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!!

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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.

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…)

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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!
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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.
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(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!)
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(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!

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? 😉

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.

Adventures of a South African in Azerbaijan

ADVENTURES OF A CAPE TOWNIAN IN BAKU (this was posted on my Facebook account on 18 June 2015, but I love the story so much that I decided to post it here too):

So.. I went to the shop to buy washing powder. Only washing powder. I was a bit worried that I will end up buying some random other product because all the labels are in Russian. But I found some that is actually English!  Well, I walked out with 3 bags full of goodies to take home!

On my way to the shop, I ran into a little kitty who was dozing off next to a lamp post. I’ve posted about the Baku cats before. They don’t seem to belong to anyone and they are everywhere. They are mostly quite slim (not starving, but certainly not fat) and quite dirty. So I start petting the kitty, who wakes up and immediately starts soaking up the attention. He actually jumped onto my leg and grabbed my hand every time I stopped petting him or stopped rubbing his belly! Now, this was around 6pm. And it seems to be common that the men in the area come out around that time and sit on the pavement in little groups to chat.

So keep in mind, that I am already stared at wherever I go. Now, this white chick is sitting on the pavement, playing with a stray cat and talking to him in Afrikaans for about 15 minutes! A guy approached me and welcomes me to Azerbaijan, and then told me the cat’s name is Vaska (don’t know the spelling). Vaska absolutely loved the attention. And the men on the pavement probably wondered what the hell is wrong with me!

Anyway, so off I went to the shop. When I came back I stopped to quickly pet all the cats along the way, as I always do (which almost made me late for my bus once!) and when I looked for Vasko, he was gone! Then, a couple of steps further, I saw the little kitty, on his back with his little paws in the air. Happy as a cat in Egypt, belly being scratched and head being stroked by all the men who sat watching me earlier!!

Riding updates (back dated)

I’ve been sort of keeping a ‘blog’ on my riding progress on Facebook, but it’s really difficult to go back and find the posts again without having to scroll through many unrelated posts. So I’m copying it here for better record keeping 🙂

This one from 15 April.

I have a bad habit of sitting slightly to the right (my dominant side) when riding as a result of placing more weight in my right stirrup. Obviously this is not correct so now I have to work on keeping equal weight on my seat bones. A new technique we are using is to ride using only my left stirrup. This forces me to put more weight on the left which then creates the ‘correct’ feeling, which would hopefully even out the issue. At walk, trot and canter.

I tried it out on the trial for the first time yesterday – the weather was too gorgeous to waste it in the arena. It’s much more difficult than it sounds, but Bitou and I both managed really well! It was actually a lot of fun. We rode to the dam and stopped there to graze a bit. Then I hopped back on and rode back, doing the same thing.

When we got to our last canter stretch, a lady was walking her two dogs off the leash. I wanted the entire path to canter, so Bitou and I stopped and waited for them to pass. When they reached us, the dogs all of a sudden stormed up to us, one going towards Bitou’s legs! I dropped the reins and grabbed his mane (so he could use his neck to balance, should he want to swing around on the uneven ground), which is maybe stupid, but the only thing I could think of in a split second! Bitou totally surprised me by not moving. He was dead calm and just stood completely still. At the same time the lady shouted at the dogs and they ran back towards her. First negative encounter with dogs and Bitou handled it like such a pro!

We then headed home where Bitou had his supper. On the way to his night paddock, I hopped on sans saddle with nothing but his mane to hold on to. We had a little trot and canter (!) up to his paddock (a bit scary, i must admit!) but he stopped immediately when I asked as I was worried that my legs will bang onto the fence around the corner. We then had a quiet walk down the last stretch to his food 🙂

What a super, super golden horse he is!