Riding on Water Blog Hop: Everyday Win

I may or may not actually be nervous about hosting a blog hop (seriously?), but either way, I thought we’d give it a try. So without further ado, I present the first ever

Don't judge. I had 10 minutes and a blunt pencil.
Don’t judge. I had 10 minutes and a blunt pencil.

Nicole recently hosted a fun (and hilarious) hop showcasing our everyday failures. But while Beka and L. have asked about our most stellar moments, I thought we’d share some of our everyday wins.

So let’s pull out some schooling (or unaffiliated schooling show) photos we’re proud of. Moments where our horses are taking steps to greatness; where they may be a long way from the blue ribbon, but advancing on the right path.

Here was one of the first moments that Arwen and I actually connected properly. I just like the impression of softness and throughness she gives here.
Here was one of the first moments that Arwen and I actually connected properly (March 2013). I just like the impression of softness and throughness she gives here.
Frankly, I like this photo because Arwen is, you know, jumping over the middle of the fence. And I love her expression.
Frankly, I like this photo because Arwen is, you know, jumping over the middle of the fence. And I love her expression.
I just love this photo. His balance, the way he's holding himself, even the way I'm sitting - nothing is amazing, but everything is just nice.
Reed’s first show. I just love this photo. His balance, the way he’s holding himself, even the way I’m sitting – nothing is amazing, but everything is just fine.
I'm proud of this because this was as we were coming out of a really tough patch. That little fence looked HUGE, but we jumped it again and again until it wasn't scary anymore.
This was as we were coming out of a really tough patch. That little fence looked HUGE, but we jumped it again and again until it wasn’t scary anymore.
Arwen at a lesson. I love how she's moving forward in a beautiful frame with her brain on the job despite being on an xc course. If only we could recreate this trot in a dressage arena...
Arwen at a lesson. I love how she’s moving forward in a beautiful frame with her brain on the job despite being on an xc course. If only we could recreate this trot in a dressage arena…
Magic's second training show. I'm proud of us both here because the day before I faceplanted on a jump (see ruined face) and I was dead nervous, but I rode him anyway and he took amazing care of me.
Magic’s second training show. I’m proud of us both here because the day before I faceplanted on a jump and I was dead nervous, but I rode him anyway and he took amazing care of me.
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This is Vastrap’s first training show with me, and here I am proud of his ears. His expression remains the most stubborn relic of his bad past; when ridden he habitually has his top lip poking out, head raised, ears pulled back, eyes wide. But here despite the new environment he found his happy place.
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Nell at her first training show. I’m proud of this moment because seconds before this, she was panicking. It’s just amazing how quickly her brain came back and she could calm down to the point of offering a good free walk.

Praise God for amazing horses, and glory to the King.

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2014 in review

Here’s my WordPress report for 2014 for anyone who’s interested. I would like to say a special thanks for my loyal reader Lyn from The Call of the Pen. Despite not being a horsewoman, Lyn has stuck with me as a blogger for years, and has left 86 comments on Riding On Water. You win the Coolest Reader Ever Award, Lyn! (Pity it’s imaginary…)

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Thunder and Lightning

After a few dry years, it’s a glorious and terrifying relief to have a real Highveld summer again: hot, bright days blazing azure and emerald, the afternoons coming with a fanfare of wind to announce the thunderstorms that march over the hilltops like conquering armies. Including lightning. Really loud flashy lightning that sends me under the bedclothes, frantically cuddled by terrified dogs. Said lightning also decided to blow up my PC, hence my silence and now my lack of pictures as this post is being hastily typed on my phone. It has not yet blown up, but is only six weeks old, so may yet decide to join the technological mutiny.
All is well with the Horde and their human. Magic has been giving me some stunning work, including going much more softly in the snaffle and jumping calmly over a rather spooky vertical. The tiny triple of doom also grew up to be an 80cm triple of non-eventfulness, according to Magic, who popped through it without complaint. His brain completely evaporated on a hack recently, but it was so out of character that I’m hoping it was a once-off and won’t happen again next time.
He is in desperate need of a dentist visit to have his teeth floated, though. Maybe that was what set him off.

