Trail rides are training rides.

When I got Baron I didn’t realize how important trail riding would be to our training. My barn doesn’t have an arena and I thought I wouldn’t be able to progress without one. I’ve found the opposite to be true. All the trail riding we’ve done is how Baron started to muscle up and get really fit. Trail riding also varied his routine so that we weren’t always trotting in circles, not to mention calming him down and getting him used to all sorts of terrain. He can walk, trot and canter on the trail without going nuts and he’s fun to ride, a very enjoyable and athletic horse. What I originally thought was a negative about my barn has turned out to be a huge positive for my riding.

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My plan for working with Thunder is to do mostly trail rides and mix in some flat work. We’re light years away from jumping anything, not because he can’t do it, but because we have so much ground work to lay first.

This is Thunder after our ride. I think he's well built. Big quarter horse butt!
This is Thunder after our ride. I think he’s well built. Big quarter horse butt!

Thunder and I had a really good ride today with some big improvements. We rode alone on the trail and in the huge vacant lot. My only goal was relaxation. He gets nervous when he doesn’t understand what I’m asking him to do. Today I wanted him to learn that his only job right now is to chill out. We walked most of the ride and mostly on a totally loose rein because I wanted him to feel free to lower his head.

At the vacant lot we did some simple flat work- big circles and straight lines- mostly at the walk. I wanted the ride to be slow and subtle. I would pick a point and ride to it with the straightest line we could manage. When he veered off, I used my seat to bring him back. He was listening really well and being responsive to those light aids. I want him to know that I’m not going to be yanking on his mouth and pulling him around. I want him to be ridden with some finesse. He’s such a willing horse; he deserves a thoughtful rider. I was hoping he would stretch down and about halfway through, he did. He did some good long stretches, neck to the ground even. That’s a good sign!

I French braided his mane. This is what we would do for shows, I guess, because he has a long, beautiful mane and I don't want to cut it!
I French braided his mane. This is what we would do for shows, I guess, because he has a long, beautiful mane and I don’t want to cut it!

We did a teeny bit of trot work, but he gets really anxious about it so I kept it short. I added the tiniest bit of leg, he cantered, I half halted, we ugly trotted around a few times. As soon as he gave me a few steps of rhythmic, calm trot, we turned around and headed for home. I want him to learn that he’s working way too hard. He doesn’t always have to canter! All I need from him at this stage of the game is a nice trot. I really can’t exaggerate to you how bad our trotting looks right now. It is FUGLY.

On the way home, he was perfect. He lowered his head and was actually working correctly for once! I didn’t ask him to do anything except walk and relax, and he was in his long and low groove all the way back to the barn.

Sometimes when I ride and it’s going really well, I’m tempted to ask for one more thing, one more little request. I’ve learned to have a goal in mind for the ride and quit when I get it. If I don’t get it, I get something positive and then I quit. I like rewarding the horse for a job well done rather than continuing to pester him for one more thing. Baron has always been happy and willing in our work and I think it’s because it’s been so low pressure. I make small goals, he gives me what I ask for and we go back to the barn for a treat. It’s a win-win. He never gets overwhelmed or feels pressured, and I have a horse that’s a pleasure to ride.

With Thunder I can see that the key to unlocking his potential is in telling him he’s okay over and over again. As in, “You can walk and stretch and chill. You don’t have to canter full speed ahead all the time.” We’re going to ride trails and trot hills and chill out and have a good time together. Once he figures out that I’m a soft, considerate rider, I think the rest of the pieces will fall into place. He’ll learn to carry himself, he’ll get fit and he’ll turn into a hunter. Brick by brick, piece by piece, we’ll lay a good foundation and he will turn into the prettiest little children’s horse you ever did see!

Training Thunder

I might need to change my blog name now that I’ve got another horse. It’s not that I’m done training Baron (and let’s be honest, I’m the one who needs training), but Thunder needs more training than me or Baron. He is a PERFECT trail horse. If all I wanted to do was ride trails, he would be the best partner. I’ve never seen him spook or even get snorty and looky, even when he’s had plenty of reason to do so. He doesn’t mind kids, dogs, traffic or new situations. He’s got the best brain, exactly what you want for a kids’ horse.

Thunder with my kids
Thunder with my kids

As far as formal training goes, he’s got some major gaps. He knows that leg means forward, backward pressure on the reins means stop and sideways tug means right or left. I don’t get the feeling that he was ever ridden with any subtlety- not much use of the seat or leg aids.

