Introducing Lullaby

Nine months down the line and I once again found myself in the position where I had more kids to teach than ponies they could ride. Both Stardust and Thunder were starting to look burned out again, and I frequently had to rope Arwen in for lessons (she was not popular; apparently super-fit event ponies do not make awesome schoolies…). When Bruno was sold, my lesson situation went from just making it to somewhat dire and something had to be done.

This time I had a little cash on hand from the sale, but I knew we’d barely broken even on Bruno and his money had to stretch really far. It’s amazing how expensive the dentist gets when it goes from four horses to twenty-four… Either way, I put up a wanted ad and started shopping. We spent an exhausting morning in Pretoria trying ponies that were so almost perfect, but just… not quite. Then one of the yards right here in Heidelberg put up an advert for one of their schoolies. I gave it a cursory glance and decided to go have a look, mostly just because it was close by. The pony was smaller and older than I wanted, but I was getting desperate. As always, it’s at this point that God stepped in – right where desperation meets necessity.

I tried the pony. It was adorable, but violently spooky and well into its teens. Driving away, I knew the sensible decision would be to say thanks but no thanks. I’d seen better ponies in Pretoria. And yet… something kept me from making that call. There was just something about her that I couldn’t ignore and I didn’t really know what it was. A vibe, a gut feeling. She just felt quiet and gentle even though she hadn’t acted like it. Honestly, though, I believe that feeling wasn’t all about the pony. The other ponies had been quieter, but they hadn’t had the irresistible attraction that this one did. I texted the owner and asked if I could view her again.

The endlessly patient seller agreed to let me ride the pony again, so I arrived, not totally clear on why exactly I was doing this, and remounted the pony. She started to nap near the corner she’d spooked at last time and overjumped a little cross extravagantly, but her rhythm was excellent. She had that I’ll-do-this-all-day, stuck-to-the-track patience of a real riding school pony. She was also sound – sound as a brass bell, healthy as could be despite her age. And adorable, obviously used to children, easy to tack up and handle, and thoroughly experienced. But I was still kind of undecided about the whole thing given the spookiness. What kind of a yard manager buys a spooky schoolie?

Eventually, I couldn’t resist the pull anymore. Nothing else felt right. So I threw up my hands. “Lord, as Thou wilt.” We bought the pony. The poor little soul was shunted straight into my lesson program the next day and became an instant hit. Kids started to fight over who got to ride her, whether they were tiny tots or already jumping. That weekend, I put her and Stardust in the horsebox and shipped them off to do pony rides. It was at the back of the feed shop, with a busy road next door and vehicles coming in and out to be noisily loaded; at one stage an enormous trailer drove in and started to offload 5000l tanks with a tremendous racket.

The new pony was unbothered by the traffic, unphased by the vehicles, and merely walked a circle around me at the offloading of the tanks. She didn’t spook. Not even once. I could almost hear God saying, “Do you trust Me now, daughter?”

She came with the name Lulu, and remains Lulu to friends. But I named her Lullaby, because like the song*, she’s become a reminder of True Love.

* WARNING – mild profanity in the song. Sorry about that, but its message makes it worth the listen.

YDHS Finals

This show was perfect chaos, but by the grace of God it turned out to be one of our best shows ever.

We started our preparations with a lesson with S., one of our favourite coaches ever and also our saddle fitter, at the actual show venue a week beforehand. Despite having no other horses around, Nell was ridiculously quiet and settled and we had a very productive lesson that helped us out a lot the next weekend. The general theme of the lesson appeared to be “more”: more bend, more swing, more straightness. After having chiro Nell’s walk was about a thousand times better, though. We also learned to make our halts less abrupt in order to give her a second to step up into a square halt instead of fussing around and stepping back, which was a very valuable one.

