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


Monday, 10 November 2008

Bella and the bit.

Bella loved having a bit in her mouth. I only had to hold her bridle up and she did the rest, she couldn’t get it in fast enough. She immediately drew her tongue up into the back of her mouth and started fiddling. She did (and still does) this occasionally without a bit in her mouth but she did it all the time with one. She never put her tongue over the bit but she never dropped it under it either. It made any fine control and subtle conversation impossible and gave me a dead, wooden feeling that I hated. She often tilted her head on one side as well, which made good balance impossible too.

This is how she looked all of the time (or worse) pre-clicker:

This is how she looks nearly all of the time now:

Nothing I had tried had made the slightest difference. It was her favourite pastime and she wasn’t going to give it up in a hurry. Strangely it also made her very safe to ride. She was so ‘busy’ all the time she barely noticed what was going on around her, and certainly didn’t have time to worry about it. I didn’t realise it then but her immense powers of single-minded concentration are now a huge advantage, now that she uses them to concentrate on earning clicks and treats.

I was by now reasonably sure that I could clicker train her out of it but I thought it would take a long time before she realised what I was actually clicking her for, because I knew that if I was her it would have taken me a long time to work it out. Luckily she is much smarter than me, and although building duration took some time, getting the behaviour and putting it on cue took no time at all.

Clicker training is all about ignoring what you don’t want and focusing on what you want, so that you get more of it, so what exactly did I want? I needed get her to drop her tongue under the bit and relax her jaw.

I put her bridle on in her stable, left the reins hanging loose over her withers, stood by her shoulder watching her mouth and waited. She fiddled about as usual. I waited. After a fairly short time it seemed to occur to her that this was odd. I never put her bridle on in the stable, and why was I just standing thee doing nothing, She looked at me and for a second her mouth was still. I clicked and treated. Just 5 clicks later she was standing with her mouth relaxed. I picked up the reins and took a very light contact and she immediately started fiddling again. I looked at her mouth and waited. About a minute later her mouth relaxed and I dropped the reins as though they were burning my fingers, clicked and treated. After another 5 clicks she was ready for the cue (you only put the behaviour on cue when you know it is going to happen). I picked up the reins and, as her jaw moved slightly I said ‘quiet’, her mouth relaxed, I dropped the reins, clicked and treated. We were away!

I took her into the school and began again. Standing still it was easy, but moving she sometimes didn’t listen to ‘quiet’ so I added a tactile cue as a secondary cue to use only if the spoken cue was ignored. I lifted the inside rein and vibrated the bit gently in the corner of her mouth, dropped it the instant she responded, clicked and treated.

The next day I tried it from the saddle. I was blown away by the difference it made. The feel I got down the reins went from dead to electric in the time it took to say ‘quiet’. She also threw in a TMJ release each time for good measure. All I had been looking for was a quiet mouth and I got so much more. I was addicted to the feel she gave me, and even though she got very subtle about trying to get away with a miniscule fiddle I could always tell, because the feel went dead. She has taught me the importance of a quiet mouth and a relaxed jaw and demonstrated the difference between the two repeatedly. I could never settle for anything less again and if I came across another horse with an overactive mouth I would always sort that out first, before I even considered working on anything else.

Giving her the treat obviously gets her tongue and jaw moving again and that tends to start her off fiddling again, but I don’t see that as a bad thing because we get to practice our cue each time. I no longer treat her very often just for responding to the cue, but she knows that if her mouth isn’t relaxed she won’t get treated for anything else either, so she keeps it quiet nearly all of the time between treats and she is every bit as busy concentrating on her work as she used to be concentrating on her hobby. She is fast becoming the dressage pony of my dreams, and less than 2 months ago I had never been able to do any productive ridden schooling with her. I don’t believe we could ever have got to where we are now, if we’d both lived to be 100, if it wasn’t for clicker training.

We are already getting moments like this to click and build on:

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