TOABH: All My Own Mistakes

The majority of the ponies have been given their African horse sickness shot, an effective but extremely strong vaccine that necessitates three weeks of very gentle or no work after each of the two shots. I dislike this enforced rest period, but this year it’s arrived at a good time in their training; Arwen is getting stunning, Magic is being good and has sore teeth now, and Baby Thun is being his usual awesome self. They all deserve a rest, especially Arwie, who has worked her muscular little grey bottom off.
So, my dear readers, as I am in the process of looking for a project pony to keep me amused for the next month and a half, you guys get blog hops!
I apologise for not doing the InLinkz properly. I plead mobile blogging.
Beka from The Owls Approve asks:
“Last week, we talked about our babies. This week, let’s talk about our greenies. Who trained your horse? Is your ponykins still in the process of figuring out this whole monkey-on-my-back thing, did you send off for thirty or sixty or ninety days, or did you buy a horse with all the bells and whistles? Who has helped your horse become what he or she is today?”
Skye was what I think you Americans call “green broke” when I got her. She knew what whoa and go meant (sort of). She did not try to throw me 80% of the time. She could kind of turn, but like an ironing board turns; stiffly and with very little agility.
I really cannot say that I taught Skye as much as the brave old charger taught me. She still needs a Western curb for those moments when one requires a handbrake. She doesn’t canter on the left lead, ever. She doesn’t jump. She doesn’t bend. She only neck-reins when she feels like it. She’s the most trustworthy horse I have ever known.
I owe her majesty a lot of things I can’t repay. After all, she was a green young mare and I was a ten-year-old with the self-preservation of a lemming; any horseman could tell you that’s not a match made in Heaven.
I can tell you that a match made in Heaven was exactly what it was.

Arwen is my personal pride and joy when it comes to training horses. She was halter trained when she arrived and that was about it. The Mutterer, with no fuss and very little trouble, introduced her to saddle, bridle and rider in fifteen minutes flat, becoming instantly my hero.
Arwie was my sister’s ride for a while and this did not work out, something we realised somewhere around the third disastrous fall. Arwen became a paddock ornament for a few months before a bored, twelve-year-old me saddled her up and tried her out. She was, frankly, quite horrible. She reared on outrides, she bucked at the canter, she leaned on my hands, and she spooked at anything that dared to exist. She couldn’t do a trot circle, much less canter in a straight line.
It took five years of constant work and was a tremendous learning curve as we both grew up. At times I despaired that she would ever be brave or fun. But look at us now; attacking xc courses, clearing 1.00m courses at home and floating through novice-level dressage. She was a perfect project for me. Glory to the King.

Magic is a different story. Unfortunately, his youth was spent as a commercialised part of the racing industry. And not the American racing industry where OTTBs come able to do lead changes. I don’t know what they did to Magic, but it cooked his brain. He couldn’t function in a group or stand in the rain without freaking out. He was so touchy you couldn’t groom him. He was… interesting to ride with his nose in the air, his gaits choppy, and the feeling that he was just about to explode at any minute.
Needless to say, I loved him instantly.
When I bought him, he was a little calmer. He still stargazed, refused to canter on the off lead, overjumped massively and startled at any sound. I threw him in a paddock with Skye, which I did more for convenience than anything else, but it was the best thing I could have done. He learned to be a horse again. Skye re-taught him the equine language he’d all but forgotten.
Now? Well, we have a loooong way to go. But I’m most humbled that this great horse has accepted me as his leader and friend. He’s calmer, happier, and looks like a million bucks under saddle. We’re a trot leg-yield away from Novice dressage and jumping 80cm courses comfortably.

Thunder is… well, Thunder. He has only my work in him, really. In the four years since he was born and I breathed into his nostrils as one horse does to another, I’ve trained him largely on my own. Of course, the Mutterer guided me through every little step; but the actual hands-on training has been just God and Thun and me. The Mutterer worked with him in hand once when he was being a colt and I didn’t know how to handle it. Thun has never had a pro rider on him. Just me, and a few students and friends.
I think even if I had all the money in the world, I won’t buy myself a schooled horse. There are plenty of riders who can school horses so much better than me. It’s not even a matter of pride anymore – of “Well, the others can win ribbons but I can do it on a horse I trained myself”. It’s that I wouldn’t trade this bond for any amount of ribbons. More practically, a horse I raised is tuned in to my preferences; he is halter trained to the point of in-hand showing, he doesn’t get too pushy about treats, he doesn’t graze when you’re on him, that sort of thing. Also, having had only one rider all his life, Baby Thun responds amazingly to my aids. Each rider does give his aids slightly differently; we’re all built differently. One of our client horses is a prime example. She leg-yields beautifully for my clumsy aids, but doesn’t leg-yield at all for the Mutterer, simply because his legs are longer even though his aids are better.
Baby Thun is so used to my aids that sometimes I just think something and he responds to subconscious changes in my body before I can move my hands and legs. I wouldn’t trade him for Valegro.

