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, 29 December 2008

Classical vs Classique = Splitter vs Lumper!

I have just watched the first half of this DVD, 'Classical vs Classique', featuring a discussion between Philippe Karl and Christoph Hess, following the furore that PK' s book 'Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage' caused within the German National Equestrian Federation. I'm not going to venture into the rights and wrongs of the two systems but I was fascinated by discussion between the two men, and wanted to get this down before before I watch the ridden lessons part of the DVD.

Bearing in mind that clicker training is all about being a 'splitter' not a 'lumper', what immediately struck me was that Christoph Hess is a self confessed 'lumper' and Philippe Karl is a self confessed 'splitter' (not that they used those terms). Christoph Hess accuses Philippe Karl of breaking the horse into separate parts and working on only one bit at a time, whereas he says that he looks at and works on the whole horse as an entity. Christoph Hess trains according to the German 'scales of training', concentrating on rhythm first and foremost.

Philippe Karl says that he works on the most sensitive part first - the mouth and contact with the bit (through flexions) - and gets that right before moving on and concentrating on another part of the horse. He says that concentrating on rhythm first is only possible with a horse born with perfect paces, and that the 'ordinary' or problem horse needs many hours of careful training to find it's rhythm (which has been my experience). He accuses the German system of having no answers to problems, except for telling students "That's not a dressage horse, get another horse". He says that if you have four Ferrari's in your garage you'll learn much less about mechanics and driving than if you have an old Volkswagen.

Christoph Hess says that if you work through the scales of training, and your horse has enough talent, which not many have, then you will arrive at Piaffe and Passage. Philippe Karl says that, with correct training, almost any horse can learn Piaffe and Passage, and if you start with a horse that has no trot, rather than a horse whose natural trot is half way to Passage anyway, then that really is training!

My overall impression, so far, is that, being a 'lumper' Christoph Hess is big on theory but short on solutions. Philippe Karl, as a 'splitter,' has a solution for every problem and a strategy for overcoming every shortfall, for every type of horse.

Having the equine equivalent of three Volkswagens in my stable, who had 'no trot' and two of whom are now just beginning Piaffe and Passage, I know who I find the most practical, inspiring and motivating, and his methods seem to me to be very comparable to 'Riding With The Clicker'!!

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Toy and Single Rein Riding Out.

I bought Bella and Jack an 'Alpha-Tunes Board' for Christmas. It's about 18" square and has 10 keys along the bottom, which each play a note, 26 buttons which play sounds such as a train, cat, dog, violin, etc. plus another 4 buttons which play whole tunes.

I wasn't sure what they would make of it and they've only had one go each so far, but they love it. I cheated and pressed a key for them, when they nuzzled it, to begin with, as they have to be quite determined to press hard enough. I thought they might jump a bit to begin with, when it made a noise but they loved it right from the start. Jack looked mildly surprised once when it moo-ed at him, but that was the only time.

Bella is so smart! It took her all of three clicks to realise that the click was for the noise and her face lit up with every sound after that. She found it harder than Jack to press the keys, as she wiggles her top lip across them, whereas Jack prods them with his lip. She got around this with the keys at the bottom by using her teeth after a while.

When the board is turned on and nothing has sounded for a while a voice says "Please press a key". I could almost hear Bella and Jack saying "I'm trying, I'm trying!!!".

It's a great toy and cost less than a tenner from Wilkinsons. I'm really glad I found it. I must try Grace with it as well, although I think she will take a bit of convincing that it isn't going to bite. She's only recently decided that the radio is probably harmless!

The radio was actually what gave me the idea. Bella untied herself in the yard one day, went over to the radio and spent ages sniffing it, mesmerised. I expected her to eventually give it a prod and send it flying, which is what Jack would do, but she was just politely fascinated. I always have it on Radio 4 and I think she must have been wondering how all those people got in there!

