Relaxation and Trust: One Month With Thunder

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I’ve had Thunder for a month. My game plan with him is first and foremost to help him relax under saddle. On a trail ride, he’s the happiest fellow around. He knows what’s expected of him (get the rider back to the barn in one piece!); but in a more formal situation, when I’m asking him to trot or halt on command, he acts nervous and confused and sometimes downright annoyed! In one month of riding him, I’ve discovered several big gaps in his training, the worst being trotting and halting. He does neither of those things very well. First let’s cover his weaknesses.

1. Trotting- his old owner cantered him. Pretty much all the time. All he knew how to do was canter. Canter, canter, canter. What is trotting? Poor confused horsey.

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2. Halting- If you ask for a square, prompt halt, he will run right through your hands. Oh sure, if he’s tired and he feels like stopping anyway, he’ll stop. But if you’re headed back to the barn for a snack and a roll in the mud, heck no. Thunder says, “Screw you guys. I’m going home.” When I discovered this little gap in training, I immediately started asking for halts at all the times he didn’t want to halt. He’ll give me six or seven extra strides and completely ignore seat and rein aids before he finally, grudgingly halts, all the while looking wistfully in the direction of the barn. He knows what I’m asking him to do, he just doesn’t want to do it.

Let’s move on to improvements. What has dear old Thunder learned in one month of being asked to do something other than canter through the meadow?

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1. He trots now. I can proudly say that Thunder doesn’t immediately canter with the slightest leg pressure. He goes from walk to trot like a normal horse now! He trotted his first figure eight without breaking gait. It was a proud moment for me. Before, in the rare moments when I could get him to trot, it was a poky, lazy shuffle instead of a busy, working trot. He still tries the lazy trot sometimes but I can get him into an active trot by adding leg. We’ve had some moments of the big strided, swinging his back trot that we’re looking for, but he doesn’t sustain that for long. He’s getting stronger and more balanced with every ride so that will come as his fitness improves (and my own strength and balance). He’s learning that it’s actually easier to just do the work and carry me in balance than it is to hollow and brace and evade. We’re getting there.

2. He’s loads more relaxed. At the walk Thunder will do exactly what he’s supposed to- active steps, relax his neck and accept the contact. He will do serpentines and figure eights and snuffle and chew his bit. I can tell that he’s listening and trying to figure out his job. We do a shit ton of geometry at the walk before I ever ask for the trot. We ride squares, diagonal lines, circles, figure eights and serpentines until I feel like he’s relaxed and thinking. Once I’ve got his attention, we start trotting. The snuffling and bit chewing is starting to happen at the trot too. Where before it was head straight up in the air with crazy eyes and braced back, now it’s a purposeful trot with some stretching down and bit chewing. I honestly think this is the first time in a really long time that he’s been asked to really participate in his rides beyond just going fast and not dumping anybody off. I’m asking for specific, complicated things (like halt right here, right now and I don’t care if dinner is waiting back at the barn).

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I think horses like having a job and like doing it well. Thunder is learning that I ask him to work hard for a few minutes and then he gets his dinner. It’s not a bad gig.

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Happy Anniversary Baron!

Today marks 6 years since I bought Baron. Best decision I ever made!

I’m not sure what happened, but it’s like someone flipped a switch and Baron became a hunter. I’m not sure if my riding is finally improving enough for him to improve, or if all the trail riding taught him to carry himself in a rounder way, or if we’ve just logged the necessary hours for him to strengthen his back and move correctly. But whatever it is, I’ll take it! He looks great!

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My favorite part of all this is that we didn’t use any gadgets to accomplish it. We ride in a snaffle bit and I’ve never ridden him with a martingale. We put in a lot of time and I obsessed about my position. I knew the secret to getting a round horse wasn’t in tying his head down. I knew that if I improved, he would eventually improve. It took a lot of time, but now he rides like this all time. All the time! Even on trails! This is how he carries himself and it has nothing to do with equipment!

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We’re not perfect, but most riders never reach perfection. Is there even a such thing as perfection in riding? We are definitely improving however, and that’s enough for me. I’ll never be a professional, Grand Prix rider, but I can work hard to have a stronger leg and softer hands, to be the kind of rider that improves a horse by riding him. That’s a worthy goal and one that takes time!

We can trot circles!

I rode at the vacant lot today, by myself, so I have no pictures. Of course, when I have no 6 year old with a camera phone, we have a breakthrough. Thunderkins trotted circles without breaking gate!

I rode him bareback down a residential road the other day. He's as level headed as they come.
I rode him bareback down a residential road the other day. He’s as level headed as they come.

