Our Fill Of Happy

By Terry Golson

Tonka is going so well that I’ve entered him in his first dressage show of 2017. It’ll be his First Level debut which asks more of the horse and rider than Training Level, which we competed at last year. The show is in five weeks, which is barely enough time to both get him fit enough and trained to do the movements required for the test. There are 10-meter half-circles to master, and, what is difficult for Tonka, the transition from the canter lengthening into the working canter (he’d much prefer to slow into a trot.) I have our lessons mapped out, and we have no time to waste, which is why today we did this:


That dirt road, between wheat on the left, and hay on the right, takes us to a trail in the woods. Rides like this build his physical stamina and keep us both happy.  Happy is important. We compete at recognized USDF shows against big and fancy horses. A dressage test consists of more than a dozen patterns. Each one is scored (like figure skating.) There are also overall marks for gaits, impulsion, submission, the rider’s position and effectiveness. Tonka is not built to move like an elite dressage horse, and his gaits and impulsion will never rate a “10” but we can make up points on how fluid, relaxed, and yes, happy, he is. Last year, a judge known for her tough criteria, watched my go, and after I saluted her at the end of the ride, she stood up and said “lovely.” Tonka and I didn’t win, but our partnership was recognized.

After forty-five minutes in the woods, the trail opens up into a field, and the track continues on to the road. Today, we left the forest to find ourselves chest-high in hay. I steered Tonka where I though the path should be, and we finally found a hint of it.


From there we passed by a wildflower garden,


on the far side of which was the trailer.


No canter transitions today, but we got our fill of happy.

18 thoughts on “Our Fill Of Happy

  • Laura Allemand

    In our discipline, gymkhana, fitness is a must. So we trail ride at least 3-4 times a week, about 7 miles at a time, mostly trotting, and transitioning from trot to canter, and back down again to strengthen their muscles, and increase their stamina. Arena work is important too, but once these horses are pattern trained, it’s really more about keeping them fit so they don’t get hurt when they run around those poles and barrels. My horse does not see the need for arena work and lets me know it by being a lazy slug unless we are competing, or trotting trails! Thankfully, we have a wonderful network of trails close to where we live, including portions of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest trail, which we hope someday will connect the coast of California to the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      That is fit! We did 4.25 miles today, mostly at the walk. Around here the trails are too rocky to trot for long stretches. I usually trot and canter on that path in the hay field, but it wasn’t possible today – we couldn’t see the ground and I worry about wood chuck holes.

  • Emily

    Believe it or not, on the way home is a good time to work on canter transitions. You can use that impulsion to your advantage.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I do believe it, however Tonka is that rare horse who goes slower on the way home!
      I also like to have rides that we don’t work on anything – I give us both permission for total downtime 🙂

  • Anna

    The veterinarian said ” no riding anymore” for my 20 year old horse ans me.
    So I made a lot of plans for groundwork and walks until I learnt from my horse that it is only grooming and long massages which makes us both happy right now. (He moves around in a small group of horses all day so he does not really need additional exercise).
    As a result of all the massages and grooming I got a very happy looking old horse – which makes me happy

  • Michelle

    Love your approach! While I am mostly trail(road)-riding Lance, I do check in every once in awhile, asking “Can you give me a few nice steps of shoulder-in/renvers/travers?” “Can you give me a nice walk/canter transition?” He shows me he remembers it all, so that gives me hope that once we get his symptoms quieted down, we *might* be able to try a schooling show or at least a lesson.

  • Kim

    it’s awesome that the judge noticed your teamwork with Tonka! He is a lovely fellow, and your connection must have been obvious. Have fun with your training and good luck at the show!

  • sally

    What a beautiful area to ride with your partner. So true that trails and flowers make happy horses. That’s what I am doing with my OTTB, working on happy and forward on the trails. He is also a slug in the ring but beautiful forward out there and yesterday we graduated to the BIG park. After a winter of fixing foot problems, we are out again, just the two of us. Don’t tell him up and down the hills is good for him. Hopefully we see the dressage ring this summer.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      That’s a lucky OTTB to have you. Downtime to just be a horse is so essential to their rehab, isn’t it? When he learns that moving forward feels good, he’ll no longer be a slug in the ring (as long as you make it rewarding in the ring, too!)

  • Virginia Klophaus

    We had happy trails time today also. So many pretty flowers before the real heat hits. I was riding a black and white spotted horse, so sometimes I thought about you and Tonka. So glad you are getting back on track after his problems.

  • Jodie

    Beautiful photos and lovely insights as always! That mane of Tonka’s really makes for a gorgeous through-the-ears view!

    I have been chasing up those books that you recommended, but got sidetracked after Animal Wise, and have now read H is for Hawk (not horsey, but would recommend), and am now in the middle of a John Rogerson book. Having been recommended that I look into his methods for training our new puppy, I was expecting wonderful things, but have found his dismissal of scientific methods and his use of convoluted mixtures of reinforcement and punishment somewhat confusing. I had thought that (almost) exclusively positive reinforcement based training was accepted among most dog owners/trainers, and it was just the horse world that needed to catch up, but I am increasingly seeing that this is not necessarily the case. Do you have any recommendations for tackling friends’ traditionalist training ideas?


    • Terry Golson Post author

      Jodie, although modern, progressive, positive methods of animal training are changing many animals’ lives, the reality is that punishment and dominance remain prevalent. In many areas the dog trainers who use shock collars have far more clients than the trainers who use R+. I find that when trying to change one person’s view, the best thing is to find one specific thing that they want to train, that they haven’t had success with when using the traditionalist techniques. In my world of horses, that’s often trailer loading. When a client sees a horse change from fearful to willing, the whole picture changes.

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