This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Writing a blog creates a unique opportunity to archive, plan, dream, and share.  Especially with a green horse, it can be useful for keeping track of your progress and achievements.  I would like to use this one to track his physical growth, too.  Saxon currently stands just a shade over 15.2hh at the withers and 15.3hh at the hip with a weight of around 925 pounds on my weight tape.  This may sound low for a horse of his stature, but he's in good body condition - he just lacks body fat because he's still racing fit.  The relatively sedentary life of a show/riding horse has replaced his days of jogging five miles a day interspersed with speed work, so Saxon will certainly be putting on some more pounds as he adapts to his new life and fills out with age.  When I first saw photos of him about a month ago, his topline looked very level, so at his age, it is quite likely that he's undergoing a growth spurt.

I am fortunate that I need only walk out my front door to see my horses.  This has meant that I have been able to ride and work with him every day since his arrival.  I have gotten in the routine of feeding him first thing in the morning while I clean his stall, then tacking him up for a short riding session.  At his stage of training, these rides are quite short, usually just 20 minutes or less.  He is learning so much so quickly, that I want to keep the rides short and positive without overwhelming him with a plethora of new commands.  After my first two rides on him, I thought he had the concept of moving forward off leg pressure down.  On my next ride, things were going well until he decided that he wanted to head into the side yard near the side pasture gate.  He would freeze or get stuck in reverse and I could only seem to turn him and get a step or two in a generally forwards direction.  I kept trying and we eventually managed to work our way back into the front area, though at times I was worried that he would back himself into things without realizing it.  The next day, I enlisted Justin's help.  That one section of the yard seemed to be his main sticky area for losing forward movement, so after he'd get stuck, I'd ask him to move forwards and Justin would help by leading us at first, and then simply walking beside him.  He's generally eager to walk, so I think what I assumed was him figuring out leg cues right off the bat was partially coincidence.  Thanks to Justin's help we have weaned ourselves off of leading assist when he gets stuck to truly independent riding and he is getting better and better with each ride.  It is similar for our trot work, too.  It took a lot of clucking, kissing, and gentle but insistent squeezing at first to get a short burst of trot (along with Justin jogging next to us a few times), but now it takes much less leg and voice cues.  We are able to walk and trot in any direction, over poles and between cones without any assistance after less than a week of riding experience.

I haven't found much that rattles him.  He's very inquisitive, so he often wants to stop and look at things, but he'll usually just stand there with pricked ears and a cocked hip and no signs of nervousness.  Case in point, the neighbor's German Shepherd puppy that bounds around their yard (including around their 10 foot tall lighted inflatable holiday Scooby Doo).  Saxon likes to slow down in that corner and have a look, but he's not speeding up, scooting away, or "pointing" at it (I've come to the conclusion that STBs don't generally spook and turn tail at scary things like other horses, they tend to scoot away while "pointing" at it with their head and neck to make sure that you see it, too.  "Look, look.  See that?  It's scary and I'm not going over there.").  Saxon, on the other hand, just doesn't want to miss anything that's going on. 

I was riding him by myself yesterday, when our heat pump (on the side of the house really close to where we ride) kicked into its defrost cycle which is extra loud and rattly.  It seemed like a good opportunity to gauge his reaction to it.  The heat pump is also near that little cross-country jump that startled him the first day he was here.  I decided to ride over to it and let him check it out.  Though we'd been doing much better about moving forward off leg, he got sticky near the jump as we approached the heat pump.  Since he was backing towards the jump, my landscaping, and generally places that I didn't want a horse's rump to crash into, I opted to dismount and lead him over to the heat pump.  He wasn't 100% sure about it, but he never tried to run backwards or swing himself around - it just took extra coaxing to inch him towards it a step at a time.  We got there, and he willingly sniffed it, licked it, and let the fan blow onto his forelock and wasn't concerned when it kicked from defrost back to the heat cycle.  Have I mentioned that I love this horse?

I was about to remount and resume our ride when  a stampede of thundering hooves and loud mooing ensued as about 30 cows and calves streamed into the front pasture at the farm across the street.  This was the first time that the cows had been visible since his arrival and they decided to make quite a spectacle of it.  Saxon proved that he has some reactivity as his head shot up, and I saw the whites of his eyes for probably the first time ever.   Well, I guess this is our opportunity to get used to cattle.

