Icelandic Horse Connection

Clicker Training Clinics

I brought my 3 Iceys to the clinic: Stormur, my 9 yr old gelding who's been clicker trained since he came to me as a 3 year old, Krafla, a very green 7 yr old mare who came to me last year as a problem horse, and Tíbrá, a 5 yr old mare who I've had since she was yearling and who I started under saddle in the last year. She's been clicker trained from the start.

Since we had a lot of horses in the arena at one time, we started with head lowering on the ground on Saturday. I worked with Tíbrá; Sarah, and later, Kate, worked with Krafla; and Bob worked with Stormur. My horses have all done a lot of head lowering, but, being in a different place amongst strange horses and people, it was a good review for them, especially Krafla.

When Tíbrá felt like she was calm and focusing on me, rather than the other horses, I mounted her and rode her around the arena, just asking for a calm, straight walk. She tends to be a very emotional horse and attached to her herdmates, but she did very well, working away from them and around other horses, without getting defensive. Several people rode Stormur, while Krafla worked on getting some duration in the head lowering on the ground.

When Stormur and Krafla were done, they were put into some pens made out of round pen panels at the end of the arena. Tíbrá had an emotional meltdown. Being out amongst those other horses was, all of a sudden, very scary. She wanted to plant herself next to her friends and not move. Alex came to our rescue and took Tíbrá in hand and worked on some basic stuff that Tíbrá knows, giving to the bit, softening through the neck and shoulders, and stepping more under herself with the inside hind leg. We did some circles and gradually moved away for the pens. When Tíbrá was going well, Alex let me take over the controls. Tíbrá proceeded to try to drag me back to the pens. I had to make a wall with my outside rein and leg, while keeping the bend with my inside hand. Tíbrá was not too happy about this and kept wanting to stall out or drag me. She did some kicking out with her hind legs, but I persisted and finally got her paying attention to me. We ended with a nice, relaxed walk. It was a great lesson for us both!

On Sunday, after a great session with Sarah and Gregor in the morning, and some neat work on ourselves, learning what it feels like to do shoulder in, haunches in and reverse arc circle as we walked around the arena, we brought the other horses out to ride in the afternoon. I rode Tíbrá and some of the others rode Stormur. Krafla was put in one of the pens at the far end of the arena. I worked on getting Tíbrá to do a relaxed, walk around the arena. She was much better than yesterday, even when Stormur went into the pen. No meltdowns today.

So I switched her with Krafla and started with some ground work with Krafla. People and horses were starting to leave and we ended with Dolores and Cadbury, Julie and Allie and me and Krafla in the arena. Krafla has a history of aggression with other horses. She believes in attacking first and asking questions later. She is really a very sweet horse, but VERY insecure. So it's really important with her to stay focused on the work at hand.

Alex made 2 circles out of cones. Julie and Dolores worked around one set of cones and I worked around the other. I rode Krafla, doing another version of the good, better, best exercise: walking across the circle to a cone and circling it, then going across the circle to another cone and repeating, using a single rein. I was falling into my old bad habits of pulling Krafla around, rather than just asking for lots of gives to the bit and waiting for it. But once I got it right, she did very well.

Then we all walked around the perimeter of the arena, single file, and practiced moving the horse off of the wall and then back, as if going around another horse. At first, Krafla did a big spook while going by Panda, but she settled down quickly and was able to do the exercise. All in all, a great clinic. Thank you, Dolores, for all your hard work making it possible. And thank you, Alex, for being patient with us slow learners and sharing your knowledge with us all!


By Sue Kolbo

Well, in response to public demand (:>....really, I have had so many people ask me about this mysterious clicker training, once they see what my 10 horses can do and how they behave around people, I just had to "bow to pressure" and GIVE A CLINIC!

On the spur of the moment, now that our weather finally decided to drop reliably below 100°, I put out the word to a few friends that the time was right and I'd like to give a free clinic to introduce this fabulous technique to our horse community. With only 2 days warning and no publicity, we had an amazing 15 people and 5 outside horses come over on Saturday for a one-day session.

