Introducing Leon

A few weeks ago, I ended my loan agreement with Bob. There were various reasons for this, one of which was that I didn’t feel as if he was enough of a challenge for me if I wanted to keep progressing. Over the summer he helped me to build my confidence up with hacking out and jumping and also allowed me to have a chance to get used to something that wasn’t as tall and leggy as the horses I have been riding for the past couple of years. 

Shortly before I stopped helping out with him, a lady at the same yard offered that I could start schooling her youngster, so this seemed like an ideal time to make the transition onto something more difficult.

Leon

My new ride goes by the name of Leon – he is six years old and is mostly cob, although his owner has reason to believe that there may be a trace of Arab in him as well. I actually helped with Leon two years ago when he was just four years old, but at that time I lacked a lot of skill in my riding and it was a bit of a struggle at times.

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Taking my coat off while on Leon – he’s pretty bombproof for his age!

Having spent the last six months working on my position and effectiveness in the saddle, I considered myself pretty well prepared for getting back on. As it turned out, this wasn’t quite as easy as I had expected.

In the past two years, Leon has been broken to drive and is now driven out regularly by his owner. He also had some professional schooling for a short time. Despite this, he is still very green and doesn’t seem to understand what is expected of him in the school.

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One problem that became apparent to me when I started riding him was that he was incredibly dead to the leg – no amount of kicking, flapping or flicking him with a whip had any effect. Getting him to move forward was incredibly difficult; I tried talking to him as this is what he is used to when out driving and when this didn’t do anything I moved onto growling. He still showed the same lack of enthusiasm when in the school (I haven’t hacked him much yet but have been on another horse out with him – he can be very forward going when he wants to be!)

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Last week I had my first lesson on Leon with the same instructor who has taught me on Dusty. She watched me ride around for a few minutes, before stopping me and readjusting pretty much every part of my body – I’d slipped into some pretty bad habits.

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The pictures below show me a couple of weeks before the lesson, and then me after the lesson. There’s still a lot to work on, but I feel like I’ve made a step in the right direction. 

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Of course, every part of my body is linked and a mistake in one area can create more problems elsewhere. The fact that I was resting a lot of weight in my stirrups was causing my seat to shift further back, so that I was actually slightly behind the movement of the horse – this is a security thing that I picked up a few years ago – in reality I should be more ‘up’ on my seat bones and the majority of my weight should rest on my thighs/knees. I had broken this habit with Dusty and have really developed my lower leg position on him as well, however I do tend to revert back to my old habits when I start riding new horses.

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Lowering my hands is another habit of mine which has proven incredibly hard to break: it actually communicates to the horse that he needs to slow down, especially with Leon as he has a curb chain on his bridle (this is because of how forward he can be out hacking; he doesn’t really need it for schooling). Having the constant reminder to lift my hands up during my lesson showed me how much more forward Leon can be if he is ridden in a way that allows it. 

The issue with my elbows is not something that I have noticed before. I believe that it has surfaced with Leon because he is so green, and when asking him to turn I tend to overdo it and really pull the rein wide with a low hand. I’m now working to break this habit by keeping my elbows pinned into my sides and thinking of the turn as ‘opening a door’ to allow him to step through. This kind of visualisation is used a lot in the ‘ride with your mind’ techniques that I am being taught, and although it may sound slightly crazy it actually proves to be very helpful when I’m in the saddle.

I will of course continue to gather photos and videos of what I am up to over the coming weeks – for more regular updates you can find me on Instagram (@wildcallblog) or on YouTube (follow the link in the menu at the top of the page). 

I write about several subjects such as horses, dog agility and wildlife, so if there is anything that you would like to see more of then please do let me know in the comments. 

Thank you for reading! 

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Wildlife Wednesday – grass snakes

(This is an attempt to revive my ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – I can’t guarantee that this will be a regular thing but I will try my best!) 

We have three compost heaps in our garden – one that is currently being loaded with waste vegetables and plant material from mum’s flower garden, one that is being left to compost as I write this, and one that is ready to be unloaded. 

Dad began to move the compost from the third heap a few days ago, but he soon discovered that just below the surface there were lots and lots of tiny snakes.

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Initially my parents were worried that they were adders (Britain’s only venomous snake) but the yellow band around the back of their heads gave them away as grass snakes. Adders have much darker markings along their bodies as well, whereas grass snakes tend to be more of a brown-green colour. (Side note: I got into a lot of trouble when I was sixteen for picking up an adult adder when I was out walking my dog… I probably wouldn’t do it now as I know how harmful the bite could be, but at the time I just thought everyone was overreacting!)

