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

Grace is a very fast learner. For the last couple of days I have been doing the same form of Alexandra Kurland’s Why Would You Leave Me exercise that I have been doing with Jack, but for slightly different reasons.

Grace has always been what I heard Mary Wanless refer to at a lecture demo as a ‘tourist’ of a horse. She has always been much more interested in what is going on around her than what her rider or handler is asking of her. Mary Wanless’s advice was to keep giving the horse a swift kick, to regain its attention. Alexandra Kurland’s solution is much nicer, and more effective, in my experience.

I am walking around the school with her asking for repeated lateral and slightly downward (as Grace's natural reflex is always to raise her head a bit too high whenever she is asked to do anything) flexions, by gradually taking a contact on the inside rein and asking her to soften to it, and then clicking and releasing as soon as she does so. Up to now Grace hasn’t really done ‘soft’ in any of her work and Bella and Jack have spoilt me when it comes to soft, so I was struggling to find anything to click yesterday, and had to relax my standards as to what qualified as soft. She also tended to fall in onto her inside shoulder and start to turn, rather than flex, so I had to walk back by her withers and use the rein as a ‘wall, to keep her up off her shoulder. She understands this from the previous Tai Chi Wall work.’

Today Grace's mouth was never empty, right from the very start of the session, the clicks and treats were coming so thick and fast, and we only managed twice around the school in each direction before my pockets were empty. This meant that I had her full attention practically all of the time, which is a huge improvement. She also stayed up off her inside shoulder without being reminded.

This is such a soft, gentle way of re-focussing the horse’s attention; just asking, releasing and rewarding, then asking again, and again, and again. It never seems to take very long before the horse realises that it is much easier to just concentrate, and the treats come faster that way too, but the horse still has the choice if he feels the need to gawp about between asks, so there’s nothing dis-harmonious or provocative about it – it’s all very polite and smooth, encouraging good feelings about staying with the rider/handler, mentally and physically, and it’s then an easy step into the single rein exercises under saddle.

We finished with a little leg yield in-hand. Grace moves sideways much more lightly and easily now, but once in the movement she tends to rush sideways and I need to work on slowing her down, getting her to wait for me and not to just use momentum to help her to pull herself through the movements

I know nothing of dance training or gymnastics but I have become an addict of the Strictly Come Dancing television programme and watching it I have picked up things that are really helping with dressage training. I have learnt that it’s slow movement that is difficult, requiring great balance, strength and muscular control, and that’s the way to get lightness, elegance and graceful movement.

Until recently I hadn’t done any proper in-hand work for ages, because I was enjoying riding too much. Now I am suddenly doing quite a bit again I’ve remembered why I love it so much. It’s so wonderful to be able to actually see improvements taking place, right in front of your eyes. I must try to keep more of a balance between the two in future!

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