One Jump at a Time

Apparently show photographers have a thing for Arwen's head
Apparently show photographers have a thing for Arwen’s head

Sometimes, horses can make you humble. With Arwen, I wanted to be jumping 80cm by our May show. Well, we had had three stops by the second jump and after that it took three people and four attempts just to get us over the jump for practice. This was more due to my nerves than anything else; the jumps looked about 1.50m tall and as wide as the Nile even though they were really reasonable, and it definitely messed with my riding.

Pretty much the best jump of the whole May show... *sighs*
Pretty much the best jump of the whole May show… *sighs*

So even though I really, really wanted to enter the 80cm class at this show, I had to humble myself a little. And I entered the 30cm class. Yes, the lead-rein class where everyone gets a rosette so that all the little kids don’t feel left out. It was a bit humiliating, and I was probably the oldest person in the class. But Arwen goes better when she gets to see the jumps before she has to actually jump them, so humility it was; I entered it. Then to build her up slowly I also entered class four, the 55cm; and class seven, the 70cm.

Sunday found the longsuffering Mutterer dutifully towing Arwen and me off to a little local show in Springs at a prestigious eventing stable – owned by the same people as gave us the cross-country class last month. Arwen was a bit of a twerp to load. I tried for about half an hour to get her to walk on by herself, and while I got all four of her feet on the ramp, that was about it. I should probably have tried putting a line around her bottom like you do with a foal that’s learning to lead, but either way, when the Mutterer showed up and slapped her butt she walked on in about five seconds. She also did not try to send her back boots into orbit this time.

Although it was only about 45 minutes’ travelling, Arwen was barely sweaty at all and was happily looking out of the window when we arrived. The setup was perfect for her – the arenas are right in between all the paddocks, so she didn’t feel lonely.

This had a huge effect on her manners. She didn’t call, didn’t yank me around, didn’t dive at the nearest patch of grass, and stood still to be saddled up. We were both in a calm, non-irritated frame of mind when we headed for the warmup; it was quite early so only one little pony was trotting around when we got there. It was a blessed relief to be warming up in a bigger ring – 60x20m felt ample compared to last time!

Yay for big empty warmups
Yay for big empty warmups

Although the arena was bordered on one side by a hedge, on the other by a scary judge’s box and on the third by a stallion in a paddock, Arwen walked calmly on a relaxed rein around the ring. She had a look around, but realised it was nothing to worry about. The stallion looked like an amazing type – he just stood there eating his hay and didn’t bat an eyelid as Arwen walked past, although she certainly batted hers quite violently. (I didn’t mind; he was a nice-looking horse and I would not have minded a foal from him. Unfortunately, wind pollination seems to have let me down this time.)

One thing that was really nice was that everyone seemed to know what the enormous red ribbon in Arwen’s tail meant and we avoided any chaos in the kicking department.

Can't miss the red ribbon
Can’t miss the red ribbon

After walking around to identify any monsters, we picked up the trot. I felt confident enough to go straight into rising trot without sitting a bit to ride out any friskiness, and it paid off. She put her nose in and settled into a businesslike working trot. A few figures later we broke into a canter and for the first time ever, Arwen didn’t offer a buck during her first canter offsite. She was in her happy place; her mind was on her work, and she flowed into the canter just like she does at home. In fact she felt better than she does at home because of the good, level footing, a luxury we have yet to obtain.

She floated through a few circles and lead changes and we popped over the warmup jumps a couple of times. They were small and nonthreatening, but had a number of poles in them so looked solid, but Arwen felt great. She took me forward to each jump, didn’t look at them and charged over without bucking or losing control.

As usual the 30cm was a very big class with all the little kids and school ponies trotting around the course, but it was too adorable to watch to be boring. Arwen and I hung out next to the arena waiting for our turn – I wasn’t too worried that she was going to cool off; she could literally trot around the course without even jumping. It was a small and undemanding course; 8 jumps, only very tiny oxers and no combination. The jumps were not brightly painted either, with minimal filler. Just what we needed to build her confidence.

Making 30cm look cool
Making 30cm look cool (photo by Action in Motion Photography)

Our turn arrived and I took a deep breath and pretended we were still in the warmup, since this class was pretty much just a warmup. I decided to bring her into the course in a trot. If she then felt like cantering, she could; I’d let her decide on the speed of our approach. We trotted into the first jump and it was pretty small so I gave her a bit of a kick to make sure she took it seriously; she looked, jumped, and went on. We started cantering around the third jump, which was on the end of a long straight line (she loves those) and finished the course in a brisk, relaxed canter with not a single misstep. She didn’t even look at the numerous Scary Things, drift, or buck. It was an awesome start to our day. Plus we got a really pretty purple ribbon out of it.

Cute us
Cute us

Under the Mutterer’s guidance we parked next to a horse-walker with our haynet, loosened the girth and let her rest; Arwen put her face in her haynet and was as happy as a bird. Towards the end of Class 2 I got on and we had a fifteen-minute canter and jump, then let her rest again until Class 3 ended and I warmed her up for our 55cm. Again, she was relaxed, forward, and alert in the warmup, and jumped everything well. Including the side of the ring. Which was awkward, but I jumped her back in quickly and hopefully not too many people noticed. (Apart from the Mutterer, who was unimpressed).

Hey mom, let's do a spot of cross-country...
Hey mom, let’s do a spot of cross-country…

The 55cm class was over an uncomplicated 8-jump track with only two slightly tricky serpentine turns in it. This was the first competition round, so I quite dearly wanted to make it into the jump-off if we could. Still, I kept up my trotting-the-first-jumps strategy and did my best to keep her relaxed.

