Two weekends ago was my first time riding at Easter Fest, arguably the biggest show I’ve competed in (Horse of the Year may be bigger; YDHS more elite). My competition was, of course, star-studded, so I had low expectations, mostly aiming to just go and get that big-show exposure so that I can deal with my nerves now and not when my scores actually count for something.
Sunday was showing day on Arwen. She hasn’t been to a show by herself in a long time, but she’s so grown up now that I didn’t even really worry.
I would have loved to do the working riding, but unfortunately it ended up being on the same day as Thunder’s dressage and I wasn’t willing to deal with Thunder’s girlfriend shenanigans at this particular show, so we just entered the open show hack and show riding.
So my darling, my dragon and I charged off to Kyalami with what I thought was much time to spare, only to discover that my mom’s bakkie is not quite so adept at towing the box as my dad’s, eventually arriving at KPC about half an hour later than I’d hoped. Thankfully, the dragon is very grown up and the darling has cottoned on very quickly to the various horse show SO skills (holding horses, fetching numbers, fetching food, soothing rattled nerves, being slightly neglected [sorry love], etc.) so we ended up having time for a good warmup and arriving in the show arena with only a few hairs out of place.
In short, Arwen was absolutely fantastic and I really actually had fun once again. I think I might even say that I’m cured of my fear of showing judges. Honestly, when you’ve loaded your dying friend into a helicopter right after a horrible violent event, some things really just don’t register on the scary scale anymore, and showing judges are one of them. Life is way too short to worry about what they think, so I just rode my horse, thanked my Jesus and let the rest do whatever it wanted.
She was just amazing. Our classes were quite small, which was nice because I intensely dislike sitting in the line-up for ages, and Arwen really just did exactly as I asked and behaved exactly as she would at home. I swear she knows her individual show by heart.
I didn’t expect placings because the small group of people in my classes were all well-known showing competitors on super fancy big horses and had turned them out really well, while Arwen – albeit at least moderately clean and properly plaited – is kinda fluffy already and I forgot my wet wipes at home so her feet and mouth were pretty dirty. As expected, we placed dead stone last in both, but I was proud of my horse’s performance.
The judge basically summarised why Arwen never does well in open show classes: she’s well schooled, she’s well behaved, she’s correct, but she is a pony and there’s no getting around that. I don’t really mind, though. She did excellently, and it was awesome.
Monday was dressage day on Thunderbirdy. We had a nice late ride time, still managed to get stuck in traffic, and still managed to get there on time because I am dating Superman. Thunny was super relaxed on our arrival and happily hacked over to the warmup arena, where he promptly proceeded to completely lose his snot.
I think maybe he was a little fresh as the week before had been rainy and interfered with his program, but there was also a log next to the warmup that has been spooking generations of horses (including Nell) and it spooked him properly. He was obedient and controllable and actually carried himself really great, but his brain was not with me at all.
Going into the dressage arena he mercifully did not spook at anything, but the damage was done and he couldn’t focus. He had some truly excellent moments for 7s and 8s, and in the photos I love the way he was holding himself.
But he also made a LOT of kind of dumb mistakes, the kind he never makes at home, like fluffing the lead in his simple changes, breaking in his lengthening, and hollowing awfully in his rein back. He was also pulling a bit and occasionally wanted to buck and disunite when the whip tickled him (seriously, bro?).
So our scores were very mediocre: 58% and 60%. I’m a little bummed because if he had gone like he goes at home he would have had another 70%, but the poor guy is still greener than I realise. He just needs more miles. The schooling is there and he will start scoring well when he can relax; but he will only relax when I relax, so I feel God is busy teaching me a very big lesson here.
And as for this man, he is my lighthouse and most willing and able comrade in the heat of battle.
With his biggest dressage show yet on the horizon, Thunder hasn’t actually competed in a single graded dressage class this year.
Our first show of the year was in the very end of January, where I took a bunch of kids to a pre-SANESA training show for their dressage tests and packed him along too because the schedule was just too hectic to allow for another show. We did Novice 1 and 2 again, for sort of mediocre scores, but at least he won the one and came second in the other. He felt sort of mediocre on the day as well; trying hard, as usual, but tense and scattered, as usual for a show. If he had just lifted his back he would have had another 70%, but again, as always happens when he is a little tense, our scores were in the low to mid 60s.
Our next show was Horse of the Year. I couldn’t afford HOY and dressage in the same month, and he is such a hunter type that it seemed a shame never to show him as one. I didn’t feel up to jumping the working hunter on him, so we entered for show hunter and working riding. The show hunter day he was absolutely fantastic. He didn’t gallop, or I think he would have placed, because he behaved impeccably and was forward and relaxed through his whole body. I found myself wishing we were in a dressage test because he would have done so well.
Either way, we enjoyed ourselves but didn’t place because apparently hunters really should gallop instead of just making flat ears and bouncing.
