Sunday, December 9, 2012

Memoirs: A Girl and Her Horse, Six Years

On December 9, 2006, Harley and I were officially a horse-owner pair.  An informal contract on notebook paper and the exchange of payment sealed the deal.  His previous owner was happy, because he felt that he had found the right person for a horse whom he had loved and cared for since he was a two-year-old and I was happy, because, well, no words can suffice to explain the incredible feeling of finally purchasing my own horse.  I had been waiting for Harley since I was three years old, when I first sat on Littlebit.  I had wished for him at every birthday and before every Christmas, even looking out the window into the backyard on Christmas mornings and for a split second allowing myself to believe that a pony with a ribbon would be standing there, staring back at me through the window.  I guess I liked to torture myself with that one!

On the other side of the coin, Harley had been waiting for me since March of 1998, which was just a few months before I graduated High School.  He was too young to know that he was waiting for me, but now that we have each other, I am sure that if he could look back on his life, he would realize that he is a very lucky horse.  Since horses live in the present, I am content with him being happy right now and, as far as I can tell, he is.

From the first moment that I saw Harley, I knew he was a project.  He was eight years old and had spent an unknown number of years as a pasture ornament.  He did not have other horses for companionship and although his owner loved him and paid him attention, I got the impression that he was more of a big dog than a riding horse.  I have since met a nice woman who was Harley's neighbor before he moved here to live with me.  She said that Harley and her dog were friends and that she saw him when he went out for walks.  I think she meant that Harley was the one going for walks and I also think she might mean that he was being walked on a lead just like a dog.  That is kind of cute.  I could see my social horse enjoying his (hopefully) daily walk and making friends with neighboring humans, dogs, and whoever would sniff noses with him.

My new horse on December 17, 2006: See how eager he was!

Project horses can be many things and they always have their own unique set of challenges.  Harley was no different.  He had a great mind and a great engine with a healthy dose of enthusiasm for activity, but his under saddle training could be summed up in three words: stop and GO.  He knew "stop" and he really knew "GO", but without any nuance.  He would turn and he was willing, but it was obvious that he had never been directed around a circle or corner under saddle.  In this blog, I write a lot about the awesome stuff that Harley can do and how easy it is to cue him.  I also boast about his balance and ability to collect or go on the bit for me.  What you must understand is that Harley was introduced by this blog as an experienced riding horse with a lot of miles under his "girth" and lots (and lots and lots) of time spent with me developing our communication.  He did not start out that way.  This story is about the original Harley and it is one of my barn owner's favorites.

I think that those of you who ride a horse who is very green or has some challenging training issues may appreciate reading about this side of my dear horse.

The Original Harley

Rewind to late December 2006/early January...

Harley is an American-bred quarter horse and based on his papers, he was bred from barrel racing stock.  I do not know much about barrel racing, but I believe that this is why his build is rather light and to my eye, resembles a small thoroughbred in some ways, although his cute face is decidedly quarter horse, as is his cute behind.  I know that his previous owner took him on trails for at least some point in the time that he owned him and the only other thing that I know about is that someone tried to race him around barrels.  I do not know if they were successful or how much "training" was involved, but two western saddles were gifted to me when I bought Harley and one had beautifully tooled leather indicating that it was a prize won at a barrel competition.  The implication was that someone (not his owner) won that saddle on Harley.  What Harley told me after beginning to ride him was that he strongly preferred cantering on the left lead and he had no concept of a leg cue to pick up his leads.  He was willing to canter, but he sort of rocketed into it from a fast trot and his back was so rigid that I could not sit on it.  You may be wondering why a dressage rider would choose such a horse for a project.  His mind and raw eagerness made him a joy to work with, but these things did not magically transform him into a made horse in sixty days or six months.

One of my first training goals was to teach Harley the leg cue to canter and to convince him that he could canter on the right lead.  I had cantered him in both directions for the prepurchase exam, but this was mostly a fluke as he picked up the right lead by accident going left and we went with it.  He was sound as an instrument, but he didn't play like one yet!  Harley learned that a "kiss" meant canter, from me repeating the sound each time he picked up the canter from a fast trot.  He learned the word "can-ter" with a distinct raising of tone in the second syllable and I used these two verbal commands to teach him the leg cue.  He caught on to the pattern very quickly, but the left lead remained his favorite.  He understand what I meant by "canter", but he did not understand that I might want him to pick up a specific lead.  He was more comfortable with a rider going on the left lead, even if he used both leads freely at liberty.  Carrying a rider changes everything.  Teaching an eight-year-old horse to accept a new balance is no small thing, but I was not inclined to give up.  After all, I finally had my own horse.