The first day of the finals was the qualifying class; the top five young horses in this class would go through to the championship class the next day. I had exactly zero expectation of going to championship since we are so reliably always last, but I didn’t mind. Just being there was an honour. Although we arrived in a ridiculous hurry (Jacaranda Nooitie show was on the same day, and Nell had been champion mare in-hand that very morning – more on that later), Nell walked into the arena with her game face on. This on a horse that couldn’t be persuaded to get all the way to C in Prelim last year. I was desperately grateful. We had one hairy moment when my hastily buckled right rein popped off and Nell obliging turned sharply left, almost crashing into and killing Chere Burger (who went on to win basically everything in amazing style, no thanks to my rogue Friesian-squashing pony). Nevertheless, we survived this and when we walked off to introduce ourselves to the judges she was feeling pretty fantastic.

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This was a good thing. The chaotic morning, alongside the stress of having to get back to a yard full of kids and ponies at the Jacaranda Show, had taken its toll on me. I was trying my best and God is my peace, but I was undoubtedly not on my game. When we came down the centreline all I could think was I’ll forget the test, I’ll forget the test. Which is not ideal to be thinking in front of three top judges. I nearly did forget my test, too, getting my walk transition a few steps after C even though Nell was as obedient as they come.

It was around the big long M-X-K free walk that I breathed for the first time, because Nell was being an absolute trooper. As I lengthened the reins she put down her head and swung through her back and gave a huge relaxed sigh, which was when I realised that the horse was fine. All the hours and hours we had put in had paid off: for the first time, Nell was holding my hand, instead of the other way round. The realisation was a gift from above and more valuable than any win could have been. So by the time we reached K I was grinning like a pumpkin, and when I asked for the walk-canter at C she gave it to me like a breaking wave. The canter work was just awesome. The best it’s been. When we came down the final centreline I was breathing again and could halt nicely, look up, and salute my King Jesus in gratitude.

We scored 66%, a personal best at any graded show; we also scored our first seven in YDHS – for the walk! It has always been our worst mark and the improvement meant a lot to me. This was good enough for fifth place, squeaking us into the championship class the next day. Poor Nell was pretty tired and I debated going, but in the end we decided to go with the proviso that if she warmed up flat, instead of just tired, I would scratch. She was very perky in the stable that morning and warmed up pretty awesome, a little dull on my aids, but happy and relaxed. There was no resistance or unhappiness in her, so we went with it.

Things went a little sideways when we walked past the judges’ box. Not expecting to get into the championship, I hadn’t familiarised myself with the rules and it was only the kind photographer that saved me from going down the centreline with a whip like a total newb. That shook me a little; I school her without a whip most of the time, but with her being quite pokey on the day, I would have liked to have had it. In the end, though, she was excellent. She was tired but she tried her guts out every step of the way and gave me every single transition so obediently, even the walk-canter. I couldn’t help but fall on her neck and squish the life out of her when we’d finished. This horse has come so far from the spooky baby I had under me last year to being a resilient adult, full of try. I knew that whatever we’d scored, I’d already won the jackpot when God dropped this incredible partner in my lap.

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We had 63.5%; I think we could have done better if we both had more energy. The judge complimented her attitude (everyone does), but Nell was also very on her forehand and her walk was decidedly mediocre on the day. I know our balance is a weak point, but I think she’s not nearly as bad normally. We also came last, but even from a rider’s point of view I can’t be anything but happy with it; I was on the only non-Friesian or Warmblood in the field for the entire day, and half the horses were imported, and I believe the majority of the other competitors had about ten years on me, too. It was an honour just to be riding with them.

It was even more of an honour to go down that centreline on Arop Nianell and salute my beloved, beloved King. Thank You Sir. ❤

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Winstead Stadium Eventing

Can I just say that stadium eventing is really fun? It’s like eventing, but with less hard. Hence I was very excited to go to Winstead for their stadium event the weekend after a cross-country schooling in the same arena – a perfect opportunity to start rebuilding Arwen’s confidence after our ignominous failures earlier in the year, and for Liana to go across country in competition for the first time.

Liana did the 60cm and 70cm and was stellar. I had her back in the snaffle after using a sweet iron gag for a while, and my coach’s suggestion proved to be right on the money. She was much less fussy in her mouth and gave me two very sane and relaxed rounds. Ana is just a pleasure to have at shows – she walks into the arena all business and happily packed my butt around.

