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’ve been following Tamarack Hill Farm’s page for a while now, avidly gathering the abundant pearls of wisdom that Olympic horseman Denny Emerson has been so freely dispersing to the masses. His new book Know Better Do Better is definitely on my wishlist, but I’m not here to rave on the words of the oracle today.
Instead, I find myself in the midst of what Emerson describes over and over on his page, with photographical evidence: the power of unexciting progress.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than I wanted success. I worked so hard – riding multiple horses a day every single day since I was in my preteens. Drilling myself every single day. I had the golden opportunity of free access to horses, and I absolutely took it. They were the front and centre of my life. They were practically my identity, and as I grew up into a young adult, I only knew how to push harder. Faster. I wanted more, quicker, and I wanted success – now. Nothing was too high a price to pay for progress on a horse: not other areas of my life, not money, not time, not my mental health, and God forgive me, not even that horse’s state of mind.
These days, though, through a long path of frustrating steadying, God has led me to another place. A place where not every ride has to show improvement. A place where I just plain slow down. No more riding 12 horses a day, no more frantically chasing the next level, no more competing every single horse in every single show regardless of whether they (or I) were ready for it.
There was no time then for anything but hurry and anxiety, and I remember only the wins as good times. But these days, I move a little bit slower. I ride 5 or 6 a day instead of 12. I got a day job to take some of the unrelenting pressure off the riding. I put the goals in the backseat, tucked the future up in bed, breathed deep and slow and tried to see every day the way a horse does: one moment at a time.
I didn’t set goals for 2019. This was by design. I don’t want them right now; I want to give up all of that desperation to chase the next horizon in favour of slowing down my brain and making room for compassion, learning, and understanding.
I took a hiatus from showing – and even from Thunder – early in 2019. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a good thing, because I learned what it was that called me to horses in the first place. It wasn’t the shows. It was Him: the voice of God, whispering in the quiet moments when horse and human move spine to spine, breath to breath.
It took a journey of years, but I think I’m finally getting there. Getting to the place where I can crush the aching noise of pressure and the fear of what others will think, in favour of listening to the souls of horses. That’s what I’m here for, after all.
I was sixteen when I came down centreline for the first time and I didn’t even know how to get my horse on the bit. I had taught myself the diagonals the week before from an article on the Internet. I had no instruction and no knowledgeable support for the next five years. My family made it possible for me to keep riding, though, and I did. One ride, one article, one blog post, one Youtube video at a time I trained my own horse without lessons to Elementary. I taught dressage to myself on a hillside by God’s gracious provision, and I have nothing to prove anymore. I know I have it in me to be brilliant because God put it there. I can be an outstanding rider, and maybe I will be one day. But it’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, it might not happen in 5 years or 10 years or even 15 years or even ever if I break my neck tomorrow. And I’m not going to do this by myself: it’s going to take support and it’s going to take lessons from the coach who’s changed my riding.
I don’t know for sure if I ever will enter at A, collected canter. But I do know that I have this ride, this breath, this moment. I have this transition. I have this stride. And God put me here, in this moment, to be with Him.
I can’t say for sure I’ll be a Grand Prix rider in 10 years, but I can be a kind rider right now. The road to the FEI tests is a long one, and it starts with lungeing. It starts with trotting large, trying to get my hands under control. It starts with inside leg to outside rein. It continues with practice, constant patient daily practice, and I can find the greatness in practicing when every ride breathes life into the soul of a horse.
Grand Prix horses aren’t built in a year. Elementary horses aren’t even built in a year. They’re built in hundreds of thousands of slow rides, and lessons, and training shows. They’re built in the tedium of unexciting progress, progress so slow as to be nearly invisible, until five years later you have a different horse. And that slowness would be unbearable, if every moment wasn’t filled with the awareness of that beautiful thing God made between a person and a horse.
I think I am only now starting to see what it really means when I say, “Glory to the King.”
Two lessons in a single week again? What sorcery is this?
No sorcery here – just too many blessings even to count. After spending a magical week with the darling at the fire base where he works, I was admittedly reluctant to come back to our home, but I know it won’t be long before he’s with me again too. And until he does get back, I know just how to keep myself occupied.
