Standerton Show 2019

I told the world – and myself – that I had hung up Arwen’s double bridle after Nissan Easter Festival 2018. Of course, this was by no means due to any failing on her part. She had just blossomed into her prime, and we had had many fantastic years together, and of course nothing would ever persuade me to part with the dragonmare or our cast-iron friendship.

But when it came to competition, I was just stepping out over the threshold of adulthood, and frankly, I was totally broke. I had to get a day job (as far as being a ghostwriter can be considered any kind of a normal day job, lol) and narrow my focus to one or two horsies instead of riding everything and entering everything the way I had as a teenager sponging happily on the long-suffering parents. Knowing that my heart was called to dressage, it made sense not to retire Arwen, but to give the ride to someone who could exhibit her to her fullest potential: a kid. And God’s timing, as usual, was perfect. I had a a kid in the yard who was everything – dedicated, tall enough to sit on a 14.3 hand barrel without looking puny, tactful enough to ride a mare who knows her job and doesn’t want you in the way, with just enough spunk to enjoy the dragonmare’s fire and enough Velcro on his bottom not to get burned by it. They had a great HOY 2019 together, winning supreme champion in hand and reserve supreme in working riding. Arwen’s third year running with the latter title.

img-20180325-wa0028.jpg

We were all gearing up for kiddo to ride her at Standerton Show last week, and shipped her off to a lesson with a showing coach to get her ready, and then that turned out to be a complete disaster. Something got up the dragon’s nose – I am not sure what, but I think it must have been a bug that bit her or something along those lines – and she completely lost her mind for about half an hour. She was fine when we got home, but I wasn’t wholly sure if she was going to behave at Standerton, thinking that maybe she’d learned some silly manners from the kiddo. So I decided to ride her there myself.

FB_IMG_1568544212099.jpg

It was a good choice! Not for the poor kiddo, who missed out on a perfectly-behaved dragonheart and a beautifully run show, but for me. Sorry kiddo! It really was for his own good.

The show started out a little bit disastrous when, ah, Aunt Flo visited all over my canary breeches – right before the in-hand. Luckily, head-groom-turned-student-instructor L was showing Vastrap, so she was on hand to take Arwen into the class while one embarrassed lump of humanity (me) spread my hastily-washed breeches on the bonnet of the bakkie to dry. Despite the chaos around her, Arwen was impeccably behaved in hand. Obviously, she won champion mare. It’s kind of her thing when it comes to in hand.

By the time the working riding class began, I had mercifully regained my dignity and my now-dry breeches, so we could go in and do our thing. Arwen was considering some dragonishness, but she didn’t let it show too much, so we popped happily through a straightforward track to win the Nooitie section and get reserve champion overall.

Best walk was next, and I think best walk is the most amazing thing for skittish me on an equally skittish youngster, but I actually entered it because Arwen has such a magnificent walk. Unsurprisingly, she won that, too. I’m glad I read the rules for best walk and gave her a looong rein, though. If I’d tried to be my usual DQ self, we might not have done so well.

In between, L and Vastrap were doing great – second in the WR, second in the jakkalsperd (handy hunter) I think, and then third in Best Canter because VT thought it was Best Gallop.

Finally, we had the best three-gaited. I watched the pleasure horse and think I’ll give it a shot next time – Arwen will be great if she doesn’t dragon too much. We went in and the Nooities were being judged with the SASA Riding Horses, and that was where we had a little bit of an oops. This was a supremely accessible, cheap, local show, which attracted a lot of top-class Nooities and WBs but also some newcomers to the showing ring. And I think that is absolutely wonderful, but a few of them were a little unused to riding in a group – and especially unused to riding in a group that was doddering along at a nice little showing canter. So somebody promptly rode up the dragon’s bum.

pictured: barely containing full-blown dragon mode

Arwen is a boss mare and she is not afraid to show it. Her back came up at once, and I squiggled her out of the way before she could do anything about the horse breathing up her tail, thinking we had averted disaster. Regrettably, the horse that was now behind us also didn’t really know what to do, so as we turned down the short side it went up our bum too. Trapped against the fence, I had nowhere to go, and Arwen decided to remedy the situation by launching a series of double-barrels at the intruder. They were warning kicks and all missed, and thankfully the horse stayed off us after that, but by then she was ANGRY.