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Arwen has been equally stunning. She’s starting to run a bit fat, so I’ve been a bit more demanding in our sessions. We managed a 38kph gallop recently during which I thought we were all likely to die (we nearly reached the Mutterer’s goal of crying). Her dressage is becoming massively better; she’s considerably lighter in my hand, and her canter is becoming more engaged. Her trot leg-yields are also more flowing and not a fight anymore. Canter lengthenings – or rather, ceasing to do canter lengthenings – are still a bit hairy but not quite as death-defying as they were. She is getting braver with the jumping, including taking the creepy vertical and a 1.00m triple bar in her stride. I love to stare down into the triple bar like a noob, so this was an accomplishment.

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Baby Thun is being a superstar. After some weird backwards squiggling around, I managed to explain spins to him and he now does them, albeit extraordinarily slowly. He also reins back with something more approaching speed, or at least rhythm. The poor guy is a large and chunky beast and is probably physically better suited to dressage, but he’s an absolute pleasure to train and I’m loving figuring out reining with him.
His hacking is also doing fine. He does still spook quite violently – a spin and bolt away from the danger – on occasion, but he deals with his fear very maturely as soon as I get him under control. Thun is not a quiet horse at this stage, but his obedience overrules absolutely everything. The moment I say stop he stops, and most importantly as soon as I turn him towards the danger and ask him to go forward, he does it. He might be shaking where he stands but he does what I want. As his confidence grows, I know he’ll be bombproof eventually; I would rather have him a bit jumpy than one of those real blank-faced dead old trail horses.

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As for her majesty the warrior queen, she is quite happy with Exavior to look after and Magic to calm down. She loves going on our relaxing little hacks and even carts around beginners for me now and then, although the beginners think I have gone insane. All day I’ve been yelling at them to take charge of their horses, and then suddenly I’m telling them to give her the reins and just sit there. One does not simply take charge of a warrior queen; she usually knows better in any case.

Exavior is living a lazy life of eating and hanging out. I haven’t worked him once. The little dude has been through so much that right now he just needs to learn to be a horse again. He is much better to groom, and much happier in the group; now he needs to learn to play, to run, and to put his big head down when I want him to. The monster beast has already grown out of his first halter…

November’s 10 Questions

Thank you again, L. from Viva Carlos!

1. Have you ever owned a horse? On paper, yes; since I was seven and my parents bought me Skye. Since then I also own(ed) Arwen, Thunder, Secret, Dancer, Magic and Exavior. In reality, they’re all God’s horses.
2. What is your favourite aspect of your discipline? If we’re talking eventing, then the satisfaction of doing a hard job well as a team. I feel an event horse is just so well-rounded and having schooled an aspiring one nearly from scratch gives me a bit of a sense of achievement.
3. What pet peeves do you have concerning your discipline? The expense. I dread needing (to buy) different saddles for each phase.
4. Do you do barn chores? For the horses standing at home, I feed, groom, apply various bug-busting chemicals, oil feet, clean tack (rarely and with little enthusiasm), treat ailments, push needles into, blanket, etc. I don’t lug hay, scrub troughs, fix fences, drive the tractor or wash numnahs, mostly because I either am too tiny and pathetic or because I don’t know how. Yet. But for the stud horses, I basically just saddle up and ride. They’re even kind enough to have them brought in for me.
5. What is your least favourite barn chore? Filling haynets. If you are female and require a certain hay-trapping undergarment, you will understand why.
6. What do you consider the worst vice in a horse? Aggression towards humans on the ground. Any horse is dangerous enough; a horse that wilfully attempts to harm humans on the ground can be a murderer. Of course all horses can kill, but with this type of horse it’s just likelier to happen, and even happen again. Even if you turned him out to pasture, he could die a slow, agonising death of a disease rendered untreatable by his behaviour towards humans. Whatever the reason behind it, I think this is the one behavior issue I would put a horse down for if it could not be resolved. It’s a good thing that it can often be resolved!
7. What saddle brand is your favourite? Currently, Kent and Masters, of course. But I do love the E. Jeffries dressage saddle as well. I just prefer the K&M leather.
8. Do you ride with a quarter sheet in winter? Nope. We don’t call this Africa for nothing.
9. Does your horse wear boots? What kind? Arwen has a wonderfully fluffy pair of Saddle-Up tendon boots, one of the Horse Mutterer’s ever-useful and always randomly dispensed gifts. Skye wrecked Magic’s boots and I see no reason to buy him new ones right now as carefully applied bandages and overreach boots seem to work fine.
10. Full seat or knee patch breeches? Anything that serves the basic purposes of comfort and decency. Although I don’t like full seats with a different colour seat to the rest of the jodhpurs. So inconveniently eye-catching…

