equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Clinic Reports: 2006 – 2008

The following clinic reports are all on this page.  You can start reading at the top and go in order, or you can skip to any particular clinic using the following links:

  • A Clinic Report: April 29-30 Alexandra Kurland Clinic at my farm
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton NY: May 27-29 2006
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: August 2006
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: October 2006
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: April 2007
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: July 2007
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: October 6-8, 2007
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: July 19-21, 2008
  • Alexandra Kurland Intermediate/Advanced Clinic: Elverson, Pa: Sept 20-21, 2008
  • Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: Groton, NY: October 11-13, 2008


A Clinic Report: April 29-30 Alexandra Kurland Clinic at my farm. (this report was posted on clickryder on 5/3/2006)

Hi everyone,

I wanted to write a brief report on the Alexandra Kurland clicker training clinic at my farm this past weekend.  I think we all had a great time and there was a lot of positive energy and great ideas being shared.

We started on Saturday morning by going around the circle of chairs and introducing ourselves. It was quite a diverse group with everyone from experienced clicker trainers to some people who were just getting started. I always enjoy this part of the clinic as it is so interesting to hear what people are working on and how they got started in clicker training.  The circle always leads to some interesting discussions.  There were discussions on how we use clicker training with horses compared to traditional handling, and how clicker training with horses is different than with some other species.  Alex explained how she views pressure and release as compatible with clicker training and how she likes to think of clicker training as a large umbrella that can incorporate many training techniques.  If you make clicker training too narrow, you can make it too limiting.

After lunch we started to work with the horses. Alex explained some helpful tips for starting targeting with new horses. She recommends that people count out a limited number of treats (20 or so) and work in little sessions. Between each session, you reload and give you and your horse a little think time. By limiting the number of treats, it gives the trainer a chance to evaluate how the session is going and adjust the training plan if needed.  Alex also talked about how targeting will show you which foundation exercise should be taught next. A horse that is crowding during the targeting should have backing as the next lesson.  Alex showed us how you can start to incorporate backing into the targeting lesson by feeding the horse behind the stall door. One point Alex made was that targeting is simple, but that there are a lot of important little details about food delivery.  If you start to pay attention to those details when you first teach targeting, it will teach your horse to be polite about food from the very beginning.

We worked on targeting and the grownups are talking with the next two horses and they were an interesting contrast so we saw how the same exercises helped both a fidgety horse and a very polite, but less enthusiastic horse.  We ended the day with demonstrations of the lateral work with my two horses Willy and Rosie.  Earlier in the day Buster, the mini, got to do a little show too and demonstrated a few tricks including sitting on his bean bag.

Sunday we started off with the training game. We had a lot of fun playing both versions. In the first version we chose a behavior to train and got to see how to shape it. In the second version which was looking for creativity, we allowed the trainee to offer many behaviors and then did our shaping based on the possible behaviors that were presented. It was interesting to difference between shaping with an initial goal and allowing the trainee to determine what behaviors could be selected for further shaping.  As a trainer it is important to be goal oriented but as a clicker trainer, it is also important to keep the creative juices flowing and the creativity version of the training game gave us all some ideas for how to expand our horse’s repertoire even when we run out of ideas.

We did a shaping exercise with Red, my daughter’s QH gelding and Ellen taught him to back up in his stall by free shaping from outside the stall.  He was a bit confused at first but once he figured it out, he was backing nicely and offering to stay back even after the click. I experimented last night to see if he would do the same backing in a different stall and he was great.

Alex guided us through a lesson working on a little tai chi and rope handling. She wanted to show us how a tense rider or tense horse is not able to be light and feel the changes in the contact of the rein.  She also showed us how to use arm rotations to stabilize our core strength and help become post like when the horse tried to pull us out of position.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the foundation exercises and mechanics of backing in a square and head lowering and how horses learn to collect and organize.   Alex taught one horse and handler (Chester and May) how to practice an early version of WWYLM where May walked him on a circle and stopped at each cone, clicking for stopping and backing out of her space.

After that, I demonstrated some single rein riding on Rosie so people could see the mechanics of riding on one rein, the triangle and two reins. We finished with working two other horses on the cones in versions of WWYLM.  The last horse worked on walking energetically forward and then softening and we could see the beginnings of lateral work coming out of the exercise.

At the end of the day, those of us still here got to see Alex work Chester through some trailer loading issues. It was great to see a horse calmly and consistently trained so that he got on and stayed on the trailer when he was comfortable with it.  At one point, they wanted him to back off and he was asking if he could just stay on.

I am sure I missed lots of details in this report as I was in and out tending to clinic details but I think Alex did a great job working with a group of trainers of all levels and interests.  While most of the exercises we did with the horses were pretty basic, it was good to go over some details that can make a difference and show people why it is important to be detail oriented and consistent in even the first lessons. We had lots of discussions about more advanced topics and how to apply clicker training to work beyond the foundation lessons.

I think most people got some practical advice and new skills for the level at which they are currently working and got some new ideas for where they are going.  

We were lucky enough to have great weather and I really enjoyed getting to meet lots of new and interesting people. I also enjoyed seeing how Alex is constantly coming up with new ways to help people get started correctly and the changes in the horses.

From the organizers point of view, the clinic was a lot of work, but well worth it. So, if you are considering hosting a clinic or attending one, I hope this report will inspire you to get out and do it.

A clinic report: AK Advanced Clinic at Groton NY: May 27-29, 2006

Hi everyone,

I am just getting organized again after another great weekend clinic with Alex in Groton, NY.  In past clinic reports, I have shared some of the key points and details of the lessons we worked on with the horses. But, for some reason, I feel that this clinic experience does not lend itself to that kind of format. There were lots of technical details that we worked on and we did do some of the same basic exercises with several of the horses, but I think that the underlying theme for the clinic was one of teaching balance and how training develops horses and riders who can really communicate. This goes beyond teaching the horse that leg means forward or a raised whip means stop. It became a kind of dance both on the ground and under saddle where the rider could give one “cue” and have it mean one thing and minutes (or even seconds) later, use the “same” “cue” and have the horse respond differently.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This clinic was hosted by Kate Graham and Lin Sweeney at Lin’s beautiful farm in Groton, NY.  They have hosted a series of clinics for 6 years and there is a core of advanced clicker trainers who attend most of these clinics, with the occasional addition of other new clicker trainers and some other advanced trainers who come when they are able. For various reasons, this clinic was very small, but that made it all the more interesting. We had the time to explore some exercises that Alex has not done in depth at previous clinics.


I arrived slightly late as everyone was heading up to the round pen. Alex wanted to start by introducing us to liberty work and work between two whips. We had a session on round pen work a few years ago, and we have touched on liberty work here and there.  The focus for the morning was to be working in pairs where one person was the trainer and the other was the horse. Alex started with Kate and we explored how to handle two whips (instead of one) and how to use the whips to create flow instead of using them to block.  The basic idea is that each whip can be used to either send the horse or direct the horse, or redirect the horse and the meaning of the whip can change back and forth each time it is used. So a whip can be used to send a horse forward and out if it is used behind the horse and can then be used in conjunction with the other whip to draw the horse in.   The interesting thing about this work is that it all becomes very subtle and it is a question of the trainer reading and anticipating the horse and the horse reading and anticipating the trainer. 

We worked through a few people and got an idea of the footwork and whip handling needed to work with two whips. In round pen work, Alex has us pass the whip behind so we had to learn to pass it in front. We also had to learn to use the whips both together and independently. At one point, I was being worked by Margaret and Alex stepped in to demonstrate how to handle a horse (me!) that was backing off from the forward whip.  This led into a very long session where Alex educated me about working in two whips. I am not going to go into great detail here, but if you are ever in a clinic and have the chance to be the horse, take it. You will learn a lot.  A few highlights for me were:

In the beginning, as soon as she clicked, I looked away from her. I knew she was coming to give me my treat (a pat), but I was mentally tired and had to disconnect for a moment (how many of our horses do this?).

There were times when I was following the whips and not getting clicked and I found myself thinking “wow, I could use a click to tell me what to do.” Sometimes that made me more confused and I worked less hard. But other times I also had moments when I had just been following the whips and I suddenly thought “I haven’t been clicked in a while, maybe I should be thinking harder about this.’ I am not suggesting horses are quite the same, but I do see in mine that they have moments when they suddenly seem to try harder or fade out. I will have to think about why I sometimes tried harder in the absence of a click and sometimes I just sort of lost interest in trying to figure it out.

I became really fixated on the whips. Everything else became irrelevant. I have to say that I never learned to like walking forward towards a whip, but I learned it was what she wanted.   At the end of the session, Alex had me so I was moving forward through the inside turns and she could use either whip to cue me to go forward or back. At one point, she was standing on the opposite side of the round pen wiggling the whip in front of me and I was walking forward toward it.  She described this as being able to bring my hips up from in front, which is a necessary skill for in-hand and liberty work.  Through the course of the whole session, interesting little pieces popped out. There was one point where I was balanced between the whips in such a way that Alex could have reinforced and taught piaffe. At another point, I was offering a lot of lateral work.


After lunch we got the horses out and started introducing them to the work on two whips. Kate had brought her new horse. He is a rescue who has had minimal round pen work and she ended up spending time teaching him to be less reactive to the whip and reinforcing him for going out and forward away from her when she sent him. He had a tendency to curl back around. Lin worked her horse Button who did really well. With both horses, we saw how the use of the second whip could really help the horse understand the handler’s direction and intent. It was nice to see how the whips went from being a little scary to being accepted.  With Lin’s horse, we could start to see how the horse could interpret the second whip as a cue to come forward, or to turn away. Lin was able to use the second whip to turn Button or draw her in. If she was behind, she could use one whip to keep her out and another one to keep her going the same way, so she was going straight.  It was a great demonstration of how you teach a horse to stay between the aids without the horse getting trapped or anxious.  Lin had a great time ground driving Button and setting up turns and changes of direction.

We had an interesting contrast between Kate’s horse Tucson who wanted to curl up around her too much, and my horse Rosie, who wanted to leave. Alex showed how we could use similar exercises to help each horse.  With Tucson, Kate had to be very careful about her body position so she sent him out. With Rosie, I had to think of adding a draw so that she would keep connecting back to me. In both cases, the second whip was used to help balance the horse if there was a tendency to over bend and circle around or leave.

Sunday we continued with the work between two whips. We worked each horse at liberty and started to feel the flow of sending them out and around, and how we could use the whips to draw them forward and turn. Some people also experimented with using the whips from behind so that they were ground driving their horses between the two whips.  This led to a discussion and further understanding of how to use your outside aids and how important it is to ride both sides of your horse. With the RP work and single rein riding, it is easy to get fixated on inside aids, but we could see how you could get a really nice turn by using the outside whip.

In my ground work session with Rosie, we worked on getting her connected to me by using a draw in the liberty work and with the feeding. This had to be balanced with asking her to back to get her food.   When I first turned Rosie loose in the indoor, she was very distracted and would stop for her click but leave as soon as I fed her. Sometimes she would be slow to come get her treat after I clicked.   Alex had me start by walking next to her and drawing her in. We built on yesterday’s session where she would get multiple clicks for standing while I stroked her and waiting for me to send her out. It was very clear to me that when I was in physical contact with Rosie, she would stay mentally connected, but that as soon as I tried to add some distance, she would lose her focus. Alex’s goal was to teach Rosie that she needed to keep track of me.  A key point for me was realizing that Rosie was paying attention to me even when she didn’t seem to be. Bob had pointed this out earlier with Button. He noted how she didn’t look like she was paying attention, but she was clearly being directed by Lin. I noticed with Rosie that even when I thought she had tuned me out, she would still react to a draw and I could get her back by backing away from her, instead of going after her. Using a draw works nicely because the horse does not have the feel of being pressured.

So I used a draw to get her to come to me to get her treat.   If she was getting good at the draw and starting to stay with me, then I would ask her to back out of my space, and click for keeping her distance. Then I would draw her back in again. I kept going back and forth, using the food delivery and the behavior I clicked to get her to stay connected with me, but not on top of me. It was really quite dramatic to feel the change in her. She went from having a moment of focus and then disconnecting, to being really connected with me.   It might seem confusing to a horse to have someone asking the horse to come forward and then back and clicking for both, but these were behaviors Rosie knew well and I had clear cues for them. So she did not get frustrated, it just made her pay attention more.

After she was connecting better, I started experimenting with using the second whip. It gave her more direction and I could use it to catch her attention when she started to wander. This brings up an important point that Alex stressed. When doing the liberty work, Alex will wiggle one whip to get the horse’s attention and show the horse which is the active whip. The wiggling is not threatening, or asking for more forward. It is just saying “hey, watch this whip.”  You don’t want the horse to be running away from the whips. You want the horse to be watching them.  When I was being worked by Alex on Saturday AM, I found a raised and static whip to be more threatening than a lower and gently wiggling whip. The gently wiggling whip caught my attention and made me watch it, but I didn’t have the immediate desire to move away from it. This comes from the motion of the whip and also from Alex’s intent. It reminds me a bit of playing with a cat toy.  If you wiggle a string at a cat too hard, they will leave. You have to just move it enough to catch their eye and interest and make them want to see what is going to happen next.  It even helps to wiggle, hesitate, wiggle.


The ground work flowed nicely into the riding work.  Kate worked with Tucson on some basic single rein riding. She had only ridden him a few times (he is 11 and had been ridden a lot before she got him).  This session was short as Tucson’s feet needed attention and he was uncomfortable under saddle.  Even in his basic work, the question of balance came up. Can you ask a horse to organize and be balanced in his body if he is not balanced in his feet? Alex decided the answer was “no” so we worked a bit and left him to process.

Lin and I worked on shoulder-in with our horses.  Shoulder-in is itself a great balancing exercise because the horse has to learn to rock back and collect, but also to keep the energy going.  In my lesson, I worked on riding a square in shoulder-in. If Rosie set herself up nicely in shoulder-in, I was to ask for a trot in shoulder-in.   This is really hard slow, work. Rosie figured out pretty early that she would get clicked for trotting so she would offer that before confirming the shoulder-in.  The nice thing was that because she was thinking “trot” I was able to keep the energy up in shoulder-in. When she was really good, I could feel the very deliberate and precise placemen of her hind feet. An interesting feeling because she was slow but she didn’t feel stuck or sucked back, just like she was working hard and carefully.

We continued this lesson on Monday with some nice results.  One thing that started to evolve was my connection with her through the outside rein. The outside rein connection is a fascinating feeling. If the horse is in the correct balance, you can use the outside rein in different ways to get different results, but you can also use it in almost the same way to get different results. It all depends upon the balance point of the horse. In the RP work on Saturday, Alex talked about finding the pivot point of the turn. If you get in synch with the horse and the horse is light, you will find that you can stand in one spot and shift your weight and horse will go from turn to turn.  This evolves over time. In the beginning you have to walk around and change the whip from hand to hand to get inside turns. Then you will find that as you can work further away from the horse, you are taking fewer and fewer steps between turns.  Then you realize that you are not moving your feet, just the whip from side to side to get the turns. At some point, you realize that you can get the turns without the whip, just by using your body and weight shifts. You are on what Alex calls “the pivot point” and the turns are easy and flowing.

The outside rein under saddle is a bit like that. If Rosie is really up and balanced in her body, I can open the outside rein to ask her to move her shoulders over and out. I can also open the outside rein to move her shoulder in and have her rock back and engage as she turns.  Alex describes this as using the outside rein with your seat as a pivot point.  I have had Alex describe this before and have been able to get a turn off the outside rein, but it is usually by closing the rein towards the horse’s shoulder.  This was the first time that I really consistently could feel how the horse could turn in off the opening outside rein. I should add that the horse does not flip the bend when you do this. It is like getting a step of a walk pirouette.

Why does this work? I’m not sure I can explain it. It just evolved out of the single rein work and is now available to me. Alex says she has a hard time explaining it to people because it is so counter-intuitive.  All I can say is that it is a really amazing feeling because it feels like sitting on the hind quarters of the horse and having the horse lift you up and turn.

After I rode, Lin worked through the same exercise with Button and I was able to see how she was building the connection through Hip Shoulder Shoulder and having Button light to both the aids to go forward and back. It comes back to balance. Unless you can get the weight shift as the horse rocks back and keep the energy ready to go forward, the shoulder-in off the outside rein doesn’t come.

I should add that Tucson was trimmed on Sunday night and we watched him go again on Monday AM and he was clearly walking with more energy and balance.  The feet matter.

