Can I just say that this year was wildly successful? Got that? Good. Because looking at the goals list… it was a disaster. But the fault lay only in my goal setting. Really.
This year she won almost everything she entered in the Nooitie classes, including six championships. We jumped our highest class yet and finished it on eight faults. We got our points for Elementary and boosted our scores a little, too.
Our goals were admittedly a catastrophe, though.
Go double clear at EV70. Womp womp woooomp! Epic failure here. And this goal was the realistic one. We did get extravagantly eliminated again, though. Also we kicked butts at stadium eventing 70 and completed the 80, but yeah. This is our Number One Flop.
School Elementary Medium 1 and 2.
Compete Elementary. In setting these two goals, I forgot three important facts: 1) dressage is hard, 2) lessons are hard to find, 3) levelling up once a year when you’re a newb like me is only possible if you spend most of your time on dressage, not eventing.
Gallop through water. We at least did this?
It’s interesting to see the difference in my success rate between Arwen and Exavior. I think the thing is that Arwen is always stepping into uncharted territory. I’ve just never schooled a horse to this level so I frankly haven’t a clue what’s going to happen next.
Exavior, on the other hand, is a starter and he might be a rather huge and dumb one but I’ve done so many starters that the process is practically second nature by now. I’m intimately familiar with the steps, the issues, and the time frame. Hence, realistic goals. Amazing how things go well when you actually know what you’re doing.
So let’s shoot for something more realistic in 2017, but I’m prepared to fail. If I’m not failing, I’m obviously not learning anything.
2017 is going to be Arwen’s Year Of Dressage. Partially because we have now discovered she’s actually quite good at it and partially because I don’t have anyone else to dressage with this year. Through the past year, I also shifted my focus to dressage as the discipline I’d really like to be high level at, so we’d better get started.
Long-term, I do want Arwen to event again, either in 2018 or 2019. I have a feeling she’s going to be sound for ages yet, but I would like to retire her to stud in 2 or 3 years. First she must do super well in dressage and then please, pony, just jump clear across country. Then you can go have babies.
Get points for Elementary Medium. Even if we never actually do EM, we at least should be established and respectable at Elementary.
Don’t mess up a show riding/show hack class. There’s a partbred mare that I doubt we’ll ever beat, but we can at least try complete a class without bucking or throwing our head. That should land us in second place or so.
Jump a graded 80cm round. She can already do this – we just have to actually go and do it.
Do some cross-country lessons and/or go drag hunting. I’m still holding out hope that we’ll event again.
I thank God for this treasure He’s letting me borrow right from His personal stables. Glory to the King.
Going into this year, I honestly thought Xave was going to be an unmitigated disaster. And he was, for a while. I have (obviously) gotten attached and couldn’t bring myself to sell him but he was threatened with being packed off to a lease home that liked his particular brand of crazy, because I sure didn’t.
Then he had his “brain surgery”. There is a reason why we call it brain surgery. Within two weeks the evil alter ego that charged, bit and trampled people seemed to evaporate and my big, dumb, sweet goofball was back in full force.
In terms of goals, almost all of these were achieved in the last three months. So that’s a win.
Bathing. Done! He hasn’t had a proper bath yet, but he gets hosed off after work and behaves like a grownup. Still moves around when his hindlegs get sprayed, but nothing that’ll prevent me getting them clean.
Loading. Done tolerably well for a horse that had a horrible boxing accident. He doesn’t like two-berths but he’ll box if someone gets behind him, even if he is sick and I am panicking (trust me, I know).
Continued improvement on injections. Well, he’s still an unholy terror to inject, but he hasn’t gotten up on his hindlegs in ages. Vaccinating is now relatively uneventful. Bigger shots require someone strong on the halter and a lot of local anaesthetic cream, but it is possible.
Lunging over poles. Nailed it. Slightly raised poles in all three gaits.
Introduction to small free jumps. He flomped over them up to 70cm in a disappointingly calm manner; I was hoping he’d do some Grand Prix jumper stuff and be all pretty.
Backing. Done! I got on, he went to sleep.
Basic aids in walk. We went one better. We have some rather floppy walk aids in a halter, and we have equally floppy trot laps of the ring.
