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

« Reply #6 on: June 05, 2008, 01:56:44 PM »

2005-7: The Cracks Start Appearing.

I began 2005 with high hopes. Bella would be 3 in May and old enough for me to have a sit on. I couldn’t wait to see how she felt. I had been eagerly waiting for the moment for the last 2 years. Jack would be 4 in March, and I could continue his education. It was going to be wonderful!

As she approached her 3rd birthday it was obvious that Bella was having some trouble cutting teeth. She spent hours fiddling about with her tongue in the back of her mouth and huge teething lumps appeared on her face, which were very tender to touch. I had seen teething lumps under the jaw before, but never on the front of the face, and they were the biggest my dentist had ever seen.

I didn’t want to put a bit in her mouth while she was having trouble, so backed her in a carefully adjusted halter (to avoid putting pressure on the lumps). She felt great and was as happy with the whole experience as Jack had been. I did the same amount as I had with Jack, and then looked forward to starting again the following year, hopefully in a bit.

Her teeth took a lot of dentistry and 2 years to sort out. She had impacted upper molars and overgrown lower molars, and while all attempts were made to keep her comfortable, the problems couldn’t be fully resolved until she finished teething and her adult teeth were fully up and in wear. In the meantime the tongue habit became more and more ingrained.

By her 5th birthday I got the all clear from the dentist and began trying to get her used to a bit – any bit! It wasn’t that she didn’t like having one in her mouth – she couldn’t get it in there fast enough – it was like a toy to help her with her favourite pastime of ‘tongue in back of mouth fiddling’.

To begin with I thought that familiarity would do the trick and make her forget about it. It didn’t. Then I thought distraction – hacking out. No joy. Then perhaps a different style of bit – straight bar, ported, cheeks, hanging – no difference! The fiddling was almost endless, from the moment the bit went in to the moment it came out, to the point where I couldn’t get her attention on anything else. She was horrible to ride in a bit. I couldn’t steer properly and her balance was awful. It was like riding a plank of wood. I tried everything I could think of, even led her out for miles with a bit but leading from lunging cavesson, so it was just there doing nothing. Occasionally she would stop fiddling for a while, but never for very long. I bought her a hackamore.

Jack, in the meantime, had become a plod, completely dead to any forward aids, from the floor or the saddle. He has never been a ‘high energy’ horse. He likes life in the slow lane, taking his time and meandering around at his own speed. He would always do as he was asked, but put as little energy into it as possible. All attempts by me to sharpen him up made the situation worse; he seemed to take it as a challenge – how much nagging could he tolerate before he felt the need to move, or speed up, and his tolerance grew ever greater the more I did.

I tried every known strategy to make him more sensitive to my leg, but only succeeded in making him less sensitive. It wasn’t that he never listened to me; requests for downward transitions were met by a sliding stop that a western horse would be proud of – literally, even a hint of a wh sound would do it – but he only heard what he wanted to hear, and it took repeated kicks to make him sigh and lurch into a walk from a halt. It was no different out hacking, even heading for home he dawdled along, and I always returned feeling like I had been carrying him!

I had tried to teach him to move off my leg in the same way as I had every other horse I had ever started and it had worked with all of them, including Bella, so why wouldn’t it with him? The reasons for this are so obvious to me now that I clicker train and think like a clicker trainer, that I can’t believe that I couldn’t see it then, but I couldn’t. I didn't want to try spurs because I knew that the end result would be the same - I would have to use them more and more forcefully to produce less and less result. I needed to change his attitude to going forward, so that he went with the same enthusiasm as he stopped, but I had no idea how to do it.

At the same time, on a windy day, he would get more and more anxious. I had plenty of forward movement then but it was tense and horrible, and he wanted his head free to twist around so that he could see what was happening on his bad eye side. I felt very sorry for him and understood his difficulties, but I needed to find a way to make him calm down and listen to me, and to build his confidence in me and in himself; that there really was nothing to be frightened of. I tried reassuring him, but that was ignored, and I tried stronger leadership, trying to get his attention and make him focus on me, but my attempts to do that increased his anxiety.

So there we were at the end of last summer; stuck in a training rut that I had no idea how we were going to get out of. I can go out and work my horses every day with energy, patience and enthusiasm, even in the face of problems, as long as I have a plan. I was right out of plans. I had nothing left to try and my two potential dressage horses were turning into beach donkeys. Bella was fine to hack about on in a hackamore, but though I am sure there are riders skilled enough to produce correct dressage work without a bit, I don’t think that I am one of them. Jack was a plod who made me work twice as hard as he did, unless it was windy, when I couldn’t do anything worthwhile with him at all. I had nowhere left to go.

I shouldn’t have worried because salvation was only weeks away; a way of training that would give me the tools to deal with all these problems and any more that might occur, and would turn my horses into enthusiastic workaholics, who would turn themselves inside out to do whatever I asked of them (even Jack), and I might never have tried it if it hadn’t been for one ‘Becky Holden’!

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