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.

And Jesus Was Enough

I always love to watch the Mutterer at work, usually taking notes in my head so that I can try whatever he’s doing when I get home. But not today. Today’s small miracle is still so far beyond my capabilities that all I do is lend a hand and watch in wonder: it’s going to be a long time before I try this by myself.

I hold the little mare’s head while the Mutterer runs a soft rope around her neck, tying it so that it can’t slip tight, then gently slips a loop around each hind pastern. The little mare trembles, rolling her eyes so that I can see the whites, her ears constantly moving. She’s supposed to be trained, but I don’t want to know what her “trainer” did to her. Beat her most likely, maybe twisted her ears, yelled in her delicate little face. She has a fear about her that goes way beyond the ordinary nervousness of an unhandled horse. Even the lightest and kindest touch makes her flinch. I can see it now as I try to stroke her neck; the big muscles jump under my hand, too scared to hold still, too scared to flee. Eventually, I give up. She’s beyond human comfort now.

So I think, anyway, but the Mutterer has a plan. “Stick on the same side as me and hang onto her head.”

“Okay,” I say doubtfully. He’s usually right, so I do as I’m told.

The Mutterer has the ends of the rope around the mare’s legs in his hands. “Okay, girly,” he says to the mare, who trembles. “Easy now.” Then he pulls.

The ropes spring tight around the mare’s hindlegs, pulling them underneath her. She fights, throwing her head against the halter, but off balance she can’t yank even my weight around. Scrabbling at the grass with her forelegs, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, she panics. But the Mutterer leans calmly on the ropes and her hindlegs fold up underneath her. She sits down on the deep grass and stares at us, gasping. The Mutterer, still as calm as a monolith (the mare and I are equally spooked), leans against her shoulder and she eases slowly down onto her side.

“Good girl.” He puts a hand on her neck, but she’s not struggling. She quivers slightly, breath racing. He rubs her neck and shoulders and face and flanks, speaking to her slowly, explaining to me as I sit in the grass and stare. Because as the Mutterer explains, the mare relaxes. Her wide eyes soften. Her breathing slows down. The Mutterer loosens the ropes around her legs, but she doesn’t kick out. She is at her most vulnerable, lying on her side with – in her mind – her most powerful and violent enemy towering over her, but she’s relaxing.

The Mutterer hears my question before I ask it. “Because we didn’t hurt her once in this whole process,” he says. The mare gives a long sigh. “We use soft, thick lunging lines that don’t burn her, and we do it in the open where she can’t hurt herself, on thick grass so that even if she falls it won’t hurt.”

I nod. The mare went down, but she went down slowly, without being able to fight hard enough to pull any muscles.

Then, the mare licks and chews, an ultimate sign of equine submission and relaxation. Now the Mutterer pats her, softly at first, then hard enough to make the thudding noise most horses enjoy. And the mare doesn’t flinch. She lies still and lets herself feel a human’s love for the first time.

I’m still a little incredulous about the whole process right up until the moment when the Mutterer takes off the ropes and the mare gets slowly to her feet. Without a backward glance, he walks away. And without a second thought, without a halter on, in an open paddock, in the deep soft grass, away from her equine herdmates, the mare follows him.

It made sense when he explained it. The mare was terrified. She understood only two things about men: that they would unfailingly hurt her, and that if she fought or fled for her life she might avoid the pain. To gain her trust, we had to reverse both those principles. She had to believe that men were stronger than her. And she had to believe that they would never do her harm.

Pulling her down did just that. She was put into her most vulnerable position, shown that she could fight as she would but humans would always be stronger. (If it were not so, horses would still be wild; we have a God-given dominion over them. The bad part is that so many of us are tyrants and dictators instead of good rulers). But even at her most vulnerable, even at her most afraid, there was no pain. The humans didn’t hurt her or threaten her. In her darkest moment, there was just a gentle touch and a quiet voice. And when the force was taken away – when the ropes were removed – the little mare did what all horses do. She chose her leader, and she chose the leader that had proven his strength and his good intentions. Then she followed him.

And it probably saved the little mare’s life. The few minutes of fear and worry, now eclipsed by the relaxation and submission that flooded every line of her features, had been worth it. The mare had been a worthless, wild creature, doomed to the dark future of every useless and dangerous horse. But now, she had a second chance.

I was silent for a long time afterwards, because I know the feeling. Because I, too, have been that horse lying on the grass and gasping in terror. My legs tied up. A weight on my neck. Unable to fight back, unable to do anything to prevent my worst fear from coming true. It was a dark hour, and I was most afraid. I could not understand why I was suddenly so helpless or why the strange, higher being would force me so, anymore than the little mare could understand why the man had pulled her down.

