1. Have you ever owned a horse? On paper, yes; since I was seven and my parents bought me Skye. Since then I also own(ed) Arwen, Thunder, Secret, Dancer, Magic and Exavior. In reality, they’re all God’s horses. 2. What is your favourite aspect of your discipline? If we’re talking eventing, then the satisfaction of doing a hard job well as a team. I feel an event horse is just so well-rounded and having schooled an aspiring one nearly from scratch gives me a bit of a sense of achievement. 3. What pet peeves do you have concerning your discipline? The expense. I dread needing (to buy) different saddles for each phase. 4. Do you do barn chores? For the horses standing at home, I feed, groom, apply various bug-busting chemicals, oil feet, clean tack (rarely and with little enthusiasm), treat ailments, push needles into, blanket, etc. I don’t lug hay, scrub troughs, fix fences, drive the tractor or wash numnahs, mostly because I either am too tiny and pathetic or because I don’t know how. Yet. But for the stud horses, I basically just saddle up and ride. They’re even kind enough to have them brought in for me. 5. What is your least favourite barn chore? Filling haynets. If you are female and require a certain hay-trapping undergarment, you will understand why. 6. What do you consider the worst vice in a horse? Aggression towards humans on the ground. Any horse is dangerous enough; a horse that wilfully attempts to harm humans on the ground can be a murderer. Of course all horses can kill, but with this type of horse it’s just likelier to happen, and even happen again. Even if you turned him out to pasture, he could die a slow, agonising death of a disease rendered untreatable by his behaviour towards humans. Whatever the reason behind it, I think this is the one behavior issue I would put a horse down for if it could not be resolved. It’s a good thing that it can often be resolved! 7. What saddle brand is your favourite? Currently, Kent and Masters, of course. But I do love the E. Jeffries dressage saddle as well. I just prefer the K&M leather. 8. Do you ride with a quarter sheet in winter? Nope. We don’t call this Africa for nothing. 9. Does your horse wear boots? What kind? Arwen has a wonderfully fluffy pair of Saddle-Up tendon boots, one of the Horse Mutterer’s ever-useful and always randomly dispensed gifts. Skye wrecked Magic’s boots and I see no reason to buy him new ones right now as carefully applied bandages and overreach boots seem to work fine. 10. Full seat or knee patch breeches? Anything that serves the basic purposes of comfort and decency. Although I don’t like full seats with a different colour seat to the rest of the jodhpurs. So inconveniently eye-catching…
I had originally entered Arwen into a cross-training show last weekend, but it ended up being cancelled and cross-country lessons being held at the same venue instead. I was not terribly upset about this because I was really excited to have a lesson from this instructor, who was the chef d’ equipe for South Africa’s eventing team at WEG this year and has been at the top of SA eventing for many years.
The lesson ended up being totally awesome. Arwen loaded, travelled, and behaved like a superstar. She didn’t kick anybody at all, and we both got along well with the instructor; he was knowledgeable, punctual and patient, and has a teaching voice that I would kill for. (Seriously, how do you get your voice to carry all the way across a giant arena without actually shouting?). We warmed up with some showjumps first, which was slightly hairy because Arwen is much more afraid of showjumps than of cross-country, but actually went well. She did have one little stop at the dumbest tiny cross ever, but there was a puddle behind it and I wasn’t there to support her with my leg, so I won’t hold it against her.
She had one moment of absolute awesomeness as we were following the horse in front of us through a gymnastic line. I fear and hate gymnastic jumping and as such have never really tried it properly, so of course neither has she. To my horror, halfway through the line I realised that the jumps in front of us were not a one-stride combination, they were a bounce. I have never tried to jump a bounce, and this one was around 60cm so it wasn’t like we could trot our way through it, so I sat there panicking a bit and Arwen was all “I got this, human” and popped through it perfectly. Gotta love little tough grey mares.
