February 11, 2024

Pyro's Big Transformation, or, Kate Little is Amazing

I don't even know where to start with this post, but I have to start. I've been witnessing an incredible transformation in my barn and learning a lot about horsemanship through it, and it deserves to be written down.

A couple of weeks ago I was videoing my barnmate's virtual Dressage lesson, watching her futilely trying to pony kick her 5 year old around a big psuedo-turn on the forehand at our Dressage trainer's instruction, and I realized it looked a lot like a groundwork exercise Kate had me do with Connor. I asked my barnmate if I could borrow Pyro for a Kate lesson, and she agreed.

Pyro (foreground) and mom Missy (behind)

I need to pause here and give some background context on Pyro so that you'll understand how massive this change has been. My barnmate bred and raised him out of her heart horse, and despite doing everything right with him, he was never a horse you could let your guard down around. He had no sense of personal space and little respect or regard for humans. He is also a bit ADHD, constantly into everything, and sometimes nibbling or even biting. I never handled him without a whip, since even arm waving or throwing my gloves at him to get him out of my space was met with a blank stare.

So with that stage set, you will understand why this...

(We're doing a lot more than ground tying, but the ground tying is the only thing I can get a photo of while working alone.)

...feels so wildly unbelievable.

We are two weeks and two Kate groundwork lessons into handling Pyro in this new way, and he is a totally different horse. Our relationship with him, mine and my barnmate's both, in both directions, has profoundly changed.

In the first lesson, I was standing facing him and asking him to step sideways and turn around me in a big TOF. Following a prescribed and predictable escalation pattern that takes into account the speed at which horses' brains are able to process new information and take action based on that information, we arrived at maximum force "ask" with the whip, and he just stood there and flinched his skin in anticipation of the hit rather than moving his feet.

Pyro learning to Dressage, wearing, fun fact, former Blogger Carley's Bobby's Micklem


It was fascinating. He knew it was coming and simply did not care to respond to the ask - he didn't respect me as a leader, and had learned he could outlast humans if they asked him to do something he didn't want to do. So, Pyro reasoned, if he stood there and took it, it would end eventually, which made a lot of sense in the context of his day-to-day personal space issues - he didn't want to move, so he wouldn't.

But after one Kate lesson, I was able to move him in both directions with the lightest of taps, and after a week, I could move him simply by moving the whip toward him and "pushing the air" toward him. Which was far more a consequence of the relationship changing than it was him learning a new cue - clearly, he understood the ask before, he just didn't want to.

Week 2 - relaxed posture, staying out of my space, engaged with a soft eye waiting to see what I'll ask for next. This may as well be a different horse!

The general change since then has been jaw-dropping. He's happier and far more relaxed in all contexts. His posture has changed, and he stands around humans with his head down and his back relaxed. It occurs to me now that in the past, he was as tense around us as we were around him, although that body language was so subtle, I missed it until it wasn't there anymore. We are now, all of us, regarding each other with curiosity and respect instead of suspicion and guardedness.

Here is Pyro voluntarily giving me and my dogs a 10-15 foot bubble as I cleaned manure out of the drylot last week. I didn't park him there or ask for this, this is him seeing my relationship to him differently and making different choices than he would have in the past as a result.

As Kate said, horses don't WANT to be the leader. In the wild, the leader gets eaten. So, now that we have given him reasons to work with us and not against us and proven our trustworthiness as leaders, he IS able to relax - he doesn't have to look out for himself quite as much. He is willing to wait and see what we ask him to do, even as he is also enjoying the moments of personal "be responsible for yourself" we're giving him too within the work.

It's not all sunshine and roses - he still tries to get nibbly sometimes or challenge us, but now that we have mutual respect, a desire to work with and not against each other, and a common language, we have clear ways to communicate "you're out of line, brother", and even the nibbliness is slowing over time. 

After nearly 3 years of knowing this horse, to see this big of a change in two weeks is mind-boggling, and I'm finding myself looking forward to my next groundwork lesson with him. Who even am I?!

January 13, 2024

Lessons with Kate

Connor and I have started taking lessons again.


I had been feeling the itch for a while. Not to achieve any goals, I just miss learning. There's nothing like being surprised and delighted by the sudden shift in perspective or feel that a good lesson gives you, and I need to remember to find the joy in horses especially this time of year. 


Connor has been going well under saddle - not often, and not intensely, but well. I have been approaching his rides from more of a rehab perspective (even though he's not injured), focusing on making sure his crooked body is in as best alignment as possible and not forcing anything. But it wasn't until my barnmate used him in her weekly CGP lesson a few weeks ago that I was like, wow, okay Connor, I see you.

Connor got drafted into this lesson because he bit my barnmate's horse right where the saddle goes. Actions have consequences, Connor.

