Clicker Training Three Baroque Dressage Horses

This is the story of my quest to train my three Dales Ponies for classical dressage, primarily by using Alexandra Kurland's clicker training methods, with a touch of others such as Philippe Karl and Anja Beran thrown in. I turned to clicker training because I had come up against some issues that I didn't know how to fix and because I wanted to inspire them to become enthusiatic partners. Bella and Jack are all my own work and have never been ridden by anyone else.

Bella, Grace and Jack

Bella aged 6

Bella aged 6

Treat Delivery

Jack aged 7


Saturday, 21 March 2009

In Memory.

I don't know if I can continue this blog as my life has changed forever in the last week. My ponies still look the same but I no longer recognise myself from those photographs. I am so much older, sadder and wiser now, but I'm also a kinder, stronger, more sociable person too, than I was a few weeks ago.

I have moved mountains in the last fortnight and found that there is not much I can't make happen if I care enough and am motivated enough. Unfortunately the one thing that I wanted the most was impossible to achieve but it was never for want of trying.

I was lucky enough to be able to say, and to hear said, the things that many never have the chance to say before their journey together comes to an end, especially when it's been a long one.

I have been far more lucky for the last twenty eight years than I ever deserved and only realised it when it was nearly too late.

In memory of one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous and friendly people ever born. He had no idea how devastating the loss of his friendship would be to so many.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Paul Belasik - Impulsion, Engagement and Collection.

Paul Belasik is a follower of the Austro-Hungarian School and has little time for Baucher, although he doesn't, as Philippe Karl would say, 'reject him out of hand because it is fashionable to do so, preferably without having studied him!' Paul Belasik has studied all the great masters in great detail.

This means that, when it gets to practical details, some of his 'means' do not really belong on the path which I'm trying to forge for myself, but I'm finding his very clear explanations of what the 'ends' should be, very helpful indeed.

Although he studied with Nuno Oliviera for a while, Paul Belasik says that, in his opinion, although riding on a slack rein is the ultimate aim of training, actually training a horse on a slack or semi-slack rein, and developing true impulsion, engagement and collection, is only possible for great artists like Oliviera. I'm hoping that the added motivation and precision made possible by clicker training can make it possible for this very ordinary rider to train a horse successfully without 'full' rein contact, as that's really the only way I want to ride, but time will tell!!!!!

Paul Belasik, on the 'Campaign School I' audio-tape of the 'An Interview with Paul Belasik' series, begins by defining impulsion, engagement and collection. He says:

"Impulsion is not just the raw force or power of the stride - it's not just the tendon/ligamentous movement of the horse across ground - but that the muscles actively flex and extend joints so that we have a gymnastic striding going on. Impulsion refers to this quality of how the muscles interact with the movement and that one sees the amount of strength in the step itself.

Engagement is the swing under of the hind limbs and how far they go under - the travel of the hind limbs under the body.

Collection is the compression of the hind limb joints in the stride which is engaged. That COMPRESSION, along with the extension of the neck, is what lightens the horse."

The term engagement is not enough to describe all the different phenomena that people try to make it cover - it doesn't cover the specifics and qualities - one must use more words

He says that if a trainer just shouts "engagement, engagement" at a pupil, then pretty soon that pupil is going to ask what EXACTLY it is that the trainer wants.
He says:

"If, when you ride, in your mind engagement is this catch-all word for all the different things that happen when you are introducing collection, then how is the horse going to know what it IS that you want... The horse is going to ask you "what specifically DO you want? Do you want me to sink down more? Do you want me to thrust more? Do you want me to go more forward? Do you want me to go more vertical?" I think that the horse will entertain this same amount of confusion if you, the rider/trainer, don't have it in your mind what it is that you are after.

If YOU think that the term engagement is good enough to answer all the questions.. - it ISN'T good enough! You MUST analyse the movement more carefully and must decide, in each particular horse you are training, what it is that you are after.