The working riding day was absolutely dreadful. He was horrible in the warmup, screamed in the lineup, and then spooked at every single obstacle. But I did learn something that I can definitely use for future shows: Thunny is absolutely perfect if he goes anywhere alone or with a gelding, and absolutely horrible if he goes anywhere with a mare. Somebody is just a little proud cut, I presume.
I know I should really just make him go to shows with mares until he gets over himself and behaves, but honestly, life’s too short and I don’t have the kind of money to waste entry fees on miserable experiences. Henceforth, unless unavoidable, Thunder is going to shows by himself so he can relax and we can actually achieve something other than getting frustrated and tense. This is our strategy for Easter Festival this weekend, and we’ll see how it goes. Considering he has just been to KPC for HOY, and is going by himself, I think he should be very chill. I hope for a nice score, but I don’t expect a placing. You wouldn’t either if you’d read the entries list in our class.
Schooling has been kind of magical lately. We have worked through a lot of the initial drama that surfaced shortly after we started lessons with Coach J; the running and the falling out with the shoulder. He has learned to be both relaxed and forward, and I love it. We’ve sorted out a lot of our old issues – he has a stretchy trot now, he has a superb walk-canter transition, his lateral work is very much in place – and learned a whole lot of new things, too: travers, better lengthenings, shoulder-in, leg-yield zigzags that make him feel like he’s really dancing, four steps one way and then four steps the other just floating off my leg. Most exciting, we even started the flying changes.
It happened like this. We spent the entire lesson working on leg-yield zigzags, with Coach J alternately shouting “LEFT leg!” and “Keep his neck straight!” until finally we got it right. Then we tried in canter, leg-yielding across the diagonal to the right. Coach J ordered, “Outside leg and leg-yield left” and I obediently did so and Thunder obediently popped out a flying change. Ever since I have been too nervous to really do them at home, but we have been pulling them out at lessons quite frequently, and as long as I keep his neck straight and push his bum over – as opposed to trying to pull his face around – they just magically fall out of the sky. I was definitely not expecting to be doing changes in March when we started lessons, a just-barely-Novice combination, in November.
So mostly our schooling consists of doing whatever Coach J said, with occasional bits of test riding scattered in there, but honestly whatever it is that Coach J is making us do seems to make all the other stuff easier because the Novice work seems to be just sort of happening. It’s still rough around the edges, and I don’t expect the same scores we were getting for Prelim this weekend as we’re doing Novice 4 and 5 and they’re quite hard, but it’s all just there. Our one major downfall is that all of our downward transitions are poor – all of them. I think, though, that it’s me and not him. I ride too many green horses and have too much of a tendency to want to pull on his face, which makes him hollow through the transition.
Honestly, lessons with Coach J have been revolutionary. It was hard at first because I was trying so hard to prove ourselves to him, but now I’ve chilled out a bit and it feels like the bulk of the responsibility for getting Thunder up the levels doesn’t fall on my inexperienced shoulders anymore. I get to just relax and ride the horse for a change, and I absolutely love it. Of course, we still work very hard, practice hard, and learn hard, but at least we know what we’re doing now. I look forward to Easter Festival and I can’t wait to go dance with my horse again.
By the end of last week, it was beginning to feel like things were starting to come together with Thunny and I. And by that I mean that the spastic chicken had finally developed the ability to let go of its inside rein.
So we headed off to our next lesson with optimism, which was rewarded when Coach J only made us do the turn on the forehand exercise like three times and moved on to other work – still on the same theme.
Straightness and connection and bend. We did alternately long stretches of trotting large, pushing for something like a medium trot (pls Coach J we can barely do lengthenings), focusing on having Thunder really forward off my leg and into my hand. “Use his bum to push his head down, not your hands to pull his head down,” intoned the oracle.
To do this I also had to give my inside bend fetish a rest and straighten him considerably, even on the corners, allowing both hind legs to push evenly forward into my hands. I struggled with this because all I really got from him in trot and canter was to run onto his forehand. In walk we got something much nicer, a massive active walk that I could feel over his back.
Then we’d move on to long stretches of shoulder-in going large. And I had my doubts because shoulder-in hadn’t really been on our radar – shoulder-fore had been a big ask for preparation for walk-canter – but what do you know? I popped on inside leg and outside hand and we had something like shoulder-in.
It wasn’t terribly good shoulder-in, though. I generally was too quick to reward Thunny for running out through his shoulder instead of being straight and stepping across, mostly because I have no idea what a proper shoulder-in feels like. More outside rein (always more outside rein) mitigated this, but we both began to degenerate into a bit of a mess about it, so Coach J ordered me off and got on the steed himself.
Nobody has ever trained Thunny other than me, so I’ve never really seen him being ridden in a true connection in real life. It took me a few seconds to get over how majestic he is and start to listen to Coach J. Who magically got my horse to shoulder-in. By the end of it he was doing shoulder-in in a long and low frame with a floppy inside rein.
I got on again then, but he was quite tired so we just did a couple more and then called it a day. It did feel better, though, and having seen it, I had a better idea of what it’s supposed to be.
