Fancy show jumper

A few hours before my flatwork lesson was due to start, my coach messaged me asking whether I’d be keen to do a joint lesson with a friend since we could get the ‘fancy arena’.

Good arenas in Noordhoek are about as scarce as carrots in my fridge, and there is only one really nice arena (that I know of) for rent in the area. It’s about 30x60m, rubberchip and has lots of jumping equipment. The only problem, being the only decent arena, is that it’s rarely available. I’ve ridden there probably about 3/4 times and the going is amazing. Bitou always puts his best hoof forward when we ride there, so I assume it carries his stamp of approval as well…

I rarely ride with other people because I quite like riding alone. Then I don’t have to worry about other riders or their horses. So when I do end up riding with someone else, it’s always interesting to see how Bitou responds. Sometimes it’s a competition, sometimes he couldn’t care less, and sometimes he’s the leader.

So our lesson starts and we’re trotting around the track, letting the horses have a good look at the jumping equipment etc. There was a warm berg wind blowing, so we didn’t take too long to warm up. I had to keep Bt quite a few lengths behind the other horse, otherwise he started to run through his gaits to get closer. In turn, the other horse was going slower and slower, waiting for Bitou to catch up! It was quite funny how we tried to manage their paces.

Eventually we settled in a rhythm. They would ride a 20m circle at A and C at the trot, and as they come out of the circle, Bitou and I enter it. Our flatwork was atrocious. Every time with a nice cadence going in, and then a rushed, running trot going out. I could barely ride a circle, it ended up looking like a 23m egg shape or a  14m circle with a square head…  The moment the other horse was too close, Bitou lost focus and fell on his inside shoulder. I struggled to feel and correct it in time and hence it was quite uncomfortable and difficult to ride. A little bit better on the right rein, although then our circles were way too small again! I increased the distance between the two horses and it became much better. Not nearly as good as it can be, but acceptable.

We proceeded to canter. Here I had to increase the distance even more, as Bitou covers quite a lot of ground whilst the other horse is more advanced and therefore much more collected in his canter. But, all of a sudden our circles were perfect! (Well, perfect compared to the trot circles!). If I just remembered to NOT DROP THE OUTSIDE REIN!!!!!! Albeit a bit small (prob more 17/18m than 20m), they were round and we managed to keep the pace.

It was quite funny. The scaredy cat rider can ride the canter properly, but not the trot!

Our coach then put up some little jumpies for us. The other horse competes at 70cm, but I don’t jump, so they kept it at my level of comfort 🙂 We trotted over on both reins and Bt was great, even though I struggled to get him straight onto the jump (as we were riding it on a circle). We then took a bit of a break whilst the other rider jumped higher, and then we finished, by trying to go over the jumpies at a canter.

And… we did! It was so much fun! It was in fact much easier to ride than the trot, and I managed to get him straight onto the jump much easier than a the trot! (And much straighter as well). Bitou jumped like a pro and I survived!

It was only 30cm, but I told him the whole way back what an amazing show jumper he is! 🙂

Show post mortems (Human version)

I am not a show jumper. At all. And because I don’t jump, Bitou doesn’t get exposed to jumping either. However, since we realised that Bitou absolutely LOVES going to shows, I’ve tried to take him to as many shows as possible. (just look at that face…)


