Love Our Horses

Colic is scary.

Don’t worry – he’s fine at last. After a week’s nursing at home and then five days in hospital, my poor, dear friend is finally better and relieved of the pain, hunger and discomfort he had so patiently endured for nearly two weeks. Poor Magic had a massive impaction colic that stubbornly refused to shift up until we took him to the vet hospital in Midrand, where a horse specialist vet put a tube up his nose and pumped water into him until he sloshed and, eventually, produced a glorious mountain of manure. Now he is home and eating everything in sight – 12 days of starvation can do that to you – and being his usual goofy wonderful self.

But when he was standing in the vet hospital, his head against my chest, his neck hot and sweaty under my hand, his breath racing with the pain, I didn’t know why his colic was persisting and I didn’t know that he was going to get better. I knew my friend was hurting, and I knew colic can be deadly.

I was terrified that I was going to lose him.

But by God’s grace, by His sovereign plan, I didn’t. By His hope and strength alone I did whatever I could to fight for Magic (we all did) and my amazing horse never thought of quitting or of rebelling against all the painful and uncomfortable things we did to him, and now we are both home, a little battered, a little tired, and a little skinny, but just happy to be back to the lives we’re used to. When I go feed, I am still greeted by a sharp grey face with its perfect straight nose and its tiny pricked ears and the great dark eyes with their love and their fire, and my heart swells fit to burst with relief and love. I am blessed beyond all deserving.

The past two weeks still stands as a sobering and an invigorating reminder: that not a single one of us owns horses. They are not ours in any sense other than that someone is our friend, or our brother. Oh, we can pay money for them and control what we can about their lives; we can fill in forms with our name under “Owner” and brag about them as if we were the ones that made them. But all we really have on them is an extended home lease. Their Owner and Creator has blessed us magnificently with loaning them to us, but at any time He pleases, He will bring them all Forever Home.

The loss is ours, not theirs. The God that I know loves horses enough that He must have made a place for them when they leave us; He never told us where it is, or what, but that only means that it’s not our concern. That’s between God and horses. But the fact remains that we only have a lifetime (and how short the life of a horse can seem!) with them right here, right now, on this planet. And none of us know when that lifetime might end.

We all bicker about rollkur and helmets and bitless bridles. We all fight about racehorses and the bits allowed in Western. We pick on others for wearing the wrong coats, having the wrong horses, using the wrong tack and wearing the wrong size in breeches. But while we throw stones at each other, our horses are standing patiently in their paddocks waiting for us to come home. To put a little equestrian twist on Mother Theresa’s famous quote, if we really want to change the horse world, I suggest we all go home and love our horses.

Because when your horse is fighting for his life and he turns his big dark liquid eyes on you, none of that matters anymore. Not the mistakes other people have made or the mistakes you have made or the failures in your riding or the things you don’t have money for. All that matters is that horse and you realise that when you still have him you have everything a horseperson needs. You realise that all the time you spent on bemoaning your own inadequacy, on panicking about how you can afford that next show, on feeling hurt by those who wish to see a newcomer crushed, that time was all time you could have spent loving him. Time you wasted.

Turn the other cheek. Forget the politics. Leave the barn drama queens to their drama. Go love your horse, because he needs you, because you need him. No matter how your riding is going, no matter how bad you feel about how you ride, no matter how mad you are because he won’t perform the way you want, no matter how frustrated you are with the training challenge you just can’t figure out, don’t let any of it get in the way of loving your horse.

His heart is enormous, the most precious thing in the equestrian world, far surpassing the value of even the highest level of excellence. And it is yours. Don’t abuse it.

The first step for us equestrians to begin to truly and deeply love others, is to truly and deeply love our horses. Because just as with horses, we don’t have much time to love those around us.

Love your horse. Love your people. You don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to.

As for me, I know I love Magic as best as I have ever loved a horse or a human. But there are others, horses and humans both, and I might not get the second chance with them that I got with him. So now I need to get off my computer – and go love my horses.

The Miracle That is Magic

The dentist calls him Princess. My instructor calls him the big baby. The chiro calls him a wuss. My sister goes so far as to call him gay.

They all have a point, except for my sister. He is kind of a delicate flower. Okay, so he’s a wimp when it comes to many things, like rain falling on his ears, or ribbons on his bridle, or having his teeth done or having freshly trimmed hooves.

Yeah, Magic is oversensitive. He spooks at things that just don’t exist, and then spooks at them again, just to be sure. He has broken more halters and leads than I care to remember. He almost always manages to scrape himself up in the horsebox and needs to travel with earmuffs and a gigantic poll guard and all the windows shut because he hates the noise of the traffic. He injures himself on a freakishly regular basis and then has a huge drama queening session about it. If it can happen, it happens to Magic. He loses weight if the wind blows the wrong way. One day I found him staring in consternation at his full feed bin; a tiny Jack Russel had his head in it and was merrily gorging himself on Magic’s food, and Magic, easily a hundred times the dog’s size, seemed utterly baffled as to what to do about this. Another day he knocked a cross-rail down and was so lame I was certain he’d fractured something, but really it had just stung him a little.

Yeah, so he’s a social retard. He has a way of terrifying new horses by galloping up to them in exuberant friendliness and then snorting at them very loudly to beg them to be friends. He bites them playfully to invite them to a game, but when they nip him back he squeals like a filly and runs to hide behind Skye (well over a hand shorter and almost twenty years older than him). He is both utterly terrified and irresistibly attracted to new horses, has no idea of how to make friends with them, and has even less idea of what a pecking order even is, much less where he should be in one. At nearly eight years old, he behaves like a weanling that hasn’t figured out how to horse yet.

Sure, so he’s a goofball. When it rains, he runs like a maniac because he’s convinced he’s melting. He gallops recklessly on the slick grass and then he falls, and while he falls he flails around madly with his long legs and whinnies shrilly. Then he gets back up and runs and bucks and farts and more often than not, falls again. He jumps up on his back legs and pirouettes in the air because he’s too silly and spirited to know that gravity is a thing. He will keep doing this until Skye bullies him into the shelter or he notices that he’s hurt himself… again.

But he is also courageous in a way that thick-skinned people cannot understand. He’s also generous, gentle, smart and loyal.

My horse is a ninny. But he’s also amazing.

Magic was created, right from his over-at-the-knees legs to the majestic jump that slaps gravity in the face. Every detail of him, from the tail that won’t grow to the face that radiates kindness, was handmade with love. He was fearfully and wonderfully made just the way he is. Sure, life and people have scarred him, and he’s still got a lot to learn. But they all do.

We all do.

