We’ve all seen it: For sale, 14.3hh three-year-old, will mature to 16hh. Even if there was some secret formula that you could give a horse to make it grow more than a hand after its third year, you probably still wouldn’t get your 16 hands because it stands 13.3 and has parents standing 14.2 and 15.1hh.
But slamming dishonest sellers has little point. I’m here not to try, but to ask the question: Even if you could make that horse grow to sixteen hands, why would you want to?
In the horse world it often appears that the common perception is bigger is better, which I personally have found not to be the truth. The best jumper I’ve ridden stands a mere 15.2hh, and will probably never be bigger than 15.3. And while the top jumping and dressage arenas are filled with horses between 15.3 and 16.3 hands high, I really don’t see any correlation between truly massive horses – 16.3 and up – and performance.
The world record holding jumper, whose record has stood for 65 years, stood 16.1hh. Valegro, the horse who holds three dressage world records, stands 16.2.
While there are exceptions to every rule, I feel there is a reason that most top horses are under 17hh: too big is a problem. Bigger is not always better. Tall horses are heavy, which makes it harder for them to get off the ground, which makes it harder for them to jump. They also struggle to take small turns, essential for the jump-off. While tall horses don’t have as far to jump as shorter ones, it makes logical sense that a lighter horse will jump with more ease.
As for dressage, big, tall, long horses can be incredibly difficult to put together. Dressage is about connection, and when you have a neck three miles long in front of you and a tail somewhere in the distance behind and hooves floundering around way below your altitude, it’s tough to connect anything. Again, a big horse often has bigger and flashier movement; but may not be able to be as light on its feet as a smaller one.
Perhaps it all comes down to personal preference. I like my horses short from front to back, but don’t care much how tall they are except when I have to get on. Obviously a taller horse is more daunting to handle, especially on the ground, but for the most part it’s length and movement that defines its ease of riding.
For me there are so many factors influencing performance – temperament, training, feeding, breeding, conformation – that height ranks very low on my criteria for choosing a top horse. A 15.2hh animal with talent can jump the socks off a beast two hands taller with poor conformation. It’s more about heart and build than height.
Yesterday, I saddled Magic up and hit the arena for some schooling, with one goal in mind: FORWARD. Lately, he’s been basically a pain, refusing to respond to my leg and pulling on my hands all at the same time. Normally, it’s run forward and pull, or hide behind the bit and ignore all leg aids. Last session I spent half an hour just trying to get him off my hands, and all I got was a grumpy Magic with apparently no nerve endings in his sides.
I believe very much in the most important thing to remember in riding being to go forward. No matter how slow the gait, it has to be forward. I can deal with pulling or poor rhythm or a bad frame, just as long as the horse goes forward. So, for the session, I decided we’d ignore the frame and ask for nothing but forward. It took about fifteen minutes and one crack across the withers with the reins before Magic suddenly realised that he could go forward and suddenly I had my star horse back: long relaxed strides, plenty of impulsion and, guess what, he came off my hands and held himself properly and looked about a hundred times happier in his work.
Because he was being very chilled and in a good frame of mind, I decided to set up some jumps. Normally, I don’t like to jump too often for fear of boring the horse, but right now my jumping confidence is at a low and so (of course) are the horses’, so we both need plenty of practice.
I started with about a 60cm upright. And it looked big and scary, so obviously I kicked him into it and he overjumped and I pulled him in his mouth (because that’s so the best way to handle a tiny jump that looks big and scary). I’m actually shocked at how low my confidence is on him. I used to jump 1.10 and 1.20 on him with no worries, but I guess we’re in the place we are now and the only way out is onward – so I’m not dwelling on it.
I stopped and thought. Basically, I could either keep the jump at this height and kick him into it and repeat our performance until he either jumped me out of the tack or got annoyed and threw a buck and scared us both, or I could swallow my pride and make it smaller. I made it smaller. As in, 30cm kind of smaller. Then, I brought him to it in a trot, decided it was much too little to be scary, and we popped over.
I picked it up to about 40cm and again, trot in, pop over, canter out. We cantered it twice and he was perfect: jumped out of his stride, not too high, rhythmic and settled, stayed on the right lead. The same at 50cm. Cantering over the little jump again, I tried to figure out what had changed, and then it hit me.
