They always say that the difficult horses have the most to teach you. That good horses don’t make good riders and that the more times you’re thrown, the more tenacity you learn. That the top horses are always a little sensitive, a little quirky, not everyone can ride them (as Valegro nods sagely in the background whilst carrying an eleven-year-old girl around on his patient back). There’s an undercurrent of feeling where if your horse isn’t that horse that’s a little crazy, maybe you’re not that rider who can do all the hard things.
But today I’m going to tell you everything I learned from my easy, sweet and safe horse.
Sure, he’s not the best ever on outrides and he’s got a spook in him, but he’s always been a steady sort. Even as a little foal he never had those crazy little baby tantrums while trying to navigate life with humanity. He wore his first saddle without a buck and fell asleep while I was putting on his first bridle. I was 15 and knew nothing. He was 2 and patient as a monolith, even then.
He was a clotheshanger-shaped two-year-old when I sat on him for the first time. I hadn’t done one quarter of the necessary groundwork, but he just turned his head to sniff at my toe and then went to sleep.
Fast forward seven years and he is still a good boy. He has his nervous moments, but in all our years of riding, I have only once believed I was actually going to come off him. We were walking and I was mostly asleep, one hand on the buckle, when huge lizard jumped up a rock out of nowhere and he jumped. I didn’t have reins, so he cantered off a few steps as I slithered down his side, stopping when I managed to get hold of a rein and drag myself back on board. Both times that I actually did fall off him, he was 3, we were hacking, and my (unreliable) girth came off. He always came back for me.
He has a quiet mouth. He doesn’t really go lame. He has a soft, supple back that doesn’t really go into spasm. These are probably reasons why he’s easy in his mind. He’s comfortable to sit on, not particularly flashy in his gaits, and rather on the slow side.
He’s not the horse that holds a grudge or gets offended by my myriad mistakes. His chiropractor, who has a deep intuition for horses, summarized him: “Oh, you just feel like everything is going to be OK when you’re with him.”
He is my easy, sweet and gentle horse. And here is what I learned from him.
I learned to ride a flying change, a half pass, renvers, travers, piaffe. A real shoulder-in, a straight leg-yield. A good simple change. A true connection, a supple bend, and a square halt. A figure eight in rein back. I learned these while he was learning them, because he was willing to learn, because he was helping instead of hindering.
I learned that mistakes are forgivable. I learned that there is a depth of grace out there that absorbs all sin, because a droplet of that grace lives in my little bay horse.
I learned that manes are still good for crying into when you’re a grownup.
I learned how to try, to give my best even when it’s not much on the day, to rise above fear and uncertainty and to try regardless because of how this horse always tries.
I learned about the depth of what horses do for us, about the scope of their kindness, about how much better I need to be for them. I learned to put aside everything and ride for the sake of the threefold cord, for the dance, for the joy of the fact that God made horses and he made us.
I learned to find a taste of eternity in the swing of a stride. And I liked it.
I learned that even on the worst days, horses still smell like heaven.
I learned that there are few greater gifts than a stalwart friend, even if that friend has four legs and a fluffy forelock.
I learned that I do have wings after all.
I learned that we can do anything.
I learned all these things from a 15.1 hand bay gelding who doesn’t rear or buck or bolt or kick or bite or get wildly wound up about life. I learned them from an easy horse.
And I love him.
Glory to the King.
By the way, ROW is now on Instagram! Find me on @ridingonwater for daily adorable Thunder pics and bits of philosophy.
I told the world – and myself – that I had hung up Arwen’s double bridle after Nissan Easter Festival 2018. Of course, this was by no means due to any failing on her part. She had just blossomed into her prime, and we had had many fantastic years together, and of course nothing would ever persuade me to part with the dragonmare or our cast-iron friendship.
But when it came to competition, I was just stepping out over the threshold of adulthood, and frankly, I was totally broke. I had to get a day job (as far as being a ghostwriter can be considered any kind of a normal day job, lol) and narrow my focus to one or two horsies instead of riding everything and entering everything the way I had as a teenager sponging happily on the long-suffering parents. Knowing that my heart was called to dressage, it made sense not to retire Arwen, but to give the ride to someone who could exhibit her to her fullest potential: a kid. And God’s timing, as usual, was perfect. I had a a kid in the yard who was everything – dedicated, tall enough to sit on a 14.3 hand barrel without looking puny, tactful enough to ride a mare who knows her job and doesn’t want you in the way, with just enough spunk to enjoy the dragonmare’s fire and enough Velcro on his bottom not to get burned by it. They had a great HOY 2019 together, winning supreme champion in hand and reserve supreme in working riding. Arwen’s third year running with the latter title.