Over time Magic will learn not to spook at flowerpots or at nonexistent monsters; he’ll learn not to panic in the horsebox and he’ll learn to tie up. And if I am to stay friends with my dentist, he’ll stand still to have his teeth done. But if Magic ever learns not to be goofy or melodramatic or sensitive or a little silly, then I’ll know my training has gone wrong somewhere. Because my ultimate goal, the greatest thing I want to do for Magic, is not to compete at A-grade or make a name as a great event horse. I want to help Magic become more Magic. I want to amplify him. I want him to be more himself than ever before. And yes, that means allowing him to be kind of a loon in the paddock even as it means allowing him to be brave. It means allowing him to be daft even as it means allowing him to explore the full extent of his honesty. Because no matter how silly Magic is, he is never malicious. He’s never pushy, or irritable, or selfish or lazy. He’s never tried to hurt anyone and he’s never disobedient. Magic always tries. Some days he doesn’t have much left to give, because the sheer effort of surviving the world has drained him. But whatever he has, he gives it all, every day. And as long as he is trying, and as long as it’s going in the right direction, I want him to express the wonderful thing that is himself.

Forget magic. My horse is a miracle.

You may call me sentimental, but I know this, and I know that he knows I accept him. He can’t tell what I’m thinking or reason his way to conclusions but like all horses he reads every feeling in the lines of my body and the movement of my muscles on his back. He knows I’m okay with him, and he begins to be okay with himself. Because right underneath, at the deep emotions, horses and humans are more similar than we sometimes think.

Magic is my mirror. And helping him become everything he can become is my key to making myself into the person that I can be.

He’s not resilient Arwen, steady Vastrap, or fearless Skye. He’s Magic.

And I think that’s pretty awesome.

Magic2

Fourways Training SJ

Photos by Fine Photography (purchased)

Due to life being insane, weekends being booked, and me catching flu the day before a planned outing, I haven’t been anywhere with horses since the dressage training show in mid-June. I really wanted to get back into the show ring before a showing show with the Nooitgedachters in two weeks’ time and then graded eventing in early September, so I pounced on the first open weekend and enthusiastically entered a jumping training show. With three horses. So what if I’m only just used to riding two horses at a show? I had to try sometime, and I figured that if things got too hectic and our emotional states started deteriorating, I’d just scratch. It was only a training show.

Hence for the first time I actually had more than two horses in our box, so I didn’t look like a total idiot turning up in a giant aluminium four-berth with one small pony in it. Loading was quite interesting; we had more than an hour’s drive and I was in the first class, so by 6am we were shoving reluctant equines into the box in the dark. Arwen was a horrible influence on Magic; she had to be bodily pushed up the ramp before she agreed to go in, so Magic decided he’d try that too. Luckily Magic does not sit down on people and ignore them the way Arwen does, so he was a bit quicker to get in. We were ten minutes late and Dad was already frustrated and tired when we turned to Vastrap, but that dear little horse plugged up the ramp and then rolled his eyes at the babies (Arwen digging a hole in the floor, Magic neighing frantically) and pulled at his haynet. Thank goodness for sweet little white Nooities.

They travelled more or less all right; Arwen removed her halter about ten minutes in (don’t ask me how), and Magic did his usual head-flipping thing all the way to the show, breaking his lead rein and scraping his nose and foreleg in the process. Considering he’s Magic, I won’t complain. At least he didn’t rear or hang a leg over the partition or any of the other awful things that seem to happen to Magic. (Vastrap, of course, stood quietly and ate hay).

We arrived at 7:40, so I thought I would at least have a little breathing space to get to my first class, but as soon as I got out I heard the announcer: “This is the bell to open the 40cm course for walking.” Cue absolute pandemonium. I bellowed at my sister Rainy to go and find Magic’s calmer, e. g. an unlucky friend who happens to be amazing at keeping Magic happy at shows and had hence been roped in to babysit him while I was riding the Nooities. Unfortunately, this left Dad and I alone with a box full of hyper horses, and obviously Vastrap was right in the back and so had to be unloaded last. (I think Magic and Arwen would have self destructed left to their own devices anyway).

By some miracle, Magic’s bestie arrived, Arwen’s lead was flung at Rain, Vastrap was dragged out and had his stuff strapped on, and we were only slightly late to the class. Thankfully, the show organisers were extraordinarily patient, tolerant and understanding of this crazy person that had entered three horses in three classes each of the first five classes. (I had one in 40cm, two in 50cm, three in 60cm, two in 70cm and one in 80cm; I’m sure they must have had nightmares afterwards). Poor Vastrap was totally ungroomed and had hardly gotten off the box when I was on him and walking to the warmup. Once again, thank goodness for sweet little white (sort of; he was a bit yellow and had hay in his hair) Nooities. The poor animal had about 10 minutes’ warmup before I booted him into the arena and learned the following three things:

  1. It is possible to jump a nice clear round without having had any idea of where any of the jumps are when you rode in.
  2. Nooitgedachters rule.
  3. Fourways builds awesome courses.

Vastrap1I didn’t even get the chance to see the course ridden, let alone walk it, but I found my way just fine and dear old Trappies didn’t think twice about anything. He just said, “Yes, ma’am” and jumped everything I pointed him at unquestioningly.

And this continued to be Vastrap’s mentality throughout the show. He didn’t spook at a thing, he contentedly stood and ate hay between classes, he happily put up with being yanked into the arena with half a warmup when I was running out of time between other horses, and he jumped three clear rounds without turning a hair. That pony is worth his weight in solid gold. I kind of feel guilty that I’m not 12 years old and nervous, because then I’d deserve him better. But still, he is amazing and I love him to bits. I am going to have to find a way to bribe Mom to half lease him to me, because I need a schoolie like that.

Vastrap’s only mistakes happened as we were warming up for the 60cm jump-off. He was getting a little up and excited, nothing naughty, but he ran at an oxer and threw in one of his rare dirty little stops. Those dirty stops are my fault since the time I catapulted up his neck and ate his face (and then the fence at me) rattled him quite badly, and he stopped twice more before I finally came to my senses and left his face alone and he jumped fine. We were already late so then we ran into the jump off and went enthusiastically clear. He’s an absolute jewel. We just need to work on his habit of running at the fences like that – longer strides, buddy, not just faster legs. (And stay out of his face).

Magic was in 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm, and there were only four horses in the 50cm class. Since two of them were mine, this was a bit chaotic and I had horrible visions of me riding a brain-evaporated Magic into the class. Magic normally leads at least 45 minutes of slow work at a show in order to scrape his brain off the floor and put it back into his head. Well, we had about 20. My stomach was doing slow little somersaults when I got on, but wonder of wonders, I got onto a grownup horse that knew what he was supposed to do.

