using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

 Alexandra Kurland Advanced Clinic Report: Toutle, Washington, October 2010

This year I did some clinic hopping and instead of attending the October Clinic in Groton, NY, I went out to Toutle, Washington and attended the advanced clinic out there.   I had wanted to visit that group for some time and this year, everything in my life lined up so I could go.  This was a big adventure for me as I had never been to that area and hadn’t flown in years, but I am so glad I did it as I had a great time.  I think most of us attend the clinics that are the most convenient geographically, but if you get a chance to attend a new group, I strongly recommend it. I found I learned a lot by watching new horse and rider combinations work through Alex’s exercises and it was fun to meet internet friends as well as make new friends.

Since it was kind of chilly, I didn’t take a lot of written notes.  Usually I take pages and pages of notes and use those to write my clinic reports. This one I am writing from memory, so if anyone else who attended wants to jump in and correct or clarify something, please do so.  I found that at this clinic, I was not as focused on the details of specific exercises as I was on the bigger picture of horse training as an integrated unit.  Perhaps this is because I didn’t know each horse’s personal stories or have seen their progress over time, but in any case, rather than focusing on the little details, I found myself looking more at how Alex chose appropriate lessons for each horse and rider, and at how individual trainers chose lessons for their own horses.    I suppose you could say I was interested in training strategies or the training progression.

 After the clinic, I found myself thinking about how the work at the clinic was connected to Alex’s discussion of creativity and component parts which she posted about in the spring.  If you are not familiar with component parts, Alex talks about them in one of her earlier posts (8804, where she discusses Dr. Epstein’s work.)  Dr. Epstein’s work focuses on creativity and where new ideas or complex behaviors come from.    The basic premise is that most complex behaviors don’t occur spontaneously, but that they can be systematically built from new combinations of component parts.   If you want to get more creativity or more advanced behaviors, you don’t have to pull ideas “out of the blue,” but instead you can make a fertile environment for them by systematically building a lot of simple component behaviors and then experimenting with different combinations, or letting the animal experiment.  

Ever since Alex talked about Dr. Epstein’s work on the list and at the spring clinic in Groton, I have been thinking about what component parts are important in horse training.   Alex got me thinking by suggesting that I think about what parts would be useful for me and Rosie.  I had been thinking about that, as well as about how I can build and keep track of them so that I am aware of what I have available for building blocks.  I had been thinking in terms of specific behaviors that could be used as building blocks, but at this clinic, I started to understand that there are lots of ways of looking at component parts.  In horse training, there are two parts to the team (the person and the horse) and you can look at behaviors on different scales.

I am going to mention three possible ways to play with the idea of component parts, although I suspect there are more.  These are putting together already trained behaviors (what I think of as using component behaviors on a macro level), combining body awareness/specific types of body movement in the horses to create new behaviors, and combining training skills learned from different exercises.  In an attempt at organization, I am calling them “options,” here.  I am not suggesting these are the only options or that there isn’t overlap, I was just trying to present a way to think about them if you are struggling with the question of “what are component parts?”

Option 1:  Use of component behaviors: combining previously trained behaviors or schooling props (cones, mats, etc...) in new ways

On a macro level, we can think of specific behaviors that we have trained and then come up with new ways to combine them within a training session to ask the horse new questions and create new training opportunities.  At the Groton clinic in the spring, Alex showed us some new combinations of the cone circles and mat work that she was using in her training with her own horses. By setting these physical objects up in different configurations, she could ask the horses different questions, some which were simpler and some which were more complex.  For example, if you have the mat in the middle of the cones, you can ask the horse if it can walk the cone circle without cutting in and going to the mat.  A horse that has a strong reinforcement history of going to the mat can find this very difficult.  Or you can start on the mat and ask the horse to go out around a cone.  It is easy to walk out and around a cone that is straight ahead.   Going to a cone that is behind you is a harder question.

At the Toutle clinic, Alex used the cone circle with the mat in the middle to work on exercises such as lateral flexions and Hip Shoulder Shoulder.  She used the cones to mark the circle for riding or lateral flexions and the mat as an alternate behavior.  But the presence of the mat made it more interesting.   You can ask questions such as can you use lateral flexions to keep the horse out on the circle? Can you use Hip Shoulder Shoulder to redirect the horse that wants to keep cutting in toward the mat?  When I first saw these mat and cone combinations in the spring, I wasn’t sure exactly where Alex was going with it.  At this clinic, I could see how they could be used to keep the training interesting and productive and allow you to identify and practice new skills that you need.

