Heidi’s Strengths: She’s pretty.

Heidi was advertised as 15.3. She’s maybe 14.3 on a good day. She may actually be a pony. But she’s still beautiful! She is a gray and white paint but her gray parts don’t show up unless she’s wet. When I give her a bath, she all of a sudden looks like a panda. I haven’t seen many horses with her coloring and I think that when I go to sell her, that will work in my favor. People always like unusual colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heidi’s Strengths: She’s mellow.

Heidi is super chill. When I picked her up, she got right into the trailer despite not seeing one for about 6 months. When she had a pissy attitude about being handled, she never kicked or bit or tried to push me around on the ground. Pinning her ears was about as far as she went. Even when she bucked me off twice in about two minutes, afterward she just stood there and looked at me. She didn’t run back to the barn or take off toward her buddies. She looked at me like, “I told you I didn’t want to be ridden.”

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During our first few lunge sessions, she was nervous and reactive but she didn’t buck or kick out at me. She simply trotted faster and faster trying to figure out what I wanted. When I said “whoa,” she turned and faced me politely. My last project horse bucked and bolted back to the barn a few times, leaving me standing in the pasture like a chump. None of that from Heidi.

Sometimes I take her for walks down to the lake to expose her to people, dogs, cars, kayaks and kids. Even though it’s all new to her, the worst thing she does is plant her feed and refuse to move forward  without some coaxing. But there’s never any major drama, just a little resistance.

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She was checking out the kayaks.

When I walk her on trails, she is AWESOME. She crosses  water, jumps up a bank, has her ears up the whole time like she’s having fun, and is generally a fantastic horse to be around. On our last walk, I stopped to pull down some vines that were hanging down on the trail. When I pulled them, the whole tangle came down on top of her back. She just stood there like nothing had happened.

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Those are all things that some horses have to be taught and desensitized to. But Heidi acts like it’s no big deal and she’s a champ about all of it. My goal is to find a job she enjoys, whether that’s hunters or dressage or trail riding. I think people underestimate the value of a good trail horse. Out in the open you want a horse that isn’t going to get you killed, that will take everything in stride and take care of you. Once we work out her issues under saddle, Heidi is going to be that horse.

Heidi’s Issues: She won’t go forward.

In Heidi’s sale videos, when they asked her to move forward, she resisted. She would fling her head up, move sideways, or do a mini buck. She was very resistant to go anywhere. She still is, but we’re working through it.

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At first, she would balk at leaving the barn. Rather than get out the lunge whip, I decided to wait it out. I just put steady pressure on the reins or lead rope until she gave in and moved her feet. I wanted her to realize that I’m patient, but persistent. We’re going to go to work so she may as well get on with it. She quit balking about leaving the barn.

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But she still balks about moving from the gate out into the pasture where I lunge her. She puts her head up and pulls backward, but I just stand my ground and put steady pressure on the reins until she gives in. Sometimes she paws the ground and then she starts moving forward. The trick is for me to stay put and not move backward toward her. She has to move forward to me and then the pressure goes away. It gets better every day and, once she gets moving, she’s fine. She just tests me to see if she can get out of working.

Heidi’s Issues: She bucks.

I bought Heidi knowing she had an issue with bucking at the canter. I figured it was caused by being out of shape. Cantering is uncomfortable for a horse that is unbalanced and unprepared physically to do what’s being asked. It’s like asking an overweight, couch potato to sprint. It sucks.

Turns out Heidi also bucks at the trot. And the walk. And as soon as you sit on her.

So I decided to completely restart her and get to the root of whatever is causing her to buck. If it’s pain, the long and low work on the lunge will build her topline and get her fit enough to be ridden without pain. If it’s simply an attitude issue and she’s learned that bucking gets her out of working, then I have to address that as well. In my experience, bucking is usually a combination of attitude and physical discomfort. You’re crabby too when you’re in pain.

I started going through the routine in the picture below every night with Heidi. While she was standing in the barn aisle eating hay, I started rubbing her all over, swinging my leg over and laying my body over her back. I did this from both sides. At first she pinned her ears, backed up, and arched her back upward like she was going to buck. I would back off a little and then try again. She realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t a big deal, that I wasn’t going to hurt her. After about a week I could get on her from either side with no issues. She stayed relaxed the whole time.

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I’ve got a neighbor kid, a friend of my daughter’s, who comes to the barn with me all the time because she’s horse crazy. Once I could sit on Heidi with no issues, I let Neighbor Kid try. Heidi didn’t mind her at all, probably because she weighs so little.

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The next step was to lead Neighbor Kid around bareback on Heidi out in the yard by the barn. We did that for a few days until she was used to it. Then we moved to the little arena and did the same thing. Next we put a saddle and bridle on her and got on and off in the arena and walked around a little. Heidi accepted all of this with no attitude.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the ridden work. I’m not going to ride her much until she gets in better shape and has more topline, but it’s good to get her used to having someone on her.