We ended up trotting the first jump and then cantering the next four; on the sharp turn to jump six we found ourselves trapped between the fence, a jump, and a kid on a pony, who was next to go. I applied the brakes sharply and Arwen, being a barrel racer, skidded to a near halt, dodged the pony, trotted to jump six and jumped just fine, already having forgotten the little incident. We charged on to jump seven and she had a good look at it but I committed, kicked her on and over we went. She thundered at the last jump and flung herself over it with great gusto to give a clear, if slightly ungraceful, round. We were into the jump-off.

I love her expression here
I love her expression here (photo by Action in Motion Photography)

The jump-off was over more or less the same course, just with the first and last few jumps omitted. I brought her in at a trot, but pushed her to a hand-gallop after the second jump and took the turn into jump three ways too tight. Arwen looked for a jump, found only a wing, and ran out in a panic; I cursed my silly mistake but kept my head, cantered her in a little circle and this time aimed her at the jump, not the side of the jump. She gave a little snort of relief and popped over and we finished the course with far the best time, but four penalties for the run-out. We went unplaced. Lesson learned.

Again, we let her chill and eat hay for the next class, gave her a little ride midway through our wait, and then warmed up for the 70cm. I was getting a bit nervous; the jumps didn’t look big, but it was still bigger than we’ve jumped clear at a show so far. Arwen pretty much pricked up her ears at the bigger obstacles and had this attitude of “Finally! Real jumps!” I was more or less holding her back as she attacked the warmup jumps. She thought about having a little buck after the jumps, but I didn’t put up with it, and we set off for the show ring in a cautiously optimistic (me) and eagerly excited (Arwen) frame of mind.

This time there was a bit more competition; some of the more advanced kids on schoolies who by now could do the course in their sleep, and some very beautiful, talented young horses obviously practicing for the bigger heights. My goal being to not get disqualified, I wasn’t too worried about them. There were a few parallel oxers now, none as wide as they were tall, and quite nonthreatening.

We trotted the first jump and she popped over it without looking at it, and my nervousness levels vanished. I quit worrying about the course or the next jump and just rode her to the jump that was in front of me in a relaxed, forward canter. She was loving it. As we cleared jump four and headed down the long line to jump five she started to gallop a little but I’ve jumped her out of a gallop enough times to not be worried, so I trusted the turn to jump six to slow us down and let her go at her own pace. She again had a look at jump seven but put in an extra stride instead of stopping and then floored it to jump eight with me staying soft and just steering. We thundered over the finish with Arwen being showered with pats and me grinning all over my face.

JUMP ALL THE THINGS
Big smiles (photo by Action in Motion Photography)

Our awesome clear round put us easily through to the jump-off. As the Mutterer reminded me, I was not going to worry about speed, not going to worry about turns and just think about going clear. The only thing I did differently was to shorten one long turn, which I was confident she could do easily, and brought her to the first jump in a canter instead of a trot. By now, she was having fun, not yet tired, and not frightened of the course at all, so she just hand-galloped around it and enjoyed herself; I steered, kicked her to the jumps whenever she felt a little looky, and enjoyed myself too. We cantered over the finish in a time that was brisk enough to earn us our first jumping ribbon. We were third, just behind two school ponies and their great little riders.

JUMP ALL THE THINGS
JUMP ALL THE THINGS. With uneven knees. But okay (photo by Action in Motion Photography)

This ended the day on a really good note. We unsaddled Arwen, took two minutes to put her back in the box with the Mutterer giving her a bit of a push and me at her head, and set off for home with a tired rider and a relaxed horse. She hardly sweated on the road and trotted off into her paddock when we got home with no signs of exhaustion. It was a fantastic day, and I thank God for making it possible and wonderful and fun. All glory goes to Him; He knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t, and He cares enough to give us our heart’s desires.

One thing I learned was not to worry about future goals or bigger heights or even the next jump in the course. She jumped best when I rode each jump as it came to me. And I suppose that’s something worth learning – to ride in the moment. Now is the only time we can do anything.

Dignified ribbon pose
Dignified ribbon pose

Contact, Elbows, and the Rising Trot

So I had this whole awesome post written up about how Arwen is now a film star because I have a 30-second clip of her jumping to post on the Internet and about everything I could see in the video, and then either a) the farm connection failed to upload the video or b) I failed to comprehend the mysterious of the technological world. (b is more likely).

Still, I can write a post about how awesome it is to have an obliging sister who is good at peering through clouds of arena dust to get video footage of my horses and me doing the same things over and over and over. (The things non-horsy family members do for the horsy members…)

Video footage is great to have of your riding, because it makes you for a moment your own instructor. You may have a great understanding of the correct position and aids, and you may even think you’re doing it right, but when you actually watch yourself ride you can see errors you never even knew you made. Plus you are usually harder on yourself than your instructor is on you, so you can tear your position apart with even more brutal honesty.

I watched the clip of Arwen and me with a familiar sinking sensation in my guts (I do that?!) and an equally familiar feeling of pride (Dang, she looks awesome). Weirdly enough I feel what my horse is doing better than I feel what I’m doing. (Yeah, she is a little on the forehand after all… felt it. WHAT? I arch my back? Since when?!)

Three things stood out for me about the clips: Firstly, shoulder, hip and heel alignment does not exist when I’m in jumping stirrups. It’s like my knee won’t go far back enough to get my heel under my hip. Annoying to say the least.

Think she's coming a bit off her forehand, though
Think she’s coming a bit off her forehand, though

Secondly, the back of Arwen’s saddle lifts completely off her back when she takes off for a jump. I’m not sure if this is caused by the motion of her jump or by my weight being tipped forward (I can still be a little keen on the takeoffs), but I don’t think it’s very pleasant for her since all the pressure must then be placed on her withers, plus the panels slap back down onto her as she’s in midair. Try making a bascule when your saddle is hitting you in the spine as you jump. Probably not fun. Since I’m demanding quite a lot of her (for her level) and she works hard, I think it’s time for a visit from the saddle fitter. Hear those squeals of pain? That was my bank account being tortured.

