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Expo Faculty Profile: Alexandra Kurland, Horse Trainer

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Alexandra Kurland has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s as a dressage specialist and an accredited Ttouch practitioner. She began clicker training in the early 1990s, recognizing the power of the method for improving performance and enhancing the relationship between people and their horses. Alexandra teaches the use of clicker training for all equine needs and sports, from providing a gentle, companionable personal riding horse to halter training foals, training advanced performance horses, and reforming difficult and unmanageable horses. She travels widely giving hands-on clicker training seminars in the US and internationally. The author of Clicker Training Your Horse, The Click that Teaches, Riding with the Clicker, and several instructional videos, Alexandra's work is also featured in Panda: A Guide Horse for Ann (Rosanna Hansen, Boyds Mill Press, 2005), a photographic picture book for children about Panda, the miniature seeing eye horse she clicker trained. A graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in animal behavior, and the author of a series of children's books, Alexandra lives in upstate New York with her horses and her (clicker trained) cats.

How did you first hear of clicker training? Why did it catch your interest?

Horse Trainer and Expo Speaker Alexander Kurland

I first heard about clicker training from a friend of mine who trained Irish wolfhounds. She was talking about Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog in a tone that implied that the book was widely recognized, and that of course I must have read it. I hadn't. In the early 1990s, that book was not on the horse-world's reading list. My friend's matter-of-factness about the book's reputation made me eager to read it. When I did read Don't Shoot the Dog, it immediately struck home as something people in horse world needed to be aware of. I also saw one of Karen's videos demonstrating a 12-week old mastiff being trained with no compulsion whatsoever. I was certainly curious.

At what point did you realize the impact it would have on both your horses and your professional direction?

With my personal horse, I introduced him to clicker training when he was laid up on 7 weeks of stall rest for hoof abscesses. I decided to experiment with clicker training out of curiosity, to give us something to do while he was laid up. I had no sense then of the power of clicker training. My horse caught on right away and enjoyed it. After 7 weeks of stall rest, he came back into work further ahead in his training than when he was laid up. Now I was more than curious. I was hooked.

My horse's initial response made me very excited about the power of this communication tool. There were three main events that solidified my interest and commitment to clicker training. When I started riding my horse again, I used the clicker to re-shape everything I had taught him previously. I could almost feel him saying, "Oh, that's what you wanted me to do! Why didn't you say so before?" His training took a huge jump forward. All the little glitches and misunderstandings melted away. The communication was so easy, and we were both having more fun.

My horse had always had severe physical problems with his hind end. Ever since he was a foal, he'd had a problem with his stifles locking. The stifle is equivalent to our knee. Imagine trying to walk and having your patella catch so you can't bend your leg. That's what happened with my horse. It was a real nightmare trying to deal with this problem. When I started clicker training, the locking in his stifles stopped. That was huge. He was able to organize his own body with the information the clicker provided. That, more than anything else, told me that clicker training was totally beyond anything I had used before.

When I shared this training technique with my clients, their horses all had an exponential shift in their training. My clients' willingness to try the clicker and the success they experienced with it convinced me that clicker training needed to be part of the broader horse community. My clients told me that of all the many things I'd shared with them, clicker training was what they liked the best. When I asked why, they universally said it was because of the clarity of the communication and the depth of the relationship it created. We could take the work they already knew, add the clicker to it, and totally transform the relationship they had with their horses. This was the missing piece in the training we had been looking for.

Who were your major influences in training before you encountered clicker training? Have you blended their work with your own methods as a clicker trainer?

I studied with Linda Tellington Jones, the founder of TTEAM, in the mid-80s. I also studied with the dressage trainer, Bettina Drummond, and I've looked in depth at the work of John Lyons. These trainers all use very different techniques, but the one thing they share in common is they break training down into very small steps. That made it easy to incorporate their work into clicker training.

Why and how did you decide to write your first book about clicker training horses?

In 1996, I was putting together a series of articles for a website, and I wasn't sure if I could use the term "clicker training," if it was copyrighted or not. I contacted Karen Pryor and sent her my articles, asking her if I could use the term. Karen wrote back, asking if I'd like to write a book. From the starting point of my articles, I wrote Clicker Training for Your Horse. I'd planned to share clicker training within the horse community; Karen accelerated that process.