She spent the rest of the class pullung and wanting to buck a bit, for which I couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t bad, but definitely a grumpy little sassdragon. We ended up second to Wilgerus Dakota, a beautiful bay stallion that I didn’t think we could beat anyway. The judge did come up to me and let me know that she hadn’t penalized Arwen for kicking at the other horse.

I totally don’t mind, though. Everyone was a newbie once. I’m just glad the kicks didn’t land lol.

At least we were into the championship class and Arwen had simmered down. We were asked to show an individual test in this class and thanks to a few showing lessons on Gatsby, I had learned a new one. Dakota rode a truly stunning test, and then it was our turn.

The test was short and sweet. Walk away, trot a rein change, lengthen down the long side, canter in the corner, canter a serpentine with lead changes (I did them through walk), lengthen the canter, trot, halt for the judge. Arwen was just fired up enough that when I asked for the lengthening I got a massive one – I didn’t even know she had that much extension in her. I was kind of beaming by this point because despite 18 months under a child, Arwen had not forgotten one drop of the ten years of schooling we had put in.

The changes through walk were so, so clean and obedient and she was so quiet coming back from the lengthening. When we halted from trot, dead square off my seat, I knew she’d just ridden the best test of her life. I may have been grinning just a little bit when I asked for five steps of rein back and then dropped the reins. She stood like a statue.

It was the most exhilarating moment we’ve ever had in the show ring together – I could not have been prouder even if we’d placed dead last. It was not the single most magical achievement of our career so far, but it was symbolic to me of the partnership that has spanned my entire adolescence and extends into adulthood, a partnership that taught me so much courage on a mare that exemplifies the phrase “against the odds”. A partnership that has spoken to me of God’s great plan. This ride – it was just a cherry on top.

I was so happy, and so pleased with this absolutely amazing fireball of a horse, that my salute may as well have been a mic drop. Still, I was kind of flabbergasted when we finally got the title that’s been eluding her for years: ridden champion.

My wall is absolutely covered in satin from the dragonbeast, in every discipline, and yet those rosettes don’t inspire a feeling of achievement in me. They make me feel something else: grateful. And perhaps a little awed by God’s mercy. Oh, not because of the placings. Those will crumble to dust like everything else. But because of what He achieved in my heart because of the fire in hers. Rosettes are forgettable, but love and courage and gratitude – those are forever.

And Arwen has been an instrument to bless me with them all. The guts she showed me out on a cross-country track or walking into the show ring with all the big names, I needed later for far bigger and more real challenges. And she was there for me even in those.

So with 2020 on the horizon, what’s next for my most faithful equine partner? Well, Dakota’s owner offered us a free covering. I definitely would like to put her in foal, although I can’t keep her babies right now – they’d have to have buyers before they’re bred. Still, the Nooitie is a hugely endangered breed and partially so due to inbreeding. Because her lines are rare and she’s only half Nooitie, Arwen is exactly the type of mare that could really benefit the breed.

She has just turned 13 so it’s time to start thinking about this kind of thing. However, God willing, she’ll definitely do HOY 2020, with me and with a child. After that, it’s time for baby dragons!

God’s abundance is undeserved. Glory to the King.

10 Questions for September

I have lots of news to share – including riding Arwen at a showing show this week where she won practically every class she walked into, in true Dragonmare style – but being a little pressed for time at 5:44am on a Saturday (freelancing means you work your own hours), here are ten questions by the lovely L. from Viva Carlos.

1. Favorite quirk your horse (or a horse you’ve spent time with) has?

There are many! For Thunder, though, I love that he always comes up to me in the field -always has, ever since he was just a foal. And I also love that he poops right before going into the wash bay, every single time lol. It’s better than pooping IN the wash bay!

