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


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.


  1. What a wonderful post - sounds like you had a complete blast! Very interesting about how one of the key factors in PK flexions is having the shoulder up and balanced. Ken Faulkner teaches larger flexions and I'd always had trouble with them on Loly and I'm guessing this is why. Great idea about putting the whip by the shoulder to keep the balance - I'll definitely try it.

    Couldn't agree more about not practicing bad movement. Unfortunately I did that for YEARS with Hylo....oops!

    It is amazing how much inhand work takes out of them isn't it? When I decided to give the AK work a go, I thought I'd not ride for 3 weeks and see where I was after that time. Up until then, I'd been working hard to keep him fit and I was worried he'd put weight on and get slobby. How wrong could I be? Although we didn't trot for 3 weeks, his muscle-tone changed, his carriage changed and he actually looked much fitter.

    I also love being able to see what they are doing at close quarters - I can spend a whole session working with how Loly's hindleg is moving....!!

    Echo never losing the wonder - where Mary Wanless says 'may all your rides be wierd' perhaps we should say, 'may all our sessions be full of wonder'.

  2. OI!!! Stop taking the micky of the French accent ^-^ LOL

    One thing to concentrate on when flexing, is the ears must be level and that you start the flexion with the horse head UP. If the horse has problem Roberta taught me to gently bend the horse around my fist placed on his neck.

    Well done Helen. you do not give yourself enough credits as a trainer ^-^

  3. Muriel, thats interesting - I had been helping Hylo flex by putting my hand on his neck. I had worked out that if if works when AK uses the rein partway up the neck as a point to bend around, my hand should do the same... Works really well.

    Thanks for the pointers re level ears; this is something I really have to watch for to the right with Loly.

    I agree, too, Helen you are doing brilliantly with your lot and always give me inspiration and ideas of things to do with mine.

  4. Remember that the deep flexions shown on PK DVD are done by TRAINED horses. They do start that deep.

    But they MUST be done correctly, shoulder UP, ears LEVEL.

    Have fun ^-^

  5. Thank you both very much, that's very kind of you.

    Muriel, I'm just jealous! I love PK's accent and the things he says really make me smile. I especially loved him talking about not teaching the horse to piaffe by "keeking him up ze bot-tom!".

    I've used the hand on the neck with Grace sometimes when she's distracted and being a bit wooden. Young horses are SO much easier without all the ingrained bad habits.

    I do feel a hypocrite though, talking about not practising poor movement. My pones must watch me walking around the place and say to each other "Just look at her! And she has the neck to go on about us carrying ourselves properly!!!!".

  6. I have started a bit of a discussion on my blog. If you would liek to add something more.

    PS You would love my accent ^-^

  7. Now 2012...are you still working with your ponies via C/T, PK, etc.????? Do you have any videos??

    I am doing similar things with my Spotted Draft mare Lucy! I am quite comfortable using C/T tho I still have tons to learn as far as dressage goes!!!!

    Brenda, Maine USA



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