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I realize she’s not a wild mustang and this is probably a little overcautious, but I want to solve this bucking issue and nip it in the bud. I don’t want to wonder whether or not she’s going to buck. I want to be able to trust her. That comes slowly by building a good, solid foundation. I’m approaching every part of the process like it’s brand new, going slowly and reassuring her that nothing bad is going to happen and no one is going to hurt her.

The trick is to keep it short and not ask too much. Once she accepts one thing, we move on to the next thing. And she always gets treats after! This girl loves to eat and the treats make it seem like there’s something in it for her.

As long as I go slowly, she takes everything in stride. If I try and jump ahead and skip steps, that’s when the problems start.

Heidi’s Issues: She hates everyone.

Well, she doesn’t hate everyone, but she would prefer that people leave her alone. At least that’s how she was when I got her. Heidi is my first mare and everyone told me to prepare myself. My gelding is the most lovable, affectionate horse that ever lived. He is attached to me in a codependent way. Heidi, not so much.

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For the first couple days, Heidi allowed me to be affectionate with her. I think she was looking for a friend. Once she integrated into the herd, she didn’t need me anymore. She would pin her ears at me when I approached and she made it clear that she tolerated being groomed, but she did not enjoy it. She would resist everything from being brushed to picking up her feet. She absolutely did not want to be hugged and loved on, thank you very much.

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She has an epic RBF.

 

So I honored her wish to be left alone for the most part. I did go catch her in the pasture, but I didn’t make a big fuss over her. I kept it all business. I did what needed to be done as far as grooming, lunging and feeding, but I wasn’t as affectionate as I normally am with my horses.

I’ve had her for a month and a half now and I’ve seen a big change. Slowly she allowed me to be more loving with her, to pet her and hug her neck and give her poll rubs and wither scratches. She quit pinning her ears at me when I came into the pasture. Now, I realize a huge part of this is that I’m the one who feeds her. She’s realizing that when The Woman shows up, buckets get filled with food so, instead of pinning her ears, she meets me at the gate to be brought in for her dinner.

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Doesn’t she look thrilled?

The second thing that helped her warm up to me is our routine. I do the same thing with her every day. She knows what to expect and she finds security in knowing what’s going to happen. I bring her in to the barn where she eats hay while I groom her. Then she works out- either lunging or a long walk in the woods (in hand, not ridden). Once her workout is done, she cools down and then she gets her dinner, which is just a small portion of sweet feed. She’s pastured on 20 acres of grass, and she’s fat, so she doesn’t need much.

 

I think she’s learning that I’m not going to hurt her, I’m not asking her to do anything crazy, and I always have dinner and treats. I’m not all that bad as far as humans go. Does she love me? No, I don’t think so, definitely not like my gelding loves me. But she does derive a measure of security from me and she tolerates me. She seems to enjoy being groomed and she lets me be affectionate with her. I noticed she still pins her ears at strangers who try to touch her. She doesn’t do that with me anymore. I guess we’re friends now!

First Few Days with Heidi

I drove 5 hours to pick Heidi up. We had to go through Atlanta traffic and it was hot and stressful for her. When we got home, I turned her out with my ottb gelding, Baron. He adored her immediately. After a few days, I integrated her into the herd, which is just two other horses- Sunny, an elderly palomino quarter horse, and Charge, a young, spunky Saddlebred. Heidi is the only mare, which I’m sure she enjoys.

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Heidi on her first day. You can see how dropped her back is and how big her belly is. She’s out of shape!

 

My plan with Heidi is to do a whole lot of lunging and ground work before I do much riding. I did want to ride her a little just to see what she knew and see what I’m dealing with as far as her “attitude” and bucking issues go.

The first couple days with Heidi I didn’t do anything but groom and feed her. She would pin her ears if I approached her in the pasture and she resisted fly spray, picking up her feet and being groomed in certain areas. She didn’t seem to care much for me. I didn’t blame her. She barely knew me.

The first time I rode her, I hopped on bareback in the pasture while my friend rode Sunny. She followed Sunny around and did all right. She seemed a little nervous, but she didn’t give me any attitude.

The second time I rode her was with a saddle in our little grass arena. Again, she seemed nervous but she listened to me and tried to do what I asked. I noticed she moved off of leg well.

The third time I rode her she was a totally different horse. I got on bareback and asked her to move away from the barn. She bucked me off. I got back on and she reared then bucked me off again. Well, that wasn’t going to work, so I took her in the arena and made her move her feet for about 45 minutes. I worked her hard that day so she understood that bucking got her worked much harder than just letting me sit on her for a few minutes.

Given how pissy she had been with the bucking and how she didn’t seem to care much for me, she was very respectful while she free lunged in the arena. She would turn and face me and she didn’t kick out or charge me or do anything blatantly rude. She did not like being made to run, so she was looking to make friends and make it stop. I was impressed by how respectful she was. Obviously she’s not a totally rank horse; she just has issues under saddle.