When we were going over the tiny jumps, I was relaxed. Because of that, I stayed relaxed in the saddle and – crucially – kept my hands forward and still with the reins relatively loose. At the base of the jump, I didn’t kick him over, I just gave him a squeeze and over he’d go. When I was nervous, I’d tense up in the saddle and squeeze him continually with my legs. I’d pull him in tight to try and stop him from overjumping and then, at the base of the jump, think he was going to stop so give him a big kick and exaggerated release, so obviously he’d jump way too high. But when I kept my hands soft and let him do the job himself, he did it perfectly.
Before my non-equestrian readers’ imaginations go wild, let me define that term: “daisycutter” is an informal word for a horse that doesn’t pick up its feet when it moves, dragging its toes instead. With bad ones you can even hear the toe scraping audibly along the ground, which is presumably low enough to cut daisies, hence the term. It’s an annoying and most unflattering habit, and although perhaps not as bad as dishing, forging, brushing or over-reaching, it needs to be trained out of the horses that do it.
Arwen has always struggled with daisycutting. Originally I believe it was because she was an unbearably lazy youngster and simply couldn’t be bothered to pick up her feet. Now that she’s learnt to enjoy her work and is generally enthusiastic about everything she does, it could just be an old habit that rears its ugly head every now and again.
The one exercise I know that helps with daisycutting is, unfortunately for Arwen, pole work. I often think that working over poles is more difficult than it looks, requiring quite a lot of concentration and coordination to do well. After all, when a horse goes over poles well, it goes in perfect rhythm with strides all the same length and with elevated (and extended, depending on pole placement) movement. The rhythm takes concentration; the elevation, especially if the rider or training aid is causing the horse to keep its head in the right position and its hindquarters engaged, works a lot of muscles.
Cue me rubbing my hands together and cackling evilly. I love making horses work hard. Poor babies.
I must say that she has toned up nicely since she was brought back into work in January after her AHS vaccination. She wasn’t fat, but she was soft and had a bit of a belly; now she has such a streamlined, athlete’s build. I like her condition now. You can just see her last rib; perhaps a bit thin for a show horse, but right for an eventer.
With Arwen’s rhythm and elevation needing work, and me taking any opportunity to develop her back, belly and bottom, pole work it has been almost every session. I schooled her over a set of five poles on the ground last week to refresh her memory. She knows what to do with poles and went over them all in a perfect rhythm, and didn’t knock any around – just clipped them lazily once or twice.
After that she had her cross-country schooling and a couple of days off to recuperate from the travel, and then was brought back into work with a shock with some lunging over poles. I’d lunged her over a single set of four poles before, but noticed that while she went fine over them and just before and after them, on the far side of the ring she’d just go back to daisycutting. This time, I decided to challenge her by putting three poles on one side and three directly opposite.
It worked like a charm. She was rhythmic, accurate and confident; better still, she didn’t drag her toes between the poles either, because she was always preparing for the next set. I could definitely see a difference in her stride by the end of the session. It’ll take plenty of time and I think I’ll incorporate poles into our lunging session every week, but it’s progress.
Lastly I decided to really make the poor creature work by putting up a set of four poles raised to about 20cm. She warmed up extremely well. Maybe the pole work is already building some strength, because she gave me some of her most balanced and rhythmic canter work to date. While her rhythm to the right is still a little off, she is definitely improving. We cantered a few 10m circles (having to use a small strip of field to work in since the arena is being levelled) and then counter-cantered them, which was a real challenge for her, but she took herself down to almost a collected canter and did well.
We also had some really nice semi-parallel leg-yields in trot, which was a first. She offered a few steps of trot half-pass in the leg-yields as well.
After our warmup we started our work over the poles. The raised poles were a challenge for her; she broke rhythm once or twice. Although she continued to step between them properly, and didn’t knock them down, I could feel a distinct difference in her rhythm as she went over them. I decided to ride them sitting, felt her rhythm over the poles, and then kept my seat going in that rhythm even if she went off to a different beat. She quickly figured out that synchronising her back to my hips was much easier and we finished with her going over the poles to both sides without changing her rhythm.
Next week’s mission: jumping. Enjoy your day off, Arwen.
Those readers who remember my post back in April where I decided to give eventing a go must by now have despaired of my ever trying it, since I’ve just been blogging about showjumping, Western and dressage ever since. Fortunately, I haven’t. I’ve been keeping an eye on the eventing world and thinking that it looks more fun every time I see it, and when the opportunity to have cross-country lessons with an esteemed trainer nearby came up, I latched onto it.
