Tag Archives: Alexandra Kurland

A clinic with Alexandra Kurland 3

Sunday: the final day and we started in a nice, contemplative Sunday manner with some tai chi exercises on the lawn. We practised tai chi walking and did some neck flexions and shoulder rotations that made an immediate difference to my flexibility. We also paired up with a more advanced participant to practise rope handling skills. Ben had been at his most relaxed when I groomed him first thing. He was happy to stay ground tied and focused on me for the session. He and Minnie were placed as far from Moffet as they could be when it was time for us to take our horses in and show where we were at.

I made sure I was centered in myself as I went to Ben. I let all anxiety go and was prepared to take him as he came. Alex had placed cones in a large circle with a wedge shaped ‘runway’ going up the centre towards a mat. Ben and I walked through this. This time he was with me, as soft as he can be, moving with me, stopping when I exhaled, turning with me, lowering his head or backing up on request. Alex noted that we were walking in step. I find that this happens spontaneously when we are in synch and it is a way of moving that Alex emphasises. What we did was very simple, no fancy lateral work, never moving out of walk, but it flowed. I was able to watch Ben’s feet when he stood to make sure he stood square and by himself he started to adjust his feet to stand square when he stood on the mat. We had one slight moment of disharmony and that was when we were leaving the arena; Ben did not want to leave.

Over the few days of the clinic, I had three short sessions with Ben. But I learned so much in-between, from the discussions, the observations of other horses and the practise sessions. Ben learned so much too. His journey through the clinic was quite fraught at times, but each fraught moment resolved itself and I also noted him watching intently as other horses had their time in the arena. I was of course very pleased to finish on such a soft, harmonious note. I was pleased that others saw the soft horse I know at home. But while we have had good sessions of clicker work at home, I have never experienced such harmony throughout a session as I did on Sunday. A lot of learning came together for both of us.

We had to leave to make the journey home before all the horses had their final turn. Next year (I am already looking forward) we will try to stay one further night. Alex’s advice to me is to work on the foundation lessons until they are very good, then to tighten up any routines with clicker work and then move on to lateral work.

Ben likes clicker training. The other night I opened some grass for him and Rosie and had left a green cone lying in the yard. Rather than go to grass (having been on hay all day) Ben went to the cone, touched it and looked at me.

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A Clinic with Alexandra Kurland 2

I see that I made less notes on Saturday. We had an interesting discussion on negative reactions to clicker training in the horse world. I have always assumed that this is because so many people are wary of training with treats, being mugged etc. But Alex made the point that training with positive reinforcement is not the cultural norm, which is certainly something interesting to think about.

There was more on building chains of behaviour, on single rein riding – sorting out balance and bending issues with one rein before activating the outside rein. We also watched a practice (just humans) of round pen work. Alex credits John Lyons for what she learned about round pen work. She said that she does not use round pen work for sorting out emotional issues through techniques such as join up. She says she starts to use it where most people stop. The work that was practised was how the person moves their own body so that they can move and turn the horse. A ‘send’ for example is ‘wait and fill the space your horse vacates’. She may use a whip as an extension of her arm. It provides information. A ‘draw’ comes from body position. She emphasised the importance of not leaning back, but pivoting around your central core.

It really needs to be seen and practised. I am still at the basics with Ben. One thing I took away from the clinic very clearly was not to rush through the basics. Take each at a snail’s pace and as a result of my realisation that within each basic is everything, staying at this level becomes very rich, rather than a stage to be moved through before the exciting work begins.

One of the more advanced participants, who had been frustrated the previous day about her horse’s lack of forwardness, produced a completely different picture today. Her horse came out beautifully forward and they made a lovely picture together both on the ground and riding. She said that she changed nothing in her horse, just in herself. She realised that she had been feeling anxious about how they would perform and, as I understood it, took lessons from that round pen session to her own body position with her horse.