I think we all left with some great ideas for things to work on, and a real understanding of how work in one area (RP or liberty work) ties in directly to riding and how every exercise has components that both need to be kept in balance and teach the horse about balance. At one point I was asking Alex about how my horses seem to get fixated on responding to one aid, or thinking that they know the right answer. When I change so that they need to keep responding to one cue as I add another cue or criteria, they seem to get stuck.  For example, I have done a lot of single rein riding. When I first pick up the outside rein, it is not uncommon for the horse to try to give to the bit on the outside rein and flip the bend.  I usually go back and reconfirm the bend and then pick up the outside rein more slowly and click for the pickup of the rein while keeping the bend.  The horse is learning to balance between the two reins and is learning that the meaning of the pickup of the rein varies depending upon what else is going on. If I pick up the outside rein first, then I do want the horse to bend in that direction.

This is just the horse learning to be flexible in his interpretation of the aids. It goes back to the dance I described earlier where one rein has different meanings and the horse has to learn to sort them out.  What I realized after asking the question was that there are lots of earlier exercises where the horse has the opportunity to learn that the aids are flexible. Think of how the horse learns when we want head lowering and when we want backing.  They both come from the lift of the rein, but the horse can learn when we want which behavior.

If we are aware of the significance of some of these exercises, we can use them to make sure that the horse understands about getting information from the trainer and it will help the horse work through the beginning phases of understanding about the balance of training.   Even now when I am training, I sometimes ask for one thing and then another and the horse really believes he can’t do both at the same time. My job is to break it down so he realizes he can do both at once, and now I will recognize and take advantage of moments when he starts to understand and say “oh, yes I CAN walk and chew gum at the same time.”

I am always pleased to discover that my toolbox of basic exercises teaches lots of different things.  Just a little change in my focus can help a horse understand a concept beyond the basic behaviors. 

Well, it was a great clinic and I know I will be busy until August when Kate and Lin are hosting the next clinic.  If you have questions about details, I will be happy to share more about what we did.

A clinic report: AK Advanced Clinic at Groton, NY: August 2006

Last weekend, I attended the advanced clinic in Groton, NY taught by Alexandra Kurland. I had a great time, as always, and thought I would share some of what we covered, for those of you who cannot make it to clinics.  I have been a regular clinic attendee for 6 years now, and each clinic has been a wonderful chance to see old friends, make new friends, and watch each horse’s progress in addition to learning some new skills and refining those that I am already working on.  Alex is always working on coming up with new ways to present material so that people can learn it faster and understand it better.

The group was a mix of clicker trainers of various levels.  Although the clinics are “advanced” clinics, there is still quite a range of experience both in clicker training and just general horse knowledge. It makes for a nice weekend as we spend some time working on more advanced concepts, but also time working on some basic work. I enjoy watching the basic work as I always learn something new and it is fascinating to see how each horse and handler learns and progresses.

Saturday morning was spent in a discussion of what people had been doing and then Alex shared with us some of the important details that she had learned from her marathon clinic session in England.   Much of this has been covered in her recent posts about arm rotations and accessing core strength so I am not going to go into detail about it here, but we spent some time in the indoor doing exercises to work on shoulder and arm rotations. 

One of the exercises we did was the one called “flying” which is in the riding book (p. 145). We accessed a nice shoulder rotation through this exercise and then released our elbows down to our sides. Then we tested each other to see how stable we were when someone pushed or pulled on our hand. Our goal was to be able to use our arms (align them) in such a way that we could access our core strength and not use muscle to resist a pushy horse or a horse that was pulling on the reins.  We also experimented with unfolding our arms (as Alex has described for treat delivery) and using the power from unfolding them to rock a pushy horse back.

The final exercise we did was to walk the pre-WWYLM game in pairs where one person was the horse and the other was the handler. We were comparing and contrasting how it felt when the handler pulled the horse along with her arm vs. when she walked and used her core.  This was a great exercise and you can try it at home with a partner. Set up a circle of cones or somehow mark the path of a circle. Take a lead rope and hold one end, giving the other end to your “horse.” Before you start, instruct your ‘horse” to be a bit sticky about leading.  Not refusing to go, but not going eagerly either. 

You are going to start walking off as you might normally do when leading a horse (most of us hold the lead in two hands, with one closer to the horse’s halter) and you should be able to feel some reluctance in your horse, which makes you end up doing some pulling. You will walk to each cone, stop and click/treat. Rock the horse back and feed it in the position where the perfect horse would be and then continue on.   After 3 clicks, you can do a change of direction and go the other way. Repeat this a few times and then evaluate your horse. Is he leading more freely? Is he stopping well for the cones? Is he in the correct position when you feed him?

Now, you are going to change your leading technique. Instead of holding the lead in two hands with one out toward the horse, you are going to start in the GROWNUPS ARE TALKING position (lead held over stomach with both hands over the top).  You are going to start the horse off by just walking forward and you are going to keep your hands right in position so that you are essentially leading the horse from your core.  If the horse is a little sticky, you can think of firming up the side closest to the horse, or even rotating slightly away from the horse to adjust the feel on the lead. 

There should not be a feeling of dragging the horse along, but of walking with intent. In this scenario, the horse still gets releases (he gives them to himself by walking freely) but he should have the feeling of being connected to something very solid that just happens to be moving out in front of him. It is the same idea as being a post, you are just a moving post.  This might make it sound like the people were stiff and rigid, but that is not what happened. As pairs walked around, you could see increasing harmony between the horse and handler and the leading got softer and lighter.

After lunch, we brought the horses out one at a time.   We had all been working on slightly different things so this was a bit of “show and tell” combined with feedback from Alex and suggestions for improvements and where to go next.  It was a great clinic to show the range of things one could do with clicker training. Kim Cassidy brought Oisin and he was anxious about being in a new place, so Alex showed her how to help him settle down. Sue and Arlene were borrowing horses to practice ground work and single rein riding.  One thing that emerged from the afternoon was the importance of your hand position in the SRR and how you pickup the second rein. 

So, Sunday morning we spent working on mechanics of single rein riding.   Using benches and plastic jump blocks, we made two horses and Alex worked through the mechanics of the single rein pickup and transfer to two reins, using me as the rider.   Remember how I said that Alex is constantly working on finding new ways to help people learn SRR better and refining her technique?  Well, the mechanics of the pickup and transfer that we learned on Sunday AM are different than the technique she presents in the book.  I don’t want anyone reading this to get totally confused, so don’t try to match up what I write here with the description and pictures in the book.

I have to say that when she first started changing things about how I was doing, I thought I had just gotten sloppy and she was cleaning up my mechanics. It wasn’t until I got home and was studying the Riding Book that I realized that she had me using different mechanics from the ones I originally learned. There are some key differences in how we did it Sunday, and I think I understand why she has made some changes, but I had to email her to see if she was teaching new mechanics or we were just working on adding new details.  The answer is both.  For many people who are new to single rein riding, they will want to start by following the instructions in the book.  But riding is not static and as you and your horse get a better understanding of the basic mechanics, there are some additional details you can start adding.  

The best way to practice the single rein mechanics is sitting on your saddle (if you have a saddle rack) and holding a set of reins.  You reach down and put your buckle hand on the reins, just gently scooping them up with your fingers.  This is a rounded motion and your wrists are soft.  Your hand should have your knuckles facing up and your inside hand will be resting gently over the top of the buckle hand. As you pick the buckle hand up, your inside hand will be sliding down the inside rein.  In the past, this was a sequential movement where the buckle hand lifted before the inside hand slid down the rein. Now you are really using both hands at once, starting from the moment the buckle hand touches the rein. 

The buckle hand is going to move up and out to the side, as if tracing over the arc of a ball and you will end up with your elbow seeded at your side and a slight rotation in your shoulder. How do you know if you have the correct rotation?  One easy way to check is to have someone push on your hand to see if they can make you use muscle to prevent your elbow from going out behind you.  But you can also check a few things about your buckle hand.  If you are wearing a shirt with a side seam, your elbow will end up in front of the seam.  Your thumb will be resting softly on the top of the rein and the joint on your thumb will be pointing up.  Your wrist will be in line with your forearm and your whole forearm should feel slightly rotated so that you can see a little of the inside of your forearm. I had a tendency to over-rotate and end up with too much rotation in my forearm.

It is also important to make sure that you are not just getting the arm rotation from rotating at the elbow. The rotation needs to start up in the shoulder.  The best suggestion I can make for checking this is to start by sitting with your forearm in the correct position which means checking your wrist alignment and thumb.  At this point, don’t worry about the rotation, allow your thumb joint to be facing up.  Take your other hand and carefully reach across and hold your elbow so that your thumb is on the inside and your fingers are around the outside, allowing you to stabilize the joint.  Now just experiment with moving your whole arm from your shoulder by moving your shoulder up, back and down. There should be a shoulder rotation that makes you feel as if your elbow slots in by your side and your whole shoulder releases and settles down.  When we were working on the Helen House Horses, Alex did some shoulder releases on various people and it was interesting to see how much your shoulder drops and really settles down when it is rotated and released.  Working in front of a mirror might be helpful if you are struggling with finding the shoulder rotation. 

Let’s leave the buckle hand and look at what the inside hand is doing.  While your buckle hand was sliding up, seeding the elbow, and finding its rotation, the inside hand is sliding down and finding its own rotation.  I found this one easier to find, because you have a TAG point for both your wrist and your elbow.  The seeding your elbow and shoulder rotation are the same as with the buckle hand, but instead of having your forearm raised, you are going to rest your wrist on the horse’s side, below the withers, with your arm rotated so that your pinky just touches the horse.  To find the position of your wrist, let it rest on the horse’s side so that your thumb is up and all the fingers are in contact with his side. Then just slightly rotate your wrist so that only your pinky is still touching. This is a small rotation because you don’t want to end up with your fingers facing up.  When you are first finding this position, it is ok to just rotate from your elbow, but once you know where you want your forearm to be, you will want to make sure that you are getting the rotation from your shoulder.

When you practice the mechanics of the pickup, there are a few other body parts that you need to monitor.  We discovered that it is easy to arch your back when you try to do the shoulder rotations, so you will want to make sure your back stays soft and flat.  Watch for tension in other places. I seemed to carry tension in my thumbs so I worked on keeping them soft.  When your friend is testing by pushing on your arm, have her or him watch to see if you have tension in other places. Some people got tight in their necks or jaws. 

The reason we went through the pickup in such detail was to learn how to access our core strength so that we could do the single rein pickup and have stability without tension.  Alex said that one reason she worked on this was that when she watched me do the single rein work, I had the mechanics, but my arms did not seem to be accessing the core strength in the rest of my body. There was a disconnect there, and she wanted to show us how to make the single rein pickup something we did with our whole bodies, and not just a movement isolated to the arms.

But we are not done yet. As the last part, she had me pick up the second rein.  I had gotten in the habit of allowing my inside hand to move slightly up as I brought the outside rein across. She wanted me to keep my inside hand way down and bring the outside rein to it.  We had worked on this on my ride on Saturday and I was having difficulty getting the outside rein to my inside hand without moving it at all.   But it is really quite simple. I think I had unconsciously thought I was not allowed to move my elbow on my outside hand, so I was twisting through my torso to get my hand far enough across. Alex showed me how I could just bring my whole arm across from my shoulder (without collapsing) and lay the bite of the rein over my inside hand so I could pick it up with my thumb and forefinger. Then I just slide along the top of the rein to reset my buckle hand and then end up with my inside hand low and my outside hand up. 

We actually spent about 5 hours on Sunday morning working on this with different people taking turns on the house horses.  There is an amazing amount of detail and coordination involved in getting a pickup that has the correct rotations and is still smooth and flowing.  The question, of course, is does all this really matter and do you have to spend hours sitting and perfecting your single and two rein pickups?  I think the answer is that it does matter, but no you don’t have to perfect it.  There are a few really important pieces that you need to have. One is the ability to stabilize the inside hand down.  Keeping that inside hand stable is really important for teaching a horse about giving to the bit because without that hand acting as a post, the horse will continue to brace and pull.  And I think you should start to be aware of the rotations and experiment with that so you can explore it when you are riding.

I would suggest that you practice enough to get the feel for the pickup and transfer to two reins. Then go ride your horse and see how it goes.  At some point, you will realize that there are places where there is room for improvement. So then you go back and look at the pickup and make a change, and see if it helps. When you and your horse are first learning, the small details might not matter because you are just getting a rough approximation of the work. As your horse gets more responsive and you both get better balance, making small adjustments in your hand positions are going to matter. In the long run, having all the details in place will help any horse learn faster from the very beginning, but when you are both learning, I think it is easy to get caught up in too many details and it is more important to get out there and try it on the horse and let the horse show you what details matter for him at this time.

If you have already been doing SRR for a while, you might be reluctant to change your rein pickup, or wondering why Alex has changed it.  I can only guess here, but there have been a few recurring themes at the last few Groton clinics. One is that Alex has been working really hard to get riders to keep their inside hands down.   When I first learned SRR, the inside hand is stabilized down to ask the horse for a give. As my horses got lighter and lighter, the point of contact became higher (before I reached the side of the horse) and I ended up riding with both hands elevated. Last year, she started working on getting me to ride with my inside hand lower.  This was hard because I seemed to reach the point of contact before my hand was in the low position. In the old pickup, I would lift my buckle hand midway, and then slide down the inside rein, so when I reached the point of contact, my hand was still in the air. By starting both hands at once, my inside hand starts lower and then ends lower.

This of course, begs the question, if my horse understands about gives, why does it matter if my inside hand is so low? Well, Alex pointed out that it gives you a good leverage point for controlling the shoulders.  In previous SRR, the connection to the jaw and hip was obvious and direct, but the connection to the shoulders was a little trickier. With the inside hand down and the rotation in the outside hand, I can now connect directly to the shoulders.  In addition, I am now more aware of my buckle hand.   Sometimes in SRR, it is hard to remember to keep that outside hand alive. By making it more active (with its own rotation and out to the side a bit), you can keep a better awareness of the outside hand.  

Now that I think about it, it seems to me that this modified rein pickup is setting the rider up for “riding on the triangle” which is what Alex calls it when you are riding in that inside hand down/outside hand up with a connection between the two hands position.   That would be in contrast to riding on a “pure” single rein or riding on a single rein with the buckle hand up and alive, but maybe not very active.

We spent Sunday afternoon riding and working on rein mechanics.  Several riders worked on going from walk to trot and using the power of the inside hand down to help stabilize the horse and help them carry the bend and softness through the transition. We saw some real progress and the horses got lighter and lighter.  Alex also had the riders work on organizing the horse in the walk, asking for a trot and then releasing the reins to ask the horse to stretch his neck out.  Once the horse was moving in the new longer frame, she would ask them to reorganize the horse again.  One question was if the horse kept the same cadence even when the rein was released?  She was checking to see if the horse inverted or sped up. 

In addition to the riding work, we had a few newer attendees working on ground work with Kate and Lin’s lesson horses. Arlene and Sue worked on the mechanics of WWYLM and 3 flip 3 on the ground and then moved on to learning the basics of single rein riding.  Kim Cassidy brought her young horse Oisin and Alex helped Kim learn how to settle Oisin down in a new place. One interesting piece from watching them was that when he came out in his halter he was much better than when he was in his bridle. He turned out to be a bit of a worrier and it showed up more when he was bridled, so we got to see the progression of using head lowering, the pre-WWYLM game and magic hand to help him connect to Kim and work in a more relaxed manner. By Sunday afternoon, he was doing really well.

Monday the roofers arrived!  Lin’s barn and indoor were scheduled to get a new roof, starting on Monday morning. None of us were sure what would happen. Maybe it would rain and they wouldn’t come, maybe they would be late, maybe it would be quiet enough that we could use the outdoor.  We left our options open but I learned early Monday AM that it was going to be an interesting day.  When the roofers arrived, Rosie went crazy and had to be taken out of the barn. I don’t blame her, being in a strange place and suddenly hearing the roof being pulled off.  I came up right away from where I was spending the night and found Lin holding her out on the grass.   So Rosie and I spent part of the morning grazing in the side yard, watching the roofers and allowing her to get her composure back.

Once she was a little settled, I took her and turned her out in the outdoor ring. She has a favorite corner to stand in, and I hoped she would settle down.  Alex came out and helped me get her brain engaged by targeting our hands and it was nice to see how that activity settled her down enough that we were able to sit down in the grass by the corner and she remained calm.  Arlene asked what we were doing and Alex replied that we were being Rosie’s herd.   I really liked that description because that was what we were doing, just keeping her company so that it was not so scary and offering her opportunities to earn reinforcement.

I was amazed to see that Lin’s horses really didn’t care about the roofers and Arlene saddled up Button and Alex gave her a lesson in the round pen.  When the roofers took their lunch break, Rosie and I worked in the outdoor ring. Alex had us work on picking up the second rein and stabilizing my inside hand down so that Rosie had to step up into the rein instead of drifting in or out. I think I finally started to understand how I could use the sliding of the inside hand down and outside hand up as a reset to rebalance her through her shoulders, get her to soften, and step up into the bridle all at once. I could feel some very definite weight shifts and adjustments in her balance just by focusing on connecting my hand position to my core and the rest of my body.  This is one place where the rotation of the outside hand made a big difference, especially on the right where she tends to pop her shoulder and drift out a bit.  That small adjustment in my position helped her keep her balance.