2. Three adjectives that perfectly describe your horse?

Kind. Willing. Loyal.

3. Plan your next ride. What will you do/work on?

My next ride will probably be on Tilly, doing a ton of transitions to get her a little more relaxed and into the bridle than she has been of late. Balance is always a thing for Tilly. If I have time, I’ll pop on Lancelot as well and we’ll do what we’ve been doing all winter: trot in figure-eights trying to find balance.

4. Have you ever trained an OTTB? If yes, what was the biggest challenge?

A few, but not with as much success as bringing on the babies. Magic, obviously, was a complete disaster, but that wasn’t all my fault. I also did the first few rides restarting Milady after the track and being a broodmare. Honestly, to my mind the biggest challenge is that almost every single one of them has some kind of a physical issue. Not all of them are chronic, although I think a huge proportion come off the track with KS, but honestly I think all of them have ulcers and tightness through the body at the very least. They can still make fabulous horses but retraining an OTTB is a very different beast from bringing on a baby, and I definitely prefer the babies.

5. Have you ever groomed or worked for a professional rider?

No, unless you count exercising horses for K in exchange for lessons – which was awesome and the only reason I made it through Module 4.

6. Favorite horse and rider combination?

Oh, it would have to be Charlotte and Blueberry, wouldn’t it? Despite her recent oops at Rotterdam, Charlotte remains one of the quietest riders out there in the ring today. And my favourite thing about watching Valegro isn’t really the fact that he’s utterly perfect (which he is), but his expression. I love his floppy ears and quiet tail. He’s just a happy bro doing his thing.

On the local circuit, I like watching K ride – she is picture perfect.

7. Have you ever ridden a horse at the beach?

Yes!

8. If you could experience the equestrian community (i.e. ride and compete) in another country, what country would you choose and why?

Definitely the UK. It’s turned out some of the best riders in the world, with some of the kindest philosophies. For good stable management, the British are kind of unrivaled.

9. In your opinion, what is an item of tack that is given unnecessary hype?

The crank/flash combination that’s so “in” in dressage right now. I like the crank look, and truly if you’re going to pull a crank too tight you’d probably pull a cavesson tight too (just don’t be a cow to your horse and pull on the noseband, m’kay?) but the flash is just a truly useless piece of equipment. You can’t put it on kindly because it drops off the nose. If the horse really does resist by opening the mouth (and not just because you have ugly hands), then I find an old-fashioned drop to be a much kinder option. It can be loose enough to allow plenty of movement and just discourage really gaping and taking off like some horses regrettably do.

10. What was the first horse you rode called? Are they still alive?

I have a picture of a pony that I rode at a party when I was super tiny (like, not yet walking), but I don’t know his name. The first riding school pony I rode with any regularity was called Prinsie. I think he’s passed on by now, but I had the chance to ride him a few more times when I was a teenager and he was still joyously running away with everyone who rode him.

FB_IMG_1556105850184.jpg

Soon I’ll have show photos of Arwen to share along with her latest collection of accolades, and then Thunder, Christopher and I have a lesson at J’s tomorrow, so many stories to follow.

Glory to the King.

All the Lungeing

After his break during the beginning of 2019, Thunder was impeccably behaved coming back into work. But he was also fat and unfit. Really, really unfit.

To be fair, I wasn’t the fittest I had ever been, either. Thanks to my job at the Arab stud, I was still exercising 2-3 horses a day, but they were mostly either babies or impeccably trained old show horses. The former requires mostly the “hang on and don’t die” muscles to operate; the others are so soft and light and smooth that they barely require muscles at all. Certainly none of them were the full-body workout that is riding a half-schooled dressage horse whilst not really having any idea of how to do so.

and even the babies are soft now

So when J told us that we needed to get fit, he was totally right. He put us to work lungeing for 20 minutes three days a week (schooling once or twice a week) and so, combined with having tons of babies to work, I find myself in the middle of a lunge ring quite frequently.

