Colorado Clinic Report

First, for those of you who know that Hap inflicted a messy injury to his rear left leg two minutes before I took him out of his stall at the clinic to bring him home, it looks as though he will be okay. He was still putting it down firmly when I took him out of the trailer after the 2.5 hour trip. After discussing it with my vet on the phone Sunday night, I removed the quick pressure bandage I had put on before I loaded him, cleaned it, and applied another pressure bandage. I stayed at my trainer's and checked him several times last night to make sure the bleeding had stopped. This injury didn't bleed much initially, but bled rather alarmingly when I cleaned it up. Hap was amazingly accepting of the first aid: although he did lift his leg to show his discomfort, he never showed any signs of aggression. My vet said I did a good job when he checked Hap Monday morning, and that everyone should know how to do a pressure bandage. (My trainer generally does this sort of thing for me, but she is recovering from a serious injury and has no business being under the back end of a horse. She held Hap and offered guidance and moral support while I treated him.) Hap is in a gel cast for five days, and will probably need some sort of dressing for at least month. My vet didn't think he could do any stitching that would hold. At least Hap is only on stall rest until the gel cast comes off, so I guess I will get to entertain him with some of the techniques we learned this weekend.

The Colorado Clicker Clinic was organized by Cathy Winters and Sandra Henderson. I can't imagine volunteering to run something like this, participating with horses, and doing the catering as well. They did a great job. I was exhausted just being there with a horse, and was very impressed that they did all the rest of it as well.

Cathy and Sandra originally organized this clinic to bring Alexandra Kurland (AK) to Colorado to work with a group who has been exploring Parelli/Natural Horsemanship techniques in the Longmont/Ft Collins/Boulder area. They advertised the clinic on this list when there were a few openings left by people who couldn't attend. I jumped at the chance to attend, even though I know nothing about Parelli, very little about NH, and my own background is in hunter/jumpers rather than any sort of Western riding. I had been thinking of flying to one of Alexandra's clinics, but really wanted to be able to work with one of my horses at one, preferably Hap. A two and a half hour trip seemed like the best chance for me to get Hap to Kurland clinic, even though this is by far the longest trip I have ever hauled a horse without company.

Friday night, we had an orientation meeting at Cathy's house. As part of the introduction, AK showed a video of the dangerously violent elephant that had been trained to present various parts of his body through a specially constructed wall so he could be treated without harm to his handlers. In the video the elephant backs up, poke his foot through a wall, and rest it in a stirrup so it can be treated. Afterward, while the group watched, volunteers played the training game, where a trainer uses a clicker to try to shape behavior from the trainee. The last "horse" was amazingly inventive about what can be done with a folding chair.

Saturday morning, we reconvened at the clinic site, a ranch in the foothills slightly to the northwest of Longmont. There were ten horses there, and nineteen people. Initially, the group watched as a group as the owners introduced their horses, and then introduced the horse to the target that AK provided. This was one of the dog toys that looks like a large rubber jack. All the horses were targeting it by the end of the fifteen/twenty minute sessions, and a few were picking it up.

It was great to watch the variety of responses that the horses made to being asked to target the object. People started outside the stall or corral. One suggestion AK made for those horses who were exceptionally eager to get their treats is to be very specific about placing the treat inside the corral, so the horse is not poking his nose out to get his reward. She also pointed out that a lot of people reach for the treat before they click. The clicker should be used to pinpoint the desired behavior, and distracting the horses by prematurely reaching for the treats undermines their ability to figure out for what they are being rewarded.

Another thing I remember from the targeting sessions was that it is all right to move the target if the horse seems to be losing its focus. The runs and corrals faced a valley, and there were a tremendous amount of distractions in the way of tractors, horses up on the hill, cattle occasionally coming into view, in addition to the presence of the spectators and other horses. Moving the target slightly tended to lure the horse's attention, when they had lost track of what was going on. For those horses that were targeting strongly after a few minutes, we saw how to progress to doing twofers and threefers, and then jackpotting the horses that actually started mouthing it and picking it up.

