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.

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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.

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!

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.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I worked Thunder hard yesterday, asked him to trot longer than I have before. I am by no means any sort of fitness queen, but I think Thunder is more out of shape than me. I get the feeling that trotting for any length of time is really, really hard for him. He has to slow down and pay attention and I think it’s actually more taxing on him than just cantering full speed ahead. The combination of having to move in rhythm and pay attention to my aids is mentally exhausting for him.

He’s learning that the easiest way to carry me is to trot rhythmically. It takes more energy to constantly speed up and slow down than it does to maintain a steady tempo. As long as he gives me a decently energized trot, I leave him alone. If he slows down to his poky, lazy trot, I add leg. If he does his weird canter hop thing, I half halt. He’s learned that it’s easier to just trot around with enough energy to keep me happy.

I’m going to show you some shots from our last ride. You can see when he throws his head in the air, when he stretches, and when he carries himself in a less giraffe-ey way. Be warned. Our ugly moments are totally, absolutely ugly. Fugly even.

So here’s the ugly stuff:

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See what I mean? Not exactly a show hunter just yet. He throws his head up during transitions and when he’s just plain over it. It’s happening less and less, but this ride I worked him hard and asked him to trot longer periods and I think he was letting me know that he needs to build up his fitness and this is hard for him. Fair enough.

Here’s the stretchy stuff.

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I love the first picture to the far left. He’s doing this more and more and throwing his head around less and less.

Finally, here’s the good stuff. These give me hope that one day he’ll be a horse and not a llama.

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Sunrise Ride: Totally Worth It!

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I rode at 6 this morning. I’m not a morning person, so that’s hard for me. But it was totally worth it. First we did our farthest ever off-property ride. About a 10 minute ride from my barn is a huge grassy lot that is currently empty. I’m sure it will be developed soon, but until then it is the perfect riding spot- grassy and flat! Baron was AWESOME. We passed lots of scary things- cars, early morning power walkers, trash cans, church signs, etc… He was very calm and level headed about it. When we got to the empty lot, he amped up the excitement level. There’s something about a wide open space that makes him want to RUN. I kept him mostly to a walk, let him trot a little, but didn’t do any cantering. Then he walked back to the barn like a champ, only bunny hopping once when a trash can fell over.

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Once back at the barn, we did a little trot work. He was moving so nicely after hacking out. He was relaxed at the walk and trot and just an absolute joy to ride. My biggest hurdle today was my fitness level. My legs get tired and my riding gets sloppy! I need to get back in shape in a hurry.

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I’m just so happy with how we’re progressing. He looks like a completely different horse than he used to, and my riding is improving slowly but surely. He’s a rock star. I’m so in love.