It all started in a small Dutch field not far from her home. That is where Liz Barclay as a four-year old preferred to spend her time dreaming of riding a little fat Shetland. It became the red thread through her life. Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony. The mix of working with all ages and also her interest in all aspects of riding, including `hacking a horse in a friendly and balanced manner’ keep her fresh and motivated.
PIXEL, I'VE GOT A HORSE AND PIXEL'S GOT A LIFE
I WAS LOOKING FOR A GELDING...
It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog for my own website. A new project and also writing for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, has been taking up most of my spare time.
But I feel after having worked Pixel for a couple of weeks again after six weeks off I want to share our journey.
I bought Pixel last autumn after dear Pinokkio turned out to have some physical issues that can’t be fixed. I was looking for a 6-ish year old gelding. It didn’t have to be very special as long as I could stay in the groove with dressage training. That has always been my priority as training has always been more important than competing for me.
PIXEL IS A MARE AND SHE KNOWS IT
Things worked out different. Pixel is five years old with a quarter thoroughbred and a quarter Dutch in her. Oh, and she is a mare and she knows it. When I tried her, I could feel she had an ‘I prefer to go slow’-attitude and I know from experience that especially with mares that can sometimes be a bit tricky when also the hormones kick in. She was either above the bit with a grumpy face or way behind it with what I call a lock-down attitude. The dressage arena was obviously not her favourite place so after five minutes of having tried her in there I decided I knew enough and didn’t want to do any more damage.
I guess I like a challenge, so, after passing the vet with 'perfect conformation' written on the form, I bought her. With the warning that she could be a bit awkward to get on. I knew I had my work cut out for me and I was looking forward to it.
LUNGING WITHOUT ANY EXTRA KIT
My way into a horse has always been lunging. Lunging without any kit. So, no side-reins, no bit. Especially with a horse that has been through the mill a bit and where things obviously have gone somewhat pear-shaped.
First learn to use their legs, after that we’ll see what’s next. Pixel started off with ears back, eyes on grumpy and bucking back at the lunging whip. After a week or so she understood that I meant it, and the whip meant ‘go’. But canter was a problem. She was so incredibly uncomfortable that I decided to settle for a forward trot and every day one transition into canter on each rein. Patience, patience.
After a few weeks I felt I needed to see whether anything had changed on top. Not really, after patiently putting her back time and again at the platform to get on she at least finally stood to allow me on board but immediately buried her head and went in lock-down. Because I solidly believed it was totally related to insecurity, distrust and lack of respect, I knew we needed more groundwork. I obviously wasn’t able to read her correctly yet, and for me groundwork is the key to achieve that.
Back to the lunge and on the good days a hack. Winter was on the doorstep, so safety first.
GETTING THROUGH THE WINTER IN ONE PIECE
She improved bit by bit, day by day. But as in the school we seemed to go forward, in the stable things went the other way. She changed from being quite sociable in the stable to not at all. The sight of a halter turned her into a vicious little monkey. Added magnesium to her food didn’t help either.
It seemed to me a territorial issue and I realized I had to tread carefully. I decided to keep her halter on in the stable with a long lead-rope over her back and that sorted the going into the stable to get your horse. Also, when I opened the door to put her bowl of hard-food in I kept it behind my back until she pricked her ears.
And I had to accept there was one hell of a lot more homework to do. This was a very intelligent horse with many tricks up her sleeve who was not sure yet I was boss.
If we got through the winter lunging and hacking in one piece, spring would be the time to start the next phase.
INTO THE FIELD ON THE LONG-REINS
Other than the stable issue there was the canter which was still so on the forehand that I completely understood why she didn’t like it much. So, we went in the fields on the long-reins. We needed space and believe me, I ran as much as she cantered. But it worked. Gradually I saw a change in her attitude, and yes, also in the stable she gradually turned into a happy horse again. By February the canter started to look like something, and happy snorts started to appear in the trot.
So, soon after, when the weather was on our side, I decided it was time to get back on top in the school and yes, this time I was right. We had done enough groundwork to continue on top. Very short sessions in just walk and trot to get used to each other with a pleasant hack afterwards and then, one day, just with the voice command, there was the canter, without any hesitation and surprisingly comfortable. I can tell you, after that session I went to the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and laughed out loud. I was that excited.
FORWARD, LIGHT, HAPPY, SNORTING
In June I had to stop working her because of a tendon issue in my hand. The flies were bad, so pretty good timing, hey?
Last week I took Pixel back in the school for the first time again. On the lunge, just to see where we had ended up. I was not ready yet to take everything for granted. One wrong move and months of effort can be wasted. She was great. Forward, light, happy, snorting.
The next day she stood patiently to let me on board. And this is now normal. The last two weeks have been bliss with every single session filled with small improvements.
I now have a horse that stands like a normal horse should do to let me on board. The riding area has become her happy place where she is keen to improve every day with her little ears pricked and the odd happy snort. With a canter which has become so comfortable that we both like it nearly better than the trot.
So, I think we’re in for a good autumn.
And I am so chuffed. I’ve got a horse and Pixel’s got a life!
Picture: Pixel below Pinokkio having a leisurely time in the garden