The Teddy Bear and the Dragon: My Double-Whorl Horse

Johanna and Diddi

By Johanna Bloom

Hanoverians are our YourDressage Breed of the Month for March!  This breed originated in Germany, and is one of the oldest and most numerous of the Warmblood breeds.  Hanoverians are known for their good temperament, athleticism, beauty, and grace. Dressage enthusiasts who ride Hanoverians have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as The American Hanoverian Society is a Participating Organization

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories of what makes this breed so special to them.  Here, trainer Jo Bloom shares about this breed, which she describes as half teddy bear, half dragon, and her connection to her Hanoverian Diddi.

I fell in love with the Hanoverian breed soon after losing my OTTB.

I evented all through high school on an ex-steeplechase gelding named Sprite, who I adored.  He was hot and wild, could jump the moon, and I literally can’t even count the amount of times I fell off him before we discovered harmony together.  He broke his leg in a freak accident, and losing him made me realize I wanted nothing but a life full of horses. I quit college and started as a dressage working student in my home state of Colorado.

I switched to dressage for the same reason most people do – cross-country at the upper levels frightened me, and I was completely mesmerized by the dancing horses I saw in the Olympic ring.  I swore I would learn how to ride like that, whatever it took.

The first day I showed up to my grooming job, there was a massive glossy dark bay Hanoverian gnawing on his cross ties in an immaculate grooming stall.  To me, who was raised on a tiny family farm, introduced to riding by our scruffy trail Mustang, this was the epitome of luxury. A brush was put in my hand, and I began to tack up this elegant monster of a horse.  He flipped his velvety nose around and revealed a ridiculously flexible neck by “hugging” me tightly. His name was Diddi, and I bought him three years later.

Diddi had a rough road.  He was dead lame for the first two years I groomed him.  He had been ridden abusively, his head cranked and his spirit flogged, until his body shut down.  I jogged him monthly for the vet with no improvement. His owner went to great lengths to help him recover. He had a new trainer, who was my boss, and all of us tried every therapy under the sun to help him until we discovered Pulsed Electro Magnetic Therapy (PEMF).

During his very first session, his therapist (Mending Fences Equine) found and treated a giant painful muscle knot in his hindquarters that was causing him to move crooked, landing with uneven force on the opposite front leg.  The front leg, which we’d been treating endlessly for suspensory issues, miraculously healed up when he could move straight again. We joyfully put him back into the training program.

It was still a process.  Diddi had talent in unearthly amounts, but he had a strange habit of “shutting down” emotionally. He would simply stop and stand, eyes glazed like a shark, unaware of anything anymore and oblivious to kicks or taps.  After he became mine, I worked very hard to make work fun for him again. I taught him how to trail ride, which was a very spooky process. Not because dressage horses are inherently more spooky, but simply because he had not been taught to handle the unexpected. 

I started to ride him bareback and found that he softened quite a bit. He understood that I had made myself vulnerable to better connect with him. (His glass-smooth gaits and broad muscular back make bareback riding astonishingly comfortable; a trait I have found consistent in the breed). I moved him across the country with me a couple times; first to Wellington, where we rode many sandy sunny trails, and then to Georgia, where I competed him and trained young Hanoverians professionally. 

None of these jobs lasted forever, but I noticed a very profound thing happen: as I matured, my relationship with my horse deepened. He became noticeably more confident every time I overcame a challenging life experience. It was like magic. The dressage movements we had struggled for years to unearth were coming together at an almost unbelievable rate – the half-pass, the pirouettes, the Spanish walk. We took clinics, we practiced, we fit them together like puzzle pieces; but the solidifying factor was simply me.  The more life I lived, the more my horse became.  Horses are mirrors, they say, and mine reflected the significant amount of growing I had to do to survive as a young entrepreneur in a difficult industry.

Soon we were able to ride with no tack at all.  My horse began offering things nobody had ever taught him: new dressage movements, a brave exploring nature on trails, an affinity for other types of animals.  He fell in love with creatures that once sent him into hysterics – cows, deer, donkeys, and alpacas. They were now his friends, and he took me to visit them anytime we were on a hack.  He became protective of me and of anyone inexperienced that I put on him. He loves children, he loves simple pasture board, and he loves to be lazy and graze quietly while I lay on his withers.

However, he, like a surprising amount of Hanoverians I have trained, has what we call a double-whorl.  All horses have a whorl in the hair between their eyes. Mine has two. The superstition (which I’ve found unerringly true) is that two whorls equals two personalities in one.  The tricky thing is finding where they intersect.