But in that darkness, in that fear, in that helplessness, there was no pain from the One Who had put me there. Just a gentle touch and a quiet voice: “Be still and know that I am God.” And I knew He was God, and I knew He was all-powerful, almighty and all-knowing, that He could crush me like a bug where I lay. And I knew, more overwhelmingly than I have ever known, that He loved me.

You see, in that moment, it felt as though I had nothing. My herdmates felt far away and unable to save me. My own strength had failed me entirely. All I had was the loving touch of Jesus as He held me, and His soft voice as He stilled the storm inside. I had nothing but Him, and He was enough.

Horses and people have the same clockwork inside. Because when He let me rise again and gave me my freedom, when I saw the open field and the rest of the world waiting, I looked up and I saw Him. He Who was stronger than me, Who loved me. So I did what all humans do: I chose my Leader. And I followed Him.

And I am now no longer a worthless, wild creature. I am no longer doomed to a dark future. I have been given a second chance.

I took it.

So Far, So Good

The Horde and I are all getting rather bored and irritated with walking.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy groundwork; I like watching them think and learning about the differences in how each horse’s brain works, and it is a great opportunity to learn more about each individual horse’s body language. For example, when Baby Thun’s lips twitch, he’s usually relaxing and on the brink of licking and chewing. But when Magic’s lips twitch, he’s annoyed and will either explode or figure it out in the next few seconds.

Still, there is more to a trained adult horse’s life than walking around on the end of a lead, and they’re starting to get antsy and hyper. Especially Magic, of course; working with him is rather interesting because his agile mind seizes any problem and solves it with gusto just for something to do, but allow him to trot two steps and his brain evaporates into a leaping, bucking frenzy because he is just SO HAPPY TO MOOOOOOOOOVE. Even Thunder and Arwen, normally the quieter types, are starting to want to drag me around on the lead rein and everyone regularly charges around in their pastures like a bunch of total idiots.

I am still putting their downtime to good use by refining everyone’s groundwork. Magic has so far been a resounding success; one more session with the pressure halter later and he now ties up without any brain evaporations. We also talked about plastic bags, which he was completely fine with to my surprise until he got bored and started randomly spooking at them just for something to do. Arwen and I went for a slow little hack, practicing long steady stretches of shoulder-in, some collected trot, and tight little leg-yields. She was so hot it was like riding a stick of dynamite, but it did make her really use her bottom and as a result her collected work was superb.

Thun and I can work marginally harder as he is in the third week following his shot, so we can add in a little bit of lope and some more jog. We had a lesson with the Mutterer, during which I borrowed a pair of his awesome Western rowelled spurs. Firstly, they make you sound cool when you walk (come on, they do, admit it) and secondly, they seemed to make a lot of sense to Baby Thun. At one point he was reining back at speed, nose on the vertical, a loop in the reins, just responding to my dragging the spurs gently down his ribs. Apparently the spinning rowel makes more sense to him than just my dressage spur or boot heel. We also did a few rollbacks, during which I appreciated Thunder’s awesome butt; he has the strength to leap into a gallop from a dead halt with one powerful lunge. He slid a little into one stop, but because of our (nonexistent) arena surface, proper sliding isn’t an option right now.

And today it was everyone-gets-into-the-horsebox day. I was really hoping to get Magic walking right up next to me, since last time I managed to load him alone with the bum rope and walking right on is the next step. He refused to load at first, looking worried but not exploding, so I put the bum rope on and we had to talk about that for a while. He obviously hates the sensation of the rope around his haunches and cow-kicked a few times before he gave up and stepped forward. I released the pressure, and he resigned himself to his fate and got on. Once we had loaded with the rope once or twice he started to take it as a game and then I knew he was going to be fine. Indeed he was; in the end he was walking on, standing still, and walking calmly off like an old hand, although I have to hold my hand up beside his nose as he unloads in case he tries to leap off the ramp. It would be such a typical Magic thing to do.

Skye loaded without incident as usual, and Thunder did not improve on his previous attempt at loading. Considering the previous attempt was absolutely foot perfect, I don’t mind. The dear daft animal loves to load because it involves being near his person and the prospect of carrots.

Arwen disappointed me slightly by refusing to load at first, then, with the bum rope, loading and flying back. I honestly thought we’d solved that one. I was a bit firmer with the rope and more or less dragged her on, through and out of the front ramp once, and after that she was back to her usual easy-loading self. Arwen is a horrible traveller, so I think these monthly loading sessions without going anywhere are essential to keep her loading well. She can hardly be blamed for not wanting to load if she travels each time she loads, considering how deeply she hates travelling. Because she has such separation anxiety, I do suspect that the worst thing about travelling for her is just being alone. Since I’m hoping to take her and Magic to shows together in the coming year, I suppose we’ll find out. Maybe Skye can play travelling companion to her herdbound grey friend.

