Shamelessly adopting yet another prompt from Viva Carlos.
Is your horse spooky or bombproof? Nobody is really bombproof, although Skye is not spooky in any sense of the word; she’s seldom frightened, and if she is, her general reaction is to either a) stand very still with her head as high as it can go and be tall and scary until it goes away, or b) charge the danger head-on. Thunder can be extremely spooky but he generally shies and then looks to see what it was. Arwen’s spookiness has largely vanished because when she’s in work mode nothing distracts her (except baboons). Magic’s not flighty, but spooks at anything white.
Does your horse have a long or short stride? Arwen has a tiny little stride, which is cool for dressage (gives you more time to prepare for movements) but does make us both look like idiots in combinations built for big horses, since we either have to gallop through them or put in an extra stride and a long distance. Magic’s stride is average, Skye’s is quite short and Thunder has a very long loping Friesian-type stride, which he inherited from his dad.
Describe your current barn in 3 words? Beautiful, open, home
If you could switch barns, would you? Nope. I’ll upgrade mine as much as I can, but there’s nothing like keeping your horses in your backyard (even if your backyard is about 500 acres).
Favourite brand of breeches? I dislike them all equally (sorry, breeches)
How many blue ribbons do you have? (Red if you live in Canada or Britain) Hmm, I think my greyhound won three and my Border collie has one. The heifers and I have collected two or three over the years. Of the horses, not a whole lot. Skye got one at a gymkhana eons ago and Arwen has her dressage ribbon, but that’s it.
How many saddle pads do you own? One for Magic’s saddle, one for Arwen’s saddle, the pretty Western one for Thunder and Skye, a really old scruffy one on the roller and another one for the McLellan training saddle. Four.
Is your horse your phone background/lock screen? Yeah. Both.
Do you go trail riding often? (weather permitting) Yes, especially if interval training outside counts. Arwen goes twice a week, Thunder twice, Magic once, and then I have one outride every week on a client horse. Oh, and Skye goes out three times a week because arena work, she says, is Boring.
Favourite horsy movie?Secreteriat, but Dreamer comes really, really, really close.
Baby Thun and I went through a bit of a tough patch recently. Because of all the stuff going on right now – dairy cow auctions, my exams coming up (I passed my last math exam with an A when I was expecting a D, go figure), the biomechanics lecture – I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him as I like. I wish I would work all of my horses 6 days a week. Thun especially would just thrive on that. Maybe in summer… but right now, it’s not 100% possible.
The problem in only 2-3 days a week lay not in the horse’s behaviour (Thun always tries his heart out) but in my feelings of guilt. C’mon, guys, he comes running up anytime I come near the place with a bridle and then stands hopefully near the fence in case I work with him instead of Arwen. What kind of a stone heart can not feel guilty? Unfortunately, it creeps into my feelings when I do ride him and that messes with our minds because Thunder hates me being down and responds by also being down. This results in him being a lazy little mule and refusing to pick up the right leads.
I decided that we’d had enough of that kind of thing and gave us both a pep talk before our session on Monday, which turned out to be entirely awesome. The dressage whip I carried to give him a little reminder about leg aids probably had something to do with it, but I was in a better place in my own head and that always helps. We just schooled, but he was so awesome. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – that little dude has the most willing mind ever. Sure, he can be a twerp about some things (like reining back. I can get him to back as far as I please on the long lines, but under saddle? 5 steps) but working with him is just a general pleasure because he really does try his best. He’s basically a nice, dependable guy. Young, occasionally spooky, not the brightest of horses and possessing the attention span of a gnat, but on the bottom just a good, honest horse. Not a spiteful bone in his body.
One thing that makes him super easy to work with is that if he was any more relaxed he’d be horizontal. His head goes down all by itself, his trot turns into a job all by itself, and he lopes in balance all by himself because he’s chilled and trusting. Our sessions rarely last longer than 20 minutes in the arena because his baby brain cooks very quickly, but it’s a good 20 minutes. He gave me some great lead changes, good steady jog work and the best neck-reining I’ve had from him – a six-loop jog serpentine without once touching his mouth, and a few nice lope circles without direct reining.
