Thunder. One Year Later.

2015-12-11_17.13.52I feel like my horsemanship journey over the past year has been incredible. When I bought Thunder, he was about as broken and upside down as a horse can be. I did not know how to fix him. Nothing I learned at hunter jumper barns prepared me for the mess that was Thunder. I started doing research because I needed help. What I found is classical dressage.

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I’m not talking about the stuff you see at the big international competitions with $100,000 horses that fling their front legs out like saddlebreds. I’m talking about the classical dressage training scale. It begins with relaxation. Thunder was not relaxed under saddle. He had no idea what I wanted. We started there.

Then I found this guy on YouTube called Will Faerber. His channel is Art2Ride. He has this video on engaging the back that revolutionized my entire life with horses. Why had none of my riding instructors talked to me about getting my horse to move correctly over his back? Why did everybody just say I should slap on a martingale? I started watching every single one of Will’s videos. I saw horses transformed before my eyes. THIS is what I had been looking for! Now I had a road map to follow in fixing Thunder.

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For three months all I did was lunge Thunder at the walk and trot. When he started stretching, I started riding him at the walk. A few more months and I could get him to stretch at the trot with me on him. Now I’m a year into training him and I have a horse that has a decent walk and trot. The canter is still a mess, but that’s my next project.

He is a happy horse now. He is relaxed and he trusts me. We still have a lot of things to work on, and by no means is he a finished show horse. But he is so much better than he used to be, and we have a wonderful partnership.

Thunder’s First Show!

I decided to take Thunder to a hunter schooling show on September 5th. It was at a farm about an hour away and I rented a truck and borrowed a trailer. I rode two divisions, green horse and the crossrails division. I’m not going to lie. It was rough.

We did manage to bring home some ribbons!
We did manage to bring home some ribbons!

Thunder has never been to a show before. As we all know, it can be a little much for horses with all the people and other horses. Thunder was PERFECT outside the arena. He hung out quietly in the shade and dozed off. People were commenting on what a good boy he is, especially for his first time out. For his first class, we did leadline with my 7 year old daughter. The judge was lovely and complimented him and he behaved like a perfect gentleman. There was only one other horse- a 24 year old pony actually- and Thunder was just as calm as the elderly pony.

Before the leadline class in which he was perfect.
Before the leadline class in which he was perfect.

Then it was my turn. We went in for green horse division and Thunder was EXCITED. He walked like an old pro, but when the judge asked for a trot, he wanted to canter. I spent the whole class trying to keep him at a consistent gait. He cantered when it was trot time and trotted when it was canter time. It was rough. He also parked himself at the gate every time we got near it and had to be cajoled back onto the rail to continue trot/canter/hopping.

One of our good moments. He looks happy and engaged!
One of our good moments. He looks happy and engaged!

Then it was time for our green horse over fences class. It was just crossrails, but he was EXCITED about jumping. Holy moly. It was like riding a freight train. He wanted to race around the jumps and I spent the whole time trying to keep him under control. I didn’t have time to think about being nervous or whether I was on the right diagonal. It was all I could do to keep him going around with some semblance of a smooth ride. After the last jump he would high tail it to the gate, no matter how hard I tried to steer him into a courtesy circle. Thunder thinks courtesy circles are for chumps.

Coming off the last jump and heading straight for the fence instead of turning for the circle.
Coming off the last jump and heading straight for the fence instead of turning for the circle.

We came in last or second to last in every class. That’s a really sucky feeling. But I wanted to do my other division, and see if I could get a more behaved ride out of him. It didn’t happen. He was still really, really excited and it was not smooth or hunter-ey. We had some good moments, but it was not a smooth, consistent ride.

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So yeah. It was rough. It was rough to the point that people on the rail were encouraging me. It was obvious that my horse was exuberant and slightly naughty. By our last class he had calmed down a little and we got some nice trot and canter work. When we exited our final class, one guy said, “That time he did much better!” It was a little embarrassing to tell the truth, but I just laughed it off. You can’t win every time, especially on a green horse at our first show. All the spectators on the rail were polite and sympathetic. I told everyone that it was his first show and someone said, “Hey, we’ve all been there!”

He did do some nice stretching at the trot.
He did do some nice stretching at the trot.

There were some definite positives though. He jumped like a champ and didn’t knock any rails. He understands that his job is jumping. I just need to teach him that his job is also to do courtesy circles before and after jumping.

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He looked like he belonged at the show. A year ago he was muscled in all the wrong places and looked like a backyard nag. Even though our classes were rough, a year ago he could not have competed at all. A year ago he did not even have three decent gaits.

In spite of not placing very well, I think I actually rode pretty well. I kept my cool and kept him under control. I didn’t get frustrated with him and I managed to calmly bring him down when he tried to rush. My position was decent in all the pictures. Mainly I was concentrating on slowing him down. We had a lot of rough edges, but I rode as effectively as I know how. I just need some lessons and more practice over fences!

