Alexandra Kurland meets Anja Beran

Classical dressage and Clicker training

Asfaloth und ich bei Anja Beran – 2012

Classical dressage is a guiding principle in my training. Even though we are miles away from achieving the high level of this equestrian art, it is still important to know where we want to go. In order to highlight good movement with a marker signal you must be able to recognise it and the moments that lead to such movement. You need to have an ideal picture in your mind to help you identify the steps that will get you there and to establish a training plan. Watching Anja Beran and Vera Munderloh riding has helped me tremendously to evaluate a horse’s movement and to understand balance. Now I have a good idea of WHAT exercises to choose to improve and maintain my horses’ comfort and soundness. Unfortunately, I am not such a talented rider as Anja’s students. But I can compensate that partly by knowing HOW to teach them and making it fun for all of us.

Clickertraining as Alexandra Kurland is teaching it already includes the principles of classical dressage, even though that is not obvious at first sight because Alexandra’s lessons have very “undressagy” names. But it was only through Alexandra’s work that Anja’s became accessible to me. And that despite my lack of talent we are actually getting the very visible first attempts at piaffe and passage. Who would have thought!

Alexandra Kurland meets Anja Beran

Since 2015, when I brought Alexandra to Anja Beran for a short visit before of a clicker training workshop in Germany,she attends regularly the International Classical Dressage Workshop that Anja organises every year in July. It is an amazing opportunity to spend one week with two extraordinary trainers.


Mary Concannon, Alexandra Kurland, Michaela Hempen und Anja Beran – 2015


Alexandra Kurland, Michaela Hempen, Vera Munderloh, Marla Foreman (and Mary Concannon behind the camera) 2016


In Episode #21 of the popular Equiosity Podcast, Alexandra Kurland talks about her visit at Anja Beran’s in July 2017 and invites me to explain why I am so fascinated by Anja’s work.

Heather Binns joined us for this visit and wrote about her experiences in her well read Horse Magic Blog 1. Horse Adventures in Europe 2018!

Following our visit in 2015, I asked Anja and Alexandra a couple of questions. It was amazing how many similarities were  unveiled. Enjoy !

Some questions to Alexandra Kurland and Anja Beran:

Which characteristics do you think are the most important for a trainer?

Anja Beran:

First of all, a trainer should be sportive, with very good body awareness, outstanding coordination and at the beginning of his career: riding, riding, riding and having schooled many horses to the highest level! This way he will gain experience, develop his feel and can adjust to different horses. And most importantly, he knows how it feels. Only then can he give meaningful aids later on. The technical knowledge must be the basis for his actions, built on extensive theoretical knowledge. He should have an interest in all horse breeds and riding disciplines to expand his knowledge continuously.

Patience and a calm approach towards both horses and students are important! He should be able to assess instantly the current state of a horse-rider combination and shape the lesson individually. It is important for me that he is always on the horse’s side and his intention should be to help the horse to deal with his rider. Often times in a lesson, you cannot ask exercises that would be the most suited for the development of the horse, because the rider is not able to perform these often difficult gymnastic exercises. Then you need to find a compromise that enables the rider to progress and at the same time not to strain the horse in any way but to make him feel better. That is not a simple task which requires maturity, a lot of experience and empathy. In addition, a good riding instructor needs a substantial amount of social intelligence.

From Anja Beran’s new book ‘The Dressage Seat’ (2017):

“Always consider: If a horse does not react as requested, he is either physically not able to do it yet or he does not understand the request.”

Alexandra Kurland und Magic am langen Zügel – ohne Zügel

Alexandra Kurland:

The short answer is patience and persistence.

Here’s the longer answer:

When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a behavioral problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks. If you pull enough layers off the “brick wall”, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful.

