It took me quite a while to feel like we had built enough trust together through this restarting process to start him back under saddle. I needed this new “first ride” to be a wholly positive experience for both of us. I wanted to wait until it felt right and I knew I would know when that moment finally arrived. The only expectations I wanted to carry into the ride were that it was going to be short, sweet, and success would be defined as keeping the horse between me and the ground.
I lunged him briefly before we started and he was listening and responsive. He stood okay for me at the mounting block and I made some noise and flapped the stirrups but he wasn’t phased. He did walk off the second I had mounted though, so we will have to work on that more. We had a nice loose rein walk around the arena and he wasn’t concerned about anything. Unlike Harley, he barely swivels an ear for the pigeons rustling around in the rafters.
One thing I noticed that he did often, I think it is an unintended consequence from the groundwork I did with him, was to step his back end to the side every time he stopped. Maybe I overdid the hindquarter yields a little? Who knows, but I think I should be able to correct it fairly easily with some firmer leg support into the stops to channel him into a square halt. We walked and tried some steering and I even felt bold enough for some trot. He was great going left but a little sticky going right. I realize I’m probably babying him a little but he is also still super under-muscled. Conformationally, he already has a long back and weak loin so I am taking it slow and and relying more on ground work and nutrition to prepare him better for carrying my weight.
We’ve done a total of three rides so far and I am learning a lot about him. Some things I am particularly pleased about so far are: his minimal spook response; his excellent whoa; the effort I can literally see him making to listen to me; and dat shiny shiny hiney! A few things that are on my list to work on/correct are: standing quietly after I’ve mounted; install a more responsive “go”; and STEERING omg we literally have no steering so we’ll have to go all the way back to flexion and connecting the loin to the rein. He is also magnetically drawn to the sliding doors of the arena which both baffles and irritates me because he hasn’t worked in the arena enough to think that’s the way out and it irritates me because he will try to scrape me on the wall on that side so this will have to be addressed immediately. Now that I think about it, maybe it doesn’t have as much to do with the doors as the horses that are in their stalls on the other side of those doors….hmmm…
Our most recent ride began with the monthly tornado siren test that I had completely forgotten about… my barn is next door to a fire station and the county’s tornado siren. Luckily, all Bravo did was stand there listening with big eye balls and then it took a second to get his focus back to work.
I know that I am really struggling with some saddle balance/fit issues now because he and Harley are just built completely different- he is downhill with a long wither and an arrow straight flat back where as Harley had a big wither but was uphill and had a curvy back. I have been desperately trying to pad and shim to make my saddle fit as well as it can, but I think the writing is on the wall. There is a saddle fitter coming to my barn on Friday and I am going to have her look at my saddle and give me the hard truth and maybe some recommendations. Ya know, advice that I can throw out the window in 6 months when his entire body morphs again….
Last Friday, my friend came out to help me with him and she’s the only other person besides me to have ridden him since I bought him. They looked great and even though he demonstrated some of the same training gaps…ahem, steering and door magnetism… he did really well for her and she is such an excellent rider. I hope she is willing to come help me out with him more often this summer.
So much to work on! Any good tips you’d be willing to share to teach steering or to build topline? Sadly, hills are not available. I’ve got a pair of sliding side reins (Lauffer reins) on order to play around with and I want to try some body wrapping stuff I’ve seen to encourage him to lift and engage those abs. I don’t intend to rely much on gadgets, but I want to give him some guidance on different ways to use his body. Are there any you like?
My first ride on Bravo in his new home arena was a terrific letdown. I mounted just fine and started walking him around on a relatively loose rein to warm-up. He was a little fascinated by the other horse and rider pair in the arena with me but wasn’t spooky about it- just curious. I bent him toward the middle of the arena and went to gently ask for a stop to check my brakes. He grunted and lightly bucked. I continued and circled him and he bucked again a couple of times. I flexed him and made him circle in both directions which seemed to get his focus back but I still had concerns. So many concerns. About everything. What if he does this all the time and the people I bought him from swindled me and unloaded him on me? What if my saddle doesn’t fit? What if he doesn’t like the bit I’m using?
I’m not usually quite so insecure but during the buying process there were several red flags that I ignored to follow my gut. The sellers were extremely pushy, evasive with information, and clearly on a timeline to get this horse sold. I know what you’re thinking… I should have walked away for any ONE of those reasons, let alone all three. I eventually did enough internet detective work to calm some of my fears that he was a fine horse these people just didn’t have much experience and are not very financially stable which I think was the root cause for the sales pressure. Ah, the internet…
Still, I know some lingering doubts remained after such a sour buying experience. Add those doubts to a bad first ride and it’s a recipe for anxiety.
