FMNMBH: Sweating Blood

Alyssa from Four Mares No Money asks: What has been the most fearful moment you have ever experienced with a horse?

Excellent question, and I have been pondering this subject all week and still can’t think of one specific incident. (My panic is more sort of drawn-out; it seems to like carrying on for months, albeit limited to a particular horse in a certain situation). There have been quite a few moments of absolute, dry-mouth, wet-pants kind of terror, those slow, cold moments when seconds crackle through frozen time and there’s ice in your very veins.

One of the worst ones was when Arwen gave my ex-boyfriend a rather nasty kick. I thought my heart had stopped; things got bloody. Luckily, there was no serious harm done, although he has a lifelong dent in his calf muscle to remember why dating a crazy horse chick wasn’t an awesome idea.

Then there was the time three or four years ago when I was still teaching and one of my students plopped off Skye. I had told him four thousand times not to pick his hands up going up a hill but what do I know? Of course, he picked his hands up and toppled off backwards; Skye trotted merrily off saying that she’d told him so and had no sympathy, and the poor child was totally winded and couldn’t move for several seconds. I thought I’d just killed my student. Luckily, once he got his breath back and I had screamed at him for a suitable period of time (just kidding) he was totally fine.

And who can forget the time Arwen threw Rain off and broke her collarbone? Yes, once my brave grey mare was a terrified two-year-old filly. Admittedly, we were riding in the dark, on a hack, bareback, with Arwen’s first foal at foot, and everyone was already on the freaked out side when the old dog ran under Arwen’s feet and she completely lost her mind. Poor little nine-year-old Rain landed straight on her collarbone and broke it. It mended flawlessly, except for a tiny bump in the bone that she likes to brag about, but it was still quite a panicky moment.

My own worst moments ever have usually involved stallions because I am terrible at them. Nothing like looking up at a pair of shod forefeet waving over your head. The time Achilles bucked me off onto my head was particularly nasty, but I think the rides after that – with the memory (or, rather, lack thereof) of the fall fresh in my mind – were much more frightening. Yet with the love of  the King, breath by breath, I’m working through it; for perfect love casts out fear.

Ah, and of course there was the time I was holding a Quarter Horse mare and the Mutterer was trimming her hooves. I know everyone loves Quarter Horses and they are sweet and docile and wonderful, but I have yet to find one that I truly get along with, possibly barring Chrome the little stallion. This mare was being somewhat cantankerous, which wasn’t a problem until she leapt backwards into another QH mare. The other mare kicked her, she leapt forward, I didn’t manage to stop her and she landed on the Mutterer’s foot, breaking it. Somehow it’s always so much worse when it’s an apparently invincible person that you look up to that gets hurt.

But I think the moment in which my heart sank the lowest in the shortest amount of time was one memorable incident a few months ago when two of my clients (one on a Friesian and one on Reed) and I went for a hack. I was riding a mare who has a bad past, but the two of us were getting along all right and I felt it was time to go for our first hack. I will admit to some trepidation when the client leading the outride decided to pick the route that led to an unfenced field near the main road, but figured that we’d just stick to a walk anyway and the mare had good brakes. Famous last words. We were just fine right up until we turned back. The Friesian broke into a trot; his rider, who had been struggling for months to get him more forward-going, delightedly let him trot faster and faster; my mare started to fret and I was just about to ask if we could walk when the Friesian suddenly realised that cantering was a thing and took off like a shot. Reed plunged joyously after him and my mare totally lost her mind. One moment we were trotting and the next all I could see was that familiar blur of mane, sky and ground that is the trademark of being bucked off. I redoubled my death grip on the reins and hit the burnt stubble shoulderblade first. I am ridiculously lucky in that I usually roll when I fall, but this time I only got halfway before the reins (which I was still clinging to) yanked me under the mare’s feet. I saw hooves come down in front of my face and decided to let go. When I got up, the Friesian and Reed were distant specks on the horizon, my mare was galloping across the tar road with her flapping stirrups making her wilder each minute, I was absolutely covered in soot and my day had just gotten a whole lot worse. As if the other two rapidly vanishing horses and riders weren’t enough, my mare was galloping down the main road with cars swishing heedlessly by, blind with panic. Seeing that catching the mare was going to be impossible on foot, I wandered after the other riders, trying to shout in a nonthreatening way so that they’d notice I was no longer with them.

