Reed’s First Show

All photographs by Lisa Dixon, Reed’s owner. Please don’t use these without permission!

No pressure, right? ("Control the butterflies", advised the Mutterer)
No pressure, right? (“Control the butterflies”, advised the Mutterer)

Fancy!
Fancy!
My face when I realised I'd forgotten the halt at the start of Prelim 3
My face when I realised I’d forgotten the halt at the start of Prelim 3, while Reed starts his best stretchy trot yet
Got it back together and finished in style
Got it back together and finished in style
Goosebumps!
Goosebumps! (This was a 7.5 moment)
Good job buddy, nice work, thank you
Good job buddy, nice work, thank you

Many, many thanks to Lisa, the Mutterer, that wonderfully special horse and my Lord the King. All glory to God!

Comedy of Errors

Today was a good day with one interesting little interval that left me at a loss as to whether I should laugh or cry or both. It involved a colt with his foot in a haynet, me rapidly ditching the horse I was schooling to swoop to the rescue wielding my Excalibur (pocketknife), and the horse then promptly rolling on the dressage saddle. Thankfully, we had just managed to cut the colt loose when my client spotted the rolling horse and I tore across the arena bellowing “GET UP!” The poor filly leapt to her feet in abject terror of this flying, screaming, knife-brandishing creature with her reins, pulled loose from the saddle to which I’d attached them when I went on my colt-saving quest, flopping around her knees. I could just see this day getting rapidly worse, so I stopped and spoke in a more normal tone and luckily she was smart enough to recognise me. Relieved that the harpy had been replaced by her odd little friend/boss/annoyance, she stood still, I got back on and we could resume the session with everything intact except possibly my nerves.

Craziness aside, I do have enough moments of sanity to progress with the ponies. (A horse training memoir entitled Pony’s Progress, anyone?)

Magic has recovered from his bout of colic/biliary, although he has lost quite a lot of weight. I would have scored him at a 4 or 5 before the colic and he’s dropped down to about a 3.5. I was pretty worried about him at one point, so a bit of weight loss is nothing to complain about; TLC and good feeding will fix it in no time. I gave him a generous rest, to be on the safe side, but when he started running around his paddock and looking lively again, I started him back in light work. I was dying to try out the French link I’d bought for him, so I put him in that for his first lunging session yesterday with a pair of side reins to give him a feeling for it. Lo and behold, he absolutely loved the bit. I barely had to tighten the side reins at all to get him moving in a beautiful frame. He did throw his head up and panic a few times, but I’ll put that down to not having worked for some time, because when his brain was on he went forward into the contact without a qualm. Really hoping I can wean him off the Kimberwick and onto this snaffle, at least for flatwork.

<3
❤ my poor skinny baby

He was quite level-headed in his lunging session and didn’t have any bucking fits, so I felt fine with riding him again today. I did use the Kimberwick. I tend to be on the cautious side with Magic, because I’ve learned the hard lesson that pushing us both too hard too quickly only results in tension and fear. He was a real star; went calmly into the contact, didn’t rush his canter or panic about the transitions, and even gave me a quite nice walk-canter transition with two or three trot steps. I didn’t do anything that worries him much and even changed rein in free walk, mostly because I don’t want to get his heart rate up too high, just in case any negative effects still lingered from the biliary.

I decided to try Arwen in the French link as well, since she has started leaning on her eggbutt when she gets bored and I might as well see what she likes best. She was very good for our schooling session today, really light in my hand in walk and trot, although as usual her canter needs a lot of work. (She canters perfectly on cross-country courses or anywhere at shows, but at home? Forget it. I blame it on the sloped arena and unreliable footing). Her leg-yields in trot were the best they have ever been. We didn’t do anything too hard, because I wanted to just run through the three dressage tests I’m riding on a client horse in a show this weekend. They’re the first three Prelim tests, so nothing rough, but the abundance of transitions really got her concentrating and lighter in my hand. I think most of Arwen’s leaning is related to her lack of longitudinal balance; she’s light enough on uphills and the flat stretches directly after uphills, and carries herself well on downhills, but as soon as we turn off the downhill and onto the flat she sort of collapses onto my hands. It’s like balancing on the downhill has temporarily drained her strength. I’m hoping this is true, because then on a flat arena it should be a pretty easy fix.

