Lessons I have learned from a spicy thoroughbred mare in South Africa

During my travels and work, I’ve met, ridden and trained hundreds of horses around the world. In this blog series I will go through some of the most impactful experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned from the horses I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Today I will tell you about a stunning chestnut thoroughbred mare called Ancounting. Ancounting is a horse that also heavily influenced my training methods and made me question a lot of things I thought I knew about horse riding.  

  1. Lessons I have learned from horses around the world
  2. Lessons I have learned from a little blue roan horse in South Africa
  3. Lessons I have learned from a Criollo horse for beginners in Mexico
  4. Lessons I have learned from an old grey thoroughbred in the mountains
  5. Lessons I have learned from a horse I didn’t like in Mozambique
  6. Lessons I have learned from a friendly chestnut in South Africa

Giving up control and how it influenced my horse training methods

Before meeting and riding Accounting, I was quite a traditional English dressage rider. With my previous dressage horse, Zantos, I did do a lot of bitless and bridleless riding, but that was the first and only horse up till now with whom I seriously tried. Of course, when I was a kid I would jump on my pony tackless, but I don’t think we can count that as tackless riding as we would just gallop around the field with no speed or directional control. Ancounting had an incredibly hard mouth when I first started riding her in South Africa. This was the very first time I came to South Africa as a volunteer, and my only experience with horses was lots of lots of dressage before this. Ancounting being a thoroughbred and having participated in polo training and competitions, she was not ideally trained to be the perfect safari or guest horse, or even a decent trails horse in general. The harder you pulled on the bit, the faster she’d run, and she didn’t get tired. Even if she did start getting slightly tired, she’d just keep running, her favorite thing on the planet. Due to her polo training, she would suddenly (if you shifted your weight), change directions and could turn 180 degrees in a full speed gallop. That’s what I was told when I arrived at the stables for my first volunteering position, and also, that everyone had fallen off her. Now, I was 17 at the time, had grown up with horses, and had an irrational lack of fear at the time, so logically I jumped on her as soon as possible. I quickly noticed she only turns if you shift your weight, and that if you release the reins and sit deep into the saddle, she slows down. This might sound incredibly logical and basic to you, but for a lot of people it is most certainly not that simple, especially English riders. Ancounting really responded horribly to the bit, even if there was no pressure on it at all. However, whenever I rode her in a halter or neck rope, she was simply fantastic. I actually now start almost all my horses in a neck rope. Occasionally, I’ll start a horse in a rope halter, but it really depends on the horse I’m training. I (and the horses I train) really have Ancounting to thank for this. She truly taught me that you can never actually have control over a horse, all you can attempt is to have a conversation, and ask questions in a way that your horse is glad to say yes, and free to say no. 

Horse in South Africa
Ancounting and I in 2019

From dressage to trail riding

Switching from dressage (or show jumping, cross country, etc), to trail riding, requires learning and adopting a whole different skillset. I trusted Ancounting, so I was very happy to be taught by her. It can feel strange, and make you question a lot of the things you’ll have learned while riding English. I now always get on horses with an extremely long rein, and won’t pick up the reins for hours unless truly necessary. There are horses I’ve ridden countless of times, and I still have never actually put pressure on the reins. While in the dressage world, you’ll get on your horse with tight reins, and always keep a feel on them during each and every ride, until it’s cool down time. This is what I was taught, it’s what I did for years, and I thought it was the safest way to ride. Now I feel much safer on a new horse with a long rein than a short rein, as it allows your trails horse to properly navigate the terrain, and they won’t feel tense from the first minute. If I get on a new horse and it trots off, I’ll let them (if the terrain allows of course), so that the horse soon realizes I won’t be holding them back and they will slowly come back into a walk. Ancounting taught me to give up control, and trust that the massive creature on four legs always knows better than you, whether it’s navigating tricky terrain or having to trot to get some energy out.

Horse safari in South Africa with giraffes
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