By God’s grace, it all ended well. The mare finally got off the road and thundered along the verge all the way to her stable, miraculously not hurting herself or causing any accidents. The other two riders noticed my absence, managed to stop their horses and milled around in bewilderment wondering where my horse had vanished to. The farrier saw my mare gallop into the yard and (with commendable presence of mind) got in his car and charged off in the direction she’d come, so I didn’t have to walk quite all the way home. The Mutterer refrained from ripping my skin off for scaring him, although I think he was rather tempted, and made unhelpful comments about how terrible I looked while I tried to get the soot off myself.

The mare’s confidence has been entirely restored, as has mine, the soot washed out of my work shirt and I no longer ride with Friesians unless I have a quiet horse under me. But every time I head off towards the unfenced field, I am most helpfully reminded by everybody that the idea is not for my horse and I to come home individually.

Just Hanging On

Horse riding is a sport. An art. A passion. A career. It takes technique, it takes time, it takes talent. Balance, rhythm, deep breaths, impulsion, low heels, high hopes, the perfect distance, the perfect bend, the perfect seat, a draping leg, automatic release, just the right tack.

But sometimes, horse riding is just about hanging on.

Sit tall and deep. Elbows by your sides. More leg. Open chest. Closed fingers.

And sometimes, just hang on.

Sometimes, push your heel a little further down and tuck your lower leg a little further back. Relax the lower back a little more. Straighten the hands again. Focus between the ears.

And sometimes, just hang on.

Because when the muck heap hits the windmill, there’s nothing you can do except try not to fall off. Drop your heels if you can, grab mane if you need to, try to get him back under control but ultimately, just hang on. Franz Mairinger, coach of the gold-medal-winning Australian Olympic eventing team, said: “In an emergency I don’t care what you do, just don’t fall off.”

Just hang on.

Which is easy enough, when your horse has a moment and temporarily loses his mind and twenty seconds later it’s all over and you’re back to work. But many horses – dare I say most horses – go through a stage where their brains serially evaporate. Sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes for frustratingly unfixable reasons, horses can and do go through tough times in their training where they seem to regress dramatically and just become absolute lunatics overnight. Your normally safe, sound, wonderful creature loses it and broncs like a crazy beast every single ride for the next six weeks. His back, teeth, legs, brain, routine, feeding, grooming, tack, stomach, vision, and ear hairs for all we know are completely fine. Yet still he goes insane. Still he is not the horse he once was. Still he is leaping and flailing over jumps that he never used to mind and you can’t figure out why his confidence is gone. And wherever it went, your confidence is rapidly following.

But it’s going to be okay. Just hang on.

Give it time. It’s not going to be perfect tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Don’t try to make it perfect. Just try not to fall off. And if you do, just get back on again. Falling is part of it, blood is part of it, pain is part of it all; we don’t do easy, and that’s how we’ll get through it. Horses, just like people, lose their confidence sometimes for simple little reasons or perhaps no reason at all; they go through growth stages in their character. It happens and there are no quick fixes. All you can do is hang on and keep trying.

Just hang in there. Just hang on. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and once you’ve ridden all the way through the chaos and survived the sweat and the adrenaline and the dry-mouthed moments of absolute terror and the despair and the hopelessness, it will be so very worth it. Because you will be the one that clung fiercely to him when he couldn’t even keep a grip on himself. And then he will trust in you and he will fight for you, because you were there and you didn’t quit on him. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

I know I don’t.

I love you, crazy race monster
I love you, crazy race monster

I’m 18 and Arwen is Fitter

So much to say, so little time (and energy). I must, in advance, apologise for the lack of photos. Cyclone ate my phone. No, as in really, she ruined it completely. I’m using a spare, but the front camera is broken, so I have to use a real camera to take pictures like it’s 1997.

Speaking of 1997, on this day 18 years ago my parents brought six pounds of screaming infant into the world, blissfully unaware of the fact that eighteen years later I would be a horsy kid and they would be feeding my five horses. Soon to be six horses. God has this habit of dropping the best horses directly in my lap, and I think He has done it yet again in the form of my absolute dream broodmare, a young thoroughbred by the name of Magic Lady. More detail on her later, but today my gift from Him was to ride her for the first time. She’s not officially mine yet, but as soon as possible, she will be. She may just be the quietest thoroughbred I’ve ever seen and she moves like a dancer. If I had been grinning any harder, the top of my head would have come off. Watch this space.