This year’s high success is mostly due to the fact that our goals were freakishly low (like, I get this done on a sale pony in like 2 months maximum) but I’m nonetheless happy. Despite being vastly too much for me, he is quite on track for a barely three-year-old warmblood colt.
Next year is a little more serious. I’m setting goals as if he’s an ordinary horse I can handle, because right now he is acting like it, but that could change. And if it does, we’ll roll with it, even if I need to send him to the Mutterer for a few months. Exavior is worth it.
Continued improvement on injections. This is gonna be here for many years, I think. Just a slow process of not making a drama out of it might get us to some form of normality eventually.
Show in-hand without rearing. We are aiming for Horse of the Year in February, which may be a little ambitious but I guess we’ll find out! He behaves fine at home in the big field with other horses around, so it would be great if he’d stand and trot up nicely at the shows too, but as long as he doesn’t scare me I’ll be happy.
Hack. Even if it’s just to the big gate and back. This goal has me quaking in my boots but it’s gotta be there to make him a Good Citizen, although if it scares me too much I’ll pass. Some battles aren’t worth it.
By June, have 3 gaits. This isn’t a big ask for any normal horse, but Xave loves to push the boundaries of normal. I’m putting this here to keep it realistic. I don’t want to put pressure on, but I also don’t want to be stuck for ever with him. If he doesn’t have 3 gaits by June, he goes to the Mutterer.
Around his fourth birthday, attend a few training shows at walk/trot and Prelim. I so dearly would love to do YDHS in 2018 on him, and he needs to be solid at Prelim by February 2018 under pressure by then. The earlier we compete, the better.
Ultimate goal: be solid at Prelim by the end of the year.
This horse is nothing but a miracle so far. I hope my worldly plan for him is in line with God’s; but if it isn’t, then may God’s amazing and flawless plan prevail. I’m so excited to see what that is. Glory to the King.
Last time I wrote about the little golden dude, I had just put his first saddle on him and commented that soon I’d be swinging a leg over at the rate he was going. For once, I was right.
Poor little Midas has been progressing slowly through the months for only one reason – the hapless creature has found himself being a resale pony on a schedule full of paying clients’ horses, so he always ends up being the one that gets missed when the wheels fall off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that working intermittently with a newly-backed isn’t the greatest idea, but the little guy has been holding up just fine. Every session is better, every time we figure out something new and he just gets it. He’s been an absolute pleasure.
I was very relieved to find that his attitude issues on the ground do not happen under saddle. He’s not bad – just late gelding, little pony stuff. Pulls his ears and pretends like he doesn’t need you. A teenage boy packaged into 13.1 hands of sassy pony. But I never let him get away with any of that under saddle, so he never does any of it.
I love his gaits, too. The walk is brisk, forward and together, just the way I like it; the canter balanced and powerful, and fairly supple with the leads. His trot is dead boring but that’s no matter considering I’m aiming for him to be a good jumping pony. Besides, you can always school a trot to be good.
We have just progressed to cantering laps on the correct lead out in the big arena/glorified field. He tossed a buck here and there when he couldn’t figure out his leads, but as soon as he got that worked out the bucking stopped. Typical confused baby horse stuff, he’s not going to be a proper bucker. He’s also a little on the spooky side. We’ll have to see how that changes as he grows up and gains confidence.
I can’t fault his intelligence and trainability. He really tries, and he’s got a lot of material to try with, both in physical ability and in brainpower. Definitely a very firm favourite with me, I look forward to competing him this year, starting with Horse of the Year and SANESA in February. After that, wherever this epitome of a pocket rocket takes us.
After selling Bruno came the best thing about resale: getting to go shopping for a new one. It took me ages, but I finally managed to find a registered young Nooitie mare who was all of 13.3hh. Also sweet-natured and a flashy mover, the little lady had colour to boot: meet my new little golden pony.
Sadly, it hasn’t been quite the fairytale that it was with Midas. He arrived with all his ground manners and basic citizenship skills. She was unhandled when I met her, but the breeder offered to get her halter trained so that we could box her easily. I gratefully accepted. Huge mistake. Pony was unhandled when we met, but now she is violently terrified of people. Sure, she’ll follow you around on the end of a lead – if by any chance you can catch her. Which takes me half an hour, in a stable, with food, on a good day.
