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, 30 January 2009

My Little Helper.

Hope to start riding again in a couple of days but in the meantime I thought I'd cheer myself up by posting these pics of Megs, my little helper. She's just a year old and we thought we were buying a black and tan Jack Russell. Her mum is the most typey JR imaginable and we keep saying we should take her back and demand a refund!

Megs is tiny but thinks she's huge and spends most of her time telling the horses off. Amazingly they are all, even Bella, really tolerant of her. She's a gorgeous little dog; really faithful and always so happy and enthusiastic. I spend most of my time looking down on this view:

I also cheered myself up by buying another Iberian bridle. It's much more plain than Grace's and I want to replace the very thin noseband and browband, but it was going too cheaply to resist (and the buckles and reins are lovely). I do find that with these driving or in-hand type bridles (the English equivalent) the noseband, as it runs through the cheekpieces,does help to support and stabilise the bit in the horse's mouth. I always used to ride my PBA mare in an in-hand bridle for that very reason. I didn't know about Iberian bridles then. I'll take some photos of it when I've customised it!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Photos of my Pones Backs.

I emailed my photos to 'Saddlefitter' this evening (poor woman, very cheeky of me to send her photos of all three, but I always feel I have to treat them all equally - as if they'd care that they'd been left out of the photos!!!!!).

Anyway I thought you might be interested to see what my hips have to cope with! I'll just post the most revealing

Grace, a badly sprung settee:

Jack, an overstuffed armchair:

Bella, an overstuffed mattress:

I sent a side view of Grace taken at the show in September, so she looked really smart, but I couldn't find suitable ones of Bella and Jack so had to take these of the muddy, scruffy looking urchins. I need some warm weather to get them clipped right out and bathed!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Saddle Fitting.

I found this blog today.

I thought it was really useful and I think I will take her up on her offer and email her some photos of my pones' backs. I would be especially interested to hear what she had to say about Grace's atrophy, as I'd really love to find a treed dressage saddle for her one day.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Russell's Story.

I've begun Russell's blog, if anyone is REALLY short of reading material!

No photos yet but I'm working on it.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

I found these clips on You tube yesterday and they really excited and inspired me:

After watching them I wanted, today, to try to get Renvers, Travers and Half Pass at liberty by drawing my horses towards me from the inside of the bend, rather than 'pushing' them away from me from the outside of the bend, which is how I've always done it before.

It was tricky. I knew that the back end was going to be harder to draw than the front so I began by asking their outside hind to step underneath them towards me, by staring at it, stepping slowly backward and beckoning it towards me with my nearest hand, much as in the video clips.

Jack stood with his head down, thinking and trying SO hard to work out what I was asking, but I don't think he could see me well enough on his bad eye side. I didn't think there was much point in doing it on one side only so I found something to click him for and abandoned the exercise in that form.

Bella understood really quickly and stepped underneath, towards me, with her outside hind. I clicked and treated her madly for that and it was then quite easy to get her to target my other hand with her nose and draw her into the movement, but I did find that her front legs drew more easily and took bigger strides than her hind legs, which is what I thought was happening slightly in the video clips. I need to find some way to emphasise the 'push' of the outside hind, to keep the power of the stride.

What really, really blew me away was how hard they both tried and how much mental effort they put into trying to work out what I wanted. I don't usually do proper liberty work (as opposed to just letting go of the reins) in the school, because there is a lot of grass growing in the school, and grass is something they're allowed very little of, so it's often been too much of a temptation.

They didn't even look at the grass. There was nothing to stop them wandering off but they stayed with me and gave me every last ounce of their thought and attention. That is something I wouldn't have dreamed possible with young horses, pre clicker. I shouldn't be surprised, having seen Hilary's Lottie on the 'Microshaping DVD but it still amazes and humbles me every time.

I don't think I've EVER seen Jack try as hard as that anywhere, let alone in the school. He might have been the one who couldn't work out what I was asking but it certainly wasn't for want of thought, attention and desire to please. His mental effort was written all over him. Once again he was my hero among heroes!!!

Monday, 19 January 2009

First Time Evers.

I has a really exciting day today with 'first time evers' with all three of my Dales.

