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

Working on Jack’s anxiety; Tai Chi walls, head lowering and mat work.

Head Lowering

Alexandra Kurland uses head lowering as a calm down cue, and it’s one of the foundation exercises of ‘The click that Teaches’ program. I think that the theory behind this is that by making a horse look like a bold, confident horse, he will feel like a bold, confident horse, and that horses with their heads high in the air are nervously looking to see what is coming over the horizon. If you can get your horse to lower his head when he is scared, he is entrusting you to keep him safe and letting you do the worrying for him.

I needed a way of getting Jack to calm down when the wind was un-nerving him, but when I asked him to put his nose on the floor he looked really miserable and worried (this was in the yard on a still day, when he wasn’t nervous). This quite upset me. I realised that it was because he could see even less than usual with his head down there, so I emailed Alexandra Kurland to ask if she thought that I should use head lowering with a horse with impaired vision.

She replied within hours and said that, although she had no experience of such horses, head lowering was such a powerful calming tool, that I shouldn't worry about whether I taught it to him so much as how I taught it to him. She told me to teach it in a place where he felt safe, keep it on a very high rate of reinforcement for a long time and to teach it in as many different ways as possible (free shaping, following a target, poll pressure, halter pressure, verbal cue, etc) and to build duration very slowly. She said that when he was really comfortable with it I might find that he actually offered it when he was anxious, and that is exactly what he does do when he’s only mildly anxious. We need to do more work on it, especially under saddle, to deal with greater anxiety levels, but we are making good progress. The way he wants to use head lowering to calm himself down shows that he wants to be calm and confident, and to trust me to keep him safe, even if he can’t always quite manage it yet.

I emphasise (to the horse) that "head lowering is not a forward moving exercise" (A.K.) to begin with, and the horse is not allowed to move forward. He can move backwards or stand still, but allowing him to move forward too soon can encourage him to put his head down and drag you off. Later, she has a 300 Peck Pigeon exercise, which teaches the horse to walk around for an extended period of time with his nose on the floor and builds enormous emotional control in an over-energetic horse, so that they learn to settle down and work straight away, without needing to whiz around on a lunge for half an hour first (not a problem mine suffer from!). You need the ‘Riding with the Clicker’ book for that one.

As well as calming down, working on head lowering under saddle straightens out all the crookedness in the horse’s body when he is ridden. There is so much to know about this work, all about glass floors and filling in all the gaps between normal head carriage and the floor, and the ‘Head Lowering’ DVD is really a must, to get the full benefit out of it.

Tai Chi Walls

I will try to explain how I have taught my horses this but, although it’s very easy to teach the horse, it’s hard to describe and really helps to see it done (Tai - Chi Rope Handling Exercises DVD). It ties in with the head lowering work because you can make a pushy horse move away from you, or back up, with ease (once you’ve taught it to him) but it’s also brilliant for lateral work, in hand and at liberty (when I just pretend I have a rein), and makes them really light to work with, opens up their shoulders and increases their respect for your personal space. You can also use it to cue head lowering, as a demand cue, when they won’t listen.

Once the wall effect is really solid all you have to do is lift the rope or rein in a certain way and they lift their shoulders, engage their hips and glide over. I will try to get some photos of Bella doing this because she is ace at it, light as a feather, and Bella used to be very pushy and forever trying to move me out of her space!

The idea is that you use the lead rope or inside rein to create a boundary – a wall that the horse must move away from and won’t even think of trying to push into, because if he does it will "bounce his energy back at him" (A.K.). Basically, I stand alongside the horse and take hold of the rein or rope with both hands in the middle of the rein and slide my hands slowly apart keeping the rein taught between them, and slide right up to the bit/lead rope clip with one hand and down toward the shoulder with the other, overhand. I stop both hands at the same time and keep the rein taught between my hands. This creates the Tai- Chi wall. I then step slightly towards them and just wait, with an attitude of ‘this is a wall, you must move away’, although you can use it more proactively if the horse barging. As soon as they show any sign of moving away I drop the rein as though it was red hot, click and treat, and start again. I don’t know if I’ve explained it very well but the horses I’ve tried it with have understood very quickly. The power is in the rotation of the wrists as you slide your hands apart.

If this sounds like gobbledegook, I can only say that it really does work and you will find it easy if you see the DVD.

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