During one of our earliest rides, the barn owner and a few spectators were standing outside the big ring interested in watching "the new horse" be put through his paces.  I had warmed Harley up and decided that it was time to work on that right lead canter.  He picked up the left lead obediently, if not smoothly, and then I changed direction and proceeded to gently coax him into picking up the right lead.  I positioned my seat and legs as clearly as I could and used my voice to help him understand that I wanted him to move up a gear from trot.  Each time he obediently picked up the left lead, even though we were traveling right.  I did not praise him and gently brought him back to trot.  I tried asking in the corner.  I tried asking along the long and short sides.  I tried asking from a slow trot and from a fast trot.  I tried placing his nose a little to the inside and a little to the outside, but nothing was clicking.  I decided that I was just going to have to gently repeat the exercise until "luck" gave us the right lead and then I could praise him like crazy and hopefully his smarts would allow him to realize the lesson. 

Before too long, luck came through for us.  Harley advanced his right hip and shoulder and picked up the right lead canter.  The transition came through like an explosion.  It was so rough that I lost my seat for a moment and one of my stirrups.  I regained my balance quickly, but unfortunately my horse did not.  Harley was cantering so quickly that I had to assume the jockey position and this was in a bare-bones dressage saddle with no extra padding or knee rolls.  His back felt like a jackhammer and his neck shot forward and back like a piston in an engine.  Thankfully, the big ring is large enough to accommodate turns at speed, because we ripped around each corner in a very precarious fashion.  My stirrup flapped in the breeze, but I didn't dare move my foot to find it.  I was perched on my new horse's neck, with one stirrup and moving at break-neck speed.  The barn owner and bystanders looked on.  I couldn't see their faces, but I know their jaws had dropped.

"Mayday, mayday,"  I squeezed the reins, but my horse did not respond.
"Mayday, do you come in?", I used my voice to encourage him to slow or stop.  Harley's ears flicked back to me, but he continued forward, picking up speed with each long side.

At that point, I realized something.  My horse was green and untrained, but he was not a bad horse and he was not trying to kill me.  My horse was not being disobedient and I would not even call what he was doing a "dead bolt".  My horse was not slowing down, because he did not know how.  This is a scary realization.  I did not dare try to turn him as I was sure this would tip him over.  The dressage rider's most useful rebalancing tool, the half halt, was a silly notion in this situation.  Jerking on the reins or even a pulley stop were useless, because it would not explain to him what to do with his feet or his balance to stop the train.  I tried to sit back, but this seemed to make him hollow out and run more.  I felt at that moment, that the safest thing for both of us was to wait it out.  My horse had to stop eventually and he was moving straight ahead like a racehorse following the fence line, so I could stay with his predictable flight and even though I was perched on his back with one stirrup, I preferred this to bailing out.  I kept the reins short enough that I could feel his mouth and pressed my knuckles into his neck and mane.  The Black Stallion, my favorite horse story, flashed through my mind and I was Alec on a diluted black stallion.  The expression "be careful what you wish for" applied nicely.

Around and around we went.  During one pass by the barn owner, she asked if I was okay or if I needed help.  I said that I was okay and we continued by.  I am not sure what could have been done to help me.  Maybe a human wall could have persuaded my horse to find his brakes, but, honestly, I think we would have just plowed through them.  So I remained there, close to my horse's neck, sponging the reins gently and telling him "teee-rroottt" as the wind roared in my ears.

After what felt like an eternity and probably a good ten circuits around the large ring, my horse finally figured out where to put his feet.  He broke into a trot, at last, and I patted his neck with a ridiculously huge grin on my face that must be blamed on adrenaline.  It was still coursing through the both of us, as was the feeling of elation that we had survived in one piece.
An early canter picture: How is all that hind leg going to fit under his body?

My favorite early riding photo together

Harley never took off like that again, but I am not going to tell you that his canter leads were perfected a few weeks later or that it didn't take years for him to learn to remain balanced in the downward transition to trot.  I am also not going to tell you that I wasn't battling fear the very next time that I asked him to canter.  I hated the idea of being afraid of my own horse and that is probably why I forced myself to canter him again on the right lead after we caught our breath that very same ride.  Improving his canter (and the trot afterward) has been a long, slow process that has taken years.  Even today, his inclination is to speed up down a long side and in the trot afterward, so I still have to remind him to keep his tempo or allow him a few mistakes in the warm-up so he can find his balance again.

The good news is, six years later, he has a lovely, smooth canter that is easy to ride and his most enjoyable gait.  He is equally confident on both leads, but guess which one is his favorite?  The right!  He can collect his right lead more easily and dramatically than the left and he prefers to flying change and jump from this lead.

Harley has taught me so much over the past six years.  Learning how to ride a horse who has a "strong" canter was one of his important lessons.  We practiced every canter exercise in the book and then made up some of our own to improve his way of going.  I left the canter alone for weeks at a time and improved his balance in the trot and lateral exercises in a effort to help his most challenging gait.  I incorporated jumping later on and I entered clinics, watched dressage DVDs, and took lessons to improve my seat and my riding.  The most important ingredients to the improvement of his canter were time and creativity.  We didn't waste time and we didn't just let time pass, but I did allow time for all the various exercises to take hold.  I celebrated small improvements, but kept the image of the ideal canter firmly in my mind.  I tried many different training exercises and I incorporated those that worked and rejected those that didn't.  One of my favorites was leg yield in trot to canter on a circle.  My least favorites were "round-penning" and a dressage classic: trot-canter-trot transitions on a circle.  Both of these exercises played to Harley's tendency to anticipate and made him crazy and incredibly tense.  The most surprising exercise that worked was cantering him around the ring (circles and going large) without stopping.  This seemed to change his mindset.  If cantering is a marathon instead of a sprint, then you better conserve your energy and slow down!

