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

The Training of Two Baroque Dressage Horses - The story so far.

Ok, so they are actually 3 Dales Ponies but it sounds good!

This was Bella, aged just two years old, taken four years ago, when the three of us first became a family:

And this was Jack, aged three and a half:

5 years ago, when it was becoming obvious that my two mares, who had been with me for 18 years, were nearing the end of their lives (they both had Cushings and chronic laminitis), I started to look for a youngster to ease the inevitable. I always tend to keep my horses for the whole of their lives and at my age I realised that my next youngster could be my last (I will be in my 70s, hopefully, when these two reach retirement age), so it was important to me that I found the right one. I hadn't even dreamt of having another two!

I have always loved, but never owned an Iberian, and I felt too old now for the adrenalin rushes of competition jumping, so a horse suitable for Classical Dressage was my dream.

I showed my long-suffering husband adverts for Andalusians with 5 figure price tags, which made him gasp with horror, and then spotted an advert in H&H for a Dales yearling filly. Something about the expression on her face shouted to me “I am your perfect horse”, and I loved her beautiful neck and shoulder, so I showed OH the ad. He looked straight at the bottom line, and before I knew it we were on route to see her. This could have had something to do with her not even being 4 figures. There is a strategy message in there somewhere!

We arrived expecting to see a scruffy, muddy hairball running around a field, and were met with the sight of a beautifully groomed, shiny pony, hooves oiled and glistening, tied up outside the stables all by herself with all her mates out in the field, dozing in the sun. I knew then that there was no way that I could leave without making her mine.

We brought her home a week later. She had never before left the stud where she was born, or seen animals other than horses and dogs, but she walked straight up the ramp onto the lorry, travelled the 2 hour journey without a sound, ate nearly all the hay on route, walked carefully straight down the ramp, cool as a cucumber, passed a stable with pigs in it, passed my goats who were on top of the muckheap, passed a paddock full of sheep, and into the yard, all without turning a hair. I had been told that Dales were brave, but this was unbelievable! I had worked full time with horses all my life and never met anyone like her. I was reasonably sure that I had chosen the right horse!!!

A year later her previous owner, whom I had kept informed about her progress, phoned me in tears to say that she had to sell Bella’s year older almost brother (same stallion, different but closely related mares), due to her own ill health. She had seemed only too happy to part with Bella, so I thought that he must be incredible! She mentioned a very tempting price and I managed to persuade OH that there was no harm in looking!

She forgot to mention the fact that Jack was born with a deformed eye. Although she reassured me that he could see out of it, it was obvious that his field of vision must be very small (the eyeball is very small and sunken, and the third eyelid covers about half the pupil). I was a bit uncertain, because I had read somewhere that partial vision in one eye is more difficult for a horse to cope with than total blindness in one eye, and I had never before had any dealings with either, but he seemed very sweet natured and I was so delighted with Bella that I decided to hope for the best.

Jack hasn’t been as easy as Bella, and for a long time I found it difficult to guess what he was thinking, because on his bad eye side he always looks shy, introverted and sad, and he is usually feeling quite the opposite. It made me realise how much I rely on the expression in the horse’s eye when I am on the ground. I have had to learn to pay far more attention to ears and head carriage as guides to mood and emotions. He finds sudden movements on that side quite unsettling, and Alexandra Kurland’s calming strategies have been a huge help (more later, if anyone is interested) in new situations and difficult conditions. He is also very intelligent, but needs lots of thinking time, and hates being rushed or hassled, which make him either get nervous or, more often, shut down and tune me out.

They are both very big characters, very similar in some ways and totally different in others. They also loath each other with a passion, even though they have known each other since Bella was born, and lived together longer than they have lived apart. To be honest neither of them is very keen on other horses, although Bella tolerates her elderly field companion, whom she has been with since she arrived. However, when I take her away to work her, he screams the place down, and she pretends that she has no idea who he is! Jack prefers people, and would quite happily spend all his time in his stable, or better still come into the house with us.

So that’s how we started our journey 4 years ago; me, getting on in years, not as brave as I used to be, with a fearless 2yo filly and a sometimes very brave / occasionally very panicky, unbacked 3yo, who wasn’t scared of anything but was sometimes terrified by nothing!

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