Standerton Show 2019

I told the world – and myself – that I had hung up Arwen’s double bridle after Nissan Easter Festival 2018. Of course, this was by no means due to any failing on her part. She had just blossomed into her prime, and we had had many fantastic years together, and of course nothing would ever persuade me to part with the dragonmare or our cast-iron friendship.

But when it came to competition, I was just stepping out over the threshold of adulthood, and frankly, I was totally broke. I had to get a day job (as far as being a ghostwriter can be considered any kind of a normal day job, lol) and narrow my focus to one or two horsies instead of riding everything and entering everything the way I had as a teenager sponging happily on the long-suffering parents. Knowing that my heart was called to dressage, it made sense not to retire Arwen, but to give the ride to someone who could exhibit her to her fullest potential: a kid. And God’s timing, as usual, was perfect. I had a a kid in the yard who was everything – dedicated, tall enough to sit on a 14.3 hand barrel without looking puny, tactful enough to ride a mare who knows her job and doesn’t want you in the way, with just enough spunk to enjoy the dragonmare’s fire and enough Velcro on his bottom not to get burned by it. They had a great HOY 2019 together, winning supreme champion in hand and reserve supreme in working riding. Arwen’s third year running with the latter title.

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We were all gearing up for kiddo to ride her at Standerton Show last week, and shipped her off to a lesson with a showing coach to get her ready, and then that turned out to be a complete disaster. Something got up the dragon’s nose – I am not sure what, but I think it must have been a bug that bit her or something along those lines – and she completely lost her mind for about half an hour. She was fine when we got home, but I wasn’t wholly sure if she was going to behave at Standerton, thinking that maybe she’d learned some silly manners from the kiddo. So I decided to ride her there myself.

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It was a good choice! Not for the poor kiddo, who missed out on a perfectly-behaved dragonheart and a beautifully run show, but for me. Sorry kiddo! It really was for his own good.

The show started out a little bit disastrous when, ah, Aunt Flo visited all over my canary breeches – right before the in-hand. Luckily, head-groom-turned-student-instructor L was showing Vastrap, so she was on hand to take Arwen into the class while one embarrassed lump of humanity (me) spread my hastily-washed breeches on the bonnet of the bakkie to dry. Despite the chaos around her, Arwen was impeccably behaved in hand. Obviously, she won champion mare. It’s kind of her thing when it comes to in hand.

By the time the working riding class began, I had mercifully regained my dignity and my now-dry breeches, so we could go in and do our thing. Arwen was considering some dragonishness, but she didn’t let it show too much, so we popped happily through a straightforward track to win the Nooitie section and get reserve champion overall.

Best walk was next, and I think best walk is the most amazing thing for skittish me on an equally skittish youngster, but I actually entered it because Arwen has such a magnificent walk. Unsurprisingly, she won that, too. I’m glad I read the rules for best walk and gave her a looong rein, though. If I’d tried to be my usual DQ self, we might not have done so well.

In between, L and Vastrap were doing great – second in the WR, second in the jakkalsperd (handy hunter) I think, and then third in Best Canter because VT thought it was Best Gallop.

Finally, we had the best three-gaited. I watched the pleasure horse and think I’ll give it a shot next time – Arwen will be great if she doesn’t dragon too much. We went in and the Nooities were being judged with the SASA Riding Horses, and that was where we had a little bit of an oops. This was a supremely accessible, cheap, local show, which attracted a lot of top-class Nooities and WBs but also some newcomers to the showing ring. And I think that is absolutely wonderful, but a few of them were a little unused to riding in a group – and especially unused to riding in a group that was doddering along at a nice little showing canter. So somebody promptly rode up the dragon’s bum.

pictured: barely containing full-blown dragon mode

Arwen is a boss mare and she is not afraid to show it. Her back came up at once, and I squiggled her out of the way before she could do anything about the horse breathing up her tail, thinking we had averted disaster. Regrettably, the horse that was now behind us also didn’t really know what to do, so as we turned down the short side it went up our bum too. Trapped against the fence, I had nowhere to go, and Arwen decided to remedy the situation by launching a series of double-barrels at the intruder. They were warning kicks and all missed, and thankfully the horse stayed off us after that, but by then she was ANGRY.