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I did have my neck strap, though, because Liana has quite a pop and tends to use it over scary fences. She only threw one overjump all day, though. In the 60cm we had a very foolish little stop that was more of a steering issue than a disobedience and finished with a very reasonable time, too, even though I was letting her set the pace. (Or maybe because I was letting her set the pace…). The course was inviting but not soft and she really rose to the occasion.

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The 70cm was a definite step up, with this being my rider frightener of the day. This little trailer/table was quite low but looked max width and I do so love staring down into spreads. Liana, however, didn’t have a qualm about it and jumped it already angled for the next fence – a drop, which she was excellent about. She was gutsy to everything except a white skinny in the shade, where she had a look and I booted her over, taking the pole for four penalties that just kept us out of the placings. This was probably our last competition together for some time, as two days before her new little person had signed the papers for a lease with option to buy, praise God!

Arwen was also extremely spooky to the white skinny, but apart from that she ate the course alive. She had warmed up a little spooky, but something about walking into the arena engaged dragon mode and it was all I could do to stay on and steer. I don’t think I have ever ridden a course that fast in my life and I spent most of my time sitting back yelling “Steady!” while she tore around like a maniac. It was good enough for a clear round with no time penalties, though, so we very merrily went through to the jump-off.

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It was just my coach and I in the jump-off, so it followed that of course we would make two newbie errors to the absolute delight of the spectators. Coach went first and rode a stunning round on her youngster apart from completely forgetting about the last fence, ending up with four penalties for her circle. She had handed it to me on a silver platter, except that Arwen tore around the course and then threw in a rebellious stop at the white skinny, making us a few seconds slower for second place. I was not too upset – I’ll come second to my coach any day.

I had also (somewhat reluctantly) entered the 80cm on coach’s urging, but I’ll admit it was one of those courses where you stay as far as possible away from the jumps when you’re walking just in case you get close enough to see how big they are. This course was again inviting and started gently but built up to some very legitimate challenges for EV80, including a dyke, drop, max height rolltop, and a scary related distance of a hanging log down a steep bank to a large house in about four or five strides. And of course the showjumps were 85cm, the biggest fences I’ve ever jumped in competition.

Arwen was still on fire after her victory lap, so we came thundering at number one and then spooked violently. I applied whip, spurs and voice with alacrity and Arwen popped over and then hit her stride and started to settle, taking the fences more in her stride. The hanging log to house proved to be one of her nicest and quietest efforts on course – she didn’t turn a hair. We had a look at the dyke, but I brought her in very quietly so she had enough time to process it and popped neatly over. The max height rolltop was cause for absolutely no drama,

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and we were charging merrily along when I forgot my line to number 14 (still kicking myself) and sliced a corner too fine, presenting Arwen at the biggest fence on course at an angle. Arwen was like um no and threw in a stop, which wasn’t that dirty but I gave her a smack anyway because she has no need to get ideas about stopping. We reapproached and she popped over just fine, had another look at the last fence and tapped the pole. That finished us with 8 jump penalties and 10 time, which I did not think was too shoddy for our first EV80 considering our history with eventing.

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I think Arwen may have enjoyed it more than I did

This show really kind of confirmed the change I’m trying to make in my attitude. We rode into that arena with our eyes fixed on Jesus and our goals to do with hearts instead of ribbons, and the horses and I were all just happy and comfortable in our own skins. It turned out, as it so often does, to be one of our most successful shows, too.

He meant it when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” Glory to the King I seek.

What Really Matters

[Side note: I will write a brief recap of June at some point, I really will. Bad blogger! But for today, here’s some drivel that’s been floating around in my head for a while.]