You must develop language to describe.... vocal language, for me to describe it to you, or tactile language, for you to describe it to your horse. It's a complex communication that must go on and one word is not going to surfice; saying 'engagement' over and over again, or using your spurs on the horse - it's the same thing - that is NOT going to get you all the nuances of movement you are after as you head towards High School.

Explaining nuances of movement to the horse - sounds like an ideal job for the clicker to me!!!!!!!

Monday, 23 February 2009

Paul Belasik - Contact and Connection.

The third audio tape 'An Interview with Paul Belasik, an Overview of the Classical Principles Behind the Training of a Horse and Rider is entitled 'Calm, Forward Riding'.

Paul Belasik speaks of the need to first insist that the horse respects and yields to pressure from the bit by, as Alexandra Kurland would say, the rider becoming a 'post': resisting any pull from the horse but never actively pulling back. As soon as respect has been established he says the following;

"Contact has to be merely a connection and I would use this analogy - the same as, if you would imagine, the reins were live wire, and when you touch the rein you would instantly make contact - you would make an electrical circuit. Now, if you're on the business end of that that circuitry, no matter how carefully the reins are touched, you're going to get a jolt.

I think one has to approach the reins in that way - that contact is not always something that can be measured in pounds of pressure, but it is really a connection, a completion of a circuitry, from your body, through the reins to the horse's mouth, and if you think of it like that you get the idea of the rein as, I love this phrase, the 'live' rein. You get the feeling that life, or a certain amount of energy, goes through that rein the moment you touch it.

He goes on to say, in answer to questions about riding a horse 'through':

"Every horse has an inherent rhythm and you have to find that rhythm - the inherent rhythm that the horse is comfortable with. Go ahead and take a horse that has such and such a tempo and advance it a few beats faster and watch what happens - the horse gets more and more nervous. Take one and ride it continually under power all the time and the horse gets sluggish, distracted, starts looking around.

Each horse has, within itself, an inherent tempo, or an inherent rhythm within a tempo, and it's up to you to find that heartbeat, that sound, that musicality that will relax the horse and all work HAS to begin with relaxation.....

You're always trying to develop this connection, this bow of energy - the hind leg engaging, putting in a certain amount of power and thrust, coming up through the round, full back - a strong resilient back - and out through an extended neck. If the horse extends its neck in an arch, that physical process...... when the neck is in proper extension, the musculature is drawn out, it's in a relaxed but a strong arch. When the horse is making a cresting gesture it pulls against the spinal processes of the withers and draws the back up. You must make the equation work at the back end. The hind legs ... must come under the horse and when it does that it has an equal draw, lifting the horse, so then you get to that old concept of a ring of muscle - the ring is continuous around the horse - the neck is arching, the back comes up, the hind legs come under and there's this beautiful, rolling, continuous ring - circuitry again coming into play.

If you inhibit the back you WILL NOT GET access to the back legs! When the neck is curved in such a position there is a lift in the back which will allow the back to swing. If you want to get access to the back legs - the power source - and want it to come 'through', it must start with engagement of the hind legs, but you MUST NOT impede it anywhere along that chain. If you shorten the neck you depress the back. If you depress the back you cut off access to the back legs. You must get the horse to come up in the back and meet your seat, so that you have access to the back legs.

He emphasises that all these things - the arched, extended neck, raised withers and back - are not just for aesthetics, just because they look nice, but because they are scientifically and bio mechanically necessary to produce engagement and collection.

I love the way he explains these things and you can hear the passion, conviction and enthusiasm in his voice, as the words spill out at times. All of this made perfect sense to me and also reinforced everything I believe that I have been trying to achieve by following Alexandra Kurland's 'Riding with the Clicker'.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Paul Belasik - The Seat and Hara.

I've managed to get hold of a set of 'An Interview with Paul Belasik - an overview of the classical principles behind the training of horse and rider' audio tapes. I've been listening to them while mucking out and I've been riveted and captivated. I keep having to rewind and press 'pause' while I absorb things.