I left after my lesson so I don’t know how the rest of the afternoon went, but Alex was starting to work with Kate and Tucson on going forward, so the roofers hadn’t slowed them down at all.  Even with the roofers, it had been a great weekend and I certainly went home with enough ideas to keep me busy until the next clinic in October.

If you have questions about the work I described here, I can go into more detail. Some of it is easy to show in person, but hard to describe in words, so if something doesn’t make sense, please ask.

additional note (September 2006). I have now been experimenting with both ways of doing the single rein pickup on one of my horses. What I have found is that I use both. It depends upon my horse’s alignment and what I am trying to accomplish through the single rein pickup. Lifting the buckle hand to my chest works well when I am just starting new horses and I don’t want the horse to feel at all trapped between two reins. It also works well for an advanced horse that is well aligned from the nose through the shoulders. If I have a horse that understands about gives but is a big wiggly in front or I am doing work where I need precise control of the shoulders, I find I do the rein pickup where my buckle hand is rotated and out to the side. This is just my first impression after playing with the variations. 

A clinic report: AK Advanced Clinic at Groton, NY: October 2006

Last weekend was the last Alexandra Kurland clinic at Groton for this year.  We were lucky to have a great group of people, great weather and great horses. The horses and riders have progressed so far this year, that it was really awesome to watch.  I took Rosie and she was so settled that we were able to work in the outdoor arena on some trot work. One of the nice things about the Groton clinics, is that even though they are billed as advanced clinics, there is a nice mix of people at different levels. And we are at the point where we can take advantage of, and explore some other issues if a clinic attendee comes in with an area of expertise. We were lucky to have Marjorie Smith at this clinic and she shared her knowledge of barefoot trimming and hoof issues.  It was a real plus for those of us who are interested in hoof trimming and evaluating whether or not hoof care is related to riding and soundness issues.

 Usually these clinics end up having a bit of a theme, whether Alex plans it or not. Some piece emerges as a consistent thread throughout the weekend. This clinic was a bit different as Alex worked on quite a few different things with different horses, but I think there are a few key points that emerged that I thought I would share with the lists.

We started off the weekend catching up and had some good discussions about how clicker training incorporates many tools, and we need to recognize that our job is to communicate effectively with the horse.  This relates back to some recent threads about whip use, etc..  Alex pointed out that she uses a whip on the ground as an arm extender and she uses the whip under saddle in the same way.  It is part of her cueing system and she does not want to abandon it just because the perception is that whip use under saddle is an implied threat.  I am bringing this up because I am going to come back to this idea later when I talk about how we use the reins. It is really important to be able to separate out our emotional response to a tool, based of past experience in the traditional horse world, so that we can use all of the tools available to us, but with the clicker mindset. 

I do not think this is easy. I rode Rosie all summer with a whip. I systematically introduced the whip under saddle, rewarded her for correct responses and made sure I never escalated with the whip or used it out of frustration. Rosie is not afraid of the whip and I can swing it around, use it to flick flies, itch her belly, etc.. But, I have to say that I would rather not ride with a whip. Part of me still believes that if I need the whip, there is something lacking in my own horsemanship.  It doesn’t matter if that is true or not, I am just writing this to show that it is REALLY hard for me to let go of my original perception of a whip.

One way to help think about this is that to some horses the presence of the whip can be part of the cue, even if you don’t use it.  Arlene’s horse will trot off readily if she is carrying a whip, but not if she is not. Is the horse scared of the whip? Probably not, the horse has just learned that when Arlene is carrying a whip and says “trot,” uses her legs (whatever), trot might be the right answer.  One summer I taught Rosie that if I had a ground pole in the RP, cantering was a rewardable option.  I had used the pole to get the departure and once she was good at it, I realized that I didn’t have to send her over the pole, or ask over the pole.  All I had to do was drag the pole in and say “canter” with a whip cue.  The pole in the RP was part of her cue to canter. It was actually pretty funny. 

Alex wanted to do some videotaping for her new DVD’s so we got to have a little bit of show and tell over the weekend. Kate Graham showed off Lucky’s liberty work and we all enjoyed that. He will do lateral work next to her at liberty and canter alongside her while she walks.  He has had some time off for an injury and it was fun to see how happy he was to be back in work.

Other than Lucky’s liberty work, this was a riding clinic. In the past, we have spent time on rein mechanics and body work and other awareness exercises. This weekend we just jumped right in to the riding.   I think Alex felt we were at the point where we could explore the rein mechanics under saddle and let the horses tell us how we were doing.   I am just going to list a few of the key points that she covered through the whole weekend.  Some of the points listed come from an on horse demo that Alex did for us on Sunday AM. She rode and showed us the correct mechanics and some of the common errors. I hope she will put this session on a DVD as it was very informative.

Basic Single Rein Riding: Things to evaluate/check as you do the work

  1. Is your position becoming static? How often are you releasing?   A static position in SRR comes out of waiting too long for a give. In the beginning, riders are not sure what is a give, so they tend to stabilize too long while waiting for a response from the horse. Once they recognize a give, it is easier to find the rhythm of asking and releasing. But there seems to be another stage where the rider tends to get static. This is when the horse has some basic training in SRR and is getting soft and the rider is waiting for the next piece, whether it is elevation, moving the shoulders or another piece.  Again, the rider is waiting for the response and gets stuck. In this situation, the rider has to keep asking for many gives. If you keep releasing and asking for gives, you will get enough variation to be able to pick out the new piece you want. This is the clickable moment. The horse is more likely to give you something new if you keep giving him opportunities to start over. Otherwise you both get stuck.
  1.  Do you do a full release by dropping the buckle hand all the way down, or does your buckle hand get stuck up in the air?  This is a common pattern also. Riders get in the habit of asking for a give and dropping the inside hand, but keeping the buckle hand up. Then they ask for the new give by starting part way down the rein. Alex calls this riding with the emergency brake on.  She had one rider experiment with riding with a full release and riding with a “short” release and we could see a significant change in the horse. When she rode with the full release, the horse responded better to the whole pickup of the rein and it was softer, more organized, and improved as she kept picking up and releasing. With the “short” release, the horse seemed to tune her out a bit and they got disconnected.

    I do want to point out that there are times when I ride with a “short release” if I am working toward something very specific and it is almost there. I might do a full pickup and then a few “short” releases to help the horse get that last little piece, but I will not do more than a few “short” releases before doing a full release or giving a click. So, this is not something you never do, but it is worth checking to make sure that you are not doing it too much.  It is easy to find out if you are doing it too much. Just change and do more full releases and see if your horse improves or not.
  2. Can your horse walk actively forward? What does it mean to walk off on the buckle? A lot of riders get in the habit of asking the horse to go forward and sliding down the inside rein at the same time. Alex wants us to be able to just put our buckle hand slightly forward, look between the horse’s ears and go off on a straight line in an active forward walk. She had one rider work on this and do no steering. She let the arena walls turn her horse and just kept asking her to march until the mare had a nice active, going somewhere walk.
  3. How are you using your buckle hand? Is it active? We had a series of discussions about the buckle hand over the weekend. When you first start SRR, the buckle hand is nothing more than the hand that is holding the top of the inside rein. This is ok. The horse is learning about the inside rein and it doesn’t need to be complicated by the rider making adjustments in the outside rein.  If you keep your buckle hand near your body, you can use it to adjust rein length if you need to shorten the inside rein to get a give. In this case, the buckle hand is essentially acting as part of the inside rein.  This use of the buckle hand is what Alex refers to as keeping it active, but it is in a way that facilitates use of the inside rein.

    The gray area comes in as your horse gets a better understanding of the inside rein and you want to make the buckle hand more active, eventually leading to the use of the buckle hand as an outside rein, and then on to two reins.  She had riders experiment with using the buckle hand by taking it out to the side. Did the horse follow the buckle hand out and stay centered between the reins?  She had riders experiment with spreading their hands a bit so that the horse was working on a wider balance beam.

    When your hands are close, it is easy for the horse to fall out of alignment. In the beginning, this is ok as we want the horse to learn to use his body and he might need to drop or fall out the outside shoulder in order to find the give.  He is working on a narrow balance beam and is going to get wiggly and fall off it a lot. Since we are constantly picking up and releasing the rein, there are plenty of moments for the horse to adjust himself between asks and we want to allow the horse to find his own alignment without blocking him.

    As the horse becomes more advanced, we want the horse to learn to balance himself between the two reins and we introduce this gradually. By widening our hands, we make the balance beam wider and we can help direct the horse back to the center if he falls out of balance. If we introduce the second rein this way, by slowly increasing the use of our buckle hand, we can help the horse do this without blocking him.  This shift develops over time and it is not something where one day you suddenly change the use of the buckle hand. What Alex tried to show people was that there are times when you can start to use the buckle hand a little and see how the horse responds. Then you can build on those moments until one day you realize that you are essentially riding on two reins, and if you shorten the rein on the buckle hand, the horse will be right there.
  4. How high do you lift your buckle hand? This was a new detail for me. Alex is now having people lift the buckle hand higher with each ask when riding a patterned exercise (maybe other times too? I’m not sure about that). What she had riders do was ride 3 flip 3 and for the first give, she had them lift the buckle hand a little, slide down and ask. For the second give, she had them lift the buckle hand higher, slide down and ask. For the third give, she had them lift the buckle hand a little higher, slide down and ask. I think the idea was that the increased height of the buckle hand helped get the good, better, best gives that are a part of 3 flip 3.
  5. Is your horse marching with energy?  This was a recurring theme the whole weekend. Make sure that you don’t lose energy when the horse gives. If your horse is marching along and you slide down and ask for a give, make sure the horse keeps actively moving forward as he softens and gives. Again, this is not going to matter too much if you are just starting the work, but as soon as you are consistently getting gives, you want to start monitoring the energy level. If your horse tends to stall out, spiral in, or curl up (neck curl), then you probably need to add energy.  Adding energy does not always mean faster. Sometimes it just means riding with more intent. With some riders where the work was a little slow, Alex used cone patterns or riding to a point to give the rider intent and a sense of purpose. This carried over to the horses. If the rider was riding to THERE, the horse’s picked themselves up and marched to THERE.
  6. Are you dragging your horse over when you ask for the shoulders?  It is easy to recognize the rider who is dragging their horse over when the hand crosses the neck. But we can drag our horses in more subtle ways too. This is just another one to monitor. Are you waiting for your horse to give and shift the shoulders, or are you taking the horse over. Alex sees this a lot in the second part of 3 flip3 and in the rein back in HSS.  Alex made a point of showing how 3 flip 3 and HSS were connected and it was just a question of how much hip and what you did with the shoulders after the give of the hip.  In both cases, you need to allow the horse to move his shoulders, not pull or force him to do so.
  7. We spent some time with one rider on stopping the horse on one rein. The horse was anticipating the trot and Alex wanted the rider to disallow it. Because this horse can become very emotional, the rider was a bit tentative about just sliding down the inside rein and shutting down the trot. Alex had her work on taking the hip around and asking for the stop in one stride, and then releasing. If the horse did not stop in one stride, then the rider still had to release, but could slide down the other rein and ask for a stop again.  Alex was emphatic about the importance of releasing as soon as the horse responds to the rein, even if you didn’t get a complete stop. If you hang on to the inside rein for 2, 3, 4 strides, this is what gets horses anxious and it is counterproductive as the horse gets uncomfortable in his spine and it makes matters worse.
  8. Check your position.  Make sure you are not collapsing forward or over to the side as you go for the gives. One rider was a good sport and compared riding incorrectly and correctly. When she leaned forward and collapsed as she asked for a give, her horse noticeably slowed down and got heavy on his forehand. When she sat up tall, he came up under her and softened nicely.
  9. With all this talk about keeping the buckle hand alive and using it to help the horse find his balance, you do need to be aware of when you are using it to steer. Using it to steer is ok, but only if you can do that and the horse neither inverts or flips the bend. The horse has to more softly over into the outside rein, which is different than just turning to the outside.  There is a component of lateral movement to this kind of steering with the outside rein.
  10. Don’t forget that SRR and these exercises are tools.  We had a few moments this weekend when a horse was working in the arena and there was activity outside. Instead of getting flustered, the riders just rode their horses in 3 flip 3 around a set of cones and used the exercise itself to help their horses settle down and get connected.

There are two other things I want to write about. One is dealing with anticipation and the other is teaching a horse to release forward into the rein.

Anticipation came up a lot this weekend because several of the horses are now doing quite a bit of trot work. In the past, if the horse anticipated something, we would either gently disallow it, or go with it, and start slowly adding in stimulus control. In general, this works quite well. If my horse offers a give, or shoulder-in or something before I am ready, it is no big deal.  The trot is a bit different. I think there are several things that come into play here. Most of us don’t want our horses to trot without asking, for safety reasons, and also because it is often a sign of tension or stress.  There is also the issue of if the horse trots off and we are not ready, we might not be balanced and prepared and the horse might get discouraged from trotting if every time he goes, the rider has to scramble to get organized.  So, we do want trotting under stimulus control. But, some of these horses were just learning to get organized in the trot and were sometimes offering these really gorgeous and balanced trots. Because of the quality of the trots and because they were learning to release their backs to go up into the trot, Alex was reluctant to have us disallow the trot. But then it got very confusing. When do you go with the trot, and when do you stop the horse?

In the course of our discussion, a few good guidelines came out. (these are guidelines, the lines between different “cases” are blurry and you may find you change your strategy on a regular basis as the horse changes).

Case 1: If the horse just trots off when you are actively working on something else (walk etc..), then you can disallow the trot. The horse might be trotting to avoid doing something else, or out of confusion.  If you find the horse is trotting when you are not prepared, then you can shut the trot down.

Case 2: If you are setting the horse up for the trot, and he trots off early, but it is beautiful, you can allow it. In this case, you have to make some decisions. The horse is probably using part of your setup as the cue to trot, is this ok?

It is common to see horses trot as the rider picks up the second rein.  If you don’t want this to be your trot cue, then you need the horse to learn that the pickup of the second rein does not mean trot. The easiest way to teach this is to reinforce for walking a lot, until you can go through your pre-trot setup and the horse does not trot until you ask. So, for example, if I am walking on Rosie on the buckle and I pick up the buckle hand and she trots, I need to go back and clarify things for her. So, I will stop her, release the rein and pick up the buckle again. If she walks when I pick up the buckle, I can click and treat. If I slide down the inside rein and she walks, I click and treat. If she trots, I stop her and start again. I can keep working through this until I can do all my trot prep and she does not trot until I ask. 

It is important to remember in this training, that the reason the horse is trotting too soon is that he is anticipating. In general I like the horse to anticipate, in that it  is how I build lightness. What I don’t always want the horse to do, is to act upon his anticipation. So if I slide down the rein and the horse trots off, I will disallow it. If I slide down, and the horse thinks “oh we are going to trot soon, and gets ready, “ I might even click that moment of reorganization. It depends upon what stage of the training I am in. 

The nice thing is that this is not a static process, and as long as I am consistent for significant periods of time, I can change my cues as the training develops. I had one whole summer when Rosie interpreted the slight lift of my body as I started to post as the trot cue. I had never ridden a horse that used that as a cue to trot, so I had to think for a moment. But it worked for us and I did not have to change it until I wanted to do some work on my posture and then I was able to teach her that she had to wait for the leg after that slight lift and then she could trot.

Case 3: the horse is consistently offering a good trot and you are ready to put it on stimulus control. In this case, you know that you can probably get the good trot when you want it, and that if you disallow it once, the horse will probably still offer it when you ask.  To be honest, I think most of us just sort of get to this point without really working at it. If you are being selective about which trots you will click, you will start to recognize when the horse is not going to have a good trot even before he gets all the way into the trot, and you will already be disallowing those.  As the horse learns to recognize when you will allow the trot, trotting will be coming under stimulus control.

Case 4: you are in a situation where you don’t want the trot at all and you disallow it. This might be in a new place or with a new rider, or even at some stage in you ride. I am very consistent about not allowing Rosie to trot off until l have gone through some beginning of the ride warm-up exercises. If she trots before we have done a series of exercises, I disallow it. Over time, she has learned not to offer trot until I am done with them. In general, what I have found with her is that she will not offer trot unless it has already been reinforced in that session. So, once I have rewarded trot, it is on her list of possible choices when I ask for something.

I do find that if the horse is consistently offering trot when you don’t want it, that you might have to go through a stage of disallowing any unrequested trot. In this case, you have to be very consistent and then you can start to allow some flexibility.   With some horses, stimulus control is more of an issue than with others.

