Learning to be a riding horse

I’m happy to report that Madigan’s mystery lameness cleared up just as mysteriously as it appeared. He returned to Baby School this month as bright and happy as ever.

Well, he’s surpassed Gina in height for sure.

It’s very exciting to see him begin training under saddle in earnest. He’s ridden in a lightweight western saddle, a rope halter with reins clipped to the sides, and a bridle with a D-ring snaffle and without a noseband over the halter. Currently, his under saddle work is exclusively focused on learning how to stop, go, and steer. He’s a quick learner and has a reasonably good work ethic. It’s obvious when he’s mentally or physically tired, as he becomes unbalanced and a little fussy. He doesn’t have much stamina at this point, so rides are short to keep him engaged and happy.

Last week, the assistant trainer (who’s been riding him for the last few weeks) began asking him for big circles and changes of direction at the trot. Madigan’s steering is pretty reliable at the walk and his trot is looking more balanced every day, so this was a fair ask. He understood the question, but struggled to maintain a rhythmic trot through the circle. He got better as he went and by the end of his ride I could see a glimpse of the nice trot that’s in there somewhere.

This week, he seemed to remember how to trot and turn and keep all legs moving together. Assistant trainer felt he was ready to attempt cantering under saddle. His canter is much more coordinated than it was even six months ago. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen him canter around the pasture, turn, and nearly fall over throughout the last two years. He’s done some canter work on the longe line, but never with a person on his back.


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It took a few tries, but he eventually stepped into a reasonably balanced canter on the correct lead. He couldn’t maintain it for long- maybe half a 20 meter circle- but he was calm and unhurried. When asked to canter in the opposite direction, he did so promptly. After that short stint of hard work, assistant trainer jumped off and he was fussed over for being such a good boy.

My favorite thing about this horse is his demeanor. He’s incredibly laid-back- there’s never been any drama, any fuss, any worry about anything he’s been asked to do. There are lots of reasons he’s like this: genetics, kind and consistent handling throughout his life, patient and methodical training. I’m more excited to ride him than I have been for any horse in a long time. Candy was challenging, but not always in a good or fun way. Moe and Gina are utterly reliable and as comforting to sit astride as a cozy sweater is to put on. But Madigan is full of potential! While he certainly won’t achieve the full measure of it with me, I don’t care (and suspect he doesn’t either). I’m excited about the potential of partner, a horse I can have fun with, a worthy successor to Moe.

Madigan’s mystery lameness

In my many years of horse ownership, I’ve never had a horse who needed to see the vet as often as Madigan does. He’s had more injuries in two years than Moe has had in nearly twenty. Thankfully, most have been fairly minor and easily resolved- an abscess here, an upset stomach there. Now he’s going on four weeks of mystery lameness that’s stumped everyone from me to his vet to his trainer.

Johnny strolling with Madigan at the show in May. (Johnny is 6’6.)

Back in late May, Madigan kicked at me when I touched his right stifle. This was very unusual- he’s never been sensitive about being touched anywhere. I assumed he’d bumped his hip unloading at the show the previous week. When the stifle soreness persisted into the next week, I made a vet appointment. In the few days between making the appointment and going to the appointment, he began exhibiting lameness on his right front. I couldn’t find any evidence of injury on his leg or his hoof, so I assumed it was likely an abscess. We had an incredibly wet spring, and Madigan’s favorite pastime is lounging in the pond. He had a couple of abscesses around this time last year, so I felt like this was a reasonable assumption.

Snoot at the vet

At the clinic, I told his vet of my abscess suspicion, and he focused on evaluating the sore stifle. Madigan’s x-rays looked perfectly fine, and my vet advised it was likely just growing pains that would resolve with a couple of days of Bute and turnout. The vet advised soaking and wrapping the hoof to draw the suspected abscess out and sent us on our way.

I threw out my back right after that, so Madigan spent the next week and a half turned out in the pasture (where he lives 24/7 anyway). When I finally felt well enough to hobble over to baby school with him, he seemed fine. He no longer reacted to me touching his stifle and the abscess appeared to have exited through a small hole in his frog. However, he was lame on the right front as soon as he stepped into the arena.

Fortunately, my neighbor had a horse headed to the vet clinic for repro work the next day, so Madigan and I hitched a ride. His vet did a full lameness evaluation- flexions, hoof testers, nerve block. Madigan was extremely sound. The vet noticed a second small hole in his frog, and mentioned that it looked as if a second abscess had drained recently. He theorized that the sandy dirt of the arena might have irritated the abscess holes or that Madigan was still feeling some soreness from the abscesses.

