The main reason for that is that the poor chap has just sort of whinnied at me as I flew past this week. It’s hard being the manager’s pet – he always seems to come second when the mango strikes the fan. I’ve groomed him, lunged him once, kissed his nose as I went past and sat on him for like 10 minutes on Tuesday.
No longer able to bear it, tonight after all the lessons were done and silence descended on the yard, I pulled him out of his field at last and we had some Magic time.
Our relationship has found its way to a new place. It’s different, and sometimes a little weird, but it’s good. Oh, it’s very, very good.
There’s no pressure. I haven’t ridden without pressure since Skye retired years ago, and I barely remember what it’s like. Letting go of that seriousness, that deadly focus, that constant vigilance for the slightest slip in training or position has been – hard. Like unclenching a death grip. But so liberating. And especially so for my precious Magic.
He’s always loved work, but he’s never been this excited to get to work. He lights up these days. His good days are exuberantly happy. His bad days are so much less bad now that we both know that if he’s not coping today, then it’s just fine. We do what he can do. We don’t ask for more than he has. We play, we enjoy, we seek to rediscover the comfort zone I’d smothered in pressure.
And as God holds Magic up like a mirror to my soul, I learn to do something I’m truly no good at.
Without backsliding, without sinning, to give myself a break. And to see me the way He does.
Wreathed in timeless love.
So as we merrily bound through a gymnastic line and get all the strides wrong, or jump the same 40cm cross one million times, or gallop around above the bit, or hack bareback on a loose rein, or just hand graze – as nothing happens whatsoever in our training, something incredible happens in our souls. It’s that thing that God used to call me to the yard in the first place. That thing He does in the place where the equine heart meets the human soul.
That thing that happens when our jagged, ugly, broken pieces fit into one another, crack for crack, and God makes something beautiful from our very brokenness. That thing, that indescribable thing that only He can do…
I don’t know its name. But the closest thing I can find is “healing”.
Sometimes it can feel like the horses in my life never come easy. I’m not complaining, because easy never made a good horseperson (or a good person, for that matter). Hard is necessary. But hard is exhausting and can be demoralising.
And my big-dream horses have all been hard. Except Arwen.
Nell and Reed got sold out from under me. Ryka lost his mind. Magic has different priorities. Rainbow died. Exavior is still a question mark. They all made me grow, as a rider, as a person, and I wouldn’t change any of it, but none of them were ever constant.
And then, there’s Arwen.
Always in the background. Always playing second fiddle. She was Magic’s understudy, then Nell’s sidekick. I didn’t even really want her in the first place, I just started riding her because nobody else was. There was no vibrant, verdant, dramatic love affair or Hollywoodesque magical relationship like I had with the others.
But always, steadily marching on, there is Arwen.
Her championship understated after Nell’s three. Her many wins paling in comparison to Nell’s success in YDHS. Lacking Magic’s jump, Nell’s trot, Reed’s quitness, Ryka’s presence, Exavior’s size. But abundant in the one thing they all lack and the one thing that makes her an anchor.
So the dragon pony marches on, undefeated and constant, the one horse I trust to the ends of the earth, the one that doesn’t go lame, the one that shows up every single day for the past eight years ready to do her job.
The one that’s got my back and just deals with it and carries on and never lets anyone tell her what she can’t do. She’s got this. I rely on her, and she doesn’t let me down. She slays those dragons and faces those giants and will not be stopped.
The others have all had their rollercoasters and dramas and disasters and behind it all, Arwen soldiers on.
So Lord, I thank You for all the others too because they teach me so much and they mean so much. But tonight, I thank You for Arwen. A horse who can smell Your plan for her and marches on undaunted. A mare of God that puts this daughter of the King to shame sometimes. Terra firma under my feet when it all slips. But only an instrument in Your almighty Hand.
Thank You God for Your unspeakable gift. I resolve not to be unappreciative of Your blessing again and recognise her for what she is: the best horse I swing a leg over every day.