Now since I ride bitless, we’re not allowed to enter dressage shows so we really don’t have that many options. Therefore, Bitou and I started doing the pole on the ground class as training jumping shows. i) Bitou is in his element, being at a show ii) we are exposed to bright coloured, scary looking jumps – a good exercise in desensitization (even more so if it’s in howling winds!) iii) I don’t have to jump, we can just go over poles on the ground (well – i guess that’s debatable if you look at the second pic here…)! So it’s a win-win.
So we started getting a little bored with pole on the ground (like one does) and upgraded (very fancily) to the 30cm classes. I’ve done 2 or 3 of these now. Pole on the ground normally goes very well and we will trot the entire course. But with the 30cm, I tend to tense right before the jumpie which is an indication for Bitou to stop (Bitou: “She tensed, it can’t be safe, best I take her over this enormous pole carefully!”) So our modus operandi is to trot up to the jumpie, stop, and then carefully climb over (exhibit A – the pics below).
Bitou has developed quite a reputation for this, so everyone claps and cheers every time we climb over so carefully!
Now this past week we had another little training jumping show, so I entered Bitou in POTG (twice) and 30cm (once). Bitou was, as usual, most relaxed when in the warmup (where I, in turn, think that we might die – with pony riders whizzing past at top speed in every possible direction with no sense of order). (Check out the  pic, no stirrups, no reins and he’s just casually checking out what’s going on behind…).
We did our first round of POTG and it was great. Bt didn’t even look at the jumps! We went for our second round and I hear my coach yell ‘be adventurous! canter!’ and so I asked Bitou for a canter. So we cantered the entire course, him taking the correct leads and everything! Very chuffed (so much for a horse that couldn’t canter on the right rein at all, just more than a year ago!)
After that we had quite a while to wait. So Bitou had a bite to eat and I stretched my legs a bit.
(Photo credit to my friends at NC Photography – Thanks for this pic Natalie!)
Then came the time to have a little hop over the 30cm warmup jumpies. Surprisingly, Bitou didn’t hesitate once and actually hopped over them without stopping. (I say surprisingly, he probably said “Surprisingly, she didn’t tense, so I could actually do my job properly and jump rather than walk over!”)
Since it was going so well, I asked my sister (and groom for the day 😉 ) to quickly enter me for the 30cm a second time as well. Thinking being that we’ll have a look the first round, and then the second time can do it properly. So we went off on our first round at a trot, and Bitou either jumped or trotted all the jumpies! I felt adventurous and asked for a canter, but as we came close to the next jump (#6) , I must have tensed, worrying about the striding (yeah, I do that), and he stopped! Just like before. I tried the same up to #7 and the same happened, so at the last jumpie, I just asked for a trot and he hopped over nicely. (Please excuse the forward seat – I know it’s unnecessary at 30cm, but the dressage saddle cantle keeps hitting me in the bum if I don’t!)
(Photo credit to my friends at NC Photography – Thanks for this pic Natalie!)
So, we should definitely work on getting over these from a canter next. We went into our last round at a canter, cantering between the jumps, but I asked him for a downward transition right before each one so that we ended up jumping them rather than trying to jump from canter and hence walking over.
Lesson of the day: my horse is amazing 🙂
I walked him back in hand with lots of grazing stops and he got a whole lot of carrots later that day!
Interestingly, my experience at these little fun jumping shows have been way more positive than ever before at any dressage shows. But that’s a topic for another day!
(Apologies for the lack of paragraphs – WordPress seems to remove my paragraph/spacing every time 😦 )

Show post mortems (Equine version)

Don and Bitou are stabled together but I’ve never seen that they hang out together or play.

Today Bitou and Don were both at the jumping show, in the same class, and they were therefore warming up at the same time. Every time we passed each other, the boys would make some sort of sound (a half whinny/nicker, half squeal. Not calling, more like a greeting!) to one another.

After our last class, we walked home together and untacked. I went back to the show jumping to watch friends’ rounds and later in the afternoon went back to give Bt some victory carrots. When I walked into the paddock, there Bitou was, grazing nose-by-nose with Don. Literally sharing blades of grass. They shared some carrots and I left again.

I could swear they were comparing notes and discussing the morning’s events. Exactly like we do. “My rider was so good today, I am so proud of her!”, “Yeah mine too! And did you see how I jumped that last jump, it was huge!”

🙂 🙂

Embrace the spookiness

Mondays are usually very spooky days. I am mostly away over weekends which means that Bitou has his off days over weekends. So he is always a bit fresh and spooky after not being ridden for a few days. This week, however, I only popped in briefly on Monday morning to see him before work and give him some carrots, but I didn’t have time to ride and I couldn’t ride in the evening because of my sister’s graduation ceremony. That means that Bt got an extra off day. So I anticipated Tuesday’s ride to be even more spooky…

Additionally, the weather has (and is) been really dreadful – windy, wet and just rather unpleasant. But, we have a little training show on Thursday (public holiday) so it was quite important to get a ride in yesterday.

