I Rode My Horse

I rode Madigan for the first time last week! And it was a total non-event.

His trainer was out of town training with her trainer, so he had the week off from baby school. He’s had time off before for lameness, trainer vacation, etc. and always been totally fine, so I didn’t feel like I needed to do anything with him. But the idea of riding him has been in my mind for a bit and I figured last week would be a good time to do it. My back and pinched nerve are healed. No lessons were schedule, so the arena would be open and quiet. Madigan’s going well for his trainer.

I pulled him out of the pasture late Thursday afternoon, groomed him, and put my jumping saddle on him. I feel really secure and comfortable in that saddle, which is an Ainsley XC Pro National. It fits almost everything I put it on (because everything I put it on is basically the same shape) and Madigan’s no exception. I don’t think it’ll fit him as a mature adult, but I’m happy to enjoy it while it does!

Every session of baby school starts with some amount of ground work, so I spent about 20 minutes working with him before clipping reins to his halter and bringing him to the mounting block. He stood quietly while I squashed down minor internal panic. (What if he bucks? What if he spooks? Do I remember how to ride??) I got on. He stood there.

It’s nice to be behind chestnut ears again!

We walked a couple of laps around the arena. Steering was a very macro process- I exaggerated the cue with the reins and he slowly turned like a giant boat. Halt and walk worked pretty well. I tripped when I dismounted and fell on my butt; Madigan was unconcerned, which I guess is good?

I rode him again on Sunday with my friend Holly and her horse Semper Fi. He wore my sidepull instead of a halter, which seemed to help with steering. This ride was also a total non-event.

Sad that I removed the leather reins he likes to chew on.

Madigan feels incredibly narrow right now. This doesn’t bother me too much- after all, Moe is also very narrow! But Madigan’s much taller than Moe and lacks Moe’s fun, agile feel. He feels like a 2 x 4 precariously attached to wobbly stilts. I know this will improve as Madigan gets stronger, more balanced, and wider but it’s still kind of a weird feeling to sit.

I’m relieved and excited that riding him is not a big deal. I’m planning to get on him for easy walks once or twice a week in addition to baby school. Hopefully we can hit the trails when the weather cools off!


There are a lot of nice things about living next to a dressage barn, the least of which is that someone is always going to a show. Madigan’s trainer took five kids to a schooling show on Saturday, so I entered him in the sporthorse in-hand class.

I’m grateful that both GMOs in my area offer in-hand classes at schooling shows. It’s been great to have inexpensive and low-key places to take him! Both this show and the one he attended in May have been very positive experiences.

Madigan was the first of our group to go at 1:45 PM. Saturday’s heat index was over 100°F, so I loaded my cooler with water and sports drinks, crammed a pop-up tent into my car, and slathered on the 90 SPF sunscreen. I pulled Madigan out of the pasture around 11:45 AM to rinse the pond scum off before taking him next door to load him. He hopped right on Space Trailer, my neighbor’s futuristic looking 7-horse rig. I left and headed to the gas station around the corner to buy more ice.

I got to the show first, picked up Madigan’s number, and found a shady place to park. When the horses arrived, Madigan walked off the trailer calmly and was more interested in grazing than what the other five horses he hauled with were doing. We rinsed the horses off, and I tried to make Madigan look presentable. It’s not too hard any more- his mane needs a trim, but his tail is growing nicely and he looks less gawky every day! I bridled him and sent him off to the arena with my neighbor.

The arena at this facility is a big covered affair with a north wall. It’s connected to an uncovered outdoor arena used for warm-up at shows and is maybe 200 yards from the parking area.  Madigan was completely alone, as he was the last horse to go before the lunch break. No horses were warming up, and all of our group’s horses were tied on the side of the trailer he couldn’t see. There was no need to worry, though. He let out a couple of quiet whinnies while he was in the ring, but he wasn’t super distressed.

shoutout to his trainer for doing her best to present him as a horse and not a camel

He fidgeted through the class doing his best giraffe impression. He leaned away from the judge and scribe (I think he wanted to get a better look at them) and alternated between standing with a hind foot cocked up and standing like a newborn foal. He appears to have learned the jog game now- at the show in May, he had to have a whip waved at his hindquarters to jog. At this show, he trotted off in a way that reminded me of the wild babies I saw at Devon!

The judge gave him a 74%, which was fair. (The judge in May gave him a 79%.) He noted that Madigan lacked topline and thought he was cow-hocked and pig-eyed. The judge awarded the trot an 8; I thought this was generous, but he received an 8 at the last show and an 8 as a yearling in the Future Event Horse class. So I guess maybe the trot is an 8 after all! (Shows what I know- I would have pegged it as a 7.) I was a little surprised the judge didn’t comment about Madigan being toed-out in front; maybe he missed it with all the fidgeting, or maybe he thinks it’ll resolve as Madigan’s chest widens.

happy to stand in the shade and eat

After he finished, the lesson kids and horses departed for a dressage seat equitation class and many, many introductory level tests. I sat in the shade while Madigan nibbled hay at the trailer. We eventually wandered over to the show office to pick up our test and ribbon, then hung out by the arena to watch the kids ride.

Madigan made friends everywhere. He was especially interested in the father of one of the kids. The man admitted he wasn’t very familiar with horses but seemed completely tickled when Madigan marched up to him and snuffled his hair. He spent the next few minutes gently petting Madigan’s face.

Later, one kid’s brother pointed at Madigan and announced, “I want to ride that horse!” His mother tried to explain that Madigan wasn’t really ready for riders, but this kid (who was maybe 8?) wasn’t buying it. (Why else would the horse be at a show?!) I told the kid that Madigan was a baby, but once he was an adult, the kid could ride him if he still wanted to.

After the kids finished with their tests, Madigan and I began to walk back to the trailer. I heard someone say, “That’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen!” I looked around, figuring that one of the western dressage riders on a Friesian cross had entered the ring. No other horses were around. The mother of one of the lesson kids gestured at Madigan and said, “He’s just gorgeous! What kind of horse is he?” Who knew the giant baby would be so popular?

I’m really pleased with his behavior at this show. He was fine being alone in the ring and at the trailer. He was fine being led around the show grounds. He was fine trailering with five horses he’d (mostly) never met. I’m going to try to get him out to two more schooling shows for in-hand classes this year, as that will make him eligible for the GMO’s year-end awards. And, you know, it’s good to get him out and about, even if it seems like he doesn’t need it!

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!