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!!

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!

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!



Modern Dressage vs thinking for yourself

Everyone knows that there is a problem with modern dressage, but no one is changing their approach to dressage, because we all erroneously believe that we ourselves are doing it correctly, the classical way.

Therefore we are feeding this incorrect system. So what we are seeing is horses being produced and ridden incorrectly and people believing that what they are doing is correct. No one intends to do the wrong thing, after all! So if people think what they are doing is correct, but it’s actually incorrect, it’s no wonder that we see so many horses on the forehand, behind the vertical, trailing behind and not engaged at all (the exact opposite of classical dressage – in a nutshell). In every level of riding, from the basics to the top. Yet if you ask the trainer of that particular horse (or the rider for that matter) they will certainly defend themselves, stating why their approach is correct.

Of course, this is a multi-faceted problem which can be discussed in a number of ways (one of which is the drive to get results in an accelerated time-frame: I mean if someone paid a fortune for a horse, they want to see the results! Especially with our modern horses looking mature at the age of 3 already!). But I think the main problem is that people believe what they are told. People do not think for themselves.
This is not an equestrian problem only. As a scientist, I see it in my work and life every day. People haven’t been trained to think critically and to question everything. To quote something I saw on Facebook recently, “the problem is not people being uneducated, the problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught. And not educated enough to question what they have been taught“. Therefore, I question my coach. I’m lucky in having a coach that welcomes my ‘need-to-know’ and who doesn’t get offended by me questioning every word she says.
I’m by no means saying that I am the only one riding/training/working correctly – I certainly try my best, just like everyone else does. I am merely sharing my approach here: which is, asking questions and not accepting only one answer.  I think that a massive problem is that people do not question their coaches. And the coaches do not question themselves.
I said a while ago that I believe, if someone cannot explain the exact and precise action of a bit, that they shouldn’t be using it. The key being ‘understanding what you are doing’ rather than just doing it for the sake of doing.
Another example (I got permission from the rider to post this image, which I  turned into a silhouette to protect their identity, perhaps badly, but you get the idea!) to illustrate.example of forehand 2
The rider asked their coach whether the horse was on the forehand in this moment (yes, the picture is level, for in case you are wondering!). The coach said no, that is just the position in the canter, the horse is ‘definitely not on the forehand’. Therefore – was the coach correct in saying that the horse is not on the forehand? Should the rider just accept that the horse is not on the forehand because the coach said so? Is it not possible that the coach could have it wrong?
Let’s face it: horse people are opinionated. If you ask 10 people, you will get 12 opinions. So it’s difficult to establish what a correctly working horse looks like compared to one working incorrectly. So to avoid this, I like to compare everything I learn to what I’ve read, written by the classical masters, in some form or the other. If the aim is to ride classically, then surely those are the people who should guide the process of riding classically. In addition, I like to compare that to current high level riders who I respect (ie, i wouldn’t mind if they rode/schooled my horse).
Finally, as a scientist, I like everything to make scientific sense. If I apply an aid, or a sequence of aids, I want to be able to explain it from a physics perspective. If I am unable to, then I need to go read up until I am able to. If I still can’t explain something, both scientifically AND get confirmation from the classical masters, that this is the correct way to go, I throw that out the window and look at the next possible approach.
Yes, I get that everything is not so clear cut. Yes, I understand that it’s ‘easier said than done’. No one ever said riding is easy. Both in and out of the saddle!
I want to understand why I am doing something. I feel that I owe it to my horse to know what I’m doing, to ensure that I’m doing it to the best of my ability. That is MY approach. It might not be the correct one. And in 2 years time I might feel differently. But for now, I feel that we should question everyone: our coaches, our judges, and ourselves, 100% of the time, for the sake of our horses.

The outside rein

Today’s lesson was one of those amazing ones. I started a blog lnto which I post these updates, but there is still overlap. So here goes:

This lesson was very much a follow up of last week’s which was focused on my hand/thumbs and wrist position (post on the blog).

We started with a warmup as usual. Then we worked on corners – riding the corners effectively by preparing properly, asking for bend and flexion as we enter the corner and then riding the outside through. First at trot and then proceeding to canter. It was magnificent. Bitou used to motorbike around the short sides on the right rein canter, but by preparing properly and riding the outside through rather than dropping the connection, he took the corners like a pro!

We then did some turn on the haunches and turn on the forehand. Jenny had us do this because it is very effective in getting Bitou to step and reach underneath himself. Bitou finds it much easier than I do. I have to think (left, right, leg, hand, open, close! Turn around and it’s all the other way around! Confusing!) but he does it brilliantly when I get my act together and ask properly!

Now, we’ve been working a lot on bend and flexion. But today we worked on getting Bt to step in further underneath himself. So we want the connection but also the energy. We worked on a circle for this. We started with a nice forward and connected walk with nice bend and flexion. Then proceeded to trot. In the trot I then had to close my legs (more forward), hold the outside rein and give with the inside rein. (To give Bt the room to move into). But he became very stiff, hollow and uneven in the trot. He didn’t understand what I was asking and Jenny pointed out that instead of holding the outside rein, I dropped it when I gave with the inside rein. So I was effectively dropping Bitou mid-cue: he didn’t understand what I was asking. So to make it easier for me, I would use the same cue but instead of holding the outside rein, I would move my elbow back 2-3 cm (ie my arms would work in opposite directions rather than one being dormant but stable and the other active). The result was amazing! Bitou took the gap created in the inside rein and carried his neck, taking the connection up and ‘holding my hands’! All while this is happening, Bitou is keeping a perfect 20m circle by himself, just by my seat angle (remember the lesson a while ago when we worked on seat!). So much so that if I forgot to adjust the circle, the would go straight into a branch that smacks me in the face every time! (It must look hilarious from the ground!). A good way to remember, was Jenny’s tip ‘the outside rein should hold 2/3 vs the inside rein’s 1/3 of the total weight of the reins’ – of which the total should always be a light and consistent contact in order not to drop him.

We then did the same on the right rein. Main focus being to do exactly the same, but also by concentrating on keeping the weight of my seat bones equal. Instead of riding an oval and fighting to get around the top corner, which often happens on the right, Bitou kept perfectly straight on a perfect circle with no inside rein (literally hanging in a loop – i tested it!), and just a soft but stable outside rein, enough forward and equal weight. Riding the outside effectively (remember the beginning of the session!) and he was stepping in underneath himself and reaching for the contact! 😄

I so love how Jenny structure our lessons. Everything has a purpose and fits into the bigger picture towards the end goal!

I find riding more and more rewarding (as if that’s even possible) every time I realise how technical it is. You literally have to think of 1 million things at the same time, and the timing must be spot on else you’ll lose it. In fact, to think about it means your response is already to late. And that’s why breaking it up into bitesizes and then establishing it before the next bite is so effective and so rewarding!

Best lesson! (Again…! Starting to sense a theme here!)