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Once I had a day off work, I headed down to the compost heap and turned some of it over in the hope that I might find some snakes. I wasn’t disappointed – there must have been hundreds of them in there altogether as they weren’t difficult to find at all.

These grass snakes couldn’t have been more than a couple of days old, as I also found lots of clusters of empty eggs. Due to the rotting vegetation a lot of heat can build up in the centre of compost heaps, which is why they are an ideal location for female grass snakes to lay their eggs as they will remain warm for the eight-week period until they hatch.

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The young shed their skin shortly after hatching – it is easy to tell when this is going to occur because the skin around the eyes becomes looser, causing the eyes to turn a milky blue colour.

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The majority of the snakes that hatched in our garden will have moved on by now: some will still be amongst the long grass in our woodland but they will be forced to spread out as there are not enough resources to support them all in that one area. Unfortunately, I have already found a couple of dead ones out on the road but I am hoping that some made it across safely and have now found a new home in the fields and hedgerows beyond.

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(Once fully grown, female adult grass snakes can reach 80cm in length, whereas males are slightly smaller at approximately 65cm).

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I find snakes incredibly fascinating to watch. Along with birds, they are among my favourite animals and I could see myself becoming more involved with them in the future. 

The way that they move is particularly interesting for me: there is a variety of ways in which snakes travel, but grass snakes use ‘sidewinding’ and ‘lateral undulation’ more than anything else.

Lateral undulation makes use of the changing ground and obstructions – for example rocks or tree trunks – so that the snake can keep its forward momentum.

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Sidewinding is generally used when there are fewer irregularities in the ground; the snake lies at an angle to the direction of movement, which creates a better grip for it to be able to continue pulling itself forward.

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UK grass snake populations are not endangered, however the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act so that people cannot harm or trade them without a license. I was pleased to discover this, as in my opinion our species should be protected even if they are at risk: species only become threatened due to the repercussions of our own actions and I believe that we should try to accommodate for their needs and protect their populations instead of simply destroying anything that stands in the way of our plans and livelihoods. Everything in the ecosystem is there for a reason and removing it for our benefit will usually result in an imbalance that then has some kind of negative impact on us anyway.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call 🙂

An update on Bob

I’ve had Bob on part-loan for a couple of months now, so I thought I’d write a post to explain what we’ve been getting up to.

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Initially I was just riding him in the school while I got to know him – we just focused on flatwork and I worked on being able to encourage him into an outline. He did used to really over-bend when I rode him and I noticed that his head carriage was very inconsistent, varying from being right up in the air to being tucked down towards his chest.

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As I don’t often take lessons, this was the point where I had to evaluate my riding to try to find where I was going wrong. I do have a habit of shortening my reins up too much during the ride, and following a suggestion from Bob’s owner I began to lengthen and shorten my reins throughout the schooling session until I found a length that he was comfortable with and would work properly over his back with.

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After this I started to see a much more consistent outline from Bob, and I decided to incorporate more canter work into our schooling. From here his fitness began to increase and we also began hacking out more with a friend from the yard.

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Our first long hack together had got us off to a bit of a hairy start – the two horses we were out with took off at a gallop in front of us, but when I started to let Bob go with them he threw his head down. I thought he was going to buck so started to pull him up: he didn’t like this as he wanted to keep up with the others, so then he really did start bucking! I didn’t fall but it wasn’t exactly the most reassuring beginning for us. 

Shortly after that I came off Dusty on the road while I was out on my own, so my confidence took a bit of a knock. I became quite tense when riding Bob outside of the school and continually shortened my reins up, which didn’t help at all! Once I realised what I was doing, I made a huge effort to keep my reins a little longer and to keep my hands soft – this was the turning point for us and we began to actually have fun on our hacks.

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Our past couple of hacks in particular have been fantastic: we’re usually out for a couple of hours and with the recent harvest there are lots of stubble fields to canter on. 

The increase in Bob’s fitness resulted in him losing some weight, so I could finally use his proper saddle (instead of the treeless one we’d had before). This made me feel much more secure, and I began to set out canter poles in the school. 

Before I knew it, canter poles became cross poles, and cross poles became straights! After a six month break from jumping I have decided to take it up again, and Bob is the most fantastic confidence giver. I pop him over a few small jumps once a week – last week I got really brave and jumped 70cm with him! (In the picture below we were just doing tiny jumps as he was quite spooky that day).

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I was told that Bob could spook quite badly; initially I didn’t see this side of him (just the occasional ‘look’ at things) but I do now know what was meant. He doesn’t spook particularly often (unless it is very windy), but a couple of times he’s nearly had me off. 

