With his biggest dressage show yet on the horizon, Thunder hasn’t actually competed in a single graded dressage class this year.
Our first show of the year was in the very end of January, where I took a bunch of kids to a pre-SANESA training show for their dressage tests and packed him along too because the schedule was just too hectic to allow for another show. We did Novice 1 and 2 again, for sort of mediocre scores, but at least he won the one and came second in the other. He felt sort of mediocre on the day as well; trying hard, as usual, but tense and scattered, as usual for a show. If he had just lifted his back he would have had another 70%, but again, as always happens when he is a little tense, our scores were in the low to mid 60s.
Our next show was Horse of the Year. I couldn’t afford HOY and dressage in the same month, and he is such a hunter type that it seemed a shame never to show him as one. I didn’t feel up to jumping the working hunter on him, so we entered for show hunter and working riding. The show hunter day he was absolutely fantastic. He didn’t gallop, or I think he would have placed, because he behaved impeccably and was forward and relaxed through his whole body. I found myself wishing we were in a dressage test because he would have done so well.
Either way, we enjoyed ourselves but didn’t place because apparently hunters really should gallop instead of just making flat ears and bouncing.
The working riding day was absolutely dreadful. He was horrible in the warmup, screamed in the lineup, and then spooked at every single obstacle. But I did learn something that I can definitely use for future shows: Thunny is absolutely perfect if he goes anywhere alone or with a gelding, and absolutely horrible if he goes anywhere with a mare. Somebody is just a little proud cut, I presume.
I know I should really just make him go to shows with mares until he gets over himself and behaves, but honestly, life’s too short and I don’t have the kind of money to waste entry fees on miserable experiences. Henceforth, unless unavoidable, Thunder is going to shows by himself so he can relax and we can actually achieve something other than getting frustrated and tense. This is our strategy for Easter Festival this weekend, and we’ll see how it goes. Considering he has just been to KPC for HOY, and is going by himself, I think he should be very chill. I hope for a nice score, but I don’t expect a placing. You wouldn’t either if you’d read the entries list in our class.
Schooling has been kind of magical lately. We have worked through a lot of the initial drama that surfaced shortly after we started lessons with Coach J; the running and the falling out with the shoulder. He has learned to be both relaxed and forward, and I love it. We’ve sorted out a lot of our old issues – he has a stretchy trot now, he has a superb walk-canter transition, his lateral work is very much in place – and learned a whole lot of new things, too: travers, better lengthenings, shoulder-in, leg-yield zigzags that make him feel like he’s really dancing, four steps one way and then four steps the other just floating off my leg. Most exciting, we even started the flying changes.
It happened like this. We spent the entire lesson working on leg-yield zigzags, with Coach J alternately shouting “LEFT leg!” and “Keep his neck straight!” until finally we got it right. Then we tried in canter, leg-yielding across the diagonal to the right. Coach J ordered, “Outside leg and leg-yield left” and I obediently did so and Thunder obediently popped out a flying change. Ever since I have been too nervous to really do them at home, but we have been pulling them out at lessons quite frequently, and as long as I keep his neck straight and push his bum over – as opposed to trying to pull his face around – they just magically fall out of the sky. I was definitely not expecting to be doing changes in March when we started lessons, a just-barely-Novice combination, in November.
So mostly our schooling consists of doing whatever Coach J said, with occasional bits of test riding scattered in there, but honestly whatever it is that Coach J is making us do seems to make all the other stuff easier because the Novice work seems to be just sort of happening. It’s still rough around the edges, and I don’t expect the same scores we were getting for Prelim this weekend as we’re doing Novice 4 and 5 and they’re quite hard, but it’s all just there. Our one major downfall is that all of our downward transitions are poor – all of them. I think, though, that it’s me and not him. I ride too many green horses and have too much of a tendency to want to pull on his face, which makes him hollow through the transition.
Honestly, lessons with Coach J have been revolutionary. It was hard at first because I was trying so hard to prove ourselves to him, but now I’ve chilled out a bit and it feels like the bulk of the responsibility for getting Thunder up the levels doesn’t fall on my inexperienced shoulders anymore. I get to just relax and ride the horse for a change, and I absolutely love it. Of course, we still work very hard, practice hard, and learn hard, but at least we know what we’re doing now. I look forward to Easter Festival and I can’t wait to go dance with my horse again.
For all the pain of the past few weeks, there has been a lot of joy thrown in there as well.
My precious dance partner has been a huge source of it. Our lessons with Coach J have been fantastic; we’re schooling movements I’ve only ever dreamed of, planning to ride Novice 4 and 5 next weekend and easily skipping through the tests. I’ve never felt so prepared for a competition and yet also never felt less obsessed with it. What God does for me on that horse’s back every morning is incomparable to a simple horse show.