Using Alexandra's format that I learned from her Eugene clinic, we started with an hour lecture inside the house. This startled some, as they had arrived at the appointed time and were hovering around the round pen, waiting for some action. After the inside session, with lecture, practice clicking (I had free toy clickers I finally found for 28¢ each) for my face-touching behavior while I talked, of all...having a practice run with one victim/student being clicked into an unknown behavior by the rest of us, they were all super-enthusiastic to start with the horses. The lecture part so impressed the participants that they loudly insisted that a couple of late-comers couldn't work with the horses because they didn't know the specifics that our on-timers had learned. Yes!!!

We had a nice gelding that needed lots of "whoa" (with a very receptive school-teacher owner who really understood and listened to what I was trying to teach). He finally ended up the clinic by quickly learning to "pick me up" his owner (who loves to ride bareback) from the 6-ft. fence rail...all by clicking.

Another beautiful green Paint mare had just come back from 60 days training, being labeled as having such a bad attitude that she'd never be a good riding horse. The trainer (who gets money for this!) calls her The Idiot Pig. Well, doncha know, her owner had her politely asking for which behavior he wanted next in no time flat. She is quiet and thoughtful...the antithesis of her former mile-a-minute-talking, bigger bit and martingale professional trainer. These folks now have themselves a sterling animal to work with, with a brighter future than being thrown out to make babies in a muddy pasture.

I was surprised that my biggest difficulty was with Natural Horsemanship people. Using the somewhat successful pressure-and-release techniques of Parelli, one gal insisted she had taught her mare clicker training to lift her feet for cleaning. Really what she did was pinch the fetlock, the mare raised her foot, and the owner then clicked and scratched. BTW, this horse didn't have a clue what the clicker was all about, and was one of the few horses I've ever been around that I never took my eyes off of. The owner had been attacked...literally, with bouncing/rearing, flattened ears, and bared teeth...earlier this week when she asked this 2yo home-bred mare to move over from her feed bin to allow the owner to pass by. This little palomino is in for a hard life if she doesn't learn how to behave around people, but the owner thinks she's just fine. With all the flying hands and whirling lead rope poppers, the owner is a "Yeah, but..." student. She has read all John Lyons literature, attended Parelli seminars, gone to the Sacramento horse expo 3 years in a row, but never actually worked with a horse with a competent teacher nearby. She "knows it all" already, and is fascinated by the results of clicker training without opening herself up to learn the principles.

Same with a young guy who demonstrated how he could back his horse clear across the round pen by advancing on him and then clicking as the horse reached the opposite side. He was using pressure and release principles with his "bigger bubble" posture. It worked, but I pointed out the totally different direction clicker training went. To his everlasting credit, he understood, backed down from his very competent Natural Horsemanship position, and learned exactly what the clicker is all about. He was hugely successful with both the above-mentioned Paint, and a little sorta-snotty Shetland 5yo that barged around, dragging its handler from grass tuft to grass tuft.

All in all, a terrific day. I am planning another Fun Day/clinic for November for the many people who wanted to learn but had other plans already made for last weekend. This is just a tiny introduction, showing what can be done. We didn't even use my horses, any one of which could blow away participants with advanced clicker behavior. These folks were all just ecstatic to be able to get a horse to touch a cone! Yipee!! I hope to build a cadre of folks who will want to continue on beyond the introductory level, even with dogs (and next-door-neighbor)...maybe with a bi-weekly get together. All this, and in macho Cowboy Country USA!!!

Came home from the CT Clinic in Galway tonight to read all of the great responses to my question about what to do when you are not doing CT ...

I understand so much more now ... my brain is totally fried and on overload ... poor Amador ... no wonder he was getting frustrated with me ... Mundi, you're right ... we made a deal and he understood the deal better than I did ...

Until this weekend, I frankly didn't understand that in doing CT we are entering into a partnership that is just like any other aspect of our work together ... and that it is not just a game that we do only when I feel like it and in between other things ... it is so much more ... and I saw it first hand, up close and personal this weekend.

What I inadvertently did, was betray my horse's trust in a fundamental way ... our relationship has always been about giving and listening on both our parts ... yes he was frustrated because the vending machine wasn't working when he was giving me what I had been asking for the day before, but more than that, my lack of responsiveness was a cue that I wasn't hearing him ... he's not used to that ... I always listen and respond, I think, and that's partially why he trusts and depends on me ...

