Learning Together: The Constructional Approach to Training

Stay At Home Virtual Clinic Series

You can now enroll in the 2022 Stay at Home - Learn at Home Clinics

In 2020 I shifted all of my clinics to a virtual format and discovered much to my surprise and delight that I love the virtual format.  I am going to continue to use the virtual clinic format going into 2022. I love how they erase the constraints of geography.  Everyone can participate no matter where you live!  Zoom lets us all travel literally around the world without ever leaving home.

My clinics are process oriented.  They teach you the underlying concepts and skills that will let you design a lesson plan for your individual training goals.  So one person in the clinic may we interested in riding, someone else just got a foal, a third person wants to focus on husbandry and medical care, and a fourth person just wants to get her horse on a trailer.  The course material will meet all of these different needs.

The clinics will offer a combination of self-paced learning and opportunities to get together to share video, ask questions, celebrate successes, and enjoy the company and support of other clicker trainers. 

Learning Together

Learning Together - that's what we'll be doing.  You can always work on your own.  You can use my books, the DVDs, the on-line course, the blog posts and podcasts.  These are great resources, but sometimes it's fun to get together with other people.  It's good to spend time with people who understand your love of animals and who share your passion for positive reinforcement training.  It's good to see what others are doing.  You learn from their questions.  You learn from their animals.  With this virtual clinic format, you don't have to worry about travel.  You get to stay at home and you also get to "travel" around the world to visit with other clicker trainers.

The Constructional Approach To Training 

I'm a clicker trainer.  That tells you a lot about my core values and that I value positive reinforcement, but that label isn't sufficient.  I'm also a constructional trainer.  That tells you some more about how I structure my training.  It means that when I look at a complex goal, I consider all the component pieces that need to be taught separately so that goal behavior becomes much easier to reach. 

 

In constructional training you learn how to set up the environment for success.  You learn how to train in clean loops so errors are minimized.  This is a structure you can apply throughout your training.  What do you want to teach?  How do you structure your lessons so they can be taught easily to your horse?

 

The clinics are constructional.  They build one upon the other.  They will take you step by step through a training program that begins with the basics and carries you forward to performance excellence.  In training the next step that you ask for should never feel overwhelming to you or your horse.  You may be asking for a complex behavior that draws on many component skills, but if you have prepared your horse will, it shouldn't feel challenging to either you or your horse.  It is just the next small step you're taking together in a long series of small steps.


That's very much the thinking behind the clinics.  In the later courses we'll be looking at some very advanced training.  If you jump straight into those clinics, you may feel lost.  But if you travel with me through the earlier steps, the advanced training in the later clinics will make sense.  It will be very doable and your horse will be well prepared to succeed.

Stay At Home Clinic Series 

You don't have to travel any further than to your computer to explore these clinics.  That's the beauty of the virtual format.  You get to stay home, and so does your horse!  We'll be working together in your familiar environment.  You don't have to deal with the stress or expense  of traveling.  At clinics I hear so often people lament: "He never does this at home!"  Well now your horse is home.  During the video coaching sessions that will be part of this year's clinics, we get to be the "fly on the wall" while you work with your horse. 
 
You get the best of both world.  You get to visit with other clicker trainers.  And you get to have a lesson with your horse in the comfort of his familiar surroundings. 

How do these clinics work?

Clinic format:

 

In 2020 I began by adapting my in-person clinics directly to the zoom platform.  The schedule followed the format of a two day clinic.  We had introductions on Friday night followed by two full days of teaching.  We had a three hour session in the morning and another long session in the afternoon. 

I loved the intensity of it, but it was exhausting. 

In 2021 I modified the format and spread the clinics out over two weekends.  In between people could send in video for analysis. 

 

I learned a lot from each of the virtual clinics I gave. That's how training works - test, assess, revise.  The result: this year I will be offering a very different clinic experience.  There will be eight clinics in all.  They will combine self-paced learning with video coaching sessions. 

 

Learn more about the clinics

 



Course Topics

 

I recommend going through the clinics in order.  Each clinic builds on the concepts, lessons, and handling skills that are covered in the previous clinics.  You will notice that the clinics don't have titles such as "Teaching your horse to load".  That's because these clinics teach the underlying skills that will let you set a goal such as trailering and design and carry out a successful teaching plan for your "study of one" horse.