To be honest, I kinda like lungeing. I mean, it’s extremely boring (Thunder is getting a bit tired of it now) but I sat lungeing exams for my stable management modules and might pride myself just a teeny bit on being a bit on the pedantic side when it comes to lungeing.

Lungeing can be a little controversial sometimes. Many trainers absolutely swear by it (lookin at you, J) while others prefer hills or cavaletti for fitness. Personally, I think all of the above can be beneficial depending on the horse and human and situation. But lungeing can certainly be a tool for evil.

trying not to covet J’s indoor lungeing square which has a fancy foreign name but I can’t remember

Lungeing has a set of benefits that makes it an important tool in my toolbox, though. Some of them include:

  • Teaching the unbacked horse to move in rhythm and balance, respond to voice commands, and accept tack
  • Laying a foundation of fitness without the rider’s weight – for horses with poor topline or unbacked youngsters
  • Allowing a less experienced person, like a good groom, to exercise the horse for a busy rider (it takes a few months to learn to lunge really well, much longer to learn to ride)
  • Warming up a stiff back before riding
  • Perhaps most importantly, giving the rider an opportunity to see the horse move, which allows one to connect what it feels like to what it looks like.
little helper

Lungeing, however, is often easily misused. Even though there’s no rider involved, it’s still hard on the horse’s body. Typically lungeing involves fewer walk breaks than riding and working on a circle isn’t easy on the joints. I have a few ground rules to help lungeing do what all training tools should – make the horse’s life better.

  • Preferably not before four, and certainly not before three. Look, five minutes twice a week won’t kill your two-year-old. But I don’t work my three-year-olds more than three or four days a week, and even then, only for 15 minutes at a time. Just enough to show them how to move in balance. Four-year-olds can do 20 minutes or so, but slowly and judiciously. What are you going to do with a four-year-old anyway? They’re basically camels with no brains at that age.
  • Whatsoever you do to one side, do also unto the other. Nothing makes a horse asymmetrical faster than asymmetrical lungeing. Working the weak side harder than the strong side mostly only makes the horse stiff and resentful.
  • Lungeing is schooling. My pet peeve is horses who CHARGE off onto the circle in a mad trot. No. Mine are expected to stand stock-still until asked, at which point they shall walk briskly and calmly onto the circle and continue walking until asked to trot. All transitions should take place on voice command. When asked to stop, they stand quietly. This makes life much more relaxing for the horse.
  • Lunge in all three gaits. Some babies, especially the gawky types, have trouble cantering on a small circle. Apart from those, mine lunge in walk, trot and canter. Jackhammer trot is not a gait.
  • Pay attention to gait quality. The gaits in lungeing should be the same as under saddle, if not better due to the lack of encumbrance from uncoordinated humanity. Jackhammer trot is not a quality gait. Young horses should be able to lunge smoothly and in balance without gadgets in all three gaits before being expected to carry a rider. Nothing is worse for the horse’s joints and muscles than tearing around madly, hollow and counter bent.
  • If you use a gadget, understand it. I like elasticated side reins and maybe a neck stretcher/chambon, but only for horses who already understand the contact and are strong enough to carry themselves. I prefer introducing the contact on the long lines. That way, they can have plenty of little stretch breaks while the muscles develop.
and that, ladies and gentlemen, is an open throatlash

I’m sure others have different rules, and that mine will change over time, but that’s what I’m doing right now. And that is how I try not to die of boredom while lungeing 6 horses in a day lol. But it’s starting to pay off.

22 July
3 September

Here’s hoping J will be happier with us next week. Thunny certainly feels a LOT more powerfully forward under saddle now – the canter-walks are suddenly back, a medium trot came out of nowhere (yesssss) and we even have changes again. Yay!

Glory to the King.