After getting bucked off twice in about 2 minutes, I decided I was going to completely restart her. Obviously there are holes in her foundation and the best way to go about fixing them is to start over from the beginning. I started lunging her in a bridle every day. I tried using a chambon, because I had a lot of success with it on my last project horse, but she was too reactive about pressure. She braced against it instead of giving in and lowering her poll.

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First day on the lunge line. Very hollow and nervous. She did relax a little eventually.

 

Lunging in a bridle vs. a halter is all about getting the horse to accept the bit and reach forward into the contact. The people I bought her from had been riding her in a halter and reins, so that told me she had issues about the bit. Sure enough, when I tried to bridle her for the first time, it took about 15 minutes. She pinned her ears and clamped her mouth shut. With a lot of patience and perseverance, I got the bridle on her. Every day after that it got a little easier. She’s not perfect yet, but I can do it in 2 tries now, rather than 10 or 11 tries.

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She finally started to relax during her first lunge session.

 

At first on the lunge line, she only went to the left. She did not understand the concept of changing direction at all. She was also extremely nervous. She rushed around in a lightning fast trot and was very reactive about the lunge whip. Again, patience and persistence paid off. She quickly learned how to change direction and before too long she gave me a walk instead of the crazy trot. The key with her is consistency and patience. (Actually the key to every horse is consistency and patience.) Once we got into a routine where she knew what to expect, she was much more agreeable. As with many horses, it seems a lot of her issues come from not understanding what’s being asked of her. The more I stick to a routine, the better she gets.

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Lunging in a bridle. She has a pretty trot even when she’s not working correctly. I can’t wait to see what it’s like when she really gets into shape.

My Training Philosophy

When I bought my first horse, a 5 year old ottb, I really had no idea what I was doing. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I wanted to ride hunters so I got a trainer who helped me not get myself killed. I’ll always be thankful for her. My second horse was dropped into my lap and I didn’t even want him at first. He was a 15.2 bay quarter horse and I bought him because his owner didn’t have time or money for him and he needed a better situation. He picked me, and I’m so glad he did. When I bought him, I had never even ridden him. (It’s a long story).

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On my first ride on Thunder I realized he had a lot of problems. He was great on trails but very nervous in the arena. He had no idea what I wanted him to do and he was hollow and bracing. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he was just a mess under saddle. His trot was this weird, giraffe-like gait where he almost cantered with the front and trotted in the back. It’s hard to explain and even harder to ride.

I realized I had no idea how to fix him. My experience at hunter barns had taught me how to ride, but it hadn’t taught me how to train a horse and teach the horse to work correctly. How do I get him to relax? To put his head down? To trot like a normal horse? I knew I needed help and I began researching extensively.

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That’s when I discovered classical dressage. I came across a guy named Will Faerber with a youtube channel called Art2Ride. It was a godsend. Will explained classical dressage in the simplest terms and pointed out what many people in the horse world don’t understand- how to get a horse to work correctly over his back. If you’ve never heard of Will Faerber, that’s because he’s not trying to get famous and sell you a bunch of gear with his name on it. He’s trying to teach people about correct dressage, which is essential for discipline from barrels to eventing.

Classical dressage was exactly what I had been looking for and what was missing in my work with my first horse. I committed to Will’s method and it took a year and a half, but Thunder was completely transformed through correct work.

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To summarize it and oversimplify it, many horses are being ridden in a hollow frame. Their heads may be pulled backward onto the vertical, but they are still hollow in their backs. The two pairs of legs are not moving in sync and they’re reaching out further with their front legs than their back legs. When a horse is working correctly, his hind legs step deeply underneath and the back lifts. He will develop beautiful neck and back muscles and his legs will work in perfect rhythm. He will push from behind instead of pulling himself along from his shoulder. There’s nothing prettier than a horse moving correctly.

How do you accomplish this? It begins on the lunge where the horse learns to move correctly without the added weight of the rider. Lunging for horses is like yoga for people. On the circle, the horse has to step deeply under himself because of the geometry of the circle. Eventually the horse will begin to stretch from the base of the neck and his back will lift. This is what builds the horse’s topline. It starts at the walk, then trot, then canter. It’s very systematic. The walk has to be good before the trot can be good. You can’t hurry the process or skip steps.

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Once the horse has learned to move correctly at the walk on the lunge line, he can be ridden at the walk. Same with trot and canter. There’s no point in riding a hollow horse. You’re just pushing the back down even further and building all the wrong muscles. It’s a long, slow process. It takes at least a year to put a topline on a horse, and that’s working consistently. But it is so worth it. A horse that works correctly will be sound for years, easier to ride and comfortable in his work. A lot of “attitude problems” disappear when the horse is worked correctly and isn’t in pain.

If any of this interests you, or you’re like I was and you know you’re missing something in your training, please check out Art2Ride on youtube!