I wrote this back in April this year, but forgot to actually press “Publish”. I was in the midst of a storm back then, and I want to honour the tremendous ways in which God helps me through every difficulty.
I’m only about 5′ 4″ and I don’t weigh a whole lot more than a bag of shandy cubes, but I’m intensely grateful that my horse is a weight carrier.
Physically, he bears me effortlessly, sometimes not even feeling my puny weight on his broad back. With me on board, he can float, lift, fly, dance. His tremendous muscles and powerful skeleton carry me not only with ease, but with grace.
Yet like all the most loved horses, he often has to carry more than just my flesh and blood. This weight is something he can’t use his bone and muscle for. It’s something that will never show up on an X-ray or cause him to need hock injections.
This weight is the mass of hope and fear. It’s the burden of all the dreams and dreadings that define the complicated emotional state of the average human. It’s the heaviness of all the baggage and trauma and joy and hope and love, the sometimes intolerable weight of how much we can love. The stress we have at work, the worry we have for the people we love, the hope we have for the future, the dream we have for our dancing horse – we bring it all, I bring it all to my horse, take it aboard with me, and try to take all that stuff that makes up my messy human psyche and combine it with a half-ton flight animal and try to find something like beauty and meaning among the chaos.
Some horses can’t take the weight. Those we try to protect, pushing aside everything we feel to be the better version of ourselves that we keep for those who aren’t ready for the truth. But some horses are weight carriers, emotional sponges that patiently allow us to have a voice, without ever exchanging a single word. They hear everything we want to scream out to the world even when we keep our touch gentle. They feel it in the way we breathe, the way our spines move, the tension in our shoulders, the desperate efforts to wipe away the grabbiness from our strange and clutching hands. And it drives some horses wild; but the weight carriers, they have an ability to absorb and understand and even forgive us for our chaotic selves.
There are not many of them out there. Most horses either panic or shut down in the face of our madness if we allow ourselves to be ourselves. But as long as we keep our voices broken instead of angry, as long as we remain thankful for the wonderful thing that they do for us, some horses can bring peace and faith to the table. They don’t let us bother them. They let us be who we are, and celebrate who they are.
And some people can be that way too.
We owe these horses and people in our lives an almost unforgiveable debt. Because they are to us a tiny inkling, an earthly incarnation of a little fragment of the majestic, never-ending and far-reaching love of the God Who sees everything we are and died for us anyway, the Lord Who responds to our inconsolable and complicated craziness by calling us to come Home to the rest we can only find in His arms.
All we can do is come when He calls. And as for our horses, we have to recognise what they do for us. They didn’t ask for us. We chose them. It remains our sober responsibility to give them everything we can to make them as happy as we can in exchange for the amazing gift they offer us.
We have no real name for it, but perhaps the closest thing we can come to is acceptance.
Thank God for His unspeakable gifts. Glory to the King.
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.
What’s it been, almost a year and a half? Who am I kidding? I don’t need to ask. I know. It’s been a few days less than seventeen months since we lost her: my friend and fellow medic. She was the same age as me, but now I’ve had a birthday that she never will.
The saving grace, literally, is that she’s never actually been less lost. Not to Him: to Him she’s finally Home. Nor, honestly, to us. She’s never been more important to us all. She’s just not here in the flesh anymore.
As long as we’re still here, we’ll continue to miss her.
Seventeen months. Here we all are now, living our lives again. We say we got through it. Sometimes maybe we look like we’re over it. But the truth is that you never get over it. A loss like that is not so much a storm to weather as it is a divider. A great, open gap ripped in your life, diving it forever into two pieces: a before and an after. Two pieces so different they feel like they belong to different people.
People say you should be trying to get back to normal. But the truth is that the old normal doesn’t exist anymore because the old you doesn’t exist anymore. You never heal from that wound.
You just rise from the ashes.
Who I am and what my life is will never ever look or be the same as it was before. It’s seventeen months later and I am happy, whole, blessed beyond anything I ever expected, and changed. So, so changed. The way I see and interact with the world, the things I value, the things I fear – everything is different. I will never get over it. I will never get back to normal.
I cannot go back.
But I can go forward. Because while I have changed, one thing never has: the God Who will never let go.
The process isn’t healing. It’s transformation. I didn’t get better: I was reborn.
There’s no way through grief. There’s no road back to the way it used to be. But there’s not supposed to be.
Grief only rips us down to rebuild it. Grief only tears down the road ahead to build a bigger bridge. And grief, soul-wrenching, heartbreaking, gut-ripping grief above all does one great thing:
Grief changes us.
And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
* * * *
I am happier and more free right now than I have ever been before, for I have plumbed the depths of grace to an extent I thought impossible. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ll always miss you.
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.