Conservative

Yesterday was a lovely young horse show at Penbritte (my favourite venue in the world), and since I have nothing but good memories of the young horse classes I used to do years ago on the illustrious Nell, it was the perfect opportunity to take the babies.

these plaits worked so well on his long mane

Gatsby has been on a little trip to my own yard, but never off the farm before that, so I was ready to do some slow breathing and apply some Velcro to my butt.

so many things to snort at

However, I need not have worried. He was perfect to travel and arrived looky, but calm. Once I got on he was a little up and he did have to stare at every single horse that went past on the noisy gravel path (his home yard is a lot quieter than mine), but in 20 minutes or so he had come right down and was relaxed and listening.

Water was being noisily pumped into a tank right by the judge’s box when I went up to introduce him, and it was very spooky – to be fair I would have been concerned riding Thunder up to it. But Gatsby was fantastic. He was looking, but he didn’t run back or jump, just stopped to have a look. Dad came over (thanks to the very kind judge, who was supremely patient) and just walked ahead of him up and down a few times and that was that.

tippy toes!

I could not have asked for better during his test. He did break to walk at C to look at the water tank again, but just for a few steps. If I had flapped and kicked at him then he would have kept trotting but I elected to let him have a look and it paid off because he didn’t look again for the rest of the test, and of course it was a young horse test so that didn’t hurt us at all. He was responsive, calm and obedient and even stretched down in both walk and trot. I didn’t quite get the rein back like I wanted it, but everything else was fine.

I was pleasantly surprised at his mark of 65% because he may be a 5yo but he really isn’t strong enough to do this test that well, plus, I was extremely conservative and didn’t ask him for too much. If I could ride it again I’d still be conservative, though. I’d rather we had a quiet round and both of us felt more confident afterward than that I kicked him and chased him into gaits he can’t balance yet.

Nonetheless we got lots and lots of awesome prizes by dint of a tiny class and really brilliant sponsorship from Equi-Feeds. Old Skye is on Equi-Feeds Golden Years this winter and has done much better than previous winters even though she’s almost 31, so do go and check their website. I’ve also fed their lucerne chaff and shandy cubes and the chaff has always been beaufiful and clean.

There was just enough time to stuff Tilly’s hair into plaits before we went to warm up. Tilly is an absolute professional by this point. She was a little bit hot when we started warming up but settled right down, didn’t even look at the water tank, and plonked down centreline totally relaxed.

Her test was fabulous. I only put the lengthenings on her a few weeks ago and they just come naturally to this lovely lady. Her only mistake was taking the wrong lead in her first canter transition, but we fixed it and she didn’t get flustered about it (Tilly doesn’t get flustered about anything).

what is my upper body even doing

After watching the other two horses in the class, I’ll be honest, I was pretty sure she’d be coming home with a day sheet. I was surprised when she came third. I was riding quietly but not quite so conservatively as on Gatsby, and the other two horses were not as through, supple, obedient, rhythmic and connected as Tilly is. The judge, however, was looking for more power and forward movement, so that’s fair. I was test riding too much and not showing off her potential enough for this judge, but she still had a mark of 66% and behaved absolutely impeccably all day, so it was still a super show. And we won unicorn cookies!

unicookie!

I would not have changed my ride on Gatsby, but I’ll be riding bigger lengthenings on Tilly this week to see if she can balance them. However in light of J showing me not to chase the horse onto the forehand demanding more forward, I’m still more inclined to build the strength slowly and not ask for more power than the horse can comfortably contain.

It was another well organized show at Penbritte and with wonderful sponsorship. My two horses could not have been better and their owners can be extremely proud of them!

Glory to the King.

Unexciting Progress

I’ve been following Tamarack Hill Farm’s page for a while now, avidly gathering the abundant pearls of wisdom that Olympic horseman Denny Emerson has been so freely dispersing to the masses. His new book Know Better Do Better is definitely on my wishlist, but I’m not here to rave on the words of the oracle today.