It was a subtle but important difference from the Magic I climbed onto at our end May show. Magic never, ever sets out to hurt someone, and at the shows he’s done, he’s been confused and terrified and ready to blow up but never malicious. This show, he was worried, a bit stressy, and a bit spooky… but he knew what he was supposed to do. When I asked him for a trot he didn’t go AAARGHREGOHUEHOHOWEHROEWHTOR, he said, “Mom, I’m terrified! But okay, this means trot” and did as he was told. I only had three or four laps of trot before I sat and asked for canter and he flowed straight into his gorgeous easy canter with his head down and his brain on. When I turned him to the itty bitty little cross, he didn’t do his usual trick of tiptoeing towards it and then overjumping majestically. I had him in a trot, but with a soft allowing hand, so he popped in a little canter stride as he got there and then hopped over. A little extravagantly, but nothing like his old wild springbuck leaping.

Magic1My horse knew what he was doing. He was scared, but he was okay. And so was I. Sometimes I swear we hold up mirrors to each other, because we had exactly the same frame of mind: We were both worried, we were both a little frightened, and we were both spookier than was necessary, but we knew that we knew what we were doing. So we did it, worried and all. And my beautiful courageous grey gelding jumped every single fence he saw without ever offering a stop. Everything else was terrifying, obviously, necessitating huge spooks at other horses, flowerpots, photographers, the gate (the gate was evil), dogs, and his own rosette, but he didn’t spook at a single jump. The first jump on the 50 and 60cm courses had a white latticey gate under it, and a couple of the oxers had planks in them or wings, but he didn’t care. He just jumped, because he knew that that was what he had to do. Magic is starting to find solace in his work, and to make jumping his comfort zone, just like Arwen did at the start.

I was so happy with him. Apart from one lazy pole in the warmup arena, he jumped everything cleanly. Sure, we took a few dodgy distances, awkward leaps and overjumps (though not as bad as at his last show), but I’ll take it for a young horse ridden by a total newb to thoroughbreds. Best of all, he stayed relaxed, for Magic. I don’t think Magic will ever have the dragonslaying attitude of Arwen or the workaday approach of Vastrap. Life is just too scary for him to be that bombproof and quiet, but for a horse that spooks so easily, he is very brave. I don’t mind. Magic is Magic and that’s just fine by me.

Still, his 70cm class was markedly calmer than last time. Mostly, of course, because I actually gave him a release over the jumps (our partnership has improved alongside his confidence), but also because he’s just got more miles under his girth now. He did overjump a few fences if I got him to a poor distance – including doing a rather interesting midair manoevre over the second element of a combination; somehow Magic is able to climb stairs in thin air – but he was sane and ready to go to work.

Magic2

The only real meltdown he had was about having a ribbon attached to his head and then having to trot around the arena with it on. We jumped a whole invisible course, then performed a Grand Prix dressage test worthy of Valegro, finishing off with a handful of airs above the ground that Podhajsky would have been proud of. But this is the good part – it was funny. Sure, I was quite glad when his ribbon flew off and I had an excuse to get both feet on solid earth again, but my spine wasn’t melting and I wasn’t shaking when I had to get back on him. Just as Magic felt like a frightened horse that nevertheless had plenty of talent and knew his job, instead of a confused and terrified greenie, I felt like a young rider with a lot of horse under her that was riding him tolerably well and learning how to ride him better. Not like an overhorsed, petrified beginner.

The other majorly spooky object was an odd little thatch thing standing by the gate, which I assume was a wing or something, but Magic said it was terrifying and tiptoed past it. Arwen, upon entering the arena for the first time, took advantage of my loose rein and reassuring hand and took a gigantic bite out of it. Mortified, I just sat there as she walked off thanking the organisers for considerately supplying a pre-class snack.

That was basically Arwen’s attitude for the whole show. I was already flustered and tired when I got on her for the 60cm, but I couldn’t help grinning when I asked her to walk on. When Arwen walks into the warmup she owns it. She was yelling, “Let’s do this thing!” and I was with her.

Basically us at this show

She aimed a few merry kicks at some thoroughbreds (luckily letting none of them fly), almost crushed somebody’s luckless trainer (to my great embarrassment) and jumped everything unquestioningly. We blasted into and through our 60cm class, both of us having an absolute ball. On the photos later I would realise that Arwen was jumping with quite… interesting technique (in one picture she’s taking off for an oxer with both hind feet on the ground, but both forelegs flung out straight… I don’t even know). Luckily, this is showjumping. Nobody cares. We won. Arwen beamed at the pony that came second and luckily refrained from bucking in the victory gallop.

The 70cm class was a one-round speed competition on quite an open course, so obviously my fat pony came second and my thoroughbred was nearly dead last. Arwen once again had the course for dinner and was beaten only by an experienced thoroughbred with a good rider. She felt like kicking him in the lineup but I applied a diplomatic spur to her guts and she thought better of it. Victory laps on Arwen are awesome, especially when the winner let her horse blast off at a mildly inconsiderate speed; while the crowd held their breath in anticipation of Arwen’s bucking fit, she genteelly obeyed her French link snaffle and lined out in her rhythmic cross-country gallop all around the arena, flaunting her blue ribbon and informing the crowd that in America it would have meant she had won. And as we reached the gate, I brought her down to walk and threw my reins down and she stretched to the floor. No, you can’t have her, sorry.

Arwen280cm was no longer a game: I really wanted to jump clear in this class, and Arwen was on her A-game, so I was ready to ask her for it and ride my best. It was a fairly demanding course, with a couple of related distances and a two-stride combination (Arwen’s nemesis; in a 6-stride line she has space to add for seven strides, but a two-stride is just too short for three and just too long for two), as well as at least two max height oxers, but she was as brave as the day. I concentrated hard on using my inside leg to flex her around the turns so that she came to the jumps straight and balanced, and the team effort paid off; we went clear.

Unfortunately, by the jump-off, my energy and concentration were leaving me and I was giddy on our previous success. I forgot that my inside leg even existed and poor Arwen was asked to jump the oxer at number seven from the most preposterous angle. She tried anyway and took the rail, but when I got her to a similar angle with even worse balance at number eight – an oxer and the first element of the double – she said, “Uh, human, hello??” and stopped. She really can’t be blamed for this, but accepted her bad luck at having me for a rider with good cheer; we circled around, I rode a better line, and she jumped it without a second glance. Then we accidentally jumped two extra fences because I forgot the course, but the organisers graciously let this slide.

She jumped this clear, despite the angle and the distance. But hey, at least position is happening here.
She jumped this clear, despite the angle and the distance. But hey, at least position is happening here.

We were an exhausted but happy bunch that trooped back up to the horsebox. Magic had, at one stage, pulled free of his bestie; but to everyone’s relief (and my pride) he ran two steps and then stood in the road looking confused while helpful bystanders tiptoed towards him. Magic’s bestie is a lifesaver. I can hardly express what a relief it is to take my poor, delicate, sensitive creature from someone and find him in an even better frame of mind than he was when I gave them to him.