Thirdly, my elbows suck in rising trot. I’ve known for a while that my rising trot stinks, but now I think I’ve finally figured out why. It used to be because my lower legs waved around like windmills as I rose and fell, but now they’re stable, if a little far forward, and my hips go forward and back instead of up and down, which is good. The bad part is that with the rise and fall of my shoulders, my hands rise and fall as well.

Butt up, hands up
Butt up, hands up

This is not good for a variety of reasons, probably the most important being that it creates an uneven contact on the horse’s mouth as the reins go up and down. Since I don’t balance myself on my hands (i. e. don’t pull back to lift myself up out of the saddle by the reins), it probably doesn’t jerk or hurt their mouths, but it does make the bit go up and down. This creates a very confusing mixture of aids for the poor horse, so it’s no wonder they lose impulsion the moment I rise and gain it the moment I sit.

The cure for this one is to straighten the elbows as one rises and bend them as one sits; simple and pretty easy as long as it’s your legs and the motion of the horse’s back that serves to lift you out of the saddle, as opposed to hauling yourself up by the horse’s mouth. (Not pretty). It just takes concentration. Luckily for me, I ride about 10 horses in two days, so I form good habits very quickly. (Unluckily, the same is true for bad habits). The video clip of Arwen and I trotting was taken on Monday; today, my sister filmed Magic and I at work, and I already see an improvement.

Magic18
Butt down, hands down…

Butt up... hands down! :D
Butt up… hands down! 😀

I think the ponies are appreciating this, especially since I put Magic back in the Pelham. He was good for a few rides in the snaffle, but eventually it fell to bits and I found myself hauling on him to gain some semblance of control. He also started rushing to the jumps and overjumping ever so slightly, so I opted to go back to the Pelham. Instantly, I could ride with a light, soft contact and even the gentlest half-halt was enough to stop Magic from rushing. Also, I could remove his martingale for the first time since I got him with no effects.

Look mom! No martingale!
Look mom! No martingale!

Right now, I’m looking at trying a completely different bit for him. He does hide behind the Pelham a little, so it is slightly too harsh for him; but the eggbutt is just all wrong. I’m considering a Kimberwick as it seems like a good halfway house between Pelham and snaffle. I also want to see if I can borrow a French link snaffle from somebody. Magic throws his face in the air when he’s ridden in his single-joint eggbutt, which makes me think that the action of the joint against the roof of his mouth doesn’t work for him. The French link is no harsher than the single joint but will work more on his tongue and not touch his palette. If that is the solution I will be over the moon since you can do dressage in a French link, opening the eventing door for him earlier than I expected.

His jumping has been coming on fabulously. Since he’s no longer so hyper and I’m no longer so nervous, he has stopped overjumping and we’ve been able to move on to small oxers and little combinations. Although he’s done all this kind of thing before, and at a bigger height, I’m building it up slowly to improve his technique and rebuild our trust in one another. I think I may have taken the height up too quickly earlier in his training without establishing a firm foundation in the basics, so for now I’m being a bit more patient. He still has plenty of years left in him, and there’s no rush.

Magic's grumpy face
Magic’s grumpy face

We tried our hand at a little gymnastic line for the first time today. I’ve always been kind of terrified of gymnastic jumping because the lines seem so very long with so little room for error, so I dug out my ancient Manual of Horsemanship and set up the most basic line you get: four trotting poles to a tiny cross-rail. And I jumped it with Arwen first, since she will jump anything from anywhere and bail me out most of the time. She was awesome, and to my pleasant surprise, so was Magic. The trotting poles worked very well to stop him from rushing and he fit his strides perfectly into the last distance, popping over the cross without a break in rhythm. Eventually I built it up to a 60cm oxer and he took it all in his stride.

Neck!!
Neck!!

The Sprinkler Bandit recently wrote a post on bonding that resonated with me, in which she wrote about how a horse becomes your horse in more than just legal possession. Although I can ride most horses straight away, it takes a long time to build up a real bond with a horse. I’ve had Magic for eighteen months and we still don’t trust each other the way we should.

But slowly, steadily, with some setbacks and a little sacrifice and a bit of courage from both sides, we’re starting to connect, this magnificent horse and me. We’re starting to hang out with one another a little longer after a ride just because we can, starting to tackle things a little harder because we know we’ll pull each other through.

I’ll be patient for you, my brave horse. You’re worth the wait.

<3
Magic still has the kindest face ever. (Yeah, I know I should tuck my shirt in).

A nice long post is to come early next week about a show with Arwen. Don’t look so horrified! I’ll make it interesting. Promise.

Somewhere Between Sweat and Heaven

You’re riding home on a loose rein, just finished with a summer hack between the endless sky, blue as joy, and the deep grass, green as life. Your horse is fit and well. He drives himself forward with each thrust of his hindlegs; his back swings loosely beneath you and you can feel his long legs stepping out ahead of him as if he could eat up the earth in a stride. It was a long hack, and you’re both tired – that happy, numb-muscled, relaxed kind of tired after a job well done.

You pull him up near the tack room, kick your feet free of the stirrups and swing yourself effortlessly down from the saddle, landing with a soft creak of leather boots. He stands still, chewing his bit quietly as you run up the stirrups and drop the girth with movements so practiced they’ve become second nature. Lifting the saddle a little, you swing it down off his back, catch the girth as it comes over his back and sling it over the saddle before planting it on the round pen’s rails.

Running a gloved hand down his neck, you can no longer resist the temptation. You push aside a lock of mane, wrap your arms around him and bury your face in his coat. The thick white lather of sweat smears on your cheek like a warm kiss. You breathe in, deeply, feeling the arch of his muscles in your arms, and the blissful smell fills your entire body like bubbles of warm honey. It smells like the earth and the wind, with a hint of neatsfoot oil and a touch of fly spray; it smells of hard work and sweat and pollen. But deeper than that, it smells of that indefinable horsiness that never washes out and remains identical from horse to horse. It smells like adventures and like coming home, like achievements, like broken hearts mended, like success all the sweeter for its previous failures. It smells like the imprints of God’s fingers, like the echoes of His breath. The smell is somewhere between sweat and heaven. It’s the smell of a horse.

