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Interview with ClickerExpo Faculty Member Alexandra Kurland

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Alexandra Kurland has been training horses and teaching since the mid 1980s. In the early 1990s, after reading Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog, Alexandra headed out to the barn with a clicker and a pocket full of treats to see what her horse thought about clicker training. What Alexandra quickly discovered was that the clicker was an effective communication tool, a tool that horses not only understood, but responded to with great enthusiasm. Alexandra documented her experiences and over time developed a systematic, very detailed program for clicker training horses. Her books, including Clicker Training for Your Horse, along with her video-lesson series, The Click That Teaches, are designed to give horse owners an overall roadmap.

Now, largely thanks to Alexandra, horse owners are putting away their whips and spurs and discovering what Alexandra had the foresight to discover decades ago—clicker training produces eager, happy horses and delighted handlers. We are thrilled that Alexandra will be sharing her knowledge and experience once again at ClickerExpo 2018, and we appreciate that she has taken time to share here her insights on the most significant changes in the horse-training community.

Q: As you look at the horse-training community, what do you think are the biggest or most significant changes over the last 15 years?

A: I’m going to answer this question in a roundabout way!

One of the things that distinguishes ClickerExpo from other conferences is the vision Karen Pryor had for the conference. She considered those of us who were presenting as members of a faculty. She invited people who she knew shared similar values and were dedicated both to good training techniques and to understanding the science that underpins clicker training. Karen also knew that getting us together at ClickerExpo conferences would be a catalyst for change. In that first year, none of us knew one another. So Karen did something else that was brilliant. She hosted a faculty dinner before the start of ClickerExpo.

I remember walking into the restaurant for my first faculty dinner. Helix Fairweather, who was a regular on the Expo faculty for many years and who is now a Karen Pryor Academy instructor, came forward to greet me. Helix is a dog trainer. At that time, most of us knew of her though an online agility course that she taught. Helix was full of questions about a procedure I had described in my riding book that I called “the three hundred peck pigeon.” I am a horse trainer. Helix works with dogs. That evening we sat together at dinner and chatted happily about training.

That was my introduction to ClickerExpo. We were all so excited by the work, so eager to learn from one another. We might be working with different species, but the principles were universal. All the members of the faculty took advantage of opportunities to learn at ClickerExpo. If we weren’t presenting, we were sitting in on each other’s lectures.

Teaching at ClickerExpo has always been a pleasure, in part because I have come to know the other faculty members so well. They help me be a better teacher. I can’t possibly squeeze everything I want to say about clicker training into a few ninety-minute talks, and I don’t have to. ClickerExpo is like a moveable feast. I’m not responsible for cooking the whole meal. I can present a couple of favorite dishes, knowing that others will also be bringing good things to the table.

Every year, the ClickerExpo program reminds us of the basics and then pushes us further with leading-edge talks.
So, if you ask what has been one of the biggest changes in training over the past 15 years, I would say it would be the ongoing presence of ClickerExpo. Think about some of the concepts that have been introduced at ClickerExpo: Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s talks on Poisoned Cues, Kay Laurence’s Microshaping, all of Ken’s talks on concept training. That short list just scratches the surface. Every year, the ClickerExpo program reminds us of the basics and then pushes us further with leading-edge talks.

But, you asked about the biggest change in the horse-training community over the last 15 years. In the early stages of clicker training, we were just excited that we could get behavior to happen. We could get horses to pick up cones and bring them back to us! Who knew that horses would be as enthusiastic about retrieving as most dogs were? Then, we discovered how much you could change a horse’s balance for the better. For me, the impact on long-term soundness transformed clicker training from an entertaining sidebar into a lifelong obsession.

As those of us in the horse community have explored clicker training more deeply, we have come to recognize just how powerful it is. That power brings with it a responsibility to think not just about how we are going to train a behavior, but why.

The expression I use is: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We’ve always cared about the welfare of animals. That’s what draws so many of us to clicker training. It’s not just that clicker training is science-based. What matters most is the great relationship it helps us to build with animals. When I think about clicker training, I think of Dr. Dolittle. Clicker training helps us talk to animals. It gives animals a voice that can be heard.

That voice is very important for horses. All too often, their voices are crushed by the demands of competition and force-based training. Those of us who are exploring clicker training see horses in a very different way. We’re talking openly about their emotions. We’re finally opening that closet door. We’re a community that recognizes the intelligence and rich emotional life not just of our companion animals, but of all animals. I always knew that horses are brilliant, but who knew you could train butterflies?

That’s one of the major contributions of clicker training—helping us see animals through a different lens.
That’s one of the major contributions of clicker training—helping us see animals through a different lens. In the traditional horse world, we’re taught that horses are stupid animals, and because they are stupid we need to use force to train them. In the clicker world, we know that’s not true. That’s a change that is worth spreading!

