equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2016: Alexandra Kurland on “Feel- Art or Science?”

alex photo indoor

These notes are a little different than the others. Instead of sharing all the details of Alex’s talk, she has asked me to give an overview and share a little bit about how becoming more aware of the small details of movement, in both myself and my horses, has helped in my training.

Alex started by talking about excellence and where it comes from. Many of us were brought up with the idea that excellence or “talent” is for the select few and that you are either born with it or not.  We also tend to judge whether or not someone is talented by looking at what they have achieved.   Someone who is talented is someone who is at the top of their sport or profession.

But is that really a good measure of talent? There are a lot of other factors that can contribute to someone’s success. Maybe a better measure of talent would be to look at how someone does the simple things that could serve as the foundation for other achievements.

She made two comments here that I thought summed up the rest of the talk. One was “You, as the handler, are where excellence starts.” The other was “Excellence looks like lots of small details fitting together.” I think that if we look at the rest of the talk in the context of these two phrases, we will see that we can all achieve excellence if we believe in our ability to learn and grow, and if we recognize that great performances (however you want to measure them) are built one tiny piece at a time.

“You, as the handler, are where excellence starts.”

What are some things about your behavior that contribute to achieving a state of excellence?

  • Excellence begins with a belief you can develop the skills you need to succeed. She shared some work by Carol Dweck about the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. If you have a growth mindset, you will view your talent or ability as something that can be cultivated, not as something that is unchangeable. People who believe they can change are more likely to do so.
  • Excellence comes from being a keen observer. This is a skill you can develop. You can train your eyes to see and your body to feel very subtle differences in movement and form.   She showed some video of a horse doing a lateral flexion and explained how learning to see one detail (the flexion of the jaw) can lead to seeing changes in the horse’s neck and shoulders.
  • Excellence comes from learning to see the value in small details and being willing to put the time into studying them. She had some nice video clips of clicker trainers working with their horses on simple things like putting on fly spray and picking up a foot for cleaning. Even these things   can be done with excellence by paying more attention to the comfort of the horse and recognizing they can serve as preparation for other exercises.   Excellence can be found in training simple behaviors to high standards.
  • Improving your body awareness can lead to excellence. Most animal training requires the trainer to learn to be more aware of how her behavior affects the behavior of the animal she is training. Learning to observe changes and feel how your own body moves can be a good starting place, especially if you want to understand more about good balance and movement.
  • On a personal note, I think that training horses is a little different than some other types of animal training because we are often physically connected to the horse. And while we can teach the horse to pay attention to some aspects of that physical connection and ignore others, for many people the joy of the work comes from those little moments you and your horse are very aware of each other and that physical connection is an important part of it. That type of connection comes from having a deep understanding of how to use your own body and how to accept and understand the same type of information coming from the horse.

“Excellence looks like lots of small details fitting together.” How can you build excellent awareness and observation skills?   This is a very simplified version of Alex’s list. She went into much more detail on each of these.

  1. Be more aware of how you are moving.   It’s easy to let habit take over and not pay attention to your own movement. Take some time to pay attention to how you do things.
  2. Practice slowly. When you are learning something new or want to learn more about how you are doing something, do it more slowly. This gives you time to observe and be aware.
  3. Pay attention to the big picture. Everything is connected. If you are focusing on movement in one area, take a moment to see if anything else has changed.
  4. Learn to see the tiny changes in your horse or yourself when you are thinking about doing something.
  5. Learning to differentiate between tiny movements builds awareness. Small differences will become larger once you start paying attention to them.
  6. Do less to get more. Are you using unnecessary effort? Is your horse using unnecessary effort? Effort often blocks awareness because tension and “trying hard” make the body tight.
  7. Play with movement in both directions. Can you reverse what you just did?
  8. How much control do you have over individual components of a behavior? Are there things you automatically do together? Would it be helpful to have more control over each one separately?
  9. Contrast teaches. Play with different types of movement. Does one feel smoother than the other? Instead of trying to repeat something, play with variations.
  10. Observe without judgment. Instead of trying to find the right way or getting upset when you do something “wrong,” accept that every variation has something to teach you.