The cross-country was also good; a little more challenging than we’ve tried before, including a dyke, a hanging log, some creepy black barrels under a tree, and a little bank down into the water. She bucked like a lunatic a few times, of course, out of enjoyment; but she was as brave as the day and jumped everything fearlessly. The only jump I really had to kick her at was a big black solid oxer that made my heart stand still, and she cleared it with flying colours in the end. The dyke was by far the hardest to ride, but we did it several times with great success. She was a little looky about the water, but as soon as she had followed the experienced pony through it once, she was fine even about jumping down into it. (Awesomest sound ever: the splash when you jump into water. So much fun).
She was a tired pony by the end of the lesson, but I learned a lot and we both had a wonderful time. Cross-country is the best! I hope I’ll have pictures soon, but for now all you get is boring old words.
The others have gone through a slight tough patch, mostly a combination of cold wet weather and moving paddocks with all the new horses arriving. I split them into three groups with Arwen, Thunder and Flare in one group; Magic, Exavior and Skye in the other; and the old donkey Benjamin keeping the Mutterer’s white horse company. Skye’s herd have formed a tight-knit little family. Skye is, of course, the Queen with Magic being her first knight. He has gotten a real confidence boost from being second-in-command. He is kind to Exavior and doesn’t bully him, but he carries himself with a bit more assurance now that he’s not the underdog anymore. Exavior, being the youngest, is the little prince and Magic’s playmate; Skye has also joyously adopted him. She treats him exactly as she treats Thunder, and whenever he’s nervous he runs to Skye and hides next to her because he’s the only one allowed in her majesty’s personal space. Skye has a new lease on life too, with her baby to be responsible for. Exavior also caught a cold; he’s had a bit of a runny nose since he arrived and I think the cold weather just brought out some kind of a virus in him. After having some needles and TLC pushed into into him, he seems 100% again now.
Arwen’s herd had a slightly harder time adjusting. Thunder has always been the underdog in the group, and I don’t think being Arwen’s beta suits him very well. In general the second-in-command seems responsible for protecting the lead mare, and poor Thunder is much too sweet and fragile to be any good at this. When Flare was introduced to the herd he tried his best to frighten her by pulling awful faces and trying to bite her without actually using his teeth; Flare, unimpressed, landed a couple of kicks on him and he was a bit sore for a few days. It’s so hard sometimes to let them be horses and take the knocks of group life, but he’s feeling all better now, so no harm has been done. I secretly hope that Flare eventually dominates Thunder and becomes Arwen’s bodyguard so that Thun can be the omega again, but it might be better to put him in Skye’s herd. He misses his mother, and the three boys would have a wonderful time together with Skye to put them in their places.
On the showjumping front, Magic and I have reached the level of confidence where I can start challenging him again. Not in terms of height – we’re not there yet – but in terms of technique. Graham Winn says, “It’s perfecting the small jumps that makes the big ones easy”, so I’m hoping all this fuss over crossrails will eventually pay off. We started by warming up over a tiny baby gymnastic line (three trotting poles to about a 70cm oxer) and then tried a little triple combination. I set it up at first as one really tiny crossrail to two ground poles just to give him a bit of warning first, because the last thing I wanted was for him to panic and crash through jumps. I had 13m between jumps and went in without worrying over strides the first time, just wanting him to stay calm and get the takeoff distances right. Once I could pick it up to three little crosses and he was still popping through without worrying, I started counting strides. He would fit in four or five, sometimes four in the first half and five in the second, sometimes vice versa. So first we tried cantering through with an equal number of strides between jumps to keep a rhythm. He was very nice about it and didn’t pull on my hands too much, and I kept him very quiet and fit in five nice steady little strides between jumps. Then I started to push him; first doing it in five strides, then coming back and trying for four. The first time I let him do the four strides he got really excited, finished the combination well, and then leapt into the air like a pogo stick with his front feet striking out the way he does when he’s playing. Obviously he was just enjoying himself, and I kept my balance, and it was thrilling, but I made him put his feet on the ground and behave like a grownup horsie. I don’t need him pulling out stunts like that all the time.