I’ve started a lot more horses in the past year than ever before, and it definitely shows in the techniques I’m using now compared to early last year. I thought I’d outline the process here both to monitor its progress and for interest’s sake.
First, the most important thing about the process is it isn’t an important thing. It’s fluid and adaptable and changes to suit every horse. The majority stick with the same principles and on most completely green horses it stays the same. But a tricky temperament, physical issue, personality quirk or remedial problem demands flexibility. It varies according to age, maturity, type and intended future use. Like everything about horses, it’s about listening, not teaching. All I’m sharing is a general pattern, not a one-size-fits-all quick fix.
So here it is.
On my own horses, good citizenship is required before backing can be done. They have to lead, load, tie up, stand for dentist – the whole nine yards. On a sale pony or client horse, to save time we do a day of “citizenship” between backing days, so it’s not a prerequisite for the horse to get in a box before I get on its back.
There are a few prerequisites, though. First, he needs to be comfortable with human contact. Ideally he must crave it. He needs to be good to groom, not flinchy in any way, and enjoy being touched. He can’t spook at sudden movements or noises from us. He needs to be happy around us, but not ever aggressive. No nipping and no turning bums on us.
Second, he’s got to be good on the halter – not just halter trained but good. Good halter training introduces principles he’ll always use: obedience, carrying himself forward, the first voice commands and pressure and release.
Physically, I want him healthy and in good condition, at least three (preferably three and a half or four) and having just had his teeth done and any wolf teeth pulled.
Then we can move on to the first stage of backing.
Stage One: Lunging and Desensitisation
The first step is lunging. I put boots on from the word go because they’re usually a non-event, but apart from that he just goes in a headcollar.
Again, lunging can’t just be done, it must be done very well. It doesn’t help much if he just tears around at a mad trot. I only consider him trained to lunge when I have three forward, balanced and rhythmic gaits from voice commands. This develops the horse’s brain and body together. I may also begin to play with poles or free jumps – whatever the individual needs to improve his way of going. I certainly don’t mess with gadgets at this stage. I’m fixing the back end now; the front comes later.
The walk and canter are immensely important. He needs to be comfortable walking or he won’t be when you get on him. I also like my babies to learn a really balanced canter now so I never have to fight with them when I’m on them later. Mine lunge for 20 minutes once a week long after backing is done; 5 minutes trot, 5 minutes canter each rein. The canter needs to be done all at once when the horse is fit for it. Cantering for this long on a 15m circle makes him very strong and balanced.
I make exceptions for young or immature horses. Mature horses that are well into their third year and four-year-olds can do it, but not babyish ones or newly three-year-olds.
When lunging is well established we begin to desensitise. I don’t do much. No tarps or bouncy balls unless the horse has a remedial spooking issue. You don’t have to do much if you do it right and become your horse’s anchor. I’ll flap a numnah at him and that’s it. Then I add the bridle because it takes the longest, lunging him wearing the bridle but with the line on a cavesson or headcollar at first and only adding bit pressure later, and then the lunge roller and finally the saddle. If he ever freaks out, I’ll know I’m going too fast.
Manners also have to be maintained here. If he’s jumping around while I tack him up, I shouldn’t be tacking him up yet!
Once he’s happy lunging in tack, we move on.
Stage Two: Riding from the Ground
Incremental steps are absolutely key. It’s vital to introduce only one thing at a time, and never more so than here. When I introduce the rider, I don’t want to be adding aids at the same time. I want him to have whoa, go, and turn aids before I ever sit on him.
Go aids have been established during lunging with the voice, but they have trouble making the connection to your leg. I use a funny exercise the Mutterer showed me to help with that. Standing beside the saddle, you hold the reins as if you were riding and give the horse the voice command to walk on. If he doesn’t, apply your heel to his guts (softly at first, obviously). Looks awkward but works beautifully.
