Today started with Revelation 1, and goosebumps down my arms at the terrifying description of our King with stars in His right Hand and a two-edged sword blazing forth from His mouth. Yet this majestic Person, this almighty Ruler of all that is and was and is to come, the Alpha and Omega, reached down to touch a lowly little worm of a man and said: “Fear not”.
This was the theme of my humdrum little day too, apparently. I’m a little shocked at how much God really has achieved in me, how far He’s taken me beyond the very limits of my courage.
I thought losing Nell and Rainbow would end the dream forever. Fear not, He said.
Faith is so fat and happy and shiny right now. And Thunder’s schooling today was amazing – I totally underestimated our big baby.
After a troubled little grey gelding called Dirkie bucked me off onto my hip, turning it several fascinating shades of red and purple, I thought I’d never start another youngster again in my life. Much less any sensitive or nervous ones.
But, Fear not, He said.
When I was hanging in the saddle over Eagle’s back like a sack of potatoes today, he gave this beautiful body-shaking big sigh and I knew he was ready. So I threw a leg over him and he slept for a few minutes while I patted him.
Also Destiny, to date one of the most remedial horses I’ve ever had on the ground, can now do walk/trot/canter large and circles in the dressage. He will reliably spook every session (only on the right rein and only in canter) but this has become rather half-hearted since I called his bluff.
I thought I’d never lead another hack with kids again, not after Jamaica chucked his kid off and broke her arm. The kid never missed a beat; I was thoroughly traumatised. But, Fear not, He said.
After years of falling off stoppers and dealing with poor old Magic’s nerves, I thought I’d never jump the required 85cm for module four, not even on a horse I know. But God said, Fear not, and today jumping an exercise at 85-90cm on Jamaica felt positively routine.
Arwen’s clipping last year was so horrific (like, going across the stable on her hindlegs with enough sedative in her to knock a carthorse flat, kind of horrific) that I thought we were doomed to woolly, overheating misery this winter. But even in this little thing, God spoke power and love.
She ate grass. I clipped. It took half an hour.
All I ever did was let go.
And watched my star-holding, flame-eyed, blade-speaking King landing the punches straight and square on the jaws of my demons.
Although I’d welcome some frost right now with open arms. AHS is perilously close all around us.
They cut the hay for the first time yesterday, as Arwen and I discovered on a midday hack. “Midday” and “Arwen” are not a good combination right now – we did half an hour of walk/trot and the sweat was absolutely pouring off her.
Her routine riding time is 6:15am right now, which suits her well – she’s been schooling those simple changes really well. I’m using my ten-steps exercise, which is freakishly hard, but I love it.
The ten-steps exercise is simple enough to remember: on a 20m circle or figure eight, don’t stay in any one gait for more than 10 steps. I do halt-walk-trot-canter-trot-walk-halt on the younger horses and canter-walk-halt-canter (with counter canter mixed in) for Arwen. Trying to get exactly ten steps is practically impossible, as is any good dressage.
Jamaica and Thunder schooled this exercise too. Thunder was very obedient but his gait quality wasn’t always there. I changed his bit to the French link, though, and that had him off my hand and carrying himself a lot better. This exercise helped him to immediately go forward into a good swinging gait because he only had 10 steps to prepare for the next one.
Jamaica, on the other hand, was disobedient and unbalanced throughout but forward and connected through the gaits. I actually threw in the halt for his benefit and it helped greatly because otherwise he’d quite happily just tank along. He loves to dive onto his forehand and just flop. This exercise helped him to balance, wait, and listen. I suddenly and magically had a soft, rebalancing half-halt after this.
Midas played around with a bit of flatwork this week under me, working on an accurate centreline and trying for a bit of stretchy trot. I also asked him for his first tiny leg-yield, quarter line to track. I love how he totally understands the basics so well that I just added inside leg, opened outside hand and there we go, leg-yield. He jumped a bunch of one-strides with a kid to help teach him to jump his way out of trouble with minimal managing. And we went for a little hack without a single spook.