The first vet visit came a few days later and went a long way to helping me let go of some worry and rationalize. A painful wolf tooth and some ulcers from sharp points sure might make a horse unhappy in the bridle. I also switched saddles to allow me to pad up his complete lack of topline. I’ve only ridden a few times since.
It was a perfect storm of situations, but a few weeks into working with him on the ground he started becoming grumpy and aggressive at the tiniest of requests. He also started jumping out of his skin in the crossties which was completely uncharacteristic of him. I decided to treat him for ulcers, which eventually made big difference. That couple of weeks where his attitude was crappy, though? I didn’t feel comfortable getting back on him. I decided I wanted to “re-start” him and find out what he knew by working with him on the ground. That way I could still feel like I was making progress and getting to know him even if I wasn’t riding.
I’ve never started a horse before and wanted to bond with him before I would potentially consider sending him off or having a pro put some training on him. I did some research, watched some videos online, and settled on trying some of Warwick Schiller‘s methods. He’s an Aussie cowboy who competes in Reining but has also built a solid reputation training horses of all disciplines. You could call his methods your standard pressure and release, be the herd leader kind of training but that would be a gross oversimplification. His training has evolved to focus much more on building a partnership and reducing the elements of adversarial, predatory behavior that can result from too much of that “show him who’s boss” dynamic. He has some lovely, logical training concepts that are applicable to all horses and riders. His methods are approachable, seem feasible for even beginners, and perhaps most importantly of all, seem to produce some benefits even if the trainer makes small mistakes in execution
I started doing groundwork loose in a round pen and also on a 15’ lead rope. Asking for all gaits (while loose in round pen) by applying pressure with a lunge whip until he gave me what I asked for and then removing the pressure. Since horses are MUCH better than humans at reading body language, the idea is to get him paying enough attention to you to you that he responds to just body language and you don’t have to apply much, if any, pressure. He is now quite responsive to body language and voice commands- I point to ask him to go somewhere and then one cluck for walk, two for trot, a kiss for canter, and slow whistle to transition down and of course whoa.
I started out using Warwick’s method for getting a horse to change directions in the round pen but this particular method didn’t work well for me. He wants them to turn into the center of the round pen and at first Bravo would only turn to the outside when I asked for a change of direction. You are supposed to cut them off immediately and apply a bunch of whip pressure when they do this and make them turn back around in the original direction so they look for a different answer to that question. But because Bravo is 17hh of giant, flight animal, I had some difficulty putting extreme pressure on him- he would have just as happily run me over. So, after a few rounds of losing the game of chicken to a galloping horse I gave up on this method and broke it down into smaller pieces to get it done. I did it on the long line, instead, and moved on to the next parts of the training. Once I taught him to yield his hind end away from me when asked, the turning into the center became more natural for him. It isn’t particularly physically demanding work but it is mentally taxing for a young horse.
The part I really like about this type of groundwork is that it has given me a huge chance to hone my observation skills and learn how to read his body language much better. We have a better conversation because he stays more focused on me- anticipating that I might ask him to do something at any time and I have to focus more on him to be sure I am communicating clearly and always working on improving my timing and applying or releasing pressure at the right moment. Warwick has newly included more elements of listening during his training. Horses communicate with their bodies too, and we usually just ignore the more subtle parts of their communications. Bravo was full of emphatic, teenage “No’s” in response to all of my training questions when we first started. He still has those moments but we’ve come a long way with this training.
My current opinion of this stage is that the groundwork is building a nice platform for mounted work. Our trust in each other seems to be growing and that’s really all I care about right now. He seems to recognize me as his person. He meets me at the gate and when I’m working around the barn he is always curious as to what I am doing. He is starting to approach the training the same way.
We have been together for three months and only now do I feel comfortable and confident enough to get him back under saddle. That’s real life! This young horse is teaching me plenty about patience and managing my expectations.
I’m going to try to resurrect this blog for a pretty selfish reason but hopefully it can serve an interesting general purpose as well. Several bloggers I have followed for years have recently purchased young horses. We are all riding different disciplines, ride at different levels, and each of our young horses are very unique individuals but I’m searching for connection in the experience.
I have found myself scraping in the dark for solidarity. It’s one of the things that has been most comforting to me in this whole process. When I read raw, real posts on your blogs whether successes or low moments in bringing along your young horses, I connect and it brings me some peace. I’d like to add my experiences to encourage that connection.
Often accused of being too cynical, my level of realism can make me come off as a negative person. I’m really not though, it’s just a defense mechanism. I’m in this process right now at the very lowest point, where I feel the most vulnerable. So, naturally I’m feeding my doubts because if I say it right now at the start, that this is going to fail miserably, if that happens, then at least I was “right” as a consolation prize for having made a mistake. I know that’s a little silly, but it protects my fragile psyche. I haven’t learned to fail gracefully yet.