I’ve seen a lot of Western horses in South Africa that have been ridden on a loose rein so much that they actually have no idea what the bit means and will resist it as much as they can, usually by opening their mouths and bracing their necks. I’ve worked hard with Thunder to get him to accept the bit, and I must say it is a nice change to pull a Western horse to a halt and have him softly yield the jaw and lift the back instead of collapse in a heap with his face in the air. Thunder will go into a contact in a good frame as happily as he will go on a floppy rein, and while that might be a bit controversial in Western circles, I count it a small triumph.
I am a total idiot about Thunder though, I really am. Especially with client horses I can usually maintain a professional exterior, bonding with the horse on his level and not going into all the sentimental kinda stuff except for the odd hug. The horse doesn’t care too much about being kissed and slobbered over – he’d much rather I was a kind rider and communicated with him in his language – and it annoys me when people go all coochy-coo over their horses, but I freely admit that I am just as stupid over Thunder. He’s the only one of my horses who is really a pet. Arwen and Magic are my partners, and Skye is my best friend, but Thunder is a big happy pet and kind of my baby. It’s terrible, but I think I’m even going to have him a little birthday party when he turns four, which is a big birthday. For the record, I think having birthday parties for horses is the lamest thing ever, but who cares? He may be a pet, but he’s my pet. It’s not like I spoil him (okay, so I spoil him, but I don’t let him get away with things). And I need not invite any clients. 😉
Oooooold and very loyal readers may remember Thunder’s half-sister, Dancer, from the old blog about two years ago. Dancer is Arwen’s daughter by Thunder’s dad, born in the same year as Thunder. They grew up together, but I was overrun with horses and sold her when she was about two. I had the pleasure of going to see D in her new home today and I was pleasantly surprised. She has grown up quite big – about 15.1, maybe touching 15.2 – and has some really nice movement on her. Although she hadn’t been ridden for two months and has barely been backed, I got on her and got walk, trot and a few strides of canter with no silliness. She’s also remembered all the good ground manners I taught her as a foal, and is doing very well. I was so happy to see D. She gave me a few grey hairs while I was schooling her and has a mischievous streak, but she’s behaving herself for her new people and turned out to be a really nice young lady.
I do wonder, now, what she would be like if I had her now and was schooling her as a dressage prospect; she would probably have turned out pretty good. Still, I don’t regret selling her. I can devote more time to the horses I have left now, and to horses, love is spelled T-I-M-E.
And I serve the King of Kings, so it’s all about love.
This Saturday I was at a biomechanics lecture given by a well-known biomechanics specialist and horsewoman from the USA, which was so interesting that I knew I had to squeeze my way into the riding clinic she held today. It was a bit of a mad scramble and my poor parents just about stood on their heads to get me there, but somehow we turned up at the Friesian stud where it was being held, Arwen in tow.
The first challenge was getting her into a stable to wait for our turn. The second challenge was keeping her in it. Luckily, the very kind stud owners allowed us to use a box usually belonging to a formidable stallion; it had a bunch of different bolts and a weaving grille across the top door, so she theoretically couldn’t jump out. I slammed the grille on her and gave her a bit of alfalfa courtesy of the owners, which she found so fascinating that she licked the floor for the last scraps and forgot to jump out.
She was still a bit fussy when I went to saddle her up, but the moment she had a bit in her mouth, it was like flicking a switch. Calm, focused dressage Arwen returned. She stood like a stone while I saddled her up and walked patiently beside me to the arena, chewing her bit and flicking her ears nice and calmly.
I got on and we started to walk around to warm up while the instructor finished her previous lesson. At first, Arwen was her usual self; head down, mind on the job, relaxed and forward. I walked some circles, some shoulder-ins, leg-yields, a bit of free walk, the usual stuff to get her brain working. But after a while she started to get tense for no reason I could find. She’d drift out on one corner and feel like bolting down one side; I tried a trot and instantly got a very panicky, rushed gait. Something was spooking her, but for the life of me I didn’t know what.