Arwen and I have been drilling fitness for the past two weeks, and it’s starting to pay off slowly now. Our event is in three weeks and, while it’s not hectic (the cross-country is under a mile long at 440mpm and the jumps are around 2′), in an ideal world it would be nice to make the ideal time. 440mpm feels awfully fast when you realise that there has to be jumps in it. I’ve been tracking us with the My Tracks app to see where we stand, though, and I think we’re doing all right. I have yet to sprint the full 1600m to see how fast we can make it even without jumps, but we’ve clocked speeds of over 30kph up a hill, which was comfortable and in control. I’m not awfully worried about the jumping or the dressage. As long as she doesn’t spook at the poles or dressage letters, we should survive.

We talked about hills
We talked about hills

Magic is being simply a star. On the Mutterer’s instructions, I put a riser pad under my Kent and Masters, added an extra-thick numnah and rode him like that a few times and the difference has been amazing. I feel much more in contact with him and much more in balance; the difference was so big that I picked all the jumps up to 80-85cm and we jumped them just fine. He even overjumped – not badly – once and my lower legs didn’t even swing back. The hunt is on for a second-hand, high-quality saddle for Magic, since the poor dude is still wearing an el cheapo, hand-me-down saddle that I’ve had for eleven years. His dressage is also doing extremely well. We have been working on canter lengthenings, leg-yields in walk and trot, simple changes (he nails them every time), correct frame at the canter and stretching down in the trot. Progress on all of them, although stretching down is still kind of an epic fail.

Baby Thunder is being amazing. I recently led an outride on him, with my sister on the Dragonbeast (Flare) and her Valentine on Arwen (who ate grass the whole way). He hadn’t been taken out for a while and was a little hyper, so I was a bit worried – luckily the mares are arrogant enough that nobody can influence them a whole lot. In the end, Baby Thun was the most well-behaved of the bunch. We had one hairy moment when our neighbour started target shooting while we were mid-canter; Flare, understandably, took off like a shot and passed Thunder and I. I thought that we were about to have a disaster, but when I sat back and whoaed, Thun slammed on the brakes and stopped dead. Flare halted after a stride or two and disaster was entirely averted thanks to Baby Thun and his miracle obedience. He is still spooky, sometimes I can feel him shake under me, but come what may he does what I ask him to because he’s amazing.

Exavior is coming along fine. We’re working on his advanced halter work, since I have a habit of halter training all my horses to the point where they could do quite well in an in-hand showing class. He does like to dawdle around behind me and has a lazy habit of wanting to stop when he’s led away from his friends/food/water/current favourite spot, but even mid-tantrum he has yet to really react violently to anything. We’ve done some yielding of the shoulder and quarters which he picked up on quite fast, and he also drops his head down when I put pressure on his poll either with my palm or by pulling on his halter. Getting him to walk at my shoulder instead of behind me, and then trotting up in any direction, is the next hurdle. I love him to bits; his personality is really starting to show now and I like what I see.

The old charger is doing fantastically well and is enjoying life as reigning queen of all she surveys. She is her stubborn, highly opinionated, and extraordinarily kind self, and she makes everyone around her happier and stronger and braver.

Forgive me for my incoherence; I beg sleep deprivation. My bed is calling my name. Grace and peace to all of you, and praise the Lord for great horses.

The Thundering Thelwell

If I only owned Arwen, this would totally be my blog name.

Last Sunday found my poor dad trailering two horses to President’s Park for cross-country; Arwen and the Mutterer’s wonderful white gelding, who proved to be the good influence in the equation even though the poor thing hadn’t been to an outing for months, if ever.

Arwen appeared to enjoy her travel buddy and was hyper but not sweaty when we arrived, seeming more excited than worried; she loves President’s Park. I pulled the gelding off the trailer in a mild flap (I was, as usual, somewhat late; I invariably oversleep on show mornings) and threw him at Mom as soon as I saw that he was as quiet as a sheep. Mom stood there grinning while he grazed (they love each other) and I threw Arwen’s stuff on and cantered off only to find that my trainer was way on the other end of the Park and I was actually quite early.