I view CT differently now and need to integrate it into our relationship together in a more fundamental way ... it seems to me that the communication that we can develop through CT is much like the communication and partnering that we see in fine Dressage ... they both look like two paired as one in a dance ... and each partner is mutually interdependent through their independence ... the dance emerges over time once both partners have learned the basic steps ...

I will return to the barn on Tuesday with a new mindset ... and I will begin where My Boy is ... he will tell me and this time I will listen ... he knows better than me ... my goals for the day will be based on what he tells me ...

What else did I learn from this Clinic that I missed in my reading and viewing of the first 2.5 videos? I totally missed rate of reinforcement ... mine wasn't nearly high enough ... even though I hadn't gotten very far to date, I was trying to up the ante too quickly, which would have gotten me in trouble soon ... I was too rigid in my little goals and not listening to my partner ...

CT can be sort of a meditative very relaxing experience ... it is, I think, about focus, patience, perseverence, calm, and connection in the moment ... without those elements the dance can not emerge. For those of us who are newbies at this, that initially takes a huge amount of energy. But watching other CT folks at the Clinic who had been at this for quite a while I could see that as soon as they were with their four-legged partners, they were engaging in that dance and there WAS nothing else.

Alex is what she teaches ... if you know what I mean ... and a Clinic experience with her is holistic in that way ... there was an ongoing dialogue ... in the indoor, during lunch, talking about the work in the indoor, over dinner, looking at videos, putting on boots and tons of clothing to go back outside ...

And then there is Panda ... I had saved the posts about her because I knew that they were important but I hadn't read them ... having met Panda I can now go back to those posts and appreciate what they have to offer ... What a girl!!! We celebrated her first birthday Friday night with her human Mom, and Alex, her Nanna and coach. We ate dinner Friday and Sat night in a circle, with Panda, one German Shepherd and one Australian Cattle Dog peacefully sleeping in the center of the circle. And, from time to time, a human moved over or even got up to give couch space to one of the four-legged creatures. Even as we ate and talked, Alex worked quietly and effortlessly with Miss Panda ... if you weren't watching you might not even have noticed Alex at work as Alex never lost track of the discussion at hand ... Panda poses by the way ... and she never had an accident in the house ... okay, well there was one close call ...

Here's hoping that some of my reflections as a newbie will be helpful to someone else out there who is also just starting out ...

Thank you to Alex, everyone at the Clinic and this List ... what special people! And Amador thanks everyone too!!


Just returned from another wonderful clinic with Alexandra Kurland in Galway. Dolores Arste hosted. The good company, interesting stories and delicious food were incentive enough to attend. But most importantly, I came away with a good understanding of how to refine my handling practices with my young mare and what exercises I can do to help us get to our ultimate goal of her leading quietly by my side.

It was a powerful learning experience to be able to just sit back and observe a variety of horses with their handlers. It was very helpful for me to see the horses as they went through a range of emotions while adapting to a new situation. Seeing the power of the foundation exercises (head lowering, backing for example) to bring them back into a relaxed, focused state was really helpful for me. I also saw the immediate effects of altering one's intent, body language, energy, speed of movement, and timing of the click. The horses really demonstrated how seemingly small things make a big difference in their behavior.

I came away feeling more relaxed and confident about where I am with my horse. I am also more clear how to move forward in areas of her training where I felt "stuck". I found out where I can be more relaxed and fluid in my applications, where I need to slow down and take more time and where I needed to persevere.

Love the positive, supportive atmosphere of these clinics where everyone is rooting for everyone else. Margaret

The first success actually came Friday when Charisma walked into the trailer without a pause, and rode quietly for more than four hours. I was very proud of my girl.

Saturday morning I decided to show Charisma the arena before the clinic began. She was calm and focus until other horses started to arrive. Then she became visibly upset. When we started the backing exercise she started a meltdown and Alex suggested we shape the head down exercise inside one of the temporary stalls so no one would be hurt. We ended up chunking down the request so that if Charisma stood still without pawing she was rewarded. That took better than an hour to accomplish. Then I moved on to head lowering, and finally to backing.