I learned this lesson very early on in my horse experience. I was taking lessons at a local barn where the owner kept a small string of racehorses in addition to his jumpers. Tucked away in the back of the stable was a weanling thoroughbred who was destined for the track. Racehorses take baths, so as a weanling it was expected that she would take baths. The assignment of teaching her about hoses was turned over to a teenager who took her straight out and tried to give her a bath. The result was predictable. She reared up and struck out at his head. He never managed to give her a bath, but he did make everyone believe she was a “witch”, a nasty horse you didn’t want to get close to. Interesting how it is the horse who takes the blame for our bad training.

He also created in her a lasting fear of hoses. When I took her on as a project a few months after this event, I could not take her directly down the barn aisle to the arena because it meant walking over the hose that was used to fill water buckets. I had to take her the long way around which meant climbing over the shavings pile so we could get in by the back gate. I’m sure the trainer would have had a different solution. He would have “made” her comply. There would have been a fight, and in the end she would have walked over the hose. She would still have been afraid of it, but she would have learned that she had no choice.

I was a very green handler. I knew I didn’t have the skills to get into this fight, so I used a different approach. I have always said I did some of my best training when I knew the very least. All I had was patience and persistence, and I put those to good use. Every night I took her out of her stall and groomed her in the barn aisle. I began about twenty feet away from the hose. When we were done, I would turn her away from the hose and walk the long way around into the arena. Each night I groomed her a little closer to the hose, but always we turned and walked away from it. I never confronted her with it. We finally got to the point where she could stand quietly right beside the hose throughout her entire grooming session without seeming to worry about it. One night instead of turning away, I asked her to follow me over it. She did so without hesitation. And after that, she always followed me wherever I asked her to go.

I didn’t try to plow over the “brick wall”. I found a way to dismantle it brick by brick until she was ready to cross over it. She discovered she could walk over hoses without fear. More than that, she now understood that she could trust me to take care of her. I wasn’t expecting this larger result. I simply wanted to find a non-confrontational way to help her understand that hoses were harmless. In the process I showed her how I could be trusted to behave. I could be counted on to be consistent and to be on her side. I wasn’t going to be petting her one moment and hitting her the next.

One of the many things that you learn from horse training is the longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you will find that it gives you. Focus on some little, achievable piece of the training, something you and your horse can accomplish together, and all kinds of other good, and often unexpected, results will emerge out of it.

Today I have many more skills to call on than I had then, but I have learned that they work best when applied with the quiet underpinnings of patience and persistence

Alexandra Kurland has published a number of interesting articles on her blog, among others a series of articles on what good trainers have in common. 

What are the critical points that a trainer should focus on when schooling a horse, in general?

Anja Beran:

For a young horse, the most important piece to explain is „forward“ and an understanding of the aids in order to develop a language that allows us to communicate our wishes to the horse. This needs to be done systematically, calmly and consistently so that the horse builds trust towards his trainer and stays motivated.

Following the basic training, it is crucial to identify the physical limitations of each hose, including crookedness. This is the basis for an individual training plan of gymnastic exercises which has the intention to straighten, maintain forward, collect (to strengthen the back) and develop muscles and making the horse look more beautiful in general. Respecting the classical principles, the horse will mature into a more brilliant and proud personality, because efforts are sufficiently rewarded, breaks are provided, and you never ask too much of him.

Alexandra Kurland:

There’s a very simple question you should be asking yourself every time you school a horse:how does this benefit the horse?

So much of what we ask horses to do is for our benefit. Why do we ride horses? For the pleasure it gives us. There’s nothing wrong with that – provided there is also a benefit to the horse. Riding shouldn’t be at a cost to the horse. If we ride in such a way that the horse ends up with damaged joints, a sore back, an injured spirit, the cost is too high. So when I am training, I want to be thinking about the horse’s welfare. Am I teaching the lesson in a way that the horse understands and enjoys the session? Have I chosen exercises that promote the long term soundness of the horse? At the end of the session is the horse bright-eyed and eager for more? Those are good measures to use to evaluate both an individual session and your overall training goals.

What are you looking at specifically when teaching a horse a new skill?

Anja Beran:

In classical schooling we don’t teach exercises, that sounds like “poodle dressage”. Instead, gymnastic exercises gradually allow more elevated movements.