My only goal right now is relaxation. Thunder is such a rock star about riding on the road, near dogs, on the trails, crossing water, you name it. He’s a solid citizen and a trail horse through and through. But he has zero formal training and he gets flustered when he doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him. If we’re just walking along, he’s perfectly behaved. But if I add leg and ask for a trot all he knows to do is canter. He doesn’t have a whole language of aids like better trained horses do and that’s what I’m trying to build with him. He thinks any leg means canter, but today he made major progress and seemed to understand that I want a trot!

The vacant lot. About the size of a football field and perfectly level. Perfect for schooling!
The vacant lot. About the size of a football field and perfectly level. Perfect for schooling!

Up until now it’s gone like this: I add leg lightly, Thunder jumps into a canter, I squeeze the reins lightly and start posting to tell him I want a trot, Thunder trots two steps and then walks. He had two gears- walk and canter. There was no trot button.

Several times today he went into a trot with NO AWKWARD CANTER STRIDES! Woot woot! He even trotted an entire figure eight without breaking gate. That’s progress, y’all!

I bought my gelding a leopard saddle pad. He has a pink halter too. The struggle is real.
I bought my gelding a leopard saddle pad. He has a pink halter too. The struggle is real.

 

Better every day.

Thunder is improving, ever so slightly, but definitely improving. My main goal is relaxation. He’s relaxed at the walk and now I’m working for it at the trot. I’m also working on the never ending project of my own position. I’m a project rider as much as he’s a project horse. I can’t wait til the day these pictures below are the “before” pictures and I can show you some “after” shots.

 

Walking nicely.
Walking nicely.

 

See how he has no muscle on the top of his neck? It's all on the underside. We're working on that!
See how he has no muscle on the top of his neck? It’s all on the underside. We’re working on that!

 

Stretching down, looking good!
Stretching down, looking good!

 

This one is my favorite. He looks really good here-more relaxed and round.
This one is my favorite. He looks really good here-more relaxed and round.
Add leg for the trot and AAAAGH!!! Head goes up and he gets nervous. This is what we have to work on- that moment of transition.
Add leg for the trot and AAAAGH!!! Head goes up and he gets nervous. This is what we have to work on- that moment of transition. Doesn’t he look upset here? He always goes up like this, gives me two or three canter strides and then sometimes he trots. Sometimes he just walks again. Our transitions are UGLY, folks! UGLY!!!

As you can see from the pictures, he’s relaxed at the walk, doesn’t seem upset or confused about what’s being asked. Upward transitions are an absolute mess though. I have my work cut out for me.

Trot Poles

Thunder’s main issue is thinking I want him to canter when I add any leg at all. Previous owner never trotted, apparently. I thought I would work him over some trot poles to get him to slow down and think about where he was putting his feet. If nothing else they would force him to trot instead of canter. What I learned from this exercise is that I need to raise my stirrups one hole if I’m going to be in two point. I also learned that trot poles are awesome and get a horse to slow down and use his noodle.

My hands look like crap in this picture. I’m aware. Stirrups need to come up a hole too.

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I think Thunder is naturally a nicer mover than Baron. He has more suspension and he seems to move effortlessly across the ground. I’ll try to get some video of him trotting in the pasture. You know those really cute ponies who have what they call “daisy cutter” movement? Thunder reminds me of that. The trick is to bring that out of him under saddle.

Picking up those feet!
Picking up those feet!

My game plan with him hasn’t changed. It’s basically lots of lots of trail riding with light contact to build muscle and relax. When we’re not on the trails I’ll add in some trot poles to keep him thinking and some typical dressage-ey stuff (serpentines, big circles) to work on balance and bending. He has to learn to carry himself and me as well and there’s no trick or shortcut for that. He’ll get it eventually if I keep riding him correctly. Even though I’d like him to do hunter/jumpers eventually, I have no plans of jumping anything any time soon. We have way too much work to do on the flat.

He is starting to stretch down and chew the bit. We have moments where he lowers his head and stretches, so I know he’s catching on. I want to tell him that it’s okay to chill out and stretch. The other day we rode in the vacant lot and I have no pictures but it was magical. We had long sequences of him stretching down, accepting the contact and moving really loosely. It was all at the walk, but hey, it’s a start! Any suggestions on encouraging him to stretch down are appreciated!

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Thunder has an English saddle!

I’ve been riding Thunder in a western saddle because Baron’s saddle doesn’t fit him at all. They’re built completely differently and Baron’s saddle was clearly not going to work. The western saddle has been at the barn for years, not even sure who it belongs to, but it fit Thunder perfectly and it worked until I could find a deal on something of the English variety.