The instructor called us over and I rode up to find her smiling all over her face and exclaiming, “Wow! What a cutie!” Apart from not being able to pronounce Arwen’s breed name (sorry Americans, but “Nooitgedachter” apparently was not designed for your tongues), she was super friendly and helpful. We talked briefly about Arwen’s musculature and she felt my ideas were pretty accurate; she has an okay back and is generally fine, but the bottom muscle of her neck is too big and she needs more side muscles. Since we’re only just sorting out her frame, it makes sense.
We started to walk around the arena and Arwen was a raving lunatic. She leapt, she bolted, she reared, she bucked, she plunged and she did not give one brain cell to the job. I was frankly shocked. She’s never been like this away from home, ever. It’s just not her. I explained that this was totally new and the instructor suggested I do what I usually do to calm her down, and I tried; trotting figure eights, serpentines, lateral work, all the mind-on-the-job stuff. Nothing worked. Something was obviously bugging her.
The instructor got to work on helping us get calm without having to pull her around so much, mostly by a useful exercise I’ll definitely use in future – disengaging the haunches, by doing pretty much a bunch of turns on the forehand, making her cross her hindlegs. A horse with crossed hindlegs can’t buck or bolt or rear or do anything stupid. “It’s like putting her in neutral,” the instructor explained.
Several minutes of this later, Arwen started to yield and relax, but was still pretty freaked out. She was staring into the distance when we finally got it: baboons. I hadn’t noticed them, but there was a whole troop of them running around next to the arena. Frankly I don’t much like baboons either and I can only imagine what the smell, sound and sight of them was doing to my poor horse.
Unfortunately, this meant that we spent the entire lesson just getting Arwen to switch her brain on and stop freaking out. It was kind of a let down for both of us since I was really hoping to get some help with Arwen’s on-the-forehand habit, and even the instructor seemed a bit disappointed that we couldn’t do anything more complicated than trot in a circle, but it was definitely a good experience. In the end we were doing walk serpentines on a loose rein all the way down to the end nearest the baboons and all the way back without breaking into a trot, so she calmed down eventually.
If the instructor comes back to South Africa I’ll definitely be going to a lesson, this time minus baboons. She was really good and gave me a bunch of awesome groundwork exercises I’m going to try with the horses. I asked her about the on-the-forehand problem and she suggested lots and lots and lots of transitions, so next time we hit the arena Arwie will have a lot to think about.
Soft hand. Sounds like such a simple thing to have, doesn’t it? All you have to do is not pull on the horse’s mouth, right?
Wrong, obviously. (That would make it easy!) All you have to do to have a perfectly soft hand is be perfectly balanced in your posture, perfectly supple in your body, perfectly strong in your core and perfectly relaxed in your mind. The latter is the hardest for me, because I know I can sit up there on a horse and follow it supply with my body, core holding me up, balance keeping me steady, and have a hand so soft on the reins that the twitch of my finger is only a tiny vibration dancing on the tips of its nerves. Unfortunately, “can” and “will” and “do” are totally different. I do have moments when I can sit like that (and the horses thank me for it), but whenever I get a little nervous/distracted/uncertain, stuff locks up and the next thing I know I have what feels like a steam train in my hands and a pretty upset horse.
Praise the Lord for horses and for His timing; the Mutterer is excellent, and horses even better, but nobody can teach riding quite as well as my Lord Jesus. He always knows which horse (or horse problem, or person problem) to send along that will help me with my riding next. Just as He carefully orchestrates my most important life lessons, He teaches me how to work with these amazing creatures day by day.
The horses I’m currently being schooled by are a big stallion with a soft mouth and of course Magic (who teaches me something new every time I sit on him). Both of these are very uphill, very compact horses who don’t need a lot of hand anyway, and both are very sensitive and make their discomfort known when they have a problem. Now, I school baby horses, so I know you can’t always sit there with a pretty soft hand. If the wheels fall off and I get bolted with, I’m pulling as hard as I need to. And with newly-backed horses you usually need to be pretty obtuse to get the first halt or turn or whatever out of them. But you always work and work for refinement, both in your riding and in your horse’s schooling, and my hands are desperate for refinement.