Her registered name is too similar to some of the other horses’ to use, so we just call her Nugget because she’s a little gold nugget. And she breaks my heart. She was so soft-eyed and uncomplaining and now she’s torn between terror and desperate aggression. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a horse actually do what the books say they do – turn aggressive when cornered. She’s not a bad girl; her whole body just screams fear; she truly believes she’s fighting for her life.
Poor little soul. I wish I could speak her language better so I can tell her that she’s safe now, that nobody will ever hurt her again. Maybe it wouldn’t do much good even if I could. These things aren’t mended by what you say, I suppose. It’s a longer, harder, better journey of loving action after loving action, and I pray to God that I’m up for it because Nugget doesn’t have other options.
Be prepared: This post is rated PG13 for boring dressage content. It will contain a vast amount of dressage-related drivel. Showjumpers and anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the ridiculous minituae of the most nitpicky sport of them all, look away now.
With Nell safely (and very happily) installed in her new home halfway across the country, poor old Arwen has resigned herself to the fact that she is now the current top dressage horse in the yard and has been pressed into service satisfying my craving for the sport so hard it’s almost art. When I brought her back into work in mid-November after the quarantine, I’ll admit I didn’t hold much hope that we’d be doing great things next year. Arwen likes dressage (Arwen likes anything as long as it makes her brain and body work), so that’s not the problem; the problem is that our dressage was becoming steadily more mediocre as last year went on. In terms of marks, we were slowly climbing the high 50%s, so they were very ordinary but at least improving. But the way she felt was just always iffy.
I realise, now, that we were just missing true connection. She went in a frame and it wasn’t exactly a false frame; she didn’t break at the third and her back was lifted. But it wasn’t truly through, not the proper cycle of power we all read about from the hind legs to the hand. She was just holding herself up the way I wanted, not flowing through herself the way she needed to be. It was subtle; the judges’ comments never pointed at something specific. Everything was just mediocre. Comments almost invariably began with “Needs more”. She wasn’t exactly crooked or stiff; she just “needed more [insert term here]” and it was everything. Connection. Straightness. Bend. Suppleness. Impulsion. Meanwhile she was always resisting just slightly; never my aids – obedience is her speciality – but there was just an against-ness in my hand, all the time. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew she didn’t feel like Nell; there was a softness and a power-moving-through-ness in Nell that just wasn’t there in Arwen. I decided we’d try and do Elementary and if we got it done I’d retire her from dressage. Neither of us were enjoying the fight for more than that.
And then Nell went, and I had to try and fix Arwen as much as we could. Of course, the horses and I all have a deal. I don’t make them try and do something they physically can’t or mentally really don’t like to do. But in a last-ditch effort to touch those higher levels I want so much, I threw all the focus that had been Nell’s into trying to bring out the very best in Arwen. And God, Who of course had planned all this, revealed a whole new level of awesome that had hitherto been locked away in Arwen for lack of necessity of belief in her.
First, even before Nell’s sale was a probability, we had the chiro out. She found a small arthritic change in Arwen’s off fore fetlock. It wasn’t enough to make her lame, but it was enough to make her lean just a little to the left to spare that foot a little, which in turn put out her back and that put out her neck. Connection’s like pouring water through a pipe; a good flow is dependent on straightness. Kink the pipe to one side and the water can’t all flow nicely out the front; it dams up by the kink, all boiling and nasty. Arwen continually tipped her nose to the right, and that locked up her whole back. The chiro put her back and neck in again and left us to take some time off and give her joint support to fix up the fetlock.
When I brought her back to work, she was feeling better in her body than ever before. And I was desperate; desperate to school Arwen perfectly, because perfect schooling and a brilliant brain can make up for non-flashy gaits like she has, as long as they’re correct like hers are. One of the biggest things I changed was our routine dressage warmup. I noticed that she only started to feel good in the last five minutes of each session, but by then her brain would be tired. I also read everything on the Internet that Charlotte Dujardin ever said (mild exaggeration, but seriously. I tried.) and she was always talking about her warmup. Warming up like Blueberry might not turn Arwen into him, but it was worth a shot. And the change was phenomenal.