The best smell in the world.

In response to the Daily Prompt.

On Breeding, and Why I Consider Thunder a Success

Whenever I meet a stallion, my first thought is usually “Should he really be a stallion?”

While there’s a lot of thinking going around that stallions are by default miserable, savage, difficult, dangerous creatures who need to be castrated as soon as possible, I’m not really under that illusion. Stallions are horses just like any other horses, and the possession of their manliness is by no means automatically a cause of unhappiness or aggression. It depends largely on how they are managed; sure, if you’re going to overfeed him, lock him up in a paddock alone and out of sight of any other equines, and spoil him with little work and no discipline, then he’ll likely be a danger to himself and to everything else. A well-managed stallion, on the other hand, can be a joy to ride and handle, even though he’ll probably always need an experienced person on hand to make sure the wheels don’t fall off if a mare on heat wanders in. The wonderful Lipizzaner stallions performing within inches of one another with not a squeal or kick, and the innumerable stallions competing alongside their female colleagues at the very top level, are a testimony to that fact. Even the little palomino at the stud is a shining example of a good stallion. You could put beginners on him.

RuachJoepie1

Also, obviously, we need stallions. Otherwise there wouldn’t be horses. A high-quality, well-managed stallion is the king of the equine world and a thing of grace and beauty, plus usually makes high-quality babies, which is good.

However, there’s no denying that stallions can be difficult to manage without the right facilities and experience. (You just can’t turn them out with open mares, for instance, if you’re being responsible about it; and many of them will break out of ordinary paddocks). I learnt my lesson the hard way when my stallion escaped and resulted in three unwanted pregnancies; there will be no more stallions for me until I have the right facilities for them. But possibly the major issue about keeping stallions is that sooner or later they are going to breed. And in my opinion, if we are going to be responsible horse people, horses should be bred with a purpose in mind, and their parents should be selected as horses that have already proven and excelled at that purpose. In general, I’m not a fan of backyard breeding. I’d recommend leaving it to the professionals – even if that just means taking your mare to a quality outside stallion instead of using the farmer’s stallion down the road.

Most well-schooled stallion I've ever seen: Favory Modena the Lipizzaner
Most well-schooled stallion I’ve ever seen: Favory Modena the Lipizzaner

But with all that said, I still don’t for one moment regret breeding baby Thunder. And many people may frown upon me for this because by conventional standards I did nearly everything wrong. Let’s start with the mare: a creature of absolutely unknown breeding, who stands with her toes in, has a rather fleshy throat and a crest like a stallion’s. As for the stallion, he was an unbacked three-year-old and the first entire male horse I could get my hands on. Granted, he had a good temperament, nice proportions and okay conformation but his feet were the wrong shape and he was also a crossbred, although with a very strong Friesian influence and a well-known grandsire.

So, I hear you ask, why didn’t it all go pear-shaped?

RuachTitan3

Mostly, by the grace of God. I make a lot of mistakes, but He can be relied upon to rescue me from the worst of the consequences, as long as I figure out not to make them again. Secondly, my one practical redemption was that I actually did breed Thunder with a purpose in mind: he was going to exist to be my pleasure horse. And since Skye, pigeon toes, fat neck and all, is without a shadow of doubt the horse who has given me the most pleasure in the entire universe, and in terms of temperament and character is a horse in a million, she was simultaneously utterly unsuitable and completely perfect for breeding. I’ll take character over conformation any day. Achilles also had a fine personality; he ruined my confidence, of course, but that was through no fault of his own; he was a forgiving, stoic and loving horse. And so Thunder was conceived, and so he was designed by the hands of my King.

If I was to breed a horse today, I would work and save up and work some more and save up some more and then buy a mare from the cream of the crop – preferably an old broodmare who’d proven herself over and over again in whatever discipline I was intending to breed for. If I couldn’t afford a proven broodmare I’d get a youngster and prove her myself. Then I’d take her to the best stallion I could afford, one that had proven himself in both his own career and in his offspring, and breed them. It’s a very different approach to the slapdash one I took with Thunder, but I still consider him a resounding success.

You see, I aimed to breed a gentle, loving horse who would be game for anything; something with tremendous willingness. Not the type of horse who would go to the top level in competition, but the type of horse who opens his mouth for the bit and would gallop until he dropped dead if you asked for it. Something infinitely kind, generous, and trainable. In terms of conformation I wanted only soundness, functionality, and a pretty neck. Oh, and I wanted a colt with a coat colour the same as Skye’s and a star and preferably a sock or two.

Thun in March: cutest thing on four legs, but no muscles in his neck and butt
Thun in March: cutest thing on four legs, but no muscles in his neck and butt

Thun yesterday: yay for neck and butt muscle!
Thun yesterday: yay for neck and butt muscle!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so God gave me Thunder, who fits the bill exactly. (Okay, so the mane and tail is black, but the coat is the same colour). He has already grown into the kindest baby horse I’ve had the pleasure of working, and he still has a lot of growing to do. Thunder is a heart horse, the kind of horse I’ll never sell, the kind of horse I’d spend a lifetime on. That’s why, even though I’d never breed anything else the way I bred him, I consider him a great success. God even blessed him with relatively nice conformation – he does show an ever-so-slight toe in, and his back is just a shade too long, but overall he is a functional, nice-looking, gentle, loving guy.

Regret Thunder? Not in this world. I love this horse.

My buddy
My buddy

VCMBH: Handmade

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L. from Viva Carlos asks: What is 1 unpopular horsey opinion you have?