That was how my longsuffering family found themselves once again being dragged off to a horse event, and they had to do their own dragging, with my dad towing the box (perfectly, as usual), Arwen doing the jumping, and my mom and sister doing everything else.
I prepared Arwen by doing some more outrides than normal during the two weeks before the time, with plenty of steady cantering to build her fitness (which is the best it’s ever been). On Saturday, we also popped over a few logs and went up and down some banks (banks down = SCARIEST EVER). She was nervous, but behaved fine and jumped everything I pointed her at, so I was feeling cautiously optimistic about our lesson. It was a 60cm lesson, which is the highest she’s jumped at outings, so I wasn’t quite sure – especially given her running out at our previous outing.
To add to my trepidation, Arwen didn’t load very well. She went up to the foot of the ramp and then politely declined to go any further. She didn’t rear or panic, just refused to go forward. The problem was solved when my sister stepped up behind her and clicked her tongue and Arwen marched right on. Still, I’d like her to self-load, so it’s something to work on. And last time she walked on with nobody behind her.
By the way, Arwen’s pet hate? Back travelling boots. She spends the first thirty seconds of wearing them making a spirited attempt to kick them off. Once she realises she can’t, she ignores their existence.
She travelled moderately well, with little shivering, but she was somewhat sweaty when I unloaded her at President’s Park (once we eventually found it). Several other horses were nearby getting ready, which meant that she was settled from the word go and stood by the box without so much as a whinny, although she was quite lively and alternated between trying to drag me around and eating. I wasn’t too worried, though; she looked excited, not anxious.
We gave her about ten minutes to chill while we found out where my instructor was and what was happening before I saddled her up, popped on her fluffy boots (praying that the water wouldn’t damage them) and set off. She walked and trotted obediently, on the bit, light in my hand and forward but not stupid. She was looking at everything, but most of her attention was on me. The environment didn’t seem to phase her in the least; she had one spook at a squirrel hole and another at the most gigantic and terrifying obstacle I have ever seen (a ditch with at least a 1.30m rail over it), for which I cannot blame her. She warmed up well in a quiet corner of the park and I cantered a few circles just to get the worst of the bucks out before everyone was watching. As usual, she threw me a buck or two, but I just ignored it as high spirits and she cut it out once she had the tickle out of her feet.
Then our lesson began and I followed the rest of my small group (two calm grey school horses, a pretty black horse and a green bay mare) and our instructor up to a showjumping arena to warm up. And suddenly I was riding calm, completely obedient dressage Arwen. We rode in a large circle around our instructor at a walk, trot, canter and gallop and even though she’s not used to riding in a group at all, Arwen’s focus was 100% on me.
I was a little wary when our instructor told us to go into a forward seat and lengthen the canter (green horse, new place, and galloping are seldom a good combination) but I had no reason to worry. Arwen lengthened her stride without changing one beat of rhythm or bend and drifted around on the circle at a good clip with no suggestion of misbehaving. I’ll admit it, I was very proud. We were asked to trot again and I sat down and got the trot immediately. She completely ignored the other horses, even though some were having a buck or two out of excitement.
Then the fun began. We set off all in a row, with one of the experienced greys leading, to jump a little log. I love logs; I’ve been jumping them on outrides since I was eleven, usually bareback and with limited control, so they don’t worry me too much. I was a bit worried that Arwen would refuse because it wasn’t a tiny log (over 50cm) but she followed the grey in front of us and popped over with no worries at all, although she did have a little buck afterwards. We repeated this in the group and then by ourselves, and the last time she didn’t buck at all.
Next, we were asked to jump a scary-looking upright made of a bunch of logs set at an angle. I’d never jumped anything like it before, and obviously neither had Arwen; it was also quite big – at the upper limit of our 60cm lesson. Once again, I barely had to kick her on. She followed the grey horse and popped over perfectly.
At this point I was starting to relax and realise that she wasn’t going to run out and by the time we’d jumped another couple of uprights I was starting to really enjoy myself. So was Arwen. I stopped worrying about running out; she flung herself with great enthusiasm at everything we jumped, and bucked (sometimes quite spectacularly) after most of the obstacles. This worried me a little and I asked our instructor why she was doing it; I suspected excitement, but the last thing I wanted was to give her a bad experience at her first cross-country schooling. And maybe she had back pain or something?