 

Discussing Pressure

Since Magic just got his second horse sickness shot on Saturday, and the dentist is only coming next week so I can’t put a bit in his mouth, and our brief attempt at bitless went very well right up until the part where we cantered with him pretending to be a terrified giraffe and me clinging on grimly until it was over… I put him in a pressure halter and decided that it was time for Mr. Quirkypants to face his biggest demon.

Tying up.

Honestly, there’s a reason why I have had him for two years and never tried to fix this before. Frankly, it’s terrifying to see your horse zoom backwards at a million miles an hour and hit the end of the lead with enough force, you feel, to break his neck. To make it worse, this is Magic we’re talking about. Most other horses would fight the pressure for a few minutes and then give up and try something else. Magic would fight until something broke; either the halter or his neck. Evidently, just attaching him to a sturdy pole and waiting for him to realise that nothing was going to eat him was not going to be an awesome idea.

First we went off into the arena and talked about pressure, which is what tying up is all about. Horse that always yields to pressure = horse that ties up. That is the beauty of tying up; it’s instant pressure and release. Magic understand pressure a lot better than he did; when I started with him, “pressure” meant “MAJOR FREAK OUT OH MAH WORD IT’S THE APOCALYPSE RUN FOR YOUR LIVES”. Now, he’s usually accepted that “pressure” means “yield”. Except when I tie him up. Then he’s fine until he turns his head to shoo a fly, realises he’s tied up, and has one of his brain evaporations.

I put a helmet on and did some of the exercises that an American dressage trainer (the same one, incidentally, who taught me to one-rein stop for those moments when “the cliff is here and the canyon is here and no seat aids are gonna stahp* ‘um”) had taught me back in August in between Arwen shying at baboons. First I had him lower his head, then rubbed his poll a bit until he was relaxed, then did some yielding of the hindquarters/disengaging the haunches/turn on the forehand/as you like it, a bit of yielding the shoulders, and backing up in a straight line. Then, my personal favourite. Backing him up one step, taking him forward one step. Eventually he gets so used to backing up with one diagonal that he steps forward with the diagonal legs simultaneously

instead of the normal walk rhythm and you can rock him back and forth with two of his legs never moving at all. With a nerd like Magic, I soon had him rocking his body back and forth at a touch on the lead without moving any legs. I get such a kick out of that one.

We rounded off by making his brain work a bit with backing up in a circle (“Dude,” said Magic, “you keep saying ‘FORWARD’ when we’re working, what’s the big idea with this backing up thing?!”) and then I girded up my loins and took him to the round pen. I had, typically, forgotten to bring a lunging line, so I improvised with a couple of long leads tied together. I had him stand a couple of steps away from the fence, ran the makeshift long line around the horizontal pole just once, held the end, stood at some distance and put pressure on him.

Magic no likey
Magic no likey

Instantly, his head shot up, eyes snapped wide and ears laid back. I soothed him with my voice a bit, trying to prevent a brain evaporation, and kept the pressure steady and constant. Step by step, with a little encouragement from me (i. e., waving my arms and smooching at him until he stepped forward and was rewarded by a second’s release), he walked/staggered over to the pole and I let the pressure off him and gave him a rub. We repeated this until at the first touch of pressure, he went straight up to the fence and got a pat. I tweaked my position, standing beside the fence instead of off to one side; I would of course like him to tie up alone but if he needs his little human comfort zone nearby at first I won’t begrudge him that.

Then I made him back up and let him hit the end of the rope suddenly enough to spook him, but not to hurt. Cue instant brain evaporation. He shot back, I let the rope run out (keeping the pressure constant), and after a few flying steps backwards a little light bulb went on over his head and he walked straight up to the pole, getting lavish praise for this. He really is a smart guy when his brain is present.

We repeated this a couple of times and then I called it a day. All in all, it could have been a lot scarier, and I think we made good progress. Maybe this year we will meet some goals, after all.

*She was from Montana. I was from Gauteng. I bet I sounded just as odd to her as she did to me.

2015: The Year Ahead

Last year was long, interesting, busy, and a most tremendous learning curve. I made my fair share of mistakes and had a few nasty little failures, but I find myself better, stronger, and nearer to God than when it began, so I shall file it firmly under “Success”.

The horses also did quite awesomely this year, so without further ado, the 2014 goals wrap-up and the setting of our goals for 2015.

Skye’s the Limit. In 2014 I wrote: “Skye’s goals: Stay healthy; get fit; get a Western saddle.” A Western saddle we sure have, but arthritis has ended any prospect of getting fit last year or this one, or possibly for many years to come. She is, however, very healthy and happy as long as we keep up our bi-weekly walking hacks.