I was struck by how relaxed he looked in the contact and how his neck is not upside down. To be honest, he never looked like this during his Dressage career. Even CGP, who had not seen him under saddle in nearly two years, was almost shocked speechless at how good he looked and complimented the way he was going several times. I started to entertain the idea that I was doing something right with my slow, patient, horse-focused approach.

But as much as I love and respect her and will ride and compete with her again someday, CGP is not right for us right now. I don't really have a good way to articulate why that is, so I won't, I will just say that I knew instinctively that longtime blogger and friend Kate was who I needed to be riding with right now. 

I'm two lessons in and haven't ridden yet, and I'm loving it!

Someone said it looked like she was teaching a lesson here and I cannot unsee it, lol

Partially because I'm nursing a back injury and partially because I am fascinated by Kate's groundwork theories having seen her work with my horses in the past, I wanted to start with groundwork. Kate thinks and feels and learns with the horses in a way that I deeply admire and that does not come naturally to me. 

To describe it in a phrase, it's like practical natural horsemanship - if you deeply understand the horse as a horse and use that to work with and not against the horse in a competitive sport context, that's sort of how I view Kate's teaching. I think a lot of trainers THINK they do that, but at the end of the day, it's nothing like what Kate is doing. And two lessons in, it's already changing the way I interact with not only the horses, but also the people and dogs in my life too.

More to come!

December 30, 2023

Disco's First Two Rides!

Guess who has been started?

Maude and I have always been on the same page about starting him. I told her that my original plan was to start him very lightly the winter of his two year old year, because as a young stallion with a busy mind and a bit of an attitude especially about submission (anyone remember his indignation about being haltered the first time? lol), I wanted him to learn that riding and submission are A Thing while he's still young and impressionable.

That said though, Maude and I don't talk as much as you might think we do. Her English is very good, but it's her second language and she's shy about speaking it. Which is fine - I trust her implicitly and have yet to disagree with any decision she's made with him. I knew she had been getting him used to the harness since last summer and had been ground driving and long lining him:

An unusually warm and wet winter in Quebec!

But it was a surprise to me when she sent me this out of the blue one day:

She sent me the video when she got signal, and I had to ask: what number ride is this?

"First!" she replied with delight. She had hauled him out alone to a place he had never been before and had a trainer she trusts get on him, someone Disco had never met. And he was able to w/t/c both directions loose in the indoor no problem. On the first ride! My jaw was on the floor. It seriously looked like a fifth or maybe tenth ride.

Guys, CONNOR wouldn't have gone around this well in a strange indoor alone.

He had one naughty moment partway through the ride, and having watched it, I am SO glad it was this guy and not me or even Maude that was on his back for this. You can tell by how defensively the trainer is riding that he has started a lot of young stock, so when Disco tried this one prop-and-bronc move, the guy sat it well and carried on, and Disco learned that that behavior doesn't get you anything.

If the trainer had come off in this moment and Disco learned he got something from acting like this, I firmly believe it would have changed everything. As it was, this was the only time he pulled this move.

According to Maude, he put his head between his legs twice more that ride but more "gently" and then never tried it again. "[Trainer] corrected him, and he understood!"

But did that lesson stick? I am happy to report that it did - because at the next ride two weeks later, it was Maude that was on his back!

Maude is about my size, maybe an inch shorter and 10 lbs lighter than me, so this is a good idea of what I would look like on him right now.

This time, the trainer got on him first and Disco "didn't put a foot wrong at any time!!!" according to Maude. And then the trainer handed the reins to Maude, saying "he had not done that a lot in his career, trusting a young horse enough on the second ride so that the "owner" can ride him."

It occurs to me listening to these videos that he's going to come back "speaking" French, lol. Might be lunging my stallion in French when he gets back.

Maude admitted she was nervous and gave him a little less rein than the trainer did (I have been very happy with how forward the trainer has ridden him, and on a loose rein), but he was still perfect for her, giving her w/t/c both directions with no issues.

Look at her big smile!

That will probably be the last time he hauls over to that indoor this winter, as we both agree he doesn't need drilled on riding at age 2 years and 8 months. I'm glad she did it twice - once wouldn't have been enough to convince him that this is A Thing, but he got a lot out of going twice. Maude and I did too - we learned he can figure out a new game quickly and can take correction and have that lesson stick.

Tucked into Maude's gorgeous barn for the night during the winter

For the rest of the winter, she plans to continue driving training and to continue to haul out to new places any time she can, likely for low speed trail rides with friends and things like that. She said: "I don't think he needs to be on a serious training plan. Just enjoy what he's doing and do it for fun." 

I am so on board with that - I want him to come out of the stall like "What cool thing are we doing today?" and not get burnt out or drilled to death.


