First Lesson of 2019

After weeks of our plans being thwarted due to, variously, Thunder being sick, me pitching off of Rio and hurting myself, and then both of us being unfit, we finally managed to schedule a lesson for last week. Poor darling found himself boxing us across the province in rush hour traffic, but he did sign up for it, poor wonderful chap.

Thunderbird is still not super fit, but able to do half an hour of solid work, so I figured it was time that J helped get us back on track.

We’re still struggling with the same things: downwards transitions, angle and suppleness in shoulder-in, collection and mediums. I mentioned this to J when we arrived. He doesn’t seem too concerned over our mediums: they are generally straight and not rushing, but not yet very powerful, which he says will come with strength and practice.

The first thing J wanted to address was the shoulder-in. At our last show it was one of our worst marks, with the judge saying there was too much angle and not enough suppleness. At home, obviously, I decided that this would be fixed by pulling the inside rein (plot twist: this didn’t work).

J doesn’t want too much bend in the shoulder-in, as the exercise is not about bend as much as it is about the connection on the outside rein. Instead, he wanted Thunder more active, more connected into my outside rein, softer on the inside rein, and a lot rounder. As we push into shoulder-in I tend to forget everything and concentrate only on getting the angle, thus losing the activity, throughness and connection, with the result that when I put my leg on for the movement he immediately slacks off by losing his hindquarters and throwing up his head.

So our homework there is to ride the transition from straight to shoulder-in as just that – a transition, during which the activity and connection must be maintained. J also mentioned that riding him a little lower and deeper – longer in the neck, but with the poll down more – helps to supple and stretch him rather than fighting with him in a perfect competition frame. It’s also vital that I ride him in the right angle. He needs to be so rhythmic in the angle and so soft and supple in the connection – not over bent, but soft – that I could even ride him in shoulder-in right while bending his spine to the left, essentially turning the movement into renvers.

On the subject of the trot, J also warned against making him run. He needs to be more active now without being faster – I need to slow the legs down to create a collected rhythm.

He also needs to stretch down significantly more, but this he does really nicely at home. At home he’ll take his nose to the floor – his relaxation levels at other venues always negatively affect his connection and ability to stretch.

This was evident when he decided to have an enormous spook in the middle of the short side, resulting in a hilarious screenshot and a few dry comments from J.

Moving on to the canter, first we worked on the collected walk. J says that it’s impossible to ride a good transition to collected canter unless the collected walk is outstanding. He needed to take significantly shorter steps, without losing the activity, and be softer and more yielding in the bridle as well instead of going against the hand. Only once the walk was perfect were we allowed to canter. The canter itself had to be much straighter as I tend to permanently ride him in too much inside bend. Once the canter is straight, the transition to walk can be through and balanced.

I was really happy about how Thunder behaved. He was a bit tense and a bit behind my leg, but the long drive had much to do with that, and he was trying very hard as he always is. I am a bit disappointed that the shoulder-in is still a problem but now we have more tools to work on it. I asked J if we were making progress, though, and he seemed to think we were doing just fine.

After the lesson I asked J what we should be doing show-wise this year and he said that the priority with competitions is to get him more relaxed. So the more small cheap local shows we can do, the better. I haven’t renewed our memberships so we’ll be doing training shows for a while – we may end up having to do all our grading points again, but that’s all right.

Well with my soul, dancing with my horse. Glory to the King.

Upping Our Game

Be prepared: This post is rated PG13 for boring dressage content. It will contain a vast amount of dressage-related drivel. Showjumpers and anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the ridiculous minituae of the most nitpicky sport of them all, look away now.

With Nell safely (and very happily) installed in her new home halfway across the country, poor old Arwen has resigned herself to the fact that she is now the current top dressage horse in the yard and has been pressed into service satisfying my craving for the sport so hard it’s almost art. When I brought her back into work in mid-November after the quarantine, I’ll admit I didn’t hold much hope that we’d be doing great things next year. Arwen likes dressage (Arwen likes anything as long as it makes her brain and body work), so that’s not the problem; the problem is that our dressage was becoming steadily more mediocre as last year went on. In terms of marks, we were slowly climbing the high 50%s, so they were very ordinary but at least improving. But the way she felt was just always iffy.

