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


For Shoveltrash and anyone else who is interested, I thought that I would have a go at explaining a bit more about what the single rein training produces. This is not as altruistic as it might sound, as I found that thinking about exactly what I was doing and why when I was ridng today helped me be a lot more subtle with Jack, who is still learning to get and keep in balance.

You need the book ‘Riding with the Clicker’ for the details and exercises, beginning in hand and transferring over to in the saddle, but I will try to explain what the training achieves. Perhaps Hilary and Appy2quarter will comment as to whether their understanding and experiences are the same, in case I have put my own spin on it at all.

The idea is that you train the horse to yield and soften to the reins so that you can get his mouth and jaw out of the way and communicate via the reins to his hindquarters. Once this is established the bit becomes incidental; just something to attach the reins to really. You never fiddle or squeeze on the reins, because if the horse ever stiffens his jaw against them he knows that you will just ask and wait until he softens, then reward him, so you don’t need to put any real pressure on his mouth at all.

I now have, especially with Bella, a contact that is more suggested than actual. This is because the Tai Chi rein work gets the horse to yield and move over away from suggested sideways pressure from a single rein, by asking, waiting and then rewarding; first from the ground, when you can use the horse’s own energy rebounded back at him, when necessary, then from the saddle, when the sideways pressure is really all suggested and a trained response – it isn’t neck reining, it’s far more subtle than that.

You end up with a really soft horse who concentrates totally on what you are asking him to do and how his own body is responding. You get that soft eyed and eared, inward looking expression of a well-trained horse who really listens to and understands his rider.

I always start in walk, concentrating on whether they are loading each shoulder equally, and using the Tai Chi rein effect to correct any in-balance, then use my new, super light leg aid to ask the hind legs to step under. I love it if they are crooked after a click, because in those few strides of straightening I also get longitudinal flexion, as a by product of the sideways pressure of the Tai Chi rein effect, and then that first step under is so deep and strong I just have to click it, and it builds power into the trot, just from frequent repetitions of that one stride.

I think that all this is as classical as it comes. It’s all about balance before movement, then going back to abandoning movement and correcting balance every time it is lost. The horse stays totally relaxed mentally, because it’s all so gentle and there’s no actual pressure to brace against. The idea of Bella ever having a sore mouth from the bit would be ludicrous, because it just lies softly in her mouth receiving almost imperceptible signals and passing them on, as they are nothing to do with her mouth or jaw. This doesn’t mean that she’s backing off a contact or going behind the bit. If I need to get hold of her for any reason she’s there, at the end of the reins, and I could have real contact if I chose to.

I’m still not quite there with Jack, because it takes quite a lot of frequent training and repetitions to get to this point, and Jack is a big old lump, who finds it harder to stay in good balance anyway, but he’s spectacular when he’s there, and we’re making rapid progress in duration.

Starting the horse’s training all over again using single rein riding, as in ‘Riding with the Clicker’ takes time and effort, but it then makes riding and being ridden (from the horse’s view) much more effortless. You don’t try and force them onto the bit or ride them through anything, you just ask and wait, click the wonderful and ignore the rest, stop and start again. There’s no stress, no tension or anxiety, no having to ride uncomfortable movement to try and make it right. The horse learns to love being in balance as much as you love the feeling of him being so, so it’s the ultimate win/win situation, and as long as you always click what feels wonderful, you can’t go wrong!

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