I clipped Grace right out on Christmas Eve, so that I would have one really smart pony to hack out over Christmas. I took her out on Christmas Day, all shorn and shiny, mane released from her mane bags (which are working miracles on it), and in the Iberian bridle. She looked really lovely.

Grace can be quite nervous hacking out alone and I've been experimenting with adapting the single rein concepts to suit riding on the roads. I'm hoping to get her really confident so that a friend can ride her out with me on Jack, without Grace trying to convince Jack that he SHOULD be worried out there!

I've been holding both the reins in my right hand; both bridged between thumb and forefinger, at a comfortable length for a normal, relaxed headcarriage. I then just use my kerbside hand when I need to, running it along the left rein to make corrections or emphasise control. Grace is so busy gawping about she would zig zag across the road continually, left to her own devices, so this way I can make constant tiny corrections effortlessly, which prevents it from becoming annoying.

She also is very suspicious of anything new. Dumped rubbish and burnt out car remains - always a favourite source of spooking - are a frequent occurrence around here. I have been experimenting with a new approach. I run my hand a couple of inches along the rein, to let her know that I'm prepared and aware, but refuse point blank to look in the direction of whatever it is that I know she is going to swerve to pass as wide as possible. I study the hedge on the opposite side of the road, as if whatever she is looking at is too trivial to merit even a glance, but she knows my hand is on the rein ready to take charge if necessary.

The result of these tactics have so far amazed even me! I think it gives her confidence because, even if she spooks violently, there's no way that I would need to snatch up the reins, and because of the triangle my hands will only stay low and smooth, whatever happens, which helps me to counteract her tendency to raise her head and shorten her neck back into her withers when she's worried. Today we passed a burnt tyre on our side of a narrow lane, which would have had her trying to get onto the verge on the other side to get past it before. She snorted at it but stayed dead straight. I clicked and treated her right next to it. Quite miraculous for Grace!

I use the same tactics to convince her that she IS going to face up to oncoming traffic, or ISN'T going to try and run away from following traffic, that she doesn't like the look of.

This is all a great help because I can try out and practise these tactics on Grace, who is a spooky but basically safe and controllable horse, to use later when I start taking Jack out on his own more. He is a lot less spooky then Grace overall, but less safe and controllable when he does spook, or has been in the past anyway.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Friday, 19 December 2008

I had a go at adding the pirouette onto the end of the previous exercise today and it was very enlightening. I tend to tackle these movements in hand by obtaining the flexion and then looking at the horse's feet and asking myself what I need to do to move them into the right place to achieve the movement.

To get into the reverse pirouette, from renvers, I had to time the aid with the outside rein to ask the outside front foot to limit how far it travelled to a minimum. I still want the horse to keep on picking that foot up, so I let the horse decide how tightly he can turn around it, as I don't want him to leave the foot on the floor and twist on it, for the sake of his joints. Jack is comfortable with quite a small circle, Grace needs more of a volte, Bella is somewhere between the two.

To then get straight from the reverse pirouette into the normal pirouette (rotating around the inside hind) was quite tricky. My focus was already on the forelegs and, stupidly, I thought that the way to do it would be to ask the outside fore to cross over in front of the inside fore, instead of just stepping in front of it as it had been in the reverse pirouette.

WRONG!! That meant that the outside hind was still also crossing over the inside hind and that put the horse into half pass, if I allowed forward movement. If I blocked forward movement it threw the horse out of balance and he had no option but to step back first, with the outside fore, then cross the outside fore behind the inside fore. This meant that he had done quite a lot of work, done as I had asked and tried really hard, and I couldn't click, which I felt awful about.

Luckily I fairly quickly remembered how I got the first stage of walk pirouette from half pass - by asking the inside hind not to travel, so the outside hind just stepped in front of it, instead of crossing right under and through. Then I asked the outside fore to cross over in front of the inside fore and CLICK, we were home and dry!