Anyway to Ben. When I visited him in the morning I asked for very small periods of ground tying while I groomed him and then walked him in a circle and then returned to standing. He stood for longer periods and became more relaxed as I did this. He also showed that he had remembered his lesson of the previous day of taking treats gently. So I was hopeful that we could move on to other foundation exercises today. While Sandra worked with Minnie in the arena, he watched intently from his pen at the side, paying absolutely no attention to Moffet next door. The wooden mat used sometimes had been pushed into his area and at one stage he stamped loudly on it as if to say ‘come on, I can do this too.’

So he came happily into the arena when Minnie was finished. I have no idea what we did first as after about a minute he transformed from a soft, interested participant to a furious, raging giant of a horse, looking twice as big and at least ten times as strong; Minnie was talking to Moffet. (And talking rather vocally I may add.) At this stage Alex had Ben and all I could do was stand back and try to stay calm. Sandra distracted Minnie with a target while others brought in a barrier to create a space between her and Moffet.

It was very difficult for me to watch Ben at this stage. I really felt for him. He had spent the last two nights keeping Minnie away from Moffet (the fence between them was not sufficient for him) and he clearly saw this cob gelding as a rival. He also looked and sounded extremely angry and, for a moment, dangerous. This behaviour happens so rarely with Ben. When it does, he pays no attention to the person with him, except to see them as a hindrance to be removed. I would like to think that if I were handling Ben at this point he would not have reacted quite so strongly, but I doubt this. I had so many mixed thoughts in those few minutes. Empathy for Ben, worry about the strength of his reaction, fear that those watching would never see the softer Ben I know so well and acceptance that this is probably precisely what needed to emerge here.

Alex remained very calm and completely non-judgemental and accepting of Ben. She used the ‘tai chi wall’ (a block with her hands spread apart on the rope) to stop him plunging forward and to move him out of her space. (I think this technique needs to be taught. Alex emphasises again using bone rotation, not muscle; she says that while it is very powerful, the impression aimed for is not for the horse to feel ‘she’s so powerful’, but ‘she’s so safe’. She also said at one stage that you need to think about emptying all tension from your shoulders as you use it.)

We discussed if this situation was simply too stressful for Ben and whether it was fair to ask him to work at this point. But he calmed down sufficiently to concentrate on some head lowering, which helped him calm down more. Interestingly, he found it hard to lower his head beyond a certain point, something to be worked on as I am sure a stretch right across the back would be very good for him. If we did more, I can’t remember it. I watched Ben start to yawn and I took him back to Minnie where he positioned himself between her and Moffet, spending a long time licking, chewing and yawning.

Here they are with a pole providing a safe distance from Moffet.  I have to disagree with Ben here – I thought Moffet was a very sweet cob.

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I watched Moffet’s continued foundation lessons. The more advanced horses were doing really nice lateral work in hand and, for two of them, under saddle. Watching them I could see how Alex has taken the principles of positive reinforcement to break down classical in-hand and ridden work into component parts that can be built on step by step. Each horse also gave a picture of being intent on its person, not on the treats.

If I was tired on Friday, I was even more so on Saturday.  I felt I had been through an emotional wringer with Ben.  He has captured a good chunk of my heart and it was hard to see such aggressive behaviour on display, even while I could understand its cause.

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A clinic with Alexandra Kurland 1

Last Thursday morning I loaded Ben and Rosie and headed to Sandra’s. There we swapped Rosie for Minnie. Rosie was to stay with little Arrow and Cassie for the next few days. Two Kerry Bog ponies, one old, one young, meeting each other. I have some good photos of that for another post. Sandra was bringing Minnie, who has been off work for quite a while because Cassie presented with lameness just that morning.

When I first had Ben, Sandra was still riding Minnie and they became regular partners on long rides together. It was interesting to re-call just what good partners they were. Moving together over this weekend, they seemed to match each other stride for stride in a way Ben and Cassie have never done. Ben became very attached to Minnie during the weekend and stayed with her during all her restless moves. He even allowed her eat from his bucket and share his pile of haylage.

So we drove down to Kerry on a hot afternoon encountering roadworks after roadworks. Ben and Minnie travelled well and we arrived in time to settle them in before we met Alex and the other course participants and observers for dinner.