Course #1: Getting Started with the Clicker

This is just what the title suggests.  If you are new to clicker training, if you have a new horse, if you are teaching beginners, or you just want to refresh your understanding of the basics, this is a clinic for you.  

We'll start with the basics - beginning with what is clicker training?  Why do we use a marker signal and treats?  We'll look at the beginning steps that will get you off to a great start.  We'll look at details in the handling that will make a huge difference to your horse. 

We'll explore this through video that I have prepared in advance, and we'll also look at your video.  This is the time to build good habits.  Video analysis can help.


This event is very much tailored to those who are new to clicker training, but you don't have to be a beginner to enjoy it.  Very often a review of basics helps move a horse forward in the training.
 

We will look at:
  * what it means to be a constructional trainer
  * the use of protective contact
  * detailed instructions for introducing the six foundation lessons
  * empowering the trainer - choosing your teaching strategy
  * core handling skills

You can be a total beginner or an experienced clicker trainer.  The emphasis will be on the foundation lessons, and there is always more to be learned every time we put the spotlight on the beginning steps.



Course #2: Extinction: Friend or Foe?
Clicker trainers know we want to avoid the intentional use of punishment.  We work hard to find alternatives to force-based solutions.  But we may not be as mindful about avoiding extinction with all of its associated emotional fallout.  This is where a constructional approach to training really helps.  In this presentation we'll look at the "good and bad apples" in the "extinction barrel". 


In this course we’ll be looking at macro and micro extinction.  Macro extinction is the “bad apple”.   It creates frustration, anger, aggression, apathy, learned helplessness.  We have all had experiences where something that previously worked for us, now no longer does.  Your wonderfully reliable car won’t start.  Your computer freezes up.  You can’t get your drink out of the vending machine.  We can relate to the unpleasant emotions that accompany the extinction process.  So we know this is something that we want to avoid in our training.

On the other hand micro extinction is part of good training.  It is part of loopy training.  Loopy training is the central, organizing teaching strategy.  We’ll look at what it means to be a constructional trainer, how to use movement cycles, and how to build increasingly complex behavior out of them.  

It doesn’t matter the specific goal behavior you are trying to get to, it doesn’t even matter what species you are working with, these are keys-to-the-kingdom concepts.  

You will be learning how to use an understanding of movement cycles to find a starting point for your training.  

You’ll use the loopy training teaching strategy to structure your lessons.  That includes understanding the role that cues play to link behaviors together and the use of base behaviors and such teaching strategies as priming the pump. The goal is to minimize extinction and maximize fun.


 

Course # 3: What Do You See? 

Good training depends not just on seeing small changes in behavior but knowing what it means and what to do with it.  

We'll be looking at small details that make a huge difference.  The goal is to help you sharpen your observation skills.

In this course we’ll look at what it means to be in good balance.  We’ll use example/non-example.  What do we see?  What do we want to see?  

To help answer that question the course will include Awareness Explorations.  One of the best ways to learn about movement is to observe your own. 

The questions are simple: where does a particular movement begin?  Where does it get stuck?  What else is connected to the action you have initiated?  Learning how to observe - without judgement - your own balance gives you a tool for understanding movement in someone else. That someone can be a human, a horse, a dog.  (It can be other species, as well, but those are the ones people are typically working with.)

Learning to see small changes in balance means you can become more consistent in what you are reinforcing.  You’ll see the change before the change before the change you want to mark. As the clarity of your criteria improves, you’ll shift away from macro-extinction timing mistakes and move instead into the elegance of micro training.
 
There's more to seeing small changes.  It's also do you understand why they matter?  Through the presentations and awareness explorations, the course will explore the small details that add up to great things.

 

Our horses show us that details matter, and that’s what we’ll be looking at in this course - the details that make a difference.

Course #4: Constructional Rope Handling


Yes, we are going to have a virtual rope handling course, and why not!  It’s amazing what you can do through a zoom screen.


We'll be looking at what it means to shape on a point of contact.  As constructional trainers, how do we develop good rope handling skills?  How do we teach tactile cues and use leads and reins so they are a positive reinforcement communication tool?  Using the concept of reversibility, you'll learn how to teach yourself and your horse new skills. 


This course will include a series of awareness explorations that will help you learn great rope handling skills.  You won't just be watching.  You'll be doing!


