I have SO MUCH to write about and so much media that it’s a little overwhelming. Thunderbirdy has been his superb self, charging through the EM work already with great gusto, revolutionising his canter, and just being my bestest dance partner.
But today I want to gush some more about my Faith pony.
First, she actually looks like a horse now, which is a great relief. Not a super pretty horse, granted, but at least something horse-esque. We’re approaching her four-year-old year so mercifully it should be all uphill from here (SHOULD).
Her training is going great. Physically, all we’ve really achieved is a canter where all the legs go in the same direction and the ability to trot over poles.
All the training we’re doing right now is emotional. We’re talking about how standing still is a safe space, too. About how nothing I ask her to do is painful, and about how the thing I want is the easy thing.
We’re discussing how new things never mean punishment, but are neutral or result in praise when dealt with quietly. We’re talking about forward and straight.
Most of our rides are spent sparking these kind of conversations using obstacles or going on outrides. We’ve done little working riding courses and “jumps” (crosses small enough to just trot over). In fact, she’s more than ready to go into a connection and start learning throughness and bend. She just needs her teeth to be done first. For now I have her in a Nathe and ride on a long, floppy rein.
In the interim, we have quiet conversations about respect and patience. We acknowledge each other as strong-minded young women who both have valid opinions and realistic needs. Every ride, we’re learning to trust each other a little bit better.
We’re keeping it conversational. We’re keeping it fun.
I love this horse on hacks. She’s just a baby but she’s such a genuine baby – a nice, normal baby horse with no baggage and no vices who just loves to work. She prefers to lead, with her little ears pricked and her stride long and swinging through her whole body. Sometimes we still have our babysitter go in front for scary things, but she’s pretty good about everything. She has an honest little spook and if she’s unsure she just stops and has a look until she knows it’s safe.
Soon we’ll start bending and connecting and test riding. For now, we go on hacks. We fool around on a loose rein. We ride bareback. On Sunday, we’re going to her first ridden show. We’re doing ground poles, but if we just unload and stand at the show quietly all day, that’s cool too.
It’s not about what we’re doing. It’s about what we’re talking about. I’m in no hurry and I allow no one to prescribe to me what my journey with my beautiful baby horsie is supposed to look like.
The only opinions that matter are my horse’s and God’s. And I’m enjoying every heartbeat with them both.
Not having backed anything since July, I suddenly find myself up to the eyeballs in babies. Something for which I’m more than grateful – I love them, I feel like I have a vague idea of what I’m doing with them, but every single one is something totally new. And there’s always a leap-of-faith element to tossing a leg over a young horse for the first time.
Faithy is the greenest of them all, and thus progressing the most slowly of them all. I’m also taking it more slowly because I’ll expect more from her someday, and also because, as usual, I find myself crippled by doubts and fears just because it’s my horse. Somehow client horses just seem to be easier. It’s all in my head, of course. They go better because I chill the socks out and do what I know how to do without emotions getting all in the way. I worry far too much about my own.
Faith, however, has been fine. A quite normal three-year-old filly. Less wiggly to groom and bandage up, easier to get to go round in walk and trot. Still separation anxious, and the other day focused so hard on screaming at a buddy who was being brought in for work that she fell through the ring fence. As you do. Mercifully she’s a Nooitie and suffered only a minor bump to her fetlock, some bruises and a cracked ego.
I really need to sort out my own head space before we can make any real progress. It’ll be a matter of going to my knees and giving it to God; as usual, Satan is trying to hit me right where God can most mightily use me. That’s when I know the fight is getting real.
Teddy is by turns effortless and very challenging. He is a hard-trying horse and bright as a button, so intellectual training is dead simple. He’s also a very anxious horse who’s been both hurt and spoiled in the past, so emotional training is a lot less easy. The bridle was a complete non-issue after the usual mouthiness during the first session.
The saddle is also fine until it slips, then we can get quite a melodramatic and frightened little crow-hopping fit. I really hate to see a young horse doing that. It’s very hard to sit out, for one thing; it’s also almost always out of fear, for another. So we’re taking the whole backing thing very, very slowly.
He also has an issue with standing in the wash bay. He likes to fly back as an answer to everything and can be quite impossible to get in without help, but once in he is OK, although I take the precaution of closing the gates in case he wants to wiggle. Most of ours plop in and then graze while I chuck the lead over the fence and do my thing (including Champagne), but he’ll get there.
Emmy has gone a bit quicker. She does have some racetrack baggage, but she’s older, more sensible, and more experienced. She is obviously backed since she raced a bit, but I start from scratch anytime I’m slightly doubtful.
As expected she took the bridle effortlessly. She doesn’t mind the saddle but can be very touchy about having the girth tightened – somebody obviously had the girth yanked on quite often in her past. (Pet peeve.)
Today I fooled around with hanging over her, flapping the stirrups and patting her all over loudly and she went to sleep, so I put a leg over and had a little sit. She was dead quiet, completely relaxed. I won’t actually ride her until I’ve done the long-lining to check that whoa is a thing (and rearing is not), but I think she’ll be quite nice. She’s a gentle soul.
