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Mysafecobs Foundation Training Diary

MISSY'S DIARY

Lovely Missy

INTRODUCTION SEPTEMBER 11TH 2011

I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I love working with older horses, many of whom can’t wait to make significant changes no matter how difficult or temporarily painful as they relearn to use muscles long since set in a particular way, causing stiffness, resistance and short term behavioural issues.

Missy is 11 yrs and still very much in her prime. No longer considered a young horse, she is old enough for people to think she will have a number of well established “habits” horses around her age collect over the years. We know there are many examples to prove the point but as we show in our Behaviour Course, horses are merely responding to what is being asked of them from the rider and what they pick up from the environment. If it works for them it quickly becomes a habit and they continue to use it or do it. The good news is that it’s usually not that difficult to rewrite the programme and completely alter a horse’s way of going. Once they feel the benefit for themselves, they are mostly willing partners in learning how to do things differently.

Why choose Missy? I’ve been waiting to write a third and final (?) diary featuring an older horse and feel she will prove to be an interesting subject, not least because we know so little about her. Each day will be a journey of discovery as we work through her Foundation Training. I also feel she will be open to new concepts and easy to work with which is a big consideration given our current work load.

Missy arrived with us on September 1st. Her journey from Ireland was too long; it took a lot out of her and we’ve allowed a good chunk of time to recover. It wasn’t the driver’s fault. There were endless holdups on the M25 and various drop points which, combined with a top speed of 56mph, contributed to an endless journey for her.

Our decision to send for Missy occurred in an unusual way. In fact you could say she called to us from the online pages of a general website we weren’t even familiar with. There is a certain “Je ne sait quoi” about her. I definitely felt drawn to Missy, it’s hard to justify with logic or describe; it is as if a connection occurred, stretching across the Irish Sea to the English Channel. Life is full of twists and turns. Call is fate or foolhardiness, but she is here now and her journey from a little unkempt mare of unknown origin to fully trained safecob is one we’re sure she will enjoy sharing with a reader or two.

When the ramp came down there she was, ready to take her first step towards settling into her new home. She looked far more attractive than her one and only photo taken at a bad angle which still managed to show her wearing an ill-fitting saddle. After drinking loads of water she turned her attention to the haylage and ate steadily for the next ten hours before lying down on a lovely thick bed where she stayed another ten hours despite the comings and goings of daily life at MSC. Missy had clearly settled in!

We have few details about her other than anyone’s granny can ride her along a motorway. You can’t catch her without a bucket of nuts and with her new set of shoes she is good to go. We haven’t tested the first but no doubt the second is true and the new shoes? We’ve seen shoeing like this before. It’s illegal over here but elsewhere you can do your own farriery which often produces similar results to what we are looking at. Not to worry, she has good feet and once our blacksmith has prepared and balanced them properly before nailing on the right sized shoe, she will indeed be good to go.

We’ve done little with her except some handling, mainly grooming and touching different areas of her head. Horses don’t show gratitude easily but Missy gave a very good impression. She clearly relished having her wonderful curly mane brushed out. She stopped eating or even chewing, standing perfectly still with her neck poised over the hay bar. As the brushing continued, her head got lower and her eyes began to close. I lightly brushed different areas and noted any reaction. There were none but she is clearly head shy.

Why do people do this? What do they think can be achieved by hitting a horse? All that happens is you destroy any chance of gaining trust and full co-operation. Missy isn’t nervous but she is frightened of movement or touch around her face although she is very good to bridle. Our overall impression is of a horse with an exceptionally kind nature who wants to trust and one who probably had a good start in life before falling into less sympathetic hands.

We will start the week by riding Missy for the first time, I can’t wait to sit on her and take her to the village where she will have a further opportunity to show me what she knows, and just as importantly, what she needs to know in preparation for her new owner.


DAY ONE OF WEEK ONE

Somehow I forgot hurricane Irene was speeding across the Atlantic, all set to arrive in the early hours of the morning. Our first job is cleaning the fields which wasn’t easy as the force of the wind nearly knocked us over, not to mention the rain coming down like stair rods. Our waterproof over trousers soon filled with air, making our steps feel eerily light. We had visions of having a Mary Poppins moment sailing over the top of the horses. Riding would be postponed at least for the morning and instead we gave our arms and backs a good workout digging meticulously through the beds in preparation for winter, removing anything that wasn’t a perfect shaving from the corners and banks.

After lunch the clouds lifted a bit although the wind was still gusting strongly. Annie brought Missy in and said she was good to catch as she has been encouraging her with a nut every time she goes into the paddock. I thought it prudent to lunge her if only briefly as it’s likely to be months or even a year since she was last ridden. She hadn’t forgotten my previous handling and although still head shy, she was happy to have the front of her face rubbed and her eyes massaged. Horses generally love the sensation and it’s an excellent way of gaining their confidence.

I took her into the pen. She was nervous of the lunge whip in front on her but not anywhere else provided it was used softly. I spent some time encouraging her to sniff it and stand while I moved it up and down her face before asking her to move out and walk on. She soon understood my body language but I don’t feel she has done much if any lunging before. She was willing enough to trot but couldn’t wait to come down again to walk or halt. This coupled with the fact that she didn’t appear to notice the endless tarpaulins making a dreadful racket in the wind told me she wasn’t fresh and was hopefully ready to concentrate.

I tacked her up, noting what her mouth was doing once the bit was in, and carefully mounted in the passageway with Annie at her side. As I say, the weather really wasn’t conducive to my first ride on a strange horse but after carefully watching her reactions, experience told me what to expect. I didn’t feel it would be asking too much of her to venture through the village even if the conditions were less than ideal. I led her up and down the passageway a few time turning her on the girth. If you’ve never heard of this before, just watch an old time horseman and you will notice he never gets on a young or unknown horse before making sure there is no reaction. Turning on the girth is an essential part of starting or training.

I made sure her girth was tight enough but not too tight. This is important as you can never take horses for granted until you really know them. Throwing your leg onto an unknown horse’s shoulder while walking down the lane is asking for trouble and if they walk forward and feel an over tight girth they can explode.

We are always very careful about getting on strange horses even if they are older as we know only too well what can happen, usually in the first 60 seconds. I always sit quietly, barely moving so as not to make the slightest impact while at the same time giving sufficient direction to move them forward without really using my legs as we don’t want them to shoot out of the stables. It’s important to feel what the back is doing. Is it up? Does the horse feel rigid underneath me? These are signs that all isn’t well and definitely a warning. I’m glad to say Missy’s back felt flat and soft and we walked into the yard.

Before I took her down the drive, as always, I rode her very quietly in small circles. This not only tests the steering, or lack of it, the brakes, assuming there are any, but the chief aim is to prevent a disaster if she was the sort to shoot off down the drive or start broncing. Even though she didn’t show the slightest inclination to do anything other than what was asked, we always make sure we run through the same routine as safety is paramount.

Missy walked down the drive and onto the lane as if she had done it every day of her life. She passed the electrical transformer, the pile of old wood, the creaking gate opening and shutting on its chain, the heaving branches and everything in between that horses normally react to on their first outings. Although she wasn’t confident, she was absolutely non spooky from start to finish except when passing pedestrians. She is certainly green and uneducated but open and willing as well as forward thinking. I was wondering how it is that she has clearly seen life but yet doesn’t know even the basics when we turned onto a busier stretch of road. I heard the rumblings of a tractor and looking behind me noticed a large blue model towing a horse trailer. I thought rather than hide in a driveway I would keep walking to see how Missy deals with it. She dealt with it very well; in fact she didn’t take any notice of it. She is clearly dependable with bigger traffic.

That’s probably not quite fair to say Missy doesn’t know the basics. In an uneducated way, she stops, starts, more or less walks in a straight line, trots in a rhythm and stands still. She is responsive to the leg and is an innocent soul who is going to very quickly develop into a dependable ride in any environment.

There is more I want to write about her mouth and steering as well as her reaction to being touched in certain places whilst being ridden. I also want to mention the importance of the rider’s position in the beginning stages which I should be able to cover tomorrow. Missy came back to the yard in a relaxed frame of mind after a tour of the village which is just great, helping to raise her confidence a couple of notches as well.


DAY TWO OF WEEK ONE

Missy has a slight cough which is more like a sneeze, except horses can’t do that. Despite this, she did a first class impression, one I’ve never heard before, very realistic. So much so that she frightened herself on more than one occasion. Without realising the noise originated from her, she jumped in the air a little and when she came down all her legs splayed out. Poor Missy did the splits in the middle of the road causing the traffic to screech to a halt.
She was much brighter today, she almost felt fresh or at least very enthusiastic. Horses at her stage of riding vary hugely in their performance from day to day, no two are the same. She has already lost a front shoe and the rest are so smooth it’s like she’s on skates, sliding noisily down every incline. I can’t wait for her to see the farrier. She went past everything as good as yesterday, including the house with the pile of chalk in a wire cage outside a front gate guarded by a deflated builder’s bag. This particular residence took a good twenty minutes of tough negotiation with William before he would consent to pass it. In fact it took so long the car drivers had time to update their status on their blackberries while they waited.

You could say Missy wobbled her way round the village today with little inclination to travel in a straight line. I have the feeling that previously she was more or less hunted along. The different riding style is perhaps confusing for her but I’ve no doubt it will be short lived. Because she lacks confidence and trust, I can’t be too demanding, or should I say, apply too much pressure anywhere. Applying the aids too strongly on young or green horses can make them worried and anxious. This is due to their not being able to physically manage the movement or transition or even understand what the rider wants. You need to give the horse what we call “thinking time” to process the information. You won’t believe how much they appreciate it. Riding new or unfamiliar horses is as much an art as a science and to begin with you can’t insist on making big changes, you are better off with a more subtle approach. In fact it is safer to ride the horse as it is. By that I mean, an accomplished rider doesn’t seek to alter the horse’s way of going straightaway but rather does the best with what is being offered. Making demands before you have their trust and agreement can bring out undesirable behaviour.

With all the above in mind, I mostly let the horse get on with it as long as we are going forward. Confrontation is reserved for such times as napping, spinning, or backing up. As Missy doesn’t do any of this, I spend my time building her confidence in me. I do this by talking to her quietly and reassuringly, not idle chatter, rather tones and words to help her on her training journey. Even though I don’t consciously think about it, I pay attention to my breathing as it’s SO important in a riding partnership.

Missy isn’t used to being stroked on her neck, she thinks I mean go faster, which means she gets a lot of stroking! As horses are prey animals, they naturally feel afraid of someone leaning over them as it mimics predatory actions. Think of a lion springing on a horse’s back and grabbing the neck with its jaws, trying to find the jugular. Missy isn’t sure about my leaning forward towards her head and great care is needed when moving the upper body beyond the vertical.

On the way home I touched her behind the saddle. I know from experience how reactive horses can be to that sensation. In fact I’ve got a great story about a little lemon and white mare who had a huge problem in that area which was never overcome once she moved on. We couldn’t keep her, she was too dangerous, I often wonder how things turned out for her in the end but that’s for another day. When Missy felt my hand on her loins she instantly stiffened, her back went rigid and formed a ball. This reaction is a strong warning and often precursor to something dramatic like bucking the rider off. Many riders get unexpectedly dumped this way. They say they don’t know what happened, one minute they were alright and the next the horse threw itself around seemingly for an unknown reason. Anyway, Missy didn’t go beyond tensing but it will need addressing as will another dodgy area with horses which is their elbows.

I’ve seen many horses ditch their riders when they touched the horse unintentionally on the elbow with their boot. Quite why horses react so violently I’m not sure but we’ve certainly met a high number of so called experienced horses who took grave exception to this. We call it the “hidden button” and every horse we work with is tested for sensitivity in this area. As I suspected, when I edged my toe forwards and made contact with her lower shoulder, Missy thought it was awful. She jumped forwards as if she’d been electrocuted. I put my foot back again and she swung her head round to sniff my toe, getting another shock when she felt it touch her nose.

As quiet as she is, Missy is still a horse with a horse’s natural reactions and as I mentioned yesterday, we never take them for granted but it will only be a matter of a couple of weeks before she is completely reliable in those departments. By the time we headed home she was back to dawdling on a long rein. I really wanted to write about her mouth as so many horses have bitting difficulties and evasions but once again time won’t permit which is just as well in case the reader switches off!


DAY THREE OF WEEK ONE

Missy was waiting at the gate, following me around, and nickering when she was in the stable, so sweet. She is much improved when handling her head region, she doesn’t think I’m going to hit her every time I raise an arm. Her forelock is long and thick so I plait it and place it inside her brow band before riding in case she can’t see where she is going. We get “oohs” and “aahs” when the ladies from the village see it.

Missy seems to have a wider comfort zone than either Chatty or Toby who needed lots of work at familiarising to objects and sounds etc., Missy is already ahead in that respect, never calling for help or giving strong signals of insecurity but it’s early days and I don’t know her yet. Certainly she has little understanding of equitational finesse which, as always, is reflected back via her mouth.

As controversial as this may appear, the horse’s mouth is in fact a broadcasting station for the entire body, not simply a steering wheel and handbrake. A lifetime’s study of how the use of the bit affects horses physiologically and psychologically, I have exponentially increased my understanding of the way in which we influence a horse’s carriage and performance through this medium.

When we ride we really are connected. It’s as if we’re plugged in to the system so to speak, (software) via the reins (wires/leads). A healthy, positive connection is our responsibility. Instead of a keyboard to tap out our instructions, we use our minds, (thoughts/intentions) in conjunction with our fingers, wrists, and arms to send signals and information through the reins. Being connected doesn’t stop there as each segment is part of the whole which means our hands are not separate, all parts of our body work in sympathy. In order to broadcast effectively, there has to be a signal which I think of as an informational frequency.

The horse continually receives information from the rider which is in part decoded through the mouth, it’s a living sensitive organ, and if the applications are clumsy or off the mark, the messages we send via the reins scramble the signal leading to adverse results. It goes without saying that attention to horses’ teeth is important and dental irregularities must be attended to.

Despite regular visits from the dentist, horses continue to give feedback that affects their performance. Examples like opening the mouth, going behind the bit, above the bit, tongue over the bit, grinding teeth, twisting the jaw, locking the jaw, running through the bridle and snatching the reins are all symptoms of a corrupted signal resulting in interference and a poor performance. There is a gadget to overcome every difficulty which merely papers over training cracks. With true understanding nearly every mouth can be remade or rather reactivated. And it goes even beyond that. Problems with the mouth can cause lameness behind from disunited canters to unlevel strides. So you can see that the mouth, if only from a biomechanical perspective, is a very important subject!

Well, how does all the above affect Missy? Her mouth is unformed like a newly backed youngster. She holds is slightly open and tries to spit the bit out. Horses aren’t born knowing what the bit is for which is why we meet a lot of horses with no steering or brakes. A soft or responsive mouth is only possibly after activation. The mouth must be configured so to speak. This isn’t done in isolation as everything is connected but if the programming is defective then so will the result.

I can already feel Missy is going to have a lovely mouth although she has difficulties on the right side. She holds onto it and is unwilling to relax her jaw or yield. It could well be a dental problem or a muscular imbalance. When she feels the action of the rein, she bears down on that side and tries to drag my arm forward. I’m sure lots of you have felt horses do that. They’re not being naughty, they are simply trying to tell us what’s happening. It won’t be difficult to help her through it; it’s quite minor in comparison to many others we’ve worked with.

I had a nice time on Missy today. I felt she was starting to let me ride her. She was more accepting of my leg, enabling me to begin showing her how I can support her. When she realises it’s more than just an accelerator, I can begin to better shape her way of going.


DAY FOUR OF WEEK ONE

The farrier put new shoes on Missy today. Annie thought she might be nervous and need holding but I said she would be fine as she is so good to handle. We pillared her in the passageway and left her while we came in and out with different horses. She was as good as gold; it’s nice to be right sometimes! She definitely felt the benefit of wearing the right sized shoes on properly balanced feet.

We had our first shy today; a sideways jump would be more accurate. We were passing a car, a routine event, as the driver started the engine. I think there was an ignition problem as it made a horrible screech, the sound of which caught Missy unawares. We’ve met assorted heavy traffic which she takes no notice of but, as is often the case, something relatively insignificant can produce an unexpected reaction.

I am able to get my leg on her properly now, especially in walk. I can even tap her lightly with the whip without her thinking she’s under attack. We always carry a stick, it’s like an extra leg and once they trust it, it’s a good support tool. Use of the whip conjures up pictures of abuse and many people think it’s cruel to use one, probably because they see it as a form of punishment. You can’t actually use a stick on a horse which is frightened of it and we spend a lot of time reassuring the horse about different types of whip.

Our session today mainly focused on softening her mouth and refining her steering. I work the streets, using their layouts for different purposes. One of my favourites for balance and bend is a wide tarmac drive on a gradient leading to a row of garages. On a circle, half is uphill and the other downhill which naturally creates true engagement without tension. We did endless figures of eight there, only in walk, and when she becomes more aware of where her legs are we will progress to trot. It sounds simple but it’s deceptive, to begin with horses find it difficult no matter what level of schooling they’re at.

She relaxed the right side of her jaw for the first time today; she can do this while still keeping a straight neck, not quite right. She tilts her muzzle slightly upwards and I notice that side of her mouth is dry while the left side has foam. Horses need to have two sides to their mouths and if there is no foam or only foam on one side it shows all isn’t as good as it could be. I will flex Missy’s neck tomorrow from the ground to check whether she has a trapped muscle.

Missy was keen to trot, partly because she felt more secure with her new shoes, and bowled along at a strong pace. Like most horses at her current standard of education, her trot is too hurried and flat, albeit in rhythm. When asked to slow down, she leaned into my hand, becoming even more on the forehand. This kind of action can cause a vicious circle with the rider feeling the need to lift the head while being dragged forward out of position. The horse may incorrectly be labelled as a strong ride which isn’t really the case.

It’s simply cause and effect. Missy doesn’t know how to find her balance point with a rider and thinks she has to go faster to catch up with herself. If I pull on the reins, instead of slowing her down, she finds that leaning into the bit supports her head and neck, helping her to keep going! Being on the forehand is talked about more than it’s overcome but once you understand the mechanics of movement, the cure is no longer a mystery.

To help Missy reorganise her centre of gravity, I keep a firm contact on the reins without pulling. I’m not explaining it very well, I’ll try again. I have the majority of contact on the left rein for reasons I won’t go into now. In fact I’m regulating her pace with just one rein while the right rein is lighter and softer but with enough tension to keep her in a straight line. The knuckles of my left hand lie downwards and into her neck just in front of the wither. The joint of the index finger would be nearest her mane with the rest going vertically towards her forearm. I keep the knuckles pressed into her neck by anchoring my thumb across the wither. My upper body is slightly forward in line with her gravity point. When she lowers her head and bears down on my hand I slacken the right rein more. When her head comes up again I ease the pressure from the knuckles and thumb on the left hand. It really doesn’t take horses long to realise it is more comfortable for them to level and shorten their outline themselves.

It’s an effective and gentle way to help them discover the best way to carry the rider. We will build on that over the coming weeks and I look forward to seeing the way the muscles rearrange themselves to reflect her improved stature. She’s a nicely put together mare who won’t struggle to carry her head in the right place. My job is to show her how to do it without using force or gadgets.

You know when you’ve achieved the balance point with your horse when you can ride in all three gaits with looped reins without any change of pace. I could see I’ve got some way to go with Missy when I accidentally dropped a rein. As I fumbled around gathering everything up, Missy’s trot got so fast it nearly turned into a canter up the road, a sure sign of lack of balance.


DAY FIVE OF WEEK ONE

Missy loves her stable, she also loves being groomed and looked after. She is much less head shy and her trust levels have rocketed within a short time frame. The farrier made an astute observation yesterday when I made a point of telling him to be extra gentle with her as we didn’t want our good work undone. He didn’t think she was nervous in the accepted sense; he thought it is more a case of being knocked about as a result of her lack of understanding about boundaries or being bargy, especially on the ground. His opinion follows my initial feeling that she has in fact had a good start in life. No doubt that is the reason she is coming round so quickly.

We’ve worked with many fear filled horses and it takes months rather than days to help them get to a better place. If an animal has only experienced harsh treatment, it’s clearly going to take considerably longer to alter their opinion about the human race. Since Missy’s treatment didn’t go all the way back to the beginning, it is relatively easy for her to accept kindness.

We rode down the bridle path at the end of our drive for the first time. We could have gone there earlier in the week but I didn’t want to frighten her with so many low branches to duck under. They make quite a lot of noise as they pass over my hat too which most horses find initially.disturbing We trotted a small section and I was pleased to find she carried herself much better than yesterday. We turned onto the road at the end heading for the village. It is downhill most of the way, providing a good test of balance in trot. Missy found it difficult to hold herself together due to the gradient but even where the slope was small, the trot was inferior to the one in the woods. This indicates how much more difficult she finds trotting on the road. Due to the dry conditions it tends to be slippery which normally isn’t a problem for the other horses and it’s easy to forget how difficult it was for them to start with.

I could get my leg on even more today. I felt I was really riding her. By that I mean I wasn’t just sitting on her without making an impact, tactfully guiding her round the village. She felt ready for me to ask small questions and more accurately direct her feet (movements.) Yesterday I wrote a detailed account of my hand position with regard to counteracting leaning on the bit, I do hope it wasn’t too overwhelming, and today there was no need to repeat that exercise. One session was sufficient for Missy to get the message although the trot is still too strong at times.

I wanted to introduce half halts to prevent her from powering away. When these are properly executed, they are great micro rebalancers but a degree of finesse is required to be effective. Missy has limited buttons, commands like that are meaningless, so it was time to roll out another tool. I pressed my knees into the saddle, lightened my seat and imperceptibly slid my hips from side to side. This action, combined with the right pelvic and spinal angle, is terrifically effective and can stop a horse dead in its tracks. Even though it was the first time she had felt this action, she came back on herself immediately. I synchronised the release of pressure to match her reduction in forwardness. It won’t stop a horse in full flight but it’s a very effective brake for strong minded horses and those with little sensitivity in the mouth and so much better than pulling back on the reins.

There are different ways to teach a horse to stand for increasing periods of time. I used the first option which is to ask for halt. As soon as Missy stops, I immediately release the pressure on the reins. When she felt the tension ease, she would try and walk off and so we would repeat the process. It soon became clear that somewhere in her past she remembered a halt preceded a bit of a dash. She became all expectant and very slightly wound up. I made sure to sit passively with an empty mind so as not to contribute to her internal drama and when she realised she couldn’t go forward, she started backing up. She does this really well, in straight lines moving her legs diagonally.

Riders often get flustered when horses go into continuous reverse and either give a good kick to send them forward or start pulling on the reins. Even though it’s obvious that pulling makes it worse, it seems a common reaction. Kicking only confuses the horse if the reason for backing up is because he or she wasn’t allowed to go. The best approach is to do nothing, keep the reins slack and sit still. It took less than half an hour for Missy to work out that going backwards wasn’t getting her anywhere and surging forwards wasn’t what I wanted. She will need consistency with this exercise for a month or more for it to leave her repertoire permanently but I can already feel her relief at not having to bother with the excitement factor.

I’m really enjoying riding her, she is a most receptive pupil, biddable and open to training. She has earned her weekend off and due to next Saturday’s course, I won’t be riding on Monday, therefore no updates before Tuesday.


DAY SIX WEEK TWO

Although it’s only three days, it seems ages since I last rode Missy, who was first at the gate this morning as usual. She seems almost like a normal horse, letting me rub between her eyes on the way in. I religiously brush out her thick curly mane and plait her forelock every day to prevent knotting and increase the range of her vision whilst ridden. Missy’s head normally disappears inside the hay barrel while I tack her up, only lifting it as I’m doing up the girth.