On Tuesday our session was a bit of a mess. Thunder seemed to have forgotten everything he’d learned about connection and retained only the ability to run onto his forehand. We tried to do some stretchy trot but all he did was run. Then I tried to do some lateral work to re-engage his brain, starting with a little leg-yield, and the whole mood changed when I touched him with my inside leg and he gave me the best leg-yield I’ve ever ridden on any horse, ever.
After that we did leg-yield all over the place until I was happy as a bird and, thus, he was happy as a bird. Apparently inside leg to outside rein fixes everything. His shoulder-in was better then, too, although he was still quite hollow.
Every session since has been better. He does want to run forward in stretchy trot, but the trot itself is better, with much more stretching over his back. We just have to address the break in rhythm. His shoulder-in in walk has been long and low and relaxed, too. In trot I still lose the shoulder now and then, which makes me go tense in my lower back and then makes him hollow. So the connection hasn’t been good at all, but the straightness has improved.
The thing I can’t get down at all is that lengthened/medium trot. He either doesn’t lengthen much and falls on his forehand or just runs forward. I have never been able to ride a good lengthening unless the horse had a naturally big and flashy trot (I’m looking at you, Nell), so that’s a me thing, I think.
It’s so reassuring to know that I don’t have to have a meltdown over something I can’t get right, because now by God’s provision, we have Coach J to help us.
Every time I enter a dressage show I feel vaguely guilty about spending time and money on something that isn’t expressly helping other people. I know, intellectually, that God wouldn’t have sent me Faith, or made my scruffy homebred really quite talented, if He wanted me to stop. I know I gave it to Him. But knowing something in your head and having faith in it in your soul isn’t always the same thing.
But these past few days have been one step deeper into faith.
The dream team set off: Superdad, Wonderbird and the Dragon, at a leisurely hour on Sunday morning (things I love about dressage). We were there in good time and I plopped Arwen’s tack on and off we went. I was expecting a dragon, but she was really, really good. Relaxed and quiet from the word go, but forward and enthusiastic. Our warmup was very relaxed, but as mediocre as usual. I was focusing hard on trying to develop an actual medium trot instead of a piggy little run, and she was focusing hard on bucking through the counter canter at one point, but then we were off and I was cautiously optimistic.
Our first halt felt OK, it was steady, square and on the bit, but it was 5.5 for quarters to left. The serpentine XA felt good as well for 6.5, which is about as good as we get. I’ve been working hard on the leg-yield and FX felt good – and was good, for 6.0 – but it all came to bits XM and I tried to sort it out but couldn’t really so that was a 5.0: “too much sideways”. At that point I started to realise that Arwen, while not exhausted, was slightly tired. After so many years of having her so, so fit, I’ve forgotten how flat she can be when she’s not jumping out of her skin. Arwen has to be hot to be her best, and she didn’t have the oomph.
Still, she didn’t feel at all reluctant, just a little tired, so I felt it was OK to finish the test and we soldiered on. We picked up a few more 6.0s for the halt and rein back (“steps not quite clear”) and the two turns on the haunches (“little too hurried”) – both better than before. The extended walk was 6.0 too, “lacking purpose”. She has a fabulous walk, so I blame that on being a little flat, too. And then at A she struck off on the wrong leg for a well-deserved 4.0. Really, Arwen? A wrong lead, in an Elementary test? But once again, she never, ever does that at home. Her brain was tired.
We got it together though for our best marks of the test; 7.0 for both the 10m canter circle and – get this – the simple change! I suppose we can cross “survive the simple changes” off our goals list. The counter canter was back to 6.0 for lacking engagement, and then the medium was a 4.5. I thought it was OK, but this judge evidently laid great emphasis on correct extensions/mediums, so that’s fair. Our circle at R was down to a 5.0 (“more jump”) and then the next change she picked up the wrong leg again, for 4.0. The counter canter was another 5.0 with “more jump”, and then the medium trot, obviosuly, was a 4.0. I didn’t let her hurry this time, but we didn’t really do much medium-ing, so yeah. The halt was fine except she fussed and made herself extra-square at the last moment, earning a 6.0, “not quite steady”.
The final mark was 54.1%. I do wish we’d gotten 55% and that final grading point, but it was fair, and I loved the judge’s comments. He asked for more jump, more engagement, noting that she was a little flat and lost unnecessary marks (two incorrect strike-offs – ya think?). But he also said “Rider tried hard on an obedient horse”, which I felt was true and complimentary.
Ultimately I think she could have done better and will once she is fitter. I think she did go better in the double, especially in her changes and transitions and rein back (we almost got our goal of more than 6.0 for the rein back). I also think she will never be competitive at Elementary because I was twelve years old and entirely clueless when I started riding her, with practically no guidance. She’s done wonders considering the hand she’s been dealt, and I remember thinking as we walked out of the arena that this horse would run through fire for me. I’ve given her second-rate training and she has given me her heart, and that’s what makes it worth it despite the occasional disaster.