The stallion is an interesting one. His mouth is extremely sensitive, and he likes to curl up behind the bit once he’s warm, but he’s also so strong that he can put his head almost in rollkur position (not on my agenda, just saying) and plough off as quick as he wants. And pull as you might, he just nails his head to his chest and does whatever he likes; there’s no way my little hands can do anything to that ginormous head of his. It does mean he can carry himself perfectly when he wants to, but I have to hardly touch his mouth at all to keep him that way. Not even to turn, not even to stop, and definitely not to pull his head up when he bucks. I am lucky enough to have fairly independent hands – I just need to use them. So when I ride him I have to keep almost no contact at all and depend 100% on my legs for steering and seat for slowing down.
That brings us to Magic. Wow, Magic. He is such an awesome but different dude. The other horses I ride all need such a strong ride to the base of a jump; Arwen used to need big fat Pony Club kicks, but now she still needs both legs ON and a firm rein to keep her straight and serious. Even the aforementioned stallion, who lacks confidence, needs a strong leg aid to give him a little guts. But the more I jump Magic, the more I figure out that less is generally more with this guy.
Maybe it’s because Magic has a natural eye for the distances and the ability to jump well enough, and willingness to try hard enough, that he knows he can do it himself and then thinks he’s getting it wrong when you meddle with him. Or maybe he’s just so, so sensitive, because he sure is. On Arwen, I usually sit down and speed up the last three strides, then she jumps better. With Magic, the key is to stay soft, soft, soft. And not only with the hands – legs and seat as well. In fact it’s best to totally take the seat out of the equation, go into forward seat and just barely touch him. Magic doesn’t need to be taken to the jumps, he takes you to the jumps. Just a hint of inside leg and rein and a tickle with the outside leg for turns, a feathery contact, and that’s all he wants. The slower he approaches, the better he jumps. He can’t be rushed. It’s so weird, but it’s actually wonderful.
All I do is perch up there breathing with his motion and following him nice and softly with my hands, and if he feels a bit hesitant a quick grip with my lower legs, and that’s it. The moment I start to pull him around corners, kick him into the jumps or (heaven forbid) hold him in he rushes, overjumps and panics. When I give him that very quiet soft ride, he stays in his happy place. Yesterday I had him rollin’ in the most amazing rhythmic canter with a nice big snorty breath in each stride, taking the jumps effortlessly, soft and gentle. He was in the kind of frame of mind that even if we had a little slip-up and made a mistake, and I got left a bit behind and pulled his mouth accidentally, he could shrug it off and ignore it by the next jump because we both put it behind us so quickly.
All my riding career I’ve needed a firm hand, to ask clearly for what I want, to not be afraid to be pushy when I didn’t get what I knew I could, and to wait for a horse to realise the value of generosity. More has always been more. But with him? No. All I gotta do is stay out of his face and let him give.
Poor old Magic really doesn’t deserve the random freak accidents that are forever happening to him.
The handsome dude has been behaving really well, actually. For the first year or so that I had him, I was so thrilled with his jump that I spent most of our time jumping, the higher the better. While it was awesome fun, I don’t think it was the best thing for his education. His technique is quite sloppy. Because of his natural ability, he can jump the heights we’ve done from any distance, often pushing off with only one hindleg and dangling his front hooves a little. This might not affect him at 80cm, but if we’re going to go upwards of 1.30m one day, he needs to jump properly. Good habits are best trained early, of course, so right now we’re not pushing the height too much and doing a few little grids and small courses to build both our technique and confidence.