Thunder and Lightning

After a few dry years, it’s a glorious and terrifying relief to have a real Highveld summer again: hot, bright days blazing azure and emerald, the afternoons coming with a fanfare of wind to announce the thunderstorms that march over the hilltops like conquering armies. Including lightning. Really loud flashy lightning that sends me under the bedclothes, frantically cuddled by terrified dogs. Said lightning also decided to blow up my PC, hence my silence and now my lack of pictures as this post is being hastily typed on my phone. It has not yet blown up, but is only six weeks old, so may yet decide to join the technological mutiny.
All is well with the Horde and their human. Magic has been giving me some stunning work, including going much more softly in the snaffle and jumping calmly over a rather spooky vertical. The tiny triple of doom also grew up to be an 80cm triple of non-eventfulness, according to Magic, who popped through it without complaint. His brain completely evaporated on a hack recently, but it was so out of character that I’m hoping it was a once-off and won’t happen again next time.
He is in desperate need of a dentist visit to have his teeth floated, though. Maybe that was what set him off.

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Arwen has been equally stunning. She’s starting to run a bit fat, so I’ve been a bit more demanding in our sessions. We managed a 38kph gallop recently during which I thought we were all likely to die (we nearly reached the Mutterer’s goal of crying). Her dressage is becoming massively better; she’s considerably lighter in my hand, and her canter is becoming more engaged. Her trot leg-yields are also more flowing and not a fight anymore. Canter lengthenings – or rather, ceasing to do canter lengthenings – are still a bit hairy but not quite as death-defying as they were. She is getting braver with the jumping, including taking the creepy vertical and a 1.00m triple bar in her stride. I love to stare down into the triple bar like a noob, so this was an accomplishment.

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Baby Thun is being a superstar. After some weird backwards squiggling around, I managed to explain spins to him and he now does them, albeit extraordinarily slowly. He also reins back with something more approaching speed, or at least rhythm. The poor guy is a large and chunky beast and is probably physically better suited to dressage, but he’s an absolute pleasure to train and I’m loving figuring out reining with him.
His hacking is also doing fine. He does still spook quite violently – a spin and bolt away from the danger – on occasion, but he deals with his fear very maturely as soon as I get him under control. Thun is not a quiet horse at this stage, but his obedience overrules absolutely everything. The moment I say stop he stops, and most importantly as soon as I turn him towards the danger and ask him to go forward, he does it. He might be shaking where he stands but he does what I want. As his confidence grows, I know he’ll be bombproof eventually; I would rather have him a bit jumpy than one of those real blank-faced dead old trail horses.

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As for her majesty the warrior queen, she is quite happy with Exavior to look after and Magic to calm down. She loves going on our relaxing little hacks and even carts around beginners for me now and then, although the beginners think I have gone insane. All day I’ve been yelling at them to take charge of their horses, and then suddenly I’m telling them to give her the reins and just sit there. One does not simply take charge of a warrior queen; she usually knows better in any case.

Exavior is living a lazy life of eating and hanging out. I haven’t worked him once. The little dude has been through so much that right now he just needs to learn to be a horse again. He is much better to groom, and much happier in the group; now he needs to learn to play, to run, and to put his big head down when I want him to. The monster beast has already grown out of his first halter…

What We Sow, We Reap

One of the things I love most about horses is that you get back whatever you put in. If you love hard enough, a horse will eventually love you back. And if you work hard enough, with most horses, that hard work pays off in the end.

It wasn’t that fun to be plopping around over tiny cross-rails on a horse that I know could jump 1.50m if only he believed he could. Hours of drilling dressage in the sandbox was all the more frustrating for knowing that the horse under me could jump the socks off anything else I’d ever ridden. But neither of us were ready for anything more than that. So it’s been months of flatwork, groundwork, tiny jumps, little grids, nothing to challenge him, but to slowly bring him on step by step. And bit by bit, tiny jump by tiny jump, our confidence is building. I’m slowly, slowly learning to ride him. And with each good session, he’s starting to believe in himself as much as I believe in him.

When I heard that my favourite show venue was holding a small training show, I just had to enter him. It was made for him. The first three classes were 30cm, 40cm, and 50cm, and I knew that this venue generally doesn’t make difficult or scary courses for the smallest classes. So with a prayer in my pocket, I bit the bullet and we loaded up the grey lunatic and took him off to Springs. He loaded well enough – Dad just had to stand behind him and tell him to get up and with me at his head he walked right in – and was bone dry and calm when we arrived.

