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

I did more work on encouraging Jack to over-ride his flight reflex today. He now has all the tools he needs to keep himself calm if he wants to, and I want it to be his decision whether he uses them or not, as I think that's the best way to keep him motivated to do so.

It was very windy, but, even so, the school is no longer the scary place that it used to be, so we needed a new challenge. I took him, on the lunge, into one of the paddocks which backs onto a couple of barns which had allsorts clattering, banging and flapping about inside them, and asked him to walk between me and the barns, close to the fence.

The game was if he could walk past with his head low he got clicked and treated. If he jumped at something but immediately stopped himself and lowered his head, he got clicked and treated. If he walked past with his head high, he got to keep going and try again. If he spooked and didn't try to keep his cool I encouraged him in his idea, with a 'Yeah, Jack, lets burn some calories' and urged him to expend some energy until he made it obvious that he wanted to try calm again.

This is all done with absolutely no hint of punishment or disapproval on my part. I am genuinely enthusiastic about having the opportunty to get him really moving, as he looks so impressive these days I enjoy watching him, and I'd like to get some more weight off him. As long as he doesn't flatten me when he spooks (he's really sweet now and if he does jump my way he immediately jumps back the other way again - he must be worried about squashing the treats!) I don't mind which option he chooses, it's totally down to him, I just help him with his ideas.

Jack has never been one for the pointless use of energy and it's amazing how rock steady he very quickly becomes, as long as I keep my end of the bargain and don't add any negative feelings of my own into the game. He is just taking responsibility for how much he needs to move his feet in a given situation, to make himself feel comfortable, and I help him to obtain maximum benefit from his decisions.

With Bella I took down the electric fence between two paddocks so that we had a clear, straight, flat(ish) stretch of about 100 yards, away from any fenceline, to practise going dead straight in an open space. We started on the buckle in walk and trot, with me only allowed to pick up one rein at a time for steering corrections, dropping it again immediately, and then in walk and trot on a very light contact.

Once Bella understood the game I was amazed how straight she was able to keep herself, especially as the ground was a bit uneven. Our only real wobbles were where we had to go through a 6 foot gap between two wooden fence posts. I'm not sure if that was because I was panicking about my kneecaps, or because she was having a laugh at my expense, but I suspect the latter!

Bella's powers of concentration, even working in a new place, continue to astound me, and her response to my new, super-light leg aids makes me realise that I have been shouting at her with my legs up to now, when all she needs is a whisper. No wonder she often laid her ears back when I used my legs.

I can't believe how crude my riding of them has been up to now, and the really scary thing is that I suspect I'll feel the same way about my riding now, by this time next year. Good job they've never experienced what anyone else rides like or they would probably have sacked me by now!

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