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

A couple of people were watching me ride Bella on Sunday. They were there right from the start of the session and, although I thought that I was riding and clicking in just the same way as always, I couldn’t get any enthusiasm from Bella. She felt flat and as though she was just going through the motions. Everything was passable but I couldn’t get her usual whole hearted, ‘throwing everything at it’, attitude to her work.

I tried lowering my criteria, to up the rate of reinforcement, but I just couldn’t inspire her.

I thought that perhaps she was a bit tired, as she had been rampantly in season for a few days (and still was), but it still felt as though there was something missing; something I wasn’t doing. I ran through a checklist of breath aids, the way I was sitting, etc, and suddenly it occurred to me that I usually give her loads of verbal encouragement, when she is really trying hard (which is 99% of the time) and, because people were watching, I must have felt a bit inhibited and had gone quiet on her.

As soon as I could justify it I gave her the usual ‘good’ and ‘good girl’ and ‘YES’, all in the warmest possible voice, and I immediately felt her begin to blossom underneath me. Even the people watching could see the difference straight away. The difference in her body and attitude felt magical - as though she was coming up and filling out under my seat as I spoke.

It was another lesson learnt for me because, although the scientific explanation is just that we have a very effective bridging signal, the fact was that the clicks and treats alone didn’t mean very much to her without my verbal enthusiasm and praise thrown in.

Until that moment I had not realised how much it meant to her and I feel closer to her than ever now. Bella appears to be very self-contained and independent: she has never been a soft, very affectionate horse like Jack and Grace, so the fact that my voice makes so much difference to her (I am not always very consistent with the words I use but I am with my tone of voice) I find really touching.

More proof to me that clicker training becomes less and less just about the food.

My strategy of always doing less so that the horse does more has totally bitten the dust at the moment as far as Jack is concerned. I hadn’t been getting very far in trying to build some cadence into his trot. Although his walk feels light and lovely now, his trot still feels really flat footed and heavy compared to Bella’s, with none of the ‘springing along’ feeling that she gives me. He is so willing now that I knew that he would put in the effort required if I could just show him what I wanted but I couldn’t work out how to do that. Hoping that it would just start to happen and opportunistically clicking it, as I did with Bella, was starting to seem like a very remote possibility. He had been offering lengthened strides on the lunge but no real bounce.

Then I remembered that when I couldn’t get him to lengthen his stride in walk I taught him to do so by walking alongside him and getting him to mirror me. I am always doing this sort of thing now; leading them on a loose leadrope and getting them to copy me, stopping and starting, going forwards and backwards, taking big steps and then little ones and alternating between the two. Perhaps he would copy me if I developed some cadence in my own trot!

Oh dear!!! It is working! I trot alongside Jack taking huge, bounding strides, springing from one foot to the other, looking like something from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks (or rather Silly Runs) and Jack, bless his little cotton socks, gets his head down and trots thoughtfully alongside me, concentration written all over him, doing a refined, sane person’s version of my deranged, exaggerated trot. We are practicing this several times a day, as I want it to be the only trot in town before I try to get it under saddle, and I really think that it is going to work, but it's killing me!!!!

I obviously had no cadence in my trot at all before, as I am always running about with them, but this bounding along is doing me in! I don’t have a muscle from the waist down that doesn’t ache, and the worst of it is I think that this would be a really good thing to try with Grace as well!!!!

It has certainly made me appreciate just how much effort Bella is putting in, as this degree of cadence is not much more natural for her than it is for me! I had thought that I had built it really slowly with her but it would take me years to get used to running like this!!!!

I am very excited about how well this is working because Jack is already exploring different things that he can do in trot, copying me taking short, slow, high steps and big, slow, long steps. Just his knowing that these are things that he can do and will get clicked for will make it much easier for me to encourage him to try them from the saddle. He is also learning to develop the sort of concentration and focus that helps him to more effectively block out outside stimuli while he is working and getting more like Bella in that respect every day. If I can get his trot as good as hers too, it will be worth every aching muscle and the ever-present danger of someone seeing me and sending the men in white coats round to take me away!!!!

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