Sunè is working in the lesson program quite a bit lately, mostly because she’s just fantastic and so safe. I’ve been on her a bit to jump and that’s shown massive improvement – I’m going to try to do the 60cm at SANESA Q2 on her, too.
She’s not the only one that’s doing some jumping this week. Lancey, Jamaica and Starlight are jumping in a training show this weekend under me, plus I had a lesson with K’s dad G today.
I rode babysitter Al for the lesson and was sweating profusely when we rode in – K, her mom, another guy that rides professionally all on their babies and me just kinda sitting there on the schoolie. G is brilliant and super nice though, so it was good. I spent most of it panicking about running into everyone else – I haven’t had a group lesson since June. But when I was focusing it was really technical but not at all scary. Three months ago I would have been quaking at the mere thought of putting a leg over 16.2 Al, so this is excellent. K and G are both so kind. And God is mightily at work in me.
Lancelot was a bit crazy on Monday; he was spooking and stopping and majestically overjumping all over the place. I actually surprised myself by staying very secure in the tack through all his shenanigans, though, so it turned out to be confidence-building and today we could come back and pop around everything at 65-70cm without trouble.
Starlight and I have come to an agreement to be civil to one another and jumped very successfully this afternoon. Video here!
Back at work on the babies tomorrow – I’ll get pictures and updates on Trooper, Eagle and Destiny then.
Once again, I failed badly when it came to media. On the bright side, I finally have some photos from HOY – which I will share with you once I’ve decided which ones to actually purchase.
Either way, the show happened, and our horses totally rocked our socks.
After lots of predawn schooling and panicky last-minute test learning, Arwen and I came down the centerline at Elementary for the first time ever. I was tense as anything, but it became a dance between God and Arwen and I and when we halted after our last tense I was a little dizzy and could barely recall what actually happened. I remember we fluffed our simple changes, but I don’t remember scoring a couple of 8s and a bunch of 7s – which we nonetheless did for 63.8% in Elementary 4 and 67.6% in Elementary 5. I still don’t believe it.
Her working riding was a little dragonish but totally fearless and well-mannered. We were the only ones in the class, but I was really wishing there were some bums to kick because I think she would have kicked them.
She jumped a slightly crazed and very messy clear round in the 70cm to win it, followed by taking a pole in the 80cm. That was my bad. She was fearless and jumping effortlessly, but the judge had scolded me for our messy round while pinning our ribbon on for the 70cm and it messed with my head, so I started to pick at her and ask for lead changes at the wrong kind of moments. She took the pole when I was hanging on her face and after that I let her do her job and she jumped easily.
Midas did Prelim 3 and 4 with me in the irons and dazzled me greatly by scoring in the 65-66 zone. He was inattentive at moments and squeaked for his buddies a few times, particularly in the second test, but he happily did everything I asked and nailed a 7 for his super awesome little canter. We also got lots of comments on being accurate, which was lovely. Having the dressage arena probably pushed up every single mark by .5 or so. It’s also rather easy to ride into the corners on all 13.1 hands of Midas.
He also jumped his first round under a very skilled kid at 60cm, taking the spooky fences in his stride. Regrettably he ran out of the second element of the one-stride – poor chap is still trying to figure out how to get his teeny legs to fit one in a horse one – but he came back to jump it great and finished strong. He was also dead safe for the kid.
Renè and Sunè did pairs together; it was a bit of a mess and K and I couldn’t stop giggling but it was fun and we were alone in the class so we got pretty satin out of it. Renè wasn’t having the best day but still managed to do everything she was asked in a safe, calm manner for fourth in hand and working riding.
Sunè competed under a kid for the first time and did great, most unsurprisingly. The little kiddo wouldn’t quit kicking her so our show riding was a little more fast-paced than desired (especially by huffing, puffing, sprinting me), but he looked super up there and remembered his test perfectly. The working riding was even better. I rode her in working riding too, and I think she would have won it except she wiggled a bit as we stepped onto the mat and knocked a flowerpot over so that wasn’t too good. Everything else was foot perfect.