Currently she is still quite happy to carry me around on her back, but I’ve also found that having Exavior to babysit has given her a new lease on life. Once I’m breeding horses, I think her job will be the weanling mommy.

Skye’s goals: Prevent the progression of her arthritis, stay healthy and happy, attempt not to get too fat. Also learn to be ponied off another horse.

Skye1

Thunderbird. His 2014 goals: This year, I’d like to spend some time working on Thunder’s physical strength, since he is old enough to handle heavier work now. Lungeing in side reins to build his loin muscles in balance, particularly in canter, will help. I would like him to lope slowly and on the correct lead (using simple lead changes for now), understand the basics of neck-reining at all three gaits, learn to stand squarely, and turn on the haunches by the end of the year. Outrides should also still be done at least once a week; I would like him to go out consistently without bolting, alone and in company, by the end of the year.

Once again, Baby Thun has made a spectacular success of his goals – for the second year running (there should be some kind of award for that).

Physical strength: Well, check. He put on a massive growth spurt at the beginning of the year and looked like a clothes hanger, but for the past few months he has bulked out at an alarming rate. Moving him to a kikuyu pasture also helped. He now looks like a rather nice Welsh cob; he has a nice round butt, a fairly good neck and his loins have filled out so that back flows smoothly into bottom. He looks like a grownup horse now.

Schooling: Check, check, check. His lope is nothing to write home about but he doesn’t tear around like a baby anymore, he goes on the right lead, he neck-reins at all three gaits, stands squarely and turns on the haunches. He also turns on the forehand, sidepasses at a walk and jog, reins back well and kind of sliding stops. Well, kind of.

Outrides: Check. He’s fine both alone and in company and does not, as a rule, bolt except when severely frightened, which is true for most horses. He can still be a bit on the spooky side but that will just take time to go away.

2015 will be Thun’s third year under saddle and it’s time for him to learn some more advanced things, as a firm foundation has been well laid.

Physical: Now that we have muscle, we can add some fitness. Long-distance riding will do the trick.

On the ground: We do need to work on his ability to give you personal space. He isn’t bad about it until he forgets and stands on top of you like an idiot, but he needs to be sharply reminded every time he does that. He also needs a bath or two because he can be a bit jumpy about the hosepipe.

Schooling: Start to work towards real reining movements. Improve on the spins, introduce flying changes, continue to practice sliding stops and rein backs, introduce rollbacks.

Outrides: He now has good manners on a hack, and the only thing to solve his spookiness is going to be many, many trail miles. Ride out as much as possible for as long distances as possible, show him new things and challenge him until he gets more comfortable on hacks.

To conclude: Fix the personal space thing and the hosepipe thing; introduce flying changes and rollbacks; improve on sliding stops, spins and rein backs; log as many trail miles as possible.

Thunder3

Arwen Evenstar. In 2014: I would like to get her on the show circuit more regularly and to raise the bar slightly to be jumping around 80cm competitively by the end of the year. I would also like to enter her in a few dressage shows and see how she does, starting with the Preliminary tests, they don’t look that hard. At home, she can learn to jump 1.10m consistently. Her canter, whilst good, needs some work; she must learn flying changes. I want her to improve her frame so that she is going in a good outline with her nose in by the end of the year. She must also learn to do all her lateral movements, which she does well in a walk, in trot (starting with shoulder-in and then travers and half-pass). She must also be able to extend and collect her trot.

Arwen did not do badly at all. Showing was a definite win (har, har, har), having attended seven outings. Though only two of these were shows, she gave no major issues at any of them barring three stops she had when I entered her in a jumping round that was rather too big at the time. Dressage with a success as we won our Prelim test with over 60%. Jumping I would also call a success; she is okay over 1.10m although I have to baby her somewhat, and comfortable at 1.00m. Given that 1.10m is very close to her physical limit, I’m happy to be a little lenient about it. Her canter has improved, but flying changes are unfortunately nonexistent. Her frame is very close to being where I want it; she keeps it at all three gaits but can lose it occasionally in transitions. Her lateral movements are up to scratch and we are developing a nice medium trot. I would call her competitive at Novice, schooling Elementary; I was hoping to school Elementary Medium, and we would have, but for the changes.

Long-term, I don’t ever see myself showing Arwen in eventing at anything bigger than 90-95cm. She can jump 1.10m if she has to (well, she can jump 1.40m if she feels like it, albeit riderless), but I see no point in forcing her right to the limit of her ability. She is also rather too small to be competitive at 1.00m or bigger because she just doesn’t have the big stride to cover ground fast enough. I’m completely cool with that, so all I want her to do with her life is go to EV90 with me, go as far in dressage as she can (she still has quite a long way before she reaches her limit there; I think she could go Medium or even Advanced with many years of training), do a spot of showing and then become a school pony in a million.

