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

Yet more calming work.

Jack has always done his best to be brave. He always goes where he is asked, no matter how scary, with barely a hesitation. However, once he has done as he is told and gone there, if he thinks that it is a scary place, he not unreasonably wants to leave it again as quickly as possible.

Until recently my clicker training had been compounding the problem without me realising it. When he hears the click he thinks that he has to stop, to get his treat, so hearing a click in a scary place made him more worried, because he didn’t want to stop THERE. I don’t ask him to stop, and would wait and give him the treat when he did feel comfortable to stop for it, but he wants to stop straight away, to get the treat, only not THERE. Because I realised his dilemma I helped him out by only clicking just before he reached a scary place, or just after he left it. The problem with that is, of course, that it made the scary place an even more unattractive place to be.

The place I usually work on these issues is our school, which has light green plastic wrapped round bales of haylage stacked three high at the back of it. When it is windy the plastic starts to unravel and flap at any level from the ground to fifteen feet in the air. The sudden movements are added to by a public track behind the bales where people, dogs and horses sometimes suddenly appear and disappear without warning, along with assorted free range poultry which dash in and out of the undergrowth, two goats that climb up and down the banks, and two cats which wait until we are in the school and then run the full length of it to jump up and down and in and out of the bales hunting. All the aforementioned livestock are my own, so I can’t complain too much!

It is a testament to Jack’s good nature, with his limited vision, that he can be relaxed and happy in the school when it isn’t windy. If it sounds unreasonable to take him in there when it is windy, I can only say that when the ground is too wet or too hard to work in the field it is the only place I have, if he can learn to cope in there nowhere else will ever be a problem again, and it is safe, even if he doesn’t think so!

Before the mat work I had tried to increase his comfort zone (on windy days) by working him in the 'safe' end of the school and gradually move up, but I couldn’t make that work. His comfort zone always seemed to contract, until, left to his own devices we would have been on a permanent 10metre circle!

The mat work meant that he wanted go straight to the scary end of the school and could stay there happily with his mat, even in a gale. The problem then was leaving it. He was facing the bales and didn’t want to turn sideways or backwards on to them, both of which he had to do to leave that end of the school (unless we only went backwards).

I needed him to turn away from the bales without trying to rush off, and to give to pressure when he did want to rush off, and for that end of the school to become a more desirable place to be, even away from his mat. I have been using various strategies and am delighted with the overall success.

I started by asking him to leave his mat a step at a time, clicking and treating each step. If he felt the need to swing his hindquarters around so that he was facing the bales again (which he did every step to begin with when it was windy) I let him and gave him his treat when he stopped and lowered his head. This swinging around was actually good practice for him as he was repeatedly momentarily turning his backside to the bales, which is what he finds hardest to do. When he got to the point in the school where he relaxed we walked down the school and back up the centre line with no clicks until he reached his mat (where he always gets multiple clicks and treats).

When he could eventually do this in both directions and stop as soon as he heard the click, I asked for two steps forward and one back before the click. This was all making rushing less desirable and he was getting a lot of clicks and treats in the nasty end of the school, but none in the nice end, so perhaps the nasty end wasn’t so bad after all! We worked on this every day, regardless of wind or no wind, so some days it was easy and some days it was hard, and I had to be very tactful on the more difficult days.

I then began, after doing the former exercises successfully, to start at the corners of the scary end (away from the mat which is in the middle of the track), asked him to do some head lowering while he was still facing the bales, and then asked him to go around the corner and along the end in shoulder in, a few steps at a time, clicking and treating every few steps, first on three tracks and then on four, with his hindquarters towards the bales, all the time asking him to stay soft with his head fairly low, and jackpotting him when he could.

I found that even on difficult days he would yield to my request for a lateral bend, and stay soft, as long as I released the pressure the instant he flexed. If I was a fraction slow to release I could see him start to tense up and brace against it. I could immediately repeat the request if we lost the flexion, but I had to release again, instantly, each time he responded, to keep him soft.

I took him out there yesterday, in a blustery wind, and after the tractor incident I asked him just to soften to me laterally along the back of the school. There was a lot of plastic flapping on the monsters but he was superb. He stayed soft and focussed, and kept his head carriage low. He got about two tons of treats!

I used to wish that Jack had two good eyes and was more like his sister. I still wish he had for his sake, but he is making me so much more sensitive, patient and refined in my training; teaching me the power of waiting and how to spot a try from a mile away. He is teaching me far more than I can ever teach him, and one of these days he is going to be bombproof and carefree, and that really will be a job well done, by both of us!

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