The backing exercise was causing her some real anxiety. Thankfully, Mundi Smithers joined me at the stall. She took the clicker and watched the hind legs while I watched the face and shoulder. With two trainers working with her, Charisma finally settled down and focused. In order to get the bend in the corner, we had to ask for the tiniest step backward. Too much pressure and she would swing her haunches into the center of the stall. Thank you Mundi for all of your patience and support.

Sunday I asked to experience the lateral ground work with a horse that already knew what was expected. Alex let me do the shoulder in work with Stormur. Once I found the correct pressure points, the sweet black horse performed like a pro. I particularly like the way he lifted his inside shoulder as he curled around my inside rein.

Alex worked Charisma in the lateral exercises. She was really focused on getting Charisma to give at the poll without twisting her head and neck into awkward angles. Clearly this was very difficult for the mare and Alex rewarded her generously for the slightest try.

Now, at home, I have discovered an interesting hole in the backup work I have been doing. I had backed arcs in the outdoor arena and so wasn't aware the Charisma totally refused to back up along a wall. When I moved the exercise back into her stall, she would immediately push her haunches away from the wall, so there was no way to bend her thru the corner. Asking her to move closer to the stall wall provoked a temper tantrum. Soo. I have had to chunk this exercise down even more. Currently we are working on backing on a straight line along the pasture fence. No corners yet. I am asking that she stay parallel to the fence line and only two feet from the fence. She can only back one or two steps before the haunches swing out. I am totally amazed that this is so difficult for her. But it does explain some other difficulties I have been experiencing so I think this will be time well spent.

One of the more memorable moments of the clinic occurred Saturday morning when Charisma was protesting aggressively about the head down and backing exercises. Alex told me that Clicker Training should not be used to "sugar coat" unpleasant exercises. I'm still trying to get a handle on this concept. Am I actually overmatching Charisma with these simple requests? Is positive reinforcement not sufficient on its own as a training device?

So thanks everyone, and especially Dolores for this wonderful opportunity to expand my awareness's. I am looking forward to the winter get-together to hear everyone's ideas. Leslie

Dolores Arste hosted another Alexandra Kurland clicker training clinic in Galway just before Thanksgiving. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, my sixth clinic with Alexandra, all taken this year. Yes, I am hooked! What keeps me coming back for more is the fact that I am learning so much more than operant conditioning theory and mechanics. I am also learning the language and concepts of dressage, John Lyons, and Natural Horsemanship. I am learning how to train, improve my horses' carriage and my own riding skills. And having fun while doing it, as well as meeting a lot of special, supportive people who have fascinating stories to tell.

At each clinic, I have learned something new, something I didn't know that was missing and that missing piece made a difference in my training/riding skills. I have watched some masters of training on videos and at other clinics. But I would come away with the feeling that, although it was impressive what they could do with a horse, it wasn't something I would be able to do. With Alex's clinics, I always come away with new learning that I not only saw but practiced. I come away with a "feel" as well as a concept. The best part is that I come home with something I can use right away and it makes a difference.

The big hook that draws me back over and over are the changes that I am experiencing in my two horses and in myself. We all have learned to be more focused, are more motivated, and are enjoying our interactions so much more. My goal for my 12 year old mare has been to be able to take her trail riding safely, both with other horses and alone. That includes trailering, when necessary. Understand that my mare had become barn sour and herd bound over the last several years when it came to trail riding. It began just 3 weeks after I first purchased her. I was a green rider and trying to follow the adage of "just make her do it" when she was reluctant to go by some pipes at the bottom of a field, not far from the barn. That led to her bolting.

Trying to turn her led to both of us going down on a paved road. I was lucky. I only got a goose egg under my split helmet, two sprained ankles, and a big dose of fear. My mare was fine but it was now clear to both of us who was really in charge in our relationship. Happily, I can report that after 11 months of clicker training (and much learning, mostly mine), my mare now willingly leaves the barn when I request it and we have wonderful rides in the 20 acre field near the farm where I board. Last week, I rode out with another rider. Even though her horse was resistant, jigging, and determined to go back to the barn and go fast, my mare minded her own busines, kept a steady relaxed walk and gave me no resistance. Once, when there was a noise from the nearby woods, she coiled as if to flee. I asked for a halt. She gave it to me. Click/treat! We went back to the barn on a loose rein. for the trailering, my husband and I successfully trailered Serena to and from the Groton clinic this past September. While at the clinic, my mare was calm, responsive and did me proud when we showed off the new skills we had learned through Alex and clicker training.