Cows are Legs' Achilles Heel.  She is nearly perfect in so many ways, but this is her "thing."  Though I distinctly remember her being pastured next to yearling calves when she was about 4 and I remember riding through cattle pastures at a careful distance when she was 6, sometime during the past 8 years she has decided that cows are ravenous, demonically possessed, horse-eating banshees and can't be convinced otherwise.  If there is a cow in the area, she will spot it, point, and scoot, even if it's nearly half a mile away.  Considering this, I certainly wanted to make Saxon's first encounter a positive one!

Still on foot, I led him towards the corner of the yard closest to the milling cattle.  Other than the trailer ride home, this was the first time I'd seen him get nervous.  He was prancing and dancing with his head up, and the nervous pooping started.  He whinnied at them, as if trying to respond to their mooing.  I got him close to the fence, but he didn't want to keep his feet still.  I led him back and forth along the fence until he had settled down enough to stand mostly still, and then I perched myself on the top rain and let him just watch the cows and calves.  One of the calves was headbutting the remnants of a round bale, rolling it across the pasture.   Another was trying to mount its mother, and yet another engaged in a game of tag, bucking and running with its playmate.  The remainder were milling noisily around the large metal creep feeder in their field.  Legs would have freaked as clearly this is a sure sign that they are becoming organized and weaponized!  Saxon saw the two playing calves and nickered to them.  He seemed to think that they were little horses and was wondering why they looked and talked so funny.  He was starting to settle down again, when the farmhand came rumbling into the field in a large tractor pulling the grain wagon.  Trailing behind was the farmer in his ATV.  For heaven's sake - this was quickly turning into quite the production.  So we continued to watch as the guys climbed onto the creep feeder, banged open the metal lid, and positioned the boom over it to fill it with grain, cows milling and mooing in the meantime.  Saxon seemed slightly on edge, but was content to stay near the corner where all the action was happening.  The farmers finished filling the creep feeder and drove off across the field.  I guess that was the cue to roll the credits, as the cows trailed off behind the tractor, leaving only a few cows and calves behind.  This had been a much longer workout than I had planned, but I didn't want him to equate getting nervous with getting out of work, so I got on him just long enough to reinforce the skills we'd been working on.  Though he had stood well for me to mount initially, I guess he was still a little up from the cattle stampede as he didn't want to stand still the second time.  Something to work on for later...
When I turned him out in his paddock afterwards, instead of putting his hay in the hay rack near the gate, I took it to the front corner, which offered the best view of the cattle pasture (and the road).  When I peeked out at him later in the day, he was dozing with his chin resting on the fence.  I guess he didn't want to miss a minute of his favorite new show - the Cow Show.  By the end of the day, any fear he'd had of the cows seemed to have turned to curiosity.  And the other plus was that he got plenty of desensitization to the passing cars in the process (not that he needed it - they didn't seem to bother him anyhow).

Today was farrier day and Saxon was perfect.  I held him in the aisle and rubbed his face (while he licked me) and he patiently stood as each foot was trimmed in turn.  I had his shoes pulled for winter (well, the remaining two - he'd already somehow managed to remove both left ones on his own) and will try to leave him barefoot (with regular trims) for a while, so long as his feet stay good.  They look like nice healthy feet with good hoof wall, so I'm not anticipating any problems.  Today's forecast was all day rain changing over to sleet, so we had to do our "ride" in the barn aisle.  Seems like an opportunity to work on standing still while mounting and dismounting to me.  Once he got the idea down, he was perfect.  I mounted and dismounted a couple times from the right, too.  It sure feels awkward to me, though he doesn't know the difference, and it's always a good idea to acclimate the horse to it in case you have to do so for some reason in the future.  We rode through the water noodles, and he was just as calm and willing about it as when we did it in hand.  We worked just a bit on yielding the forehand and hindquarters to leg pressure.  Have I mentioned that this horse is really smart and willing?  This was our first go at it, and he was already getting the gist of it.

No horse is perfect, for sure, but Saxon sure has a lot going for him as a riding horse and show prospect between his looks, movement, and amazing disposition.  I am thrilled at what we've done in a mere 6 days and can't wait to see what we will accomplish tomorrow!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Please Don't Wake Me Up

I'm just two days into owning Saxon and he simply amazes me.  I knew he was good looking, I knew he was a nice mover.  The surprise?  That he's one of the most level-headed, brave, and willing horses I've ever had the pleasure of working with.  In only two days, I've done more with him than I expected to accomplish in two weeks.  He's very young, trained but never raced, had only been on a horse trailer twice in his life, and only lived at two or three places in his young life.  He certainly never had any experience like being plucked from the only life he'd ever known and driven 700 miles away to live in a new place with a stranger.  Yet he settled into his new surroundings immediately and has put an incredible amount of trust in me already.  I feel like this can't be real and I'll wake up from my dream soon to find that he isn't there.  Please don't wake me up - I'm having a REALLY good dream!

