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?

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!

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!

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.

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!

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.