I adapted this article from a post I wrote to Alexandra Kurland’s webgroup, the Click That Teaches, in response to a request from Jo Hughes, a British clicker trainer and classical equitation instructor, to share the experience other clicker trainers had of taking their horses' stationary “pose” into motion. The “pose” is a nickname for the head carriage characteristic of a horse in collection. It was “invented” as a clicker exercise by Alexandra Kurland’s horse Robin, and her students adopt it as part of the process of teaching self-carriage.

 

Hi Jo,

I join Hertha James in thanking you for an excellent question! I thought about my experience with three horses that took the pose into motion, and I am pretty excited to share what came together for me, thanks to your post.

From thinking about these three horses, I am seeing that pose in motion is not about the pose but about the biomechanics of the whole horse. That's why it may take so long. In a way, it is a sum total of all other training that the horse has integrated.

So, three "case studies".

Arrow posingArrow, my Tennessee Walker. I taught him the pose through the "leave it" exercise*. He started offering it a lot, everywhere. I wanted to see him take it into his walk. On our walks to the barn, I usually clicked him for other things, and I noticed that after receiving his treat, he immediately started posing. But he quit as soon as we walked off. After trying several ways of helping him keep the pose as he walked off, I found one thing that worked. I fed on the go. I have been criticized for this, and I agree with the criticism. When we click, we stop. But in that, and only that particular case, I clicked for something else (I can't remember what it was, except that it was not related to the pose), fed the treat without either of us stopping, and what happened next was that Arrow was so used to posing while he chewed his treat, that he offered the pose while he was walking. Once we captured that, feeding on the go was no longer needed.


Arrow's natural walk Arrow walking in self-carriage

Arrow walking "naturally" and with the pose on the same ride in 2006.


Arrow's pose came with elevation from the very start, so when he added it to his walk, it transformed it from a long-legged sloppy shuffle into a deliberate and gorgeous gait that looked like it belonged in a Renaissance parade. He also added the pose to WWYLM**, and that's where I started seeing the lifting of his back.

Then on to a trot. Adding the pose to it was relatively easy, and paradoxically, it was probably easier for him as a former non-trotter who I had taught to trot. For a pacer to be able to trot, he has to relax his back and engage his belly muscles. So Arrow was already familiar with the feeling of engaging his belly from the process of learning how to trot. When he added the pose, not only was it beautiful, but it must have felt really good to him. It took him a while to be able to trot under saddle, and eventually he developed a cue for me that he was ready to trot. That cue was engagement. When I felt his back lift under me at a walk and his neck arched as he picked himself up, I knew that he was prepared for a trot transition.


walk with pose trot with pose

Above: Walk and trot with the pose in 2007. Below: Arrow posing in the pasture in 2008 (left). Riding in Alexandra Kurland's clinic in 2008 (right).

Arrow posing riding Arrow


So with Arrow, even though I did not spend much time in microshaping***, and almost none in microshaping belly lifts, engaging his core muscles was familiar to him through other work we did, and he brilliantly pieced it all together to create a movement that was more biomechanically sound than his "natural" way of moving. It is especially gratifying to me in his case, because I heard it from more than one vet that he may have some neurological dysfunction.

Drake posingCase two, Drake, a Holsteiner gelding who belongs to my client Violet Dawe. I taught Drake to pose with free-shaping. It remained a stationary exercise for a long time, while we worked a lot on WWYLM. Then, just for fun on the side, I taught him Spanish walk. He loved it, and added the pose to that automatically. I seem to remember it evolved out of the teaching process, as I usually asked him for a lift of a front leg when he was already posing. His pose had so much elevation that it was only natural for a leg to come up. We played with Spanish walk on the ground and under saddle. He LOVED it. The only problem was, he would get so puffed up that he would stiffen and lock his jaw. He looked great, his back would come up, but if I asked him to give his jaw, he regarded that as an annoyance. He was having fun, and I was just a killjoy. This was not what I was looking for. We discontinued Spanish walk and kept working on WWYLM. The pose in motion started emerging from engagement of his inside hind while he maintained the bend. Eventually, he felt strong end flexible enough that he offered a beautiful collected trot in hand. Soon after, I stopped working with him to start with three other horses. We are starting to work again after a long break. He is rather out of shape, but it is an opportunity to do things a little differently this time. I am focusing on WWYLM for flexibility, lightness, and engagement, and we are starting to take baby steps with microshaping towards belly lifts. Another thing we do that I like a lot is asking him for a pose with rein/rope, and as he is posing, ask for a step back. Click when his back lifts. This exercise emerged from a collaborative work with a massage therapist Louis Wild, but that is a topic for a whole separate article. Louis explained that this exercise stretches the lower back (where Drake had a little restriction), when the pelvis flexes and the belly engages. Of course, that is where we are headed with Pilates, but there are so many ways to get to a goal, it is good to work on many fronts.