It was a super fun, low-key little show and perfect for wrapping up our showing season until Spring Show. For the next five months, it’s dressage, showjumping and SANESA galore – and we’re ready for it. Facing our giants and honouring our God.
An old farmer around here used to say that once there was mist on the river, the frost would come in seven weeks or less. In seventeen years, he hasn’t been wrong.
Sunmer draws to a close, promising the end of midge season – and therefore AHS season – and summer coats, and boxing horses in daylight for shows.
It also means cosmos season, and that means outrides. Summer never goes out without a fight; it always puts on a last defiance in white and purple. It’s the best time for hacking.
Arwen was so quiet today I was kind of worried, except she would not stop eating the whole time. Arwie LOVES cosmos flowers. She didn’t bat an eye at anything and was a total pleasure.
We rode in between the fields of ripening maize,
in and out of the weird hole with the epic banks,
and through the field of gently waving hay, almost ready for its first cutting.
We even got to see a pair of rooibok… cows? Ewes? Lady rooibokke, anyway.
The horses were wonderful and seemed to enjoy it as much as we did. We kept it pretty slow for the little kid’s sake (and mine), but they were all super. Vastrap was hot of course but never bad. Renè, Lulu and Dusty were perfect.
In other news, we’ve had a peaceful week so far with today being a public holiday. We got a bunch of riding done yesterday between K and I, so today is a little slow. Jamaica’s flatwork has shown an improvement again. Arwen ran through Elementary 4 – one of the tests she’s riding on Friday – without apparent effort. Sunè popped through a little working riding test, including straw bales (the only thing that’s ever given her pause in a working riding class), in fine form.
Thunder is now very relaxed in the dressage arena and even packed K over a fence with straw bales under it at 80cm without apparent difficulty.
Midas and Lancelot were introduced to our new jumping stuff. We got ourselves a white plank, which will shortly be a white plank with Scripture painted on, and a picket fence. Lancelot was TERRIFIED at first, Midas couldn’t really care less and both boys jumped great in the end. Midas has been pretty point-and-shoot – he’ll jump the first time, every time.
Eagle and Destiny both got visits from their respective parents, and both pleasantly surprised me. Eagle is a good guy but he can be rather on the sensitive side so tactless handling sets him off like a firework. I coached his mom through lunging and he actually did fantastic – didn’t get in a flap at all if she made a mistake or two. She cottoned on really quickly, too, and by the end of the session they looked quite harmonious.
He’s still a little flinchy about flappy stirrups and having me jump up and down next to him, though. Definitely not ready to sit on just yet.
Destiny has been driving me up the walls by protesting that the dressage arena is Scary and therefore he can ignore all my aids. We had some arguments for the past two weeks, but yesterday it all came together and he gave me two circles of canter each way in the “safe” end of the arena. And today his mom rode him for the first time. He gave her three gaits without batting an eye. I think he feels a lot more resistant than he looks – because he looked fantastic.
Little Trooper also had a breakthrough; we seem to have effectively eliminated the napping. He’s still not the most forward-going chap but consistently gives me walk/trot/canter on the lunge. The canter still needs building, but the balance is there, just not much strength yet. So we moved on to introducing the bridle. I think his rescuer must have done this already because when I put it on his reaction was this:
Yeah. He’s not bothered.
The rest of the week will be consumed by preparing for Nationals on Friday. It feels like quite the doddle compared to HOY, so let’s see how it goes. Always in God’s Hands.
The world is broken and sad and dark and hurting, but God is brilliant and beautiful and healing and joyous, and He shines through the cracks in plain sight for everyone whose eyes are open. Glimpses of Him take my breath away. I don’t see Him as often as I should, and certainly not as often as He is there. But when I do, He sets my heart burning inside me, like the disciples said in Luke 24.
