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 haven’t asked Bella or Jack to canter under saddle since I started to try to get their left canter departs well established on the lunge and I decided to spend a few days concentrating on getting it all solid enough to, hopefully, stand me getting on and unbalancing them.

On the lunge Bella now strikes off correctly anywhere in the school, with no need of the bales to set up the transition, and offers a balanced working canter from walk (they have both decided that they prefer to access canter from walk now). I tried it ridden for the first time over the weekend. First I asked for canter on the right rein, from walk, and she instantly responded with a correct strike off and a much improved canter.

Then for the tricky left canter strike off. I was fully prepared for it all to fall apart with me added to the equation but again Bella went from walk into an easy left canter that surprisingly felt even better than the right canter. So it has continued, with correct leads each and every time. I am just amazed – speechless really – it was, is, so easy, when it was so difficult just a short while ago.

I also wanted to see what her enhanced trot, that she now offers all the time when ridden, actually looks like. She has never trotted like that on the lunge so I had to withhold the click until it occurred to her to try her ‘ridden’ trot. OH WOW!!! It’s beautiful! It has rhythm, cadence, swing, elevation – the sort of trot that you just don’t expect to see from a stuffy, cobby little Dales, and when I held out for a bit more she lengthened with absolutely no hint of hurrying and was significantly overtracking, and I could see that there was still more there to be had at a later date! I don’t know if it looks as good as that with me on top, but it feels wonderful, so I don’t think that it can be far off.

This is the first thing that I’ve taught her ridden first, rather than in hand first, and it’s a trot that Bella didn’t know that she was capable of, let alone me. I am SO thrilled with her!!!

Jack has decided that a collected canter is what is required on the lunge and he now goes from walk to canter without me even suggesting it, and canters a tiny circle around me at walking speed! He looks like a showjumper approaching the Puissance wall! He was throwing his head very high into the air, to get his weight far back enough to produce such collection, and he was so pleased with himself that, although I wasn’t aiming for such extreme collection (think of the sort of canter you see just before a walk pirouette) I didn’t want to discourage him. I wanted to get a bit more forward movement, to male it easier for him, but without losing his enthusiasm or trying to drive him forward (which I have sworn never, ever, to do to him again). I tried walking with him and just withholding the click until his nose dropped out of the sky a little.

He must have decided that cantering with his head in the air was very uncomfortable anyway, because it only took about two clicks before he was shifting his weight back onto his quarters by pulling upward through his withers instead. He is still offering a lot of collection, so I think that I will continue with only cantering him on the lunge for the time being, until he can carry himself like that with ease or until he offers something more like a working canter, but it’s fabulous to watch and just doesn’t look like clumpy old Jack at all!

I just can’t believe that we have achieved all this already. I KNOW that I could never, in a million years, have got the quality of work that they are already producing, without clicker training. I didn’t know that they were capable of it and neither did they. Non of this is natural movement for them. They have never managed anything like this loose in the field.

This is all with no whip or spurs, and on the lunge no bridle, side reins or cavesson – just a head collar, We have managed all this with no force involved at all. It’s all 100% voluntary – the only tools required are a tongue to click with and pockets stuffed with treats.

I go up to the yard last thing at night, to make sure they have enough hay and skip them out (and turn on the baby monitor that we have in the tackroom and our bedroom, so we would hear if there was a problem in the night). Last night, while I was up there, I saw a shooting star. I very nearly made a wish, but then I thought better of it; that would just have been greedy!

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