For this year, though:

Physical: I would like to see a bit more muscling at the base of her neck. Currently, she is also extremely fat, having had two weeks off, so we need to get fit. Because she is so little she will need to be extraordinarily fit to be competitive, so fitness is a huge priority.

On the ground: Nada. She loads, she clips, she ties up, she does anything I want. She doesn’t like having her legs clipped but we could do it if we drugged her (and if we wanted to).

Schooling: Develop collected trot, extended walk, medium trot and canter. Raise the forehand into an uphill balance. Improve leg-yield and shoulder-in. Introduce flying changes. In other words, be competitive at Elementary and schooling Elementary Medium by the end of the year.

Jumping: Stay consistent at 1.00m at home. Introduce more technically difficult and visually daunting obstacles. Work on her water complex problem.

Competitions: Show in at least one graded EV70 event.

To conclude: Get her fit; build her neck; school Elementary Medium; introduce scary jumps; fix the water problem; show graded in EV70.

Arwen1

Magical Flight. In 2014: To wrap it up, this year Magic must go to his first shows, and learn to make calm transitions between gaits, leg-yield in walk, start flying changes, and build correct muscle tone. I also want him jumping 1.10m.

Magic and I had such a wonderful, turbulent year during which we both learned so much about each other that goals seem pitiful things compared to how far we came. That’s not to say that we met them all. Oh, no. I wanted him solid at 1.10m by the end of the year and we are rather tremulous at 80cm. But his flatwork improved by miles. His transitions are good, his leg-yield in walk is good, and his muscle tone is awesome. He could do with some more neck, but I’m not too fussed about it. Flying changes aren’t a thing, sadly, but his first show was a resounding success.

Physical: Time to drill fitness into this monster. He has the muscles he needs for jumping and eventing, but he wouldn’t know hillwork if you hit him with it. Of course, first we need to fix the outride problem, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I would like him to be fit enough to jump 80-90cm courses easily by the end of the year.

On the ground: Tying up is a major issue of his, so work can begin on that. He also needs to load properly with only one person. Clipping is a nightmare we don’t have to deal with this year.

Schooling: Have his teeth done, then school him so that he is soft and correct in his beloved French link snaffle. Then introduce Novice work so that he is solid at Novice by the end of the year. He will need to learn trot leg-yields and trot and canter lengthenings, and improve on his simple changes until they become second nature. Introduce counter canter. Also, work on hacking out without trying to kill anyone, even if we can just potter around the block in a walk without dying by the end of the year.

Jumping: One word: Confidence. Be confident at 80cm even if that’s the highest we go this year. Build confidence over different types of jumps, improve on his technique, and learn to relax on him over fences.

Competition: For the first half of 2015 continue to do monthly training shows in dressage and jumping, taking it easy on the height. As soon as he is fine at 70cm at training shows, go graded in showjumping. Eventing can wait until outrides happen.

To conclude: Improve fitness, tie up, load, be competitive at Novice, survive a hack, be confident at 80cm, and go graded at 70cm showjumping once he is ready for it.

Magic5

Exavior. Last of all, my dearly beloved big chestnut colt. He had no goals in 2014 seeing as he was not mine and there was no possibility that he ever would become mine; and yet here he is, by the grace of God, my first warmblood. If only he’ll grow up sound… Thy will be done, my King.

Exavior turns two at the end of the year and his backing, depending on his legs, will commence either at the end of 2015 or in 2016. This is the year in which he learns to be an absolutely impeccable equine good citizen and to deal with everything that life among mankind may throw at him. He already knows what a halter is, respects personal space, ties up, stands perfectly still to be groomed and have his feet cleaned, allows himself to be blanketed, and stands more or less still for the Mutterer to do his hooves. Now for more advanced citizenship.

  • Advanced halter training: leading on a slack rope, trotting up in hand, standing squarely, understanding of pressure and release (yielding the shoulder, yielding the hindquarters)
  • Leading over, through and under scary things and away from his group
  • Bathing
  • Desensitisation to noise and sight: first a numnah, then plastic bags
  • Loading preparation: leading in a narrow passage, under a roof and over a noisy surface
  • Loading. This one will be difficult, but if he will load with the help of two people and/or a lunge rein by the year’s end, I’ll be satisfied.
  • Injections; use a trick I learned with a syringe, a rubber band and a treat
  • Be gelded
  • Lowering of the head when requested. This is usually not on the to-do list, but he is going to be 17hh and I’m never going to be over 5′ 4″, so I want him to put his nose on the floor when I ask for it
  • Basic lunging with a halter and long line only
  • Wearing a roller
  • Lunging over poles
  • Wearing boots
  • Clipping. I don’t intend to give him a full clip, but we can lay down the foundation by having him stand still while the clippers are rested gently on his body