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Thunder has done mostly hacking this week and is starting to enjoy it better. He can be spooky, but only when there’s something to spook at, and it’s not a dirty spook. He just shies, maybe spins to stare at it, nothing more; and usually I’m ready for it when it happens. The rest of the time he’s a total jewel. He has absolutely no reservations about going out alone, in fact he strides out with great enthusiasm because he just loves spending time with his beloved person. He knows that when I drive down to the paddock in the pickup it means work – I always walk down to feed – but whenever he sees the pickup coming he canters over to the fence, and gives me a whiskery kiss/nudge as I get out. I think I might die if he gets any more adorable.

As for Skye, I don’t say much because I don’t know what to say. Her lameness is about grade 2, at its worst. Usually it’s barely noticeable; impossible to feel in walk, very mild in trot. At the moment, we just hack around at a walk with the odd little lope when she’s feeling especially fiery (sometimes this is not part of my plan, but who can stop a warrior queen?). I’m looking around for a professional to X-ray her leg and just confirm that it is arthritis in her knee and not something more sinister. But you know what? I need that horse that I can just hack around and not feel bad about it. I need the horse where I can toss on a bridle and plug around bareback without a care in the world, no pressure to school, no pressure to condition, just mental and physical relaxation. I need the horse that steps out with patience, spirit and 100% reliability into the spring air that smells faintly of summer and mostly of a sweetly sorrowful yearning for the long days and warm nights to come. And I’m grateful that my brave charger is that horse for me.

In hindsight, I suppose, she’s always been what I need, when I need it.

Thank You, my King.

First storm of the summer
First storm of the summer

Rockin’ the Cross-Country

May I just say that eventing is AWESOME? Okay, so I’ll do whatever discipline suits the horse best… but I am SO glad that Arwen has taken to eventing. I love it!!

Yesterday morning, I was immediately glad of the bit of loading training we’d done. It was so much less stressful for everyone involved when I could just walk my horse right on and go. Somehow, I still managed to be late, and we whirled into President’s Park with five minutes to saddle up and go. (Sorry, parents!)

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When I pulled Arwen off the box to find her dry, calm, and happy, I was so grateful I could have kissed the new box. Evidently, slant haul is more horse-friendly than straight load; or perhaps she just liked the extra space or God gave me another little miracle. Either way, it was such a relief to be able to throw on the tack and set off on a cool, calm and relaxed horse. (My parents and I saddled up like pros; Arwen stood still in a whirl of activity akin to a Formula One pit stop).

Luckily, my instructor was running a little late too, so I found and followed her in good time. As usual, she recognised me instantly, which is nice of her considering how many people she teaches.  Arwen surveyed our group and picked out her targets – a pair of thoroughbreds and a warmblood – and made an evil face at them, so I kept her near the back with a (very beautiful) buckskin pony. Apparently, she only hates big fancy horses.

Like last time, we warmed up in the grass showjumping arena with a few big trot, canter and hand-gallop circles. Arwen was an absolute jewel despite our frantic entry; she really is turning into such a trustworthy little gem of a horse. I did have her in the Kimberwick for a little extra leverage on the long gallops, but I didn’t need it once in the warmup. She was soft as a feather in my hands and listened perfectly to my little half-halts. In the canter she was stunning – she had such a quiet rhythmic working canter going that I had to move out of the circle a few times to allow the more excited horses to go past. Still, when I went into light seat and asked for a bit more speed she lengthened her strides and sped up nicely. Offered to buck once, when the pony in front of her got a bit hyped up and she was worried about the terrain, but nothing serious.

Then we were off to do some jumping. I admire my instructor’s fitness almost as much as I admire her horsemanship – last time, she was on foot, and we were all trotting around that course trying to keep up. This time she had a pony so we just had to scramble to stick with her. It meant that we got to do a whole bunch of jumps. We started out over the same log that we’d started with next time, and she was as usual keen and brave but had a buck afterwards. I was waiting for it, so I just sat back and kept my hands firm and let her hit herself on the bit a little. She rethought the idea of bucking and was much calmer on the second try.

