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


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!!!!


  1. Without an indoor school no horse has proper exercise. Even with an indoor school, it is no the same than working outside ^-^ !

    I cannpt wait for my DVDs!

  2. I have thought hard about what you wrote about Bella. That you could not "good, better, best" anymore.

    I thought of two different things:

    1/she is sensitive to the aids, but is she sensitized to it? For example our western horses are sensitized to spurs, they are able to distinguish a sudden bump or a cue. Etienne Beudant in his book Vallerine also describes how his mare could make the difference between a non-intentional bump and a bump with intent.
    So is Bella sensitive to your rein aid or is she sensitized?
    NOTE: Etienne Beudant was one of the best rider (French school) according to the General DeCarpentry.

    2/ Bella is broke ^-^ it is an American expression used by John Lyons, Bob Avila, Al Dunning etc...
    It means that the horse has accepted, learnt the cue and it has become a conditioned response

    As AK is influenced by JL, you ough to be aware that it is a big part of JL's training, he wants conditioned responsive horses.

    Now you tell us, how Bella is ^-^

  3. Very interesting points, as always, Muriel.

    You probably won't be surprised to see me write this, but that is one of the huge advantages of clicker training - you can mark the signals that you want the horse to listen to, and he then knows those that are to be ignored. I think that horses are good at doing that anyway, but the clicker helps to speed up the process.

    I hope that I don't send too many extranious signals down the reins, but when I'm asking Bella to respond to my core muscles with her core muscles, but want her to ignore me suddenly lurching to one side to straighten the saddle, the clicker is a great help!

    The reason I can only get 'best' now, and not the preparortary stages of 'good' and 'better', is because Bella has learnt to access the full flexion at the first request, and as she has only been getting clicked for 'best' for some time now, and has now practised the broken down stages of the flexion enough, she can and does go straight to the rewarded behaviour. If I wanted to keep the intermediate stages I would have had to keep reinforcing each stage, at least some of the time. In other circumstances I might, but I don't think there would be any reason not to go straight for 'best' now, as long as she can manage it easily and well.

    The other thing that the clicker helps establish is that there can be more than one answer to a cue. For instance, picking up the inside rein can mean a lateral flexion, it can mean halt or rein back, or it can mean head down. When the horse tries one answer and doesn't get clicked he learns to look for additional cues, such as how the rider is sitting. This helps to tune him in to the rider's intent.

    So I would say that yes, Bella is very much a conditioned responsive horse. That could have been quite a challenge with Bella because, pre-clicker, she was very good at ignoring any cues that she didn't feel like responding to at the time. Pressure on a rein, when she didn't feel like turning, or a swift kick when she didn't feel like speeding up, she could tune out with ease whenever it suited her. Quite often she choose not to be a very sensitive horse. The clicker has sensitized her, to all of my aids. Now she can't even ignore a breath in or out when taken with intent, even if there are times when she'd quite like to.

    Now that's what I call a conditioned responsive horse!

  4. And you have answered to your question ^-^

    I think you can keep working with two reins. Otherwise you might "dull" her. Or being rude. I can only imagine your mare rolling her eyes, and give you THAT look. The mare-ish pissy look meaning " How dare You!" LOL

  5. You're so right, Muriel, only in Bella's case she'd be rolling her eyes saying "the idiot I have to put up with"!!!



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