Lancelot and I were going to do an express eventing show this coming weekend, but I ended up not having space in the box. This turned out not to be a bad thing, because – with the best of intentions of keeping him from getting sweaty and miserable in his increased work – I clipped the little guy. (He behaved impeccably; he was fast asleep by the end, although he did pull away when I started tidying up around his head, so I left that for next year’s conversation).
All fine and well; he slept in the field bundled up in a blanky. Unfortunately the winter elected that specific night for the coldest of the year, and evidently I hadn’t blanketed him thickly enough, because he got cold and was then really sore and stiff in his hind end. Sound again now, but he was not very happy. Of course, I put him straight into a nice warm stable.
I did have a lesson booked with K, though, so instead of skipping it we took the dragon out on xc for the first time in years. In fact, I haven’t even been on the dragon for months, but her kid has been riding her so I just borrowed her back for a few hours.
Of course, she was picture perfect. I had a lot of little glitches to fix in the warmup – which was a bit sad, but you know, kids – and she refused the first couple of jumps. Once she did jump them, though, a little switch flicked in her head. She realized that it was me on her back and that full dragon mode was absolutely allowed. So full dragon mode we went.
She jumped really great, her typical wild self, once she realized that I wasn’t going to let her stop. In fact, by the time we jumped a course at the end, she was actually running away and bucking quite a lot lol. I had forgotten how hot the fire in her belly burns. I am absolutely going to be stealing her back more frequently from now on!
I don’t think anyone will ever beat my dragon, just the way no one ever beat old Skye. She’s in a league of her own. Right now, the plan is for her to compete with a kid for two more years and then to breed a foal from her. She is from a rare breed that could really benefit from her bloodline, plus I think I really need a half-Friesian half-dragon to be my next young horse.
Speaking of half-Friesians, this one had a lesson booked with J for this morning – 6:30 this morning, to be precise. That meant that at 4:30 I was getting him ready to box. He was not amused with being woken at that kind of an hour.
Nevertheless, he obliged, although when we got to J’s farm we were both still somewhat bleary-eyed. Still, we missed all the traffic, so that was a win. Despite having agreed to this madness, J was NOT amused at all with having to stand in the cold arena at that time of morning (it was 4°C when we arrived) and called me a name I won’t share on the blog.
It was absolutely worth it, though, to go out onto the freshly raked river sand. And when the sun just rose and painted everything in pale gold, it was magic.
After bemoaning my terrible choice of entering Novice at the last show, J proceeded to put us through basically all of the Elementary movements to prove that we can.
And actually it was all fine. Canter left needs a lot more impulsion, but the changes were fine, and J even said “good” once or twice so that’s a plus. Thunder was also SUPREMELY well behaved throughout – he was relaxed, focused, and just a real pleasure to work with. He did spook at a few things but that only made J laugh at us.
Just when my abs (and his butt) were dying, though, J made us go to sitting trot and do all of the lateral things. Of course, I was in trouble for not using my outside rein enough (a running theme). I have been given strict instructions to do nothing but endless renvers until I finally fix it.
J also said I could bring two horsies next time so if baby Arab’s buttocks are less tender in two weeks’ time, he’ll go too.
Honestly, I’m totally blown away by the place I’m in right now. I really, really, really miss darling, but I know he has to go work so that we can save for our wedding together. Horse-wise, though, it’s just incredible. I can’t believe the horse, the support network, the instruction, just all of it. It feels straight from a fairytale. It feels amazing.
It feels like a love letter signed by the King. And I’ll read it over and over, until the corners curl up and the very ink fades, until there is no more use for letters, until I see His face.
The admin of an equestrian Facebook group asked a question the other day that was terrifying in its simplicity: Why do you have a horse?
It seems like such an easy question until you have to answer it.
The answers to her post grew longer and longer as horse people from every walk of life waxed lyrical with their reasons for adding a large and expensive flight animal to their lives and hearts. It seems at first glance that there are hundreds of reasons why people have horses: Because they are therapy; because we’ve always wanted one; because they’re our friends; because they give us freedom; because they help us reach our dreams; because they give us a few moments’ escape from the brutal world of human interaction. Because we love them. Because we find them beautiful.
But in reality, there aren’t hundreds of reasons why we have horses. There is only one.
We have horses because God lent them to us.