Like many horses, Missy struggles to remain in one place whilst being mounted. As I place my foot in the stirrup she tries to walk off sideways somewhere. The reason she does this is because she doesn’t know how to position herself to combat the pull on the stirrup. Riders often mistake this for disobedience. They gather up the reins tightly or get an assistant to restrain the horse. Because the cause is not always recognised, horses soon develop the habit of walking off anyway. To help Missy understand about weight displacement, I place my right hand over her withers and pull her shoulders towards me. As she leans into me or even steps towards me, I push against her so she has to step away with her right foreleg to keep her balance. I rock her two or three times from side to side like this until she works out how brace. Afterwards she stands like a rock to be mounted and waits patiently for me to get organised.

A good indication of greenness is willingness or otherwise is to keep walking when they see horses next to the fence line. When we were level with the herd, Missy thought she didn’t have to go any further. She thought that was it for the day. I didn’t allow her to stop but it took a good few yards for her to stop wobbling and straighten up.

There was plenty to see in the village. We are so lucky to have this enviable training facility which prepares them for almost everything thing they are likely to meet. It’s still early days for Missy, even though she’s not a spooky ride, it would be asking a lot to take her to the forest. Today Annie met six out of control Labradors being walked by a lady who clearly wasn’t the pack leader. Despite plenty of shouting, which in itself is unsettling for horses, the dogs continued to leap around in a boisterous manner. She told me afterwards she was glad she was riding Sage as most horses wouldn’t cope with being confronted by multiple dogs charging towards them. I’m not sure what Missy’s reaction would have been, but I know it’s best to wait until I “have” her a bit more before exposing her to the hazards of riding in the forest.

We met a furniture lorry being loaded with household effects. As mentioned previously, Missy takes absolutely no notice of traffic but a large stationery vehicle with a moving interior is another thing. In common with many horses, Missy really isn’t sure about getting close to vans and lorries with their backs open. She gets a bit worried about looking inside. The first time I noticed this was approaching an ambulance with open doors to lower a patient in a wheelchair onto the street. Not a common occurrence on the average hack but a great training opportunity nevertheless. From her perspective there was too much movement which she couldn’t put into context with an outside chance she may be asked to actually go in it. A wide berth was clearly the sensible option except that I already had enough control of the shoulder to prevent her from going to the other side of the road. When she saw the furniture lorry today, she remembered the previous ride and we passed it without incident. It’s always best to make positive associations so that each similar encounter meets with less resistance.

We were half way into our ride when Missy stepped up into a lovely trot; it felt glorious for about four strides. It doesn’t matter a jot that she couldn’t sustain it. The fact that she did it is a landmark so to speak, showing both of us where we are headed. For those brief moments, she was in perfect balance, to the leg and on the bit. She put herself there with my support, ensuring my body was in balance and synch with whatever she was going to offer. It’s impossible to match that feeling by taking a strong contact and forcing the horse to relax its jaw. From our first ride I’ve been helping Missy find her balance point while carrying a rider. It’s not about forcing her into an outline; it’s about allowing her to come into the “zone” where true balance is found. I often remind the team that our job is to bring out the dance in every horse from which point differences in the gaits can be developed.

It’s a few years since I told Annie that perhaps the biggest secret to training is to constantly hold the vision of exactly how the horse you are working with can be in every detail. Although Missy is only starting her journey, she is still in Kindergarten, I have a picture in my mind of what she will become. In fact I have a picture for every horse I work with and sooner or later the image and reality matches up. I think of this as the true magic of horsemanship. Missy ambled home on a long rein while I slapped her rump, flapped her saddle cloth and placed my legs on her shoulders over the front of the saddle which was impossible a week ago.


DAY SEVEN WEEK TWO

The village was a hive of activity this morning. A small fleet of electricity vehicles were parked either side of the road outside the pub with their doors open having unloaded different pieces of scary looking equipment. There were coils of luminous thick grey flexi-pipe, sheets of red and white plastic stretched between large traffic cones and gangs of workmen scurrying back and forth carrying small plant. It’s always a test for horses to see a completely different set of objects in a familiar setting and I was very pleased with Missy who only needed the slightest encouragement to walk past in a straight line. After that we came across a tarmac operation complete with hand operated steam roller whose noisy thumping engine was roaring away. Missy wasn’t particularly concerned about that either, another feather in her cap so to speak. From there we turned off onto a lane she’s never been down before which takes you across the High Street between two shops. It was down there that I found something which did worry her.

We use this route as a preparation for going to the forest as there’s a tinkling stream that runs along the side before disappearing under a little bridge. It’s so good for horses to trot this section, going over the bridge and continuing up the narrow trackway between dark trees. There are lots of discarded items half hidden in the undergrowth like wooden pallets piled one on top or the other, a disused trailer and rusty gates etc. Sheep graze in the field most of the year and on the other side there is often a herd of young red cattle. More than enough to intimidate a horse with shallow confidence. The track goes uphill and ends at a house. You can also go through a gate onto miles of bridleway as long as you don’t mind sharing the space with the MOD who use it as a training ground.

I like going up there because I can stop at the top, let the horse take in the view of all the animals before turning round and riding back down. Now, when horses turn round so that whatever they were looking at is behind them and they are facing towards home, they tend to want to rush off back down the hill. It’s such a good exercise to remove worry as well as letting them find their balance trotting down a gradient. When we get to the bottom we stop and stand still, make a tight turn, as in on the haunches, before doing it all again. Missy went up and down in trot repeatedly. She found coming back down the hill difficult as gravity was propelling her ever faster onwards. She ended up leaning heavily on my hands in an effort to balance herself which tends to lead to tripping; she did some of that as well.

By asking horses to regularly and repeatedly retrace their steps, you eliminate the homing pigeon instinct as we call it. A horse that refuses to go willingly, because it’s heading away from home, is not a pleasant hack. We soon know if we are riding a horse with hidden problems like nappiness with this kind of exercise.

After Missy’s psychological priming up and down the dark track, she was allowed to think she was going home. We spent ages at the end of the lane circling in figures of eight until she stopped cutting short half the circle going away from home and trying to trot off on the half which was towards home. Finally she got the idea and just stopped, which was exactly what I wanted her to do.

On our way back to the main road, we go past the burnt out kitchen manufacturer’s old premises, detailed in Chatty’s diary. As yet to be redeveloped, it has wire mesh security panels placed along the frontage. These are excellent pieces of equipment for horse training, especially if you drag your whip while riding alongside it. The noise is enough to frighten any horse.

Missy thought this fencing was highly dangerous. She was happy to walk past it as long as she was at least two metres away. When I asked her to go up to it, she showed me her repertoire of evasions which included backing up, trying to swing round, jumping on the spot, swinging her quarters out and trying to run through the bridle. Since Missy was clearly agitated by what appears to us as a collection of steel strands, I knew I needed to invest time in de-sensitising her to the perceived danger. Maybe she thought it was electrified or she might have a negative association due to being imprisoned or caught up in something similar. Whatever the reason, she didn’t want to put her nose on it or stand beside it. She didn’t like the sound of my whip dragging along it either.

It doesn’t help that Missy is frightened of the whip so I spent time showing her it wasn’t a weapon by bringing it gently over her ears and down towards each side of her mouth. When she started to push against it, I knew she was “owning” it. A few minutes later she felt able to touch the mesh. The next step was to get her to walk up and down close beside the wire without swinging her quarters away while I dragged the whip across it. She was ok when it was on her left side and a lot worse on her right.

When horses get worried they want to move their feet. Missy didn’t want to stand even briefly with the fencing on her right side so I used a reward based process to help her change her mind. I synchronised her standing with offering a couple of nuts from my hand by leaning over her. It didn’t take long for her to make a positive association and I was able to progress as far as banging and scraping the wire with my whip without her triying to move away. Missy doesn’t have deep seated fear based behaviour so it should only take a couple of sessions for her to realise this type of fencing holds no threat.

Just as I wrote the last sentence, we had a second sudden power cut. The emergency trip switch went off again in the transformer which is a couple of hundred yards away from the house. Armed with a head torch we managed to get the electricity back on so I’m going to load this now while the going is good!


DAY EIGHT WEEK TWO

Missy is such a happy little horse, always with me mentally, as much as she is able, and never on her own agenda. She wears a very earnest expression, her ears are constantly pricked and I can feel how much she is lapping up the training. When I first started riding her, her mouth felt just like a newly backed horse. Before horses learn about the bit, they naturally think it’s a foreign object which they constantly try to spit out by rolling it around with their tongue, seemingly unable to close their lips. It’s quite distinctive to observe and easy to feel when you’re holding the reins. Missy wasn’t far off that stage but over the last couple of days I’ve noticed she no longer fiddles and chews her bit as soon as it goes in her mouth. She is much more responsive to the actions of the reins, often feeling deliciously light before reverting to head carried low and leaning.

There is a difference between a low head carriage because the horse is on the forehand, and stretching the head and neck as a result of reward for previous good work. I won’t go into that now but just want to say, I would like to write a diary entry solely devoted to this less understood aspect of training.

Missy’s trot is definitely improving and by that I mean it’s less hurried and flat. It has more definition with the hint of elevation in the not too distant future. To encourage this, I work her on and off and up and down pavements. These civic amenities are particularly good at teaching horses where their legs are, to look where they are going, to independently raise and lower their hips, to prevent tripping, to improve courage and help to free the shoulder. Town planners have little idea of the creative possibilities curb stones provide for horse riding, they are like endless cavaletti. For the more advanced horse, you can leg yield on and off, reverse onto them or pirouette over them.

Missy is just starting with the technicalities. Now I can put my leg over the saddle flap, we can walk on the pavement in the narrow gap between a garden fence and a parked car. We sometimes trot along the pavement, stepping off across a side road and back on again the other side. Today we more or less trotted a circle at a small crossroads. Progress indeed as horses can’t trot twelve metre circles on tarmac without slipping unless they can organise their legs. Part of the circle included trotting up the curb, one stride, then back down again. It was difficult for her to do it without tripping but after a few attempts she worked out by how much she needed to lift the inside foreleg.

It won’t be too long now before Missy is ready to canter. We are never in a hurry to start this as we make much better progress by being patient and waiting for the horse to be physically and psychologically ready. To avoid problems in the future, a little patience brings great rewards. In the meantime she is having plenty of preparation in different areas which is increasing her confidence and trust in me at the same time.

Hedge rustling on the menu now. I make sure to expose her to the sounds of my whip dragging across leaves and branches from both sides. Sometimes I make a continuous swishing noise before change it to a rhythmical tapping. I also vary the height by reaching up to the top as well as bending forward to drag the stick through the dense foliage growing underneath. Missy isn’t sure she likes my doing that; she finds it a bit threatening, as do most horses to begin with. The sound and action activates their survival instinct. They think I’m going to attack their legs. Cobs are especially protective of their legs and feet. She is also afraid that a predator is stalking low to the ground and is about to spring out and get her.

I thought we would finish today’s session by going under some low hanging sloe tree branches. I wanted her to hear and accept the sound of their enormous spikes scraping over my hat but it didn’t go quite to plan as I lost my grip on the whip which meant dismounting to pick it up. Looking on the positive, I thought this would be a small test for Missy, to see if she would stand still on an enclosed bridleway to be remounted. I found my stick and was just about to pick it up when I noticed that unbelievably it had landed on something horrible. There was the handle lying across a freshly laid dog poo. I was in a quandary as I really didn’t want to touch it but we couldn’t do without it either. In the end I gingerly held it below the handle and set about mounting Missy. Although the circumstances weren’t exactly favourable, somehow I managed to get back on without touching anything unpleasant. The whip is now submerged in a bucket of Jeyes Fluid. That stuff is so strong it should dissolve every particle of organic matter.

Tomorrow I am busy preparing for Saturday’s course and won’t be riding Missy. It’s been a short week for her but a good one, and no diary update until Monday.


DAY NINE WEEK THREE

The village was unusually quiet this morning, practically deserted, which was just as well given that I had got off to a sticky start. The middle child has just landed at Brighton University and despite being nearly twenty, doesn’t have a brass fa..’s clue about how life really works. A series of frantic calls to deal with because she’s lost her pin number, her account has been emptied by unexpected mobile phone charges, her student loan hasn’t come through and there’s no money to buy breakfast.

We try really hard not to bring our “stuff” to the table when it comes to the horses, but I couldn’t help feeling like a mangled cloth whose vital content had been squeezed dry. Missy didn’t seem to notice and set off with her usual perky step. She tries to turn her head round for the first mile or so. If this action isn’t corrected, the next step is to drift, and if that isn’t noted, it leads to the next progression which is trying to turn round. Even though it’s quite subtle, horses inevitably test the boundaries of what we might call authority and leadership.
As she settles into the ride, she becomes more focused on what is in front of her. Since there wasn’t much to start with, a lone teenager walking a good few yards ahead of us became her focus. After a couple of minutes I could feel Missy was quite content ambling along behind her. So much so that when he turned into another street, Missy wanted to go too. I had to smile because this is typical of horses who are natural followers and will willingly stay behind anything, even a stranger or someone on a bicycle.

My mind started to drift once we’d parted from our unknown guide while Missy continued to carry me along without much direction. I began to notice things that normally wouldn’t catch my attention. I noticed the postman scurrying around with an armful of mail partly hidden by an oversized reflective jacket. As many of us now wear luminous clothing and so do our horses, they are getting acclimatised but many are still frightened by men in yellow jackets. As we drew level with the school, an official looking fellow was striding purposefully towards us carrying a large bag seemingly attached to his armpit. Horses tend not to like people walking quickly at them, especially if they are carrying something. Often there is different kinds of movement in the distance which can cause anxiety. A man in front of us was carrying a shiny silver ladder and as we were going round a blind corner we were confronted by an older lady walking with the aid of a motorised Zimmer frame.

If you only hacked out in fields, you would never meet such a rich variety of everyday life we all will all encounter sooner or later. The village is a valuable resource to prepare our horses for the real world. When Missy graduates to open spaces, she won’t be worried about seeing something in the distance or meeting people, horses and dogs in unexpected places. Perhaps I wasn’t the most proactive today but feeling somewhat below par allowed me to review our daily sessions from another perspective.

We trotted merrily on towards the place on the slope where I like to work Missy in circles. She isn’t able to maintain trot while doing anything more advanced than a simple turn and even that she makes look complicated. We started in walk; it felt very good so I thought she is ready to move up a gear. She managed to trot part way before falling back into walk. Due to her lack of education, she isn’t able to hold an even curve. She likes to cut off the part which is furthest away from home and fall onto her outside shoulder on the side which is towards home. From her point of view it makes perfect sense. We are on the way home so why bother changing direction? Let’s make life easy by cutting the circle short; entirely logical. The locals often stop and ask what I’m doing. They are interested to know why I keep riding endless circles with frequent changes of direction. I tell them I am improving the horse’s balance and developing power steering. They nod their heads approvingly although they are probably none the wiser.

With sufficient encouragement Missy more or less trotted a complete circuit without stopping while I realised something of great significance. The main reason she didn’t want to do it was because she didn’t believe it was possible. Having persuaded her to give it a go, she saw for herself she could do it which boosted belief in her own capabilities. As a result, she was much more willing to keep trying. Resistance in its various forms is not uncommon but realising the cause comes not only from lack of understanding, balance, trust, suppleness etc. but often because the horse simply doesn’t believe it is possible. I gave thanks to Missy for being the bearer of this light bulb moment. Horses truly are our greatest teachers.


DAY TEN WEEK THREE

The weather was so perfect that had Missy been the only horse for me to ride, I would have stayed on her all day. The village was very quiet; I think everyone had taken the day off and headed for their gardens as the only sounds were those associated with grass cutting. We would be riding along peacefully when suddenly a strimmer would start up behind a hedge. As the source was hidden from view, it made her jump every time but at least she does that more on the spot now rather than out to the side. We saw plenty of lawn mowers which was ok as she could relate the noise to the object. She still shudders when cars start their engines just when she’s going past but the cure is for her to keep hearing them until it no longer affects her.

Missy had definitely improved in key areas in a relatively short time space. Her trot is much better balanced. Instead of fast and flat, we now have a micro pause between diagonals whereas before they felt blurred. This has completely altered her head carriage, as if by magic. Not only that, her mouth feels more settled, alive, and soft. I can give subtle cues, kind of like pulses, through the reins which she responds to rather than leaning strongly on my hands. As I said before, actions like this are part of a natural progression while they are learning how best carry a rider.

When I started with her, she spent a large part of the ride trying to spit the bit out, opening her mouth whenever I used the reins and stiffening her neck against me. If I wanted her to come back to walk, she would lower her head, almost to the ground sometimes, throwing most of her weight into her shoulders which made her appear strong. It may sound dramatic but it wasn’t really. I like to think of it as manifestations of a horse in transition.

Since Missy has much more awareness of what I’m asking her and how to respond appropriately, I decided to take her through the High Street. We don’t like to do this before we are fairly certain we can maintain a straight line past the spook zones and that the horse will stand without going backwards or swinging the quarters out for obvious safety reasons. This area is full of parked cars, white lines, swinging sandwich boards and brightly coloured flower boxes. How suspicious horses are of flowers which to us look so inviting and beautiful. In their normal environment they would see familiar shades of green and brown rather than strong colours.

Missy was such a good girl, passing everything sensibly without a shred of worry. We turned into the housing estate so I could do some more circle work with her. I was keen to confirm yesterday’s revelation, the one where we don’t always realise that a horse’s resistance can be from the belief that what we are asking isn’t possible. Missy’s trot work is improving daily but it wasn’t significantly better than yesterday although the outcome on the circle was. She managed to keep going for three circuits on either rein because she believed she could.

It’s important for the horse to have freedom through the head and neck by having a very light contact or none at all. I firstly set Missy up in walk so that her body was following the radius of the curve without interference or restriction from the reins. I encouraged her to move into trot, supporting her body with my legs while leaving the rest to her. Since the road is on a slope, half the circle falls away and half is very much uphill. What tends to happen is the horse rushes on the downhill part and then runs out of oomph. I leave it entirely to the horse to check and balance the stride. In order not to fall over, Missy, or any horse, has to come off the forehand as a matter of self preservation. She was so pleased with herself, her little face was aglow, and I could sense she could feel her legs were all connected yet separate. It’s a big moment for horses when they realise this but sadly some go through their whole lives without experiencing it. On top of all the advantages I’ve yet to mention, no more tripping has to come high on the list.

Missy is an absolute pleasure to work with. She is particularly open to what is presented and she does it all with such a good attitude. I really believe she enjoys her daily sessions as much as I do. We haven’t regretted the decision to bring her into our lives for a minute.


DAY ELEVEN WEEK THREE

Another perfect day in paradise! The weather is simply glorious and everyone we meet seems so happy including Missy who whinnies to me every morning which is so endearing. She knows there is haylage waiting for her when she comes in but aside from the lure of food, we are enjoying each other’s company immensely.

Perhaps it was the beautiful sunshine that helped me decide to take a different route today. We went off piste for the first time, heading for the village green. It’s surprising how quickly horses get into a routine and Missy was convinced I was making a mistake in turning her across the road. She tried to sidle out through her left shoulder as I was asking her to turn right. We have all experienced the situation where you ask the horse to go one way by using the corresponding rein, only to find that despite turning the head and neck, the horse deftly drifts to the outside. Missy is too innocent to do that but falling on the outside shoulder when turning is common enough. We are usually told to use the outside leg to help the horse come round but unless the horse is feeling obliging it may not be sufficient.

Masters of horsemanship have known for centuries that control of the shoulder is where it’s at and when Missy felt the pressure of the left rein against her neck and wither, she straightened up and crossed the road. She continued to protest mildly with a slight drop in confidence which didn’t last long, it's only a symptom of greenness. Depending on the situation, it’s usually a good idea to trot on. This adds focus, direction, and keeps them thinking forward. By the time we were half way up the hill, which is steep, Missy had run out of steam and wanted to walk. We were travelling the same route as Jasmine during her headcam voyage. Once we reached the brow of the hill, the path narrows into a wood before opening out again alongside a corn field. I could tell Missy hasn’t had much, if any, experience on rough or uneven ground as she was finding it difficult to negotiate the roots growing across the track. She would tread on them before realising they were there or catch the front of her shoe on them. It will take a couple of sessions before she works out she can extend her foreleg within her stride or shorten her step to accommodate anything protruding on to the surface. Every horse has to learn these skills and some of the most ungainly are those previously ridden exclusively on flat level ground.

Before Missy could deal safely with fields and woods, she needed a certain level of trust in me as well as not reacting when she heard the sound of rustling bushes or when she felt me bending over her neck to duck a low branch. Dog walkers use this route too and horses can get a fright if they haven’t met people with dogs in strange places. There’s usually a bunch of pigeons flapping wildly in the trees, scuttling rabbits, and the odd pheasant mixed in. You would be surprised how many horses do a double take and stop dead when they see a rabbit shoot across their path.

Part way along the corn field a farmer has left a big bale of straw covering the path which can present quite a challenge but Missy didn’t seem to notice it which says a lot. Normally we spend a good while acquainting them to bales, especially those wrapped in plastic. We rode to the end of the bridleway where it joins a busy road. I didn’t want to take her along there and introduced her to the gate with black mesh tied to the bottom of it instead. This always makes horses look; they are deeply suspicious of it. On a windy day the mesh sways back and forth and we all know how horses react to unexpected movement.

Missy wasn’t sure about the gate but with a little encouragement she touched the top with her nose. I used this as a preparation for teaching her how to open and shut them. The first step is always to get them to happily stand with their head over the gate. The next step is to be able to stand alongside it and to be able to tap it. They need to get used to the hollow sound of metal without trying to move away. They must also know how to stand still without rein contact while you move your upper body around. Finally they must know how to back up without stressing. When they understand the steps, opening and shutting gates is no big deal.

Missy was tired by the time we reached the road again and was content to plod the rest of the way home. She was quite sweaty by the time we got back so a little shower was in order. She must surely know what this is because she just stood to be hosed all over. Annie took a couple of lovely pics which we’ve uploaded to Facebook.


DAY TWELVE WEEK THREE

Our ride turned out differently today from what I expected. Just as we reached the end of the drive we met a man on a grey mare. As we were both going in the same direction, I followed him down the bridleway on Missy. Up until now it has been just the two of us as that is the best way to start and the quickest route to building a partnership. Riding in company provides a wholly different dynamic as horses will use each other as a crutch while also being easily infected by heightened emotion; an instant poison that courses through the system where if one horse is gripped by fear and uncertainty, the other will undoubtedly be influenced.

As we found ourselves walking behind, I was interested to know how Missy would cope. Would she be worried about being at the back? Would she have a tendency to rush down the hill in order not to be left behind? Would she imagine a tiger is stalking her from behind? The tell tale signs are a raised head with a swinging neck, twitching ears and tilted head ready to catch the slightest sound like a cracking twig or a footstep.

There is an article on this subject on the website at http://mysafecobs.com/horses-in-training/training-tips which goes into more detail.

I was so pleased to see that Missy couldn’t care less about being behind and was quite happy to let a considerable gap develop between us. Another tick in her box, we can build on that in due course, a very encouraging start. The grey mare was a tall and lean machine with a ground covering stride which Missy struggled to keep up with. Despite the ever increasing gap, we managed to converse, exchanging pleasantries and asking questions about our horses. He seemed content to stay in walk all the way to the forest. I didn’t like to suggest a trot and made the most out of staying behind. From time to time we would trot to catch up, Missy seemed equally happy to go alongside or take the lead; another tick and one more area that requires only minimal refinement.