The horse shows us when he is ready physically, e.g. that from a travers in walk on a small circle he can depart into a canter which then develops into a canter pirouette. The physical preparation is the key!

Obviously, you content yourself with small successes and allow the lesson to “mature” over years. Repetition and praise are an integral part, just as the analysis if things don’t work out as planned. Never punish but think WHICH physical requirements were missing. Was the horse too crooked, too much on his forehand or what could be reason? So I am very conscious of the condition of the horse’s body and I always try to understand which tension I need to soften, which hind leg I need to strengthen etc.

Alexandra Kurland:

Always when I am teaching, I am looking at balance. How is the horse carrying himself? Where does the movement begin in his body? Where does it stop? Where is the flow interrupted? That takes my eye to the core component I need to teach.

In clicker training when we teach new skills, we want to design our lessons so the learner is on a high rate of reinforcement. We achieve these high rates of reinforcement by breaking complex tasks down into smaller component parts. We set up the environment to make it easier for the learner to succeed.

Those are general guiding principles, but they don’t tell you what to teach – just how. The “what” comes from looking at balance. Even a simple skill such as how a horse takes a treat from the hand is related to balance. Does the horse push down into my hand because he’s on his forehand? Does he twist his head to take the treat from my hand because he’s crooked?

Balance is everywhere and everything. When you see horses through this lens, it becomes the core, key component in every new skill you teach.

When I watch videos of Nuno Oliveira, I can recognize how your lessons fit with his teachings. Would you say that you are strongly influenced by Nuno Oliveira’s work? What is so special about his work?

Anja Beran:

Nuno Oliveira has influenced me, because my teacher, with whom I worked for 26 years, has applied many of Oliveira’s teachings. We often watched and analysed Videos of Oliveira riding. On one hand, it was his brilliant seat with an excellent back and soft legs and arms which brought the horses in front of him and enabled him to close their backs. That made his horses extremely fine, almost hypersensitive to the aids. On the other hand, he read a lot, he studied book of all masters – they influenced his daily work and allowed him to school horses with poor conformation or weak horses to the highest level. This is difficult to find nowadays. His piaffe and passage were expressive and real, ridden with invisible aids! And there was always this strong focus to analyse the horse, use gymnastics (make them mobile, straight, etc) to keep him sound and develop him to a high level.

Anja Beran auf dem P.R.E.-Hengst “Ofendido”

Alexandra Kurland:

I was very lucky to have been taught by two students of Nuno Oliveira. My first teacher was a regular visitor to Portugal. She introduced me to Mr. Oliveira’s work via a horse that had originally been trained by him. The first time I watched her ride, I said to her, “You can’t show me this work without teaching me how to do it.” I was very lucky. She didn’t normally take on students, but she agreed to teach me. That was the real beginning of my riding education. If I had not had the good fortune to encounter this work, I would have remained an ordinary rider riding ordinary horses. Instead I have had extraordinary horses because that is what Mr Oliveira’s work helps you to create. I might still have taught clicker training, but it would be on a much simpler, more superficial basis. Clicker training would not have evolved with the great depth and broadness of application that it has without the influence of Mr. Oliveira’s work.

I often say to people find a look that pleases your eye. Don’t rely on what other people tell you is correct. Find something that resonates with you. Nuno Oliveira’s work resonated with me. What was it that I saw translated through my teachers’ beautiful horses? Deep, deep relaxation coupled with great energy and enthusiasm. It may seem like a contradiction that both could reside together, but that is the beauty of Mr. Oliveira’s work. The horses have a deep trust in the work.They work with great energy, but not with the tension that comes from fear. They work in lightness. They work on a release, not on a take, so they have the freedom to express themselves in balance with their rider.

There is more. Lots of people know how to ride lateral work. Learning how to ride a shoulder-in is only the first part of the process. Learning how to use it to help a horse become sounder, better balanced, more beautiful is for me the real value of the work. I was inspired first by the look and then by the feel, but seeing horses being ridden into soundness transformed me into a lifelong student of this work.