My legs didn’t want to leg anymore, but luckily the horses all loaded and travelled well, so the day ended much better than it had began. It was a great day filled with amazing horses, awesome people, and of course the reason for all we do and the strength behind all we ever achieve – our beloved, magnificent, merciful Creator God. Glory to the King.

The Promise

Dear Horse

Here we stand, you and me; you, half a ton of muscle, nerves, spirit, instincts, past experiences, and emotions; me, about fifty kilos of intelligent, emotional, spiritual human being. You probably don’t believe me, but we need each other.
You see, we stand at a fusion of two worlds – the equine world and the human world. You have been born into the world of men, and you depend on man for your physical, mental and emotional needs. I have chosen to welcome you into my human world, and depend on you to fulfil many of my hopes and dreams; I need you to dream with me, to befriend me. I need you to help me fly.
So here we meet, you and me, at the borders of our worlds; an intersection of species meant to lead to friendship. And I stand before you with a contract as old as men and horses, one necessary to our happiness in this special place between the worlds.
Horse, I am your human. I am also your friend, your teacher, your healer, your caregiver, your protector and your nurse. I am your guide through my world. To be all this, it is absolutely essential that I am at all times your leader. My word is law, my decisions final, and my authority absolute. I will prove to you that I am fit to lead you; you will test my leadership to determine whether I have what it takes to look after you, and I will pass every test of courage, conviction, confidence, knowledge, compassion, loyalty, cool-headedness, and selflessness that you care to throw at me.
You are my horse. You are my friend, but may threaten my life; my student, from whom  will undoubtedly learn; my dependant, upon whom I will daily depend. You are a magnificent puzzle, but you are also my follower and I have dominion over you. As we both know that there can only be one leader, that leader cannot be you because this is my world and the instincts that save you in your world could kill us both in mine. For our safety, you are my follower.
As your leader I am responsible for your well-being. It is my duty to provide you with everything you need: food, water, space, shelter, safety, company, exercise, and medical attention. I will take care of all your daily needs (even if I arrange for someone else to do the chores). When you are hurt or sick or tired, I will nurse you, heal you, rest you and allow your amazingly designed body to repair itself. I will strive to make sure that your tack and surroundings do not hinder your work; that your tack fits and your footing is good. I will ensure that your body is always in a fit state to do what I demand of you.
It is also my duty to be a leader that you feel safe following. By affection, respect, and above all time, I will show you that you can trust me never to harm you. Yet that will only show you that I am your friend; to be your leader, I will prove to you my strength. By setting boundaries, being always consistent, and calmly keeping us both safe in any situation, I will show you that you can trust me always to protect you. I will discipline you and persist with any of my requests until you submit and obey. This I will never do unfairly, but in a way you understand – a way familiar to you from the actions of your dominant equine herdmates. In this manner I will teach you respect for my authority and for the firmness of my convictions. You will learn that I am strong enough and caring enough to be worthy of your perfect trust.
In return, I ask of you only that which is written into the programming of your very soul; perfect trust, a respect of my sensitivity and willingness not to take advantage thereof, and absolute obedience. All these things you would give naturally and willingly to the lead mare of your herd if you lived solely in the world of horses. In the world of men, I am your lead mare.
Your trust in me is essential. If you trust me I can help you and protect you. Occasionally, in healing your injuries and illnesses, I will cause you pain. You have to trust me even despite this pain. Trust is the most necessary ingredient in obedience. It is my quest to be worthy of your trust.
Because I am one-tenth of your size, it will be very easy for you to hurt or even kill me. This will not end well for you since men defend their kindred and a mankiller is automatically an enemy, just as the killer of a horse is an enemy to horses. Also if I am hurt I find it harder to do what I need to take care of you; and it is my duty to my kin to ensure that you never intentionally harm them. Sometimes you will hurt us by mistake. I accept that. But deliberate and unprovoked aggression will never be tolerated under any circumstances and is a terrible fracture of our contract – from both sides.
Your obedience is possibly the most important factor in your happy friendship with mankind. Many of the requests I make will be for our joint mission of working hard and well together, and I must ask that you perform these to the best of your ability. Other requests will be directly important for your safety or even survival. They will not make sense to you, but it is essential that you obey me unhesitatingly. Remember that you can trust me; I act for your good and our pleasure.
Horse, in order for us both to transcend mere survival and attain a thriving enjoyment of our lives, I must make one more demand. I ask that you give me the very best of your physical performance. While I may yet be smarter, more spiritual, wiser, and closer to God than you are, I am undoubtedly far from you physically. Your majestic body leaps, runs and dances with a power and grace I will never attain. I ask to borrow some of that power when I am astride you; I ask you to leap as high, run as fast and dance as gracefully as you possibly can, for me.
But oh Horse, I know I can only ask this when our relationship transcends leader-follower and into the true deep friendship that crosses effortlessly, joyously the border between our worlds. In my leadership and your obedience, we express our unspoken and unspeakable love for one another. My dominion over you was ordained by the Lord my God, Who made us both (and Who perhaps you know just a little when you listen to His voice in the wind you make when you run). When I am a good ruler over you and you are a good and wholehearted follower, we can attain the endless joy known only by creatures doing that for which they were created.
Better yet, we express the love we feel so deeply for Him Who created us.
Mighty and beautiful Horse, you cannot read this letter. You know nothing about words or writings, communicating meaning in silence the way you do; you don’t need the cumbersome letters to say what you have in your heart. Your feelings are written across every line of your breathtaking body. It would make it easier if you could read and understand this, but you never will; instead, see this in the lines of my body, in my own silent communications with you.
It would take years, but if we both followed this promise perfectly, we would have a perfect friendship. Unfortunately, we won’t. We will have bad or tired or annoyed days, and we will both break our promises.
But we can still have a very good friendship. And here in the world of both horses and men, very good is quite amazing.

SFTSBH: Heart Horse

Jen from Stories From The Saddle asks:

Do you currently have your “heart horse”? What makes a “heart horse” to you? If you don’t own a horse, have you ever leased a “heart horse”? 

I encounter so many horses, with up to 20-25 different ones to ride in a week, that I’ve learned two things: 1) All horses are amazing, 2) regardless, certain horses just click with certain people, irrespective of whether they are actually that person’s favourite colour/breed/age/level of training.

So for me a heart horse is literally that horse that makes your heart turn a cartwheel and stop in its tracks, that makes it beat slower and faster at the same time. For those of us who are a little besotted (i. e. me), a heart horse makes you hot and cold all over and yet when you’re in the saddle you feel like nothing is too hard for God and you and that horse. It’s a lot like falling in love with exactly the right person (I imagine, anyway), only without having to make coffee and remember birthdays and run the risk of them suddenly not being who you thought they were. Horses don’t lie.

