An Unexpected Journey
This week, 6 years ago, I moved Del to a little dressage barn hidden in East Texas. 6 years ago I met Gandalf, and kick started a whole new journey that I wasn’t yet aware of. When I met Gandalf, he was 4 years old and still in the ugly duckling phase. At around Del’s height, he greatly resembled a llama or a camel - no muscle to speak of, head straight up in the air, and a hay belly. Del was still recovering from his tendon injury and with nothing better to do the barn owner happily passed Gandalf’s ‘training’ to me. He’d had a saddle on, had someone sit on him, and that was pretty much it. At that age he was relatively unphased by much of anything (and still is) making him an easy baby to work with.
I would like to point out that at this time in my life, I had never worked with a horse this young and green. The most I had done with a horse that wasn’t broke to ride was help a seasoned friend get a halter on a foal. Essentially I went into this blind and hopeful. The barn owner I was boarding with at the time, Lisa, was eager to help however and got me up to speed on what I needed to do with him though she was hands off for most of the process.
(First time I ever got on him - I wore my eventing protective vest because I had no idea what he was going to do!)
Gandalf and I started slowly, with lots of ground work. He was happy to just have the attention, I think. In those early days any time I came to get him he would gallop up from where ever in the pasture he was. I spent a lot of time teaching him to go on the longe line, to walk over tarps and I even employed some of the natural horsemanship techniques I’d picked up. Essentially these little building blocks made him as fearless as he is, so I’m happy I took the time to do them.
By the time he was 5, I was in the saddle but we weren’t going far - or at all. Gandalf seemed perfectly pleased to stand their looking cute with me sitting on his back but walking with me up there was a whole other thing. It took a few weeks of Lisa walking ahead of us and him following her to get the idea in his head that his feet could move with me on his back. Eventually the walking turned into laps around the arena, which turned into walking around the parking lot. We started trotting lines in the arena, starting at 3-4 steps until we could do laps and even change directions. I started riding him in the front pasture if for no other reason than turning him felt much like trying to 180 a boeing 737. Cantering seemed impossible then, so we spent a lot of time trying to install power steering and introduce ideas like trotting poles.
(First cross rail under saddle!)
Now at this point in time I owned Gandalf, and Del was back to riding shape. We had signed up for a jumping clinic but a week before I made the decision to retire Del. Desperately I messaged the clinician about the situation who eagerly encouraged me to bring sweet Gandalf since Del was out of commission. Two days before the clinic, while attempting to introduce him to cross rails in the big field, he cantered with me for the first time. At the clinic that weekend he ended up jumping a beginner novice jump, which sets between 2’3 and 2’6 in height respectively.
(The first big kid jump!)
Jumping horses is not hard. Jumping horses well, thats the challenge. Jumping is not actually about jumping but how you prepare for the jump itself which involves a good canter. Gandalf naturally does not have a very good canter, and a good canter takes a long time to develop and build. You have to build muscle and train balance, and these things take lots of time. I have spent a lot more time the past six years or so building as much strength and balance as possible, without jumping much. Jumping is hard on the joints. Horses typically don’t have closed knee joints until they’re around 4 and for big breeds like Gandalf and Del, its closer to 6. I didn’t want Gandalf to suffer the same early retirement as Del due to bad joints, so I’ve done my best to protect them. Supplements and no overworking his body. I’ve probably babied him a little too much, honestly, but I don’t regret it.
From there things kept going, we kept hitting milestones. I remember feeling like the process itself was so slow, that we would never catch up. I spent too much time comparing myself to my friends. Those friends however did everything they could to keep me from being stuck in what I felt was a rut. They kept including me, kept helping me, pushing me and this little (well, not so little, by now he was 5 inches taller than Del) horse that was slowly becoming the horse of my dreams. Before his first schooling show, I dubbed him 'Unexpected Journey'.
Training young horses is hard, its not for the faint hearted. I was blessed with an incredibly easy baby who, to this day, has never bucked or reared with me. It is an incredible feeling to look back and see how much I’ve taught him. He’s learned so much, and taught me a lot of things as well. Horses tend to do that. They make homes in your heart and take up all the space. I’ve heard a good horse is a reflection of the rider and you can only hope you like what you see.
Its still easy, when we have a not so good ride, to slip back into the mindset that I will never get to where I want to go. But then weekends like the one I had last month happen, where I realize just how nice of a horse Gandalf is and how well I’ve put the training and miles on him. He really does have a lot of potential to be a nice horse, though I also realize he already is a really nice horse. It took me a long time to realize that. It took me even longer to understand that there is no end goal, no ‘perfect’ place for him to be. He’ll spend the rest of his riding career with me getting better, braver, and brighter with no end in sight. As I’ve previously stated, its not about the destination but the journey.
I brought Gandalf up through grad school, through working full time, through retiring Del. I’m proud of this horse, and of myself. I’ve had so many people help me along the way but the majority of what he is now is through my own efforts. I made this horse and he’s made me. I am proud of what I’ve done, and I will continue to be proud even when its hard. I've been dedicated to this. I've given things up. I've worked harder at this than almost anything else in my life, and I will continue to do so. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if you fall in love with the process the results will come. And how exciting that is to see!
(Novice jump - schooling cross country with some friends!)