What was the response of the traditional horse training community to your work with clicker training?

The horse training community has been very receptive. People have been willing to consider it, and even those who have not wanted to try it themselves have tolerated our presence.

I've been pleasantly surprised, because clicker training does involve the use of food, which many traditional trainers are opposed to. In their experience, food makes horses mouthy and difficult to handle. Food is such a strong motivator for horses that they can get excited and be distracted by it. When you have a 1,000-pound animal who is excited and doesn't understand that there are rules around the food, things can get out of control pretty fast. So in the past, people have avoided using food in their training. They've relied instead on force-based motivators for control.

Clicker training, of course, changes all that. It allows us to create rules around the food, so we can use food safely. If you use food indiscriminately, the way a pet owner who just wants to give carrots might do, you can create a real pest of a horse—one who is nudgey and doesn't understand why the food is there sometimes, and not others. It makes sense that many horse trainers would be wary of using food, because of previous negative experience. With clicker training, the food is controlled, and the horse learns emotional self-control—which is part of the foundation of clicker training. The clicker totally changes what the food represents. Food then becomes a powerful training tool instead of a distraction.

People are now understanding that, and they're giving clicker training a try. The results speak for themselves.

Within the clicker training community, horse trainers are now a fairly tight-knit community. We have the main e-mail list, clickryder, which is an amazing list that's been going since 1998. It's a huge and very active list with a core group of very experienced clicker trainers who contribute regularly. They spend an enormous amount of time getting new people started successfully. The list is very supportive and avoids the feuding that happens so often on other e-mail lists in general—which says a lot about clicker training.

How does operant conditioning (clicker training) change a horse?

Put simply, clicker training brings the life back into a horse's eyes. For so many horses, what they learn is not to offer behavior, but to wait until they are told what to do. You get an obedient horse, but one with a very dull expression. Clicker training brings the spark back, allows the horse to express its personality, and creates a willing partner. You get a horse that is obedient, mannerly, and safe—with a sparkle in its eye.

Is clicker training especially good for certain equine sports or styles of riding? Are there areas or uses for which it is inappropriate?

Clicker training is useful across the board. The clicker is a great foundation tool. It teaches emotional-self control, and that's huge. If you want a safe horse, clicker training is a great way to build in mannerly, reliable behavior. My own interest is in dressage, and I certainly think the clicker shines as a training tool for advanced performance. The clarity of the communication and the precision make such a difference, especially in the horse's attitude. With the demands of high-performance work, subtle changes can make a huge difference in the quality of a horse's movement. With the clicker, the horses really understand what is wanted. I love watching my horses move at liberty in exactly the carriage I'm going to ask for under saddle. In every aspect of horse training, the clicker is extremely powerful. I've used it with all ages of horses, and with both recreational horse owners and professionals.

We understand that you've clicker trained a miniature horse to be a guide horse for the blind and that she is now at work for her blind owner. How is she doing? Why was clicker training especially advantageous for training a service horse?

I trained Panda for one of my riding clients who is blind. She had had three guide dogs previously, so I was familiar with their training and the requirements of their job. Panda has now been in service for over a year. We got her when she was 9 months old, and she went into full work at 2 and a half. That included the "puppy raising" phase, as well as the formal guide training, so she went into training at about the same age that guide dogs go into service. The difference is that she can potentially work into her thirties. At best, the dogs are at retirement age by around 10 to 12 years old.

Panda showing her excellent obstacle work

Panda showing her excellent obstacle work

Horses are naturally very well-suited to the job of guiding. A guide is trained to stop at changes in elevation such as curbs and cracks in the sidewalk; to stay close to the left edge of roads without sidewalks and to return to the edge after navigating around obstacles; to find and indicate landmarks such as doors, traffic signal buttons, elevators, etc., to cross straight across a street to the opposite curb; to refuse to go forward into a street if there is a hazard such as an approaching vehicle; to indicate or avoid dangerous footing, such as icy puddles; to take the handler around obstacles. If the handler tells the guide to go forward and there is a hazard, either the guide won't go forward or it will find the safe way around. Panda is trained to do all these tasks and more. She's superb at obstacle avoidance—she's 100% accurate on curbs. Her guide work is really extraordinary. Her owner has said that she is the best of all of her guides. All of Panda's training was done with the clicker, so not only is she very reliable in her work, she's also very eager.