We popped over another log and then had a shot at a mini course; the log, then a long curve to our first cross-country oxer. I’m not fond of oxers because I tend to stare down into them, but this time I kept my eyes up and my legs on; she was a bit scared of it and wriggled a little, but as soon as she felt my determination she jumped – very carefully the first time, and with more confidence the second. Again tried a buck, but again hit herself on the bit and then decided against it.

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Next, we attempted our first cross-country combination; a bigger log underneath a tree, then maybe five strides on a slightly bending line to a sort of log stack upright. (I didn’t count the strides, but we did get the distance right, so whatever!) She ran out at the big log, but that was mostly my fault. It was in the shade and hard to see even for my human eyes; Arwen didn’t know it was there until she was on top of it, and then she kind of hopped over with one leg and ran out with the other three. The next time she knew it was there and I kept my right rein up so she went straight over and charged over the next jump without a moment’s hesitation. Silly little rider error, but at least I know not to make it again.

We rode down to a water complex she hadn’t seen before; I was holding her back from the group to avoid overexcitement, which in hindsight was a mistake at the water. She refused to go in, but when one of the other riders trotted around in front of us again, she followed the other horse straight in and had no reservations about it afterwards. That done, we headed back up over a little bridge (she said it was scary, but marched on regardless) to try another mini-course. It was a pole over some rocks to another log stack to a log lying next to a tree, all on a long bending line. Some of the horses had second thoughts about the rock-logs-thing, but Arwen just charged at it like:

X ALL THE THINGS - JUMP all the things

so I basically hung on tight, weathered a weird moment of bucking and running, and steered her over everything. Our instructor said that she was very good, much better than last time, but I need to push her speed a bit and get her to jump across the jumps instead of up and down over them. Speed is not Arwen’s strong point, and when we’re up against warmbloods and thoroughbreds it’ll be her greatest weakness. Hopefully, her obedience, carefulness and tight turns will be our redemption. So, my new Arwen cross-country motto: Go fast, steer carefully, and don’t fall off.

We had a long, brisk trot (well, trot for the thoroughbreds; canter for Arwen) up to the top corner of the course, which is a palisade fence away from a very busy road. I was so busy looking at the jumps, which were set on a hill, that I forgot to worry about the traffic and luckily for me so did Arwen. She has never really been in traffic before, but she just had a look and then got back to work. Only baboons and pigs can rattle Arwen when she’s in work mode.

The first two jumps were easy; up a steepish little hill and over. I was grateful for all our hillwork; she powered right up like a pro. The last one was a bit scary. Its approach was on the flat, but the landing was on a downhill, and I detest downhills. Luckily I was ready for the buck on landing when it came and had my weight back so we didn’t get into any difficulties.

By this point we were all doing fine, so our instructor started to send us over 75-80cm jumps instead of the 70cm we’d been practicing (it was a 60cm lesson, but that would have been dull!). We went through a kind of dip in the ground, then through it again and over a log on the other side, then another bending line with one smaller jump and one hefty log. I had to kick a bit to the log, but as soon as I committed so did she. We also jumped a brush, which for some reason we both absolutely adore; she was bursting with joy.

The biggest fence of the day was a big log set on another downhill. I was busy worrying about the log and forgot the downhill; she took me honestly over with just a bit of support from me and then suddenly we were running downhill and I was somewhere near her ears. Luckily, I kept my stirrups and my seat and she didn’t buck. If she had it would have ended in hilarity.

Last of all was my favourite: the water complex. I love water as much as Arwen dislikes it, but I’m sure she remembered that particular complex because she trotted right in without a qualm. We once again ran through it, jumped out over a log, and then went up a steep little embankment and down the other side (a slope, not a real bank, thank goodness). Last time she had run out at this because she didn’t have enough impulsion through the water, but perhaps my endless pole work had helped, because I yelled “Go! Go!” and she charged straight through and over without a moment’s hesitation. I was exceedingly proud of my beloved little grey mare.

Arwen7

We spoke to our instructor and have decided to enter the next 70cm event at President’s Park so that she does her first event on familiar ground. We might not make our first event in this year, but that’s all right. We’ll get in lots of practice at cross-training shows and lessons; her dressage is quite solid for training-70, although we need a bit more practice jumping 75cm at showjumping shows.

