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.
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.
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.
After the jumping, we had about three hours’ break until the dressage, so I unsaddled Arwen and took her back down to the box. I’ve heard that horses load more easily when they see the box as a sanctuary of rest and food, so (with about five minutes’ persuading) I put Arwen back inside and tied her up with a haynet. She only relaxed for about half an hour before she started to neigh, stamp around, paw the ground and throw her head up. I didn’t want her to split her skull on the top of the box, so I calmed her down and then took her back out.
Eventually, while I was trying to get her to graze instead of stand there neighing, it clicked: she didn’t want to be alone. While the other horses at the show were still in sight, they were quite far away. I led her back up to a quiet, grassy spot beside the warmup ring and she instantly settled down and started to eat.
Before long it was time to get ready for the dressage and as the pony riders started their tests, my sister and I quickly plaited Arwen’s mane and tail, slapped a quarter marker on her rump and applied shine spray to horse and rider. Prettied up, we set off to warm up.
The pony riders were riding their tests in the 20x40m sand arena we had used to warm up for the jumping, so we prelim riders warmed up in the big arena where the jumping had been held. We were also going to ride our tests in that arena, which was nice because I could make sure my horse was chilled in it before the test. I know it won’t happen that way at graded shows, but it was nice to have it like that for our first dressage test ever. Arwen was by now very calm and the arena was quiet. I let her walk around until she’d quit staring at the markers and then started our warmup.
We must have looked ridiculous. Everybody else was being very sensible and doing simple things so as not to overload their horses’ minds. On the other hand, I know that the best way to get Arwen calm, focused, relaxed, and light in my hands is lateral work. Lots of lateral work. The more complicated, the better. So while everyone else trotted around and free walked, Arwen and I were doing shoulder-ins and big leg-yields and walk pirouettes and turns on the forehand until we were both ready for anything. We even tried a couple of steps of canter leg-yield, which really got both our heads in the game.
Arwen felt fabulous. She was awesomely relaxed; a little heavy on the forehand, as usual, but there was no resistance in her. Her head was bent obediently to my hands and she was moving forward with a lovely, supple swing through her entire back. She felt like she feels on a really good day at home, perhaps a bit better because the arena and footing were better. I was able to chill out, not worry about the test, and just sit there enjoying my horse and playing around. All that went wrong in the initial warmup was that she kept halting with her legs all in a mess instead of nice and square, but we eventually came to an agreement: she would halt in a mess, I would immediately ask for one step of rein back, and she would square up perfectly. Not ideal, but not too much of a problem either.
The pony riders finished and we were sent down to the small arena again to continue our warmup while the judge set up next to the big arena. I paused to grab some water and tighten my girth before heading down to the small arena, in time to see a stunning big chestnut coming out of the gate backwards with his back hunched and his tail, adorned with a red ribbon, flicking ominously. Arwen hasn’t kicked anybody for almost a year, but I still don’t quite trust her not to rise to a threat. I hurriedly turned her away and it all went pear-shaped. Whether the chestnut saw her turn around and lashed out, or she didn’t want to be bullied, I don’t know. The next minute they were having a mighty kicking match with Arwen bouncing with the force of her trademark double-hoofed kicks. I planted my hands in her mane and gave her both spurs, hard, in the flanks. I was tempted to turn her and so get her bottom out of the fight, but that’s usually a recipe for getting kicked. Luckily, the spurring worked and Arwen jumped forward, effectively ending the fight. She then gave a big sigh and pretended nothing had happened.
I immediately jumped off to see if there was any human blood; praise the Lord, the other rider had been sensible and not turned her horse either, and a bystander about two feet from the match was unharmed (if somewhat ashen). The chestnut horse had a superficial graze somewhere near his tail root (how Arwen managed to kick him all the way up there, I’ll never know) and my stupid lucky mare was utterly unscathed.
Drama over, we warmed up for a few more minutes before returning to the big arena for the moment of truth. My poor sister, who was more nervous about reading the test than I was about riding it, took up her position at B. I watched the first horse and rider go through the test whilst stroking Arwen’s neck and whispering my favourite horse Bible verse to myself, which I often repeat in my head while I do dressage; it relaxes me and helps me to sit up, ride up to heaven and be proud.
Then it was time. I walked Arwen in brisk little figures of eight until the bell went, then trotted up to the judge’s stand, executed a perfect trot-halt (Arwen is THE BEST at those) and introduced myself. The judge smiled and nodded, and I trotted Arwen smartly off from M to A to begin my test with Job 39:19 in my head.
“Hast thou given the horse his strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?”
