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 had two real breakthroughs today. Although all three of my horses are now managing to produce good canter transitions I have not been at all happy with the way I am riding them and I couldn’t work out why. I kept thinking of that photo where I had to crop myself out and wondering why I looked so stiff and awkward compared to the walk and trot photos.

The answer suddenly came to me. I have spent a lot of time doing the single rein riding exercises in walk and trot, but none in canter, so I am still asking for the canter depart in a ‘macro’ way – moving my inside leg onto the girth and my outside leg behind the girth, sitting towards the outside hind, then asking for canter – in effect treating my horses and my own body as if they are a bit simple and have to be pushed and shoved into position. Although I have only been using breath aids to initiate the canter, I have still been consciously arranging my legs into the right position.

Today I tried it the ‘micro’ way – not consciously doing anything, just thinking “outside hind and breathe into canter”. I could feel my core getting into the right place without me ‘making’ anything move and not only did I feel as though I was leading them effortlessly into the canter but they were suddenly much better at maintaining the canter. Funny that!!!

The other breakthrough was with Grace’s downward transitions. She has always come above the bit and hollowed in upward and downward transitions and although her upward transitions have improved hugely, her downward transitions have been more of a problem, especially into halt. This is partly because she has a longish back with muscle atrophy under the saddle, and because she has never been very keen on stopping and standing, and partly a habitual response to all slowing aids.

We have already worked on standing and waiting, not rushing through things ahead of me, and she is finding it easier to engage her back muscles everyday, so I wondered if there was a ‘micro’ way that I could slow her down and stop her, to bypass the habitual responses.

I try to use the reins as little as possible anyway, and always try to sit as lightly as possible on Grace, to encourage her to lift her back up under me, so it took me a while to think of something different that I could try – some ‘feeling’ I could use which would make her think first rather than resist first.

I tried just thinking ‘stop’ but that had no noticeable result, and then I suddenly thought of dropping the reins entirely and just pretending that I had them and squeezing my imaginary reins – just that, without consciously doing anything else at all.

The result amazed me. Her ears twitched a bit and she slowed down. I stopped squeezing my invisible reins, said good girl and then squeezed again. She stopped, still round underneath me. I immediately stopped squeezing again and clicked and treated her.

Then I tried it in trot. Trot to walk, walk to halt; she stayed round and non-resistant. Then, instead of ceasing to squeeze after she halted I squeezed again. She immediately stepped backwards, smoothly and effortlessly, beautifully on the bit, even though the reins were still swinging free on her neck! She received her well earned jackpot and returned to the yard feeling very pleased and proud of herself.

I'm going to try squeezing on just one imaginary rein next time, and see what we can do with that.

I LOVE micro riding! It’s like having one long conversation with my horses; trying different things and asking them all the time “What do you think of this?” “If I think this, what does it mean to you?” “How does this make you feel?” “Does this help you?” “Help me to try to become the perfect rider for you?” They seem to love these sessions as much as I do and to really appreciate having their opinions sought all the time and, strangely, the answer has never yet been “Just get off and that will do nicely”!!!

Today I tried the single, Tai chi rein work without actually holding the reins at all, and it worked brilliantly. They were softening into lateral flexion and I could even get them to trot a tight circle or put them into shoulder in or leg yeild, by pretending I was using the rein in the Tai-chi fashion. I'm always looking for more ways to get even more from even less. It's one big game for all of us and they never tire of it.

On Alexandra Kurland's 'Why Would You Leave Me' DVD there is some footage of her longreining a horse. You can see her using the reins to get lateral flexion, halt, and longitudinal flexion. You can see her hands squeezing and the horse softening his jaw. Not so remakable, except for the fact that the horse is in a headcollar and there are no reins! She has no physical connection to the horse at all! It took a while for my brain to believe what my eyes were telling me.

I've seen and done loads of stuff at liberty and riding without a bridle but I have never seen a horse soften it's jaw like that without a bit before. I thought that it was just a product of microshaping but I haven't done any microshaping with my horses and yet they are doing just the same when I ride them and pretend to have reins. It's a lot easier riding, obviously, because there is a physical connection, but it's a product of all the repetitions of the single rein riding mechanics and lateral flexions - picking up the rein and sliding your hand down it so slowly that they learn to respond long before you reach a point of contact. I had never thought of using my hands as if I had reins when riding without a bridle before, but this opens up so many possibilities.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Helen, I am glad you carry on your blog!

    Big photo ^-^!


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