October’s 10 Questions

Thanks again to Viva Carlos for a quick post idea after a long day!

  1. How many pairs of breeches/jods do you own? Three – a beige one for outings, a white one for shows, and a black one for work (yes, working at a coloured horse stud in black jods doesn’t always work out so well).
  2. How many horses have you ridden? Hmm… a bunch. Probably 10 different horses with my first trainer, six of my own, maybe 15 random horses the Mutterer put me on when I used to shadow him everywhere, 10-12 horses I trial rode for people or competed on once or twice, probably another 10 at horse camps, and somewhere between 20 and 30 for my clients. So somewhere between 60 and 70, maybe a little more if we’re allowing for random horses I don’t remember (sorry random horses).
  3. How many trainers have you had? Three, not counting once-offs with dressage or cross-country trainers.
  4. How many barns have you ridden at? Not counting show/clinic venues, only three.
  5. What is the name of the horse you consider yourself to have the greatest bond with? Skye’s the Limit – with Thunder a very close second
  6. What is your favourite show name you’ve ever encountered? For Joy, name of the amazing stallion standing at Callaho Stud. Special Effects – a piebald stallion – comes in a pretty close second. Somethingroyal (dam of Secreteriat) is up there too.
  7. What do you consider your greatest weakness or flaw in riding? Lack of patience and confidence
  8. What do you consider to be your greatest strength? Perseverance
  9. Have you ever leased a horse? Yes – my gorgeous grey drama queen (king?)
  10. What is the name of the first horse you rode? No idea; in my defence, I was two. The first horse I remember riding (and falling off of) was a little bay pony named Prinsie (“little prince”).

Skye2

September’s 10 Questions from Viva Carlos

Wednesdays are supposed to be my chilled days, but somehow they always cook my brain. This time, thanks to L. from Viva Carlos, you guys don’t have to do another WW! Instead, you get another ten questions.

  1. Is there something you don’t like about your riding? Of course. My shoulder-hip-heel alignment is often a little off; I drop my inside shoulder on bends, causing the horse to do the same; I don’t always have full control over my hands in canter-trot transitions; I look down; I arch my back; I turn my pinkies out; my heels sometimes tuck up over a jump. None of these happen when I’m busy concentrating on them, but there’s always some detail that’s off. The day I stop learning to ride will be the day I quit.

Y U No - heels y u no stay down?

  1. Does your horse buck? Under saddle? Yes, all of them, from time to time. Skye, when she is feeling like it/fresh/mischievous/happy, tucks her head in and does a series of odd little leaps. (She can do handstands, but only when you’re seriously asking for it). Arwen bounds and kicks joyously during cross-country lessons or hillwork when she’s happy. Magic only bucks when he’s frustrated and only does it once, which is a very good thing because he has a tremendous buck. Thunder also probably thinks he bucks. It’s more like a little rippling bobble mid-canter when he’s annoyed with himself for not understanding something, and he looks so shocked afterwards that you just can’t be mad.
  2. Is your horse head shy? I wouldn’t call anyone head-shy, no. You can scratch their ears and do their bridle paths without problems. Arwen can be a dweeb about having her ears brushed, for reasons unknown, and Magic is a little jumpy about strangers moving their hands too quickly around his head. I strongly suspect that in his past, because of his exuberance, he dragged someone who was leading him one time too many and they took a whip to his face. He tends to lag back nervously when being led, which is totally out of character; normally he’s a forward kinda dude.
  3. Favorite barn chore to do? Hmm… probably grooming. They look so nice afterwards, especially in spring. Thunder also grooms me back with his lips, which is adorable.
  4. How many times do you ride a week? 6 days a week, somewhere between 30 and 35 sessions with 10-15 different horses. Although some of those sessions are lunging and groundwork, not riding.
  5. Who is your favorite pro rider? The Horse Mutterer; if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be taking lessons from him. Also Kirsten Winn, my cross-country instructor. On the more well-known circuit, Charlotte Dujardin and William Fox-Pitt.
  6. If one pro rider could train you for one day who would it be? Dujardin. If I had that position and that subtlety with aids, I bet I could learn pretty much everything else.
  7. Favorite Facial Marking? A diamond-shaped star like Arwen’s, or a narrow, elegant blaze like Magic’s.
  8. Leg Markings or No Leg Markings? Four big white stockings, but only to match a blaze or perhaps a star. A star with no leg markings looks nice, too.
  9. Ever broken anything falling off? Nothing except my ego.
I stayed on here, actually
I stayed on here, actually

In Which Baboons Beat Dressage

Bear with me. It’ll make sense eventually.