We started the centre line from A to C already going forward in a beautiful quiet trot. Arwen was in a lovely frame of mind. Each stride drove forward from her hindlegs, through her swinging supple back and powerfully but controllably into my guiding hands. She looked at C, I looked at C, and we were forward, confident and as straight as we ever get.
So began our test, and it remained consistent and felt awesome. We were very, very accurate; our circles were as close to 20m as I could get them, and Arwen was perfectly obedient, going exactly where I wanted to. In the trot she didn’t change her rhythm one iota. Her small size was an advantage as we could go straight into our corners without compromising on bend or rhythm, and I was one of the few riders who rode the test sitting; rising may well have better, but Arwen’s smooth rhythmic stride means that I can ride sitting and look as pro as I ever do.
There were only two moments that felt off. The first was our 20m half circle B to E with a canter transition after X. Where, somehow, my horse, my reader and I all simultaneously messed up. My sister lost her place in my test and told me to change rein to V; I knew I was supposed to make a half circle to E, but lost concentration; Arwen decided that, despite having practiced this movement over and over, she was supposed to change rein to F, and the end result was the messiest canter transition I have ever seen with Arwen flailing off to the right and me flailing off to the left. Thankfully, we only had one messy canter stride before I got my act together, pointed her left and asked for a trot. Arwen had a little light bulb moment, took one trot step to sort her legs out and then changed smoothly into canter left. We were going in a nice rhythmic canter on the correct lead by E, but it was still nothing to be proud of.
Oh well. Such is dressage; you can mess up one movement but still get good scores on the rest. I pushed it out of my mind, sat up straight and held her in a decent working canter with her trademark rhythm ticking over as smoothly as a waltz. She stuck her nose out a little, but was very straight and very rhythmic.
I was also worried about our walk transition at C and hence was not very subtle about it at all, and Arwen (whom we remember is THE BEST at trot-halts) just about sat on her bottom before I was all “Oh shucks!” and wrapped my legs around her. Arwen thought I was the dumbest human in the history of the world, but went straight on into medium walk without a fuss and without halting. Pony bailed my butt out of trouble again.
The best moment in our test was the free walk on the diagonal, my favourite prelim movement. Oh, silly little free walk which nobody really cares about. Well, Arwen is totally pro at it. I loosened up my back muscles, stretched my hands forward and let her take the reins. She put her face on the floor and strode forward with a fantastic stretchy stride, turning onto the diagonal to F without me having to touch her mouth. She didn’t miss a beat of rhythm or lose a speck of impulsion in the transition back to medium walk, either.
Our second canter transition was better with a correct strike-off, but she lost her rhythm a bit in the actual canter, earning us our lowest mark for the test – a 5. The dreaded halt was, in fact, completely fine. I lost accuracy whilst looking for I, but we were at least on the centre line. She stopped without throwing up her head but there was the slightest unevenness in her hind legs; I closed my fingers around the reins, she took a step back and stood square, and I ripped off a smart salute. I was unbearably proud of my little grey horse.
To put the cherry on top, by the end of a class dominated by big warmblood types and Friesians, it was Arwen Evenstar the wonderful little Nooitgedachter who won it. It was a wonderful surprise – watching the rest of the class, I had hoped for a place, but was certain that the Friesian in second had beaten us. He was very experienced and rode a stunning test, but Arwen was perhaps a tad more accurate. Arwen totally redeemed herself in the dressage and completely made my day by winning her first ribbon ever. Our score at 61.3% was made up mostly of sixes, with the five and five-and-a-half for our canters. I’ll be honest, I’d hoped for a seven or two, but it was still not bad for a first go.
Then suddenly it was all over and we were bundling Arwen back into the box for the long drive home. She was much too tired to be worried and stood there eating hay; in fact, she hadn’t even sweated a drop when we got home. It was pitch dark at 7pm by the time we unloaded and I took her back to the paddock. She ignored her friends, who were screaming their wonder that she had apparently returned from the dead, and ate grass while I pulled off her travelling stuff and undid her plaits. Then off into the paddock with Arwen and off to bed with her very tired, very proud rider.
All glory be to the King of Kings, Who made this all possible. The God Who made horses and humans and designed a world where a massive animal and a human being can unite, can love, can dance. A world where this great marvel is part of everyday life; a world of everyday miracles. My King, my strength, my Saviour, my Creator – He is the One Who makes everything possible, a God so big that the Olympics are tiny to Him, and yet a God so loving that a training show is worth consideration to Him.
Our day started at 6am in the crystal twilight before winter’s dawn. Actually, it started at four because I woke up and was too nervously excited to sleep, so I cuddled my dog until 5:30 and then stumbled out to load the car and fetch my horse. And it wasn’t crystal twilight. It was pitch dark and freaking cold. Sometimes, poetry just fails. I tried, okay?