Moving onto Thunder, we decided for my dad to stand by the warmup and the show arena with Arwen this time. I wanted to give Thun the best possible chance at a good test considering it was a level up and I wanted to build his confidence with the new movements, and I knew Arwen would be impossible alone anyway, so it was just easier.
Warming up, I knew immediately he was going well. He was relaxed and forward, going down into my hand instead of having to be held at all, and there was a suppleness in his back that makes me excited. As we went on, I noticed that a rider who had also ridden in the Elementary had just come charging into the warmup, looking a bit flustered. She was number 113 and we were number 114, but had already been warming up for a little while. I had done my basic warmup – large, lengthenings, a stretchy circle, some transitions and circles and lengthenings in canter – and was just about to start riding my test movements to finish the warmup when I heard the announcer calling number 113, who hadn’t even cantered yet.
“Can’t you go?” she asked me.
It was a knee-jerk reaction. “No, sorry. I’m not quite ready.”
I headed off, leaving flustered lady to her warmup, but something didn’t feel good in my soul. I paused, and I reluctantly listened to that still small voice. I really wanted a good mark. I really believed Thunder would go better if I could just have another ten minutes. But I knew what Jesus would do, and we dance for Him.
“It’s OK!” I yelled, inelegantly booting poor old Thun across the warmup. “We’re going!”
I don’t write this to boast, because what’s one tiny kindness compared to the ocean of my sin, or to the extravagance of the Love that went to the cross for it? I write it because I want to tell you all how big my God is. I felt His pleasure, and we went in and I rode the best test of my entire life. And my horse was right there with me, doing his very best.
The first centreline and halt was 7.5; he was a little unbalanced, but stepped forward to a square halt. Then our turns at C and B and walk/trot transition at X was an 8.5. Yup. Comment “obedient”. So he is; I wish I was as obedient to the call of my Master as that good-hearted horse is to the touch of my hand. The serpentine was a 7, comment “needs to show more change of bend in body; accurate”. We had a 6 for the stretchy trot, a better mark than before; he maintained his rhythm and did actually offer a tiny stretch for the first time ever in the show ring, so I was happy. His stretchy trot is getting good at home – it’s just a matter of time before he relaxes in the ring.
We were back to a 7.5 for the free walk and a 7 for the first transition and canter circle. Our lengthening wasn’t terribly good, getting a 6 with comment “could be more balanced”. He was on his forehand and stayed there for the transition at A. I panicked about the lengthening and kicked him, so he gave half a canter step and I took a few strides to sort myself out and get a bit of lengthening, so that was a 6: “could show more balance at A and more ground cover”.
The canter transition at C and circle at B was a 7, asking for more uphill and jump. And our last halt was an 8. The final mark was 72.5%. You could say I was quite happy with that.
The second test started with a 7 for the centreline (“straight; halt could be more balanced”) and for the rein change with half circle (“could show more bend through body”). I fluffed the second rein change with half circle for a 6 (“not quite to X, could show more bend through body”). By this point my brain was also getting kinda tired – I had vowed to focus this time without being nervous, and I did, but it was starting to take a little strain. Our lengthening once again started with a tranter step and got a 6.0, comment “needs to show more push from behind to cover more ground”. And then we had our free walk. And then we got our first 9.0.
Not even kidding. It was fantastic.
The canter transition at M that I had been dreading was an 8.0, “obedient”, and the 15m circle was a 7.5, “could be more uphill”. I got the geometry right this time, though. The KXM rein change with a trot at X and canter at M was a 7.0, again asking for more uphill, but it was better than our downwards from canter to trot have been. The next 15m circle was another 7.5, the canter lengthening another 6.0. By the half circle onto the centreline, I was cooked. I sort of pulled him around any old how and we fell in a heap for 6.5.
Still, it was 71.8%, with super collectives: 7.0 for paces, 7.5 for impulsion (on Mr. Lazybones nonetheless), 7.0 for submission, 8.0 for rider position and aids. I have no idea where he placed because two tired Hydes really wanted to go home, so I just asked for my tests and they were nice enough to give me a couple of placed ribbons (cheers, Equivest!). “What a super horse,” the judge wrote. “Well ridden.” I was so chuffed.
But the story doesn’t end there. Oh no! There were a few more miracles in store for us. As we were waiting for my test and lunch, the owner of a top Friesian stud in our area beckoned me over.
“Who teaches you?” he enquired.
“I jump with Coach K,” I said, “but I don’t really get dressage lessons.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I can see that.”
I was just about to feel hurt when he offered for me to come over and join his riders in a lesson with their Very Big Name Trainer. Around this time Very Big Name Trainer popped up (I almost wet myself) and announced that this was a good idea and I could even get a very good price “if you do your homework”. I vowed to do my homework, and the next thing I know, this morning Thunder and I found ourselves in the middle of the very fancy arena at very fancy Friesian place with Very Big Name Trainer – OK, fine, I’ll call him Coach J – yelling at us.