The instructor laughed. “She’s just having fun. If she had a sore back, she wouldn’t be making such a nice jump.” She also complimented Arwen, and seemed impressed with her jumping ability and enthusiasm.
I nearly popped with pride as we proceeded to jump many more logs (some very solid and ominous-looking), some more uprights, a log with rocks under it, a small sunken road, and a brush fence (brush fences are epic!). Arwen charged at everything with her ears up. She jumped pretty much in rhythm all of the time, never hesitated and never overjumped, although she was very careful with her knees, which I loved. She didn’t touch a single fence, either. Although the bucking did scare me once (I had a nice faceplant into her mane) I kept my stirrups and eventually realised that she wasn’t bucking maliciously, so I was staying on just fine. And after that we totally enjoyed ourselves.
We ended the lesson by going to play in the water complex. Before the lesson I had tried to get Arwen in and she had not been concentrating at all and refused, so I decided to have that battle later. We all approached the water in a row with the experienced grey leading again, but the green mare balked in front of us, hunched her back and reversed. Arwen pricked her ears sharply and humped her back, too, which is the Arwen version of saying “Bring it!” so I quickly extricated her from the situation and decided to try the water by ourselves. It was very shallow and clear with a firm bottom. Arwen put her nose down, sniffed it, stepped closer to sniff it again, and basically took herself in.
Once she’d gone in once, she was perfect. She liked the water, pawing it and threatening to roll. It took a few times trotting through it behind the experienced grey to get her to keep her rhythm and impulsion in the water, but she cottoned on quickly.
Next, we tried to trot through the water and then jump out over a log. Arwen ran out once, possibly because I was looking at the water and not the jump, and stopped the second time because she just didn’t have enough impulsion, but the third time I looked up and kicked on and she jumped perfectly. To round it off, we practiced trotting up a bank, then down it and into the water, which she did with no hesitation.
I was almost dismayed when the lesson was over and Arwen was still bucking enthusiastically after the jumps, just to tell us how much she was loving it and how she was not tired in the least. We could have kept going for another hour, we were having so much fun.
It’s always fun when your horse is enjoying itself. Even if it gets too fiery, pulls or bucks, it’s not as much of a problem as it would be if the horse was angry or reluctant. There are few things better than riding a good horse who’s having fun over awesome obstacles at speed, and that’s why I am now completely hooked on cross-country.
We do need to work on loading and travelling. None of her issues surrounding it are major, it’s just that she needs somebody behind her to get on and sweats while she’s travelling. She doesn’t kick the sides of the box or try to escape, though.
The other issue is the bucking after the jumping. I’d rather she bucked than bolted or refused to jump, but it is a bit of a pain and makes it hard to have the courage to sit forward and release properly over a jump. Over that height, and with a horse who picks her legs up nicely, it’s not an issue but it will be an issue if we decide to go any bigger than 60cm.
I think her problems will resolve themselves with more outings, though. For now, I just thank the Lord for our absolutely awesome day. My horse and I both enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and only He could have made a world where a huge animal and a small person could charge across country together, communicating in silence, and loving it.
“Great horses are not often easy horses. They have big egos and idiosyncrasies and quirks and foibles. Horses of a lifetime do exist, but only for riders so skillful, tactful and courageous that they can unlock and then reveal the brilliance of their equine partners.” ~ George Morris
Three years ago, I was a kid with a very big dream and a small grey horse trying to achieve that dream, but the Horse Mutterer repeatedly stated (and I eventually came to accept) the fact that my small grey horse was not going to make it as far up in the world of showjumping as I was wanting to go. Trainability, soundness and willingness might be all you need from a horse if you want to go Advanced in dressage (provided you were willing to work your butt off), but each horse has a physical limit to how high he can jump competitively. And Arwen’s limit is quite some way below A-Grade, where I dream of competing.
So while I trained and worked and loved my small grey horse, I lived my big dream by paging through the catalogues of the Callaho Warmblood Stud. This massive stud holds a large and glamorous auction of top-notch young sport horses every year, and I always had my eye on one of them, even when I knew that it would be years of nothing but saving up before I could ever afford one. The ones I picked were always grey or chestnut with plenty of chrome, standing not more than 15.3hh and possessing a jump about the size of a Kilimanjaro. And then they would be sold for hundreds of thousands to someone with both dreams and money, which is a lucky combination.