More than ever, it is about the dance, about the land of the threefold cord. About the way Thunder can take me to a place where it’s just him and God and me and the dance, and for an hour I can be in a place where pain can’t find us.
On the schooling front, we’re doing almost all of the Elementary work and some EM too, including our first few tentative flying changes.
The other man in my life arrived at a time where happiness was hard to come by, but as the wounds heal I am starting to discover how ridiculously happy I can be just because God made him. It’s quite astonishing how one smile can light up a goodly chunk of the world.
Arwen and I are in an amazing place right now. I could never possibly ask for a better partner, a better comrade through my struggling first years in the competitive arena, and it feels good now to be able to repay her with a gentler attitude in the saddle. We mostly hack these days, schooling seriously mostly before shows. Finally taking the time to just enjoy each other, enjoy the shows, enjoy the fact that God brought us here together. The fire in her belly still fuels mine.
I’m riding Faithy! She is still a pretty ungainly beast, particularly struggling to find a truly balanced canter, but in terms of temperament I couldn’t have asked for better. We are doing walk/trot in the dressage and she doesn’t seem to know how to spook. She likes working and trying to figure things out, and is a forward-thinking lady. I also just find her really comfortable to be around and ride; she’s my type, the size and shape that I grew up with, and reminds me deeply of Nell. It feels like we’ve been friends a lot longer than we really have.
Moos make me happy too, particularly super well behaved ones like Fergie and Sarah. The day after the one month anniversary of my friend’s death – an inexpressibly difficult milestone – was the annual Boer and Brit day with my family and it was just super awesome. God sent that day for a reason; it nursed my soul.
God’s provision has been so great this summer. My parents have graciously allowed a few pastures to be opened for horses, and the grazing is fantastic. The sight of healthy, grazing horses among the green abundance just soothes a horsewoman’s very soul.
I keep feeling this increasing awareness of the time we waste. We don’t have time. We don’t have time for anything but loving God and loving people and looking for heaven. We can’t afford to take the time for granted. We need to follow Him now, make amends now, ask forgiveness now, show our love now.
We only already have now and eternity. And eternity – our own and each other’s – hinges on now. We cannot waste it on hell’s schemes.
We need to follow Him now, wherever He leads. We need to live our lives before it’s too late.
Every time someone asks, “Did you hear about that girl…?” I feel more hurt and more angry when I have to respond, “I was on the scene. She was my friend.”
But God will work all things for the good of those that love Him. Already He is working this for good.
I have loved and been in love for months, but just always been too hesitant to do anything about it. The night my friend died changed all that. God’s love is my only strength; this man is the place God’s love gave me where I don’t have to be strong all the time.
He is her last gift to me. Because I learned from her well-lived life and her tragic death that life is just too short to be still when God calls you loud and clear.
Blogosphere, meet the darling. He is terribly good at reversing the horsebox. He and Thunder have an adorable bromance. I would say he is the man of my dreams, but he’s far more than that.
For reasons I have yet to grasp, God saw fit to put you where you are: here with me on a farm in Africa. Sometimes I wonder where you even came from. The fact that your mother is a little round chestnut farm pony doesn’t mean that she isn’t valuable – to me, at least, her value is inexpressible – but she shouldn’t have been able to produce you. Not at 22 years old after being barren for at least seven years (if not all her life), not after having AHS when you were only a baby. The fact that you and your dam both made it out of that one alive was the first miracle that threw me to my knees.
Let alone the fact that you shouldn’t have survived, you should never have been talented. When people at shows ask me how you’re bred, I respond with, “His daddy was black and his mommy was chestnut,” and it’s about all I know. There is Friesian in there somewhere. You are a backyard-bred mongrel and you should never have been able to dance like you do. Dressage people should not be believing in you. Yet they are, because here you are; an unassuming little round bay horse, until you lift your back and suddenly grow two inches.
Your heart, at least, I can understand. Your dam is a fearless firestorm of a horse, a dauntless warrior queen of your kind. You’re not as fiery as she is, but, like her, you have a heart as big as the world.
That’s what makes you special, aside from whatever it is that makes you so supple and uphill and majestic. Your heart. You never stop giving. I never school for more than 20 minutes, except for you. Some days I look up and realise I’ve been on you for almost an hour and a half. Any horse should be sour by then, but not you; you stay enthusiastic, throwing yourself into the task, focused and attentive, delighting in your own God-given strength and beauty.
Some days, on your back, God takes me somewhere new; deeper into the land of the threefold cord, where there’s nothing but you and me and Him, and the dance. There is nothing that can touch us there. It’s a taste of Heaven; an intimate world where nothing else matters.