To me a heart horse is simply, at its core, utterly compatible with me, no matter how wrong the size or level of training. For me obviously they’ll all share similar characteristics because I like certain things in a horse. They’ll all be generous, with a good eye, a good walk, tremendous loyalty, and a big heart.All of my own horses are heart horses for me, and I was just ridiculously blessed because I only ever picked out one of them. The rest just sort of fell in my lap, as perfect as they are. But you’ve all heard so much about them that today I’m going to describe three horses that are absolutely heart horses, which I don’t own and never will, but I’m quite happy to run the risk of heartbreak rather than keep these bright spirits at arm’s length.Double Reef was probably the first OTTB I ever rode and, unlikely as it seemed at the time, I loved him. He was 16.3 hands of dark bay moodiness who didn’t think twice about aiming me a kick or a bite, but once I was on him he carried me as proudly and as carefully as if I was made of fine china. Once a top racehorse, Reef was sold on after racing to an owner that severely neglected him. When I met him he was the most pathetic, skeletal sight I’d ever seen, and his perfect legs, enormous eye, and chiselled features only made it worse; he was the stern sad ruins of a castle, not a tumbledown shack. With care, the Mutterer nursed him back to his fiery dark finery and he went on to teach countless kids how to ride. He taught me leg-yields and everything I needed to know about thoroughbreds and ridiculously long takeoff distances. He never shed his characteristic grumpiness, but we used to trust him with our four-year-old Down’s syndrome student because Reefer would have broken his own legs rather than allow any harm to come to that little boy.Double Reef was grumpy enough but in his heart he loved his job and, above all, he loved to run. It was easy to see why he campaigned successfully until the age of seven. There was nothing he relished more than snapping out his endless legs to their full length and eating up the ground in gigantic strides that left me breathless and clinging to his torrent of dark mane. He had an enormous heart.Reef is now semi-retired and I haven’t ridden or even laid a hand on him for years, but he’s one of those horses I’ll never forget.Not long after Reef left my life, I met Reed, who was his carbon opposite on the outside but within he was very similar. Reed was a 14.1 pony stallion and may have been nothing to write home about if it wasn’t for his amazing temperament and his dazzling colour. He was the most golden palomino I’ve ever seen, dappling gloriously in summer, with an attractive little head. And I’m not a pinto fan, but his white patches just made him prettier. He was almost excessively polite and friendly and didn’t have a grumpy hair on his head. But he too was gentle, willing, and loved his work. He had a surprisingly long stride and stylish bascule for his size and conformation, and I trusted him with everything in me. Beginners could ride him, and frequently did. In the time when he was in regular training, he would have done anything for me. He even cleared 1.20m with me once, which he really shouldn’t have been capable of. If I’d had more time I could have helped him become an awesome child’s event pony.Reed was the first client horse to break my heart and I don’t think he’ll ever be the last. After a super summer of steady training, the influx of young horses his owner needed backing pushed him off my schedule a little and a few months ago he was eventually sold on to the other end of the country. He’s gone to a high-profile home, but I’ll always miss him.wpid-img_48255714538967.jpegSurprisingly enough, for all my fear of stallions, my third client heart horse is also a stallion. We call him the Storm Horse: a magnificent grey tempest of a horse, a Nooitgedachter stallion of the highest standard, standing nearly as tall as the top of my head and appearing four times bigger from his sheer overwhelming presence. When he walks in, you know about it. He has a commanding presence, a regal power about him that you can’t help but notice. And he wasn’t piece of cake to train: smart and tenacious as he is, as a colt he used all of his intelligence and resilience to resist everything the Mutterer wanted him to do. It took quite some time for him to decide to use his powers for good, but once he did and the stud could show him he raked in National Champion Nooitgedachter stallion in-hand and under saddle without apparent effort.
But somehow (and how the Mutterer predicted it, nobody knows) the big stallion just decided to give me his gentler side. He has a reputation for being dangerous, but he’s never attempted to hurt me. He moves around me with a half-awkward carefulness, akin to the way a big man holds a baby, and has never put a foot wrong with me on his back. That gentleness, the obvious joy he takes in his own power, and his faultless fidelity must be what attracts me so much to him, but one thing is obvious: the Storm Horse chose me for his human, and it doesn’t look like he’s going back on that choice.Thanks be to God, and glory to the King.

Canter Progression Snaps

It’s so easy to feel completely stuck in a rut with Magic. Easy to look at how far we have to go instead of how far we’ve already come. To see how much more he can physically do, instead of how much he’s emotionally grown.

But these two pictures really struck me. The top one is from November 2014, at his first ever show. The bottom one is from the show in late May.

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6 months ago
The photographer caught this moment on camera. We shall call this picture "The Prayer"
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Obviously, the thing that really jumps out at me is his neck, because I have a thing for horse necks. In both pictures he has engaged his neck muscle, but in the bottom one he just has so much more of it. The dude actually has kind of a crest. It’s also easy to see why; while he’s going in a nice outline in both shots, in the top photo, you can see how strong of a contact I still have. I’m holding him there. In the bottom photo he’s holding himself up – his self carriage and muscles have developed together. The more he carries himself, the more he muscles up; and the more he muscles up the more he can carry himself.

The second thing is the balance; okay, so he is at different moments of his stride in both shots, but in the bottom photo he’s so much lighter in front. It’s also evident in my position. I don’t know if my position picks up his front or if his light forehand rocks me back into balance, but it’s still better. (It does help that in the second photo I’m in my beloved Kent and Masters instead of the horrible ancient starter kit saddle I used in the first shot).

We both look stronger throughout our bodies; you can see how much condition and muscle Magic has put on by how much further down his barrel my leg is in the first picture compared to the second. (Let’s try not to think about the fact that Exavior is destined to be almost two hands taller than Magic, and about how stupid I am going to look on him considering I look like a kid on Magic).

I have to admit that, much as I may feel like we’re going nowhere, Magic is a different horse. Not just in his body, and not as much in his training as I would like him to be or as he would be with somebody who was better at training competition horses than breaking in crossbred veld ponies for kids, but he has changed for the better. He’s still quirky, daft Magic, but he no longer believes that the whole world is out to get him.

“I’ve had him two years. I’ve gotten nowhere,” I told the Mutterer.

“Of course you have. Just think about it. How has he improved?”

I thought for a while. “Well… he’s not as much of a weed. His neck looks better. He’s muscled up.”

This did not impress the Mutterer. “Let me tell you what I see. I see a really nervous horse that… is still nervous.”

I glared. “Great. Thanks.”

“But now, he can work through the nervousness. He can face his fears and carry on because you taught him how. That’s a huge thing, quite aside from his physical appearance.”

I said nothing, but I got the feeling that it was important. More important, perhaps, to Magic anyway, than the height of jumps.

Lord Jesus, let me never forget that I ride my horse, not my discipline.

For Better or Worse?