Exavior1

Yours truly. I must get into the habit of riding with a proper upper body: eyes looking between the horse’s ears with chin up, hands a fist’s breadth above and in front of the pommel, thumbs turned up, elbows relaxed by my sides with upper arms hanging almost straight. I must learn not to balance on my hands, but to push them forward and allow the horse to stretch. Oh, and I can stop doing that funky poke-one-toe-out thing. And I must ride right up to every jump.. In Western: Ha! I don’t even know what a proper Western seat looks like. Fix this. Stop leaning forward and gripping with the knees in lope and halt from lope.

Jumping was a tremendous success. Well, kind of. I used to have super fixed, stiff hands, and now I have this enormous release where my fists end up almost between the ears. I think the horses prefer the epic release, though, so I’ll take it. I have more or less quit the habit of looking down and my elbows are much softer and my habit of fixing the hands to the withers has much improved. My Western seat has also improved, as I’ve learned to bend the elbow and raise the hand and relax into the saddle better.

Dressage: Turn the hands straight, so that the thumbs are on top, instead of having turned out cowboy hands. Keep the shoulders back. Soften the lower back. Lengthen the leg and bring the lower leg further back for better hip-heel alignment. Break the habit of dropping the inside shoulder and improve straightness.

Jumping: Strengthen and correct the lower leg to keep the heel down and prevent the leg from swinging back. Break the habit of slipping back towards the cantle during landing. Break the habit of resting the hands on the neck during landing. Break the habit of staring down into airy oxers.

RuachReed8

This year promises to be a very interesting one. I’m turning 18, for one, and have to get used to the idea of being practically a grownup. It’s also my last year of school (hopefully) and the year in which I can get a driver’s licence. I’m also on the brink of buying my first broodmare and showing in Horse of the Year for the first time. I could also ride in graded shows for the first time, and since I plan to qualify as an instructor in 2016 I have to get my facilities up to scratch for a riding school this year.

To wrap up this Epic Novel of a blog post (sorry guys… this one was more for my benefit than anyone else’s), my prayer for 2015.

My King, I set goals, I work hard and I dream dreams. But no amount of my sweat or planning can ever achieve anything alone. I can hardly be trusted even to set the right goals, even for my horses. Lord Jesus, this year belongs to You. Everything in me and about me and around me I lay down at Your feet. Do with it what You will, for Your will is pure and just and perfect. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, O King. Let me draw nearer to You than ever before. Hold me close, carry me through, and be with everybody that I love, my King. Let everything I am and do glorify Your amazing name and let me decrease so that You may increase. I await the day of Your coming. Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. In Jesus’s beloved Name, amen.

Jump All the Things!

EXAMS ARE OVER!!!

So. Happy.

Anyway…

I had originally entered Arwen into a cross-training show last weekend, but it ended up being cancelled and cross-country lessons being held at the same venue instead. I was not terribly upset about this because I was really excited to have a lesson from this instructor, who was the chef d’ equipe for South Africa’s eventing team at WEG this year and has been at the top of SA eventing for many years.

The lesson ended up being totally awesome. Arwen loaded, travelled, and behaved like a superstar. She didn’t kick anybody at all, and we both got along well with the instructor; he was knowledgeable, punctual and patient, and has a teaching voice that I would kill for. (Seriously, how do you get your voice to carry all the way across a giant arena without actually shouting?). We warmed up with some showjumps first, which was slightly hairy because Arwen is much more afraid of showjumps than of cross-country, but actually went well. She did have one little stop at the dumbest tiny cross ever, but there was a puddle behind it and I wasn’t there to support her with my leg, so I won’t hold it against her.

She had one moment of absolute awesomeness as we were following the horse in front of us through a gymnastic line. I fear and hate gymnastic jumping and as such have never really tried it properly, so of course neither has she. To my horror, halfway through the line I realised that the jumps in front of us were not a one-stride combination, they were a bounce. I have never tried to jump a bounce, and this one was around 60cm so it wasn’t like we could trot our way through it, so I sat there panicking a bit and Arwen was all “I got this, human” and popped through it perfectly. Gotta love little tough grey mares.

The cross-country was also good; a little more challenging than we’ve tried before, including a dyke, a hanging log, some creepy black barrels under a tree, and a little bank down into the water. She bucked like a lunatic a few times, of course, out of enjoyment; but she was as brave as the day and jumped everything fearlessly. The only jump I really had to kick her at was a big black solid oxer that made my heart stand still, and she cleared it with flying colours in the end. The dyke was by far the hardest to ride, but we did it several times with great success. She was a little looky about the water, but as soon as she had followed the experienced pony through it once, she was fine even about jumping down into it. (Awesomest sound ever: the splash when you jump into water. So much fun).