He also has two gears- walk and canter. His old owner was a teenage girl who liked to ride him bareback and she liked to go fast. She must have had fairly decent balance to stay on, so I’m not saying that she was a terrible rider. I’m saying she did  one thing- cantering. As far as I know, they never took many lessons, if any at all. If I get on and we’re walking and I add even the tiniest bit of leg pressure, boom, we’re cantering. This is what Thunder thinks he’s supposed to do and you’ve got to love him for trying.

My friend riding Thunder. He looks like a llama.
My friend riding Thunder. See how nervous he looks?

He is also not very relaxed when I add leg. He is the most relaxed horse  until I ask him to move out of a walk. Then his head comes up and he braces. He’s not naughty, I just get the feeling that he doesn’t understand what I’m asking and it makes him nervous.

Baron’s saddle doesn’t fit him at all and I’ve had to ride him in a Western saddle and English bridle until I find a saddle that fits him. He is so much rounder and wider than Baron, just a completely different type of horse. I know I look like a goofball in the mismatched tack, but it’s functional and it fits him well.

A couple rides later he's more relaxed.
A couple rides later he’s more relaxed.

Our first rides have been as simple as can be.   Mostly we walk with light contact. I add a tiny squeeze of leg and he canters. Then I try and half halt him down to a trot. He doesn’t really get half halting either. He thinks any pull on the reins, even just a squeeze, means walk or stop. He’s already making progress though. Yesterday we walked and trotted with only a few breaks into cantering. When he did canter, I was able to bring him back to a trot with a squeeze on the reins.

It's hard to tell in pictures but he's a really cute mover.
It’s hard to tell in pictures but he’s a really cute mover.

He is extremely high headed and bracey, just like Baron used to be. In both cases I know they’re just trying to figure out what I want. They’re both good horses with hearts of gold. I’m looking forward to riding Thunder and watching him progress. We all know how correct riding can transform a horse. He’s going to be one heck of a cute horse once he relaxes and learns how to carry himself!

Lest you think Baron is being neglected, here's one of us cantering. I'm improving at the canter!
Lest you think Baron is being neglected, here’s one of us cantering. I’m improving at the canter!

 

I got another horse.

I know, I know. I just learned how to correctly ride the horse I already have. But wait, there’s a story.

This summer a horse came to my barn. He’s a little grade quarter horse with a white star named Thunder. His owner was a 20-ish girl who had basically lost interest in him, or had too many other things going on to give him the attention he deserved. She would forget to drop off his feed, didn’t schedule the farrier and basically didn’t take great care of him. So I started taking care of him. I bought his feed, called the farrier and paid for him to get his feet done several times. In her defense, she did pay me back, but we’re supposed to be a self-care barn and she wasn’t caring.

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From the beginning, I told my husband what a great kids’ horse Thunder would make. My husband offered to buy him, but his owner wanted an exorbitant amount of money for him and I refused. All through the summer my husband would ask about little ole Thunder and how he was doing. This is a horse my husband has never even seen, and a horse I didn’t want to buy. If I was going to get a 2nd horse, I wanted a grey. Baron was supposed to be a grey, but I fell in love and the rest is history. So I kept taking care of Thunder and his owner kept hemming and hawing about selling him.

I’m going to cut out a bunch of this story for privacy reasons (hers, not mine), but basically his owner made a responsible decision to sell him. So I marketed the hell out of him to all my horse friends. He’s a cute mover, great conformation, great with kids, excellent trail horse, mellow on the ground and under saddle, just a good all around horse. He had three people lined up to look at him and ride. One woman came out and really liked him, but wanted her trainer to come see him before she wrote a check.

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That same day my kids fell off Baron on a trail ride. They were riding double in a western saddle, he bunny hopped over a ditch on the trail, and down they went. They were both wearing helmets and they landed on soft mud, so no one was hurt. My 4 year old didn’t even cry. Both kids got back on and rode back to the barn with no problems.

But husband was not happy. He said if I insisted on riding with the kids, then I needed to get them a kid safe horse. Baron is a good fellow, but he’s big and he’s not really a kids’ horse. So I said, “Well then, we need to buy Thunder.” And we did.

I texted his owner and said if it didn’t work out with the potential buyers, to let me know. She said she would rather sell him to me and still get to see him since he would be staying at the same barn. We agreed on a fair price and she included some of his tack and grooming stuff. I agreed that she can come visit whenever.

I now have two horses, and neither one of them is a grey, even though I am completely obsessed with greys. But both are wonderful horses and worth their weight in gold just based on attitude alone. Thunder needs a lot of work, and my next post will go into that. For now, here’s a picture of the little guy and my little girl.

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It’s official. He’s a hunter.