I figured the first day he was here, I would tend to him, groom him a little, but take it easy and let him settle in as he would surely be wary of his new surroundings.  (Right?)  He was so quiet on the cross-ties after breakfast when groomed him and checked his temperature and vitals that I thought I'd get him used to the mounting block.  I dropped it around him with a clunk, hopped up and down on it making monkey noises and waving my arms, stood on it leaning across his back letting my arms brush all over his sides.  I got an eventual ear flick for the monkey noises.  That's it.  An ear flick.  He didn't even glance at me carrying on or roll an eye at the falling mounting block, just stood patiently in the cross-ties.  Well, since we're here... I got my little synthetic western saddle out to try on him.  I let him sniff it, he ascertained that it wasn't made of carrot, and I flopped it onto his back.  I flapped the fenders and stirrups around on him, but he wasn't the slightest bit bothered.  Normally, I would NEVER get on such a green horse when nobody else was home, but he was just being so good that I thought maybe I'd just mount and dismount once.

With helmet and bridle in place, I eased onto him.  He seemed to want to walk, so we carefully walked down my 30 foot barn aisle, turned around, and walked down to the other end. He really wasn't bothered about having a rider.  He poked his nose into the hanging halters, investigated the tack trunks, looked into the tack room and peered out the barn door but was more than happy to listen to my requests to go, stop, turn, and back.  Yes, back.  It happened by accident, but he had pushed himself up against the divider that separates my stall area from the storage area in the barn trying to have a better look around, and we had to back up in order to get turned around. Asking a green horse to back can be a little scary - you never know if they'll decide to rear in response to the increasing rein pressure, and even if they don't, they usually brace against your hand and you have to basically muscle them backwards.  I gingerly applied the aids, and he dropped his head, gave at the poll, and backed like a seasoned show horse.  Wow.  At one point, he poked his nose into my stacked plastic blanket totes, causing the top one to shift and clunk down onto the other one.  He flinched, but didn't move his feet.  This horse is something else!  Most young horses would lose their minds at falling plastic boxes on just their second solo ride.  His reward was a big hug, a handful of peppermints, and going out to the paddock to play.   

In the evening, I decided to take Saxon on a walking tour of the front yard and barn area before putting him in his stall for the night.  I thought maybe I'd tackle a ground pole, hand graze him a little, and that would be enough for one night.  I led him towards the 6' long red and white painted pole, and he just walked over it.  He didn't look at it, didn't snort or sniff at it, didn't try to go around it, just casually walked over it like he does this all the time.  I did it again to make sure it wasn't a fluke - same thing.  So we headed off beside the house.  All of a sudden, he gave a BIG spook when he saw my 2 foot tall stacked log cross-country jump around the corner.  He spooked so big and crouched so low that I thought he was going down on his knees, and somehow he managed to step on BOTH of my big toes, but avoided the rest of me.  Well, he immediately got up, marched forward, sniffed the jump and tried to taste the top pole.  I led him around it on all sides, expecting some degree of lingering concern, but he had obviously already concluded that it was harmless and nothing to be interested in (except for trying to taste it again).

Alright, how about the pair of wing standards that I use for my trail gate?  He gave one small snort as we approached it, but didn't hesitate about walking between them, or between the orange cones next to them.  He didn't even look at the big black plastic barrel near the front fence.  He calmly walked by it, even when I banged on it so that it made noise.  We walked up the garden retaining wall, over the 10" stack of logs by the barn, under the pine trees that swished onto his rump.  This was his very first time seeing these things, yet he was absolutely unconcerned.  Our grand finale was my trail bridge - a 4 foot long slightly raised plank bridge.  I had it set up near the entrance to the barn.  No horse doesn't at least LOOK at it before crossing it (even Legs drops her head and gives it a good look as she goes over), and most inexperienced horses take a lot of coaxing before they'll cross it.  Nope, he just strode over it without so much as glancing at it.  Twice more with the same result.  This horse is amazing.  And he's not quite 3 years old yet!  More hugs and dinner for Saxon, and I was practically skipping when I went back into the house for the night.