Very deep in the back of my mind, behind that protective cynical wall, is where I allow myself to hope and dream. The reason for this blog series, as it exists “behind the wall” is to create a memento to look back on someday with pride and even get to laugh at how difficult it all seemed at the time on the road to shaping my perfect partner. Back here, I found the diamond in the rough, I made the good investments, and above all, I trusted my gut with a big decision and it never let me down. I maintain the hope that I will find a way to enjoy the training journey. I also hope the series might help somebody else going through the same thing.
I’ve been confronting a significant amount of anxiety since I got Bravo. It wasn’t intentional- I thought finally having a horse of my own would be the best way to reduce my stress by expanding my commitment to and supporting one of my greatest passions and emotional outlets. I should have seen that adding to my plate, even a positive stressor, was still adding. I thought I could handle it, but my plate was awfully full already and buying Bravo has put things over the edge. Maybe writing about the training process can help me process these emotions in a healthier way. It’s worth a try!
That’s enough soul-baring for now.
Stay tuned for Episode 1 of Bringing Up Bravo: Taking it From the Top
Whoops! Sorry I kinda ghosted you guys in November. It’s been busy! I have been doing a lot of traveling and, of course, plenty of riding too.
My trainer continues to ride and take lessons on Harley which is still nice. She doesn’t go out of her way to offer to give ME lessons on him (I haven’t taken a formal lesson this month) but at least she is more forthcoming with feedback from her rides on him that I use to decide what I will work on when I ride him. Changing trainers is tough…but we are doing pretty well, all things considered.
I extended Harley’s clip a little bit, with much less success than my previous attempt. Must have been some beginner’s luck in my favor on that round.
In late October, Harley and his buddies went on a fast-paced tour of the farm and surrounding neighborhood thanks to the antics of one naughty pony barreling nearly over his owner and throwing open the pasture gate. This all occurred during a dressage clinic at my barn which I was auditing at the time. The area’s main trainer was aboard her horse schooling canter pirouettes and before we all knew what was happening she yelled “loose horses!” and we all clambered up from our chairs to close the arena doors in time to block the incoming stampede. My eyes bugged out of my head as I realized that it was MY horse and, since his pasture is quite far from the arena, something very bad must have happened. I swore and fast walked out of the arena through the barn hoping to head them off at the gate and hopefully keep them in an area that could be enclosed. Other barn members had heard the commotion and had already closed the gate. Harley and his herd mates continued to run around like idiots for a few more minutes refusing to be caught until finally Harley let himself be caught by my trainer while I managed to corral his stall buddy and the herd mare. Everyone grabbed a horse and we all walked them back to their pasture to turn them back out where they returned to eating grass and looking at us all doubled over in the driveway like “What?! We didn’t do anything.” It was intense. Thankfully, no people or horses were harmed in the great escape despite the whole herd crossing a fairly busy country road to frolic around the neighbor’s house.
Anyone who read my last post and thought I was being a stick in the mud about the pony tearing down the decorations while taking photos should keep this in mind… manners matter. This was the same pony.
Anyhoo…our barn has recently become a gated-entry facility! We’re so fancy.
I have been continuing to use my theraband off and on while riding. I think it’s a good tool but I don’t want to become reliant on it either.
Sorry all you get are the crummiest screen grabs from low light iPhone videos.
I am making a conscious effort while riding to be more aware of my body. Harley and I have fallen into a much more comfortable groove where I don’t have to be so constantly vigilant about external stimuli. He still spooks all the time at the dumbest stuff but I know his triggers and can read and feel his tension better now. I have noticed most recently that he rarely lets my right hip lead. There is plenty of chicken and egg argument going on here because my right hip doesn’t actually ever WANT to lead. Due to all of my knee problems being on the right, I am very weak on that side, too. I have to make a conscious effort to lead with my right hip when I walk so it just makes sense that I am not helping Harley’s left side weakness. This is what I now focus on during most of my rides.
The two very simple exercises that seem to be the most clear in helping me focus on this are: pushing my right hip to lead on a 20m circle to the right while focusing on keeping my weight balanced. The other exercise is leg yielding to the left. It’s important to focus on working the stiff side in both directions and it is so painfully obvious how much attention is required because when I come around the turn on the short side tracking left, I really have to actually think counter bend coming out of that turn or he will throw his shoulder towards the wall the second I ask for a leg yield. Both of these exercise provide some really good, and immediate, physical feedback so I know (even without a trainer) if I am doing it correctly or not.
I went home to the northland for Thanksgiving and lavished attention upon the two most spoiled creatures in the universe.
And on Thanksgiving Day in the middle of my third cocktail, I received this photo from my trainer.
I hope you all had a really nice holiday and got to spend quality time with family, friends, and beloved four-leggers.