Ok. But I haven’t answered the question. How do you disallow the trot? This was an area of some confusion. If you are on one rein, you take the hip by sliding down and lifting the inside hand. If you are on two reins, Alex has you lift the outside hand and lower the inside hand. You are going to slide your hands apart so you find the point of contact on both upper and lower hands. If you slide them and there is slack, you will probably not find the point of contact. In this case, you might have to spread your hands apart more.  This shuts down the trot without blocking it and it does not seem to upset horses. 

The challenge is that sometimes the horse trots when the rider is in transition between one rein and two and the inside hand goes up when it should go down and vice versa.  Alex pointed out that if you are on two reins and you do inside hand up, outside hand down (the opposite of her suggested inside hand down/outside hand up), it is very unpleasant for the horse. She said it does nasty things to their spine. I didn’t get a chance to ask her about it, but in thinking, I have to assume that it is related to the bend that the horse is in. If the horse is bent to the inside and you do inside hand down/outside hand up, you are asking the horse to stop within the bend. If you do inside hand up/outside hand down, you are twisting the horse’s neck and spine. You can do inside hand up on one rein because the outside rein is allowing the hips to swing and the horse is not trapped between the two reins.

Which leads nicely into my lesson.  I did not do Single Rein Riding over the weekend, except in my warm-up and some steering at the trot.  I had what Alex calls the “human side rein” lesson.   I am going to describe what we did and then how it relates to SRR.  It is really the same principle as SRR, but because I was on two reins, used evenly, it took me a while to process what I was doing, how it fit into the process and why it was consistent with the rest of Alex’s work. I am still processing and exploring this, so bear with me.

On Saturday, Alex had me warm up Rosie and just trot her around the outside arena, working on school figures and patterns. We would do a circle, to a diagonal, down the long side to a turn etc.. .We haven’t worked on duration at the trot much at these clinics and Alex wanted to see where I was with Rosie.  I had mentioned that Rosie seems to get stuck in patterns and I had been working on making her more flexible and responsive so that I could ride various figures and she would flow through them.

One thing Alex noted was that she was not sure Rosie was stepping up into the outside rein. I had spent a lot of time this summer teaching Rosie to lengthen her frame and stretch out and she is actually pretty good at lengthening her frame without speeding up or falling on her forehand. This is a hard lesson for her. She has a lot of push from behind and when I first started it, she would push herself on to her forehand and then lose her balance and run.  A good way to test the connection to the outside rein is to ride turns off the outside rein where instead of closing the outside rein against the neck to get the turn, you actually open it out away from the shoulder. The horse has to rock back a little and lift the shoulders up and over. When you turn by closing the outsider rein against the neck, you are blocking the shoulders. When you turn by using the inside rein, you are pulling the shoulders around. It is a different feeling.  I had noticed at home that Rosie will do this turn going right, but not going left, so there was something going on there.

The other thing Alex noticed was that while I had taught Rosie to stretch forward and down, Rosie was not really allowing me to find the point of contact out in front. She tended to back off whenever I took a feel of her mouth. In my previous work on getting her to stretch, I had put slack in the reins and then sent her forward, so she wouldn’t be confused by hands saying “stop” and legs saying “go.”  But what she needed to learn that when I sent her forward evenly into both reins, the way to find the release was to go forward and release forward.  OK, what? I found this pretty confusing. It was way too similar to the riding the horse forward into a fixed hand, which I did not like. I have had teachers that had me hold my hands steady and send the horse up into it. I have done this and you can get a horse to soften and round by putting them between your hand and leg. But it always felt a little jammed to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.

But I could see that Rosie did need to learn to go forward even when I was asking for something with the rein so I continued. And this is when the light bulb came on for me.  In one of Alex’s tapes, she talks about getting baby gives. A give is when the body part comes alive with energy and moves in the direction you ask. There are 6 directions (left, right, up, down, forward, and back).  Rosie had learned left, right, up, down, and back. She had not learned forward. I had taught head lowering where she followed the release down, but I had not taught her to follow the contact out and down. Is this a question of semantics? No, I don’t think so. When Rosie started to reach for the bit, allow me to find the point of contact and then stretch out more to find the release, if felt different.  There was no feeling of being trapped. In fact, I could feel her back swing and her gaits got bigger. But it was hard work. She could only do it for little while before she started to slow down.

Once I had her more connected and looking for the release out front, she filled out the reins and I suddenly found that I could use the outside rein for turns in both directions. Alex had me riding diagonal to diagonal and I could just keep my inside hand low, open the outside hand a bit, (or lift it a bit) and she just flowed through the turn with the same bend and energy.

I rode the same lesson (with slight variations) all three days and by day 3, my horse had a more active walk and felt much more connected.  So then I had to think about things.  I initially thought this was not a single rein riding lesson.  But then I realized that in order to stabilize my hand and allow Rosie to find the contact forward, I had to use both reins. If I had used only one rein, she would have kept offering the 5 other directions that she knew (left, right, up, down and back). So I had to change my hand position so she knew I was looking for something else.  The lesson was entirely consistent with SRR.

It was important that I stabilized using my whole body, but not by locking my hands. It is easy to do this exercise and lock your elbows. Alex wanted my arms in full extension, but soft. She had me hold my hands on the edge of my saddle so I could monitor their position and make sure that my reins were even.  I would start by asking Rosie to walk forward and then I would slide my hands out to the side until I could feel the corners of her mouth. Once I found the point of contact, I would ask for more energy. If she took a little stronger feel and walked up into my hands, I would release and allow her to lengthen her neck. Then I would find the point of contact again and repeat so that I was slowly inching her out, but she had to allow me to reconnect with her as I did it.

This is an important point, and goes back to my earlier discussion about whips.  Even though I have done a lot of SRR and try not to use the reins to slow down or stop a horse by pulling back evenly, I still do it sometimes (tsk, tsk).  And somewhere in my brain, increased pressure on the reins has meanings that come from my past experience. If the horse does it, it is pulling. If I do it, it means I want the horse to stop.  So, I had to really say to myself that when I take a feel of her mouth with both reins, it is the same as in SRR.  It is just going to the point of contact and saying ‘I want something.” Rosie’s job is to figure out what I want. If she backs off, I just say “no, that wasn’t it,” and add energy, exactly as I would if I was asking for a give to the side.  The rein does not mean stop.

What happened was that Rosie learned that if I used both hands and added energy and my body position/posture etc.. was saying go forward, that those things combined meant that the release was to be found by going forward and reaching out with her neck and releasing her spine. And she did figure it out. The difference between this and what I had been previously taught was that when she took a little feel and released her spine forward, I released too. It might be just a softening of my hand, but I allow her to soften and drop “on to the bit.” In order for her discover it, I had to allow that slight feeling of “pull’ and desire to go forward. This is a fine line. I don’t want her pulling me down, but I do want her asking is forward the answer. If I reward or release for that initial little pull (sense of stronger connection), it makes things clearer for her. 

I would also like to add that I had to readjust my thinking a bit. When I had previously down some “long and low” work with Rosie, I had stabilized my hands if she flipped the bend or inverted. I hate to admit it but I was thinking of it as saying “no, you are here.” Actually this was pretty effective and maybe it is appropriate for starting this work.  But when I was the human side reins, if Rosie put slack in the reins by getting crooked or shortening her neck, I would slide my hands out until I reconnected and the thought here was “here I am, come find me again.”  What is the difference? The difference is that when she put slack in the line by slowing, I did not just send her forward, I actually shortened my reins until I could feel her mouth and started again. What I was teaching her was that she could not drop the connection.  This is a different feeling and one worth thinking about because it is part of what allows us to feel connected to a horse even when we are riding on a float or a softer rein.

I am going into detail over this not because I expect you all to run out and ride this lesson, but because I think it addresses so many of the issues that keep cropping up on the lists. Horses that are overbent, curled etc.. are ones that have not had this lesson yet..  This is how single rein riding ties in with and leads to a performance horse that is ridden on two reins.

And I want to bring up another point. I asked Alex if I needed to do this lesson on Rosie because I had done something wrong. Maybe I had let her get too curled, maybe I had not concentrated enough on forward or…. Her response was that it is a tough lesson and she thought that it would have been premature to do it on Rosie before now.  I felt relieved and had to go think about it. So, this is my take on it.

Ask yourself as you sit on your green and perhaps anxious young horse. Do you want to teach your horse to find the release by going forward? With some horses, this might just teach them to run.  The point of this lesson is to teach the horse to release the spine forward. The horse cannot release the spine and carry himself unless he has developed sufficient coordination and strength to carry himself correctly in that longer frame. I have played around with these kinds of exercises before but never felt that Rosie had the coordination or physical ability to do it. And I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for.

Alex has said to me that she uses many of the same rein effects, exercises and lessons that are found in more traditional dressage. What she finds is that she does them in a different order. Many trainers start off with this “go forward into the contact” lesson as the first lesson. And sometimes it works out, but often you end up with the rider who is sending the horse forward and holding back at the same time because there is not enough strength, balance, and understanding of the release.

Well, this is getting way too long, but I have to add one final note. I could recognize the release that Alex was looking for because in my work playing with the pose, I did discover that I can sometimes get Willy to rock back, elevate and then stretch without falling forward. This is the same feeling as what I was going for with Rosie. I tried to take pictures of Willy posing, but you don’t see it in the pictures. It is a feeling, a sense of muscles and energy flowing. 

We have had some chilly mornings this week. I turn Rosie and Willy out in a 2+ acre field in the AM.  They run and play and goof around. This AM, something caught their attention and they trotted the length of the field. Rosie has a big trot but she tends to invert and get springy when playing in the field. This AM she did a big trot and her neck was up, but as I watched she suddenly changed her balance, and the whole top of her neck lengthened and went forward and out, not as in an arched neck, because it was more open than that.  But it was definitely a stretch and release of the spine as she lengthened. Cool!

Hopefully I have given you all food for thought. As always, I encourage you to get to an Alex clinic if you can.  We welcome new people at Groton and it is a great group with lots of variety in horses, riders, goals and stages of training.

A Clinic Report: Advanced Clicker Clinic with Alexandra Kurland: April 21-23 in Groton, NY

Hi everyone,

Last weekend I attended the advanced clinic with Alexandra Kurland that was held at Lin Sweeney’s farm in Groton NY.    We had wonderful weather and it was great to see how everyone made it through the winter and what they had been working on.   There is a core group of 6-8 horses and riders who have been attending these clinics since 2001 and it is so nice to see the progress and changes in both trainer skills and the horse’s balance and development.

Because this was a large group, we spent all our time working horses instead of the usual mix of horses and tai chi/bodywork/rope handling.  And there was quite a wide range of behaviors that the horses were working on.  Usually a “theme” emerges from these clinics and I initially thought that this clinic was more of an overview and look at the progression of single rein riding. But upon further reflection, I think it was more than that.  What it really showed was how to use the “tools” that Alex has taught us, putting them to work to solve training problems, and then there was some fine tuning and looking at the next step too.

This is really taking Alex’s work to the next level. In previous clinics, there has been a lot of focus on learning the mechanics of single rein riding and the sequence of behaviors that one asks for to do WWYLM, 3 flip 3, HSS and so on. In this clinic, most of the people who were working horses were familiar with the lesson they were using, but now learning how to use a lesson to connect with their horse or improve his performance.   A side benefit of this was that the new people in the audience got a nice overview of how to ride the exercises and a real sense of how they fit into the training progression.

There were a few really good examples of this.  One of the horses was a bit grumpy on the first day. He has had a little clicker work but was being handled by a new person and had been trailered in, so he was in a new place too.   Instead of working on what they had originally intended, Alex and Sue worked with him on head lowering as that was what he needed on that day. Sue got a chance to practice and improve her head lowering skills while the horse learned to calm down and settle.  They made a huge amount of progress over the 2 days and by Sunday he clearly understood head lowering and could keep his head down with some duration.

Another horse was also being handled by a different person and when she first got on and rode, there was a lack of communication between Button and Arlene about when Arlene wanted her to go forward.  Button is Lin’s horse who she generously allows clinic attendees to use if they cannot bring their own. Arlene and Button have done beautiful groundwork in the past, but on Saturday when Arlene got on, Button was stuck and would not move.  Perhaps she was not sure of what Arlene wanted or just not connected enough (to Arlene) to figure it out, but Alex had Arlene just work on gives to the bit to release Button into motion. The idea was to ask for a give of the jaw and connect it to movement of a front leg. Alex refers to this as using marionette strings and the idea is that you can really connect the pickup of the rein to the horse moving a foot in any direction. It was fascinating to watch this connection being built. At one point Button had clearly figured out that the click was coming when she moved her left front foot so she just offered picking it up and holding it.

Another important piece that came out of Arlene’s session was the idea that it was important for Arlene and Button to figure this out without being in a hurry.  Each of our horses learn the way we ride and if we want to be consistent, it is important that we each ride in a way that we are comfortable with.   When I was learning to ride as a kid, I was constantly told to be tougher with the horses and make sure they knew I was boss. I think this is a pretty common attitude among horse people and I did learn to be more assertive, which is probably a good thing in moderation(I was a very shy and timid child…).

But, as I got better at riding and learned more about horses, I found that there was only a certain level of “assertiveness” with which I was comfortable. If I went beyond that, I became inconsistent because I was going beyond my own comfort level and so my response to the horse would vary depending upon how I was feeling on any given day and other variables. And what I have found is that being inconsistent is a real training problem. It is better to stay within your own comfort zone and be consistent with the horse. If you can do that, you will make progress as long as you keep focusing on what you want the horse to do.

Along the same idea of new horse and rider combinations and learning to use the toolbox in new ways, we watched Lin ride Stormy. Stormy is an Anglo-Arab who regularly attends clinics with his owner. I first met him a few years ago and he was a very angry horse and uncomfortable in his body. Bev (and Kate Graham, who teaches her) have done a wonderful job and he is now light and soft and doing consistent trot work.  On Saturday Bev rode him and on Sunday Lin rode him. It was so interesting to see how he was not sure about Lin and wanted to invert and get tense, but when Lin just consistently and quietly asked him to soften and waited for him to release his back, he started to work well for her too.  Lin was able to take all the same skills she has learned on her own horse and tap into the work that Bev had done with Stormy and connect with him within one session.

We had two other riders who were working on the trot with their horses and starting to explore how to use 3 flip 3 while trotting to get the horse to balance even better and to change the geography of where they were riding (steering if you will, but it was steering in balance, not just making the horse turn etc…).   Both these horses are interesting cases because they are gaited horses that are now trotting with more and more balance.   One of them has developed this amazing big powerful trot and his rider was working on using the idea of 3 flip 3 at the trot to help him rebalance when he got quick. I should say that in these horses, the trot was built out of 3 flip 3 so it is not that she was now trotting and using 3 flip 3. It was more that she was using 3 flip 3 in a more subtle way to improve the trot that had already been built with it.

The other horse is a Missouri Fox Trotter who was a confirmed pacer when I first met him. His pace was very uncomfortable to ride and he didn’t seem to gait naturally so his owner has been focusing on teaching him to trot. When I first met him, they were just clicking any trot steps and he was still pacing a lot. When I saw him last weekend, he barely paced at all and his trot is becoming round and soft.  She spent part of the weekend working on riding circles and asking him to move off the line of the circle on to the diagonal so that she can start to put school figures together.  She used 3 flip 3 to put him on the circle and then found the moment in 3 flip 3 when she could take him off the circle while staying in balance. 

In addition to learning to use Alex’s toolbox to improve the horse’s performance by choosing appropriate exercises, there was another idea that we explored at the clinic. That was the idea of using one behavior to reinforce another and how to build chains so that the horse builds enthusiasm.    On Saturday, Kate rode her horse Lucky and Alex had her reinforce walking actively forward by asking him to give to the bit and collect.  The second behavior is one that he has been heavily reinforced for and he loves to do. So rather than clicking the active walk, Kate would ask him to collect and then click. The idea was to see if this would allow Kate to work on two behaviors at once and maintain the energy of the active walk into the collected walk.  The benefit of doing it this way was that she could reward the active walk without having to keep stopping him.   It worked very well and we could see a huge change in how he was carrying himself and how much easier it was for Kate to keep his energy up.

I played with the same idea of using chains on Monday when I rode Rosie.  My assignment was to just ride and see if I could ask for multiple behaviors before clicking.  Because Rosie has not traveled a lot and tends to be anxious in new places, I click at a pretty high reinforcement rate at the clinics. This strategy has worked well and she has gotten comfortable and settled working at Lin’s barn.  At this clinic she was very calm so the idea was to ask for more behaviors before I clicked.  I rode a lot of the same patterns I had been working on at home and she was able to remain focused and with me so that was great progress.   What I would like to explore now are ways to chain behaviors together and heavily reinforce certain behaviors so that she remains enthusiastic through the whole chain.