This show did a great job of showing me where our weaknesses are. First and foremost, regularity in the gaits is a huge problem. We need to do a whole lot of walk/trot and trot/canter transitions. I think at the show he was excited, but we have to get to the point where he is obedient to me even when he’s excited. Second, he is very naughty at the gate. He tried to turn around on me a couple times, which is a BIG problem. I’m going to start schooling him right next to the gate at home until he gets over that crap. Finally, we’re just really rough around the edges. He likes to jump and he’s honest to the jumps. Now it’s time to start smoothing out the ride. We have our work cut out for us!

Month 8 Recap – July

I’m not counting June as a training month because I hardly rode at all. I’m a member of a homeschooling group and I invited the homeschoolers to come out to the barn for a riding and horse care lesson. Tons of families took me up on the offer and, for the month of June, Thunder was a prince and ponied around the homeschool kids. All the kids had a blast but I got no training done.

Thunder with some homeschoolers.
Thunder with some homeschoolers.

July, however, was probably the best month yet in terms of improvement. We changed barns and I now have a huge flat pasture to ride in, and even jumps! We’re close to the lake so we can do a trail ride down to the lake and back. So far it’s been a fantastic improvement for us. We have the space we need to get our work done.

Looking shiny!
Looking shiny!

In July I focused on riding Intro A (dressage test) and jumping little crossrails to build his confidence. Turns out Thunder wants to be a jumper. If there are jumps set up in the pasture and I don’t let him jump them, he gets pissy. He does not, on the other hand, love dressage. He gets pretty bored on our flat work days.

How good does he look here?!?
How good does he look here?!?

He is jumping like a pro though. His form needs work; he still doesn’t tuck his knees well, but he’s just starting to jump verticals and I think his form will improve as the jumps require more work out of him. I need to work on my position as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a lesson and I need one.

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I am so happy with how he’s progressing. We still have high headed moments, but he is such a changed horse from last fall. His way of going has changed immensely and his gaits have improved. We’re even starting to work on cantering. It needs work of course, but considering that he almost could not trot when I bought him, I think he’s doing pretty damn good.

Canter!
Canter!

As much as I love Baron, the stars just never aligned for us. As soon as we started progressing, he would get hurt or I would get pregnant and then we would stagnate for months and months. With Thunder I finally feel like I have the right partner for me. He’s easy to deal with, cheap to feed, and feels like the perfect horse for me. I trust him to be level headed and take care of me, and he trusts me not to ask him to do anything crazy.

Beginning lateral work.
Beginning lateral work.

My next step is to start preparing for a schooling show. I’m deciding if I want to do a Combined Training show and ride Intro A and a show jumping class (with 12 inch jumps), or if I want to take him to a hunter show and do walk-trot-canter and a crossrail class. In any case, I could not be happier with him. I am so proud of the horse he has turned into and I’m grateful to have him as my partner.

We borrowed a pony!

I got my daughter a pony. Kind of. I’m doing a “domestic exchange” with Baron and the pony indefinitely. My friend is using Baron in her lesson program and we’re taking James the pony up to stay with us.

Meet James.
Meet James.

James the pony has terrible allergies and the summer at my friend’s farm in south Georgia is brutal for him. The vet told her James would be happier further north with less humidity. While it’s hot in my area of north Georgia, it’s not quite as miserably humid and the gnats aren’t so terrible. It seemed like a great situation for us to trade.

James is pretty much the perfect pony. He’s taken several kids through Pony Club, he jumps, he does dressage, and holy frickin’ moly is he a cute mover. I mean, perfect ten hunter mover all the way. He is also a total love bug. He canters to the fence with his pendulous belly when he sees us coming. He likes my daughter to hold his bucket on her lap while he eats and he likes her to hand feed him the last few bites. He *might* be a little spoiled.

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His allergies seem to be improving. His eyes aren’t crusty and he’s breathing better. We’re feeding him local honey, which is supposed to help with allergies. So far, so good.

My daughter is riding him either bareback or in a child’s western saddle right now (because that’s all we have). I’m looking for a used English saddle for him. She is doing so well. She is trotting on her own, and her sitting trot would make many dressage queens jealous. She’s getting the hang of posting but she finds it more difficult. She hasn’t cantered yet but she will be in no time, I’m sure.

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Up til now, she hasn’t been all that interested in the horses. She liked riding all right, but it was more my thing that she tagged along for, instead of her thing. Now that she has a pony to love, it’s her thing all the way. She asks to go to the barn and she’s taking responsibility for feeding and grooming. I’m beyond thrilled. I hope she stays interested and wants to show with me. Horses are the best thing for kids and I’m so thankful that we’ve been able to get James.

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Month 7 Recap- May

I rode a lot in May but I didn’t get a lot of video or pictures to share. We didn’t jump at all in May. We trotted poles and worked on cantering. We still need loads of work at the canter, but he seems to enjoy a good canter every now and then so I let him. I’m still having trouble with him going straight to the canter instead of the trot. I’ve noticed it works better to let him “canter it out” for a few strides and then go back to the trot on his own, rather than half-halting or attempting to “pull” him back down with the reins. The more I stay out of his mouth, the better.