I should mention that in addition to using the mat and cones to create new training opportunities, Alex is using the set up to establish the mat as a valuable secondary reinforcer.    In this setup (cones on the outside, mat in the center), the mat can be used as a secondary reinforcer so that if the horse is working on the outside of the circle (maybe in WWYLM), and it has a particularly good effort, it can be rewarded by a click/treat and/or a chance to go the mat where it can earn several clicks and treats for standing on the mat. This keeps the rate of reinforcement up, provides the horse with a mental break and provides some interesting training opportunities because the mat becomes a magnet.  

Alex also used the cones to create a “runway” to the mat which is another cone configuration where you set cones out to provide a path to the mat.  When you are on the “runway,” you work on fine tuning your horse’s ability to take a step forward or back.  In the spring at Groton, this was used to slow down horses that were anxious to go to the mat or needed to work on stimulus control about going to the mat.   At this clinic, the “runway” was used to improve one horse’s hind end awareness so that when he got to the mat, he stood in better alignment. He had a tendency to park out and the work in the “runway” improved his balance.

I think you could create lots of different cone and mat set-ups to challenge the horses and create new learning opportunities. At the Groton clinic, Alex had some other layouts that she used and I think you could probably add in other physical props or take advantage of the geography of your training space.

Option 2:  Use of component behaviors: combining previously trained behaviors (in the horse) to create new behaviors

In option 1, the component parts and creativity are generated by changes in the environment or questions you pose relating to the training set-up.  In option 2, I was thinking more about the component parts as being behaviors that the horse offers through different movements of its own body. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t use props to initially shape the behaviors, but rather that at some point, they are “owned” by the horse and the horse can put them together in new combinations. 

This is a fun one because not only do I want to be able to create new behaviors out of component behaviors, but I want my horse to be able to do so too.  We do this all the time when we ask a horse to do two things at once. For example, I can train a horse to stand in head down and I can train a horse to walk forward on cue.  I get the behavior of walking forward in head down by asking the horse to do both at once.  Teaching a horse to move in balance is the slow process of combining lots of little pieces to create a horse that has learned how to do make many minor adjustments to stay in balance in different situations.  Alex’s work is based on the idea of combining lots of component behaviors and as the horses and trainers get more advanced we can see how far this can take us.  

Since most of us are familiar with the basic balance work, I am just going to mention two trainers at the clinic who working on using this option to improve their horse’s gaits.  A great example was Debra’s work with Oliver.  If you have watched Alex’s videos, you have seen Keri Gorman and her horse Oliver.  Oliver is a Percheron cross who is a clicker superstar, having been trained by Keri since he was young.   For the past month or so, he has been at Debra’s and she had been working with him on many things including backing through a corner and collected starts.  Debra was using this exercise to teach him how to improve his balance with the idea of improving his in-hand work.  Not only did she get some nice in-hand work, but Oliver took it one step further and added what he learned from that exercise to his liberty work, resulting in a gorgeous huge trot. 

Another clinic attendee Sola has been working with her mule Umber on leg lifts.  She is now using the leg lifts to improve Umber’s trot and Umber is starting to add the leg lifts to the trot.   I think Sola started this by doing leg lifts so Umber learned how to hold one leg up at a time and then she started asking for a leg lift in movement.   This is leading to a trot with increased suspension and lift so that instead of just getting one leg lifted, the whole trot became more elevated.  When I saw her, Sola was playing with back leg lifts and Umber was learning how to pick up a hind leg higher in movement.  It will be interesting to see where this leads. 

Option 3:  Use of component behaviors: combining previously learned skills (in the trainer) to get new behaviors or solve training issues

When I am training and think about “behaviors,” I tend to think about behaviors the horse has learned. But of course, as a trainer, I have learned lots of “behaviors” too.  We just don’t call them that, but are more likely to refer to them as skills, technique, strategy, etc…   Any time we teach our horse a new behavior, we learn new training skills as part of the process. Once the horse knows the behavior, we often don’t have to practice these skills unless we are in a situation where the behavior deteriorates or we are training a constant stream of new horses.   In option 2, I was talking about recognizing that we can take advantage of body movements that the horse has learned.  In option 3, I am talking about taking advantage of mechanical skills that we have learned.