Some days. You see, love (and I know you do), while for 23 hours a day you live the comfortable life of the modern domestic horse – lolling in a field, teeth and feet always up to date, spine carefully adjusted, saddle fitted like a glove – I think God gave you a home that loves you for a reason. The only affliction you’ve ever had to endure sits between the saddle and the sky. I never mean to hurt you. Of course not. You’re my dance partner. But while there are some days that we taste Heaven, there are many more days when you get the old me, the carnal me, the mortality that is yet to be swallowed up of life, my flesh. The spirit indeed is willing, but you know exactly how weak the flesh can be. Oh, I’m not talking about the occasional hiding you get. Those are for your own good; you’re still a naughty little boy sometimes. But I know as well as you do that there is something we do to horses that is so much worse than just the tap of a dressage whip, or even a yank on the reins.
We’re human. Loud, complicated, emotional and always worrying about things that just don’t matter to horses. Sadly for you, you’re my horse. I can’t make the space between you and me that I have with the clients’ horses. Not with you. I need you. I don’t just need you to dance; I need you to hear me. I don’t have to explain anything to you. I just bring all my baggage and my fears and my hopes and my dreams and my exhaustion and bottle them all up and get on your back and try to make something beautiful, while emotions clash inside me so loud I can’t hear you and you can hardly hear yourself and God’s still small Voice doesn’t get through.
It’s ugly then. I’m sorry, love. I’m trying to fix it, but I can’t pretend it’ll be quick. I can’t pretend it’ll be easy or that there won’t be even more moments when my stressed out human will shouts down your quiet, loving opinion. We were made in the image of God, unlike you; but, also unlike you, we are the ones who fell.
God forgive me, sometimes I can make your life very hard for you. I know; then I worry about that, and make it even harder. You poor soul. You deserve better. But what you’ve got is me, and you’ve got me because God put us here together.
And you don’t mind.
I stress and fuss and freak out up there and make you tense. But you start every single ride with the same soft eye, the same supple back, ready for this ride to be better. You still come up to me in the field. You still love your work and never stop trying and concentrate, oh, how you concentrate. And with every breath, God is teaching me, not about dressage, but about Himself: about amazing grace.
I ask God’s forgiveness and I ask yours. And I won’t give up, because God hasn’t. You and me have a long, long way to go and sometimes it will be unpleasant. I don’t mean to make it hard for you. I don’t even mean to make it hard for myself. It just is. And you just accept it and go along with it, not questioning why your particular human should be the one that’s a little defective, just accepting that your heart is big enough for us both. I will be better for you, love. I promise. Just stay patient, stay loving, stay your wonderful self while I untangle my soul.
At the end of 2016, I faced losing the ride on the best horse I’d ever sat on. At the end of 2017, I face, for the first time in my life, regular and serious training on a horse who can go all the way, as well as starting another talented baby. And nobody but God can take either of them from me because it’s my name on the papers. It truly should not be possible, not for an anxious overachiever in the middle of nowhere on a shoestring budget, but God pays no attention to the possible.
When I have finally upgraded my membership (gotta pay Dressage SA first *gulp*), I will share what’s going on in my heart about the upcoming year of dressage, as well as my adventures riding Coach J’s super ultra fancy horses yesterday (squee!). But for today we’re going to be a bit intellectual and look at the things we want to work on this year in terms of the four babies I show myself.
The man himself went from strength to strength in 2017, starting off by coming second in his first classes ever with mid-60s scores. He never scored less than 63% through a year at Prelim, then debuted at Novice with scores in the low 70s. We finished by scoring 66s again at CHG Champs despite riding in a thunderstorm with me as sick as a dog.
So his goals for 2017 were:
School all the Novice work, ready to compete next year. We have schooled everything. It’s not all polished yet, but he can go into an arena and do any Novice test without totally embarrassing himself, I’m sure. We have not polished all of it, but the movements are installed.
Jump 70cm courses with confidence.
Do our pre-flatwork short hacks calmly. He’s sometimes a little tense, but there has been no bolting. Yay!
With Coach J’s help, Thunny’s schooling is pretty much on track to continue scoring steadily at Novice at the very least. Our greatest bugbear is tension in the show ring. If he’s relaxed he unfailingly scores in the 70s. He has never been disobedient in the show arena, but he locks up through his back and neck, going from being connected and through (for the level) to simply being rhythmic and on the bit. This is just something that we’ll have to keep competing to resolve, and I’m willing to be patient with him. If it takes him five years to be consistent at competitions, then so be it. The horse is far too good for me to lose sleep over losing points at Novice because he saw a butterfly.
With this in mind, my focus is shifting to schooling correctly rather than winning competitions next year. Of course I would like to compete him at least once a month to work on resolving that issue and, obviously, earn grading points, but we probably won’t be doing CHG Series. We will probably end up going to bigger shows, though, for both of us to get our heads around the atmosphere. (Also because Coach J might be there).
I’ll be real honest, I kind of have no idea what goals I should be setting. In yesterday’s visit Coach J was talking about doing EM this year. I have my doubts, but the oracle knows best. Mostly I’ll keep chugging along doing my thing and watching to see what God does, because He seems bent on blowing my pathetic little expectations out of the water lately.