I look forward to many more years of cantering with Harley and I hope that this story gives you some hope if you are near the beginning of the journey with your project horse.

October 2012: Six years later, Harley is still listening!

June 2012: Right lead canter
A fiery picture of Harley's strong canter


  1. Loved the story and read every word. It seems that you and Harley were made for each other. Pie was green, Red was a project who had to unlearn a lot of bad things, and Dawn is always a challenge because she's so incredibly forward and sensitive, so I have some idea what you're talking about. It's such satisfaction to have your horse learn and change as you ride and work with him.

    1. Thank you so much, Kate!

      I love reading about the journey with your three. I think that Dawn and Harley share some characteristics which are a pleasure, but also challenging (and definitely rewarding).

  2. What a good story! Thanks for sharing!

  3. wow I loved this post, as your probably know from my blog I ride Gatsby who when he gets excited tends to canter almost break into Gallop until he calms down, its amazing to see how you worked with him and the difference between when you first got him and how he is now!

    Love this it's so inspiring xx

    1. The canter is a very exciting gait for some horses! The excitement can come from many different places: enthusiasm, fear, anticipation, and even a strong work ethic. I am sure that Gatsby will improve as you continue to ride him. Just remember that it takes lots of time!

  4. There is something so satisfying about starting with a green horse and teaching him balance. Jackson and Winston both didn't have a clue about any of the aids. Jackson was also very unbalanced. Brett's new horse is the same. I tell Brett that, with time and focus, they will get there and their bond will be that much stronger because they made the journey together. You and Harley have accomplished a lot. Congratulations to both of you. How lucky you were to find each other.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Annette!

  5. It's so rewarding to work with a green horse and have them respond. It takes however long it takes as I've learned with Dusty. There are no shortcuts. You and Harley have become a perfect team after six years of working together and have achieved much.

  6. Wonderful. You make a great team! Harley is so pretty and has the best eyes.

  7. It's so wonderful to see how far you've come, now we all get to see how far you'll go :)

  8. thank you for sharing the story of the 'beginning'. It's wonderful to reflect back on where you've been.

  9. I loved this story! I am impressed at how you kept your wits about you as you were careening around the ring. I don't think I could have done that. I am pretty sure I would have bailed. What a wonderful team you are. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Bailing seemed much scarier than staying on!

      Thanks, Mary. :)

  10. What a wonderful commemoration of what you and Harley made together. It's really worth remembering those experiences which made you happy and at times sad. But above all, you and Harley have accomplished a lot and that's really rewarding.

  11. Loved this story. The different aspects of balancing at liberty and under saddle remind me a lot of my horse. He's gaited and I started working with him when he was nine. I'm a hunter rider, but I liked his gait because it made me feel more secure on trail and that was something I sorely needed. He wouldn't trot under saddle because whomever had trained him had taught him only to gait. This meant that he couldn't jump, but I was okay with that.

    What puzzled me is that he would trot perfectly out in the field, in the round pen, or even on the line with a saddle on his back. I didn't know how to ask him specifically for the trot while I was riding, and neither did anyone else I knew, so I just left it alone.

    Then one of my friends was riding him and asked if she could take him over a little crossrail. I said it was fine - figuring he'd just be confused and drop to walk. But he surprised both of us by swapping to a trot and trotting over that. A couple months later I was riding him and felt him switch from his nice smooth gait to this weird really bumpy thing. I thought he was lame, but my friend that was in the ring assured me that no, he was just trotting. XD

    Now (two years after that first trot) he can trot around the ring and can be cued between trotting and gaiting. He can jump 2' at trot or canter and is learning to lower his head at trot. He has trouble finding his right lead canter, but his left lead is a dream to ride, and I'll be taking him to his first hunter shows this summer. I don't expect to place, but the point of going is simply to have fun. And if I do place, hey, that's a bonus!

    Anyway, thought I'd share that with you. It's great to see how far you've come with Harley, and gives me hope for my boy's right lead canter. XD

    1. That was a great story to share with me. Thank you, Kira! I love how you have continued to work with your horse and love and appreciate him for who he is, not who you want him to be. And wouldn't you know, he is rewarding you by jumping and trotting under saddle! Horses are so awesome.

      I am sure the right lead will come. I had just about thought that Harley's canter would never slow down and now he can collect quite nicely and even transition from canter to walk. Who knew? I love it when they surprise us.


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