Training involves many physical skills, including the use of leads.  We put halters and leads on our horses which means we are using tactile cues.  The question in clicker training has never been are we using pressure and release of pressure, but how has that communication system been taught?  If your horse doesn’t respond to your request, do you make the signal louder and louder until finally he moves in the direction you want?

Escalating pressure creates unwanted side effects - tension, fear, and avoidance.  It’s the bad apple in the barrel.

Shaping on a point of contact is different.  Here we apply the concepts and skills that were introduced in the previous clinics.  We break training down into smaller components.  Simpler units are easier to teach. We use the loopy training teaching structure and follow the loopy training mantra.  

You are looking for small changes so you can be quiet and patient.  Details matter.  Good observational skills matter.  You’ll be learning how to slide to a point of contact and wait for our learner to move his own body.  There is no escalating pressure, no “shouting it louder”, no "making it happen", no insisting, no “do it or else”.

Instead shaping on a point of contact presents a puzzle that is right for your learner.  The puzzles you set include many clues.  These clues come from your own body language, which means there’s a lot more to rope handling than just a lead rope.

You’ll be learning key skills that will connect you to liberty work, in-hand work and riding.

This course includes a mix of presentations, awareness explorations, rope handling practice, and video analysis.



Course #5: Managing Energy and Emotions: The Goldilocks Principle in Action - Getting to Just Right

The Goldilocks principle:  We all know the story.  First the bear’s porridge was too hot, the next bowl was too cold, but the third one was just right.

Working with horses can seem a lot like that.  At times your horse has way too much energy.  Pick your image.  Maybe you feel as though you’re about to be bowled over by a runaway freight train.  Or perhaps he feels like a coiled spring that’s about to explode.  

Neither image is any fun to be around - never mind how dangerous this can be.  

At the other extreme your horse feels as though his feet are stuck in cement.  You ask him to move and there’s nothing.  No response.  He’s either stiff like a stone statue, or he’s absent.  When you look in his eyes, there’s “no one at home”.  Too much energy can feel unsafe.  Too little just feels incredibly frustrating.  

And what is woven tight around each of these images are the emotions that go with them.  

The good news is emotions are not fixed and forever.  Your horse is not a “fearful horse”.  He is fearful under certain conditions.

Your horse is not aggressive.  He shows aggressive behavior under certain conditions.

Your horse is not lazy.  There are reasons for his frozen stance.

Change the conditions - change the emotions.

Find the right contingencies, and you can find your way to just right. If you ask him to move on, he responds promptly.  If you ask him to stop, he does so easily.  

Energy is available.  He can increase his leg speed.  He can become more collected.  Adding energy doesn’t tip him over the edge where he can’t listen and respond to your cues.  Adding energy doesn’t make him tense.  And when you ask him to stop, he is able to do so without feeling like a coiled spring.  Under saddle his back doesn’t feel as though you are sitting on a stiff board.  He remains soft, able to listen, able to move easily into changes of speed, direction and degrees of collection.  

Or to put it more simply:

He physically can do what you are asking.

He understands what you are asking.

And he wants to do what you are asking.


These three elements give us directions to explore when the energy and the emotions are not quite right and we want to figure out why. They give us the big subject headings that need to be teased apart: Can he do what you’re asking? Does he understand what you’re asking?  Is the environment a plus or a minus?


Training is rarely black and white simple.  Physical issues often sit at the root of behavior problems, but they can be hard to spot.  

Handling skills are a work in progress - always no matter how good we get.  

If you encounter a horse with challenging behavior issues, he can make you feel as though you have never handled a horse before in your life.  Add to that his training history may have produced many poisoned cues.  The bottom line - you have a complex mess to unravel.

Your horse may be at one end or the other of the Goldilocks dilemma.  Far from being just right, he is too fast, too anxious, too much like a freight train.  You can’t manage his energy.  He never slows down, and it always feels as though he is trying to get away from you.  

That’s one end of the spectrum.  At the other is the horse who is stuck in cement, shut down, bored, unwilling, uninterested.  He “blows you off” in the training.  Always there’s a manure pile that needs to be sniffed, or an itch that has to be scratched, or space that needs to be stared off into.

How do you sort through all of this to get to “just right”?

We’re going to borrow a procedure from the field of applied behavior analysis.  We’re going to use single subject design and A/B reversals to tease apart the different elements that are controlling the responses you see.  