She spent the rest of the class pullung and wanting to buck a bit, for which I couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t bad, but definitely a grumpy little sassdragon. We ended up second to Wilgerus Dakota, a beautiful bay stallion that I didn’t think we could beat anyway. The judge did come up to me and let me know that she hadn’t penalized Arwen for kicking at the other horse.

I totally don’t mind, though. Everyone was a newbie once. I’m just glad the kicks didn’t land lol.

At least we were into the championship class and Arwen had simmered down. We were asked to show an individual test in this class and thanks to a few showing lessons on Gatsby, I had learned a new one. Dakota rode a truly stunning test, and then it was our turn.

The test was short and sweet. Walk away, trot a rein change, lengthen down the long side, canter in the corner, canter a serpentine with lead changes (I did them through walk), lengthen the canter, trot, halt for the judge. Arwen was just fired up enough that when I asked for the lengthening I got a massive one – I didn’t even know she had that much extension in her. I was kind of beaming by this point because despite 18 months under a child, Arwen had not forgotten one drop of the ten years of schooling we had put in.

The changes through walk were so, so clean and obedient and she was so quiet coming back from the lengthening. When we halted from trot, dead square off my seat, I knew she’d just ridden the best test of her life. I may have been grinning just a little bit when I asked for five steps of rein back and then dropped the reins. She stood like a statue.

It was the most exhilarating moment we’ve ever had in the show ring together – I could not have been prouder even if we’d placed dead last. It was not the single most magical achievement of our career so far, but it was symbolic to me of the partnership that has spanned my entire adolescence and extends into adulthood, a partnership that taught me so much courage on a mare that exemplifies the phrase “against the odds”. A partnership that has spoken to me of God’s great plan. This ride – it was just a cherry on top.

I was so happy, and so pleased with this absolutely amazing fireball of a horse, that my salute may as well have been a mic drop. Still, I was kind of flabbergasted when we finally got the title that’s been eluding her for years: ridden champion.

My wall is absolutely covered in satin from the dragonbeast, in every discipline, and yet those rosettes don’t inspire a feeling of achievement in me. They make me feel something else: grateful. And perhaps a little awed by God’s mercy. Oh, not because of the placings. Those will crumble to dust like everything else. But because of what He achieved in my heart because of the fire in hers. Rosettes are forgettable, but love and courage and gratitude – those are forever.

And Arwen has been an instrument to bless me with them all. The guts she showed me out on a cross-country track or walking into the show ring with all the big names, I needed later for far bigger and more real challenges. And she was there for me even in those.

So with 2020 on the horizon, what’s next for my most faithful equine partner? Well, Dakota’s owner offered us a free covering. I definitely would like to put her in foal, although I can’t keep her babies right now – they’d have to have buyers before they’re bred. Still, the Nooitie is a hugely endangered breed and partially so due to inbreeding. Because her lines are rare and she’s only half Nooitie, Arwen is exactly the type of mare that could really benefit the breed.

She has just turned 13 so it’s time to start thinking about this kind of thing. However, God willing, she’ll definitely do HOY 2020, with me and with a child. After that, it’s time for baby dragons!

God’s abundance is undeserved. Glory to the King.

A Lesson for Lancelot

The white knight and I were supposed to be off to our first dressage show of the year yesterday, but the poor judge ended up sick in bed without a voice, so we decided to lesson with the show organiser instead.

M is not as high a level instructor as J, but I knew she was super nice and very technical, so for little Lancey it was a perfect fit – better than a show, actually.

Lancey is being a very interesting ride. Although not yet strong in his body and possessing the attention span of a gnat, he was nicely schooled when I gave him back to his child as a 4yo. I backed him slowly and meticulously and worked on him for a year, so he was pretty solid for a baby horse. We rode two Prelim tests for 67 and 68 with a very strict judge, after all.

Fast forward two years of showjumping and I have a very different little horse, physically at least. He is much more confident and independent now and can actually concentrate, and in jumping, he really takes good care of himself – I can freeze up a bit and he doesn’t really give his left sock. But in the dressage, sadly, he appears to have forgotten everything I ever taught him. He’s obedient enough in his transitions but likes to run onto the forehand, fall in with the quarters, go in zigzags, crash into fences instead of turning, fall in with the shoulders, hollow, lose rhythm, etc.