He’s here, in the wildflowers framed by delicate Arab ears. (Photo taken between spooks).
He’s here in the glimmer on Trooper’s coat as he starts to blossom. I love to see what He created shine through as the pain of a sad past falls away.
He’s in the fact that I did three manes today and they were all fine, a miracle in itself.
He’s in the fact that my DisasterDog is still fully happy and mobile despite having lived for six years with severe hip dysplasia.
He’s in the quiet companionship of moments like these with my stalwart little school pony colleagues as we hack back to the field in the golden evening light.
He’s in the unfailing loyalty of my little shadow.
God’s right here, closer than my skin. And I am grateful.
But a productive one, with things heading towards normal and settled as new working student L settles admirably into her role and we get used to operations being moved to the dressage.
Lady Erin will be weaned in the beginning of April. She’ll be a bit young at five months, but poor Milady has been struggling ever since she got strangles when Lady E was only five days old, so her body really needs a chance to recovered. Plopsie (she doesn’t quite fit into her real name yet) will be OK, but I’ve started her on balancer just to help. She is delighted to finally get food like the big horsies.
Faith and I started to talk about hosepipes and being bathed. She likes to walk in circles, but hasn’t been pushy or freaked out. Her beautiful flowy mane has been washed and conditioned with minimal drama and I did get to hose her whole body today.
Mom’s dog has a funny foot but she keeps smilin’.
The little kid that had the very bad nerves has graduated to riding around the dressage arena, a huge step. The usually ever-patient Lulu did attempt to take a chunk out of me while I was having him trot on lead, which I take to be a cue to hurry up and get him posting already.
Magic still doesn’t tie up with any degree of predictability, but he ground ties every time. It’s adorable. He’s over his nerves about the dressage arena and we’ve had a blast this week fooling around with poles.
Eagle is lunging well in three gaits with a saddle and bridle, no drama. He is such a willing and sensitive chap. I can’t wait for his owner to visit this weekend.
Exavior ran me over while I was trying to lunge him on Monday, but he hasn’t reared under the Mutterer all week. I’m thoroughly enjoying the whole owner thing. I get to watch my gorgeous horse trot around majestically, and all I have to do is play with him in a relatively safe manner.
Lullaby models a new bridle. Her head is just too pretty.
Sunè and working student K have started giving beginner lessons. Both are doing really really great and have exciting futures ahead of them.
Renè remains K’s heartthrob, for obvious reasons.
After working in the school for a year, Thunder has gotten bored out of his skull and started spooking just for something to do. With his half lease gone, I’ve sort of taken him back for a bit. He’s actually such a dream to ride and has become so strong over the past year that I’m really enjoying him. Maybe we’ll have some dressage shows to go to.
In an attempt to get Magic to hack out, we’ve started going walkies. He is currently the showjumper who won’t go to shows turned happy hack that doesn’t go on hacks, but maybe with enough walks he’ll eventually be good to hack. Or maybe not. I don’t know, but we both enjoy hanging out and walking around eating grass (him, not me), so it’s cool either way.
Lady Erin is learning to walk on a lead like a big horsie. Today was our first session without any tantrums, and we’ve made good progress. Although it did take me five minutes of shouting and shoving to convince the creature to get up from her nap so that we could get started. (It’s fairly bombproof).
Here’s a flowerpot full of kittens, because why not?
We also set up a very challenging, but equally fun, gymnastic exercise for the week. Four one-strides in a row, it’s all about tightening knees and quickening reflexes. Here’s video of Vastrap and his kid popping through in fine style.
In other news, we’re preparing for Nooitie Nationals next weekend. Everyone is pretty ready, it’s just that Arwie has a bit of a cold. Nothing serious, so we’ll just wait and see.
It’s a beautiful thing to be right where God put you. Glory to the King.
