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.

Gratitude and the Outside Rein

Today was our second lesson with Coach J, and I was nervous. Shocker. I had spent all week on poor longsuffering Thunder, trying to get the whole outside rein thing sorted out, and it just wasn’t working. I hoped Coach J wasn’t going to think we hadn’t been working on it, because we truly had – it just sure didn’t look like it.

Anyway, so we dragged Thunny into the box and headed off to our lesson this morning with some trepidation. At this point, I must pause and shout-out to some fairly wonderful people. First, my family, for obvious reasons. And then, two others who are rapidly becoming part of the family – my mom’s friend Tannie L and her son, D. Tannie L is the reigning queen of moral support and D happens to have a licence to tow a horsebox, so that’s how we’ve made it to our last couple of lessons. They also sometimes let me lie in a heap on their couch while I’m on duty (it’s been three weeks – count ’em – since I actually had a call). Tannie L and D are thoroughly nice and they’re being instrumental in taking the dream further.

If I ever actually do ride Grand Prix, then I will never be able to take any credit for anything, because it feels like there’s been an army of people supporting me all the way. Thank you guys for caring about God’s dream for me ❤

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I have no media at all. So here I present the glory that was Thunder as a yearling.

Thunder had a moment’s hesitation as we were boxing him, and I had just phoned working student L to bring us a line and get him in when he suddenly decided he could get in after all. We left Jamaica at home this time, and I was a little worried he wouldn’t travel great. He did paw the floor and shuffle around a bit at first, but as soon as we started moving, he settled right down and spent the trip picking at his haynet.

Once there, we were a little late, so I chucked on his tack, bandaged only his forelegs (the horror!) and scrambled into the arena praying he’d behave. He didn’t just behave, he was a superstar. He did spook at himself in the mirror the first time he saw himself suddenly go past, but after that he was perfect – relaxed and super focused.

He is actually becoming a very pleasant chap to travel with.

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he was sooooo cute

Coach J came bursting out optimistically and sent me to “go warm up”. Six years of training for people and I suddenly couldn’t remember how one warms up a horse at all, so he had to come and shout at us to go and do our little serpentine. I felt like it was better than last time, which would be nice since we only practiced it a thousand times, and I hardly used my inside rein at all. Coach J also thought it was good so he started trying to get us to do more interesting things (like, you know, trot in a circle) and promptly discovered that I still haven’t got a handle on the inside leg to outside rein thing. Back on the square we went, doing turn on the forehand to shoulder in to turn on the forehand to shoulder in without our inside rein.

It was a little ugly. Not from the horse; in Coach J’s words, “It’s your lack of coordination, not his.” No kidding. I cannot seem to get my own body to do anything I want it to do. 16 years of bad habits will do that to you. Every time I get a little stuck, my inside hand goes haywire. And my left hand just does whatever the snot it feels like doing. It’s frustrating. Thunder patiently tried to figure out what on Earth I was trying to get him to do, while my own hands seemed much less obliging.

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his ear hair has always been legendary

At least today we did graduate to doing the exercise in trot, where he gave me several really nice moments when I started to feel like maybe I have ridden a horse before. We also got to canter a little. Exciting stuff. This was shortly after Coach J asked nicely for “less of the spastic chicken, please”. I doubt I will ever hear the end of that.

So, our takeaways for this lesson:

  • It’s not so much about not using the inside rein as it is about getting him into my outside rein. Connection on the outside rein is everything.
  • He needs to be more off my leg laterally. I have to become intentional with the whip so that it’s a learning aid instead of just a punishment.
  • This exercise is not about the horse being round or bent – it’s just about him being on my outside rein. It’s okay if he bends the wrong way or goes above the bit for this exercise.
  • I have to “slow my brain down”. It doesn’t make much sense out of context, but as soon as Coach J said it, I knew what it meant.
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positively majestic

Coach J is pretty tough. I’m going to have be careful with Thunny’s schedule not to absolutely cook us both on practicing All the Hard Things. However, again, where I need somebody very nice to hold my hand and know when I’m ready to take corrections – like coach K, who is the best – for jumping, I can take a butt-kicking with dressage. Especially now that I don’t take it so seriously, I can take it more seriously. I no longer care too much about dressage; I care about God, and horses, and the dance. God doesn’t really mind if we’re not terribly good at it. I want to be good at it because I want to glorify Him, not because I want to earn my way into His good books. It’s worship, not obedience. He is not commanding me to do it, He is watching in delight.

