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 just started doing some in-hand work with Grace. In-hand she has always been much heavier than Bella and Jack, and inclined to lean into me instead of gliding over sideways away from me. I had put this down to her being older and stiffer, but now that Bella and Jack are so much more advanced than Grace I could see the reason for the difference immediately.

When I asked her to move her shoulders away sideways, instead of stepping under behind and pulling herself up through her withers and lifting her shoulders, as B and J do, she leant forward and got even more on the forehand, then pushed herself over with her front feet.

I didn’t want to work her in a bridle until she had learnt another way to move over, as I would probably have had to resort to quite strong rein aids. I took her into the school in a headcollar and used the leadrope, stretched between both hands and held up with one hand along side her shoulder, and the other hand very, very slightly in front of the point of her shoulder. This was in Tai Chi Wall fashion, to ask her to move over, just by holding it there and waiting until she worked out what to do, then clicking and dropping the tension from the rope at the tiniest weight shift. To begin with I was aiming for a slight weight shift back towards her hind quarters (but without her feet moving backwards), and then, when that was clicked and established, a step over, with the front foot nearest me stepping in front of the other foot.

When she could manage that easily I turned her head away from me slightly and worked on walk pirouette, clicking one step at a time.

This has made a tremendous difference to her self-carriage and lightness in hand in just a few sessions. She is starting to move over with much more ease and grace (excuse the pun!). It’s made me realise just how much Bella and Jack have already taught me and just how far they have already come. They move sideways like ballet dancers now, by comparison with how Grace moved a week ago. This is going to really help me with Grace because the missing ingredients are now so obvious to me, from all the time I’ve spent watching them move.

This work must be so good for them and their long-term soundness prospects – to be able to use themselves so efficiently and lightly. I wish I had had some dance training when I was young!

Bella has a small cut on her lip (probably the result of fighting with Jack over the fence – clicker training them to get on with each other has not been spectacularly successful!!!), so rather than risk her full cheek snaffle rubbing it I have been riding her in a headcollar for the last few days.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was using two lead ropes instead of reins I would have forgotten that she was not in a bridle. She is every bit as light and responsive, and we went through all the normal movements, even going from one lateral movement to another by changing the bend, with just as much ease as with a bit. She follows my seat and breath aids and needs very little else in the way of aids now.

We did some walk to canter transitions and she still has yet to strike off on the wrong leg, since we began following Philippe Karl’s instructions on his DVDs. She performs really enthusiastic, expressive canter transitions (I can see her inside front leg swinging out high in front of me, really using her shoulder) but still doesn’t like staying in canter very much under saddle, so I am not going to withhold the click to try to get more when riding just yet because I think that, at the moment, she would just lose enthusiasm for the transition. Cantering is very hard work for her (Dales historically were not encouraged to canter at all, and it used to be acceptable, in a mixed Mountain and Moorland class, to miss out the canter if you were on a Dales. Traditional ridden classes at the breed show still only involve walk and trot, and a lot of Dales seem to struggle with canter). I need to build duration very gradually, as she starts to find it easier. The last thing I want to do is to start pushing and risk losing her volunteer status.

We finished today, in the late afternoon, early autumn sun, with some rein back to trot transitions; rein back from just a lift of the leadropes and into trot from a breath aid, and going on in a few steps of collected trot - all beautifully balanced and engaged, and just in a headcollar!

It occurred to me, in those warm, sunny, moments of total harmony, that life really doesn’t get much better than this!

Another small Charles De Kunffy quote, from Dressage Questions Answered:

“It is tremendously important to yield to our horses. Nothing should ever freeze when aiding; nothing should ever be locked; nothing should ever be rigid. Riding is dynamic; it is perpetual movement therefore it tolerates no rigidity, which is the stopping of motion. Should any part of the rider become stiff or rigid the horse will have to become rigid. If any part of the rider is stiff the whole system suffers discord, and correct gymnastic development is at an absolute end.”

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