At this clinic, I saw places where Alex asked the trainer to use skills learned from different exercises to solve a new training problem or to create a new training opportunity.  This is interesting because it is a new step for many of us.  Most of us who have been working with Alex for a while have worked through many different exercises that have taught our horses new behaviors.  And while we were busy teaching our horses new behaviors, we were also learning new skills ourselves, whether it was rope mechanics, how to use food delivery, timing, or different training strategies.  Now that we have these skills in our “toolboxes,” we can explore new ways to use them and they can become component parts that are used to create new exercises or variations. 

This is the next logical step in the progression of training the trainer. First you learn the basic skills, and then you have to learn all the nuances about applying those skills so that you can deal with various training situations.  In one of the evening discussions, Alex pointed out that her training methods use a fairly simple toolbox, but it is also very powerful.  The power comes from understanding how and when to use the tools.  I think this is an important point because it is easy to think that we need to come up with something new, when it may be that we just need to look at what we already have available from a slightly different perspective.

Is this sounding too fuzzy?  Here’s an example.  On the last day of the clinic, Alex and Debra worked with Oliver on asking him to drop his energy level down when he got too enthusiastic.  They did this by asking for Hip Shoulder Shoulder after he got clicked for something that was high energy.  In this version of Hip Shoulder Shoulder, Alex had Debra use skills she learned from other exercises.  They used food delivery to get the hip, the rein mechanics from backing in a square to get the backing, and asked for head lowering with a lifted rein.  There was even a little bit of the tai chi wall thrown in there with the backing if he got crooked.  As an observer, I was impressed that Debra remembered all those little pieces and could pull them out of context (especially the food delivery foot work) and make them work together so that she was clear and effective.


I am not suggesting that anyone starts randomly using different bits of different exercises, but I do think it is important to start experimenting a bit with your toolbox to see what skills you have created that are good component parts.  I have found that the folded hand position that comes out of “grown-ups” is useful in lots of other exercises. Sometimes I am inserting a moment of “grown-ups,” but sometimes I am just using the hand position to communicate that I want the horse’s nose front and center.  Horses definitely learn about reading a person’s body position from the lateral work and I can use that on purpose in other exercises.  I find that when I pull a piece out of an exercise, I am more aware of it and it becomes a better member of my toolbox because it is not just one step in a set pattern. 

This brings up the issue of keeping good inventory of our toolboxes.  I dumped a lot of stuff out of my toolbox when I first started Alex’s work, so I only had a few tools available to me. As I worked through her exercises, I learned different rope mechanics and other skills from different exercises and restocked my toolbox, but while there are some exercises and skills that I use on a regular basis, there are definitely some that I don’t seem to use much anymore.   This may be a function of where my horses are in their training, but thinking about my training skills as component parts made me realize that it is important to keep good inventory and keep in practice so everything is readily available.   This will help me choose the appropriate tools for any given situation and will make me a more flexible and creative trainer.

On the second day of the clinic there was a situation where Hip Shoulder Shoulder would have come in handy and Alex asked out loud why people were reluctant to use it.   I’m not sure she got an answer.   I suppose there could be a lot of reasons people don’t integrate an exercise into their working toolbox.  It could be that they don’t know when to use it, or that they are not clear or comfortable with the mechanics, or maybe they just don’t have enough practice for it to become automatic.  Because of this, we spent the rest of the clinic focusing on Hip Shoulder Shoulder so that we were all comfortable using it and could see how and when to use it.   

On the plane ride home, thinking about the clinic and my own toolbox, I realized that I have my own preferences and that I am limiting myself by not playing with some of the less used pieces every now and then.  I found myself thinking about how my own toolbox has evolved and realized that my own preferences are based on where I was in the training progression when I learned a specific tool.    A good example is when I was learning lateral work.  I was at the stage where the horse was drifting sideways and overbending when Alex taught me how to use a “reset” to straighten the horse and start again.  This was such a huge light bulb moment for me that I have never forgotten how to teach and use a reset.  

I can think of other light bulb moments and how those have effectively shaped how I use my toolbox. But I also know that there are some exercises that I learned how to do, but that didn’t have the same impact on how I train.   When Alex asked about Hip Shoulder Shoulder, I realized that while I used it a lot on the ground, I never really integrated it into my riding except as an emergency stop.  I have spent a lot of time playing around with it both on the ground and under saddle, so that I can do a “good” Hip Shoulder Shoulder, but because I didn’t use it to solve a particular training issue, I somehow didn’t integrate it as well as I should have.  I guess that’s my homework.