I'm on the 2nd tape 'The Rider's Seat and Position'. Paul Belasik says that the PRIMARY method of giving and receiving information to and from the horse is through the rider's seat - from the horse's back to the rider's back. He says that is why the novice should be taught on the lunge, without reins or stirrups, because if the rider is taught first to influence the horse with their extremities (hands and from the knee down) they will always revert to these habits.

He says that when you put a two legged on top of a four legged they very quickly discover that they can get away with murder in terms of balance, compared with standing on their own two feet, but "unfortunately, while they're getting away with murder, it's the horse they are murdering, because he's the one who has to compensate for their lack of balance."

He says that in the East the centre of gravity and of balance is referred to as the 'hara', but hara means much more than that. It's not just a physical thing but has a strong mental element too; it is a centering and balancing of the individual, with psychological and spiritual elements.

He says that there is far too much emphasis (generally) on the rider's calf and lower leg, and that really excellent riders can generate impulsion and produce exemplary work from the horse without ever using their lower leg at all. They do so by projecting their centre of gravity forward, towards the pommel of the saddle. He says:

"One of the magical things about seeing the really good riders is that they can generate impulsion from the back, from the seat; they don't GO to the lower leg.

The seat is where the emphasis should be - not in the calf, not in the spur. Learn about generating impulsion by first mastering your centre of gravity, your centre of balance - the hara - and THEN you will be able to make the horse impulsive by projecting it, or restraining it, or holding it steady, and so on. Too much talk of the lower leg is just chatter as opposed to the importance of the upper leg and how it connects with the seat.

There is a quote by Karlfried Graf Durckheim, from his book 'Hara, The Vital Center of Man' read out on the tape:

"One rides with hara. Only with hara does that flexible and yet firm and relaxed posture, which keeps the rider balanced and which gives him that unforced control over his horse, release that action and non action to which the horse willingly submits.

The good rider sits erect but without tension. In form but without rigidity. Rider and horse form a unity - a unity of symbolic significance. The horse adapt itself to the rider because the rider has adapted himself to the horse. They feel each other, as it were, from centre to centre, and whatever the rider demands is achieved; not by his conscious will but by the force of hara, which produces it, as it were, involuntarily"

Monday, 16 February 2009


A friend emailed me this today (thank you, Alison, if you read this) and it could have been written by me - every word of it is true (apart from the car and trailer bit):

Why do I like horses? I think I must be mad.
My mother wasn't horsey - And neither was my dad.

But the madness hit me early - and it hit me like a curse.
And I've never gotten better. In fact I've gotten worse.

My stables are immaculate. My house is like a hovel.
Last year for my birthday - I got a brand new shovel.

I hardly read a paper - but I know who's sold their horse.
And I wouldn't watch the news - Unless Mr. Ed was on - of course.

One eye's always on the heavens - but my washing waves in vain
As I rush to get the horses in - in case it's gonna rain.

And though they're wearing 15 rugs, the best that you can get,
I bring them in to keep them dry - while I get soaking wet.

I spend up every cent I've got - on horsey stuff for sure
I buy saddles, bridles, fancy rugs - and then I buy some more.

I should have had my hair cut - or bought that nice blue shirt
At least it wouldn't now look ripped to shreds and in the dirt

I can't make a bloody sponge cake - I don't even try
But I can back a car and trailer - in the twinkling of an eye.

It's jeans and R.M. boots that I live in night and day
And that smell of sweaty horses just doesn't wash away.

I ache from long forgotten falls. My knees have got no skin.
My toes have gone a funny shape - from being squashed again.

But late at night, when all is still - and I've gone to give them hay,
I touch their velvet softness and my worries float away.

They give a gentle nicker and they nuzzle through my hair
And I know it's where my heart is - more here than anywhere.

- Author Unknown

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Is Clicker Training Unique?

I think it's quite hard for someone who hasn't met a clicker trained horse to believe the effect it has on the horse.