In the past, I have taken advantage of what Rosie wants to do on any given day and I have heavily reinforced certain behaviors to improve them.  Now I feel like I have a better understanding of how I can combine the idea of making a behavior highly reinforcing to her and the strategic use of that behavior in a chain to increase enthusiasm and the quality of other behaviors without having to click each one individually. This goes beyond the idea of only reinforcing a behavior on a variable reinforcement schedule, but means I have to really think and plan how to combine behaviors together so that she is not just hoping that eventually she will get clicked, but that she wants to do one behavior well so she can do the next one.

There were lots of good discussions at the clinic about how single rein riding helps horses learn to find their own balance and how to view some of the phases that horses go through as they learn this work. Alex did a little work with jaw flexions and showed us how the jaw flexions could change the whole horse’s spine and we could see changes all the way down in to Lucky’s stifles.   It was a very informative weekend and left me with a lot of food for thought. 

If you have any questions, want clarification etc…, feel free to email me or the list.   I have not gone into a lot of technical stuff in this post because I wanted to share a bigger picture of how this work comes together and what you can do with it once you have an understanding of the basic exercises.

A Clinic Report: Advanced Clicker Clinic with Alexandra Kurland: July 21-23 in Groton, NY 

Hi everyone,

It has been a week since I returned from the last clicker clinic with Alexandra Kurland in Groton, NY and I wanted to share some highlights of the clinic. As my friend and clinic host Kate Graham said, it was like “old home week.” We had many of the same riders and combinations we have had at past clinics so Alex was able to jump right in and see how everyone was doing.  Usually these clinics take on a “theme” or we end up focusing on a particular exercise, but in this clinic, we really worked on many aspects of both clicker training and riding. I would say that there were a few common threads that came up over the weekend. We did, of course, spend some time on microshaping. In addition, there was quite a bit of discussion and work on getting horses to go forward, and how to keep the drill team aligned (controlling drift),

Alex has already written about microshaping quite a bit so I am not going to go into detail here, but the general setup was that one person sat in a chair in front of the horse and was the designated “feeder” and in charge of the target. The other people were given clickers and they clicked (as a group) for the behavior we were after. If the horse made a particularly good effort, the feeder would present the target a few times and reward the horse for touching before going back to the other behavior. Alex had us work on free-shaping backing.

The idea was to keep the reinforcement rate high and with some of the horses we really struggled with this. If you have done a lot of duration work for standing quietly or used free-shaping to improve stationary behaviors, you will need to expect that it will take the horse a while to offer any kind of behavior that could lead to movement. We had two horses that had been reinforced for posing a lot and it took a while to get them to offer other anything that could be shaped into backing. We had another horse that was more interested in licking the feeder than in getting clicked. It was interesting to see how much stronger his desire to lick was than his desire to earn a click. At times, he would get clicked and get so distracted by licking that he would lose interest in the treat.

I think with any behavior like this, the question is always “do you allow the horse to do it and hope you can make the clicker game more interesting?” or “do you prevent him from doing the behavior so you can find something to click?” While Alex could have changed the setup for him, he was being very calm and the feeder was ok with the licking so she experimented with clicking different non-licking behaviors to try and get him to play the game. The idea was to see if we could make the game interesting enough to motivate him to play with us instead of licking. Alex was hoping he would choose to abandon the licking and play the clicker game, instead of taking the licking option away from him. I think his owner and her instructor are going to keep working on microshaping with him so it will be interesting to see what he is doing at the next clinic.

I had brought Rosie and she did well with the microshaping. I have done quite a bit of free-shaping with her, both to teach her some tricks and also just to find ways to entertain her in the winter when I can’t ride. She offered backing quite early and we were able to click for components of backing. She offered a nice “tummy tuck” where it was clear she was tightening her abdominals in preparation for backing. We were able to click her for using her back and also for lifting her withers.

The rest of the clinic was a mix of groundwork and riding. Some of the newer members of the group worked on groundwork with borrowed horses and got to experience the softness and bending that comes from 3 flip 3. Sue showed us the value of spending a whole lesson on teaching the horse about parking next to the mounting block. She patiently worked on teaching Button to march up to the mounting block and stop (in proper alignment) when Sue ‘captured the saddle.” This happened on the second day and on the third day, Button and Sue showed off by getting it perfect on the first try.

The riding sessions were focused on alignment and energy. The single rein work is great for teaching horses to bend and soften and teaching riders how to access body parts but it is easy to allow the energy level to drop and it is also easy to allow the drill team to get out of alignment if you spend too much time focusing on one piece. Alex wanted the riders to make sure that the horses were moving with energy but marching up evenly into the bridle. The biggest challenge here is keeping control of the outside shoulder. Once horses learn that they can move their nose to the inside and move laterally to the outside, it becomes important to control drift.

What do I mean by drift? In its simplest sense drift means that horse is constantly making the line of travel slightly larger (in the case of a circle) or changing the direction by moving his forehand over instead of tracking straight ahead. I think some of the drift just comes from anticipation. If you spend a lot of time in 3 flip 3, the horse will start to anticipate the third part of 3 flip 3 where you ask the horse to move laterally and when you do the first three baby gives, the horse will start moving laterally instead of waiting to do that after you get the hip. With my horses, I found they all went through a phase where I lost the ability to use the inside rein to ask for a turn to the inside. As soon as I slid down the inside rein, they would start moving their shoulders out. In some ways, this is no more than stimulus control and making sure that you keep the aids for the first part of 3 flip 3 clear from the aids for the second part of 3 flip 3.

Drift is an interesting thing because even if you think you have managed to control it, it can sneak back in when you change something else. I had spent a good part of this spring and summer working on getting better control of Rosie’s shoulders and I thought I had the drift under control. But when Alex had me add energy to the walk in my lesson on Saturday, the drift came back. Because Rosie did not know what to do with the extra energy, she would just get crooked instead of taking the energy forward. This is hard to do in the walk because there is not enough forward movement to help you keep the horse straight. Most of my work at home had been at the trot and canter and even thought I had improved her alignment at those gaits, she still struggled at the walk. But by the end of the lesson she was doing better.

A few other lessons addressed this same issue. There are a lot of little adjustments the rider can make in the pickup of the rein that help the horse find the proper alignment and connect with the rider. Alex really likes to have the rider concentrate on lowering and stabilizing the inside hand so the horse can find the rider’s stable point of contact. Once the horses were able to do this at the walk, a balanced trot came more easily.

Some other topics covered were transitions and training turns, especially how to ride the change of bend in a half turn and reverse. Rosie has a tendency to fall out of the gait during down transitions so Alex had me focus on getting the same quality after the down transition. So if I went walk, trot, walk, I was supposed to wait and click when the quality of the walk was the same as before the trot transition. Rosie thought this was really hard! Alex also had me work on transitions within the trot to help Rosie keep her energy flowing through the trot walk transitions. I think this helped a lot and I have seen a lot of improvement in her transitions since we have been working on them at home.

On Monday morning, we had a discussion on how to encourage, allow and ask horses to go forward. This is a topic that seems to come up again and again. I think that many of us came to clicker training because we had difficult and emotional horses, so we were so happy to get them relaxed and calm. And most of the ground work focuses on building emotional stability and softness. I know that I have spent a long time building behaviors that promote a calm and relaxed state. And for most of my initial riding, this was what I wanted as well. But there does seem to be a time when forward becomes important, and if you have spent a long time riding without focusing on forward, riding forward seems to become a rusty skill (at least for me).

Lin shared with us some centered riding techniques for encouraging a horse to move more forward. Other people shared their experiences and it was clear that knowing how to ride a horse forward is a common problem. Alex talked about how some horses are more forward than others, just by nature, and how it can be hard to know how to ride a horse forward if you have always ridden horses that were lower energy. On the other hand, those people who have more forward horses are not quite sure what they do to get the horse to go forward. In addition, we talked about different kinds of forward. As riders, we want to create forward moving and thinking horses because we don’t want to have to constantly be asking the horse to keep going. But we also want to be able to ask for more forward if needed.

I think one reason this came up at the clinic was that we had several people using borrowed horses and we could see how the horses were different with the new handlers. One horse who is normally easy to get going was clearly stuck in place with the new rider. And it was not that the rider was doing anything wrong, she just wasn’t doing the same thing as the regular rider. We had another horse that was clearly reluctant to move at all and we had to evaluate if there was something physical going on (he has a history of lameness and foot issues) or if it was just confusion. Trying to separate out physical issues from general confusion over different aids/cues adds to the complexity of the issue.

And these threads are all connected because the ability to ask a horse to go forward is connected to the issue of drift and alignment. A lot of horses get crooked if the rider asks for more forward or energy but is inadvertently blocking the horse in some way. I have found it is very easy
to ask for more energy and have the energy creep out a side door resulting in a crooked horse. The goal is to be able to ask for more energy and have the horse take it in the correct direction. It is kind of exciting to think that our horses are now emotionally settled and we have spent enough time carefully building the basics at the walk that we can ask for more forward and feel comfortable with it. I can still remember the days when trying to get organized at the walk was challenging enough.

                                           Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: October 6-8, 2007

Last weekend’s clinic with Alex in Groton, NY was a great one as usual.   We had pleasant weather and a nice mix of old and new people.  I love seeing how everyone has progressed and meeting new people. I think that those of us who have been clicker training for a while sometimes forget how amazing this work is, and it is nice to see and hear the enthusiasm from new members of the group.  The main focus of the clinic was on riding, but we did spend a bit of time on round pen work and walking through how to set up shoulder-in. 

Because I have already written so much about single rein riding, I am not going to go the basics here, but instead I am going to share some fine tuning and details that Alex worked on.   I will say that we did hear “inside hand down” a lot.  Each clinic with Alex clarifies some detail about single rein riding and the progression from one rein to two, and this time we focused a lot on the use of the “triangle” and building the connection between both hands that leads to an understanding of how to use the outside rein. This is something that we have been exploring and working on for quite some time, but it is an ongoing process and there were some new details that made a significant difference. 

When Alex teaches single rein riding, the emphasis in the beginning is on sliding down the inside rein and asking the horse to give. The outside hand is lifting the buckle as part of the mechanics of sliding, but that hand is not active on its own. It is working in conjunction with the inside hand to set the horse up to ask for a give. You can use the outside hand to adjust the inside rein by lifting it to allow the rein to slide through the inside hand and shorten the distance from the inside hand to the bit. This is a useful way to reset the point of contact if the horse puts slack in the rein by inverting or moving its head and neck in an undesirable way.  But, most of the focus is on stabilizing the inside hand.

In past clinics we have explored picking up the outside rein once the horse is soft, and then using the outside rein to ask the horse to step over and under it, or to turn away from it. Once you get the idea and the horse understands about the outside rein, this is a nice feeling and it leads to a very light and balanced horse that is also very adjustable.  It is important to remember that the while single rein riding is a valuable exercise in itself, one of the goals of single rein riding is to use it to educate horse and rider so you can make the progression to riding on two reins.  A lot of traditional riding starts on two reins, but Alex has found that by starting on one rein and slowly building up to two reins, she can break down the teaching process into small steps.  This avoids a lot of the pulling, inverting, and feeling trapped that can happen when you try to organize a horse on two reins and the horse doesn’t know how to do it.

In addition, the inside and outside reins have different functions and it is often easier for the horse if they are taught separately so that the horse really understands what each rein aid asks. Otherwise you can end up with a horse that sort of bounces from one rein to the other or gets stuck between them, instead of one that balances between them.  So while it might seem like a long complicated process to teach all about the inside rein and all about the outside rein, you end up with a different connection to the horse in the end.

But, back to the clinic.  The first day was a mix of groundwork and riding, giving Alex a chance to see where everyone was and what we needed to work on.  I was an auditor at this clinic so I got to watch all the lessons, which was a nice change from spending a big part of the day hand grazing Rosie.  Alex worked on basic mechanics of how to start a young horse on giving his hip and with some of the riding horses, she started to explain more about what to do when you pick up the outside rein.  It is not uncommon for riders to spend so much time on the single rein work that by the time they go to two reins, they are not sure what to do with the second rein.   How to make this transition became a big focus of the clinic, both for people who were already on two reins and for those people just starting to go to two reins. And then there was the question of once you are on two reins, what do you do next?

The way Alex helps people and horses make the transition from one to two reins is through the use of “the triangle.”  When you do single rein riding, your inside hand slides down and stabilizes and your outside hand lifts up. If you look at the line of the reins, there is a triangle where one side is from the bit to the inside hand, the next side is between your inside and outside hand, and the third side is from your outside hand back to the bit.  In previous single rein sessions, we have focused on the position of the inside hand and what happens when we move the outside hand up or out. This time Alex focused on line between your two hands and wanted riders to explore what happens when they take the slack out of the line between their hands. This is done by moving the outside hand up or out, depending upon what the horse needs.

Before I go farther, I want to clarify something. The transition from one rein to two is a gradual transition and there are times when I am not sure if I am really on one rein or on two because I might be in that phase of my training where I am starting to activate the outside rein, but I have not completely switched to two reins. Alex gave us a clear and simple rule which was if there is slack between your two hands and you use your outside hand by sliding up or out, you are on two reins because you are changing the connection between the outside hand and the bit when you do so.  Remember, this is if there is SLACK between your two hands. If there is NO SLACK between the two hands, then you are still on a single rein, with the outside hand supporting the inside hand and you are still in single rein riding mode.

The reason this makes a difference is because single rein riding is all about asking for a change and then releasing. You do not want to ride around with tension in the reins. You ask for a give and then release.  If you get stuck and the horse does not respond, then you need to re-evaluate how you are setting things up because one of the benefits of single rein riding is that the horse does not feel forced or trapped. 

Therefore, there are stages in single rein riding where different uses of the triangle are appropriate. When you first start asking for baby gives, you are going to slide down and stabilize your inside hand. If the horse really pulls, you are going to use your other hand to help the inside hand hold its position.  As the horse gets softer and you start working on the hip, you are going to start exploring the use of the part of the triangle that is between your two hands. If you take the slack out when your horse is drifting through its outside shoulder, what happens? If you take the slack out when the horse wants to drift in, what happens?

Part of the reason to start working on the connection between your two hands is to start teaching the rider about using both sides of her body. We had a little session on Sunday morning when Alex sat on a bench and showed the rein mechanics and the difference between having slack and no slack between her two hands. As soon as she took the slack out of her outside hand, her whole body position opened up and stabilized. If someone acted as the horse and moved the bit in different ways, she was very solid.   By taking the slack out, the rider is able to feel more stable and connected but it has nothing to do with using the horse’s mouth for balance or stability.  It was at this session that the term “soggy triangle” was coined. So, if Alex tells you your triangle is getting soggy, it means you need to take the slack out between your two hands.

Various horse and rider combination explored this farther throughout the weekend. Kate learned how to use the triangle to keep Lucky on the rail and get him to step up and under the outside rein as a set-up for shoulder-in. Lin learned how to use the triangle to help her young horse stay connected through his hips instead of drifting. Sue learned how to use it as an effective way to complete a turn instead of being tempted to use a bit of opening inside rein. In all these cases, the use of the triangle allowed the rider to connect to the horse’s hips by helping the horse either step up and under when it got out of alignment or add engagement when it got strung out.

The use of the triangle helps riders connect to their horses hips under saddle, but we also explored other ways to connect to the hips.  One of the horses at the clinic had not traveled much and she was overwhelmed by the people, sound system and being in the ring on her own.  On Saturday, her owner (Margaret) spent time working on HSS (hip shoulder shoulder) and getting her to give her hips and soften, but she was still too overwhelmed. So Alex had her set the mare free and the owner walked a pattern around the cones, clicking the mare (Meadowlark) for coming up to her or for walking quietly.

This was a good exercise and a nice one to balance out much of the weekend’s work which was focused on pressure and release.  Because Margaret and Meadowlark had a strong relationship, Alex really wanted to give her time to choose to be with her person.  She might not have chosen the same exercise for a horse and owner that were new to each other. It was really interesting to watch and see how the mare was paying attention to what Margaret was doing, even though she was not ready to come over. And it was nice to see her finally start to choose to stay with her. An important point was that Alex did not allow Margaret to approach Meadowlark, even to offer food after a click. She wanted her to extend her hand and offer the food, but not walk over to her or try to lure her with the food. If Meadowlark refused to come over, then she just put it away and moved on.  Alex kept saying “don’t beg.”   This really struck a chord with me because I have had times when Rosie has refused food and it is so tempting to try and keep pushing it at her. It is better to just offer and then move on. When the horse is ready, she will take it.

On Sunday, Margaret was able to practice HSS with Meadowlark which gave her another way to redirect Meadowlark’s energy if she gets upset. Once they were into the HSS pattern, they both visibly relaxed and started to reconnect with each other.  When I first wrote that, I wrote that Meadowlark relaxed and connected with Margaret, but actually it worked both ways. The repetitive pattern of HSS settled both of them down and Meadowlark even started offering head lowering. It was nice to end her session with some nice relaxation and softness.