Arwie was dead easy to catch, albeit a little shocked at the hour, and she didn’t have so much as a speck of dust on her at all (for which miracle I uttered a little prayer of thanks). She soon got over her sleepiness when she was presented with breakfast, which she gobbled with every sign of enjoyment while the other horses stared at her being jealous and nickering accusingly every time they caught my eye. Poor babies.
I dusted her off, combed a few bits of hay out of her tail and put on her travelling kit before marching her up to the box with her haynet and grooming kit. After getting over a very daft spook at her back boots (in her defence, she’s only used to back bandages), she was perfect, walking along at my shoulder with her ears up, alert but relaxed. The box was ready with ramp down and all, so I walked her in circles beside it until she’d stopped blowing at this random big white thing. Then I approached the ramp. She walked up to it and stopped. I walked up to the top and tried to persuade her in, but she danced at the foot of it and said it was too scary, so I stepped down beside her, stood at her shoulder and encouraged her to step forward next to me. She hesitated for about one millisecond and then walked right up.
Arwen is usually okay to load but needs a lunge rein put around her bum, so I was very pleased, and my dad was very displeased when he saw me backing her straight back down the ramp (she backs up like a lady, by the way, nice and slow and dead straight). Luckily, I made a circle and walked towards it and she again went straight up, no worries. Obviously travelling can’t be that bad if she boxes better every time.
She started shivering a little as we put up the ramp and tied the breeching strap, but I fed her carrots and she started to pick at her hay. Without further ado, we set off.
We stopped about half an hour down the road and I checked on her again; she was a little sweaty and wasn’t eating, but she’d stopped shivering and was standing calmly and looking out of the window. Last time she’d been dripping with sweat by this stage, so I was happy with her.
We arrived at the venue very late. I’m ashamed to admit that I got mixed up with the starting times and thought my class started after 9:30; we got there at 8:30 to find that the 30cm was on the go and I was riding in the 50. And the classes were by no means huge. Arwen unloaded like a lady and was very calm. I walked her around a little and let her graze; she was slightly sweaty on her neck, but dried within a few minutes. Last time her day sheet had been sodden when we arrived, so there’s a definite improvement.
As soon as Arwie was settled and we’d spied out the lay of the land, my family and I bustled to get her tack and my jodhs on and we set off for the warm-up ring. It was a 20 x 40m dressage arena without fencing and with about three people already in it, so I said a prayer that she wouldn’t kick anyone and had to be very wide awake. It was actually perfectly fine; the footing was a bit wet, which Arwen hated, but she soon got used to it (after shying at the scary dressage markers. Insert eyeroll here). She didn’t pull on my hands or whinny, but offered a few little bucks at the canter, which is normal for her in a warmup.
To my dismay, our happy little warmup was then abruptly cut off by an arena hog. This was the first time I’d come across one, and I dearly hope I never have to meet another. A big lady on a big warmblood entered the tiny arena and started to canter around as if there weren’t four people already in it, with very little consideration for other riders. She hogged the track and ignored the left shoulder rule (despite the kids on ponies trotting around), with her instructor parked solidly in front of one of the warmup jumps. I was going around peacefully on the outside and she approached from in front; the left shoulder rule indicated that she should go on the inside. We were both in a canter, but I saw that her horse, though large and young, would comfortable be able to make the turn on the inside so I stuck to the track. So did she. So did I, not being in the mood to be bullied; Arwen pinned her ears flat and told the other horse in no uncertain terms that he was going to get a very big kick if he decided to play chicken with her. The big horse, most sensibly, veered off to the inside, clearing us by about six inches, and I had to give Arwen a sharp tap alongside the flank to stop her from making good on her threat.
Drama aside, Arwen warmed up fine, didn’t hesitate at a single jump (but threw a few bucks after them). We headed off for the 50cm and had a great time watching all the little kids and ponies zip around. Then it was our turn. Arwen was nervous from the get-go and, I’ll admit, my head was definitely not in the game. She pretty much stopped at the first jump, but I gave her a kick and she popped over. Second jump was fine, then the sharp turn to the combination, then the fourth and fifth and sixth verticals without any trouble. The seventh vertical was an ominous-looking red object with what seemed like about a thousand poles and Arwen again had a nearly-stop which I kicked her through. She jumped the rusting number eight with an almost audible sigh of relief, was fine over jump nine and we gambled on a very close corner to jump ten – nobody else took it quite so tight, but I have faith in my ex-barrel-racer and she was perfect. Jump ten was a scary blue plank thing, and she was very looky, but okay. It was a quick but messy round, but good enough to get us into the jump-off.
