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

Volunteer versus Conscript.

Before clicker training I used to think that you had to go through the conscript stage to produce a horse who would then be a volunteer. I know that it works – I’ve managed it lots of times – but I believe that clicker training can cut out the conscript stage and produce a volunteer much faster without the element of compulsion, especially in the early stages of training.

Jack hated 300 Peck Pigeon. It’s an exercise from ‘Riding with the Clicker’ that Alexandra Kurland developed for her own youngster who was not getting enough turnout and had too much energy to work sensibly without letting off steam first. The idea is to build duration into an exercise, looking for quantity rather than quality, and set some simple criteria that, if the horse fails to meet them, it extends the period between clicks and treats. It’s to teach the horse to chill out and just get on with it.

The problem is that when Jack was worried he couldn’t just chill out and get on with anything, and when he wasn’t worried he needed to wake up and get on with things; chilling out was the last thing he needed to do!

I tried the exercise as it is described in the book. My criteria were for them to be walking up alongside me, without lagging behind or getting in front and blocking my path. We walked 1 step, click and treat, then 2 steps, click and treat, then 3, etc. until we got to 300. If they broke the rules then, say we were looking for 50 steps and had got to a count of 49, you go back to zero for that count, so we would have walked 99 steps before the click, assuming that they didn’t break the rules again in that count.

I did it with both of them and Bella was fine, and I only had to zero her once before we got to 300. Jack was not fine at all!

The exercise comes quite far into the book, so we had already made great progress with ‘forward’, but not much with wanting to stay and work regardless. He began the exercise walking up well alongside me, as usual, but the more we did the harder it became to get him to walk on after each click, and the more he lagged behind me. Prolonging the count just made matters worse, so I tried being more proactive in making him walk on, and he made it quite clear that he’d had enough and was going to vote with his feet. We had got to about 80 by then. With every other exercise in the book I have stuck with it for as long as it takes, but I abandoned this one and haven’t returned to it, and have no plans to do so.

After telling Hilary about this on her thread I thought that maybe we should have worked through it, or should go back to it, but on reflection I think that I made the right choice for us. I can see great value in the exercise for a high-energy horse, or one easily distracted, who won’t concentrate on the job in hand, but Jack is neither of those (although sometimes he CAN’T concentrate, which is not quite the same, in my opinion).

If I just wanted Jack to be a horse who will do as he’s told regardless of how he feels about something then I should go back to it, but I don’t. I want Jack to be motivated and inspired to work with me, never to just do it because he feels that it’s the easiest option or that he has to. He already knew how to switch off and chill out, but clicker training has taught him how to find pleasure in moving and working, even with me on his back, and how to be a willing participant in his own education. I know that now all his motivation is to work and to try his hardest, and he knows that I now always listen to him and how he feels about things; that he has a voice, and he’ll never again have to shout to make himself heard.

I think that’s a great place to be.

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