Only He knows why. If I had created an animal so perfect – a beast with the speed of the wind, the grace of an unfurling storm and the heart of a warrior – I wouldn’t have given it to the loud, messy, selfish, violent human race. We are the ones that fell, after all. He gave us the horse, a creature whose very movement heals us, whose emotional connection to us goes beyond what we can really explain, and we have been abusing that privilege ever since. They’ve been pulling our loads and fighting our battles for centuries, and we built our civilization upon their willing backs.
We don’t deserve them. But then again, it’s never been about what we deserve. Their presence in our lives is just a drop in the ocean of His grace.
The great mercy is that God didn’t give them to us to keep. It’s only ever a loan: sooner or later, and we never know when, they’ll all be called Home to stand in the stables of the King.
He gave us dominion over them. Let us never, ever forget how sacred our duty is towards these magnificent animals. Let us never lose our appreciation for what our horses do for us. Having horses is not about us and it has never been about us.
Having been out of competing for the past eight months, I was not a little concerned about how my nerves – and Thunder’s – would behave for this show. I was glad to discover a training show at a friendly, local venue for our first trip back down the centreline. This is the longest break I’ve ever taken from dressage since starting to compete in 2014, and so I did take a few precautions in anticipation of struggling mentally.
Physically, I know I’ve never been as strong as I am right now, but I was worried about my mental game. So I entered him for the two lowest Elementary tests, asked a helpful kid to read my tests to me instead of trying to ride them from memory like I normally do, and then set my goal for the show to be singular and simple: just chill out. Nothing more. Not a certain score, not succeeding in a certain movement, just trying to relax and enjoy my incredible horse rather than sweating the small stuff.
And it worked. This may have been one of Thunder’s best shows yet in terms of his behaviour, even in challenging circumstances. Thunny does best if he’s shown by himself, and this show we arrived at with four of his girlfriends, all of whom stayed back by the horsebox while I was riding him. He did neigh for them a little, but instead of getting frustrated with him about it, I just let him call. It’s understandable, it’s acceptable, it’s a normal, equine response to a situation that causes some stress. He wants a herd, so it’s up to me to become the herd. That’ll take a little time and he’ll call during his tests until he gets over it. I kept warming him up with no fuss. It’s a strange one – he’s not really tense, he’s just sort of distracted. It’s not separation anxiety, more a stallion-esque tendency to want his girlfriends (which is weird considering he was cut at the grand age of 18 months, but whatever).
By the time we went in, he was looking a bit and still distracted but obedient to all my cues and fairly connected. I knew we were in for “tight neck” comments, as usual, but when he came down the centreline he was dead straight, halted perfectly at X, and trotted back off for a 7.5. “Straight entry, very balanced halt, direct move-off.” That was a good feeling considering that our halts have long been a weak point.
The turns at C, E and B were a 7.0, “more bend through corners and turn; fairly active.” I feel like that could have been my fault though because I tend to be kind of ham-fisted through those turns and allow his bum to wander off. I felt like his serpentine was pretty good so I was a little surprised to see a 6.5 with comment “fairly active, more suppleness”. The serpentine is normally an easy movement for him but I think the neck tightness that he has at shows didn’t help at all.
I was super proud of the halt – immobility five seconds at X. While it only scored a 6 for being above the bit during the halt and lacking some bend once again on the turns, he was absolutely obedient, and I know it’s a lot to ask of an energetic and distracted horse to stand immobile for five seconds. The lengthened trot was a predictable 6.0 asking for more push from behind – like I kept my butt in the saddle and at this point that was wonderful – and his free walk would have been absolutely perfect if he hadn’t taken exactly two trot steps at H. The trot-walk transition was perfect and the judge commented “fairly relaxed, stretching well”, but those walk steps got us another 6.0.
Things improved as he gave me a super obedient walk-canter transition at A, albeit slightly above the bit, for a 7; then 6.5s for a slightly crooked canter lengthening and for a hollow, but obedient, simple change. 6.5 is probably the best mark I’ve ever had for a simple change – and that out of canter right, usually his harder side – so I’ll take it. The second loop through X was a well-earned 7.5. Our next simple change was crooked because I overthought it and turned the slight shoulder-fore that I always use for canter-walk transitions into a hot mess, so we had a 6.0 there. Our transition down to trot – albeit “against hand” – centreline and final halt were our best mark of the test with 8.0.
