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

Pressure as a Training Shortcut.

I've been thinking about why I love free shaping (waiting for something to be offered without doing anything to initiate it) so much and find myself using it more and more. Apart from being the lazy way of training - no physical effort required from the trainer other than clicking and handing over the treat, I have found it to be the most powerful way to radically change habitual behaviour or mental outlook.

In my younger, braver years I spent a lot of time trying to sort out other people's problems with horses (how I wish I had known about clicker training then!) and I find that some horses respond to either any request to do something/anything, or some requests to do some things/anything in certain circumstances, by tensing up and bracing themselves, mentally and physically, at least initially, either through fear, uncertainty, confusion or because of a well established 'you can't make me' attitude (or a mixture of some or all of these).

I know that clicker training makes it much easier to work through these things and get co-operation, but with freeshaping I find that I don't have to. I haven't asked for anything, just waited to be offered something, so the horse has no reason for tension or bracing, can concentrate 100% on what he is doing and what I might be looking for, and gets great satisfaction from working out what might get him a treat all by himself. I find that it builds self confidence in nervous horses and willingness in stubborn ones much more quickly and easily.

I have also found that when cueing a behaviour I want, to also get rid of a behaviour I don't want, the unwanted behaviour can become part of a chain of behaviour. I freeshaped Bella to drop her tongue down under the bit in hand, but never freeshaped it ridden, until the other day, because I already had it on cue so thought that I didn't need to.

Recently we seemed to be getting into a pattern. I'd tell her 'quiet', she'd stop fiddling, we would do some nice work, I'd click and treat her, she'd eat the treat and start fidding again, I'd tell her 'quiet', etc......... She would always respond to the cue, but what I really wanted was the fiddling to disappear altogether, and she had no motivation to do that.

I have now started to freeshape it ridden. I sit on her with a 'la,la,la, I'm not playing until you do something' type attitude, riding on the buckle and looking at the scenery, until she stops fiddling. This is exactly what she used to do to me when she fiddled all of the time - "la,la,la, I can't hear you because I'm too busy fiddling with my tongue". I have done this for the last two sessions now and her motivation for fiddling is fading fast (she hates walking around on a long rein doing nothing, and I have to click her to get her to do it when I want her to have a stretch, because she just wants to be doing something to earn treats ALL of the time).

So, while pressure is undoubtedy a very useful training shortcut, I have found that getting to where I want to be without using any, at least to begin with, can have far greater benefits and can produce far more profound changes.

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