I also tried the exercise in reverse - pirouette into reverse pirouette - by doing the opposite; limiting the travel of the inside fore, so that the outside fore stopped crossing and just stepped in front, and then pushing the outside hind back under and across. SUCCESS FIRST TIME OF ASKING!!!!

I had a little go ridden as well, just going from the pirouette into the first couple of steps of the reverse pirouette, and visa versa. I don't know if it was because they knew what I was going to ask, as we'd just done it in hand, or if my ridden timing is improving, but it went really well. Grace's transitions afterwards, which are still a bit jerky sometimes, were so much smoother.

I also, having seen that last photo, freeze framed myself (in my mind) when riding a lateral movement today, and Alexanda Kurland's single rein riding DVDs have definitely sorted my elbows out, thank goodness, and I think I am more upright, although that's not necessarily saying very much!!!!

I really love trying all these new things. Off to study Charles de Kunffy's 'The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse' some more!!!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I've been having such a great time. Firstly Jack and I, since the 300 Peck Pigeon, have continued to treat the school as if it has no scary end and he is being so brilliant. I have avoided working him in hand in a bridle for ages, as he seemed to regard the bit as something designed to trap him in the school. He now seems quite comfortable with me working him off the reins, even using them to correct him when he jumps slightly, and we both seem to regard them as a tool to get to the clicks more quickly, which means that I no longer try to avoid using them at all costs, and he responds to pressure from the bit instantly, softly and with no visible resentment or anxiety. This is such a massive step forward and I am so thrilled with him.

I wanted to try some new exercises and I tried them, for the first time ever, with Jack first. He was superb. Jack's lateral work in walk is quite spectacular now and he is very supple. I tried an exercise that Hilary kindly pointed out to me - walk half pass into walk pirouette and back to walk half pass again. I love this exercise! I was on the outside of the bend and, to get the pirouette, used Jack's inside rein across his withers, with a feel on the rein as his inside hind began to leave the ground, to ask the foot not to travel. The outside hind then just stepped in front of the inside hind foot, instead of crossing over underneath. To get back into half pass I then just had to omit that rein aid and push the outside hind back under and across.

Jack was brilliant at this and Bella and Grace managed very well too. I added another exercise to our repertoire today, again courtesy of Hilary and Rodrigo Da Costa Matos. This time it was the opposite exercise - haunches in up the three quarter line, into a half reverse pirouette (the ultimate renvers on a circle - turning around the inside fore) and off into haunches out.

Renvers on a circle is my absolute favourite lateral movement, and Jack is especially good at it, so I thought he would cope if I could communicate what I wanted effectively.

I was on the outside of the bend and, for the reverse half pirouette, I used the rein on the opposite side, across his withers, to ask the inside foreleg, by a feel on the rein as the foot was leaving the ground, to limit how far it travelled to a minimum, while keeping the outside hind going under, and VOILA!!!! We do a lot of renvers on a circle anyway so Jack caught on really quickly and I clicked every time the foot responded to my request, to begin with. Jack is very supple and managed it on both reins equally well. I then did a bit of the half pass to pirouette and back again.

Bella found it a little harder than Jack, especially on one rein, but we got there. It's so lovely to have Jack being better at something, and quicker to learn something, for a change. I was absolutely delighted with him, and he was quite chuffed too!!! I don't suppose that I will find it quite as easy ridden - I always find in hand easier as I can see what's happening and when to time the aids.

It inspired me to have a look through Charles de Kunffy's 'The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse' and there is the same exercise in there, but, after 180 deg reverse pirouette you stop the inside hind, activate the shoulders and go straight into a normal pirouette (rotating around the inside hind). I can't wait to try adding that on.

Thank you, Hilary, you've really inspired me to look for ways to push our boundaries a bit now and try things I would have dismissed as being too difficult and complicated before.