I rode out of Elementary 1 expecting a low-60s score, knowing the changes had been a bit rough and there had been moments when he was tight and coming above my hand. I was also really, really happy with how he was going. He was absolutely listening to my every cue, really present and focused and trying so hard. And I was fine. A little distractable and not as focused as I can be, but totally fine – not even a twinge of nerves. It was good enough for my best score yet at Elementary at 66.78%. Not the greatest score ever, but still worth a few grading points once we have the money for proper shows again, and a mighty improvement over my last personal best on the Dragon.
We got 7.5 again for our first centreline in Elementary 2 even though he whinnied and was “slightly inattentive”, following it with 6.5 for the half 10m circles asking for more bend and suppleness. His 10m circle at V was a 7.0 for being “fairly supple”, followed by a six for the shoulder-in. I have this thing in the show ring during lateral work where I’m convinced that I won’t get any lateral work at all – like I’ll put my leg on and the horse will just keep going straight and everyone will die. I think this was messing with my head quite a bit here, which was a pity, because he was really obedient and into the bridle, but I botched it by asking for way too much angle. Shoulder-in is deceptively hard to ride correctly because I don’t have mirrors and I also don’t have any clue of how it feels when the angle is correct, so that’s going to have to be a lesson.
A string of sixes followed: another for the medium trot with comment “more push from behind”, then for the circle at P where he got really weird with his butt and wandered off completely for no apparent reason, and then another for the next shoulder-in, once again having way too much angle. We redeemed ourselves with an 8 for the extended walk and a seven for the counter-canter serpentine even though he felt a little unbalanced because he saw a horse he thought might be his girlfriend. The medium canter was a “conservative” 6, and then the changes fell apart a bit. He was getting a bit brain-tired and distracted at this point, so he trotted down into the first change for a five and we were crooked down again in the next one for another five. These were his worst marks, but they’re okay. It was more show-ring rustiness than any real issues. His changes do need to be established a bit more firmly.
On the bright side, our circle at C with break of contact was a seven; he was fabulous but I had to do it twice because the first time I kind of didn’t let go of my inside rein at all (I have no idea why). Our last centreline was another glorious 8.0, giving us a final score of 66.47%. The judge commented “Well done, work on suppleness and position in shoulder-in” and “Fluent test, very willing horse showing promising work, just at times a little tight over the back and in the neck”. It was certainly the first time a judge has ever told me well done after an Elementary test.
Although the scores weren’t quite what he was getting at Prelim, I actually could not be happier with my majestic dance partner. I also just love the way that it felt. As absolutely wonderful as Arwen was for even reaching that level without guidance, and as perfectly willing as she always is, Elementary was a struggle on her. Everything was just really, really hard and I was always super happy just to see a six. But on Thunder, it’s all sort of… easy. It comes naturally and flows. It’s not a struggle, it’s a dance.
Our relationship also feels really different compared to the last few shows. He’s always tried his heart out, but often it’s felt a little fractured – I was never really sure what horse I was going to get on the day and sometimes it was one that spent the whole test hollow and calling. This time our connection felt a lot more solid, our bond much more impenetrable. I was far more present for him and it made a massive difference.
This was really my favourite show to date. It was as God intended for it to be – a dance, a celebration. It wasn’t worry, it was worship. It wasn’t pressure, it was praise. And every moment of it beat with love.
We went home on such a high only to hit a bit of a wobble when poor Thunny came in from the field on Monday night with a temperature of 40.5C. He’s been a bit up and down ever since with a diagnosis of biliary, spiking some pretty scary fevers, but much as I’ve been open to sending him to hospital, the vets have been happy for him to be treated at home. Today was the first day that his temperature stayed under 39C, so hopefully we’ve turned a corner now. He has been really good and stoic about the whole thing and kept eating all the way through, so at least he hasn’t suffered too much. Your prayers for his healing are always appreciated. ❤
I look forward to many more invitations onto the floor from this particular dance partner. Glory to the King.