I am still working Jack in hand and the hover I have been building into his front feet, with the Monty Python stuff, is finally beginning to really surface in trot and today, for the first time ever, I had the beginnings of real elevation in his trot to click. He looked so impressive because there is so much of him to elevate! I'm really missing riding him but concentrating on in hand is paying off. The sarcoid on his girth line has now started to peel away on one side and has lost about a third of it's area of attachment so I'm still hoping it will fall off without treatment.

With Grace I got some perfect downward transitions for the first time ever. The breakthrough was watching Philippe Karl and reading 'Twisted Truths' which made me realise that she needed to raise her head but I had to explain to her that she should do it by lifting through the top of her neck and withers, instead of contracting the top of her neck and hollowing her back.

I have been explaining this to her by lifting the back of my own neck and 'withers' and she has 'got' this so well now that I can often stop her instantly by doing this alone. She feels like a totally different horse when she halts like this - there's an elegance to her top line which looks and feels beautiful from on board. I need to get some photos taken to confirm what I'm feeling. This has improved her rein back as well, and she feels as though she has suddenly taken a massive leap forward in terms of balance and engagement, and all the previous jerkiness has suddenly vanished from her upward transitions too. Everything feels smooth and easy. If I could just add in some more elevation to her paces....

Riding Bella was the most exciting part of the day for me. Bella performed her first ever steps of Spanish Walk under saddle and I got to ride my first ever steps. It felt SO weird! I have to really think of sitting towards one hind leg and then the other, to free up the opposite shoulder enough. I wonder if it feels a bit like one time tempi changes do? I felt as though I was sitting on a horse for the first time, it felt so different and alien to sit, but it's very exciting and she puts SO much effort into it. I had to race into the house and tell OH afterwards, I was so excited!

Another dream come true. I never, ever really thought that I'd be able to train my own cobby Dales pony to do Spanish Walk with me in the saddle, and it's happening by my just lifting the reins alternately and saying "Spanish"!!!

With the discussions we've been having in 'comments' I was wondering today what attracted everyone else to looking at alternate ways of training their horses? With me it was a free Parelli DVD in a magazine. I loved the liberty work and raced out to try it with Bella in the field (even though it said not to begin with liberty work!). Bella seemed to like it too and I loved the idea of being able to really 'play' with her, so I had to know more and bought the 'Level' packs.

What inspired everyone else to look outside traditional methods?

Oh, and the other reason I've had a really good day is because I've managed to install a new USB network adapter! The last one had packed up and this one is faster and I managed it almost single handed! It might not be much of an achievment for Bill Gates but for me it's massive!!!!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Aspirations and Expectations.

Muriel said in the comments to the last post that I had attributed some powera and virtues to clicker training which were not clicker dependent. She has also said that she is disappointed with the 'Click That Teaches' DVDs she has bought, which I feel quite guilty about, as it was me who recommended them - sorry Muriel!

I guess a lot depends on your expectations and your starting point. I started clicker training with problems with both Bella and Jack that I had begun to think might prove insolvable. Clicker training solved them in the blink of an eye.

I am not saying that there were definitely no other ways of solving them, or that clicker training is the only way, but it was the only way that worked for me and this is a personal account of a personal journey.

Karen Prior, pioneer of clicker training and author of 'Don't Shoot the Dog' says the following;
‘‘A curious but important corollary to training
by positive reinforcement is that it breeds affection
in both subject and trainer. . . . The success
of the training interchange tends to turn the
participants into generalized conditioned reinforcers
for each other. The trainer is the
source of interesting, exciting, rewarding,
life-enhancing events for the subject, and the
subject’s responses are interesting and rewarding
for the trainer’’

My expectations and aspirations have grown alongside the success I've had with clicker training, and because Bella and Jack seem to me to be quite talented, but I'm not kidding myself too much. All I really want is to have happy, soft, shiny, enthusiastic horses who love working, playing and being with me as much as I love working, playing and being with them, and that's what clicker training has given me.