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Take a good long look at this picture. See how round he is! How he’s really stepping under himself! How his head is lowered and his ears are pricked! He is perfect! PERFECT!!!

When I first bought Baron, he rode like a giraffe. or maybe a frightened camel. Now he looks like a show horse. I’m so ecstatic I could just die.

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And all of this without a martingale or a crazy bit or draw reins! Hell, we don’t even have a trainer! He’s finally learned how to carry himself (and me) in the easiest and most correct way. Oh how many years it took to get here! So much time and so much money! So many hours in the saddle just trying to be a better rider so that my horse could be his best, and now look, here is proof that hard work and correct riding will pay off eventually!

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I am still an intermediate rider at very best. My elbows need to be more bent and my leg could be further underneath me. And I’m pretty sure I was on the wrong diagonal most of this ride. But my horse is getting it, and I’m slowly but surely improving as well. I could not be more proud of him. He looks like a perfect hunter pony, and he’s able to carry himself like this for more than just a short burst. He’s getting into shape and I’m trying hard to do the same.

What 6 Years of Horse Ownership Has Taught Me

The weekend after Thanksgiving will mark my 6th year of owning Baron. In honor of six years together, here are six things I’ve learned: 1. Quit worrying about the horse and worry about your riding. I used to worry that Baron would always run around with his head in the air like a giraffe and that he would never get that hunter headset. Guess what? He wasn’t able to move like a hunter until I rode like one. I had several people recommend that I ride in a martingale and I refused every time. I knew a gadget wasn’t going to magically turn him into a show horse. Any problems Baron and I faced weren’t with the horse; they were with the rider. Instead of thinking a new gadget or trainer or bit or clinic was going to make us show worthy, I knew I needed to work on my position. I put hours and hours into reading about equitation and watching videos of upper level riders so that I could try and imitate them.  I have gotten better, but I’ve still got a long way to go.

2. Trail rides are just as good as arena rides. I used to lose sleep over the fact that my barn doesn’t have an arena. How would I ever become a better rider without a proper arena? Turns out that riding anywhere makes you a better rider. Riding up and down hills, riding through spooks, riding on roads and through fields not only gave me a very level headed horse, it also gave me a ton of riding experience I wouldn’t have gotten in an arena. Nothing has gotten Baron in shape like some good long trail rides. He has lovely butt muscles and he’s even starting to build a topline after years of being out of shape and unridden. Walking on trails allows me to concentrate on my position while Baron enjoys himself too. I can develop the muscle memory at the walk that will serve me in the trot and canter. Walking on trails isn’t just lolly gagging through the woods. It’s helping me become a competent rider.

3. Horses get hurt. A lot. In the time that I have owned him, Baron has suffered lacerations to his chest from barbed wire, almost impaled himself on a fence post, lost 60% of his hair due to an epic case of rain rot, nicked an artery in his leg causing pretty significant blood loss, and developed a case of cellulitis that caused his leg to swell up like a giant hairy bratwurst. I am thankful that he has recovered just fine from all of those things. In my first few years of horse ownership, I would hyperventilate if he so much as got a bug bite. Now it takes a lot, a whole lot, to upset me. Horses get hurt. Things happen. Usually they live.

4. Horses deserve dignity. From day one I’ve tried to treat Baron with respect. I remember telling him early on that if he would pack me around and not get me killed, I would make sure he was taken care of until the day that he died. He’s kept up his end of the bargain so far and I intend to keep mine. Even though I wanted him to be a show horse, I always kept in mind that he did not necessarily want to be a show horse. I made sure that anything I did with the goal of showing was something that benefited him as a horse. I got rid of trainers who pushed him too far and too fast. I knew him well enough to know that he would try his heart out for me. I didn’t want to take advantage of that incredible willingness, or spoil his happy attitude. I wanted him to enjoy his work and that meant taking it slow.

5. I love self care board. I’ve had Baron at a self care barn for five of the six years I’ve owned him. I did a year at a full board barn and, while I got the opportunity to show, I lost the day to day care of the most magnificent animal I’ve ever known. I moved him back to self care because I missed him. I wanted to be the one who monitored his feed, who decided how many flakes of hay he got, whether he stayed indoors because of the weather and whether he seemed happy. I love taking care of Baron as much as I enjoy riding him. My evening barn time is the highlight of my day, and Baron looks forward to seeing me because I represent good things for him. I bring fresh water, dinner, treats, poll rubs and back scratches. Besides his life in the herd, I am his whole world. I don’t just show up to ride, so he doesn’t only associate me with work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Baron enjoying the snow.