I have loads and loads of unpopular horsy opinions (you can back a horse when he’s two, you can ride a pregnant mare, thoroughbreds can live out, blah blah blah), but the most important is probably this one:

Horses were created.

I know the theories. I know that it’s said that horses evolved from a little five-toed forest creature called Eohippus, the dawn horse. I know it’s said that they slowly grew taller and sleeker and faster and lost their toes, and that the remnants of these toes stay behind in ergots and chestnuts. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve wrestled with too many horses’ feet to be stupid enough to deny the presence of ergots and chestnuts. I too had the mini heart attack the first time your horse sheds a chestnut while you’re brushing it, and had the embarrassment of running screaming to my trainer, who laughed at me.)

And I know the theory of evolution makes sense. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be that many people believing it.

But here’s the thing: stuff doesn’t have to make sense to us to be true. Does it make sense, to the average human being, that the world is made up of tiny spinning particles called atoms, even though it looks pretty solid and stationary? No, but we still believe it. We believe it because we trust the people who told us that it does.

File:Pernod Al Ariba 0046b.jpg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

That’s why I believe that horses were created, handmade with love, each hair and fibre individually and perfectly crafted by the hands of my King. Because He told me it is so, and I trust Him. I don’t know why horses have ergots and chestnuts or why the untrue theory of evolution makes sense, but when you know Him you don’t have to ask.

Sometimes I even feel that it’s an insult to horses to believe they happened by accident. Something this fiery, this exuberant, this spirited, and this wonderful is too noble a creature to have plopped into the world by mere chance. When a horse runs you can see the love of his Creator in the smooth sleek lines of his muscles. When a horse neighs you can hear the echoes of the laughter of our King.

RuachJoepie11

Horses were created: dazzlingly, lovingly, beautifully. And when I watch a horse fling up his head and tail and run with that flame-mimicking air-ripping heart-stopping gravity-denying grace, every line of his body screaming of his joy, I see the handiwork of God.

Perhaps this is not a very coherent argument, and it probably doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but that’s okay. You might even think I’m a bit on the crazy side. That’s okay, too. You’ll only understand if you choose to love Him.

Understanding is only one very small benefit of loving Him…

 

Thunder5

Feeling the Rain

You can’t hide forever from the thunder

Look into the storm and feel the rain…

~ Josh Groban, “Brave”

Ever since I tried to break in a large black stallion when I was twelve years old and relatively clueless, with the expected consequences, I’ve had nervousness issues. I suppose that no horseman can expect to grow, learn, or improve without going through various stages of horse-related fear, but that doesn’t make it any fun.

Achilles
Achilles

It’s quite easy to trace back my fears to that stallion; not that he was, in himself, a bad guy – in fact he was one of the sweetest stallions I’ve known and if I had him today, I’m quite confident I could train him without major trouble. But the green horse-green rider mix seldom works out (it did for me once, but it’s not a frequent occurrence) and add to that his massive size, my tiny size, and all his boy hormones and it didn’t end very well. In the end I did a little work on him and overcame the worst of his issues before selling him off in the middle of last year.

Today, similar horses or situations still come back to haunt me. Stallions are usually a bit of a trigger, but dear, patient, gentle, one-in-a-million Reed has more or less cured me of this one. Big horses were also an issue but then Thunder grew up to be the same height as his father (the black stallion), and with riding Sookie and the other warmbloods I just got used to it. Buckers were a problem, but there are so many horses that buck that eventually I was forced to learn to live with it or quit training young horses, and that’s something that I’m loathe to do.

Reed, who gave me my stallion confidence back
Reed, who gave me my stallion confidence back

Now the biggest problem that remains is a combination of the three: a big, bucking stallion is sure to scare me. And for a few weeks, one of the stud stallions fit this bill. Sixteen hands of pure magnificence, he makes the little horsecrazy girl inside me do cartwheels of ecstasy; only about four and a half years old, his hormones and excess energy occasionally get the better of his otherwise quite trainable mind. Add to this me being frightened of him bucking and frustrating him by holding him in whilst kicking him on, and we have an airborne horse and a desperate rider.

I was, in fact, right on the brink of handing him over to the Mutterer and admitting defeat. Even the Mutterer was starting to look a little scared on my behalf when the stallion was in a feisty mood, and it takes quite a lot to frighten the Mutterer. Then, one day as I was scrolling through Facebook (I know, I know, great source of wisdom) a quote jumped out at me:

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“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee.” Isaiah 41:10a

I realised, again, that giving in to fear is not an option – not for me. I can’t choose fear over love or dreams or God; I guess that every time I choose fear instead of courage, I play servant to Satan instead of subject to my King. For God has given us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind; and we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.

So I girded up my loins, saddled up the horse (even though part of me really didn’t want to) and he was absolutely foot perfect. Better than he’s ever been. And because I was looking at him with love and not fear, I saw him at his best; realised anew how beautiful the mighty arching curve of his neck in front of me is, how stunning his huge smooth strides are, and how special his spirit, pride, and strange sensitivity are. And for this reason I would argue that the opposite of fear is not faith, but love: to love is to let go of fear. I was too busy loving him to be afraid of him. Above all, I was too busy loving his Creator to do anything but trust in Him.

One small battle might be won but the war is far from over. At every ride I stand at the same fork in the road, faced with the same choice: Love or fear? And fear is such a broad and attractive and comfortable way to go. But the path to love is marked by the sign of a cross. And it’s that sign that I will follow from here to eternity.

The Halfway Mark: Where We Stand

With June already behind us, it’s time to look back at the goals I set in January and see where the horses and I all stand. However much reality differs from the way I planned it, I accept it joyfully; God’s plan is always better than my own, and I can’t wait to see what He has in store for me over the next six months.