Added awesomeness to wrap up the day? She loaded right up. No bum rope, no parents swatting her rump – straight up the ramp and travelled calmly home.

I love my brave grey mare. Glory to the KING!

Good mare, well done, thank you
Good mare, well done, thank you

A Poor Workman Blames his Tools?

They say it’s only a poor workman that blames his tools. It should follow, then, that it’s a poor horseman that blames his saddle or his horse or his boots or his bit.

Of course, most of the time this is very true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “But I can’t do it. The horse doesn’t want to.” This is often followed by whoever is teaching the lesson (often me, I’m afraid; this is my favourite trick) getting on the horse and getting the horse to do whatever it is he’s supposed to do with no apparent effort. The point is not that the instructor is so much better than you (if they weren’t a better rider, you wouldn’t be taking lessons from them). The point is that it’s not the horse who’s not responding; it’s you who’s not asking him the way he needs to be asked.

Excuses are just that – excuses. “I can’t ride properly because the saddle is too big.” “The horse is too wild.” “I’m wearing new boots.” “I’m too short.” “It’s windy.” “It’s Tuesday.” One will never improve when you are waiting for the right horse, the right arena, the right trainer, to lose weight, to gain weight, to get fit, to rest up, for your new boots to arrive, or King Arthur to return before you try your best.

The best riders can get on virtually any horse with virtually any equipment in virtually any circumstances and still look pretty pro; the best students can shut up, buckle down and get on with it as best as they can, even when conditions are not ideal, within reason. Of course, unsafe conditions should be fixed and avoided.

But coming at this idea from the other side, it’s true that one cannot ride perfectly when conditions are imperfect. Speaking as a petite rider who always seems to end up swimming about in 18″ saddles, I know how much it helps when your stuff fits and the footing is good and you’re not jumping straight into the setting sun (the Mutterer still moans at me about not telling him about that). One should be able to make the best out of very little; but there’s no denying that getting the most well-fitting and well-made equipment you can gives you the best possible shot at riding your best.

Arwen’s new saddle is what got me thinking about this. We all know how much I loved my old Solo, but looking at photos of me riding in the new saddle and just feeling the difference solidifies the idea that in my mind the new saddle was money well spent and a decision I won’t be regretting anytime soon. We did some crazy things in that old saddle (everything from jumping our first 1.10m to our first ribbon to our first cross-country lesson), but the new one makes craziness easier.

I have, somehow, taken a very big knock on my jumping confidence lately. Arwen and I used to practice around 90cm regularly without turning a hair; we used to hop around 1.10m fences, hard as that may seem to believe. Without anything really happening, our jumps just seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps it was with me polishing our technique for shows, where we’re only doing about 70cm anyway. Perhaps it had to do with Magic and I having some hassles about jumping. Whatever it is, I started freezing up at the base of the jumps, which led to stopping; after that, I developed my fear/hatred/phobia of stopping, and froze up even worse.

This all happened so slowly that I didn’t realise it until a couple of weeks ago and have been chipping away at it ever since. First, I started by working super hard on my light/forward seat/two point position/whatever you want to call it when you get off the horse’s back. Mostly, I spend longer periods in light seat when I do hillwork, galloping or intervals with Arwen. (Interval training in light seat only = death to leg muscles). The new saddle, due to the perfect positioning of the knee blocks and its stability on Arwen’s back, makes this about two gazillion times easier.

Second, I put my big girl pants on and raised the jumps whether I liked it or not. Not too much – not enough to daunt the horses (i. e. Arwen); just 10cm or so. Where I’d normally warm up over 70cm I made myself warm up over 80cm; I put up a 1.00m oxer which looked hideously big, started jumping it at the end of sessions when I was feeling brave, and then made myself jump it (making a conscious effort to give Arwie a bit of a kick into it to make sure she’d jump) earlier on. Now, it’s suddenly not anywhere near as scary anymore. Part of this is undoubtedly the fact that I feel absolutely dead safe in my new saddle over jumps. I know this is because it helps me stay solid in my position, instead of sliding back and sideways like I did in the Solo. I also know that I should be able to jump anything in any saddle; but I’m not there yet, and the new one makes it a whole lot easier to learn. In fact I’m back up to 90cm or so in the very big saddle that I ride Reed in, so we’re making progress.