pose in WWYLM pose with rider

Above: Drake is just starting to add the pose to WWYLM. It is also becoming available on request when I am on his back. Since I wrote this post, he has developed an ability to take the pose farther down his spine, lifting the withers and shifting his weight back. Below: riding Drake, in 2007 (left) and today (right). The emerging change in his carriage is the result of beginning to integrate the pose into riding.

riding Drake


Case three, Fox, Violet Dawe's Oldenburg gelding I have worked with for about three years. I have not even thought about the pose until a couple of months ago. Seeing how excited Drake became once he assumed the proud war horse carriage, I did not want to go there with the brilliant and exuberant Fox until he was a master of his emotions and had a deep understanding of our work. Eventually, elevation and vertical flexion emerged out of WWYLM. But we still didn't have a stationary pose. So, with Fox, things were in reverse in this regard.

 

We started working on microshaping after we had all the basics covered and kept chipping away at it. From weight shifts, to belly lifts, to the lifting of his whole back (Wow! He looked like he would levitate right off the ground), to pelvic tucks (a real biggie, since his pelvis had been stuck in hyperextension for a long time). One day, when we were working on his Pilates, I realized that the only thing we were missing to complete the kinetic chain was the release at the poll. While he focused so hard on the rest of his body, his head often came up, blocking the flow of energy through his spine. So we had a need for the pose. I experimented with several ways: free-shaping, cueing with the lead rope, and targeting. We had just started, and I was trying to decide which one was better. I knew who to ask: our massage therapist, Louis Wild, would understand what we were aiming towards and had a keen eye for detail. He watched me work with Fox asking for a pose in three different ways and voted for free-shaping. He said that with other ways, he tends to flex at the third neck vertebra, but with free-shaping it is easier to capture the exact moment he flexes at the poll. He suggested to look at the muscles where the head joins the neck and click when that area lengthens, rather than looking at the angle of the jaw. He explained that when you look at the closing angle of the jaw, you might click for compression, but what we need is relaxation of the poll, hence looking at those muscles lengthen. Since I wasn't sure I got it all right, I asked him to click Fox, and I would feed. He was a good sport and did just that, and that answered all my questions. That was a bit of a side story, but a cool one. I love it when an expert in another field is open to clicking, I learn so much...


Fox's natural stance Fox posing

Above: Fox's normal stance (left) and the stance that incorporates the pose, a belly lift, a pelvic tuck, and hind legs farther under his body. Below: a casual walk at liberty (left) and self-carriage offered to a rider (right).

Fox's natural walk riding Fox


We only did a little work free-shaping the pose the way Louis suggested, and then Fox connected the dots. He added the pose to his Pilates workout, and now his body was completely engaged. His pose can use more work, but what I am completely satisfied (and thrilled) with is that he uses it just as intended: to connect the kinetic chain going through his spine into a circle of power. Since adding the pose, he has been able to close his stance, and it is a matter of time, practice, and conditioning until he can load his hindquarters more and lighten his front.

So with Fox, I see that we had built the pose by putting other component parts of self-carriage together. 

Another horse that had just "invented" the pose in motion only a few days ago is BB, Violet's Oldenburg mare. We had been working on WWYLM and HSS, and all of a sudden I feel her step into an elevation at the withers and a vertical flexion. It has only been three sessions, and she is doing it with more and more consistency when we circle counterclockwise. We had never worked on stationary pose.


BB BB in WWYLM

Above: BB on the mat in her normal stance, and BB finding her new balance as we work on WWYLM. Below: the recent change in BB's carriage.

BB's natural walk BB in balanced walk


Happy clicking!

Tanya


*This exercise uses negative punishment by offering a treat without a click and withholding it if the horse reaches for it. The treat is withheld for about five seconds and then offered again. The horse gets a click and a treat for a slightest hesitation to take a gratuitous offering. This hesitation can be shaped into the “pose”.

**An abbreviation for Why Would You Leave Me, an exercise that Alexandra Kurland developed for teaching good leading skills and introducing lateral work.

***Microshaping is free-shaping of minute changes in engagement of individual muscles. It allows the horse to learn the elements of self-carriage and to be able to engage individual muscle groups at will. Clicker trainers also refer to microshaping as “equine Pilates”.  

June 15, 2011

 

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