At home, my horse is a lazy teddy bear.  But once he experiences just the right amount of stimulation (usually exposure to something new), his switch flips and a totally different personality comes out.  He becomes exactly like my racehorse. Hot, wild, prancy, snorty, an ultimate show-off. So my riding must become quite different as well – extremely poised, in absolute control of myself, with a more sensitive seat, extra reassurance, and definitely more contact.  He’ll suddenly throw in bucks, and it just means he’s feeling good.  Every movement becomes enhanced to the extreme. This version of him is my show horse, and it took a long time for us to figure out how to temper it and turn the switch back off!

The double-whorl is unusually common in the Hanoverian breed.  Fully half of the Hanoverians I’ve trained have had one. I’m convinced it’s no accident.  We created this breed to be a hybrid. We wanted the muscle tone and steady mind of a draft horse, with the athleticism and quick-wittedness of the Thoroughbred.  And we got it. Sometimes literally as a double personality.

These horses are special.  You can put children on them one day and ride them to greatness in the ring the next.  You can take the tack off, enjoy a relaxed trail ride, as long as you’re listening for their adrenaline response.  As soon as they hit “stimulated” suddenly you are on a dragon, and you must ride very carefully to direct the unlimited energy in a positive way.  There is nothing to fear from a double-whorl horse. You must simply recognize and anticipate the turning point, and handle him differently when it happens.

All horses – but especially Hanoverians – have a special talent for reading emotions.  Anything you are feeling, your horse will pick up on. You cannot bring any work stress, any fear, any anger to the ride, or else you will both end up snorty and disheveled.  You must master your own mental energy. You must listen to your horse when he tells you you are too wound up. Diddi and I have worked it out to the point where, if my mind begins to drift during a ride, he will simply stop and look at me.  He used to become spooky if he sensed I was not focused. Now, he has identified the true problem (which is me, not his environment) and simply catches my attention so I can correct it. This kind of bond with a horse, like raw telepathy itself, is as entrancing as it is difficult to master.  Hanoverians were bred to be sensitive, and they react to your thoughts before you even realize you are having them.

This sensitivity makes them higher maintenance, but not in a negative way.  A Hanoverian cannot tolerate a saddle fit that is less than ideal. If his feet are not exactly balanced by the farrier, he will develop reluctance in his movement.  If you, his person, arrive frequently stressed, he will absorb it like a sponge and even develop health issues as a result. There’s a sensitivity spectrum, of course. My horse is particularly highly sensitive, but as a general rule this breed is just made that way. Listen to them.  If something is wrong they will tell you. If my Hanoverians had an issue, they would act out in unusual ways, or simply refuse to work.

It’s easy to feel threatened by this kind of behavior, but I keep in mind that horses are like young children. They can’t communicate “help” except by crying. So I never punish them, for not one of them has ever lied to me.  Either mentally or physically, something is distressing them, and so I stop and analyze and I always find it. Sometimes it’s as major as incorrect head carriage; sometimes it’s as minor as a hoof bruise. Sometimes it’s me, whether I’m sitting a bit crooked and unbalancing them, or bringing negative emotional energy to the table that they can’t help but react to. Hanoverians are so expressive that when I learned to read the small signals, they had no need for blowups. I can tell how they feel about yesterday’s work simply by how readily they accept their bits when tacking up. Diddi has learned to repetitively stomp the exact foot that hurts. In this way, their sensitivity actually protects them, by revealing the issue early before it causes damage. When handled correctly, it creates happy horses and careful riders.

I learned some amateur massage so that I could help my horses with tight muscles, which are often a cause for decreased performance.  Hanoverians will give me 300% of their physical capability, but it means I must be extra careful to help them recover from soreness. Extra rest days; extra body work; extra hacks.  These always get me much further than schedules and drills. If they need something, they tell me. And if I listen, they decide to trust and will go to the ends of the earth to please me.

Diddi has travelled the entire country with me.  I am ridiculously proud of him and any time spent with him is like active meditation.  I cannot lie to him about what I feel, so I must master the present simply to enjoy his company.   This is the ultimate therapy for me. As a perfectionist, it is a joy to spend time making sure everything is exactly right – his feet, his diet, his blankets, his tack.  I love to create diversity and fun for him. Bareback here, dressage shows there, galloping and hacking and free riding and jumping and everything in between. He is endlessly loving, endlessly capable, and his gaits are so smooth and lovely, I often call him a cloud.  He licks things like a dog, he occasionally jumps fences just because he can, he is very silly for his sugar cubes, he loves his herd, and he loves to be muddy. And I will never stop marvelling at how happy he is to see me and go on new adventures. He has left his difficult past completely behind him, inspirational proof that humans can do the same.

If you, like me, are lucky enough to ride a horse of this remarkable breed, I salute the lifelong bonding and growth that is inherently yours.  If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a sensitive one with a double-whorl – well then, you hold the world in your hands.


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