After his break during the beginning of 2019, Thunder was impeccably behaved coming back into work. But he was also fat and unfit. Really, really unfit.
To be fair, I wasn’t the fittest I had ever been, either. Thanks to my job at the Arab stud, I was still exercising 2-3 horses a day, but they were mostly either babies or impeccably trained old show horses. The former requires mostly the “hang on and don’t die” muscles to operate; the others are so soft and light and smooth that they barely require muscles at all. Certainly none of them were the full-body workout that is riding a half-schooled dressage horse whilst not really having any idea of how to do so.
So when J told us that we needed to get fit, he was totally right. He put us to work lungeing for 20 minutes three days a week (schooling once or twice a week) and so, combined with having tons of babies to work, I find myself in the middle of a lunge ring quite frequently.
To be honest, I kinda like lungeing. I mean, it’s extremely boring (Thunder is getting a bit tired of it now) but I sat lungeing exams for my stable management modules and might pride myself just a teeny bit on being a bit on the pedantic side when it comes to lungeing.
Lungeing can be a little controversial sometimes. Many trainers absolutely swear by it (lookin at you, J) while others prefer hills or cavaletti for fitness. Personally, I think all of the above can be beneficial depending on the horse and human and situation. But lungeing can certainly be a tool for evil.
Lungeing has a set of benefits that makes it an important tool in my toolbox, though. Some of them include:
Teaching the unbacked horse to move in rhythm and balance, respond to voice commands, and accept tack
Laying a foundation of fitness without the rider’s weight – for horses with poor topline or unbacked youngsters
Allowing a less experienced person, like a good groom, to exercise the horse for a busy rider (it takes a few months to learn to lunge really well, much longer to learn to ride)
Warming up a stiff back before riding
Perhaps most importantly, giving the rider an opportunity to see the horse move, which allows one to connect what it feels like to what it looks like.
Lungeing, however, is often easily misused. Even though there’s no rider involved, it’s still hard on the horse’s body. Typically lungeing involves fewer walk breaks than riding and working on a circle isn’t easy on the joints. I have a few ground rules to help lungeing do what all training tools should – make the horse’s life better.
Preferably not before four, and certainly not before three. Look, five minutes twice a week won’t kill your two-year-old. But I don’t work my three-year-olds more than three or four days a week, and even then, only for 15 minutes at a time. Just enough to show them how to move in balance. Four-year-olds can do 20 minutes or so, but slowly and judiciously. What are you going to do with a four-year-old anyway? They’re basically camels with no brains at that age.
Whatsoever you do to one side, do also unto the other. Nothing makes a horse asymmetrical faster than asymmetrical lungeing. Working the weak side harder than the strong side mostly only makes the horse stiff and resentful.
Lungeing is schooling. My pet peeve is horses who CHARGE off onto the circle in a mad trot. No. Mine are expected to stand stock-still until asked, at which point they shall walk briskly and calmly onto the circle and continue walking until asked to trot. All transitions should take place on voice command. When asked to stop, they stand quietly. This makes life much more relaxing for the horse.
Lunge in all three gaits. Some babies, especially the gawky types, have trouble cantering on a small circle. Apart from those, mine lunge in walk, trot and canter. Jackhammer trot is not a gait.
Pay attention to gait quality. The gaits in lungeing should be the same as under saddle, if not better due to the lack of encumbrance from uncoordinated humanity. Jackhammer trot is not a quality gait. Young horses should be able to lunge smoothly and in balance without gadgets in all three gaits before being expected to carry a rider. Nothing is worse for the horse’s joints and muscles than tearing around madly, hollow and counter bent.
If you use a gadget, understand it. I like elasticated side reins and maybe a neck stretcher/chambon, but only for horses who already understand the contact and are strong enough to carry themselves. I prefer introducing the contact on the long lines. That way, they can have plenty of little stretch breaks while the muscles develop.
I’m sure others have different rules, and that mine will change over time, but that’s what I’m doing right now. And that is how I try not to die of boredom while lungeing 6 horses in a day lol. But it’s starting to pay off.
Here’s hoping J will be happier with us next week. Thunny certainly feels a LOT more powerfully forward under saddle now – the canter-walks are suddenly back, a medium trot came out of nowhere (yesssss) and we even have changes again. Yay!
Today I’d like to talk about something that I feel strongly about, and forgive me if I get a little passionate. I almost wrote “It’s something that the sport needs to hear”, but actually, the sport is generally quite good about this. This is something that the average rider needs to hear. The one-horse rider, perhaps on a bit of a budget, perhaps just having two ponies on a plot somewhere, perhaps the parent watching their kid pop around at SANESA – the ordinary, average horse owner that makes up the vast and overwhelming majority of horse owners in South Africa today.