What advice would you give to individuals that are interested in classical dressage but cannot find a good instructor in their area? How can they explore classical dressage nevertheless?

Anja Beran:

Read – read – read ! Watch good videos. Think! Maybe visit good trainers, train your eye and try to imitate. It is extremely complicated. As I said recently during a presentation: “If we ride badly, it is still better to try something GOOD badly, than trying something BAD badly.” (In response to a woman who said she is worried to try certain lateral exercises because she is a novice rider and that is why she only trots around on a circle).

Alexandra Kurland und Magic am langen Zügel – ohne Zügel

Alexandra Kurland:

One of the great advantages of clicker training is it breaks every lesson down into many small steps. Every time you click and hand your horse a treat, you are creating a step in your training. You are then faced with the Goldilocks question. Have you made the steps too small, too big, or just right? Your horse will tell you. If the steps are too small, you will stall out and not make progress. If they are too big, your horse will become frustrated and confused. Get them just right, and you and your horse will be having a lot of success – and a lot of fun moving towards your riding goals.

Another advantage of clicker training is you have to spend some time at the beginning setting it up. Clicker training is a term coined by Karen Pryor, one of the early pioneers in this work. It refers to a science-based form of training in which the principles that the study of operant conditioning reveal are followed. That could be said of many good training methods. What distinguishes clicker training from other forms of training is a marker signal that is paired with positive reinforcement. The marker signal (the click) says “yes” to the horse: that behavior you just gave me, that extra lift of the shoulder, or that deeper reach under your body with your hind leg, that was exactly what I was looking for. The “yes” is followed by a “thank you”. With horses the “thank you”, that is the positive reinforcement, most often comes in the form of food. That’s the easiest way to give the horse something he will actively work for.

Du musst deinem Pferd die Futterregeln erklären, und du musst ihm Zeit geben um herauszufinden, was er mit der Information machen kann, die der Click ihm gibt. Am besten funktioniert das mit einfachen Verhalten. Ich verwende sechs Grundlagenübungen um ein Pferd mit Clickertraining vertraut zu machen. Diese sind Targeting, Rückwärtsgehen, Kopf senken, auf einer Matte stehen, “Die Erwachsenen reden, bitte unterbrich uns nicht” und “Fröhliche Gesichter”. Letztere benötigen eine Erläuterung.

Du musst deinem Pferd die Futterregeln erklären, und du musst ihm Zeit geben um herauszufinden, was er mit der Information machen kann, die der Click ihm gibt. Am besten funktioniert das mit einfachen Verhalten. Ich verwende sechs Grundlagenübungen um ein Pferd mit Clickertraining vertraut zu machen. Diese sind Targeting, Rückwärtsgehen, Kopf senken, auf einer Matte stehen, “Die Erwachsenen reden, bitte unterbrich uns nicht” und “Fröhliche Gesichter”. Letztere benötigen eine Erläuterung.

You have to explain to your horse the rules around the food, and you need to give him time to figure out how to use the information that the click provides. The best way to do this is with simple behaviors. I use six foundation lessons to introduce a horse to clicker training. They are targeting, backing, head lowering, standing on a mat, “the grown ups are taking please don’t interrupt” and “happy faces”. These last two need a little translating.

“The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” means I am reinforcing my horse for taking his nose away from my treat pockets. The horse ends up standing quietly beside me with his head looking straight. Grown-ups helps teach my horse great manners and emotional self-control around food. The end result will be I can have a conversation with someone while my horse stands quietly beside me, even when my pockets are filled with treats. My horse will maintain a polite distance because he has learned that the best way to get treats is to move away from them. The emotional control that this simple lesson teaches will ripple through the rest of his training.

“Happy faces” means I am reinforcing my horse initially when he puts his ears forward. Here the handler is learning to pay attention to a horse’s body language and reinforce a horse for showing a relaxed, calm expression. Through this attention to details, the handler becomes better overall at interpreting what the horse is communicating about his emotional states.