Nobody likes that person that’s constantly selling their horse and buying a new one, only to repeat the whole experience a few weeks later. But nobody likes the newbie on the psychotic young horse who is constantly endangering both herself and everyone around her, either. Whispered conversations in the tack room – or, more realistically, loud conversations in nasal accents at the side of the arena – are as fickle as April: “What does she think she’s doing? She’s way overhorsed. She should sell him and get herself a nice schoolmaster instead.” “She’s going to sell it – again. Seriously. The poor baby. Someone needs to tell her that horses aren’t a commodity, they’re people too. How would she feel being sold on every few months?”

The right thing, as usual with horses, is not the same for anyone, but it seems to lie somewhere between the two extremes. Obviously, if you’re going through horses faster than most people go through T-shirts, then it’s probably not the horses that are messed up. But if you’re forever getting dumped and you hate riding and you’re holding onto Ponykins because he’s your baby, you’d probably be better off with a schoolmaster. Yet most of the time the situation is not extreme.

Let’s imagine a common scenario. Your horse is not a complete psychopath. You’ve had him for maybe two years. Even though he is kind of green, he has not repeatedly tried to kill you. But for the past month or two, he’s not been going the way he should be. He’s not making progress. In fact, it feels like he’s regressing. He doesn’t do anything truly terrifying, per se, but you’re starting to get pretty scared. You’ve fallen a couple times. He’s tossed a couple of naughty bucks and spooks at the jumps more than he used to. He’s fine when your trainer rides him, and you’ve spent a small fortune on the vet, chiro, natural horsemanship cowboy from down the road, supplements, dentist, saddle fitter, etc., only for nobody to find anything that’s really wrong.

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Now what?

In honesty, there is no black-and-white answer to this question, for the simple reason that horses are horses and people are people: there is no black and white when it comes to either for them. Emotionally, I often want to side with keeping the horse. I find it really easy to disrespect someone who loads Blaze on the trailer within two weeks after he tossed out his first buck. But maybe that’s just me: I’ve never had a ready-made horse. It’s so ingrained in me that I won’t get anywhere without some blood, sweat and tears that I kind of take it for granted that horses will give me issues.

On the other hand, I know a few people that I would happily tell to sell it. As soon as possible. Preferably to the salami factory. Okay, so I’m kidding about the salami.

Usually, though, these are the owners for whom it was a really bad idea from the start. Ammies (or their kids) who can’t really ride and don’t actually take lessons, riding lively young horses with a mischievous streak the size of China. People who just really don’t click with their horses and never have. I know how that goes, and I know that they have absolutely no control over it. As a (semi) professional trainer, I get given anything with four legs and told to ride, and ride I shall, or not get paid. But there have been a few horses that I was really quite happy to see the back of. None of them were truly bad horses (there are almost no horses that are truly bad), and many of them were actually pretty good horses. But I just couldn’t bring myself to get along with them, and they hated me equally. I could school them, and they would learn, but if they’d been mine, I would have sold them so fast their heads would spin. If I’m going to buy a horse – most especially a riding horse for myself – I’m going to have to feel some form of a connection or attraction to it. Not its colour, conformation, size, breed, talent or even level of training – to its very heart. There are some horses that make my heart sing, and I can’t explain why. Those are the horses I want.

Even if I can't afford them
Even if I can’t afford them

But there are some things a horse buyer does have control over. Mostly, their own brains. And unfortunately, dreams can easily cloud judgment. It’s fine and well for me to say I bought Magic because something in him touched me the way a country singer touches the strings of a guitar, making everything tremble and stand to attention in one responsive glorious note. But on the other hand, if he was too young or too small or the wrong breed or usually lame or had a habit of squashing people against the stable wall*, I wouldn’t have bought him no matter how poetic I could get about the way he made me feel. You have to be sensible. I bought Magic because he made me feel amazing, but I also bought him because he was 15.2 hands, a thoroughbred, gelded, green but never nasty, sound, gentle and had every bit of talent he needed for what I wanted. Oh, and he wasn’t exorbitantly expensive. Don’t forget that bit.

So to make a disgusting generalisation, and one which has so many exceptions that it may be more exception than rule, I could say: If it was never the right horse for you in the first place and now it has become a danger to your health, sell it.

But let’s be real. Most of us are not idiots who go out and buy it because it has a heart-shaped star. Most of us made smart decisions. We can’t all buy packers with ridiculous price tags; some of us have no choice but to buy the sweetest greenie we can find and bring it on under the watchful eyes of our instructors. And what do we do when the wheels come off?

I know what I did. I bought a horse that was a bit green and a bit daunting, but that I knew was gentle and generous to the core without a mean bone in his body. Also my instructor said we’d be fine (listen to your instructor, folks). And he did what young horses do – he went through a tough patch. We’d been jumping 90cm easily. We were struggling to jump 60cm without wanting to die. He overjumped, bucked, stopped, and spooked. I clutched, pulled, kicked, screamed and cried. But somewhere in there was a horse that ignited something inside me. He was just sensitive, and young, and confused, and I didn’t really know how to handle him. For months, we both had no confidence. My dreams of taking him up the levels seemed light-years away; I was much too scared to even go jump cross-rails at a schooling show.

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But we stuck with each other. What else could we do? He was the nicest horse I had ever had and, at that time, could even dream of having. I was the only person he knew that was always there wanting to love him and to draw the best out of him even if I didn’t always succeed. He knew about the wanting, and I knew about his heart.

Our  confidence still isn’t what it should be. But we’re going places now. We’re moving forward. We’re still not jumping 1.10m or 1.20m, but we’re jumping better. Some days we become two halves of one whole. And if we’d never had the tough times to guts through, we wouldn’t have the relationship we’ve got now.

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I don’t know if horses know someone has quit on them. I think when horses are sold, especially out of a horse-rider relationship that was no good, they just move right on and deal with the life they have today. Horses are good at that.

But I do know that horses know when somebody didn’t quit. I know they know when there’s been bad times and the one constant was the person that was right for them from the start and still wanted them.

And maybe I’m being kind of out there now, but when I look at the way Magic trusts me now compared to the way he did before, it makes me want to believe that they return the favour.

* Just say no.

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And Jesus Was Enough

I always love to watch the Mutterer at work, usually taking notes in my head so that I can try whatever he’s doing when I get home. But not today. Today’s small miracle is still so far beyond my capabilities that all I do is lend a hand and watch in wonder: it’s going to be a long time before I try this by myself.

I hold the little mare’s head while the Mutterer runs a soft rope around her neck, tying it so that it can’t slip tight, then gently slips a loop around each hind pastern. The little mare trembles, rolling her eyes so that I can see the whites, her ears constantly moving. She’s supposed to be trained, but I don’t want to know what her “trainer” did to her. Beat her most likely, maybe twisted her ears, yelled in her delicate little face. She has a fear about her that goes way beyond the ordinary nervousness of an unhandled horse. Even the lightest and kindest touch makes her flinch. I can see it now as I try to stroke her neck; the big muscles jump under my hand, too scared to hold still, too scared to flee. Eventually, I give up. She’s beyond human comfort now.

