We called her Stardust, because she is something of light and hope that not everyone believes in.
It was two days after I had made the impossible decision. The riding school is growing, and the two schoolies aren’t coping. First one, and then the other began to sour; both coming to their work and doing it as well as they could, but both starting to make flat ears at me when I brought them to saddle up, or wandering off when their groom went to catch them. They weren’t happy in their work and it was not the fault of the work; there was just too much of it. Even I get tired in the three hours’ lessons every afternoon and I’m not the one carrying the kids around.
I needed another schoolie, and I was pretty sure the growing business could support one. But where on earth the money to buy one was supposed to come from, I had no idea. I’m flat broke. The little yard has just begun, and when you’re 18 years old and have a grass arena and questionable stables, you are a dwarf in a world of equestrian giants. Low prices and fire in your eye is all you’ve got to attract clients with. And fire is only useful when it spreads.
But this is Morning Star Stables, the high calling of my dreams, and if we do not walk by faith now we never will. It is God’s now as it has been since it was just a spark and will be when it can be a giant too. So I made the decision: We were getting another schoolie. I started to look for it, and as usual, I was picky. Something a bit smaller than galumphing Thun – 14 or 14.2 would do it. Easy-keeping, chunky, with powerful legs that could stand up to the rigours of the schoolie workload. Smooth gaits. Basic training, and a naturally fearless, quiet and people-loving nature. As for my budget, I didn’t have one. I couldn’t afford anything and whatever pony God wanted for His new schoolie, He’d pay for somehow.
Not quite two days later, a new lesson kiddie showed up and had her lesson on Thunder. All was going swimmingly when her dad leaned on the fence and asked, “You don’t need a new kid pony, by any chance?”
To make a long story short, Stardust is here for her month’s trial period. Free of charge. In case you were wondering, she stands 14.1hh and is fat on air. She is broad across the chest with stout little legs made apparently of cast iron. Her gaits are like sitting on a waterbed. She has all the basic gaits and aids, and when I tried her out at her previous home, there were kids running and yelling and hitting things in this spooky little farmyard and she didn’t do a thing. Just put her nose down and did what I said. We have a month to get through before we can be sure, but I think I am pretty sure.
And that is why we walk by faith, and not by sight.
The 10th January training show at one of my favourite venues was a no-brainer for the first show of 2016. I spent the days leading up to the show dead nervous. Recently back in work, Magic was performing brilliantly; he jumped everything I pointed him at in style and sensibly, and I was confident he’d make short work of the little classes I’d chosen for him. But the last time we showed Magic was when he colicked so badly and I had no way of being absolutely sure that he wouldn’t do it again.
Still, we had the all-clear from the vet, and armed with drums of water and ample nets of the best hay we could find, the Mutterer and I braved the challenge with Magic and Liana. It was Liana’s first show over fences but I wasn’t overly worried about her. She had been jumping 80cm at home without a moment’s hesitation; her first combinations and oxers had gone effortlessly. She has a natural eye and enthusiasm for jumping, which, combined with her careful technique and abundant scope, is going to make her one epic eventing pony.
Magic was very nervous to load but consented to get in without too much of a fight, and once Liana had pretty much self-loaded, we were off. Both travelled very well and got off relaxed and ready. I was a different story – late, as usual. Luckily the Mutterer saved my butt by having the little mare saddled by the time I got back from entering.
Liana was bright-eyed but quiet as I walked her to the warmup, but once we got there, my heart sank. It had poured the night before in Kyalami and the arena was basically underwater. All three practice fences had approaches and landings in water and Liana has never been asked to deal with water before. Figuring that at least she’d learn something if I spent the entire morning just getting her into a puddle, I climbed on, walked her around on the dry perimeter, and then aimed her for the water. Liana strode over, dropped her nose to have a sniff, and walked right through it, without any trouble.
The little Nooitie proceeded to be completely awesome for the rest of the show. She galloped through the water, jumped in and out of it without batting an eye, and spooked at exactly nothing. We went into the 30cm feeling good; she had a good look at the few jumps with filler in them and overjumped everything by miles, but never stopped, shied, or bolted. She did have one violent wiggle over the first element in a related distance, resulting in my saddle (even its XW gullet being insufficient for Liana’s considerable girth) slithering horribly down her side; the adrenalin rush was such that in five strides I had kicked it straight again and we made it over the next fence without further ado.
