top of page
There are eighteen lessons in the DVD series


Learn how to see small details in movement and how to put those tiny shifts in balance to work for you to:


  • calm herd-bound horses

  • manage separation anxiety

  • create beautiful gaits

  • maintain long term soundness


Microshaping is "Equine Pilates" - Shaping for a Sound Spine. Learn what that means in this two hour lesson presented by Alexandra Kurland. 

Here's a great study in contrast.  This is Lottie, one of the horses featured in the Microshaping DVD.  The picture on the left shows Lottie in her first Microshaping session.  Look at her balance.  Everything is forward, down onto her front end.  And she looks - forgive me Lottie for saying this - a bit pudgy.


Compare this to the photo on the right.  This was taken the following year when I returned for another clinic.  Now look at what an elegant lady she has become!  She's got beautiful muscle tone.  Look at the lift in her shoulders.  This translate into much better balance under saddle.  This change in her balance and overall look was a direct result of the Microshaping and the "pilates pose".

Shaping is the backbone of clicker training. When we click the clicker to highlight a desired behavior in our horses we are shaping behavior. We are selectively reinforcing that behavior making it more likely that the horse will repeat it in the future. From the very first lesson in targeting you have been learning how to shape behavior with the clicker.


The question is: are you a good shaper? Do you see small details of movement and do you know how to use them? Are you a splitter of behavior or a lumper? Splitters see detail. They train in tiny steps which makes it easier for their horses to learn from them. Lumpers ask for too much too fast. This often creates frustration and confusion in their horses. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in freeshaping.


When you freeshape you are not luring the behavior with targets or triggering it in any other way through your direct actions. You are simply observing your animal and marking desired responses with a click and a treat.


Microshaping is a term coined by the UK dog trainer, Kay Lawrence. It refers to splitters versus lumpers. Microshaping lets you maintain high rates of reinforcement by looking at the underlying reaction patterns that create complex movements. Kay Lawrence began exploring microshaping because she was concerned by what she saw in the canine clicker community. People were taking too many shortcuts to get to their end goal. They were creating frustrated, anxious learners and the behavior they were ending up with in the show rings was many times biomechanically incorrect. So Kay started looking at the underlying reaction patterns that went into the movements these handlers were trying to shape. In other words, what happens just before a dog sits, or backs up? Can you see the small movement that predicts the larger target behavior? When Kay taught her students to train using microshaping, she saw improved learning success and much happier dogs.


Micromovements are at the core of single-rein riding, so Kay's work certainly got my attention. One of the many things she stressed in microshaping was the need for a high rate of reinfocement. With the dogs she trained in short trials, a minute at a time for a session, but in that minute the dog experienced a high rate of success because it was being was being reinforced for such tiny increments of improvement. The result was happy, eager dogs who very much understood and could reproduce reliably a very high quality of performance.


Such short training sessions don't seem very practical with horses, and at times they aren't even possible. At clinics I am often working with horses who are falling apart emotionally. They are in an unfamiliar environment, away from their pasture mates, and they are afraid. We can't easily work them for a minute and then put them away. We need to keep these horses engaged with us to keep them safe. But an upset horse can be a challenge to work with. Their focus is outside the ring. It's all on leaving, getting back to the security of their home herd. 


Figuring out safe, clicker-compatible ways to work with these upset horses was the origin of the microshaping strategy that is featured on this DVD. You'll learn how to bring an anxious horse's focus back onto you by simply slouching against the side of his pen and watching for micromovements to click. No chasing him around round pens, no driving his feet into motion. The motto for this style of training could easily be: why sweat when you can slouch?


The microshaping strategy is an excellent way for handlers to learn to see detail. That makes it a perfect DVD to watch before you launch into the single-rein riding techniques taught in the later DVDs. Single-rein riding is all about seeing detail. This DVD will show you not only how to see detail, but also how to use it to create beautiful balance. It introduces you to "Equine Pilates", to shaping for a sound spine.

The MicroShaping DVD was first produced in Jan. 2008

More on Microshaping:  Posted to The Click That Teaches List, Feb. 9, 2008.


Microshaping DVD Announcement


So the cat is out of the bag. Yes, I have just finished the Microshaping DVD. I finished it the night before I flew out to the Clicker Expo. I was determined to have it ready for the Expo since I was giving a presentation on microshaping. I just barely made it. I'm only now getting caught up enough to get it up on the web site.


In microshaping we focus on very tiny muscle movements. What the DVD describes is a microshaping strategy that helps you maintain high rates of reinforcement, especially in the beginning of the process. This microshaping strategy evolved very much out of a session I did last year after the LA Clicker Expo with Julie's arab mare, Katie. I wrote about this in a very long post (40 or 50 pages long) on microshaping.