They say it only takes a little faith to move a mountain
Well, good thing a little faith is all I have right now
God, when You choose to leave mountains unmoveable
Give me the strength to be able to sing “It is well with my soul”
~ MercyMe, “Even If”
I had no expectations for this show, Faith’s first ridden competition. She had competed in hand at Horse of the Year in February, her first outing,
and then at a training show in August I brought her along just to do the ground poles and have a little fun,
but yesterday was her first show where we’d be expected to do anything very much beyond stay on top and go over the poles. I knew I had gone out on a limb when I entered her in a proper show horse class and the working riding, seeing that she only semi has steering and occasionally still picks up the wrong lead, but I didn’t really care. It was her first show. If it was a disaster, so be it. The idea was just to have a positive experience, to keep on building those blocks of trust and confidence and let the competition take care of itself.
She was in a class with three of her buddies – including Dragonheart – for the in hand, so obviously she was impeccable. A bit wiggly when standing in the lineup got boring, but not bad. The judge liked her but she is still very young and awkward-looking, so she didn’t place, which I was expecting. I didn’t mind at all, particularly when Arwen and her little handler won the class. The dragon’s still the boss.
I was very chuffed that the judge didn’t mention anything about Faith being downhill, though. My eye has not deceived me – the front end did catch up after all. Some people at her breeder’s were quite dismissive of her because she was so long-backed and croup-high as a baby that she looked pretty swaybacked, but I was sure the swayback look would go away if she was no longer so downhill, and it did. She’ll always be a bit long in the loin but that’s okay; it’s not like she has a ton of weight to pack around.
The show horse class was a bit of a disaster. I had four kids to watch at this show and there was the predictable array of minor crises that needed to be fixed and pep talks that needed to be given, so I was still tacking up when they gave the last call for my class. A friend and fellow coach managed to persuade them to wait but I ended up kicking the poor baby horse up to the arena quite unceremoniously. She took some exception to this, understandably, and expressed it by producing some rather obnoxious bucks in the show ring. I just patted her neck and told her she was doing a good job because she was, for a baby, so she chilled out by the end of the class. The judge commented that she was “rather frisky”. No poop there judge.
We warmed up for working riding, so of course, she was foot perfect. The first obstacle was already picking up the scary pink stuffed puppy and trotting a circle with it, but she handled it with panache. In fact she handled everything great – even walking over the mat. There’s nothing spooky about that baby horse. Winning the working riding put us through to the overall championship.
By the time the championship class came around I was tired and hot and almost just gave it a skip, but I figured that it was effectively free experience, so why not. We came in with about seven or eight other horses and she was completely relaxed by this point. Her rail was perfect, and while she picked up the wrong lead once in the individual show, we fixed it quickly and she behaved great for the rest of it. It was so hot and she was so tired that she slept through the rest of the lineup, and I was very ready to be excused and go untack her when the judge suddenly announced that we were reserve champion.
I can’t say that it was a strong class, but I am very pleased with the baby horsie. The judge was complimentary of both her looks and her manners, and we might just have the makings of a great little show horse here. I honestly don’t really care. Fun as it is to win a sash, it’s way more fun – and awe-inspiring – to have the privilege of a relationship with this smart, opinionated, strong-willed young lady. The more I get to know this horse, the more abundantly grateful I am that I had her since she was a baby. We are both independent women who know what we want, yet we’ve cultivated a mutual agreement to depend on one another. There is no submission here, there is only willingness to serve. There is no fear, there is no resistance, there is no suppression. She is always allowed to express herself and for that reason she is never violent, never dangerous, and seldom outright disobedient. Our relationship is just what I wanted it to be – a horse whose voice is respected and whose personality is celebrated, freely and willingly obeying.
After Nell’s sale, after Rainbow’s death, after what has felt like a continual struggle, I feel very, very grateful to have Faith in my life. It only takes a little faith to move a mountain- about 15.1 hands will do. And where my mountains are unmoveable, I find myself riding up their peaks on the back of this horse, by the strength of my God, and by the side of the man my soul loves.
Today I’d like to talk about something that I feel strongly about, and forgive me if I get a little passionate. I almost wrote “It’s something that the sport needs to hear”, but actually, the sport is generally quite good about this. This is something that the average rider needs to hear. The one-horse rider, perhaps on a bit of a budget, perhaps just having two ponies on a plot somewhere, perhaps the parent watching their kid pop around at SANESA – the ordinary, average horse owner that makes up the vast and overwhelming majority of horse owners in South Africa today.
The something is this: your horse should be insured.
It expands into this: your retired horse should also be insured.
