When you set out to stabilize a young or green horse on the flat, you’re CEqEing for the foundation, the basic building blocks which will stand your equine in good stead for the rest of its life. Years ago (read younger and unaware of our mortality), we often took on ‘remedial’ projects, rehabbing Thoroughbreds off the track for foxhunters who held down full-time jobs. We were lucky that we had excellent standards by which to guide our remedial schooling efforts. They were set by two Thoroughbred field hunters (one off the track, the other unraced) who carried their Master of Foxhounds owner to lead the field, usually First Flight. Think about that job description: those horses had to be bold, biddable, and ready for anything.
We learned oodles when we lived on her farm (nearly 12 years, the first time) and ended up riding lots of different horses, in and out of the hunt field. It was our idea of heaven on earth, because we were crazy about horses and had grown up riding anything we could get our hands on. This often proved fairly hazardous to life and limb. Falls were part of the learning curve, and several times we tried hiding a broken collarbone or ribs from our eagle-eyed mother/trained nurse – yeah, right. But what we lacked in finesse and technical know-how, we made up for in sheer guts. Of course, it helps to get a kick out of careering around the countryside.
That master’s horses became our schoolmasters, especially the ex-racehorse who was so smart he could have hunted hounds, had he been able to carry the horn. They demonstrated, time after time, what a “made” horse can – and should – be, especially one whose job title includes “field hunter.” The gelding OTTB did dressage, the mare was a brilliant show hunter during the warm seasons – not with us, truth to tell, but with a hunter rider from South Carolina who spent most of her time in Casanova when she wasn’t at Tech. One year the mare and yours truly did earn the Virginia Field Hunter reserve championship (we were disappointed that we didn’t win, but the master was thrilled not to have to host the next year’s competition!), and we did several seasons of hunter pace events with foxhunting pals: it was wicked cool to run and jump in different hunts’ countries, trying to come in closest to the optimum time. Both horses were great on trails, each had specific strengths and talents. They were versatile, great teachers.
One thing we learned: your horse must be stabilized at all the paces within the three basic gaits on a loose rein. This means that a horse or pony can walk, trot and canter in self-carriage as well as maintain the pace you request without constant reminders via reins and bit, etc. It’s also vital for the horse to find its own balance with weight in the saddle: their center of gravity changes from their shoulders to several inches further back. We do not recommend galloping downhill with a horse that can’t balance itself. Another important thing we learned is that without a lovely flat-footed walk you have nowhere to go if faster paces excite your horse. The trot can be calming, but there’s nothing like a horse who knows how to walk.
Lord Peter's third trip to the school bus stop on Rt. 211 involved walking for the first quarter-mile, then trotting along the shoulder of the road most of the mile to the four-lane highway. His walk was rhythmic and energetic, his trot cadenced and balanced. He didn't flick an ear at a big blue trash can on the edge of a driveway. Homework in the ring interspersed with "field trips" puts it all to the test in pragmatic situations. (When we took this photo, we were walking, which is why Bryan and Breezy are not as critically focused as we would like.) © Lauren R Giannini
Granted, Peter’s always been happy to go on trail rides with a buddy. Please note: we do not ask him to go exploring alone in his green state. The whole point of trail rides is to build confidence, and this is best accomplished with a steady pal to show the way. Being herd creatures, they believe in safety in numbers. Even one other made horse can help to calm a greenie.
Going to the bus stop, Breezy and Bryan set the pace and Peter follows, but every once in a while he has to take the lead. Then Breezy gets a bit bossy-boots and has to take the lead back. Most of this took place walking – it’s pretty amusing. Peter’s okay about the times when Breezy trots on and he has learned he can catch up with a bigger walk. This is a good skill for any horse to learn: jigging is not acceptable. It’s also imperative in the early stages that the ‘buddy’ does not disappear completely from sight. In the spring, when we start to hack out more, one of Peter’s important trail lessons will be to continue confidently without anxiety should his ‘buddy’ disappear from view because of a twisting trail.
It’s interesting how much more attentive Peter is about an adventure. In the ring, we’re careful to avoid boring reps of circles – for the same reasons that we think too much time on the longe line isn’t really good for them. We use an exercise we started implementing years ago to help a Thoroughbred hurdle mare learn to walk while we got her ready to foxhunt (more on that another time). We’re also trying to find our long lines so we can benefit from Bryan’s expertise at ground-driving. This is definitely a CEqE technique that will come in very handy this winter and spring as it works the equine mind and body without weight on its back.
This brings us back to the fact that we have a saddle issue. We’re aware how important it is in the ring to keep changing rein and work both sides of the horse’s engine and brain. Peter’s learning little subtleties: how to turn with body English, how to whoa or transition from trot to walk without any rein pressure. Granted, he’s bitless in a padded English jumping caveson, the mildest form of hackamore. But it’s doing the trick and he’s learning whoa and go gently. It’s December when every little lesson learned means progress by leaps and bounds when warmer weather returns. So far we have ridden three times to the highway to meet Cammy at the school bus. The last time (Nov 15th) we trotted most of the way to Rt. 211 and Peter was super. He just followed Breezy and Bryan. He didn’t care about traffic even when we stopped on the knoll overlooking the four-lane (because he was allowed to graze – another trick for getting a horse to go from flat-out in the hunt field to full stop at a check: let them pick at the grass – bits wash, horse is happy, manners come with time). Peter is bitless: no gooey green bit to wash – lol.
On the knoll, Peter was fine with traffic whizzing by, waiting until the bus arrived. Totally nonchalant, as if he'd been doing this all his life. Note no ears: Peter was totally relaxed, watching cars and trucks fly by while he grazed... good pony! © Lauren R Giannini
We’ve only just begun, though. Due to illness that started with leaf mold allergy and morphed into heaven knows what (sinus infection, upper resp infection and worse) we were feeling awful for nearly six weeks, which hampered riding efforts. Peter’s been under saddle in the ring twice since that last trip to the bus stop – good both times, but not as free with his movement as he is on a ‘jaunt.’ All the more reason to practice ground-driving. He still hasn’t cantered under saddle, but that will come most easily in the spring when we start trotting little cross-rails and work up to gymnastics in the ring. After a while, he’ll land cantering and we’ll simply whoa to a trot after a few strides, change direction, do a trot exericise to stabilize and then trot the X or whatever again.
But before we get to that point in his CEqE, we have to address the saddle issue. His Wintec Wide with the XX template “fits” but it’s rigid. Out on a “jaunt” Peter is less inclined to pay attention to his saddle, but in the ring – nuh uh, he’s totally aware of it. We’ve experimented bareback and with the saddle – big difference in the freedom of his movement. He’s very broad-shouldered with big action. He’s much more careful about how he moves in the ring, and that’s where so many new basic building blocks come into play. It isn’t our weight – we’re between 108 and 113, according to how much pasta and bread we consume – and we’re reluctant to continue too far without a saddle that works for him.
Peter is very sensitive. He isn’t studdy, but exhibits some traits that are related to being gelded late. Until we solve the saddle issue, Peter will be restricted to mostly walk with brief trots. In terms of the right saddle for Peter, there really is only one answer…
CEqE and you shall find, but remember: che va piano, va sicuro!
Going home to The Fine Equine Stables: Cammy and Breezy lead the way, with Peter happy as a clam walking along the shoulder edge, even when his pal and her rider decide to trot on. Bryan brings up the rear of the little procession, on foot, claiming the walk is good for him. It's good for all of us, to be honest: on foot or in the saddle, road work is proving to be a superb basic building block in Peter's CEqE. Photo © Lauren R Giannini