Katie had a major emotional meltdown at the lesson day. She couldn't handle being away from her home barn. We've all seen the horses who get themselves wound up and start running circles in their paddocks. They can't get themselves calmed down. The paddock that Katie was in had deep sand. I was concerned that she might injure herself if we let her just run herself out. We could have taken her into a round pen, or worked her out in the main arena, but my concern was the same. I don't like round penning horses when they really need a round pen. Meaning, if a horse is going to go into a round pen and run because they are anxious, I'm going to look for another option. The option I chose with Katie was the microshaping strategy.


My goal was to freeshape backing, but because she was so emotionally wound up there wasn't a lot I could grab hold of to reinforce. So in between clicking her for any tiny muscle twitch that might lead to backing, I had her target my hat. The targeting bounced the rates of reinforcement back up and kept her engaged in the game. As the process progressed the targeting became a conditioned reinforcer so we were able to highlight and reinforce extra good moments in the backing by offering her an opportunity to play the easier targeting game. Katie settled down, and became focused on the game. Instead of spinning anxiously in her pen, she was now engaged safely with us. And at the end of the day she was able to walk flat-footed back to her home barn. I counted the session we did with her as a success, but when you work with a horse, you are only seeing the behavior they are offering you. You don't really know what they have learned until later. You may have managed a particular situation on that day, for that moment, but what are the long term ripple effects, what are the consequences - intended or otherwise? You have to wait until you work with the horse later to find out what was really learned.


That's something you want to remember when you are evaluating a training session. Yes, the horse may be on the trailer - and the handler can be looking like a hero. Everyone else was taking hours. He got the horse on in minutes. It's all so reinforcing to the trainer's ego. But the real question is will the horse get on the next time?


Sometimes the best learning is happening when it looks as though nothing is going on.


With Katie my primary concern for that day was her safety. I didn't want her blowing out her hocks in the deep sand while we were trying to get her settled down. But you always hope for positive ripple effects. When you can get a horse thinking instead of reacting, what flows out of that? I got to see the answer this past weekend. Instead of working with a horse who fussed and fretted her way through the day, Katie was a superstar. She was solid emotionally, able to focus on a lesson on three-flip-three where we looked at nuance of movement. That one session last year did not by itself create this 180 degree shift in her emotional control, but it was certainly part of the change.


After Katie's session last year I began to experiment more with the microshaping strategy. I'd been looking for a way to teach microshaping and in particular freeshaping using microshaping. This seemed like the way to do it. I had a grand time last summer sharing this with a number of different groups. I'd give everyone in the group clickers, and we'd sit outside the horse's paddock watching intently for muscle twitches. I wish I'd taken pictures of these groups. Everyone would be leaning forward, clicker at the ready, staring intently while we waited for the horse to twitch a muscle. And we'd get so excited when it happened! Too funny.


I loved the conversations that would be taking place during these sessions. Normally when people train they are after large movements. You want a horse to step back so your eye naturally watches the feet. But this is a huge gross movement compared to the muscle contractions we were looking for. People were learning to see the thing that comes before the thing that comes before the thing you are ultimately after. That means that everyone's timing became spot on. When you learn to see detail, you can predict when something is about to happen because you see all the minute precursors leading up to the larger movement.


I got some great video of these microshaping sessions. The hardest part of this DVD was deciding what to leave out. I could easily have made a four hour DVD and still not have shared all the really neat stories we captured on film. In these sessions the camera was set up in the middle of the group. You are seeing what the clinic participants were seeing, and you get to hear their comments as they decide what muscle group they want to focus on next. Your eye will become tuned to the same small details they were looking at.


This DVD is a precursor for the riding. Single-rein riding is all about detail. In riding we aren't freeshaping as we are on this DVD. We're shaping on a point of contact, but we're looking for the same level of detail. A give is a little thing - not a big thing.


So this new microshaping DVD will help you to understand the riding. What is it that the rider just released on? If you are used to looking at movement on a gross level, you'll see an experienced single-rein rider releasing the rein for what you think is nothing. But the rider knows that tiny, barely discernible movement is the start of many good things. She knows that horse just made a significant shift in it's balance, and that shift is going to lead to the beautiful movement she is after.


So microshaping helps the handler to see detail. What does it do for the horse? Amanda answered this beautifully in her recent post on sensitive mares. It's a long post to copy, but it was such a perfect description, I'm going to add most of it here:


Amanda wrote:

"When I worked with Classic, we started him at the clinic last June in Aberdeen. He was a typical boy and flexed his pecs like mad. But one of the mares (Erin) was the star, she was really getting that it was about muscles moving and not so much of the gross movements.


Microshaping is about looking for the tiniest 'YES' that you can click and treat. That means looking for tiny weight shifts (and I mean tiny) or muscle twitches.


With Classic, I started with his pecs. He then started to offfer this with more gusto and this then activated other muscles. So I would change my focus to those other muscles. This would then activate another set of muscles and so on and so on. Each time I changed my focus to a new set of muscles, it took him a few clicks to tune in to the shift to of my focus,but very quickly he learned which muscle I was focusing on and he would work to flex just that muscle (though he can't help but activate others too).