So one thing that came out of this clinic was the importance of Hip Shoulder Shoulder.   Hip Shoulder Shoulder is one of those exercises that we often encounter in different places in our training. In the early stages, horses often end up in Hip Shoulder Shoulder when they over-rotate and swing the hip out during leading and lateral work.   We learn to access the hip part of Hip Shoulder Shoulder when we learn to take the hip around to redirect a horse’s energy.   And then we can use Hip Shoulder Shoulder to improve a horse’s balance in the ground and ridden work.  A few common examples are using HSS to improve backing, build collected halts and collected starts.  

Since we were focusing on HSS, we did some exercises where we walked through it on the ground, practiced it in groups with horses made out of people, and then people worked on it during their groundwork or rides.  Alex’s point (well, one of many) was that you need to practice it so much that it just becomes another behavior and you can ask for it anytime anywhere. Then it will be there when you need it (in case of emergency), but it will also be fresh in your mind so that you use it when it is the most effective training tool to get what you want.

I want to share a few of the specific exercises we used to work on Hip Shoulder Shoulder and also some details about using it.  On Sunday morning we walked through HSS on the ground.  We all understood the basic steps which are walk forward, step over with the hind legs and back.  What Alex emphasized was that you should feel a rock back in the movement when it is done well. This is what she refers to as the “gene Kelly” glide.  When the horse backs, it should have stepped under behind so that it goes backwards in balance. This is not going to happen right away, but it is something to look for, especially when you are using HSS to improve performance and balance, as opposed to redirecting unwanted energy.

After we walked through it on our own, we divided up into groups and a handler got to practice HSS with a two person “horse.”  This gave the handlers a chance to practice the rope mechanics. In my group, Alex worked on how important it is to make sure that you slide down the rope with a fully extended arm and then rotate and bring your elbow back to your body. This allows you to use the full power of the bone rotations and in a situation where a horse is barging or moving past you, you need to use the body rotations and not muscle.  If you haven’t seen the HSS DVD, it is explained clearly there.  I just want to say here that I think it is really worth finding a person and practicing this with them because it is so much easier to do this with a person than a horse, and the person’s feedback is invaluable. 

In the afternoon lessons, we had some people riding and some people working horses on the ground, but they all worked on HSS.  Alex set up a cone circle with a mat in the middle. Most of the work was done out on the cone circle, but a good effort was rewarded by permission to go to the mat where the horse could stand for a few clicks and treats. The idea was that going to the mat was reinforcing to the horse so it could be used to mark extra special efforts.  A side effect of this was that since many of the horses wanted to go to the mat, their handlers got lots of opportunities to redirect them with HSS. 

This worked out well because Alex wanted people to get comfortable using HSS and some people had to use it a lot.  Some horses do love to go to the mat!  In addition to using HSS to redirect horses, Alex also had people just ask for it every now and then. The phrase I heard repeated all afternoon was “don’t ask for it just because you need to, ask for it because you want to.”  A couple of people even practiced asking for HSS from  a trot to make sure they could redirect their horses if they added too much energy or they needed to stop them quickly. 

If you are going to work on HSS, Alex had some good strategies for evaluating and building it.  One thing she did with some people was just have them walk or ride and ask for 3 gives, thinking about getting the hip, and see where it got them. If you are doing 3 good, better, best gives, you should have the hip by the third one. If you don’t, then you need to work on the piece of just getting the hip. On the ground, she had some people turn and look at the hip as they did the gives, and this gave the horse more information about what was wanted.    She also pointed out that you can always build it slowly, so ask for the hip, c/t, ask for one step back c/t, ask for the second step back c/t.   If you are stuck on getting the hip, you can turn and look at the hip (on the ground) and use your body position to help cue it.

I can’t leave this report without saying something about Debra’s work with Magic and about Sola and Felix and the mules (Murray and Umber).  I have seen videos of Magic but it was different meeting and seeing him in real life.  There is an energy and connection between Debra and him that you don’t get without being there in person.  She has done such a wonderful job training him so that not only does he loves to work with her, but he is willing to share what he knows with other people. I got to play with him for a few moments and I instantly picked up how he was able to connect with new people.  