These six foundation lessons are very simple behaviors, and that’s the point. We are using simple behaviors to introduce some complex concepts to both the horse and the handler. These simple behaviors give you the building blocks with which you can teach your horse beautiful balance. You are starting with simple requests, easy expectations and gradually, step by small step, moving towards more complex behaviors.

For many, watching a beautiful dressage horse can be both inspiring and intimidating. It’s hard to imagine ever reaching that goal, especially when there’s no help near by to guide you. But if you let that beautiful horse be your inspiration, then step by small step, clicker training can help you reach your performance goals.

I used the metaphor of a brick wall earlier. Let me expand on it here. Imagine a huge brick wall towering in front of the path you’re riding. There will be a few horses who are athletic enough and riders who are skilled enough to go directly over the wall. If they’re successful, that will tempt the rider to take the next horse straight over, and the next. And it will also tempt the rider to make the wall ever higher. Eventually he will either make the wall so high no horse can jump it, or he will try and force a horse over the wall who truly can’t make it. Either way, eventually they will crash.

If you lower the fence, more horses and more riders will be able to jump it successfully, but there will still be some who can’t. They either lack the physical ability, the skills, or the confidence to jump it. Lower it a bit more and some who couldn’t jump it before will now be successful. Turn it into a cross rail and even more will manage it, but you will have some individuals who can’t manage even a small jump. You may have to turn it into a ground pole, or draw a line in the dirt – or you may need to find a way to go around the jump altogether rather than over it.

When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a training problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks. If you pull enough layers off the brick wall, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful. This metaphor helps you when you don’t have an instructor close at hand. You can still make progress. All you’re looking for is the next small step. No matter how complex the final behavior may be, in your current lesson you need only work on a small, next step. You should always feel as though you are working on something very attainable. The next piece of the classical dressage puzzle is always just one small, easily managed step away.

So how do you know what steps to take? There are two answers to this. The first is: let your horse guide you. He will always show you what he needs to work on next. If he is struggling with a particular lesson, it means your steps are still too big. There may be a physical reason why something is hard. As you find the smaller steps, you will find ways to help him be successful. The small steps will show him better ways to move so he stays comfortable and sound. That ultimately is what the classical dressage is for. It helps horses maintain soundness throughout their working life. It might seem to you that you are just working on the most basic of basic lessons, but you are truly on the first rungs of the classical dressage ladder.

Second: find a look that pleases your eye. Find photos, videos of horses that make you smile. These images may change over time. As you learn more, your idea of what is beautiful may change. That flashy extension may be replaced by a horse working quietly at the walk. Let the images change, evolve, grow as your understanding of balance grows. These images are simply stepping stones that guide you to a look that fits both you and your horse.

What advice do you give your students that helps to improve their seat?

Anja Beran:

Physiotherapy to assess symmetry and mobility. Take dance or gymnastic lessons to improve stability (muscle tone) and mobility but also body awareness (always in front of a mirror) and coordination because without the last two, all efforts are in vain. You don’t get a good posture on the horse, but before you get on!!! Then it remains to practice, practice, practice in the saddle. But all that practice is futile if the conditions explained above are not met!

Anja Beran just published her new book on the classical seat where she explains the above points in great detail.

The Dressage Seat
Achieving a Beautiful, Effective Position in Every Gait and Movement
Trafalgar Square books (2017)

Alexandra Kurland und Magic am langen Zügel – ohne Zügel

Alexandra Kurland:

Practice everything on the ground first. Practice first without your horse. Walk everything you are going to ride. If you are going to ride a circle, walk circles first. Put a cone out and walk a tight circle around it. What do you experience? Perfect balance? Probably not.

You may feel extra pressure on the joints of your inside leg. As you walk, you may notice that your circle isn’t so circular. The distance to the cone moves in and out. Your path reminds you of horses you’ve seen being lunged who struggle to stay on the circle. You can imagine that if you were a horse, you’d be falling in over your inside shoulder and trying to counterbalance by leaning out with your head and neck.

