Slippery slopes

I just came across this article of a disgruntled ‘animal welfare activist’ who lost the team competition after a team mate was DQ as a result of the blood rule.

In my profession, there can be no ambiguity, no possible alternative interpretation of the words on the paper, and absolutely no gaps. So, I’m quite good at finding them. This open letter has many.

But besides that – if we start allowing the little things , how long before the big things are allowed?


Being Grateful for Things You Don’t Like.

Love this.

Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

WMDodgerRideMy favorite training mentor had a habit that drove me nuts. She would be working with a horse who spooked or flipped his head or had some other issue that made him a disaster and when she climbed on, if you were close, you could hear her say in a low and quiet voice, “Goody, goody.” She would have a small smile and be cheerful.

The woman was nuts. It was like she couldn’t tell right from wrong. She loved a bad ride. It wasn’t that she wanted the adrenaline thrill of trying to stay on, and she didn’t pick fights. She just thought a conversation with a horse got more interesting once some resistance showed up.

I was a novice rider just beginning to compete a young horse and neither of us was very confident. One of us was trying way too hard. And it was so important that…

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My take on the Olympics (because everyone has one!)

Since everyone who knows what dressage means, have had an opinion about the recent Olympics, I thought I want to have my say on it too.

I have been consistently disgusted with what has been ‘dressage’, over the last few years. After WEG last year (or was it 2014?) I thought that dressage couldn’t possibly sink any lower. My personal experience at grassroots level, trying to find a show that will allow me to participate in a bitless bridle didn’t help my overall opinion either. And then the comments I got when I finally did participate, which was more focused on my choice of tack than my or my horse’s ability. All in all – negative. Very negative.

And then came the Olympics…

I know there are comments to be made about what was bad or horrible, but I want to comment on what stood out for me, that stood out more than the bad/horrible. Also, I only ever managed to watch the performance of the top 10/15. And of those, I want to talk about my favourites.

What I saw in those rides, was noses that were consistently on or in front of the vertical. I saw open throatlatches. I noticed normal looking extended trots with hind ends that matched the front, rather than excessive front leg movements with hindlegs that were left at the previous letter. I saw superb, goosebumpy piaffes and passages. One horse had a passage that was probably the most lovely to watch of every horse that I had every seen.

I saw uphill, and horses sitting rather than those bouncy piaffes that  seems like little bucks disguised as advanced dressage movements, that dressage had been littered with before

And you know what I picked up the most? The fact that several riders, had absolutely zero contact on the curb.

I saw horses that were relaxed and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. And FINALLY, I saw that this was rewarded, rather than those that I am not referring to here.

Dressage has a long way to go to where all of us would like to see it. But for the first time, I actually think that Dressage have moved in the right direction.

This was what I picked up in my favorites at the Games. Of course there are others, but I thought it necessary to, for a change, focus on the good 🙂

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.

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 😦 )

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!).



Starting self carriage

Last Thursday was lesson day again. We did a warmup as usual – luckily it was quite a warm day, so Bitou got warmed up quite quickly and then we could work.

Bitou, who is a South African Boerperd, is a naturally gaited horse, which means that he is 5-gaited and not 3-gaited (as most horses are). But, because of this, his default is to move his legs, but keep his back very still. This is very nicely illustrated in the rack (one of the additional gaits). It’s a very fast gait (as fast or sometimes even faster than canter!) and is recognized by it’s 4-beat rhythm and extravagant leg movement. However, doing the type of riding that we are doing (which is classical dressage orientated), we want him to move his back, not just his legs. So all the work that we are doing, is to encourage him to round, with his hindquarters pushing (rather than his shoulders pulling).

Jenny wanted us to start with a very active trot, so that Bitou is literally punching through with each step. usually, in a trot, he would put his head down for a moment to reach for the contact, and then immediately bring it back up. So the first part of the session we spent trotting, but then the moment he reaches, I give a forward cue (squeeze) with my legs and then give with the inside rein, keeping the outside rein very stable as to not ‘drop’ him.
My default reaction, when Bitou reaches for the contact, is to release. I ride out a lot, and I mostly ride with loopy reins/on the buckle. Now I have to teach my hands (and my brain!) that I cannot drop the contact like that! I have to keep the outside rein when we are doing flatwork, otherwise I drop and hence, unbalance him!
Either way, we worked on this for a while and I managed to keep my grip and feel on the outside rein but giving with the inside which resulted in Bitou reaching and taking the contact and keeping that contact (and hence the entire frame) stable! I literally squealed and had to stop immediately to tell Bitou how amazing he is. (Even though he was, once again, waiting for me to finally get it right so I don’t interfere with his job! 😉 )
Next, Jenny wanted to see that it was Bitou doing the work (keeping the bend, the rhythm, the speed, the frame), rather than me.  We started working on a circle, having that nice, active, punching trot. When we were in a nice rhythm with everything perfect (i.e. the bend, rhythm, speed and consistent frame), Jenny asked me to go completely passive. Initially I went into sitting trot, so that we could be sure my legs were completely passive. This meant that I am not allowed to influence Bitou at all. During that time, I am only allowed to keep my seat at the same angle (for riding the circle), but I am not allowed to use and weight, leg or hand cues. The aim being to see whether he changes any of the variables.
The first time we did this, Bitou kept the bend and rhythm beautifully, but he lost some of the activity. He stopped using his back and started using his legs only, again. But, I wasn’t able to feel this because I was concentrating on the sitting trot too much! So I asked Jenny whether I could rather stay posting, but just ensure that I don’t use my legs during the passive phase. When I stayed posting, I could feel the change immediately. It was as though the trot lost it’s bounce.
The next step was then to try and encourage him to keep that activity as well. So that he literally carries himself without me influencing him at all. We did exactly the same, but the moment I feel the bounce in the trot disappear, I would click (voice cue) and then touch the whip to his shoulder (literally just lay it on). Bitou is electrically responsive to my legs, and he absolutely hates the whip behind my leg (in fact, even if we’re standing still, the moment I touch him with the whip behind my leg, he starts swishing his tail and pinning his ears. If I do it to his shoulder, he doesn’t mind in the least), so we thought we’d try it to the shoulder. It worked fantastically well! So much that a click was later enough to get the activity back and he would keep everything constant with absolutely no input from me!
We did the same on the right (previously weaker) rein, but Bt got quite tense and started rushing. Jenny then had me change the whip to my left hand and immediately he slowed down, concentrated and carried himself even better than on the left!
We then proceeded to canter. The left rein was absolutely amazing, he carried himself with no input right from the beginning. The right rein was a bit more tricky, but the only reason being, that my left (then outside) hand is very dumb with the whip holding it! So I couldn’t change the angle of the whip to use it as a cue, without dropping the outside rein completely!
So my homework is now to ride with the whip in my left hand so I can actually hold the outside rein effectively! And to do exactly what we did, when we ride out. Bitou must carry himself, I can’t carry him.
All these things feel so amazingly advanced for this farm rider! That my horse can carry himself so perfectly, with no influence from his rider. Bitou is such an amazingly willing, but also so patient, horse. He is really the best partner to learn with!

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? 😉