My own riding has me a little disheartened lately. I have never been the most confident rider or someone that finds riding easy, but I have always been ambitious. And lately, that’s led to a whole lot of disappointment.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying my guts out to get better at this. I was the kid that was forever drawing pictures of her first pony winning the Olympics. I’ve had goals and plans and lofty dreams all my life; since I was seven years old I would watch the pros on TV, then close my eyes and picture me riding that perfect 1.60m course or Grand Prix freestyle on old Skye. I want it so bad I can taste it. It’s not really about the victory, I just have this craving to be so good at it. I really want to feel what it’s like to ride a 10 for a half-pass. I really want to go double clear at 4* with the grace of a dancer. And I’ve been working for that since I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t riding at least 6 days a week, and since I was 12, that’s been multiple horses a day. That’s a lot of saddle time and a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and all I have on my show record is one grading point at Novice, one at 70cm, and one at EV70. I have been eliminated repeatedly and dramatically in every discipline I ride in with the exception of dressage, and I know that’s only a matter of time. The only graded classes I’ve won have been ones where I was the only one that showed up, barring one, where my 8-year-old was competing against a real greenie. It’s not exactly the kind of show record you expect from a trainer, much less a coach. Horse riding takes years, this I know, but at every show I see juniors and pony riders doing medium and 1.20m and EV100 and they’re winning.

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adult riding for a living, losing at EV70

The last thing I can blame is the horses, because I have some really, really incredible horses. These horses have more scope and talent than I do, and they try their courageous hearts out for me.

And that is kind of discouraging sometimes because I have many shortcomings, but lack of drive is not one of them. Every year, I ride more horses, I take more lessons. I ride when I’m sick and hurting, I ride in the rain and the cold, I get back on over and over. For the last six months of 2015, I have 569 sessions recorded in my logbook, and I ride a lot more now than I did then. I did my stint as a working student and I did my share of falling off wild ponies for peanuts. I have never quit on riding, not once; the longest I have gone in my memory without riding has been two weeks – the two weeks that Magic was sick. And sometimes it’s like it’s just not achieved anything. And that was so painful and confusing. I keep wanting to ask God what I did wrong. Why hasn’t He taken me up the grades? What have I missed? Where did I mess up? Is this not His plan for me after all? Why don’t I have anything to show for it on paper?

And God said, “I wasn’t looking on paper, daughter.”

He opened my eyes to what really matters and it hasn’t been the destination or the dreams I’ve been chasing. It’s been the things that matter to Him, the things He has been calling me to all this time, this time that I’ve been trying to follow His light through the dark glass of my own ambition.

Because looking back, the changes in my horses’ training and ability haven’t been huge. But the changes in their minds and emotions? They have been enormous.

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Few weeks after coming home. Not a happy camper.

When I got this horse he was relatively fresh off the track, but he could walk and trot and canter and whoa and go and turn and pop over little crosses. Almost four years later, he’s doing 70cm with mixed results. You know how long it takes a pro to take a baby off the track to 70cm? We’re not even using the same calendar here.

But when I got him he was also a hypersensitive, neurotic creature you couldn’t sneeze near or his brain would exit stage left. You literally could not move your hands too fast or he’d jump up in the air like you’d hit him with a cattle prodder. He was anxious to box, he was anxious to saddle, he didn’t tie up, and his frequent and relentless panic attacks would have him a trembling, eye-rolling, lip-poking, leaping mess for an incredible amount of time. If something set him off, he’d literally be highly strung for days afterwards – days. He wasn’t just a silly baby off the track, he had horse PTSD. When his switch flipped, you could forget it, you weren’t getting him back that day. Maybe not even the next.

You know he’s now one of the quietest horses to handle at the yard? You can park him wherever, chuck his lead rein over his neck and he’ll just stand there looking adorable while you flap around looking for his boots. He ties up. He loads like a charm. He travels perfectly. He doesn’t hide from rain anymore, he runs and bucks and plays in it. He is just this giant happy puppy dog of a horse. Magic still has his edge, he’ll always have his edge. Like humans, horses get some scars that won’t ever heal perfectly. He still has all the same triggers and they still set him off just as quickly, but I can talk him down off his ledge in minutes. Minutes. Yesterday we had an off-site lesson and something set him off and he stopped at this 20cm cavaletti and I ate a little dirt, but I got back on him and in 30 minutes we were jumping the biggest fences we’ve ever done off property. He was so happy. He was just cruising. And I am his anchor. Nobody else in the world right now would have gotten him back so quickly, nobody else can ride him like I can. And it’s not that I’m a good rider. I’m not even a good trainer and I’m really no good at baby racehorses. But I am the world’s leading authority on Magic because I really truly care about him and that’s turned him right around. Magic does not care that we’re only doing 70cm. Magic cares that his spinning world has stilled. Magic cares about cookies and ear rubs and that I never, ever push him past what he can’t handle, even if that means we’ll do 70cm until I’m 40.

