An article worth saving

This is a good one. I am posting it here to read again. And again. Classical Training: The Art of Letting Go



A private wild life safari – on our doorstep

Bitou and I normally have lessons on Thursdays, but it’s been raining so much that everything is waterlogged and we decided to rather not destroy the grass. So, we ended up going on an outride instead.

We rode out towards the beach and Bt was just fantastic. We went further than what we’ve ever gone alone, and as we turned around, someone came past on their way to the beach. We followed him for a bit before turning around and having a trot through the deep water and stopping for a mouthful of lush green grass at the water’s edge.

As we rode back, I saw a dog walking on the access path. Immediately I wondered what a lone dog was doing there, when I realised that it was actually the Noordhoek caracal!!! Finally! Everyone has been reporting glimpses of her, and I’ve never seen her! We were 50m or so behind her (close enough for me to recognize the ear tufts and tracking collar without my glasses). Bitou was walking fairly fast and every now and then I asked him to halt as the caracal casually walked out in front of us, zig zagging across the path to avoid the water.

I was softly speaking to Bitou but she wasn’t worried about our presence at all. She glanced back every now and then but didn’t increase her pace. As we reached a patch of water (which is obviously more noisy), she started trotting and disappeared through the fence. I was busy telling Bitou how absolutely privileged we were to have seen a caracal (a shy animal) for so long when we turned the corner, and… There she was again, carefully choosing her path to not get her toes wet!!

Bitou was walking fast and we ended up following her very closely when a breeze must have picked up. I was so enchanted that I didn’t realize until Bitou stopped abruptly, giving an almighty snort and started shaking his head up and down.

I suspect he didn’t realize what it was until that moment ! He didn’t try to bolt or spin around but he flat out refused to move forward, obviously sensing the predator and the danger it held for a prey animal. I gave him a few minutes and then tried to make him move forward but he straight out refused. I realized that, although he wasn’t putting either of us in danger, I wasn’t going to be able to override the instinct, so I hopped off and led him a few steps, taking care to stay in front of him. He settled immediately and I hopped back on, having a lovely chilled ride home, grinning ear-to-ear (still am actually!) about experiencing something so unique and magical, with my special boy who kept me safe even when he sensed extreme danger.

What an experience: having followed her closely for approximately 100m.

How lucky is that!!

A rather sad state of affairs.

I went for a walk the other day. I walked past a property in an affluent area where there were a few horses. There were three or four horses, each standing in an individual sand paddock, about 8x8m big. They stand there the entire day. Tonight they go into their 4x4m stable until tomorrow, when they get to go to their 8x8m paddock again. I’m sure the owners genuinely love their horses. 

I recently watched some dressage (adult riders). In one class, a horse that was noticeably uneven (a euphemism for lame), won. I’m sure the riders love their horses and I’m sure the judges know best. 

Not long ago I went to a jumping show. There were lots of pony riders. The default thing that I noticed, is that when most of these kids (barring one or two) want their ponies to do anything (move, stand still, turn) was to give them a massive smack with their crops. No soft leg/calf squeeze first, no voice cue, no indication of any sort of preparation so the pony can expect and prepare that he is about to be asked something. Just a hell of a smack. I’m sure the kids genuinely love their ponies. 

I wonder what I do with my horse, which makes people say the same about me.

The thinking game

You know you’re on the right track when your coach says, right at the end of the (rather complex) lesson “you are getting closer to doing all of this without a bridle”.

Winter is a tricky time to ride. The days are so short and everything is so wet, that you struggle to get a decent ride in. That equals Bitou not working enough and becoming excessively high energy (as in, spooks every second second). I said yesterday that for the last 10 days or so, it feels as though I only have my horse under me 50% of the time, the rest of the time we’re completely out of sync because he is spooking at something, and I am in front, behind, or on the side of the direction of movement.

I asked Jenny whether we can do a mentally difficult session, so that Bitou has to concentrate properly, and she didn’t disappoint. We did a lot of basics (something I let slip on outrides, and besides my lesson once a week, I hardly do anything other than outrides… 😳) and went on to circles and serpentines and then to circles in the canter but… using only voice cues in the canter, nothing else. Bitou was incredible, concentrating hard, focused on his work and active, listening, and not a single spook.

It just made me realise once again how much he loves his job. He has become bored on the outrides because I didn’t use them to make him think. I would just ride with a loopy rein and wonder why he spooks. Today I realised again that he needs to think and be stimulated. He thrives on it and he is so chuffed with himself when we get something difficult right. And to hear that comment from your very honest coach, when you’ve been struggling for two weeks, is really something.

I tucked him in and sat with him for a bit while he munched his teff. When I left and I was halfway across the paddock, I turned around as I walked away, as I do every day, and waved at Bitou. He always watches me as I walk away, but today he had a huge mouth full of teff and as I waved, he started shaking his head up and down (as horses do when they have a big chunk of food that they’re trying to break into smaller pieces!). I could swear he was waving back at me after our amazing session.

