What I Learned from My Easy Horse

They always say that the difficult horses have the most to teach you. That good horses don’t make good riders and that the more times you’re thrown, the more tenacity you learn. That the top horses are always a little sensitive, a little quirky, not everyone can ride them (as Valegro nods sagely in the background whilst carrying an eleven-year-old girl around on his patient back). There’s an undercurrent of feeling where if your horse isn’t that horse that’s a little crazy, maybe you’re not that rider who can do all the hard things.

But today I’m going to tell you everything I learned from my easy, sweet and safe horse.

Sure, he’s not the best ever on outrides and he’s got a spook in him, but he’s always been a steady sort. Even as a little foal he never had those crazy little baby tantrums while trying to navigate life with humanity. He wore his first saddle without a buck and fell asleep while I was putting on his first bridle. I was 15 and knew nothing. He was 2 and patient as a monolith, even then.

He was a clotheshanger-shaped two-year-old when I sat on him for the first time. I hadn’t done one quarter of the necessary groundwork, but he just turned his head to sniff at my toe and then went to sleep.

Fast forward seven years and he is still a good boy. He has his nervous moments, but in all our years of riding, I have only once believed I was actually going to come off him. We were walking and I was mostly asleep, one hand on the buckle, when huge lizard jumped up a rock out of nowhere and he jumped. I didn’t have reins, so he cantered off a few steps as I slithered down his side, stopping when I managed to get hold of a rein and drag myself back on board. Both times that I actually did fall off him, he was 3, we were hacking, and my (unreliable) girth came off. He always came back for me.

He has a quiet mouth. He doesn’t really go lame. He has a soft, supple back that doesn’t really go into spasm. These are probably reasons why he’s easy in his mind. He’s comfortable to sit on, not particularly flashy in his gaits, and rather on the slow side.

He’s not the horse that holds a grudge or gets offended by my myriad mistakes. His chiropractor, who has a deep intuition for horses, summarized him: “Oh, you just feel like everything is going to be OK when you’re with him.”

He is my easy, sweet and gentle horse. And here is what I learned from him.

I learned to ride a flying change, a half pass, renvers, travers, piaffe. A real shoulder-in, a straight leg-yield. A good simple change. A true connection, a supple bend, and a square halt. A figure eight in rein back. I learned these while he was learning them, because he was willing to learn, because he was helping instead of hindering.

I learned that mistakes are forgivable. I learned that there is a depth of grace out there that absorbs all sin, because a droplet of that grace lives in my little bay horse.

I learned that manes are still good for crying into when you’re a grownup.

I learned how to try, to give my best even when it’s not much on the day, to rise above fear and uncertainty and to try regardless because of how this horse always tries.

I learned about the depth of what horses do for us, about the scope of their kindness, about how much better I need to be for them. I learned to put aside everything and ride for the sake of the threefold cord, for the dance, for the joy of the fact that God made horses and he made us.

I learned to find a taste of eternity in the swing of a stride. And I liked it.

I learned that even on the worst days, horses still smell like heaven.

I learned that there are few greater gifts than a stalwart friend, even if that friend has four legs and a fluffy forelock.

I learned that I do have wings after all.

I learned that we can do anything.

I learned all these things from a 15.1 hand bay gelding who doesn’t rear or buck or bolt or kick or bite or get wildly wound up about life. I learned them from an easy horse.

And I love him.

Glory to the King.

By the way, ROW is now on Instagram! Find me on @ridingonwater for daily adorable Thunder pics and bits of philosophy.

This Week in Dressage: Halt Through Walk

So we all know that Thunder’s tests at the last show were both pretty good. The first one was somewhat tense, and I rode conservatively because I was waiting for a spook, so we had a modest 65.91%. The second one was actually kind of brilliant – the horse relaxed and I rode him forward and asked for the beauty I know he has inside him, and by the end of it the judge was ready to fold him up, stick him in her boot and take him home, awarding him 72.5%.

cannot stop looking at his lifted back

So obviously we had mostly 7s. The judge could have been a little generous, but she hammered Arwen for her mistakes, so I doubt it. We also had three big beautiful 8s – free walk and both canter-trot transitions. (Finally winning at a downward! Whoop!)

There were two movements that were consistently 6s and could be 7s, though:

  • Halt through walk
  • Stretchy trot circle
  • Lengthening (not in those tests, but I know it’s not our best).

    but working trot? #nailedit

    All three of them carry over into Novice (although the halt is from trot) so we’d best get to perfecting them.

    We started with the halt through walk. It begins in Prelim 1 and 2 as a walk starting at least 12m before the halt. By Prelim 3 it’s a proper halt through the walk (“between L and I”) and by Prelim 4 it’s an accurate one at X.

    Thunder’s is really not horrible. Comments are usually “steady and straight, but not square”. He is relaxed and will stand even on a loose rein for as long as I want. He halts the moment I ask, so the obedience is there. He maintains a rhythm and straightness. The legs just go everywhere in an unflattering heap. Not exactly the way to begin and end a 70% test, Thunder.

    blurry video screenshot picturing: not square

    We started to play with it last week and I particularly noticed that halt from trot was dead square almost every time, while halt through walk was a consistent mess. We did my favourite centrelines exercise to figure this out:

    • Down the long side, halt at B. Proceed to A and turn down centreline. Halt at X. At C turn left. Halt again at E. A down centerline. Halt at X. C turn right. Repeat. If the horse loses impulsion and starts to anticipate the halt or get behind the leg, replace some of the halts with little trot lengthenings. The halts on the long side help to keep the horse straight.

    We repeated this exercise a few times and his halts just stayed the same – obedient and steady and straight and not square.

    Back to my old friend Google. I eventually found out that square halts are linked to activity and impulsion, and that made perfect sense. Thunder is not exactly the world’s most forward-going beast and he was halting square from trot. So we played with an exercise we found on the Internet:

    • Going on the track, ask for four steps of a smaller trot at A, B, C and E. Focus on prompt transitions up and down. We did almost collected trot, but I wasn’t pushing for it, just keeping him in front of my leg in the smaller steps.
    • After a lap of this, do four lengthened steps at A, B, C and E. Thunder struggled with this, but it improved as we went on and he began to anticipate a little.
    • Then start randomly throwing in a halt through walk, combining the forward from the lengthenings and the half-halts from the shortenings. As long as I kept driving him in the walk, and kept as few walk steps as possible (3 or 4), we suddenly and magically had a square halt.
    activity and engagement and tail ftw

    After that we just did a bunch of halts on the centerline and while the exercise hadn’t taught him to halt square, it definitely taught me how to ride him correctly for the square halt. He really does have a brilliant walk (an 8 on the collectives) so I can get it as long as I hit the right buttons and really ask him to maintain the activity all the way down into halt.

    Mission accomplished. Glory to the King.