I originally wanted to cry because I thought we’d never get good lessons ever again except once a year with Coach S when she fits his saddle, and here all of a sudden we were getting lessons from Coach J and cheaply and I was a little overwhelmed by what God is doing for us. But within the first two minutes I was way too busy to feel anything very much.
Despite seeing mirrors for the first time in his life, Thunny was perfect. We dragged Jamaica along to babysit but Jamaica chilled in the fancy stable and Thunder didn’t miss him at all – he didn’t even whinny once. And Coach J totally failed to hate my fabulous purple bandages. He did, however, roundly kick our behinds.
We didn’t actually do anything that hard, except that we had to do everything perfectly so it was all ridiculously hard. Once Thunny had walked around to have a look at everything and been asked to go long and low and a bit deep to stretch his back, we did a tiny little serpentine down the long side. And then we did a square with turns on the forehand that almost killed us, and then we trotted a 15m circle. That was it. My brain is overflowing with new stuff, and also I am very uncoordinated.
Inside leg to outside rein.
When Thunder wants to be looky, put him in shoulder-fore, flexing him away from the scary thing. This worked well for him because he isn’t really that scared, and being given a job and asked to soften helps him relax.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Tiny, tiny turns to help him bend through the body more (seeing a recurring theme yet?). They don’t have to be perfectly balanced, but 5m or smaller circles/serpentines in walk to help him release his back.
Inside leg to outside rein.
On small turns, inside hand to my belly button, not to my knee, to lift his shoulder.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Absolutely no seesawing on the bit; only solid contact, or small sponges within the contact. I say this to my kids about four thousand times every afternoon. I can’t believe I actually still do it myself. Urgh.
INSIDE LEG TO OUTSIDE REIN.
At this point Coach J had had enough of yelling at me about my inside rein and started the turn on the forehand exercise. We walked a little square, with a quarter turn on the forehand at each end. The catch? No inside rein. NONE. He wanted it hanging, to show me that I don’t need to pull it the whole time. It was at this point that my brain started to fry. It’s so automatic to hang on that inside rein – poor Coach J shouted about it like a million times. Eventually we were doing shoulder-in to turn on the forehand to shoulder-in to turn on the forehand with the inside rein dangling completely loose. Well, most of the time. Except when I was panicking and Coach J had to start all over again.
We moved on then to trotting a 15m circle, spiralling it in and out now and then, with no inside rein – but with bend and connection. It was so hard, but it so worked. Thunder was super willing – as soon as he understood, he obeyed. My inside hand, less so. It’s amazing how one’s own body parts can be less obedient than the half-ton prey animal that is my dance partner.
With that, we were done, and given loads of homework, and sent off ridiculously excited. Thunder has done so well all by himself, with only one lesson ever. Imagine what he can do with the help we have now. We might even do the bigger levels someday; Coach J seemed to think we could do more than EM. I would love so much to even do EM!
Thanks to our beloved King, Whose mighty plan prevails. I am so excited to see where my God is going with this. No detail is too small for Him. I have long since stopped dreaming: I have found that He dreams much, much bigger than I ever could.
The last leg of the CHG Series was two days before Thunder’s seventh birthday.
I had to leave Arwen at home because she was still unfit and not quite sound after a bit of a dodgy trim, so it was Thunny and Rene for it. (Who came second in their Prelim 4 with K, a hard-earned place. I’m so proud of them).
I decided to ask Thunder to be a bit grown up today and didn’t have K bring Rene over so that he could have a friend while he was warming up. And he responded by being the quietest and calmest he’s been in the warmup. He had a look around when we walked around the first time and then that was it. Straight to work.
I also have inordinate amounts of media for once, so prepare to be bombarded. Here he looks like seventeen hands until you realise I’m a hobbit.
My soul does dressage but let’s be real, my seat still thinks it’s eventing. Sigh. Maybe, just maybe the horse is tight in his neck because my hands are bracing? Ya think?
He had some truly superb moments in the warmup, though. As usual for a show, he was a little stiff and tense though his back and neck. Not usual for a show, he was really, really behind my leg. I wasn’t really concentrating on it because usually at shows I’m all panicking about if any of my whoa and turn buttons still work, so before I knew it, he was BADLY behind my leg and I was nagging madly. Nagging, for the record, does not and never will work on this horse.
His tail is so dressage-y. I love it. The judge made a comment about our amazing earmuffs (more on them later!) and then off we went. The trot work was OK, a little behind my leg but OK. The free walk kind of, well, wasn’t. He can free walk for an 8 (and has in the past) but as soon as he’s slightly tense, distracted, or (you guessed it) behind the leg it becomes a bit of a mess. This judge has a thing about free walk so we got 5.5 for it. Ouch.