Connecting to the hip came up in other ways, we had some people doing groundwork sessions where they learned to connect to the hip.   This can be a tricky thing and it takes some timing to set the horse up to offer the hip and be able to translate that into the lateral movement that comes out of the second half of 3flip3.   Alex also showed us other ways to get to the hip. In one groundwork session, she started the handler in grown-ups are talking which evolved into ground-tying and then drawing the hip around. Once the horse was softly bringing his hip around, the handler could take that into forward motion or back it up.  In another session, Alex had the rider work on giving the hip at the halt to get a horse to understand more about moving off her leg.

This led to an interesting session with one rider and side discussions about how riders need to go with the horse’s motion but not get caught up by the side to side sway of the horse’s barrel or hips.  Getting caught up in the side to side sway of the hips can lead to the rider “sloshing” from side to side and this actually makes a horse less forward and puts the rider out of synch with the forward motion of the horse.  Alex talked about how teaching a horse to give his hip at the halt and then using that step to get forward motion presents a nice opportunity to add the leg aid as the horse steps off.  This teaches the horse about the leg aid in a gentle way and helps the rider find the correct timing.

In a session on Sunday AM, Alex has us walk through the set-up for shoulder-in as two person horses to get a feel for how the horse needs to rotate into shoulder-in and how the rider can help set it up. She had us walk a half turn and reverse where the return to the wall incorporated some lateral steps so that the horse’s hip reached the wall before (or at the same time as) the shoulders.  If the hip is really stepping up and under like that, the wall acts to redirect the flow of the movement and it is very easy for the rider to rotate the horse into shoulder-in. 

I have played with this set-up a bit since I came home and I really like it. It eliminates some of the confusion that comes from setting shoulder-in up from a circle or out of a corner,  where drifting can be a problem.  It also gives the horse a clear pattern to follow so that some of the usual confusion over whether you want a turn or shoulder-in can be avoided, at least in the beginning stages. As an interesting side note, Alex started working shoulder-in with one horse that came out and seemed a bit unbalanced, and there were questions about whether he was having trouble with the footing, or was sore, or just not getting organized. They worked on shoulder-in at the walk and at the end of his session, he trotted off fine.

Shoulder-in was one of the options Alex presented for what to do once you have your horse organized on two reins. Some of the riders had spent a lot of time teaching their horses to soften, bend and carry themselves on one rein and were now making the transition to two reins. But once they were on two reins, they were not sure what to do next. Exploring shoulder-in was a nice way to experiment with changes in the horse’s alignment and learn about using the outside rein. Alex had other riders work on riding school figures such as figure 8’s or doing transitions.

It was nice to see how much progress everyone had made and to see the new people get an understanding of how the work develops. I thought we had a really nice variety of people at different levels and it is always fun to see how all the work connects together and how much the horses enjoy it. You can see it in how they carry themselves and their bright expressions and eagerness.   I can’t believe it is 6 months until the next one.  See you in April!

Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic: July 19-21, 2008

Hi everyone,

I think Arlene, Sue and Margaret have done a wonderful job of describing the micro-riding that Alex had us do at the July Groton clinic.  I agree that body awareness and the power of thought are huge and that Alex has come up with a very effective and simple way of teaching people about this.

Since my name keeps coming up as the “official Groton clinic reporter,” I will add my comments to what has already been said.  The post numbers refer to messages on “the_click_that_teaches yahoo list.”  You can read these (and the rest of the thread) on that list, or if you are not a member, click on the links and you can read a copy that I have put on my site.

If you are not familiar with micro-riding, you might want to go and read Alex’s first post (5056) and second post (5346) on micro-riding.  She is using the term “micro-riding” to refer to riding where instead of working on gross body movements, the rider puts her awareness on what is going on inside her own body and explores connecting that to what the horse is doing, or uses it to suggest to the horse what she wants him or her to do.   Alex introduces the idea by having people work in groups off the horses. One person stands and goes through the sequence of accessing body parts and a second person acts as a monitor.  This person supplies feedback by placing a hand and reporting on what they can feel as the rider makes changes.  It is often helpful to have a third person as an observer to add any comments about what they see from the outside. The monitor sometimes finds it is easier to work with her eyes closed, and often the rider does too. So it is good to have someone that is there with their eyes open!   

The first time I experienced micro-riding was at the Groton clinic in April and Alex describes the process completely in post 5056. We started with learning to move our shoulders and then worked down to our femur and bubbling spring.   If you are not familiar with the “bubbling spring,” it is a point on the bottom of the foot right behind the ball of your foot.  I first saw it described by Sally Swift in Centered Riding. She says the term in used in acupuncture and the easiest way to find it is to palpate the bottom of your foot.  The spot is the intersection of the longitudinal and lateral balance lines of your foot. To find it, she says “You will find the point of intersection about two to three inches behind the big joint of the second toe in a soft part of the foot.”  Martial arts use it as a both an energy and grounding point.

This clinic built from what we started at the April clinic.  Alex had has us start by warming up our shoulders, asking us to move them up, down, in and out.  In the beginning, it is ok to feel as if you are doing big movements. As you develop more connection and awareness of moving your shoulders, you can make the movement smaller and smaller. This was one interesting part of the clinic because as people got better and better at connecting to body parts, they got quieter and quieter. For the audience, it became a real lesson in noticing tiny changes in posture and alignment, which is an important skill in itself.  I also want to point out that, in the beginning, people took a breath as they accessed each new body part. As they got more comfortable with the steps, they could do larger chains in one breath.


The shoulders are the start of what Alex refers to as the “grounding chain.”  The grounding chain starts with the shoulders and moves down to the bubbling spring.  We worked through the chain until we could easily move down through our bodies building awareness and feeling better alignment.  The sequence was as follows:

Shoulders: once they were warmed up, the phrase Alex liked to use was to keep the shoulders “free and easy.”  The easiest way I found to do this was to breathe into my shoulders and just let them settle down gently.

Rib cage: expand your rib cage to the side with a breath

Thigh/Femur: think of rotating your thigh slightly in or out. Alex found that rotating the thigh out made it easier to access the rest of the lower leg.  As you do this, you might feel some changes in your pelvis which means you are already starting to connect your own body pieces together so allow that to happen. If it doesn’t, that is fine too.  Remember this is a thought. You don’t have to actually move your leg although you can start there if it is helpful.

Lower leg: think of rotating it slightly out. Often the lower leg and thigh/femur operate together in the beginning so don’t worry if you can’t do each one independently.

Bubbling spring: think of being centered over your bubbling spring, with energy coming up through it.  We had some interesting responses to accessing the bubbling spring. Some people felt energy shoot up and it made them feel energized and more powerful.  Other people felt like accessing the bubbling spring made them feel more grounded, aware of how they were standing and more firmly rooted.  I worked with one person who felt energy in one leg and grounding in the other. We all have little habit patterns and most people prefer to carry slightly more weight over one leg than the other, so it is understandable that each leg might have a different sensation. 

We practiced this the first day and spent time learning to go through the chain smoothly.  People discovered the importance of breathing and allowing the awareness to happen instead of physically trying to move the body part.   I think it is important to take time to build the focus and awareness that is necessary to work through this sequence.  In the beginning, we found it was helpful to access each body part by taking a new breath. Over time, we found that we could do it in fewer breaths because we could work through the sequence faster, not by rushing, but because the next one was already there and we could just flow through the sequence instead of having to stop and think about each new part.


After the grounding circuit, Alex had us explore the “head circuit.”  The head circuit includes:

The back of the heart:  This is the space on your back between your shoulder blades.  I find I can access it by thinking about breathing into my rib cage and allowing the air to expand that space so that I feel a fullness or expanding across the top of my back.   My shoulder blades slide easily a bit to the side to allow this to happen.  I find I sometimes have a tendency to round my shoulders when I first try to access the back of the heart, but thinking about the breathing helps me to use the back of the heart to open my whole chest instead of curving it in. 

The collarbone gates or “Chi Who.”  James Shaw has a good description of the “Chi Who.” Sometimes Alex introduces these here, or she might wait until later. The collarbone gates are those points on the front of your collarbone pretty close to your midline. Alex has us find them by extending our arms out to the side and then bending them at the elbows to bring our thumbs to touch our chests (easier to show than describe).  If you stick your thumbs up (like hitchhikers) as you bring your arms in, your thumbs will be pretty close to a little depression (one on each side) right along your collar bone. That is your “Chi who.”

The tongue on the roof of the mouth:  In the beginning, Alex had us think about putting the middle of the tongue on the roof of our mouth.  As we got better at it, we didn’t have to physically move our tongue, but could just think it.  What I noticed watching people in the early stages when they were still doing larger movements was that people tended to lengthen their necks a bit as they moved their tongue up.  Later on there was just a feeling of allowing oneself to get a little lift.

The release of the poll:  This just the feeling of opening up at the back of the head. Alex talked about Sally Swift’s image of opening the blue sky at the back of the neck.  I found it easiest to think about taking the feel from lifting the tongue and then letting myself relax a bit, not by allowing myself to squash back down but by releasing any tension I might have added when I thought about being taller.

The top of the head:  This was just having some awareness of the top of your head. We did talk about how it would feel if you had a string connected to the top of your head and lifting it up. I don’t think you want the idea of being pulled up and hanging, but more the idea of holding up the weight of your own head so it is not just stuck on top of your neck, but is floating above it, holding itself up, but without tension.

Arlene brought up the image of a horse pricking its ears and this was a useful image for many of us when we worked on the head circuit because it incorporated the lift and the feeling of interest and energy.

This is as far as we got Saturday morning and the riders explored how it felt in their rides in the afternoon.  Some of the horses responded right away.  One of the riders said that her horse was more forward than usual when she thought of the head circuit.  This rider was also noticeably quieter when she was thinking about the micro-riding and a lot of the extra body motion that sometimes crept in was decreased.   Another horse was a bit confused at first when the rider started doing things differently and it took them a few minutes to sort it out. I do think that if your horse is already very tuned in to your small body movements, you have to allow some time for both of you to explore how to use the micro-riding so you are not throwing too many new things at your horse at once.


On Sunday, Alex added the next piece which was what I think she called the “diaphragm circuit.”  It is helpful to have names for these so that when riding, she can ask the rider to think of a specific sequence. The diaphragm circuit includes:

The front of the Diaphragm:  This is just continuing the circle so that you feel like the energy comes all the way around and picks you up a bit.   Alex had Lin play with this quite a lot and the image she used was to have Lin think about generating an energy ball which she could then send in any direction she wanted. She could send the energy ball forward to ask the horse to go forward.  When Lin tried this, the observers on the other side of the room said they could feel it.

Middle of Diaphragm (if needed):  some people find this helpful to add a feeling of flow and continuity to the diaphragm circuit.

Back of the Diaphragm:  Take that feeling of expanding your torso down into your diaphragm. If you don’t know where your diaphragm is or what it looks like, I suggest you find a picture. It will help.  Personally, I found that visualizing the bones or muscles themselves moving was helpful when I was trying to figure out how to find my own body parts.   Alex suggested thinking about filling the lower back to access the back of the diaphragm.

Lower back:  This is just thinking of moving the energy down into your lower back and hips/pelvic area.  You can think about taking the breath into your lower back to adjust the alignment of your spine or just allowing yourself to settle and be grounded, allowing your spine to lengthen.

Top of Pelvic floor:   I think most of us found that the back of the diaphragm led directly into a change in our hips or pelvis.  For me, there was a feeling of lightening the pelvic floor and allowing the energy coming down my back to circle around toward the front which led to …

And back to the Front of the Diaphragm to complete the circuit.  

Just from watching people, I thought that adding in this sequence changed people’s alignment and balance in significant ways. It was interesting to watch because it was a series of tiny shifts that all added up. Each one alone didn’t seem significant but it paved the way for the next one and so on. 

Have you ever had someone try to change something major about your riding position?   What I have felt and seen is that the instructor looks for the most obvious problem and changes that one detail.  In one way, this makes sense because most of us can only think about making one major adjustment at a time.  But of course, every body part is connected, so even though the instructor thinks they are only asking you to focus on one body part, the rider has to not only change that part, but figure out how to use the rest of his body in conjunction with the new position, which ends up meaning that the rider now has to deal with major changes in a number of body parts at once. 

With the micro-riding, the changes were small and because the adjustments were built in chains, there was an element of allowing the body to do its own self-correcting. If the shoulders were shifted slightly one way, which then affected the pelvis, the necessary change to the pelvis was picked up later down in the chain. The rider didn’t have to do both things at once, but neither did the rider change one thing and leave something else out of balance.

As we did this work, Alex had a few comments which I will share.   She is finding there are lots of advantages to this work and is getting a lot of positive feedback.  One thing she likes is that people are building focus and awareness.   People might start out only able to access one body part, but by the end of the weekend, they are doing whole chains on one breath.   I have not mentioned it, but Alex did mix targeting in with the micro-riding. Not only did it give people a break (concentrating on this work is hard), but it helped them learn to switch from internal awareness to external.   This is an important skill for riders who need to be in touch with their own bodies and also paying attention to what the horse is doing, the environment, other riders and who knows what else (screaming or using the ring as a sandbox children, come to mind, but maybe that is just me <smile>.)  We need to be able to switch from internal focus to external focus easily and quickly.

She puts a lot of importance on the relaxation of the shoulders and the ability to rotate your thighs. If your shoulders are tight, it restricts your breathing and leads to tension. If your thighs are tight, it restricts the movement of your pelvis and affects your ability to follow and direct the energy of the horse.   By concentrating on doing this at the level of thought instead of the level of movement, people don’t get caught up in the cycle of “trying too hard” where they end up making things worse by doing too much. As soon as you realize how powerful your thought can be, a lot of extra “body noise” disappears.

The rides on Sunday afternoon were about exploring the micro-riding while doing some basic single rein exercises.   People were very excited at how much better the horses were responding (softer, lighter, more energetic) when they thought about micro-riding.    Some of the people who attend the Groton clinics use Kate and Lin’s horses so they are riding horses they know, but they are not as familiar and connected to them as their own horses. I thought it was interesting that the micro-riding worked well both for people on their own horses and for these other combinations.


On Monday, Alex added the “cereal box” image to the micro-riding. Once the rider had worked through her grounding, head and energy/diaphragm circuits, Alex had her visualize a box suspended over her torso. She had Lin think of the 4 points that held up the bottom of the box and how it connected to her shoulders. Did it have diagonal bracing?  How wide was it? How was it suspended?  The idea is to think of keeping the box stable, no twisting or collapsing.   When I did this, I found that the image of the cereal box helped to adjust any sight forward or backward tilt that might have crept in during the rest of the micro-riding. It was a nice check of whether or not the assembled alignment needed any final tweaking.

The last thing we explored in the house was adding in some rein mechanics.  What happens when you pick up the reins in a single rein pickup? Can you pick up the reins as you go through the grounding sequence? Does it feel different?  Alex said that one of her mantras from the trip to England was that single rein riding is not single hand riding.  She wants riders using both hands and connecting them to the torso. She talked about the importance of feeling like you were riding from your core.   Using the rein mechanics while being aware of the grounding circuit sent the connection from your hands through your whole body.

We looked at the rein mechanics when asking for lateral flexions and what happens when the inside hand is down vs. up.   When people first learn lateral work, there is a real tendency for the inside hand to sneak up.  Alex had Lin feel the changes in her body when she had her inside hand down and thought about asking the horse to step sideways. Then she had her lift her inside hand up and do the same thing and Lin reported that it was a totally different feeling.

I tried it and thought that when my inside hand was down, it was easier to shift my weight a bit to the outside to suggest the horse step over AND I stayed more grounded.  If I let my inside hand come up, then I tended to feel more like I was leaning and pulling the horse to the outside.   This was just a brief look at one rein mechanic but I think that practicing some of the rein mechanics with this new body awareness and ability to access specific body parts could be very helpful if a rider was having difficulty with certain things under saddle.

During the rides on Monday, we worked on using micro-riding to work through a sticky point in our training.  Arlene has already described how she used micro-riding to get Button’s energy up and get forward movement.  The change in Arlene’s ability to ride Button over the weekend was really astounding and it was so nice to see the two of them connect. Sue was able to ask Tucson for forward and soft which he had not been able to do before.  Kate put it all together to work on doing some lateral movements around cones and Lucky had some really nice moments where Kate was able to use micro-riding to ask for changes of bend and alignment from shoulder-in to haunches-in.  In addition, Kate has taught Lucky to wait and then come to the mounting block when she calls. This time she set up a jump and he jumped it on the way to the mounting block.  She also showed us Lucky’s liberty work which is so much fun to watch.