How can you change this picture? What balance shifts do you need to make so that you can walk around the cone in better balance? When you have the answers to those questions, go ask your horse what he thinks. Now as you ride him, make the same adjustments that helped you walk a more balanced circle. How does your horse respond? Take that information back to your practice walks, and improve on what you have already done.

It isn’t just circles that you can sort out in this way. It is all patterns, even – and especially – lateral work. Understand the balance and the weight shifts that you are asking for first from the ground. Walk it first without your horse so you understand it in your own body. Then work your horse in-hand through the same exercises.

I teach everything I am going to ride first from the ground. Before I ask for something under saddle, I want my horse to show me he can do it on his own. If I want him to trot in balance with a rider up, it makes a lot of sense to teach that good balance first in-hand or at liberty. We ride school masters because their good movement educates our seat. Teaching a horse first in hand takes him a step closer to becoming a good school master. When you get on, he will be able to help you find that feels-like-heaven balance you are looking for.

Anja Beran also recommends walking lateral movements to make the rider more aware of her own body. During her seminars she invites participants to practice exercises without horse to find an upright posture and to walk the various lateral movement in the arena. 

What would be your approach with an aggressive horse that has learnt to distrust humans?

Anja Beran:

You cannot generalise an approach. It is important to know the history in order to know which situations to avoid then you need calmness, time and patience. Where to begin the training, from the ground or under saddle, depends on the horse.

Alexandra Kurland:

When I introduce a horse to clicker training, I prefer to work with protective contact. This means the horse is loose in a stall or small paddock, but I am not in with him. There is a barrier between us. This can be as simple as a stall guard across a stall door or the more substantial barrier of a paddock fence. The protective contact means that the horse is free to interact with me or not. He can eat hay in the back corner of his stall. He can turn his back on me and ignore me completely. Or he can come forward and interact with me. It is his choice.

Most horses are curious. If I am standing at the stall door holding something out in my hand, the horse will come over to inspect it. Click! I give him a treat. I am collecting data. His response tells me where to begin my training. The main question I am asking is this: is there anything about this horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe for me to go in with it with my pockets filled with treats? If the answer comes back “yes” or even “I’m not sure”, I remain with protective contact. I take a lesson from the zoo world. I treat this horse like a wild animal until he shows me otherwise. Usually that means I can very quickly go in with the horse. Most of the horses I work with are well socialized to people. They may have training issues, but they are not easily triggered into aggressive behavior.

Occasionally I do work with horses are aggressive or that challenge my skill level. They show behavior that would be dangerous for me to handle. Note how I phrase this. It’s important that each person answer my initial question based on his/her own experience. Is there anything about this horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe for me to go in with this horse? Each person has to answer that question for herself. The owner has a relationship with the horse. He may be perfectly safe with her, but not with someone he doesn’t know. Another trainer might not see any problem going in with this horse. She thinks she has the skills and the experience to handle the behavior this horse is presenting. Or it may be that she lacks the experience to know that she should be afraid.

Safety always comes first – for the horse as well as the handler. It doesn’t matter what others are thinking, if I see something in the horse’s behavior that suggests that keeping a barrier between us would be a good idea, that’s what I do. You might think working behind a barrier would be restricting, but with a little creativity, you’ll find it’s very liberating. There’s a tremendous amount you can teach with a barrier separating you from your horse. The most important thing is emotional control. Your horse will be learning “how to learn.”

Many horses I work with have been punished for making mistakes. In those training systems, if the horse figures out what is wanted and can do it, he can avoid corrections. But what happens to the horses that aren’t athletic enough to respond promptly? Or the ones who can’t figure out their inconsistent handlers? If they offer behavior, but it’s the wrong answer, they’ll be punished. Such expectations lead quickly to frustration and anxiety. If the horse can’t escape from his handler, he’ll react out of fear by threatening to bite.

The protective contact keeps both horse and handler safe. With a barrier between you, fear won’t be driving your training decisions. You can relax and be a better teacher. As you break your lessons down into small, easily understood components, your horse’s confidence will grow. He will know how to solve the training puzzles you’re presenting. The old reasons for his aggressive behavior will vanish.