An example of this was two weeks ago on our hack; we were walking along with loose reins after having a canter when a bird flew up out of the hedgerow next to us. Bob span and tried to take off across the field – luckily I reacted quickly enough stop him, but I lost my stirrups and left the saddle for a few brief moments!

Overall, I’m having a great time with this little horse and he’s really helping me to improve my riding – I hope that I can continue to progress with him into the autumn.

Dog agility – training the seesaw

Since we began agility training a few years ago, Rusty and I have often found ourselves a little bit limited with our equipment. We acquired a tunnel and a set of weave poles as Christmas presents, but I was unable to teach the contact obstacles (A-frame, dog walk and seesaw) as these are large pieces of equipment and are usually quite expensive.

However, shortly after starting my job a couple of months ago I began to do some research and decided to buy Rusty her very own seesaw. I thought that this was the best option as it is the smallest of the three contact obstacles (so is easier to store), and is possibly also the most difficult to train – so if we do go on to do more agility in the future we will be better prepared for it.

Rusty seemed to know that the contents of this box were for her…

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Once I had assembled the seesaw, I began training with the plank laid flat on the ground. The main focus at this stage was to get Rusty used to walking over it and to teach her to always go in a straight line without leaving the board. This is important because when the seesaw is set up properly, Rusty mustn’t ever try to jump off it or turn around on it as this could potentially be dangerous.

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However, with the board on the ground Rusty didn’t seem to have very much respect for it and frequently stepped off it as she walked along. For this reason, I decided to raise the plank up on a couple of plant trays – this made Rusty think about where she was placing her paws whilst still being low enough to the ground to be safe in the event of something going wrong.

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The next step was to use one plant tray to add a tiny bit of an angle to the board: I kept Rusty on a lead to begin with so that I could control her speed and ensure that she kept going in a straight line.

I also controlled the movement of the plank with my other hand so that it didn’t move too quickly. During these early stages of training it is important to build up the confidence of the dog: Rusty is naturally timid so I had to be careful that she didn’t become scared of her new toy.

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Another important thing that I worked on at this point was teaching Rusty to ‘leave’ the obstacle. She began to find racing along the board pretty exciting and was choosing to do it without being asked, which then led to her jumping on and off it at random intervals.

We practiced walking and running past the board both on and off lead – sometimes I would ask her to ’tilt’ (our specific command for this obstacle) but the majority of the time I told her to ‘leave’.

Once I was satisfied that Rusty felt confident with the board and how it moved, I lifted it up onto the stand so that it was at its full height. With Rusty wearing her harness and lead I walked her up to the middle and then slowly moved the plank down. I put plant trays underneath to begin with so that the change in gradient wasn’t too great.

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Rusty picked this up so quickly – within a few training sessions she was completing the obstacle at speed with no help from me at all. I definitely think that taking it slowly during the first few stages really helped her find her confidence.

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As always, she loved learning something new and seeing her having fun made me even more excited for us doing more agility together in the future. The video below shows some clips from our training sessions…

Dressage with Dusty

On Sunday, Dusty and I went to our second dressage show together. This was my third time ever competing in ridden classes and I made the decision to try my first prelim test as well as an intro test.

Until about three weeks ago Dusty and I had only been working in walk and trot, so if we were going to do a prelim I had to start cantering again pretty quickly! I wasn’t entirely sure how he would react to cantering again, so to begin with I put him in his hacking bridle to give me better brakes should he become too strong.

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(His hacking bridle at the time had a Waterford mouthpiece – this is a metal chain with beads on it – this basically means that he can’t lean on the bit and pull. Recently his owner has been experimenting with different bits for his hacking, but I may do another blog post about that soon as there is too much to write in here.)

The first canter was fine, but when I began cantering him in the snaffle I did start to feel that he was getting away from me a bit. However I found that my posture was really affecting him (I’m still trying to break my habit of hunching over as I ask for canter) and if I sat up and pushed my shoulders back I could control the pace without having to use my hands so much.

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By the time the competition came around, both of us had got used to cantering again and I was starting to be able to ask Dusty for a little bit more of an outline in this pace. I felt fairly confident that we would be fine to do the prelim.

On the morning of the show I headed down to the field to prepare Dusty… and promptly realised that I couldn’t remember either of my tests… cue me jogging round the field pretending to be Dusty!

Our intro test was at around eleven so we headed over to the venue in plenty of time in order to get Dusty warmed up properly. Whilst he was good in the warm up, Dusty really switched on once we were in the ring. It is amazing how much more he is prepared to give when he is on a proper surface!