My default ride is to go out (ie outride) into the wetlands. So I went to fetch Bt from the field at his yard. He was very enthusiastic and met me by the gate, pushing his nose through his bridle when I held it up and dropping his head so I could put it over his ears, as he usually does (I really must take a video of how he puts on his own bridle – it’s very cute!).

As we walked down the road I could already see him being very looky, so I mentally prepared myself for a very spooky ride. And I wasn’t wrong. I mounted, he had a good look, and we set off at a walk.

Now – because I know he was very spooky, I made a point of riding with a loopy rein and heavy legs. In fact, I went the entire ride with either a loop in the reins or a very light contact. Basically a check for myself, so I  don’t accidentally become too strong when he spooks, hence causing a ‘conditioned fear response’, the thinking being “this object is scary and now i get jerked by the reins (a punishment), meaning i was correct in thinking that the object was scary”. My reasoning is that if he spooks, I would first have to take the loop out of the rein to take up a contact (a default and incorrect reaction of wanting to use the reins to keep balance, which is useless anyway since my core muscles must keep me in the saddle!). This would then allow me time (i.e. a split second) to think and stop the default reaction before reaching the point of contact. It’s possible that this is not the correct way to go about it, and I would be most interested in others’ opinions, but the reasoning, in my opinion, is logical and it worked (for me). So I’d use that method again!


Bitou was indeed incredibly alert and fresh, having a second and third look at everything but… he was so amazingly responsive and so very, very forward. We were trotting and cantering with him looking elsewhere, but 100% focused on my aids.

This is the first time I experienced this. Interestingly, I was recently made aware and have spent a lot of time thinking about how unaware we are of our horses whilst working with them. We expect them to concentrate on us, but then we get distracted (chatting to someone while tacking up, looking at something else etc) and we don’t return the favour of being focused on them and giving them the required consistent signals that is good horsemanship. So I’ve really been concentrating on concentrating on Bitou even if I am doing something else. And it seemed yesterday, as though he was doing the same.

 He would look in any direction, but he would keep going straight in our direction of travel and he would respond to my aids immediately (even perfect canter – walk transitions on voice cues). We discovered a new path recently that is a lot of fun to ride. It is very bendy and you can really use it to do nice schooling exercises. So we had a trot through there. Then there is a nice grassy patch where we always stop for a quick graze, but because it’s in a slight blind spot (which can make for an accident if a horse suddenly comes cantering past!), I use that spot as an opportunity to practice turn on the fore (as that is where we struggle in schooling sessions); so now he knows: we have a nice canter, then we stop, turn on the fore to face the opposite way in order to see oncoming equine traffic, wait, and then he is allowed a snack when I drop the reins.
Also, because the weather was unpleasant, there weren’t many riders out, so we had the place mostly to ourselves.
Stunning, stunning ride on a spooky, spooky horse!
Lesson of the day: embrace the spookiness and ride it forward!

Setting up for success

Bitou and I rarely have bad rides. In fact, I think most of our rides will be classified as an 8/10 or more. During my lesson last week I realised why that is. Because we set ourselves up for success…

My lesson almost didn’t happen because the weather was very dicey. As I drove into Noordhoek it started drizzling. I have a light cold, so I wasn’t keen on tempting fate and riding in the rain, so Jenny and I were messaging back and forth to discuss whether we would have a lesson or not. We ended up taking a chance and I tacked up while Jenny came over the mountain. The weather in Cape Town can literally change within 5 minutes and when she arrived the wind was rather hectic and the clouds had become increasingly ominous.

Now I want to interrupt myself first to say that Bitou is not a winter horse. He is terribly grumpy when it’s wet and cold. Interestingly, with the Facebook reminders of what happened 1/2/3/4 years ago, it’s amazing how I see that every year since I became Bitou’s human, I said (around this time of year), that Bitou hates the cold.