I had hoped to get on Saxon again this morning and perhaps ground drive him around the back field in the evening, but the weather refused to cooperate.  He got his grooming, got his sheath cleaned and I tacked him up to brave the morning drizzle.  He didn't want to stand still for the mounting block, and ended up walking off with me still half on and half off.  I got my other leg over him and we proceeded to walk around the driveway and on into the front yard (my "arena").  He happily walked around the yard and over the ground pole.  We kept the ride short and just worked on walking, stopping, and a little turning.  The only thing I can really fault him with is that he doesn't like to stand still and occasionally just wants to go his own direction (except when he's in his stall or on cross-ties).  Honestly, though, Legs was the same way when I got her.  It took quite a while before she learned to stand still and stop fidgeting.  When a young racehorse is out of their stall, it's time to go to work.  Standing still just isn't part of the protocol.  So I would ask Saxon to halt and count to 5.  If we succeeded, he got to walk; if not, we tried it again.

It was pouring in the evening when I went out to work with him before dinner-time, squelching my plans to ground drive him.  So I figured I would tackle some more ground work in the barn.  I tried sacking him out with a plastic grocery bag.  He wanted to nibble it, but had no objections to it making crinkly noises or touching him anywhere (though he shook his ears quite comically when I crinkled it behind his poll).  I took a water noodle on a rope and let him investigate it.  (Is it food?  Can I taste it?)  He had a hip cocked and just stood there when I swung it around him and flopped it all over him.  So I let it drag alongside us as I led him.  This generated a small response - he arced his body away from it and eyed it as he walked beside it.  We did it several more times on both sides and he ignored it, even when he stepped on it by accident.  I stood him in the barn aisle and let it drag towards him.  He simply wasn't bothered.  On to the water noodle curtain - a row of brightly colored water noodles suspended across the doorway of one of my spare stalls.  It's a pretty scary looking thing that I constructed after running into such an obstacle in the trail class at some of the horse shows I attend.  Most horses balk at pushing their head between the noodles, then scoot through as the noodles brush their sides.  And again, Saxon showed calmness and bravery that you just don't see in a horse of his age.  He just walked right through.   

It's clear that Saxon's early training was conscientious, thorough, and earned his trust and confidence.  The more I work with him, the more he amazes me.  It's hard to call what I've been doing with him "training" when I'm simply asking him to do something and he does it.  It's just too easy to be training!  I guess we'll be doing tempi changes and half passes by next week!  (Ok, maybe not quite...)  But if this IS a dream, please don't wake me up!  It's starting to get really, really good! 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Start of a New Adventure

This blog will chronicle the training and adventures of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding.  Just two years old (soon to be three), he is pacing bred but doesn't have the makings of a successful pacer, as he couldn't train down fast enough for the track, and he prefers to trot (even in hopples sometimes - there's a funny story about that...).  He was given to me by his caring owner/trainer/breeder who realized that he wasn't going to make a racehorse and wanted to give him a new future where he would be loved and appreciated.  He is young, beautiful, sound, has nice movement and a curious, willing temperament.  For those that know me and my older Standardbred mare, Veruca Salt (she has a Facebook page at if you want to learn more about her), this background may sound more than a little familiar.  ;-)  It's way too early in his newly minted riding career for such comparisons, but I am really excited about working with him and unlocking his potential.

I love a good double (or triple) entendre.  I thought for a while about what to call this blog, before The Redheaded Standardbred came to me.  Chestnuts (redheads), though less common than their bay and brown counterparts, DO occur in the Standardbred breed (along with blacks, grays, and roans, too), despite the breed's reputation for only being plain unmarked bay.  As it turns out, I too am a redhead.  We also are less common than our blonde and brunette counterparts.  (Recessive genes at work!)  And we have a reputation for being feisty, tempermental and stubborn (ok, that one might be true sometimes!).  Also, despite an increasing number of lovely Standardbreds currently demonstrating the breed's capabilities beyond harness racing, they are still largely considered the "redheaded stepchild" of the horse show world by uninformed people who cling to old stereotypes about the breed.  By gently making light of this with my blog title, maybe I can help just a few more folks realize that Standardbreds have many merits as riding, show, and pleasure horses as they follow along with the adventures of a redhead and her (redheaded) Standardbred.