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.

 

Baron got hurt and Thunder stood still.

I’ve heard that 10% of horses have 90% of the injuries. I’d say that’s true based on my experience with Baron. He has again ripped a giant hole in his flesh. My best guess is that he did it on the gate. He kicked out at another horse and hit the gate but I didn’t realize he had cut himself until about 2 hours later when I came back to feed and found him like this.

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The vet came out and bandaged him but the bandage only stayed about 24 hours. After that he was supposed to be on stall rest, but Baron respectfully disagreed with the vet. He paced so much in his stall that he started bleeding again and he wouldn’t eat or drink his water, at which point I turned him and Thunder out in the little pasture where hopefully less damage can potentially be done. Baron says he is a pasture horse now, thank you very much. Stalls are for chumps.

After being turned out he was happy as a clam and he’s been healing well. His wound is a giant nasty scab but it’s not infected and the leg isn’t swollen. Again what could have been a life-ending emergency has turned out to be a month or two off work for Baron. I’m starting to think he does this when he wants a vacation.

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Taking care of Baron meant 3 or 4 hours a day at the barn for the first week after the injury. He had to be cold hosed, walked, stall cleaned, etc… so I haven’t done as much with Thunder as I hoped. But I decided to start all over with him from the beginning. He has a lot of gaps in his training and a lot of bad habits. I need to address some of these before I worry about getting him to move like a show horse.

I started free lunging him and doing groundwork. We do the most basic stuff- moving his butt away from me, lunging WTC in both directions, halting and standing still. At first he HATED it, such a sourpuss expression, bucking when I ask for a canter and looking generally miserable. But he’s really smart and now he’s figuring out that it’s kind of a game. I think he doesn’t mind working without a rider. There’s no bit and no one on his back and he’s able to relax and move correctly.

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He’s got potential.
One ear forward, one ear on me.
One ear forward, one ear on me.

We’ve also been working on standing still for mounting. When I got him, he would not stand still. He scooted his little butt over the minute I stepped on the mounting block. When I managed to scramble on with one foot in the stirrup he immediately moved forward. We’ve been working on standing still at the mounting block. I would put him where I want him, then stand on the block and rub his back and give him a good butt scratch. If he moved, I moved him back. Eventually I would lean on him, then put one leg on and just stand there. I didn’t get on him the first day, just stood with my leg draped over. Last night for the first time he stayed completely still for his back rub, leaning on him and even when I slid onto his back. He didn’t move off; he just stood still for the very first time ever! That’s progress!

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Baron: Before and After

I was looking through old blog posts and old riding videos and I have to say we’ve come a long way. When I bought Baron 6 years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew enough to take good care of him and keep him healthy, but not enough to ride him well. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, and even then I rode little horses, nothing big and exuberant like Baron. I still have a long, long way to go and Baron does too, but it’s nice to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come.

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Pretty big difference, right?