This Saturday I was at a biomechanics lecture given by a well-known biomechanics specialist and horsewoman from the USA, which was so interesting that I knew I had to squeeze my way into the riding clinic she held today. It was a bit of a mad scramble and my poor parents just about stood on their heads to get me there, but somehow we turned up at the Friesian stud where it was being held, Arwen in tow.

The first challenge was getting her into a stable to wait for our turn. The second challenge was keeping her in it. Luckily, the very kind stud owners allowed us to use a box usually belonging to a formidable stallion; it had a bunch of different bolts and a weaving grille across the top door, so she theoretically couldn’t jump out. I slammed the grille on her and gave her a bit of alfalfa courtesy of the owners, which she found so fascinating that she licked the floor for the last scraps and forgot to jump out.

Pretending to be a Friesian stallion
Pretending to be a Friesian stallion

She was still a bit fussy when I went to saddle her up, but the moment she had a bit in her mouth, it was like flicking a switch. Calm, focused dressage Arwen returned. She stood like a stone while I saddled her up and walked patiently beside me to the arena, chewing her bit and flicking her ears nice and calmly.

I got on and we started to walk around to warm up while the instructor finished her previous lesson. At first, Arwen was her usual self; head down, mind on the job, relaxed and forward. I walked some circles, some shoulder-ins, leg-yields, a bit of free walk, the usual stuff to get her brain working. But after a while she started to get tense for no reason I could find. She’d drift out on one corner and feel like bolting down one side; I tried a trot and instantly got a very panicky, rushed gait. Something was spooking her, but for the life of me I didn’t know what.

The instructor called us over and I rode up to find her smiling all over her face and exclaiming, “Wow! What a cutie!” Apart from not being able to pronounce Arwen’s breed name (sorry Americans, but “Nooitgedachter” apparently was not designed for your tongues), she was super friendly and helpful. We talked briefly about Arwen’s musculature and she felt my ideas were pretty accurate; she has an okay back and is generally fine, but the bottom muscle of her neck is too big and she needs more side muscles. Since we’re only just sorting out her frame, it makes sense.

Talking to the instructor
Talking to the instructor

We started to walk around the arena and Arwen was a raving lunatic. She leapt, she bolted, she reared, she bucked, she plunged and she did not give one brain cell to the job. I was frankly shocked. She’s never been like this away from home, ever. It’s just not her. I explained that this was totally new and the instructor suggested I do what I usually do to calm her down, and I tried; trotting figure eights, serpentines, lateral work, all the mind-on-the-job stuff. Nothing worked. Something was obviously bugging her.

The instructor got to work on helping us get calm without having to pull her around so much, mostly by a useful exercise I’ll definitely use in future – disengaging the haunches, by doing pretty much a bunch of turns on the forehand, making her cross her hindlegs. A horse with crossed hindlegs can’t buck or bolt or rear or do anything stupid. “It’s like putting her in neutral,” the instructor explained.

Oh, we're having a dressage lesson? I think I might be a giraffe today
Oh, we’re having a dressage lesson? I think I might be a giraffe today

Several minutes of this later, Arwen started to yield and relax, but was still pretty freaked out. She was staring into the distance when we finally got it: baboons. I hadn’t noticed them, but there was a whole troop of them running around next to the arena. Frankly I don’t much like baboons either and I can only imagine what the smell, sound and sight of them was doing to my poor horse.

Nooo! Baboon monsters!
Nooo! Baboon monsters!

Unfortunately, this meant that we spent the entire lesson just getting Arwen to switch her brain on and stop freaking out. It was kind of a let down for both of us since I was really hoping to get some help with Arwen’s on-the-forehand habit, and even the instructor seemed a bit disappointed that we couldn’t do anything more complicated than trot in a circle, but it was definitely a good experience. In the end we were doing walk serpentines on a loose rein all the way down to the end nearest the baboons and all the way back without breaking into a trot, so she calmed down eventually.

There we go, that's more like Arwen's game face
There we go, that’s more like Arwen’s game face

If the instructor comes back to South Africa I’ll definitely be going to a lesson, this time minus baboons. She was really good and gave me a bunch of awesome groundwork exercises I’m going to try with the horses. I asked her about the on-the-forehand problem and she suggested lots and lots and lots of transitions, so next time we hit the arena Arwie will have a lot to think about.

Relaxation at last
Some relaxation at last

President’s Park XC Schooling

Those readers who remember my post back in April where I decided to give eventing a go must by now have despaired of my ever trying it, since I’ve just been blogging about showjumping, Western and dressage ever since. Fortunately, I haven’t. I’ve been keeping an eye on the eventing world and thinking that it looks more fun every time I see it, and when the opportunity to have cross-country lessons with an esteemed trainer nearby came up, I latched onto it.