My 6 year old trotting on Thunder by herself for the first time.
My 6 year old trotting on Thunder by herself for the first time.

He is getting very accustomed to moving off my leg. We’ve started lateral work at the walk, just moving sideways across the pasture, and he caught on to that quickly. We’ve also been spiraling in and out on a circle. The goal is to build muscle in his hindquarters. I love how he’s looking and I can’t wait to see how his topline continues to fill out.

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The biggest difference I can see in him is that his walk-trot transitions are so much better now. He doesn’t throw his head in the air every time. I can actually get a decent working trot out of him now, which is huge, because he used to be an absolute disaster at the trot.

Look at that perfect hunter trot!!!
Look at that perfect hunter trot!!!

Overall, I am thrilled with him. I’m really hoping to show him either this fall or next spring. I’d like to do a green hunter crossrail course or a super low level eventing show. In my area, the lowest level of eventing is called pre-amoeba and the fences are only 12 inches high. I think we can handle that!

I have some very exciting news as well, so check back for my next post. Here’s a hint: It has fuzzy hair and tiny hooves and is quite possibly the cutest thing ever.

Training Thunder- Month 6 Recap- April

April was HUGE for Thunder. I can’t believe we’ve been working for six months already! April lived up to the old rhyme about April showers; it rained and rained and rained some more. We didn’t ride as much as I would have liked, but the work we did was solid.

The physical changes in him are amazing. He went from looking like a backyard nag to looking like a quarter horse with pretty good conformation. I see the most improvement in his neck muscles, but you can see that he’s built muscle along his back and his butt too.

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I’ve started him on black oil sunflower seeds also. They’re supposed to keep dark horses from fading out in the summer sun and they have a lot of fat so they make the coat shiny. He’s been getting a half scoop mixed into his dinner for about 3 weeks now and I think he looks pretty damn shiny. You have to feed black oil seeds though. The ones human consume can’t be digested because the hull is too hard.

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I decided to try jumping him over a crossrail just for kicks. He tends to be on the lazy side but damn if he didn’t pick up the pace when I stuck a jump in front of him. The first day we jumped a board about six inches off the ground. He hit it the first time over but then figured out he had to pick up his feet. He never hit it again. The second day we jumped a regular crossrail and he killed it. I let him figure out his distances. I got him straight to the jump and then he had to find his own takeoff point. Once he got a really short spot and had an awkward up in the air jump, but every other time he did really well. I also let him decide whether to trot or canter the approach. He preferred to canter, but he wasn’t out of control or rushing. He had a good steady canter going and I think he just felt like he needed the extra momentum. Seriously though, how adorable is he jumping?

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I’ve said all along that he is going to be a cute mover when he gets muscled correctly. I saw that good movement during the jumping. He gave me a really nice trot, still high headed, but with lots of impulsion and a good rhythm.

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Jumping was fun but we really need to do more flat work. I need to work in two point at the trot to improve my leg and he needs to practice stretching and relaxing. We’re going to be doing lots and lots of trot poles for both of our fitness. After a solid month of trot poles, we’ll probably go back to jumping.

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I’m so thrilled with him though. He has turned out to be such a great little horse. His size and energy level are a good fit for me and he’s a lot of fun to ride. Originally I bought him because he wasn’t getting much attention from his former owner, but I’ve totally fallen for him. I never in a million years would have picked him out to buy. He’s a bay (my least favorite horse color), he was ewe necked and he’s little. But he’s turning into a really nice horse and I couldn’t be happier with him!

Month 5 Recap- March

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March was AWESOME for Thunder and me. After hardly working at all in February because of the miserable weather, we came back to work in March and made real progress. I’ve started riding him again instead of only lunging. We either ride in the little pasture or we do a big loop that takes us on a residential road and on a trail.

He doesn’t hate the arena work anymore. He actually gets right down to business instead of figuring out how to evade any sort of work. I know he’s gotten stronger and the work is more enjoyable for him now. I do think horses have a sense of accomplishment in their work. They know when they’ve done well when we reward them, and they can sense how proud we are of them. Instead of being a neglected horse with problems under saddle, he’s a loved and pampered athlete in training.

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Our biggest accomplishment in March is that Thunder is able to work over his back with a rider. He has a decent working walk now. It’s active and relaxed with lowered head and legs stepping underneath.

He can only stay long and low at the trot for a few strides, but his stamina is improving with every ride. We’re finally getting in sync with each other. I’m staying in balance because he’s staying more rhythmic. He has a NICE trot when he gets going in a rhythm and starts tracking up. Best of all, he doesn’t throw his head in the air during upward transitions. He goes into a trot without a lot of fuss. It was so bad before! He did his horrible canter hop thing and flung his head up every single time I asked for a trot. Now we can do walk/trot without a lot of drama- just a clean, calm transition.

It’s so refreshing! It gives me hope that he can improve and become a beautiful, nicely muscled horse and that I’m not screwing him up even worse! Next month’s goal is to keep building fitness with trail rides and to keep plugging away at the working trot.