This is Magic. Say hi, Magic.
Magic is 11. Magic is also retired. There’s nothing really wrong with him physically, except ordinary OTTB stuff – his feet are a little flat and he’s got a bit of KS going on. We showjumped a bit, and for about four out of five shows he would be amazing and perfect. But that one out of five, he would do one of two things: he would fly backwards across the arena gasping in abject and genuine panic for half an hour, or he would get home and colic. It wasn’t fair on him anymore, so now he decorates the lawn, and has done so for two years.
In short, Magic is worth approximately R0.00. More accurately, he’s worth about -R1500 every month, conservatively, and only because we live on the farm and have grazing.
Magic also has a five-figure vet bill sitting on my desk.
Magic’s vet bill will be paid. Because you just can’t put a price tag on some things, and the horse you retired is one of them. You see, Magic never won any real ribbons and never really got me anywhere when it came to riding. He left me with a collection of bad habits and frayed nerves and two big fat RFs on my record – at the same show. But Magic gets the best of everything. He is a shiny, round, happy 7.5/10 on the condition scale year-round; his teeth are done, his feet are done, and he has all of his shots every year. I don’t spend as much time with him as I would like because at some point I do have to work in order to keep providing him with his happy, lazy existence, but every morning he gets a carrot and a hug and I like to think he still knows that I care about him.
It’s not really about what he thinks of me, though. I don’t take care of him because I’m a warm and fuzzy person. I do it because I honestly owe it to him to give him the best and happiest life he possibly could have and even if I succeed for many years then I will still forever be in his debt.
Magic never shaped me as a rider. He shaped me as a human being.
Magic never won ribbons, but he won my heart. He didn’t teach me very much about showjumping, but he taught me about life, during a tempestuous time as I struggled with the insurmountable challenge that is adolescence. He taught me to forgive myself for scars, for pain, for being a broken piece of humanity in a broken world. He taught me to breathe deep and slow. He taught me that there’s so much more to life than success and so much more to the sport than winning. And so much more to horses than competing.
He didn’t give me all that much pleasure in the saddle or any great pride or victory or prestige. He gave me so much more. He gave me hope. He gave me forgiveness. He gave me tenderness. He gave me the power to understand my own rattled and anxious soul.
He’s not just a horse or a fine companion or even a best friend. He’s an instrument of God.
Magic gave me a part of who I am, a good and loving and compassionate part.
A thousand vet bills will never, ever be enough to pay him back.
Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t actually matter how lyrical I can wax about how much I love my priceless retiree or what he’s done for me. Of course I wanted to save him when he colicked this week. The fact remains that if he hadn’t been insured, all the wanting in the world wouldn’t have done a thing. Even what I have done was almost not enough; he needed a surgery that I couldn’t have paid for – to be fair, these surgeries extend into six figures – and it’s only by God’s grace that he’s still with us.
I didn’t have him insured for that kind of money. But I had him insured for something; enough that he could be in hospital on a drip and receiving professional, round-the-clock care by someone who wasn’t emotional, drained, and ultimately out of their depth. This time, it was enough. You better believe he’s getting better insurance in case there is a next time.
This is the real value of insurance. Not something to protect your financial investment, but something to save the horses that financially aren’t really worth saving; the horses that gave you everything and now stand in a field somewhere, hopefully with you, a bit old and ugly and broken. They gave you their hearts. Now it’s your turn.
I’m talking to you, average rider on your average horse. You the lady doing Prelim or EV60 on a Boerperd or an OTTB or a nondescript little bay horse of uncertain ancestry and deep, gentle eyes. You the daddy paying for your kid to ride. You the doting horse mom with two Shetlands in your backyard, piggy-fat and eating carrots and thriving. You all feed your horse enough and make sure he’s dry in the rain, but are you ready for a colic surgery? Are you ready for a night at the vet hospital? Are you ready for diagnostics, treatments, drips?
Medical aid starts as cheaply as R160 per month. If you can compete in one single training show class or eat out once a month, you can afford this.
I shouldn’t really be asking you if you’re ready to pay to save your horse. Rather, I should ask you this: Are you ready to watch your horse die because you can’t?