First and second quarter:
Improve all of our downward transitions.
Improve our stretchy trot.
Improve both lengthenings.
Improve the halts, specifically staying connected in halt and immobility.
Improve rein back.
Third and fourth quarter:
Introduce all of the Elementary movements:
serpentine four loops
halt immobility 5 seconds
canter circle with break of contact
half stretchy trot circle
transition from walk to counter canter on the long side
serpentine 3 loops with counter canter
turn on the haunches
10m canter circle
half circle in counter canter
simple change on a short diagonal
simple change on the long side
E-X half circle, X simple change, X-B half circle
Keep working on quiet little hacks.
Arwie had another year of doing everything from showjumping to working riding to a whole lot of dressage. She took me to my first ever Elementary and tried her guts out in every single test despite mediocre riding and simply poor schooling, even scraping up a few placings as we went. Most of all, she was the dragon who relit my fire when I needed it, which is what she does best. Someday, if God wills it, I’ll ride the big grades and nobody will remember her – but I will, because she made it possible.
Get points for Elementary Medium. Sooooooo close. We would totally have done this if it wasn’t for the issue with her feet that ruined the last few months of the show season. It was God’s will, so I don’t mind admitting that this goal didn’t happen. Still, we have nine points and we need ten. She’s still registered with DSA so I might just drag the beast to one more show, get the last pesky point and then be done.
Don’t mess up a show riding/show hack class.
Jump a graded 80cm round.
Do some cross-country lessons and/or go drag hunting. So we didn’t do this either, although not for lack of trying. Still, it’s no biggie.
Arwen tried her heart out for me this year, but we’ve been stuck in a rut for months, making almost no progress on our Elementary work. It’s not surprise, considering that all of her basics are lacking. It got worse when Thunder started to play with some of the movements and they were all so easy on him, which caused frustration with myself every time I schooled Arwie, knowing I could have done better if I’d had her as a youngster now. So, apart from maybe popping out to get that last grading point, dressage is on the shelf for Arwen for now.
Instead, we’ll be making our first serious foray into the world of showing. We’ve done bits, but this year I’m signing up with Showing SA (which is ridiculously cheap compared to DSA) and we’ll be hitting some of the bigger ones. The expensive classes do mean that I won’t be competing her as often, but she’s not a baby, she doesn’t need it that much anymore. I really look forward to it.
Take at least one showing lesson or clinic.
Get over my phobia of all showing judges. Show at least once with one of the horrible ones and learn to deal.
Improve her rein-back and lengthenings.
Get points to go out of Novice.
Last year this time, it was just days after I’d met Faithy for the first time. On the second of January, she came home – completely unhandled and so fresh off the veld that she didn’t even know what concentrates were and politely declined to eat them.
The little unicorn spent most of the year chilling in a field. The basic ground work was effortless, although loading went a lot better once I discovered that treats can bribe Faith into doing practically anything. I brought her in for backing in November, but it’s been slow progress, mostly because I hit a nasty burnout and non-competing horses went onto the back burner.
Stand for grooming and farrier.
Lead and tie up.
Be good tobath.
Be good to catch.
Show in-hand. Boo. There were no shows we could really do this year, as well as the minor disadvantage that she spent most of it looking like something like an adorable grey camel. Still, she has all the in-hand skills required, so that’s something.
In spring, lunge. I planned to start lunging in September/October and back shortly after her third birthday, but she was still such a baby then. I had to wait for the front end to catch up first, and I’m glad I did. She’s a sweetie, but very much immature for her age.
In November/December, do the groundwork and have a rider on, just sitting. She has worn a saddle, but that’s about it. Smart and loyal she is, but mature, not so much. I’m taking it slow. She could do with some growth and muscle tone before being asked to really do anything just yet.
Faithy is still only a very babyish three-year-old, so 2018 will still be very much relaxed. Our main goal is to be ready for YDHS in 2019 since I absolutely loved it on Nell last year, and since four-year-olds only do Prelim, I’m in no hurry. The main thing this year will be to establish rock-solid basics, and I’m taking the most basic of the basics: obedience, rhythm and relaxation.
First and second quarter:
Complete the backing:
introduce pole work
introduce the rider
move to the dressage arena.
Start preliminary schooling:
introduce the figures
establish good transitions between gaits
establish balanced and united canter
introduce hacks, alone and in company
possibly ride a walk/trot test at our April show
Second and third quarter:
Complete preliminary schooling:
introduce the idea of a long and low, stretchy frame
grow the frame upwards to connection
improve consistency in the connection in all three gaits and transitions
introduce free walk and stretchy trot figures.
Introduce competing (August at the latest):
box out to a clinic, lesson or training show
compete at least twice at Prelim.