I totally failed to get photos of starter #4, but he is adorable. He stays at another yard and I only see him once a week, so his progress will be slow. The yard is actually where I was a yard rat in my preteens, so I helped to back his dam and knew his sire well and knew him as a tiny foal (by then I was riding for Ruach). The sire is a Friesian and the dam a little Nooitie/Araby thing, and he is basically a 14hh dark grey Friesian with a dish face. His name is Antwone and I’m not quite sure yet if I’m OK with his being a colt, but he’s only three and doesn’t know it yet, so we’ll take it as it comes.
So happy to have a full training schedule again. Glory to the King.
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.
So y’all (okay, Emma) asked for more pictures of my beautiful Africa, specifically the 228ha that I call earthly home. I need no further excuse to fill my posts with pretty nature spam.
I love this place so much. I don’t remember a place before it; in a climate that can go from waving green fields bathed in golden sunlight to the savage majesty of a breaking thunderstorm in minutes, I know the swing of its moods almost subconsciously. Old Skye and I explored every hollow and rock; its beauty has ripened with age, grown up as I did, an unfading splendour that never disappoints. It was here that I first felt the inexplicable, mighty, dynamic, overwhelming presence that in my early writings I called “the magic” and that I finally found a name for years later: God.
This very earth runs in my blood. And like blood, I’ll leave it behind, but for now in my heart it’s the most amazing place in the whole world.
This morning was nippy as we headed out to feed, with a kind of shy, patchy mist as the sun came up.
On a far less poetic note, Lady Erin has entered the bug-ugly but button-cute stage. She still has nice legs and an impression of athletic quality, but it’s like someone took a baby warmblood and dressed it up as a donkey. A mangy donkey. The colour is very odd and don’t ask me about those floofy ears.
Faithy has happily adapted to the more domestic life and is milking it for all it’s worth. She’s perfectly happy to come over and let me do whatever with her, but only if I have a treat. And it has to be the right treat. She’s meant to be on a balancer to help her grow but she prefers the lucerne pellets, and will only deign to eat the balancer if I beg.
She has me all figured out and she knows it. It’s so adorable.
Also, Olive is doing great! She’s still not safe to ride because her neuro thing hasn’t quite recovered yet, in that the feet do not always go where they are meant to go, but she’s not complaining.
T was kind enough to get some pictures of Exavior’s session today. He’s been such a good chap lately. I tried to get some more canter on Thursday, but he again only managed one floundering stride. He seems very willing to try and didn’t resist at all; I think balance is a problem and the 15m ring that works so well for the ponies is not ideal for a big giant warmblood.
So we’ve made cantering on the lunge a priority. He just needs to build some muscles so he can hold his giant coathanger self up properly. He usually only works for 15-20 minutes at a time, but it’s amazing what you can achieve in 15 minutes if you do it often enough. Far better I think than doing an hour and frazzling a baby brain and body.
He feels so much less huge and impressive than I expected of him that I thought he was going like a real school pony, but on the pictures he actually looks pretty good. Even in the halter he has the obedience thing pretty down.
I like this picture a lot. I know he looks like a giraffe, but he’s supposed to. We haven’t even approached the whole connection conversation yet. I want him flowing freely forward and straight from behind at the touch of a button first. And here he’s actually doing well; he’s going forward by himself without my hands or legs even touching him, he’s tracking up, he’s even in a level balance. Not doing so bad after all.
Ignore me, I do weird things aboard babies, it’s kept me alive so far.
Then I rode a bunch of the others who were all very solid. Arwen jumped fine. Midas, Jamaica and Sunè schooled well. I petted Nugget’s neck and Faith exhibited some very athletic drama queen spooks upon being introduced to the bum rope when we talked about halter training.
To finish the post, I must brag about this one amazing kid in the riding school. She’s five and she rides better than I did when I was ten or eleven. Seriously. Look at those adorable little independent hands. She takes exactly zero nonsense from Lullaby and I spend much of our lessons trying to think of a reason not to let her canter yet (apart from the humiliating one, which is that my nerves will not survive). This, kids, is what happens when you show up to all your lessons and try really hard.
So what’s the most logical thing to do when you wake up really sore one morning? Head off to Springs to ride some really huge horses, of course.
With Module 4 and its “jump 85cm on a giant horse you don’t know” threat looming, I packed myself off to go get lessons from jump coach K. She promptly put me on literally the biggest horse I’ve even seen in like a year. I quailed, but he was a school horse so I climbed all the way up and off we went for such a productive ride. Kids, buy yourselves schoolmasters. This thing just jumped whatever he was pointed at, even if the pointing was done badly, in this steady ploppy rhythm that just got the job done so smoothly. I almost instantly forgot that he was huge and enjoyed the sensation of not having to micromanage.