Instead, I find myself in the midst of what Emerson describes over and over on his page, with photographical evidence: the power of unexciting progress.

lungeing = unexciting

As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than I wanted success. I worked so hard – riding multiple horses a day every single day since I was in my preteens. Drilling myself every single day. I had the golden opportunity of free access to horses, and I absolutely took it. They were the front and centre of my life. They were practically my identity, and as I grew up into a young adult, I only knew how to push harder. Faster. I wanted more, quicker, and I wanted success – now. Nothing was too high a price to pay for progress on a horse: not other areas of my life, not money, not time, not my mental health, and God forgive me, not even that horse’s state of mind.

trying to jump this height, but doesn’t know to put down a ground line

These days, though, through a long path of frustrating steadying, God has led me to another place. A place where not every ride has to show improvement. A place where I just plain slow down. No more riding 12 horses a day, no more frantically chasing the next level, no more competing every single horse in every single show regardless of whether they (or I) were ready for it.

There was no time then for anything but hurry and anxiety, and I remember only the wins as good times. But these days, I move a little bit slower. I ride 5 or 6 a day instead of 12. I got a day job to take some of the unrelenting pressure off the riding. I put the goals in the backseat, tucked the future up in bed, breathed deep and slow and tried to see every day the way a horse does: one moment at a time.

a first taste of the madness

I didn’t set goals for 2019. This was by design. I don’t want them right now; I want to give up all of that desperation to chase the next horizon in favour of slowing down my brain and making room for compassion, learning, and understanding.

I took a hiatus from showing – and even from Thunder – early in 2019. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a good thing, because I learned what it was that called me to horses in the first place. It wasn’t the shows. It was Him: the voice of God, whispering in the quiet moments when horse and human move spine to spine, breath to breath.

It took a journey of years, but I think I’m finally getting there. Getting to the place where I can crush the aching noise of pressure and the fear of what others will think, in favour of listening to the souls of horses. That’s what I’m here for, after all.

I was sixteen when I came down centreline for the first time and I didn’t even know how to get my horse on the bit. I had taught myself the diagonals the week before from an article on the Internet. I had no instruction and no knowledgeable support for the next five years. My family made it possible for me to keep riding, though, and I did. One ride, one article, one blog post, one Youtube video at a time I trained my own horse without lessons to Elementary. I taught dressage to myself on a hillside by God’s gracious provision, and I have nothing to prove anymore. I know I have it in me to be brilliant because God put it there. I can be an outstanding rider, and maybe I will be one day. But it’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, it might not happen in 5 years or 10 years or even 15 years or even ever if I break my neck tomorrow. And I’m not going to do this by myself: it’s going to take support and it’s going to take lessons from the coach who’s changed my riding.

I don’t know for sure if I ever will enter at A, collected canter. But I do know that I have this ride, this breath, this moment. I have this transition. I have this stride. And God put me here, in this moment, to be with Him.

I can’t say for sure I’ll be a Grand Prix rider in 10 years, but I can be a kind rider right now. The road to the FEI tests is a long one, and it starts with lungeing. It starts with trotting large, trying to get my hands under control. It starts with inside leg to outside rein. It continues with practice, constant patient daily practice, and I can find the greatness in practicing when every ride breathes life into the soul of a horse.

Grand Prix horses aren’t built in a year. Elementary horses aren’t even built in a year. They’re built in hundreds of thousands of slow rides, and lessons, and training shows. They’re built in the tedium of unexciting progress, progress so slow as to be nearly invisible, until five years later you have a different horse. And that slowness would be unbearable, if every moment wasn’t filled with the awareness of that beautiful thing God made between a person and a horse.

I think I am only now starting to see what it really means when I say, “Glory to the King.”

New Kids on the Block

Since December of last year, I’ve been working at a nearby Arabian stud – a dream come true, considering that I used to only gaze at the shiny stallions in the roadside fields as we passed them on the way home every single day when I was a kid.

they have peacocks!

These days, I get to handle those shiny stallions, and the serene old mares and the little dinky foals that look like they’ve been cast out of finest porcelain.