Skye’s the Limit. Goals: Stay healthy; get fit; get a Western saddle. My mighty charger, whose heart never fails her, was sadly let down by her body in the past few months. Although she’s only in her mid teens, her toed-in conformation has ended up the way it usually does, with arthritis in her right knee. I’ll elaborate on all this in a later post, but the good news is that she’s in little or no pain and still enjoys our short walking outrides. Getting fit is probably not going to be an option for her this year, but as for staying healthy, we’ve made progress. She’s definitely on top of her allergies/COPD/whatever was wrong with her respiratory system, and being permanently on pasture, she’s looking better on less concentrate than she ever has before.

Oh, and the Western saddle? Check!

Happy [fat] charger
Happy [fat] charger
Thunderbird. Goals: This year, I’d like to spend some time working on Thunder’s physical strength. … I would like him to lope slowly and on the correct lead (using simple lead changes for now), understand the basics of neck-reining at all three gaits, learn to stand squarely, and turn on the haunches by the end of the year. I would like him to go out consistently without bolting, alone and in company, by the end of the year.

Thun has made awesome progress on his schooling goals. He neck-reins all the time in walk and trot and abut 80% of the time in canter. He stands square and turns on his haunches, as well as turning on the forehand and the beginnings of sidepasses. Outrides are improved but not awesome: he hasn’t bolted since forever, but he still shies and spins on most of our rides. In company he generally doesn’t spook as much as alone, but he never naps. We need more outrides and more lunging, though. He still looks like a giant clothes hanger with a forelock.

Doing too much of this
Doing too much of this

Arwen Evenstar. Goals: I would like to get her on the show circuit more regularly and to raise the bar slightly to be jumping around 80cm competitively by the end of the year. I would also like to enter her in a few dressage shows and see how she does. At home, she can learn to jump 1.10m consistently. Her canter, whilst good, needs some work; she must learn flying changes. I want her to improve her frame so that she is going in a good outline with her nose in by the end of the year. She must also learn to do all her lateral movements, which she does well in a walk, in trot. She must also be able to extend and collect her trot.

Arwen has made some progress, but it’s a bit on the slow side a) unlike the youngsters, Arwen’s training is the limit of my experience; each time she learns something new I’m learning it right alongside and b) my goals changed. I decided to go into eventing instead of showjumping.

We have been showing more, having done two outings since May, but her first 80cm round was a total flop (we were eliminated by the second fence) so that’s the area where she needs tons of work. We’re also still not jumping 1.10m at home, in fact 1.05 is proving to be a challenge. Some confusion with measurements might mean that 1.10m is bigger than we thought it was and that it’ll take quite a bit more time to get there, though. We’ll add cross-country to her goals as well: I want to jump a clear xc round at an event before the end of this year.

Her first dressage test was a resounding success, though; first place with a lovely, calm, consistent test scoring 61%. No progress on the flying changes but her frame is much improved, with the nose in nearly all the time in walk and trot and most of the time in canter. Lengthenings are improved; we still need to get to the collection thing, but she now leg-yields and shoulder-ins well in a trot. EM will have to wait a bit but I’m confident we can go Novice and possibly Elementary by the year’s end.

Eventer pony!
Eventer pony!

Magical Flight. Goals: Magic must go to his first shows, and learn to make calm transitions between gaits, leg-yield in walk, start flying changes, and build correct muscle tone. He must also jump 1.10m at home.

As you’ll all know by now, since I’m forever whining about it, Magic and me have had some setbacks in terms of confidence. 75cm felt like an achievement the other day, which is not good considering we were happy at 90cm last year. It will take lots and lots of work to be happy at 1.10m by the end of the year, but if I can get my act together, I’m positive we can do it just fine. He’s gutsy and scopey enough for it.

Flatwork is a lot more encouraging; his transitions are loads better, and his frame was improved to the point where I can now school him in a snaffle again. Still nothing on the flying changes but that’s more a rider error than anything else. His muscling is improved, but he needs his belly trimmed down and his fitness built up a bit. He is starting to get an awesome strong neck, though.

We have a neck!
We have a neck!

Yours truly. In dressage, I must get into the habit of riding with a proper upper body: eyes looking between the horse’s ears with chin up, hands a fist’s breadth above and in front of the pommel, thumbs turned up, elbows relaxed by my sides with upper arms hanging almost straight. In jumping, I must learn not to balance on my hands, but to push them forward and allow the horse to stretch. Oh, and I can stop doing that funky poke-one-toe-out thing. In Western, well, I don’t even know what a proper Western seat looks like. Fix this.

I’m pleased to report definite progress on the dressage and jumping fronts. I look up more and the hands are quite a lot better. I still need to fix my left hand, which (probably from carrying a whip) likes to bend inwards and do this weird thing where the wrist bulges out, but the hands are getting there. Now I must open up my shoulders a bit more and bring my butt underneath myself by tightening up my stomach muscles. (Yay sit-ups!)

One of my rare Moments of Pro-ness
One of my rare Moments of Pro-ness

Jumping is also a lot better especially with the release; my hands follow the horse instead of clinging to the mane. I still need to learn to balance myself over my lower leg instead of eating mane or sitting on the tail. No luck on the one-toe-poking, I’m afraid.

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Epic position fail

Not horrible
Less horrible

Western is also better; I figured out where my hands and legs should be and the hands are a lot better. The legs are only better when I concentrate, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

All in all, I’m okay with how far we’ve come so far. We still have a lot of work to do, but there is a lot of year left!

Golden ears <3
Golden ears ❤

VCMBH: Generosity

L from Viva Carlos writes: What made you interested in your current horse that lead you to buying them in the first place?

A bit like this
A bit like this

It was way back in April 2012 that my lovely equine nutritionist kindly gave me a copy of Callaho Warmblood Stud’s auction catalogue for the previous year. This magnificent stud is probably one of the best in our country, and the glossy pages more closely resembled a copy of the Sporting Horse than anything else, with double-page spreads for every horse, ample photographs, an honest and in-depth description, pedigree and video clip on an accompanying CD. And the horses? Bred in the purple; glossy creatures free jumping something that looked about the size of a house with ease. “A description of all the horses seemed to be summed up with “well”,” I wrote in my old blog/journal, “as in well-bred, well-trained, well-groomed and well-cared for.”