I think you need to see an experienced clicker horse to appreciate just how different an experience it is, from the horse's point of view. Their eyes SHINE with pride and enthusiasm. They become addicted to it - they just can't get enough of it. They'd much rather play with you than with their equine friends and the most difficult part of it is to find a way to end sessions without the horse viewing you ending work as a punishment, because they want to go on forever. If they ever did want to stop then I'd know there was something wrong and I'd have the thermometer out and the vet on stand by!

If I'm going to use my horse's body for athletic effort then I want it to be with his full consent, and for him to enjoy it as much as I do. I find with Clicker Training that the horse actually enjoys it at least as much as I do, and often more than me, because I'm always ready to stop before they are!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Horse Of Course.

I found this blog today and I love it! She's not actually clicker training as such but her principals and ethics all ring bells in my head.

I especially love her latest post, 'What's In It For Me', and the last paragraph of her 'Back to Basics' post I found really moving.

I'm spending too much time on this computer! That's what not being able to lie down for fear of drowning does for you! If OH ever goes near another coughing supermarket checkout assistant I'll kill him!!!!!

Horse of Course has very kindly agreed to let me copy a few sentances from her blog. I LOVE reading her last paragraph of her 'Back to Basics' post. Fame is the name of her horse:

"I try not to get disappointed those days when thing doesn’t work out as I had hoped, and after many years of riding it’s not that difficult.
I know that steady work brings us on in the long run, and that there will good days and bad days.
But the good days, aaah - they make me fly.
I keep them as secret treasures in my mind, experiencing the feeling over and over. They give me joy for several days.
And it’s not just the dressage work in itself, or mastering the exercises, it’s the fellowship with Fame.

She’s my buddy. We do things together. And I believe she understands a LOT.
I just have to let all the stress go, and tune in, marvellous!
You rock, Fame.

and from her 'What's in it for Me' post (I only asked about the former so I hope she won't mind but I love this bit too):

"To our training I fill my pockets.
I praise Fame when she does right (that's my “clicker") and a carrot appears. Often a short break to stretch the neck on long reins.
And my horse turns to into the Dressage Queen.
She gets very eager, and tries to do all the tricks by her own, and often before Mum has asked for them.
Sometimes we dance, and sometimes she gets too eager and forgets to listen.
But if it’s not perfect, it doesn’t matter. We will try again the next day.
And we have fun.
She’s always coming to me when I am to fetch her.
She’s leaving the hay in her box when I come with the bridle, and puts the bit into the mouth by herself.
Gives a soft neigh to greet me when she hears my voice in the stable.
I don’t care what the end result will be.
Riding is so much about the road, and not the goal
In the meantime we are enjoying ourselves, both of us.

I could read these words forever and never tire of them. Horse of Course you write poetry and you speak straight to my heart.

Friday, 30 January 2009

My Little Helper.

Hope to start riding again in a couple of days but in the meantime I thought I'd cheer myself up by posting these pics of Megs, my little helper. She's just a year old and we thought we were buying a black and tan Jack Russell. Her mum is the most typey JR imaginable and we keep saying we should take her back and demand a refund!

Megs is tiny but thinks she's huge and spends most of her time telling the horses off. Amazingly they are all, even Bella, really tolerant of her. She's a gorgeous little dog; really faithful and always so happy and enthusiastic. I spend most of my time looking down on this view:

I also cheered myself up by buying another Iberian bridle. It's much more plain than Grace's and I want to replace the very thin noseband and browband, but it was going too cheaply to resist (and the buckles and reins are lovely). I do find that with these driving or in-hand type bridles (the English equivalent) the noseband, as it runs through the cheekpieces,does help to support and stabilise the bit in the horse's mouth. I always used to ride my PBA mare in an in-hand bridle for that very reason. I didn't know about Iberian bridles then. I'll take some photos of it when I've customised it!


About Me

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I am a clicker training addict and there is no cure - thank goodness!!!