Once he’d gone nuts once, he seemed content to go through it nicely in however many strides I pleased a few times – minus a few mistakes when he thought three strides, I said four and we ended up running on air – and I was super proud of him. Even though we’re still jumping glorified ground poles, I think we have made progress. He had a few green moments today and did his little leap-in-the-air act, but I was able to stay relaxed and go through it again without losing confidence. He is also less of a wuss and was happy to try again without panicking. Little steps, but they’re in the right direction.
One of my most controversial philosophies is that it is not always the rider’s fault when things go wrong.
Maybe this comes from working with a lot of young horses, or maybe in ten years’ time I’ll disagree with myself, but right now I’m pretty sure of this. Of course, many horse problems are not horse problems, they’re people problems. Horses are so easily spoiled or scared and 80% of them will misbehave when they’re overtired, overfed or have been allowed to get away with it; it’s only the real jewels that will be good when everything else is bad. Also, many novice riders simply don’t know what to do, and for that reason things go wrong easily.
But it’s not always the fault of the rider, especially not with a young or inexperienced horse. There are very, very few young horses who do not respond with varying degrees of resistance when put under pressure, and I strongly disagree with anyone who presumes that it is possible to train a horse without putting it under pressure. Of course, some horses can take a lot of pressure, and with some you have to apply only tiny amounts of stress or their brains switch off, but if you never make it harder they will never learn anything. Sooner or later a stress response is bound to come out. I don’t understand how a rider whose horse spooks at a flappy flag and jumps out from under him is to blame for falling off. The horse spooked. Horses spook. No rider is capable of sitting 100% of equine shenanigans.
Horses are large flight animals capable of a wide range of emotions and moods. These include empathy, willingness, courage, loyalty, compassion and even love. They also include fear, anger, pain and exhaustion. Shocker alert here: they also include laziness and spitefulness.
Think about it: most horses are, at the root of it all, lazy animals. If they weren’t lazy, then why do they so predictably choose the path of least resistance? The vast majority of training methods are based around the fact that the horse always chooses the action that is, in the end, less effort. He eventually learns to work with us because it is less effort than fighting us. This is true for most horses, although there are some very special ones who will do things for you just because you are you.
If horses weren’t lazy, we would have no horses. Wild horses are forced to conserve their energy for when they need it, and if they spent all their time doing things the hard way, they would have nothing left for when predators arrive. Lions would have eaten all of them years ago and we’d be riding around on cows. Laziness is a basic requirement of equine survival.
It follows, then, that horses can act out of laziness and they can act out of fear. If your horse has learned that throwing a couple bucks will get him out of work, he will buck every single time because he is lazy. Of course, some buckers buck because their backs hurt or their mouths hurt or their rider is sitting with their heels in their guts. But there are those who will buck because they think it is easy, and you can call as many chiropractors and dentists as you want – they will buck until you make it the harder thing to do. It is also true that if the rider tenses up every time the horse spooks, the horse will decide that there really is something to be afraid of and you can feed him maize-free diets until you’re blue in the face. He will spook until you show him not to be afraid.
Those are examples of when it is the rider’s fault, albeit indirectly. But sometimes, it is not the rider’s fault. Sometimes it isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes nobody sees the hole because it wasn’t visible until you were on top of it and your horse trod in it and you both went sprawling. Gasp, horror! How could the rider injure the horse in that way? It was an accident. It’s not that hard to get up, dust yourself off, say, “Well, that was random,” and keep riding.
Sometimes it is the horse’s fault, believe it or not. Some horses are wilfully and stubbornly disobedient. Even if you never let them get away with it, they will still test you and test you and test you. These are the born leaders of the equine world; they would have been lead mares or herd stallions in the wild, and you just have to put up with it and stand firm until they give up. It’s not your fault that they’re going to keep testing you. It’s just who they are.