Mary had six horses to find accommodation for over the weekend. There was a field, some pens and an arena. Each horse or pair had time in each. Ben and Minnie spent each night in the arena and Ben proved proprietary where Minnie was concerned, placing his body between her and any other gelding who dared look over the fence. He took particular exception to Moffet, the only other cob on the course.

How to write about the clinic? There was so much learning packed into it. Alex is an incredibly generous teacher. We worked each evening for as long as it took. Conversations continued during lunches and dinners. Officially, Friday was a data collecting day, Saturday was hands-on teaching and Sunday was the results coming together. In reality, teaching happened from the start. There was time spent practising rope handling and tai chi exercises, there were discussions that were philosophical, theoretical and practical. Three of the course participants were quite advanced in their clicker training and three of us were novices.

So day one, Friday. Ben had been on my mind during the night as when we left them they were clearly unsettled in the arena, surrounded as they were by other geldings in their separate pens. Ben was squealing, striking and keeping pace with Minnie who was moving restlessly around. In the morning he did not want to settle for grooming and did not even show much interest in his bucket until Minnie settled to hers. If Minnie moved, he wanted to barge past me to catch up with her.

We watched the advanced horses first, which gave Ben and Minnie a morning in the field. I hoped that would help Ben settle but when I brought him in to show what we had been learning he was tense. I was too, very aware of being observed (there were two video cameras going) and very aware of how novice we were. As we walked through the foundation exercises Alex started to give me guidance and Ben was far too impatient to wait. He became very snatchy, grabbing for food with his mouth open and his head swinging all too regularly in my direction. His body was pulled onto his forehand with his neck reaching to the side. Ben was looking, in fact, like just the sort of horse who should never be introduced to clicker training. It felt tense, it looked tense (I saw some of it played back later) and there was no connection between us.

So this data collection session became a lesson in food delivery. Alex asked Mary to work with Ben teaching him to accept treats politely (to use his knife and fork as she put it) and she showed me just how to do it. Then I practised it with Ben. When providing any kind of physical contact with your horse (for example, asking for back up, head lowering or in this case placing a hand on the head collar to keep it out of my space) Alex places great emphasis on bone rotation. This concept took me a while to grasp and I gather that it comes from tai chi. I was to place my hand on the side of Ben’s head collar turning my arm from the shoulder so that the back of my hand was uppermost. In this way I was not using muscle but using bone and there is a completely different feel. It does not provoke a leaning into pressure reaction. It is hard to explain. We practised it on each other and there is a big difference in feel.

So I was to stand to the side of Ben, facing his shoulder and step towards his head, with my near hand on his head collar and the other hand presenting the treat, initially sliding down between his nostrils to his mouth. I was also to watch for Ben’s head position and aim to present the treat in a place where his head would be centered. This was not easy with his head butting against me.

Here we were on the very basics of clicker training. Ben’s anxiety had brought it to the fore. I had worked on this at home but obviously not with sufficient clarity for Ben.

At the end there was a magical moment for me, possibly my biggest insight of all the insights of the clinic. Ben was starting to wait calmly for the treat. His head was staying in midline as soon as my hand moved towards his headcollar. I became sufficiently at ease with my hand movements to be able to focus on the rest of my body and to become centered over my feet as I moved towards him. And I was aware that he was in balance and I was in balance and I had an image of a circle of energy between us uniting us both in this moment of balance. So even this most basic of exercises showed me that ‘everything is about everything else’.

After that I watched Alex work with Sandra and Minnie and also with Moffet. As regards food delivery with Moffet, the treat was placed underneath his muzzle so that he had to lift the base of his neck and from this his back-up became freer.  Back-up was progressed to where a clean step from his inside fore was reinforced.  After Alex worked on foundation lessons for a while with Moffet, this young, heavy cob was clearly lifting his legs rather than dragging them and looked much lighter.

That was day one. Mary’s arena overlooks the sea and between the learning, the blowing sand and the sun I was tired indeed.

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