My horse, Hap, is a fifteen year old Thoroughbred with a fair amount of hunter/jumpers training that I bought as an eight year old. Unfortunately, although a lovely and fairly calm horse at home, he has always been highly excitable at events away from home. He expresses this excitement by running his shoulder into me on the ground, and a tendency to bolt while under saddle. My only technique for dealing with this has been to longe and/or ride him until he settles, which can take up to two hours. This is hard on both my middle-aged horse and his middle-aged rider. I have been searching for ways to calm him down that aren't so physically stressful. The "get their feet moving" is all very well, but doesn't quite address the problem of a high-energy horse that likes to move, and is apparently willing to do it for ever.

When it was my turn, I went in with Hap almost immediately. We have done enough playing around with the clicker that Hap no longer thinks mugging me will get him anywhere. I was pretty sure I could get Hap to pick up the target, but instead, once he started targeting it, Alexandra started showing me how I could use it to bring Hap's head around to each side. At one point, Hap got fed a bitter carrot slice, much to his disgust. He spit it out, made faces, refused a replacement carrot, and left me (I was working in the run with people watching from the other side) and went in his stall. Someone asked me if he would take grain, and gave me her pouch. I took the target into the stall, presented the target to him, clicked him when he touched it, and he decided the grain was an acceptable reward. I presented the target again, and used it to lead him out of the stall, which is the first time I have used a target that way. Then, we used the target to get Hap to both turn his head, and step over in back. Since I couldn't see his back end, everyone was clicking if he crossed when he stepped over. It was a lot of fun, and interesting to see how I could move the target slightly to help him re balance himself if he got stuck.

During lunch, we watched some llama videos and discussed questions from the morning. AK's basic structure seems to be: 1) discuss what the group will do, 2) do it, 3) discuss what the group did. It makes for very long, very intense sessions, but one does get a tremendous amount of information. I tend to rely on recall more than notes (which is why I am writing this essay) and was very glad to know that I had the book, because the discussion and the practice made me realize how much I had missed in reading the book.

Saturday afternoon, those with horses paired up with those without. My partner was a woman from California who has an Icelandic horse. Nancy was a great coach, and didn't seem at all intimidated by a horse several hands taller than what she was used to. For the afternoon lesson, we first practiced using a stall as a sort of mini-roundpen. Working a pushy horse in a small area has several advantages. (As always, AK emphasized that you must feel safe in the small area with the horse, and also that it isn't one of those horses that feel threatened by you being in its territory.) One advantage: the horse has no where to go, so you can practice stuff at liberty without having to continually retrieve your horse. Another advantage is that working in a stall can teach you (and the horse) how to maneuver in such a way that when you go into a large arena, you can still work your horse in a small area, so that you don't have to worry about getting into other horses' spaces. We practiced displacing the head to the outside while we back the horse, and letting the horse figure out how to maneuver its hindquarters through the corners. I had a real problem with this exercise, because my background has me intent of getting the "correct" bend to the inside, but since the correct bend is one of the first things to go when a horse is having, say, a "Thoroughbred moment", I eventually started seeing the usefulness of sometimes doing things backwards from my point of view. Nancy helped me a lot on this. Then we traded, and she worked with Hap doing the same exercise. I had been working a bit on backing Hap in hand from a chest aid, but I had been going for nice, straight balanced backing, and had never thought you might want to turn a horse while backing.

For the rest of the afternoon, we all went into the indoor arena with our horses. We went back to doing the same exercise we had been doing in the stall, but doing it in a space in the arena. Hap was doing fairly well, not too badly distracted by nine other horses, when the storm that had been threatening arrived. Hap doesn't like the sound of a metal roof in a storm. Several of the other horses shared his opinion. Each time he went into me, I asked him to back a few steps, clicking him before he stopped. (Nancy pointed out to me that I had gotten in the habit of clicking him after he stopped, so that he would think the stop was being rewarded instead of the backing.) I was surprised, despite his anxiety, that he kept hearing the clicks, and taking and chewing the treats. After a while, because I was getting tired, and wanted us both to rest a bit, I started asking him to lower his head. He didn't respond very well to my using poll-pressure, but did start lowering his head in response to my pulling the lead rope straight down. (We have been working on both methods at home.)