The 40cm was even better, and by the 50cm, she was ready for anything. She jumped sensibly, behaved beautifully and would probably have won it if she hadn’t misjudged one fence, rushed a little and brought the rail down with her hind toes. Unfortunate, but not bad at all for a first show over fences. For the rest of the show she was completely calm, happy, and well behaved.
The same could not be said for Magic when the Mutterer brought him up to the warmup. I could spot my horse from inside the show ring: he was flying on the end of his lead like a kite, striking out dramatically with his forelegs, his tail stuck straight up in the air. The less-than-impressed Mutterer gratefully clutched at his precious Nooitie, opining that “your horse is not right in his head”. I thought better of asking for advice because the Mutterer’s thunderous expression suggested that any advice from him may include a bullet, so I just got my reins and got on my horse. Or the leaping thing that my horse had morphed into, anyway. Wherever Magic was in his head, it wasn’t a quiet warmup arena at a training show; there were dragons, and he was scared, and he was going ballistic.
He napped extravagantly, shooting backwards towards the gate, threatening to rear when I put my heels in him and throwing his head madly when I touched the reins. He was hypersensitive to everything; he struck out with his forelegs constantly and shied at the most random little things. But he never bucked or tried anything malicious. So I did the only thing one really can do with Magic; sat tight, closed my calves very gently around his side, and spoke to him until my voice penetrated the darkness in his head. At length, he stopped reversing and took one tentative, dancing step forward. Then another. Every step floated; he felt like a bubble, as if my smallest movement might burst him. But he kept going all the way around the arena, splashing through the water, and slowly he started to come back.
The work settled him by degrees. Once he was walking more like a horse, I gently coaxed him up to the trot, and we trotted until his brain came back and he put his little nose down and concentrated. From the trot we jumped the cross-rail a couple of times; he overjumped wildly, but I just stayed out of his face and a few jumps calmed him some more. Before we could address the canter, it was time to go in for our class.
This was somewhat disastrous. Bits of the arena were dry and other bits were damp; all the footing was safe, but Magic considered the lighter, dry bits to be terrifying. He shot backwards across the arena again, shaking his head, dancing sideways, shying at shadows. We stopped at the first fence because he was spooking at the dry ground behind it, then deer leaped it. The rest of the course was much the same. It was 50cm and he trotted, flailed, leapt and generally forgot how to horse. One thing was for sure, at least: we had absolutely no poles down.
After that we went straight back into the warmup and cantered around, and his brain, thankfully, continued to come back. We popped over the vertical and oxer several times and Magic started to breathe at last with his little fluttery OTTB snort at the end of each stride. Going back in for the 60cm, I at least did not have to beg my horse down to the start, but he did refuse the first fence again. I brought him back calmly and he jumped it. About four fences in, he landed in a canter and stayed in his nice smooth rhythmic canter that was custom-made for showjumping. The rest of the course went beautifully; he took a deep breath and relaxed and my horse was back. I did make a mistake at the last fence by asking him for the longer distance as he approached – a habit; he prefers a long spot – and he gave it to me along with about a metre of additional height, landing so hard my hat fell over my eyes, but we’d made it through another class and he was feeling better and better.
Warming up for the 70cm was like riding at home. He doddled around on the buckle, sneered at the silly horses that wouldn’t go into the water, and jumped everything flawlessly, obediently, passionately the way only he can. Going into the class he had never felt so good. We were the first combination in, so we walked up to the spooky judge’s box at a flowing dressagey walk. I closed my hands and knees ever so slightly and he stepped up into the most perfect square halt. With a leisurely salute, we opened the class. The announcer enquired, “Is this Magical Flight?” in tones of disbelief.
He has never jumped a class as well as he jumped that one. We galloped the longer stretches, collected up perfectly for the related distances. He never looked at a thing; all he had to know about a fence was which side to jump it from and he was over. I fluffed my approach to the combination; he took the long spot and saved my ungrateful bottom. I caught him in the mouth a little, he overjumped and landed smack in the middle of this little one-stride and Magic bounced out with not a second thought. He is a horse in a million. What am I saying? He’s one of a kind. I nearly cried when we loped through the start and fell on his neck hugging him and thanking God because I don’t deserve him. Nobody does. Nobody ever could. But he’s mine, and I can never feel not good enough for him again, because I’ll never give up on him and for Magic that is enough.