Recently, I’ve started writing monthly reports for my full training clients. Many of them don’t get to see their horses work much, so to keep in touch with their training, they’d text me for updates and I found myself texting back only short and incomplete answers. Hence, I set aside some time in the beginning of each month to write a comprehensive summary of what their horse was learning. Texts are still welcome, but generally people now have a much better idea of what’s going on.
Writing the reports have proven just as useful to me, as they force me to evaluate and re-evaluate each horse’s personal journey and give reasons for what I’m doing. Not only does it keep me on my toes, it makes me think about what I’m doing instead of running on intuition. Intuition isn’t a bad thing, but it sure makes it difficult to hand the knowledge over to others when all you can really say is “do what feels right” to a person who hasn’t developed the feel just yet.
One interesting thing I found was that most horses have a default. I guess that should be obvious, but it wasn’t, to me. They all have a certain way that they tend to respond to stimuli, and that “default” in large part determines the horse’s trainability.
In general, I’ve found that most horses respond in one of four different ways.
Reactive: When a horse reacts, he flinches away from a stimulus with a swift, jerky movement. For example, on the lunge, he will scoot forward when you pick up the whip. A reactive horse is usually motivated by fear. The horse whose default is to be reactive, is generally a flinchy, hot and spooky sort.
Resistant: When a horse resists, he fights against a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will kick out when you pick up the whip. A resistant horse is often motivated by pain or desire to be dominant. The horse whose default is to be resistant is sulky, grumpy, and habitually has his ears pinned back.
Responsive: When a horse responds, he moves away smoothly from a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will move calmly forward when you pick up the whip. A responsive horse is generally motivated by willingness to please. The horse whose default is to be responsive is generally pleasant and comes across quite sensitive.
Unresponsive: When a horse fails to respond, he ignores a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will stand there when you pick up the whip. An unresponsive horse is generally motivated by laziness or boredom. The horse whose default is to be unresponsive will be dead quiet, patient, and stoic, and can sometimes give the impression of not being “all there”.
Horses also have a sort of “volume”. Not all reactive horses will necessary scoot forward when you pick up the whip. Some will merely step out more briskly than anticipated; others will panic and plunge through the fence. The vast majority of resistant horses never kick out or buck; they just pin their ears. This is why so many back pain and saddle fit issues go unnoticed. Just because a horse is easy to handle doesn’t mean its default is good, it just means its volume’s been turned down, and that can be a good thing – or a bad thing.
One would also think, looking at the list, that all horses should be responsive by default. That’s not true. Remember that horses tend to react to all outside stimuli according to their default – not just aids. Sure you want a horse to respond to your aids, but you don’t want him to respond to a dressage letter, not even if that just means quietly moving away from it. The best horses are a trained balance between responsive and unresponsive, leaning one way or another according to their job. Arwen is more towards the responsive because she’s an adult’s dressage horse who needs to deal with complicated sets of aids in rapid succession. Bruno was far more towards the unresponsive side, because he had to ignore all spooky objects in favour of keeping a kid safe.
Reactive and resistant horses, however, are almost always unhappy; it’s easy to see why – one is motivated by fear or pain, and the other is motivated by pain or by being in the wrong place in their hierarchy. We all know how gross it feels to be in a place where you don’t belong, even if you put yourself there.
All these types of horses (although many horses don’t fit in any of the boxes) need to be approached differently. That’s the most important part of listening, after all: actually acting on what you’ve been told.
Here’s a few little case studies.
Magic‘s default used to be reactive. He feels things deeply, and he expresses them dramatically. Pushing his limits never, ever works – it just makes him go up like a mushroom cloud. Patience and understanding are absolutely key to keeping him happy. The upside of being reactive is that it’s a small – difficult and key, but small – change to becoming responsive, which he has become by a massive effort.
Jamaica used to be excessively unresponsive – to the point where it became complete disobedience and quite dangerous. His automatic reaction was just to hang on your hands till Kingdom come no matter what you did to him. You could flap, you could kick, you could do whatever you pleased – he’d just plough onwards. Unresponsive horses can be very rewarding because they’re fairly easy and safe to train out of it, and then you can really fine-tune the level of responsive you want. Jamaica proved to be one of those. He still has unresponsive moments, but he’s starting to decide that moving away from pressure is generally a good idea. On the plus side, he’s by default not spooky, and because I never trained him to respond to anything except my aids, he remains non-spooky.