Magic cares about the love in me, and we all know that the other name for love is God. And if you put it like that, I’d take it over A-grade any day.

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Three years later at a show. Jump the same height, but the happiest eye you ever saw.

He hasn’t been the only one. Arwen was a promising but unbacked two-year-old. She is now a nine-year-old that gets extravagantly eliminated at EV70. But she was also a skittish, insecure, lazy, excessively herdbound filly. Now she is a wonderful, confident, enthusiastic fireball of a horse that loves galloping away from home on outrides and kicking the butts of anyone who thinks they can stop her.

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Nothing insecure here

Nell was hypersensitive, resistant, and amazingly spooky. Her first dressage tests are a long string of 3’s and 4’s with comments like “tense” and “very uncertain”. Now she comes down that centreline like she owns it and judges call her “obedient” and “willing”.

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Floppy ears

There have been still more. Horses you couldn’t touch, now shoving their noses into your hands, asking for attention. Horses that leaned on all your aids, wringing their tails with frustration, now stepping forward with an easy, swinging, enthusiastic stride. Horses that were so tense they had their ears up your nostrils and jumped at every touch, now packing nervy kids around at shows.

My horses are not particularly well-schooled horses. I am not “one to watch”. I am not the next Charlotte Dujardin or Monty Roberts. But after enough of my work, my horses are really, really happy, healthy, relaxed, enthusiastic, confident horses. They love their work.

One of Nell’s first dressage tests, when she was jumping like a gazelle and my heart was sitting somewhere in my boots, holds the greatest compliment I have ever received as a rider. “Empathetically ridden.” And I have my impatient days, but I do everything I can to understand these most wonderful of God’s creatures.

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Even the crazy babies have happy ears

I don’t think it matters to the Olympic committee, or to anyone that reads my show record, or to prospective clients. None of the top riders I see at shows notice me for it and it definitely doesn’t win me any ribbons. But it matters to me, it matters to the horses, and it sure matters to God.

So yeah, I would still love to ride Grand Prix and I’m still going to work hard and dream and God willing someday a happy athlete will carry me down the centreline at a collected canter. But mostly, I’m just going to love my horses and my people. Jesus loves when I do that, and it’s the only thing I can do that has any real consequence. All the rest is just fluff. And fluff is cool, but it’s still just fluff.

I love my horses. Nobody can ever take that away from me. And for God, that’s enough. So right now, I’m deciding that it’s enough for me, too.

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Undeserving

“I don’t deserve him.”

“Stop that,” the Mutterer opined, “and get back on the freaking horse.”

It was a year after I had started leasing Magic and we were having a tough lesson. The combination we were jumping was just big enough to make me nervous; I kept trying to make him jump the way I wanted, and he kept trying to please me and having to overjump his way out of trouble as a result. “Give him his head,” the Mutterer was bellowing. “Let him do his job.” Try as I might, I was just as green as the horse; even when my head said one thing my hands were still hauling back on his sensitive mouth, locked on the end of arms as tense as a high wire.

The horse was brilliant and beyond. But I couldn’t ride him the way he needed to be ridden. I wasn’t good enough for him.

“If you say that again,” said the Mutterer calmly, “I will kick your little butt to the other end of the arena.”

Facing this petrifying threat, I reluctantly hauled myself back onto the horse and we trotted back into that combination to fluff it again. And again. And again.

 

I can’t ride him right. He deserves better.