I don’t really know what was going wrong, in all honesty. She was spooky of the coloured poles, but she hadn’t been at her previous show. I wasn’t mentally where I should have been; my head was somewhere else entirely and maybe the rushed warmup had rattled us both, too. Whatever it was, I was riding like a chop and she was dead calm in the warmup and dead spooky in the show ring. We galloped into the warmup much too fast, scrambled over the first jump, ran out at the second (to the left! she drifts right… what on Earth?!), almost ran out at the third but made it by the skin of our teeth, and then jumped the last few jumps perfectly. We could have won easily if we hadn’t had the run-out; she was lightning fast, and we took some close corners, as usual.
The next class was the 80cm and I went into the warmup with those two run-outs in the back of my head. I had watched the 60cm and it had looked enormous, despite the fact that Arwen and I have been okay over almost twice that height at home. (Why is it that jumps always look a hundred times bigger at the shows?) There were only two riders in the 80cm, and I had the warmup ring all to myself, which was a wonderful pleasure. I put up the warmup jump to about 90cm and she jumped with no hesitation at all. In fact, she felt better than she’d felt warming up for the 50. “Finally! We mean business now!” I dared to hope, rode better, and she was fantastic.
But when we got back up to the show ring to wait in line (where her muscles cooled off again… sighs) the jumps looked HUGE. Like, 1.50m+ huge. It was stupid. When I walked the course I measured them against myself just to make sure they really were 80cm, which of course they were, but they still looked massive with about a mountain’s worth of filler. Which, of course, they didn’t really, but nerves do funny things to a person.
The rider before us had a messy but gutsy round on a young horse, earning him a few penalties, but I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and poor Arwen must have felt it. I was half on a different planet and half scared, so it was hardly any surprise when she had two stops at the first jump and another stop at the second for a disqualification. We jumped the second jump again on the way out (yay for training shows) and she was okay. I just shrugged and hoped for better luck next time. It was a bummer, and I can’t really think of anything specific that we got wrong. The course could have been a bit high for our second show, but she was jumping way bigger at home and had jumped very confidently at her last show – the run-out at the 50cm was very unlike her. Maybe the filler rattled her and we need to practice scarier jumps – but I’d recently added some new filler to jumps at home and she hadn’t even thought about stopping at a 1.10m scary jump. I guess it was just one of those days. They happen in horse riding, and you just learn to get over them and try again.
She was sound and sane and didn’t seem to have anything at all wrong with her, so I had no intentions at all of scratching from the dressage. In fact, she was getting into her usual Arwen show mood – focused and relaxed. I dared to hope that we might redeem ourselves.
Preparing Arwen started on the Monday, six days before the show. With the help of my sister, who is a lot better at hair than I am, I experimented with Arwen’s mane. She rubbed out about a foot of the middle, leaving a highly unattractive Mohawk between two hairy tufts.
While Thunder is a big drafty type and looks good hogged, Arwen is a Nooitgedachter – in other words, she’s supposed to have long, straight, flowing mane like a unicorn. Ha! Apparently, she had other ideas. We eventually settled on plaiting it in buttons and trying to squash the Mohawk into tiny knobs as best as we could. It looked pretty dreadful, but not quite as dreadful as the tufts.
After that I went through all my equipment to make sure it was safe, legal and at least not too scruffy. With Rain calling my dressage test (and, lacking markers, a hastily memorised dressage arena map in my head) Arwie and I rode through the test. She was pretty good; obedient with nice transitions (apart from one sticky canter transition in the middle of a half-circle from B to E), but not outstanding. I thought we would probably survive the test without getting a 0 for anything, but didn’t have high expectations.
Tuesday turned out to be rather too rushed to ride Arwen at all; I had a very long day at the stables, but did manage to ride my test a few times from memory on Reed (who rides a killer preliminary test by the way). Arwen spent the day eating grass, and I started to think I wouldn’t need a caller after all. In fact I knew the test by heart and rode it in my head several times a day, but I was terrified that I would enter at A and instantly forget the rest.
Wednesday was our lesson. I rode her without any training aids at all the whole week, because I wanted to know what to expect on Sunday. She was a little better than on Monday, still a bit rushy and unbalanced in the canter and rather heavy on my hands. The Mutterer was mostly concerned with making sure I didn’t burn her out before the show, so we just did some low-pressure flatwork and popped around a 50cm course. She was a little off her rhythm and knocked down one pole, but jumped very willingly with no hesitation.