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Complete with oh-so-stylish blue duct tape holding my errant gaiter closed

This was a huge relief. I’d been sick all week, so my already unfit, overweight and hyper horse had spent five days eating grass. On Friday I was able to lunge her without dying and on Saturday I managed to kind of ride, although I don’t think I achieved anything apart from burning some energy (mostly mine). The same went for the dear white gelding, but I wasn’t too worried about him because he’s a trooper. But I was expecting a bit of fireworks from Arwen.

It was not to be. She batted her eyelashes at a very pretty (and matchingly rotund) grey stallion who was also warming up, then put her head down and went to work. No spooking. No neighing. Perfect obedience. No bucking. You just gotta love little grey mares.

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I can’t wait for my new boots to arrive… but okay, my horse is amazing

She was good and unfit, so I hopped off after a couple of canter circles and waited for my lesson, giving up on trying to stop her grazing after a few attempts – I needed to save my limited energy. Then our instructor for the day, Graham Winn, came bouncing over looking much too energetic, so I scrambled on and my round horse and I wobbled off to join the lesson.

Arwen was amazing. She warmed up like a pro, despite the grey stallion who was leaping around everywhere, and aced the collecting and lengthening exercise our instructor used to get the horses focused and quick off the leg. For a change, Arwen was instantly responsive to my leg, as well as collecting calmly on gentle half-halts from my seat alone, with the hands having to do no pulling at all; just a touch of gentle resistance.

Lengthening the trot; I think this is going to be what our medium trot will look like
Lengthening the trot; I think this is going to be what our medium trot will look like

Then off we went to jump. I actually completely lost count of everything we jumped; we just never seemed to stop, trotting all over the Park after our instructor, who jogs everywhere at a frightening pace. I’ll be the first to admit that, although not for lack of trying, I was about as effective and balanced as a bag of potatoes. Mouldy potatoes. My flu was improved, but my muscles were basically mush, so “legs on” wasn’t happening a whole lot. So I concentrated on feeling confident and making my mind positive even when my poor jelly legs weren’t cooperating and Arwen heard the “yes” in me and responded with a bigger “YES” of her own. She was a star. She thought of stopping only once, and then I summoned the strength to kick and squeak and she jumped.

We tackled a few harder things than we’ve done before: a jump straight into water, a log with three strides to a thatch that you had to jump at an angle landing on a quite sharp downhill, a three-stride combination with the first jump on an uphill and the second on a distinct downhill, and (drum roll) a drop. I detest drops. To be honest, I am absolutely terrified of drops. Before the dynasty of the Kent and Masters, Arwen and I tried jumping down a few banks with the invariable result that my old saddle shot up her neck and I shot up her ears and she bucked in protest, which was not very fun at all and resulted in both of us hating drops. However, the instructor said go, so we went, most reluctantly and eventually horizontally; I was not expecting to leap into thin air and nearly sat on her tail. After a few attempts, however, she was already too tired to do the leaping thing and started to pop down sensibly and I realised that I was probably not going to die.

Because this is how the big boys do it, right?
Because this is how the big boys do it, right?

There was also one sort of rolltop fence that she didn’t like; she was a bit tired by this point and touched it with her toes the first time she jumped, which scared the socks off her (Arwen hates touching fences) so she hesitated and then jumped it hugely the second time. No worries, at least she’s a careful cross-country mount.

Apart from those, absolutely nothing phased her. She did throw the odd happy buck or two, which I will not protest about because she’s young and lively and not malicious and totally allowed to express herself considering that she doesn’t come anywhere near dislodging me. Even the water didn’t give her a moment’s pause; she jumped over a log into it, she galloped through it, and I sat there grinning and unable to see (on a 14.3hh horse you are rather close to the spray) because I love water. At one big log, both the horses leading us ran out; Arwen thought about it, but the moment I clapped my legs on she said, “Yes, ma’am!” and jumped without a second thought. That’s my brave little grey mare.

That's what I'm talking about
That’s what I’m talking about

We are probably going to our first event in mid-March. Mentally, I believe she’s ready; the dressage should be easy for her, and she’s successfully done both cross-country and showjumping at a greater height than our class will be (60cm, or about 2′). Physically, well, in the words of a spectator: “Oh look! It’s just like a Thelwell pony.”