We parted company at the entrance to the forest which is a very big ask. Horses that start out together are usually of the opinion that they should stay together to avoid separation anxiety. Missy was a little confused at being asked to go down a different track and stopped to do a dropping. Some horses are monkeys and as soon as they’ve finished, move straight into a range of behaviours, so strong is their desire to get back together again. I’ve ridden so many of those, I can feel it coming even before it happens. First off there is a stiffening, combined with a pause which is the prelude to movements sufficient to test the depth of your seat. Of course none of this applies to Missy but I gave her the same commands anyway. In this situation, it is imperative to think and ride forward, directing the horse’s feet at every stride. Depending on the circumstances, I might have a short rein but never a tight one as my goal is to keep moving. This is best done in trot with plenty of focus and leg to combat reluctance or backward thinking.

It didn’t really take much to get Missy trotting away nicely. Her pace was a bit strong perhaps but at least she was going forward with her head straight and ears forward. We trotted over a couple of logs on the way in fine style, she went over them so well I know she will jump. By the time we came back to walk she had completely forgotten about her temporary companion, not that she was worried in the first place. Yet another tick for her as co-dependency limits enjoyment considerably.

We took a short cut along a dark overgrown path, trotting merrily past bleached branches and undergrowth in autumn colours, returning to walk to negotiate a large pile of sticks covering a stagnant pond. This particularly uninviting encounter was another test for Missy. Horses can’t quantify depth which is why they mostly think they are being asked to enter a bottomless pit when it’s only a puddle. Neither do they like being asked to walk on ground which looks like it’s going to give way. If the ground talks back to them by snapping and crackling, you have all the ingredients for an argument.

Missy was such a good girl, stepping onto the wood which broke under her weight. She didn’t mind the sound it made in the least. We were having such a good time that when I looked at the firebreak ahead, I couldn’t resist asking for a little canter. Oh, it was heavenly! Some horses just have a natural canter even though they haven’t got a clue what they’re doing and Missy is one of them.
I think there is a section in Chatty’s diary about introducing canter. I don’t want to repeat myself except to emphasise that in the beginning, horses have no idea about upward transitions. Insufficient understanding is the root cause of most, if not all, canter problems and there seems to be no shortage.

Missy didn’t want to do more than amble home, taking time out to stand and watch a small herd of Jacob sheep. They’re the ones with black patches; she found them fascinating. By the time we started to climb the bridle path to home, Missy was tired. I could tell she wanted to rest for a minute. This is such a positive place for a horse to be. We stopped for a while enjoying the silence in which horse and human were together sharing the moment. It was very special and left me feeling quite humbled.

No diary tomorrow due to course preparations. Next update will be the following Tuesday.


DAY THIRTEEN WEEK FOUR

Missy is such a happy horse. Happy to be in her stable, happy to be handled and happy to be ridden but at the moment she isn’t happy to have my face too close to hers. I can stroke her ears and rub her eyes as long as my face keeps a distance. Even though they’ve been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, horses can still be frightened of humans and I think Missy thinks I’m going to eat her.

There’s been a gap of several days since her last ride and it shows. I had to remind her to stand still to be mounted and it wasn’t long before she started to wobble and feel unsure about going down the lane. It was hard to believe we went to the forest at the end of last week and had a little canter. Actually it’s not a big deal because horses that aren’t truly established revert to a previous level as well as dip in and out with their responses. Although as riders we have to show consistency, horses take a while to reflect that back in terms of performance.

I had a lovely ride in the forest but that’s not a guarantee subsequent rides will be of the same quality until she really gets it and has better control over her body. We know that horses regularly test the boundaries with each other. The alpha horse today will need to prove himself again tomorrow or run the risk of being deposed. This isn’t dissimilar to my relationship with Missy. I have to negotiate the terms of our agreement throughout the ride. It’s an ongoing arrangement which will need less intensity as she progresses up the training ladder.

Missy is no longer frightened of the whip which makes a big difference to what I can do with her. Sticks should never be instruments of punishment, producing fear or worry but rather a support for the leg and a confidence generator. Use of the whip is often misunderstood because you can’t actually do anything with it while the horse is in fear of it. I can drag it, tap it, scrape it, arc it over her ears and apply it to her sides to help with impulsion and control her quarters. We’ve noticed that horses who are totally accepting of branches being rattled with the whip are much less worried about the sound of traffic coming from behind on wet roads.

We had a ride through the village where there seemed to be more people than usual. On her very first ride I remember Missy was very wary of pedestrians and reluctant to go past them. I make a point of acknowledging everyone which has a double benefit, fostering positive neighbourly relations and helping her to see people in a friendly light. Sometimes we stand and pass the time of day or if I have anything in my pocket, I ask would they mind giving her a piece of bread or carrot. These tactics have been so successful that now Missy wants to park up beside anyone we meet.

We came across a couple of ladies with a young child on one of those trikes with plastic wheels that tend to frighten horses, especially from behind. Missy doesn’t even notice but we had to stop when we heard some lovely comments. As Missy turned to face them, Grandma thrust out her arm until it landed on Missy’s face. Then the mother grabbed the little girl and swung her up so she was level with Missy’s head to give it a stroke. I wasn’t sure whether Missy would like it but she stood there so politely I was convinced she enjoyed being admired.

A few minutes later we met the gamekeeper towing a trailer. He pulled up beside us to tell me the shooting season was about to start. Oh, the joys of country living! Then with a flourish, he handed me the dates on a sheet of paper. I’ve sat on more than a few horses whose reactions at gestures like this were swift and violent, so although my reins were slack and I was sitting relaxed in the saddle, I was prepared for Missy to shoot backwards, sideways or run off when she saw the paper out the corner of her eye. The fact that she didn’t move shows how much her trust has grown. I told her she was a good and clever girl. I’m certain horses hear us; Missy turned one ear back as if she was listening. I’ve no doubt tomorrow her lines will be straighter.


DAY FOURTEEN WEEK FOUR

I didn’t ride Missy today. I wanted to give her a session on the lunge as I know she is weak in this area which isn’t surprising as I doubt whether she’s done much. I like that as there is nothing to undo so to speak. Like everything we do with horses, there are beneficial methods (to the horse) of asking them and potentially damaging ways of making them. However, I mustn’t go off topic; perhaps that can be discussed some other time. Lunging is so good for balance and rhythm, a great preparation for being able to carry a rider on a circle.

I lunged her for about ten minutes on the first day I rode her. We make this a habit, in the interest of safety, and also because if you know what you are looking for, lunging can tell you a lot about the horse. Although Missy is much better with my carrying a stick, it hasn’t transferred to the lunge whip. She was still nervous of that. Since the main aim is to be like an extension of my arm, her worry prevented me giving her support through direction and pace. She was too busy watching out for the whip to pay attention. As I said yesterday, if the horse is frightened of sticks, you can’t use them. So I spent some time letting the lash fall gently on different parts of her body and rubbing the stick along her back. Since Missy isn’t particularly reactive, we made good progress.

I make sure to synchronise my voice with physical aids on every ride. She is beginning to put the two together but when I used the same words on the lunge there was absolutely no reaction. It was as if she’d never heard me ask her anything. Why is that? Horses learn by association which means she associates certain words whilst ridden but those same words are meaningless when I’m standing on the ground holding a rope. Because I know she hasn’t made the connection, it’s not a case of being stubborn or stupid, I start introducing them all over again. The most important one is “whoa” as every driving person will agree. Horses must stop when they hear the word. Of course you can teach them with just about any cue but at the moment Missy is struggling with the basics like moving out on the circle or every horse’s favourite, turning in to face you.

Because she such an easy little horse, I found my attention drifting and before long I began to think of something else. At that precise moment, Missy would stop and turn in. I was reminded several times to be absolutely present and in the moment if I wanted her to keep going. I’m keenly aware, especially when lunging, that we are figuratively joined by an invisible thread which breaks if my thoughts aren’t continually directing her movement and feet. The level of mental energy and concentration that is needed when working with horses is high.

It took a while for Missy to satisfy herself that I wasn’t going to go on the offensive and she started to soften her outline. Before too long she wasn’t taking any notice of the whip on her quarters or back legs. This was good except she preferred to stay in walk and I didn’t want to frighten her by using the whip too strongly as she would lose trust in my consistency. This is a frequent predicament which needs a bit of thinking through. I could have closed the gap between us which would have made her trot as she would see this as pressure but I didn’t want to do that too soon as I’m trying to decrease her worry, not add to it which would only create confusion.

I continued to apply the whip with care to her quarters then move it like a snake in a rhythm on the ground. Horses notice the movement which helps them develop their rhythm too. I gradually increased the force of the whip until she decided to move up a gear to release herself from the pressure which is exactly what I wanted. Doing it that way meant she stepped up into trot rather than running into it because she wanted to get away.
It’s a fine line to tread between desensitizing her to the feel of the whip while wanting her sensitized to its action. As long as I maintain consistency with this, it won’t take long for her to realise it’s not a weapon, it’s an indicator or sign of what I want her to do. I never cease to be amazed by horses’ intelligence. It would take us much longer to understand this somewhat paradoxical concept without the benefit of language.

There is so much more to lunging than simply running round in circles. I’ve only scratched the surface by describing Missy’s first full session in this discipline. I haven’t decided how far to take it with her, it would take a mini diary in itself to cover it but as an example, an established horse should be able to go round the village on a lunge line. That’s got me thinking. Maybe we should do it!


DAY FIFTEEN WEEK FOUR

Missy had her first experience with company although I wasn’t riding her. A gusting wind followed us for most of the day, rounding up the dead leaves which have dried to a crisp and driving them in waves down the street. You wouldn’t think a leaf would be a training opportunity but even singly they made a considerable noise like a worn out castanet. Particularly strong blasts would lift them off the ground; we were regularly overtaken which can be most disturbing for some horses as they hear the sound before seeing hundreds of them bouncing past. Small wonder horses think they are under attack. Depending on the direction, you can find yourself heading for a potential confrontation with a leaf storm rushing towards you. Soon enough they will become waterlogged and clump together but until then they present an excellent natural hazard.

With Annie riding her, we arranged it so there would be a double benefit for Missy and the horse I was on. It’s likely that Missy has been ridden in company before because she didn’t mind going side by side. If it’s their first time, they are usually hesitant and try to hang back or rush past as they think the other horse is going to bite or kick them. We routinely ride not only on the left hand side but also in the middle and right side of the road. We find horses that are not ridden this way are one sided and tend to constantly fall on their left shoulder in an effort to get back to where they are used to going. Travelling in the middle allows us to check for straightness, it’s like riding down a continuous centre line.

Due to the work I’ve been doing with Missy, she doesn’t favour a particular side and is equally happy whether on the right or left of the horse. She took the lead when asked or fell in behind when we met traffic. Horses often get a confidence blip when told to go out in front unless they are used to swopping positions around regularly which is why we do so much of it. They also tend to think it’s their duty to warn everyone about the dangers that suddenly seem to be everywhere. They can get sticky or plant and refuse to move. If that happens you have to project a lot of energy to overcome any backward thinking but sometimes that’s not enough because they’ve switched off from the leg, which is when the stick comes in handy. They absolutely must go forward. If you even once let them go back to being a follower, in their mind a precedent has been set which will result in an a greater struggle for the future.

As Missy doesn’t have difficulties in that area, we could concentrate on other aspects of company riding like separation and trotting behind without worrying about catching up. Neither horse is particularly fit so we couldn’t do that much trotting but from the little we did, I could see that Missy doesn’t raise her head to try and look behind her which is what horses do when their survival instincts kick in. In nature, being at the back is a vulnerable position and instinctively horses don’t like it.

We prepare them for separation by half circling around from the front to the back to change the order. We stand at junctions while one of us circles around while the other remains still. If we see a good sized van or lorry, one of us will walk past on the pavement while the other keeps on the road. This is a good one because for a moment they are out of sight of each other but before they get too anxious, they are back together again. While they are apart, they hear each other’s hoof beats but each is invisible to the other. Horses get anxious at the sound when they can’t relate it to something they can see which is yet another good reason to do it.

Interspersed with all this, we stood really close together and encouraged the horses to sniff manes and noses. This is a test of anti-social tendencies which need to be nipped in the bud if it’s relevant. A further test is to bring the horse up behind the other to make sure they can accept such close proximity. Our final task was to ride away from each other while remaining in view so that sometimes we were behind and others we were meeting head on going in our different directions. This is done all the time in a school but hardly ever out on a hack and we believe it should be a big part of their training. We have rejected horses during assessment on this exercise alone.

I made the comment that Annie wore a big smile throughout and looked to be really enjoying herself. She agreed and said it was because Missy has such a positive attitude with a gentleness of spirit, always trying to do her best. I don’t imagine it will be any hardship for Annie to be asked to ride her again sometime.


DAY SIXTEEN WEEK FOUR

The temperature dropped overnight making it feel quite cold. Perhaps this was why Missy felt more energised or maybe she’s that much fitter. Whatever the reason, her walk had a definite bounce to it so I decided we would go to the forest and use the hills for our first long trot. Continuous trotting, especially uphill, really helps to settle them, giving focus and direction to their feet. For the spookier equine, a lengthy trot encourages forwardness instead of looking for things to shy at. This doesn’t apply to Missy as she rarely looks at anything in a frightened way.

A sheep caught her attention with its head sticking out through the fence to find better grass. Missy couldn’t decide whether or not to approach it as it looked strangely out of place. In situations like this, you can either let the horse stop and stare or make sure to keep going. Each has its merits and drawbacks, a lot depends on the nature of the horse, but as a general rule, we don’t allow too much thinking time.

I didn’t let Missy stop entirely, I kept nudging her forward to give her confidence; once she realised it was a sheep she was fine. The problem with letting horses stop when they see something they are not sure of or don’t like the look of, is they can easily magnify the danger factor and flatly refuse to move or panic and spin round. When we reached the forest it was practically empty, we only met one person with three well behaved dogs.

As Missy still had petrol in the tank, we moved up to trot again. The ground is quite hard with plenty of protruding stones and roots for her to trip over. I let her get on with it, she will find her own balance soon enough. Horses don’t like tripping any more than cats like to mis-judge height when jumping on to something. They feel just as undignified and some even start bucking when they’re back on their feet as if to prove a point.

When you ride a horse every day you don’t see the changes taking place, it often takes a third party to remind you of the progress being made. I’m sure Missy has progressed enormously; all horses go through stages in learning how to move gracefully (freely) while carrying a rider. Missy doesn’t look too graceful most of the time but she will do. She has a lot of natural elevation which she is completely unaware of. At the moment she probably feels awkward and out of balance trotting along the woodland paths with me. I know this because I can feel it in her mouth which, as I’ve said before, is the nerve centre for what is going on both mentally and physically.

All week Missy has been rolling the bit around with her tongue, treating it very much as a foreign object, and today her mouth was still but not tight. A tight mouth is a sign of tension and/or protection. I asked for many transitions from trot to walk because it’s so effective in bringing the centre of gravity back a few notches, but only if it’s not done by using too much hand. Until the horse is educated with refined responses to the aids, you do have to use some hand, in conjunction with other parts of the body as described previously, and I could feel Missy’s mouth had a solid quality about it. Some would describe it as hard or others might accuse her of being a bit strong but in fact it is neither. Her mouth felt solid because it was reflecting the rest of her body. Paying close attention to what is going on with all four feet from a longitudinal perspective, which is from the poll to the tail, allows the mouth to change and soften accordingly.

We spent some time standing still listening to the birds. I love doing this and it’s so much nicer now Missy doesn’t feel the need to go backwards anymore. She was tired by the time we were back on the road and was quite content to amble home. She will have plenty of time to herself now the weekend is here.


DAY SEVENTEEN WEEK FIVE

It was pandemonium this morning with the first date of the shooting calendar taking place right outside the stables. Not only was the gunfire alarmingly close, the guns sprayed lead shot all over the roof. It sounded like buckets of stones were being simultaneously emptied and the horses were naturally extremely agitated. If that had been us inflicting damage on a neighbouring property, our shotguns would be confiscated followed by a summons.

We’ve given up contacting the police and are reduced to the annual status of silent suffering.
Normally we wait to see where they are shooting before bringing the horses in as they cope much better out in the field. They do get used to it, especially those who are in their second winter, but it was a tough introduction for them today. We brought in the horses we were working with including Missy. Against our better judgment we previously arranged a viewing after discussing what happens on shoot days in the belief it wouldn’t all kick off close by.

It’s difficult for people to get a clear idea of what the horses are usually like when they were kicking the doors, running round their boxes and getting worked up into a sweat. We are used to Missy falling asleep or quietly eating whether her door is open or closed but with everything that was going on, she just wanted to escape. Finally the shooting party adjourned to headquarters for lunch and calm reigned once more although the horses found it difficult to switch back to relaxed mode.

We know the affect such circumstances have on visitors, racking up fear levels, increasing anxiety and thoughts of “What if”. We also know our horses. We were confident that they would still be safe when ridden. I mounted Missy, who obligingly stood still once she was out of her box, which was a good start as she had an important job ahead. She was going to escort our visitor through the village. I didn’t want to risk going anywhere else in case we met up with the antagonists.

Missy was a really good girl, walking out confidently in the lead and keeping to her section of the road when riding side by side. We were just turning a corner when we met Annie riding home. Missy has passed horses many times taking no notice but this morning’s incident confused her. She thought it would be a much better idea to turn round and follow them. She is beyond the point where she might actually turn, even if she’s thinking about it, and planted herself in the road instead. It is imperative horses go forward when asked, especially when relied on to take the lead. When I felt her switch off to the leg, I gave her quarters a stripe with the stick. As she is no longer frightened of the feel of it, she didn’t try to shoot off, she just walked on smartly.

As time was short we did our best to find potential hot spots to go past but nothing stood out, it was an uneventful ride. Maybe it was all for the best given the hectic start but had we encountered some monsters I’m sure Missy have risen to the occasion and dutifully passed in an acceptably straight line.

Even though it wasn’t strictly a training session, our ride definitely had value, showing me how far Missy has come in seventeen outings spread over four weeks. I feel in some ways that this is more a diary of a young horse as she isn’t the typical older horse. She is very open without any baggage, she doesn’t have stiffness, she hasn’t shut down mentally, in fact she is refreshingly innocent. You never know what is ahead when the training journey begins but it’s always exciting and rewarding. Missy is totally rewarding to work with and it won’t be long before I can start adding buttons to her repertoire. Not only will I thoroughly enjoy doing this, I will also enjoy describing how I am doing it.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow when we can have a nice relaxing time.


DAY EIGHTEEN WEEK FIVE

Missy was slightly unsettled in her box today, most likely as a result of yesterday’s turmoil with the shoot. Every time the door opened she thought she would walk out. This posed a problem for me as I’m constantly showing her kindness and being gentle round her. I’ve obviously been successful as she simply walked past me, or tried to, as if I wasn’t there. She’s not a pushy mare but rather one who isn’t clear on boundaries. I asked her to go back by pushing on her nose several times but that only worked when I stood directly in front of her.

Since she was only half listening I had to make my intentions more forceful. I hoped not to have to do that as I didn’t want to make her nervous as she was when she first arrived. This kind of situation is a common one. You want to present the loving side to your horse but in doing so you can be seen as weak or a pushover. Horses test us constantly whether or not we are riding them. We have to prove our worth, in their eyes, and we do this by not letting them make decisions like walking out the door when they feel like it. Having put the hierarchy back in order, I mounted and rode her to the forest.

As we trotted along I was thinking about buttons. To put them in place or add extra to the repertoire, trust has to be built along with a growing understanding of a complex system of communication. By adding them too early, you are more likely to make the horse reactive which manifests in anxiety and confusion. The best way to present information is to break it down into mentally digestible parts. When these are understood, you can fit them together within a movement or blend them into a series of movements.

Missy isn’t quite ready for buttons, but she is being programmed, before too long all the wiring will be in place. An example of the complexity needed for buttons is the rider’s ability to signal what response is wanted from the leg. On a basic level, the legs mean go forward. Many horses are never taught the variety of communication within a single leg aid, meaning only using one leg, and Missy is still one of them. As her trust in me develops, she will begin to understand sophisticated cues when I separate the application of the legs, using them singly as well as together.

She will know whether I want her to go forward, go forward and over, move sideways, turn on her own axis , move forward with her hindquarters away from her body, bring a particular leg more underneath her, canter on a given leg in a straight line, stop, go backwards, and more. It’s not only competition horses and warm bloods who can do this; all horses are able to benefit from increased mental and physical dexterity which is really what buttons are.

We are continually bowled over by the intelligence of our equine friends. It will take Missy a fraction of the time to learn all the above compared to teaching a human how to do it. Such a humbling realisation is worth repeating. It takes a lifetime to become a horseman and train a horse to have buttons but it only takes the horse months to be able to execute them. I’m patiently waiting for Missy go beyond the first rung on the educational ladder which is to realise that when she feels increased pressure from the leg, it doesn’t necessarily mean I want her to trot.


DAY NINETEEN WEEK FIVE

Missy is back to her normal self in the box. I spent ages trying to help her accept my face against hers. She gets quite alarmed when I move my head forwards, the ultimate predatory gesture perhaps. She lets me rest my cheek gently against her eye which is progress but if I move my head towards her muzzle I get an extreme (for her) reaction. She jerks her head up violently as if she’s been stung. I don’t want to impose on her but if I didn’t keep hold of the noseband she would spin away to the back of the box. I tried resting my cheek on her again while making air kissing “mwha” sounds. Missy thought they were simply dreadful, flinging her head up and rolling her eyes. I persisted until curiosity overcame her when she stuck her muzzle into my mouth in an effort to understand my outrageously threatening behaviour. The instant she made contact she made a hissing sound as if she’d received an electric shock followed by more jerking against my arm.

No matter how much she jumped or tried to move away, I stood still. My hold on the noseband was soft and relaxed only changing to firm to prevent her turning away. I was careful not to set up more worry by having too fierce a grip as this suggests I am trying to trap her. When they feel like that even the quietest horse can be dangerous as they will do whatever it takes to free themselves. I kept making kissing sounds, hoping that before too long she would see them in terms of endearment. It didn’t take too long for Missy to realise she wasn’t under attack and although she didn’t altogether trust what I was doing, she quietly dropped her head right into the crook of my arm which I’d made by holding the noseband. It was lovely to feel her warm breath against my chest. I released her head and after repeating the whole performance again left it for another day. I will continue to work on it, introducing contact kisses as well as blowing at her. I briefly blew the softest of breaths which she found even more intolerable than kissing sounds.

Although it isn’t a vital part of training, being unable to touch a horse with your face or physically kiss the muzzle shows there is still a certain amount of fear present. Horses will only let you in when they feel at home with you, so this little groundwork exercise provides a reliable barometer of trust towards humans. Another reliable indicator of how they feel is to pat them firmly on the breast, the fleshy part below the neck between the points of shoulder. If they secretly fear you that action will bring it out. They will jump back as if you’ve hit them even if you can pat and slap them everywhere else. So it’s official; they haven’t graduated until they willingly accept kisses and being slapped on the breast!