I didn’t even show Jamaica until February 2017, where we popped around something ridiculous like 50cm. We quickly made our way to 80cm, then stayed there forever as I tried to scrape my nerve together. Our move up to 90cm was easy, and I feel nicely set up for learning to jump Module 5 in mid to end 2018.
Hack reliably in company.
School Novice dressage.
Jump 90cm graded.
In another turn of events, it has transpired that he may need to be sold in 2018. Thank God (no, really, thank Him), his owners are happy for me to finish Mod 5. It doesn’t really change my plans, since I will not be riding him after Mod 5 anyway. I have zero aspirations to showjump right now. I would really have loved to event the dude, and might still if there’s spare time (ha!), but my focus will have to be on the yard and dressage. Still love him. ❤
First and second quarter:
Showjump 90cm at available training shows.
Compete at equitation 90cm at SANESA. Score 70% (that’s a 28) or more, if not at the first qualifier, then at least at the last two. 70% is the pass mark for Module 5.
Introduce all the flatwork required at Module 5: leg-yield, turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, a little shoulder-in, a little travers. (The exam specifies only “lateral work” but I don’t expect to have to do half-pass).
Second and third quarter:
In May/June, jump a 1.00m showjumping round. (I would love to do the 1.00m equitation, but it requires swapping horses, and that just ain’t happening, thankyouverymuch. Ask me in a decade).
Jump at least one more clear 1.00m round at an appropriate pace. It doesn’t have to be fast, just flowing.
Jump Module 5 in September.
If we do fail it, jump it again in December.
I didn’t actually set personal goals in 2017, but I did improve my position a LOT. I had a terrible chair seat for years and I feel like this year I finally fixed it. It’s still not perfect, especially not in my current dressage saddle, but yesterday when I sat down in Coach J’s proper dressage saddle my alignment was suddenly perfect without any effort on my part. My hands are also a lot better, as is my core.
I do still have a very long way to go. Riding Coach J’s big horses really impressed on me the amount of strength and suppleness required to keep it up, and I know I’m still severely crooked.
In terms of jumping, my high Module 4 mark shows that my position is pretty adequate. Still, my nerves tend to show when I grab mane and my lower leg tends to swing back on landing, so there is lots to do.
Improve my own body:
Have regular chiro. If my medical aid covers it, I don’t have an excuse not to go, and it doesn’t help that I care about Thunny’s back when my own back is stiff and crooked on top of him. I’m almost permanently body sore, and that’s a disservice to the horses who get to carry that sack of potatoes around.
Take conditioning classes twice a week throughout the year. No excuses. My sister is a dance teacher, and nothing in the world compliments dressage like ballet does: it will be excellent for my core strength, body control, and awareness of how I use my muscles. Ballet is kinda savage so it’ll build my cardio for jumping at the same time. Even if my sister has to miss some classes, I have to find somewhere that I can cross-train. Volunteers get discounted membership at the local gym, so I really do not have excuses. I need to be just as strong and supple as Thunny.
I’m pretty good about eating and sleeping well. (This week does not count. One of the many perks of being a friendly teacher is large amounts of sweets at Christmastime – children’s love language). Keep it up, especially when I’m on volunteer duty.
Improve my dressage position:
Find out what’s going on with my shoulders – probably a chiro issue, but my left shoulder always starts stinging about midway through a ride. I also hang on my left rein a LOT and my left shoulder blade can’t go flat like Ms Ballet Teacher Sister wants it to. Literally, it can’t, not even with her manipulating it. (My chiro will be horrified).
Improve on my bad habit of bracing the lower back as soon as I feel tension. That tension is not limited to nervousness – even if I’m just concentrating, the moment I try harder than usual, my lower back arches and braces, and I lose my connection to Thunny’s back.
Improve on my bad habit of tipping forward at the hip, especially in canter. It’s related to the back and shoulders issues, but it needs focused attention to fix.
Improve on my super bad habit of looking down.
Improve my jumping position:
Improve my tendency for my heels to come up on landing. Lots of light seat for me!
Improve my release.
Improve my tendency to try and jump ahead on takeoff.
I’ve never been so genuinely and childishly excited for a show season. God has blown me away this year, and I can’t wait to see what He does next. Yet, as always, there is so much possibility for things to not go according to plan. Horses go lame. Money runs out. These things happen. But my Abba, He loves me, regardless of what happens. So I lay down my anxiety, I look forward with joy, and I look up with peace, knowing that whatever lies ahead is part of His plan.
And I do not dare to dream, for my dreams are foolish. But as He has proven time and time again, He dreams for me.
By the end of last week, it was beginning to feel like things were starting to come together with Thunny and I. And by that I mean that the spastic chicken had finally developed the ability to let go of its inside rein.
So we headed off to our next lesson with optimism, which was rewarded when Coach J only made us do the turn on the forehand exercise like three times and moved on to other work – still on the same theme.