Alex calls this list “10 Keys to unlocking your observation skills,” but I think that with some minor modifications, you could probably apply them to learning any skill. They are about breaking behavior down into small pieces and learning to notice the details that make a difference.  Does this sound familiar?  Any sport or activity is going to require a combination of technical skills and something else, whether you want to call it art, feel, or talent.  Instead of viewing those as these intangible things, maybe we just need to be better at teaching them.

Just by coincidence, I wrote this report immediately after writing about Kay Laurence’s presentation on micro-shaping and I found myself thinking about how nicely they went together. Kay was talking about using micro-shaping with dogs.  Alex was talking about using micro-shaping with people.   Both of them talked about the importance of building confidence and keeping the learner successful.

Alex described how improved body awareness, ease of movement, and the ability to thin slice your own behavior can help you see and feel the connections between different parts of your own body, and how these affect you and your learner.  Once you are more aware of your own body, you can go to your horse and ask it questions and look for connections.  What happens if I do this? How does it feel if I do it this way instead?    Can I ask for a change here and see a change in another area?

Most of her examples in the “10 Keys to Unlocking your Observation Skills” were in the context of horse training, but what if you’re not a horse trainer?  It might seem hard to think of how to apply this to the kind of training you do.  Maybe you work with animals that are behind barriers or where there’s no physical contact. Is it still useful to spend time on body awareness?

My guess is that it is, but you might approach it a little differently by looking at it in the context of the tools that you do use. If you use targets, how skilled are you at placing the target where you want it? Can you smoothly guide an animal with a target?  What kind of body awareness do you need to have to move with a target without interfering with the animal’s movement? Can you present and remove the target in an efficient and effective way?

Maybe you use food delivery to guide behavior. Can you deliver food with clean and efficient movement?  If you are using food in shaping, do you know where to place the food to support and encourage the behavior you want, or set the animal up for the next step in the shaping process?

Once you start to be more aware of your own movement and the different ways you can move, I think you’ll find that your new level of body awareness will start to affect everything you do. Most of my ridden work these days is focused toward learning upper level dressage.  Dressage is an interesting sport because the better you get at it, the more it looks like you are doing nothing.  The goal is to make your aids so small that they become a private conversation between you and your horse.  This requires a lot of body awareness and control. That level of control is not something you start learning when you are sitting on the horse. You start on the ground with simple exercises and work from there.

You know you are making progress when people remark that it looks like you are not doing anything, but the horse is doing beautiful work. To add to this, there’s a big difference between sitting on a horse and doing nothing and sitting on a horse and looking like you are doing nothing. In the first case there will be a disconnect and even if the horse is well trained, things won’t look quite look right.   In the second case, you can feel the connection between horse and rider.   

How is that connection built? It’s built by slowly and carefully building awareness and connection into every small detail along every step of the way.  You see the same thing with animal trainers who make it look easy.  It doesn’t look easy because it is easy, it looks easy because they have taken the time to learn to do every piece well.

Alex will be presenting a talk that covers some of these same topics at ClickerExpo in Cincinnati. If you are intrigued by what you have read here, you can go and listen to her in person.  This is the first ClickerExpo that will have a whole series of horse presentations (a “horse track”) and it’s a great opportunity to meet other equine clicker trainers and immerse yourself in learning more about clicker training horses for three whole days!

Thank you to Alexandra Kurland for allowing me to share some of my notes. If you want to read more about Alex’s work, you can visit her website www.theclickercenter.com.

Thank you to everyone at ORCA for their hard work and for putting on a great conference. If you want learn more about ORCA or next year’s conference, you can visit the Art and Science of Animal Training Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/The-Art-and-Science-of-Animal-Training-1460845514215463

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