So I can handle it. Coach J is never down on us, he just knows what he wants us to do and he doesn’t settle for anything less. He expects hard work. He will see it. It’s the one thing I know I can do. He does want us to have this issue sorted out by our next lesson, which prospect makes me a little nervous because I’m not fully sure Miss Spastic Chicken will become at least Miss Coordinated Goose by then, but I know I’m going to do my level best to make it happen.

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look at his fluffy feets

I don’t want to kill both our relaxation and joy in it, though, so I’ve tweaked his schedule a little bit:

  • Monday: lesson.
  • Tuesday: hard work, practicing the exercises from the lesson while it’s still fresh in our minds.
  • Wednesday: fun work. Warm up with the exercises and focus on the concepts, but do a little bit of test riding, play with our stronger movements to remind us we can sometimes do this, then cool down with a little hack.
  • Thursday: hard work again.
  • Friday: more hard work, if he feels OK with it.
  • Saturday: either off, or a bit of fun work, giving the hard stuff a last little polish.
  • Sunday: off.
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he’s always had the kindest eye ❤

Something I’m just starting to get accustomed to in Thunny’s temperament is how hard he can be pushed. He’s a gentle soul, but robust, much less sensitive than other horses I’ve had. He doesn’t get anxious like Magic, offended like Nell, or overexcited like Arwen. He just sort of stays at the same level. Of course he has his green and spooky moments and can be a little separation anxious (increasingly less so), but in terms of work itself, as long as I’m not in a flap he doesn’t really get into a flap.

He has the work ethic to be able to take a heavy workload and enjoy it without getting frustrated, as long as I keep it varied and stay relaxed. He also focuses hard and tries hard, but unlike me, he seldom overthinks things or gets into a panic if he can’t figure it out. He just keeps trying, patiently and calmly, to get it right. I love it. I feel like I can’t mess up too much because he won’t take it personally; he just keeps on trying, ever longsuffering when I bumble, but ready with a moment of brilliance when I finally get it right.

He’s not like me, but he’s exactly what I need. Isn’t God amazing?

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but give it six years and voila!

Yes, yes He is. Glory to the King.

Kingdom of Heaven

Burnout is an ugly, hateful, soul-draining thing.

If I could choose between anxiety and burnout, I’d choose anxiety. Every time.

But sometimes this life takes everything I’ve got and requires me to spend myself well beyond my limits.

I do what I can to prevent it, but sometimes I can’t. And it’s worth it.

Some days I stand in front of the whiteboard and I don’t know how I’ll give my kids what they deserve: the very best, and nothing less.

But then the first child arrives and I take a big breath and start to teach. And no matter how exhausted I am, no matter how weary my soul, five minutes in, the miracle starts to happen.

I step into another place where the tiredness can’t keep up. My aching legs suddenly find their strength. My heart just lifts at the first child’s smile. It all falls away, the world condensing until all that matters is this child, this pony, this moment and my God.

I ask for strength so I can teach. But I think I teach so I can be strong. The Kingdom of Heaven comes to me every afternoon with sticky fingers and tousled hair and wide eyes, and after hours of work, I can feel my body aching, but I can also feel my spirit floating.

These kids thank me after every lesson, sometimes with heart-lifting smiles, sometimes with little arms around my legs, sometimes with a temper tantrum because they don’t want to get off. And every time they do, I feel vaguely guilty.

Because I have been receiving in far greater measure than I have given. I give everything I have, but somehow every time more just comes right back at me.

Burnout is ugly. That’s why I’m being more diligent about taking down time than before and why I don’t find myself here as often anymore.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and God is amazing, and that’s why when I do slip up, or when circumstances do require more from me than I have to give, it’s the very work itself that drags my soul back out of it.

Sometimes I yell at them. Sometimes I misunderstand them. But there’s never been a moment when I haven’t cared. I’ve so often spoken about my love and appreciation for horses, and so seldom written about how I feel about my kids.

I think that may be because it’s much too big to put into words.

Sometimes running the yard still feels a little impossible. But God is good at impossible.

And every day I know I can contribute to something more precious, more valuable, more important, more world-changing than anything else on Earth. Something with eternal relevance. Something pressing, urgent, vital. Something beautiful.

The life of a child.

Glory to the King.