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

More work on Anxiety.

All the head lowering work I have done with Jack has made me very sensitive to changes in his anxiety levels, and I can now spot worry building from a mile away. Even in windy conditions he very rarely panics instantly; it’s more that slightly anxiety multiplies unless he can be effective in calming himself down, or I can find a way to get his attention back on me.

This heightened awareness is a double-edged sword. He rarely takes me by surprise anymore (I used to think a shy and spin came from nowhere. Now I know that it is coming if he or I can’t diffuse it) but that presents me with challenges to my own self-control and judgement.

The danger is that I step in too soon and act, when if I had just waited he might have been able to sort himself out. If I try to prevent a major retreat from happening too early then I may make it happen, through over-reacting and disturbing his attempts to calm himself. If I leave it too late then I end up having to be ‘agricultural’ to regain control that I might not have lost if I had acted sooner.

I am finding it so, so difficult to get it right. I realise that in the past, at times he has succeeded in sorting himself out because I had no idea that trouble was brewing anyway. On the other hand he now often will listen to me when he wouldn’t have before clicker training. If I could get the balance exactly right we would be laughing.

What I need to get much better at is being able to observe without anticipating, so the my adrenalin levels don’t rise along with his, and I am finding that quite difficult to do, especially when I am riding him.

What I need him to do is to learn to give to pressure even when he is frightened. Thanks to the head lowering and mat work he is now excellent at keeping himself calm at liberty. I can follow him into the spooky end of the school and he will go straight to his mat and stay calm, even in a howling gale with plastic flapping on the bales stored in the school, as long as I put no pressure on him. This is a wonderful start but it’s not enough to make him a 'safe and reliable in all circumstances' riding horse.

I know that my only hope of him being able to do this is if I can keep my own adrenaline out of the equation. I know that tension in me makes his anxiety increase rapidly. The good aspect of this is perhaps the reverse will also be true. I used to think that he ignored me when he was scared. I now know that he doesn’t; my tension increases his, so maybe my lack of tension can reduce his too – maybe, even when he is frightened he is staying much more tuned in to me than I thought.

I am not a nervous rider but I am a careful one, so this is going to be a challenge to my ability to control my own thoughts as much as anything.

We are already making good progress in hand, and I can usually bring him back to me (physically and mentally) now. I have introduced a new verbal cue ‘soft’, which seems to make us both ‘soften’ just by the sound of the word, and I have learned to avoid using words which sound too harsh or strong (I used to use ‘down’ for head lowering but it’s far too strong sounding a word for when he is nervous).

If all this sounds like weak leadership I can only say that I have tried the reverse and it freaks him out completely. It just makes him want to get away from the situation and from me.

My OH says that Jack should do as I tell him just because I told him to, and I actually agree with this in principle, but, my reply is that first I have to make Jack WANT to do as I tell him just because I told him to!

Jack in 'tuned in' mode:

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