I realise, now, that we were just missing true connection. She went in a frame and it wasn’t exactly a false frame; she didn’t break at the third and her back was lifted. But it wasn’t truly through, not the proper cycle of power we all read about from the hind legs to the hand. She was just holding herself up the way I wanted, not flowing through herself the way she needed to be. It was subtle; the judges’ comments never pointed at something specific. Everything was just mediocre. Comments almost invariably began with “Needs more”. She wasn’t exactly crooked or stiff; she just “needed more [insert term here]” and it was everything. Connection. Straightness. Bend. Suppleness. Impulsion. Meanwhile she was always resisting just slightly; never my aids – obedience is her speciality – but there was just an against-ness in my hand, all the time. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew she didn’t feel like Nell; there was a softness and a power-moving-through-ness in Nell that just wasn’t there in Arwen. I decided we’d try and do Elementary and if we got it done I’d retire her from dressage. Neither of us were enjoying the fight for more than that.

Arwen2
stressage

And then Nell went, and I had to try and fix Arwen as much as we could. Of course, the horses and I all have a deal. I don’t make them try and do something they physically can’t or mentally really don’t like to do. But in a last-ditch effort to touch those higher levels I want so much, I threw all the focus that had been Nell’s into trying to bring out the very best in Arwen. And God, Who of course had planned all this, revealed a whole new level of awesome that had hitherto been locked away in Arwen for lack of necessity of belief in her.

First, even before Nell’s sale was a probability, we had the chiro out. She found a small arthritic change in Arwen’s off fore fetlock. It wasn’t enough to make her lame, but it was enough to make her lean just a little to the left to spare that foot a little, which in turn put out her back and that put out her neck. Connection’s like pouring water through a pipe; a good flow is dependent on straightness. Kink the pipe to one side and the water can’t all flow nicely out the front; it dams up by the kink, all boiling and nasty. Arwen continually tipped her nose to the right, and that locked up her whole back. The chiro put her back and neck in again and left us to take some time off and give her joint support to fix up the fetlock.

When I brought her back to work, she was feeling better in her body than ever before. And I was desperate; desperate to school Arwen perfectly, because perfect schooling and a brilliant brain can make up for non-flashy gaits like she has, as long as they’re correct like hers are. One of the biggest things I changed was our routine dressage warmup. I noticed that she only started to feel good in the last five minutes of each session, but by then her brain would be tired. I also read everything on the Internet that Charlotte Dujardin ever said (mild exaggeration, but seriously. I tried.) and she was always talking about her warmup. Warming up like Blueberry might not turn Arwen into him, but it was worth a shot. And the change was phenomenal.

The new warmup isn’t dramatic. It’s actually simple. The most important part is that we start with a hack. 10 minutes maybe; just around the long stacks of bales and back in a walk on a long rein. No contact, no long and low, just forward and straight and forward and straight. I usually take the time to roll my ankles, stretch my quads and do a breathing exercise or two. When we get back I’m breathing and she’s dragoned out some of her dragonness; then we halt, salute and pray, and then we trot two laps of long and low without stirrups. I rise the first lap and sit the second lap. Only then, 15 minutes into a 30-minute session, do I actually put the horse into a contact. By then she’s warm and listening and forward and straight and the connection is just amazing. The power is flowing up her back from her hind end straight and true; all I have to do is recycle it in my hands and it just happens. We do working trot a lap each way, then do some transitions within the trot and a halt and rein back. The halt and rein back isn’t really warmup, it’s just something we have to do every day until we get it good. Same with counter canter; we do working canter, a simple change on each rein on the long side, medium canter, and counter canter because we’re not much good at it.

That usually leaves us like 10 minutes to actually work on stuff, but it’s quite enough because by then the horse is so ready for it that we only have to do things once or twice before we see improvement and move on.

You guys, the change in this horse is just amazing. She does still struggle with medium trot and rein back – her old enemies – but suddenly she just magically has counter canter. She never did, but now she’s doing half 20m circles, changes of rein, the works. Her turns on the haunches are awesome. Every canter transition hits the correct lead no matter where we are in the arena. And the feeling in my hand is incredible. She’s seeking the contact for the first time; she’s solidly there, but not pulling, just happily taking the contact and going forward and soft. I love it.

DQs are nutcases. Excited by the oddest things. But I am excited now. Our scores have spiked; we now have points for Elementary, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

As usual, God knows exactly what He’s doing, especially when we don’t. Glory to the King.

wp-1480054029723.jpg
yessage

Hearing Exavior

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.

Unrelated gratuitous weight gain collage

“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.

Glory to the King.

Back in the Groove

Because when you can use an Emperor’s New Groove gif, why wouldn’t you?

So the last two weeks were insanity, but also awesomeness. We took a truckload of Jerseys to Bloemfontein and my pet prized heifer was Northern Champion Jersey Heifer. She deserved it.