Straightness and connection and bend. We did alternately long stretches of trotting large, pushing for something like a medium trot (pls Coach J we can barely do lengthenings), focusing on having Thunder really forward off my leg and into my hand. “Use his bum to push his head down, not your hands to pull his head down,” intoned the oracle.
To do this I also had to give my inside bend fetish a rest and straighten him considerably, even on the corners, allowing both hind legs to push evenly forward into my hands. I struggled with this because all I really got from him in trot and canter was to run onto his forehand. In walk we got something much nicer, a massive active walk that I could feel over his back.
Then we’d move on to long stretches of shoulder-in going large. And I had my doubts because shoulder-in hadn’t really been on our radar – shoulder-fore had been a big ask for preparation for walk-canter – but what do you know? I popped on inside leg and outside hand and we had something like shoulder-in.
It wasn’t terribly good shoulder-in, though. I generally was too quick to reward Thunny for running out through his shoulder instead of being straight and stepping across, mostly because I have no idea what a proper shoulder-in feels like. More outside rein (always more outside rein) mitigated this, but we both began to degenerate into a bit of a mess about it, so Coach J ordered me off and got on the steed himself.
Nobody has ever trained Thunny other than me, so I’ve never really seen him being ridden in a true connection in real life. It took me a few seconds to get over how majestic he is and start to listen to Coach J. Who magically got my horse to shoulder-in. By the end of it he was doing shoulder-in in a long and low frame with a floppy inside rein.
I got on again then, but he was quite tired so we just did a couple more and then called it a day. It did feel better, though, and having seen it, I had a better idea of what it’s supposed to be.
On Tuesday our session was a bit of a mess. Thunder seemed to have forgotten everything he’d learned about connection and retained only the ability to run onto his forehand. We tried to do some stretchy trot but all he did was run. Then I tried to do some lateral work to re-engage his brain, starting with a little leg-yield, and the whole mood changed when I touched him with my inside leg and he gave me the best leg-yield I’ve ever ridden on any horse, ever.
After that we did leg-yield all over the place until I was happy as a bird and, thus, he was happy as a bird. Apparently inside leg to outside rein fixes everything. His shoulder-in was better then, too, although he was still quite hollow.
Every session since has been better. He does want to run forward in stretchy trot, but the trot itself is better, with much more stretching over his back. We just have to address the break in rhythm. His shoulder-in in walk has been long and low and relaxed, too. In trot I still lose the shoulder now and then, which makes me go tense in my lower back and then makes him hollow. So the connection hasn’t been good at all, but the straightness has improved.
The thing I can’t get down at all is that lengthened/medium trot. He either doesn’t lengthen much and falls on his forehand or just runs forward. I have never been able to ride a good lengthening unless the horse had a naturally big and flashy trot (I’m looking at you, Nell), so that’s a me thing, I think.
It’s so reassuring to know that I don’t have to have a meltdown over something I can’t get right, because now by God’s provision, we have Coach J to help us.
Every time I enter a dressage show I feel vaguely guilty about spending time and money on something that isn’t expressly helping other people. I know, intellectually, that God wouldn’t have sent me Faith, or made my scruffy homebred really quite talented, if He wanted me to stop. I know I gave it to Him. But knowing something in your head and having faith in it in your soul isn’t always the same thing.
But these past few days have been one step deeper into faith.
The dream team set off: Superdad, Wonderbird and the Dragon, at a leisurely hour on Sunday morning (things I love about dressage). We were there in good time and I plopped Arwen’s tack on and off we went. I was expecting a dragon, but she was really, really good. Relaxed and quiet from the word go, but forward and enthusiastic. Our warmup was very relaxed, but as mediocre as usual. I was focusing hard on trying to develop an actual medium trot instead of a piggy little run, and she was focusing hard on bucking through the counter canter at one point, but then we were off and I was cautiously optimistic.
Our first halt felt OK, it was steady, square and on the bit, but it was 5.5 for quarters to left. The serpentine XA felt good as well for 6.5, which is about as good as we get. I’ve been working hard on the leg-yield and FX felt good – and was good, for 6.0 – but it all came to bits XM and I tried to sort it out but couldn’t really so that was a 5.0: “too much sideways”. At that point I started to realise that Arwen, while not exhausted, was slightly tired. After so many years of having her so, so fit, I’ve forgotten how flat she can be when she’s not jumping out of her skin. Arwen has to be hot to be her best, and she didn’t have the oomph.
Still, she didn’t feel at all reluctant, just a little tired, so I felt it was OK to finish the test and we soldiered on. We picked up a few more 6.0s for the halt and rein back (“steps not quite clear”) and the two turns on the haunches (“little too hurried”) – both better than before. The extended walk was 6.0 too, “lacking purpose”. She has a fabulous walk, so I blame that on being a little flat, too. And then at A she struck off on the wrong leg for a well-deserved 4.0. Really, Arwen? A wrong lead, in an Elementary test? But once again, she never, ever does that at home. Her brain was tired.