Mind you, I must move the cone circle. Poor Jack suddenly stiffened up in the middle of half pass. I was just wondering what he was worrying about when a cone appeared underneath him. Being on the outside of him I hadn't seen it and had made him half pass right over the top of it! Good job it wasn't Grace - she would have had a nervous breakdown!!!!

I also found this photo of Bella in travers, which I think I missed before. It was taken in August and she is more uphill now (and I hope that I am more upright too), but I am always saying that she lacks bend, so I love this photo proving me wrong. Just goes to show that comparisons with Jack ARE odious!!!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

I revisited 300 Peck Pigeons today. This is a 'Riding With The Clicker' exercise that concentrates on building duration. It teaches the horse and handler/rider to just focus on a task and get on with it.

I used it as described in the book. My criteria was to have them walking alongside me on a loose rope around the perimeter of the school while I counted. As long as I could keep walking in rhythm and the rope stayed loose they met my criteria. You start with counting 1 stride - click/treat, 1,2 strides - c/t, 1,2,3 strides - c/t, etc. until you reach 300. If your criteria are not met at any point you zero that count and begin that count again, so if I was at the 100 stage and the horse cut in front of me at 99, he would have to start the whole 100 strides again. It teaches horse and handler to chill out and concentrate on a fairly mindless, repetitive task.

I last tried this about 6 months ago with Bella and Jack. I hadn't done it before with Grace.

Jack hated this exercise last time I tried it and I wasn't going to do it again with him. He got really fed up and sluggish, while at the same time he started looking for a reason to exit stage right. I could understand why and sympathised but it doesn't really fit with my wanting him to be kind and tolerant, so I felt that I was wrong to dismiss it as being of value to him.

Having done it again believing that it was a good thing I am now still undecided. He began full of polite enthusiasm. I remember really clearly how he felt last time and this was a different horse, springing along in walk beside me, eager to trot at the slightest suggestion. We walked and I counted. He tried all sorts to earn clicks - shoulder in, Monty Python toe pointing, big strides and little ones, and he had me laughing out loud. I found it really hard not to click his efforts but I stuck with the task and only clicked on the counts.

We had no recounts and he never even thought of doing anything but obliging, and always stayed out of my way and in step with me, mostly with his nose near the floor, but he was pretty fed up by the time we reached 300 (I've never managed it in less than an hour and a quarter even without recounts). I felt like I was squashing all his enthusiasm for work, which I wasn't really, I just wasn't rewarding it, but it seemed a bit sad.

I did notice something really interesting though. By the time we reached about 100 the school no longer had a scary end. It was all the same, all the way around, in his mind and in mine - just the place where we were doing this task. I wasn't thinking about giving him easier jobs and treating him more at one end than the other, or keeping an eye on him more at one end. The clicks and treats came wherever they came, and the task was the same everywhere.

I thought that there was a lesson to be learnt here so, when I brought Grace out I left one pole where it was on the track. You can spend hours clicking Grace for walking over poles but she is always suspicious of them and alters her stride over them. I ignored the pole and began the job.

Grace was quite annoying to begin with. She kept leaning in, knocking into me, getting too far ahead, and walking off before me after the click, so I had to keep zero-ing her. When we got to the pole she would start rushing ahead or hesitate and then jog over it into me. I zero'd and carried on. I ignored the pole, even when she began to walk sensibly over it. It was just a place where we had to pick our feet up a bit higher - no more than that.

By the time we got to 200 that was exactly all the pole was and Grace felt like my long term partner, doing her part to keep with me but out of my way, getting the job done together. When I stumbled she altered her stride to stay with me and if she leaned a little around a corner it no longer annoyed me. We were partners getting a task done and helping each other out as much as we could. It felt lovely and I have never appreciated Grace more. I hope that she felt the same. It also made me realise that Jack had felt like that right from count1, and still did by 300, if a slightly fed up partner by then!

I did it ridden with Bella. Here the task is that the horse just walks on the buckle. You don't steer, just use one rein to turn if you don't like where he's going, or to slow down if he breaks pace. The horse also has to stand for the same count after the click before beginning the next count, and this is also zero'd if he moves off before being asked.