Suddenly, jumping is a thrill and a wonderful joy again. I can’t wait for cross-country on Wednesday!

What do you think, blogosphere? Do you believe that a good rider rides just as well in any tack? Or is it an important consideration for optimum performance?

Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We're both guilty).
Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We’re both guilty).

SFTSBH: Listening to Silence

Jenn at Stories from the Saddle asks: I want to know: Why do you do what you do? […] I want to know why you have chosen the particular discipline you have.

This would be a whole lot easier if I had actually chosen a discipline. The honest answer is that I’ll do any discipline if somebody would teach me how. I’ve already learned a little reining, some Western mounted games, showjumping, dressage, eventing, some showing and lots of hacking, but there’s still a woeful amount of disciplines I have never even tried: vaulting, polo, racing, cutting, equitation, tentpegging, endurance, polocrosse, horseball, driving, saddle seat, etc. My reasons for not choosing a discipline are simple: I don’t want to just compete, I want to be a horsewoman, and to me that means understanding the horse on every possible level, and striving for the perfect horse-human relationship; where both horse and person are happy and living life to their fullest. I believe this happens at its best when the horse is in the discipline best suited for its mind and body.

Given the choice (not always possible with a client horse), I apply more or less the same basic schooling ideas to the horses I work with, with the exception of teaching a Western horse to neck-rein early on. In the groundwork and schooling process I look for the horse’s strong points and work towards a discipline that utilises them to their best. An intelligent horse with flowing movement will generally start learning dressage; a courageous, scopey horse will start with jumping or eventing. Of course, knowing the breeding helps to work with a certain goal in mind from day one, but generally I try to go with whatever the horse enjoys most. It’s always a better idea to work with what God has so brilliantly created instead of against it.

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But if I am to be honest then I must admit that I love eventing for the simple reason that it’s extremely difficult to do well. Oh, all the disciplines are; but eventing is a very good test of the horse, the rider, and their relationship all-round. The event horse has to have good movement, conformation, intelligence, scope, speed, vast amounts of courage, a great work ethic and a willingness to try his best for his rider. The rider has to be able to sit like a royal personage in the dressage arena, guts it out across country and speed around the showjumping, not to mention having the tact to persuade an extremely lively and fit horse to behave himself. Together, the horse and rider both have to be trained to be precise, brave, fast, and quick-thinking. Added to this, the event horse is superbly fit. Of course, showjumping and dressage in their pure forms are far more specialised. But I believe the event horse cannot afford to have many of the weak spots in his training that the more specialised disciplines have. I know of advanced dressage horses who refuse to go out on a hack, and of higher-level showjumpers who have never been taught to carry themselves in the right way. Plus there is the cross-country!

I don’t mean to belittle any of the other disciplines because I love them all. They are all special in their own way; eventing just so happens to appeal to me the most, perhaps because I get bored so quickly, and an eventer has to have a tremendously varied work routine in order to be good at everything he has to be good at. Besides, I defy anyone to ride across country at a challenging height (for them) and not be scared enough to not be bored.

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On Horses and Boxes

Monty Roberts wrote that the most common remedial problem he had to deal with was horses who refused to load. This is hardly surprising, seeing as getting into a horsebox goes directly against several of the most important rules of being a horse, namely:

  1. Don’t go into dark places
  2. Don’t stand on anything that’s a funny colour or makes a weird noise
  3. Enclosed spaces = death. Avoid at all costs
  4. Never be alone

Considering that the inside of a horsebox cripples some of the horse’s most important natural defences (its sight, speed, and strength in numbers), it’s understandable that loading can be one of the most psychologically problematic actions in the horse world. And yet it’s a testament to the enormous trainability of the equine mind that thousands of horsepeople across the globe load their horses up and drive happily off without a second thought; and that most horses can be persuaded to march right on and stand quietly for the journey.

Loading is a vitally important thing for a horse to learn in order to be a good equine citizen. A horse that simply does not load can’t be taken to a new owner or a show or even an off-site trail ride. More critically, a horse that won’t load can’t be rushed to a vet hospital in an emergency, such as torsion colic. And while the majority of relaxed, handled horses can be wrestled into a box for the first time with a couple of unafraid people and some lunge ropes, it’s never good to stress out a sick horse.