One thing that hasn’t changed is his super adorable personality. Lancey just still wants to make people happy and succeeds at his task 99.9% of the time.

So we arrived at the venue and he was, obviously, completely relaxed. This is a novelty after Thunder’s occasional brain evaporations, and I enjoyed tacking him up and hopping on with no drama. He does like to stare pop-eyed at things while walking around for the first time, occasionally accompanied by melodramatic Arab snorting, but didn’t actually spook.

Champagne and K were with us and Champagne, naturally, was a little loopy, so we started with walking around and using Lancey as Champagne’s brakes. Of course, he was totally good-natured about this – he barely noticed Pagney bouncing off his bottom. She soon settled down and worked really well, so we got to the lesson.

The work was very basic and simple, with M paying great attention to the fine details, exactly what Lancey needs. We did lots of large, some circles and a lot of tiny simple leg-yields – quarter line to track or 10m circle to 20m circle. Lance was quite willing to go to the left, but it took a few tries to go right, which makes sense because left is his stiff side. However, once M showed me how to get the timing of the aid right – applying the leg aid in pulses in time with his inside hind lifting – it made an enormous difference. Soon he was leg-yielding both ways without difficulty.

We also talked a lot about rhythm and tempo. Lancey has always had a really good natural rhythm, which got a little bit lost when he was being a showjumper. He likes to run onto his forehand and then sort of flinch away from my hand and hollow majestically as only an Arab can. M encouraged me to find his rhythm first and allow the hollowness to correct itself. She liked that my leg was keeping him active without nagging, but added that in order to keep a slower tempo – more active, less running – I had to slow my seat down without slacking off with my lower leg. This was a real light-bulb moment for me. Thanks to riding J’s schoolmasters once back in 2017, I pretended to be riding passage instead of a rather mediocre working trot, and letting my seat post on a passagey rhythm while my legs kept asking for forward really got him together without ever touching the reins.

We finished with cantering just a couple of circles. His canter work is horrible to be honest. He can be trusted to canter and be on the right leg, but apart from that it’s a bit of an epic disaster. But I’m avoiding it for now as we work on the trot first to get him more relaxed and soft in his own rhythm.

He had a few really gorgeous moments. When he does relax and start pushing, lifting and swinging, he just falls into the contact easily, and we get about half a circle of brilliance. But he doesn’t have the strength to hold it yet so then we flop around again for a bit.

M was saying how I’m very experienced and I added that yes, I am, but I’m still a total beginner at anything more than Prelim. I’ve backed more babies than I can really remember and ridden millions of Prelim tests, but I’ve only ever had three horses compete at Novice, and none of them for very long. When it comes to riding anything more than a 20m circle it’s still a real challenge for me to do well. In other words, I need a LOT of lessons lol. But at least I have spent a lot of time on the backs of moving horses – in the words of Denny Emerson – so the foundation is very much there; the balance, the effectiveness of the aids and the effort to understand the horse’s mind. Now there’s so much to learn and build on that foundation and I’m just really excited to go out and do it.

As for this wonderful little white horse, he just gives me so much joy and confidence. He’s such a relaxed, non-violent guy who just wants to have fun. Such a quick study and ridiculously sensitive to my seat for a horse that was ridden by a kid for two years.

Thunderbirdy is also still alive and getting back into work, and his first show is in two weeks’ time. I’ll post an update on the majestic one soon, but first Lancey and I have another lesson – jumping this time – tomorrow. It’s going to be really fun and I look forward to it. Darling is working away for a bit so I’m finding all sorts of horsy things to keep me occupied and avoid dwelling on the fact that not having him by my side feels like a missing limb.

How blessed I am to have something that I long for so deeply. Glory to the King.

Dancing at Home

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If  I had been told six months ago that my competing dreams for 2018 would be crushed under the tide of perplexing circumstance that comes with budding adulthood, I would have been devastated. But it proves to be out of mercy that the Lord fails to show us our future. Now that I am here in the moment, three months from our last competition and an array of obstacles from the next one, I find myself learning and living and loving it.