It was then that I began to dream of my Olympic horse, my A-grade horse, my show horse. Of course, I already had Skye, Thun, and Arwie; Skye is my heart horse, the first horse I ever trusted, my steadfast friend who never let me down and never will. Thunder also crept into a very deep place in my heart and became a friend, and as for Arwie, my go-anywhere do-anything horse, she’s just way too much fun. But I knew none of them would ever be one of those ridiculously talented horses, those creatures that move and sparkle and know exactly how beautiful they are, that jump as if the whole world is their own trampoline.

Magic8
BOOM!

Writing about my dream horse, I said, “God willing, I hope there is one in my future, something big and sparkly with a jump like a waterbuck and the kind of big heart and stunning conformation that could take us to the top of the game, perhaps even international.”

At the same time, I was occasionally riding a young gelding off the track for his then-owner. “To my delight,” I wrote, “I was allowed to ride beautiful young Magic. … Magic is an iron grey three-year-old with a white blaze and socks. He’s still exploding with muscle, having recently come off the track, and he simply ripples all over when he moves. He has the loveliest gentle face and I adore him.” Another excerpt: “The magnificent Magic… [is] only halfway schooled but I think he’s brilliant. He is a lovely grey colour and has a kind face.”

First time I rode him
First time I rode him

And slowly, this rippling, iron-grey horse started to grow on me. Each time I came to the yard I’d look over to his paddock and watch him; most of the time he’d be running, because he was the kind of horse who would just run for no reason other than that he loved it. And he flashed like a sword’s blade, and when I walked past his paddock he’d run over to say hi and nicker, and I’d think he was adorable. I started to realise that every time the Mutterer told me to go ride Magic, my heart would do a little extra hop-skippity-jump somewhere between fear and excitement.

When Magic came up for sale I just knew it was meant to be. He was everything I wanted in my dream horse, right down to his silly white stockings. But I think aside from practical stuff like his soundness, age and suitability for jumping, there were two deciding factors, if I’m being honest. The first was his jump. I was the first person who rode him over fences and I nearly died (either from nearly falling on my nose or from ecstasy), but I immediately knew he was special, just from the way he charged fearlessly at the cross and by the way he felt:

And this is why. Dat conformation dude!
And this is why. Dat conformation dude!

“He’s got the most awesome jump… he floats. … He jumps AMAZINGLY. He feels over a 40cm cross like Arwen feels over a 90cm jump on a very good day. The whole chest and shoulders and forelegs seem to come straight up into your face and he bends his whole body forward and over and it’s such a beautiful feeling.”

The second was his face. It’s a bit stupid, I guess, but when you look at Magic’s face you know instantly you can trust him; trust him to give you his whole heart and soul if you ask for it, do his best to bail you out of any situation and to never be spiteful. I would not call it the look of eagles because it’s something kinder than that. The closest word I can find for his expression is generosity, and he is indeed a kind and generous horse: he is willing to give you everything he has. And conformation, breeding or talent aside, it’s that great heart, willing spirit, and tremendous kindness that will make Magical Flight a horse in a million.

That face
That face

Magic is Jim Wofford’s “partner, not a slave” (as quoted by the instigator of this blog hop). He has that “supreme courage”, and if I can unlock his potential “very skilfully and very patiently” and above all, “trust him with [my] life” then I know he can be amazing.

God willing.

Just trust me, little human
Just trust me, little human

 

 

Ride Above Hate

“I don’t ride this small stuff. These jumps are boring. Maybe I’d do it bareback, then it would be fun.” She said it with a smile, but it still stung, still cast a faint shadow over the pride I felt in my little grey horse. It was the mare’s first show, and we had had a double clear in the 60cm class.

You don’t know my story, I wanted to tell her. You don’t know how much blood and sweat and tears and how many hours were poured into this horse, or how much work and how much guts and gumption it took to get this far, from the both of us. You don’t know how many issues we worked through or how she was afraid of everything and how brave and hardworking this small, freebie, crossbred mare is. But maybe, maybe she did know about the blood, sweat and tears. Maybe she just wanted to feel a little specialness, a thrill of pride, as we all do. So I said nothing, and I hugged my horse and I was still proud, but I still remember it. And it wasn’t even bullying.

Arwen18

“There are so many things wrong with backing a horse at the age of two, on every level,” the commenter splurged, the very text bursting with the heat of their anger. I felt anger rise in me in return, but swallowed it down. I backed my horse when he was two. He is one of the healthiest, happiest horses under saddle I know. So I still ride him and he’s still happy, but I still remember it. And it wasn’t even bullying.

Every day, everywhere, there are people breaking down others with cruel words and angry glares, pouring out hatred and conviction and spite in a desperate attempt to relieve their own pain, belittling others out of their own lack of self-confidence, trampling on others to get onto their soapboxes and spew anger on them from that pedestal, all to find some sense of self-righteousness and quell their own guilt. Desperate posts from crushed horsepeople splatter across the Internet like innocent blood: “These girls won’t stop making fun of my horse. Help.” “They say I’m too fat to ride, but I love it too much to quit. What should I do?” “They poke fun at me because I’m only competing at a low level, but I don’t want to move up. Should I stop competing?”

Enough is enough.

This has got to stop.

Every horse and every rider is unique, special and amazing. It stands to reason: they were all created. God hand-crafted every human being and all of their equine partners, putting inexpressible love into every cell, every hair, every fibre. We are all beautiful, valuable, beloved beyond all reason – all of us, including the bullied, including the bullies. It is time to stop pointing fingers, to start holding out our hands to help, opening our eyes to the pain in this world and to our marvellous ability to soothe it. Judgment, bitterness, harsh words – this all has to stop. The power of life and death is in the tongue. Literally. How many suicides come about as a result of bullying that never turns physical?