We had the most amazing session on Thursday. We started by warming up with tons of lateral work, which got her really nice and light on my aids; she was so nice that I decided to play with her a bit and as we came around the corner to H in a working canter I opened my inside rein, pressed my outside spur against her side and asked for a leg-yield, expecting two or three steps or a yield to the quarter line if I was lucky. I was instantly rewarded by a forward, bouncy, willing leg-yield that felt so effortless I let her go all the way to F. It was awesome. That was just the kind of frame of mind she was in, which was too lovely for words. Even her canter was rhythmic, steady, light in my hands.
We jumped around the 80cm course, which I had viewed with some trepidation; in light of the approaching show, it suddenly looked about the size of the Berlin Wall. It’s ridiculous, of course, she pops around 1.00m without any trouble, but shows do funny things to the nerves. She was fantastic and jumped foot perfectly, not a single pole down, drifted a bit to the right but overall she was extremely willing and rhythmic. We jumped our 7-effort course three times without any issues at all and rounded off the session by riding the best test she’d ever given me, excepting a somewhat runny halt at the end. I was on cloud nine. If only she would be as good at the show as she was on Thursday, we would do awesome.
I was tempted to give her Friday off, mindful of not letting her burn out and eager to keep our confidence levels up for the show after our great session the day before, but in the end I lunged her for 20 minutes or so. Arwen is just always much better to ride when she’s had a lot of consistent work. She was her usual impeccable self for lunging.
Saturday was Arwen’s spa day. I was running around like a chicken without a head, trying to rescue my numnahs and things from the washing line, clean all my stuff and prevent her from rolling after her lengthy bath. Arwen was, as usual, very easy to wash apart from her face (which she really hates to have cleaned). I used Trident’s Glistening shampoo (which, despite my sister’s warnings, did not turn my horse purple) and scrubbed her body and hooves well. I only shampooed the mane lightly because I wanted to plait it, but I went a bit crazy on her tail. Arwen has the most wonderful tail ever, and once it’s been washed, thoroughly conditioned and carefully combed out it becomes a wavy cascade of silky wonderfulness. She spent the afternoon grazing in the garden because of the lack of dirt to roll in. I had heard all the dire warnings that grey horses will always roll directly after a bath or the night before the show. Arwen became my heroine that evening because she didn’t even think of rolling, went happily back to her paddock, and judging by the lack of grassy bits on her coat on Sunday morning, she didn’t even lie down in a dirty spot for the night.
I intended to have an early night on Saturday, but nervous excitement kept me awake reading an outdated Manual of Horsemanship until 9:30. It was only a training show, but it felt like it would be a very big day tomorrow.
I have often felt that horsemanship is so much more than riding, a subject which I’ll elaborate on in another post soon. Many people – even those who don’t do their horses’ daily feeding and mucking out chores – will know what I’m talking about, but until you keep your horses at home and have to organise everything that happens to them and is necessary for their happiness, it’s hard to understand the full extent of all the details that need paying attention to.
Horsemanship is so much more than horses. As a horsewoman I’ve found that hammering in a nail, fixing a fence, digging a hole (or at least knowing somebody who’s better at digging a hole than you) and carrying poles around are skills just as invaluable as picking out a hoof or putting a bridle back together.
This has become even more evident as I start to fix up the horse facilities a little better on the farm. We started with nothing; the horses hung out in the pasture with the dairy cows and schooling was conducted, somewhat haphazardly, in a squirrel-hole-ridden corner of the pasture where you had to dodge cowpats and navigate around the odd stray Jersey en route to the jumps (of which there were two, constructed of tyres and sticks). Such was the start of Arwen’s jumping education. It wasn’t ideal, but it was something, and it sure made me grateful for everything I have now.
We eventually selected a 40m x 60m rectangle that was on a relatively flattish piece of ground and didn’t have any cows on it, got rid of the worst of the weeds and relocated the tyres and sticks to this new arena. Apart from having to move its boundaries around a little as fences were put up and the lunging ring built, it remains my arena today.
We also built a 15m lungeing ring (which I adore) and a couple of paddocks reserved exclusively for equids. (Benji the donkey shares Arwen, Thunder, and Siobhan’s paddock). Later on we made three tiny paddocks for individual feeding, and then fenced off half of Skye and Magic’s paddock and turned it into a pasture.
All of them are little steps forward, with a few more on the horizon. With the first frosts, the horse pasture all died; there’s still a lot of dry grass which can be grazed as standing hay but I doubt it’ll last all winter. Enter oats. Whilst oats are usually fed as a grain, I’ve heard that oat hay is very good for horses and so if it’s grazed before it goes to seed, I’m guessing it’ll make decent winter forage. Our soil is also very conducive to growing oats – we had a bumper crop a few years back – and the seed was readily available, so oats it is.