We got it together though for our best marks of the test; 7.0 for both the 10m canter circle and – get this – the simple change! I suppose we can cross “survive the simple changes” off our goals list. The counter canter was back to 6.0 for lacking engagement, and then the medium was a 4.5. I thought it was OK, but this judge evidently laid great emphasis on correct extensions/mediums, so that’s fair. Our circle at R was down to a 5.0 (“more jump”) and then the next change she picked up the wrong leg again, for 4.0. The counter canter was another 5.0 with “more jump”, and then the medium trot, obviosuly, was a 4.0. I didn’t let her hurry this time, but we didn’t really do much medium-ing, so yeah. The halt was fine except she fussed and made herself extra-square at the last moment, earning a 6.0, “not quite steady”.
The final mark was 54.1%. I do wish we’d gotten 55% and that final grading point, but it was fair, and I loved the judge’s comments. He asked for more jump, more engagement, noting that she was a little flat and lost unnecessary marks (two incorrect strike-offs – ya think?). But he also said “Rider tried hard on an obedient horse”, which I felt was true and complimentary.
Ultimately I think she could have done better and will once she is fitter. I think she did go better in the double, especially in her changes and transitions and rein back (we almost got our goal of more than 6.0 for the rein back). I also think she will never be competitive at Elementary because I was twelve years old and entirely clueless when I started riding her, with practically no guidance. She’s done wonders considering the hand she’s been dealt, and I remember thinking as we walked out of the arena that this horse would run through fire for me. I’ve given her second-rate training and she has given me her heart, and that’s what makes it worth it despite the occasional disaster.
Moving onto Thunder, we decided for my dad to stand by the warmup and the show arena with Arwen this time. I wanted to give Thun the best possible chance at a good test considering it was a level up and I wanted to build his confidence with the new movements, and I knew Arwen would be impossible alone anyway, so it was just easier.
Warming up, I knew immediately he was going well. He was relaxed and forward, going down into my hand instead of having to be held at all, and there was a suppleness in his back that makes me excited. As we went on, I noticed that a rider who had also ridden in the Elementary had just come charging into the warmup, looking a bit flustered. She was number 113 and we were number 114, but had already been warming up for a little while. I had done my basic warmup – large, lengthenings, a stretchy circle, some transitions and circles and lengthenings in canter – and was just about to start riding my test movements to finish the warmup when I heard the announcer calling number 113, who hadn’t even cantered yet.
“Can’t you go?” she asked me.
It was a knee-jerk reaction. “No, sorry. I’m not quite ready.”
I headed off, leaving flustered lady to her warmup, but something didn’t feel good in my soul. I paused, and I reluctantly listened to that still small voice. I really wanted a good mark. I really believed Thunder would go better if I could just have another ten minutes. But I knew what Jesus would do, and we dance for Him.
“It’s OK!” I yelled, inelegantly booting poor old Thun across the warmup. “We’re going!”
I don’t write this to boast, because what’s one tiny kindness compared to the ocean of my sin, or to the extravagance of the Love that went to the cross for it? I write it because I want to tell you all how big my God is. I felt His pleasure, and we went in and I rode the best test of my entire life. And my horse was right there with me, doing his very best.
The first centreline and halt was 7.5; he was a little unbalanced, but stepped forward to a square halt. Then our turns at C and B and walk/trot transition at X was an 8.5. Yup. Comment “obedient”. So he is; I wish I was as obedient to the call of my Master as that good-hearted horse is to the touch of my hand. The serpentine was a 7, comment “needs to show more change of bend in body; accurate”. We had a 6 for the stretchy trot, a better mark than before; he maintained his rhythm and did actually offer a tiny stretch for the first time ever in the show ring, so I was happy. His stretchy trot is getting good at home – it’s just a matter of time before he relaxes in the ring.
We were back to a 7.5 for the free walk and a 7 for the first transition and canter circle. Our lengthening wasn’t terribly good, getting a 6 with comment “could be more balanced”. He was on his forehand and stayed there for the transition at A. I panicked about the lengthening and kicked him, so he gave half a canter step and I took a few strides to sort myself out and get a bit of lengthening, so that was a 6: “could show more balance at A and more ground cover”.
The canter transition at C and circle at B was a 7, asking for more uphill and jump. And our last halt was an 8. The final mark was 72.5%. You could say I was quite happy with that.
The second test started with a 7 for the centreline (“straight; halt could be more balanced”) and for the rein change with half circle (“could show more bend through body”). I fluffed the second rein change with half circle for a 6 (“not quite to X, could show more bend through body”). By this point my brain was also getting kinda tired – I had vowed to focus this time without being nervous, and I did, but it was starting to take a little strain. Our lengthening once again started with a tranter step and got a 6.0, comment “needs to show more push from behind to cover more ground”. And then we had our free walk. And then we got our first 9.0.
