Alexandra Kurland is coming to Ireland in a few weeks time. It seems too good an opportunity to miss so Ben and I are booked on this clinic. In preparation, Mary from the Irish Clicker Centre came out to give a lesson to Sandra and I. The ground to be covered was what Alexandra Kurland calls the foundation lessons. I have had a session with Mary before. I stopped using clicker as I felt Ben was becoming too “snatchy” around food and he was focused on that alone.
It was helpful to have this lesson with Mary, but back at home, practising with Ben, he looked anxious for treats and yet expecting them and, even though I spent a lot of time with this, I was still not happy with how things were progressing. I thought that Ben’s behaviour would have convinced anyone watching that clicker training was not the way to go with a horse.
Last week we had another session with Mary. Things fell into place. First of all, it transpired that Ben’s anxious behaviour was for one activity only – standing on a mat. And once he was clicked and treated at a good rate for doing this, his anxiety disappeared. (He does not now need this rate of reinforcement.) Secondly, I was able to refine my aids and focus in on my body language and breathing. This made a huge difference.
Learning clicker, like any new skill, takes time. But it is not an end in itself. It is only a signal to say “that’s it”. But as I am new to it and to the specific rope handling techniques that Alexandra Kurland has developed for her exercises, it has been all too easy to forget the basics of energy, breath and body language. And most importantly, of intent.
So, at home, this is what using positive reinforcement has done for us:
Ben walks to the back gate beside me, without his usual spookiness as we approach the gate.
Ben stands as I mount, without snatching at the lush green grass at his feet. (That alone deserves a “wow!”)
Ben walks from the start with an active pace. His point of relaxation – where he lets out a huge sigh – comes much sooner than before. The rest of the hack is with an active walk yet with Ben’s head long and low. Relaxed yet forward – what more could I ask from a ride out on the roads? (Okay, cantering up the back lane with a doberman bounding out from a field towards us loses this relaxation – but we regain it quickly.)
On the ground:
Ben stands still at liberty to be groomed.
Ben walks beside me at liberty.
Ben halts when I halt, walks on when I move. (Here is where I have been able to focus on my own energy and breathing again and Ben has responded to this. The clicker, or tongue cluck that I am using, has only been the “yes” to his response.)
There has been a lot more as well. I have needed the lessons. It is not as easy to master as it looks, it took a bit of persevering. What I have really liked is the emphasis Alexandra Kurland places on tai chi. I have done tai chi and chi kung and I am currently doing another course of chi kung lessons. Chi kung fits very well with being around horses. It emphasises balance. Horses pick everything up from us and Ben really likes it when I am in balance, not just mentally as I have always known, but physically too. He is a great teacher, because his response always tells me about myself.
My fear about clicker training was that it would come between my relationship with Ben. Well on Saturday evening, after our ride and Ben and Rosie’s feed, Ben came to stand with me in the yard. As I stood there in the gathering dark, with the neighbourhood sounds dying down and only the coots still talking on the lake, Ben tucked in behind me and we stayed together for as long as my back would let me. When I moved, he touched my hand with his nose and only when I left did he join his Rosie under the trees.