Photos by Monica Delport
Last Sunday we towed Magic and Vastrap off to a show; Magic’s third, Vastrap’s first – as far as I know. Both had loaded fine; Magic did need Dad to stand behind him, but Vastrap pretty much loaded himself. The little dude sure learns quickly when carrots are involved.
As expected, both boys also travelled well (Magic appreciative of his quiet buddy) and were super calm at the showgrounds. It was a relatively big and busy show, with a vast and dauntingly fancy venue. These people are sure serious about their footing, which is nice when you’re on the footing and not so nice when you’re on the young horse that is afraid of tractors, hoses, sprinklers, water, etc. Magic nearly killed one of our guests (I do have a social life, I just drag friends to horse shows – free labour… they volunteered, don’t worry) flying back at the sight of a hose. He was all right with it once it stopped making noises, though.
Vastrap had been entered in the 20, 40, and 50cm classes, for my courage and for the sake of logistics. He held his head up in the warmup, but was his usual obedient and quiet self; he just drifted towards the gate quite badly, a horrible habit he picked up with his previous mounted-games-riding owners. (Mounted games are wonderful – but only when done correctly. Suffice it so say that Vastrap’s previous owners did not do it correctly). He also had a peek at the first ground pole we went over, but then calmly trotted over it as only Vastrap will do.
He was still fairly looky when we went into the 20cm, trotting with his head in the air as if waiting for me to hit him in the mouth, his previous owners’ speciality. For the first couple of jumps, he semi-stopped, looked, and clambered over. Then we came around the corner at jump number three, which was set on a four-stride line with number four, and suddenly his little ears went up. I almost saw the light bulb popping up above his head. Oh, so this is what we’re doing! Suddenly he floored it. Surprised, I clung on in bemusement as the jumps flew past with that game little pony taking me to every fence and only looking to me for steering. He was proud of himself and prancing with delight when we came over the finish with a clear round (well, how can you not get a clear round at 20cm?).
Mom was grinning all over her face, probably as proud of Vastrap as Karen Swann was of Adventure de Kannan when he won the Hickstead. She snuggled his face, which he never lets me do, while I hopped off and gave him a break. Magic was eating hay and staring at things, but looked very settled.
For the 40cm I returned to the warmup to find it a complete war zone. 40cm is the height where kids actually have to warm up their ponies, or at least jog around whilst clucking loudly and upsetting my cluck-happy horses. It’s also the height where people with really insane thoroughbreds have a go, especially polo horses. I’ve always thought Magic was pretty stupid about things but he’s an old hack horse compared to some of the lunatics I’ve seen in warmup rings, and I have total sympathy. I have no desire to be riding one of those in a busy warmup and I’m sure I shall find myself in that position sometime. Vastrap and I dodged a gelding that was spinning around and around, a mare who was neighing and staring at things with her eyes bugging out, and a pony that kept pinning its ears at us and tried to jump some things past all the loose instructors. Luckily, Vastrap is a Nooitgedachter and Nooitgedachters are wonderful, so he just went about his job with a workaday air and soon we could go back to work.
The courses were really beautiful; well designed, and with the most gorgeous jumps. One was a beautiful, enormous blue butterfly jump that nearly killed several of us, but they were sensible jumps; big colourful wings, almost no filler. Like the jumps at the upper levels – they’re nowhere near as big on filler as some of the training shows I’ve seen. I liked them (and they made for awesome photos). Vastrap wriggled a bit at the butterfly jump but apart from that he was Mr. Zoomy again, charging around with every sign of confidence and enjoyment. He went fast and clear; I was extremely proud of him.
After that class I got on Magic to start warming him up for the 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm. He likes a long warmup. I think his brain is connected to his legs; when they work, it works. I hacked him quietly around the arena on a loose rein and he was looking around but not fussing, pulling or spooking. He was very forward in the trot but didn’t rush around in the canter; as usual he overjumped the first cross a bit, then took everything else a bit more sensibly.
Due to the well-organised stewards calling people to the gate, I was able to time my warmups nicely. I got on Vastrap again just in time to pop over a couple of fences, then go down and zoom effortlessly through our course. Then back up onto Magic, coming down to the main arena just as the rider before us went in, so that I didn’t have to make him stand. He worries about things when he stands still for too long. He was also spooky and looking around the arena as we made our way to the start, and again spooky to the first couple of jumps, but he didn’t actually ever offer to stop. Once he’d cleared a few we both relaxed and he hit his stride and loped around without any trouble at all. He did go down to a trot and wriggle a bit at the butterfly jump, but happily popped over anyway once we got there.