We were all gearing up for kiddo to ride her at Standerton Show last week, and shipped her off to a lesson with a showing coach to get her ready, and then that turned out to be a complete disaster. Something got up the dragon’s nose – I am not sure what, but I think it must have been a bug that bit her or something along those lines – and she completely lost her mind for about half an hour. She was fine when we got home, but I wasn’t wholly sure if she was going to behave at Standerton, thinking that maybe she’d learned some silly manners from the kiddo. So I decided to ride her there myself.
It was a good choice! Not for the poor kiddo, who missed out on a perfectly-behaved dragonheart and a beautifully run show, but for me. Sorry kiddo! It really was for his own good.
The show started out a little bit disastrous when, ah, Aunt Flo visited all over my canary breeches – right before the in-hand. Luckily, head-groom-turned-student-instructor L was showing Vastrap, so she was on hand to take Arwen into the class while one embarrassed lump of humanity (me) spread my hastily-washed breeches on the bonnet of the bakkie to dry. Despite the chaos around her, Arwen was impeccably behaved in hand. Obviously, she won champion mare. It’s kind of her thing when it comes to in hand.
By the time the working riding class began, I had mercifully regained my dignity and my now-dry breeches, so we could go in and do our thing. Arwen was considering some dragonishness, but she didn’t let it show too much, so we popped happily through a straightforward track to win the Nooitie section and get reserve champion overall.
Best walk was next, and I think best walk is the most amazing thing for skittish me on an equally skittish youngster, but I actually entered it because Arwen has such a magnificent walk. Unsurprisingly, she won that, too. I’m glad I read the rules for best walk and gave her a looong rein, though. If I’d tried to be my usual DQ self, we might not have done so well.
In between, L and Vastrap were doing great – second in the WR, second in the jakkalsperd (handy hunter) I think, and then third in Best Canter because VT thought it was Best Gallop.
Finally, we had the best three-gaited. I watched the pleasure horse and think I’ll give it a shot next time – Arwen will be great if she doesn’t dragon too much. We went in and the Nooities were being judged with the SASA Riding Horses, and that was where we had a little bit of an oops. This was a supremely accessible, cheap, local show, which attracted a lot of top-class Nooities and WBs but also some newcomers to the showing ring. And I think that is absolutely wonderful, but a few of them were a little unused to riding in a group – and especially unused to riding in a group that was doddering along at a nice little showing canter. So somebody promptly rode up the dragon’s bum.
Arwen is a boss mare and she is not afraid to show it. Her back came up at once, and I squiggled her out of the way before she could do anything about the horse breathing up her tail, thinking we had averted disaster. Regrettably, the horse that was now behind us also didn’t really know what to do, so as we turned down the short side it went up our bum too. Trapped against the fence, I had nowhere to go, and Arwen decided to remedy the situation by launching a series of double-barrels at the intruder. They were warning kicks and all missed, and thankfully the horse stayed off us after that, but by then she was ANGRY.
She spent the rest of the class pullung and wanting to buck a bit, for which I couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t bad, but definitely a grumpy little sassdragon. We ended up second to Wilgerus Dakota, a beautiful bay stallion that I didn’t think we could beat anyway. The judge did come up to me and let me know that she hadn’t penalized Arwen for kicking at the other horse.
I totally don’t mind, though. Everyone was a newbie once. I’m just glad the kicks didn’t land lol.
At least we were into the championship class and Arwen had simmered down. We were asked to show an individual test in this class and thanks to a few showing lessons on Gatsby, I had learned a new one. Dakota rode a truly stunning test, and then it was our turn.
The test was short and sweet. Walk away, trot a rein change, lengthen down the long side, canter in the corner, canter a serpentine with lead changes (I did them through walk), lengthen the canter, trot, halt for the judge. Arwen was just fired up enough that when I asked for the lengthening I got a massive one – I didn’t even know she had that much extension in her. I was kind of beaming by this point because despite 18 months under a child, Arwen had not forgotten one drop of the ten years of schooling we had put in.