Nothing beats backing and bringing on a young horse from scratch for me. I love figuring out, helping and seeing improvement in remedial horses, but there’s always an element of frustration – the knowledge that this horse could have been so much better if nobody had messed it up in the first place. The blank slate of a baby is so refreshing, and they always progress so quickly with so few hiccups, comparatively. Especially babies with easy temperaments are just an utter joy if you know what to expect and what conversations to have.
Nobody is easier than baby Faith. After backing her and putting on walk/trot/a close approximation of something like a drunken camel attempting to canter, I turned her out again for a bit. L lunged her just in a halter and boots once a week for me and that was about it. Faith was never naughty, but she was just still a complete baby. At only three and a half, she had plenty of time to just chill and grow up.
Eventually, after six weeks almost completely off, I fetched her in from the field to just have a little ride and assess where she is now. Her manners are better but still babyish. She doesn’t do anything exactly naughty, she just can’t stand still for more than five minutes and wants to greet everyone who comes along. But she’s OK to groom and tack up, all while standing tied or in the stable, so it’ll improve as she matures.
I was going to lunge her a little bit first, considering she’s a green-backed baby who’d just had more than a month off, but in the end I was just kind of too lazy and ended up climbing on board. And she was absolutely fabulous. She was calm, relaxed and confident in all three gaits and, crucially, offered her first canter circle in rhythm and balance. She wanted to go to work and she had fun. Needless to say, so did I. She’s growing up into exactly the kind of horse I really love to ride.
I started toying with the idea of bringing her back into gentle work. Last week, when I actually had a look at her standing properly for the first time in months, I was pleasantly surprised with how she looks.
Gone is the dorkward baby wheelbarrow. The two inches she grew in the past year made her decidedly uphill now, which explains why balance is suddenly a thing. Her body is more ready than it was and her mind is certainly ready, so we’ve started back into work.
I love the conversations I can have with this horse. Her first real human contact was on the second of January 2017, when I loaded her in a box and brought her home to me, and so there’s nothing but my own work here. She especially has no concept of being punished for fear.
Yesterday’s conversation was about the washing line, the one thing that seems to have managed to freak her out. After a productive arena ride, we headed up the passage past the dread object alone. Some distance from it, Faith hit the brakes. I’m not sure that it’s safe. I rubbed her neck and gave her a chance to look, the reins loose. She knew she had no reason to panic, so she looked. After a few moments, she flicked her ears back to me, and I put on a little bit of leg. She took a few more steps and halted again. Rinse, repeat. No violence, no escalation. I didn’t ever even shorten the reins. Her natural curiosity and trust in me as her leader overcame her uncertainty, as a horse always will do if given enough time to look and think without fear of anything escalating.
The plan is to do 15-20 minutes two or three days a week all year. There’s lots of time. Most of our conversations will be about citizenship. Brakes and steering. Standing still to be tacked up. Going on hacks alone and in company. I’m in no hurry; we might go to a show to hang out or we might not. I know I could go compete Prelim in a month with her brain, but what’s the point of rushing now?
It looks like very simple, very boring work, but what we’re doing now is the basis on which everything else will be built. We’re not talking about connection or bend yet. We’re talking about how to deal with fear, how she’s safe with me. And as Faith learns, so do I.
When I named her Faith it was to remind myself that God can make good come of it no matter what. She came into my life after Nell was sold, Rainbow died and I felt like there would never be a good grey mare in my life again. But the faith God is using her to teach me right now is a more everyday kind. A faith like potatoes. A staple food.
Schooling a young horse like her is impossible if all you think about is the end product. Horses have no concept of their future. They certainly don’t worry about it like we do; they care about this moment. If I rushed through it now with my eye on the levels I know my beautiful baby horse can achieve, I’ll miss out on so many moments. I’ll miss out on the journey. I’ll miss out on the dance. Because much as it may look totally discombobulated right now, it is the dance, in its purest form.
No pressure. No hurry. Eyes on the prize, but hands open to receive what I’m being given in this moment. A lesson, like most lessons, in both horses and life. There is so much I want from the future. I have such tremendous dreams. But here and now, I am also blessed. So let me fix my eyes on Jesus and then run with patience, trusting Him for what is to come, knowing He is the God Who moves mountains.
It only takes a little faith to move a mountain. And she might be only 15 hands, but this little Faith is certainly moving mine.
