practice recently. Gee, the answer was in my seat the whole time! Thanks, Alex. Another problem addressed.

Alex is a genius at "showing as well as telling" in her style of teaching. She is figuring out a way to make the words and phrases that we have heard from our trainers over and over come alive and become meaningful in the language of our own body. She is devising ways to help us translate verbal instruction into the kinesthetics of the body. We are learning "feel" as the natural horsemen would say.

I encourage anyone who has a chance to get to Alex's clinics to take advantage if at all possible. They are well worth the time and money. I keep learning and learning....which is why I keep going back. :)

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