Don’t misunderstand me now. Every morning after my first round of the yard and the horsies, when the sun has cracked the horizon with molten gold and the frigid winter sent back into the shadows for a balmy Highveld day, the first thing I do is dust Thunder off, wrap his legs, put a saddle on him and ride. We might not have a competition on the schedule, but we have our lessons and we have a dream bigger than the both of us. Every day we chip away a little more at the vast obstacle of my ignorance. Every day as my riding strengthens I start to ask a little more of him: more suppleness, more collection, more impulsion. And every day he continues to give me everything that he has. If I’m totally honest, his saddle needs a gullet change and he could see the chiro again. But nothing hurts in his body or his heart, and he is happy to give me what he has, and I give him what I have, and so every day we step a little bit closer to that dream that God gave us.

The petty impatience and peevish perfectionism that occasionally plagued our relationship last year has melted in the face of what this means to my soul, just like the frost before the sun. This is more than a dream or a career to me. This dressage thing, it speaks to me on a level I can’t explain. It’s more than circles and straight lines in a sandpit on a horse. That thing that happens between the equine heart and the human soul, whatever it is – that thing matters.

If I had known that I would be here now, I would have been crushed. I would have thought I’d be lost, aimless, without shows to go to. I would have thought that I would have wanted to quit. But here in the backstage, here in the shadows, this is where the dream is growing bigger than ever before. It’s in the airless darkness that a dormant seed becomes a living green shoot that pushes its tender fingers up towards the sun. Of course I want to be out there, gaining grading points and showing off our skills and winning some satin and having adventures with my half-ton dance partner. But I think I am here for a reason and that reason is bigger than it looks.

I am here because every day, as I learn about dressage, I learn about life. Every day I discover a little more what I have been saying all along: that I don’t do this for a number on a test or satin on my bridle. I do this for the dance. Because score or no score, show or no show, in this broken and fallen and hurting world there are inexplicable moments of perfect and unnecessary beauty, and I find mine between the saddle and the sky. If that’s not proof of God’s glory, I don’t know what is.

I have groped my way back to the reason at the heart of why I bother to do this ridiculous, expensive, difficult, unpopular thing that hovers at the line between sport and art.

I do this because I am saved, and this is how I sing the song in my soul.

I have no idea when I will get to go back down centreline again. But I do know this: that with every ride where God is our main focus, our dressage only gets better. That the unassuming little bay gelding with the fluffy hair and the sticky stifle might just have the greatest heart that’s ever beaten between my knees, and a body that seems capable of everything I ask and more. That every step of the dance belongs to the One by Whom and for Whom we were all created. That this horse and me, we can do this, we can go all the way. That even if we end up going all the way in our home arena, even if we piaffe one day for heaven’s eyes alone, it will have been worth it.

Because it’s not about anything else but the threefold cord. Every day the four rhythmic hooves of the horse I love take me deeper to a place where only the three of us can go. Every day he means something more to me, our bond becomes more comfortable. Every day is another step on the path of greatest love.

As the last precipice of adolescence becomes the first peak of real adulthood in the misty light of early day, the stakes grow ever higher. Love. Family. Work. Finance. Students. Grief. Priorities. The lives of others. God is taking me further, higher, deeper. His plan is majestic and perfect. His dreams are so big they terrify me to the core, but I cannot resist His sweet voice calling me deeper still. And I don’t know what the plan is; somehow everything was turned on his head after the tragic event that broke me and meeting the man who has become my lighthouse, the beacon guiding me home. But I know that dressage is part of that plan.

And one thing stays the same. I absolutely love dancing with my beautiful horse, and I give my best to every ride.

I can’t wait to take the dance back to the stage and see our scores and feel the thrill of climbing the levels again. But right now, I am where I am.

And I love every moment.

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No Such Men

Girls, let me be real straight with you for a second. That Hollywood fellow you coo over? The one with the brooding dark eyes and smooth complexion? The huge biceps and the perfectly tousled hair?

You don’t want him.

You don’t just want a man with sculpted curls, high cheekbones and a square jaw. You don’t just want a man with a dazzling smile and pecs that strain against his tight T-shirt.

You want a man with eyes that see into your soul and love it despite the darkness they behold there. A man with arms that are strong enough to hold your world together, yet gentle enough to hold your child. A smile that lights up your heart. Feet that will walk the straight and narrow. Hands that will build your future together with perseverance and courage, yet touch you with respect and tenderness.