For reasons I have yet to grasp, God saw fit to put you where you are: here with me on a farm in Africa. Sometimes I wonder where you even came from. The fact that your mother is a little round chestnut farm pony doesn’t mean that she isn’t valuable – to me, at least, her value is inexpressible – but she shouldn’t have been able to produce you. Not at 22 years old after being barren for at least seven years (if not all her life), not after having AHS when you were only a baby. The fact that you and your dam both made it out of that one alive was the first miracle that threw me to my knees.
Let alone the fact that you shouldn’t have survived, you should never have been talented. When people at shows ask me how you’re bred, I respond with, “His daddy was black and his mommy was chestnut,” and it’s about all I know. There is Friesian in there somewhere. You are a backyard-bred mongrel and you should never have been able to dance like you do. Dressage people should not be believing in you. Yet they are, because here you are; an unassuming little round bay horse, until you lift your back and suddenly grow two inches.
Your heart, at least, I can understand. Your dam is a fearless firestorm of a horse, a dauntless warrior queen of your kind. You’re not as fiery as she is, but, like her, you have a heart as big as the world.
That’s what makes you special, aside from whatever it is that makes you so supple and uphill and majestic. Your heart. You never stop giving. I never school for more than 20 minutes, except for you. Some days I look up and realise I’ve been on you for almost an hour and a half. Any horse should be sour by then, but not you; you stay enthusiastic, throwing yourself into the task, focused and attentive, delighting in your own God-given strength and beauty.
Some days, on your back, God takes me somewhere new; deeper into the land of the threefold cord, where there’s nothing but you and me and Him, and the dance. There is nothing that can touch us there. It’s a taste of Heaven; an intimate world where nothing else matters.
Some days. You see, love (and I know you do), while for 23 hours a day you live the comfortable life of the modern domestic horse – lolling in a field, teeth and feet always up to date, spine carefully adjusted, saddle fitted like a glove – I think God gave you a home that loves you for a reason. The only affliction you’ve ever had to endure sits between the saddle and the sky. I never mean to hurt you. Of course not. You’re my dance partner. But while there are some days that we taste Heaven, there are many more days when you get the old me, the carnal me, the mortality that is yet to be swallowed up of life, my flesh. The spirit indeed is willing, but you know exactly how weak the flesh can be. Oh, I’m not talking about the occasional hiding you get. Those are for your own good; you’re still a naughty little boy sometimes. But I know as well as you do that there is something we do to horses that is so much worse than just the tap of a dressage whip, or even a yank on the reins.
We’re human. Loud, complicated, emotional and always worrying about things that just don’t matter to horses. Sadly for you, you’re my horse. I can’t make the space between you and me that I have with the clients’ horses. Not with you. I need you. I don’t just need you to dance; I need you to hear me. I don’t have to explain anything to you. I just bring all my baggage and my fears and my hopes and my dreams and my exhaustion and bottle them all up and get on your back and try to make something beautiful, while emotions clash inside me so loud I can’t hear you and you can hardly hear yourself and God’s still small Voice doesn’t get through.
It’s ugly then. I’m sorry, love. I’m trying to fix it, but I can’t pretend it’ll be quick. I can’t pretend it’ll be easy or that there won’t be even more moments when my stressed out human will shouts down your quiet, loving opinion. We were made in the image of God, unlike you; but, also unlike you, we are the ones who fell.
God forgive me, sometimes I can make your life very hard for you. I know; then I worry about that, and make it even harder. You poor soul. You deserve better. But what you’ve got is me, and you’ve got me because God put us here together.
And you don’t mind.
I stress and fuss and freak out up there and make you tense. But you start every single ride with the same soft eye, the same supple back, ready for this ride to be better. You still come up to me in the field. You still love your work and never stop trying and concentrate, oh, how you concentrate. And with every breath, God is teaching me, not about dressage, but about Himself: about amazing grace.
I ask God’s forgiveness and I ask yours. And I won’t give up, because God hasn’t. You and me have a long, long way to go and sometimes it will be unpleasant. I don’t mean to make it hard for you. I don’t even mean to make it hard for myself. It just is. And you just accept it and go along with it, not questioning why your particular human should be the one that’s a little defective, just accepting that your heart is big enough for us both. I will be better for you, love. I promise. Just stay patient, stay loving, stay your wonderful self while I untangle my soul.