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, 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.


  1. Ah Helen today is the day, that we have to agree that we disagree ^-^

    Now in a few posts here on the other blog, you granted the clicker training some power/virtues, which, IMO, are not clicker-dependant.

    Clicker training is a technique. Point. Period. Nothing else, nothing more. Just like Parelli is, or BHS etc.. Thought I find a bit sacrilege to compare BHS to CT or NH ...

    Well it is a technique .
    What makes ALL the difference is the ATTITUDE. You have a great attitude. You sound like a super learner, open-minded and curious. But you are also a GREAT trainer, you are calm, compassionate and persistent (300 pigeons, who on earth can do that exercise!!!).
    Myself I am a super learner, I digest, remember informations very quickly, but I find yet difficult to become a teacher/trainer, but I am getting there.
    It is only a mind game.

    So you do not need to do CT, for realising that your horse does not want to be ridden or he is not keen, or he is sore etc.. it is only down to sensitivity and compassion and empathy, i.e. a state of mind, or attitude of handler.

    NOT a technique!

    Back to you .. waiting for yoru reply ^-^

  2. Muriel, you are so kind to me, I'm blushing here!

    I have studied Parelli and NH but I am a much, MUCH, better trainer since I began clicker training. It may start as a technique but, for me, it has become a way of life. I am a much calmer, more serene person since I began clicker training.

    I have learnt to observe without judging and not to take problems with my horses personally. Instead of thinking "how can he do this to me" I think "what can I do to change things" and I ALWAYS have answers now. I can spot the tiniest, tiniest little try from the horse and build on that. I don't panic and think that I've ruined everything when something goes wrong anymore because I KNOW that I CAN put it right again and there's no rush.

    For me it's not just a technique but way of thinking - focusing on the positive and trying to ignore everything else, secure in the knowlege that if I click the positive I will get more of that and all the things I don't want will gradually melt away.

    I believe, to be the sort of trainer my horses would choose, I need the serenity that clicker training has given me. I didn't have that before and I didn't find it in Parelli or Natural Horsemanship. With freeshaping you HAVE to find it, as you HAVE to go at the horse's pace. I think that was the turning point for me and the most profound, most long lasting changes I've made to my horse's attitudes have been through freeshaping.

    If my attitude is right it's because of becoming a clicker trainer. Without it I would be years behind where I am now in terms of my relationship with my horses and I don't believe I would EVER have got the quality of work from them that I am already getting.

    The difference with clicker training is that you don't have to be a talented rider or trainer. You just have to trust the process and 'take the time it takes' and anything becomes possible. The attitude arrives as part of the package. How could anyone not have compassion and empathy for horses who love their company and try their hearts out for them? Those are the horses that clicker training gives you.

    I wish you could come and meet them Muriel. I think you would be as enchanted with them as I am.

  3. A few more thoughts; I am very determined but in the past that has made me rather pig-headed and turned training into a battle of wills sometimes.

    I'm still very determined but now I don't NEED to be pig-headed or enter into a battle of wills because I know I WILL get what I want. It might not be today or tomorrow but it will happen and all I need to do is wait for the first tiny sign of it and click it. The rest is guaranteed, so it's easy to be patient and sympathetic to the horse's point of view.

    The click also becomes rewarding for the trainer as well as the horse. It becomes associated with a huge stored up well of good memories and feelings - all the sucesses and fun we've had together, all the feelings of working and playing together in understanding and harmony - all that gives me a warm glow with each click. The click marks that exact moment of success and makes it stick as firmly in the trainer's memory as it does in the horse's. It becomes addictive and I bend over backwards all the time to find something to click, just as my horses do to give me something to click.

  4. You are not less pig-headed... you are just getting older ^-^

    You say that :
    I have learnt to observe without judging and not to take problems with my horses personally. Instead of thinking "how can he do this to me" I think "what can I do to change things" and I ALWAYS have answers now. I can spot the tiniest, tiniest little try from the horse and build on that. I don't panic and think that I've ruined everything when something goes wrong anymore because I KNOW that I CAN put it right again and there's no rush

    But *I* am learning it from PNH. But then PNH has come a LONG WAY since its 4 phases. I learnt with the "new" (not anymore available) home-programmes L1 & 2 with Linda Parelli and Stephanie Burns NLP coach.
    I bought OLD PNH level 3 (green box), my jaw dropped to the floor, it was so testosterone-driven, yuck yuck.

    Perhaps it is the air of the time ...

    I will take you on your offer to meet your ponies. Next time we go to the UK, if you are happy I might come to visit you an afternoon. I can film you too if you want.

  5. Yes please, that would be brilliant!

  6. Hi Muriel - I'd be intrigued to see how PNH has changed. I got up to L3 and then was SO put off (because of various things), but certainly one of those elements was the 'you MUST' side of it.

    I still feel there is a place for the setting of boundaries, after all, horses are far too big and strong to be allowed to have bad manners or use their brainpower for less desirable behaviours. However, the result of PNH on my gelding was a shut down, angry and resentful horse who would do the minimum and was pretty insensitive to leg aids and so on BUT he was very well behaved, obedient and nice to be around.

    When I changed the style of NH, things got a LOT better, but he still had that element of, for want of a better word, 'lack of try'. Clicker training has transformed our relationship and I stand amazed every day at it. He'll always be a naturally enconomical horse, but now he wants to work - give him a day off and he's most unhappy!!

    Anyway, the point of my ramblings is that I have seen from various things I've read about PNH that they are becoming much more attuned to the horse as a being - yes before there was much talk of psychology but it was all very much making the horse do x and being a 'strong leader'. This made one of my horses constantly on the edge, and the other resentful. They've also realised that riding is not (as Pat used to say) 'the mere act of not falling off' :-)

    So its all looking much better from the little I can see, and clearly the work with Stephanie Burns has had a positive effect. This is why if people ask me about PNH, I say go find out for yourself and don't slam it.

    And Muriel, the groundwork and liberty on the old L3 videos was in part why I thought - this is NOT for me!!! Lovely to hear its changed.



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