Magic felt my negative tension getting worse with every stride, and escalated accordingly. He approached the tiny 60cm oxer with his neck getting higher and longer every time his hooves hammered the floor. Once he got there, I hauled back, desperately wanting the deeper spot. Magic knew he would bring us both to the ground if he took the deeper spot so he jumped anyway, like a gazelle, popping me up out of the tack. I landed on his neck. He bolted, terrified. For the sixth time that day.

I’m going to ruin this horse. I don’t deserve him.

 

“Lord Jesus, I don’t deserve him, but please, I don’t want to lose him.”

It was the fifth day straight of seeing the terrifying agony in the horse’s eyes. He swayed in the horsebox, head hanging low, sweat drenching the coat that was now pulled tight over his bony frame. I pressed my forehead against his brow; he was burning up. “Come on, buddy. Keep fighting.” He rolled a great brown eye to me and it was filled with fire. He wasn’t going to quit. And I, swaying with him, filled with his agony, sleep deprived beyond expression and sick with tension, wasn’t going to quit either.

“I know I don’t deserve him, but I love him. Lord, save him, if it’s Your will.”

 

“You got this, buddy.”

He cantered through the start with four feet coming down like a waltz, with giant muscles lifting and dancing underneath me. First fence; he had a little look, but I gave my hands forward and he took it in that easy leap that only he has. The course rolled by underneath him until we reached the bending line to the one-stride combination. He saw the long spot; so did I, but I was sure we wouldn’t make the stride if we took it; I reacted before I could think and pulled. It was a mistake. He launched himself into the air, landing so hard we both grunted with the impact, and the next element was right under his nose. I scrambled, grabbed mane, managed only to make a feeble little clicking noise and he bailed us both out. We thundered off, disunited and in a complete mess, but the last fence was still waiting. I braced a fist against his neck, shoved myself back into the saddle and sat up. “The Lord is my Shepherd!” And we floated down to the last fence with his dizzying grace, cleared it without a second thought.

I fell on his neck, intentionally this time, and hugged him. The pure, sleek curve of muscle flexed in my arms, powerful as a breaking wave. “Thank you, buddy. I could never deserve you.” I sat up, rubbed gloved knuckles across the satiny coat; my horse’s whole frame lit up with pleasure, dancing forward. And it’s true: I don’t deserve him. But who could ever deserve half a ton of power and spirit, submitting itself to your foolish whim? Who could ever deserve a heart so mighty, yet so willing to beat in time with yours? I don’t deserve him, but nobody deserves horses.

So I’ll probably never take him to A-grade even though he could take those heights in his stride. So it’s unlikely he’ll ever be ridden to his fullest potential. Magic dances when I touch him, bails me out when I fail; Magic is the horse I didn’t quit on and he doesn’t care that I don’t ride him well enough.

I don’t deserve him, but if you know God, you know it’s not about deserving.

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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

Jacaranda Nooitgedachter Spring Show

Show photos by Fine Photography (purchased)

This show really brought home to me the fact that Nooitgedachters, and in particular Arop Stud’s Nooitgedachters, are some of the most amazing horses in the world. Well, I always knew that, but I believe that about basically every horse I ride at some point, it’s just that this show meant my opinion is not as biased as usual.

First, we loaded two stallions and a mare in the same horsebox. One of the stallions is three years old. The other one had to stand directly next to the mare, with only the partition between them. The mare kicked the side of the box and spooked them, and then we all went off to Pretoria and they didn’t do a thing. I’d like to see that done with some of the warmbloods I’ve seen.

They all settled in nicely at the showgrounds, and then beautiful Nell went out and strutted her stuff and won every in-hand class she walked into – culminating with Grand Champion Purebred Mare.

AropNia-Nell2 We also did dressage, although after showing in the stallions’ championship class, we had exactly eight minutes to saddle up and warm up. As a result Nell’s baby brain was still all over the place, so we drifted down the centerline, spooked at C and bucked twice. Spooks throughout and all, she had some truly super moments and impressed the judge with her talent. We were third in Prelim, scoring 53.6%. Once she has shown a bit more often and figured out that dressage letters do not eat horses, I think she’ll pull out some awesome scores.AropNia-Nell1

Raldu (long known to readers as the Storm Horse Junior) kept his feet on the ground and his brain in his head despite being a three-year-old colt at his first time off the farm, resulting in Junior Champion Stallion.