Whoa and turn is established by long-lining, as well as rein back. It’s extremely important to make your aids soft and light. If you do that now, you never have to go back and fix it later. Again, absolutely no gadgets. Teach whoa before you try and teach frame.
Lastly, I use a turn on the forehand from the ground to establish the leg aid for turning.
Stage Three: Backing
Now for the fun part. This is important: at no point should the horse melt down. If he melts down, I know I’ve messed up. Bucking during backing is not normal. It means you’re going too fast.
First, and I start this right after adding tack, I stand and jump up and down on a block beside him until he’s cool with that. Then I start to put weight in the stirrup, lean over him, and stand up in one stirrup.
When I can lie over him without holding the reins and pat him loudly all over with both hands, then stand up in one stirrup and swing my free leg up and down along his butt, without anyone holding him, then he’s ready to be sat on.
A lot of trainers like somebody to hold the horse when they have their first sit. I used to, but since the yard was opened I don’t really have experienced help and began starting them on my own. I found this works far better. It removes a distracting variable. My new rule is that if I feel it needs to be held, I probably shouldn’t be sitting on it yet.
The first sit should just be another day in the life. I do my leg swinging thing and then I just swing my leg over and sit for a couple of breaths. Then I pop off and we’re done for the day. Walking off is NOT allowed at this stage. He must stand dead still as I mount and, in the next few sessions, wiggle my weight, swing my legs, pat his neck and bum, and bounce (gently). Once he’s cool with that we get some motion going.
Stage Four: Establishing Gaits
I start with rein back, for two reasons. Partially because from my long lining I know it’s an aid he 100% understands, and mostly because I lock up frozen stiff when presented with the first step forward. I nearly got killed by a youngster I pushed too fast a couple of years ago and that memory is not leaving anytime soon. The last thing he needs is for me to be nervous, so I keep it low key and take a step back. This reassures me that he’s not going to blow and reassures him that he can in fact move with me aboard, so then off we go.
The walk takes forever and a day. They’re usually not at all sure that it’s a terribly good idea to cart your butt around and convincing them otherwise cannot be rushed. I refuse to ask for trot until I have an excellent walk. In the walk I establish all the basics; at the touch of my leg he must flow freely forward and stay forward until I say otherwise; he must halt responsively from my seat and stand dead still until I say otherwise; he must turn with reasonable balance.
It is vital to ride him from my seat and leg now. Teach him that he never halts off my hand alone and he’ll never have to. Midas could halt and turn with both reins floppy in a couple of sessions. Taking the time to implement these responsive aids and forwardness saves months of work later.
Once a quality walk is firmly established, the trot comes quickly, and as soon as we have a good trot with good transitions we move on to canter. These days I do this in the ring, but I used to love the 35 x 15m oval we had at Ruach. They have to have their lunging really good to canter with a rider on in the ring.
If they are going to buck, this is when they do it. I’ve found it’s usually not a fear issue; they’re just figuring out their legs and sometimes it’s easier to try and throw a buck than to actually think about it. These bucks are very minor. They usually do it only once, you pull up his head and shout at him, and that’s an end to it.
It’s also important not to accept the wrong lead once the horse is confidently giving a few strides around the ring. Punishing him for picking up the wrong lead achieves nothing. I just bring him back and quietly ask again. Once again, get the leads right now and it doesn’t become a fight later.
Once we have three gaits in the ring or oval, then congrats, pony is backed! We move on to riding in open spaces and beginning proper schooling. Which, once backing has been done so painstakingly, is just fun.
Now for the million dollar question: how long does it take? As long as it takes. I no longer train a timeline, I train a horse. It certainly doesn’t take 6 or 8 weeks, that’s for sure. But the extra time is well, well worth it in the long run to create a willing, obedient, physically fit and well-rounded partner.
We have our first show of the year on Sunday; a training show over tiny fences at a venue I’ve only ridden at more times than I have teeth. I’m on Magic, who has done 60 and 70cm ad nauseam, and Lancelot, who is super at shows.