The new warmup isn’t dramatic. It’s actually simple. The most important part is that we start with a hack. 10 minutes maybe; just around the long stacks of bales and back in a walk on a long rein. No contact, no long and low, just forward and straight and forward and straight. I usually take the time to roll my ankles, stretch my quads and do a breathing exercise or two. When we get back I’m breathing and she’s dragoned out some of her dragonness; then we halt, salute and pray, and then we trot two laps of long and low without stirrups. I rise the first lap and sit the second lap. Only then, 15 minutes into a 30-minute session, do I actually put the horse into a contact. By then she’s warm and listening and forward and straight and the connection is just amazing. The power is flowing up her back from her hind end straight and true; all I have to do is recycle it in my hands and it just happens. We do working trot a lap each way, then do some transitions within the trot and a halt and rein back. The halt and rein back isn’t really warmup, it’s just something we have to do every day until we get it good. Same with counter canter; we do working canter, a simple change on each rein on the long side, medium canter, and counter canter because we’re not much good at it.
That usually leaves us like 10 minutes to actually work on stuff, but it’s quite enough because by then the horse is so ready for it that we only have to do things once or twice before we see improvement and move on.
You guys, the change in this horse is just amazing. She does still struggle with medium trot and rein back – her old enemies – but suddenly she just magically has counter canter. She never did, but now she’s doing half 20m circles, changes of rein, the works. Her turns on the haunches are awesome. Every canter transition hits the correct lead no matter where we are in the arena. And the feeling in my hand is incredible. She’s seeking the contact for the first time; she’s solidly there, but not pulling, just happily taking the contact and going forward and soft. I love it.
DQs are nutcases. Excited by the oddest things. But I am excited now. Our scores have spiked; we now have points for Elementary, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
As usual, God knows exactly what He’s doing, especially when we don’t. Glory to the King.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in horsemanship is also the simplest: it’s all about listening.
I don’t know why there’s a fashion for calling a good trainer a horse whisperer. The best trainers are well versed in silence. Able to lay aside ego and knowledge for the deeper skill of openness. It’s less like an artist painting and more like a conversation between two sentient, thinking, feeling, created beings – which is exactly what it is.
I have been trying to listen. I’m still not terribly good and many horses are just a closed book to me. Often I just can’t get a read on them. Zara was because I had never really encountered her language before; Dirkie was because I was staring down the barrel of a deadline.
Exavior, I’m ashamed to say, is because I thought I knew better than he did. And here’s lesson number two: nobody knows better about being a horse than a horse does.
It went something like this.
“Whoa,” I ordered, closing my hands on the reins.
“No, I don’t really want to. It’s not comfy when you do that,” said Exavior, gaping his mouth dramatically.
“OK, so you don’t like the bit.” I swapped his French link for a single joint and then the single joint for a fancypants straight bar.
“Actually, it’s still not nice.” Xave gaped his jaw some more.
“Noseband, then?” I took it off completely.
“Nope. Still ugh.” He gave his head a little shake to punctuate his words.
I glared at him, nettled. I’d tried every bit I knew. His teeth had been done less than a year ago. I was good with my hands. I’d done the groundwork.
“You’re just being a brat,” I announced, stepping onto the slippery slope of deafness, and clapped a grackle noseband on him.
“This is worse! I hate this!” Xave started to shake his head and resist having the bridle put on.
“Tough luck. Buck up, baby!” I locked my elbows, making my hands motionless as stone.
“It HURTS!” Xave pulled away while I was bridling him and bucked the length of the yard.
“Just STOP!” Voice and hands yelled together. Too loud for me to hear what he was saying.
Xave’s plentiful hot blood skyrocketed. He flung his head violently, almost yanking me out of the saddle. “NO! IT’S SORE!” Both forelegs left the ground for a moment and the adrenalin that kicked through me was just enough to jog my brain into remembering the eruption time for wolf teeth would be right about now.
Cowboy wisdom demanded I crank the grackle tighter and kick him till he submitted. Lacking a death wish, I slid to the ground instead, undid his noseband and stuck a thumb in his mouth, sliding it across the upper gum. Where there should have been a smooth curve of flesh, razor sharp tooth scraped against my skin.