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He did spook when we first went in (benches are really scary apparently) and this took me by surprise and distracted me, so when we had completed the test I wasn’t sure that I had ridden as well as I would have liked. However seeing the video from this test made me feel much better and I am actually really pleased with how it went.

We received some lovely comments from the judge, who said that we were a ‘super combination’ and that we worked well together. There were three circles on the left rein in this test, and we got marks of 7.0, 8.0 and 8.0 for them – this was particularly pleasing as Dusty used to really struggle to bend on the left rein: he would turn his head but the rest of his body never followed through – but since his back surgery he has improved so much and seems a lot more comfortable with working over his back.

Our overall score for this test was 70% and I am thrilled to announce that we placed first! This marks the end of us doing intro tests now I think, as I need to challenge myself and am hoping to start moving up the levels.

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Due to my choice of classes, there was a four hour gap in between the two tests so we took Dusty back to his field for a couple of hours and I was able to walk Rusty and grab some lunch before we returned to the venue in the afternoon.

Our warm up began well, but as soon as I asked Dusty to canter I realised that things weren’t quite right. He started doing little hops and bucks accompanied by him throwing his head in the air – it was nothing major but he doesn’t usually react in that manner. His owner got on and asked him to canter several times with the same results.

In the end we decided that I would still go into the ring but explained to the judge beforehand that I may not ask him to canter in the test. I was a little disappointed about this as I had been looking forward to completing my first prelim, but there will be other opportunities and we have to figure out what is best for Dusty.

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We discussed the situation afterwards and have come to the conclusion that he may still need to build up more strength over his back, and after having a break for a couple of hours he may have stiffened up and become a little sore.

For the next couple of weeks we will take things easy and will continue to build his strength up. At the next competition we will go straight in for a prelim test and will just do the one (or two if they are close together and we can keep him moving in between).

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call – I have more things to share over the next few weeks but in the meantime you can find me on YouTube and Instagram for more regular updates.

Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

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Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

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Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

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The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds

Introducing Bob (new horse!)

A lot has changed since the last time I wrote on this blog – I have now officially moved back home from Manchester, begun learning to drive and I’ve also started a new job, which so far I am really enjoying.

I have also been doing a lot of horse riding: things are really starting to come together with it now and I am becoming increasingly excited about my future with horses.

One thing that I want to avoid now that I am back home is riding the same horses all of the time. Whilst I am continually making progress with Dusty, in order to keep improving I really need to be gaining experience with a variety of different horses.

A few weeks ago I began searching for a potential horse to part loan… so, allow me to introduce Bob.

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He is a Welsh cob cross standing at 14.2hh and is probably about nine, although his exact age isn’t actually known.

I am very fortunate that he is actually kept at a yard I know well (the same yard where Flash, Buddy and Leon live) where there are lots of friendly people who I can ride out with and go to for advice.

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I have only ridden Bob four times so far and am still getting to know him, but I thought that I would talk a little about what he is like and how I am adjusting.

Due to his owner’s pregnancy, he has only been doing light hacking for the past few months and is fairly overweight at the moment. Unfortunately as a result of this, his actual saddle doesn’t fit him so I am having to exercise him in the one pictured below… I guess it is sort of like a bareback pad, only with a bit more support (and stirrups of course). It isn’t particularly comfortable and does tend to slip (we had a funny incident with that the other day where I had to do a quick dismount) but I suppose the upside to this is that it will work wonders for my balance!

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He’s been well schooled and I am starting to be able to encourage him into an outline, but he’s very soft-mouthed and doesn’t like the reins being held too tightly. If my reins are too short on him he over-bends, which I really don’t like to see, but at the same time I can’t have them too long as this doesn’t get us anywhere! I’ve been working on finding the length that he is happy with.

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I was warned that he can spook quite badly: so far I haven’t really seen this side of him – we’ve had a few instances where he’s taken a look at things but apart from that he hasn’t done much except for spooking at some chickens near the school. However to be on the safe side I won’t hack him alone until I know him better.

He has been pretty fresh when schooling, and often when I sit to change my diagonal he tries to break into canter. This is something that I need to be prepared for so that I can prevent it from happening at all – at the moment it is sometimes taking me a good half circle before I can get him back to trot. Due to him being so soft-mouthed, this is where I am really having to ride with my seat more. I have found that a combination of small amounts of pressure with my thighs, a tiny bit of extra pressure on the reins and me talking to him keep him in a consistent rhythm.

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I am excited for the next few months with Bob: I think that I can learn a lot from him and it will be great to spend more time on such a friendly yard.

For more regular updates, you can find my YouTube channel using the menu at the top of this page or you can find me on Instagram (@wildcallblog).

Thanks for reading!