Anyway. We decided to give it a shot and just cut the lesson short if need be. We started warming up and proceeded to trot quite quickly so that Bitou can warm up as he was extremely fluffy (with all his hair standing upright to trap air, which is a heating mechanism) Here I let him choose the pace and the most important thing is to ride the corners of the arena properly. From the get go he was nice and forward and warmed up quite quickly considering the cold temperature. He trotted beautifully with me having to do nothing except focus on not interfering with him. We then proceeded to do large 20m circles, focusing on bend: at A, at B, at C and repeat.

He bent beautifully on the left rein, kept a lovely rhythm and was soft as butter in my hands. We then started riding 3 loop serpentines, focusing on riding the shape properly and bending nicely. Every time we did the loop that went around on the right rein, I could feel that he was struggling a bit, and then it corrected when the loop went around the next left bend.

Realising that the right rein bend was a bit difficult, we stopped and I asked for the right rein bend in the walk. Still he was resisting, even at the slower pace. Bitou is incredibly sensitive to my legs. As I’ve said before, often I only have to think something and he will react to it (with me having given him the active cue without realising it). However, this time he really didn’t respond to my inside leg, asking him to swing his rib cage out. To avoid nagging him by doing the same thing over and over and him not responding, I then layed the whip behind my leg (literally just lay the whip on him very softly). Bitou hates the whip. He doesn’t mind it touching his shoulder, and he’s gotten used to me riding with it, but do not touch him with it anywhere else than his shoulder. He became extremely agitated, ears back and tail swishing violently (and I was barely touching him, my hand was just a bit more ‘out’ than usual), so Jenny told me to drop the whip and not to ride with it at all anymore, because he reacted so badly to it.

Interestingly, after that, he became increasingly distracted. There could be many reasons for it: i) I had forgotten to tighten the girth once mounted, and the saddle slipped a teeny bit forward (not enough that anyone would notice, but if he notices, it’s game over – he doesn’t take lightly to his saddle being in the wrong place!), ii) there were activity behind the trees and fence on the other side (where we couldn’t see, but we could hear), with people grinding stuff and doing manual work, iii) the weather was miserable iv) i often lost focus and wasn’t feeling 100% or anything else, we really wouldn’t know and to be honest, it really doesn’t matter. Fact is, Bitou wasn’t giving his all as he usually does, and we had to act on the horse that I was riding at that present moment, rather than the horse that I usually ride.

So we took a step back and took the pressure off. We went back to the left rein, doing some canter work, and then another curious thing started happening: every time we turned the corner between A and F, he started leading with his shoulder, resisting all aids and running through my hands. It happened twice and then we decided to change the approach as what I was doing was not helping him get off his shoulder. Then, as I turned the corner i pushed him forward, and lifted the outside rein (up-release-up) and also bump-release-bump with my outside leg. We did this a few times and by the last time i only needed to give a soft squeeze with my outside leg to keep him going straight.

We went then switched between left and right rein, riding a 20m circle and at B and E, halt, turn on the forehand and go the other way. Again I learned something interesting here. I wrote previously about how Bt rushed through this, and now I realised why: i ask him to do the turn by turning 90 degrees and then stopping and then doing the other 90 degrees, so keep it slow, correct and controlled. But what was happening was that Bt reacted faster than I could respond. He is so unbelievably sensitive to aids and quick to learn, as I’ve said before, always one step ahead of me! So what Jenny had me do, was initiate the turn but then immediately ask him to halt again, because I was too slow which meant he seemed to be rushing, whilst he was actually just responding faster than I could!

I tell you- this horse responds to thoughts rather than cues!

A very valuable lesson: we weren’t at our best, but instead of pushing him and forcing him to do new things, we took a step back and made sure to set us both up for success by the things we did. So a session that could potentially be very frustrating turned into a super positive one! Thanks to my wonderful coach who reads horses and their humans so well!

That man who listens to horses

In Science, we publish our research as we go along. But every once in a while you get a landmark study: the study where the investigator finds something groundbreaking, where his work (be it a new discovery, understanding or a method) changes things forever.