Of Grey Hairs and Horses

One thing that will always be true about horses is that you can do everything right, but things will still go wrong.
I always feel pretty bad about ditching my horses to go on holiday. Of course I leave them in the capable hands of the cattlemen masquerading as grooms, who have been nagged to death about all the little things they need to do (“Don’t forget to give Skye her pills. You will remember to wet their hay, won’t you?”). Just before leaving I also covered them in poison and repellents for pretty much anything that buzzes, crawls or sucks blood, with the possible exception of vampires (I believe Skye in a temper would be more than a match).
Alas, it only takes one tick to transmit a disease and the unlucky recipient thereof was as always Magic. My heart stood dead still for a few moments when the groom informed us that he looked colicky and didn’t finish his supper. The poor groom was told about fifty times to walk him  and not let him roll, which he faithfully did while the vet rushed out and I prayed.
Walking, vet and God have worked their magic and this morning Magic is standing around and eating. Praise the Lord!
I do suspect I have a couple of grey hairs now. Much as I try not to treat my horses like anything except horses, in my heart they’re still more or less my fluffy kids and it sucked to know that my poor Magic was feeling ill and I wasn’t there to treat him and comfort him. Thanks to good grooms, good vets and above all the good Lord, he looks like he’ll be fine.
He still remains in my prayers today.

The Hype About Size

We’ve all seen it: For sale, 14.3hh three-year-old, will mature to 16hh. Even if there was some secret formula that you could give a horse to make it grow more than a hand after its third year, you probably still wouldn’t get your 16 hands because it stands 13.3 and has parents standing 14.2 and 15.1hh.
But slamming dishonest sellers has little point. I’m here not to try, but to ask the question: Even if you could make that horse grow to sixteen hands, why would you want to?
In the horse world it often appears that the common perception is bigger is better, which I personally have found not to be the truth. The best jumper I’ve ridden stands a mere 15.2hh, and will probably never be bigger than 15.3. And while the top jumping and dressage arenas are filled with horses between 15.3 and 16.3 hands high, I really don’t see any correlation between truly massive horses – 16.3 and up – and performance.
The world record holding jumper, whose record has stood for 65 years, stood 16.1hh. Valegro, the horse who holds three dressage world records, stands 16.2.
While there are exceptions to every rule, I feel there is a reason that most top horses are under 17hh: too big is a problem. Bigger is not always better. Tall horses are heavy, which makes it harder for them to get off the ground, which makes it harder for them to jump. They also struggle to take small turns, essential for the jump-off. While tall horses don’t have as far to jump as shorter ones, it makes logical sense that a lighter horse will jump with more ease.
As for dressage, big, tall, long horses can be incredibly difficult to put together. Dressage is about connection, and when you have a neck three miles long in front of you and a tail somewhere in the distance behind and hooves floundering around way below your altitude, it’s tough to connect anything. Again, a big horse often has bigger and flashier movement; but may not be able to be as light on its feet as a smaller one.
Perhaps it all comes down to personal preference. I like my horses short from front to back, but don’t care much how tall they are except when I have to get on. Obviously a taller horse is more daunting to handle, especially on the ground, but for the most part it’s length and movement that defines its ease of riding.
For me there are so many factors influencing performance – temperament, training, feeding, breeding, conformation – that height ranks very low on my criteria for choosing a top horse. A 15.2hh animal with talent can jump the socks off a beast two hands taller with poor conformation. It’s more about heart and build than height.

On Confidence and Talent

“Great horses are not often easy horses. They have big egos and idiosyncrasies and quirks and foibles. Horses of a lifetime do exist, but only for riders so skillful, tactful and courageous that they can unlock and then reveal the brilliance of their equine partners.” ~ George Morris

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Three years ago, I was a kid with a very big dream and a small grey horse trying to achieve that dream, but the Horse Mutterer repeatedly stated (and I eventually came to accept) the fact that my small grey horse was not going to make it as far up in the world of showjumping as I was wanting to go. Trainability, soundness and willingness might be all you need from a horse if you want to go Advanced in dressage (provided you were willing to work your butt off), but each horse has a physical limit to how high he can jump competitively. And Arwen’s limit is quite some way below A-Grade, where I dream of competing.