And then Magic happened.
15.2hh and the bright grey of burnished steel with four white stockings and a blaze, and also the ability to jump the moon if he so desired, he cantered into my life like a miracle. My dream horse fell right into my lap, dropped strategically by my Lord; here at last was the bright, dancing creature I’d been dreaming of, something with both the talent and the heart to go all the way to the top under the right rider. He had spunk, he had spirit, he had the conformation, he was one of the best-looking horses I had ever seen and he had the look of eagles, that X-factor that I love so much in a horse.
Eighteen months down the line, I have never been more convinced that Magic has the talent to go as far as he wants to. This horse moves like poetry in motion. Muscled up, he has even better conformation than he did when I bought him. He has a bascule that most warmbloods would be jealous of and he has plenty of courage.
Yesterday, I free jumped him for the first time and he was beyond fantastic. He needed little or no encouragement, did not offer to run out even once, and in fact getting him to stop jumping was harder than getting him to start. He also didn’t overjump a thing. Not a thing. Also, this:
Yep. Long neck stretched up, knees tucked up to the bit, shoulders lifted, hindlegs even, front legs couldn’t be tighter. Nobody can deny that he has ability.
He also scares me.
When I sit on him, I know that I have more spirit and talent under me than I have ever had before. I know I’m on a horse that could be a superstar in the right hands. I also know that I’m on a horse so sensitive that the slightest shift in your mood can make him nervous; a horse that has an untold depth of courage, but which courage depends entirely on the trust he places in his rider. Magic is a great horse, but he is not a horse willing to go it alone. Like the best horses, he wants to work with you in a team, he wants to follow your lead and do as you say; but you have to give him that lead to follow.
He’s also green, which is most of the problem. He’s just too inexperienced to bail me out sensibly; he does try, but usually by overjumping massively and frightening the both of us. Ultimately, he depends on me. He’s not a schoolmaster who’ll do the job for me, and he’s also not Arwen, who’s been my partner for so long that she helps me out when I need it just as I help her out when she needs it.
Magic is never malicious. Excitable, frightened, overenthusiastic, boisterous, hot, fiery, and sometimes downright daft; but not malicious. He wants to try, but when he’s afraid, he doesn’t think. And when he doesn’t think, he has a variety of different manoevres to try out, ranging from bucking to flailing to leaping to overjumping, and when I say overjumping I mean Magic shows us exactly how talented he is and pretends a cross-rail is the size of the jumps at the President’s Cup.
It shouldn’t scare me. I haven’t lost stirrups often and I have to face it, I can actually stay on through most of the shenanigans he’ll throw at me. But it still scares me; it probably won’t, in five years’ time, but for now it does.
I think I am more afraid of failing him than I am of falling off him. Magic has no concept of potential and doesn’t know that he is a freaking good horse, obviously. Ribbons and shows mean nothing to him; he’s not sitting there telling me to hurry it up so we can get to the top. He would be quite happy to hack around and pop over cross-rails. And you know what, there would be nothing wrong with that. There are lots of talented horses in the world. The world won’t miss this one if I chose to turn him into a dressage pony or whatever. In fact, if I didn’t ride for my career – if riding was a hobby, not a passion – I’d sell him off and stick to Arwen.
But I’m not a happy hacker. I can’t sit on a piece of quality horseflesh and not try to push the limits. I can’t stay in my comfort zone on an animal that could really be something, could really go somewhere. I can’t let him slip through my fingers. And so I shall gird up my loins, take up the reins and ride him as best as I can. This horse might be a challenge, but he is my horse and he’s not going anywhere. God willing, I will grow into the rider that can ride him, the strong leader he needs, the confident partner to guide him. And it will all be in God’s Name, for He alone makes any of it possible.
You know that post I did some time back about how winter was coming? Well, I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Somehow, winter always surprises me with its savageness. And as much as I welcome the frost (kills the bugs, you see) part of me does long for the days when you can actually, you know, rinse out the horses’ food bins after morning feed instead of just shake the hosepipe ineffectually and watch bits of ice fall out.