Arwen watching the grey stallion with WAY too much interest... If she pops out a little grey baby in 11 months, don't say I didn't warn you.
Arwen watching the grey stallion with WAY too much interest… If she pops out a little grey baby in 11 months, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thelwell
The resemblance is actually rather frightening

We were both exhausted when we staggered back to the trailer; Arwen, although not very breathless, was sweating so hard that I couldn’t see the difference between sweat and wetness from the water complex. She did not seem much bothered, however, and started grazing happily as I ripped her tack off and strapped it onto the white gelding. He had been grazing demurely under a tree with Mom, being his usual saintly self. I was tired and hurting but figured that cross-country was a good way to die, so I got on and trotted off for his lesson with Kirsten (who was giving me a free lesson apparently because she wanted to see how the white gelding goes, but possibly because like the rest of her family she has a heart of gold).

Thank God (really, do it) the white gelding was perfect and I lived to tell the tale. He hesitated at the first jump, then took everything in his stride with his typical generous aplomb. I’ll let the pictures speak. Speaking of which, thanks big li’l sis for the pictures!

Glory, glory, glory to the amazing King!

I LOVE WATER
I LOVE WATER

He thought he should go over the water complex. Yes, Nooitgedachters can jump like superstars.
He thought he should go over the water complex. Yes, Nooitgedachters can jump like superstars.

WHEEEE
WHEEEE

Fly On Over Blog Hop: A Day in the Life

So, unlike most of us in bloggyland, I’m not an adult ammy. In fact, I’m not even an adult, at least not until February 24. But I suppose my days are quite interesting enough to blog about despite the conspicuous absence of commutes and offices, so here goes.

4:45am: Wake up.

4:46am: Wake up.

4:47am: Wake up. Try to stay awake this time by opening Bible Gateway and reading the verse of the day four times until it sinks in. Close eyes for a quiet moment of prayer asking the Lord what I should do today. Get wildly (albeit sleepily) excited and stagger out of bed. Bed is promptly usurped by Blizzard the dog. Attempt to become somewhat presentable, although why is unclear as the horses don’t care as long as I have food.

Blizzard1
This is not a morning person

5:30am: Go to feed the first group of horses (Arwen, Thunder, Flare and currently a cheeky Anglo-Arab filly). Attempt to get Blizzard to get out of bed; invariably fail. Groom Arwen. Yell at the filly for trying to fight with Arwen; yell at Flare for trying to fight with the filly. Cuddle Baby Thunder.

5:55am: Go get Blizzard, who has repented and is sitting by the garden gate looking remorseful. Go to feed the second group of horses (Skye, Exavior, Magic, Benji the donkey, and the Mutterer’s white gelding, bay mare and little colt foal). Groom Magic and Skye. Scream at Exavior for taking Magic’s fly mask off. Scream at Magic for taking Exavior’s fly mask off. Discuss the mysteries of the universe with Skye.

6:30am: Eat something, discuss cheese with the parents.

7:00am: Separate cream and/or work on halter training the show cows.

7:30am: Walk the dog pack with the li’l sis.

8:00am: Feed the dog pack. Eat again. (I have a fast metabolism, OK. Three meals a day doesn’t cut it). Read the Bible. Stare out of the window contemplating the greatness of God.

8:30am: Riding time!! Pile a bunch of stuff on the pickup, pile dogs on top of the stuff and drive to the arena. (Tack room is still in the blueprint stage). Ride Arwen while it’s still quite cool; hose her off, turn her out and sigh when she rolls.

9:15am: Ride Magic, hose him off, turn him out and run at him waving my arms and shouting so that he runs off to the pasture instead of rolling in the manure pile.

10:00am: Work with two or three of the following horses: Thunder, Skye, Exavior, the white gelding, the bay mare, or the cheeky filly.

Around 12:00pm: Time for clients. Hurry off to one of the studs, accompanied or chauffered by a responsible driver (in Africa you’re only allowed to drive when you’re 18. 11 days to go). Food also happens at some point.