I rode Missy to the wire security panels outside the burned out factory. We’ve been there once before and she didn’t like them. She wasn’t keen on them today either but my plan was to spend time there on the way back after riding over the little bridge and up the track between two fields. There were sheep in one and a herd of red heifers in the other. The field with the cattle is set on a high bank which makes them look a whole lot bigger. Their feeder was placed about fifteen feet in from the track and where the leaves have dropped off the trees you can see them very clearly. Missy took virtually no notice of them so I’d say she’s seen them before or even been turned out with them which is great. We cantered up and trotted down the track several times. Missy canters easily and is naturally more balanced in this pace which is also great, more about that at a later date.

Whether we were at the top or the bottom I made sure she stood still without fidgeting. This is really important especially after cantering when there is much forward movement. She has to learn that cantering isn’t high excitement and that she can instantly switch off to stand still even though we’ve turned round to face home. When we are at the bottom, she must turn round in one piece as it were without drifting, ready and willing to retrace her steps away from home to go back up the track. This is one of my favourite key assessment spots. I soon know whether the horse has issues with this exercise alone. A truly genuine horse or one with correct training won’t be resistant to repeating sections of the hack, get in a tizzy or throw in the towel.

After we had achieved our joint objective, mine as outlined above and hers to try her best with whatever task she is set, we made our way to the security fencing. Missy is the same as any other horse when she doesn’t want to stand next to something she is frightened of. She gives the impression she is doing what I’ve asked but she isn’t really because she swings her quarters away. You can tell what is going on in their mind when they use posturing and swinging the quarters out is their way of saying they don’t feel safe. They may go up to something they don’t like but unless they’ve been sufficiently educated, they nearly always make sure their back end is the farthest away. It’s a survival instinct and only natural but it’s also dangerous as they could swing into a passing car for instance.

I may not have all her trust face to face but when I’m riding her it has increased hugely and we are now at the stage where I can begin to micro manage her feet. I’ve made a mental note to explain this tomorrow with another plan to attach the headcam to demonstrate when I have the energy! Missy is now able to stand closely parallel to the wire while I make ringing sounds on the mesh with my whip. She needs to be happy to stand even closer on a droopy rein without waiting her chance to move off.
She expended so much mental energy with all the new stuff she was learning that she dawdled home like a snail. I thought we were never going to get there but that’s so much better than feeling you’re riding a homing pigeon on a mission.


DAY TWENTY WEEK FIVE

When I heard about the new road works, I thought I would ride Missy past them as it’s all good practice. The water board were doing something subterranean inside an enclave of traffic barriers, road signs, cones, and a low loading trailer with a digger parked on it. Every so often a man would bob up from a different hole like figures from a puppet show. Just everyday stuff you can expect to meet on a morning hack. Missy tried half-heartedly to curve her body outwards when I asked her to walk right beside it but she’s so unfazed by that sort of thing she barely notices. I stopped and chatted to a couple of heads and shoulders while Missy waited patiently. I walked up and down a couple of times so she would have to pass from both sides while hearing nice comments from the workmen.

Suddenly Missy isn’t green anymore; it really can happen that quickly. She’s turned a corner seemingly overnight and feels much more together. We notice changes like this all the time in different ways depending on the character of the horse, what is lacking as well as what they need to let go of. Missy still has a way to go in educational terms but there is a noticeable shift which means we’ve climbed the summit and now we can coast our way down to the end goal which is training completion.

As space won’t permit me to describe the changes in detail, it will have to wait because I wanted to cover micro management of the feet. As always, it not easy to describe a process that has invisible ingredients. Feel and timing are two important ones as well as an inner knowing of when the horse is mentally and physically ready. It is never too late but a lot of damage can be done by doing it too early, so here goes an attempt to make sense of what I mean.

Let’s imagine we are riding down the road as part of our daily hack. Our horse is walking out nicely while we enjoy the day. He is more or less keeping to the left but sometimes he is more towards the middle. His head comes up because he’s noticed a puddle in the road. He keeps going and bypasses the puddle. Now we hear a car behind us as we walk towards a small lay-by. We turn into it but it’s hardly big enough and we notice some rump is sticking out. A quick check shows there’s enough room for the car to pass so that’s ok. There’s a manhole cover ahead. Our horse isn’t keen on those and sidesteps. We come to a junction and stop but our horse moves diagonally in his attempt to keep going. We cross the road and meet a driveway with a dark green bush at the entrance. We scarcely notice our horse has moved over by two metres to go by it.

Most of us are barely aware of what our horses’ feet are doing or where the body is in relation to the landscape. As long as they are heading in the right direction at the right pace do the details of where each foot goes really matter? If we compare our imaginary hack to working in the school or navigating a course of fences, we can appreciate how differently we do things. On a hack we are happy to generalise. We’re not overly fussy where the horse walks or looks as long as it’s within a given parameter, usually based on how busy the road is and what its features are etc.

From a training perspective, it matters a lot where and how the horse is going. As the horse progresses, so does the accuracy we expect in terms of body positioning and footfall. We prepare for this in various ways which can’t be covered here but a headcam clip or two should answer that. Missy has developed sufficient trust and understanding for me to position her more or less anywhere with accuracy. We haven’t stepped inside the bus stop yet which is a good example of the principles involved but we are working on similar tasks.

I am always on the lookout for opportunities to position her in unusual places. Through continually being able to direct her feet I am not only connecting her mind to mine, I’m also controlling her in a natural way that is consistent with herd behaviour with an educational twist based on time honoured principles of classical horsemanship.


DAY TWENTY ONE WEEK SIX

We didn’t think the shoot would open fire so close to us for the second week running but they did. It was like a siege, a battle zone, and yet again the shot rained down on the roof. There were only three horses in the stables and Missy was one of them. Unlike last week when it took a couple of days for her to settle, this time she was more or less back to normal by the afternoon.

Because somebody got spent shot in the back of the neck while painting the outside of the building, two firearms officers were in attendance and as a result the morning slipped away. It was late afternoon by the time I rode out on Missy who had stayed in her stable throughout the day. A persistent whistling wind sprung up, blowing dried leaves everywhere. The sky was low and dark with cloud, hardly inviting. In fact it felt quite eerie with a sense of death and destruction which animals are quick to pick up on.

Missy felt so good and familiar, like settling down into a favourite sofa, I was glad to be on her rather than something more challenging. We trotted nicely into the village, continuing up the side of the village green and along the darkening woodland track that runs beside the corn field. We can’t ride on it now as it’s been drilled which is a shame. We were still trotting as we reached the top before heading down towards the Golf Course. The side path is quite steep and Missy began to lose balance. Her trot got faster as she tried to catch up with herself. When she felt the action of the reins to steady her, she simply leaned into them as if they were a hand rail. She began curving her body out to towards the corn field in an effort to find the most comfortable position. Nothing she was doing felt comfortable for me and I brought her back to walk.

At the bottom is a gate with black plastic mesh, the kind farmers use for a wind break, attached to it like a role of carpet. Missy stopped and stared at it which wasn’t surprising as every horse we take here has a funny moment on their first visit. I urged her forwards and before I could gather my reins, she wheeled round fully intending to run back up the track. It happened so fast I can’t even recall which way she turned. It was totally unexpected and out of character from what I know of her so far.

Because she is normally predictable and non-spooky, I wasn’t in the least prepared and I knew that by the time I was in a position to get her back under control, she would almost certainly be a good way gone. When there isn’t time to think, our reactions are automatic and I found myself bringing her round tightly on one rein. There was a lot of thrashing and mild panic each time she saw the gate as we were in such a narrow space. After a few wild circuits I managed to effectively engage the other rein and some sort of order was restored.

I asked her to walk on and approach the gate sensibly. Amid all that confusion I was still in control of her feet, I hadn’t let her run off and now I was in a much stronger position to dictate our next move. Missy reluctantly and cautiously went up to the gate. It took a bit of persuasion to get her head over it and to stand still while I tapped the metal end of my stick against the bar but once she realised it wasn’t going to leap out and get her, she was calm enough.

I moved her off to the side with the gate on her right, then we turned and came back to stand with the gate on her left as horses have to be happy with things from both sides. The next part was to walk along the side with two sheep in a little paddock. One was walking around swiftly while the other was lying down beside the fence. Between us was a sunken water trough at ground level. This trough historically has the spook factor, providing a good training opportunity.

Missy walked past easily enough while doing the banana despite a strong leg telling her otherwise. I thought in her heightened state of awareness she might react to the supine sheep which was so near but she didn’t seem to notice it. We went back and forward a few times until I was happy with her straightness before heading once more for the gate with its thick black coil of mesh. Now that we’ve sorted that one out, Missy will be fine with it from now on and I think we’ve both learned a valuable lesson. She will increasingly realise it’s not up to her to make decisions about whether to stay, go, stop or turn. In her defence, she was genuinely frightened. Her continuing training will help give her trust based coping mechanisms and there will come a point where she won’t resort to instinctive flight behaviour.

Missy reminded me that as easy as she is, she is still a horse in training and I haven’t really “got her”. That’s the expression we use to differentiate between a horse with sufficient education to have almost guaranteed responses and those that are selective. I am also reminded that it takes time to know a horse inside out during which we put them in a range of different situations so they can show us what needs attention. Horses truly are our teachers!


DAY TWENTY TWO WEEK SIX

I had confirmation that Missy is truly at home in her surroundings when I was able to walk out of her stable leaving the door open while she stood resting a back leg. I tacked her up and off we went to the village green for her first proper schooling session. I’ve brought it forward by a week or two mainly as a result of yesterday’s little incident. We give careful consideration as to whether or not a particular horse is ready to work there due to the endless possibilities for what could be termed a negative experience. Although the area is small, it is a public space with a lot going on. Following the latest government directive in support of planning applications for housing on village amenity land, the fate of this little parcel of rural England is uncertain despite vigorous objections by the local community. Part of the process is to erect fencing and stock it with cows as apparently this helps ensure planning success. Luckily for us the locals keep taking gates off their hinges so we can at least get in albeit with restricted access.

Sometimes we feel it’s better to walk around to show the horse the layout but mostly we start trotting almost straightaway which helps the horse focus and pay attention. The grass is long and tends to grow in tufts. It’s also got the odd hole and several dips as well as a slope towards some back gardens usually full of billowing washing. So, lots for horses to stumble on, a continual test in concentration and a near perfect opportunity for them to show their true colours. If a horse has a behavioural issue a location like this will definitely showcase it.

Missy found going in straight lines and circling difficult, especially on the downhill part. Like most horses at her stage of training, she falls in at a particular spot on one rein and falls out on the other. Our session highlighted something I was previously unaware of. Since she found it more difficult to bend or soften to the right, I assumed she was stiffer on that rein but after working her for a short while I realised it’s the other way round. Even though her neck appears more fixed to the right, in fact this is her hollow side, (almost every horse has one) while her nearside is responsible for the stiffness.
I discovered it while trotting figures of eight which is the best and quickest way for a horse to learn balance and bend. The art is to swop direction through riding straight after one curve before riding another. This may seem obvious but it’s highly effective if done on the part of the curve which is producing the problem. If the horse is falling out at a certain point on the right rein for instance, then at the mid-point I will ask the horse to travel on a diagonal line using a strong left rein and leg.

Missy had exactly this difficulty which I helped her resolve by doing as outlined above, effectively setting her up for a semi-circle left. As we came round and she began to fall in, I would swap direction by supporting strongly with my inside (left) rein while asking her to go out to the right. This exercise not only sorts out bend, balance and straightness, it is also great for freeing the shoulder. It produces excellent results every time, and as already mentioned, it gives me accurate feedback as to where the real difficulty lies.

Missy has a great heart and a wonderfully positive attitude towards her work but I could feel her struggling with it. One of the key ways horses learn is by release of pressure and reward. Timing and feel are very important as horses get discouraged easily if they feel their efforts are not being recognised. When Missy gave even a hint that she was softening, I would immediately release the pressure, confirming she had made the right response. When she showed an inclination to come back down to halt, I would let her stand; this was her reward and a powerful one it is. When the horse is allowed to do nothing as a result of choosing to stand, you prevent the build up of adrenaline, anxiety, and tension while putting the horse immediately at ease; a rich reward.

When her hooves hit the tarmac, Missy felt like her legs were hydraulically operated, they were so light and springy after wading through the long grass. It was a really beneficial session for her; she tried really hard throughout with full concentration with lots to think about on the way home and plenty of time to do it in as she was so tired I thought I would have to carry her back. It wouldn’t be fair to repeat this tomorrow as her muscles need time to lengthen and adjust. It’s also a bit of a strain mentally to hold the flow of instructions in her head. I will apply parts of what she learned today on a nice relaxing hack.


DAY TWENTY THREE WEEK SIX

One of the first sounds to greet me when I throw open the barn door in the morning is Missy honking. She continues on and off until I bring her in to her stable where she happily stays all day munching her way through the haylage barrel. I decided to attach the headcam for our ride as I hoped to capture some clips to show different aspects of our training which I plan to put together over the weekend.

I wanted to take her to the track beside the cow field but when we got there we couldn’t see any. We spent some time doing exercises up and down as described in a previous entry. I wanted to show how Missy is learning to steady herself trotting downhill with hardly any rein contact. She is beginning to understand that she can use her forehand as a brake rather than pulling herself forward. I explained how I can bring her back to walk with my body and no rein or with just my voice.

We stood between parked cars as if we were a car, manoeuvred into narrow spaces, trotted up and down pavements and circled in trot on sloping tarmac. I’ve checked the footage, I seemed to have got it all so that’s a relief. There’s little point in repeating myself and will let the images do the talking. It’s very disappointing to see the loss of quality once I’ve uploaded a video; I’m convinced there must be an alternative way to share clips of original clarity from the source file and am currently testing out a few options.

I am very pleased with Missy’s progress; she’s got a brilliant attitude to life and is so open and easy to train. Even though she’s an older horse, she hasn’t acquired any “habits” which means we can make haste quickly as she is mentally more developed than a young horse. Now that I have her trust, I can begin to ask more questions without upsetting her or making her anxious. She’s is very open and giving which helps her to soak up information like a sponge. My goal for her is the same for every horse which is to attain true softness. Not only on the outside which can be achieved mechanically but an inner softness where the horse really lets you in and resistance falls away.

Through appropriate training, we can soften the horse’s mind where most resistance is born with tension and anxiety as bedfellows. We can never really control an animal as powerful as a horse with force, far better to listen to what they are saying and help them give us the responses we are looking for. Horses have evolved by cooperating with other herd members and we can tap into that instinctive mindset which the best examples of Natural Horsemanship deliver. Missy is well on track to becoming an established ride, I feel privileged to be working with her.


DAY TWENTY FOUR WEEK SIX

Missy’s coat is growing so fast and thick she looks like a polar bear! My first thought was to ride her along the bridle path to the gate with the scary black mesh, but we found ourselves heading for the farm instead. This was her first time here; I haven’t felt she was ready before today. Knowing Missy as well as I do, I’m sure she would have been fine except perhaps with the gates. When we first moved to the area, the farm was mostly open, we could ride anywhere but the latest owner isn’t so horse friendly. Our passage is severely restricted although we still school in the sheep field.

Horses tend to find this route quite spooky which makes it more of a challenge than the forest. The bridleway starts beside a house with its patchwork of postage stamp paddocks, each home to a solitary horse. All the fencing is electrified from the mains. Horses are sensitive to electricity, they can definitely sense it. This makes them wary and when they see odd looking bits and pieces on the other side, they tend to back off.

Missy is particularly non-spooky for her stage of training and barely looked at the old tin bath, the grey circle of potash which is all that remains of a recent fire. She didn’t mind the slatted wooden midden placed at a strange angle right beside a bend either. At the end of the path is the first of three hunt gates. The first two open outwards which is helpful. Missy is happy to put her neck over a gate and I can move her body around anywhere I want to. She parked up alongside the gate like a pro while I leaned over to release the catch. I pushed it open without her moving. I backed her up gently so we could walk through. She came round in a nice arc so I could close it. I gave it a good push and asked her to follow it but she moved too far forward and too far away. I moved her sideways to get her body closely parallel which wasn’t easy as the ground is heavily rutted and we were facing down hill towards home. She moved over obligingly, crossing her legs, and stood perfectly still without rein contact while I fiddled with the string that went round the post.

I was so pleased with her. She had got the idea so that the second and third gates were no more difficult to operate than had I been riding a more experienced horse. Missy doesn’t mind being made to move in a restricted area. As soon as I let go of the contact or take my leg off, she knows she’s got it right and stands still. I have prepared her by doing a series of exercises like this which we call micro managing their feet. It’s lovely to feel how calm and relaxed she is underneath me, all the hard work is paying off.

To begin with it looked like the field was empty but half way down we saw a large flock of sheep. They hadn’t seen us and when they did, they scattered and ran around trying to cluster together. Horses are generally frightened of movement, especially when livestock rush around but Missy took it all in her stride, bless her. I’ve often been on young horses when half the flock is on one side and the rest on the other. As we came into view they would charge around in a panic, swopping groups by running across the path in front of us. Unless you are a sheep you wouldn’t know why most of them headed for the boundaries which are full of bushes, galloping through the undergrowth and making a terrible noise. It’s a particularly tense time for a horse who can’t decide whether to shoot forward or wheel round and run back up the hill. Being surrounded by fast moving noisy sheep is a potentially dangerous situation. It’s like sitting on a time bomb! Whatever happens I don’t let the horse turn as the flight instinct would be so strong we would be off. I don’t have my reins too short either as this in itself is unsettling, especially if the feet are planted with fear. I make sure to focus on where I want to go and insist the horse keeps moving forward. You are more likely to take control of the situation if you are in charge of the horse’s feet. Luckily we didn’t have to deal with anything like that today.

Missy feels so much lighter and more balanced. I’m able to trot her along the roads and tracks with both reins held loosely in one hand, using my legs and body to keep her on whichever side I want. It won’t be long now before I start to put the different pieces of the training puzzle together in preparation for her graduation two or three months down the line. There will be no diary entry tomorrow as I’ve so much to catch up on elsewhere.

DAY TWENTY FIVE WEEK SEVEN

Whether it was coincidence or not after the police got involved last Monday, the guns kept their distance. We could hear them plainly enough and so could the horses who remained restless throughout the day. The beaters were out in force in the field behind, hollering and waving fertiliser bags attached to long sticks. As can be imagined, the horses found this “sporting” cabal both fascinating and disturbing. They took to staring fixedly before wheeling round and dashing about.

When I rode in at lunchtime, I noticed Missy motionless while resting her back leg. Something didn’t look right so I brought her in to have a better look. She was reluctant to walk; I could see blood on her leg where she had been kicked. She wasn’t exactly lame, more stiff and sore enough to not want her leg washed. There was a lot of blood but once it was cleaned up, we could see the injury isn’t extensive but it is deep. It is high up inside her near thigh, not an obvious place to be kicked. The hole is small like a puncture wound as if she pierced it. As there is no barbed wire or other protrusions in the paddock, it must have been caused by the corner of a shoe. There was quite a bit of leaping about in the morning and presumably poor Missy managed to be in the wrong place.

We routinely pillar in the passageway when we are attending to a horse. In the early days of training, some horses don’t like to be left. They feel insecure or abandoned. They can’t relax so they continually move around to try and free themselves and when that doesn’t work, they start striking the ground with their front feet. When this happens, as long as the horse can’t hurt itself, we simply leave them to get on with it. It’s surprising how quickly they develop coping mechanisms when there is no human around to distract them. Missy is very good at just standing, we don’t normally even need to tie her up but tonight she was unusually restless. She moved back and forward, from side to side, everything could think of to free herself from the ropes. We continued with evening stables, taking no notice of her. When she eventually stood still, we rewarded her by turning her back out.

She will remember this as horses learn what works and doesn’t by association. It will only take one or two goes for her to realise that the quickest way back to the field is to show a little patience. We gave her arnica to combat swelling and pain as well as something for tetanus which I think it is called Ledum but can’t be sure as Annie did the dosing. It’s not too serious, she won’t need to see a vet and I hope to be able to ride tomorrow.

Last week I wore the headcam to record our ride, the footage of which will be uploaded as five clips. You can watcht the second video by clicking below.


Missy looked a bit stiff walking round the paddock today so I decided to wait until tomorrow to resume work. Annie cleaned her wound again which was good for her as she is slightly nervous about being washed and treated.


DAY TWENTY SIX WEEK SEVEN

We checked Missy’s leg and couldn’t decide whether or not it was still swollen. The wound has closed over, looking clean and dry. She has so much coat it is hard to tell bone from hair. She seemed to be moving around ok so I thought we would take a little trip to the village to see how she coped.
The wind has been gathering strength all day. By the time I got on board it had grown to gale force proportions. Not the best conditions after nearly a week off on full rations but since Missy and I know each other so much better now, we have a good relationship so I knew she would at least be sensible.

She stood like a pro at the mounting block patiently waiting for me to make adjustments before setting out. A week without riding is long enough to notice which bits of training are established. Areas of difficulty are similarly highlighted. She walked down the drive pleasantly enough, but then again she always does although she did feel slightly wobbly. She hasn’t felt like that for a while.
I could tell Missy was fresh by her walk. It wasn’t hurried; rather it had purpose with energy behind it. She isn’t a spooky mare, just a nosey one. I got the feeling she would have liked to find something to frighten herself with but in its absence, she began peering at the different textures on the road. Horses are funny!

We don’t encourage horses to look up driveways or pretend to be more interested in something on one side or the other of the road. For the hour or two that we ride them, we expect them to concentrate to the extent their training level allows. This means being content with the view ahead which on a hack is constantly changing. Any sideways drift of the head is corrected with the horse asked to go forward and straight. They are not tourists; they have a job to do.

Missy likes a bit of sightseeing. For the first mile I kept having to remind her to pay attention. Her walk became even more purposeful so I thought it was time we had a trot. The first few strides were not of the same quality as we had previously. She came back into a steadier rhythm easily enough but her mouth was not as soft either. She has a nice mouth and never pulls; it’s more an indication of a lack of inner softness or perhaps residual stiffness due to her recent injury. I’m not worried; she will be back on form after a few rides.

I’m a great believer in circling on roads mostly in walk but I felt that perhaps this would make her feel uncomfortable. We formed shallow loops on and off the pavement instead which is another valuable exercise. We met three noisy boys scudding along on miniscule scooters with trolly size wheels that make a grinding sound as they rotate. They were keen to get up a good speed as they came whizzing down the hill towards us, taking up three quarters of the road. Not all horses are keen to be presented with something like this and I was pleased Missy didn’t even blink. Neither did she seem to notice when they began pushing themselves up behind us before crossing the road right in front of us. Occurrences like this are a good example of the unexpected when riding in the village.

I asked for a couple of halts half way round, mostly as a reminder. Missy stood but only briefly before getting slightly fidgety although I was pleased she no longer goes into reverse. When horses have time off, they are nearly always more restless than when in regular work. I expect this kind of thing and don’t make an issue of it. Insisting on a particular action needs thinking about first. If the timing isn’t right or the circumstances difficult, the horse can get wound up which doesn’t achieve anything. Far better to direct the feet in a more positive way which has the double benefit of helping to release adrenalin.

We couldn’t count the number of hours we spend helping horses let go of this toxic to performance hormone. Luckily Missy doesn’t have that much, just enough to make her reluctant to stand still at times. By the time we were going back up the hill towards home, she was back to dawdle mode which was nice. When I put her in her box, she tried to walk straight out again. I had to remind her of her manners and myself that groundwork and boundaries are an ongoing process that requires regular reinforcement.

Missy is a really rewarding little mare to work with. She has such a big heart and all her intentions are honourable. Unless there is a fresh problem with her leg, I look forward to riding her again tomorrow.