I have absolutely loved it, and gotten to know a bunch of such lovely personalities too. I had sworn off stallions completely, but now find myself handling them on a daily basis thanks to Lancey’s ever-gentle daddy (who also goes by the barn name of Lance) and his big shiny chestnut colleague, Belrock.

photo from their Facebook page

My main mission, of course, has been the young horses. My favourite, a chestnut half-sister of Lancey’s, won her class in hand and was then sold at the stud’s production auction to a very very lucky buyer. Now, I’m working Lancey’s full sister (she is nothing like him lol but beautiful and smart) and this handsome little chap.

Gatsby is five years old but I’ve only had him under saddle for five months or so. Nonetheless, he is a great guy. He learns things almost instantaneously and never seems to run out of try. I love him to bits. Gatsby is about to make his training show debut, so he’ll be making a few guest appearances on the blog in show recaps.

Generally I try not to talk about client horses on the blog, but I just had to gush about the beloved Arabs a little bit. Another pony that’ll show up here from time to time, while not an Arab, also lives at the beautiful stud farm. His name is Christopher and I had no idea how badly I needed a Welsh pony named Christopher in my life until God brought him into it.

Christopher is in his teens and has been around the block a thousand times already – including being a winning EM pony. His breeding is drool-worthy and so is he. Impeccably schooled though he is, he is a sassy lil dude and knows his job, and it’s very cool to get to play around on him. Thunder can only school so many days a week, and everything else I ride is Prelim level or lower, so I jumped at the chance to ride Christopher and get some more mileage at the more difficult movements.

so photogenic

If funds allow, Chris and I will get to go to a few shows soon. Get used to this adorable little dark bay face, blogosphere – there will be more of him.

At this point, I’m just going along with God’s wonderful ideas. Glory to the King.

Penbritte Training Dressage

With memberships being cripplingly expensive, Thunder and I are limited to ride n go tests or those few shows that offer higher levels than novice to non-members. Shout-out to those venues, by the way – they make dressage so much more accessible! Especially to young riders trying to make it to the top on a shoestring.

Grateful for the opportunity, Thunder, Tilly, the parents and I headed to the most magical venue of them all – Penbritte. It’s one of the best in the country, and right on our doorstep. Thunder was a little bewildered to disembark after only 45 minutes instead of the usual two hours to J’s.

We had the luxury of time, too. So I finally busted out these cute lil beaded plaiting elastics that Arwen and I won five years ago in our mutual first ever dressage test (Prelim 1, with 63% – I’ll never forget it). I have never had the courage to actually use them, but they are fabulous and ain’t no one gonna tell me not to put colourful beads in my longsuffering horse’s hair.

He warmed up GREAT – the best he ever has, despite the fact that the arena next door was being watered and making him look a bit. He’s become such a lovely, mature, grown-up horsie at last. He was a bit heavy in my left hand, normal for him, so we did some shoulder-in and then just ran through all the movements once. I was extremely chill, which was great. We suffered one small disaster right before we went in when my hair decided to rebel and came tumbling down my back, requiring a frantic last-minute mounted fix with the reins pinned down between my thigh and the saddle in the knowledge that if he did take off I would be dead. He didn’t take off, I didn’t die, and we were actually early when we headed round to the judge.

A huge part of being more relaxed in the ring for me is being more relaxed right before entering. You have 45 seconds after the bell, which is a surprisingly large amount of time – enough to ride a transition or two before embarking down centerline. I do a quick trot-walk-trot with Thunder to remind us both to breathe. So we came down centerline for Elementary 1 and halted, straight and steady but not square, for 6.5.

I was riding from memory and a bit tense about it but actually the new elementary tests flow great. The turn E-X and serpentine X-A felt fabulous for a 7.0. The judge commented “light in neck” – not sure if that was good or bad, but he was very soft in the inside rein on both loops and bending well. The first lengthening was a 6.5 with the usual comments “needs more forward” (always and forever) but I’m totally happy with that for his weakest movement. The halt immobility 5 seconds at C, once a huge struggle for Thunder, was PERFECT. He felt just slightly unbalanced into the halt but the judge said it was square and he was attentive and calm for a 7.

