horse liberty

It’s my current personal opinion that clicker training and dressage should ideally be studied simultaneously.

Clicker training teaches you how to train.

Dressage teaches you what to train, gives you an understanding of how to build a horse up correctly from a fitness/balance/physical therapy perspective, and teaches you how to RIDE (because no matter how well your horse can perform at liberty or in-hand, if you’re unbalanced, you’re going to restrict their range of motion and impair their balance and posture under saddle).

Hopefully we will soon have more teachers throughout the world who not only practice both but can also effectively teach both - in the meantime, students can study both separately, and then make the necessary connections between the two when they have the opportunity to train a horse. 

I think too many clicker training students have written off dressage as a time-consuming, complicated, outdated process hopelessly tainted with brutal, unkind traditions and tools, and I think too many dressage students have written off clicker training as new-agey and unnecessary, a poor attempt at a short cut to produce results that the practitioners don’t really understand.

The fact is, too many riders who WANT to train don’t know HOW to train - they can tell you the aids to ride a trained shoulder-in, but they can’t tell you how to teach it, slowly and methodically, to a young horse who only knows how to run in a straight line with a crooked, stiff, unbalanced body.  Too many clicker training enthusiasts lack a full understanding of what they’re doing when it comes to training horses, especially riding horses - they have happy, enthusiastic animals which is a great start, but they don’t have a good understanding of how to build a horse up as an athlete, how to train for good balance, correct movement, fitness, strength, flexibility - the things you need for longterm soundness, longevity, and for the horse to feel good in his or her own body.  Sometimes they’re training tricks or movements that the horse isn’t even strong enough to be doing, or encouraging the horse to do these things in an incorrect posture, having no idea of the strain they’re putting on the horse because they lack the greater context and the horse seems enthusiastic anyway (horses are notoriously bad at knowing what’s best for their own bodies in the longterm).

Enthusiasts from both sides tend to be closed off from the other - I think we’re now seeing more and more people bridging the gap, but there’s still work to be done.  Clicker training enthusiasts sometimes believe they can achieve the desired effects of dressage faster and more kindly than dressage training can, without fully understanding how to GET to those stages of training (which is why you see unbalanced, weak horses with bad posture enthusiastically marching around in seriously incorrect spanish walk for example, and dressage trainers look at this and think “yikes, your poor joints”).  Dressage enthusiasts sometimes find clicker training kind of insulting and off-putting, because it’s often presented to them that way, and because there are so few examples of it being well-executed from a dressage perspective.

Rather than looking at dressage and clicker training as two separate schools of thought, recognize that they’re fully compatible - and, in my opinion, they’re both essential to good horsemanship.  It seems absurd that there should even be a divide between the two.  Clicker training is something that everyone who wants to interact regularly with animals should make the effort to study and understand - but it doesn’t teach you WHAT to train, only HOW to train, it in a way which is best for animals from a scientific perspective.  Dressage teaches you what to train, what is best for horses (especially RIDING horses) from a physical perspective for longterm wellness.

Both are necessary, both are time-consuming to study and understand, and both are immensely rewarding.  I feel personally obligated to study both, and I imagine I’ll be studying both for my entire life, as there is always more to learn.  There’s that old saying in Iceland - that it takes 200 years to learn how to ride a horse.  If that’s true, it must take at least 300 to lean how to train!