All horses have strong points and weak points. If your horse doesn’t learn as fast as everybody else’s, maybe you’re training him slowly. Or maybe he’s not a fast learner. Some horses are smarter than others, some are more willing than others, some are lazier than others, and some are moodier than others. Some horses have a more active flight response than others. Some have a greater tendency towards aggression. Some are more sensitive, some are more stubborn. There’s a reason why sport horse breeders select horses for temperament; not all horses are created equal in terms of trainability. Things go a lot better once I can admit to myself that the horse has weak points, and then learn to work around those weak points instead of butting my head against them.
What about the abused horse that wants to run a mile when you go near him? Or the horse that had a gentle groom and a rough rider, who is perfect until you get on and then randomly throws you into next week? Is it your fault that somebody else beat him half to death? Of course not. His problems are not always your problems. The horse is not merely a mirror of his rider; he is a flesh-and-blood creature, unique, responding differently to any other horse. Only a great rider who has worked with a group of horses for a long time will stamp each horse with his trademark, and even then each of those horses will be different.
Maybe that horse that leans on his rider’s hands until his jaw gapes open is 100 times better than he was six months ago. Maybe that horse that just threw his rider a mile doesn’t have a sore back; maybe he had a bad hair day and didn’t feel like carting people around today. Maybe that rider with the one heel in the air has ripped a ligament and can’t put that heel down no matter how much they want to. I try to view every problem in my own training objectively (with varied success, I admit), with the goal to solve the problem, not to lay the blame. Blaming anyone achieves nothing in the end.
I have been submerged under a sea of shows, equine arrivals, NaNoWriMo, and those other annoying little things called exams, which have been kinda pushed to the side in light of other (more important) things going on, so we shall see how that one turns out…
Anyway, dearly beloved, I have come briefly to the surface to wave a little flag and try to summarise everything that’s been happening in the past two weeks.
Let’s start with looking after my first horse who doesn’t belong to me or close family. This is exciting, awesome, and a bit stressful, but thankfully the aforementioned horse is a) an absolute saint and b) the Mutterer’s. Having been subject to my paranoia good intentions for the past several years, the Mutterer should know that his horse is likely to be just fine in my nervous but determined hands, God willing. The only difficulty is that the horse is grey, the kind of grey that can’t really be called grey at all and justifies being called white. Well, technically he’s white. Currently he’s a very strange piebald with some palomino going on in his mane. The poor guy frequently gets a thorough scrubbing.
The white horse is in supply of ample amounts of mud, as the rainy season has come to the Highveld to stay. The grass is loving it, the horses are loving their crazy leaping racing games in it, and the humans are loving a break from the blistering sun. I did miss a few afternoons’ riding, but today I was tired, fed up and in obvious need of several hours of saddle time – and the horses were getting very bored – so I pulled up my socks. With the philosophy that Pommies ride in the rain all the time, which does not appear to have affected their success on the international circuit, I saddled up and rode in the drizzle. Arwen loved me for it, and when my beloved saddle started to get wet I sat on my hoodie and we had a wonderful time.
Thunder was less happy with the whole idea, but put his little ears down into his thick mane and lived with it. Magic, who has learned to love the rain, originally dug in his toes and looked at me as if he knew that I had finally lost my marbles completely. The shelter, he explained with his top lip poking out and his hooves firmly planted, is the other way. I told him not to be such a wuss (which, actually, he is) and we ended up having a really good time. He realised that I was serious, so he put his head down and got to work despite the drizzle and made me dream wild dreams of a thoroughbred dressage horse.
We also took the cutest, sweetest stallion ever to his first jumping show, where he was a little superstar. I couldn’t have asked for anything better in terms of manners. Although we first had to stop and inspect every jump on course before he would consent to jump it (from a standstill), we got a nice round out of him in the end and had no disqualifications, so I’m calling that a great success. Love him to bits. (Photo courtesy of Reed’s owner; please don’t use without permission).
Last but certainly not least, my li’l sister finally found her dream horse, an Appendix QH by the name of Calval Abundant Flare. She goes as Flare to friends, Flare-Bear to my sister, and Flarehead to me (why? Because it rhymes with Airhead and I get a kick out of my sister’s face when I say it). She’s only five, but sensible far beyond her years; a steady little brick of a horse who’ll look after Rain for many years to come.