The standing was a bit of a problem with Bella to begin with. It was very cold and although her clip has just about grown out she wanted to get on with it. She did quite a lot of walking off unasked and later reining back, until she worked out that only standing would do. By the time we got to 50 she dropped her head and stood completely square with her back raised underneath me and her neck coming dead straight from her withers. It felt really lovely and I clicked her for standing like that and kept the count no higher than 70 for the stand part. That wasn't the plan but it seemed like the right thing to do.

She had me in stitches in the walking part. I never had to zero her once, although she was looking for an invitation to trot to begin with. She began by trying things to get clicked, like Jack had - shoulder in, leg yield, collected walk, etc. When that didn't work she seemed to be looking for a point to it all. There were 3 poles scattered on the ground and she kept circling over them, then going around the cone circle for a while, then back to the poles. At one point she tripped over a pole , then turned around through 180 degrees and went over the same pole again straight away. I'm not sure what that was all about! She did a bit of counter shoulder in around some of the corners, and some very small circles. She certainly kept herself far more amused than Jack was able to do.

I must try it ridden with Jack and Grace next. I could do with a warmer day though. With all the standing around, by the time we reached 300 my fingers were so numb I kept dropping the treats!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The weather is playing havoc with my training hours at the moment. Our school is sand and when it freezes it takes ages to thaw again. It was 2pm before it was usable today so someone was going to have to do the graveyard shift.

I don't think it's fair to work Jack in the dark, especially around red cones, which become almost invisible, so it has to be Bella or Grace. It's usually poor Grace so I thought it should be Bella's turn today. I've ridden Grace in the dark quite a lot recently, so it was interesting to compare how they feel, especially as feel is all I have in the dark, so it is heightened.

I think of Grace, in daylight, as being not far behind Bella now, but in the dark, going just on feel, it's a completely different story. Bella feels so light, 'up' and connected to me. Practising rein mechanics is very difficult because she is so sensitive now that it doesn't feel right to take the inside rein all the way to a point of contact - it feels like over-kill, because her responses are so instant, as soon as I begin to pick up the rein. Grace still needs me to go to a point of contact, to get a consistent response (apologies to those who haven't seen the new DVDs yet, or read 'Riding With The Clicker' - the point of contact is where you stabilise the contact on the inside rein against the front of the saddle), but with Bella it feels downright rude now.

In the dark, going only by feel, Bella felt like a balanced dressage horse in self carriage, ready to be ridden on both reins, and the single rein work felt a bit too kindergarten for her, today anyway, although I think I will always use it to warm up. Grace felt nothing like ready for two organised reins yet, so I am going to concentrate on the single rein riding for some time with her.

I worked Jack in hand today because our next door neighbour had his chainsaw out, lopping huge branches from a tree, which then crashed to the ground. Jack relies on his hearing even more than most horses and gets nervous whenever something very noisy is happening nearby, so I thought riding him would be asking too much.

I now have head lowering on a new cue; a downward flagging signal with my hand - as if asking a vehicle to slow down. Jack seems to be able to see this clearly on his bad eye side and we have an understanding that, whatever we are doing, if I do this he won't get a click until he drops his head. It's a really nice, calming cue to use, in that it seems to have a good effect on me as well, and he has so far never failed to respond to it, even with the chainsaw tree massacre going on. It means I can get him to lower his head in trot too, without interrupting whatever else we are doing.

My three are all a bit short of proper exercise at the moment; going out for only a couple of hours in rutted, muddy, slippery paddocks and working mostly in walk in a barely thawed out school, but they are all being so sensible and concentrating so hard on what they are asked to do. This time last year Bella would have been pinging about at the slightest excuse and Jack would have been very tense and jumpy in the school. Even Grace would have been snorty and spooky, but they are all being very chilled out and studious.

