I got new brushes for Christmas. And They Are Amazing.
They are the Black Velvet brushes, and painting with them is so different. They are far softer than any of my other brushes, and come to a much finer point.
What does that have to do with Charlie? Because Charlie was the first full painting I did with them. He’s also painted in gouache, which was fun. Holbein brand, if anyone’s curious. I don’t have anything to compare them to, but the internet says they are some of the best and I like them.
Charlie was a rescue from a hoarding situation, adopted out by the Middleburg Humane Society. Nobody really knows his breeding, but it involves fancy movers. Before he bulked out like the hulk, I would’ve said Morgan–Lippett like–but now it seems more Percheron or possibly Cleveland Bay. And Charlie did bulk out, he wasn’t a very gawky youth, so it wasn’t obvious he’d just KEEP GETTING BIGGER but he did. It’s amazing what a difference a few years in a good home with good food and work will make.
Charlie’s a sweetheart, thinks everyone is there to see him and expects treats. He takes treats politely, though, which I’ve always appreciated.
This fall I’ve had the opportunity to ride with a friend who is a horse trainer professionally. She has a wide variety of horses in her barn, and it has been so much fun to ride different horses again.
When I was a kid, mucking stalls in exchange for lessons, I jumped at the chance to ride every single horse that came through the little barn. There were only 4 stalls, but 2 of them were borders and changed out every couple years. I rode every single horse that came through that heavy sliding door except for one, who came during my last year of college. I was 8 hours away.
There were some horses I bonded with more than others over the years, particularly the one I knew the longest and was paid to ride in the frigid winters–but riding different animals was so incredibly valuable for me as a rider.
I’ve been riding Midas for 10 years. 8 of those years, its been almost exclusively Midas. There is something different and special about working with one horse for a long time. But the value I’ve found in a variety of mounts is incredible.
Horses are different. Nothing forces you to learn how to communicate–I mean, RIDE–like facing someone else’s presuppositions head on. Because that’s what most horse behavior is, really, a presupposition. A worldview that has been taught to them by the other humans in their life.
One horse has been systematically taught by past riders that she doesn’t get an opinion, but she has to go fast. She doesn’t understand medium or slow, so you have to ask gently, patiently, consistently.
Another has been trained for the race track and doesn’t know how to stand still or put his head down.
Another has been trained with Rolkur and just…tucks his chin…but has no fight at all and not a mean bone in his body, doing everything asked, whether you meant to ask or not.
When you ride them, you have to unravel the way they frame the world, and reframe it for them. It takes time. It is SO much fun. Nothing teaches you what your body communicates to a horse at the most basic level like riding different horses teaches. You learn how you have to adjust the height of your hands based on the shape of the horse and the discipline and what you’re trying to accomplish at that moment. You learn how to use your legs–the roles of your upper thigh vs your calf–things you may have already known, but now they are vitally important every day, and can’t just be auto pilot because different horses need more or less of different aids. You learn to use your breath–a shockingly useful tool.
I guess that’s what it is. Riding a variety of horses makes you think, and be aware, and also makes it easier to think and be aware. I love it.
When I was a kid, I would spend hours reading my three horse encyclopedias. I bookmarked favorite breeds, and diligently soaked up any and all information I could about horses. One of my absolute favorite books, which I read and re-read, was King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry. If you haven’t read it (or just, weren’t obsessed) it’s the story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three stallions credited with the emergence of the modern Thoroughbred. It’s fictionalized, of course, and fills in considerably huge gaps in known fact and smooths others for a better story: But the story goes that the Sheik of Morocco gave six stallions to the King of France, who didn’t appreciate the gift as he ought. One of these stallions found himself a cart horse, and one thing led to another and he was later shipped to England, where he wound up retired in a field belonging to the Earl of Godolphin. Being a stallion, he managed to get to one of the prize mares, Lady Roxanna, and the colt, Lath, turned out to be kind of a big deal on the race track.
Like I said, that’s not 100% in line with the known facts, but close enough! And it’s not like I cared as a kid, it was a great story, and is likely responsible for my undying affection for Arabian horses.
This was one of those pieces that just….came out…exactly how I wanted it to. I used Daniel Smith watercolors, as usual, but focused on letting go, and the color purple (you all know I’m obsessed with blue). I used some amethyst, some bloodstone, and I think some Quinacridone rose, probably French Ultramarine, too, but just a touch. Then I lined her haunches and neck with big chunks of salt and hoped for the best. I have a vague memory of being pretty sure it wouldn’t come out, but giving it a shot for science.
I’m so glad I did. I darkened her muzzle and ears with bloodstone, and did her eye with pen and paint…and here she is. Looking fresh, sweet, but spunky, just like so many Arabians do.