Q: What are the obstacles that still exist to positive reinforcement being more widely accepted in the horse-training community?

A: Aggression comes from a place of fear. That’s why horses are such powerful teachers. Because of their size, their strength, and their speed, people are afraid of horses. Go to any tack store in the country, and you will see evidence of that fear in the equipment people use to control horses.

We live in a punishment-based culture. It’s an easy sell to convince people that these tools are needed to train horses. Command-based training is a cultural match. It feels like the norm, and clicker training is the odd man out. The good news is that horses are teaching us that we can put aside these command-based tools. The ripple effect is a powerful one. As people explore clicker training, they change not just how they see their horses, but also how they relate to people. The horses are helping us find a more cue-based, positive way to teach. When that becomes more of the cultural norm for society as a whole, clicker training and its many close cousins will be the norm in the horse world.

Join Alexandra at ClickerExpo 2018
SoCal (January 19 - 21)
St. Louis (March 16 - 18)

Q: How has your training and/or teaching changed over the last 15 years?

A: One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Maya Angelou:

“When I was young, I did the best I could. When I knew better, I did better.”

What doing better means is built on many things. Over the past twenty-plus years, I’ve worked with thousands of people and their horses. As I jokingly tell people, I’ve been to all my clinics! That has provided me with so many great teachers. I’m always learning, so yes, I am better in my handling skills. I can work with more difficult horses in more challenging environments. I see the connections between lessons more clearly. These are changes I would expect to see in anyone who studies a subject over an extended period of time.

But that’s not really the change that is most important. Another favorite saying is this one: “The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you see that it gives you.” What are the “more good things” that I have been collecting?

In both the horse and the dog communities when we were first discovering what clicker training could do, just getting behavior was exciting. “Look! I can get a horse to back up twenty feet without ever touching him!”

The training may have been based on good science, but it very much looked like magic. The first wave that we rode was simply getting behavior to happen. Now that we recognize the power of shaping, we have added the other element:

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

We are looking past how to why. Why are we training this behavior? What function does this behavior serve? Does it support good welfare for the horse? We have to ask those questions both for ourselves and for our animals.

For me, clicker training has always been about giving horses a voice that can be heard.
For me, clicker training has always been about giving horses a voice that can be heard. What I have seen over the years is how much clearer that voice can be. The behaviors we teach become the behaviors the horses use to communicate with us. The more I understand about cues, the more I see that training is not, and never has been, a one-way street where I give the cues and my horse simply responds to my directions. Rather, cues provide a back-and-forth conversation. I give a cue to which my horse responds, but that response is now a cue for me. Clicker training flings this door wide open so we can more clearly understand one another. It moves the training more solidly from making things happen, even in a nice way, to asking horses what they would like to have happen. Then, clicker training gives us the means to find the best way to meet everyone’s needs—horse and human together.

Q: Which of your presentations at ClickerExpo do you think is most reflective of the changes that have taken place in the last few decades?

A: Part of the fun of presenting at Clicker Expo is that we are always encouraged to bring new perspectives and new concepts to the conference presentations. Last year, I stepped outside the horse world to talk about the work of George Lakoff. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist whose work of late has been in the realm of politics. A friend sent me one of Lakoff’s articles in which he was discussing the 2016 Presidential elections. What he was saying helped explain what was for me a very perplexing political year, so I went on to read several of his books. What I discovered was that his work didn’t just explain the great political divide that exists in this country—it also explained so much of what I see in the horse world.

One of the concepts Lakoff talked about was the concept of frames. Simply put, frames are cognitive structures that help us organize how we process information and events. What is perhaps the most striking characteristic of frames is that two contradictory frames cannot be opened at the same time. We know this is true in clicker training. We focus on what we want our learners to do. In that frame we see solutions that are centered around teaching a learner a set of skills that will lead to the behaviors we want. When we get sucked into the drama of unwanted behavior, we open a very different frame. We become focused on stopping the unwanted behavior, a match with the command-based training that is so prevalent in the horse community.

When we want to share our training ideas with others, the goal is to open a conversation instead of shutting it down. Our challenge is to activate a frame we can all understand. We know clicker training works. We know it creates joyful, beautiful, successful individuals. But when people are looking at clicker training from an incompatible frame, they won't see clicker training in the same way we do. We use treats as reinforcers. They see them as bribes. We regard choice as an important element in training. They see the animal’s option to say “no" as a lack of discipline.

The same disconnects occur when we look at non-positive training. The use of corrections makes us uncomfortable. If we push against what these other trainers are doing, we close off conversation. We lock ourselves into frames that shut out the possibility of understanding. The task is to find the common ground, the places where we can connect and have a productive conversation.

