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 said in an earlier post that I couldn’t teach Bella and Jack travers the easy way, on a circle turning around their outside shoulder, making use of the horses natural tendency to fall onto his shoulders, because 'Riding with the Clicker' had made falling onto their shoulders the last thing that they wanted to do.

Although the first part of that statement is true, the last part was not a sensible thing to say. It makes it sound as though they never lose their balance and fall onto their shoulders, and of course they do, frequently, and I believe that it is an important part of the learning process. Only by losing their balance can they practise recovering it quickly and efficiently, and to stay in balance all the time would be impossible, and would require that I stayed perfectly in balance all the time myself, when riding them, which is never going to happen! The three of us need to practise finding and losing balance, and then finding it again, to make the whole process faster and more fluid, and to stay relaxed about it, physically and mentally.

What I should have said is that when I ask them to do something different from whatever they are already doing, they have learnt to engage their hind legs and pick themselves up in preparation for whatever it might be, so trying to get them to turn around a shoulder, in that moment, is never going to be an easy way to teach anything. I now realise that is why we could do turns on the haunches and walk pirouettes long before we mastered turns on the forehand, and I could reposition their shoulders relative to their hind quarters long before I could do the opposite.

Now that they know how to do travers in a straight line with ease (if I try to just ride past the bales on a loose rein they put themselves into travers unasked, every time!), balancing more towards their outside hind, we can do travers on a circle with no problem – I just couldn’t teach it that way.

Learning to do the difficult bits first, then filling in the ‘easy’ bits seems to have become a recurring theme. Their left canter transitions are now well established on the lunge so I decided it was time to withhold the click and try to get another stride or two of canter. This wasn’t too difficult with Jack, because he had been following the transition with a buck, so I had some movement to work with and shape.

Bella was a whole different ball game! She had got into the habit of really sitting into a huge transition, then coming down immediately into halt as I clicked. It looked fantastically athletic, but when I withheld the click and asked for more, she was completely baffled. I kept telling her to canter on, but of course she couldn’t, because that would have meant a halt to canter transition, which was a ridiculous thing to ask for. I tried this yesterday and began to think that my whole strategy of clicking the transition had been fatally flawed – we had no momentum to work with at all. I gave up, worked on something that she could be successful at, and left it until I could have a good think about it.

Today I came up with a plan. She couldn’t do canter, halt, canter, but canter, halt, walk on should be achievable, so I would start with that and try to get some forward momentum to eventually shape into continuing in canter.

It took me hours to come up with this idea. How silly!!!! Why do I still underestimate her and think that I am cleverer than she is? When I asked for a left canter transition she immediately offered me two strides of canter to go with it!

This seems to be a common finding with clicker trained horses – that if you get stuck and have to leave it (after finishing with something that they can do, of course) they often seem to have worked out what you had been looking for by the next time you try. I don’t know if it was because I gave up too early yesterday, just as she had worked it out and she would have been successful with the next try, or if she had been mulling it over all night, but either way I am far from the first person who has experienced this.

So, in learning how to canter on the left lead, they have both learnt how to do a correct flying change and Bella has learnt how to sit into a halt directly from canter (the transition anyway). Not too bad for three short sessions each (about 45mins in total)!!!!

Philippe Karl, you are a genius!!!! I feel so lucky to live in an age when it is so easy to have access to all these masters in action, available on DVD at any time, 24/7. Reading books is very useful too, but there's nothing like actually being able to watch and listen, is there?

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