She was a tired pony by the end of the lesson, but I learned a lot and we both had a wonderful time. Cross-country is the best! I hope I’ll have pictures soon, but for now all you get is boring old words.

The others have gone through a slight tough patch, mostly a combination of cold wet weather and moving paddocks with all the new horses arriving. I split them into three groups with Arwen, Thunder and Flare in one group; Magic, Exavior and Skye in the other; and the old donkey Benjamin keeping the Mutterer’s white horse company. Skye’s herd have formed a tight-knit little family. Skye is, of course, the Queen with Magic being her first knight. He has gotten a real confidence boost from being second-in-command. He is kind to Exavior and doesn’t bully him, but he carries himself with a bit more assurance now that he’s not the underdog anymore. Exavior, being the youngest, is the little prince and Magic’s playmate; Skye has also joyously adopted him. She treats him exactly as she treats Thunder, and whenever he’s nervous he runs to Skye and hides next to her because he’s the only one allowed in her majesty’s personal space. Skye has a new lease on life too, with her baby to be responsible for. Exavior also caught a cold; he’s had a bit of a runny nose since he arrived and I think the cold weather just brought out some kind of a virus in him. After having some needles and TLC pushed into into him, he seems 100% again now.

Never mind that he's exactly her height
Never mind that he’s exactly her height: 14.2hh

Arwen’s herd had a slightly harder time adjusting. Thunder has always been the underdog in the group, and I don’t think being Arwen’s beta suits him very well. In general the second-in-command seems responsible for protecting the lead mare, and poor Thunder is much too sweet and fragile to be any good at this. When Flare was introduced to the herd he tried his best to frighten her by pulling awful faces and trying to bite her without actually using his teeth; Flare, unimpressed, landed a couple of kicks on him and he was a bit sore for a few days. It’s so hard sometimes to let them be horses and take the knocks of group life, but he’s feeling all better now, so no harm has been done. I secretly hope that Flare eventually dominates Thunder and becomes Arwen’s bodyguard so that Thun can be the omega again, but it might be better to put him in Skye’s herd. He misses his mother, and the three boys would have a wonderful time together with Skye to put them in their places.

Thunder: Rawr! I'm fierce!
Thunder: Rawr! I’m fierce! Flare: Yeah, right

On the showjumping front, Magic and I have reached the level of confidence where I can start challenging him again. Not in terms of height – we’re not there yet – but in terms of technique. Graham Winn says, “It’s perfecting the small jumps that makes the big ones easy”, so I’m hoping all this fuss over crossrails will eventually pay off. We started by warming up over a tiny baby gymnastic line (three trotting poles to about a 70cm oxer) and then tried a little triple combination. I set it up at first as one really tiny crossrail to two ground poles just to give him a bit of warning first, because the last thing I wanted was for him to panic and crash through jumps. I had 13m between jumps and went in without worrying over strides the first time, just wanting him to stay calm and get the takeoff distances right. Once I could pick it up to three little crosses and he was still popping through without worrying, I started counting strides. He would fit in four or five, sometimes four in the first half and five in the second, sometimes vice versa. So first we tried cantering through with an equal number of strides between jumps to keep a rhythm. He was very nice about it and didn’t pull on my hands too much, and I kept him very quiet and fit in five nice steady little strides between jumps. Then I started to push him; first doing it in five strides, then coming back and trying for four. The first time I let him do the four strides he got really excited, finished the combination well, and then leapt into the air like a pogo stick with his front feet striking out the way he does when he’s playing. Obviously he was just enjoying himself, and I kept my balance, and it was thrilling, but I made him put his feet on the ground and behave like a grownup horsie. I don’t need him pulling out stunts like that all the time.

The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work...
The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work…

Once he’d gone nuts once, he seemed content to go through it nicely in however many strides I pleased a few times – minus a few mistakes when he thought three strides, I said four and we ended up running on air – and I was super proud of him. Even though we’re still jumping glorified ground poles, I think we have made progress. He had a few green moments today and did his little leap-in-the-air act, but I was able to stay relaxed and go through it again without losing confidence. He is also less of a wuss and was happy to try again without panicking. Little steps, but they’re in the right direction.

Glory to the King.

It’s Not Always the Rider’s Fault

One of my most controversial philosophies is that it is not always the rider’s fault when things go wrong.