A few days later, I took him back to baby school where he was once again lame in the arena. He wasn’t as lame as he had been, and I sent his vet a video. His vet couldn’t come out until this week (and I didn’t feel great about driving 45 minutes to the vet when I couldn’t sit in my office chair comfortably for more than 10 minutes), and in the interim, Madigan sustained a small scrape on his right front leg. Of course it was hot, swollen, and sensitive when his vet came out on Monday. His vet x-rayed his hoof, which looked completely normal. Madigan was gimpy from the swollen scrape, so his vet gave me some antibiotics and advised Bute for a couple of days. If he’s still lame when he returns to work, his vet will rearrange his schedule to come out and look at Madigan that day to see if he can determine what’s wrong. An MRI might be the next step, but I hope it won’t come to that! (Because holy shit, horse MRIs are expensive.)

extremely majestic!

In the meantime, Madigan is happily turned out, unhappily having antibiotics squirted into his mouth, and probably enjoying time off from his incredibly easy job of being a baby horse.

Madigan’s year of baby school

When I bought Madigan two years ago as a yearling, his future as a riding horse seemed incredibly distant. He seemed so small, so immature, so baby. I endeavored to teach him things that the internet and my vast collection of horse training books said a yearling should know: how to tie, how to crosstie, how to stand politely for the farrier. He was unfazed by wearing a blanket or a saddle pad or boots. Anyone could handle him- Johnny regularly led him to and from the barn and could put his blanket on or take it off. Teaching Madigan essential baby horse skills was a breeze; it seemed like he was born knowing them. I’m sure this is a combination of genetics, innate personality, and good handling by his breeder.

When the pandemic forced the closure of the tack shop for a month last spring, I bought a 4 lesson package from my neighbor and planned to take a few dressage lessons on Candy. Of course, Candy was lame with an abscess for our first scheduled lesson. I didn’t want to waste the day, so I grabbed Madigan for a groundwork session instead. He’s been attending what I dubbed ‘Baby School’ every week since.

April 2020; Madigan is nearly 2 and still very short!

So what happens at Baby School? Lots! Early lessons focused on teaching Madigan the basic principles of groundwork- staying out of a human’s personal space, moving away from the stick, becoming comfortable with the stick touching him. Madigan struggled mightily with staying an appropriate distance away from the human; he’d climb into laps if he could.

December 2020. (This is a screenshot from a video, hence the extra poor quality.)

He learned to wear a saddle through a series of small, methodical exercises. First, he wore an old, beat-up Wintec without a girth while he walked around. He was allowed to touch it, chew on it, paw at it- whatever he wanted to do. His trainer periodically pushed it off him, but he was never more than mildly curious about what object had suddenly landed in the dirt beside him. A girth was eventually added, which did not concern Madigan at all. Soon, he was wearing a lightweight western saddle and getting used to the feeling of stirrups flapping and bouncing against his sides.

Teaching him to stand at the mounting block and be mounted was another series of incremental steps. He was asked to stand next to the mounting block for a few minutes nearly every lesson while his trainer walked up and down its steps. She often stood on the top step scratching his withers or his rump. Eventually she began to lean on his back from both the left and right sides of his body. Madigan was largely unconcerned about this; I think his trainer and I were more concerned that he would fall over because he frequently dozed with a hind leg cocked up. Adding the western saddle and putting one foot in the stirrup was no big deal because he was used to wearing the saddle and used to things touching his sides. When his trainer swung a leg over him and sat on his back for the first time, it was a total non-event. He stood there quietly, eyes half-closed, probably wondering when this boring session of baby school would end. He was led around by the assistant trainer for his first few brief sessions with a rider, then progressed to circling on the longe line, and is now being ridden with no leader and no line, just like an adult! (Well, an adult with extremely questionable steering.)

Learning to be a trick horse, December 2020.

There’s been plenty of work that’s unrelated to riding, too. He’s traipsed through a pile of noisy crumpled plastic bottles, played with a giant ball (his favorite), stood on a horsey pedestal (very useful for getting him comfortable stepping into trailers), and learned to stand still and wait for help when a rope is wrapped around his leg. Baby School often occurs against the backdrop of a busy lesson and boarding barn, so he sees other horses entering and exiting the barn, he sometimes shares the arena with other horses, and there’s always noise from a dog, child, or vehicle.

March 2021, working outside

Baby School even has field trips! He tagged along to an event last fall, hiked a trail with me this winter, and went to a schooling dressage show to compete in the sporthorse in-hand class this spring.

May 2021, sporthorse in-hand

Now my petite yearling is a giant gawky adolescent horse. He’s more physically mature than he was even a few months ago, and it’s exciting to see him progress towards becoming a truly solid riding horse. My goal is to take him on some easy trail rides this fall and perhaps point him at a show or two. There’s no hurry, but what once seemed very far away now seems very close- and that’s exciting!