AK worked with each horse in turn. When she got to me, my partner, and Hap, she took Hap and started him on the head-lowering exercise using the single rein cue, skipping ahead to what was on the agenda for Sunday. Even though he was very anxious and distracted, he was keeping his head down much of the time after a short while. I was interested to see Hap paw occasionally, which he doesn't usually do, probably because I generally have him moving forward when he gets anxious. Hap found out that AK considers pawing forward movement, and got backed as a result. (AK and I had a brief discussion about backing: I consider it punishment and instead need to start viewing it as just asking a horse for an alternate behavior so the horse is not running over the top of me.) She showed me how to do the head-lowering exercise, and then Nancy worked with him for a while too. I had a lot of difficulty with it: too many years of thinking that one pulls down on the lead-rope. Nancy did a lot better with it. AK moved on to the next group, and I tried to watch some other people work. Hap was too restless to stand for long, or perhaps he thought I should be focusing my attention on him. I did try to get him to stand quietly with his head lower for longer and longer times. Finally, there was sufficient lull in the weather that I decided to call it a day and put Hap back in his run.

Hap's behavior during the storm did alleviate one of my worries: that Hap would get through the whole clinic without an appearance by his evil twin. My trainer, when I told her before the clinic that I was worried about this: "trust me, it won't be a problem."

The official day ended with another debriefing session, and then we had an excellent spaghetti dinner.

Sunday morning, after a discussion of head-lowering, Sandra's daughter, Annie, collected all the leadropes and halters in the barn, and staggered into the room with them. Hap's black web halter and red and black lead rope stood out in all the rope halters. We got together with our partners, and worked with lead-ropes on the head-lowering exercise before we went to work with the horses. It would have made a great video. Then we went out to work with the horses in the arena.

Hap had apparently been mulling over his preview lesson, because he did very well on the head-lowering Sunday morning, even though I was still having trouble remembering to take the slack out of the lead rope without pulling down. His head stayed down for longer and longer periods, and he occasionally even seemed reluctant to eat his treat: "don't bother me, I am busy relaxing." He did so well in the run/stall that I had no reluctance about taking him down to the arena almost immediately. Nancy and I switched off and coached each other. It was a very pleasant morning, since my horse was no longer so anxious that I was worried he would barge into someone. Nancy and I did have some questions about the head-lowering. After discussion with AK, we decided that I had inadvertently shaped Hap to think he ought to bend away from me, instead of toward me. Hap also seemed somewhat confused about whether he was being rewarded for head lowering or backing, so I am going to have to work out how to clarify when I want him to just lower his head, and when I want him to back with his head lowered.

We had another lengthy debriefing session, then lunch with videos. For the afternoon, we discussed the mechanics of hip displacement, why it is a good idea, and how to shape it. We then had a practice session where AK and Mary (the one from Wyoming) were the front and back of a horse. People then got to practice steering them around the room. AK demonstrated what she called resets, and I thought "ah, half-halts!" Back to the horses, except that I had volunteered Hap to demo how to transfer the ground-work to under-saddle. I tacked up while everyone else worked on the hip-displacement exercise.

Hap did something neat while I was tacking up. When we have a stall, I don't tie him to tack him up. When Hap feels anxious, he gets a little worried when I fasten the girth, a habit that started when he had sore hocks several years ago. Sunday afternoon, instead of looking back at me, or grinding his teeth, he planted his nose three inches from the ground for the thirty seconds while I fastened the girth without me asking. I clicked and treated him when I was done.

I worried about volunteering. I have never come off of Hap in public, but I feel embarrassed when he ricochets around an arena like a ball in a pinball machine.

I led Hap to the arena, then did the head lowering exercise from his side. The arena was still busy with people and horses. Hap stayed very calm, so I led him to one of the picnic tables at the end of the arena and mounted. He walked around quietly for a while, and then I asked him to stand. He started chewing his bit, which is a Hap-thing indicating boredom or mild worry. Using the reins, and trying to do the single rein cue, I asked him to lower his head. I asked someone nearby to treat him when I clicked him, since Hap and I hadn't yet worked out the mechanics of how he could take a treat from me when I was on his back. Then two people worked with me to train Hap to reach around his head to take a treat, by luring him with a carrot piece until he got to my hand. After ten repeats, he was doing pretty well at turning his head without me having to lean so far forward that I felt secure. (Hap is 16,2, with a very long neck, so it took a little coordination.)

Everyone else put their horse up, and I was surprised that Hap showed no particular signs of worry at being left by himself in the arena. One horse got somewhat fussed when her stable mate left the arena, and Hap watched calmly, even stretching his head down several times.

I ride Hap in a D-ring snaffle, and since no one had brought a full-cheek snaffle, AK fastened the caveson of my bridle over the bit, so I would be less likely to pull the bit through his mouth when using the single rein.

