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.

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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.

Month 4 Recap- February

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February was almost a total waste. It rained and then snowed and then rained some more. The barn was a giant pit of mud and muck that made riding nearly impossible. I lunged Thunder a few times and rode once or twice and that was it. We got nothing done as far as advancing his working trot. It was too muddy to trot anywhere.

I say that February was *almost* a waste because we did accomplish one thing. I decided to try and do Western Dressage with Thunder instead of pursuing hunters. Here’s the thing; I don’t love to jump anymore. I enjoy it with Baron every now and then, but I’m getting old and I’m not into the thrill of it like I was before. I love dressage, the good kind of dressage that turns backyard nags into respectable equine athletes. I love, love, love the German training scale and the logical progression of dressage training. But let’s face it. Thunder would not hold up against big moving Thoroughbred and warmblood horses at a dressage show. He’d get lost in the crowd and his small but mighty talents would be overlooked.

Recently I heard about Western Dressage. It uses the classical training scale to improve stock type horses like Thunder. It uses the same principles of classical dressage but doesn’t discriminate against smaller, western style horses in favor of big movers with lots of impulsion and suspension. It recognizes that stock horses are built for a different purpose and move differently. It’s perfect for me and Thunder! He has a chance to show against horses similar to him and I get to nerd out on the training scale.

Best of all, the North American Western Dressage Association offers virtual shows! You simply video your ride at home and email it to the judges. They email you back a score card with comments just like you would receive at a real show. I don’t need a trailer to participate! It’s perfect!!!

We’re nowhere near show ready, but if spring would ever come we could start training again. Thunder is a wonderful little horse and he’s going to go far. If if would just quit raining for crying out loud!

Training Thunder- January (Month 3) Recap

January was miraculous for Thunder and for me. I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t experienced enough to turn Thunder into anything even resembling a hunter. His improvement this month did wonders for my confidence. I’m seeing that working with horses isn’t magic and it isn’t some mystical, esoteric secret. It’s mostly patience and common sense. With that said, you better believe I’m watching YouTube videos and reading like a mad woman to try and better educate myself on how to properly develop a horse.

We trotted poles to mix it up.
We trotted poles to mix it up.

In January we lunged consistently 5 days a week at walk and trot. All I wanted was for him to stretch down, long and low. Everything else will follow that. His topline will start to muscle up, his neck will have muscles on the top instead of the bottom, his hind quarters will get stronger and rounder, and he’ll step under his body more actively. But first he has to stretch.

Boy did it work. He went from Llama Land to moving like a horse. He stretches down almost immediately at the trot now and he can carry himself in a true working trot all the way around the round pen. He’s relaxed, he knows what I’m asking him to do and he does it without a lot of fuss. His sourpuss attitude is gone and he seems engaged in the work.

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I honestly think he is enjoying all the stretching. It’s like yoga for him. He is incredibly more free in his movement. His steps have become longer and more flowing where before he had very short, choppy gaits. It’s the most fun thing to watch. He’s changing little by little right before my eyes.

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To top off our month of lunging, I rode today to see if I could get him to stretch at the trot. I’ve been watching this dude on YouTube named Will Faerber. He’s a dressage trainer somewhere in California and his YouTube channel is ArttoRide. I love him. He makes a lot of sense. One thing he says that resonated with me is that you should not bother riding a hollow horse. You’re only reinforcing all the wrong movements, building the wrong muscles and hammering on his back. Teach the horse to stretch on the lunge and only ride when he’s built up the strength to carry you with a lifted back. That little gem of wisdom is the reason I quit riding and started lunging Thunder.

Look at the top of his neck! It's arching in the right direction!
Look at the top of his neck! It’s arching in the right direction!

So today I rode Thunder to see if he could stretch at the trot with me riding. HE DID! I could hardly believe it myself because his trot has been bad beyond description. But today he stretched down and continued to stretch for several strides at a time. It’s a frickin’ miracle, folks! My giraffe is transforming into a horse! We’ll still be lunging, mostly because he needs to build strength, but at least I know that it’s working and he’s progressing!

Finally! A working trot!

So far January has been fantastic for Thunder. I quit riding him at anything except the walk and I lunged him instead. I free lunge because the lunge line gets in my way. I can get into a groove with just me, the horse and a lunge whip. I’m telling you, lunging can be magical.

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I don’t do side reins or a chambon either. I decided to go the hard, time consuming way of letting Thunder figure out for himself that it’s more comfortable to lift his back and use his butt than it is to run around like a llama with a hollow back and head in the air. And you know what? He’s getting it! He’s getting it really quickly actually.

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It’s not that I’m anti side reins. I know that many people with far more experience than me use them effectively and well. I’m just kind of a purist. I want him to discover on his own with no pressure from a gadget how to properly use himself.

This month he has blossomed in the round pen. He is relaxed at the walk and he stretches down at the trot. He moves like a different horse now. He lifts his back, lowers his head and he’s starting to build muscle in his back end. It’s more than a moment here or a moment there. He’ll stretch low for several strides and he no longer acts nervous and panicky. He understands what is being asked of him and he does it without any fuss.

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After his lunging routine, I hop on him for a few minutes. I usually just tie the lead rope to the halter to make reins. We walk around calmly and then I hop off. He does not move correctly at the trot with a rider, so we don’t trot. There’s no sense in trotting on him while he’s hollowed out. It reinforces all the wrong habits and builds all the wrong muscles.

Eventually our lunge work will carry over to the trot, but we’re not there yet. I completely overlooked the walk with Baron. I had no idea how much could be accomplished at the walk and how much I was missing by skipping it and focusing on the trot. That’s a mistake I won’t make with Thunder.

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This is what I love about working with horses. Good training and riding can take a ewe necked, hollow backed, nervous wreck of a horse and turn him into the equine version of a ballerina. Lunging is like yoga. The horse stretches and builds muscle, but does it in a relaxed, calm way. The horse’s overall appearance improves. His gaits improve. He becomes powerful and floaty instead of poky and dull. All horses are naturally majestic; correct work amplifies the majesty.

Training Thunder: Month 2, December

Thunder and I saw a lot of progress in December. I hardly rode at all and free lunged instead. I felt like riding him was jumping too far ahead. He needed to go back to basics. I’ve been doing a ton of research on how to get a horse to use himself properly and round his back and push from his hindquarters. I’ve come to the conclusion that lunging him in side reins or riding him in draw reins might get his head down but it won’t teach him to work over his back and get his butt in gear. So I’ve committed to taking the long, slow route and not tying his head down to get him in a “frame.”

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I won’t bore you with a play by play of the lunging. We lunged. He stretched some. It wasn’t epic. I was wondering if it was doing any good at all, but then on New Year’s Eve we had a fantastic ride. We walked down a residential road and we did not go faster than a walk at any point. But he stretched! And he gave me a swinging, active walk instead of moving like a tortoise! It was the first time he used himself correctly for longer than a few moments. He relaxed, he stretched his neck down and he didn’t require so much effort on my part to keep him moving at a good clip. He seemed content and interested instead of doing the bare minimum.

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If we can keep working like that at the walk, then eventually it will carry over to the trot. I really neglected the walk with Baron. Back then I didn’t realize how much can be accomplished at the lowly, humble walk. Now I get it. If a horse can’t do something at the walk, chances are he can’t do it at the trot either, much less the canter. There’s no sense in asking Thunder to relax and stretch down at the trot if he can’t even do it at the walk.

I’m learning that there really are building blocks to training horses (and riders) and when one is skipped, the hole in training will rear its ugly head at some point in the future. Better to take it slow and do it right, even if it takes longer than slapping on some side reins and getting a pretty picture.