And with that - we have a riding horse 😍

December 20, 2023

Amateur Hour

On Sunday, we held our first "Amateur Hour" in quite a while, where a few of us get together on a Sunday afternoon for a jump "lesson" with Mary and socializing afterward. This time, we had some new additions to the cast of characters.

Barbara, Mary, Leah and Tricia

We have a new haul-in, Barbara, who keeps her horses at home 15 minutes from the barn, close to the state park with all the riding trails. We met through Facebook Marketplace of all places, and she's quickly becoming a treasured part of the group. She's an endurance rider, which is a sport I've always wanted to try, and we're already making plans for her to shepherd Connor and I through my first Intro or LD next summer.

Also new to the group, but not to me and Mary, is Mary and I's college friend Tricia who recently moved back to Indiana and specifically told her husband she wanted to live within commuting distance of my barn. Her horse is still across the country at her previous residence for the foreseeable future, but should be coming to board with us sometime next year.

Tricia on Connor

I volun-told Mary that she was riding Leah's horse Missy, and volunteered myself to be ground crew, since we'd be leaving the exercise up and I'd have a lot of time to ride it later. Joining me on the ground was our beloved septuagenarian and Masterson Method practitioner/feeder/Connor's occasional rider Deb, who is recovering from knee surgery. So we had a packed house!

Me watching Mary perfectly and painstakingly walk out a related distance
One of the reasons I always joked I'd be a lifelong boarder is that I love being surrounded by people - at the barn, and even at home, where I still chose to have friends as housemates well into my thirties and well past when I needed the income. I don't want to buy this facility and lose the "barn family" vibe I've always loved. So it was everything I could've asked for to have the barn full of laughter, fun, friends and horses once again.

Connor being his usual perfect self even though neither one of them had jumped since last summer, and neither one of them had jumped together before

After everyone had a productive ride and ended on a good note, we tucked the horses into stalls with hay and hung out in the office for a couple of hours, chatting, eating Christmas cookies and drinking (optionally spiked) hot apple cider.

It was the perfect afternoon, and we all already can't wait to do it again.

December 11, 2023

Encore's Person

Encore left for his new home on Friday.

In the end, he sold exactly how I thought he would: through word of mouth from one of the many, many people that are constantly messaging Castleberry Welsh Cobs and Sporthorses on Facebook asking if Lisa has any Cobs going under saddle. She almost never does, but she did this one time.

Literally his second time cantering under saddle since I had him.

The new owner is a young woman even shorter than me who had never ridden a Welsh Cob before. Her trainer (who has taken pulling breeds to the FEI levels, perfect for Encore) suggested she reach out to Lisa I think after seeing a Castleberry Cob showing at a local Dressage show last summer. 

The trainer said they would be more size-appropriate than the Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds she had mostly ridden to that point, and you could see her whole world start to change as she rode 15hh Encore. She had a grin on her face almost the entire time. And I knew that feeling myself. That first time you ride a pony when you're a tiny adult that has mostly ridden big horses is just magic.

I hauled the new owner and Encore to his PPE. What can I say, she and Encore are about the same age as Connor and I were when I got him, and I see a lot of myself in her. I jumped at the chance to spend the hour drive there and back chatting with her. Peep that 18hh 3 year old Belgian next to him!

I mean but for real though

She had also done a gap year as a working student at [famous COTH blogger/Dressage rider/trainer]'s barn where she saw Castleberry Cobs Roscoe (Castleberrys ReFflection) and Ember (Castleberrys Esquire) haul in there for lessons and remembered being impressed with their good behavior and athleticism, which just added to the whole "meant to be" feeling.

Encore was so, so, SO good for his PPE, even though he was a little overwhelmed at the clinic setting.

In the end, for myself, I am so glad I did this. It pushed me as a horsewoman - I had a few moments in the beginning where I was like "what am I doing". But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that working with green horses is a skill I was capable of learning like all of the other horse things I've learned over the years. 

I bought him a nice leather halter with a nameplate as a Christmas/congratulations on your new horse/congratulations on your first-but-probably-not-last Castleberry Cob purchase (lol) so everyone he meets at his new home will know he's a Castleberry pony.

And I didn't get as far as I would have liked with him under saddle, but I didn't need to. I needed to make him a solid citizen, solve his ulcer/teeth issues, and market him to the point that his person could find him, and I did that.

Getting the band back together after Encore left

For now, I'm done with projects for the winter. With our pastures all having been seeded in the fall, my turnout options are limited especially in fields with heated auto-waterers, so we're going to get through the worst of the winter with just three of them. But maybe I'll get to play with Encore's full sister in the spring...?

She is NICE.

In the meantime - back to my leading man.