A lot of work is then built on that. Sometimes the method or the discovery is improved upon as it evolves, sometimes it gets a different shape or package, but that original paper and author is always cited, even if it is 100 years later.

Today (3 June 2016) I got to meet that person in the horse world, the one who brought about the change, whose methods are still widely used, and a lot of people have used that basis to build on and from.

He was the one who said that violence has no place in horsemanship.

My absolute horse hero.MR2

Lesson update

Each week i say that that lesson was our best yet and last week was no exception.

After our usual warmup, we started by trotting with a light connection and Bitou could choose the pace. Then, Jenny would give a cue which meant I had to balance back: this balance back serves to get Bt to wait for the next cue, he is then prepared, balanced onto his hindquarters and waiting so he can respond instantly.

Ever since we worked on sublimation transitions (trot to halt), which taught me to prepare Bt properly before asking, he is incredibly sensitive to a balance back. When i say balance back I literally mean “think of closing your thighs and sitting deeper for one moment “. I swear Bitou is responding to my thoughts rather than my muscles. I must be giving an absolute minuscule movement whilst thinking ‘re-balance ‘, because I can’t feel that I am actually doing anything other than thinking!

Anyway, once I have prepared, I must be very careful with my next cue to ask incredibly softly. The next step was a trot-walk transition immediately turning into a volte (a circle of 6-8m). Here the bend is very important to ensure that Bt’s body follows the arc of the circle with his nose staying in the middle of his chest. Once again the outside rein is important to keep stable to ensure that his neck doesn’t bend too much (in relation to his body). On the left this was more important since Bt bend very well to the left. However on the right he did it perfectly even with his struggling rider!

We then proceeded to trot, doing a 10m circle in each corner of the arena. Interestingly I found this quite difficult as posting the trot makes it difficult to use my seat as effectively. I kept turning my shoulders to ask for the bend, after an inside calf cue, instead of turning my hips. After working on the canter, I tried the trot again, but doing sitting trot instead. This worked much better!

We then proceeded to canter, doing a 12m circle instead of 10m. I found it easier to ride this than the trot, but I have to be very soft in the way that I ask. The left rein was great. Of course refinement is necessary as we get used to these new exercises, but I was thoroughly impressed by how willing Bitou is to try it and to put up with me fiddling with the aids until I get it somewhat right! And at how easily he does it every time! (As a result we actually cantered a 10m circle by accident- i tell you, i felt like we were doing a canter pirouette in a grand prix level dressage test. It felt like we were standing still, yet cantering. Hard to explain that feeling of power!

We then went on to the same on the right rein. My first words were that I don’t think we can do it on the right rein. First mistake- doubting myself and Bt. Of course we can! We gave it a go and managed to actually get it right, but I psyched myself out and couldn’t ride it again. Bitou was thoroughly confused as I was asking him to balance onto his hindquarters, but I wasn’t asking effectively, so he saw it as a slow-down cue, but then I was asking him to canter. So complete mixed signals. You could see how he was trying to figure out what i was asking. To make it easier for me, we then went on to do a 20m circle at E instead. Because Bt isn’t overly fond of the whip, I ride with it in my left hand when on the right rein, but my left hand is very dumb and I struggle to use it independently, ie when i want to lay it on his shoulder, i end up dropping the outside rein connection, effectively dropping him mid-movement. And although it’s a light connection, it is still like holding a rope steady on both sides and then suddenly dropping one side, causing the other side to lose balance. I changed the whip just to see if it made a difference and immediately we cantered a beautiful circle! Next step is to educate that left hand of mine!

We ended with a connected and extremely powerful trot, riding deeply into each corner, and letting him go on the long sides. The power of the trot is incredible. It’s actually somewhat difficult to post at times: it feels like i could have a cup of tea during the rising phase!

I say it every week, and this week I want to say it with a Monty Roberts quote, there is nothing like the willingness of a horse, trying his absolute best for you (whilst you are actually the one needing to catch up!).