AK clicked as I started learning to use the single rein to ask Hap to drop his head. My release was a little slow, but Hap was very cooperative anyway. He seemed to transfer the ground work to the under-saddle work with less difficulty than I was having. AK suggested that I use the flat of my hand instead of my fingers to give the treat. We dropped a few, but Hap didn't seem worried about it. After ten minutes or so, Hap's nose was staying within a few inches of the ground about ninety per cent of the time. He did space out on me several times, looking off into the distance through the arena doors, but just holding a gentle pressure for fifteen or twenty seconds reminded him of what I wanted. The hardest thing for me was using the single rein to straighten his head and neck instead of using the opposing rein. I did get it to work for me several times, but it still felt very awkward for me. I even got a few isolated steps of backing using the single rein, which was nice because we are not very good at backing using our traditional aids.

Although our demo was short, I was thrilled that it went so smoothly. Hap was as calm as he would have been on a windless, warm day at home, without having had turn out in over two days, and without having been longed. It was great.

I put Hap up, and we had one more very long debriefing session. We talked about some of the pitfalls we had found in working with the horses. Chewie's (a young TB/Andalusian) owner mentioned that she had learned that she tended to rush through things, fearing that she might be boring her horse, and I realized that I do the same thing with Hap. I realized at one point that Nancy and I had been working with Hap for nearly two hours, and he looked just as ready to go another two hours. (I was exhausted.) Other common pitfalls were rushing to get the treat after the click, leaving one's hand near the treats, and regretting all the years one DIDN'T do clicker training.

Mary (from Wyoming) who did not bring a horse, mentioned how much she felt she got being there and working with, and watching, a variety of horses. The one thing I regret about the weekend (aside from Hap's injury) was that I was so focused on Hap that I didn't get to see much of the other horses, after that first morning when we took turns individually. If you have a chance to go to a AK clinic, don't let not having your horse keep you from doing so.

This file has already gotten too long, and I could probably keep on adding to it indefinitely. I would love to hear from others at the clinic.


First off, a very hearty thank you to you and Cathy for hosting this great clinic! It was DEFINITELY worth my trip out from California. And if Alexandra were to return to CO in the future for a follow-up clinic, count me in for sure!

Since Elaine has already posted a wonderful report of the events of the weekend, including some great tips from Alexandra, I will just add a few personal observations:

Alexandra is a terrific teacher. She is patient, dedicated, and more than willing to share her expertise. In fact, I could feel her enthusiasm throughout the 2 1/2 days. Her voice was getting hoarse at times because she interacted with us non-stop, even during breaks and lunch, in an effort to share as much of her knowledge with us as possible. She was particularly gifted at explaining things clearly and effectively. She often used herself to demonstrate the movements of the horse so we can see how one joint or bend in the neck could affect other things. She also had a repertoire of human-human exercises such as the Training Game and the 2-person People Horse that were both fun and educational. The agenda for the clinic was clearly defined, and the pace of progress was just right, neither too fast nor too slow.

For me, this clinic was very beneficial. Up until this past weekend, the only exposure I've had to clicker training were Alexandra's book and this list. I had never seen a video or live demonstration of CT. I started targeting with my own horse, but there was no way for me to gauge our progress or even to know if I was doing it correctly. Then at the clinic, I saw many horses at various stages of clicker training and how they reacted to the exercises. I was happy to find out that my Wyck had reacted perfectly normally to our initial targeting attempt (leaving was okay!) and that he is learning it and doing better. I also picked up quite a few small but important tidbits such as "don't reach for the treat before the click" and the correct way to shape a behavior.

It was encouraging to see owners and horses barely started in CT (and hence in the same position Wyck and I are in) really getting it and enjoying the games. And it was inspiring to watch some of the more advanced horses doing lateral work with CT. I walked away from the clinic with both affirmation of what Wyck and I have done so far and goals to work toward as we learn together.

All in all it was an invaluable experience and unforgettable weekend. It was just marvelous to meet Alexandra in person and to meet all the other participants and their horses. I would definitely recommend anyone who has the chance to attend one of Alexandra's clinics to take that opportunity. Even if you can't bring your own horse, it will still be extremely worthwhile. I know I will certainly go again in a heartbeat. :-)

--nancy a.

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