The something is this: your horse should be insured.
It expands into this: your retired horse should also be insured.
This is Magic. Say hi, Magic.
Magic is 11. Magic is also retired. There’s nothing really wrong with him physically, except ordinary OTTB stuff – his feet are a little flat and he’s got a bit of KS going on. We showjumped a bit, and for about four out of five shows he would be amazing and perfect. But that one out of five, he would do one of two things: he would fly backwards across the arena gasping in abject and genuine panic for half an hour, or he would get home and colic. It wasn’t fair on him anymore, so now he decorates the lawn, and has done so for two years.
In short, Magic is worth approximately R0.00. More accurately, he’s worth about -R1500 every month, conservatively, and only because we live on the farm and have grazing.
Magic also has a five-figure vet bill sitting on my desk.
Magic’s vet bill will be paid. Because you just can’t put a price tag on some things, and the horse you retired is one of them. You see, Magic never won any real ribbons and never really got me anywhere when it came to riding. He left me with a collection of bad habits and frayed nerves and two big fat RFs on my record – at the same show. But Magic gets the best of everything. He is a shiny, round, happy 7.5/10 on the condition scale year-round; his teeth are done, his feet are done, and he has all of his shots every year. I don’t spend as much time with him as I would like because at some point I do have to work in order to keep providing him with his happy, lazy existence, but every morning he gets a carrot and a hug and I like to think he still knows that I care about him.
It’s not really about what he thinks of me, though. I don’t take care of him because I’m a warm and fuzzy person. I do it because I honestly owe it to him to give him the best and happiest life he possibly could have and even if I succeed for many years then I will still forever be in his debt.
Magic never shaped me as a rider. He shaped me as a human being.
Magic never won ribbons, but he won my heart. He didn’t teach me very much about showjumping, but he taught me about life, during a tempestuous time as I struggled with the insurmountable challenge that is adolescence. He taught me to forgive myself for scars, for pain, for being a broken piece of humanity in a broken world. He taught me to breathe deep and slow. He taught me that there’s so much more to life than success and so much more to the sport than winning. And so much more to horses than competing.
He didn’t give me all that much pleasure in the saddle or any great pride or victory or prestige. He gave me so much more. He gave me hope. He gave me forgiveness. He gave me tenderness. He gave me the power to understand my own rattled and anxious soul.
He’s not just a horse or a fine companion or even a best friend. He’s an instrument of God.
Magic gave me a part of who I am, a good and loving and compassionate part.
A thousand vet bills will never, ever be enough to pay him back.
Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t actually matter how lyrical I can wax about how much I love my priceless retiree or what he’s done for me. Of course I wanted to save him when he colicked this week. The fact remains that if he hadn’t been insured, all the wanting in the world wouldn’t have done a thing. Even what I have done was almost not enough; he needed a surgery that I couldn’t have paid for – to be fair, these surgeries extend into six figures – and it’s only by God’s grace that he’s still with us.
I didn’t have him insured for that kind of money. But I had him insured for something; enough that he could be in hospital on a drip and receiving professional, round-the-clock care by someone who wasn’t emotional, drained, and ultimately out of their depth. This time, it was enough. You better believe he’s getting better insurance in case there is a next time.
This is the real value of insurance. Not something to protect your financial investment, but something to save the horses that financially aren’t really worth saving; the horses that gave you everything and now stand in a field somewhere, hopefully with you, a bit old and ugly and broken. They gave you their hearts. Now it’s your turn.
I’m talking to you, average rider on your average horse. You the lady doing Prelim or EV60 on a Boerperd or an OTTB or a nondescript little bay horse of uncertain ancestry and deep, gentle eyes. You the daddy paying for your kid to ride. You the doting horse mom with two Shetlands in your backyard, piggy-fat and eating carrots and thriving. You all feed your horse enough and make sure he’s dry in the rain, but are you ready for a colic surgery? Are you ready for a night at the vet hospital? Are you ready for diagnostics, treatments, drips?
Medical aid starts as cheaply as R160 per month. If you can compete in one single training show class or eat out once a month, you can afford this.
I shouldn’t really be asking you if you’re ready to pay to save your horse. Rather, I should ask you this: Are you ready to watch your horse die because you can’t?
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.
Spotted Dressage asked one of the most fascinating questions in the business:
What do you feed and why?