6. Horse ownership is the single most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life. When I was a kid, I didn’t dream of getting married and having kids. I dreamed of having a horse. Marriage and kids have been wonderful surprises for me, but horse ownership is everything I dreamed of and much more. When I ride I feel like a kid again. I could be a ten year old with a pony, with all the elation and the feeling of freedom that riding gives me. All the horse books and horse movies, the drawings of horses, the daydreams and wishing, all of those things came into being in a big chestnut Thoroughbred that failed as a racehorse. Baron is a gift, the best gift I’ve ever received.

Help me fix my hands.

I don’t ride with a trainer anymore so I often ask for advice on my blog. THANK YOU to everyone who takes the time to comment. I’ve learned so much by reading the advice of so many riders. For months and months and months I’ve been trying to improve my leg position. While I’m not perfect, I feel like I have a handle on what I’m supposed to be doing with my legs. My heel stays down pretty well and it feels normal to have my leg underneath me for that hip to heel line. So let’s move on to my hands.

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For years I’ve ridden with my ring finger loose on the reins. I thought I was being kind to my horse by not pulling on his mouth. Turns out, according to Jane Savoie (Olympic dressage coach), that loose fingers result in a stiff wrist, which results in uneven contact, which results in an annoyed horse. Apparently my attempt to be kind was just sucky riding. This is why we ride with trainers, people. This stuff is not always just common sense.

I’ve made a conscious effort to close my fingers and keep even contact. I know that at the walk I’m supposed to have “following hands” that move forward and back as the horse’s head moves. That’s second nature to me now, but something I had to concentrate on in the beginning. At the trot my hands can stay still because the horse’s head doesn’t move like it does at the walk. But what about the canter? I’m supposed to have following hands at the canter too, right?

I’m figuring out how NOT to balance with the reins at the canter. I’m concentrating on letting my arms move forward as Baron’s head moves forward, and not balancing myself with the reins at the canter.

Baron has a big canter. By “big” I mean that he loves to canter and he has a lot of upward movement, impulsion I suppose you would call it. I can feel so much energy underneath me and I can tell that he truly loves a good canter. He works hard at the trot, but it’s work. He LIKES to canter. I’ve said it before; Baron is FUN to ride!

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So any hand/ arm tips would be appreciated. How can I have softer hands? Bent elbows? Tighter pinkies?

New Bit, New Horse

So I got a new bit. I’ve had Baron for 6 years and I’ve ridden him in a slow twist since the beginning. It was recommended by my trainer so that I would have some brakes on him. He was headstrong and fast at the beginning, especially out in the open or on a trail. Now that we’ve been together for so long, he’s mellowed out and I’m a more competent rider. I thought it was time to move to a softer bit so I switched out the slow twist for a plain snaffle.

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I had a feeling his bit was bothering him because he’s been opening his mouth a lot, particularly at the canter. I try hard not to hang on his mouth, but I’m at best an intermediate rider and my hands are not perfectly quiet all the time. He doesn’t try and evade contact by throwing his head in the air or ducking behind the vertical, and I want to reward him for his good behavior. I want him to be as comfortable as possible.

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Yesterday I hopped on him bareback in the pasture with the new bit. HOLY MOLY, what a difference! He immediately lowered his head and accepted the contact. I only rode for 5 minutes, just enough to see how he felt. This morning we did an hour ride alone through the woods, out onto the street, around a vacant lot and back through the woods. Sometimes he gets really strong on the trail, and I wanted to see if I could keep him under control. He also gets strong in the vacant lot. It’s huge and flat and perfect for schooling, but he always wants to canter and take off. I needed to see how he would do with the new bit.

He was close to perfect the entire ride. On the trails he was relaxed with a lowered head and active walk. He didn’t look twice at such terrifying specters as mud puddles and a pack of murderous deer that ran right across the trail. He crossed a rocky, dried up little stream like an old pack mule. We jumped two logs, trotted beautifully and cantered under complete control. It was the first time we had jumped anything in two years!

Once we got to the vacant lot, he trotted and cantered really well to the left. We had some moments of total perfection going left- neck arched gracefully, steady, controlled steps, ears pricked forward like he was having fun. He got irritated about going to the right and I noticed some major counter bending. He was high headed and fussy for a few minutes, but he did calm back down.

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It was such an enjoyable ride. He is FUN to ride. Sometimes I wonder if I should have bought a quiet, lazy quarter horse that would pack me around without as much effort on my part. But Baron is teaching me how to really RIDE! I notice things like counter bending and stiffness to one side. Instead of just trying not to fall off at the canter, I’m actually riding it and influencing my horse positively! It feels good to improve. We have a long way to go, but today I couldn’t have been prouder of him!