JoyfulMerida5
Yes, fellow horse people, cows can be this elegant

We slept in the horsebox, which was awesome but cold, and I came home sick with flu. Last week Wednesday I decided I was all better just because I didn’t feel like dying when I was in bed, and nearly repeated that rather embarrassing incident last year when the Mutterer had to scrape my unconscious body out from under a horse’s feet. Whereupon I stayed in bed some more, and only actually got to climb on my horses for real again this afternoon.

Arwen was fantastic. I changed our jumps a little bit, putting up a 1.00m (3′ 3″) vertical, a Swedish oxer that was around 80-85cm (2′ 9″) in the middle, and a little skinny that was more kind of emaciated. (This was achieved by making a stack of tyres, three high and two wide, so it was around 65cm or 2′ 3″). Arwen had jumped the vertical before, but we’d had a couple of stops at it mostly due to the height. Today she was awesome and popped over like no big deal. The Swedish oxer gave her pause for thought a few times, once again mostly because of me. She’s honest that way – she stops when I mess up but jumps every single time when I do my job. So when I got my act together she jumped the oxer just fine.

The skinny gave her pause for thought because she wasn’t sure that we were supposed to jump it. She kept steering out, not with a reluctant sort of attitude but giving me the impression that she was thinking “Wow, stupid human, let’s not crash into the tyres, shall we?” Eventually I insisted that I did want to jump it and she said “Ooooh why didn’t you say so?” and popped over. Because she drifts, it was a bit of a sticky point and we ran out a few times before she gave me some good efforts from the trot and canter, and I called it a day.

Next I rode this adorable 13.1hh pony that I have to back for some kids. He was easy enough to back but doesn’t have any brakes to speak of, mostly because he has some awful wolf teeth. For now I’m schooling him in a halter and he’s actually pretty sweet. He’s a very loving little pony. Interestingly enough he seems to have a goodly dose of Basuto blood, a breed that is near to my heart. The Basuto originates in the mountains of Lesotho and is renowned for its toughness, stamina, hardiness and amazing hooves, characteristics that it passed on when it was crossed with the Arabian and Boerperd to produce my beloved Nooitgedachters.

Agenta1
First ride. Look how tall I am!

I lunged Vastrap for 10 minutes or so because he hadn’t been ridden in two weeks, but he was an angel to catch (he can be skittish about that) and was his usual saintly self on the lunge, so I didn’t even mount him myself before putting Mom on and taking them for walkies. Vastrap has begun to put on some weight and muscle tone. He’s beautiful. His personality has also started to blossom; he no longer has that hunted look about him, except sometimes under saddle. Mom’s rides are doing him the world of good because she doesn’t put any pressure on him, and he needs that.

I didn’t have a lot of time for Magic, but I put him in the ring and “free lunged” him. This, in Magic language, means standing in the middle for 10 minutes and not doing anything very much while Magic tears around at a terrifying pace, enjoying himself. Normally he’s superb to free lunge, but he really had ants in his pants today, so I decided against arguing with him and just let him run until his brain came back. Then we had some laps of beautiful relaxed canter and practiced some transitions on voice commands. Magic is excellent with voice commands. I think he uses his sense of hearing a vast amount. He’s probably my most vocal horse, and he responds instantaneously to voice commands; scary noises frighten him a lot more quickly than anything else does. My voice also soothes him an enormous amount when he’s nervous. It’s a good thing he’s not a dressage horse or one of our most important lines of communication would be against the rules.

Lastly I took Professor X for a walk. We’ve graduated to taking little hikes around the homestead; I take the precaution of a lunging line in case he freaks out and rears (I’ve had an 11hh pony come down on my empty head and that was bad enough), but I haven’t needed it yet. He does like me to approach a scary object and touch it with him standing about 10m away on the end of the line. Once I’ve touched it, it’s apparently okay. He’s extremely spooky but, most importantly, very considerate of my personal space. He doesn’t run over me even when he’s really frightened or pulling for home. In fact, one day when Thunder and Flare decided to come running up at about 100kph, Exavior understandably shied sideways towards me. Mid-leap I could see him think, “Oh, sugar!” and then he made a valiant effort and managed to miss me by a comfortable distance. With a horse his size, this is immensely important, so I’m pleased that my drilling has paid off. He’s kind of a pain about his head when I put his halter on, though. He stands with his nose on the floor and I have to bend over to buckle it. Not too bad for a colt whose ears you couldn’t touch six months ago. I love him so much.

Glory to the beloved King.