The best part? He ate, drank, and pooped with the best of ’em. He came home, ate his grass, had grated apple for dinner and went back to life without missing a beat. My horse – oh, but he could never be; God’s horse – is back and he’s just fine. And the two weeks of suffering that we both endured – he in his own pain and discomfort and confusion, mine in the agony of empathy – the horrible ordeal that could have ended in tragedy – it was turned around and made to work for us because we serve an amazing God. Magic and I have never been closer. We didn’t quit on each other and we both know it and we never will.
It sounds a sentimental, perhaps. But with the strong smooth curve of his neck in my arms, with the power of the pulse in his neck beating against my skin, sentimental can be true.
I realise it’s kind of late to be setting goals, but they’ve been in my head for a while, so I may as well now put them down on paper. Screen. Whatever. I enjoy having a plan for the year with each horse, but God’s plan is sovereign – and He always knows best.
Arwen’s 2015 Goals
Get her fit – Done. She was easily fit enough for our last event.
Build her upper neck muscles – Done. Her muscle tone has never been this good, to the point where I asked the Mutterer what muscles need building up for the upcoming showing show and he replied in tones of deep disappointment, “Well, actually, none.”
School Elementary Medium successfully – Failure there, but our Elementary work is a lot more solid. Her schooling has improved, just not to EM level.
Introduce scary-looking jumps – Done. While we have been having really disappointing stops in competition, at home she’s jumping the spookiest things I can build without batting an eye.
Have her go through water more easily – Done. She didn’t stop at water all year.
Show graded in EV70 – Done. We showed in three, but only completed two.
Go double clear at EV70. Face it – at this level, you win on your dressage score. Arwen’s dressage is very solid. We could do really well if we’d just stop incurring jumping penalties, especially stops on cross-country. This will take a whole lot of schooling, and a bunch more cross-country lessons, so I’m pretty cool with only eventing again in midwinter or spring. Another jumping show or two can also only help our confidence, or even competing at EV60 once or twice more.
School Elementary Medium 1 and 2. This is very achievable, especially with how solid her Elementary work is getting. It is, however, going to depend on how soon we get our new 20×60 arena done. Our current one is about 15×50, making it impossible to make an accurate half 10m canter circle. The more complex the figures get the harder it becomes to ride them here. She will also have to make the transition to a double bridle, which might be a bit tough.
Compete Elementary. We can totally do this. She could do Elementary 1 with her eyes closed. We just need to get enough qualifying rounds at Novice first, so this will also be an end of the year thing. Even if we just do the ungraded class at the Pretoria Nooitie show – it’s something.
Gallop through water. She goes into water just fine, but she always drops to a walk. Now we just need to school her confidence with keeping her gallop rhythm through the water and we’re good.
Inanda Country Base’s massive green property reeks of old-fashioned horsiness. One can almost imagine you are somewhere deep in England; the immaculate British-style stable blocks, vast green fields and baying of their hunting hounds in the early mornings sends a shiver down the spine. I loved it there. Arwen did too; she spent her first night in a real stable and didn’t even kill anyone, though I did take the precaution of taping my phone number to her nose in case of any nightly escapades, so she looked like a complete idiot.
Dressage was in one of the epic green fields, which was so big that three dressage arenas and a warmup ring of enormous proportions fit in effortlessly. Unfortunately, the dressage arenas were marked off by white ropes near the ground. This is fine and safe and useful, except Arwen said the ropes were Poisonous Electric Snakes and politely declined to go straight beside them. She had the best warmup in the world and then came down the centreline like she owned it and then did a perfect, unrequired haunches-in down the track, in all three gaits, and every time we went on the track. Our circles and transitions were beautiful enough that we earned a respectable 60.7 penalties (60%), landing us, as usual, squarely in the middle of the field at 8th out of 15.
Showjumping was directly after dressage. I only barely had time to yank on my bib and grab my jumping crop and we were in after a brief warmup. She was coming in very close to the fences but jumping willingly enough, so I just let it go. Honestly, though, I felt like a blob of well-chewed bubblegum. Squashy and colourless. A hectic week – 16 hour days, nine rides a day, feeding and admin on top of it all – had left me frazzled by that morning, and dressage had drained whatever brainpower I had left. We came through the start flat, scraped over the opening oxer, and took the second rail. I woke up enough to flap my crop at her as we approached the easy vertical at number three, so we made it over that. Number four was an oxer with filler under it and as we came around the corner at it, I just sat there. Arwen found exactly zero support and dawdled to a halt to look at the filler. I approached with somewhat more zeal and we made it over just fine the second time; number five had looked scary from the beginning, so I gave her a boot and she jumped beautifully.