DAY TWENTY SEVEN WEEK SEVEN

Missy was all business today and full of enthusiasm. She strode out so positively I thought we would go somewhere new. I’ve been hoping to take her to a place beyond the forest where there is a huge amount of pipe laying going on before it was too late and the workmen had finished. We trotted most of the way up the hills. Missy felt powerful and forward without a hint of silliness.

This is gamekeeper territory and the number of erratic frenzied pheasants is unbelievable. You can’t go more than fifty yards without disturbing small clusters, most of whom leap up without warning from their hiding place in the long grass beside the road, beating their wings ferociously as they throw themselves at the stock netting. They make a terrible scrabbling noise, screech madly before finally extricating themselves. Although we wish they weren’t so demonstrative, it is good for the horses to get used them.

We didn’t turn into the forest as usual which Missy thought was strange. We continued ahead where the road goes dead straight, you can see for miles. Most horses find this stretch a bit of a test to say the least although there is no particular reason why. It is very exposed and sits at the highest point in the area which probably doesn’t help. The fields either side are divided into horse paddocks and if you’re lucky, the inmates charge up and down the fence line providing a good training opportunity. There is also a dead badger, poor thing, thrown into the side. This massive body has stopped more than one horse in their tracks recently but not good dependable Missy. She stared hard but kept going.

Further along is the enormous concrete pipe set back from the road and invisible until you reach it. In our experience horses react in one of two ways. Either they take little notice or else there’s a drama. Missy didn’t seem worried which meant we didn’t need to spend time going backwards and forwards past it. If we’re riding a less confident horse, we make sure they are happy to get close to it. We ask them to stand beside it and walk up to it to sniff it.

It’s not far now to all the stuff I wanted Missy to see. Firstly there were triangle road work signs dotted about. Nothing to worry Missy except the lane is quite dark making them look rather sinister so worth a look. After that we met a series of traffic barriers in bright yellow with red and white reflective strips along the top. They were in groups of four surrounding very deep holes full of brown water on both sides of the road which is only six foot wide. At one point we had to walk between the barriers which were opposite each other.

We were busy navigating our way along the lane when an enormous dumper, the sort you see involved with motorway maintenance, complete with flashing yellow light driving towards us. As he got nearer I beckoned him to keep coming. I didn’t want him to stop or turn off his engine while we went past. He certainly took me literally as he put his foot down and roared past with only a couple of feet to spare. I was so glad to be on Missy!
Round the corner is a pretentious cottage with a lake. Well, it’s more of a large pond but since there’s an island growing in the middle of it, we can allow an upgrade. The water comes right up to the edge of the road. I bet more than one merry reveller has fallen in it on the way back from the pub. The proximity of so much water causes consternation in most horses but Missy didn’t bat an eyelid and on we went.

We were nearly at the crossroads with yet more holes, barriers, diggers with their engines running, low loading trailers and finally, traffic lights. We joined the traffic, walking past the lights and all their ancillary equipment with yet more road signs. A couple of metal ramps were laid across the road offering a rare training opportunity. Missy isn’t the first horse I’ve ridden over these ramps but each time I do, I relish the chance for them to hear the clanging sound their shoes make as they step onto the metal. We spent some time weaving in and out the lights and the bollards while listening to the noise coming from the cars as they drove over the ramp. Missy is so good, I’m sure I could ride her along the M25. The workmen think I’m crazy but I don’t care. They can roll their eyes around in their heads all day if they want to.

Missy was feeling tired on the way home. She dawdled so much I thought we would never get there. For a change of scene, we came back through the forest. Two mountain bikers shot across our path without so much as an apology but Missy didn’t care. I turned her into the narrow track they’d appeared from as it’s full of twists and half buried tree roots. There are so many of them, she was caught out a couple of times with a stumble or two. When we hit the main track, I thought a little canter would be nice but Missy felt so tired I let her come back to trot after a few strides. Perhaps I ought to think of clipping her so she won’t feel so hot on longer rides. We had a wonderful time, I’m sure she enjoyed it as much as I did.


DAY TWENTY EIGHT WEEK SEVEN

I planned to take Missy to the village green for her session today but we didn’t quite make it as I was heavily involved with a horse I’d ridden earlier who couldn’t relax in the wood. There is a bridle path at the end of our drive which has a steep hill at either end with a flat part in the middle. Most of it is dark and narrow while the last section is open on one side with a thick high beech hedge on the other. We find horses have a tendency to shoot to the left on the open side at the slightest excuse until they are more established. It’s easy for them to do it as they are travelling uphill on a right hand curve so that a lot of their weight is already on the nearside shoulder.

The horse I was riding doesn’t look for a way out like that but is quite unsettled with the darkness and number of tress. Although I’ve made a bit of a diversion from describing Missy’s day, I feel all aspects of training are relevant and hopefully of interest to the reader. I could sense the level of insecurity by the hurried walk, the reluctance to stand, the mouth closed tight round the bit and the shortening of the neck with no reduction in pace. We spent over an hour going up and down, stopping, turning, and trotting on the flat part. I was prepared to stay there for as long as it took to achieve my objective which was to be able to lengthen the rein with no increase in pace, to walk on from a brief standstill without resistance and finally, to stand immobile for three minutes at the entrance to the path.

That’s horses for you. By the time I got round to Missy, our riding schedule was somewhat delayed so we found ourselves going out with Annie to cover some important aspects of bio-mechanics. I don’t want to give anyone a headache with a detailed analysis of bilateral flexion but as no horse is completely straight, I wanted to explore the implications with Annie from a training perspective. All horses bulge a little with either their shoulder or rib cage and as a result don’t step under sufficiently with the opposite hind leg which adds to a stiff versus hollow situation. We rode circles to straight lines, swopping lateral flexion for longitudinal flexion, feeling how it affects balance and rhythm in the trot as well as the implications for canter further down the line.

Missy demonstrated her current level of engagement in trot on a curve before transferring it to a straight line. She also showed her understanding of shoulder control through raising her forehand when pressure was applied through one rein against the edge of trapezius muscle. You can feel this as a slight hollow immediately in front of the top of the shoulder on all but the fattest of horses. When the horse gives to it, it also encourages the mouth to soften on the opposite side. We discussed the importance of horses having two sides to their mouths through having flexion without bend but not bend without flexion on a straight line. This was more relevant for the other horse as the mouth tends to be dry. We like to see foam as confirmation there is a softening occurring and relaxing the jaw. It’s important that this happens organically as it were rather than as a result of force, pressure or tension.

There is a very simple exercise we use regularly, a good indicator of where the horse is in terms of balance and self carriage. I’ve done this dozens of times with Missy and I’ll continue to remind her of it whenever I can. All you need is a slight incline, ideally with a bit of a step down onto a road or similar hard surface opposite a wall, fence or hedge two to four metres away. Ask the horse to stand square(ish) and straight before stepping down onto the road. The object is to stop in front of the hedge totally straight without using it as a brake using the minimum of rein contact. Fidgeting, moving sideways, turning the head and neck, bunching up, or shortening the neck are signs that the horse isn’t yet balanced under the rider and in control of its body.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable time completing immersing ourselves in the art of horsemanship. Missy and her companion were asked to stand while the other completed different tasks and encouraged to complete different movements with increasing precision and accuracy. A fitting end to a week’s training and in Missy’s case, a positive return to work.


DAY TWENTY NINE WEEK EIGHT

Our routine has changed along with the clocks. I will be riding out at 7am from now on to make the most of the short days. Missy didn’t have her slot until the afternoon. I barely had time to brush out her wonderful mane complete with a neat bunch for a forelock, which Annie said made her look like a Unicorn, before it looked almost too dark to ride.

We trotted to the forest, I think Missy was fresh but it’s hard to tell as she is one of those rare horses who remains perfectly well behaved despite feeling “the thing”. Her energy isn’t bottomless and by the time we got there, she settled into work mode properly. We met a large John Deere tractor pulling an enormous trailer on the narrow lane. I managed to manoeuvre Missy on to a piece of grass to wait. Missy stood perfectly still as it drove past so close there couldn’t have been more than two feet to spare.

Missy is able to balance herself, keeping a rhythm, while carrying me on a longish rein in all three gaits. It’s time now to introduce her to the next step of the training ladder which is to ask her to come more into the hand. Similar terms are “put the horse together”, “keep the horse between hand and leg” and “go in an outline”. They more or less mean the same thing but unfortunately the first steps are often left out which can have a lasting affect for the horse both mentally and physically.

Missy is ready to experience the feel of more contact. I have prepared her by teaching her how to carry a rider, finding her balance point without restricting her head and neck. I’ve also been building our relationship, showing her the different steps, (cues) to shape the movements and responses I want. She trusts me and doesn’t get flustered if she doesn’t understand and I give her thinking time which is really important.

Riding with a contact is not always understood. It is so much more than simply shortening the reins in the belief that this makes the horse go on the bit. The rider needs a strong leg rather than strong hands which must always be light and pulsing with feel! If the horse is too sharp off the leg or is strong in the mouth then some homework is needed first.

Missy was a bit confused by the increase in contact and as expected, thought I wanted her to stop despite the pressure of my legs asking her to maintain impulsion. We worked on this as we walked along the forest trails. I made sure to reward her by relaxing my fingers as I felt her soften. It was difficult for her to get the idea as she can’t see what’s wrong with her natural outline. She also has to work that much harder, especially with her hind legs. It’s much kinder to work at this in small bursts followed by a period of stretching which allows the blood to flow properly, especially along the topline. Horses can easily get what we call tension knots in their necks which are primarily caused by bending the neck in half and inadequate stretching time.

Riding with more contact means shortening the outline, but since everything in the universe is about balance, this included, I make sure it’s not just her neck that’s shorter. I must show her how to compress herself so to speak while remaining light to the hand. She can only achieve it with sufficient suppleness longitudinally which she doesn’t have right now. The more supple she becomes through her back and hock joints, the more she can raise her shoulder and alter her centre of gravity.

The forest offers lots of options for this kind of work, especially short sharp gradients which are great for increasing engagement and suppling the spinal muscles, the dorsa. Missy doesn’t have any tension or worry in her but she feels a bit tight. Once she realises she can shorten and lengthen her muscles with softness, she will be more comfortable.

We included a little canter work but not too much as Missy began to lose impulsion, she had lost her initial energy surge. Although she canters happily on either leg, it’s a bit random and I can’t ask for a particular lead yet. The grass beside the tracks has been freshly mown, making it all the more inviting to canter. I use the natural camber to help get different leads. If the ground is lower on the left for instance, this will encourage Missy to pick up right canter and vice versa. It works so well because the angle of the hind leg on the lower side is more acute which makes it easier for the horse to self select the lead I want, which in this case is generated by the near hind producing a right canter lead.

We met more than the usual number of vehicles going home, probably because of the shoot. Finding enough places to get out of their way wasn’t easy but Missy is so good now at moving sideways into small spaces and standing parallel with the road, we managed to let everyone past. I’m sort of gearing myself up to clip her, she could really do with less coat but as far as today was concerned, I was so pleased with her attempts to interpret what I was asking of her and her concentration levels were spot on. As I keep saying, she is such a good girl.


DAY THIRTY WEEK EIGHT

I wanted to ride Missy to the gate with the black mesh which she clearly thought was out to get her. I haven’t been back since but we couldn’t make it as it was such a busy day of visitors so we went through the farm instead in case the light faded too quickly. We were going up the lane when I heard a car coming down. We were approaching a bend and to make sure the driver could see us in time, we pulled over as much as we could. The car was going too fast, the lady driver jammed her brakes on too hard so it went into a skid as it slid towards us. The tyres made a terrible noise on the gravel but fortunately they got a grip before ploughing into us. She wound down her window and said, “Sorry, but the road’s wet” which is just about the lamest excuse. She had a car full of babies and toddlers too. Meanwhile Missy stood completely still throughout without moving a muscle.

Luckily we don’t meet too many like her. That kind of encounter can make horse traffic shy. I let her stretch in trot up the hill which is steep, occasionally taking a little more contact. Actually that’s not quite accurate. I asked for a little softening in a straight line, a slight flexion from each side of her mouth. Strictly speaking the poll isn’t a joint and can’t flex as it’s the top portion of the skull and therefore immovable. Articulation is possible slightly lower where the first cervical vertebra attaches to the skull. During this exercise, I’m looking for a little movement there but mainly I want her to flex through her throat and each side of her jaw independently.

Cobs have limited movement in the throat region if there is little definition which is why they feel stronger to the hand if they haven’t been taught how to soften and relax their jaw. Missy is ok in that department, the difference between her throat and neck is adequately defined.

She is very competent at gates now, even though this is only her second gate opening ride. Once horses lose their fear of getting stuck (this makes them rush or refuse to stand still) and will happily move laterally, they get the hang of it really quickly. After the second gate, we are in the sheep field. It’s a large area that slopes on all sides. Generally riders walk down, or if they are coming the other way, gallop flat out to the top. With sufficient balance established, it’s good to trot the horses down the hill or for the more established, follow the boundaries all the way round which are even steeper. I thought we would leave that for another day, we trotted to the bottom without tripping; a very good start.

Before we went through the last gate, we did some circling. As there is so much space, I decided to go a couple of canter circles on either rein. The ground is still sloping which makes it a much more valuable exercise. Missy had to work quite hard to keep in canter on the uphill curve while stopping herself from running on during the downhill part. The right rein was more difficult, drifting us further out with every stride where the ground was lower. Before it got too bad, with a huge effort of will, I felt Missy draw up her outside shoulder, thrusting it forward to bring her body round. This was amazing as horses tend to use such an opportunity to head off towards home with gravity and weight in their favour. I feel so privileged to be helping this little mare work through her Foundation Training.


DAY THIRTY ONE WEEK EIGHT

We ended up doing the same route as yesterday the other way round when I noticed the terrier following us. Poppy is so small she is in danger of being run over, especially with everything being so much darker. It didn’t matter as that route has a lot of gates and you can never do too many of them. Since we were approaching them from the other way, the openings were all different which was also good.

Missy felt enthusiastic so we trotted all the way to the first gate. It’s not an easy route due to the bridle path having barbed wire on both sides leading up to the sheep field. It’s narrow and far from flat where erosion has carved channels under the grass, making it hard to keep trotting. You soon know if there’s a soundness problem, any unlevelness is magnified. You couldn’t count the number of pheasants, they were everywhere. It’s certainly a test of a horse’s concentration with all that fluttering and shrieking going on, often right under our feet.

Missy has decided she is somewhat of an expert now at gates. She puts herself in whatever she feels is the most helpful position and stands waiting patiently. She even started to push it shut with her shoulder, or perhaps it was coincidence, we’ll wait and see. The sheep field rose up ahead of us, I was busy calculating the choices it offered, finally deciding to follow the boundaries next to the hedge line. Missy hasn’t done that before, although it sounds simple, it can be quite a challenge. There are two options, boundaries to the right or left. We chose the latter as it’s nearly always easier to control the right shoulder than the left. To clarify further, horses don’t need much of an excuse to dart to the side when riding next to a hedge but as this field is so high and open, if Missy shot out to the side, it could present a problem. Not that she does that sort of thing but even so, to avoid an incident at this stage in her training, I wanted the field on my right.

The wind was quite keen making the hedge and undergrowth seem very much alive. Missy was fine, some mild flinching, but I made sure I was really riding her and that I had her together so to speak. You can feel when a certain situation needs extra support and this was one of them. Horses know when you are on their case which is often dictated by the weather.

I don’t really have her yet. I use that phrase to mean knowing she will give me an accurate response in all situations (within reason.) Because she is very straightforward, I can take a few liberties by taking her to places I wouldn’t risk with others at her level of training. To really have a horse, you must have absolute control of the shoulder. I have spoken about this before and won’t repeat myself except to expand a little on how I go about it.

Missy is getting much better at neck reining but she gets a bit stuck when I ask her to bring her shoulders full circle to the right in walk or halt. She can do it by stepping forward or back which tells me there is a stiffness she feels she can’t let go of. Horses are all the same in this respect, a universal stiffness as it were. Some are so blocked in their minds as a result of wrong handling they would sooner stand up than come round. We will repeat the exercise daily; at some point she will surprise herself and just do it. When we got back to the yard, I spent some time flexing her head and neck from the ground. She is much improved, especially to the right which hardly moved at all when we started, but there is still some resistance. She needs to be soft on the inside as well to achieve the right level with this which is a big part of the training. She lets me put my face all over her muzzle now without jerking back, I hope it won’t be too long before she accepts the sound of kisses too.


Sadly no diary. You can watch Missy's last video by clicking the link below in the meantime.


DAY THIRTY TWO WEEK EIGHT

I’m sorry there was no diary yesterday but it was rather hectic throughout. We expected our new arrival, Bryn, in the afternoon but due to some sort of delay, he didn’t arrive until seven o’clock. I could have ridden Missy after all.

I brought Missy in and noticed for the umpteenth time what a happy horse she is. She always has her ears forward even just standing in the stable. Being around such a little ray of sunshine is very healing; her presence helps to lift my spirits when I’m flagging. Just as we left the yard an insect flew into my eye, distracting me all the way down the drive as I tried to remove it. Horses can sense when your mind is elsewhere and take advantage, veering off towards a gate or something. Missy didn’t do that which shows she is becoming more established. My eye continued to itch and feel scratchy as if there was something still in it so I decided we would ride along the High Street rather than slide our way up and down to the forest after a heavy night of rain.

I figured by the time I got there my sight would be back, besides Missy felt fresh and energetic enough to possibly show me a new behaviour. I don’t get much chance to work her through the spooking phase as she hardly ever does shies. Her walk felt amazing, when she’s got energy, it rocks! Her trot felt good with increasing rhythm. She is definitely softer through the mouth. She will continue to soften as I ride her “over the back” as the Aussies call it.

Rhythm is so important; we feel it deserves more attention. I often compare connected riding to playing an instrument as they have much in common. As a keen music student for many years, the importance of rhythm was drummed into me. Thankfully ridden rhythms are less complicated than musical ones. At the time I dreaded hearing the metronome ticking away on the lid of the piano but it did such a great job of instilling a sense of timing and beat that the effects are still there. Rhythm is linked to balance and softness in the horse and is the guardian of true expression in transitions and paces. It also has a calming affect mentally; once rhythm is inside the horse it’s nearly permanent and well worth the effort.

I feel Missy’s rhythm with my whole body, making subtle adjustments with every stride, sometimes inside a stride as well. Like all horses, she is able to pick up on it, producing a degree of self tuning. In other words, we work together to reach a place of harmony and understanding through establishing rhythm.

The High Street was unusually busy with traffic. We parked behind a stationary car to allow a line of built up traffic to pass. Missy knew the score; each time she saw a car pass, she thought it was ok to walk on. She was only doing this because she was a bit fresh. Normally she will stand without anticipation. I placed my right leg gently on her side as I could feel her body preparing to move off, I didn’t want her walking into the traffic as she came out from behind the parked car. I also kept the right rein laying along her neck to stop her leading out with her shoulder while opening my left hand a little, an invitation to step to the left. This was all happening instantly and invisibly but you could see the results. She was rocking backwards and forwards at the standstill, it was quite comical. Had my aids been anything other than light and sensitive, she would have been moving about with a lot of correction. I wonder if I could get her to do that command. Since there are more important things to cover, I don’t expect I will.

Several cars were waiting ahead while a huge yellow tanker type lorry decorated with iron ladders and thick black hoses tried to reverse out of a turning. Having assessed the situation, I decided we wouldn’t stand in the queue, we would ride up the inside on the pavement to the front. I don’t know what the other drivers thought about being overtaken by a horse. Missy waited patiently, heading a long line of traffic only yards from the monster machine. A man on the ground was directing operations. Although both he and the lorry were backing towards us, he didn’t even glance our way which I thought was strange. Eventually the driver managed to turn round and off we all went with Missy giving it her best step and the cars dutifully following behind. We were approaching a bend when I heard a rumbling sound coming towards us. The yellow lorry was coming back again. The road was at a narrow point but we kept trotting and the lorry kept coming. It wasn’t going fast but it certainly didn’t slow down, passing us within a couple of feet. Missy didn’t so much as flick an ear, not that I expected her to.

Since she felt like she was on a mission, I thought we would go to the little narrow bridle path to practice some canter transitions. I have left this until now as when I first rode her, she thought standing was a precursor to rushing off. It would be easy to confuse her by asking for canter followed by walk then forward to canter again too soon. We only did two transitions as the second one from walk was so good I didn’t want to ask for more. Knowing when to reward the horse by not wanting more is vital. They generally try their best for us and if we don’t honour and acknowledge it, they quickly lose heart or get anxious. We can also damage them physically by demanding repeated efforts.

I really must get organised and clip Missy. She sweats easily now her coat is so thick and it’s a real problem to get her dry enough to rug up. I am in two minds whether to ride her tomorrow or not but if I do, I will make another diary entry.


DAY THIRTY THREE WEEK NINE

The weather was wild as we set out this morning. Missy was stabled over the weekend, only being ridden once to accompany a visitor at a steady pace through the village. She was willing to say the least but still the same dependable Missy, the one you can rely on for all occasions. I want to clip her and keen to keep her away from the mud. She definitely won’t know anything about clipping which is how we like it as we can introduce her using NH based techniques. Perhaps Annie will be available to film the introduction.

Plans to ride on Saturday went out the window when our internet connection failed. Panic! After endless calls to the service provider which went nowhere, I managed to speak to a real person who ran a check. Apparently the company was working on an upgrade at the local exchange and all customers were affected. Give it a couple of hours and we would be back online. Great, but I didn’t believe them and wasn’t surprised when nothing happened. I fiddled with the modem, stabbing a piece of wire into the only hole without a wire coming out of it and it worked. Meanwhile the transporter was booked to take Briar to her winter grazing lands but never turned up. When I called him he told me a fantastic tale about Operation Stingray on the M23. I didn’t believe him either and still waiting for him to call back. As I wasn’t in the best place emotionally afterwards, I thought it best not to ride as horses are deeply affected if we are inwardly disturbed.

The guns were out, firing away madly as we rode directly towards their hilltop station opposite the bridle path. There had been a serious fire overnight when a neighbour’s land caught light. Luckily fire fighters got it under control or we and all the horses would have been evacuated. The resultant smoke was extensive; riding through it with the sound of gunfire getting louder I imagined we were part of the horse artillery during a conflict. It was certainly surreal but Missy coped really well, barely hesitating as we trotted as far as the road.

The noise was pretty deafening once we emerged from the trees. I began to have doubts about the wisdom of what we were doing, imagining worse case scenarios like getting shot or Missy traumatised from being hit with a stray bullet. We were sprayed with lead shot at one point, not ideal and probably illegal, but the angels were looking after us and we reached the forest safely.

I thought we would unwind by meandering along little used woodland paths, savouring the quiet and tranquil setting. Missy, happy horse that she is, was pleased to do that. When we emerged onto the wider tracks, we set off in trot. This pace feels so good now; it is developing into a lovely swinging movement, forward without rushing, balanced and light. She is reaching forward and down which allows her back muscles to stretch, extending into her topline. When horses do this, the dip in front of the withers fills up. Missy isn’t hollow so she doesn’t have that problem but she will feel the same increase in comfort while carrying me. Reaching this stage signals she is ready for me to begin sitting to her trot for short periods.

When sitting to the trot, the horse needs the right muscular development to carry the rider without which even the most talented jockey will bump up and down. Weakness in the back, conformational difficulties and a hollow carriage can cause damage and even misalignment when the rider tries to sit. We are very aware of the importance of correct carriage, preferring to rise equally on both diagonals until they ready.