Apart from having grubby bins, the horses are quite oblivious to the cold; even Magic has grown triple-extra-fluffy (yuck!) and clipped Arwen is quite happy snuggled up in her turnout rug at night, or Magic’s windbreaker in the daytime if it’s really cold. (I personally wouldn’t mind a turnout rug myself; nothing penetrates that thing). The only living things (apart from the humans) that were adversely affected turned out to be my oats. They never came up. Oh well, better luck next season. There is still quite a lot of grass in the pasture, albeit dead, so I have let Skye and Magic back in to have it as standing hay. It took quite a long time to convince them that the Domain of Evil Sprinklers has been purged of its danger, with even the usually sensible Skye snorting and galloping at the mere memory of the demonic irrigation implements, but hunger overcame fear and they are now happily stuffing their silly faces.
Arwen had a good hardworking week. After her show, I planned to give her just one day off, but when the Mutterer saw her he told me to give her the rest of the week. She wasn’t sick, showing no symptoms, didn’t have anything physically wrong with her and didn’t seem depressed; there was just something slightly off, perhaps just some tiredness, which the ever-perceptive Mutterer noticed at once and which I completely failed to pick up. Whatever it was, she was 100% again by Monday and as such went straight to work.
Mission: Get Arwen Into A Frame has started, and I’m playing with different snaffles to see if she gets lighter in the hand on something other than her loose-ring. I have had her in a thicker eggbutt this week and I’m still not quite sure if I like it. She seems to be putting her head down a bit, but was softer in my hands when we hacked out. Her jaw is also a little more busy – she used to keep her mouth very still in the loose-ring but seems to champ the eggbutt a bit more. I still want to try her in a D-ring and French link and see how that goes.
I have also incorporated a weekly or bi-weekly hack into her regimen, including work over varied terrain, a bit of jumping over solid stuff (still have to get to that, but we’re working on it), hill work and galloping. This is for fitness and variety and also good for the soul. Our hack on Friday was a bit wild in the 10-degree weather but a kilometre or so of brisk cantering settled her a bit and then another kilometre or so settled her even more, followed by a few repetitions of slowly cantering up my favourite hill and then trotting back down. The last time I rewarded her obedience by allowing her a few steps of free walk up the hill, then picking up the reins and letting her run.
Man, is that horse awesome to gallop. Buck as she may in a canter when she’s upset, Arwen is a dead reliable galloper. I can push her for as much speed as I want and still have her completely adjustable and under control. We went up the hill at a hair-raising pace with me asking for more and more and getting it instantly and Arwen just snapping out her legs to their full length. She was loving it, too, in Arwen’s own way of enjoying things; calmly revelling in her own strength and obedience. She came straight back to a walk when I asked and walked home on the buckle, which I was very happy with.
The hack seems to have done her canter a world of good. Her canter had degenerated into something of a mess, with a loss of rhythm and impulsion and an excess of flailing and scrambling. Work helped, but it was still a bit runny, with the forelegs doing the work and the hindlegs sort of floundering along after. After our hack I’ve felt a noticeable improvement in the engagement of her hindquarters and even control of her entire body; whether running up and down hills made her realise that using her bottom is more comfortable, or the gallop stretched out some muscles that needed stretching, I won’t know.
We jumped today and there is no sign of the reluctance and stopping that we had at the show. She did refuse a couple of times, but it was the first time I had used a placing pole across a vertical, and with the vertical at 90cm the placing pole was about 1.50m so when she drifted right she was faced with a jump of A-grade height and (reasonably understandably) refused. After a few attempts she figured out that all would be well if she just jumped in the middle and thereafter did so most sensibly.
The drifting is still a problem but has improved a little. It is quite severe with the pair of us ending up almost on the right upright, but it has not developed into running out; it seems to be a bad habit that just crept up on me until it was this bad. I would wonder if it’s me pulling her right without thinking about it or something like that, but none of the other horses I jump do it, in fact Reed and Magic both jump very straight.
Either way, we’ll figure it out. Right now, I’ll leave the worrying for later and enjoy the quest for excellence on my beautiful grey mare. Praise the Lord for good horses.
After the jumping, we had about three hours’ break until the dressage, so I unsaddled Arwen and took her back down to the box. I’ve heard that horses load more easily when they see the box as a sanctuary of rest and food, so (with about five minutes’ persuading) I put Arwen back inside and tied her up with a haynet. She only relaxed for about half an hour before she started to neigh, stamp around, paw the ground and throw her head up. I didn’t want her to split her skull on the top of the box, so I calmed her down and then took her back out.
