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 have been working on Grace’s trot. I have to confess that I have never enjoyed riding Grace very much. When I went with her previous owner to try her out, prior to purchase, Bella was still only two and I hadn't even met Jack, so I was looking forward to finding out what a Dales felt like to ride. When I tried Grace out I was a bit shocked at just how uncomfortable I found her and I remember thinking that if Bella turned out the same I might have to take up driving!

Grace has always had a short, choppy trot, slamming her feet down and very tight in her back. She pushed herself into a trot off Sher shoulders, coming above the bit as she did so, and all her transitions were jerky and unbalanced.

I started trying to show her a different way of going by walking alongside her, with her in a headcollar, and getting her to follow a downward feel on the leadrope as she went into trot. She understood this quite quickly, although she wasn’t sure that she could get into a trot while lowering her head to begin with.

Once she discovered that she could, her transitions in and out of trot became much softer and smoother, and she became much more eager to get into a trot. Apart from hacking out a few times this is all I have done with her for the last week or so, at least one session a day, sometimes in a headcollar and sometimes in a bridle.

Yesterday I rode her in the school and, after getting her to soften to the inside rein in walk, tried to get her to follow a suggestion of a downward feel on the inside rein as I asked for trot. Obviously I can’t actually use a downward feel from the saddle, but she understands the suggestion from the Tai Chi Rein work and head lowering exercises she has done a little of.

I couldn’t believe the difference that this has made to her trot! I was confident that the transitions would be a lot better, but her trot!!!! It’s as though her back has completely freed-up and she is suddenly swinging along, light on her feet and up in her back. For the first time EVER I didn’t want to get off her and had to make myself stop, before she tired out newly in use muscles.

She was the same today. Not only is she suddenly using herself correctly but also her mouth now feels beautifully soft and responsive at the end of the reins and she is giving me her undivided attention at least 95% of the time. She really does feel like a completely different horse. She has a long way to go before she develops the cadence of Bella’s trot but it’s a fantastic start and I thought that, if it were possible at all, at twelve years old and with back muscle atrophy, it would take much, much longer.

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to how quickly, easily and completely you can make really radical changes using clicker training!

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