Keeping everything in balance

In June, our team of trainers (Caryn, Mirkka, Cara) had the good fortune to be able to join some of our heroes, colleagues, and friends to learn from Alexandra Kurland, possibly the finest horse trainer this world has ever seen.

We traveled out to Sutton, Quebec to the Cavalia Farm where the horses retire from show biz’ and spent three days and four nights learning a great deal from not only horse and dog trainers, but giraffe trainers and other behavioural experts. The question that was constantly floating above our heads every day during this workshop was “How did you arrive at this behaviour, and is it the least intrusive method?” Now doesn’t that say something about the force-free nature of this spectacular woman.

The lectures were loosely structured – quite informal and really more so a discussion among trainers and friends. Input was welcome, questions never discouraged, and oftentimes the discussion between Alexandra and Dr.Susan Friedman was like sitting in on the most intimate private discussion where ideas come alive, where inspiration is born. My hand could not write fast enough to capture everything I wished to, and all I could think was “I need to come back next year to absorb everything I missed. And the year after that.”
The hands-on work was sometimes with horses and sometimes without. As we know in dog training, it’s oftentimes the other end of the leash that needs the most work and where the focus should be before we even include the animal in the process. We paired up for exercises to learn how we physically affect our learner and one of these exercises was a minuet. Partner A would extend a hand, palm to the sky, and Partner B would place their hand, palm down, lightly on top and we would walk together, allowing Partner A to lead while Partner B closed their eyes and followed. It was an awakening of sorts; I learned to listen with my hand, if that makes any sense. It was incredible to affect my partner’s movement, speed, direction without using force – simply by guiding with the lightest touch as her hand lay like a feather atop mine. When I followed, I couldn’t help but imagine how dogs and horses must feel with a lead attached to their collar, harness, or halter. I appreciated the gentleness of my partner and felt sick when I imagined the use of leash corrections in comparison.

“Allow the animal to say “I can’t do this” or “I don’t understand”. Let the animal lead the dance.”

Another demonstration was with a horse lead and two partners; I was quick to volunteer myself to work with Alex. I held the lead in my hands, out in front of my chest as Alex held the very opposite end, about 4-5 feet away from me, facing me. She asked me to close my eyes and grip as tightly as possible, letting her know when I could feel movement in the lead. I closed my eyes and I focused my attention on the lead, waiting to feel movement as I held on with white knuckles. Moments passed and the arena was silent. Finally I felt movement and I opened my eyes to see Alex gripping the lead less than one foot away from my hands. I was shocked! How had I not felt that movement?! I was so focused!

She moved back down the lead and asked me to repeat the exercise but instead to hold the lead comfortably in my hands without gripping so tightly. I closed my eyes and almost immediately I felt movement and opened my eyes. She had barely moved from the other end of the lead. Once again I was shocked. It was again another eye opener for me (excuse the pun) as I have always taught clients the same thing – “tight grip, loose leash”…and here I was learning that a relaxed grip on the leash will allow you to have better communication with the animal. My, how animals must feel all our movements at the other end of the leash! How much information they are deriving from our every movement…and once again the effect of a tight grip or a correction.

As each moment passed, I grew more and more aware of our effect on our animals and how we are always communicating but it may not be what we hope to communicate. The clarity…it was really shaking me up.

Now for the exercise that I initially felt was going to be a little too strange for even me. Tai Chi.

The weekend discussions and demonstrations had left me feeling quite open and vulnerable. We entered the arena and were asked to spread out in a large circle and Alex began to coach us. We focused on our posture, how to plant our feet so that we were perfectly balanced, unable to be knocked over, where to shift our weight (find our “babbling brook”). I almost smirked. Not quite, but almost. Until once again she was right. What a difference can be made if we plant our feet and focus on our weight shifting.  Alex begins coaching us through some movements. Her voice, like butter, the arena silent. The group of us were watching her and mirroring her exact movements.

As we progressed through each movement, we all closed our eyes and feet firmly planted, we swayed and loosened our hips while rolling an imaginary ball in a figure eight motion from side to side. Something clicked. Suddenly I had tears streaming down my face and I felt like my heart had been crushed. I stopped moving and opened my eyes to find that everyone else was still swaying and moving – no one had noticed. I snuck out of the arena to get some air and quite frankly to have a good cry. For some reason, this exercise really affected me and all the guilt I have (I don’t know that it will ever really leave me) from using positive punishment with Parker years ago came bubbling to the surface. I felt as though I had failed him and feared that I never made it up to him even years later. I wondered if, as he took his last breath, he knew how much I loved him and how sorry I will always be.

I pulled myself together after a few minutes and snuck back in with the hope that no one noticed my disappearance or reappearance with red-rimmed eyes. At dinner that evening we were asked what we are taking home from this workshop and again, emotion overcame me and I felt that it was only fair to be honest with this group of amazing people, so I shared my feelings of guilt and appreciation towards Alex for facilitating an experience for us to learn how to truly be force-free with our animals. It was an emotional evening to say the least. Listening to everyone as we went around the table sharing our thoughts – it was amazing to hear how we all had been affected by the learning and how we could apply it in our lives “back home” whether with horses, dogs, crocodiles, or parrots. Perhaps even humans.

One of the most important lessons I learned that I still have yet to process due to its depth, is “for every behaviour you teach, there is an opposite behaviour to teach in order to create balance.” Such a profound concept that is also so applicable with humans too – we really must find a way to create balance, to eliminate frustration in the learner. This is certainly something I will be pondering for weeks and months and years to come.

To end our weekend, we were spoiled rotten with an opportunity to watch the great Alexandra Kurland working with a stunning horse named Zacho who was learning piaffe. We were lucky enough to receive a hug from this sweet boy before packing it in for the weekend and heading home. The perfect ending to the perfect long weekend.

A hug from ZatchoA quote that will forever stick in my mind is where I will leave this today.

“What is art, other than seeing what others cannot see.”

(Dr.Susan Friedman)


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