So I think, anyway, but the Mutterer has a plan. “Stick on the same side as me and hang onto her head.”

“Okay,” I say doubtfully. He’s usually right, so I do as I’m told.

The Mutterer has the ends of the rope around the mare’s legs in his hands. “Okay, girly,” he says to the mare, who trembles. “Easy now.” Then he pulls.

The ropes spring tight around the mare’s hindlegs, pulling them underneath her. She fights, throwing her head against the halter, but off balance she can’t yank even my weight around. Scrabbling at the grass with her forelegs, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, she panics. But the Mutterer leans calmly on the ropes and her hindlegs fold up underneath her. She sits down on the deep grass and stares at us, gasping. The Mutterer, still as calm as a monolith (the mare and I are equally spooked), leans against her shoulder and she eases slowly down onto her side.

“Good girl.” He puts a hand on her neck, but she’s not struggling. She quivers slightly, breath racing. He rubs her neck and shoulders and face and flanks, speaking to her slowly, explaining to me as I sit in the grass and stare. Because as the Mutterer explains, the mare relaxes. Her wide eyes soften. Her breathing slows down. The Mutterer loosens the ropes around her legs, but she doesn’t kick out. She is at her most vulnerable, lying on her side with – in her mind – her most powerful and violent enemy towering over her, but she’s relaxing.

The Mutterer hears my question before I ask it. “Because we didn’t hurt her once in this whole process,” he says. The mare gives a long sigh. “We use soft, thick lunging lines that don’t burn her, and we do it in the open where she can’t hurt herself, on thick grass so that even if she falls it won’t hurt.”

I nod. The mare went down, but she went down slowly, without being able to fight hard enough to pull any muscles.

Then, the mare licks and chews, an ultimate sign of equine submission and relaxation. Now the Mutterer pats her, softly at first, then hard enough to make the thudding noise most horses enjoy. And the mare doesn’t flinch. She lies still and lets herself feel a human’s love for the first time.

I’m still a little incredulous about the whole process right up until the moment when the Mutterer takes off the ropes and the mare gets slowly to her feet. Without a backward glance, he walks away. And without a second thought, without a halter on, in an open paddock, in the deep soft grass, away from her equine herdmates, the mare follows him.

It made sense when he explained it. The mare was terrified. She understood only two things about men: that they would unfailingly hurt her, and that if she fought or fled for her life she might avoid the pain. To gain her trust, we had to reverse both those principles. She had to believe that men were stronger than her. And she had to believe that they would never do her harm.

Pulling her down did just that. She was put into her most vulnerable position, shown that she could fight as she would but humans would always be stronger. (If it were not so, horses would still be wild; we have a God-given dominion over them. The bad part is that so many of us are tyrants and dictators instead of good rulers). But even at her most vulnerable, even at her most afraid, there was no pain. The humans didn’t hurt her or threaten her. In her darkest moment, there was just a gentle touch and a quiet voice. And when the force was taken away – when the ropes were removed – the little mare did what all horses do. She chose her leader, and she chose the leader that had proven his strength and his good intentions. Then she followed him.

And it probably saved the little mare’s life. The few minutes of fear and worry, now eclipsed by the relaxation and submission that flooded every line of her features, had been worth it. The mare had been a worthless, wild creature, doomed to the dark future of every useless and dangerous horse. But now, she had a second chance.

I was silent for a long time afterwards, because I know the feeling. Because I, too, have been that horse lying on the grass and gasping in terror. My legs tied up. A weight on my neck. Unable to fight back, unable to do anything to prevent my worst fear from coming true. It was a dark hour, and I was most afraid. I could not understand why I was suddenly so helpless or why the strange, higher being would force me so, anymore than the little mare could understand why the man had pulled her down.

But in that darkness, in that fear, in that helplessness, there was no pain from the One Who had put me there. Just a gentle touch and a quiet voice: “Be still and know that I am God.” And I knew He was God, and I knew He was all-powerful, almighty and all-knowing, that He could crush me like a bug where I lay. And I knew, more overwhelmingly than I have ever known, that He loved me.

You see, in that moment, it felt as though I had nothing. My herdmates felt far away and unable to save me. My own strength had failed me entirely. All I had was the loving touch of Jesus as He held me, and His soft voice as He stilled the storm inside. I had nothing but Him, and He was enough.

Horses and people have the same clockwork inside. Because when He let me rise again and gave me my freedom, when I saw the open field and the rest of the world waiting, I looked up and I saw Him. He Who was stronger than me, Who loved me. So I did what all humans do: I chose my Leader. And I followed Him.

And I am now no longer a worthless, wild creature. I am no longer doomed to a dark future. I have been given a second chance.

I took it.

Looking Unto Jesus

12 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. ~ Hebrews 12:1-2

“If you can get over your fear factor,” quoth the Mutterer, “there’s few people that will be able to beat you two.”

Shamefaced, I looked at my feet, hugging Magic’s smooth neck against my cheek with one arm. We were both sweaty after what shouldn’t have been a tiring lesson. I’d set up a little course – an ascending oxer, spooky vertical, and two-stride combination of vertical to ascending oxer – which the Mutterer had abruptly turned into a bigger course. Bigger being 80-90cm (2’9″ to 3′).

And I had trouble with it.

Oh, Magic didn’t have any trouble. Magic believes in himself now; he knows he’ll make it. Of course, physically, it was absolutely no challenge for him. I’ve free jumped him 1.30m (about 4′) in a 15m ring and he popped straight over. So this little course was nothing for him. He hit his stride and drifted around, tucking up his knees and making every jump seem like nothing.

I was the problem. (My own favourite mantra came back to bite me – “People don’t have horse problems. Horses have people problems). The most I can really say for myself is that when he’s jumping I stay out of his face and I usually get him good lines to the jumps. My problem is the approach. It always is, because somehow the last few strides leading up to an obstacle are so much worse than the obstacle itself. In riding as in life.

Arwen, on whom I am fearless, likes to collect herself for the last two or three strides to get her hocks nicely under her for the jump. The bigger the jump, the more she likes to collect. That suits me just fine because it gives me more time and prevents scarily long takeoffs from happening too often. Magic doesn’t need to get his hocks under himself. Magic can jump from half a mile away and still clear these little jumps with plenty of room to spare. He likes to accelerate for the last couple of strides, which is a good thing. It allows him to jump straight out of his stride, gives him more momentum so that he uses less effort over the jump, lets him jump across the fence instead of up and down over it, saves time since he doesn’t need to slow down to jump, and helps him be quick off the ground. He doesn’t rush or pull – he just likes a few bigger strides for the takeoff. As soon as he lands he settles back into a quieter canter.