Eventually, while I was trying to get her to graze instead of stand there neighing, it clicked: she didn’t want to be alone. While the other horses at the show were still in sight, they were quite far away. I led her back up to a quiet, grassy spot beside the warmup ring and she instantly settled down and started to eat.
Before long it was time to get ready for the dressage and as the pony riders started their tests, my sister and I quickly plaited Arwen’s mane and tail, slapped a quarter marker on her rump and applied shine spray to horse and rider. Prettied up, we set off to warm up.
The pony riders were riding their tests in the 20x40m sand arena we had used to warm up for the jumping, so we prelim riders warmed up in the big arena where the jumping had been held. We were also going to ride our tests in that arena, which was nice because I could make sure my horse was chilled in it before the test. I know it won’t happen that way at graded shows, but it was nice to have it like that for our first dressage test ever. Arwen was by now very calm and the arena was quiet. I let her walk around until she’d quit staring at the markers and then started our warmup.
We must have looked ridiculous. Everybody else was being very sensible and doing simple things so as not to overload their horses’ minds. On the other hand, I know that the best way to get Arwen calm, focused, relaxed, and light in my hands is lateral work. Lots of lateral work. The more complicated, the better. So while everyone else trotted around and free walked, Arwen and I were doing shoulder-ins and big leg-yields and walk pirouettes and turns on the forehand until we were both ready for anything. We even tried a couple of steps of canter leg-yield, which really got both our heads in the game.
Arwen felt fabulous. She was awesomely relaxed; a little heavy on the forehand, as usual, but there was no resistance in her. Her head was bent obediently to my hands and she was moving forward with a lovely, supple swing through her entire back. She felt like she feels on a really good day at home, perhaps a bit better because the arena and footing were better. I was able to chill out, not worry about the test, and just sit there enjoying my horse and playing around. All that went wrong in the initial warmup was that she kept halting with her legs all in a mess instead of nice and square, but we eventually came to an agreement: she would halt in a mess, I would immediately ask for one step of rein back, and she would square up perfectly. Not ideal, but not too much of a problem either.
The pony riders finished and we were sent down to the small arena again to continue our warmup while the judge set up next to the big arena. I paused to grab some water and tighten my girth before heading down to the small arena, in time to see a stunning big chestnut coming out of the gate backwards with his back hunched and his tail, adorned with a red ribbon, flicking ominously. Arwen hasn’t kicked anybody for almost a year, but I still don’t quite trust her not to rise to a threat. I hurriedly turned her away and it all went pear-shaped. Whether the chestnut saw her turn around and lashed out, or she didn’t want to be bullied, I don’t know. The next minute they were having a mighty kicking match with Arwen bouncing with the force of her trademark double-hoofed kicks. I planted my hands in her mane and gave her both spurs, hard, in the flanks. I was tempted to turn her and so get her bottom out of the fight, but that’s usually a recipe for getting kicked. Luckily, the spurring worked and Arwen jumped forward, effectively ending the fight. She then gave a big sigh and pretended nothing had happened.
I immediately jumped off to see if there was any human blood; praise the Lord, the other rider had been sensible and not turned her horse either, and a bystander about two feet from the match was unharmed (if somewhat ashen). The chestnut horse had a superficial graze somewhere near his tail root (how Arwen managed to kick him all the way up there, I’ll never know) and my stupid lucky mare was utterly unscathed.
Drama over, we warmed up for a few more minutes before returning to the big arena for the moment of truth. My poor sister, who was more nervous about reading the test than I was about riding it, took up her position at B. I watched the first horse and rider go through the test whilst stroking Arwen’s neck and whispering my favourite horse Bible verse to myself, which I often repeat in my head while I do dressage; it relaxes me and helps me to sit up, ride up to heaven and be proud.
Then it was time. I walked Arwen in brisk little figures of eight until the bell went, then trotted up to the judge’s stand, executed a perfect trot-halt (Arwen is THE BEST at those) and introduced myself. The judge smiled and nodded, and I trotted Arwen smartly off from M to A to begin my test with Job 39:19 in my head.
“Hast thou given the horse his strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?”
We started the centre line from A to C already going forward in a beautiful quiet trot. Arwen was in a lovely frame of mind. Each stride drove forward from her hindlegs, through her swinging supple back and powerfully but controllably into my guiding hands. She looked at C, I looked at C, and we were forward, confident and as straight as we ever get.
