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

Philippe Karl has also provided me with the last link to our lateral work under saddle. His explanations of how the horse balances in order to be able to perform the different movements have finally given me the breakthrough I needed in being able to get movement in the direction of bend, which had eluded me when riding until yesterday. We could do beautiful renvers, travers and half pass in hand, but I couldn’t work out how to ask for them effectively from the saddle.

Strangely, we couldn’t do it the 'easy' way that PK starts with – getting the horse to turn around his outside shoulder on a circle, for teaching travers. The trouble is that they are used to being praised for comimg up off their shoulders, so although PK says it is natural for a horse to want to fall onto it’s shoulders to begin with, mine are already past that stage (thanks again to The Click That Teaches), so that’s the last thing they want to do. We could do the ultimate travers on a circle – a pirouette – with ease, but not the easier bit!

So I went for the later stage, travers along a straight line, which requires them to balance further back towards their quarters. I thought of keeping my weight more to the outside and back, keeping the bend as they angled towards the fence (bales actually, as we have no fence), used a little outside rein to set up the movement, and asked with my outside leg. I got not just instant travers, but instant, perfect travers, with masses of bend and angle, and it felt so easy and effortless I couldn’t understand why I had ever found it difficult to explain. They both said “oh, you want TRAVERS, well why didn’t you say before? We know how to do that!!!”

I knew that I had been contorting myself before, trying to make it happen, and failing, and it now feels so easy to ride. It has made me realise that these movements ARE easy to ride when they are set up right, but impossible to ride when the horse doesn’t understand how to get himself organised for the start of the movement. Now I just have to set it up and go with it. I suppose that is where a schoolmaster would be so valuable to learn on, but mine are schoolmasters in a way, because we have done so much of it in hand, and they are so eager to please, that as soon as I can begin to hint at what I want, we are away!

The other brilliant thing about finding travers is I began, this time, with Jack. I didn’t mean to, but I had already ridden Bella the day I watched the DVD. I was going to leave it until I rode Bella the next day to experiment, but when I rode Jack I couldn’t resist trying. If he didn’t understand something quickly in the school before, with very light aids, Jack would start to get anxious and see monsters, and want to get out of the school. NOT ANY MORE!! I had to use much more outside rein than I ever use with him normally, and have quite a few tries before we were successful, but he kept calm and focused and soft, and kept trying until we got it. This is such a massive shift in attitude and confidence in him. I don’t have to drop the reins at the first hint of unease anymore; he will allow me to really ride him now. That’s huge!

I have also been experimenting at how little I can do to get forward transitions now with Jack. We have it down to a breath out as an aid, when he is really concentrating hard, which is most of the time. I don’t think that we can get much lighter than that!

Five months since we began The Click That Teaches and I have two distraction free, workaholic, eager- beaver dressage horses who are barely recognisable from the horses they were then, but then I am barely recognisable as the same rider/trainer. I have infinite patience with them, and faith in them. I never need to question their motivation to perform because it is never in doubt. I can choose any classical trainer’s methods to experiment with, secure in the knowledge that Jack and Bella will enthusiastically experiment with me. The joy this gives me everyday is beyond words. I owe them so much that nothing I can ever do for them will be enough.

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