Being in a summer rainfall area I couldn’t exactly just toss it out and leave the rest to Nature, so a line of sprinklers has been set up down the middle of the pasture. It looks quite picturesque, although the snorting, running horses didn’t agree with me at first.
The arena itself has also started to become something of a problem. It has served me very well in backing youngsters and teaching them the basics, but it’s finally starting to let me down now that my riding – and my horses – are becoming more advanced. Being on a slight downhill, it’s almost impossible for a horse to balance perfectly in it for more than two or three strides at a time. Its footing, whilst firm and without holes or rocks, is also grass; fine when it’s a green, springy mat but not so fine when it’s dry and very slippery. It’s starting to impact the horses’ performance and hold them back, and so it’s definitely time for an upgrade: levelling it first, and then running a disc over it to turn over the sandy soil. It’s not river sand, but it’ll do just fine.
Arena upgrades have already taken place in the form of these wonderful jumps. They’re second hand and a look a little rough, but a wire brush and a coat of paint will restore most of them them pretty much to mint condition. I had had a guts full of dragging tyres around and, as I moved up the heights and increased the amount of jumps, I kind of ran out of tyres. Now I have these beauties, which I adore, and which Arwen hates, but she’ll get over it.
I might still be a long way off from my starry-eyed dreams of white rail fences enclosing rolling miles of kikuyu and ryegrass pastures, an stable block akin to the one in Lord of the Rings and sand arenas basking in the sun, but we’re also a long way from where we started.
The ponies themselves are doing fine. Somebody bit Magic in the back, resulting in a superficial but painful scrape just sore enough to prevent putting a saddle on it. He’s had a nice holiday. Skye is still lame; more on that in a later post, but she’s well enough in herself, just not rideable. Arwen, apart from an old coronet injury that’s growing out of the wall of her hoof now and is rather unsightly, is doing swimmingly well. We have a show coming up which is very exciting – I’ll have to do a show prep post sometime this week. Baby Thunder is his usual wonderful cuddly teddybear self; I eventually got really, really tired of his tufty, rubbed-out mane and took a pair of scissors to it. It broke my heart to hog it, since I know it can hang down to his shoulder in its full-length glory, but it’s better than the tufts. It works well for him; he looks very handsome and grown up now. I left his forelock, obviously, because it almost reaches his nostrils and is the apple of my eye.
Everybody got measured today since half my horses are still growing and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all the young horses grew at least an inch. Arwen, who was last measured at the age of five or six and stood 14.2hh, is now 14.3 1/2. Magic also put on an inch and went from 15.1hh to 15.2hh, and Thunder had a tremendous growth spurt and grew up all the way from 14.3hh to a comfortable 15.1hh. I’m terribly proud of him, since his sire was 15.1 and Skye is only 14.2hh, so he’s ready to outdo both his parents. It must mean that Skye throws whoppers because none of his half-siblings are quite so tall and he was her first baby. Tempting to put her to a 17hh warmblood and see what kind of a giant comes out there…
That’s all from me for now. More coherent posts to follow!
A few months ago I wrote about how glad I was that Sookie Lynn was coming back into my life. Sookie first came to the stud about two years ago as a three-year-old filly from dressage bloodlines, very unique-looking with her skewbald (pardon me, bay tobiano) coat and one blue eye. She had just been backed, and very soon after arrival she was assigned to be my project.
Though nervous about being given such a valuable horse to train, and feeling rather awkward on this giant beast (Sookie was the first warmblood I’d ever ridden), I was pretty excited. There was a lot to learn, of course. The horses I’d previously worked with had all been either ponies or thoroughbreds; difficult to bend, but easy to collect. Sookie is so supple you could tie her in a knot but she is so long from front to back that it was at first very hard to keep her body together. Even she didn’t seem to have an awful lot of control over the head that nodded on the end of an endless neck or the feet that flopped around on the end of legs about three miles long. She was only a baby, after all, barely worked; I took her for her very first canter under saddle.
Fast forward to eighteen months later and you find me positively quivering with anticipation of every ride on Sookie Lynn. She has become the most wonderful ride; soft, supple, and oh so responsive. Once she figured out the whole idea of keeping her hindlegs under her, using her back muscles and staying soft on my hands and legs, she turned out to be awesome fun. Her movement, whilst huge, is extremely comfortable to sit on (I hardly ever rise to the trot except when we’re practicing the prelim tests and I don’t get stitches), and she is unbelievably supple. Lateral work just comes naturally to her, as do flying changes. Now that she has built up strength in her topline, she is finally starting to understand collection – yesterday as we practiced collected trot I found myself thinking, “This horse could piaffe for me right now.” She didn’t, but that was probably more to do with the fact that I have never ridden a piaffe before and have no idea what the aids are. I just collected her more and more, asked for the movement I wanted with my seat, kept her forward ever so slightly with my legs and held her back ever so slightly with my hands, and for a few steps she was moving at a slower speed than a walk. Then she flopped into a walk and I, appreciating that I was asking rather a lot of a five-year-old, called it quits.
