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

Single Rein Riding.

This might seem a strange thing to spend much time on with horses being trained for dressage, and I do feel a bit like a cowboy when doing it (I rather like the feeling!) but I took Alexandra Kurland at her word and spent a long time exclusively using a single rein (and still do for warming up and if I need to simplify things for a while) and I love the overall results it has produced. I was also amazed how safe riding with only one rein felt.

The idea is, roughly speaking, that you simplify things for the horse by only using the inside rein, for inside flexions and stopping, until softness to that rein is a given, but at no time hold onto a contact. You split training up into individual units, teaching the horse to soften and flex laterally, to each rein individually, before you ask him to soften and flex vertically. to both reins used together.

You very slowly and carefully take the slack out of the inside rein and insist on a ‘give’ from the horse, and as soon as you get one you drop the contact like a hot brick, click and treat, and start again. This is a very bare outline of the work and you need the ‘Riding with the Clicker’ book to fill in the mechanics, but if you have seen some of the more forceful one rein stops that some Natural Horsemanship trainers use, pulling the horse’s head round until their foot is in it’s mouth, don’t worry, this is the refined, kind, subtle, horse-friendly version!

You ultimately decide how much contact you and the horse need to feel comfortable but you initially teach softening to the bit by totally surrendering the contact immediately the horse responds (I love weight of the reins only, but I’m not sure how practical that is at our stage of training, though I am very reluctant to ask for more).

These repeated lateral flexions lead to vertical flexion (TMJ release) being a ‘given’ also. This doesn’t lead to ‘hand riding’, quite the reverse, because the end result is that you never need to worry about the horse coming against the bit again (in my experience), in an ordinary schooling situation anyway (this is all too recent for me to have tried it out much in other situations, and I have only got to riding with both reins again with Bella so far). Once you have that, you can forget about the head and neck and concentrate on the rest of the horse..

The beginning of this work is that you teach the horse that when you pick up the buckle of the reins from off the horse’s neck that tells him that you want something. With Bella and Jack this has also come to mean that when I pick the buckle (or my hands, when riding conventionally) up you should pick yourselves up, and they do this even when just being led in a headcollar – I hold the lead rope up and they pick themselves up. It’s lovely to watch and earns them a treat every time. It must also be very good exercise and we do it a half a dozen or so times every time I lead them to the field or back.

In the photos on page 2, of me riding Bella, I had only just started to add in the outside rein again.

I tried a little experiment of my own last weekend. I wondered what would happen if I tried just riding with the outside rein. This is not in the book, so probably not to be recommended, but it was very insightful for me. I had never managed to get Jack very round in the past, pre-clicker. I had put this down to lack of impulsion and concentrated on trying to get that. Right from the start of the single rein work getting him to soften to the inside rein on it’s own was no problem at all, but the outside rein on it's own was a different matter entirely.

I am convinced that this is down to his confidence issues again. When he softens to the inside rein he can still spin away from anything that frightens him on the outside of the school. If he really gives to the outside rein he can’t. He is trapped and could only get away by shooting forwards or backwards, neither of which he has any practise in (he does sometimes shoot off but always after a sideways dive, and usually he just dives sideways and then stops himself). He would be surrendering his habitual escape route, and that’s a really big deal for him and asking an awful lot of him, especially when his bad eye is on the outside rein side.

If I hadn’t played around with the single rein concept I am not sure I would ever have been able to isolate the problem so specifically, and I now know exactly what we have to work on, to make him safe and controllable in all circumstances (diving sideways across the road could, obviously, be fatal). I don’t know how long it will take to get him confident enough to feel able to completely give to the outside rein, but at least I know what we need, and that’s got to be half way there.

Alexandra Kurland promises that this method will ultimately produce an enthusiastic but relaxed, distraction proof and tension free horse, which will stay sound because “it is tension that breaks down horses”. I have a way to go yet with Jack, but all my experiences so far have given me every reason to believe her.

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