Unresponsive horses can be really, really hard to get a read on. Some unresponsive horses have shut down, like a dog that just takes the kick because he knows it’s coming anyway. They bear pain and ill-treatment because it’s the only way they know how to cope. They can hide a tremendous amount of pain. Mercifully, most unresponsive horses are just really chill dudes at heart, who like to roll with it because that’s the way they are. Bruno comes to mind.
Destiny is the most resistant horse I’ve ever met, and his volume was turned all the way up to the top. He wouldn’t just kick out at the lunging whip, he’d spin around and fly backwards, double-barreling at head height all the way and bringing to mind the legend that the Lipizzaners’ capriole was developed to decapitate footsoldiers. I sure thought he was going to decapitate me. Resistant horses, although a battle, are still an easier fix than reactive horses. Even though this chap’s problem wasn’t pain (which resistant horses almost always are in), he was more easily fixable than you would believe if you’d seen him at the height of his issues. Unfortunately, they’re not a pleasant fix in any way. There’s really two main ways to respond to resistance; to remove the stimulus so that they have nothing left to resist against, thus taking them by surprise and often removing the bitterness from the situation, or to resist their resistance more strenuously than they can resist you. When it comes to head-height double-barreling, option (b) is the only option that will leave you with your head still on. Removing the stimulus and rewarding aggression is a recipe from disaster. Hence, Destiny got a hiding. A big hiding. Now, his default is still to be resistant, but in the matter of a month we’ve got the volume turned down from enormous violence to merely pinning the ears. It’s not as good as resetting the default, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
As for responsive, there’s not a lot of horses that are this way after people are done with them. A surprising number of horses are naturally responsive – they just get made either reactive or resistant, because the best horses are always the easiest to ruin. I love me a responsive horse. Nell was one of them, and we all know that she was just epic. The most responsive horse I have right now is undoubtedly Faith. I never had to teach her to move away from pressure because she had it programmed into her DNA. Once she knows how to move away from the pressure, she just does it without any fuss. She can come across spooky because she’ll move away (not leap away) from a scary thing, but personally, I don’t mind those. Nell was the same and as soon as you’ve got the whole moving-away-from-the-leg thing programmed they respond to your leg instead of the scary thing and do what you wanted. (Assuming you made yourself more important and valuable in their lives than scary things). Responsive + willing + gentle + intelligent = most trainable thing you’ll ever clap eyes on.
Now for the million-dollar question, of course. What was the natural default of the majestic, legendary dragonbeast herself? I bet you’ll all be shocked to discover that Arwen was naturally unresponsive. Yep, you read that right. The dragon was the most unresponsive horse you’ve ever seen, and she still has that tendency lurking inside her. I like it because it makes her a lot more robust to my mistakes and whoopsies. It takes a while to train an aid on her, so while she learns good things a little slowly, she also learns bad things a little slowly, which is quite important when you’re doing dressage by trial and error like I am.
The vast majority of horses are complicated tangles of all four defaults, as well as having splashes of random other stuff thrown in. Many are born with one default and go on to be trained to have several different ones. All of them have reacted in all four different ways at some stage in their lives, for multitudes of different reasons. As an example, Nugget is a naturally unresponsive horse who became extremely reactive (with flashes of violently resistant) and is now gradually being trained to be unresponsive again, but with bits of responsive when I ask for them. And she’s only ever had two different handlers, really.
And to turn everything on its head a little, let me remind us all that people and horses are deeply similar, right at the bottom of things. We also react to the greatest Stimulus of all in different ways. Some of us fight Him. Some of us run from Him. Some of us ignore Him.
And some of us hear His voice, and move forward with confidence to do as He asked.