That was how my longsuffering family found themselves once again being dragged off to a horse event, and they had to do their own dragging, with my dad towing the box (perfectly, as usual), Arwen doing the jumping, and my mom and sister doing everything else.

I prepared Arwen by doing some more outrides than normal during the two weeks before the time, with plenty of steady cantering to build her fitness (which is the best it’s ever been). On Saturday, we also popped over a few logs and went up and down some banks (banks down = SCARIEST EVER). She was nervous, but behaved fine and jumped everything I pointed her at, so I was feeling cautiously optimistic about our lesson. It was a 60cm lesson, which is the highest she’s jumped at outings, so I wasn’t quite sure – especially given her running out at our previous outing.

No more belly!
No more belly!

To add to my trepidation, Arwen didn’t load very well. She went up to the foot of the ramp and then politely declined to go any further. She didn’t rear or panic, just refused to go forward. The problem was solved when my sister stepped up behind her and clicked her tongue and Arwen marched right on. Still, I’d like her to self-load, so it’s something to work on. And last time she walked on with nobody behind her.

By the way, Arwen’s pet hate? Back travelling boots. She spends the first thirty seconds of wearing them making a spirited attempt to kick them off. Once she realises she can’t, she ignores their existence.

Plaited tail to have a red ribbon put in. Think I'm finally getting the hang of it
Plaited tail to have a red ribbon put in. Think I’m finally getting the hang of it

She travelled moderately well, with little shivering, but she was somewhat sweaty when I unloaded her at President’s Park (once we eventually found it). Several other horses were nearby getting ready, which meant that she was settled from the word go and stood by the box without so much as a whinny, although she was quite lively and alternated between trying to drag me around and eating. I wasn’t too worried, though; she looked excited, not anxious.

We gave her about ten minutes to chill while we found out where my instructor was and what was happening before I saddled her up, popped on her fluffy boots (praying that the water wouldn’t damage them) and set off. She walked and trotted obediently, on the bit, light in my hand and forward but not stupid. She was looking at everything, but most of her attention was on me. The environment didn’t seem to phase her in the least; she had one spook at a squirrel hole and another at the most gigantic and terrifying obstacle I have ever seen (a ditch with at least a 1.30m rail over it), for which I cannot blame her. She warmed up well in a quiet corner of the park and I cantered a few circles just to get the worst of the bucks out before everyone was watching. As usual, she threw me a buck or two, but I just ignored it as high spirits and she cut it out once she had the tickle out of her feet.

All kitted out for the trip
All kitted out for the trip

Then our lesson began and I followed the rest of my small group (two calm grey school horses, a pretty black horse and a green bay mare) and our instructor up to a showjumping arena to warm up. And suddenly I was riding calm, completely obedient dressage Arwen. We rode in a large circle around our instructor at a walk, trot, canter and gallop and even though she’s not used to riding in a group at all, Arwen’s focus was 100% on me.

I was a little wary when our instructor told us to go into a forward seat and lengthen the canter (green horse, new place, and galloping are seldom a good combination) but I had no reason to worry. Arwen lengthened her stride without changing one beat of rhythm or bend and drifted around on the circle at a good clip with no suggestion of misbehaving. I’ll admit it, I was very proud. We were asked to trot again and I sat down and got the trot immediately. She completely ignored the other horses, even though some were having a buck or two out of excitement.

Cantering in the warmup
Cantering in the warmup

Then the fun began. We set off all in a row, with one of the experienced greys leading, to jump a little log. I love logs; I’ve been jumping them on outrides since I was eleven, usually bareback and with limited control, so they don’t worry me too much. I was a bit worried that Arwen would refuse because it wasn’t a tiny log (over 50cm) but she followed the grey in front of us and popped over with no worries at all, although she did have a little buck afterwards. We repeated this in the group and then by ourselves, and the last time she didn’t buck at all.

Next, we were asked to jump a scary-looking upright made of a bunch of logs set at an angle. I’d never jumped anything like it before, and obviously neither had Arwen; it was also quite big – at the upper limit of our 60cm lesson. Once again, I barely had to kick her on. She followed the grey horse and popped over perfectly.