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

Snakes and seats

Very recently, I’ve started riding on outrides trying to ride on the neckstrap rather than the reins. The reins are there, but I don’t touch them – they hang on Bitou’s neck while I hold the neckstrap with one hand and then the other hand is loose. (Edit: Don’t tell my coach, I’m supposed to be working on my hand position!)

Yesterday, we went on our usual Wednesday outride. We were happily trotting along the bridlepath and went up a little incline. I was riding on the neckstrap only, and neither Bitou nor I was really paying attention as we were still warming up.
The next moment I saw a massive mole snake on the other side of the little incline we just trotted up. I didn’t have my reins, I had only one hand on the neckstrap and was trotting along on a horse who was looking in the distance at a pretty grey mare that was grazing nearby (he is quite the ladies man). I didn’t know what to do to avoid treading on the sunbathing snake, so I launched my body to the left hand side. Bitou instantly moved in underneath me to ‘catch’ me and we managed to pass the snake, missing by about 20cm. What an amazing reaction!
I’ve noticed before, that we he spooks, Bitou will always ‘take me with him’ when he shies. He doesn’t normally shy, but when he does, he does it almost in a controlled fashion (for lack of a better word). We’ve always known that he is an extremely sensitive horse (as in, he will immediately say if his saddle is a smidgeon too tight, if you put too much rein pressure on his nose, he will pull back and you will lose etc) but this was such a good illustration in how sensitive he is to weight changes.
Why do we need reins again? 😉

Lesson updates: Sublimations & Shoulder-in (1)

As I was getting ready to leave work for my lesson last week, I told Ant that I don’t feel like having a lesson (because it’s always hard work and I was feeling lazy). Her response was that the lessons you least feel like having, usually ends up being the most amazing ones. And was she right…

It was rather chilly and we know Bitou takes long to warm up when it’s cold. So we had a long trot and canter warm-up, taking care to ride the corners of the arena properly and focusing on getting my hand and seat position correct for the rest of the session.

Since the plan was to start working on shoulder-fore, as preparation for shoulder-in, Jenny wanted Bitou to bring his hind leg in further underneath him. To aid in this, we worked on trot-halt-trot transitions. Importantly, Bt must not stop on his shoulder, but stop from behind – this we get from ‘riding into the halt’. It’s difficult to explain but entails keeping the forward movement while asking for the halt. For this I found that it’s really important to prepare properly. If I didn’t, then I caught Bitou off-guard and the down-transition would be sloppy. If I did, he would literally feel like a wound-up ball of energy, waiting for my next cue and then respond the moment he feels it.

I’ve always done halts through the walk and we’ve only worked on trot-halt-trot once before, so initially I was a bit slow and we got a few steps of walk in between each time. Jenny then helped me with specifically the ‘halt’ aid. I was making the mistake of pulling back whilst asking for a halt with my seat and legs, but pulling on him is a cue for Bitou to pull against me. (He is extremely sensitive to rein pressure, if you pull, you WILL lose. No exception). Yet ‘pulling’ is such a default reaction!! So Jenny’s tip was to close the connection but not pull. So he effectively pulls against himself if he doesn’t respond immediately. So now we are basically doing a double downward transition (a sublimation, if you will!), all the while asking him to move forward into the halt. After that, Bitou got it immediately! If I prepared him sufficiently, the transition would be lovely, crisp and clear. Very cool!

Next we did turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches. Interestingly, Bitou seems to anticipate the turn on the fore, and then rushes through it, rather than waiting for me to cue him. So we worked on that. The turn on the haunches is much easier (even though it’s supposed to be more difficult!). We speculated that might be that it’s a more difficult maneuver and therefore he waits for me and concentrates rather than rushing it? (I will read up a bit!)

We then proceeded to shoulder-fore. This is a preparation for shoulder-in. Basically, the horse’s shoulder is off the wall (to the inside) but he is moving forward in a straight line. In a proper shoulder-in, the horse will be moving on three tracks rather than four. Also Note that it is the shoulder that must be off the wall, not just the neck! We first did it at a walk so I could get familiar with the aids. Well – the aids aided in confusing this rider sufficiently! So Jenny had us rather do it at the trot. Although it’s faster, the trot is a two beat-rhythm (compared to the walk, which is a four-beat rhythm), so it’s much easier. We did it on the left rein and Bitou aced it! So much so that we went into full shoulder-in! He is incredibly supple, so once he understands what you are asking, he does it almost perfectly.

I was completely blown-away when we turned around, though. On the right rein (his difficult rein!), at trot, first time, and he did the most amazing, proper shoulder-in!! (We repeated it another 2 times to ensure it wasn’t a fluke!) This boykie is so athletic, he constantly amazes me! Obviously we have to practice and refine it, and “ride” it less obviously (me!), but wow!

We then finished off with some nice big, stretchy trot and canter circles. cropped 1

The absolute highlight of the lesson was however when I asked Bitou for a nice fast canter down the long side of the arena. As we turned the corner, I dropped the reins completely down onto his neck and … he kept his frame and continued cantering as though I was still holding the reins!

Notice the grin (and the position of that hind leg!) (Please excuse the odd angles of my forearms – I’m still getting used to the new hand position!)

cropped 2

What a horse!