Your horse will become his own control.  In this course you’ll be learning how this works.  It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you are struggling with, or what the behavior is that you are wanting to teach, once you understand how this process works, you can systematically build towards the energy, the emotions, the behavior you want.

You will learn how to establish a baseline, make a change, test it, evaluate it, review it, make another small change.

People often struggle to do this systematically. They don’t really know how to build component behaviors. They change too many things at once.  The result is they end up not knowing why their training broke down at the point that it did.  

Much of the video material I'll be presenting in this course comes from Dr. Michaela Hempen.  Michaela has been applying the concepts of single-subject design and stimulus control to her research project on cribbing.  The subject of that study has also contributed greatly to our understanding of how to work with horses that are coming to us with behavior problems resulting from previous learning experiences.
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Course #6: Connecting the Dots: What Have Hugs Got To Do With Lateral Work and Riding?

That’s the question this course will be answering.  In my world of balance a hug is so much more than an expression of affection or greeting.  A hug becomes a doorway into balance.  A hug opens up an understanding of “gives” and shaping on a point of contact.  A hug leads to movement, and on to lateral work - which means ultimately a hug leads on to riding.  But a hug is so much more that just a tool that teaches your horse how to respond softly to a lead or a rein.  A hug connects you deeply into your horse’s heart.  A hug leads straight to a magical relationship.

In this course we’ll be connecting many of the dots of the previous clinics.  You’ll learn how to use body part targeting to ask your horse questions that lead to beautiful balance. We’ll be looking at lateral work: what it is, why it is important in developing both physical and emotional balance, how do you teach and manage lateral flexions?

The course will use presentations and awareness explorations plus video analysis toi help you understand the connections.  

This is very much an advanced course.  I recommend that you attend the previous courses before enrolling in this course.



Course #7: The T’ai Chi Walk: Understanding and Teaching Lateral Work 

This advanced course is a skill builder for handlers. In previous courses I will have introduced the awareness explorations and the tai chi walk.  These are not lessons that are perfected after one exposure.  In this course we will look in more depth at the t’ai chi walk and it’s connection to lateral work.


We will be looking at lateral flexions: what they are and why you want them.

In the awareness explorations we'll be using reversibility.  This is a powerful teaching strategy that lets you build wonderfully flexible, resilient and finessed skills - for yourself and for your horse.  You’ll experience the power of this approach through the awareness explorations.

 

We'll be learning about two patterns that open the door to advanced performance: three-flip-three and hip-shoulder-shoulder.  You won't just be watching video.  You'll be gaining a deep understanding of these patterns through the awareness explorations. 

This is an advanced course. You will need to attend the previous courses before enrolling in this one.

 


Course #8: Riding from the Ground Up

 

I know what many of you are going to want to do.  You see that this clinic is going to focus on riding.  Riding is what you want to do with your horse.  Of course it is.  So the temptation will be to skip all the previous clinics and jump straight into this one.

 

I want to get you to riding.  I want you to be safe.  I want riding to be fun.  I want it to help your horse to be beautifully balanced. I want him to be able not only to do what you are asking, but to stay sound for years to come.  So this clinic is about more than just riding.  It is about riding well on beautifully balanced, beautifully trained horses.  Which means it relies on all the connect-the-dot details that are covered in the previous clinics. 

 

So be patient.  Trust the process. And use these clinics as they have been designed.  These are not separate subjects.  They are an interconnected whole.  That safe, fun, beautifully trained horse that I want you to ride is one you will be training yourself.  That's the most exciting part of this work.  You don't have to spend a fortune to buy a finished horse.   You can have the fun and the enormous feeling of success training your own beautiful horse. 

 

Let's do it together.  Step by step through these clinics, I will help you get to the rides you dream of on the horse you love.

Each of the courses is $250.  That gives you a 1 year membership in the course.  Plus, once you are enrolled in a course, you may register for the Live Virtual Coaching Sessions.

Get Started Now:  Register for Course #1

 


The individual courses are part of a larger teaching program.  I encourage people to go through them in order.  You will begin by registering for Course #1.  After you have completed each course, you will be able to register for the next course in the series. The courses are all self-paced so you can move through on your training schedule.

To read the full course syllabus for each course click here.

If you have questions about the courses email me at: kurlanda@veriszon.net