The changes through walk were so, so clean and obedient and she was so quiet coming back from the lengthening. When we halted from trot, dead square off my seat, I knew she’d just ridden the best test of her life. I may have been grinning just a little bit when I asked for five steps of rein back and then dropped the reins. She stood like a statue.
It was the most exhilarating moment we’ve ever had in the show ring together – I could not have been prouder even if we’d placed dead last. It was not the single most magical achievement of our career so far, but it was symbolic to me of the partnership that has spanned my entire adolescence and extends into adulthood, a partnership that taught me so much courage on a mare that exemplifies the phrase “against the odds”. A partnership that has spoken to me of God’s great plan. This ride – it was just a cherry on top.
I was so happy, and so pleased with this absolutely amazing fireball of a horse, that my salute may as well have been a mic drop. Still, I was kind of flabbergasted when we finally got the title that’s been eluding her for years: ridden champion.
My wall is absolutely covered in satin from the dragonbeast, in every discipline, and yet those rosettes don’t inspire a feeling of achievement in me. They make me feel something else: grateful. And perhaps a little awed by God’s mercy. Oh, not because of the placings. Those will crumble to dust like everything else. But because of what He achieved in my heart because of the fire in hers. Rosettes are forgettable, but love and courage and gratitude – those are forever.
And Arwen has been an instrument to bless me with them all. The guts she showed me out on a cross-country track or walking into the show ring with all the big names, I needed later for far bigger and more real challenges. And she was there for me even in those.
So with 2020 on the horizon, what’s next for my most faithful equine partner? Well, Dakota’s owner offered us a free covering. I definitely would like to put her in foal, although I can’t keep her babies right now – they’d have to have buyers before they’re bred. Still, the Nooitie is a hugely endangered breed and partially so due to inbreeding. Because her lines are rare and she’s only half Nooitie, Arwen is exactly the type of mare that could really benefit the breed.
She has just turned 13 so it’s time to start thinking about this kind of thing. However, God willing, she’ll definitely do HOY 2020, with me and with a child. After that, it’s time for baby dragons!
I have lots of news to share – including riding Arwen at a showing show this week where she won practically every class she walked into, in true Dragonmare style – but being a little pressed for time at 5:44am on a Saturday (freelancing means you work your own hours), here are ten questions by the lovely L. from Viva Carlos.
1. Favorite quirk your horse (or a horse you’ve spent time with) has?
There are many! For Thunder, though, I love that he always comes up to me in the field -always has, ever since he was just a foal. And I also love that he poops right before going into the wash bay, every single time lol. It’s better than pooping IN the wash bay!
2. Three adjectives that perfectly describe your horse?
Kind. Willing. Loyal.
3. Plan your next ride. What will you do/work on?
My next ride will probably be on Tilly, doing a ton of transitions to get her a little more relaxed and into the bridle than she has been of late. Balance is always a thing for Tilly. If I have time, I’ll pop on Lancelot as well and we’ll do what we’ve been doing all winter: trot in figure-eights trying to find balance.
4. Have you ever trained an OTTB? If yes, what was the biggest challenge?
A few, but not with as much success as bringing on the babies. Magic, obviously, was a complete disaster, but that wasn’t all my fault. I also did the first few rides restarting Milady after the track and being a broodmare. Honestly, to my mind the biggest challenge is that almost every single one of them has some kind of a physical issue. Not all of them are chronic, although I think a huge proportion come off the track with KS, but honestly I think all of them have ulcers and tightness through the body at the very least. They can still make fabulous horses but retraining an OTTB is a very different beast from bringing on a baby, and I definitely prefer the babies.
5. Have you ever groomed or worked for a professional rider?
No, unless you count exercising horses for K in exchange for lessons – which was awesome and the only reason I made it through Module 4.
6. Favorite horse and rider combination?
Oh, it would have to be Charlotte and Blueberry, wouldn’t it? Despite her recent oops at Rotterdam, Charlotte remains one of the quietest riders out there in the ring today. And my favourite thing about watching Valegro isn’t really the fact that he’s utterly perfect (which he is), but his expression. I love his floppy ears and quiet tail. He’s just a happy bro doing his thing.
On the local circuit, I like watching K ride – she is picture perfect.
8. If you could experience the equestrian community (i.e. ride and compete) in another country, what country would you choose and why?
Definitely the UK. It’s turned out some of the best riders in the world, with some of the kindest philosophies. For good stable management, the British are kind of unrivaled.