We came down the huge bank towards number six, fell on our faces, and stopped again at six. I knew I had only one refusal left now, so I woke up and gunned it back at the fence and she jumped it well. 7, 8, and the combination at 9 were on a series of difficult rollbacks and we nailed the line to every single one, popping over the fences with no difficulty. I relaxed as we cleared number 9b and my brain left, again. We cantered towards number ten, Arwen asked if she should jump it, I said, “Huh?” and she knelt in the middle of it instead, demolishing it thoroughly and putting the finishing touch on the most ignominious round of my competitive career.
I didn’t whack her for any of the stops. In the circumstances it would have been ridiculously unfair; if I had just given her a little leg going into them I bet she would have jumped every single fence with her eyes closed. Poor old Arwen. I gave her an apologetic pat as we left. There was nothing more we could do about it, and on the bright side, because it was only EV70, we were still allowed to run cross-country the next day for schooling purposes.
This was a good thing, because the course map had me quailing. Arwen has never jumped a ditch in her entire life and the second element of 10 (also her first xc combination) was a ditch. It was a large black abyss, probably with some lava at the bottom. Number 14 was also a ditch, a large one with gigantic scary owls on either side, and there was a drop about the same height as the Victoria Falls.
Warming up for xc, I was quite worried that she was going to try stopping again just out of habit, but this time I was awake so I actually steered and pushed the go button so she took me over every practice fence we looked at without thinking twice – including an 80cm skinny as big as a house. She was blowing fire as we came up the hill to the startbox and after the countdown from five and saluting the King, I put my spurs in her and she came blasting out looking for something to kill. Number one was inviting so she hardly broke her stride sailing over it and roared off towards number two, max height and wide, no problem for her – she just ate it up. We had a little stumble crossing the dirt road, but she caught herself quickly, clicked back into her stride and bounded over number three.
I was convinced we were going to stop at number four. It was a sharp turn right into the woods to a skinny fence with bales all over it, and it caused plenty of grief to other riders that day. Arwen came at it locked and loaded and just charged over it as if it wasn’t there. Number five was simple but its approach was complicated by a branch, which was kind of in the way, except Arwen is 14.3 and I’m 5′ 4″ so we just galloped under it because we are awesome. She took 5 and 6 in her stride and then charged up the long blast to 7.
Seven was intimidating: a stack of logs, low but wide, and the horses could just catch a glimpse of the water as they approached it. Three riders were eliminated there, and as we came up to it I felt Arwen looking and tried to kick her except my legs didn’t want to cooperate so I just made a little smoochy noise instead and poor longsuffering Arwen hauled my sorry backside over that fence and saved the day. She wriggled into the water, walked a few steps, trotted, scrambled out and willingly jumped the low side of number 8, a step. We flopped up the hill at number nine without any juice at all and Arwen put up her willing knees and did a riding-school-pony-pop over it, dragging me with her once again.
The stretch from 9 to the Combination of Doom was huge and uphill, so I let her go and she ate up the ground. At the turn to 10 I brought her right back down to a little working canter, shouting, “Arwen, LOOK at it, theLordismyShepherd Arwen LOOK!” Arwen declined. She popped over 10a and then while I was still trying to massively override 10b she was already over it and galloping off, saying, “What? It’s just a hole in the ground, you stupid little human,” while I sat there flabbergasted.
Number 11 scared me. It was under a shed and had shavings bags under it, but mercifully it was small, and Arwen had a mighty look but jumped just fine. 12 was also intimidating and she had another look and another good jump. Then came number 13 and as she saw it she leapt straight up into the air, whereupon I bounced up like a kid on a Thelwell pony, landed with a big kick, clung on and scrambled over.
We opened up the throttle on the stretch to the next ditch, which I was no longer worried about; Arwen said that because it was wide it was easy because one could jump in it instead of over it. This caused the jump judge to squeal in alarm but we shot off before she could do anything about it. 15 was a bit spooky but I slowed her down enough that we made the turn and climbed over it fine. By this point, my legs were just done. Somehow, despite spending the hours I do in the saddle, I had totally missed out on the fact that my cardio fitness sucks. I had been running on adrenalin, which promptly left as we cantered down to harmless little number 16 and stopped. This gave me a goodly adrenalin rush, so I waved my crop around and Arwen jumped 16 and the mighty drop at 17 without turning a hair. One last effort of galloping and we took 18 in our stride, blasting through the finish and stopping on a dime as is Arwen’s trademark.