So when we got our grubby paws onto our first horsebox, I wasted little time in getting started on the Horde’s box training.

Equipment1

There are a few things about our box that makes it extremely horse-friendly for loading. Firstly, it’s a four-berth. In other words, it’s huge, airy and much less claustrophobic. Secondly, it has a front ramp for unloading; when this ramp is open, the horses can see their way out and walk straight through the box instead of backing off, which can create fly-back artists (horses who zoom backwards out of the box at high speed).

Equipment2

Arwen has a cross-country lesson coming up next week, so I got started with her. I put her in a pressure halter for a little extra control, since she has tried flying back once or twice, and led her up to the box. She did her wide-eyed snorty OMW-there’s-a-box performance for a second or two, so I did a little turn-on-the-forehand exercise that disengages the haunches and settles the mind until she was acting more reasonable. Then I led her up to the ramp. She put one foot on it and promptly flew back, so I tossed a lunge line around her butt to put some pressure on her behind. It worked like a charm. I marched up, she hesitated, I put pressure on the bum rope and she walked right on. When I halted her in the middle of the box she wanted to fly back, but I gave her another pull on the bum rope and persuaded her to go forward and down the front ramp. She did a flying leap off the end of the ramp, but after that, the flying back was done.

After a few repetitions with the bum rope, I took it off and led her up just in the halter; she loaded like a dream, stood in the box, got a carrot, and unloaded. It’s kind of hard to manhandle the partitions alone, so I only swung them closed once without fastening them. She hated that, but didn’t do anything silly.

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To round off our little session, I had her stand in the horsebox with some carrots and a haynet for a few minutes to let her relax and realise that it was quite pleasant. Hopefully now she’ll just hop right on come lesson or show time.

Since I had a little time left after rewarding Arwen by giving her a good workout up and down some hills (I know that goes against the usual rest-is-reward mentality, but she loved it), I went to fetch Thunder. He has never even seen the inside of a horsebox before, so I kept my goals modest. I was hoping to get a hoof or two on the ramp; I suspected that he would be scared of the box itself and we’d spend the session walking around and around it until he realised it wouldn’t eat him.

I thoroughly underestimated my little loving guy. I expected uncertainty, hesitation and a little fear. What really happened was that I walked up to the box, he walked up to the box. I got on the ramp, he got on the ramp. I walked into the box, he walked into the box. I walked off the ramp, he walked off the ramp. I stood there gawping at him while he looked at me wondering why I hadn’t asked him to do anything hard yet.

We repeated this just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke the first time, and he was the same: went straight in without batting an eyelid. I gave up trying to teach him anything about horseboxes and let him go, feeling a strange mix of pride, love and a kind of quivering, grateful awe. Even so young, Thunder has already reached the mental stage of training that few horses ever reach. Oh, I’m no horse whisperer; it has a lot to do with the sheer amount of quality time we’ve spent together, and with his gentle, willing nature. But it’s still amazing when a horse reaches this level of trust, respect, and obedience.

All the aids and commands that we teach horses in classical and natural horsemanship work on pressure and release. You apply pressure, the horse responds, and you reward by releasing the pressure. The horse learns to do what you want because it’s the easy way out. It’s easier to give to the pressure than to fight against it. Eventually, he responds to pressure every time because he’s learned that it’s the path of least resistance.

But if you go beyond mere training and into the realms of a real horse-human relationship, with – crucially – the human as leader and defender and provider and the horse as trusting follower, something awesome happens. Your horse stops doing things for you because it’s the easy way out. He starts doing things simply because it was you asking him to do it. This is the point where he hardly ever tests you anymore; he just does what you want to the best of his ability and understanding, because you are his leader and he is your horse and that is the way that a horse’s world works best. When the relationship works like this, one’s horse can achieve greatness in competition because he will jump anything unhesitatingly, perform every movement with expression for you. But this isn’t the point of the relationship. The relationship is the point of horsemanship; when it is perfect, this trust is horsemanship at its best.

I thank God for giving me baby Thunder, the horse that’s teaching me how deep this trust can run.

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