Bella is already producing some extraordinary work but when I say that I don't mean that it would be extraordinary, or probably even ordinary, if Philippe Karl or Anja Beran were training her. I mean that it's extraordinary because I am training her. We're already managing to achieve things that I thought were only possible in my wildest dreams, because I am not a talented rider and never will be.

Bella and Jack were never going to take the professional dressage world by storm, even if they did have a talented rider, and even with the most talented horse in the world and all the coaching money could buy neither was I. If I can train them to happily do a little high school work then I will have surpassed all that I ever thought I was capable off. I will have blown my own socks off!

If I do manage to it will be because of clicker training. Other people can get there without but it will be such an extraordinary, massive achievement for me. My wildest dream before clicker training would have been that some day I might have found someone willing to let me have a sit on their high school horse and experience what piaffe, passage, etc. felt like. The idea of training my own, all by myself, from scratch......

Clicker training makes dreams come true. I'm already making mine come true. But it is my dream and it only has to impress me and my horses. If the work ends up lacking fire and great impulsion but my horses stay sound and happy doing it then I will have achieved everything I have ever wanted.

And I couldn't have managed a fraction of it without Alexandra Kurland and clicker training and I know that to be true.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Giving the Horse a Voice.

Alexandra Kurland wrote somewhere (I can't find it now) about how clicker training can give the horse a voice and a chance to communicate how he feels about things. She said that, after learning the mounting block lesson, where you are basically asking the horse if it's ok for you to get on him, her old horse Peregrine is usually very eager to line himself up with the mounting block but on days when he's not feeling up to being ridden (he's in his twenties and has had problems with his back legs all his life, and with his feet for many years) he hangs away from the mounting block. On those days she knows that he must be sore and just does in hand work with him.

I thought that was such a lovely thing. Inviting the horse to go with you to the mounting block and stand ready to be mounted, once he understands the job and knows he will be rewarded for it, builds in a safety net, for the horse and the rider. She said that if normally cooperative horse suddenly doesn't want to play 'Capture the Saddle' than you know that something is wrong.

I've had times in the past when Jack wasn't very keen to come to the mounting block in the school. I took very little notice then but now realise that if, on those days, I'd spent a bit more time with him on the ground, he would have been less inclined to over-react to every imagined dragon lurking behind the bales! I was lucky because my St. Merryn always kept me on board, but I would have fallen off him on most of such occasions without it, and all because I wasn't listening to him trying to tell me that he felt safer with me on the floor with him and didn't want me to abandon him just yet.

I've been doing a quite a lot of Spanish Walk with Bella just lately and read yesterday about the effort of it making some horses quite sore. I thought, at least if Bella is feeling a bit sore she'll be able to tell me because she is always super keen to play 'Capture the Saddle'. The day she isn't I'll be in absolutely no doubt that something is amiss.

If I ever start a young horse again I will spend hours on the mounting block lesson, long before I ever really mount. How fantastic for a young horse to be able to communicate his needs so clearly, right from the very start of being backed. I wonder how many horses would ever feel the need to buck their rider off if they were all trained in this way, and felt that they had a choice in the matter of being ridden, and that choice would be noticed, listened to and respected.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Philippe Karl Style Flexions.

We've swapped frozen solid for wet and windy here today so I didn't waste any dry time in tacking up and just made a dash for the school to do some in hand work. I managed to keep Bella and Grace dry but Jack and I got a soaking.

I wanted to try some bigger lateral flexions, Philippe Karl style. Alexandra Kurland teaches the horse very small, gradual lateral flexions, a stage at a time, which is a lovely, gentle way to teach and develop them, but Philippe Karl says "wizout bend where iz ze gymnastizizing?" I wanted to see if my horses were ready for more gymnastic lateral flexions.

I tried with Bella first. I only had her in a headcollar so asked her mostly to flex towards me. I thought she might struggle with the fairly drastic flexions that PK uses in 'Classical vs Classique' as she has never been as supple laterally as Jack. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for her and it suddenly occurred to me to try giving her something to think of bending around.

I held my in hand whip up vertically alongside her inside shoulder and asked her for a lateral flexion. This had the added advantage of making it absolutely clear to her that I wanted her to stay really well up off her shoulder. She understood straight away and gave me a flexion that wouldn't have looked out of place on PK's DVDs. She then did some really lovely shoulder in on both reins.