Our confidence has definitely improved. A month or two ago, when I was being terrified of him and he was trying to save me by jumping everything three times higher than necessary, I would start our sessions with 30cm crosses and consider it a success if we made 70cm. It was, but we’ve both rediscovered a little trust in one another and are now jumping 60-80cm most sessions. I am still learning to ride him because he is so sensitive, but I’ve figured out that the softer and slower we approach a jump, the better. This may sound obvious, but I’m used to Arwen and Reed who like a strong ride to the jump; it’s often better to gallop them to a jump than to take a deep or cautious distance. Magic is a bit of a pussy in that he only jumps properly from exactly the right distance, but he is also very willing and doesn’t need to be chased at a scary jump to ensure he jumps it. Chasing him only seems to make him nervous and causes him to overjump. This doesn’t mean I can just sit there, though. I have to give him a very balanced and quiet ride to the jump, but I also have to give him a massive amount of room with my hands. He is very fussy about his mouth and really hates it if I get left behind and accidentally give him a pull. While he still clears everything and nearly never puts his back legs down into a jump (he hates taking rails), he does charge at the next fence quite nervously and throw his face into the air.
The best part is actually that he has overjumped once or twice with me lately, usually out of my own error or just because we’re trying harder things which inevitably brings out a stress reaction, and we have both been able to cope with it. Even if I have a bit of a wobble, I can put it behind me and ride confidently to the next jump.
I’ve also shifted our focus onto flatwork. Magic doesn’t like flatwork much, but he needs to refine it, especially if we’re going to event. There are a few significant holes in his training, so I’m pretty much schooling him as if he was a dressage horse – starting with all the prelim stuff and slowly adding in bits from the novice tests. He has become a lot less panicky about his mouth, particularly as I’m concentrating really hard on my contact with him, and now does even trot-halt transitions without flailing.
I have to be very careful not to be too strict with him, which is weird. The horses I normally work with take a lot of chances and need to be kept in line, but Magic never does; he genuinely tries his best and scolding him only freaks him out, poor sweet dude, and when he’s freaked out he’s a total idiot. Bit of a delicate flower, that one.
So we were making all this awesome progress and getting him less worried about his mouth and then today while I was unwrapping his legs he rubbed his face on the fence, which I actually never let him do, and his bit got caught. Of course Magic freaked and leapt back like his mouth was on fire, causing his headpiece to snap and the bit to swing loose through his mouth. He ran a few steps while I walked after him speaking to him and then froze and stood there whinnying for no apparent reason. The poor guy shoved his head worriedly against me when I got there, so maybe he is starting to trust me after all.
I was instantly stressed about his mouth. He let me prise his lips open and there it was, Magic’s latest freak accident injury: one of his tushes had been broken. The top seemed to have been snapped off and was hanging by a thread and bleeding. My stomach did a little somersault of sympathy, but he didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, so I gave him a little piece of carrot to see if he could eat (he could) and phoned the Mutterer.
I was pretty much ready to call in vets and dentists and all sorts of expensive people, but luckily the Mutterer saved the day by snipping off the piece of broken tooth with a pair of pliers and recommending an injection of penicillin. Thankfully, the root is undamaged – only the tip is broken off – and Magic seems to have forgotten all about it. Thank God (no really, thank Him) it’s only a tush. Tushes (canine teeth) are never used to eat with; found mostly in male horses, they’re used only by stallions in serious fights. Since Magic is not a stallion and doesn’t fight with anyone anyway, I don’t think he’s going to miss it.
Poor sweet guy. I’m starting to love him even more now.
So I was going to write this technical photo-heavy post about Magic’s free jumping, but then today just kinda happened. I got thrown head over heels on a hack during a bit of overexcitement in a canter, and my horse (not one of the Horde, a client horse) took off like a shot, leaving me behind like:
Luckily the farrier was on his way down the road and saw the riderless horse go past, so most sensibly drove the way she’d come and found a grumpy horse trainer making her way home on foot. The horse also had the good sense to run straight home to her paddock and not get hit by any cars, so it ended well, but left me tired and in too daft a mood for serious posting.
What I really felt like was writing a blog hop, and Hillary is now my hero for taking over the blog hop duties from L. So without further ado, my response to the first Equestrian at Hart Blog Hop.