He has two enormous wolf teeth.
“I’m sorry, buddy.”
The next day I rode him in a headcollar and he gave me two quiet walk laps of the ring, where the day before we barely made it across the middle before tantrums.
“I’m still sorry, dude.”
Xave’s big eye just sparkled mischievously. “I told you so.”
And that, kids, is how I started a gigantic warmblood in a headcollar – and vowed to never shout an honest horse down again.
December 28th will mark the anniversary of the arrival of our first outside liveries under the name Morning Star Stables. And what a year it’s been! The arrival of Jamaica and Zorro increased our population to sixteen or seventeen horses, which felt overwhelming at the time. Now, we’re home to twenty-eight and every last one of them has some useful task it’s achieving. The only horses that don’t get worked are either too young, too lame, or broodmares.
I remember years ago when we discovered Arwen was pregnant with her second whoopsie that I stood looking at her thinking, “Six horses! How will I ever deal with them all?” These days I’d have fed, groomed, and worked six horses by about noon. It’s incredible how one adapts.
God has blessed His stableyard so abundantly. Every month our horses and riders get better and better. We’ve ridden our first Nationals and come home with a fistful of ribbons. We’ve started eight young horses. We’ve sold seven. Our first foal was born successfully and is beautiful. We ran our first pony camp and it was a massive hit. I even managed to write some exams. And most importantly of all, we brought the Light to the hearts of many children, and love to the lives of many horses.
There have been many trials and struggles and trips to the vet, but God has seen us through it all. He is so here with us. Every day. I slip up, often and hard and disgustingly, but He picks me up every time. And then, cleansed by the Blood, strengthened by His Love, we all stagger back down the narrow path once again. Striving to take as many of them with us as we can.
So here’s some things I’ve learned this year that I wish I’d read as a starting-out stable manager.
1. It’s OK to not be Superman. Just because you have a yard doesn’t mean you magically can ride whatever and never struggle with your own nerves, or your own faults. You’re still human – and that’s totally OK. Own your limitations: it makes you seem more confident rather than less. Don’t try take on a client horse you know scares you. Do what you can, and do it really well. Face your fears in your free time: having to make a living out of being scared drains all the strength you need for other stuff – like kindness, creativity and learning. Your weak points can even become your strong points. I’m petite and terrified of big horses – so God showed me to build a business out of schooling good ponies. I’m a nervous rider – and I’m a good coach of nervous riders because I’ve been there.
As a manager or coach or trainer, you don’t have to be able to do everything. You just have to be able to do some things very well.
2. Delegate. Please do this. Employ the right people, treat them well, serve them with your words and actions and then give them stuff to do that they can do. You do the things that only you can do because there will be many if you’re any good. Don’t overload yourself with work you can delegate – the yard will be better for your focus on managing and not mucking out.
3. That said, always stay in touch with the basics. It’s amazing how much small things can affect horses. Grooms that don’t get along with them, or feed that’s just a little too sloppy – these things matter. Be there for feedings. Have a few horses you groom yourself, especially the challenging ones.
4. Own that paranoia. Your grooms won’t always like it, but your horses will. Details make a difference between good management and brilliant management. Be OCD and make sure the little things are perfect – even if your clients don’t thank you for it, your horses will.
5. Have a little fun. Being perfectionistic and hardworking and conscientious gets dry and tiring really quickly. Instead of losing those qualities, indulge your harmlessly quirky side. Wear bright pink socks. Buy yourself a rainbow coloured grooming kit. Put horse stickers on your phone. Plait ribbons in your ponies’ manes. Go on bareback outrides with your teenagers and giggle with them. Your clients might think you’re a little odd, but you don’t live your life according to what they think of you. Serve them with kindness rather than self-important decorum.
6. Always remember the things you love about this crazy business and do them. I love doing the rounds at sunset when the horses have all been fed and peace descends on the whole yard. I walk slowly from paddock to paddock and feed them all cookies and rub those amazingly soft noses and smell that smell. It reminds me that despite the challenges, I’m blessed right out of my (bright pink) socks to be here. 7. Obeying God’s commandments goes a long way for your business rep, too. Of course, this isn’t why one should do what God says, but it’s an unexpected perk. Honesty, joy, peace, kindness, patience, temperance, sobriety and diligence all tend to attract the right sort of clients.