I wanted to show Missy the puddles on a particular path which are large and black due to the build up of dead leaves. Horses have little perception of depth but a strong sense of most colours and these puddles look so dark and forbidding it can put them off walking through. With increased familiarity, we expect them to canter through without hesitation. Missy doesn’t mind walking into water generally but she gave these a hard look while doing her best to swing her neck and shoulder out to the left so she would only touch the edges with her feet.

I was here last week on another horse who was horrified at being asked to wade through them. He went through the usual tactics of evasion before simply refusing to walk on when they didn’t work. I want to describe how I persuaded him to go into the blackness as his reaction is typical, especially for those of a more sensitive disposition. As a forward thinking horse who is willing to go more or less anywhere, not wanting to go forward is a big statement. He understood what I was asking but didn’t have the confidence to try. My job was to help him overcome his fear. I did this by not hassling him, kicking him or using the stick which I knew would put him off the idea completely through negative association. Instead I turned him one way and then the other so that he couldn’t help but step across it. I followed this up by asking him to walk on a couple of steps before turning him into the puddle so he could walk across it from a different angle. I did this a few more times until lowered his head which is the signal that any minute he would walk through it.

Some horses need to satisfy themselves that there is a bottom and that they won’t disappear altogether. He started sniffing the water and then plunged half his face into it. When he felt solid ground under his nose, it wasn’t difficult to get his feet to follow. He walked through the middle of it with his head acting as a probe between his legs. We’ve navigated our way like this for a couple of days but very soon he will no longer feel the need to cross this way. Allowing him complete freedom of his head and neck helped him decide for himself that it was safe.

Missy didn’t put up as much resistance. Three puddles down the line she was splashing through confidently enough. We will try trotting through them in no time. By the time her canter is established, she will be ready to take them in her stride, literally.


DAY THIRTY FOUR WEEK NINE

I gave Missy a partial clip as her coat is getting incredibly thick. Ideally I would have had an assistant but as there wasn’t one available, I made a start to see how she felt about it. I knew straightaway she wasn’t going to like having her face shaved which isn’t surprising as she is still a little wary in this area. Her coat feels damp and greasy; she could do with a bath. As I don’t want to blunt the blades, I will finish the rest of her once she is clean. She doesn’t mind the sound so much as the feel of them anywhere on her face, although she is fine having other parts of her body clipped.

I did our usual introduction, a kind of shortcut version of clicker training, a form of reward based approach. This works much better with two people, perhaps this is why it wasn’t a complete success. Luckily Missy is pretty non-reactive, she doesn’t pull back, leap in the air or strike out with her front feet. She suddenly flings her head up in the air as if she’s been stung instead. She does this because she is convinced the clippers are going to give her an electric shock.

When I initially feel drawn to devoting my life to training horses, I had little idea just how much patience is involved, without which we can never really gain their trust and true cooperation. I certainly needed a lot today. I can’t remember how long I stood beside her head gently rubbing the smaller quieter clippers over her muzzle, the back of her chin and between her jaw; the no go areas in her mind.

Once Missy is confident that nothing nasty is going to happen, she is fine. At the moment, feeling fine is short lived and is dependent on which hairs are involved. I can run the clippers endlessly over those sections already shaved. Moving on to somewhere different is acceptable a millimetre at a time. I can’t say she enjoyed the experience or that she has as much trust in me on the ground as in the saddle but by taking my time with slow and gentle body language, I was able to clip her face with just a head collar and rope.

She is only shy around her head, she won’t mind the rest of her being clipped. I need to spend more time doing things in that area. In fact it would benefit her all round if I focused on groundwork. After I’d completed what I set out to do, I tacked her up and off we went to do school on the village green. I do hope this wonderful facility isn’t going to be taken away. There is a planning application already lodged for development on it. The locals are objecting and on the 15th of this month everyone will be gathered on the green for a meeting with council officials. We’ve been invited, or summoned, to attend on horseback. I think I will take Missy. There is bound to be lots of arm waving and heightened emotion which will be good for her to deal with.

Missy stepped out with vigour and energy. I think this was due to being stabled for the last few days. I trotted her most of the way to the green to make sure she arrived in a mood to concentrate. We trotted round with frequent rein changes. Since she still felt onward, I thought it would be good to do some canter work. She is very good at this, she keeps a steady rhythm without feeling too strong. She finds doing more than one large circle hard work at the moment but this will change as her muscles develop more. We did some simple canter lead changes which is a first for her. As she was beginning to tire, we finished our session with more in-depth trot work.

The grass on the green is long and the ground is on a slope, making it hard for her to keep balanced. She would start to speed up in places, losing her rhythm. Rather than keeping a greater rein contact to steady her, I used changes of direction and deep curves instead. This is a very effective method to steady them and is equally good for horses who won’t concentrate. It’s much easier to follow from a visual perspective rather than reading words so will aim to get Annie down with the video camera. I haven’t forgotten about showing what I meant with regard to changing the bend on a circle to combat falling in or falling out either.

I was very pleased with what we achieved today, including a small amount of sitting trot. Horses go through so many phases on their journey to becoming established, and Missy is at the going in too deep phase. Most do this, the important thing is not to try and pull the head up by the reins. Some start with their head so high it’s like a telescope, after which it’s so low it’s like a road sweeper but not to worry. They get back on an even keel in their own time when we adopt a policy of non interference.

We took a picture afterwards. You can see how nicely her head and neck are set now without being covered in hair.

Missy after her first clip

DAY THIRTY FIVE WEEK NINE

I trimmed Missy’s feather with the scissors to make them easier to clip. She was fine, doesn’t mind at all, so no difficulties expected in that department. Afterwards it was time for some groundwork. I’ve noticed that when I sweep the front of her stable, she stops eating and walks to the back of the box. Someone has hit her with a broom in the past no doubt. She is watchful of the shavings fork but since I am in and out with it throughout the day, she’s more or less got used to it now.

As the videos clearly show, we are more than a little inventive when it comes to using different pieces of equipment, not all of it natural in the strict sense. Among our growing armoury, we have just what is needed for Missy. I’m sure it’s got a name, I’m hoping someone can tell me what it is called. We found two of them in a toy shop. They are around 1.5 metres long and made out of foam in bright colours, we chose coral pink! They are tubular but not hollow. They feel firm but yet soft, we use them as arm extensions and they’re brilliant.

Missy had two sessions with this pipe, it’s a great help for her confidence on the ground. It’s also going to make a huge difference towards her accepting the clippers on her face. When I rub it up and down across her ears or under her jaw, it makes a slight rasping sound like sandpaper.....vaguely clipperish. I can do all kinds of manoeuvres with it to simulate waving arms for example, or as a potential weapon, and many others as well.

I was aware of the time as the day is so short now and as we didn’t have long, we trotted to the forest for a bit of one track canter work. Whether she was feeling the effects of yesterday’s schooling session, or perhaps it was because she was feeling relaxed from the groundwork, she wasn’t in the least bit fresh. She is such a willing mare, always striving to do her best, but she kept letting me know she would rather walk. We make a point of listening to the horses rather than pushing them over their limits. To compromise, we did lots of upward and downward transitions between walk and trot.

Missy was carrying herself with a higher shoulder than yesterday. Her trot felt wonderful, her back was swinging nicely and as a result, her mouth felt more or less perfect. At the risk of being repetitive, I want to emphasise that it is perfectly possible, as well as desirable, to educate a horse to carry itself correctly with a soft responsive mouth without riding in a ménage or adding bits of equipment like flash nosebands and martingales. Missy didn’t have much of a mouth to begin with but she certainly has one now. As I’ve said before, the mouth is the broadcasting centre for the entire horse; if there’s stiffness or resistance somewhere, the rider will feel it in the mouth. The horse might be opening the mouth, leaning or pulling, but empirical evidence training many different types of horses proves that wearing a stronger bit or using artificial aids is not the solution.

I do my best to describe the details of Missy’s training but they are not exclusive to her. These classically based techniques are rolled out for every horse we work with. By the time we reached the forest, Missy was ready to attempt some straight line canter transitions along a 300 metre grass track. It’s not exactly level, there are holes, large stones, a few dips and a definite camber. All good for balance and sure footedness. Although we haven’t done a lot of canter, the preparation is actually the most important part so that today she was able to take whatever canter lead I asked for while remaining straight.

Her upward transitions are good; no rushing, breaking rhythm or head up and hollow but the downward ones are superb. I wish I had the ability to adequately explain what I mean. Only recently she was struggling to come back down to trot without landing on her forehand and running on; today she was like a different horse, it was all there! It would take quite a while to describe and perhaps not everyone is equally passionate about a downward transition so I’ll leave that for now. I want to finish by saying the trot afterwards needs improvement. It will sort itself out by my not interfering but rather aligning my body to mirror what I want hers to do. And lastly, I only use finger light pulses on the reins to ask her to come down from canter to trot. By making everything we do with our horses their own idea, they have the opportunity to show us just how cooperative they really are.


DAY THIRTY SIX WEEK NINE

Missy had a busy morning with a full on induction to face clipping as well as a ride. I clipped her legs and the rest of her tummy, evening out the lines. She doesn’t mind where the clippers go as long as they keep away from her face. Missy is no longer head shy but there are still some trust issues in this area. I gave a sigh as I know I have to address them. I worked the pink pole over her face, behind her ears and around her muzzle before presenting the clippers again. She really doesn’t mind the sound, it is the fear of an electric shock or something similar.

Annie held her and did her best to reassure her but she wasn’t convinced; our progress was slow, or not even that. She wouldn’t entertain the idea of any part of the machine touching her muzzle. Horses need to be able to feel, sniff, and push on an object to satisfy themselves that it’s harmless. If they won’t go that far you have get creative. We find mares are often not as food orientated as geldings when they are nervous. Certainly Chatty wasn’t and neither is Missy. She kept her mouth tight shut despite pony nuts pressed against her lips.

Although it was proving hard to win her confidence, there is always a way forward. We found it by wrapping the clipper cord around her like a noseband, sliding it up and down while the motor was running. It worked really well because horses learn by association. Missy thought the lead was part of the clippers as I used the end closest to them. Every time I moved it, the clippers moved too. Finally Missy began to realise she wasn’t getting hurt so we stopped for some well earned lunch.

After our ride I was back on the case. I started by rubbing my cheek against her nostrils. She is normally ok with this but she thought maybe I was secretly going to turn into a motor and tried to pull her head away. Missy is wonderfully non reactive, she doesn’t do anything dramatic. She merely flings her head up and away, usually without moving. It doesn’t sound like much and it isn’t but it’s so effective that all the bits she wants to guard are out of reach. I persevered and before very long, she let me rub my face against her nostrils from either side.

We thought it would be asking too much at this stage to try and clip her ears. We used scissors instead which she accepted easily enough. She doesn’t mind the sound of them opening and shutting so I thought I would make kissing sounds which she absolutely didn’t like when I tried a couple of weeks ago. I am now able to kiss her muzzle which is progress. I put her loose in the stable, picked up the foam pipe and began tapping it all around her face. Apart from blinking a lot, she managed to stand still. I came out of the stable and poked the pipe gently through the bars. She didn’t like it at first so I went back in and repeated the first part. I came back out and put the pipe through the bars again. She still didn’t like it so I repeated all the steps until finally she didn’t move and felt safe enough to sniff it.

I put the head collar on, attached the lead rope and switched on the small hand clippers. I made the same movements with them that I had been doing with my face and the pipe. She did a lot of flinching without flinging up her head but I pretended I hadn’t noticed. I was so pleased for her when she finally made the connection in her mind that the clippers weren’t going to get her. She let me move them all over her face with little or no restraint, clipping as they went. What a day and a result.

We will repeat it all again tomorrow. She will have the weekend to think about it before running through the process again on Monday. Once she accepts it in her mind, it will stay there permanently. When she is totally happy with the small clippers, we will move up to the full size machine.


DAY THIRTY SEVEN WEEK NINE

I didn’t ride Missy today. She was booked in with the farrier who went into her stable to put her head collar on when she turned round and walked away. I know she did this as a result of our intensive clipping sessions. She thought he was going to do something nasty to her. Her actions showed me it was more important to continue with the groundwork. He had trouble attaching the clips to her head collar outside the stable; she flung her head upwards to avoid contact with her face. She isn’t normally like that which shows her trust is too shallow.

Once she was shod and back in her box I started working at our new routine. An opened jar of Vaseline has been added to the range, along with the metal pronged shavings fork. It sounds ridiculous really as Missy is so quiet and easy but we have to help her accept we mean no harm with the strange things we want to do to her face. I started by kissing her muzzle. She didn’t object and it’s a nice thing for me to do anyway. I blew into her nostril very softly; this is something I couldn’t have tried before so progress is being made. I picked up the foam pipe and repeated yesterday’s moves. When I felt she was ready, I switched on the small clippers. After a bit of head flinging, she was much more accepting of them than in yesterday’s session. I could put them anywhere, including against her ears.

Since Missy isn’t greedy enough to eat a pony nut when she feels worried, I introduced a kind of spin on the advance and retreat approach with the clippers on her nose. I placed them gently but firmly against her nostril. Like all horses, she has an instinctive need to explore with her nose or mouth to check out the safety factor. I waited while she sniffed it and as soon as she pushed it, even slightly, I slid it away. This surprised her and not what she expected. I slid it smoothly back against her nose, she pushed it, I slid it away. It became a bit of a game as we continued playing a version of cat and mouse. This was very empowering for her. She was no longer the victim, she was controlling the clippers! Her confidence in her own ability began to grow.

Regardless of what Missy is thinking or doing, I make sure my body language supports her, not only through an inner calmness, but outwardly keeping my movements slow, deliberate and soft. The less I move, the easier it is for her to understand the positive association I’ve been patiently and repeatedly showing her. I weighed up the advisability of swapping to the big loud clippers or whether it would be better to leave it on a good note.

I decided to go ahead as it isn’t really about the clippers which merely represent the threat of previously experienced punishment or contact. She reacts exactly the same way with a jar of Vaseline because she didn’t like the smell. I applied some to each pastern before turning her out for the weekend before it occurred to me that what she really needs is a comprehensive facial and olfactory assault applied with kindness and gentleness. Despite accepting the pipe, she associates my raising the shavings fork with something unpleasant. She was most reluctant to have it against her face or rubbed along her mane. She is so good with different sounds but she didn’t like hearing it scrape along the wall while it was in a raised position.

It may seem like a lot of time and effort to spend on one relatively minor area but we feel strongly that negative associations need to be removed where possible as they can affect the horse/human relationship. I switched on the big clippers and presented them to Missy’s nose. She drew her head away sharply, moving backwards as I moved further into her pressure zone. Horses don’t like to feel trapped, they need a certain amount of space to move but not so much that we can no longer influence them. I tried touching her with the cord, pressing it into her nose which she resisted until she remembered she could get rid of it by pushing it. I moved it around her face from both sides, letting her decide how long it should stay on her muzzle. Imperceptibly, I replaced the cord with the clipper body. After a bit of shifting around, Missy gave it a sniff, then a hesitant push. I slid it away on cue, realising that together we have turned an important corner. I moved the clippers against different parts of her face without using the blades as this makes the sound change. She did a bit more tentative exploring with her nose before I called it a day.

We ended on a very positive note which we will build on next week. As I swept the front of her stable, I noticed she barely hesitated between mouthfuls of food. She kept her head over the haybin without going to the back of the box which shows the value of what I’m doing by improving her confidence in related situations.


DAY THIRTY EIGHT WEEK TEN

I don’t know what happened this week, the days simply flew. For one reason or another, there wasn’t enough daylight to ride Missy so we are starting our week today. I fretted a bit about not riding her but in fact it can be a good thing to give horses a couple of training breaks. They have time to assimilate new information and the chance to let new muscle memory sink down into their automatic nervous system. I also benefit because I can see which parts are established and what is left to do. After a break, I sometimes see things I might otherwise miss; I am more objective about her way of going.

It felt really good to be back on board. Missy felt like it was only yesterday since she was last ridden. Whether the recent groundwork has helped her trust, which I’m sure it has, or perhaps things have settled more deeply within her, whatever the reason, she definitely felt different. More accepting is a good description. We went to the village chiefly to meet the pothole filling gang but they had gone by the time we got there. Not to worry, there was a lot to do. I could feel the movement within her frame wasn’t exactly how I wanted it and although I was already aware of it, I kept thinking she wasn’t ready. It’s true you can damage a horse by making alterations without putting foundations in place but on the other hand, Missy might never feel ready all the time she is going how she is going.

There are differing opinions about what is meant by ‘frame’. We refer to it in terms of what the horse’s silhouette would look like. The frame is conformation dependent while being subject to change through appropriate work on both the horse’s physical way of going and psychological well being. The differences are often subtle but they can also be quite dramatic. The horse’s shape or outline would be another way of putting it. We don’t mean ‘on the bit’, in its current form which often goes against classical principles. The horse’s frame is fluid; it can be sculpted to represent the best intentions of the rider. It changes naturally over time as the horse goes through different stages towards maturity and beyond towards advancing age.

I must work on Missy’s step or movement within her current frame to alter it. I want her to feel more square. I can help her understand what I want by making her more aware of what each leg is going. She is more advanced with this than many but we can fine tune it to bring her up a level. After her mini break, I can feel that the near hind flexes less. When it is working equally, her shoulders will rise making her feel more square.

Horses that have never been ridden, including some that have, use their hind legs for propulsion and speed. The more active the hind leg, the faster the pace and the flatter the outline. Fear or threat increases flexion and changes and shortens their silhouette or frame as they pirouette, high step, stop dead, swing round etc. Missy can learn to engage like that with further education with regard to the leg. On a basic level, the leg means go forward and more leg means go faster forward or go up a gear. She knows all about that as well as going sideways and moving over but she struggles with making the hind leg more active both singly and together.

There are various exercises we use to help this. Trotting poles and cavaletti are traditional tools, very effective, but there are duplicates out and about like little banks and curbs that also do a great job. Trotting on and off curbs in a straight line as if in slow motion is excellent. I tapped her near flank with my schooling whip to encourage her to lift her leg higher as she stepped up. She has to do this coming off the curb or bank too to avoid running on down the slope. We did loads of walk to halt and halt to walk all the way home. If this is done with attention to detail, absolutely straight from poll to croup, it is one of the best for teaching them to move off from a hind leg. The amount of engagement needed is more than you would expect and more than is normally achieved on a circle in the school.

Missy’s hind legs had a real work out in walk and trot. I could see the fruits of our labour when I dismounted and looked at her near hind. The point of hock was so straight, it was almost pointing outwards. I nearly always look at the horse’s hind legs before and after riding as the way the leg or legs are positioned is a reliable indicator of the state of the articulating mechanisms from the point of hip to the fetlock joint.


DAY THIRTY NINE WEEK TEN

It was a really beautiful day, sunny, calm, and mild, ideal riding weather. As part of Missy’s climb up the educational ladder, I thought we would go somewhere completely new. I took her to the uninhabited farm where we filmed Crispin. It looks innocuous enough but there are a few challenges, horses need to be ready to go up there, especially in the winter. The first hazard is a black covering draped over some kind of wooden frame. Everything is literally falling to pieces, providing a sinister feel. The black covering droops but when the wind blows, it suddenly springs to life but today it just lay there. There is a black lining poking out from under the stones where the drive ends and the fields begins which we have to step over. After that there are piles of scrap to the left and right as we go between two ramshackle Nissan huts. Finally there is any number of scary objects randomly positioned along the fence line or half buried in the ground. Actually that’s not all because as we get into the main field, the neighbour’s peacocks start calling. They make a dreadful siren type sound that horses find unsettling.

All in all, not an overly welcoming environment for a bit of afternoon schooling. When the time is right, this bit of a farm is a good test of a horse’s concentration and confidence. Since there are no animals to graze it except rabbits which burst out, leaping in the air, making the horses do the same, the grass is extra long. It grows in clumps and tufts, Missy really has to pick up her feet to stop them getting tangled up.

We worked on getting her to come more into her frame as I explained yesterday. Like most horses, she finds it difficult at first. Although I’m riding with more contact than previously, the reins are not short and my hands stay soft. What I mean is, I’m not pulling her in from the front. I’ve invested sufficient time in building the foundations for Missy to move towards this more advanced aspect. I prepared her by letting her find her own balance point, taking responsibility for her feet with little or no rein. Every ride was a trust building exercise as until that is established, you can’t move things on without jeopardising the relationship.

This second and final phase of her training initially involves more than the usual pressure because I am asking more questions but Missy is psychologically in a good place and ready for it. We haven’t said goodbye to the way I was riding her, once she understands what I want, we will go back to it as it encompasses a more natural way of going. Bringing her up a level is hard as she feels the difference in my approach even though the elements are the same. She expresses this feeling by being slightly anticipatory and over responsive. This is a normal reaction; the important thing is to recognise where it comes from. If I didn’t, I might think she was being awkward or mareish or some other label we mistakenly give horses who are simply responding to stimuli. I must always be consistent and increasingly sensitive as her senses are heightened by this new work.

Each new stage of learning is preceded by some form of anxiety, there is no way of avoiding it unless we leave the horse to its own devices. If we are sympathetic and careful, we can present changes in small parts so that each piece is accepted more easily. I hold a picture in my mind of what I want Missy to look like and how I want her to go, then I break that down into fractions until all are understood which then forms part of the whole.

Today we worked on sharper transitions, both up and down, increased lateral softening, and shortening her outline by raising her shoulders through asking for more flexibility in the hind leg. On top of this, I must be able to switch Missy off so that she can go back to relaxed mode to prevent a build up of adrenaline. She is coping very well with this second phase in her Foundation Training. The video camera is charged ready to film aspects of what we are doing in the next couple of weeks. The forecast if good for tomorrow, I’m looking forward to our next session.


DAY FORTY WEEK TEN

Anything I ask of Missy, she does so very willingly, it’s really quite remarkable. She brightens even the dullest day with her sunny disposition. Riding her is an absolute pleasure although I expect the recent good weather helps. I was in two minds whether to go to the forest or take the track to the disused farm like yesterday. Missy felt so comfortably light as we trotted up the steep lane, I didn’t want to push her in case she was aching. I know when I’ve had a tough ride, my muscles ache. I’m sure it is just the same for the horse but their higher pain threshold means we don’t always notice.

Since Missy felt so good, I thought she must be ok. The work we did yesterday has definitely improved her balance and movement. We made our way up the stony drive for our second session. There are mini banks and drain channels both sides and I found out that Missy likes popping up banks. Irish horses seem to know instinctively how to do it so I wasn’t surprised.

She barely gave the nissen huts a look this time. When I wrote that word yesterday it didn’t look right but I was so tired I couldn’t think straight. I thought it can’t have the same spelling as a Japanese motor but Microsoft word kept insisting it could. At the end of the huts is a large metal immersion tank set back so you don’t see it until you’re level with it. It certainly makes horses jump for the first few times but they have to get used to seeing strange things without reacting. As their training progresses, they get to the point where they suddenly see something and either spook in situ or have a spit second’s reaction, waiting for support. As long is the rider’s timing is up to speed, these micro blips are barely noticeable. These reactions are so barely there, they are easy to miss. It’s as if the horse is saying ‘Are you there for me?’

Missy, in her usual fashion, went very sweetly. We did a little bit on sharper canter transitions. I don’t mean she is sharper to ride, just that her strike offs are at the mark and on the button. This is always a juggling act because I want her absolutely to the leg but calm at the same time. We see so many horses worrying about canter, even before they’re doing it! When they do canter, they get faster and faster which makes them worry more. The rider can get worried too. Cantering is such a big deal for many owners, especially away from the home paddock. I want to say it again; horses firstly need to be taught how to canter. As basic and obvious as this sounds, we know it simply isn’t happening often enough.