Then I got to ride a super fancy ex-international eventer. I was scared I might break him, but instead he patiently humoured me while I delightedly pressed all his buttons. (Flying changes. Shoulder in. You guys. SO MANY BUTTONS.)
Back home today, I was greeted with the consequences of pushing off to Springs for a morning – catching up on the sessions I’d missed. This meant twelve horses on my list today, which made my back hurt just to think about. But on the plus side I had the rare and deeply satisfying opportunity to ride every last one of my full-time training horses in one day.
Ten of them were excellent. We kicked off the day on a wonderful note with Exavior being just awesome. I only lunged him very briefly and he was forward but sane to ride. He did kick out in protest at my dressage whip once but neither my seat nor my confidence wobbled so we ended on the very high note of taking two (truly appalling) canter steps. We’re confined to the ring until his wolf teeth get taken out, but we’re sure making progress!
Then Arwen rode an excellent flatwork session, nailing her simple changes even on the long sides and offering some nice shoulder-in of her own, not to be outdone by no giant fancy international horse.
Tara followed it up with being so relaxed and confident that we established a really nice forward trot including responsive, relaxed transitions. Her anxiety has been put behind her, it would seem. Unfortunately Zara now seems to be in the anxious, stuck-behind-the-leg stage but with quietness she’ll figure it out in a couple of weeks.
Destiny managed to only nap violently once today, and gave me three gaits nicely lunging left and three gaits begrudgingly lunging right. We’re finally back in the right direction. Sunè has also made up her mind to use her powers for good; after a dreadful session on Monday she stepped up to the plate and did great in walk and trot, large and figures, in the big arena today. The canter isn’t there yet, but it’ll come.
Faithy has discovered that I have food. This momentuous revelation means that she now comes over to be caught and fussed over, although our training sessions mostly consist of me combing her (AMAZING) hair and cooing about how awesome she is.
Then Magic and Lancelot just had to throw a spanner in the works. Lancey was plain not in the mood and decided to nap, resulting in a battle of wills; we’ll have to kiss and make up tomorrow. Magic wasn’t exactly bad but he was full of beans and jittery, which was hard to stay calm on. We popped a few fences and called it quits without picking a fight or having a meltdown, so I’m calling it a win anyway.
Midas succeeded in scraping the day off the floor and ending on a lovely note by jumping absolutely everything I aimed him at with poise and enthusiasm. This was only a tiny cross and a 30cm upright, but for his second jumping session ever, I’ll totally take it.
Crazy day, but God was with every breath. Glory to the King.
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.
Despite my misgivings about the former after her spectacularly reluctant first session, both Zara and Tara have been progressing beautifully. After Zara ran through the side of the lunge ring twice – with me flapping helplessly along behind her on the end of the lunging rein – I groused that this creature must be both unwilling and stupid, but as usual I was wrong and have been forced to eat my words lately.
She always had this blank look in her eye during her sessions, but soon I started to realise that it wasn’t because she didn’t have a brain – it was because the brain was not with me. What exactly she was so inwardly focused on, nobody knows. There are no physical issues. Maybe she was just never asked to actually think before. Whatever it was, as we went on, I started to get moments where the light would come on and she would focus and be truly brilliant for thirty seconds or until she made a mistake and had to be corrected and went all blank again. The blankness was maddening. Training was, well, training; there was no conversation.
These days, though, my “stupid” student has become a responsive, willing, and present partner who actually talks to me and processes information – quickly, too. She’s turned out to be sensitive, forward, alert and just a little quirky so instead of her being just another dumb baby we have developed quite the rapport. Just goes to show how some horses never show who they really are until you bother to ask.
So we have progressed from trashing my lunge ring to carting my butt quite happily around it, so far just in walk, but I look forward to rapid progress. For her owner’s sake I hope she sells like a hot cake and will do my utmost to make it happen, but on the selfish side I do hope I get to show her once or twice first.
Tara has always been her sweet, cuddly, obedient self so of course backing her has just been easy; nothing remedial to fix, no bad habits to change, no mindset to try and alter. Just a simple matter of training responses and getting used to tack. I was on her in short order and we have also been taking a few little steps around the ring.
Tara is kind of worried lately; I don’t think she thinks she’s going to be hurt or frightened, but she does look a little stressy about new things or things she finds hard. It would be totally in keeping with her nature for her to be a bit overly worried about making a mistake. I think I need to have an even lighter hand and encourage her a little more and it should be OK. Then again maybe she’ll take advantage and throw me clean over the side of the ring; I suppose one never really knows with horses. Although Tara is highly unlikely to attempt such a drama.
Also, I officially adore Capstone feeds from now on. When T arrived she was a 2/10 and 14.3hh. Five months later she is a 5/10 and touching on 15.2.
Much as I also enjoy her, I kinda hope T sells like a hot cake too because she will thrive with a nice, patient adult ammy that is quite content to take their time and just relax and enjoy the connection. I do my best for her but regrettably one can’t just fool around so much when there is a client involved. It’s just unfair. But Tara is going to make an ammy very very happy – and vice versa.