The frame I want to open expands our understanding of the animals we train.
Why do we choose positive reinforcement? I know for many the answer is simply that it is an effective, efficient way to train, but that’s not a sufficient response. A skilled, command-based trainer also gets results, so this first argument isn’t enough. I’m delighted that positive reinforcement works so well, but the real draw for me is that it is kind. I don’t have horses so that they can plow my fields or transport me to town. I have horses because I love them. The frame I want to open expands our understanding of the animals we train. In traditional training, horses are livestock, something to be used. When we see horses as intelligent individuals that have a rich emotional life, when we see horses as part of our family, we make very different training choices for them.

We encounter the same obstacle associating with people. How well do you communicate with people who have a different frame of reference from your own? Are they “the others,” or can you find common ground that opens communication?

Lakoff’s writings helped me to understand better the deep cultural divide that exists in the horse world. When I shared his work at last year’s Expo, it resonated clearly with many others. If we want to share, not shut down, communication, it helps to understand how to frame the conversation.

It shows how much clicker training and ClickerExpo have evolved over the years that a presentation based around the work of a cognitive linguist would be part of the program. I’m still teaching the how-to of clicker training horses: how to get started, how to teach physical and emotional balance, how to ride with the clicker, etc. Those basics are still important. They are the core of what I teach, but I always like to stretch my training beyond what I know now. It’s fun to have the opportunity to share these mind-expanding ideas at ClickerExpo.

It is part of the horse community. Clicker training is here to stay.

Q: In what ways do you feel ClickerExpo has impacted or influenced the training community?

A: The year my first book, Clicker Training for Your Horse, was published I participated in the Ohio Equine Affaire. That was 1998. I had a small trade booth in a sea of other booths. For four days I watched people eye my basket of clickers with curiosity, puzzlement, suspicion, and, in some cases, interest. I spent four days explaining over and over again what clicker training is and how you can use it to train horses. More than 100,000 people went through the gate over the course of that event. I think it would be fair to say that for most of them this was their first exposure to clicker training horses. Fast forward to today. Now when I meet other horse people, the chances are pretty good that they have at least heard about clicker training. It is part of the horse community. Clicker training is here to stay.

In 1998 the internet was in its infancy. There was one online clicker training forum, the Click-L list. Everyone was on it: Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey, all the bird trainers, the dog trainers, the horse trainers. If you wanted to know what others were saying, you only had to read this one list. Heaven. Then the universe expanded. It wasn’t so much a Big Bang, but there was definitely an explosion of ideas and opinions. People broke off from Click-L and formed new groups. We formed separate communities. It became much harder to keep up with everything that was being talked about. Then YouTube and Facebook launched, and they expanded again our access to information. All of this helped spread clicker training around the planet. The only problem was that it spread lots of different versions of clicker training, some good and some that needed more work.

ClickerExpo gave us a safe gathering place where we could come together and discuss the value of the different techniques and philosophies that were emerging. We weren’t relying just on anecdotal evidence—my horse/my dog learned using this technique so it must be good. Karen Pryor invited both trainers and scientists. We could ask the behavioral analysts why a procedure worked (or didn’t work). What was going on? There were a great many conversations that went on well into the night as we tried to understand why so we could improve how.

Every year, ClickerExpo presentations show us the “more” that is possible.
ClickerExpo helped create a consistent, effective foundation from which to explore clicker training. But we were never content with just repeating the same programs from one year to the next. As a result, ClickerExpo has helped do two things. It gave us a launching pad. Across a wide range of species—from dogs and horses to birds and fish and even to butterflies—it gave us a solid foundation from which to begin our training. We understand the basic concepts of clicker training better because of ClickerExpo. But ClickerExpo also encouraged us to push the boundaries. We are all pioneers in this experiment we call clicker training. What can we train with the clicker? Every year, ClickerExpo presentations show us the “more” that is possible. ClickerExpo grounds us in good science and good technique, and then it encourages us to explore with our animals as teachers.

Q. When you look at the schedule for ClickerExpo 2018, can you name one of the Sessions or Labs that you are most looking forward to attending, and explain why?

A: I tend not to look at the ClickerExpo program ahead of time. I always want to see everything and that’s not possible. Of course, I want to go to all the horse talks. And, I always enjoy the science-related talks. But, I also learn so much from the dog trainers. Yes, I want to see everything, which means that I wait until I’m at ClickerExpo to choose. I’m very grateful that I get to present at both Expo conferences (January and March) so that I get a second chance to see some of the presentations I couldn’t get to the first time around.

There is one title that did jump out at me immediately, and that's Susan Friedman’s presentation on The Learning Planet. This year I’ve been doing a lot of reading about plants. They aren’t the passive organisms we thought they were. Studies are showing that plants also respond operantly. It’s so exciting, all of these complexities we’re discovering. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about the examples Susan uses in her talk. What a brilliant name to give this beautiful planet!

Alexandra, thank you for sharing your insights about ClickerExpo as well as your valuable experience training and effecting change in the horse community. We look forward to hearing more from you at ClickerExpo 2018 in SoCal and St. Louis!