So while I trained and worked and loved my small grey horse, I lived my big dream by paging through the catalogues of the Callaho Warmblood Stud. This massive stud holds a large and glamorous auction of top-notch young sport horses every year, and I always had my eye on one of them, even when I knew that it would be years of nothing but saving up before I could ever afford one. The ones I picked were always grey or chestnut with plenty of chrome, standing not more than 15.3hh and possessing a jump about the size of a Kilimanjaro. And then they would be sold for hundreds of thousands to someone with both dreams and money, which is a lucky combination.

And then Magic happened.

When I started leasing him
When I started leasing him

15.2hh and the bright grey of burnished steel with four white stockings and a blaze, and also the ability to jump the moon if he so desired, he cantered into my life like a miracle. My dream horse fell right into my lap, dropped strategically by my Lord; here at last was the bright, dancing creature I’d been dreaming of, something with both the talent and the heart to go all the way to the top under the right rider. He had spunk, he had spirit, he had the conformation, he was one of the best-looking horses I had ever seen and he had the look of eagles, that X-factor that I love so much in a horse.

Eighteen months down the line, I have never been more convinced that Magic has the talent to go as far as he wants to. This horse moves like poetry in motion. Muscled up, he has even better conformation than he did when I bought him. He has a bascule that most warmbloods would be jealous of and he has plenty of courage.

Movement!
Movement!

Yesterday, I free jumped him for the first time and he was beyond fantastic. He needed little or no encouragement, did not offer to run out even once, and in fact getting him to stop jumping was harder than getting him to start. He also didn’t overjump a thing. Not a thing. Also, this:

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Yep. Long neck stretched up, knees tucked up to the bit, shoulders lifted, hindlegs even, front legs couldn’t be tighter. Nobody can deny that he has ability.

He also scares me.

When I sit on him, I know that I have more spirit and talent under me than I have ever had before. I know I’m on a horse that could be a superstar in the right hands. I also know that I’m on a horse so sensitive that the slightest shift in your mood can make him nervous; a horse that has an untold depth of courage, but which courage depends entirely on the trust he places in his rider. Magic is a great horse, but he is not a horse willing to go it alone. Like the best horses, he wants to work with you in a team, he wants to follow your lead and do as you say; but you have to give him that lead to follow.

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He’s also green, which is most of the problem. He’s just too inexperienced to bail me out sensibly; he does try, but usually by overjumping massively and frightening the both of us. Ultimately, he depends on me. He’s not a schoolmaster who’ll do the job for me, and he’s also not Arwen, who’s been my partner for so long that she helps me out when I need it just as I help her out when she needs it.

Magic is never malicious. Excitable, frightened, overenthusiastic, boisterous, hot, fiery, and sometimes downright daft; but not malicious. He wants to try, but when he’s afraid, he doesn’t think. And when he doesn’t think, he has a variety of different manoevres to try out, ranging from bucking to flailing to leaping to overjumping, and when I say overjumping I mean Magic shows us exactly how talented he is and pretends a cross-rail is the size of the jumps at the President’s Cup.

This didn't even feel like an overjump
This didn’t even feel like an overjump

It shouldn’t scare me. I haven’t lost stirrups often and I have to face it, I can actually stay on through most of the shenanigans he’ll throw at me. But it still scares me; it probably won’t, in five years’ time, but for now it does.

I think I am more afraid of failing him than I am of falling off him. Magic has no concept of potential and doesn’t know that he is a freaking good horse, obviously. Ribbons and shows mean nothing to him; he’s not sitting there telling me to hurry it up so we can get to the top. He would be quite happy to hack around and pop over cross-rails. And you know what, there would be nothing wrong with that. There are lots of talented horses in the world. The world won’t miss this one if I chose to turn him into a dressage pony or whatever. In fact, if I didn’t ride for my career – if riding was a hobby, not a passion – I’d sell him off and stick to Arwen.

But I’m not a happy hacker. I can’t sit on a piece of quality horseflesh and not try to push the limits. I can’t stay in my comfort zone on an animal that could really be something, could really go somewhere. I can’t let him slip through my fingers. And so I shall gird up my loins, take up the reins and ride him as best as I can. This horse might be a challenge, but he is my horse and he’s not going anywhere. God willing, I will grow into the rider that can ride him, the strong leader he needs, the confident partner to guide him. And it will all be in God’s Name, for He alone makes any of it possible.

Glory to the King.

Just got to learn to look after each other
Just got to learn to look after each other

We Freeze and Arwen Gallops

Not paint. Frost.
Not paint. Frost.