A clinic report: AK Intermediate/Advanced Clinic in Elverson, Pa: Sept 2008

     On September 20-21, I hosted a clinic with Alexandra Kurland at my farm in Elverson, Pa.   For the past few years, I have been working with a group of local horse owners who are interested in clicker training.  Some of them had attended clinics with Alex in the past, but others had not and I thought hosting a clinic with Alex would give everyone an opportunity to work with her.  I really do think that if you are serious about clicker training, it is worth going to a clinic with a recognized clicker trainer or at least working with other people who are clicker training their own horses. Having a support network is important and seeing various horses in various stages of clicker training is very educational.   The clinic was held at my farm and we somehow managed to get great weather, juggle horses around successfully and we all had a great time.

    We started on Friday night with an informal get-together so Alex could meet the clinic attendees and get a feel for what we might want to cover over the course of the weekend.  I had cleared out some space in the loft of my husband’s tractor barn and this became known as “the clicker clubhouse.”  It turned out to be a great space to meet and work.  The temperature was ok, there were no flies and we were only occasionally visited by unexpected guests. Clicker training is so much fun that some of my children and even the dog visited to see what was going on.

    Saturday morning we had a brief meeting to introduce the remaining clinic attendees and then we started working horses.  We worked in my outdoor ring and most people spent Saturday on groundwork.  We had a few horses that were new to traveling so time was spent on some of Alex’s favorite basic exercises.   One of them is to set up a circle of cones and walk from cone to cone, asking the horse to give his or her hip and turn around the cone.  Getting control of the hip is an important step in the progression toward teaching lateral flexions and is also very important for safety on the ground.   In addition to having control of the hips, backing is an important skill and Alex worked on this with most of the horses.  One of the things that came up at this clinic was the importance of the tai chi wall and how to use it without force.   Alex talked about how the tai chi wall is introduced on the ground, but also is used as part of the triangle in riding. 

    With one horse that was a bit anxious and wanted to barge past his handler, Alex combined head lowering with giving the hip to help get better control.  This horse wanted to barge past his handler and while she could ask him for head lowering, that didn’t help once she allowed him to move.  And while, she could get his hip, it was a bit awkward and he was not settling down.  Watching this horse work showed how head lowering is an important first step in teaching a horse emotional control and gets the handler control of the horse when he is stationary.  But it also showed how head lowering was not enough to defuse this horse’s energy and allow him to walk off nicely.  So Alex started by asking the horse for head lowering (which he knew and could do) and built a chain from that behavior until he was walking forward calmly.

    By setting up a specific pattern, Alex made it easier for the handler to maintain a nice connection to the horse and the routine of the pattern made the lesson easier for the horse.  The “goal” was to practice walking off casually and have the horse follow calmly.  Alex taught this by having the handler ask for head lowering.  When he lowered his head and stabilized there, she could either release, click or allow him to walk forward.  All three acted as reinforcers and she could offer two reinforcers at once if she wanted. She could click and release or release and allow him to walk forward. Since he wanted to move, creating the chain of head lowering to walking forward worked nicely to show him that if he was quiet for a moment, his reward was being allowed to walk off. If he barged forward when she walked off, then she asked him to give his hips and back up (HSS) and drop his head. If he walked off nicely, she clicked right away after only one or two steps, and before he could get going too fast.  After working this pattern for a while, there was a clear change in the handlers smoothness and control and the horse became much calmer.

    The cone circle was also used for some early single rein riding lessons. Riding around the cones is a good way to get connected to the horse’s hips and start to get some lateral movement. We had two riders who practiced their single rein mechanics and worked on the early steps of getting their horses to give their hips, soften and bend around the cones.  The cones give both horse and rider focus, and help riders identify when the horse is giving the hip.  Getting a feel for movement in the horse’s hips is a piece that is often difficult for riders new to single rein riding.  If you have never paid attention to what your horse’s hips are doing, it is hard to know what it feels like when a horse steps up and under, and clicking the right moment is even harder.  If a rider is struggling with feeling the hip move, I find it often helps to come up with others ways of determining when the horse has given his hip by identifying behaviors that accompany the hip or indicate that the horse must have just stepped under correctly. 

    One way to identify when the horse has given his hip is if you get a change in geography. If you are coming around the cone on an arc of a specific shape and you ask for a give and the horse changes direction so he is now pointing to the inside of your previous path (at any angle, the size of a hip give can vary a lot), then he must have stepped under and around to do it. In the early stages, clicking this change in direction will be enough to get the horse moving his hips a bit.  With some horses, the reason you can’t feel the hips very well is that they don’t move them very clearly, especially if they are stiff. So just getting the horse doing turns and moving in various circular patterns loosens things up enough for the rider to start to identify what it feels like when the horse steps under behind.  One of the horses tended to drift in her front end, so as the rider slid down the rein and asked for a turn, the horse would bend her neck to the inside but drift out. With that horse, an absence of this drift meant that the horse had given her hip and she could identify this because she got what felt like a cleaner turn. In her case, there was also a change in geography but it was marked by her ability to stay on her chosen path.

    For my ride on Rosie, Alex had me work on getting a better walk. By the time I went, it was getting warm and the flies were out and Rosie was in the mood to do her favorite sluggy walk. This is something that I have worked on at various times, but while I have often made some progress, we had not quite gotten to the point where a more energetic walk was freely offered, and while Rosie will walk energetically forward on a loose rein, we lose some of that energy when I pick up the reins.  In the clinic report from October 2006, I talked about teaching Rosie to march along and release forward into the contact. This lesson was a follow up to that.  Rosie had learned to stretch forward into the rein and march along and for a while, I was very conscientious about working on it, but this behavior had faded over time and while I could still get her to march along when I asked for more energy, she backed off as soon as I started to gather the reins. Alex wanted her to keep that energy and forward feel through the rein pickup. I think in earlier sessions, Rosie had figured out that I wanted her to take the bit out and forward when we are walking in a long and energetic frame, but I had not figured out how to have this same feeling through the transition and into a more collected walk. 

    Alex had me lower and spread my hands wide until I found the point of contact with Rosie’s mouth (yes, both reins at once).  Alex sometimes calls this “the human side-reins” lesson.  Then I asked Rosie to march along and when she accepted the feel in my hand AND kept marching forward, I was to click and release.  This is hard for horses and can generate all sorts of interesting behaviors. When I first worked on this back in 2006, I had a period where I had taught my horse to pull and I had to go back and teach her the distinction between when I was allowing her to step up and take my hands forward and when I set a firm point of contact and wanted her to soften there.  This is an important step in teaching a horse to follow the feel in your hands and connect it to what you are doing with the rest of your body, but it is not easy to do. 

    By the end of my ride Rosie was clearly interpreting the spreading of my hands as a cue to march up and forward and was walking with more energy. I mixed in some trot and canter work to help keep her thinking forward and to give her a break. I think that walked forward with energy is more tiring to her than cantering around the ring.  In addition to this, I have to say that I was pleased that Rosie handled the invasion of her own personal riding ring by chairs and people quite well. She hates it when I rearrange things out there and inspects every little modification before she will go past it easily but perhaps the clinic setup looked familiar to her from all those times at Groton.

    The other point I want to make about the morning’s sessions and really about the whole weekend, is that when you have a lot of new horses in one clinic, you get a chance to see how the foundation behaviors are used together to come up with training sequences that work to address any handler’s and horse’s combination of needs.  With many of the horses, they were focusing on one exercise but mixed in other foundation behaviors. Even if the person was working on backing, she might add Grown-ups Are Talking between requests to back or add in head lowering or parts of the duct tape lessons.

    Saturday afternoon we worked on rein mechanics, a review of the foundation behaviors and a little micro-riding.  Alex reviewed Grown-ups are Talking and how this exercise starts with free shaping before she teaches the horse about the lead that happens when the handler activates the lead rope.     One of the phrases she used during the morning sessions was telling the handler to “walk off casually.”  But what does this mean and why do it?   The usual set-up is that the handler is standing in Grown-ups are Talking position and then quietly walks forward, so that the contact on the lead changes, but the contact changes just as function of the person stepping forward, without any additional movement by the handler.  The idea is for the horse to learn to follow the feel of the lead without adding the complication of the handler learning rein mechanics.  This step is the beginning of what Alex calls “activating the lead rope.”   You can do the same thing with backing by just turning and walking into the horse’s space and clicking the horse for stepping backwards.

    Alex demonstrated this with people and this led into a good discussion of how to use the tai chi wall, full arm extensions and how to check for blockages in your body.  Alex was able to get Laurie to back up, both by extending her arm forward, and by wiggling her toes.  In the tai chi wall, the full arm extension and straight line between the two hands allows the handler to find a position of mechanical advantage and stability, and then release any tension in her body so that the horse moves back, not because it is pushed back, but because going forward is not an option.  This whole idea of finding a point of stability and releasing to allow the horse to respond came up a few times over the course of the weekend.   Alex’s groundwork and single rein riding is based on the idea of finding the point of contact and waiting for the horse to respond.  But the handler needs to be able to find the point of contact and quietly wait, because any tension or blocking in the handler’s body prevents development of feel and communication between her and the horse.

    Sunday morning Alex spent some time explaining the content of each of her DVD’s.   I think she wanted people to know what was on each DVD, and she also wanted people to understand how the DVD’s are connected together.  She pointed out that the DVD’s showed the development of clicker training and were a great map of how far clicker training has come.   It was very interesting to hear her describe how each DVD evolved out of a clinic situation or some work she was doing with her own horses.

    Then we worked on micro-riding. Micro-riding has been described in previous clinic notes from this year so I am not going to do into it in detail here. The emphasis in this clinic was on letting everyone experience micro-riding and then exploring the connection between micro-riding and rein mechanics.  We worked in small groups and did the grounding circuit (shoulders down into thigh and bubbling spring). Then we did some rein mechanics, working on sliding down and stabilizing the point of contact.   Alex worked with Dawn and had her slide to the point of contact, stabilize and then when Alex (as the horse) accepted the point of contact, Dawn released her shoulders and Alex softened so Dawn could release the rein.  They did this a few times and then Alex went on and worked with other groups and I worked with Dawn. 

    This was very interesting for me because it mattered a lot when Dawn thought about releasing. If Dawn released in her body (not the rein) as I was testing to see if she was stable, then I thought “ah-ha, I can pull her,” but if she released after I met the point of contact, then her release of tension prompted me to soften, a behavior that she rewarded by releasing the rein. Timing matters, and this exercise showed me that there were many levels of release.  Dawn could release tension in her body to help the horse soften and release, and she could do that while maintaining the stable point of contact that told the horse she was looking for a change on his part.  It was a nice illustration of the connection between micro-riding and the rein mechanics.

    Sunday afternoon was more riding and groundwork sessions.  Most of the horses continued to work on the same exercises from Saturday, smoothing out some of the rough spots that were remaining and getting more fluid about giving the hip and staying with the handler. One of the horses had been very settled on Saturday but was anxious on Sunday so her handler got to work on using the tai chi wall to reset her mare and stop her barging.  Alex took a few of the horses to clarify a few details and this was very helpful for both handlers and the audience. Some of this work can feel awkward and a bit too much like constantly correcting the horse in the early stages, but Alex showed how it could be done smoothly and with lack of force.

    Alex and I continued to work on Rosie’s walk and this time she was starting to show some changes in the quality of her walk.  Instead of just feeling like she was pushing forward into the contact, she started to get some bounce in her step and use herself more actively.  Since she was starting to figure out how to keep the energy up but not direct it all forward, it was easier to pick her up without her slowing down. Alex had me work on picking her up in little steps, so instead of lifting the buckle hand all the way up and sliding down, I just lifted it a little and asked for her to come up a little, released and then asked again.  This allowed me to bring her up slowly without losing energy and without her getting overbent in her neck.  I was very pleased with the change in her self-carriage at the walk and with the whole weekend. It was another successful Alex clinic.

A clinic report: AK Advanced Clinic in Groton, NY: October 2008

    The last Groton clinic for the year was held on a beautiful October weekend. In addition to the regular group. we were lucky to have Hilary and Charlotte visiting from the UK and they added some new perspective and enthusiasm to the group.  Charlotte wrote up some wonderful notes for this clinic, so I am going to share them instead of a regular clinic report, but I do want to include a few tidbits from my perspective.

    Every clinic seems to end up with a focus and at this one we spent a lot of time on micro-riding, HSS (hip, shoulder, shoulder) and the power of resets.   We started off with some micro-riding so that everyone had a chance to experience it. Some of the attendees had heard about micro-riding, but not actually gotten a chance to do it with a partner.   Saturday morning we reviewed the grounding circuit and got the new people up to speed.  Those people familiar with micro-riding were experimenting the rest of the circuits and then looking at the interaction between the rider and the monitor and comparing this to the rider/horse relationship. There were some nice images about how information is passed back and forth initially as big requests and responses and how, over time, these become finer and more detailed and there is a steady flow of information instead of packets of information separated by gaps.

    Over the course of the weekend, the micro-riding brought up some interesting points. When we added the crown and diaphragm circuits, Alex talked about how you should be able to move through quickly enough that you don’t belabor each step. The idea is to feel the energy flow.  Once you are past the initial learning stages, going too slow can allow the energy to get blocked and you don’t build the connectedness that you want.  The grounding circuit makes the rider feel more connected to the ground and provides a firm foundation so that when the rider goes to the crown and diaphragm circuit, the rider can stretch up and add energy without becoming unbalanced or crooked.  If you linger too long on the grounding circuit, you don’t feel how you can channel the energy into other places. 

       It turned out that working through the circuits at the right speed was not always so easy.  Sometimes the monitor got ahead and sometimes the rider got ahead. Doesn’t this sound like riding?  We found that practicing saying the names of each step in the chain led to a better understanding of how to ride different horses.  One group was paying attention to how the words were spoken and this led to the idea of “consonant” vs. “vowel” horses (as determined by whether you emphasize the consonant or vowel sound in a word.)  Consonant horses are those where you move along quickly to keep the energy going. Vowel horses are those where you go a little more slowly and draw the words out (emphasizing the vowels) to allow the horse to relax and let energy flow gently instead of rushing. 

      As people got better at it, they did some experimenting.  One group formed a chain which started with one person in the middle who was monitored by two people, who were in turn monitored by another person.  This meant there were 4 people connected to a central person and when she activated the circuits, it radiated out to the people on the ends.   This had started when the group was exploring whether or not people were using both sides of their bodies when they went through a circuit. As riders, we need to be able to use one side independently, but we also need to be symmetrical and able to use both sides equally.  On a straight line, the horse needs us to be symmetrical so he can line up underneath us. On a circle or in lateral work, we may need to do one thing with one side of our body and something else with the other.   Looking at how people used each side of their body also helped identify if someone was crooked or had a tendency to overuse one side.

    There were other variations and discoveries made with micro-riding over the weekend.   I found that micro-riding required the rider to know a lot about tone and release. When was it necessary to add tone to access a body part? When was it necessary to release to access a body part?  Working on the ground in small groups allowed people to learn things about their own bodies and what they needed to do to access the circuits. Getting feedback from a monitor was invaluable as the monitors could feel really tiny changes. I think this gave people confidence to try this when riding, and to believe that the horses would be able to feel these tiny changes.  Taking micro-riding to the horses is the next step and the work on the ground gives people the confidence to experiment with the horses.

    If you are experimenting with this and don’t have a helper, you can still work on micro-riding on your own.  Going through the circuits and feeling the changes in your own body will get you started. Then when you ride, you can do the same thing and see how the horse responds.  If I am playing with something new, I will click the horse for any change the horse makes in response to my micro-riding.  I am aware that horses have to learn to tune out a certain amount of what we do when we ride. Even with good riders, there is a certain amount of “noise” and if the horse paid attention to every tiny nuance, he would be overloaded with information, so each horse does some selective listening.  When I try something new, my first job is to indicate to the horse that this is a deliberate action on my part and I want him to pay attention to it. Then once he is responding, I can start to evaluate more carefully what kind of responses I want to reinforce.  Sometimes the micro-riding produces immediate and obvious changes and other times, it takes me a while to figure out how to connect that piece to the horse.

    We didn’t spend all the time on micro-riding. We worked a lot on using resets and HSS (Hip shoulder shoulder) to improve our horse’s balance.  The horses at this clinic included some green horses just learning lateral flexions as well as some more advanced horses. With the green horses, Alex worked on getting the horses soft but going forward. This can be hard as many horses want to slow down when the rider asks for something with the reins.   Even with the advanced horses,  Alex spent time on getting the horses to move with energy both forward and backward and to stay connected through the transitions.  In addition, Alex did some work on standing flexions and we all get to see Lucky’s fun liberty work and what Kate had been working on.  She has Lucky putting together some beautiful patterns with changes from shoulder-in to haunches-in and his canter in-hand is getting better and better.

