Despite what Presto may think, there’s more to life than ruthlessly destroying every ball I buy him.
Especially now, with his 4yo year looming very close on the horizon. I’ve made an effort over his 3yo year to build him up very slowly, mentally and physically. He’s got about 40 rides now by my guesstimation (I stopped counting at a point), which is what a lot of horses would have after 60 days at the breaker. So while he’s been under saddle since March, we’ve gone at an absolutely glacial pace, punctuated with periods of time off. This was totally by design, I think it takes time and (slow) miles for horses to build up the strength to carry a rider easily, and I wanted him to come into his 4yo year with some foundation in place rather than just throwing him into work (insert usual disclaimer of this is my opinion, you don’t have to subscribe to it). I wanted his mind and his body in a place where he was prepared to start “real” training when he’s 4. Think of the 3yo year like an equine Pre-K, I suppose.
The goal was to arrive at his 4yo year with him understanding that he has a job, have him forward-thinking and enjoying said job, and that his body has some strength and balance, at least enough to start to build on. This of course has meant that we’ve done a lot of hacking. He’s been ridden outside of the ring just as much if not more so than he’s been ridden in it, and we started that way back somewhere around ride #6. That was the first baby step toward the larger goal of getting him used to riding on varied terrain and different types of footing, which is the next baby step towards cross country.
Last week he went on his first little road hack. I ponied him out there a couple times last winter, but this was his first time venturing out on his own. The vet wanted me to do long walks to help the swelling go down in his knee (good news – knee is now back to normal, the cut is pretty much healed, and he finished his antibiotics yesterday) and my front gate happened to be open for once, so I added a little road loop to the middle of our hack. He’s seen enough by now to where it was interesting but not worth getting particularly excited about.
On Saturday I took him out to ride in what I’ve come to think of as “the cross country field”. It’s not a super big pasture but it’s got a couple little log jumps in it and some good natural terrain, including a runoff dip running across the middle that makes for some nice short hills and a natural ditch off to one side. I can do flatwork at the top where it’s flatter, ride him around the perimeter with a gentle roll to the hills, or cut in a little bit for steeper hills and to pass over the ditch. As he’s gotten more balanced and stronger I’ve been riding him out there more, and each time he seems to improve.
I rarely lunge before I ride him… haven’t in a while. Mostly because I’m not a huge fan of a lot of lunging, and also because I think that part of learning to be a riding horse is learning that when the saddle goes on, they’re in work mode. If he wants to get his sillies out he’s got 23 other hours in the day to do so. Plus the whole perk of having a young one is trying to mold him into the horse I want to have later on, so I try to treat him like that horse as much as possible. Every once in a while he’ll have the devil in his eyes and I might trot him around on the line for a few minutes and do lots of transitions to get his brain plugged in, but that’s about it, and those instances have gotten more and more rare as he’s settled into his job.
That’s not to say that I get on and he’s just calm and focused right out of the gate though. I mean… he’s a baby horse and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but he’s kind of A LOT. Sometimes when we get out to the field and start trotting he’s a little pumped, a little quick, or wants to break to canter. That’s fine. I’ve got no problem with that as long as he isn’t rude or malicious (no bucking or bolting allowed, which luckily he has never shown any predisposition toward). I will never get upset at him for wanting to go forward. I just keep my posting rhythm steady, give him some circles of varying sizes and figure 8’s to occupy his brain, and wait it out. If he breaks to canter I let him go for a circle, then ask him to trot again. I think it’s important, especially for event horses, that they always feel like forward is a viable option. I like that he’s sharp off the leg and I like that he wants to go – those are good qualities, so I try to nurture them. Supreme Goal: just don’t mess up the horse.
Within a few minutes he always settles, at which point I start playing with the terrain. For now I try to mostly leave him alone and let him figure it out. I’m responsible for my balance, and not hindering him, but he’s responsible for his balance and his feet. If he struggles I’ll help him with a half halt here or a “more forward” there, but at this particular juncture I really want him to learn how to think and manage it himself. And so far, he really has. In the beginning I felt like we might go ass over tea kettle at any moment (ever trotted downhill on a drunk fence post?), but now you can feel him thinking about the terrain and adjusting himself appropriately. He can trot or canter up and down the little hills and pick his way through fallen branches (usually…).
Another thing I’ve started to introduce is just the very baby beginnings of a gallop. I’ve yet to really ask him to GO for real, but we’ve started to open it up a bit and get him moving a little quicker. I think it’s super important that they understand how to gallop (it’s THE biggest selling point of an OTTB as event prospect, for me) so we’re working our way towards that next.
The field has too many trees/bushes/hills for my Pivo to work very well (granted I could have at least turned it on during the flatwork part but I wasn’t really thinking), so I’ve not been videoing any of his work out there up to now, but I did at least prop my phone up on Saturday to try to get something. Much love to the baby horse that is totally ok with me carrying and setting up my tripod from his back. Henry loses his shit when I try to telescope the legs. The only problem with Presto is that he wants to play with the tripod. It’s crappy footage, but you can see a bit of what he’s working on anyway.
I like having this “free time” to work on these kinds of things. He hasn’t started jump training yet, he’s not being rideen more than 2-3 days a week, he’s not doing any real dressage yet, he has no shows looming on the horizon… it’s a nice low pressure time to be able to install these kinds of super basic things that hopefully set him up for what’s to come, and get his body prepped to more easily handle his career. I’m hoping that the real work will come a little easier to him by the time we get there.