equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Alexandra Kurland Clinic: August 2011

This clinic was held in Groton, NY on August 19 and 20.  It was an advanced clinic and hosted by Lin Sweeney and Kate Graham who have hosted Alex’s clinics for over 10 years.  I attended with my younger horse “Red,” who has participated in a few clinics at home, but had not traveled to an overnight clinic.  So this was a big adventure for him, and a chance for me to find out more about what he was like away from home for a longer period of time.

Red is a 9 year old PMU foal (draft/quarter horse/paint) that we got as a weanling when a local horse retirement home brought in 50 foals from North Dakota as a fundraiser.  If you want to see him, he’s the fourth horse across in the pictures at the top of this page.  The foals had no previous training and the retirement home planned to do some basic training and sell them in order to make some money. I don’t know if they ended up making any money, but most of the foals did not end up with any training. When we got Red,  he didn’t even know how to lead.  He was purchased for my older daughter who was outgrowing her pony and wanted her own horse to train.

From the very beginning, Red showed signs of being a little bit difficult.   Since he was my daughter’s project, I was helping, but not the main person involved in his training.  When we first worked on leading, we learned that he would rear when stuck or frustrated and by the time he was 2, he had figured out that he could bolt when being led and take off running at high speed.  His quarter horse breeding sure showed up here. He can accelerate from 0 to high speed in the blink of an eye. On the plus side, he turned out to be very sweet, friendly, and smart.

I was more involved in his training between the ages of 3 and 4 when we did a lot of groundwork and started him under saddle.  My daughter was the rider for most of his early rides and he showed himself to be nicely balanced and calm when working in his comfort zone. But when he got a bit stressed, he became unpredictable, and then predictable – he learned to buck.  And unfortunately, bucking often worked to unseat his rider.  So when he was 5, we got my daughter a new horse and he became my project.

In the past 4 years, I have ridden him on a fairly consistent basis and started to take him on short trips.  He has learned to lead politely (I fixed the bolting by teaching him lateral flexions) and his under saddle work is pretty good. He trail rides and can jump small jumps. But he has not had a lot of exposure to other places. So this spring I revisited trailer loading with him and then did some short trips to get him ready to go to a clinic with Alex.  I thought a clicker clinic would be a good experience for him since Alex usually focuses on making the clinic a positive experience for new horses.  My goal was for him to learn he could go away, stay in a strange barn, work in a new ring, and everything would be ok – and he might even have a good time.

So off we went. This turned out to be a great clinic for him because it was small and we focused on groundwork.  I was really pleased with how he handled the trailer ride and being in a new barn, and he did a great job in his sessions. I got some new ideas for things to play with at home and learned where he needed a bit of work.  In addition, I learned that by building a really solid foundation with clicker training, he was easy to travel with and happy to work in a new place.

When I go to Alex’s clinics, I am never quite sure what we are going to work on.  I usually have some questions, but I have also learned that each clinic is different in that the people and horses who attend are what determine the focus of the group.  At this clinic, we had 6 clicker trainers of varying experience, but we were all familiar with the basic toolbox.  We had brought horses who knew the foundation lessons so we had some flexibility in what aspect of the groundwork we wanted to focus on.  Since everyone was familiar with the basic exercises, we looked at some of the finer details of what makes the groundwork smoother. And then we got to play with something new.

The first horse and handler who came out had questions about Hip Shoulder Shoulder so Alex had her start by building Hip Shoulder Shoulder out of food delivery.  The handler walked her horse on a circle and clicked for a nice lateral flexion and then used food delivery to ask the horse to back up and as she did so, the horse swung her hip.  Alex pointed out that this is a nice way to warm up and see how the horse is moving over.  Does she step over with a smooth movement, or is it sticky? Does she seem rushed or get short-strided?  Are there things that suggest moving the hip is hard physically?  Ideally the horse should step over with smooth steps and it should feel like the horse is stepping up and under. 

Alex said it is important to remember that the give of the hip in Hip Shoulder Shoulder is forward moving.  The horse should feel like it is stepping up and under so that it can engage that hind leg to step back in good balance.  When the give of the hip was not quite right, it showed up in the backing.  When the second horse came out, we got another chance to look at what makes Hip Shoulder Shoulder work out well.  Actually over the course of the clinic, we did HSS with a number of horses and it was useful to see what each horse did differently, what would make it better, and how we could set them up so that it worked out more smoothly. 

If the give of the hip in Hip Shoulder Shoulder is forward moving, then it makes sense that you have to come into HSS with enough energy and this is one detail that we explored.  Just thinking about energy, there are different ways energy can affect HSS.  The first is if the horse is moving with enough energy as you start HSS so that you can redirect it. It is important to remember that HSS is basically an exercise in redirecting energy. This is why it is so useful with tense, over-excited or bargey horses.  Rather than trying to hold them back, you can just let them swing their hips and then send the energy back.  