Then came the leg-yields. In the old Elementary, there was shoulder-in in four out of the six tests. Elementary 1 had no lateral work and Elementary 3 had a leg-yield zigzag, H-X-K. So Thunder and I practiced almost exclusively shoulder-in until the new tests came out and Elementary 1 now has a steep little leg-yield: B-X half 10m circle, X-H leg-yield. I was worried about it because leg-yield into a corner doesn’t leave much margin for error, and thus curled up my daft outside leg too much, but he was perfect and floated exactly to H for a 7. The highest mark either of us have achieved on lateral work.

A door slammed behind him in our next lengthening, which gave him a bit of oomph even though he was feeling more tired now, but the judge didn’t like it and said 6.5 for being slightly hurried. The next leg-yield was K-D half circle, D-B leg-yield and to his harder side. I panicked a bit and didn’t finish the half circle properly, and he’s a little stiffer to the right so lost a bit of activity, but it was still a respectable 6.5. That was the end of the trot work, and when we transitioned to walk at R, I could feel he was getting a little flat. Not enough that I was going to pull him up, but he was starting to feel it. I patted him to give him some encouragement and didn’t chase the walk too much so his usually wonderful walk was a boring 6.5.

The transition up to canter was fairly good, and his canter was much more forward, but we still had to crank around the 10m circle at E for our worst mark – 6.0, with comment “circle too large, more uphill”. He was trying to buck but didn’t have the energy so that didn’t help lol. We redeemed ourselves with a 7 on the counter canter loop and then came the canter-walk at H. I did my best to stay out of his face and ride it from my seat, and he was so good, but put in a couple of trot steps before stepping nice and round into walk. I cringed a bit, but it was a 6.5, not bad at all for a movement that gets in my head so much. Honestly I have no idea what the judge commented. The scribe got a little bit distracted and made squiggles.

The free walk, normally a great mark, lacked energy and I just let him take a bit of a break because he needed it so it was tracking up and stretchy but lacklustre for a 6.5. The transition back to canter was another 6.5, as was the lengthening, which was nice and straight but – in the judge’s words “not enough”. We were both tired by now and got 6.0 for the next 10m circle and counter canter loop, but ended on a high note with 7.0 for the final halt.

The collectives gave us a 6.5 for paces (with comment “tempo in canter”), a 6.0 for impulsion, a 6.5 for submission and a 6.5 for rider position. The final mark was 65% with comment “Obedient horse, now needs more impulsion and self-carriage for better expression. Well done”. It was nice to have “well done” at the bottom instead of “well tried”, which characterized my old elementary tests on Arwen.

I was soooooo happy with the big boy. He was so mature and easy to ride, and even though we’re both still getting fit and definitely started flagging in the canter work, we got a solid mark at a level that I used to find practically impossible. In fact it didn’t feel impossible at all; it felt kind of easy. There weren’t any movements that I really worried about and he was familiar and relaxed with everything. I think we could easily have gotten half a mark more on everything if we were both fitter, which is something we’re working hard at.

Tilly was next in Prelim 1 and 3, and she was just exemplary. What a lovely little horse she’s turning out to be! I got lost at the start of Prelim 1, but then scraped it back together for mostly 7s that ended with a mark of 67.8 and a 2nd place.

Prelim 3 was even better; she still needs work on her squiggly wiggly baby centrelines and on the fact that she’s still a bit young and uses my hands as a fifth leg, which I allow because J said so even though my biceps and abs are dyyyyyying, but she is extremely solid for the level and got a 69 and a first place.

We also got the second ever 9 of my career for her walk, so at least I can still do that even though Thunder ran out of juice in his walk on the day.

It was a great day and so nice to have both my parents with me even though darling was away again. Tilly is going from strength to strength considering she’s only four, and my Thunder was amazing and will be far more amazing when we add some more fitness. He already felt a hundred times better than our lesson.

Glory to the King.