Despite only having passed Nutrition in my yard manager’s with 88%, feeding is a subject I’m kind of obsessed with. I think it’s practically the most important aspect of horse keeping, and I also think it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeding according to conventional wisdom instead of what the horse is saying. And though I say it myself, our yard is locally a little legendary for having horses in good condition. I don’t do ribs. I also don’t do obese. I have once been informed by a client that they think I just whisper something to a horse and it instantly blows up like a balloon into wonderful shiny fatness.
Before Choosing a Ration
Feeding is something one has to be holistic about. You can shove as much food as you like into it, it doesn’t do any good if half of it is falling out from quidding and the other half is being eaten by worms. Dentistry, deworming and mental health are all very important components.
Assessing the Horse’s Requirements
I don’t have a weight tape (because they’re disastrously inaccurate), and feed according to good old-fashioned condition scoring, which is considerably more precise anyway. Condition scoring gives you an assessment of fat and muscle, not just mass. (A well-muscled TB will weigh the same as an obese pony, but their nutritional needs will be leagues apart).
My first consideration when choosing a ration is condition. The second is general health. A ribby horse with a shiny coat and otherwise good appearance probably just needs some extra calories. A ribby horse with a dull coat probably has some form of deficiency, assuming other causes of ill health have been ruled out.
The third is the horse’s job. School ponies can’t get anything heating, but a lactating broodmare needs all the energy she can get.
The Forgotten Nutrient
Water. We all forget to say it in exams, and it can also be neglected in real life, but it’s the single most important nutrient in the horse’s diet.
Now I know none of us go and let our horses stand around for hours without any water, but water quality is also a valid consideration. Dirty, stale, hot, icy or algae-encrusted water will all cause the horse to drink less than he should. Regrettably, in the fields, there’s not much we can do about troughs icing over, except break the ice first thing in the morning.
Our horses also have free access to salt, and consume a rather amazing amount of the stuff.
The Great Secret
There is one ration that has worked reliably on a vast array of horses over the years. Eighteen of the twenty-nine horses at the yard get this, including competing horses in steady work, schoolies, and growing youngsters. It’s the perfect ration for ponies and native types, but we also have thoroughbreds on it, and it works even better for anything with ulcers. Every single Nooitie we took to HOY was on it. All the schoolies are on it. It’s positively magical, and it’s amazingly simple.
Grass and hay.
That’s it. Just grass and hay. But absolutely tremendous amounts of it. It absolutely has to be fed ad lib, and not the standard definition of ad lib. If it’s in a haynet, and I don’t care how many haynets a day, it’s not ad lib. Have you seen what tiny bites a horse takes from a haynet? If it’s in a big pile in the middle of a field with many horses, it’s not ad lib, either. (That’s a particular pet peeve – food aggression is such a behaviour issue, too). If it ever runs out, even during the night, it is most certainly not ad lib.
Ad lib is a big round bale, with the strings taken off and in a very accessible feeder ring, per four horses in the field. When there’s an armful or two of hay left, a new bale gets put in. If a horse is starting to get bullied away from the hay, another bale is added. In the stables, a gigantic pile of hay is put on the floor – GIGANTIC, probably four haynets’ worth.
The hay must be clean, but doesn’t necessarily have to be teff hay. Of course for the colicky types or skinny horses, teff is by far the best, but mine are all on plain old eragrostis (except Magic and Exavior because special treatment). In the drought they even got by on Rhodes grass which is glorified straw if you ask me.
Hay is unavoidable at the moment, but actually, grazing trumps everything else. Kikuyu is best, if supplemented with some calcium because its Ca:P ratio can be off. But whatever is green and growing in the field is better than the best hay (provided it’s not ragwort, obviously). Bonus points to grazing because the horses walk around with their heads down, stretching their backs, gently exercising and building a topline too.
It may sound ridiculous that I can have a top show horse, who is in fairly intense dressage training, on grass only, but the science behind it makes perfect sense. God designed horses to eat grass. The simple action of chewing all day long (they spend more time eating than sleeping) relaxes and soothes them, removing a huge source of stress (thus, excess stomach acid). Because so much roughage is moving along the gut, it’s in optimal condition to absorb the nutrients, too. The food is making the horse’s body more able to use the food. Isn’t that amazing?
ConcentratesWhere unnatural demand is made, unnatural compensation has to be given. Thus, in some situations, concentrates are a very valuable addition to the diet.
My pet peeve is this idea that people have of feeding considerable amounts of low quality concentrates to everything. I’ve seen it so often – feeding 2-4kg of that real, cheap riding school food. It’s fluff. Heating fluff. Why??
The math is simple: double the quality allows you to halve the quantity, thus placing half the stress on the horse’s digestive system. As a struggling little yard there’s a lot of things we have to compromise on, but feeding isn’t one of them.