She was quite on her toes throughout this, as she has had a week off and not been able to do more than walk carefully around a rock solid field for days, so I let her have a run around on the lunge. She walked and trotted on both reins sensibly and swingingly (for clicks and treats), even though Tom and my neighbours horses were turning themselves inside out in the field, and didn't let rip until asked to canter, which was accompanied by much leaping, bucking and farting. The emotional control she has learnt from 'Riding with the Clicker' is, I think, extraordinary for a six year old, especially as it's not something I've really concentrated on with her, as I have with Jack.

I did the same things with Jack and he also found the big flexions to be no problem. He hadn't been in the school for a week and it was really windy so I had prepared myself for him to be really spooky and was ready to go back to 300 Peck Pigeon if necessary. He was an absolute star! Not even a hint of a spook, even when it started raining as well. Even on the lunge he stayed relaxed and though he was glad to kick his heels up too, when asked to canter, there was no tension or anxiety there at all. He has come so, so far! He's my hero!!!!

I found that Grace isn't really ready for big flexions yet. They call for quite an advanced outline and Grace is not uphill enough yet and still needs to do more of the AK baby flexions, but holding the whip upright by her inside shoulder helped to really keep her up and off it, especially on her stiff side. I don't let her run around on the lunge as she only practises bad movement, and she's already spent too many years doing that. She doesn't yet have the self carriage to carry herself well, left to her own devices, and still needs reminding all the time.

I was thinking today about how demanding in hand work is for the horse. I am now, at very close quarters, controlling everything about them, from the speed and direction that their feet move in to the position, height and angle of the front of their faces. The fact that they can cope with this and stay relaxed, happy, enthusiastic and keen to do more of the same, as all three of them do, is just wonderful. My gratitude to them, for allowing me to, knows no bounds.

Please may I never, ever start to take all of this for granted and lose the wonder of it all.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Frosty Photos.

Everything has been thawing well here today and we have water coming from all the taps again. The school always takes a while but I think it will be usable tomorrow. It feels like forever since I last rode and the novelty of more time in the field has definitely worn off for my pones. They looked very bored today.

Yesterday was almost unbearably cold with freezing fog for most of the day. Temperatures started well below freezing and got colder all day. Even the water to the house was frozen underground until OH managed to thaw it out. It looked really beautiful though and I took some more photos.

The school:

The view from the back of the school:

The drive:

Our livery, Tom. He is in his twenties and was the most perfect driving schoolmaster ever, having been delivering coal in Dublin when he was three. He wasn't gelded until he was four and is very butch. Bella and Grace love him but he is a bit of a bully with other horses. His owner has clicker trained him to do a few tricks, which he loves and picks up very quickly. Tom is living proof that you can teach an old horse new tricks!

My next door neighbour's horses. She doesn't have much land and rents a paddock from us to use in the winter. I have black horses, she has duns!

My ducks sulking because the pond and puddles have all frozen up:

One of my hens:

Jack's tormentor. If you click on the second photo to see the full size version you can see Jack's point - she looks positively evil! I wouldn't want to be a mouse with her about!:

Friday, 9 January 2009

Snowy Days Photos.

Bella and Russell, showing what great friends they are:

Bella with Grace in the background:



Please don't click on the photos of Bella to see the full size version or you'll see that I've managed to do up one of her surcingles twisted - sigh - there's always something when I'm going to take photos!!!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Photo Albums 2008.

I've organised Bella, Jack and Grace's photos from 2008 into albums. Clicking on the photos should take you to each individual album. I think they've all been posted before but I wanted them all together for ease of reference. I really must ditch the AK-style waistcoat for future photos!!!!

I've had to move all the photos back again because they had disappeared from the earlier posts and the EE blog, which people still seem to be reading. I'll have to reload them into separate files at some point. One day I'll get the hang of all this!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Snowy Days.

I've given up trying to work my horses for now as we have lying snow which is balling up in their feet, and getting all the livestock watered takes up most of the day, with only one tap thawable and so having to drag miles of hosepipe about.