For various reasons, I had been a bit out of action for the past week and only managed to fit in two sessions for him. He was coming off a two-day rest, which is never good, and I was dreading having to lunge him in the parking lot. I detest it when people do that, but if it was lunging or getting thrown I knew which one I was choosing. He seemed chilled, though, so I decided to take a chance and saddle him up. First I tried walking him around the arena, but he was quite unsettled and antsy – nothing naughty, but he chucked his head around and danced on the spot. I went with my usual philosophy: horses are made to move, and are happier and more settled when moving. So I pushed him into a trot and he put his head straight down and went to work like a pro.

Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now
Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now

I could have burst with pride and relief. He had a couple of head-tossing, dancing-on-the-spot baby moments but as long as I kept him moving forward he kept his mind on the job. No bucking, no rearing, not even a spook for the dressage letters or small kids and ponies bouncing around all over the place. He did overjump the first warmup jump ever so slightly, but I was ready for it and he wasn’t unreasonable about it, so after that he jumped perfectly. He was better than he is at home, with happy upright ears and an interested expression; he was enjoying the change and the challenge. I could have screamed with delight that he finally realised that the two of us can deal with scary things.

Now I know what we're doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)
Now I know what we’re doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)

We had one sinking moment at the very start of our first course. The first jump had a couple of somewhat spooky green tyres in front of it, and as I aimed him at it he put up his head and did his standard “Nopenopenopenope” move, involving a rapid reinback that Stacy Westfall would be proud of. Luckily, I kept my wits about me and put my hands in his mane and closed my legs quietly around his sides and softly insisted until his brain returned. And thank God (no really, thank Him) it did. Magic is smart enough and sensitive enough that he felt the pressure of his first show, picking it up in the atmosphere and in my body language, and I think he must have had one of his racing flashbacks. I can only imagine that the pressures of the track must have shattered him, because that’s the way he is, and whenever he had one of these moments at the track he was probably just pushed into the starting box and told to do his job because few people at a racetrack have time to soothe one panicky gelding. It’s probably why his racing career was so disastrous. But this time, he had me with him, and I have finally found out how to handle his moments and so his brain returned, he found his guts and he attacked that cross-rail like it had personally offended him. After that he was amazing. He locked onto every jump and knew exactly what he had to do. All I had to do was steer and enjoy the ride, and boy, did I enjoy it.

Because tiny uprights require KNEES
Because tiny uprights require KNEES

I realised again what an absolutely amazing horse he is. He has so much talent, such good movement, such a trainable mind and such an outstanding jump, not to mention his ample heart. I rubbed his neck as he trotted out of the little round and felt like we’d just won the Derby, I was that happy. He tossed out his front legs like he felt just as happy.

Of course, when I got off he went back to being dorky idiot Magic whom I know so well, and somehow while my dad was holding him he managed to put his foot through his reins and freaked out radically. Luckily he freed himself before anything got damaged. For a really talented amazing horse, he can be an absolute moron sometimes.

After that first round I just kept him moving. Even if we just walked on the buckle around the warmup, he was much happier to be moving than standing. When standing still he fidgeted or pawed the ground and was generally upset, so I figured he couldn’t be that tired and decided to keep him moving. It seemed to work; he was settled in his work but didn’t seem to run out of steam.

Happy place
Happy place

The next two rounds were picture perfect. We cantered most of them and he was amazing; he even got all his leads right, picked good distances with minimal help from me, and responded instantly to all of my aids. The arena was sopping wet, and while the footing was still safe and stable, there were quite a few shallow puddles of standing water. He didn’t let them bug him one bit and cantered straight through them, jumping in and out of them without any issues. Just gotta love the amount of heart this guy has.

BOOM
BOOM

After our rounds, I took off all his tack and just held him by his halter near a haynet to see if I could teach him to stand quietly. Once his tack was off, he seemed to realise that work time was over and ate hay peacefully until he was dry and we could go home. He did manage to remove both back boots and his tail bandages on the way home, as well as scraping the back of his ear and scratching his side (this is Magic we’re talking about), but didn’t seem too worried by anything very much.

I just had to realise again what a stunning horse I’ve been most undeservedly blessed with. God has entrusted a most amazing creature into my care, and I only pray that I can continue to ride him better every day until we both bring out the best in each other. I believe in this stupendously weird and wonderful horse, and the very fact that he’s been the answer to my prayers for a great horse must mean that God believes in me.

It’s a good thing that I believe in Him, because otherwise none of this would be possible. This is just the first step on an awesome journey. Glory to the King.

Magic7