I add concentrates to anything that needs to gain more than one condition point (out of 10). I don’t increase feed in anticipation of work, but I do push it hard when a mare hits her third trimester. It’s ridiculous how much food a broodmare needs – triple, quadruple the amount that horses in heavy work need.
My go-to feed for working horses is Spurwing Tranquilo. It’s super non-heating but does put on weight. No good for very skinny horses, but where a couple points are needed, it does the trick just fine. I start them at 1.2kg daily, pushing it up to 3kg in extreme cases.
For anything under three years old, anything that’s had a hard time at its previous home, anything with a condition score less than 3, or anything that just looks a bit poorly, I turn straight to Capstone Lifetime Balancer. Some horses need persuading to eat it (mixing it with a hay replacer pellet helps), but this stuff packs some serious punch. Feeding more than 1kg daily is a recipe for disaster, but in appropriate amounts it just fixes everything. I also feed this to a foal starting a week before weaning to help them over the bump, no more than 500g at first. It’s 25% protein so can be heating and needs to be treated with respect.
For lactating mares, really skinny youngsters, or when all else fails, I turn to Capstone Stud Time. It costs approximately an arm, a leg and both kidneys, but it sure works. Plus it looks like muesli and this amuses me greatly. It is extremely high energy and cannot be fed to working horses (unless you have a serious death wish), but it packs on the weight. We fixed Tara on a combination of Capstone Stud (2kg) and Capstone Lifetime (1kg), split into three feeds a day.
A last note on concentrates is that you have to play by the rules. No more than 2kg per feed (I don’t do more than 1kg a feed for anything that looks horrible). Don’t feed (unless your feeds are less than 500g) within an hour of work. Keep the buckets and things clean. Don’t feed anything that has clumped together or has fluff growing on it. Feed according to mass, not volume (a scoop of Spurwing weighs 400g, the same volume of Capstone Lifetime weighs 600g). Common sense goes a long way.
… are violently overrated, and do not magically fix anything. The number one reason to give a supplement is to make yourself feel like you’re doing everything you can. I will make a begrudging exception for quality joint supplements and good probiotics, but neither are a substitute for other, more effective care.
“All-round” supplements cannot replace good feeding. “Calming” supplements cannot replace good training. “Coat” supplements cannot replace good grooming.
That said, I do have three supplements that I tend to use. GCS-Max is the only joint one I’ve found to actually do anything, and I keep Stardust on it to help support her glitchy leg and because all her legs have variations on windgalls and capped hocks. Protexin is a probiotic that you know a horse needs if they’ll actually eat it – it’s truly disgusting, but it does help a bit. And Rooibos tea, while not magical the way the salesmen say it is, does appear to give the system a little boost.
Of course, I give Magic a ton of random stuff to make myself feel better, but I am an unmitigated idiot when it comes to Magic.
* And bold type and all caps aren’t a substitute for good grammar, but it’s 3:00am as I write. Bear with me.
The Bottom Line
As with practically everything, there isn’t any magic trick when it comes to nutrition – brilliance is in the basics. Sticking to the rules we all learned as kids goes a long way to excellence. As with anything,
Listen to the horse first.
Employ common sense.
And unless your horse is morbidly obese… feed the grass ad lib, please.
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.
*** Disclaimer – this post is not intended to give medical advice nor seek it – merely to discuss! ***
I had my first fall in six months today. It was rather a relief and very minor; the last time I came off was in July, which is ages ago for me, and I knew it was coming. Arwen and I were jumping a course of fences (and she was jumping absolutely fabulously, I may add) when as we cantered around a bend suddenly there was no more Arwen under me. I did the tuck-and-roll move my body learned when I was falling off a lot of buckers as a yard rat; Arwen hit the deck next to me but simply bobbled back to her feet like a little rubber ball and cantered off with her tail in the air like a middle finger. It was nothing, but it did get me thinking again about the perils of the sport and, more importantly, what we can do about it.
None of us really ever want to think about it, but as a riding coach – or as any horseperson – one always has to have the possibility in the back of one’s mind that everything could go sideways in a split second. And with a half-ton flight animal and a child involved, it can go really, really sideways.
Of course most coaches have first aid training. But what about the average ammy just hacking with buddies? I never really gave it much thought, but now that I have had a little training, I would argue that everyone involved with horses should have level one, at least. Horse injuries are terrifying because usually they could be spinal injuries, which is where you can mess things up really fast if you’re well-intentioned but just don’t know what to do.