I'm not complaining though because they love the snow and I love watching them in it. Jack in particular is such a big kid! He has to push his nose along through it all the way to his paddock, and has been known to just HAVE to stop for a roll on the way there, as he can't wait any longer.

Usually in the winter they all go out about midday, for a couple of hours, and I fit in working them either side of that. At the moment, while it's been so sunny and lovely out, they've been going out after breakfast with a pile of haylage, and coming in about 3pm. It means I have to carry water buckets out to the paddocks, as the troughs are solid ice now.

I had a very nasty moment today though. I'd just got Bella and Russell in and tied them in the yard to change their rugs when our Jack Russell, Flora, started barking. I have to shut the dogs in a stable when I need to leave the yard gate open, as Flora has what has been a near fatal attraction to standing in the middle of the road, for some reason known only to her, so the dogs can't be left to free range like most of the animals here.

I had to leave the gate open to let the returning poultry, who do free range, back in to get into their stable for the night. I had the radio on and kept shouting at her to shut up when it eventually occurred to me to wonder why she was barking. Our Golden Retriever often does, in protest at being shut in, but Flora usually only barks for a good reason. I turned the radio off and immediately heard a calf sounding distressed in the cowshed, which backs onto the stables.

I ran around there and OH had shut the cows back out of the front passageway, so he could drive the tractor in, and disappeared. We have two young calves, just a couple of weeks old, and one had become wedged (with a little help from the cow in the pen who isn't his mum, I suspect) with his head through the gate and his bum tight up against a ring feeder. The gate was pressing on his windpipe and he was suffocating.

I tried to untie the gate but he had jammed the knots tight and I tried to push his bum out of the tiny gap it was wedged in but nothing gave an inch. I was shouting for OH, who always carries a penknife, but no joy. I racked my brain for where I could quickly lay my hands on something sharp and suddenly remembered leaving a knife in the shed opposite. I ran over and grabbed it and got back just in time to see the calf go limp as he lost consciousness. Cursing my slow reactions I cut the string and the gate shot open. It had been holding the unconscious calf up and as he fell to the floor he began to gasp again. I stood guard over him, so he didn't get trampled, until he came around and staggered to his feet and then, low and behold, OH appeared!

I apologised profusely to Flora for shouting at her when she was trying to tell me that something was making an unusual noise and needed investigating. If it wasn't for her that calf would be dead now and he's SO cute - red and woolly like a Highland, although he's an Aberdeen Angus. OH would have been distraught and blaming himself for leaving them unattended, and the calf's mum is devoted to her first ever offspring. We all have a lot to be grateful to Flora for.

Bella and Russell were still tied in the yard and waiting, surprised but patiently. I really appreciate my pones endless patience at times like these. The other day my next door neighbour came into the yard for a chat when I had just got Jack in and tied him up. He stood watching us thoughtfully, ears pricked as though taking an interest in our conversation and never moved a muscle. When we finally went over to him he said hello very politely to her but then leaned towards me, as if seeking my assurance that she was OK. I've often noticed him doing this when someone goes up to his stable door in front of me - he will say hello but then look around them for me. It's really touching and makes me feel really close to him. Dales do seem to be quite 'one person' ponies. I am so glad that I'm Bella and Jack's 'person'!

I would be grateful if Bella didn't try to eat other people that go near to her stable though, especially OH. It doesn't endear her to him too much!!!!!!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Taking Stock.

Everywhere is still frozen rock hard here so I have only been able to do in hand work in walk so far this year! I've been giving some thought to where I am now with my horses, at the beginning of 2009, and what I need to concentrate more on, to get to where I hope we'll be by the beginning of 2010.

Things I am especially delighted with and excited by:

Bella, Jack and Grace -
Their understanding of and response to the bit.
The quality of the contact and feel they give me down the reins.
Their understanding and response to the lightest of driving aids.
Their attitude to their work and to me.

Jack -
His walk and his lateral work at walk.
His present high levels of confidence and concentration, and he is so controlable now.
His energy and enthusiasm, and his newly aquired love of movement.

Bella - Her superb (for a Dales), elevated, cadenced trot, and her Spanish Walk.

Grace - Her canter (considering where we started from).