In this photo he looks really offended because when I asked for my A-F corner canter left he sort of speeded up his trot and fell on the forehand. I asked again just after F and he ignored me, and then I decided the movement was a disaster anyway so I took the whip behind my leg and gave him a big hiding. He does not need to learn that I won’t hit him for blatant disobedience in the show ring. To be fair, he was a little distracted, and I could have prepared him better, but when I ask for canter he’d better canter. Of course then he struck off on the wrong leg and wobbled all the way off the track, but we sorted it out and managed to put in a circle. It was too late, though, and landed us a well-deserved 4 for that movement.
I felt it coming down around my ears a bit at that point, but I knew that it was one bad moment in what had so far otherwise been a solid test, so we scraped it together and earned a string of 7s for the rest of our trot and canter work, barring a 5 for the stretchy trot (he barely does it at home – definitely not at shows). That was still good enough for 66%, getting us third place. So it was nice to get a ribbon even if we’d had a little disaster in there.
As we headed out of the Prelim 3 arena, the rider before us was only just going in for Prelim 4, so I walked him up and down the path doing walk-halt-walk until he was in front of my leg. I can get him really nicely in front of my leg now, but I have to be very, very diligent about keeping my leg OFF until I actually want something. Then the deal is that I give a tiny squeeze and he must respond. He got one tap with the whip and then realised I had stopped nagging, so then we were back on the same page and went in for Prelim 4 feeling quite chirpy.
Evidently I was still not terribly focused, however. Nothing was truly horrible at first, but nothing was that brilliant throughout the test, either; 6.0s and 6.5s except for a 7 for our final halt and centreline (that was quite nice). The serpentines had the comment “show more bend”, which was disappointing because I know I can get a really nice serpentine from him, he likes the movement and is good at it. I actually really like this test for him but I think I just wasn’t really there for him at that point. I also forgot the test halfway through the canter work and got the -2 there with comment “broke” even though he didn’t break, I asked him to trot. Poor chap.
He also was a tiny bit hesitant going to canter left again, so he got a tap and we managed to get it accurately this time but still lost some marks for the loss of rhythm and balance. Also, almost every movement had the comment “tight neck” and I can really see it in this photo. He’s on the bit, he’s just not connected really, short in the neck, tight in the throat and breaking in the third. He often gets this comment at shows and I’d like to get photos at home again and see if it’s at shows or always. I do feel like he wants to go above the bit at shows and it looks like I respond by jamming my hand down and pulling, which definitely doesn’t help.
I feel like getting his neck long is the key to fixing the other comments the judges keep giving us, like nailing us on the collectives for suppleness of the back and asking for more bend. Anyway, we moved on to his lengthening, where I panicked a little and kicked him and he shot off. It was a 6.0 with comment “hurried” and I know he can do better, so I’m actually quite OK with the mark. If I ride it properly I think it could be a 7 already, which is huge for me because I’ve struggled with lengthenings for ever.
At the end of the day it was good enough for 63.8% and 4th. And honestly, between God and Thunny, I’m being taken to a completely new place with shows. At the beginning of the year that minor disaster in Prelim 3 would have brought my world crashing down for a few days and opened the door for major self-doubt and anxiety. But it just wasn’t a big deal. I thought, “Well, that was a disaster” and carried on. I have so much more confidence on this horse. I have so much more confidence and enjoyment since I gave it to God. I look forward to shows instead of facing them with fear and dread; I enjoy them instead of enduring them and whatever place I get, I can hug my horse afterwards because he’s so amazing and God is amazing and I love dressage. I take myself so much less seriously, and thus can compete so much more seriously because I breathe in the sport and breathe out the negativity.
It’s so hard to be anxious, stressed, doubtful, and negative when with every stride I feel this overwhelming gratitude and wonder at the Amazing Grace that saved my soul, let alone put me on the back of a horse with a heart as big as a mountain.
Considering our continued success at Prelim, and the fact that he’s cruising through all of the Prelim work, we’ve started to play tentatively with movements from Novice.
But. The idea of moving up stresses me out a lot more on him than it did on Arwen. With Arwen, I never really had a clue what I was even doing (and still don’t really). When we have points for a level, and we can do the movements more or less, we move up. I don’t expect miracles at any level, so I’d rather go and be mediocre at the next level and learn the ins and outs of it for the benefit of the next horse.
But Thunder is the next horse. He is scoring better than anything I’ve had before – better than anything I’ve expected – and he has the potential to go so far and I really don’t want to mess this up. Thun won’t care if he never gets out of Prelim – but I do. Not as much as I once did, but this feels like the shot at this sport that I’ve been hoping for.
It’s not really the placings, and I know everyone says that, but I truly mean it. Of course it’s fun to place, but I’d rather have a good ride and score a personal best than win with a poorer ride – the rider I want to beat most badly is the rider I was yesterday. No, the draw of the sport is in the dance. I want to feel what Medium feels like. I want to feel what it’s like to dance with a horse like that, something more intricate than circles and leg-yields.
And I’m grateful to Arwen for carting my behind up the levels like she has. But she’s bottoming out for one simple reason – her basics just aren’t there.