This little beauty is a 5×7, and available for sale below if anyone is interested–yeah, the original. I’ve got prints and other cool things (t-shirts, zipper pouches) up on Redbubble, too, of course.
Dreamy the Purple Dapple
This is a 5x7 original watercolor painting of a spectacular purple horse. Ships Free in the US. Perfect for a horse lovers bedroom, office, kitchen, tack room...basically perfect for horse lovers.
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It’s been quite a while since I’ve given an update on Midas—we’re
still riding! We had some interesting setbacks last fall, ironically due almost
entirely to the success I’ve had remaking Midas into a good citizen. He’s got a
teenager now who rides him a couple times a week, and my rides now include a
good bit of retraining. Anyone who grew up at a lesson barn on lesson horses should
understand how lesson horses, with the rare exception, are the way they are because
they have so many riders at so many skill levels that they either get away with
murder or they plod along keeping their heads down.
Midas would be the one getting away with murder. It’s not
really because he likes murder, per se, it’s just his default solution to
things. A regular murder-hobo, that one.
We have definitely spent a lot of time rehashing issues I’d buried
years ago. It’s really interesting to see which parts of the training unravel,
and which parts you have to focus on in order to restore the whole.
I get the impression that most people find manners either
dull, cute, or otherwise optional until the manners are so bad that they are
obviously dangerous. But manners are everything, and the only way to get them
is to teach them and insist on them.
One of the most important things in re-establishing behavior
and boundaries is the grooming time. I require that the horse stand still while
being groomed, and not wander off to eat unless given express permission. For
example, Midas knows that if I point to grass and say “OK, eat” he’s clear to
stuff his face until I have something else for him to do. It doesn’t count as
permission if he dives for the grass and I say, “ok, fine, whatever, I’m tired
of fighting with you.”
In return for respect, I try to provide an incredibly
pleasant grooming experience full of kind conversation and itch scratching.
It’s important the horse not move unless asked or released,
because I’m the one in charge. The last thing I asked was for the horse to stop
and stand still, so he should until told otherwise. He’s not loose and alone,
he’s with me.
It’s important to note here that I don’t tie the horse, haven’t
in years, and haven’t used crossties in so long that it startles me to see a
horse cross-tied. Now, you don’t START with a horse who stands quietly without
being tied, but you can’t get one unless you teach him.
There are some days we spend the whole grooming time with Midas
trying to walk off or eat, and I quietly put his feet back where I left them
and refuse to let him tune me out. On a very bad day, I hold the lead rope the
whole time I groom. Days like that pretty uniformly mean that our mounted work
will be rudimentary and fraught.
Sometimes, though, I can recapture his mind with groundwork—since
he already knows yielding in hand, I try to change things up. New locations, mixing
commands with just following me at trot or walk or through figures. We had to
give up total liberty for a while, but we’re getting back to following work
without the rope as a training measure.
As spring really kicked into gear, we started to have
mounted work that felt like the work from last spring. He stopped charging into
trot again, and I invested a few rides in making him stand and wait outside the
ring and the payoff was the ability to have a nice long hack on the buckle
around all the neighbor fields.
I mix up my rides as much as possible, one day we use a
saddle and work on softness at trot and transitions. Other days we use the bareback
pad (or nothing at all) and focus entirely on seat and legs and mounting block
manners in the ring and abroad using woodpiles.
A couple weeks ago I got on him with just a lead rope from
the woodpile down the driveway and rode him utterly gearless back to the barn.
Last week we wove cones at walk with just a neck rope.
I’m starting to hope that we can, again, start working at
Each ride varies, and I’ve no doubt that the mindset I walk
in on is directly tied to what happened when the teenager rode him.
But what doesn’t vary is that he won’t calm down if I am not
calm. He won’t obey if I am not the leader all the time—isn’t there a line from
something, “Am I not Queen?”—either I’m Queen all the time or I’m not Queen.
I’m a good Queen. I work very hard to pay attention to his
needs, to make sure gear fits and is smoothly in place, to scratch itches,
reward good tries, and not punish things that weren’t intended as slights or
rebellion. I try to listen when he has something to tell me, so he knows that
he’s not a slave. But….he is a subject.
Midas isn’t a fool. He appreciates considerate behavior. But,
he has this baggage, and sometimes can’t bring himself to just BE considerate
himself. Last year I’d mostly re-structured his responses so we were working on
canter and brideless and liberty.
But, the introduction of a beginner intermediate rider brought
his baggage roaring back. Not as bad as it was—not by a long shot. He was still
ridable, for one thing. I don’t think he’s bolted outright with her, for
example. But he does charge around like an idiot, and he doesn’t exactly steer or
It’s good to see, though, that he doesn’t lose everything. That I was able to give him a new lease on life, another level of usefulness, another way of relating to humans that doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later. At least…he sticks to kneecaps…baby steps, right?