You know that post I did some time back about how winter was coming? Well, I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Somehow, winter always surprises me with its savageness. And as much as I welcome the frost (kills the bugs, you see) part of me does long for the days when you can actually, you know, rinse out the horses’ food bins after morning feed instead of just shake the hosepipe ineffectually and watch bits of ice fall out.

At least I have canine help with breaking the ice on water troughs
At least I have canine help with breaking the ice on water troughs

Apart from having grubby bins, the horses are quite oblivious to the cold; even Magic has grown triple-extra-fluffy (yuck!) and clipped Arwen is quite happy snuggled up in her turnout rug at night, or Magic’s windbreaker in the daytime if it’s really cold. (I personally wouldn’t mind a turnout rug myself; nothing penetrates that thing). The only living things (apart from the humans) that were adversely affected turned out to be my oats. They never came up. Oh well, better luck next season. There is still quite a lot of grass in the pasture, albeit dead, so I have let Skye and Magic back in to have it as standing hay. It took quite a long time to convince them that the Domain of Evil Sprinklers has been purged of its danger, with even the usually sensible Skye snorting and galloping at the mere memory of the demonic irrigation implements, but hunger overcame fear and they are now happily stuffing their silly faces.

Arwen had a good hardworking week. After her show, I planned to give her just one day off, but when the Mutterer saw her he told me to give her the rest of the week. She wasn’t sick, showing no symptoms, didn’t have anything physically wrong with her and didn’t seem depressed; there was just something slightly off, perhaps just some tiredness, which the ever-perceptive Mutterer noticed at once and which I completely failed to pick up. Whatever it was, she was 100% again by Monday and as such went straight to work.

Back in the saddle
Back in the saddle

Mission: Get Arwen Into A Frame has started, and I’m playing with different snaffles to see if she gets lighter in the hand on something other than her loose-ring. I have had her in a thicker eggbutt this week and I’m still not quite sure if I like it. She seems to be putting her head down a bit, but was softer in my hands when we hacked out. Her jaw is also a little more busy – she used to keep her mouth very still in the loose-ring but seems to champ the eggbutt a bit more. I still want to try her in a D-ring and French link and see how that goes.

I have also incorporated a weekly or bi-weekly hack into her regimen, including work over varied terrain, a bit of jumping over solid stuff (still have to get to that, but we’re working on it), hill work and galloping. This is for fitness and variety and also good for the soul. Our hack on Friday was a bit wild in the 10-degree weather but a kilometre or so of brisk cantering settled her a bit and then another kilometre or so settled her even more, followed by a few repetitions of slowly cantering up my favourite hill and then trotting back down. The last time I rewarded her obedience by allowing her a few steps of free walk up the hill, then picking up the reins and letting her run.

Man, is that horse awesome to gallop. Buck as she may in a canter when she’s upset, Arwen is a dead reliable galloper. I can push her for as much speed as I want and still have her completely adjustable and under control. We went up the hill at a hair-raising pace with me asking for more and more and getting it instantly and Arwen just snapping out her legs to their full length. She was loving it, too, in Arwen’s own way of enjoying things; calmly revelling in her own strength and obedience. She came straight back to a walk when I asked and walked home on the buckle, which I was very happy with.

The hack seems to have done her canter a world of good. Her canter had degenerated into something of a mess, with a loss of rhythm and impulsion and an excess of flailing and scrambling. Work helped, but it was still a bit runny, with the forelegs doing the work and the hindlegs sort of floundering along after. After our hack I’ve felt a noticeable improvement in the engagement of her hindquarters and even control of her entire body; whether running up and down hills made her realise that using her bottom is more comfortable, or the gallop stretched out some muscles that needed stretching,  I won’t know.

We jumped today and there is no sign of the reluctance and stopping that we had at the show. She did refuse a couple of times, but it was the first time I had used a placing pole across a vertical, and with the vertical at 90cm the placing pole was about 1.50m so when she drifted right she was faced with a jump of A-grade height and (reasonably understandably) refused. After a few attempts she figured out that all would be well if she just jumped in the middle and thereafter did so most sensibly.

The drifting is still a problem but has improved a little. It is quite severe with the pair of us ending up almost on the right upright, but it has not developed into running out; it seems to be a bad habit that just crept up on me until it was this bad. I would wonder if it’s me pulling her right without thinking about it or something like that, but none of the other horses I jump do it, in fact Reed and Magic both jump very straight.

Either way, we’ll figure it out. Right now, I’ll leave the worrying for later and enjoy the quest for excellence on my beautiful grey mare. Praise the Lord for good horses.

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