Loose reins! :D
Loose reins! 😀

At this point I was starting to relax and realise that she wasn’t going to run out and by the time we’d jumped another couple of uprights I was starting to really enjoy myself. So was Arwen. I stopped worrying about running out; she flung herself with great enthusiasm at everything we jumped, and bucked (sometimes quite spectacularly) after most of the obstacles. This worried me a little and I asked our instructor why she was doing it; I suspected excitement, but the last thing I wanted was to give her a bad experience at her first cross-country schooling. And maybe she had back pain or something?

The instructor laughed. “She’s just having fun. If she had a sore back, she wouldn’t be making such a nice jump.” She also complimented Arwen, and seemed impressed with her jumping ability and enthusiasm.

I nearly popped with pride as we proceeded to jump many more logs (some very solid and ominous-looking), some more uprights, a log with rocks under it, a small sunken road, and a brush fence (brush fences are epic!). Arwen charged at everything with her ears up. She jumped pretty much in rhythm all of the time, never hesitated and never overjumped, although she was very careful with her knees, which I loved. She didn’t touch a single fence, either. Although the bucking did scare me once (I had a nice faceplant into her mane) I kept my stirrups and eventually realised that she wasn’t bucking maliciously, so I was staying on just fine. And after that we totally enjoyed ourselves.

Happy Arwen face
Happy Arwen face

We ended the lesson by going to play in the water complex. Before the lesson I had tried to get Arwen in and she had not been concentrating at all and refused, so I decided to have that battle later. We all approached the water in a row with the experienced grey leading again, but the green mare balked in front of us, hunched her back and reversed. Arwen pricked her ears sharply and humped her back, too, which is the Arwen version of saying “Bring it!” so I quickly extricated her from the situation and decided to try the water by ourselves. It was very shallow and clear with a firm bottom. Arwen put her nose down, sniffed it, stepped closer to sniff it again, and basically took herself in.

Once she’d gone in once, she was perfect. She liked the water, pawing it and threatening to roll. It took a few times trotting through it behind the experienced grey to get her to keep her rhythm and impulsion in the water, but she cottoned on quickly.

Next, we tried to trot through the water and then jump out over a log. Arwen ran out once, possibly because I was looking at the water and not the jump, and stopped the second time because she just didn’t have enough impulsion, but the third time I looked up and kicked on and she jumped perfectly. To round it off, we practiced trotting up a bank, then down it and into the water, which she did with no hesitation.

So fun
So fun

I was almost dismayed when the lesson was over and Arwen was still bucking enthusiastically after the jumps, just to tell us how much she was loving it and how she was not tired in the least. We could have kept going for another hour, we were having so much fun.

It’s always fun when your horse is enjoying itself. Even if it gets too fiery, pulls or bucks, it’s not as much of a problem as it would be if the horse was angry or reluctant. There are few things better than riding a good horse who’s having fun over awesome obstacles at speed, and that’s why I am now completely hooked on cross-country.

We do need to work on loading and travelling. None of her issues surrounding it are major, it’s just that she needs somebody behind her to get on and sweats while she’s travelling. She doesn’t kick the sides of the box or try to escape, though.

In the box
In the box

The other issue is the bucking after the jumping. I’d rather she bucked than bolted or refused to jump, but it is a bit of a pain and makes it hard to have the courage to sit forward and release properly over a jump. Over that height, and with a horse who picks her legs up nicely, it’s not an issue but it will be an issue if we decide to go any bigger than 60cm.

I think her problems will resolve themselves with more outings, though. For now, I just thank the Lord for our absolutely awesome day. My horse and I both enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and only He could have made a world where a huge animal and a small person could charge across country together, communicating in silence, and loving it.

5 Pet Peeves: Riding Schools

Shows, camps and lessons have taken me to a number of different riding schools, and there are definitely good ones, bad ones, and ugly ones. A shocking number of them are bad, considering that the kids enrolling in them are the future of horse sport; but thankfully there are a lot of good ones out there.

I’ve been blessed to have private lessons on my own horses for the past six years, having only learnt the basics during two years in a riding school, but I’ve spent some time teaching in one. And so without further ado, my five least favourite things that some riding schools do – along with alternatives, utilised by the better schools.