I was pleased with my two clear rounds right up until I realised that now I had two horses in the jump-off with only three or four others between us. With the help of parents, sister, and friends, we did it somehow though. Vastrap was blisteringly fast but took a disappointing rail on one of the most unspooky jumps on the whole course. I didn’t feel like I had gotten him that sucky a distance; my theory is that by then he was a little tired and not taking the tiny fences seriously anymore, so he just kind of went to sleep in the air and didn’t pick up his hindlegs quick enough. No worries though – being bored by the jumps isn’t exactly a cardinal sin for a horse at his first show in years, if not his first show ever. He’s such a little trooper, that pony.
In contrast, Magic was slooow but careful and clear; I was disappointed with myself because I was hitting him in the mouth a bit on landing, not on purpose, but just because of sheer nerves. He jumped for me anyway, though. Honest as the day, that one. I left the 50cm ribbonless and resolved: next time was going to be better.
It was, in terms of my riding. I gave him my hands a little more, so he jumped a little better. We had a couple of really nice moments, especially through the two-stride combination (once I had finally figured out that this horse could actually get two strides in a two-stride unlike my ponies). We had one complete flop from two to three, which was a straight line of eight strides. I, still treading the fine line between not micromanaging and not riding, kind of left poor Magic to figure out the universe by himself and he had a baby moment and thought there was a stride where there wasn’t one so he kind of stopped and then, heroically, tried to jump anyway. When I saw the pictures afterwards I realised that when he semi stopped, his forefeet actually slid under the front bar of the oxer. By all the laws of nature the dude should have stopped but he didn’t. He snapped up his knees as quickly as he could and popped over with me clinging on for dear life, and while of course he took the front rail, he left the rest of it standing. Dear brave lunatic. (In the next class I gave him just a touch more leg and he remembered his mistake and put in eight nice big easy strides to pop effortlessly over the same fence, so that was kind of an epic win).
After the 60cm there was a wait of about 20 000 years for the next class. I spent the entire time wondering why oh why it was necessary to harrow and water the whole arena for a 70cm class… Anyway, I was by then thoroughly exhausted and my stomach was playing me up and Magic was picking up on my irritation and being a dweeb, neighing for Vastrap incessantly (even though he actually doesn’t like him much) and spooking at shadows. If I had more than one-half of a brain cell, I would have gotten on him and trotted him around for ten minutes to switch his brain back on. Unfortunately, as Emma‘s trainer so wisely said, experience is that thing you get right after you needed it. We now know for next time.
Either way, when I tried to warm Magic up, I was riding an athletic ball of nerves. He napped towards Vastrap (Magic NEVER naps, EVER), shied violently at other horses in the warmup and overjumped like a complete maniac. When we rode down to the arena, he was wild. His tail was sticking straight up in the air and he was shying at things he’d been fine with before. Vastrap chose that moment to neigh and that only made it worse. The poor horse’s eyes were bugging out of his empty head. To his tremendous credit, though, he didn’t buck, rear, or bolt. He did exactly what I asked of him, with robotic, twitching movements and back muscles so tense they were like sitting on rocks. When the bell rang we were both terrified out of our skulls and we cantered sideways to the first jump with Magic’s head and tail stuck up in the air and me clinging to his mouth. He jumped in that awkward way that young thoroughbreds have, snatching his feet up as if the jump was red hot, flinging his face around in protest of my grip on the reins.
When we landed I felt myself wobble in the saddle and I was scared solid; Magic was even more scared and we were about one-third of a second from absolute disaster. I hauled the poor horse down to a trot and what was left of my sanity told me I had two options: Either this was going to be a complete flop, or I was going to call in the big guns. So I screwed my eyes tight shut and prayed silently (I didn’t have any breath to pray aloud) “I can’t do this, I can’t do this but You can, Sir!”
It took three trot strides. By the far end of the third, the Lion of Judah roared in me. I sat down on Magic and gave him my hands and closed my legs around him ever so softly and he rippled forward into that perfect mighty canter only he has. The rest of the course was like a dream. For the first time all day I actually released on him and followed him with my body, abandoning the awkward defensive position and automatic half-releases, and for the first time all day we were a team working together instead of one poor valiant horse packing a passenger around. It was like flicking a light switch. Magic went boldly into my hands and kept his head quiet. If he felt he had a dodgy distance to a jump he did what he’s good at; lengthened his stride and tucked up his knees a bit tighter just in case. He did overjump a few things, not least the jump with filler in it (the crowd gasped most satisfyingly; I was flying, way beyond terror, and only felt the joy of the bursting-bubble feeling at the very apex of his leap), but he wasn’t afraid. He was going for it, ears locked forward, and I was coming with him.
We were clear, by several feet in most cases, and I was just elated. We’d been on the very brink of a catastrophe, but we’d come through it and succeeded. It wasn’t very pretty, but we did it together. My beloved God, my amazing horse, and me.