    We spent time on Monday morning walking the HSS pattern. It is always worth walking the pattern if you get confused.  Alex stressed the importance of allowing some lateral component in the exercise when the horse first learns to give its hip.  This will help prevent stalling out and leads to what she calls the “Gene Kelly glide” where the horse flows back by stepping under with the inside shoulder and rocking back. I really need to watch that movie so I have a better visual for what she is talking about!  In addition, she pointed out the importance of rocking the horse back on to a substantial outside hind leg (through HSS) so the horse can step forward with energy into the correct bend.  These were just more little pieces of the puzzle on how to get a good HSS.  HSS is the basis for a reset so it is worth spending time on it. A reset is what allows you to redirect and rebalance a horse when they get quick or unorganized and it is a real key to understanding Alex’s methods for developing horses with great balance.

    Thanks to the work at Alex’s September clinic at my farm, Rosie’s walk has improved tremendously and Alex had me work on asking her to step back and come forward with energy. When she got sticky about the backing, we focused on improving the backing. Alex had me back and ask her to turn while backing, as if backing around a corner or on an arc.  Rosie was really sure that this was not possible, but we she did get a few good steps where she changed orientation while backing and we are continuing to work on it.

    As a side bonus, we had a photographer come visit on Saturday.  Her name is Vanessa Wright and she was putting together a show called The Literary Horse.  Her show combines pictures of horses with quotes from all kinds of literature. She wanted to feature Alex as one of the significant horse people of our time.   Her show opened in November and is traveling across the country.  For more information, you can go to www.theliteraryhorse.com.

   If you have any questions about the clinic, let me know. I have been brief because Charlotte has given me permission to share her notes with everyone. So for this clinic report, we have a “guest speaker,” which is always fun because different people write down different things and I think it’s nice to have a fresh perspective.  Charlotte lives in the UK and posts regularly on the clickryder and click_that_teaches_lists. She has studied with Alex on Alex’s trips to England and came to the US to attend clinics in both Groton and Toutle. She is owned by Tig and Loly and they are all enjoying clicker training.

Charlotte’s Notes from Alex Kurland clinics – October 2008

Groton and Toutle


The order is:

Shoulder blade-rib-top of thigh-thigh out-lower leg-bubbling spring-back of heart-tongue-poll-head-lower jaw-front of diaphragm-middle-back-lower back-pelvic floor-front of diaphragm.

Start with asking for life and awareness in the shoulder, then ask the rider to move it in each of the 4 directions.  Initially it might be a bit stiff, but often a couple of repetitions of up/down, in/out can free it up sufficiently to move onto the next part.  You don’t want to aim for movement by rote or great big moves – there has to be an aliveness to the feel.  The micro-riding chain is like the chain set off when you pick up the rein and ask for the horse’s jaw – how far through the body does the feel go?  Repetition will build the chain and create an automatic reaction so that the whole body becomes alive when you pick up the rein.

You can then play with other concepts such as feeling what a transition is like, whether it’s the same with the same rider but imagining different horses and also what turns are like.

Also try playing with the rein pick up – what does it feel like to pick up the reins?  Try both imagining picking up the reins and then compare to physically using reins – are they the same?  Is it connected and smooth?  If not, what changes?

Note that just as with the horse, if you fail to access any part, balance is difficult to achieve.  For example, if you don’t move the ribs it can be hard to access the thighs or diaphragm.  Similarly the horse will be unable to access his hindquarters effectively if the ribs are stuck.  When performing lateral flexions in hand, if the horse twists, then the jaw and poll will not be truly free.

Micro-riding – get a baseline walk and then play with the micro riding elements and see what happens!  It is important to get a good consistent baseline so that you can see what the effects of the micro-riding may be happening.  It is equally important to be able to return to the baseline as and when you choose but take the time needed to get it back.

Advanced in-hand work

In- hand walk, trot and canter beside the handler using ‘magic hands’, lengthen and shorten stride, shoulder-in and haunches-in and the flow between them.

Piaffe can be built by trotting slower and slower in either shoulder-in or haunches-in or potentially halt to trot in-hand asking the horse to rock forward out of the rock back.  Its important to choose the right moment so that the horse’s outside hind is on the ground and ready to push forward.

In-hand strengthening – by asking the horse to raise and hold each leg in turn, it will strengthen the back (provided the horse is already in carriage rather than ‘down’ in the back).  Each piece should be built separately, either free-shaping or using a knee target where the horse targets his knee to the hand and this can then be lifted higher until the leg is held aloft.  This, combined with piaffe-type mobilisations can effectively warm the horse up gently, especially for older stiffer horses or in cold weather.

The Value of Re-sets

A large theme of the clinic was the reset – balancing the weight shift forward and back lightens the horse’s forehand and increases the weight-bearing capacity of the hindquarters.  An effective way to create these shifts is to use the shoulder-in combined with rein-back.  Can you ask your horse to move forward in shoulder-in, halt and then re-set back into shoulder-in?  Note that both the weight shift forward as well as the one back is a clickable moment BUT be careful not to get stuck in a sluggish backward slide; instead look for the feet to truly become unglued. 

The outside hand is the important one in this exercise – it is the one that communicates to the outside hind which is where we want the horse to push off from, bending the joint and springing forward.  Eventually you are looking for the horse to rockback and then come forward to a collected start – think micro-riding as you do this exercise, from where could you instigate the halt and from how little a weight shift can you create movement?  The horse should be able to perform ‘willing, eager, comfortable weight shifts.’

The exercise can then be developed further to include:

  • ·         Shoulder-in, halt, proceed in shoulder-in
  • ·         Shoulder-in, halt, straighten out and reinback, re-set in shoulder-in
  • ·         Shoulder-in, halt, reinback in shoulder-in, reset forward in shoulder-in

The march needs to be equal forward and back – think about walking back with your own feet.  There should be a release with every step both from the reins and from your body – as the horse goes back, you may need to think forward with your hands in time with the feet.

When stopping in shoulder-in, what do you need to do to keep the shoulder-in whilst in halt?  What elements of micro-riding can you bring in?  You’ll need this to be able to keep the balance and walk off in a good shoulder-in position.  This is different from halting, its more of a ‘freeze frame’ in that the horse is balanced enough to stop at any point in the stride.

Another option for the re-set is to develop backing in an arc – rather than going straight back, see whether you can back around a square.  This movement requires real sensitivity as it is easy to oversteer or fail to set the horse up correctly – if the horse is bent to the left for example, it will be very difficult to send the back end to the right.  Practice backing a square yourself – where does your weight go?

Another exercise is to develop shoulder-in on a square – this creates balance and softness.  Its important to really place the hips through the corners; use the outside rein if you lose either the balance or the hind end.  You’re aiming for the same cadence throughout.  Play with increasing the energy on the long side and decreasing on the short.

Riding on a triangle – 3 flip 3 and lateral flexions

When riding on a triangle – get in, get something, get out!

Ride the basic cone pattern – around the circle, then across the centre of the circle, round a cone and then back across the cone and repeat.  Use both the triangle and lateral flexions to help the horse balance around the cones but be careful not to turn too tightly or the forward energy will be killed.  There needs to be a great deal of releases so that forwards in maintained and also so that the horse does not lean on the bridle. 

When riding on the triangle, the inside hand must not go above the withers and each release must be complete, otherwise there is a tendency to grab at the rein whilst leaving the outside hand up.  If you fail to stabilise the inside hand or slide the outside shoulder-blade down, the hands can move too much which can encourage the horse to lean or fidget.  Your elbow needs to stay connected to your core – if you feel the horse leaning, try opening the outside rein out but feel it out, don’t get fixed rigidly to your side.

If the horse has a more difficult side, rather than working it to ‘fix’ it, visit the more difficult side briefly and then return to the easier one which in itself will be a reinforcement.  Gradually the two sides will begin to balance out.

When you pick up the triangle, ensure it is up the midline and not out in front of the body since this not only destabilises the seat but also can result in unstable hands.  The inside hand needs to be down at the shoulder, clear and consistent.

As the flexion builds around the cones, you can then move into 3 flip 3 when the balance is ready.  It can help if the index finger on the inside hand is pointed in the direction you wish the shoulders to go.  You’ll know when the balance is right, as the movement is there for the taking.

When riding 3 flip 3 into hip shoulder shoulder, you are seeking to catch the hip, not force it.  It is important to pick the right point to ask for the hip – if you get it right, the horse will glide over and back in the ‘Gene Kelly glide’.  Don’t fall into the trap of asking for it all at once – start with catching the hip, then attaining the glide before finally asking for the full movement.  The backward shift should come from the balance and not from the reins.  Each give and release softens the jaw and works to unweight the inside shoulder – if the balance is right, you can’t help but go back.

As hip shoulder shoulder develops, it begins to be almost straight line – the gives become more and more micro until the horse will flex weight and balance the outside hind as a reset rather than a grand give of the hip.

Riding on 2 reins

If you are widening your hands when on 2 reins, make sure that there is no backward traction.  Also, the triangle remains when you take up 2 reins with the inside hand lower than the outside and the hands retaining their respective jobs.

The cue to go forward is not the picking up of the outside rein – the horse should be able to accept the rein pick-up at any point and not associate it with moving forward.  This is built in hip shoulder shoulder on the ground so that when you move from one side to the other, the horse does not associate picking up the rein with walking off.

It is important when the horse offers you 2 rein balance to organise the outside rein so that you can receive the horse’s spine.  If you do not handle it sensitively, the horse may lose its balance.  Only pick up 2 reins from a clickable moment.

Why Would you Leave me And Hip Shoulder Shoulder

Its important to balance the desire to move forward and around you with the ability to stand still – if the horse tends to rush off after each click and treat, insert a pause using ‘adults are talking’ so that the horse is able to wait before the handler asks him to do something. 

If you are working a large horse, you may find that by trying to put your hand on the wither actually blocks both yourself and the horse from moving forward.  Instead change the points of contact so that you can get the bend around without compromising forward.  Remember when you ask the horse to come forward, it is with 2 hands – invite with one and ask the horse to come around with the other. 

If the horse is so far back that you have to reach to the shoulder, you’ll both get jammed up.  Focus instead on moving the horse forward – go to a point of contact and then lead.  It may help to walk off at a slight tangent to the circle if the horse finds it really difficult to walk off freely.  Play with the hand on the snap – lead forward and come back to me – both hands need to be alive.

During the initial stages, heavily reinforce the balanced walk-off – you’ll do lots and lots of start ups.  It is up to the horse to find the balance, not for the handler to micro-manage.  The power if in the unfolding of the buckle hand – can the horse start to move off so that your hands could unfold or are you blocked?  By rewarding every start-up in correct balance, the horse will learn to balance in all orientations.

When you work on wwylm at liberty, use the target to create bend and position if they leave, but don’t keep it there consistently.  If the horse is not able to keep alongside you and bend around, go back to using the target to get the horse to walk beside your thigh and then in front and around.  Note that before you ask the horse to come in and around, you want the horse up and forward – if you do it too soon, they will fall onto the inside and lean on their shoulders.  If you ask for the horse to come up and forward, you have a greater chance of keeping the shoulders upright and reaching forward.

Ask yourself whether the horse is staying in his own space or coming on top of you.  If the horse is trying to overtake or charge forward, rather than using the lead to hold him back, use hip shoulder shoulder.  If the horse tries to change bend, either walk out or change direction.

From using the target, you can develop ‘magic hands’ where one hand holds the target and the other (buckle) hand sets the perimeter of the circle on his shoulder.  Eventually you could get to the point where you can work at liberty using the magic hand on the horse’s shoulder forward, back, at all gaits.

Another way to develop magic hands is to start walking with the horse and hold your hand up.  If the horse stays, click and treat but if they go, do nothing and wait for them to return.  You will gradually get to the point where the horse targets to your hand.  The other option might be to target standing still.

If you are working in lateral flexions all the time, you need an exit strategy – e.g. go to the mat, walk forward and so on. 

When performing hip shoulder shoulder, think about how far away from the cone you should start organising the rein and the horse’s body so that they are set up correctly for the turn.  Think about ‘good, better, best’ with the 3 gives of the jaw to catch the hip and create the Gene Kelly glide.  Although you should ensure there are many releases throughout the movement, don’t abandon the horse.

Lateral Flexions in-hand

Stand by the girth area and ask the horse to give very very slightly to the bit – the most important thing to look for is straightness of give, no twisting or leaning.  Go to a point of contact and wait for the horse to give to you – by standing at the shoulder area, you can help keep the horse from bending around or leaning or stop him perceiving your presence as driving him forward. 

If the horse curls around and you need to reset him, lift the rein to straighten out the neck.  If the horse moves, stay with him but if there is too much movement, you could try transferring to a smaller area.  You can also use the food delivery to straighten the horse out.  Make sure the reins are even when you release them.

Note that if you put lateral flexions in a horse who already knows the post, it results in a more well-rounded ‘up’ expression.


Get the horse balanced on the mat and then ask for a yield of the hind end or front end whilst keeping the end on the mat still. 

Matwork is all about ground tying – can your horse stand on the mat whilst you walk off?  Develop this in steps and if the horse comes off, put him back on.

Table Manners & Grownups

If the horse is grabby, bring food down between their nostrils – you are wanting the horse to use his muzzle to get the food, not his teeth!

If the horse is having trouble with table manners, you need to be on your best t’ai chi behaviour when taking hold of the halter or giving out treats.  You may need to stabilise the horse’s head to prevent him grabbing, but its important not to be jerky or rough yourself and instead use bone rotations to gently take hold and stabilise his head.

Overhand taking of the halter is less directive – wait for the horse to relax and then release.  The click can then be even more powerful with its relaxation association.  Note that the hand on the halter also becomes a cue and lessens the grab for the treat.

You also want the horse not to always associate a hand on the nose with food.

With grownups, you want to be able to have the horse’s head where you want it – for example, at or equal to the wither BUT remember that when you first teach grownups, it is freeshaped i.e. this is before the rein has been activated.  Once the rein has been activated for leading and positioning, it is then fair to position the head during grownups but not before.

There are 2 types of grownups –

·         Handler slouching – click and treat for relaxation

·         Handler in t’ai chi ‘up’ posture – click and treat for posture in the horse

Rein Handling

It is very important that the top of the triangle is solid, otherwise you will lose your seat and stability and release your hands together, softly.

Just because you have rope reins, don’t fall into the pattern of grabbing; instead play with your fingers and close them separately.  Think flute, not baseball bat!  When you close your hand around the rein, its fingerPADs to your palm as opposed to fingerNAILs.  As well as practicing a complete pickup, see if you can perform a partial pickup with the thumb and index finger. 

When picking up the reins, generate the move from breathing into the shoulder blades – play with all directions to free up the shoulders, up/down, in/out, circles etc.  You need enough breath to complete the cycle – the whole pickup of the rein is a complete cycle. The feel of picking up reins this way is very different from initiating the move from the elbow.  Remember when you are corrected seated in the shoulders, you will be stable and not easily moved.

Other quotes

  • ·         Don’t be passive, be responsive but not reactive.
  • ·         Don’t force it, feel it!
  • ·         Test the feel of a circle in your body – how accurately can you walk a circle?  If you can’t walk one, how accurately can you ride one?
  • ·         The more you want to raise your hand, the more you should probably put it down.
  • ·         The horse needs to believe their withers are going to move over.
  • ·         Once you have lateral flexion and shoulder-in, the rest of the horse’s life is about fine tuning it
  • ·         Cues are very powerful – they establish really quickly and are not used enough.
  • ·         3 flip 3 is a balanced position in lateral flexion from which you can access any gait in any direction.
  • ·         Just because you are using positive reinforcement, it doesn’t mean the animal is having a good time – at the start you are a lumper, so the animal can get really confused.  There’s not enough feedback to make it clear for them.  As we develop the ability to split down behaviours, the horse becomes more confident.
  • ·         At the point in training where you might want to escalate pressure – add more steps.
  • ·         If you can get a forward walk in the arena, you truly have a forward cue, rather than the environment or other horses acting as a cue.
  • ·         Allow the movement all the way through your body – when the horse is really trotting in balance, you need to allow it all the way through to their mouth.  If the reins are moving in a sine wave, then the horse is truly through in its movement.
  • ·         What is a cue?  At what point do we want to have it recognised by the horse?  If you are in a different orientation or position, can the horse still recognise the cues?  What is really a cue for the horse – is it the ‘hand wavy’ things or a shift in the abdominals for example?
  • ·         You don’t have to do anything fast, but you do have to do it promptly.
  • ·         Its not about overcorrecting him, its about helping him.
  • ·         Use the food delivery to move the horse around.  This way you can minimise the use of the lead to position the horse and avoid making him grumpy!
  • ·         He doesn’t know how to get out of my way – I have to play my part in the do-si-do.
  • ·         I want to see a walk with the other gaits in it.
  • ·         Be careful not to click defensively – i.e. to stop something happening.
  • ·         Don’t block a good trot – its how you end up with lame resentful and stiff horses.  Redirect instead.  However, you might want to block a trot if the horse goes into it with a stiff spine.
  • ·         You don’t just have to explain what the cue IS but what its NOT.