So much has changed!!!!

Friday, 5 December 2008

Alexandra Kurland has done it again!!! I finally got around to watching the 'Helen House Horse - The Mechanics of Single Rein Riding' DVD. I haven't been in a hurry to watch it because, although I was sure that I'd find some useful tips on there, I knew that it was all about the finer details of single rein mechanics, and with no horses, so I thought that I'd have trouble staying awake.

Oh, how wrong can I be?!!! As soon as the action began I got the tingling feeling of excitement that I always get when I know that I've found something that's going to make a huge difference. I had sort of worked out the basics of the mechanics about right. Some minor details I'd found for myself - the necessity of having my little finger inside the rein, instead of the rein being between ring and little finger, and the taking the slack from the inside rein by lifting the buckle hand rather than reaching forward down the rein (not something you do if you think your horse might suddenly spin and run) - but there is SO much more than that to be had!

As Alexandra Kurland says on the DVD, if you have a confident, easy horse you can get away with blue murder, but the more difficulties and uncertainties the horse has, the more all the tiny details really matter. As I watched the riders working through the finer details of the mechanics - the lifting of the reins from the shoulder blades, the bone rotations followed by setting the shoulder blades down - the riders were transformed. They all began to look like martial artists; so grounded and centred into the saddle, that it would take an earthquake to shift them.

This is all achieved in a relaxed way, that leaves the rider neutral, with no tension or stiffness anywhere. Their stability is tested by someone pulling on the reins, which is resisted with ease and with no alteration to the rider. You can see how effortlessly powerful the rider becomes, but in a gentle, receptive way. The rider becomes locked into their own core, and the horse responds from his own core.

There are also the details of the mechanics of the emergency one rein stop. I've had to do this twice with Jack and, although I did manage to stop him, it didn't work as quickly or easily as I'd hoped. I can now see why, and, if I ever have to use it again, it will work much better next time.

It was fascinating listening to AK explaining that how far you need to go down the rein to find your horse's hip alters all the time, depending on how connected to you, and to himself, the horse is, mentally and physically. I'd noticed this myself, without really realising what was going on.

Alexandra Kurland says that, by paying attention to the finer details of these mechanics, you can take control of the horse in a way that makes him feel safe. That you can learn to begin to do the things that very talented riders, the sort that "just get on a horse and the horse melts underneath them", take a lifetime of riding to perfect.

These are exactly the details I need for Jack. If I only had Grace and Bella I might think that it didn't matter too much (although I know that they are going to benefit from the results too) but I have known all along that, while giving Jack the reins every time he gets anxious works well for us at home (now that he knows how to keep himself calm), I can't rely on it out on the road or at a show. He doesn't have enough experience or see well enough. I've known that I have to find a way to persuade him that he must listen to me, without the idea of him giving away control pushing him over the edge into flight.

Now I have! These details will give me the all the tools I need to be an irresistible leader in all circumstances, even with Jack, and the way they anchor the rider to the saddle will give me that last bit of confidence I need to keep myself calm, focused and centred, no matter what.

I've got a lot of work to do, perfecting the bone rotations and making everything effortless, fluid and automatic, but the final result will be SO worth the effort - a horse who is always trusting and confident, happy and willing to let his rider make the decisions!

What would I have done, where would Jack and I be now, without Alexandra Kurland? I am so, so grateful to her. All this information is worth it's weight in gold to me!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Especially for Muriel - Jack wearing his SRS cavesson.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Monday, 1 December 2008

I have to put this on here, Alexandra Kurlands 10th Anniversary message - ten years on from when her book 'Clicker Training For Your Horse' was first published: com/watch? v=IG7DJjIxHYg

It really brought it home to me; how much clicker training and 'The Click That Teaches' has done for me and for my horses, and in less than one year! Roll on the next ten because the sky is the limit now, if I can just get my riding good enough not to hold them back too much!!!


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