I want to know about what you ride in and why? Show us your Equestrian Fashion choices and tell us why you wear them!
I am a horrible pleb when it comes to riding clothes. During my novice years, when a saddle was considered fancy frippery, I barely stooped to a bridle and riding helmet, and occasionally still do so (provided the horse is fat enough).
Later on, I started to figure out why professionals wear riding stuff (except obviously the Horse Mutterer): it’s there for a reason. I added riding boots to my gear since they didn’t slide around on the stirrups as much as gumboots did, and when I finally consented to use a saddle for multiple horses every day, I added half chaps as well. Shorts are all fine and well for Western saddles, but even jeans don’t give you enough protection from the stirrup leathers’ pinching and rubbing your legs against the saddle flap in English.
This winter was the first time I started to wear gloves for riding, not because the reins were hurting my hands much (I generally ride with leather reins), but to protect my knuckles from the dry air. They get truly horrible after a day at the stables and somehow the gloves trap moisture in my skin.
So now, my daily riding get-up, from the bottom up.
Feet. Boots depend on where I am, since I wear out a pair of boots in six months or so. At home, I wear non-riding Bronx boots, which are cheaper than riding boots but still have a heel. At work and shows, I ride in Trident paddock boots, which are a lot nicer, look prettier and match my gaiters (always a win).
Lower legs. While I would love to have proper long boots, I can’t justify spending that amount of money on something that wears out so quickly. Chaps are just hopeless (they’re lucky if they last 8 weeks), so I wear gaiters, of which I don’t know the brand (my bad). They need the zips replaced now and then, but they look good, feel great and don’t wear out. Mine are too short, though. Everything that was long enough in the shop was hopelessly too fat, so I went with thin enough, but too short. It’s a little annoying but does the job just fine.
Legs. This is where my inner peasant shows itself. I wear jodhpurs/breeches only for special occasions and spend the rest of my life in el cheapo jeans that are slightly too big. (Everything is, when you’re me). I do have a good reason for wearing jeans, though: they have pockets. I would die without pockets. Also, they’re cheap, easy to find, and last really well, and if they don’t fit you just put another hole in your belt. I am on the hunt for jodhs for work, though, because jeans really do look terribly scruffy. Just as soon as I find jodhs with pockets. Another disadvantage of jeans: When you’re 5′ 4″ and trying to get onto a 16.2hh stallion without a mounting block, ominous creaking sounds are emitted from the stitching around the groin area. It is at this point that I swallow my pride and ask for a leg-up.
Waist. I love my belt. It’s handmade and leather, and wide enough that it fills up your belt loops completely. In fact, I just love leather, period.
Torso. At home, I’m rocking the baggy T-shirt look. At work and shows, I am in love with my work uniform. The Ruach owner has impeccable taste and the cut of this collared shirt is amazing. One of the (few) disadvantages of being built like a toothpick and active enough to have an athletic figure is that nothing fits, ever, so that athletic figure is restricted to looking like a clothes hanger with everything just kind of draped around you.
Without being in the least immodest, my uniform is ever-so-slightly flattering. Plus, it’s super durable, never too hot, and has an awesome coat of arms/logo on it. Win.
Hands. Gloves are worse than chaps. I used to just grab the cheapest pair of gloves I could find at the feed shop, but they lasted 6 weeks, tops. Now I have a pair of Horsetech leather gloves, which are fantastic. The leather is a little hot, but it’s worth it for the tight fit around the wrist and extra padding and protection around the thumb, forefinger, pinky and ring finger. (Middle fingers apparently have no use in horse riding. Well, it is sometimes quite tempting to flip them, but I try not to and you don’t need padding for that anyway).
Head. I fall too often to have an expensive helmet. I just buy cheap ones so that I can afford to replace them more often. This is about the fifth fall on my current one (I’ve been meaning to get a new one for the past four falls) so the hat hunt starts in earnest this weekend.
Until then, I’m just going to really, really hope that I stay on.