I have no previous experience with mules so I am not sure what I was expecting.  I knew they were clicker trained and I had seen Sola working one of them (Umber, I think) in a youtube video.   So I knew that she was doing Alex’s work with them.  I did not expect them to be so full of personality and expressive. I don’t think it’s just the long ears, I just felt like they were constantly thinking and it was fun to see the wheels turning.  Sola has been playing with developing Umber’s gaits and Umber has learned to carry herself in a most un-mule-like way and Alex predicts she will soon be doing “mule passage. “ 

While I enjoyed Umber, I have to say that one of the images that will stay with me was when Murray was going lateral work on the last day.  Murray tends to carry herself in a flatter way and she is either built or developed in such a way that she looks more mule-like in shape than Umber (sorry Murray), but perhaps because of this, it was really clear when she figured out how to lift her outside shoulder and pick up her front end. I was standing leaning over the fence at one end of the arena watching Murray work and the transformation when she got aligned was really clear.  She went from being short and flat to being tall and elegant. Go Murray!

When I write these clinic reports, I usually try to insert enough detail that people who haven’t attended the clinic can some useful information, instead of just wishing they were there <smile>.   This report doesn’t have a lot of details, so instead I would like to offer the following suggestions for ways that you can benefit from a clinic experience even if you can’t get to one.  These are things that I think it is really worth trying to do, even if you have to enlist non-horsie friends.

Suggestion 1:  Play the training game

We played three variations on the training game.  The first one was the standard version where the trainee got shaped to do a pre-selected behavior.  The second version was the creativity game where the trainer did not pick a behavior in advance, but built upon what the trainee offered.   The third version used the micro-shaping strategy to increase the rate of reinforcement by adding in a few repetitions of targeting after a particularly good effort and to mark a change in criteria.  The training game is always fascinating because every trainer and trainee works slightly differently.  

The training game often reminds me how our own animals get used to the way we train.  One of the complaints I sometimes hear about clicker training is that it is mechanical and takes the personal interaction out of training.  In the training game, it is really clear how some trainers and trainees work well together and how some really struggle because while we talk about how clear the click is for marking behavior, there is rarely only one behavior happening at a time and it is easy to interpret a click incorrectly if we have a preconceived idea about what is going to be clicked, or what types of behaviors are going to be clicked.

Suggestion 2:  Get together with someone and do some rope handling.

If your friend is not interested in learning the mechanical skills of rope handling, let her or him be the horse.  Remember that even if you don’t have anyone to check your mechanics, good rope handling is a combination of technique and feel.  Even an uneducated “horse” can give you feedback on feel and help you develop your timing and body awareness. 

It also helps to just get in some practice time. In the HSS rope handling exercise with a horse that was pulling away, it was important to be able to automatically slide down the line, rotate and close your elbow without having to put a lot of thought into each step.  You have to practice this a lot before it becomes automatic.   

Suggestion 3:  Review the basic tools you have in your toolbox.  

If it’s been a while since you did the foundation exercises, go back and revisit them.   Look through the books and see if there is anything else you haven’t done in a while. It’s good to review previous exercises and I often do this as a little break during a regular training session.   Remember that as your horse learns more behaviors, some are going to become more available to you since they have more recent reinforcement history and others are going to get rusty.

If I am doing a lot of work using the reins to ask for different things, I periodically make sure that the horse has not gotten stuck in thinking the rein always means “d” which can happen if you have not practiced asking for “a,” “b,” or “c,” with the rein in recent sessions.   If the horse gets confused, maybe you need to re-evaluate you cues and make sure that each one is distinct and that you are not relying solely on the horse repeating what was last clicked.

Suggestion 4:  Get the Hip Shoulder Shoulder DVD.

I know a lot of people buy the DVD’s in order and Hip Shoulder Shoulder seems like it comes later in the training progression, but I think it’s worth seeing it early on, especially the part about learning to recognize when the horse has rotated into HSS and how to redirect a horse into HSS when it’s needed.

So that’s it.   It was a great clinic. I really enjoyed meeting everyone and hope to go back sometime.  Thanks to everyone for their hospitality and willingness to share.  I hope to see some Clinic Hoppers at Groton someday!



  Katie Bartlett, 2010 - Please do not copy or distribute without my permission.




Equine Clicker Training