And I’m absolutely dead nervous.
No, the show nerves do not go away. I’ve only been competing for about four years now, but I’ve ridden multiple shows on multiple horses every month and logged a lot of miles. I’ve brought a bunch of babies to their first show and I’m so well versed in boxing horses in the dark that it’s not even drama anymore. I’ve ridden nationals and finals and in the same arena as some of the greats – I should be used to this by now.
But here I am, facing 60 and 70cm training courses on horses I know at a training show, terrified.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think my horses were also subscribed to the Facebook event because the closer we come to the day, the worse they go. Especially Magic. Magic was a pogo stick on Thursday; I couldn’t hold him, I couldn’t turn him, I couldn’t get him to jump in a straight line and after every fence he leapt up and down, striking out with his forelegs in a kind of reverse buck.
Always before a show, Magic? Why?
I was a little mad but I patted his neck after dismounting and tried to figure out what was bothering him this time. Food? Teeth? Back? Feet? No.
As usual, it was far simpler than that.
It was me, of course.
So today I climbed aboard and we flopped around like we do any other day. I put on worship music and thought about the latest episode of Chicago Med while I warmed him up, letting my mind wander so that my hands, seat and heart could do the thinking. We trotted a few small fences. Then we cantered them. There was a storm brewing and the wind teased at us, making the horses in the fields skittish and silly, but Magic put down his head and enjoyed his job.
I did the same on Lancelot. I put all the fences and my ego down two holes and trotted a little course. He’d been napping and overjumping. We had the usual little argument or two, but he jumped every fence out of a steady soft rhythm.
So here’s my new resolve: I’m gonna chill out about training shows. I’m going to quit seeing them as shows and start seeing them for what they are – schooling sessions. I’m going to turn myself deaf to the imaginary judgment from the sidelines with which I torment myself, and the pressure of riding a client horse, and the pressure of being coach. I’m going to quit taking myself so seriously, cut a little slack and start riding the horse, for my God.
I’ll wear my work breeches and a slightly faded shirt. I won’t clean my tack. I’ll sleep a little later than I probably should and when clients or students or chauffeur begin to stress, I’ll breathe deep and slow and calm us all down. That’s my job as trainer, after all.
As for Magic? Maybe we’ll do the 60 and the 70. Or maybe we’ll do the 50 and the 60. Maybe we’ll just hack in the warm-up arena because it really doesn’t matter.
He’s not going to win me ribbons. He’s far too busy being an instrument in the hand of God, teaching me the most incredible things about horses and people and life and God.
Year in, year out, I have faithfully set a careful string of goals for all the horses – as long-term readers very well know. I think this may be the first year ever that I haven’t set any goals for Magic.
And I don’t intend to.
Last year was a rollercoaster with him. It started with his promising comeback after his terrible illness in 2015, winning both his first graded classes in fine style and staying absolutely sane throughout the show. Then it all came down around our ears a bit when I fell off him three times in as many months – my first falls off him, ever. We were heading in the right direction again when he decided he would like to have colic again after all and then the outbreak crashed any plans of returning to shows after that. All in all, he only had seven outings this year – and I stayed on top for five. (Of the ones that I stayed on, he jumped all clear rounds, barring one, which he won anyway). It was an unimpressive year, except that it wasn’t.
We made very little progress, training-wise. 80cm still looks about the size of the Great Wall of China (to me anyway; he’s good). Our flatwork remains low-level but rock solid. We go to shows and jump some jumps, sometimes, or not, as the case may be. But in terms of understanding this shining, suffering enigma of a horse, we made giant, groundbreaking leaps. Subtle, but groundbreaking.
I figured out the most important thing I could have, to help him. I figured out why he has panic attacks and how I can get him out of one when it’s happening. Anyone who knows anyone with PTSD knows how huge that is. To be able to look in his eyes when they’ve gone glassy and the horse I know and love just seems to be gone – and to know why he’s gone, where he’s gone and how to get him back… that’s tremendous. I feel like I can finally help him. I have finally found the hole that he falls into and how to get him out. After years of helplessly watching him leave into a terrible inner world that seemed to mentally torture him, at last I can break down those walls and bring him back to safety.