Maybe this comes from working with a lot of young horses, or maybe in ten years’ time I’ll disagree with myself, but right now I’m pretty sure of this. Of course, many horse problems are not horse problems, they’re people problems. Horses are so easily spoiled or scared and 80% of them will misbehave when they’re overtired, overfed or have been allowed to get away with it; it’s only the real jewels that will be good when everything else is bad. Also, many novice riders simply don’t know what to do, and for that reason things go wrong easily.

But it’s not always the fault of the rider, especially not with a young or inexperienced horse. There are very, very few young horses who do not respond with varying degrees of resistance when put under pressure, and I strongly disagree with anyone who presumes that it is possible to train a horse without putting it under pressure. Of course, some horses can take a lot of pressure, and with some you have to apply only tiny amounts of stress or their brains switch off, but if you never make it harder they will never learn anything. Sooner or later a stress response is bound to come out. I don’t understand how a rider whose horse spooks at a flappy flag and jumps out from under him is to blame for falling off. The horse spooked. Horses spook. No rider is capable of sitting 100% of equine shenanigans.

Horses are large flight animals capable of a wide range of emotions and moods. These include empathy, willingness, courage, loyalty, compassion and even love. They also include fear, anger, pain and exhaustion. Shocker alert here: they also include laziness and spitefulness.

Think about it: most horses are, at the root of it all, lazy animals. If they weren’t lazy, then why do they so predictably choose the path of least resistance? The vast majority of training methods are based around the fact that the horse always chooses the action that is, in the end, less effort. He eventually learns to work with us because it is less effort than fighting us. This is true for most horses, although there are some very special ones who will do things for you just because you are you.

If horses weren’t lazy, we would have no horses. Wild horses are forced to conserve their energy for when they need it, and if they spent all their time doing things the hard way, they would have nothing left for when predators arrive. Lions would have eaten all of them years ago and we’d be riding around on cows. Laziness is a basic requirement of equine survival.

It follows, then, that horses can act out of laziness and they can act out of fear. If your horse has learned that throwing a couple bucks will get him out of work, he will buck every single time because he is lazy. Of course, some buckers buck because their backs hurt or their mouths hurt or their rider is sitting with their heels in their guts. But there are those who will buck because they think it is easy, and you can call as many chiropractors and dentists as you want – they will buck until you make it the harder thing to do. It is also true that if the rider tenses up every time the horse spooks, the horse will decide that there really is something to be afraid of and you can feed him maize-free diets until you’re blue in the face. He will spook until you show him not to be afraid.

Those are examples of when it is the rider’s fault, albeit indirectly. But sometimes, it is not the rider’s fault. Sometimes it isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes nobody sees the hole because it wasn’t visible until you were on top of it and your horse trod in it and you both went sprawling. Gasp, horror! How could the rider injure the horse in that way? It was an accident. It’s not that hard to get up, dust yourself off, say, “Well, that was random,” and keep riding.

Sometimes it is the horse’s fault, believe it or not. Some horses are wilfully and stubbornly disobedient. Even if you never let them get away with it, they will still test you and test you and test you. These are the born leaders of the equine world; they would have been lead mares or herd stallions in the wild, and you just have to put up with it and stand firm until they give up. It’s not your fault that they’re going to keep testing you. It’s just who they are.

All horses have strong points and weak points. If your horse doesn’t learn as fast as everybody else’s, maybe you’re training him slowly. Or maybe he’s not a fast learner. Some horses are smarter than others, some are more willing than others, some are lazier than others, and some are moodier than others. Some horses have a more active flight response than others. Some have a greater tendency towards aggression. Some are more sensitive, some are more stubborn. There’s a reason why sport horse breeders select horses for temperament; not all horses are created equal in terms of trainability. Things go a lot better once I can admit to myself that the horse has weak points, and then learn to work around those weak points instead of butting my head against them.

What about the abused horse that wants to run a mile when you go near him? Or the horse that had a gentle groom and a rough rider, who is perfect until you get on and then randomly throws you into next week? Is it your fault that somebody else beat him half to death? Of course not. His problems are not always your problems. The horse is not merely a mirror of his rider; he is a flesh-and-blood creature, unique, responding differently to any other horse. Only a great rider who has worked with a group of horses for a long time will stamp each horse with his trademark, and even then each of those horses will be different.

Maybe that horse that leans on his rider’s hands until his jaw gapes open is 100 times better than he was six months ago. Maybe that horse that just threw his rider a mile doesn’t have a sore back; maybe he had a bad hair day and didn’t feel like carting people around today. Maybe that rider with the one heel in the air has ripped a ligament and can’t put that heel down no matter how much they want to. I try to view every problem in my own training objectively (with varied success, I admit), with the goal to solve the problem, not to lay the blame. Blaming anyone achieves nothing in the end.