For that reason, I need to know Thunny’s basics are there before I move him up, so that one day we can move up to EM or Medium – God willing, of course.
So before I start schooling the Novice stuff seriously, as opposed to just playing and showing him the new ideas, I’m taking a big step back to assess our basics. Thanks to my sister, we have pictures to judge!
Spoiler alert: The problems mostly aren’t his. They’re mine.
Most of our trot photos were similar to this one. And here’s my take.
The bad: I have overcorrected my chair seat sooo badly, losing my lower leg completely and nagging him. He’s the typical lazy horse – too much leg is a recipe for disaster. It’s not helping his balance. My hands are in my lap, which is curling him up, causing his stride to shorten and his back to drop somewhat.
The good: Despite my hand, Thunny has managed to engage his back end. He is on the vertical even though the frame isn’t long enough, and his abdominals are engaged. My hands and legs are rogue but my core is engaged for a change and I don’t see any of my old issue with arching my back.
The fix: Thun’s frame will definitely look better and loosen his back once I move my hands forward and use a receiving contact instead of bracing. That will also help him go more freely forward. I need to go back to basics and get my heels back underneath me so that I can be more intentional with my leg.
Here’s a couple of fairly typical canter shots. The good: Let’s all just take a moment and admire his amazing tail, shall we?
That done, I’m actually chuffed to see the canter quality we’ve developed here. He’s moving so well under himself, his frame is present, and he’s showing a clear uphill balance. We even have left bend! Again, my core is looking fairly solid.
The bad: … but I’ve overcorrected again, now sitting markedly on my left hip. Ugh. That’s causing him to lean to the inside, and probably not helping at all with our left bend issues.
The fix: Sit on BOTH seat bones EQUALLY already, Firn!
Our halts are also still a cause for concern, particularly from walk. Trot-halt-trot is better and very obedient, but those halts through walk are a mess. Obedient but a mess. I brace through my wrists and elbows and he sort of ploughs onto his front and throws a random hind leg out, then wiggles because he knows I’m worried about them and then he gets worried. And don’t forget about diving above the bit.
So we have some work to do. But mostly, I have some work to do. The horse is pretty much there.
The basics we’re solid at:
Lateral suppleness, most of the time
Activity and impulsion
The stuff we need to do:
improve my lower leg
lengthen the frame
lengthen the strides
improve my symmetry
trust the horse! He’s got this.
Ready for this journey and so grateful for this horse. Glory to the King.
After last week spent packing a beginner around at pony camp and the training show, it was time to put Thunder back to work. He was so good with his beginner – bombproof really, although he did trot up to each ground pole and then walk and climb carefully over it at the show. I brought him in early on Monday and suddenly was riding a hot, spooky young horse who ran sideways away from a pile of jump fillers. As you do.
He settled quickly, though, and we could get to work on two concepts. Going back to what I said after the last show, we needed to work on our halts, stretchy trot, and lengthened trot for Prelim. I am intentionally not drilling the lengthened trot right now. I drilled Arwen’s early on and destroyed it forever. So we do it once a session or so, but I keep it lighthearted, only ask for what I think he can give me, and only when I think he feels like giving it. We also work over trot poles set far apart now and then to help him figure out what he needs to do.
The stretchy trot is also much improved just by incorporating it into the cool-down every session, so that leaves us with the halts and then schooling for Novice next year.
We started with the halts. They are a lot better since my light bulb moment of riding the walk actively to get the halt square, but about 50% of the time he’d be square in front and then step forward with his right hind. Erin pointed out what should have been blindingly obvious: of course he steps forward with the right hind – I sit so hard on my right seat bone. It’s only because he’s huge and kind and not super sensitive that he only does that instead of swinging quarters to right like Arwen and Nell always used to.
So we tried riding the walk actively and sitting harder on my left seat bone (ugh left hip why must you ruin everything?) and we had consistent square halts at last. Sometimes I overdo it and he steps forward with the left hind, but it’s just a matter of me finding my balance.
Then it was on to working on some Novice stuff. While we have played with basically everything from Novice, it hasn’t been polished or serious. And the biggest problem remains his canter. I can hold it together for long enough in a Prelim test to make it look good, and the transitions are some of our best marks, but it’s still not truly in front of my leg. That means it’s not truly connected or supple or balanced either.
We started with my favourite, bestest, simplest exercise to get the canter in front of my leg.
Focus on sitting really, really still with the leg OFF.
The moment he loses impulsion or breaks his rhythm, touch him with the whip behind my leg. Not leg, whip. Leg is Mr. Nice Guy. Leg is for the transition. Leg is NOT to keep your lazy behind cantering when it’s actually your own responsibility.
If the break in rhythm occurs less frequently, give him a break.
If the break fails to occur less frequently, increase the intensity of the whip aid.
I had to take the whip aid all the way up to a good smack before the message penetrated and Thun started to do his job, but it did help to reinforce the idea that leg = go and no leg does not equal no go. In other words, he started to carry himself forward.