Most of us practice HSS a lot of times without knowing it when we are first learning to do groundwork.  We end up in HSS when the horse over-rotates or tries to run past us and we redirect them.  This is a rough version of HSS, but it is worth remembering about it, because in the finished version, you still want that feeling of redirecting the energy. If you don’t have enough energy, the horse will stall out as it brings the hip around and you’ll get sticky steps or you won’t get clean backing.  I am going to talk a bit more about energy and forward later, so don’t read this and think you need to go “faster” because I am not talking about that kind of energy. I am talking more about “activity” such as you would have in a forward thinking but balanced walk.

One way you can tell if you have enough energy is if the horse is marching along in position next to you and you have the ability to draw the horse up around you into the start of a small turn or lateral flexion.  When I set up for HSS, I want to be a position close to the horse’s shoulder so that the horse keeps coming forward and then brings the hip around.  If the horse is too far back, when I ask for the hip, I will block him and he will stall out.  This is why it is not enough to just go faster.  If the horse and handler both go faster but if their positions relative to each other are too far apart, it will be harder to swing into  HSS.

Getting a horse to move forward with energy in the walk is a topic that comes up again and again. I think one reason is that it is just plain hard.  When working on their own, both horse and handler tend to slow down.   Also some of the groundwork that focuses on balance requires close attention to detail and thought so it is easy to lose the forward motion when working on mechanics and timing.  I think it’s ok to slow things down in the learning stages and you can break HSS down into the individual pieces and work on the set-up for the hip, getting the hip, and backing.  But once you start to put it together, it will be easier if you keep some energy so the pieces flow together.  So it’s always worth exploring different ways to get forward.  At this clinic we looked at two of them which were using neck ropes and changing our own walk.

Neck ropes are something that Alex has been teaching at clinics this summer because one use of a neck rope is to get horses moving in a more forward and active walk and she has had good results using it on horses at clinics.  We introduced the neck rope to some of the horses on the first day and then worked with it some more on the second day.  Neck ropes are a tool that Alex has used before. They are described in the book  “Clicker Training for Your Horse” and I remember using them at a clinic long ago.  The way Alex uses is a neck rope is to just drape a soft rope over the horse’s neck so it can be gathered at the base of the neck and used as a loop, or you can hold each end separately and use it that way.  We used both lead ropes and rope reins. The rope reins were nicer as they didn’t have a big snap.  Length also matters as you don’t want to have to deal with too much extra rope. 

Since this was our first clinic with neck ropes, we concentrated on the basics which were using the neck rope to go forward, back, turn, and ask for a lateral flexion.  There are a lot of nuances to using a neck rope and how you use a neck rope will depend upon what your horse already knows.  Any time you add a new piece of equipment, your training is a combination of educating the horse to the feel of the new tool and transferring cues.  There were clearly moments over the weekend when the horses went  “oh, you are asking for this,” not because they understood all about the neck rope but because they offered a familiar behavior and it was reinforced.

I didn’t take any pictures at the clinic, but I got Natalie to take some pictures of Red at home, just to show the setup.  I used a set of rope reins with the slobber straps removed.  They were a nice weight and had no hardware to bang the horse.  The picture below shows Red with the neck rope in position so it is against the line of his shoulder.  No, he’s not asleep…

If you want to play with this, the way we used the neck ropes were as follows:

go forward:  take the neck rope in one hand,  so you are holding both sides of the rope together,  right at the base of the neck, and take the slack out so the rope is tighter on the top of the neck.  You ask the horse to move forward by pulling down and forward.  If you just pull forward, you will slide the rope up the neck.  When the horse moves off, release by opening your hand and taking the pressure off his neck. If the rope slides up, just put it back. It should be as low as it can be without being on or over the withers.   The picture below shows the hand position for going forward.  My left hand is just holding his nose out of the way of the camera.  

stop:  lift the neck rope up against the base of the neck.  You can do this with one hand, but we used two hands and  we had the rope that went over the withers in one hand and the other rope in the other hand.  We lifted the section of rope that went around the base of the neck up to ask for stop.  You might have to stabilize the other hand if the horse wants to walk through it.  The picture below shows the neck rope being held in two hands. To ask for a stop, I would lift my left hand up while stabilizing my right hand.

backing:  same as stop, but you start from a halt.  You can also pick the neck rope up against the base of the neck to ask the horse to lift the base of his neck. With one horse, we asked him to lift and then back as he was dragging backward.

turning and lateral flexions:  We only explored this a bit, but here are some fun things you can do.  You can draw down on the part of the rope by the withers to ask the horse to move the shoulders out. You can use the other hand to lift as you draw and you can get a turn with nice balance. You can put a little pressure on the outside of the horse’s neck by drawing with one hand and stabilizing with the other to get a turn or to stop drift if the shoulders are falling out.