You don’t want a man who tells exciting stories of a swashbuckling past and spends his days chasing the next rainbow. You don’t want a man with a hundred new ideas every day and a mind that never stops moving and bouncing.

You want a man who can stay. You want a man with his feet on the ground and his eyes on the stars, a man who can both see the mountaintop and climb there, one boring step at a time. And take your hand and do it beside you.

You don’t want a man who will give you romantic, candelight dinners and trips to exotic countries. You don’t want a man who will buy you jewellery and make you feel special.

You want a man who will give you tomorrow, the next day and forever; a man who will give you his next breath if it comes to that, a man who will give you what he has even when the world has drained him. A man who will buy you a hat or a book you love. A man who will make you feel strong, beloved. Worthy somehow.

You don’t want a prince. You want a husband, a father, a friend, a leader. You don’t want a rainbow. You want a rock. Rainbows are good for chasing on summer days, but it’s the rock that stays the same even when the winter night comes. Just be sure your rock has a core of pure light.

And I once believed there were no such men.

But I was wrong.

2018 Goals: Training Horses Q2

Champagne

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Despite my emotional craziness through this quarter, Champagne has made some good progress on the schooling front. Outings did not go as well, but now that my head is on more or less straight again, this will resume hopefully with better results.

Shows:

  • Early Feb: Pre-HOY – This was not a disaster, but it could have been better. She travelled great and hung out quite happily at the show itself, but the riding was very nervous and tense. However, she never grew violent and stayed obedient to my cues to the best of her ability.
  • Late Feb: HOY – Creature was lame so had to miss it.
  • Due to not being great at Pre-HOY, we decided not to take her to SANESA Q2. She did our home show in April, though, and was completely calm and relaxed, garnering plenty of compliments from the judge. (And 82%, but the judge was quite generous. I’d have guessed it at a mid 60s test).

General:

  • Improve on her habit of throwing her head and running forward when scared. – Done. She can still be a little inconsistent in the contact when nervous, but there’s no more fling of the head and scoot. When she does spook she spooks like a dead ordinary young horse, just a little jump and then carry on.
  • Improve the consistency of her connection, particularly through transitions. – Still imperfect, but vastly better. Walk/trot/walk/halt/walk transitions are fine and canter/trot are fine, but trot/canter can still be problematic.
  • Improve her trot-canter transitions to the point where I can get the lead almost all the time without bucking. – Done! She can still get affronted if I get after her about the promptness of the transition, but strikes off correctly and only bucks on very rare occasions now.

 

2018 Q2 goals:

  • Visit another place at least twice a month.
  • Jump up to 60-70cm full courses confidently and with quiet rhythm.
  • Continue improving on the quality of the connection, with the help of introducing a little shoulder-in.

 

Savanna

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Savanna has been going from strength to strength. We had a few big disagreements about rushing, but she has started to relax and even enjoy her work, getting lots of compliments from equitation judges.

2018 Q1 goals:

  • Confirm all the Prelim work, including the stretches, square halts, and the little lengthening. – Done. The lengthening needs polishing, but everything else is solid, even the stretches.
  • Continue working on gymnastics to improve her carefulness to the point where poles down happen once in a blue moon. Prepare to start schooling over 70-80cm fences in the second quarter. – Done. She only has a pole now if she rushes, and has even discovered a bascule. We are consistently jumping about 75cm now.
  • Jump at least two clear rounds at shows. – Done, two of those being at 70cm.

 

2018 Q2 goals:

  • Improve the softness of her connection so that her child can easily ride her nice and round once his hands are there.
  • Jump 80cm confidently, cleanly and in a rhythm at home, ready for showing over 80cm in the third quarter.
  • Start jumping little simple fences with her child quietly in a rhythm, once the child’s position gets to a point where I let him jump again.

 

Emmy

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Emmy has since left my program, but she’s going from strength to strength with K.

2018 Q1 Goals:

Finish preliminary schooling:

  • confirm a united and balanced canter, with transitions and circles – Done, and with connection and bend
  • hack alone and in company – Done and she is super, if occasionally a little exciteable in big groups
  • introduction to small fence – Jumping tracks of about 60cm

Introduce to shows:

  • go to a show and have a good experience. – Unfortunately we only managed for her to do the in house show with K, but she’ll go to her first proper show in May if all goes well.

