Foundation Lessons - Advanced Performance: Connecting the Dots

Alexandra Kurland

For those of us who have become addicted to the look and feel of a beautifully balanced, light-as-air horse, piaffe is the “holy grail" we seek.  For those who aren’t familiar with this term, in piaffe the horse appears to trot in place.  It is seen by some as a test of a horse’s training, an advanced move performed in upper-levels of dressage competitions.  For others it is a very powerful, very beautiful, and very useful gymnastic that is taught to the horse to improve his overall balance and to help maintain long-term soundness.  


If we asked one of the attendees at the conference, someone who is new to horses, to teach one of the resident horses to piaffe, she’d no doubt make a muddle of it.  Even if we showed her video examples of a well-trained horse performing a correct piaffe, she would still struggle, especially if she tried to tackle the behavior directly.  But if we wound the training back and looked at the core elements that go into the development of this very advanced behavior, she’d be able to make a good start.  And everyone watching would be able to understand what she was doing.

Piaffe shown by Asfaloth and Michaela
Piaffe shown by Asfaloth and Michaela

That’s the strength of the foundation lessons.  They give us the launching pad for developing advanced performance.  That’s one way of viewing them.  Another is these behaviors only appear to be simple because we have thin sliced the training to the point where we can begin with clean training loops.  The complexity lies in the skill of finding those clean loops and developing them so these core behaviors can expand to give us advanced performance.  Throughout the week we’ll be exploring what all of this means. [Not sure what is meant by clean loops? Visit Mary Hunter's blog article where she explains loops and loopy training. click here


The resident horses will show us both the core starting loops and the more advanced gymnastics.  We’ll explore the connection between the two.  When you teach a horse basic targeting, yes, you are teaching him to orient to an object.  But you are also putting both the horse and the handler on the first rungs of the ladder that connect them up to advanced performance.  


Throughout the week we’ll be connecting the dots between the basic, introductory lessons and advanced performance.  We’ll be exploring the back and forth connection between the micro splitting of behaviors into component parts so we can develop those first clean loops, and the macro assembling of these components into the larger units we call performance training.


Foundation lessons are only beginning lessons the first time you encounter them.  After that, they morph quickly into advanced training.  Every time you revisit these core lessons, you bring more experience with you.  Throughout the week we'll be exploring how the concepts we discuss in the morning can be applied to the real world training.  We’ll do this through the foundation lessons.  We'll be using simple behaviors to help us understand some very complex concepts.  For example, on Day 2, after Mary leads us through a discussion of errorless learning, we’ll explore together how we can apply these concepts to the afternoon training sessions. 


Everything truly connects to everything else.  Each day we’ll be looking at the connection between core behaviors and advanced training.  And we'll be asking how the concepts that emerge from the field of behavior analysis can be used in a practical way to make the afternoon training sessions better.  By better we mean for all the individuals involved: the horse, the handler, the coach, and the observers.  


The focus isn’t just on the horses.  Yes, we want to develop our training skills, but animals generally come with people attached.  We also want to look at teaching skills.  How can we set up a lesson so everyone involved has a positive outcome - both in terms of learning goals met and the enjoyment of the process.


We’ll be drawing throughout the week on our many shared experiences beginning with the early morning body awareness sessions (always assuming everyone doesn’t stay up so late around the campfire that we need to sleep in a little!), the morning lectures and discussions, the PORTL games, the Feldenkrais sessions, and the horse sessions.  The horse sessions will always include group exercises centered around skill building so everyone will be participating directly in this part of the training.



If you want to learn more about Alexandra's foundation lessons, listen to the Equiosity podcast #4 or read the interview with Alexandra on Karen Pryor Clicker training.