So began our test, and it remained consistent and felt awesome. We were very, very accurate; our circles were as close to 20m as I could get them, and Arwen was perfectly obedient, going exactly where I wanted to. In the trot she didn’t change her rhythm one iota. Her small size was an advantage as we could go straight into our corners without compromising on bend or rhythm, and I was one of the few riders who rode the test sitting; rising may well have better, but Arwen’s smooth rhythmic stride means that I can ride sitting and look as pro as I ever do.
There were only two moments that felt off. The first was our 20m half circle B to E with a canter transition after X. Where, somehow, my horse, my reader and I all simultaneously messed up. My sister lost her place in my test and told me to change rein to V; I knew I was supposed to make a half circle to E, but lost concentration; Arwen decided that, despite having practiced this movement over and over, she was supposed to change rein to F, and the end result was the messiest canter transition I have ever seen with Arwen flailing off to the right and me flailing off to the left. Thankfully, we only had one messy canter stride before I got my act together, pointed her left and asked for a trot. Arwen had a little light bulb moment, took one trot step to sort her legs out and then changed smoothly into canter left. We were going in a nice rhythmic canter on the correct lead by E, but it was still nothing to be proud of.
Oh well. Such is dressage; you can mess up one movement but still get good scores on the rest. I pushed it out of my mind, sat up straight and held her in a decent working canter with her trademark rhythm ticking over as smoothly as a waltz. She stuck her nose out a little, but was very straight and very rhythmic.
I was also worried about our walk transition at C and hence was not very subtle about it at all, and Arwen (whom we remember is THE BEST at trot-halts) just about sat on her bottom before I was all “Oh shucks!” and wrapped my legs around her. Arwen thought I was the dumbest human in the history of the world, but went straight on into medium walk without a fuss and without halting. Pony bailed my butt out of trouble again.
The best moment in our test was the free walk on the diagonal, my favourite prelim movement. Oh, silly little free walk which nobody really cares about. Well, Arwen is totally pro at it. I loosened up my back muscles, stretched my hands forward and let her take the reins. She put her face on the floor and strode forward with a fantastic stretchy stride, turning onto the diagonal to F without me having to touch her mouth. She didn’t miss a beat of rhythm or lose a speck of impulsion in the transition back to medium walk, either.
Our second canter transition was better with a correct strike-off, but she lost her rhythm a bit in the actual canter, earning us our lowest mark for the test – a 5. The dreaded halt was, in fact, completely fine. I lost accuracy whilst looking for I, but we were at least on the centre line. She stopped without throwing up her head but there was the slightest unevenness in her hind legs; I closed my fingers around the reins, she took a step back and stood square, and I ripped off a smart salute. I was unbearably proud of my little grey horse.
To put the cherry on top, by the end of a class dominated by big warmblood types and Friesians, it was Arwen Evenstar the wonderful little Nooitgedachter who won it. It was a wonderful surprise – watching the rest of the class, I had hoped for a place, but was certain that the Friesian in second had beaten us. He was very experienced and rode a stunning test, but Arwen was perhaps a tad more accurate. Arwen totally redeemed herself in the dressage and completely made my day by winning her first ribbon ever. Our score at 61.3% was made up mostly of sixes, with the five and five-and-a-half for our canters. I’ll be honest, I’d hoped for a seven or two, but it was still not bad for a first go.
Then suddenly it was all over and we were bundling Arwen back into the box for the long drive home. She was much too tired to be worried and stood there eating hay; in fact, she hadn’t even sweated a drop when we got home. It was pitch dark at 7pm by the time we unloaded and I took her back to the paddock. She ignored her friends, who were screaming their wonder that she had apparently returned from the dead, and ate grass while I pulled off her travelling stuff and undid her plaits. Then off into the paddock with Arwen and off to bed with her very tired, very proud rider.
All glory be to the King of Kings, Who made this all possible. The God Who made horses and humans and designed a world where a massive animal and a human being can unite, can love, can dance. A world where this great marvel is part of everyday life; a world of everyday miracles. My King, my strength, my Saviour, my Creator – He is the One Who makes everything possible, a God so big that the Olympics are tiny to Him, and yet a God so loving that a training show is worth consideration to Him.