The thing I loved about this is that it allowed me to see which muscles were easy for him to activate, the differences from one side to the other, and also the sequence of his muscles and therefore how he would really move. This allowed me to gauge his training and I could focus on areas that needed more work.


After a while of doing this, Classic muscled up quite amazingly. His spine was very quickly nestled in the most wonderful muscle and the muscle was proud of his spine for the whole length of it (something people work for hours and hours in the saddle to achieve, and often can't). In our repertoire now is pelvis tilt, but clench, abs crunch, lift up through the withers, pose, hips engaged, he can lift his back about 2 inches !!, and he can even activate the small muscles next to his know that ones that often atrophy with a poorly fitting saddle ? I can also get him to pose, engage his hip, and then lift a front leg (as one movement). And true to most clicker trained horses who start to offer well learned behaviours through the rest of their work (such as pose), he is now offering this type of carefully thought through movement in other things.


Today, I was working on focus and attention and when I started to increase the criteria, I had introduced some movement. I was just looking for forward movement with focus on me. Not only did he offer me this, but I also got the most amazing collection with the most amazing self carriage. His hip was SO engaged and working a dream with power and ohhhh.....I justmelted !!


Two days ago I had been working on 3F3 and it didn't go so well as he wasn't feeling great. So I was stunned when he offered me this work that was breath taking. I actually finally aknowledged the potential that my horse has....I tend to just say "he's my blue eyed boy and I don't care if he has no potential", but, he has potential !! and I am releasing it using a clicker box and treats !! It's MAD.


Since I got back from LA we have been using pilates as a secondary reinforcer to other behaviours and it is working really well. I also use some of his other favoured behaviours as a secondary reinforcer with great success....and he builds muscle at the same time as rewarding a new behaviour.....woo hoo.


As his BIG reward today we went out long lining (he loves going out and about) and what fun.....Ben (the yard owner) came with us for the walk and to see how we are getting on and he had us go really cross-country. What a hoot, Classic was leaping off the top of small mounds....I have no idea how I managed to stay with him. BUT, the focus work and the close and tiny movement work we did before we went out paid off and he stayed focused on me when we went past both fields of ponies. Even though one herd came flying up to the fence we were walking past.


So the pilates, as it has been affectionaltely named due to how it isolates muscles, not only builds the muscles, it can build up in to behaviours (gross movements) and it also helps to focus the horse and give them good emotional control.


Can you tell I love it!"


And in a separate post Amanda added the following:


"The pilates developed in to movement. I got backing up in diagonal pairs (which is what the pilates naturally develops in to), but I also wanted to get moving forward. Some time ago I wrote about how i got him to walk forward in outline and with taking a step up and away from me (as he had a tendency to fall in towards me). Asking for the pilates stuff that he knew well through this forward movement led to lovely balance and it also meant I could amend his movement with precision as he knew I was not necessarily

looking for gross movements. This is where I could combine the duck tape lesson with pilates and ask for his shoulder to lift half an inch to show him where his balance point was and he no longer needed to motorbike corners. I saw this horse suddenly find his perfect balance point and it stunned me that other people were asking what I was trying to teach him (they could not see him suddenly work in balance)......I see this as a

compliment, I am learning to see the tiniest things that are good.


Before understanding micro-shaping the collection that Classic was working with yesterday would have been slightly lost on me. It would have looked nice, but with the micro-shaping I have done with him, I understood WHY this looked so good, I knew it stemmed from true hip engagement and that this was what I wanted. I understood what he had physically changed to achieve this and I knew this was a big step forward for him.


I now micro-shape EVERYTHING. I have turned in to a micro-shaping geek."



I would love to have included video of Classic on this DVD because he figures prominently in the microshaping /freeshaping story, but the stall he was in during these sessions was not the best for filming. However, I did include some video of Erin, the mare Amanda mentioned in the first part of her post.


While I was editing this DVD, I was visiting with Kim Cassidy. I took advantage of a long hallway in her house to film the human equivalent of the "equine pilates" work we teach the horses. I had Kim back up with no preparation in her balance. Then I had her engage her abdominal muscles before backing. The difference in her stride was enormous. I pulled some stills from the video so you can more easily compare the two. You'll see that without any preparation she is falling backwards, catching her balance with every step. With "pilates" prep she steps back with balance and control. You can hear the difference in her foot falls. With no prep she lands heavily. With prep you can barely hear her step.


This change in balance is what we're after with our horses, not just because it is pretty, but because it is more comfortable to ride, and it helps to maintain sound joints. So at the core of all this work we've been exploring together here on this list is what I have come to think of as "Equine Pilates" - Shaping for a Sound Spine.


That's what is on the new DVD. The title is "Microshaping: Learning to See the Smallest Try". I've just gotten it up on my web site.




Alexandra Kurland

bottom of page