The problem? I don’t let him do that. I want my little collected canter so that I have more time to hopefully not be scared. Magic, being his generous and willing self, tries to give me that slow canter, but he obviously doesn’t jump well out of it. And if I feel that our rhythm is off (which it is, because I made it off) I put my hands on his neck and look at the jump and luckily for me he stops. If he jumped while I was doing that I would probably eat mane.

It’s become a pattern. He stops; annoyed with myself, I turn him around, listen to the Mutterer, keep my hands up and over he goes because Magic actually had no issues whatsoever with the jump. When I’m on my game, we’re awesome. He listens, he jumps like a pro, I’m balanced, we’re harmonious and effortless. But when my head is not in the right place, we’re a total mess.

Today we lesson again. Today I will keep my hands up and my eyes on the prize. I have one of the most amazing horses in the world, and I believe in him. Now I just have to believe in myself – and yet not I, but Christ in me. So today I will look unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of my faith, and lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset me, and ride with patience for the joy that is set before me. Because Jesus endured the cross and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God, so I have nothing to fear.

I believe in my amazing horse. And I believe in Christ. And Christ believes in me.

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Imageless Wednesday

I am still camera-less, so I apologise in advance for the total lack of photos.

Everyone hates Wednesdays. They seem to be second only to Mondays on the Worst Day of the Week list (and I rather like Mondays as well), but in all honesty, I love Wednesdays. Partially because I have managed to shake up my schedule so that I study on Saturdays instead. Basically, my Saturday is right in the middle of my week. That makes my actual Saturday kind of a nightmare, but it’s totally worth it.

The day started off with the usual routine of studying/paperwork in the dark, then feeding and grooming (horses, dogs and self). That out of the way, it was time to ride. And therewith the most exciting news: The Mutterer’s wonderful white gelding is now my mother’s wonderful white gelding.

As usual, it was all God’s plan from the start. I spent two months frustrated with the fact that the gelding wasn’t selling despite the fact that I advertised him everywhere I could think of and there really was nothing wrong with him. I bemoaned this unhappy occurrence, lamenting the fact that my very first client horse would be the one that didn’t want to sell, trying to toil through this trial that the Lord was testing me with. Meanwhile, Mom and the gelding grew ever closer and closer until one day I excitedly announced that a buyer was interested in him (again; I was knee-deep in time wasters) and Mom cried, “Oh no!”

I said, “Well, if you don’t want him to go, then buy him.”

So she did. And now that she has, I can see so clearly the Lord’s Hand in the whole story; how Mom helped the gelding rebuild his love and trust in human beings from the start, how the two of them are soulmates in a way that crosses the divide between species, how perfectly suited their personalities are to one another. It had all been part of the Plan. God is great!

I want you all to meet our newest family member, who no longer has to remain anonymous. Solo (registered as Prontuit Vastrap) is an eleven-year-old pale grey Nooitgedachter gelding standing 14.2hh. Also, he is a generous saint of a horse. (I facepoled off him last weekend, but that was my own fault).

Anyway, after taking him on a hack with Rain and Flare (his carbon opposite) and succeeding in bringing everyone back alive despite the two dragonladies’ shenanigans, I decided that I still had time to take the old charger out for a spin. As usual, I rode her bareback, to serve the dual purpose of taking some weight off her joints and reminding me of how to ride bareback, always a good skill in an emergency. She is the best horse for this job because currently she is rather squishy. Since she’s old and staying squishy on two handfuls of concentrate and low-class grazing, I am in absolutely no position to complain. We took a hack through the Shuddering Woods, jogging home along the hills beside them. As usual, I thought I’d see if Skye felt like a little canter for old time’s sake, and also as usual I was promptly run away with and nearly flew off the back end. For which Skye suffered no punishment; I have a ridiculous blind spot when it comes to cantankerous old chestnut chargers. Something inside her turns me ten years old and reckless again.

I had forgotten to bring her a post-ride treat, a cardinal sin; one does not simply forget to give Warrior Queens their post-ride treats. Instead of braving her wrath, I parked her on the lawn, mounted the five steep steps to the house and sent a minion to get us an apple. It’s not the first time I’d done this, and Skye never tries to go up the steps and probably can’t anyway because she is 26 and has arthritis. She must have heard me thinking this, because the next moment in two big jumps she did go up the steps and stood there on the veranda snorting in triumph. I was equally sure that we’d never get back down again, but she made it somehow and pranced all the way back to her paddock telling the world she was invincible.

Arwie and Magic’s lessons went well. Magic was grumpy because I had ridden St. Solo before him and that made him jealous (“Horses are like girlfriends and kids,” quoth the Mutterer), but still offered some foot perfect simple changes and his best free walk figure-eights yet. Arwen mightily impressed the Mutterer, a noteworthy event, by doing something that actually I was paying no attention to. She was parked on one of our steeply sloping banks, with her front feet on the top and her hind feet about halfway down, while the Mutterer handed me my gloves (which I had forgotten). Gloves on, I picked up the reins and backed her in a dead straight line off the bank. She didn’t even think about it. I didn’t even think about it until the Mutterer reminded me that Arwen has no way of seeing behind her and basically stepped confidently backwards into thin air for me, which is kind of amazing once you think about it.

Our session was long and strenuous and we both nearly died, although I hid it better than she did (I hope). We did a little flatwork, then jumping, then the Mutterer’s favourite exercise of madly galloping the long sides and calmly walking the short sides of the arena (and if you’re not terrified you’re not going fast enough; you get bonus points for crying), then more jumping. We were both cooked, but Arwen remained safe, brave and willing even when she was tired. She’ll have a slightly easier day tomorrow, Friday off and then – terror and excitement! – our first recognised event over the weekend. Lord, not what I will, but what Thou wilt!

To spend the rest of my day in awesomeness, then it was off to the Nooitgedachter stud to ride last year’s National Champion Stallion. We shall call him the Storm Horse, because he is. 15.3hh of glorious, graceful, grey beauty, and him and I have an inexplicable connection born out of unlikely love. The Mutterer actually trained him, but the Storm Horse was about as easy to train as a runaway tornado and the two of them had a lot of arguments. The Storm Horse did not appreciate it when the Mutterer won, and is a suspicious sort of a horse anyway, so now he hates the Mutterer. Then, after all his hard work and blood and sweat, in I waltz, tiny and feminine and oh so unthreatening, and the Storm Horse and I fell in love. Through no skill of my own, I have become the Storm Horse’s favourite person. When the Mutterer catches him, he snorts, strikes and runs away. When he hears my voice, he comes over and elegantly waits for me to pat him. As for me? I’m terrified of all big stallions. I am thrilled beyond all fear to ride the Storm Horse. God only understands why the two of us get along the way we do, but it’s the most incredible feeling. Glory to the King.