The best way to achieve this is to do endless upward and downward transitions rather than trying to keep the canter going. That comes later. Our aim is for them to literally take it all in their stride without worry. Cantering in the same place every time leads to expectation where the horse ends up taking control whether the rider wants to canter or not. Feeling you need to hold on to the horse’s head to keep things steady is a clear sign all is not well in that department. It often starts out as a balance problem; the horse goes faster to try and catch up with himself and before you know it, the horse is pulling.

It is essential is to be able to switch Missy off so that she can be cantering one moment and standing still with no rein contact at the next. Even though I’m in the moment as I’m riding her, echoes of other horses I’ve worked with float by. I suppose because it’s so recent, images and memories of training Sage cross my mind. Due to the time and care invested in him, he was pretty extraordinary for a five year old. With all worry removed and full understanding of his job, I could canter him anywhere or nowhere, it was all the same to him. Oh the joy of it all! His is a hard act to follow but Missy is getting closer. Any day now she will be like him, switched on but calm and able to switch off at a moment’s notice. Missy lets me kiss her nose without averting her face.

The pink pipe has worked its magic and we will be doing more with it and the clippers to make sure she has truly accepted them. Even though it’s been a short week for her, I feel it’s a productive one. She’s turned another corner, moving swiftly towards a higher training level too.


DAY FORTY ONE WEEK ELEVEN

Yet another day of mist, even heavier than last week, enveloping the whole area in a veil so thick, visibility was very poor. It seemed already dark by the time I rode out on Missy at 3pm. She must be getting used to going out in the gloom. By the time we were heading back from the forest, visibility was down to around 20 feet and the traffic had their headlights on. She had an extra ride on Saturday when Hannah, who used to practically spend her life up here from the age of twelve, took her out for a hack. Missy hasn’t been ridden by anyone else, I think Annie may have sat on her once. It’s good for her to have a change of rider.

Missy seemed to have plenty of energy so we trotted all the way to the forest. She had a fresh look about her; her eyes were unusually bright and unusually, she didn’t want to keep still in her box. It’s hard to tell whether or not she is feeling ‘the thing’ as she is always so well behaved but I l quite like the spring in her step and the extra impulsion.

Her trot work is significantly better after last week’s schooling at the farm, it feels amazing most of the time. She has better use of herself, I can really feel her coming through from behind, allowing me to capture the energy and direct it through my body and hands. Her stride has more elevation and length despite being within a shorter frame. I mentioned this before and want to clarify a little further in case I didn’t explain it very well. Imagine a bird’s eye view of a horse without a rider. If you took a photo and drew a rectangle around it before removing the image of the horse, you would be left with an empty box, a frame. Now shorten the rectangle ten per cent. How would you get the horse back into the space? You could try to figuratively winch the head in but the overall length will be much the same. This concept has been wrestled with for centuries and is still debated. To change the horse’s frame or imaginary rectangle towards becoming square, the horse must be able to adjust its centre of gravity by pulling the back up. This makes the stomach muscles shorten, supporting the back, and helps to raise the shoulders.

As the horse changes shape (frame), the paces become more defined, with a greater period of suspension between diagonals in trot. For some horses, the frame is too square and needs to be lengthened or increased. The horse may feel bunched up for example or the stride is too up and down without covering much ground. As with all riding and training, it’s about bringing ourselves and the horse into balance within a conformational based frame.

Along the dark and gloomy forest tracks, we practiced repeated trot to walk and walk to trot transitions. For maximum effectiveness and softness, I made sure Missy was absolutely straight. To provide a degree of accuracy, I mentally measure straightness with imaginary spirit levels on either side that reached from her face to the outside of her hocks. Next we moved to a series of trot to halt and halt to trot transitions. She is becoming very graceful at this now as I help bring out the dance in her. I don’t want to get sidetracked except to say that within every horse the ‘dance’ is waiting to be awakened through appropriate horsemanship.

There is a T junction at the end of one of the tracks which I love using for more advanced canter work. If I ask Missy to pick up left lead on the approach, we arc round in a smooth curve towards home. Right lead in canter means we are going away from home and both directions have incredible value, producing different challenges. Teaching horses to step into a relaxed canter on a given lead in a straight line from walk or trot, or even halt and rein back, is a natural progression once they understand how to control their feet while maintaining balance. We repeated the exercise a few times as Missy isn’t foot perfect yet. She knows which lead I want but can’t always organise her feet in time for the strike off. I also made sure to do it all in reverse by cantering along the T part, turning into the track that leads up to it from either direction.

Exercises like these are just the best to consolidate training, encouraging the horse to realise that canter is work and not something to get excited about. It’s counterproductive to do try and do them before the horse is ready as it tends to create worry as well as bringing out anything unpleasant lurking in the background. We finished with a few canters to walk and halt. She still finds this a struggle which is to be expected as there is a fair amount of impulsion involved which she has to learn to transform into more or less non-movement on cue. It can be likened to a stepping down motion, as if we were running down a set of steps one minute then breaking into a walk without falling down which is what we would do if we lost our balance. We might hold onto the handrail to make sure we didn’t which is the same as the horse leaning on the bit for support. Missy has to work out how to stop herself on command. If I have to use a lot of hand, I know we haven’t got it right. My job is to help her learn which muscles are involved and how to use them as a soft brake.

Janet kindly emailed with the name of the pink foam pipe. Apparently it’s called a ‘Woggle’ and is used a swimming aid. I’ve never heard of it but it’s nice to know what it is.


DAY FORTY TWO WEEK ELEVEN

It wasn’t nearly as foggy today but even if it were, we are determined to make the most of it as apparently the weather is going to change for the worse. I decided to take Missy up the bridle path beside the village green to take another look at the roll of black mesh attached to the bottom of the gate. We haven’t been back there since she did her best to swing away which she has never done before or since, a clear indication she was really frightened.

Her trot was effortless up the steep path to the top of the green. It’s hard for horses to keep their footing; it is slippery mud all the way. As she wasn’t affected, it shows that in this instance anyway, she was able to be a ‘top of the ground’ horse. We continued trotting along the woodland track leading into the corn field. It’s a popular spot for dog walkers who seem to like to duck in behind a bush the minute they see us. I don’t know why they do it. It’s not helpful as it frightens horses when they think the person they were looking at has gone. They get a shock when they spot an unexpected figure lurking in the undergrowth. Luckily Missy isn’t worried otherwise I would call them out of hiding to reveal themselves.

The path beside the cornfield rises to a brow before falling steeply down to a busy road with the golf course laid out in a panoramic display of greens and ant like figures moving about on the opposite side. This kind of vista freaks some horses out. They get exceedingly agitated and increasingly wound up. The more they stare at the moving figures, they more they seem to freeze before deciding to turn and leg it back home. Missy isn’t like that fortunately, she doesn’t seem to notice anything unusual which meant I had her full attention trotting down the hill. We’ve done many downhill trots but they don’t feel quite as nice as those on the level or uphill. Although she is surefooted and carries herself in balance, there's a certain lack of smoothness and even a wobble quality about them. Not sideways, more from front to back. I’m sure we can iron it out easily enough.

We arrived at the gate and there was the mesh still in the same place. Missy walked right up to it, putting her head over the top bar without giving it a second glance. I was so pleased with her, not that I expected further trouble as Missy has always been a particularly non-spooky girl. We turned round back the way we came as the road isn’t horse friendly. There have been several accidents, one of them fatal, involving horses on that particular stretch. We prefer not to retrace our steps as it encourages the homing pigeon instinct but when we do, we think of it as a training opportunity by making sure there is no increase in pace. Hurrying home is an unpleasant and unnecessary habit which can be overcome, but describing the process is a complete diary entry in itself.

When I was satisfied that her walk was steady and relaxed, we moved up to trot. When I felt that was also how it should be, I asked for canter. Cantering towards home on the same route needs thinking about. Before doing it, I made sure Missy was calm, not in the least anticipatory, and not feeling fresh. Everything needs to be judged on the day as a horse’s behaviour can vary tremendously even in a familiar setting. If the wind was strong or she felt unsettled for example, I might have chosen not canter. She came back to trot nicely, we stood briefly and walked on. I spend a lot of time making sure the horse I am riding is happy to stand on the way home as it’s such an important part of their education. Missy doesn’t find it difficult but now that we are going up a level, the halt needs to be balanced within her frame like the rest of her paces. To get this just right, with equal weight distribution on each leg, I close my legs against her sides while using my seat vertically, plumb through the middle of the saddle. This is so powerful, it stops all but the most difficult horse, but the angle of the pelvis has to be right. When the hips angle back from the seat bone it tends to drive the horse on. If the hips roll forward in advance of the ischium (seat bone) nothing much happens except feeling perched with a forked seat.

I can stop Missie using just my seat with no reins or leg. As I said, this works for all horses, but to get the halt on the mark and square, I need to be able to adjust her back end with my legs. As I haven’t really done this with her before, she was initially confused. She thought I meant walk on, and when she realised that’s not what I wanted, she tried moving her quarters this way and that. From her current knowledge pool, leg aids mean a variety of things other than stop. It will take another session or two before she really makes the connection. It’s not a comfortable exercise either as it’s tough on her back. Forcing horses to remain standing in a balanced halt can cause damage. Some trainers believe it should never be asked without sufficient physical maturity for longer than a few seconds and I agree. I feel Missy is mature enough but I am aware of the impact. In fact I can feel how hard it is for her as she tries to step forward to walk.


DAY FORTY THREE WEEK ELEVEN

For one reason or another I was the only one in the yard this afternoon and as I couldn’t leave the premises unattended, I thought a lunging session for Missy would be beneficial. While I was fiddling around in her box, putting on the bridle and skipping out the bed, I noticed how restless she was. Since she is normally most contented in her stable, I was trying to work out the cause.

I lead her up the hill to the top paddock where the ground was likely to be the best. I don’t remember it ever being dry enough to lunge in the fields in November, the weather is certainly exceptional. I’ve never jumped Missy but as there are some natural obstacles, including a bank, I was interested to find out how easy or difficult it would be for her to go over them.

I asked her to walk a circle to start with. We prefer to lunge with the least equipment possible, just a lunge line attached to the bit ring of the bridle. Missy was wearing a saddle as I knew she would probably start eating grass. I shortened the stirrups, letting them hang down so I could put the reins, which were plenty long enough, behind them. I made sure the rein buckle was in the middle behind the pommel to keep everything even. Missy went into trot without being asked, I could tell she was wary of the whip although when I’ve lunged her in the round pen she doesn’t seem to be. She did a couple of circuits and then spun in to face me. This is a form of evasion which is very effective as suddenly I was in the wrong place and couldn’t ask her to go forward without gathering up the lunge line, walking towards her and repositioning myself. Once I was in the right place, off she went only to do the same thing again.

I saw straight away that this behaviour, perhaps response is a better word, is a gap in her training. It’s true I haven’t done much with her on the lunge, and always in the round pen but it’s a different story in a large open space with no confinement. Any deficiencies are quickly revealed. I made sure I was well behind the drive line to make it difficult for her to turn in towards me. I had to do quite a bit of running to be in the right place at the right time as Missy had her eye on me the whole time. If she saw her chance, because I was slightly forward of the drive line, she would turn in, ears pricked expectantly and walk towards me. She looked so cute and innocent which is her nature anyway. Annoying and frustrating as it was, she is entirely innocent, without agenda, she was simply responding to body language. All horses are masters at this; somebody in her past had let it happen and now it was up to me to change the habit.

The round pen is without doubt a great facility, we are so glad to have it, but like all contained structures, it has its limitations. Lunging away from the ménage or round pen, flags up any lack in established paces or education. It’s also a great barometer for finding out if there’s anything undesirable waiting to come out. Lunging is a big part of the ground work in our Foundation Training which we mostly do in the fields as the benefits are immense. I could write at least one book about the benefits of lunging in unusual spaces and places but mustn’t get side tracked, as this is Missy hour.

Paying strict attention to my positioning, being absolutely alert and in the moment, helped overcome Missy’s desire to turn in. In between, I placed her so she could pop over the little jumps. I have to say, she’s a natural, she doesn’t care what she goes over or even the angle. In typical Missy fashion, she takes it all in her stride.

To go back to her being restless in her box, I realised that this was due to her having too much energy, or more likely, too much haylage. When I let the lunge line right out, she felt a sense of freedom, expressing herself by throwing her back legs around with joy. I was amazed as I had no idea she was feeling like that; she is always such a lovely steady ride. After a particularly strenuous display, the numnah parted company with the saddle and flew off her back. Missy took absolutely no notice as it streamed past her sides. She trotted past it as it lay on the grass without even a glance. I had to smile, so typical Missy. It was lovely to see her in such good spirits and feeling so well. She looked quite ethereal in the low afternoon light with her mane flowing in the breeze.

I took her to different sections and paddocks to make sure she continued all the way round on both reins before having to stop as it was almost dark and she was tired, bless her. She needs more of this so tomorrow, if it’s still dry, I’ll be getting the lunge line out again. Once she was back in her box, she was happy to rest. Getting to know a horse inside out happens gradually over time and I didn’t really pick up on just how fresh she was feeling as the usual signs weren’t there.


DAY FORTY FOUR WEEK ELEVEN

Missy had three different sessions today. We started with lunging in the field but we weren’t there long before visitors arrived to meet one of the horses. Missy likes to get things right, she’d clearly been thinking it over during the night as she went round beautifully on either rein with no hint of a turn in. There is still work to do, especially on the right rein. There is too much bend which means she carries a lot of her weight on the outside shoulder which tends to throw her out of the circle. Her rhythm needs firming up too as well as responding to voice commands. She knows what they are but she pays too much attention to the whip and lunge line because she doesn’t feel comfortable when they move around her.

Next up for Missy was escorting a little party of three through the village. We also had two foot followers, one was an expectant mother and the other was Poppy dog with no road sense. I deemed it expedient to ride the shortened version for everyone’s sake. Missy leads well or slots in behind but she’s not sure about riding side by side as she feels in the other horse’s space and fears a reprisal. We have done hardly done any work in company so she’s surprisingly good really. Since the visitors have come a long way, they are staying locally so they can ride again tomorrow. We are going to the forest for a bit of a canter which will be more of a challenge for Missy. We were on our way home with Missy at the back when the front two decided to have a trot and off they went. Missy instinctively wanted to follow but I kept her in walk since we were provided with the opportunity. We will be doing more of that during our company riding sessions. It’s such an important part of training which is sadly not practised enough judging by all the problems out there.

I took Missy out on her own once the guests departed as we hadn’t done a proper ride as such. I’m always aware of feedback when working with the horses and obviously very much tuned into Missy. I was picking up on something, as if all wasn’t quite as it should be. Nothing major but I had the feeling that Miss’s trust in me has dropped a couple of degrees. We have a strong relationship, she is very happy to go anywhere with just the two of us but I sense a subtle shift somewhere. I mentally ran through the training thus far while simultaneously scanning the more invisible aspects intuitively.

Because Missy is so very obliging and easy to work with, I think I’ve been moving too quickly with some aspects of her training. Just because she can do everything asked of her doesn’t necessarily mean she is ready to take things a step further. I would be taking things more slowly with a young horse but Missy is mature physically and mentally which should mean she can accept a heavier work load. However, in many ways she is like a young horse and I need to take that into consideration. As I say, the change is so slight and intangible, it would be imperceptible to a third party but once there is a connection, it’s like an open channel of communication where you know instantly if anything changes.

On our last hack today, we did simple stuff with no attempts at refinement. Missy likes to look around which normally I won’t let her do but this time she was allowed to stand and stare or look up driveways if she wanted to. I could feel her appreciation which added validity to my review of the situation.

Our work with the horses carries immense responsibility, not only in a pastoral sense but even more importantly, on an emotional level as their future development is dependent on our having the utmost integrity in handling and riding these beautiful intelligent animals. If something is out of balance or not quite right, we must first look within for the answer. For the next week or so I will ease back on Missy’s training schedule as I feel this is what she is asking for.


DAY FORTY FIVE WEEK ELEVEN

Missy conducted herself admirably with escort duties today, most of which was spent following as her companion had a much longer stride. This situation proved most useful as it gave me a chance to combine training in company while officially riding in a different category. A while back I wrote something on helping horses be non-competitive in Training Tips which can be found on the website but as usual, there is more to discuss. Today’s ride can contribute further in a greater understanding of why horses behave in certain ways.

The most difficult position for horses is at the back when in company. Being both a follower and a prey animal, the last horse always feels vulnerable to attack from the rear and instinctively seeks to catch up. Horses are hard wired to fear ending up as a predator’s dinner because they were last in the herd. Despite an evolutionary dread of being left behind, most horses choose to follow rather than lead because that position comes with responsibility for everyone’s safety.

What this means for Missy and a lot of other horses, is she is very aware of sounds behind her and movement beside her that she would barely notice when she’s on her own. Missy isn’t dependant on another horse for security but she can’t help displaying natural behaviour. I will be showing her company rules and how to apply them without worry which won’t be difficult because we have already established our relationship as a herd of two. It would be so much harder to do it the other way round. I have no trouble asking her to take the lead but not all are comfortable out in front and may need some encouragement. Slowing down, spooking, stopping dead or sidling into the other horse are typical strategies to avoid a leadership position.

I was pleased that Missy didn’t automatically trot with her friend. I was even more pleased she wasn’t anxious when the gap widened considerably. Gaps can be another cause for concern, especially in trot and canter due to the way horses read the situation. In the wild, the herd walks to the next destination to save energy unless there is a threat whereupon the leader will increase the pace commensurate with the level of danger which the rest of herd with copy. The domestic horse retains this survival memory so when the horse in front goes off, I would expect Missy to see this action as a signal to run from danger whether or not she knows what it is.

Horses certainly get security in another’s company but we are not always aware how vulnerable they feel while they are in it which is why group riding is the most difficult of all situations and not to be recommended unless you enjoy being a passenger swept along with the mood of the herd. Although we call it competitive behaviour, in actual fact it would be more accurate to call it preservation behaviour where comfort levels vary from horse to horse and are not age specific. Older horses are not necessarily more settled and secure in different positions in company. Previous experience determines how jittery or uptight they get in certain settings.

Missy had lots of practice trotting at the back while I was constantly there for her in terms of support and reassurance even though she doesn’t need a great deal. Half way round the forest it was time for a little canter which needs forward planning if we want things to go smoothly. Cantering in single file is harder for the horse at the back than choosing a wider track so that each can have a side. Being able to see ahead with a space in between helps prevent a sudden rush. Missy wasn’t at all bothered that her companion was cantering; she was quite content to trotting along behind but on the other side of the track. I asked her to go up a gear and made sure she kept a steady pace. I did this by staying relaxed in my mind and my body and not holding my breath. I kept my legs still on her sides with soft hands and wrists on the reins which weren’t long enough to have slack in them but not tight enough to have tension in them either.

On the second canter, the horse in front did some trot to canter exercises while we stayed in trot, only having a small go towards the end. It was all very positive and Missy was calm and relaxed the whole way round. She felt a little tired after yesterday’s exertions and was happy to plod all the way back. She was so far behind that the other horse was out of sight going round corners. This can cause separation anxiety, leading to some strange behaviours. Missy lifted her head up a bit when she noticed the other one wasn’t there but that was all. I can’t tell you how nice it is to be on a horse that doesn’t throw a fit, shriek, or jog up and down because they feel abandoned.

Today’s session was a great introduction to riding in company. Missy shows little or no anxiety whatever position she is in. She is ready to do more which will fit in nicely with my plan to take it easy for a couple of weeks. I so love this mare.


DAY FORTY SIX WEEK TWELVE

Missy had two lunge sessions in different places. We started in the round pen then came back to the stables for a saddle before heading to the top fields. Her ridden work is much more established than her ground work, especially on the lunge. Lunging offers so many opportunities for overall balance and obedience but the chief one for me is to cement all aspects of our relationship through trust which is not what it could be once I have her on the end of a line. I could easily dismiss this part of her training as she knows the principles of lunging, and concentrate on riding, but a part would be missing from her education. As there are so many benefits, which need to be talked about, perhaps in a separate article, that I will continue to develop her skills in this area.

The main difficulty is that she mistrusts the whip and line which means she isn’t too sure about me because of what I represent during lunging. You wouldn’t necessarily know this just by watching as she’s not overtly nervous but I can tell she’s not really relaxed. Although she’s not resistant in the accepted sense, there is hidden tension because I can feel she isn’t soft on the inside.

Worry on any level causes tightness not just in the body but also in the mind because part of it is elsewhere. Missy knows verbal cues very well but she chose not to listen. She needed time and assistance to get into a place where she could relax and concentrate better. Stopping her feet from continuously travelling in a circle was an ongoing process. When she finally agreed to stop, I would move in towards her and I could feel her trying to read my intentions with the whip. I moved it around slowly and gently over her body to reassure her. As soon as I moved my feet, she moved hers, either to follow me or move away. I actually wanted her to stand still but she didn’t feel safe enough yet.

Missy stood absolutely still out in the open fields while I tightened her girth and adjusted the reins behind the stirrups. The conditions weren’t conducive for quiet behaviour, it was quite gloomy with a fresh wind, the kind that gets horses going. She seemed more relaxed out there than in the pen, you would think it would be the other way round. I wanted her to get to the point of knowing how to find release from the pressure of the line and how to gain comfort from it. Comfort for horses is not having to do anything or move anywhere, it is that simple but it can take weeks, months, and sometimes years before they allow themselves that luxury in multiple situations.

Lunging isn’t only about going round in circles. As Missy gains trust and understanding of my body language beyond thinking I might be about to hit her, I can begin to do many different things like being able to direct her both on a curve and a straight line so that we can go anywhere, using the whip as a marker. She will understand it is pointing her in a particular direction rather thinking of it as an instrument of punishment. As she began to relax, she found it easier to respond to my voice, coming back to walk and halt when asked. I could have physically restrained her but that isn’t the point. I wanted it to be her idea to respond as necessary. All training, particularly using a natural horsemanship approach, is about helping the horse make the right decision his or her own idea. There is no force involved and we bring out the best in the horse.

Trust has to be earned whether it’s between people or humans and animals. I must prove to Missy I’m trustworthy whatever I am doing with her. The absolute best way of doing this is through repetition and consistency. Inconsistency is a form of torture for horses, so much so, that it would be better to consistently show them the wrong thing than to serve up a mixture of both.


DAY FORTY SEVEN WEEK TWELVE

The weather was horrendous with a ferocious wind that grew in strength throughout the day. By the time I went out on Missy, it was so forceful I nearly turned back. I thought it was madness to continue. We were battered from all directions and the roar was mighty. However, we carried on as she is used to windy conditions and sensible enough not to lose the plot. In fact the horses coped admirably, we rode every one, all going out individually with their respective riders.

Our neighbours have sold up and the new owners were moving in as we battled our way down the lane. Two furniture lorries sat in the drive while a team of men played pass the packing case from the ramp to the front door. They’d placed a washing machine right by the road which I thought might cause Missy to do a double take. Horses remember exactly where everything is on a familiar hack and get alarmed when something different appears. Missy wasn’t bothered but I would hardly blame her if she was, given the circumstances.