Here’s a picture of how you can draw down with the hand near the withers.  If you do this in motion, you can move the withers in or out.

These descriptions should give you a general idea of how Alex had us use the neck rope and what kinds of things we asked for. I’m sure there is a lot more you can do with neck ropes, but this is as far as we got.   I think that you can learn a lot just by experimenting once you know the basic set-up and mechanics.

  I didn’t use a neck rope on Red on the first day because I wanted to make sure he was comfortable doing familiar exercises before I added something new.  But I did use the neck rope on the second day and I found that it was very similar to the way I use the inside and outside rein in our in-hand work.  I was able to use the same body language cues with the neck rope and he quickly figured out what I wanted and I was able to ask for forward, stop, backing, turns, small circles, lateral flexions and we even played with haunches-in.

In all this work,  there were a lot of similarities between working on a single rein and using a neck rope.  As in single rein riding, you have one active rein. It was important not to draw on both sides at once. You can stabilize one hand and use the other, but not activate both at once. It was really important to release the neck rope after a request, especially if you were asking for forward.   If you do this correctly, you can feel that when you release, the horse steps up more under himself and there is a moment of rebalancing where the front end comes up.  We did a little bit of work with people in neck ropes, just to explore the mechanics and feel and this moment of rebalancing upon the release was pretty obvious when working with a person.  In case you are tempted to try out neck ropes with a friend, Alex had us bend our arms at the elbow, and then bring our hands up to our necks (arms folded closed) so our elbows were pointing forward.  Then we could run the rope around the back of our neck and over our forearms so that we didn’t have the ropes around just our necks.

I liked how the neck rope gave me a nice feel of my horse’s shoulder balance and when I used both hands on the neck rope, it gave me a better understanding of how the inside and outside hand need to coordinate.  You can use the hand near the withers to both draw the horse in and send the horse out, depending upon what you do with your body and your other hand and how the horse is set up.  Because I had no direct control of the horse’s head, I had to be more careful of making sure he was set up in his body for my next request so it made me more aware of when he could do something and when he couldn’t. 

We didn’t use the neck rope for riding at the clinic, but I will share that last spring I was in a clinic with Wendy Murdoch and she suggested I use a neck rope on Rosie since she was tense and getting a bit reactive when I used the reins.   The neck ropes she uses for riding are soft rope tied in a loop and she just had me hold the neck rope along with my reins. When I wanted Rosie to stop or rebalance, I lifted the neck rope up so that it put pressure on the base of her neck and this encouraged her to lift the base of her neck up. By asking her to lift the base of her neck, I could ask her to rebalance or prepare for a stop.  Wendy has a TTEAM background and the work in the neck rope was similar to how they use a balance rein as well as how people use a cordero (leather neck rope).  I don’t know what the origin is of the cordero, but I see it used by people who are interested in bridleless dressage.

 In addition to the horse work which was focused on HSS and neck ropes, we did some people activities.   Alex had us explore walking to find out what it feels like to have a forward walk.  It’s not just about going faster, but more about posture. In the people exercise Alex had us work on walking with our pelvis level (not tipped forward or back) and our shoulders open.  We walked in a line and different people practiced going from a slouchy “not forward moving” walk to a more energized and forward walk.  When one person changed, the whole line changed in response. It was fascinating.  We also explored how to walk slower while keeping that forward feeling. Some of the handlers took this walk exercise back to their horses and we could see a big difference in how the horses were walking. 

Then later in the clinic, we had a horse that got anxious about some cows grazing outside the indoor and his energy level was too high. Alex showed his handler how she could use her posture to calm him down by intentionally walking with her shoulders drooped and a bit of a forward lean.  When Alex’s energy level and posture changed, the horse changed.  After a few minutes,  horse and handler were moseying from cone to cone in a nice relaxed walk. 

The ability of the handler to mimic the posture they want in the horse is related to something Alex has been thinking about for a while, which is that horse trainers need to be able to project the image they want.  She has recently encountered both an actor and someone who teaches acting in her clinics and it made her realize that horse trainers could benefit from acting lessons, or at least a better awareness and ability to act in a way that is most beneficial for the current training session.  So we did a few exercises from her collection of exercises for actors.  I tend to be a bit self conscious about these things, but I thought most people did really well and we certainly had fun.

 One of the things I like about these clinics is that you can really see how taking the time to explain individual components of an exercise can make an immediate difference in how well it is done.  And also, how all these “separate things” like neck ropes and HSS are really connected. The time we spent exploring how we walked in our own bodies had a definite impact on how the horses moved the next time out.  The work in neck ropes helped one of the handlers when she went back to using reins. Just like with the horses, the more ways we explain things, the better it gets. 

Katie Bartlett, 2011, please do not copy or distribute without my permission