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What To Leave Behind, What to Take Forward: Part 1

I wanted to share Alexandra Kurland’s reply to a recent question posted in the online course forum here, as it says so many things that people new to clicker training need to know, and there was no point in writing my own version as she writes so much more eloquently!

There are several parts. This week is part one. Enjoy!

This post is about a recent conversation on safety and how to manage a horse who was getting excited and kicking out when he was being turned out. What I’m adding is more general philosophy rather than what-to-do recipe.

Keys to the Kingdom

Where to begin and what to add to the conversation? That’s always the question. So I think I’ll begin at the beginning – both of the course and of my own training journey.

I know when people are first joining the course, they are eager to get going. That first unit can seem so deceptively simple. It’s easy to read through it fast so you can charge forward into the active “doing” part of the course. We want to be teaching our horses to touch targets and to line up next to mounting blocks. We don’t want to be slowed down by requests to just sit and watch our horses. We already do that! Let’s get on with it!

I know, I know. But the keys to the kingdom sit in that first unit.

Think of it like three keys hanging together on a ring. We might as well get fanciful and picture something out of a Harry Potter type story. You are standing in front of an enormous wooden door. I’m picturing oak, with iron hinges. There are three interconnected locks keeping you out. But among the many keys on your ring are the ones that will unlock these padlocks. You just have to find them and figure out how to use them.

The First Key

The first key is quite unusual. It is shaped more like a trident than a normal key. In order to use it, you need to understand the discussion in Unit 1 of the three layers that make up every training method: belief system, guiding principles, and training techniques. It’s easy to learn how to use the techniques of clicker training without ever thinking about the philosophy behind the work. You hold a target up in front of the horse. He noses it. Click, you hand him a treat. Voila! You have just become a clicker trainer! Or have you?

Understanding the “tools” of clicker training is not the same as “being” a clicker trainer. That can be a hard difference to understand, especially if you are just beginning with clicker training. It’s the tools we see, but it is the belief system that holds us. It’s what keeps us working through the puzzles and the frustrations. We don’t want the “just make him do it” answers. We’re heading toward a different sort of relationship. We want the communication. We want the connection. We want the laughter and the joy of clicker training.

Others may simply be satisfied with compliance. They clicker train because it is effective, but if they see a need for corrections, they will use them. They will use a target to get a horse on a trailer, as long as it’s working. But if the horse fails to cooperate, they are perfectly okay with adding force.

World Dividers or Different Points on a Continuum

We can see this as a world divides scenario. I want connection, relationship, laughter, love. They say they have a great relationship but it is built on something very different – control. Our underlying belief systems are worlds apart. We may use similar tools but we will use them differently and we will end up with very different relationships. What I have delights me, but it might not satisfy others. Who knows what someone else might think of my horses! Would they think they are charming when they express their opinions and ask for attention? Or would they think they are annoying pests? I know the relationship many others create leaves me wanting more. I want the sparkle in the eye, not just the obedient performance.

We can also see this as simply different points along a continuum. I have learned horse training skills. I have learned how to make myself bigger, how to use leads and whips as size expanders to keep myself safe. I have taught the technique of making myself “busy,” of suddenly swatting away a swarm of imaginary bees. That definitely keeps horses away!

Going further back into the archaeological dig of my tool chest, I could unearth other, more direct uses of whips and leads. Now they were meant to intimidate and to say: do this or else. I definitely know how to do that. Which brings me to one of those quandaries when you are working with horses and their owners.

I think there is value in knowing how to be firm and how to set very strong boundaries. There are times you need that with people just as much as you need it with horses. Bending to others, always saying “whatever you want is fine with me” has i’s place. It is good to be able to accommodate the needs of others, but there are times when it is also important to be able to say: “This is my space. This is what I need, and on this point I cannot yield.” But there are ways and ways of doing that.

Dancing the Dance Instead of Fighting the Fight

The most skilled among us have learned how to make the other person/horse/dog etc. feel as though it is their idea to produce the behaviour they are looking for. That means there is never any feeling of one individual having to give up something while the other is forced to take a stand. That’s where clicker training can lead us. We learn to dance in such a way that no one is leading, no one is following. Instead both partners feel as though they are being listened to and their needs are met. It’s a goal. Which means for most of us we aren’t quite there yet. It is still out there waiting to be achieved.

In the martial arts they talk about the masters who have learned to fight, but who have also learned a greater wisdom. They may know how to fight, but they move through life so they never need to.

My goodness how I have wandered off the intended path of this post! Luckily the martial arts can bring us back to horses because we have the “t’ai chi wall” in the rope handling. The intent with that is to offer guidance. It is a powerful handling technique, but it is never meant to be used to intimidate your horse into yielding to your wishes. That’s not the case with many of the rope handling techniques that I originally learned. Those techniques had a “do it or else” threat of escalating pressure backing them up.

I am glad I learned horse handling skills. And I am glad I am learning techniques and patterns of thought which mean I no longer use them. I can tuck them away in my “tool chest” under many layers of better tools. They are there as remembrances only. They are not something I ever intend to bring out again. But because I learned those skills, they do influence how I move around horses. They do impact the choices that I see and the way in which I solve training puzzles. We are a product of our past experiences. I see that as a good thing even when some of those experiences are filled with pain and heart ache.

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