Back into the downpour now. I have a hungry Horde to feed.
You are a horse, and have no concept of birthdays. When I pushed your luxurious black forelock back from your eyes and pressed my cheek to yours so that your sleek fur bristled against my fragile skin, and whispered “Happy birthday, buddy” to your forward-tipped ears, you understood not a word. But you pressed closer to me, your eyes lighting up at the sheer pleasure of hearing my voice.
Honestly, beyond the words you didn’t understand, I didn’t do anything special for your birthday. I even forgot to bring you a carrot. But I made your day with everything I did, because that’s the way you are. I took you for a ride; we loped down the fenceline with your big feet beating softly on the green grass and your ears pricked forward with excitement. When we had to be called back to help out with some cattle work, I turned you up the hill and pushed you faster than I have ever dared before. You flung out your long gawky legs and snorted in glee. Watch me run, Mom! you cried with pride, flinging up your tail. I’m so fast!
Yes, Thunder, I replied with one hand on your neck, you are. Even though you were barely hand-galloping. You did it with so much of yourself that it was ten times more exciting than speed alone could ever make it.
Then we cut heifers out of the herd for their owner and some buyers; the owner thought you were adorable and made your day again by rubbing your nose. You got bored standing and waiting, and tried to eat your stirrup. When we got to herd the cows, you threw yourself into it with the puppyish enthusiasm only you have; your ears were up even as you sprinted and spun to catch those heifers, because you thought it was an elaborate and wonderful game.
You turned four years old yesterday. I trust you with my life.
It seems like yesterday that I first breathed into your nose and made you mine; it feels like last week that I would press my cheek against Skye’s stomach and speak to you before you were even born. “Hi, baby Skye, when are you coming?” I swear you knew my voice when you were born, like a human baby knows the voice of his mother; I will never forget the first time you pricked your ears to me, just hours old. You will never know how I waited for you and prayed for you, or how delighted I was when you finally made your appearance, a tiny bundle of legs and fur and soft puffs of milky breath.
You were still too small to eat even a carrot slice out of my hand when you first started coming to me in the paddock, giving your poor little baby whinny. (“He neighs like a Barbie horse,” commented my sister). It melted my heart, the way it still does when your now 15.1hh bulk lopes up to me and rumbles a greeting like a thunderstorm turning over in its sleep.
Oh, Baby Thun. You’re not so much of a baby anymore, are you? It has been a long time since I first haltered you or picked up your tiny feet, struggling to fit the hoofpick into the teeny grooves of your frog. So many milestones, and so few struggles. You opened your mouth for the bit before you even knew what it was. Every new thing I introduced was a complete non-event for you and a miracle for me; I kept waiting for you to finally explode, but you never did. We have come a long way together, you and me. We’ve had our fights, of course, but I have never seen malice in you. My experiences with you are so peppered with wonder at how much you dare to trust me. The first time I looked into your star-studded eyes and reached out to brush my fingers over your downy neck. Sitting on the grass, barely daring to breathe as your head rested in my lap while you slept. Later, when you were too big to use me as a pillow, I would wait for you to lie down on your side and then crash between your legs with my head resting against your belly. The first time I sat on you, and how you just turned back an ear to hear the voice you love so much. Falling off on an outride, watching you come back to get me. Walking into the horsebox for the first time, hearing your faithful hoofbeats as you followed me without a qualm.
I don’t deserve for you to trust me this much, buddy, and it scares me a little. But you make me want to be better than I am, you make me believe in the stars, you make me know that when the world feels cold and dark there is always someone on this earth who is happy to see me. I have been proud and amazed and happy and priviledged to be such a big part of your remarkable young life, but most of all I have been humbled that God would trust me with one of the best creatures He ever made. You are amazing, but it’s not me who gave the horse his strength and clothed his neck with thunder. The King made you, and you are a glory to Him.
Here’s to a long and beautiful journey ahead with you, my beautiful bay gelding.