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.

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!

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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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.

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!