9. In your opinion, what is an item of tack that is given unnecessary hype?
The crank/flash combination that’s so “in” in dressage right now. I like the crank look, and truly if you’re going to pull a crank too tight you’d probably pull a cavesson tight too (just don’t be a cow to your horse and pull on the noseband, m’kay?) but the flash is just a truly useless piece of equipment. You can’t put it on kindly because it drops off the nose. If the horse really does resist by opening the mouth (and not just because you have ugly hands), then I find an old-fashioned drop to be a much kinder option. It can be loose enough to allow plenty of movement and just discourage really gaping and taking off like some horses regrettably do.
10. What was the first horse you rode called? Are they still alive?
I have a picture of a pony that I rode at a party when I was super tiny (like, not yet walking), but I don’t know his name. The first riding school pony I rode with any regularity was called Prinsie. I think he’s passed on by now, but I had the chance to ride him a few more times when I was a teenager and he was still joyously running away with everyone who rode him.
Soon I’ll have show photos of Arwen to share along with her latest collection of accolades, and then Thunder, Christopher and I have a lesson at J’s tomorrow, so many stories to follow.
After his break during the beginning of 2019, Thunder was impeccably behaved coming back into work. But he was also fat and unfit. Really, really unfit.
To be fair, I wasn’t the fittest I had ever been, either. Thanks to my job at the Arab stud, I was still exercising 2-3 horses a day, but they were mostly either babies or impeccably trained old show horses. The former requires mostly the “hang on and don’t die” muscles to operate; the others are so soft and light and smooth that they barely require muscles at all. Certainly none of them were the full-body workout that is riding a half-schooled dressage horse whilst not really having any idea of how to do so.
So when J told us that we needed to get fit, he was totally right. He put us to work lungeing for 20 minutes three days a week (schooling once or twice a week) and so, combined with having tons of babies to work, I find myself in the middle of a lunge ring quite frequently.
To be honest, I kinda like lungeing. I mean, it’s extremely boring (Thunder is getting a bit tired of it now) but I sat lungeing exams for my stable management modules and might pride myself just a teeny bit on being a bit on the pedantic side when it comes to lungeing.
Lungeing can be a little controversial sometimes. Many trainers absolutely swear by it (lookin at you, J) while others prefer hills or cavaletti for fitness. Personally, I think all of the above can be beneficial depending on the horse and human and situation. But lungeing can certainly be a tool for evil.
Lungeing has a set of benefits that makes it an important tool in my toolbox, though. Some of them include:
Teaching the unbacked horse to move in rhythm and balance, respond to voice commands, and accept tack
Laying a foundation of fitness without the rider’s weight – for horses with poor topline or unbacked youngsters
Allowing a less experienced person, like a good groom, to exercise the horse for a busy rider (it takes a few months to learn to lunge really well, much longer to learn to ride)
Warming up a stiff back before riding
Perhaps most importantly, giving the rider an opportunity to see the horse move, which allows one to connect what it feels like to what it looks like.
Lungeing, however, is often easily misused. Even though there’s no rider involved, it’s still hard on the horse’s body. Typically lungeing involves fewer walk breaks than riding and working on a circle isn’t easy on the joints. I have a few ground rules to help lungeing do what all training tools should – make the horse’s life better.
Preferably not before four, and certainly not before three. Look, five minutes twice a week won’t kill your two-year-old. But I don’t work my three-year-olds more than three or four days a week, and even then, only for 15 minutes at a time. Just enough to show them how to move in balance. Four-year-olds can do 20 minutes or so, but slowly and judiciously. What are you going to do with a four-year-old anyway? They’re basically camels with no brains at that age.
Whatsoever you do to one side, do also unto the other. Nothing makes a horse asymmetrical faster than asymmetrical lungeing. Working the weak side harder than the strong side mostly only makes the horse stiff and resentful.
Lungeing is schooling. My pet peeve is horses who CHARGE off onto the circle in a mad trot. No. Mine are expected to stand stock-still until asked, at which point they shall walk briskly and calmly onto the circle and continue walking until asked to trot. All transitions should take place on voice command. When asked to stop, they stand quietly. This makes life much more relaxing for the horse.
Lunge in all three gaits. Some babies, especially the gawky types, have trouble cantering on a small circle. Apart from those, mine lunge in walk, trot and canter. Jackhammer trot is not a gait.
