Monday, November 25, 2013

A Tale of Three Horses

All three of my horses are wonderful to be around and to ride, but they are very different, and have different natural abilities.  Part of this is due to the way that they are built physically.  Whatever a horse's build and conformation, the horse's ability to move and carry herself effectively - from behind - can be developed and enhanced.  But certain things will be harder for certain horses, and some horses are more gifted athletically - things just come easier for them.  They also differ in their emotional dispositions.

My three are a spectrum of builds and natural abilities, and I've been working with each of them for different amounts of time.  Dawn and I started working together in the fall of 2009, so we've been together for four years now, although we didn't move to the new barn until February of 2011 and our riding was episodic at best before then, and she had a bout of EPM in the spring of 2012.  Pie and I got together in November of 2010 when he was four, but I hadn't been riding him for long - we were at a barn with no indoor - when we had our wreck in June of 2011, which resulted in 6 weeks of no riding and severe loss of confidence on my part.  He also had bouts of EPM and also Lyme, which set us back.  He spent the month of March 2012 with my trainer, and he and I worked intensively with her, which got us back on track.  Red and I started working together in the spring of 2011, but he had many issues, most of which were unresolved when Pie and I had our wreck, and he also had an episode of EPM to contend with.  I did some work with him in the fall of 2011, but things only really got started in the right direction when he spent 90 days with my trainer - we worked intensively with her - from March through May 2012.

Dawn is now 16, Red is 12 and Pie is 7.  (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, for what that's worth.) Dawn when I started working with her was very braced and had great difficulty relaxing or offering softness.  She's quite athletic, but is somewhat hindered by being slightly downhill in her build.  A lot of her issues when we started were mental ones - nervousness and a tendency to rush. She's extremely intelligent and super sensitive, and tends to be a bit of an over-achiever - you barely have to think something and she's on it.  She's quite sound as a rule, and moves well for her build - her softness and self carriage have improved enormously as the relaxation has come through, but her build and age limit her ability to do more demanding work, like true collection and extension, well.  She's now capable of true forward together with relaxation, and is generally very soft and not braced.  She's getting easier and easier for me to ride. She's a horse who bonds tightly with those she learns to trust, and is very sweet and looks very feminine, but she can be fierce, doesn't give her trust lightly and is a mare of strong opinions.

Red has conformation to die for - he's built uphill and his proportions and angles are just about perfect - the first time I laid eyes on him I could see his potential.  He's had some issues with soundness, partly from an injury he incurred in the summer of 2012 and partly from some arthritis in his hocks, but he's perfectly sound right now (knock on every available piece of wood) with our routine of almost daily work and aspirin, and is naturally extremely athletic - if he were a football player he'd be a running back - nimble and fast and very well balanced.  He came to me extremely braced, and very anxious and over reactive, and with no personal space boundaries whatsoever.  He was completely lacking in confidence in himself and his handlers.  He has enormous potential, and some of this is already showing through now that he's learning to trust again and to relax and concentrate.  Today's ride was a good example.  He was offering me total softness at the trot - he was in self-carriage consistently - the reins weren't even really necessary - and was offering something very close to true collection and extension at the trot, with the greatest of ease.  Like Dawn, he's very sensitive and responsive, and riding him is more and more frequently a pure delight.  He's also drop-dead gorgeous, which doesn't hurt.  He's also very affectionate and really wants to get out and do things - he nickers for me or for Pie rather than for food.

Pie is Pie, and is not as naturally "hot" in temperament as Dawn or Red.  He's a big horse, and long in the body and neck, although his legs are in proportion.  He looks like a very bulky appendix quarter horse, although he's a registered QH.  His neck and head carriage is naturally on the low side. He also has a very big head and a Roman nose - he wears a 5 1/2 inch bit and he's in a one-ear headstall because I've been unable to find a headstall with a throat latch that fits him - his jowl is very deep.  And he's a bit narrow through the body.  He's got good leg angles and is very sound (once he got over his various bouts of EPM and Lyme).  His biggest conformational challenge is that he's a bit downhill, although that's improved some as he's grown since I got him.  Engagement from behind doesn't come naturally to him and we've worked hard to develop the muscles he needs to carry himself better.  But he's not likely to ever be able to move as well as Red.  Even though he's an easy horse to ride in the sense that he's not reactive and his natural inclination is to go slower rather than faster - he's the only one of my three I'd ever remotely consider letting any one else sit on - he's also harder for me to ride than the other two.  This is because for him to travel correctly he needs to have true forward - not just speed or cadence, but relaxed, pushing from behind, forward.  He tends to fall on the forehand, either because he lacks impulsion, or because he's rushing and bracing against hand or leg.  If he's in my hands, that means he's usually on the forehand and starting to brace, and then I lose the body and hind end.  He's a solid guy in an all-around way, and just a pleasure to be around - he's got a sweet face and a good sense of humor.

So today Pie and I worked on maintaining forward, and getting bend and steering from the hind end.  I also asked him not to "dive" with his head and neck - he sometimes does a fake softness that is really more of a "curl up", which puts him on the forehand.  So to get bend, and get that inside hind to step up and under, I worked on activating the hind end and doing as little as I could with the head and neck, other than asking for some softness without diving.  The true test was circles.  Circles without softness, or where the hind end wasn't carrying the horse in a unified manner, turned into eggs.  Circles with good forward and the beginnings of engagement were circles.  It was hard work for both of us, but we did some good work by the end.  He's improved enormously since I started working with him - he can now carry himself at the canter much more softly and continuously and his trot continues to improve - but as usual, most of the work is about me and how I can be effective and soft with him at the same time.

Three wonderful horses - my teachers - who could ask for more?


  1. You have accomplished so much in your relationships with all three of them. Given how different they are I think that is quite impressive. I will admit that I have a special fondness for Pie, I am a sucker for a roman nose.

  2. You did a great job of conveying the difference between the three. I remember when Dawn first started resting her head on your shoulder.


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