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

Motivating Jack to go forward.

I can now see that my strategy for training Jack to be light off my leg was doomed to failure from the start and, in fact, he threw it straight back at me, only his training of me was 100% effective.

I used the same tactics that had always held me in good stead in the past. I began with a very light aid and upped the anti (probably far too fast) until I got a result. I then immediately stopped the aid and gave a ‘good boy’ and a pat if they were lucky. The reason I had always been successful before was down to three factors, as I see it. For some horses the release of pressure and threat of increased pressure had been motivating enough. For some the verbal and tactile praise may have had some motivating effect, combined with the fact that they wanted to please, but all had in common an innate desire for movement – they would rather move and do something than stand and do nothing, so movement was self-reinforcing.

That last factor was missing in Jack. He would rather stand still and doze than move. Even leading him he goes everywhere as slowly as possible, let alone carrying me. If you left him tied up in the yard all day he would just go to sleep, at least until he got hungry. He likes standing still. He took my increased nagging as an exercise in tolerance – how much could he put up with before I annoyed him into lurching into movement with a big sigh - and the answer was an ever-increasing amount.

I made it worse because the moment he moved and I stopped nagging he would instantly slow down so, because it took less effort to keep him moving than it did to get him to shift in the first place, I was after him again, desperate to keep him going. If he ever did offer any energy I would seize the opportunity to do make him do some proper work, so the more he gave the more I wanted. I was greedy and unappreciative and there was nothing in it for him. He did to me what I was doing to him; made me work harder and harder for less and less result, only his training strategy was successful – I got tired and dispirited more and more quickly and gave up after getting less each time. He was a much better trainer than I was.

But that was all about to change. Now I had a clicker and I knew how to use it!

I got on him in the school and just sat there doing nothing. He stood, waiting for the nagging to begin. Nothing happened. His head came up a little as he wondered what was going on. What was I up to? Nothing, I just sat, completely neutral. His ears flicked in thought. I waited. After a while I felt a subtle shift as he altered his balance and lifted one heel. I clicked and treated. He couldn’t believe his luck! He had to do much more than that to get a treat working in hand. Maybe being ridden wasn’t so bad after all. Was it a fluke? He tried it again. 3 clicks later he was moving a leg before he had finished his treat. 10 clicks later he was taking a whole stride. It was time to add the cue.

The only problem I had was getting a gentle vibration of my calf in between giving him the treat and him moving again. This was fantastic! I began to withhold the click for a couple of strides, going back to a single stride as soon as his response to my aid slowed down. After a few days we were walking whole circuits of the school, energetically, from a barely perceptible a leg aid.

After about a week of this he offered to trot. I nearly fell off with shock. In 4 years he had never broken into a trot voluntarily, unless he was spooking at something. I jackpotted him (gave him extra treats) and worked on the transition. It was instant and energetic every time. This couldn’t be the same horse! I withheld the click longer and longer until he trotted a whole circuit, then got off and emptied my pockets, telling him he was wonderful!

The very next day he would keep trotting until he got a click with no attempt to slow down or stop beforehand. Two weeks later it occurred to me that it was a long time since I had asked for a downward transition (because he stops dead as soon as he hears the click, and I only wanted to reinforce forward movement). I asked. Nothing happened. Stopping had lost all its attraction because he only got treats for going. He had no motivation to stop before he got a click so he wasn’t listening. I was shell-shocked! This was the horse who did sliding stops at the slightest hint of a request to slow down. It was unbelievable. It was also definitely time to start clicking downward transitions and get the brakes re-lined before I had a runaway on my hands!

I had watched all the DVDs and read all the books so I knew clicker training was effective but I couldn’t believe how fast and how profound the change in his attitude had been. I understood why, but it still seemed magical.

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