8. Look after yourself. Burnout isn’t cool – it’s as irresponsible as working when you’re really sick. Nobody will die if you take a few days off when you need them – most of the time. If you’re sick, ask the doctor to book you off if you can. Don’t eat junk. Do eat chocolate. Get your five-a-day and your eight hours. Go for chiro every two months. Your yard needs you functioning as well as possible, not tired, grumpy and sleep deprived. And always have some reserves to draw on for those times when you just can’t take time off or find time for lunch – because those times will come and you will need to put yourself last and miss out on some essentials. Take extra good care of yourself so that you can be there for those that need you during those times of crisis, like outbreaks (or pony camp).
9. Appreciate good support, good employees, and good clients. They’re few and far between, so hang on to them and appreciate them. They’ll tide you through all the struggles with bad employees and bad clients, and your visible contribution to their successes will rebuild your confidence after every hit (and it will take a lot of hits).
10. Always, always, always draw your strength from God. Never neglect to spend time with Him first because He called you to it and you just can’t do it alone. It doesn’t matter what’s going wrong out there, you shut yourself up in your room and get yourself on your knees until you’re ready to go deal with it. You need Him like air. Read your Bible, go on long walks in the woods with Him, and talk to Him always. His plan will prevail – and if you stay in touch with Him, He’ll make you an incredible part of it. He’ll give your little yard an eternal value in the things that matter. Because at the end of the day your stables and arenas and money and reputation and ribbons will all pass away in the blink of an eye. All that really matters is what’s eternal: God and souls. So focus on them.
Glory to the King.
Despite my misgivings about the former after her spectacularly reluctant first session, both Zara and Tara have been progressing beautifully. After Zara ran through the side of the lunge ring twice – with me flapping helplessly along behind her on the end of the lunging rein – I groused that this creature must be both unwilling and stupid, but as usual I was wrong and have been forced to eat my words lately.
She always had this blank look in her eye during her sessions, but soon I started to realise that it wasn’t because she didn’t have a brain – it was because the brain was not with me. What exactly she was so inwardly focused on, nobody knows. There are no physical issues. Maybe she was just never asked to actually think before. Whatever it was, as we went on, I started to get moments where the light would come on and she would focus and be truly brilliant for thirty seconds or until she made a mistake and had to be corrected and went all blank again. The blankness was maddening. Training was, well, training; there was no conversation.
These days, though, my “stupid” student has become a responsive, willing, and present partner who actually talks to me and processes information – quickly, too. She’s turned out to be sensitive, forward, alert and just a little quirky so instead of her being just another dumb baby we have developed quite the rapport. Just goes to show how some horses never show who they really are until you bother to ask.
So we have progressed from trashing my lunge ring to carting my butt quite happily around it, so far just in walk, but I look forward to rapid progress. For her owner’s sake I hope she sells like a hot cake and will do my utmost to make it happen, but on the selfish side I do hope I get to show her once or twice first.
Tara has always been her sweet, cuddly, obedient self so of course backing her has just been easy; nothing remedial to fix, no bad habits to change, no mindset to try and alter. Just a simple matter of training responses and getting used to tack. I was on her in short order and we have also been taking a few little steps around the ring.
Tara is kind of worried lately; I don’t think she thinks she’s going to be hurt or frightened, but she does look a little stressy about new things or things she finds hard. It would be totally in keeping with her nature for her to be a bit overly worried about making a mistake. I think I need to have an even lighter hand and encourage her a little more and it should be OK. Then again maybe she’ll take advantage and throw me clean over the side of the ring; I suppose one never really knows with horses. Although Tara is highly unlikely to attempt such a drama.
Also, I officially adore Capstone feeds from now on. When T arrived she was a 2/10 and 14.3hh. Five months later she is a 5/10 and touching on 15.2.
Much as I also enjoy her, I kinda hope T sells like a hot cake too because she will thrive with a nice, patient adult ammy that is quite content to take their time and just relax and enjoy the connection. I do my best for her but regrettably one can’t just fool around so much when there is a client involved. It’s just unfair. But Tara is going to make an ammy very very happy – and vice versa.