It’s so simple and self-explanatory that I’m amazed I didn’t see it long ago. Then again, if it was that self-explanatory, horse PTSD wouldn’t be the only thing we can deal with better.
I get in there with him, and I show him the way out.
In the face of discoveries like these – things invisible to man, but oh so important in the sight of God – the goals I’ve been setting just can’t compare.
For my own guts, I think it would be good for me to try and jump him higher. If he was always the Magic he is when he’s okay, he’d pack my butt around and teach me that jumps bigger than 70cm are not deadly and evil. Even when he is having a moment, he’ll jump 90cm as happily as he’ll jump 60cm.
But it’s not about me.
He needs a perfect rider. He needs a rock-steady lighthouse of a rider that can show him the way out of fear. He needs someone who’s never in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or focused on something other than being there for him. He needs someone who cares way more about him than about anything else. I so much want to learn to be that rider, not only for my training skill, but for my living skill. And I’m just not that rider when I’m scared.
Even if I did push him, he’s all of nine years old and already has bony changes in his withers. He won’t be sound forever. I don’t know how many years I’ll still be able to go jumping stuff with him. Maybe three? Four? I don’t want to spend those years fighting in order to jump mediocre heights badly.
I want to spend them listening to that horse’s soul. Because it tells me things about God and people and bullying and mental illness and myself that I really need to learn.
We arrived at Sunlands only moderately late, which was rather impressive given that the wheels had fallen off on the way there. Literally.
Okay, so it was only one wheel, and so there were still two very precarious wheelnuts holding it on, but it was the closest I would ever like to come, thank you very much. We limped the last ten kilometres, with the Mutterer and I both eyeballing the wobbling wheel in the rearview mirror, and made it on a wing and a prayer. Also literally.
Once there we unloaded the motley crew: Lancelot for his first outing at ground poles, Zorro and his kid (let’s call her Z-kid) for 60 and 70cm, working student K and her Nooitie mare Renè, and Magic. The latter was eye-poppingly nervous and spooking wildly at nothing, his adrenalin absolutely sky high and my heart correspondingly low. It looked like another disaster was imminent, but I had zero intention of clocking up yet another rider fall this year and had basically decided to just hack in the warmup until his brain came back.
Turns out God decided to use this for good, as usual. Instead of a disaster, my ride was an epiphany.
I have always been looking for the magic solution (no pun intended) to Mr. Quirkypants’s panic attacks. Always looking for a trigger or a quick fix or just some reliable way to talk him down off his ledge. Never finding it, I’ve always had to resort to just walking him and staying calm until he got calm. And on this day I stumbled across two facts that I am just stoked to finally know:
Magic’s trigger is not a sight or sound, it’s a state of mind. Usually mine.
Magic’s fix is not an exercise or a gadget… it’s a state of mind. Usually mine.
I breathed him down. I always try to settle myself before working on the horse, but when I got myself settled, he was miraculously settled! A rudimentary principle I suppose, but I have just never seen it so dramatically before.
So I got myself back and then he came back and we jumped all clear rounds for third in the 70cm. Here’s jump-off video! We even angled a fence!!
Zorro and Z-kid had a superb show. At his last one he had two eliminations and I was ready to wring his neck for him but I must apologise to him because he hasn’t run out, not once, since the chiro saw him and put about a gazillion bones back into alignment. Sorry Zorro.
This show he was totally on his game despite last competing in April. They won the 60 and were well on their way to winning the 70 when during the jump-off one of the Z-kid’s stirrups came flying off. The stirrup bar was faulty and the whole thing just popped right off and klonked poor Zorro in the knees. They were halfway over the first element of a combination but Z-kid didn’t even wobble and rode the second element with one stirrup and great poise, to applause from the audience. They had to retire, but on the bright side I now have an awesome story to tell the kids when they don’t want to do no-stirrups.
