Dressage… with a clicker trained endurance horse!

This springtime, several factors contributed to me choosing not to renew my Endurance GB membership: work, family, Covid uncertainty, and responsibilities on the family farm, all contributed to a second year out of the sport.

Through the Summer months, limited time led to more short ‘schooling’ sessions in the field and less long, leisurely hacks.

Though this sounds pretty sad and dull, it actually reignited a little spark at the very back of my brain, a little spark which actually enjoys the continuous strive for perfection that is an essential aspect of ‘schooling’. As I started enjoying schooling again, I found myself searching for my booklet of dressage tests from my eventing days, almost a decade ago.

Armed with a book called ‘compassionate training for today’s sport horse’ by Karin Leibbrandt I set about tailoring our schooling sessions to include the basic skills we would need for dressage, but with my horse’s physical and emotional health at the heart of it all.

Deciding whether I wanted to do Dressage was one thing, but, figuring out whether or not my mare Elfine would want to do Dressage was another matter completely. Elfine is a 12 year old Arab x who was rehomed to me 5 years ago, when her owners (understandably!) got sick of her constantly biting and kicking them, often with reasonable injuries resulting.

I knew from the start that she wouldn’t respond to ‘conventional’ training as any pressure at all was just too much for her, she would react with extreme consequences if provoked and had phobias of everything…especially the saddle. So, I got in touch with my now great friend, Hannah, of Connection Training, for help and ever since then have developed an incredible relationship with Elfine through clicker training and positive reinforcement.

Clicker training is a powerful training technique based on behavioural psychology that relies on marking desirable behaviour or the correct response to a cue or ‘aid’ and rewarding it with a treat or praise. Desirable behaviour is usually marked by using a short, distinct sound, such as a tongue click or with a mechanical ‘clicker’ which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing.

It seems to have been effective for Elfine because she is so sensitive, she often overtries and therefore would have been very offended if her attempts only resulted in punishments or more pressure. It also allows the horse to play a much more active role in their training and allows them to provide feedback about what they enjoy but also, what they don’t enjoy!

I was therefore, very worried that she would tell me she didn’t enjoy dressage and tell me that in a big way at the competition. I was actually worried about lots of things; that she would be anxious about going into the arena, I worried that she would nap away from the other horses and that she would come into season as soon as she saw a gelding. I just hoped that all our work on our relationship would overpower this.

The morning of the Dressage competition, instead of trotting to the gate to meet me as she would usually, Elfine just stood and scowled at me. Great, I thought, an early start on a Sunday for nothing! However, she allowed me to catch her and actually seemed pretty calm whilst I groomed her and prepared her for travelling.

She travelled calmly and we arrived in good time which is rather unusual for us! It helped that it was only a 30 minute journey rather than the usual 2+ hours travelling to an endurance ride. On the same theme, another advantage is that the test itself is only 4.5 minutes long rather than the 4.5 hours of an endurance ride, which is something to consider when you have a baby and 3 other horses to care for!

She walked right into the arena and calmly explored as we warmed up for our test and responded brilliantly to everything I asked whilst warming up and during the test, allowing us to gain some respectable scores for a first outing.

Riding the test felt easy compared with the art of staying clean which dressage seems to require…..my white jodhpurs were dirty before I’d even got them pulled up – and the white gloves were green with grass pellet slobber after I filled my jacket pockets with rewards for her efforts after each test!

But, ultimately, both Elfine and I had a brilliant time…. I feel really passionate about riding her in a way which will be beneficial for her health and the basis of dressage is rhythm, balance and suppleness and if these skills can be trained without force but with compassion and patience, the outcome is amazing.

Photography courtesy of Rozalia Szatanik

Resources:

Connection Training – www.connectiontraining.com

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