Photos by Monique Bernic Photography
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.
This is only the beginning. Glory to the King.