 

Titan

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Despite being out of work for a whole month with his ugly overreach, Titan has been progressing well. Unfortunately it has become evident that his child has already practically outgrown him, so he may be on the market once his schooling is finished.

2018 Q1 Goals:

Finish backing:

  • introduce trot – Done
  • introduce canter – Done
  • introduce the big arena. – Done

Start preliminary schooling:

  • introduce the figures – Done
  • establish a united canter, including circles – Done
  • introduce small, simple fences – Done, he’s jumped a little track of crosses
  • hack alone and in company (he will be spooky; it doesn’t have to be perfect). – This we didn’t get to, but I hope to start this week.

 

2018 Q2 goals:

  • Hack alone and in company, even if it’s imperfect
  • Jump 60cm tracks
  • Introduce the ideas of connection and bend, to ride a Prelim test by the end of Q2
  • Go to a show once a month and have good experiences.

 

Ankia

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This is our latest arrival from Arop (breeder of half our favourite horses, including Nell, Liana and Faith). She is a cute rising five-year-old hony who will be on the market as soon as I finish her. Unfortunately she was quite sick right after arriving, first with biliary and then a wormy colic, so I haven’t done much on her yet, but now we’re ready to get back to work.

Ankia has been ridden, for a given value of ridden; there are plenty of holes in her groundwork (major holes, like picking up feet and lunging properly). So I will be restarting her from scratch. Hopefully we will finish her and be able to move her on to a riding school kid and put her on the market in the next quarter, although when I made that deal with the owner I was kind of expecting that she’d know the basics considering a trainer had been working with her.

2018 Q2 goals:

  • Become safe and easy on the ground in every way.
  • Lunge properly in all three gaits.
  • Introduce walk/trot/canter in the big arena.
  • Introduce gentle hacks.
  • Introduce a small fence.

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Love having the training program a little fuller again, and I should be picking up a new pony this week. Glory to the King.

God So Loved

Where do I begin with the last two months?

Perhaps I can start by saying that they were quite possibly the best and worst of my entire lifetime.
The horses are well; the summer grazing came in and they all bloomed into beautiful good health, with the lowest condition score on the farm being a 6.5/10, and the highest amount of concentrate fed being 1kg per day. The kids are rockin’ it at SANESA shows, with 13 Morning Star riders attending Q1 and all of them showing improvement as we’ve gone on.
Thunder won his second ever Novice (at a training show) and Arwen won a whole lot of ribbons at Horse of the Year. Faith did her first show in hand, and Champagne went to Pre-HOY and didn’t kill anybody. I even started riding both Faith and Titan. Jamaica jumped a bunch of clear rounds at 90cm equitation and working hunter, and is ready to do the 1.00m in April.

I turned 21. I was spoiled absolutely rotten.

And none of that, in the face of everything else that has happened, was at all momentuous.
February 9 was the worst night of my life. I booked on duty like every other night. I hung out at D and Tannie L’s house like any other night. But the call I ran on was unlike any other call.  I cannot describe to you the feeling you get when you see the call address and realise it’s the ambulance base. I will journal that call yet, but not here. It was too heart-wrenching, too devastating, because the patient we knelt by and laid our hands on, the patient that we watched slowly slipping away despite our best efforts, was a coworker and a friend. She was part of the family. It was my first heli call.

Even a newb like me knows the way a patient looks when they are dying. I was looking in her eyes when she lost consciousness and I knew. She was six months younger than me. She was shot in the abdomen.

She died less than an hour after I watched the heli rise into the night. 

And in that moment, I experienced the peace and the presence of God in a more intimate, more profound, and more real way than I ever have before. I felt Him, I saw Him, and I heard His Voice. The scene was chaos, fear, hatred, senselessness. But my soul was flooded with purest peace, love, and meaning. I experienced Him like a giant lake spreading in all directions, eternal, unlimited; deep and unshakeable, calm and yet vibrant, and bursting with love.

I knew then that He would bring something glorious of it yet. And He has.

But that’s a story for another day.


I can summarise this year so far as I can summarise my entire life, with three words: God so loved.
For tonight, mourn with me, blogosphere, the terrible loss of my friend and fellow volunteer first responder. She was that rare combination of a kind heart and an utterly fearless spirit.
Rest in peace. Salute.