12:30pm: Set to work on four or five out of the following: Potency (small smoky black pinto pony), Vicky (chestnut pinto filly that is nothing you would ever expect from a chestnut filly), Braveheart (slightly more typical chestnut filly), Sookie (everyone’s favourite German warmblood), Ryka (most beautiful stallion ever, plus gentlemanly), Elbie (smart chestnut filly), Heidi (gorgeous chestnut mare), Rodei (zippy little grey mare), Reed (cutest, most adorable palomino stallion ever), Wanika (well-moving chestnut pinto filly), Texas (slightly paranoid chestnut pinto mare), Special Effects (drop-dead stunning piebald Oldenburg). As you can see, I have a suidical amount of chestnut mares. Also follow the Mutterer around in my spare time in case he does something interesting/potentially educational.

Please buy him
Please buy him

4:00pm: Go home and study. Read my biology textbook with my mouth hanging open; the more I learn the more evident God’s amazing design becomes.

6:00pm: Supper time for the horses. This time Blizzard consents to come with me all the way, so it goes a bit faster without the fetching-the-doggy stop. Groom Thunder and Exavior. Spend far too much time playing with Exavior.

7:30pm: Food, family, write, read.

8:30pm: Find a couple of dogs to cuddle and go to bed.

January 2015 Stats

Since July last year, I’ve been keeping a log of all the different horses I work with, partially for interest’s sake, partially for research purposes and also with the vague idea that then I would at least have something more specific than “rides so much that good gloves last three months” to put on my CV. I lost half of my records when my dear old computer gave up the ghost, but I’ve managed to keep track of the whole of January. I record the horse’s name, its level of training, owner, breed, type of workout, and equipment used. Not all the sessions I put in are rides – I’ll hazard a guess that a quarter or more are groundwork sessions – and I also tend to add situations like loading difficult horses or doing their feet. I do this mostly so that I can go back and see what equipment we used, in case I come across the situation again and have forgotten. (Things tend to pass straight through my head without touching down, as the poor Mutterer could emphatically tell you).

So, January’s statistics:

  • 118 sessions
  • owned by 6 different people (including me)
  • from untouched to Elementary dressage
  • eight different breeds, including Quarter Horses, warmbloods and an abundance of Nooitgedachters (love those so much)
  • eight lessons with two different instructors, one offsite
  • no shows yet. My little grey barrel is still too fat to get around a course of more than six jumps without rolling any poles off with her big belly.

A great start to 2015, methinks. We wrapped up the month with a lesson yesterday afternoon, which was… interesting. The Mutterer, the ponies and I were all extremely tired after a long week (Saturdays aren’t particularly perky days for any of us). I was especially brain dead (I would have been really dead, too, if the Mutterer hadn’t noticed my loose girth and made me stop and pull it up; tacking up in your sleep is real) but luckily the horses were also too tired to argue and hauled my sleepy and undeserving bottom over the jumps whether the distance I picked at random was any good or not. It just really wasn’t our day. On the bright side, Magic was a sensible, level-headed superstar and even managed not to pull my arms off despite the fact that I was jumping him just in the snaffle. We also tried a fantastic new exercise involving a jump set on one long side of the arena and a set of five or six bending poles on the other; this way I was forced to bring the horses back to a trot and be able to maneouvre them through the poles after the jump, improving our steering, control and concentration. The bending poles were jump uprights, so I only had to whack my foot once before paying attention. Arwen’s flatwork was also superb, even prompting a compliment from the Mutterer. We do have to work on her head position a little more – she tends to drop it a bit low, and occasionally nods behind the vertical, although that is just her figuring out her own strength and should go away by itself – but there is progress. She had a fantastic rhythmic canter going that made me very happy.

Our place is bursting at the seams with horses at the moment; every time my poor dad turns his back another one pops up, although he is very good about it. I have the Horde and my sister has her mare, plus the stubborn and wonderful donkey who doesn’t seem to belong to anyone very much (I quite often have to cast my exasperated eyes skywards and say, “Lord Jesus, speak to Your donkey!”). That makes seven, added to which are the Mutterer’s threesome which I am busy schooling (anyone want to buy a saintly white gelding? And I do mean saintly). Plus today my vet is bringing over her chestnut Anglo-Arab filly with a dominant personality, which basically explains why she needs a trainer. This should be interesting.