Pay attention to gait quality. The gaits in lungeing should be the same as under saddle, if not better due to the lack of encumbrance from uncoordinated humanity. Jackhammer trot is not a quality gait. Young horses should be able to lunge smoothly and in balance without gadgets in all three gaits before being expected to carry a rider. Nothing is worse for the horse’s joints and muscles than tearing around madly, hollow and counter bent.
If you use a gadget, understand it. I like elasticated side reins and maybe a neck stretcher/chambon, but only for horses who already understand the contact and are strong enough to carry themselves. I prefer introducing the contact on the long lines. That way, they can have plenty of little stretch breaks while the muscles develop.
I’m sure others have different rules, and that mine will change over time, but that’s what I’m doing right now. And that is how I try not to die of boredom while lungeing 6 horses in a day lol. But it’s starting to pay off.
Here’s hoping J will be happier with us next week. Thunny certainly feels a LOT more powerfully forward under saddle now – the canter-walks are suddenly back, a medium trot came out of nowhere (yesssss) and we even have changes again. Yay!
Yesterday was a lovely young horse show at Penbritte (my favourite venue in the world), and since I have nothing but good memories of the young horse classes I used to do years ago on the illustrious Nell, it was the perfect opportunity to take the babies.
Gatsby has been on a little trip to my own yard, but never off the farm before that, so I was ready to do some slow breathing and apply some Velcro to my butt.
However, I need not have worried. He was perfect to travel and arrived looky, but calm. Once I got on he was a little up and he did have to stare at every single horse that went past on the noisy gravel path (his home yard is a lot quieter than mine), but in 20 minutes or so he had come right down and was relaxed and listening.
Water was being noisily pumped into a tank right by the judge’s box when I went up to introduce him, and it was very spooky – to be fair I would have been concerned riding Thunder up to it. But Gatsby was fantastic. He was looking, but he didn’t run back or jump, just stopped to have a look. Dad came over (thanks to the very kind judge, who was supremely patient) and just walked ahead of him up and down a few times and that was that.
I could not have asked for better during his test. He did break to walk at C to look at the water tank again, but just for a few steps. If I had flapped and kicked at him then he would have kept trotting but I elected to let him have a look and it paid off because he didn’t look again for the rest of the test, and of course it was a young horse test so that didn’t hurt us at all. He was responsive, calm and obedient and even stretched down in both walk and trot. I didn’t quite get the rein back like I wanted it, but everything else was fine.
I was pleasantly surprised at his mark of 65% because he may be a 5yo but he really isn’t strong enough to do this test that well, plus, I was extremely conservative and didn’t ask him for too much. If I could ride it again I’d still be conservative, though. I’d rather we had a quiet round and both of us felt more confident afterward than that I kicked him and chased him into gaits he can’t balance yet.
Nonetheless we got lots and lots of awesome prizes by dint of a tiny class and really brilliant sponsorship from Equi-Feeds. Old Skye is on Equi-Feeds Golden Years this winter and has done much better than previous winters even though she’s almost 31, so do go and check their website. I’ve also fed their lucerne chaff and shandy cubes and the chaff has always been beaufiful and clean.
There was just enough time to stuff Tilly’s hair into plaits before we went to warm up. Tilly is an absolute professional by this point. She was a little bit hot when we started warming up but settled right down, didn’t even look at the water tank, and plonked down centreline totally relaxed.
Her test was fabulous. I only put the lengthenings on her a few weeks ago and they just come naturally to this lovely lady. Her only mistake was taking the wrong lead in her first canter transition, but we fixed it and she didn’t get flustered about it (Tilly doesn’t get flustered about anything).
After watching the other two horses in the class, I’ll be honest, I was pretty sure she’d be coming home with a day sheet. I was surprised when she came third. I was riding quietly but not quite so conservatively as on Gatsby, and the other two horses were not as through, supple, obedient, rhythmic and connected as Tilly is. The judge, however, was looking for more power and forward movement, so that’s fair. I was test riding too much and not showing off her potential enough for this judge, but she still had a mark of 66% and behaved absolutely impeccably all day, so it was still a super show. And we won unicorn cookies!
I would not have changed my ride on Gatsby, but I’ll be riding bigger lengthenings on Tilly this week to see if she can balance them. However in light of J showing me not to chase the horse onto the forehand demanding more forward, I’m still more inclined to build the strength slowly and not ask for more power than the horse can comfortably contain.
It was another well organized show at Penbritte and with wonderful sponsorship. My two horses could not have been better and their owners can be extremely proud of them!