He was quite stiff during this session, so it was evident that he found the idea a bit difficult and it made him a little tense, so I started looking at ways to help him develop the canter muscles to make his job easier.
The first was my gymnastic line from last week, the one with all the bounces. If you think about it, bounces are just really high canter poles. He HAD to canter forward and engaged without getting strung out to this exercise – there’s no way to just flop through it. And he did! He didn’t touch a single pole. We repeated it a few times, then turned around and jumped it going the wrong way, with the big vertical (80cm) and one stride first and then the bounces. I expected this to be hard because he had to rebalance quickly after jumping the bigger fence, but he just skipped right through. Good chap.
Our next session he suddenly had a CANTER! So much so that I started playing with the Novice 3 canter work: loop through X in counter canter, lengthening, 15m circle. He stayed so connected and bent beautifully around the circle. The loop caught him unawares and he did lose his balance for a couple of strides the first time, but it was clean and obedient. We even actually got a lengthening. The transition from lengthened back to working was not as crisp as I’d wanted, but he kept his rhythm. It all wants polishing but it feels as though he is ready to do the polishing.
His simple change through trot is also OK but can have too many trot steps, so that’s just something to work on.
We ended the week with some raised canter poles. He threw them all over the place at first, but if I rode them light seat he went through well. Getting off the baby’s back a bit can’t be a bad thing over poles, so I was happy with it.
We will add a day of pole work/jumping to each week and I think a day of lunging in side reins in canter especially can also help to strengthen the canter. It’s not bad, really – it just doesn’t feel like his walk and trot, which are both AMAZING.
This horse is amazing. A majestic, powerful, adorable marshmallow.
Trot-canter and walk-canter transitions have long been weak points for us. Mostly because I never developed the canter quality early on, and never prepared or rode the transitions in balance and self-carriage right at the start. I learned to see a canter lead on this horse, and to get the one I wanted – which usually involved a lot of flailing about with my upper body and leaning forward while looking down to try and see the lead.
Poor old Arwen.
This movement consistently scores low for us, with comment “hollow”. I was originally taught to throw my weight to the inside, to encourage the horse to pick up the inside lead. Top tip: this don’t work. With me fooling about, and the trot lacking power, and the canter lacking engagement, Arwen learned to throw up her head and lunge into canter from the front.
The good about our walk-canter:
It’s obedient as they come; I can get it the first time, every time, without trot steps.
I can get the correct lead 99% of the time (whether it’s canter or counter canter), even on the middle of the long side or wherever.
Arwen anticipates the transition and starts to get tense and jogging in walk.
I still want to throw my weight to the inside and curl up, especially in a simple change.
Arwen gets really hollow and makes a laboured sort of bounce into the canter.
So we set to work on this with riding it “in context”, pretty much as it would be in most tests, trying to figure out where it was going wrong:
Medium walk up the short side F-A.
Change rein across the long diagonal in extended walk.
Transition to canter at C.
The problem started as we transitioned back to medium walk at M. In the double bridle I tried adding a tiny bit of curb during the transition down, but that only made her more tense and caused her to jog and hollow instead of jog and lean. Her anticipating made me tense, too, so my seat was kind of all over the place. It was a hot mess. Sorry, Arwen.
I found this exercise on the Internet, and during our next session we started trying it out.
A turn up the centerline.
L leg-yield to the track.
Track straighten, then transition to canter.
Canter to M, transition to walk.
C turn up centerline and repeat.
Right off the bat this started to work better for Arwen. Her walk leg-yields are supple and I can get them very steep (L-B for instance) so whenever she’d start rushing, instead of getting in her face, I’d increase the steepness of the leg-yield so that she had to focus on that instead of on getting all dragonish. With her flexed to the inside, I also didn’t worry as much about the lead, so that mitigated my flailing a bit. As we returned to the track she could start anticipating but then I’d put her in slight shoulder-fore for a few steps and then ask for the canter.
This exercise took my mind off the anticipating and made me concentrate on the preparation – actively ending the leg-yield, keeping my upper body in line, going into shoulder-fore, half-halt, outside leg back, inside shoulder up, canter on. Arwen was rounder going up but added some trot steps. In the third session, I carried the dressage whip and gave her a touch as I asked the first few times just to make it clear we needed to canter on without kicking.
By the end of this I had a much more powerful transition, using the hindlegs to spring up to canter. I do have to half halt on the curb rein to prevent the head from flying up. Old habits die hard. But the more connected I can keep her, the more engaged the transition, the more engaged the resulting canter.
We went back to the medium-extended-medium walk and then canter exercise just once or twice and the difference was substantial. It’s still not going to be her best movement, but it’s an improvement. It’s not going to be brilliant until I can discipline my own body better in all the canter transitions and the canter itself, to stay tall (well, as tall as 5′ 4″ gets) and strong through my core instead of crumpling.
Dancing with this dragon was exactly what I needed this week. How great is the God Who turns our worship of Him into His healing of us?