In between all this I was also riding Lancelot in the ground poles. He boxed, travelled, waited and behaved like a superstar; I had like two and a half seconds to warm up in a teensy arena with a thousand tiny kids on schoolies, but he was right there with me. Nervous and sticky of course but listening. His first round was rather halting and wiggly, but he trotted the second one very happily with only one enormous steering glitch. For a spooky Arab, I’ll take it any day!
K and Renè had their first outing too but Renè is a Nooitie so she came out completely chilled and babysat Lancelot. They just pottered through their ground poles without turning a hair even though poor old Renè has jumped exactly one fence in her life and never been ridden at a show before.
Gasp! How could you say that? Obviously only [insert guru here]’s Miracle Way of the Horse is the only right way to do [insert training obstacle/goal here], which of course you can’t accomplish without [$$$$$ glorified lunging whip/bitless bridle/neck strap], and all other ways are Wrong.
Bitting up is Wrong. Bitless is Wrong. Draw reins are Wrong. Whips are Wrong (but not carrot sticks or whatever). Or maybe the One True Way involves a magic gadget of magicalness. And don’t even think about deviating from the training scales!
Um, guys. How many horses do you know that read Principles of Riding or watch YouTube?
The funny thing about these methods is they all work. For certain people and certain horses in certain circumstances, they work. The better ones work for the vast majority of horses. But nobody would be peddling these methods, or accepting them for hundreds of years, if they didn’t work.
There are only two wrong ways. The way that really hurts somebody (equine or human), and the way that doesn’t work.
Take Magic, for instance. Magic will curl up, flip his head, invert and flail to the best of his ability if subjected to the horrible cruelty of an apple mouth snaffle. I did the Wrong thing and bitted him up to a Kimberwick. He almost instantly transformed into a horse that could go forward into a steady contact in a relaxed and more or less graceful manner (most of the time).
This horse had been trained (badly) for polo and was the most extreme case of head up = adrenalin up I have ever seen. Her rhythm and tempo were appalling and she had no concept of suppleness until one day she nearly broke my nose with her permanently raised head, so I put a martingale on in the interests of my nasal well-being. She put her head down and suddenly she could float and bend and relax. We turned the training pyramid on its head, starting with something a little like connection, which is Wrong. She is now being a riding school pony that competes in dressage with kids. It was Wrong but it worked for Flare.
Liana had similar problems to Flare, being extremely tense with a very high head carriage and tiny, piggy little strides. Her flatwork sucked so I did only jumping and relaxed hacking for nearly six months. Which is Wrong. Everyone knows you need to have solid flatwork before you can jump. But Liana adores jumping. She became so relaxed and happy over fences that when we returned to flatwork, she was suddenly and magically a dressage horse.
So my horses got happier and better thanks to my incorrect training, but that doesn’t make the training scale wrong.
I trained Nell according to convention and she earns her highest scores for the basics and her lowest for connection, as according to the training scales. It worked for her, and for Arwen and Whisper and Sookie and Reed and half a dozen other furballs I trained “properly”.
OK, so how about starters? Surely a clean slate should always come out the same way when a certain method is applied?
Bruno was fresh off the veld – cleanest slate you could find. I never did Join-Up or desensitisation on this pony. I started him bareback and spent most of my initial groundwork just hand grazing him, and he’s a relaxed, happy, obedient, responsive and laid-back ride.
With Quinni, on the other hand, I did practically everything by the book – Join-Up, despooking, pressure-release exercises, the works. She is also a happy, relaxed, responsive horse to ride.
Ultimately it is very easy to get bogged down in a method or a way. We all say we train dressage, or soft feel, or Parelli or whatever. But realistically, we all train something Handmade – a unique, created being that, just like us all, has emotions and quirks and sensitivities and vices and scars and secrets and baggage.