AropRaldu1AropRaldu2AropRaldu3

And Ryka, the Storm Horse himself, was Reserve Champion Stallion. The Mutterer handled him and I believe if I splash pictures of the Mutterer all over the Internet he might make me do another two-hour lesson of mounting without a girth, so here are some gratuitous photos of Ryka at home ferrying his little human around and being majestic.

AropRyka8 AropRyka3It was an honour to show these phenomenal horses for Arop Nooitgedachters and, above all, for my wonderful, beloved, magnificent Lord Jesus. Glory to the amazing King.

AropNia-Nell4

For the previously unenlightened international readers: These horses are Nooitgedachters. The Nooitgedachter is a breed of small horse native to South Africa. It is a fairly new breed, originating in the 1950s from Basutho, Arabian and Boerperd stock. The Basutho pony is the main ancestor; a small, unbelievably hardy pony from the mountains of Lesotho. These ponies were agile and had enormous endurance, and were crossed with Arabs and Boerperds to add size, better movement, and better looks. The result is today’s Nooitgedachter, a well-moving, good-looking and undeniably tough little horse renowned for its outstanding temperament and trainability. It stands between 13.2 and 16.1 hands high and excels in showing, endurance, and lower level eventing, but is best known as a superb all-rounder.

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.

Extreme Makeover Fluff Edition

Thursday was the day; poor Arwen was starting to suffer under her typical Nooitie winter coat (i. e. strongly resembling that of the average yak). She sweats like a pig and feels the heat, too, so there were no two ways about it – that coat was going to have to come off.

Google images yak
Firn Hyde's yak
Firn Hyde’s yak

So she was scrubbed to within an inch of her life and then clipped. She was a hooligan, but I shall give her the benefit of the doubt and blame it on the poor guy I had holding her, who is one of the farm workers. He has been saddled with the duties of grooming my client horses because he is patient and not afraid of horses, but he will most definitely not be holding a horse for a clip again. (A bit too patient, I’m afraid). Once Arwie figured out that she could go merrily in circles without any consequences she did so, with the result that not only are her head and legs left unclipped as usual, but she also has an unflattering hairy patch on her stomach.

Either way, we accomplished what we needed to; I have a shiny pony that can work in comfort,

Shinyyyy
Shinyyyy! And bone dry post flatwork!

Arwie has a bright pink blankie,

Despite her best efforts she does occasionally lose her composure and look adorable
Despite her best efforts she does occasionally lose her composure and look adorable

and we both have a reminder as to Who we belong to and why we do what we do.

I think Lord Jesus was helping me clip because somehow I got it to actually look like a cross
I think Lord Jesus was helping me clip because somehow I got it to actually look like a cross

The shaven beastie, much as she detested her clip, is evidently much happier to be ridden. It can’t be nice to work out in the equivalent of a winter jacket. Her stamina has dramatically increased and her attitude towards the end of a session is markedly more perky. She was superb in her flatwork session on Friday, including one (semi-accidental) flying change while we were practicing canter leg-yields. Today she even carried the Mutterer up and down hills for two hours without breaking a sweat anywhere except under the saddle.

Magic put in a wonderful jumping session on Friday, too. I put the sticks up to about 80cm and he was still popping over without any fuss. I’m now faced with the next dilemma of Magic’s education: His confidence is fine now. It’s mine that’s holding us back. I’m still grabbing his mouth in panic at the base of the fences, and he’s still not deserving it, because he is quiet and reliable and knows his job. Poor old Magic, he doesn’t deserve me, but he does have me so I assume the King has a plan for us. Our session, though, actually went extremely well because I concentrated really hard on giving him my hands nice and quietly. Reciting Psalm 23 out loud helped a lot. It forced me to relax, prevented me from micromanaging, and gave Magic a calm, confident voice to listen to, which means a lot to him. When I stay out of his face, he is simply amazing. He carries me to the jump, takes off at a good distance right out of his stride, and glides effortlessly over.

