I Fumble the Peppermint (Using the Clicker for Dressage)

By Terry Golson

I took a lesson last night. It was hot and steamy, but Tonka worked hard. He’s giving me gorgeous elastic trot strides, but his canter is still flat. To teach him how to push off his hind end, my trainer, Kim Litwinczak, had us do leg yield at the canter. (For this, Tonka goes sideways and forward at the same time, which requires him to engage his hocks.) Within that exercise, at the moment that Tonka did an elevated canter stride, Kim marked it with a click (she uses one of

). This gives Tonka needed information: exactly what quality of canter stride meets criteria, so that he knows what we’re aiming for. A horse in dressage training is an athlete. Like a human athlete, having a coach explain how to achieve your objective, and pinpointing a moment of success is inherently rewarding. I don’t always use the clicker to tell him Yes, that’s it! Sometimes it’s praise, or a wither scratch, or a transition into a few stretch strides, or sitting quietly and letting him enjoy the movement. But when I do use the clicker, (usually for teaching a new thing or in this case when I want to be very precise) I immediately follow it with a food reward. Once Tonka hears the click, I transition him to a halt and give him a Life Savers Pep-O-Mint Mints Rolls, 16.8 total Ounce (Pack of 20). This is our unbreakable agreement.

Except last night, when I literally dropped the ball.


Tonka caught sight of it heading into the dirt.


My horse gave me a look and I swear he said, I can put jump into my canter, and you’re not coordinated enough to hand me the peppermint? Well, what are you waiting for, get off and get it!


Fortunately for me, I could stay in the saddle while Kim retrieved the treat and fed Tonka.

All was forgiven.


We then repeated the canter leg yield a few more times and Tonka, now knowing what I was after, gave even bigger and better canter strides. At that point, drilling the exercise over and over can dull the enthusiasm. So, after Kim clicked for an especially good canter stride, I decided to end on a good note. We stopped, I jumped off, and I carefully handed Tonka a peppermint. Lesson over. Satisfied horse.

Here’s a video of that. As we move away from the wall in the leg yield, Tonka’s shoulder frees up and his hocks have more articulation. I could feel the good stride, and Kim could see it. Can you? It’s subtle!

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