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


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!


  1. I can only admire your discipline and determination. It is mind-bogling.

    Very impressive work from the handler and teh horses. But It is YOU who ought to get most of the credits for your focus.

    veyr inspiring!

  2. Couldn't agree more Muriel - your patience is astounding Helen! I remember the post back on EE when you first tried and rejected 300 peck with Jack. I tried it with Hylo and must admit I did it only until he walked off without biting at the rein. Might be interesting to see what benefits he would gain now.

    Thinking about it, 300 peck might be great for Tig, both ridden and inhand as she does tend to rush off unasked. I'm so glad you posted on this as its definitely something she needs!!

  3. That's very kind of both of you but, Muriel, I am the least self disciplined person imaginable; I just love every moment I spend with my pones.

    Now if I spring cleaned the house, that would show self discipline and determination!!!!!!

  4. AAAh but house-cleaning is very different matter. I have yet to meet a horsewoman with decent house-cleaning skills. I think it comes with the territory ^_^

  5. Agree with Muriel,housecleaning is a different matter completely ( apart from being totally unrewarding ). It's interesting to note just how quickly Grace is coming on, do you think it's because you've "practised" on the others first ?Lovely to hear of the progress of your ponies & still inspiring !

  6. Thank you very much, Maryka.

    Yes, I think that I'm now much better at recognising and marking the tiniest of tries, and also Grace is very easy and strightforward. She isn't the bravest pony ever born but, if she doesn't like the look of something, she gives you 100 yards notice of the fact, so she never takes anyone by surprise, and she always does her best to oblige.



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