Probably the coolest thing about riding Sookie is her responsiveness, which is something I thought I’d never say about her considering that originally she would lean on my hands, ignore my legs and pretend my seat didn’t exist. Now, she is as soft and light in my hands as if the reins were connected to air. She only needs a squeeze with the legs when asking for an upward transition into a gait; I can ask her to lengthen her stride on seat alone (assuming she’s having a good day). Downward transitions are something of a sticky spot as she likes to toss her head in the air for the first stride of the new gait, but now I can change her to a slower gait without pulling on the reins. That’s not something all the horses I ride can do, and it’s pretty freaking cool to experience it for the first time.
In fact I would be on my knees begging to compete on Sookie if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s pregnant. Not far pregnant, or obviously I wouldn’t be riding her, but still, that baby is rather too valuable to risk her losing it with the stress of her first show. So we will continue to stay at home and polish our skills until Baby Sookie has been born and weaned.
And then, dressage world, you better watch out. The midget and the German giraffe are coming to get you.
I may be biased (okay, so I am totally biased), but my baby horse is the kindest youngster I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
No, he’s not the smartest, by a long shot. That would be Rose, a skewbald mare I schooled with attractive leopardy ink spots and a fantastically wavy, feathery mane. Rose was either born knowing the aids or just had the most unbelievable understanding of pressure and release I’ve ever come across. Her lameness issues stunted her training, which is a small tragedy because she could have done advanced dressage, easy peasy. Nor is Thunder the most laid-back – Chrome takes the cake there; the first time I rode him, I only realised that he’d never been ridden before when I asked for a lope and got a handstand instead. He’s not the easiest; that would be a toss-up between Chrome, Rose, and my favourite stallion, Reed. He’s not even the most responsive. He’s just… kind.
I’ve been working with this horse since he hit the ground and have been looking after him all his life. In fact, nobody else even led him until he was six months old, and up until his backing I think I had all of one lesson with him. And yet I still haven’t seen him mean, spiteful or lazy towards humans. He could be bossy with the other young colts he lived with until he was gelded, but that was it. Sure, he’s kicked out a few times on the lunge in the direction of the whip when he’s frustrated or annoyed, and it’s not like he’s frantically obeyed every aid I’ve given him. He is a horse, after all. But Thunder is that dream horse that most people try to paint every horse into being: the horse that is truly always trying his best, the horse that only ever disobeys out of fear or pain or misunderstanding, the horse that does not have one mean bone in his body.
Even the best horses get wilful or stubborn. When she’s not in the mood, even my beloved Skye, who has been with me for almost ten years and is one of the most game and generous horses I know, can dig in her toes and say she won’t. Many horses can actually be spiteful just for the sake of being spiteful (these are the ones who take advantage of you around every corner).
But not Thunder.
Thun has been plenty naughty in his life and earned a lot of discipline for everything from chewing his reins to having no respect for personal space to nipping hands and arms when he was still a colt. He’s bucked, but only out of shock and confusion. He’s bolted, but only out of fear. He’s even refused to go forward, but only out of not understanding. But at the gist of it, this guy really just wants to do everything he can to make you happy.
I won’t easily forget the time that my cinch came loose mid-canter on an outride, sending saddle and rider crashing to the ground. Thun, within sight of his home paddock, did a lightning 180 and came back for me. He was only just three years old and so scared I could see the whites of his eyes as he stood there staring down at me, but he still came back.
He couldn’t have been much older than eighteen or twenty months when he stood in a squirrel hole and, for want of a more equestrian term, twisted his ankle. I still remember how he hobbled up to me and gave me a big, sad, blame-free look before planting his head in my chest and asking mommy, just please make it better. Even pain has never made him lash out. You could poke needles into this horse until he bled, he still would just stand there and let you do what you wanted. When he was sedated for his gelding surgery, he gave me a somewhat confused, dopey look, then just leaned his head against my body. This is weird, mommy, but you’re here so it’s okay.
Yesterday, I was helping out one of my sister’s friends who wanted to learn to ride. Arwen (well-schooled, responsive Arwen) knew she could get away with dragging her toes and refusing to trot, so I gave up on her and put the girl on Thunder. She did her best, but had only been riding for a week so she mixed her aids a bit and didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him, but you could just see the concentration in his eyes as he tried to understand what she wanted. Bucking? Didn’t even cross his mind. He just bent his head, fixed his eyes on the floor and did what she wanted. Willingly. To the best of his ability.