Just before I had my level one, I had a kid come off at fairly high speed right onto her head. She was, of course, wearing a helmet, but in hindsight I think she must have been mildly concussed. Despite having done extensive research on first aid I promptly proceeded to do almost everything wrong. I bumped her back onto her feet, plonked her back on the horse and finished the lesson because she wasn’t seeing double, she wasn’t disoriented at the time, and her mom encouraged her to. It all turned out OK, but I shudder in retrospect to think of what could have happened, had God not been looking out for her.
In sharp contrast, less than a month after getting level one I witnessed my first proper serious fall. I was leading a hack and the next moment a pony came by me at high speed with flapping stirrups. This fall was a LOT more serious than the first one – we had broken bones to deal with, but this time my training stood me in very good stead. I did all the primary survey steps, held C-spine, called for help, reassured the kid – the only thing I didn’t do was splint the suspected break, mostly cuz I didn’t have any out there in the fields. The kid was turned over to qualified hands and made a full recovery. If I hadn’t had level one – well, I would probably have shunted her back onto her feet just because people look so much less injured when they’re at least sitting up, possibly complicating the fracture in the process. I thank God that we never had any drama like this before the level one.
I find now the hardest thing to do is to decide whether or not your rider needs a medic or ambulance. As we know, most falls are decidedly minor, and it would be wasteful of valuable resources to call out a medic for just a little tumble. But where is the line?
Personally my rule is if they don’t sit or jump up before I get to them, I’ll ask them to hold still, hold C-spine and probably call the medics. Most of the time when one falls the adrenalin rush is such that you’re at least back on your knees before you can really think about it. In my experience most people sit up at once; if they don’t, they could well be hurt somewhere, and then I’d far rather be safe than sorry. That’s not to say somebody that stood up immediately might not be injured – sometimes the rush is such that they could still have hit their heads, so I would probably still at least check them out myself and have a parent take them to a doctor for checking out if I had any doubt at all.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in horsemanship is also the simplest: it’s all about listening.
I don’t know why there’s a fashion for calling a good trainer a horse whisperer. The best trainers are well versed in silence. Able to lay aside ego and knowledge for the deeper skill of openness. It’s less like an artist painting and more like a conversation between two sentient, thinking, feeling, created beings – which is exactly what it is.
I have been trying to listen. I’m still not terribly good and many horses are just a closed book to me. Often I just can’t get a read on them. Zara was because I had never really encountered her language before; Dirkie was because I was staring down the barrel of a deadline.
Exavior, I’m ashamed to say, is because I thought I knew better than he did. And here’s lesson number two: nobody knows better about being a horse than a horse does.
It went something like this.
“Whoa,” I ordered, closing my hands on the reins.
“No, I don’t really want to. It’s not comfy when you do that,” said Exavior, gaping his mouth dramatically.
“OK, so you don’t like the bit.” I swapped his French link for a single joint and then the single joint for a fancypants straight bar.
“Actually, it’s still not nice.” Xave gaped his jaw some more.
“Noseband, then?” I took it off completely.
“Nope. Still ugh.” He gave his head a little shake to punctuate his words.
I glared at him, nettled. I’d tried every bit I knew. His teeth had been done less than a year ago. I was good with my hands. I’d done the groundwork.
“You’re just being a brat,” I announced, stepping onto the slippery slope of deafness, and clapped a grackle noseband on him.
“This is worse! I hate this!” Xave started to shake his head and resist having the bridle put on.
“Tough luck. Buck up, baby!” I locked my elbows, making my hands motionless as stone.
“It HURTS!” Xave pulled away while I was bridling him and bucked the length of the yard.
“Just STOP!” Voice and hands yelled together. Too loud for me to hear what he was saying.
Xave’s plentiful hot blood skyrocketed. He flung his head violently, almost yanking me out of the saddle. “NO! IT’S SORE!” Both forelegs left the ground for a moment and the adrenalin that kicked through me was just enough to jog my brain into remembering the eruption time for wolf teeth would be right about now.
Cowboy wisdom demanded I crank the grackle tighter and kick him till he submitted. Lacking a death wish, I slid to the ground instead, undid his noseband and stuck a thumb in his mouth, sliding it across the upper gum. Where there should have been a smooth curve of flesh, razor sharp tooth scraped against my skin.
He has two enormous wolf teeth.
“I’m sorry, buddy.”
The next day I rode him in a headcollar and he gave me two quiet walk laps of the ring, where the day before we barely made it across the middle before tantrums.
“I’m still sorry, dude.”
Xave’s big eye just sparkled mischievously. “I told you so.”
And that, kids, is how I started a gigantic warmblood in a headcollar – and vowed to never shout an honest horse down again.