Things I would like to change:

Bella and Jack -
Their attitude to each other and to working around other horses (they both seem to regard attack as the best form of defense and have to be restrained/discouraged from doing so!).

Grace -
Her lack of confidence with high sided vehicles on narrow lanes, and with some objects.
Her habitual tendency to hollow still in downward transitions.

Also I can't ride Jack at the moment. He has had a small nodular-type lump under the skin on the underside of his chest, underneath where the girth lies, for some months. It only involves the skin (I can get my fingers underneath it) and was causing no problems and my vet didn't think that it was a sarcoid, or anything sinister, but suggested surgically removing it sometime and having it biopsied.

I have been dragging my feet over this because I have had rams with terrible brisket sores which won't heal because they are always in contact with the ground when the ram lies down. Removing Jack's lump was going to leave a stitched wound in the same sort of location and in an area where the skin is already quite tight, and I was worried that the wound would break down.

Also, the only time Jack has had sedation and antibiotics (he had to have his leg stitched after being frightened by someone shooting on the other side of the hedge, so he tried to climb over the gate to his paddock) he had what looked for a while like it was going to be a surgical colic, two days later.

I was planning to try and desensitise him to needles using the clicker, so he could have it done without sedation (and have injectable antibiotics instead of oral) but the lump has changed drastically in the last fortnight. It may be wishful thinking on my part but it looks as though it is separating away from the surrounding tissue. It certainly looks more like a sarcoid than it did, so I will tactfully insist on sending a photo of it to Derek Knottenbelt before the vet tackles it, if it doesn't self cure.

Either way I won't put a girth on him while it looks so unstable and sore.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Motivation of Dressage Horses - Richard Hinrichs

I received this DVD for Christmas as well and it's just fantastic. As well as it being beautiful to watch, Richard Hinrichs says some very interesting things which are very similar to 'Riding With The Clicker', and not just the emphasis on reward, including food rewards.

He puts a lot of emphasis on getting the horse completely relaxed by riding it in a long, low outline - not just young horses, but also advanced horses at the beginning of every session (and this includes Iberians, for whom some people seem to think that riding long and low is detrimental).

The reason for this is because he says that "A horse with it's head held low is clearly releasing less adrenalin than one with it's head held high." He says that "If the horse learns to stretch forward and down from a signal from the rider, and a conditioned reflex becomes automatic, one can also calm the horse in difficult situations and control it's behaviour". He says that this method of calming a horse was first described in 1710 by a trainer with the Spanish Riding School.

He also says that you should begin a session with right turns and circles because "Most horses calm down in right turns, whereas in small left turns they tend to get excited". I hadn't heard that before.

He says that when warming up the rider should keep on varying the stride length and frequency because "If, at this preparatory stage, the trainer already occupies his horse with many small variations, it will look forward to new demands as a pleasant change and not an unpleasant interruption of the status quo". I thought that that was especially relevant to clicker training, with all it's stops and starts. Richard Hinrichs talks a lot about keeping the horse interested in the rider with frequent changes - he says even the reward of walking on a long rein should only be for very brief periods, or you loose the horse's interest and attention.

Richard Hinrichs is also very keen on using voice aids first and foremost. He says that Pluvinel referred to the voice as 'the spur of the mind', and he (Hinrichs) talks of obtaining a "state of mind where the horse offers the exercises of it's own accord. He says that anyone who regards riding a horse this way as 'poodle dressage' should ask themselves if they could obtain such lightness in their horse's work (this is while a little Camargue in a western saddle is performing a stunning piaffe, as calmly and lightly as a feather).

It is a beautiful and inspiring DVD, featuring a range of different horses. The Friesian performing a wonderful ridden piaffe with no bridle was just spectacularly gorgeous. I love this DVD and it has inspired me to revisit long reining, using his 'hands on' (literally!) approach, and to start to work toward piaffe in hand with Jack and Bella, which seems far more attainable having watched the DVD.

One of these days Jack and Bella (and maybe even Grace) WILL be the Dales equivalent of that Friesian!!!!!!!!

PS. Now I just need the school to thaw out so that we can get on with it!


About Me

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