Insert carrots here
Insert carrots here

After Magic, I rode dear old Vastrap. Last time we jumped, I faceplanted rather painfully into the first element of a combination, so we were both a bit shaken and I pushed the jumps all the way down to 40cm. I find it’s always better to play it safe and have a good experience or two before building back up and onwards. Anyway, I needn’t have worried, because Trappies was his usual saintly self and popped over everything very well. He did get a little panicky after a few jumps (I assume he remembers me shooting up his neck and eating the pole) but nothing major. Vastrap is good practice for Magic, because he doesn’t easily overreact and is generally less scary, but he still appreciates a nice quiet hand at all times. Arwen, either by personal preference or being trained by a newb like I was, prefers a quite strong contact, so she’s no help except for my courage.

Yesterday was Storm Horse day. I hadn’t seen him for over a week and I think I had forgotten how beautiful he is. I was so excited when I saw him looking over the fence at me that I totally forgot to greet his owner, just grabbed my saddle off the back of the Mutterer’s bakkie and vanished. Storm Horse insisted on smelling me thoroughly before allowing me to touch him, just to make sure I was me. He was a little more spooky on the ground than usual, especially about having his bridle put on (methinks that in the period between the Mutterer backing him and my meeting him, somebody has twitched his ears), but once I was on he was absolutely impeccable. He makes me smile every single time. When I walk up to that horse there is nothing in the whole world but him and Jesus and me.

Oh look, it's my tiny human
Oh look, it’s my tiny human

Another of the Nooitgedachters, a glorious filly that we shall call Arwie Junior because she looks almost exactly like Arwen, was my second ride for the day. Junior has been backed for less than six months, but she could already score fairly well on a Prelim dressage test and scrape through a Novice, too. She has a natural aptitude for dressage unlike any I’ve seen before, putting warmbloods to shame. Today we worked on leg-yields for the second time ever and got walk leg-yields all the way across the arena on the diagonal, as well as a little trot leg-yield from the quarter line to the track. Such a pleasure to ride her. Her greatest flaw is also her greatest strength – her tremendously long stride. She sees no reason to shorten it when moving at full extension is so much fun, but it’s improving.

The third Nooitie of the day was a little chestnut mare with a real Nooitie brain. She’d never been handled, apart from being fed apples and having her nose petted, when we first met her and in two sessions I was riding her around the ring without any tantrums. This time we finally got the canter on the correct leg all the way around the arena, once on each rein. Canter has been a bit of a sticky point for her; she is a laid-back slowpoke type that I think will do well in a riding school.

Today was a more relaxed day; the Mutterer and I took Arwie and Thun for a long outride. It was an entirely new venture for Thunder as we went up the public road and onto a neighbouring game farm, then up and down some rather steep and rocky hills and through the indigenous scrub there. Despite being dead nervous for the first ten minutes, Thunder soon hit his stride and fell into step beside Arwen with that beautiful, swinging, relaxed stride that I love so much. I could ride his walk all day long and not get bored. He had no major incidents, just a few minor spooks, which I felt was very impressive of him. He had to deal with a lot of new things, including strange dogs running up and barking, eland, springbuck, wildebeest and ostriches (HATE OSTRICHES). Arwen was also very good; she remains a bit spooky even with the Mutterer, but was much more forward-going than the last time he rode her, and seemed to carry him without any effort at all. (Although he could probably knot his ankles together under her belly).

(Footnote for foreigners: This thing is an eland, the largest of all antelope. I don’t know their exact mass, but I know they’re as tall as horses and can jump really freakishly high. Also that when a herd of them takes off running, most horses entirely lose their brains).

I was so happy with my little Thun. He was an absolute pleasure to ride, forward, relaxed and confident in his good moments, merely jittery in his bad ones. He’s developing into the horse I need, the one his mother has been for me for so many years – the horse that you can saddle up and ride into the sunset without having to worry about being bucked off, or about frame or rhythm or engagement, and spend a few hours in our glorious little corner of Africa concentrating only on praising our amazing Creator God and keeping the horse between you and the ground.

Glory to the King.