Now I need a black girth!
Now I need a black girth!

I found a Courbette Luxor on Ebay for $250. It’s older but still in great condition. I love it because the flap isn’t super forward. I can do flat work with a longer leg position and not feel weird. I don’t jump a ton, hardly ever really, so the dressage-ey flap is great for me. Y’all, there is a reason those saddles cost thousands of dollars. It is so comfortable! I slide right into it and I feel like I’m sitting exactly where I should be. Most importantly, it fits Thunder. He looks so cute all tacked up, it’s ridiculous.

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Thunder’s old owner threw in his bridle when I bought him. The bit is a full cheek French link with no keepers attached. I had to google the purpose of a full cheek bit. It really only works if you attach keepers. The keepers are little pieces of leather that attach to the cheek piece which in turn connects to the top of the bridle. It acts as leverage on the poll. It’s meant to encourage the horse to keep his head down or to have a more vertical headset. I’m not crazy about any artificial aid that puts a horse in a frame, but it’s a non-issue because the keepers weren’t attached and so the leverage effect wasn’t happening. Without the keepers the full cheek is kind of useless.  It may as well be a D ring or eggbutt. The cheek pieces can get caught on things without the keepers as well, so I decided to toss it in favor of something else.

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I’ve been riding Thunder in Baron’s snaffle bit which he seems to like. I borrowed a D ring snaffle from another boarder and, if it fits him, I’ll buy it. I’ll try him in it tomorrow and see how it works. Mostly I want Thunder to be comfortable and not mind being ridden. I googled “What is the kindest bit?” and the general consensus seems to be that it’s the rider’s hands that make a bit gentle. Harsh hands make a harsh bit. Since Thunder is an easy going guy, I feel like I can get by with a really mild bit.

We all know the tack situation is a big deal. To work at their highest potential, horses need saddles that fit and bits they don’t hate. This is one step closer to setting Thunder up for success!

Thunder the Wonder

My goal is to ride Thunder 2 or 3 times a week, 4 if I’m lucky. He needs a lot more work than I initially thought, but I love this stuff! I love laying the foundation and getting the basics correct. Thunder is a funny horse. When my kids are on him or when I’m on him and walking with a loose rein, he’s perfect- relaxed, forward and happy. As soon as I add leg, he’s a mess. Head comes up, he gets nervous, he kinda loses his shit. Not in a panicky way, like he’s going to run off with me, more like he’s scrambling to figure out what I want. He tries a canter, then a fast trot, then he gives up and walks. I feel bad for him; he’s just trying to figure out what his new job is.

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My number one goal right now is relaxation. He hasn’t been ridden in a while, so he needs to get more fit, but that’s secondary. If he’s not relaxed in his work, he’s using all the wrong muscles and moving backward in his training. We walk a lot on a loose rein so that he can stretch and move out without being high headed and nervous. Today we walked over trot poles to get him to pay attention to where he’s putting his feet and hopefully to start building some muscle in his back. As you can see from the picture, he was relaxed and essentially perfect. Eventually we’ll trot over the poles, but that’s a ways off. I want him relaxed in the trot before I complicate it for him.

Then my kids rode him bareback with the “reins,” just a leadrope attached to the halter, to let them practice holding the reins without pulling on his mouth. I don’t even have to hold on to him. He just follows me around and walks calmly for the kids. It’s like he instinctively knows his job is to pack them around and not dump anybody off. My kids are thrilled and it’s easy work for Thunder.

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Just checking to make sure they’re still behind me!

After the kids rode, I hopped on for maybe 5 minutes. It might have been three minutes. We walked over the poles and then I lightly added leg. Of course he went straight into a canter (which I rode bareback without falling off, I’m happy to report) and when he gave me a few trot strides, I got off immediately and took him back to the barn for a snack. At this stage in the game, I want to reward him for the tiniest successes, and I want him to have a clear reward for trotting. He trots, he gets to quit working.

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Working with horses is slow going sometimes. I’ve learned from Baron to be thankful for even miniscule improvements and to be generous with praise and rewards. Horses aren’t mind readers. I’m sure much of what we ask them to do doesn’t make sense to them in the slightest. “Why on earth would you make me walk through that death trap of a mud puddle?” “We’re trotting in circles? Again?!?” We have to be patient with them and realize that they couldn’t care less about ribbons and toplines and gymnasticizing. They want to eat and roll and hang out. I want my horses to enjoy their work, to be rewarded clearly and often, and to go to work with happy and willing attitudes. I want it to be a win/win.