The longest year

This year is half over, and we’re well into summer weather here in Oklahoma. I genuinely like summer- the long days feel luxurious and the sweltering heat is a welcome change from the bitter cold of winter. It’s a relief to enter my favorite season, as it’s been a long 2021 for me so far.

I finished my finance degree in December and began searching for a new job. While I still (mostly) enjoyed my work at the tack shop, I was desperate to stop commuting 1.5 hours a day for a job that hadn’t given me a raise in 3 years and had only increased my workload. On a whim, I applied for a (paid) internship with The Jockey Club, figuring it might be an opportunity to gain exposure to a different side of the equestrian industry and do something new. Two Zoom interviews later, TJC offered to hire me as an independent contractor. I accepted, and am now working as a UX/UI designer in a fully remote position that pays twice what the tack shop did. The work is interesting, the people are nice, and I really enjoy the schedule flexibility it offers.

Candy died in March, just a few days before her 13th birthday. I woke up to my neighbor frantically pounding on my front door at 5:45 AM. I stood in the dark on my porch, shivering in my pajamas as she informed me that Candy’s front leg was badly broken. She’d already called the vet; he was on the way to euthanize Candy. I stood with Candy for what seemed like an eternity before he arrived, trying in vain to comfort her. She is buried in the paddock behind the barn. I am profoundly grateful to my friend next door for calling the vet, calling the backhoe guy, and handling her burial while I laid in bed all day and cried.

A couple of weeks later, my elderly cat Woody was euthanized. Woody was the last vestige of my young adult life. I got him as a kitten when I was in college, and he’d moved with me to Kansas, then to Oklahoma. He was a cheerful, talkative cat who loved to travel with us after his diabetes diagnosis a few years ago. He walked on a leash, had an excellent grasp of English, and an unhealthy love for pizza. One morning he was unable to stand up, and I knew it was time to let him go. I laid in bed and cried after I got home from the vet.

Last month, I came in from taking Madigan to baby school and found my sweet tuxedo cat Marvin uncomfortably crouched in a pool of bloody urine. I rushed him to the vet, where he was diagnosed with a urethral blockage.  He was hospitalized and catheterized. He came home a few days later and blocked again. My vet recommended he have perineal urethrostomy surgery; every veterinary surgeon in Tulsa was booked for weeks, so I drove Marvin to OSU’s teaching hospital 1.5 hours away to have surgery. Then I laid in bed and cried. Marvin is home and fully healed, for which I am very grateful.

I threw my back out over Memorial Day weekend, which was a terrible and painful experience. For the better part of a week, I could not even roll over on my side without excruciating muscle spasms. When that finally seemed to resolve itself, I began having shooting pain deep in my right glute. Johnny drove me to Tulsa Bone & Joint, where I was diagnosed with a pinched nerve and sent home with a prescription for steroids and muscle relaxers. I feel much better than I did, and hope I’ll be back to normal soon.

with assistant trainer aboard

Madigan is the brightest part of 2021. He turned 3 on June 8 and sticks at 16.2 hands- a far cry from the petite yearling I brought home two years ago! He’s been attending baby school weekly for over a year and I couldn’t be happier with how he’s progressed. Madigan ties, cross-ties, trailers (although he still wants to turn around to unload rather than back out), is good about being saddled and bridled, stands quietly at the mounting block, and has a basic understanding of the aids for stop, go, and turn. He has a happy, curious, laid-back personality and seems to genuinely enjoy learning all these new skills.

Moe and Gina are just fine, too. They came through the winter well and have been out on the front pasture since mid-April. Moe and Madigan spend the hottest part of the day splashing each other in the pond. Gina is too dignified for that and opts to stand in the shade instead. I haven’t been riding much- first I was busy, then I was very depressed, and now I’m injured. But perhaps some trail rides are on the horizon in the latter half of what has already been a very long year.


Take a small step

I don’t have profound or eloquent or particularly thoughtful words to share about current events. I recommend reading L.’s excellent post over at Viva Carlos: So You Want To Be An Ally…

Here is a small step that you, an equestrian, can take. Contact your favorite equestrian brands and ask them to include people of color and differently-abled people in their product photography. Representation matters, and there is very little of it in equestrian retail. I’ve looked at thousands of product photos provided by manufacturers over the last six years and they are overwhelmingly white.

At my tack shop, I rely on manufacturer-provided photos to advertise products. I don’t have the skill to take these photos myself, nor do I have the budget to pay someone to take them twice a year when new seasonal merchandise arrives. But I can put out a call to local photographers and local models who are willing to work for gift certificates, products, or a free lunch. I will work to increase representation in equestrian retail in my small corner of the dressage market. It isn’t much, but it is something.

Some brands to get you started:

And, of course, keep donating, protesting, voting, and writing strongly worded letters and emails to your elected officials.