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


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.


  1. Thanks for the lovely christmas card, Wnat a beautiful head and neck Jack has.It has been to busy to ride, but have just had time to have a little play.As soon as I get the mat out, they both appear and have a good old jostle to see who can put their hooves on first. For my sins I just started Seamus with the clicker, and of course he understands the whole game and is now stealing Soph's thunder.Bella sounds so like him! He wants to be a super star the whole time.He's done his usual trick of sailing over 3ft+ electric fencing to get at my last piece of grass, I have been saving!He's such a saucy boy, it's a good job his dad loves him so much.
    I was wondering where you are in relation to us, we are situated just west of Midhurst in a small village.It would be fun if you and the others could come over for a day! when the spring arrives.

  2. Thank you very much Janette, that's really kind of you. I think that we are getting on for 100 miles north of you and I'm ashamed to admit that I never learned to drive. As Appy2Quarter is your side of London and Hilary is in North Yorkshire, perhaps we could all meet up here sometime?

  3. Hello Helen, I hope you don't mind me following here? I've read all your blog on EE and so enjoyed it. It inspires me to work with my lot. Thank you so much for keeping it up and Happy New year to you for 2009

  4. Hello Gill, thank you so much and lovely to hear from you!



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