I know there will be many people who will never be able to embrace clicker training. There are so many things about it that go against what they believe. Use food in training! Absolutely not! Give horses choices! What nonsense! I understand this. I am not trying to “convert” everyone to this approach to training. But, if through clicker training, we can introduce the horse world to the use protective contact, we will be doing a very good thing indeed.

I see so many instances where people have gone in with their horses much too soon. Aggression comes from a place of fear. I’m not just referring to horses here. Look at our own behavior. Look at how aggressive we are with our horses. I know many people will say they are not afraid of horses. Perhaps. But when I look at the tools they use, I have to conclude that, while they may not be afraid of horses, their teacher was, or their teacher’s teacher was. Somewhere in the lineage of their training tradition there was fear, or they would not be using the training tools and solutions they have chosen. Better to begin with protective contact and wait until both you and your horse are comfortable before going in. That’s when you can have a true training conversation. That’s when true horsemanship begins.

What is it that Clicker training adds to the classical schooling? What fascinated you that you added it to the tool set you already had?

Alexandra Kurland mit Peregrine und Robin

Alexandra Kurland:

Over twenty years ago a friend of mine who trained Irish wolf hounds introduced me to clicker training. Intrigued I went out to the barn to ask my horse what he thought of it. At the time he was laid up with hoof abscesses that were the aftermath of Potomac horse fever. There was very little he could do. He was too lame to walk, but he could touch his nose to a target. The enrichment that clicker training provided helped keep a very fit horse happy during seven weeks of stall rest. It kept us both entertained, but what held my interest beyond the layup was the huge jump in his training that he showed me when he returned to work.

Our simple clicker games had shifted his training well beyond where he had been before his lay-up. Intrigued, I kept exploring what this new “tool” could do for us. What I very quickly came to understand was that clicker training wasn’t simply just another “training tool”. It became for me the “umbrella” under which everything else was organized. It provided the training principles, the organizing framework for all the lessons I wanted to teach. As I developed clicker training for horses, I wove into it two things that are important to me: a deep love of horses, and an obsession over beautiful balance.

People often look at my work and say to me what I do is “so much more than just clicker training.” I should call it something else. I always ask them for suggestions. So far no one has come up with a better name. Clicker training works for me. When I talk about it, I am not just referring to the tool of the marker signal. I am talking about a style of training that has embedded in it a deep love for horses. The work is always evolving. I am always looking for better ways to teach good riding, and good balance. That means that embedded in clicker training are the principles and techniques of classical dressage.

When you watch a well-trained horse and rider, there is nothing more beautiful than classical riding. But it can seem unattainable except for the very gifted and the lucky few who have direct access good instructors. That narrows down to too small a number those who can practice this great art. For the few lucky horses who are ridden by the masters of this art classical schooling is wonderful. But what about the rest of the horses? What happens to them? Clicker training provides their riders with an answer.

Classical riding can be so very beautiful, but the “how-to” instructions can be incredibly technical and difficult to follow. What clicker training gives us is a way to break down into smaller, more manageable units the steps needed to transform a ride from ordinary to extraordinary. It makes classical riding much more accessible even for those who don’t have an instructor close at hand. Clicker training gives you a way to put your foot on the first rung of the “classical dressage ladder”, and it can help you find the rest of the way up.

Anja Beran has published several books and DVDs on classical dressage that I can highly recommend. She regularly organises seminars and an international workshop and she welcomes visitors at her barn Gut Rosenhof in Southern Germany. You find more information on her website Anja Beran.

Alexandra Kurland has produced comprehensive teaching material on clicker training for horses: books, DVDs and an online course. She teaches seminars and practical clinics. More information on clicker training, her clinic schedule and teaching material can be found on her website. She regularly publishes insightful articles on training in her blog.

Alexandra and Dominique
Day, co-founder of Cavalia,
publish the popular weekly
Podcast Equiosity

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