I was euphoric as we left the xc with my panting pony. Despite the silly stop and copious time penalties, she had never felt more confident across a more challenging course ever before. One thing is for sure: The horse can do the job, and she loves it. The fault lies with me, but I know that just like that good little grey – “the spunky little grey”, as the announcer calls her – will take none of my inferior nonsense and will haul my sorry butt over into excellence just the way she hauls it over oxers. Glory to the amazing King.
Our last event of the year was also our first time at a gorgeous old venue right in the deep horse country of Kyalami. It was too beautiful not to photograph, and Amanda from the $900 Facebook Pony and her epic course walks inspired us to try something more imaginative than just taking pictures of jumps. Hence: the Epic Puppy Course Walk, courtesy of my sister Rain, Ice the puppy, and some mild delirium due to sleep deprivation.
Coming out of the startbox, the track went straight towards number one. The top pole was taken off for my class, so it was a very simple little log, but it was a steeply uphill approach. It was a fair preparation for the relatively challenging course, but it rode well for all but one rider, who had 60 penalties here.
This was a max height A-frame and looked rather imposing, but as A-frames seem to do, it rode beautifully.
Number three rode as nicely as Ice is cute, although it was a fairly wide oxer.
Number four was terrifying. After number three the stretch was just long enough for one’s mind to wander, followed by a 90 degree turn and only four or five strides into the shade and to this narrow fence with bales all over it. Unsurprisingly, three riders had stops here.
Number five was slightly complicated by a branch that hung in the approach, forcing one to jump at a slight angle. Except if you ride a 14.3hh pony. Then you just go under the branch. (Epic win). All the horses navigated this one just fine.
Number six was beautiful – a straightforward log at the end of a long straight gallop, just asking to be jumped straight out of a big stride. It rode like a dream.
Number seven proved to be the most problematic fence on the course, with three eliminations. In itself it was quite low and not the widest fence, but the horses could just catch a glimpse of the water as they jumped, so a lot of riders came to grief here.
The water was rather a pain. It wasn’t flagged, but approaching number 8 was almost impossible without going through it. Circling would set one up for a perfect approach, but it did mean entering the water twice. Arwen was hesitant to go in the first time, so I made a very tight 90 degree turn to number 8 and made it out that way. If she would trot into water I would undoubtedly have circled.
8 was a little step, with a higher section (pictured) and a very low one. The higher section was easier to approach, but because Arwen was basically jogging once we reached it, we took the lower one and the line from 8 to 9 rode just fine. 9 is the double log in the background.
Number 9 was unassuming, but it was a short, steep uphill approach from 8. If one lost impulsion through the water and wasn’t quick to get it back, it was very easy to get a silly stop here. Everyone managed it fine, though.
10a and b were a fairly terrifying combination for the level. This max height vertical was 10a, with just two strides to…
… our first open ditch ever. It wasn’t very wide, but it was pretty deep and I was scared out of my socks. This combination rode well for everyone.
Number 11 was set underneath a shed, which was a little intimidating. The log itself was very low, though, so it didn’t cause any issues. It was a very fair question.
This skinny was set in the middle of a massive field all alone, asking for a run-out. Luckily for me, Arwen locked onto it as she jumped number 11, so she jumped it almost as well as Ice. It did cause a stop, though.
Spooky number 13 (less spooky without a balletic teenager on it) was the culprit of the only rider fall on cross-country, but it was actually pretty low in the middle and the approach was easy enough.
There was a long gallop to number 14, the second open ditch on course. This ditch was really very shallow and caused no issues.
Number 15 had a fairly difficult approach – a quite sharp turn up a hill. Arwen and I slowed down, angled it and jumped fine, but it was quite big and spooky.
16 was an extremely inviting little slanted ladder and rode well for everyone except the resident idiot (viz., me). Its landing was slightly downhill, nicely preparing us for
a drop that looked about the size of Pride Rock on the morning of the competition. It rode beautifully for me, though, and all the horses jumped it on the first shot.
This branch was another epic win for Arwen and me. We just ran under it like bosses.
18 was a last challenge – a max height oxer set on an uphill as the already tired horses headed for home. This caused no issues, though, and rounded off a beautiful and well-built course nicely.
Needless to say, the ditches had me trying to digest some butterflies, but it turned out to be the showjumping I should have worried about…