In jodhs for a show
In jodhs for a show

1. Jodhpurs compulsory. Horse riding has a reputation for being expensive, and certainly the upkeep of a horse could feed a small family, but just taking lessons needn’t come at an exorbitant price. However, any parent who has to fork out at least $10 a lesson once or twice a week, and has probably already paid in excess of $50 for a riding helmet (compulsory by law, and rightly so), is going to shy back at having to spend even more cash on the various trappings of riding gear. I spend three or four hours in the saddle every day, and I can successfully conclude that jeans are much more comfortable than jodhpurs. Jodhs are more expensive and for touch-sensitive kids, unbearably uncomfortable; or for the occasional well-rounded figure, tight jodhs can be embarrassing enough to turn them off horse riding. There’s also boots, chaps, and gloves; gloves are only necessary in extreme cold weather or on specific horses with bad pulling habits, in which case the horse should be corrected, not the rider’s attire; and boots and chaps are undoubtedly safer and more comfortable, but you can pay about $100 for a decent pair. Alternative: Helmets should invariably be worn by riders of any skill level, but boots, chaps, gloves and jodhs shouldn’t be compulsory. If they are, it’s probably a bid to look smart on the school manager’s part. Any closed shoe with a low heel, three-point helmet and pair of long pants complete a safe riding outfit.

Jumping in a standing martingale for training purposes
Jumping in a standing martingale for training purposes

2. Running martingales on all the horses, no matter what their training or way of going. Why, I hear you ask, make all the horses wear this expensive, annoyingly difficult to clean and put on, and occasionally even harmful piece of tack? Because the neck strap element of the martingale is a handy thing for unbalanced riders to cling to. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against martingales, nor against the desire to prevent a beginner from balancing himself on his horse’s mouth via the reins. Martingales have an excellent role to play in the schooling of some horses. However, that relaxed old schoolie who goes in a good frame all the time has no business wearing a martingale. Riders should learn to balance with their bodies, not their hands – whether that’s on the reins or neck strap/martingale. The trouble with this technique is that the martingale becomes a sort of security blanket. Should anything go wrong, the rider will automatically grab onto the martingale, effectively rendering his hands useless for rein aids. Not a disaster in the case of a rearing horse or merely a panicky rider, but should a horse bolt with him and he just clings onto the martingale, it can end in disaster. Alternative: Fit the horse out with the minimal tack necessary to make him safe and easy to ride, and teach the rider to balance without holding on with his hands. Should he need something to hang onto, such as when introducing canter work or jumping, let him hold the mane. It won’t do the horse any damage, and it leaves the rider at least some control over the reins.

At a gymkhana
At a gymkhana

3. The typical “bratty school pony”. Most riding schools have one; many are composed entirely out of whole groups of these uncooperative equines. To my mind, the beginning rider should learn to ride on a true schoolmaster. Learning to ride is hard enough without the horse making it any harder; and dare I even suggest that the typical schoolie should be responsive enough to comply to even the timid little aids of a beginner? Instead, most schoolies are notorious for second-rate conformation, bad schooling and worse manners. Many are a collection of bad habits, from bolting to napping to leaning on the reins. No horse is perfect and even the finest old schoolmaster is going to have issues, but schoolies should be well-trained. Alternative: Have fewer schoolies with better training. They may well work harder, but with the right feeding and management, they’ll be fine. Riding school horses should have regular training sessions with an experienced rider/trainer – if possible the instructor.

Jumping Arwen armed with a dressage whip
Jumping Arwen armed with a dressage whip

4. Equipping all riders, on all horses, with riding crops. This is much the same as the martingale scenario. I have no problem with whips; I never ride Arwen without one, because she needs it. I even gave my students a whip when they rode her. Some horses just need it, especially with really tiny tots who can’t squeeze the horse’s sides properly because their legs aren’t long or strong enough. However, whips should not be a permanent feature for every single horse and rider. Legs are there for a reason; if the horse is properly trained and the rider knows what to do, there is absolutely no need for a whip. Alternative: Have schoolies properly trained and teach riders to use their legs. Also try to put small kids on small ponies if possible.

Teaching on my two giant colleagues from the riding school
Teaching on my two giant colleagues from the riding school

5. The great hypocrite instructor. We’ve all met some of them. They are very quick to assess and criticize riding, and generally very vocal in lessons; also, they would rather be seen dead than seen without their jodhs and boots. However, you hardly ever see them actually riding – and in actual fact, they don’t ride very well. A good instructor should be someone that prompts young riders to whisper, “One day I want to ride just like him.” Alternative: If you can’t do it, much less understand it, don’t teach it. Learn to do it, understand it, and then teach it, and teach it with all your heart. Teaching someone is a mighty privilege. Seize it with both hands and don’t let it go.

Riding schools are the foundation of our sport. This is where people come to learn about the wonder that is horse riding, and a good school – or shall I say, a good teacher – can teach more than just riding. They can teach life lessons, touch hearts, inspire souls and raise hopes. We as experience horsepeople owe it to the elementary and aspiring riders out there to teach them well. They are the future of horseback riding, and without them, it would all die out.

Do you agree? Disagree? What are your pet peeves about riding schools? What have you seen riding schools do well?