Guide work is a very high-stress job. Many traditionally-trained guide dogs work under poisoned cues. Clicker training makes it very clear what the job is, and it keeps the animal's attitude fresh. Panda works very accurately, and she loves her work. She's a happy horse. She is confident and eager, and does not show any of the stress that my client's guide dogs showed. Her last two dogs had to be retired early because of training issues. I certainly have to wonder if these dogs had been trained initially in the same way that I trained Panda, would we have had a different result?

It certainly makes a huge difference for the handler. With her guide dogs, my client was taught to correct them if they made a mistake. That built up a lot of tension in the relationship. With Panda, the work is kept very positive with the clicker. That's created a strong working bond between them. One of the myths about horses is that they're not affectionate. Panda certainly shows how wrong that is. I was holding Panda the other day while her owner was busy with one of her riding horses. We were at a clinic, waiting for the group to get organized. One by one, people came in and sat down. Panda just ignored them, but when her owner returned, she gave a charming little nicker. It's really very sweet to see how Panda is totally focused on her owner.

[Editor's note: to read more about the Panda Project, click here.]

Have you seen young riders learn to clicker train?

I was just giving a clinic this weekend, and the clinic organizer's 9-year-old daughter was clicker training her horse. It was wonderful to watch. The clicker is definitely being embraced by the kids.

We understand that you have an invitation-only master class of clicker horse trainers and owners; what kinds of things do you work on with that group?

At the invitation-only class, we look at not just clicker training per se, but all aspects of horsemanship and general horse care. This year, we focused a lot on body mechanics. In rope handling skills, for example, we examined how our own balance and use of our core affects what the horses feels at his end of the rope.

We also focused in detail on the science of clicker training. We look at health care in general, and specifically this year at foot care. You can train until you're blue in the face, but if the horse's feet are not properly balanced, you won't get the desired result. We look at all the elements in a horse's life that may be undermining his training. I want people who are teaching clicker training not just to be good clicker trainers, but to be good horsemen. The people in this group have tremendous knowledge to share. They all have a strong dedication to clicker training and want to see it more widely used and known in the horse training community. It's an important opportunity to network so we can build a strong core of knowledgeable clicker instructors.

Tell us about your regular clinics. Who tends to come?

I do clinics a couple of times a month. We get people from all over, often traveling considerable distances to attend. We have recreational horse owners as well as many professional trainers. There are novice horse owners and talented riders with decades of experience. It's a wide range of people who are interested in clicker training.

The intro clinics are just that, getting the horses started with the clicker, making sure they have a solid foundation of good manners before we move forward with some of the individualized applications of clicker training. We look both at the science of clicker training, and the mechanical skills that are needed to create a successful team. I help people appraise where their horse is in its training and what its individual needs are. People generally think they are breaking their training down into small steps. At the clinics, they learn how much more they can do. I think that's one of the great surprises people have when they come to clinics. They see how much more their training can be chunked down into tiny steps, and they see how fast their horses learn when they do. Even in the intro clinics, I'm laying the foundation for advanced work. What we create out of these clinics are serenely beautiful horses. That's what I love, horses that move with balance and grace.

One of the strengths of clicker training is that it creates a learning situation where novice and experienced horse people can share the same environment. A novice is not at a disadvantage when it comes to clicker training.

[Editor's note: click here for more information on Alexandra's training clinics.]

What do you foresee for the future of horse training and clicker training?

In ten years, we won't recognize horse training. We're just now seeing the tip of the iceberg. As more and more people get involved, and their own creative genius is turned loose, we're going to see horses performing at a level we can't even imagine today.

Already we have amateur horse owners, some of whom have never taken lessons outside of the clicker clinics, who are getting work you would never expect from someone at their experience level—beautiful suspension, collected carriage, that's so elegant. When the experienced horse people see them, they're in awe. They know what they are looking at—and they want it. It's really fun at a clinic and hear an experienced rider say to a novice owner, "How did you do that?" We're all learning together, and we're discovering that with clicker training we can do so much more than we ever dreamed possible.

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