Horsemanship is not about status. It is not about warmbloods or Wintecs or keeping up with the Joneses. It’s not about French links or perfect braids. It’s not about right or wrong or brand names or bling or medals or ribbons or river sand arenas. It’s about that perfect early-morning, precious-memories smell of a sweating horse and the creak of the saddle and the slap of the stirrups and the sound a flying change makes when you get it exactly right. It’s not about the regionals or the championships, or palomino or pinto or bay without chrome. It’s about that summer-lovin’ shimmer of a well-groomed mare and that ecstatic, air-savouring flick at the floating end of an extended trot stride.

Horses3

It’s not about bloodlines and pedigrees and breeding and feeding, and leather versus synthetic and booting for turnout and making Grand Prix by the time he’s eight years old. It’s about that star-touching, moon-clearing feeling at the apex of a jump and the whiskers of a newborn foal all tangled with youngness. It’s not about being over-matched or over-mounted or finding talent or realising potential. It’s about the heart-filling smile of a disabled four-year-old hugging the neck of a rescued horse, about the warm-honey feeling in your heart when you perfect the rising trot for the first time. It’s not about chiropractors or training methods or fitness or the heart rate of your horse at a gallop. It’s about the pumping of his neck in front of you and the power of his hindquarters and the way he drinks in the wind like he’ll never get enough of it, like the very breath in his lungs is a celebration.

Most of all, it’s not about equipment or events or disciplines or arenas or facilities or famous names. It’s not even about horses. It’s about people. It’s about that special something a horse excites in a human’s heart that makes them want to speak to a creature that can never, in words, reply.

Just playing around with ponies

We are all horsemen. We all know about the smells and the sounds and the feeling of the furry winter coats when you fluff them up the wrong way to make them ripple underneath your hands. We all know how big the sky is when you’re a horse’s height closer to touching it. We know how hard it is to get that horsy greasiness out from under your fingernails when you’ve scratched a foal’s butt until he croons with pleasure. That’s the greatest thing about equestrianism: Young or old, short or tall, rich or poor, fat or thin, able-bodied or not, we can all be horsemen, and we can all know about the love between a human and a beast, about that silent language we use to communicate across species. At the end of the day we all look into those unknowably deep dark eyes and see the stars, and something in them touches our very souls so that a chord sings out pure and clear.

 

What a beautiful melody we all will play when our horse-touched souls may sing together. Let us reach out to each other with love today. Let our smiles be real, our words as helpful as they are honest, and our actions driven always and forever by that purest and best and greatest motive of them all: love.

Enough is enough. We all love our horses. Let us love one another. #RideAboveHate

Magic6

 

I stand against bullying. If you’re looking for another way to take that stand, click here to see where the #RideAboveHate initiative started. Write a post with the video embedded and tell the world why we should love one another. Spread the word and ride above hate.

Every Little Bit Helps

Or, as it may be, every big bit; it depends on the horse.

There are so many bits out there these days, and even more opinions floating about on the Internet from so many different sources, that bits and bitting can be an utterly bewildering subject. I tend to go with my usual philosophy: the less gear the better, but it depends on the horse, it depends on the rider, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

While there are a lot of people out there who deem it a ridiculous cruelty to put a piece of metal in a horse’s mouth, I feel that you can do about the same amount of damage with a rope, Dually or Parelli halter, or a bitless bridle. It’s not so much about what’s on the horse’s face as what you’re doing with it. No “legal” piece of equipment, if properly fitted, should hurt the horse when no pressure is being applied, and the amount of pressure applied is entirely in the hands of the horseman. I would rather see a good horseman with a spade bit than a bad horseman with a halter.

Hands are not my strong point. I am not as soft-handed a rider as I would like to be, but I trust myself with most bits and can listen to the horse and adjust my contact accordingly most of the time. (When I get scared and pull, that’s a different story). I also think about two million times before changing a bit, because in my perfect world, all my horses would go in snaffles except for advanced dressage or reining horses. But when Arwen started to pull so much on outrides that my fingers eventually gave up on aching and just went numb, it was apparent that a change was in order. If she was doing that to my fingers, then what was she doing to her mouth?

So yesterday I put her in my Pelham for our hill work. At first I was going to use connectors, but I decided to give her a chance with the reins on the top ring to see if that would work, since the action is gentler. Once she got used to the idea, she was quite a pleasure; less head-tossing, more brakes, and, critically, much less pulling. I could feel a massive difference; she was still eager, still took the contact happily, but my shoulders and fingers didn’t hate me afterwards.

Giant bit
Giant bit

The best part was that today I could put her back in her snaffle for jumping; the eggbutt has actually grown on me and she goes beautifully in it, plus it looks quite pretty (can’t say the same for the Pelham). She didn’t pull at all; in fact, she was lighter in my hand than before being ridden in the Pelham, so I’m going to go ahead and use the Pelham for interval training this weekend and see how she goes.

Magic has the opposite problem. He was starting to curl up behind the bit and didn’t want to go forward. Plus, he’s bouncy and I have confidence issues on him, so my hands are at their worst when I ride him. The Mutterer recommended changing him back out of the Pelham to his eggbutt snaffle, so I gave it a shot and he felt loads better. He is still fussy with his head and tends to open his mouth, flip his head when he’s upset and poke his nose out when he canters, but not as afraid of his mouth as he was with the Pelham. He also jumped beautifully today; in fact I think I am boring him as today we went up to 75cm and he was nearly taking rails. (For the record, Magic never, EVER takes rails). Tomorrow we’ll put together a little course to kindle his enthusiasm and I might even pluck up the courage to take him out.

Forgive me for the supremely dull post today. I’ve got some more interesting stuff in the pipeline!

Modelling the eggbutt
Modelling the eggbutt