Not even kidding. It was fantastic.
The canter transition at M that I had been dreading was an 8.0, “obedient”, and the 15m circle was a 7.5, “could be more uphill”. I got the geometry right this time, though. The KXM rein change with a trot at X and canter at M was a 7.0, again asking for more uphill, but it was better than our downwards from canter to trot have been. The next 15m circle was another 7.5, the canter lengthening another 6.0. By the half circle onto the centreline, I was cooked. I sort of pulled him around any old how and we fell in a heap for 6.5.
Still, it was 71.8%, with super collectives: 7.0 for paces, 7.5 for impulsion (on Mr. Lazybones nonetheless), 7.0 for submission, 8.0 for rider position and aids. I have no idea where he placed because two tired Hydes really wanted to go home, so I just asked for my tests and they were nice enough to give me a couple of placed ribbons (cheers, Equivest!). “What a super horse,” the judge wrote. “Well ridden.” I was so chuffed.
But the story doesn’t end there. Oh no! There were a few more miracles in store for us. As we were waiting for my test and lunch, the owner of a top Friesian stud in our area beckoned me over.
“Who teaches you?” he enquired.
“I jump with Coach K,” I said, “but I don’t really get dressage lessons.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I can see that.”
I was just about to feel hurt when he offered for me to come over and join his riders in a lesson with their Very Big Name Trainer. Around this time Very Big Name Trainer popped up (I almost wet myself) and announced that this was a good idea and I could even get a very good price “if you do your homework”. I vowed to do my homework, and the next thing I know, this morning Thunder and I found ourselves in the middle of the very fancy arena at very fancy Friesian place with Very Big Name Trainer – OK, fine, I’ll call him Coach J – yelling at us.
I originally wanted to cry because I thought we’d never get good lessons ever again except once a year with Coach S when she fits his saddle, and here all of a sudden we were getting lessons from Coach J and cheaply and I was a little overwhelmed by what God is doing for us. But within the first two minutes I was way too busy to feel anything very much.
Despite seeing mirrors for the first time in his life, Thunny was perfect. We dragged Jamaica along to babysit but Jamaica chilled in the fancy stable and Thunder didn’t miss him at all – he didn’t even whinny once. And Coach J totally failed to hate my fabulous purple bandages. He did, however, roundly kick our behinds.
We didn’t actually do anything that hard, except that we had to do everything perfectly so it was all ridiculously hard. Once Thunny had walked around to have a look at everything and been asked to go long and low and a bit deep to stretch his back, we did a tiny little serpentine down the long side. And then we did a square with turns on the forehand that almost killed us, and then we trotted a 15m circle. That was it. My brain is overflowing with new stuff, and also I am very uncoordinated.
Inside leg to outside rein.
When Thunder wants to be looky, put him in shoulder-fore, flexing him away from the scary thing. This worked well for him because he isn’t really that scared, and being given a job and asked to soften helps him relax.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Tiny, tiny turns to help him bend through the body more (seeing a recurring theme yet?). They don’t have to be perfectly balanced, but 5m or smaller circles/serpentines in walk to help him release his back.
Inside leg to outside rein.
On small turns, inside hand to my belly button, not to my knee, to lift his shoulder.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Absolutely no seesawing on the bit; only solid contact, or small sponges within the contact. I say this to my kids about four thousand times every afternoon. I can’t believe I actually still do it myself. Urgh.
INSIDE LEG TO OUTSIDE REIN.
At this point Coach J had had enough of yelling at me about my inside rein and started the turn on the forehand exercise. We walked a little square, with a quarter turn on the forehand at each end. The catch? No inside rein. NONE. He wanted it hanging, to show me that I don’t need to pull it the whole time. It was at this point that my brain started to fry. It’s so automatic to hang on that inside rein – poor Coach J shouted about it like a million times. Eventually we were doing shoulder-in to turn on the forehand to shoulder-in to turn on the forehand with the inside rein dangling completely loose. Well, most of the time. Except when I was panicking and Coach J had to start all over again.
We moved on then to trotting a 15m circle, spiralling it in and out now and then, with no inside rein – but with bend and connection. It was so hard, but it so worked. Thunder was super willing – as soon as he understood, he obeyed. My inside hand, less so. It’s amazing how one’s own body parts can be less obedient than the half-ton prey animal that is my dance partner.
With that, we were done, and given loads of homework, and sent off ridiculously excited. Thunder has done so well all by himself, with only one lesson ever. Imagine what he can do with the help we have now. We might even do the bigger levels someday; Coach J seemed to think we could do more than EM. I would love so much to even do EM!
Thanks to our beloved King, Whose mighty plan prevails. I am so excited to see where my God is going with this. No detail is too small for Him. I have long since stopped dreaming: I have found that He dreams much, much bigger than I ever could.