Everything was moving, creaking, cracking, or scudding unless it was nailed down and it was a true test not only of Missy’s training so far but also her predictability in extreme conditions. Slimming World were advertising an event, clipping a large plastic banner to a low rail on the edge of the road which folded and unfolded in the wind. Missy walked past it confidently enough and as it was on the opposite side, I turned her round so we could walk right next to it. She didn’t mind standing right beside it as it moved up and down by her legs which is another box ticked. Missy has always been delightfully non spooky right from the start but it is excusable to be unusually sensitive to things in exceptionally bad weather. All horses need confidence in their riders to a greater or lesser extent; I know we have a strong relationship, she trusts my judgment, and isn’t worried that I will let her down. Today’s weather shows that if I ask her to stand in a particular place or walk past something unusual she is still listening without feeling anxious.

Apart from leaves swirling around all over the place, there were a number of stray plastic bags stranded on branches and clinging to hedges. A couple of smaller ones, like those we put our veg in at the supermarket were on the loose in front of us. Not only were they moving about at speed, they rose off the ground and dropped back down again at the mercy of the wind. It is very hard for horses to stay straight when a plastic bag is winging its way through the air towards them. As we got closer, I made sure to keep looking ahead as if the road was empty. We had nearly reached the first one when it sprang to life and drifted two feet in the air towards us. Missy didn’t take any notice and as it landed on the ground, she trod on it. I don’t know where the other one went but I didn’t care as I was so pleased with her.

Working with plastic is a big part of our training to remove certain fears but it also has practical applications as you never know what you are going to meet out riding. You can’t guarantee the horse won’t be affected by moving plastic but it would certainly be worse without the exposure. The hardest part of the ride for Missy was coming back down the bridle path with the tall beech hedge on her near side. The leaves were swishing around madly while behind them she could see a shadowy figure with a dog. She got slightly agitated as she couldn’t make out what was going on. The figure was carrying one of those long plastic spoon shaped things people use to throw dog balls which didn’t help. Missy wouldn’t normally mind something like that but the roar of the wind was making it impossible for her to make sense of her surroundings. Once we were further into the wood she could relax again. We trotted up the last hill until Missy decided to walk and then stop. We stood while she sniffed the undergrowth and took a mouthful of ivy. I know it’s supposed to be poisonous but horses like eating it so I let her.

I was very glad to get back safely without incident. I think today was the worst I’ve ever ridden her in. Completing the ride was a real sense of achievement. I gave her a kiss and a pony nut for being such a reliable girl.

After untacking her, I gently held the bridge of her nose and brought her head right round as far as her girth. She can do this equally well on both sides, proving she is much more supple than a couple of months ago. She is booked to see the McTimmoney practitioner next month for a check over. We like the horses to be examined at least once during their stay with us and the results, in conjunction with appropriate riding and training, are sometimes little short of miraculous.


DAY FORTY EIGHT WEEK TWELVE

What a difference a day makes. Today was mostly sunny with little or no wind. We spent most of our session in walk with only a small amount of trotting and no cantering. I think she could be building up freshness since we are not doing longer rides or lengthy trot work. But this is good because I can see how manageable she is with excess energy. I can also guide her towards best practice if she starts feeling too well. In other words, if she can’t help jumping at something, she needs to know it has to be done in place and not out to the side. Our long walk through the village highlighted things I’ve missed or rather, not noticed recently. Despite being able to flex her neck right round to her girth from the ground, she can barely angle her head without moving her whole body, especially on the right rein. There is still too much weight carried by the left hind leg which then transfers to the left shoulder on a circle right. I’ve no doubt this is of muscular origin, just like us, horses are never exactly symmetrical on both sides.

These deviations from total balance are slight and probably invisible to the untrained eye but since I can feel any loss of straightness, which applies to circles as well as lines, I will continue to work on improving her muscle memory. As I say, Missy is relatively off key by very little, but in general terms,crookedness in horses is almost universal. The good news is almost all muscle irregularities and loss of straightness can be overcome with sensitive, appropriate riding and access to complimentary therapies where needed.

We walked circles to the right at the first available space, a car park. This is one of my favourites at it slopes. The second half is downhill which is just what I wanted for Missy. In order to keep strict rhythm while remaining absolutely level, she has to bring her inside hind further underneath than the outside to prevent drifting. To begin with nothing much was happening except her tendency to deepen the arc of the curve after the first third of the circle. To help her understand that each leg must carry an equal share of our combined weights, I asked her move her right hind leg towards the outside. I didn’t want her quarters swinging away but rather to increase her awareness of the degree she must engage.

The message began to get through when the second half of the circle became more of a turn about the forehand. This isn’t executed at halt, ideally the horse will keep the walk rhythm going. From there we progressed to continuing our journey into the village by moving from a circle to walking parallel with the verge away from the direction of movement while retaining right bend. Let’s see if I can explain that more clearly. Imagine you are going down a lane when you see a driveway on your left. You turn into it by walking a semi circle right. You want to continue down the lane so you would normally turn the head left as that’s the way you want to go. We did it differently, or tried to. I asked Missy to move from the circle to a straight line to the left while retaining the bend already created. In effect, it was a shoulder in x leg yield. It was difficult for her to do but she did her best and tried really hard. If she was struggling, I simply brought her round on another circle before trying to do the movement again.

I made sure to give her complete freedom of head once we had completed it to the best of her current ability. Allowing her to stretch is a powerful reward as well as a great tension remover. We made our way to the housing estate which is blessed with a good choice of turnings and spaces for further practice. We were busy bending when Annie rode by. She asked if she should wait but I told her to not to, that we would be fine. She carried on up the road while we continued with what we were doing. Missy gave me full concentration with no loss of attention at seeing her stable companion disappear from view.

Being able to ride and work independently of the proximity of another horse is invaluable which is why we place such great emphasis on not riding in company until we have established a trust based relationship. Missy wasn’t physically tired but I expect she was mentally a little drained. We will see what tomorrow brings, hopefully her muscles will be rested enough by then for a repeat of today’s work.


DAY FORTY NINE WEEK TWELVE

After an extended period of dry weather, today came as a bit of a shock. It rained all day and I felt cold and damp for most of it. Supposedly waterproof clothing leaked by the end of the morning so by the time I went down to catch Missy, I’d changed my jacket. For the first time ever, I couldn’t catch her. I know this was due to what I was wearing because she wouldn’t take the piece of carrot I offered her. She sniffed my sleeve suspiciously, jerked her head up as if expecting a smack and walked away. She really didn’t trust the smell or the look of it. I considered my options; the easiest was to take the jacket off. I approached her again and caught her straightaway. It’s a black jacket made of rubberised plastic, like oilskin, not the kind of thing women wear. I collected it from the fence and showed it to her. She didn’t like it in the sense that she thought it was a threat, like a whip.

The jacket clearly rekindles an unpleasant memory from her past. It’s also a reminder how sensitive horses are to different clothing. They definitely notice what we are wearing, even a hat can put them off, not to mention umbrellas which were all over the village today. The trend seems to be for king size models more commonly found on a Golf Course. We have a modest range ourselves for training purposes but we haven’t got them out for a while so today was definitely a test.

Missy feels so much better, it’s unmistakable but hard to describe. It’s also hard to believe doing so much in walk can make such a difference. On its own, the walk is a difficult pace to work with and one that clearly shows deficiencies in training, specifically from a dressage perspective. Missy’s weight was more evenly displaced which increased her overall straightness without needing as much correction. She felt even more comfortable, if that’s possible. She has a lovely natural swinging walk anyway which I’m keen to preserve as it is is an easily corrupted pace if we are not careful. She felt much softer to my right hand although I didn’t try to bend her as I think I was a bit bowled over by her improvement.

As the Foundation Training progresses, we introduce bi-lateral softening in the mouth. We do this by asking for left followed by a right bend, usually in walk in a straight line. It’s not so much a bend, it’s more a relaxing of the head where it joins the neck and the corners of the mouth. This exercise can be performed at the standstill, in walk, trot, and canter, in a straight line or on a circle. Horses that are stiff or have little education cannot easily separate their articulating parts. They tend to move as a complete unit when a rein or individual leg aid is applied.

As part of their riding programme, horses should be taught the principles of disengagement which is mostly used with groundwork rather than regular riding. If true softening and disengagement had more focus, evasions would be less common along with the need for extra controlling equipment. I can do more of this with Missy over the next few days while we are taking things easy.

We rode past the local primary school among scores of cars parking, leaving, overtaking, reversing, or having their doors and boots opened and closed. Apart from steering a straight course past all this, Missy had to deal with a myriad umbrellas. I don’t know if she’s met these before. Perhaps not at such close quarters. She was slightly hesitant but willing to carry on obligingly with a little leg support. There were so many, it was overwhelming and she coped very well, although maybe not quite as impressively as Flynn who walked past a black one this morning as big as a parachute. He got so close, I thought he was going to walk into it.

Missy needs her teeth checked. I’ve been putting it off as I don’t want to her to associate dentistry in a bad way. She’s so much more trusting around her head that I think it won’t be too traumatic for her. Michael does their teeth which is good as she knows him.


We have ended the week's training with filming elements of Missy's training. The link to the first clip is below. The others will be added over the weekend.

DAY FIFTY WEEK THIRTEEN

I am continually reminded by the horses’ performance the length of time needed to truly find their balance under a rider. Often any lack is disguised by a certain way of riding or the addition of extra equipment. Missy’s balance has improved immensely since the start of her training but since I am striving for a state of excellence, ideally in all departments, I feel the minor imperfections requiring attention. As previously mentioned, physical and mental balance are mutually inclusive; you can’t achieve one without the other. Perfect balance is the aspirational summit of all training.

Over the last week I’ve been working with Missy’s emotional balance. It is moving nicely towards centre while her physical balance is following a parallel path. Last Friday we filmed her completing little tasks in the village which show her current level of both types of balance. There must be a word for this and if there isn’t, one should be created. We usually think of balance in terms of speed, like cantering or jumping, but it’s the less obvious movements which showcase it best.

Putting Missy in situations where she has to think about her feet and what I was asking of her, while maintaining composure is an ideal test of her mental and physical balance. This also links training through trust and developing a partnership. Horses find it nearly impossible to stand still or concentrate without emotional equilibrium. Although more difficult to achieve in a public environment, completing these kinds of assignments calmly adds greater value to their overall education.

I took Missy to the forest for the first time in what felt like ages. She was doing little flinches when birds flew through the hedges so we trotted the long way round in case she was fresh, but I think it was more likely to be the guns shooting close by. Missy loves the countryside, the forest tracks, especially dark narrow ones. It’s lovely to be able to totally relax, knowing she has sufficient coping mechanisms for whatever we meet. I don’t mean relax in the sense of tense, but I don’t have to be continuously aware of our surroundings and who is in them. As the horses move towards completion of their training, we are rewarded with the luxury of not having to be a virtual support system for everything we encounter.

Missy is more than ready to ride in company; we’ve done very little so far. As Garth is due to start his company riding, we will probably go together which should be fun. We also like to swop riders as it is good for them to be conversant with different styles and approaches. Hannah has been riding Missy every Saturday since Sage left home but that’s about to come to an end with a tour of India after Christmas. Annie will no doubt be roped in from time to time during her absence.


DAY FIFTY ONE WEEK THIRTEEN

The lunging side of groundwork is definitely Missy’s weaker area, and as the round pen was free this afternoon, I thought we would use it for our session. Her main difficulty is that she is frightened of the whip and lunge line when they move. Although she has a lot of confidence in me in the saddle, when I’m on the ground using them, she is nervous of me in the sense of what I represent and what I’m carrying. As soon as she sees me lift the whip or waggle the lunge line, she wants to move away and doesn’t want to stand still. Trying her best to work out what I want, she thinks her choice is limited and off she goes. She doesn’t move fast but she’s not waiting for me to ask her something, she pre-empts me and doesn’t feel she can wait to be told.

I started by gently getting her to walk on followed by halt. She knows what ‘whoa’ means, but since she doesn’t feel safe enough with me holding the equipment, she’s not going to feel safe enough to whoa. She just wants to keep walking so I shortened the line in order to move towards her to reaffirm that I wanted her to stop by putting more pressure on the line but she just wanted to walk away as quickly as she could. I was forced to joggle the lunge line to reinforce my command. It worked but it wasn’t refined. She isn’t the sort to react other than throwing up her head as if she’s expecting a smack and looking worried.

She would only stop by my shortening the line and bringing her towards me. As soon as I stepped back and out of her space, she took that as a cue to go. We would repeat this over and over again. The only word she consistently agreed to was ‘stand’ which was a start. While she stood, I walked around her, stood behind her, in front of her, and stroked the front of her face with the bunched up line.

I could see that as good as she is on the lunge, I’m not really lunging her, she is simply going round and round to avoid a possible punishment. She’s not really listening to me, she’s more focused on my body language. When I move in towards her, she feels under increased pressure and speeds up. My aim is to show her how to relax on the end of the line to the same degree as when I’m riding her.

We swopped over onto the right rein which isn’t her best rein. She has too much bend through the head and neck. I can’t get that degree of bend easily when I ride her but on the lunge, she automatically presents it, especially if I ask for a smaller circle than the diameter of the pen. She compensates this by putting more weight on her outside shoulder so that it looks like she is travelling along two different radiuses. As I was watching her, I was searching my mind for a solution. There are various options like side reins, the Pessoa, deGogue etc. but I wanted something simple without pressure. I decided to clip the lunge line on to the left bit ring. I haven’t done this before, it’s not something that would necessarily spring to mind but it was hugely effective. It straightened her neck by supporting the bend as if it was the outside rein.

I repeated the sequence of commands we had been working with on the left rein. Since she is less balanced on the right, her trot was too hurried and her mind too busy to listen. Despite repeating instructions to whoa, she kept going. It would be easy to assume she was being difficult or naughty. Don’t we just love to assign labels to behaviour! In fact she is neither. She felt she couldn’t stop in case she was punished. In other words, she didn’t feel safe enough to stop. So we had to go through the shortening the line routine until she found herself close to me before she would stop.

I can understand why it is difficult sometimes to understand horses as their responses can seem illogical to us. You would think Missy would be more nervous the closer she was to me but she found a certain reassurance in standing beside me. On the flip side, when she was on a large circle, the closer I moved towards her, the more her anxiety grew; two entirely different responses for what would seem to be the same situation. Horse psychology is indeed a fascinating subject requiring keen observation and a life time’s study.

Gestures that denote mood and emotions can be incredibly subtle. Something as small as a single muscle sliding under the surface of the skin can denote anticipation or expectancy towards our intentions or uncomfortable tack. In Missy’s case, her low level worry is only faintly visible in an otherwise still body when she blinks her eyes. I can accurately judge how well she is receiving something I am doing with her by her level of eye movement. One blink means she’s noted it, a series of blinks means she is expecting something unpleasant but not unbearable. All horses are different and it takes time to get to know their deepest signals that don’t involve movement. Some do things with their ears, others may widen their eyes or dilate their nostrils.

We were in the pen for a long time before she finally agreed , or rather acknowledged, that I wasn’t a threat, she could listen to what I was saying, and it was ok to stand still. Repetition, repetition, and yet more repetition always with consistency; key actions in training whereby I can prove to Missy my integrity towards her rather than taking it for granted that she should know what I want from her. Horses are amazingly cooperative wherever there is trust which is a truly humbling realisation.

Finally I was able to achieve my objective on both reins which was to ask her to whoa by having the lunge whip in the opposite hand to the lunge rein so that I could bring in front of her nose as a signal to halt. A bit like a policeman raising his hand to stop the traffic. I wanted Missy to stand when she saw the whip rising in front of her. The closer she came to the raised whip, the clearer the signal was for her. She stopped each time before she reached it.

I felt we had a really good session and we achieved a lot. She is really starting to see the whip as a cue rather than a weapon and the line as a connection between us like there is with the reins on a bridle.


DAY FIFTY TWO WEEK THIRTEEN

What a day we had! Hardly riding weather, the winds were tremendous. Missy has had an easy week with a day off yesterday and only a light session in expended energy terms the day before. Despite all this I saddled her up and off we went. The conditions were atrocious, the sort that makes horses spook just leading them around. Half way down the drive is an empty rundown house whose owner is no longer on the earth plane. The garden is much overgrown so the landscape team were sent to cut back the rhododendron hedge. The horses aren’t used to activity down there so it was a big test for Missy to walk past after noticing human forms moving about dragging huge branches or sawing them off. The noise of the wind made it difficult for her to make sense of it all, I don’t think she could really but she kept going because that’s what I was asking her to do.

There is something primeval about high winds combined with lashing rain. It seemed as if it was just the two of us surrounded by vengeful gods blowing their celestial lungs out. We were in a complete sound vortex that locked out anything audible from normal reality. I was glad to be on Missy, even though she was fresh, she still lets you ride her. At the bottom of the lane we set off in trot. Missy would have liked to go at a smacking pace (relatively speaking) but that isn’t allowed. I continued to steady her with the aim of settling her into the lovely rhythm she normally has within her new and improved frame. However, today it wasn’t happening. I know I have taken it easy with her for the last two weeks and that the weather was dreadful but that doesn’t entirely explain why she was so on the forehand compared to Monday when we went to the forest where she felt glorious.

Horses ‘performance can change for a number of reasons. A mare might come into season, muscular stiffness, an unseen injury, different tack or some other discomfort. Because I know this isn’t how Missy usually feels and that to force her into a way of going to satisfy my ambitions for her isn’t the right thing to do, I simply worked with what I had. We went round the village a couple of times to see if it would make a difference. In terms of safety, she couldn’t have been better but it wasn’t one of our best rides. She felt wobbly from time to time which she hasn’t done for ages. Even the curbs caught her out, half tripping over them.

As I say, I was glad to be on Missy as she doesn’t worry about sounds behind her and I don’t have to be constantly vigilant about what is happening to the rear. We were walking along on a longish rein when her head suddenly shot up with her neck like a snake. She hurried forward a few steps while I looked round to see what was wrong. I didn’t notice anything but as I straightened up a jogger ran silently past, fully illuminated with neon everything. As we know, this kind of situation really frightens horses, igniting their flight response so that before you know it you are galloping down the road trying desperately to get a pull. And that’s on a normal day without the wind factor which is another reason for teadching the one rein stop. Missy coped admirably with the unexpected company and as there was still enough light, we took the longer route home via the bridlepath.

To us it appears a pleasant place, a welcome break from road riding, but the majority of horses find this particular bridlepath intimidating. Since there is clearly some unseen energy of dubious origin, it’s not the kind of path to follow in a gale. I knew that Missy wouldn’t lose the plot or give me a hard time if we took this route. She was ok with the chicken shack and its dilapidated roof which made a slapping sound each time the drooping felt hit the frame. She walked sensibly down the hill beside the heaving beech hedge with its mournful whistling sound. She carefully placed her toes on all the right bits on the muddy incline that’s formed into a mini staircase and trotted sensibly on the straight part that was as slippery as ice. By the time we got to the uphill section, the old Missy was back. She wanted to stand and take in the view. She loves to do this so we stood for a minute or so surrounded by crashing branches and stirring undergrowth before wending our way back to the stables.

Even thought she felt less supple and more on the forehand, we had a lovely ride in safety terms without incident. I couldn’t ask for more. She is booked with Bea for her McTimmoney assessment but not until the New Year. I must remind Michael to look at her teeth too. We plan to ride out together next week which should be a good opportunity to pin him down!


DAY FIFTY THREE WEEK THIRTEEN

I don’t know if it was the change of saddle and bridle but Missy gave a much better ride today. The sun shone all day with little wind, perfect for riding in the forest. As we trotted along the lane, I thought how nice her step was with bounce and power without feeling strong. Actually, it did feel strong but not the against the rider type. Ground covering would be accurate. I notice she does this best when she is slightly fresh as it takes more energy to get her legs geared up.

The forest seemed deserted apart from two different sets of dogs running through the trees, appearing and disappearing in the undergrowth. It was lovely to be on Missy who is so accepting of people and animals in odd places. I began thinking how I would like her back in a few years’ time when I’m not up for anymore training thrills, I can spend my days enjoying her company in the countryside instead. I get these romantic notions periodically, usually for one I’m currently working with.

We did a lot of trotting since she was feeling quite forward, interspersed with plenty of transitions back and forth from between walk and trot. Not only does this rebalance her, and all horses, but it also reminds her of her obligation to pay attention to me. These downward transitions are hardly even performed in sitting trot as the horse tends to brace itself against the rider in anticipation of imminent discomfort. Some horses fall into walk at the earliest opportunity for the same reason while others go hollow and resistant which isn’t a nice experience for them or us.

We feel strongly about the almost universal directive to sit in order to come back to walk with little or no appreciation about the effect on the horse’s back. I can’t deviate into discussing the bio-mechanics of correct muscular development in order to be an effective bridge between the gait and the seat; suffice it to say horses really appreciate our understanding of this. Alternatives that produce better results are available and one we use a lot is to deepen the thighs with soft knees so that the legs also deepen round the horse’s side while lightening the seat and angling the hips forward. The amount of hand required is reduced by fifty or more percent which has to be more comfortable for both their mouths and backs.

We did a little cantering on the grass beside one of the long stony tracks. There is only a narrow strip that is level, the rest falls away towards the trees. Cantering on this part is a good test of steering to keep on the grass without falling into the wood or treading on the stones. It takes a degree of muscular control before they are able to keep their feet within such a narrow space, particularly in canter. Missy is such a great little straight line canter cob there isn’t a great deal to do other than the usual refinements. She was like this from the beginning, a real treat for me, no leaping sideways at a leaf in the wrong place.

We were coming out of the forest before stepping onto the lane when we saw a pigeon standing motionless in the middle of the road in front of us. Not an unusual sight except there was something odd about its stillness, I almost felt it was looking at me. I heard an approaching car who couldn’t see either us or the bird. I waited for it to fly away but it didn’t move. The car came round the bend and was nearly on top of it, I really thought it was going to drive over it but at the last moment, the pigeon took off. I sighed with relief as we began our walk home. We’d only gone a few steps when I noticed a poor bird flapping pathetically on the side of the road, struggling to disentangle itself from a blackberry stem. It clearly couldn’t fly and as I watched it wondering what to do, I had a sudden flash of intuition. The first pigeon made himself into a sentinel in the road to catch my attention. I am certain he wanted me to help. I dismounted and picked up his injured friend. Somehow I managed to remount Missy without squashing it. Luckily I’ve taught her to neck rein otherwise I’m not sure we would have managed to get home.

I’ve put the pigeon in a cat basket with a blanket to lie on. I don’t expect it to make it through the night but at least he can die in peace without being run over or torn up by a fox. You never know what service you will be required to give while out riding! I rescued a pigeon while hacking on Sage and handed it over with a broken wing to a neighbour who was passing in her car. She put him in her chicken coop where he continues to live happily, tottering about pretending to be a hen. I love happy endings.

Christmas draws ever closer so the diary is going to be condensed into a weekly update while Missy moves nearer completion of her training. My personal thanks to you, reader, for staying with me thus far. I would also like to add that my greatest wish is to have been able to contribute in some small way through the diaries to an increased understanding of our relationship with the horse through appropriate education.


Now that the diary is going to be updated weekly rather than daily, we have uploaded a cameo of Missy in the meantime.

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Hi Avril, I would just like to say how much I am enjoying reading Diary of the older horse. It is very informative and any horse owner, whether it be a young or older horse, would benefit from reading. I have learnt so much from it and I have been riding for over 50 yrs, proving that you never stop learning when you have horses. I can't wait until Tuesday for the next instalment.

Regards,
Denise

Hi Avril, i may have mentioned before but just wanted to say once more that the Diary of Missy is totally captivativing. Keep it coming and I hope you will continue this writing when Missy eventually finds her new home. It sure is helping me today - jeffers is lame and the thought of not being able to ride is making me feel quite low.
lots of love
Jackie