One new discovery this week at Dolores' was how to line up my pelvis over my legs and use my center to keep my legs strong. I finally figured out the "pinch" that Mary Wanless has described in her books on riding. I discovered that every time I stretch up to make myself tall, I hollow my back and lock my pelvis. That makes my balance wobbly and my legs feel weak. Oh, by the way, I didn't discover this on horseback. It was a new learning while Alex was having us do the "tai chi walk" down the side of the ring. We were learning the differences between shoulder-in, reverse arc circle and haunches in. She told us that if you want to figure out what your horse is doing or how to have your horse do something, practice it first in your own body. It worked. We could feel the differences between haunches in and shoulder in. And I discovered that once I tucked my "tail" and "lifted my back", my hip was no longer hurting during the make believe shoulder-in. It felt so much easier.

Thinking about what I felt, made me think about how my mare used to get a sore hip and she would ask for rubs over her pelvis and hips by backing up to me. That was back when she was high headed and hollow backed at the trot and canter, sometimes tripping. Not fun to have your horse go down to her knees at the canter, for either of you. We thought it was an old injury bothering her or that she needed a trim from the farrier. But, you know, she hasn't been asking for back rubs since we have been doing so many head downs and she hasn't been stumbling since we learned shoulder in...hmmm. That is what Alex's clinics do for you..start you thinking and wondering and making connections and finally understanding. Now I know why those lessons of dressage are so important for me and my horse. She is getting a more comfortable body and I am discovering how to focus on my pelvis instead of my legs. Find strength through balance, not gripping.

Understand that I am a pleasure rider, literally. No interest in competitions, just wanted to get out there in the fields and mosey along without my horse tripping or bolting. Never appreciated how much training it takes to get a solid trail horse. Never had any interest in was a foreign language for a different kind of person. Wrong. I am learning that language and the skills. Discovered dressage could get my my horse off her forehand, supple her, strengthen her, make her light and balanced. She had been stiff necked, hard mouthed, resistant and people complained about how much work it was to ride her. No more. She is so much lighter, she is responsive. Reaching around for the treats suppled her. She muscled up, improved her top line...and it was done at the walk with a lot of click/treats. Every time we stopped she had to shift her weight back to reach around for the treat. Now she no longer shifts back. She is already there. Best part is that I no longer get back aches when I ride and it has been a long time since Serena tripped at the trot. (We have a ways to go before we go back to canter, but it will come.)

Sunday afternoon, Julie had me click her mare, Allie, for "the pose" while Julie groomed her. She wanted to make sure Allie was keeping her head vertical and centered in front of her chest so she asked me to stand in front. Within minutes, we had Allie shifting her weight back during the pose. When I came home, I tried it out on my mare. I had taught her the pose at the Groton shaping her in her stall every time I happened by. I came home and waited longer before clicking the pose. It wasn't long before Serena was arching her neck beautifully and there it was, a weight shift. Click! Now we are practicing a chain of give at the jaw, preak at the poll, elevate sternum, shift back...hold that posture and walk forward....Click! I think that is called a collected start. Think today I will try it from the saddle.

Well, I could go on and on like that...little bits and pieces of the clinics that gave me new tools or insights or "feels". That is what keeps me going back, time after time. In the first clinic, I learned the theory and mechanics of clicker training. Then I started learning "behaviors"...then I learned how to link them. I started learning sequences or pathways that lead to better balance for my horse and better riding skills for me. It is similar to learning to read...first you have to learn the letters, then how they go together in words, then sentences...before long you are entering whole new worlds through reading. Clicker training and going to Alex's clinics have been that way for me. I feel like I have entered whole new worlds with my horses and we are now having wonderful conversations.

If you get a chance to go to a clinic, do it. I know I am glad I did. Margaret

For more information and horsemanship tips for handling and training your horses:

BillsBook Email List, Discussion of the book True Horsemanship Thru Feel
Clicker Training List, Improving your communication and training skills