The way Thunder does everything.
That’s not to say he’s some kind of mindless automaton. That would make him a robot, a slave or at best, a domesticated beast doing what it’s told because that’s the easiest way it knows. Thunder is that wonderful thing that few horses naturally are – a willing partner. Most horses can be trained to be like this, but Thun was born this way. There’s nothing dead or subservient in him when he works, nor is he a horse with a really laid-back or insensitive nature. He’s a curious, alert horse; he investigates new things with gusto and inherited his mother’s joie de vivre and love of running. He wants to play with everybody, whether it’s his buddy Siobhan or the crotchety old donkey. He has life. He is not what I’d call a fiery horse, but he has a fire in him. A sparkle.
And when a horse comes to you and brings with him all his fire and all his sparkle, and he does what you ask to the best of his ability using all his willpower, not because it’s just the easiest way out but because he wants to do it for you – that, to me, is the purest way a horse can love a human. I think it’s as cute as anything when they come to you in the paddock, nicker when they see you or follow you around. But you can bribe a horse into these behaviours with food or cuddles or whatever else he likes. Going the extra mile, giving his best in every situation, and coming back for a fallen rider – that is real equine love.
It’s not something you can train. You can set up the situation to make it easy for them to do it, but it’s not something you can make a horse do. It’s something they just do, these wonderful, bewildering creatures that God made. And this is why I ride, this is real horsemanship – the strange and unconventional love between man and beast that communicates without language and speaks without sound.
That’s why I’ll part with my well-schooled mare and my ridiculously talented thoroughbred far easier than I’d ever part with my dumb, hairy mongrel gelding.
Clipping is a job that can be either a welcome and satisfying break from the daily grind or a soul-searching, body-pounding ordeal, and the one thing that makes the difference is having a good pair of clippers.
The first few times I clipped Arwen I used a very old, very noisy, very blunt set of clippers that ended up taking two and a half hours for a basic body clip and ran so hot that I had to pause frequently or burn my poor horse. After the last time, I vowed never again. So this year I used a sharp, well maintained pair and it halved the amount of time taken.
Arwen, I’m afraid, was a dork. She’s always a bit daft, leaving me no choice but to leave the head and legs unclipped, but this time she danced around so much that I ended up leaving a few unattractive tufts on her belly and neck. It looks like it will grow out fine, though. I took the opportunity to tidy up the root of her tail as well – I was pulling it, but soon discovered that pulling a thick native tail is not a job for sissies and it was so much simpler to lop it off with the clippers.
Silly as my little mare looks with her hairy head and great woolly stockings, I’m very glad of having her clipped now. It’s just so much more convenient especially as I’m stepping up her workload to at least five, preferably six days a week. I try to do dressage, jumping and lungeing once a week each. One day a week is devoted to fitness training – taking her out on the farm to do some hills, having a good long gallop, and running up some lovely steep banks (heavy exercise). The other day or two are for practicing whatever she struggled most with during the week.
I’m hoping to do our first event towards the end of winter or in spring, depending on the availability of training shows. She’ll need a cross-country schooling day before then, though.
The other horses are chugging along well; Magic and Skye have been rather quiet. Magic had a lot of time off with me spending Easter weekend with my Beloved and showing Jerseys at the National Jerseyweek straight thereafter. He was fine coming back into work afterwards – his transitions are a major weak spot, though – until somebody bit him, taking off a bit of hair and leaving a painful swelling. The sore is right where his saddle sits, so he’s confined to lungeing until it toughens up.
Skye, I am very sad to report, has gone lame again. The vet suspects a splint and recommended rest and patience. She has had four weeks off now and the lameness in her right hindleg is noticeably better, but still there. In herself she seems completely happy and in no pain but of course riding is out of the question.
Although she is only thirteen I think her poor upbringing and bad leg conformation is already starting to limit her working ability. She is, however, not in any pain and doesn’t seem too bored with her forced rest, so I won’t complain and just keep praying that Jesus keeps her riding sound for me for just a few more years.
Baby Thunder is doing well – his rollbacks have improved phenomenally, but I’ll explore that in a later post.
Summer did not leave without a fight. At first, when the day began to shorten so that I would open my curtains to the single bright eye of the morning star instead of the fanfare of colour that brought the sunrise, I thought summer would age and fade graciously. But instead, it returned with one last flourish; a final string of those amazing sunny days when the sky was an absolutely unbelievable blue and the breeze smelt of pollen and laughter. It lasted only a few weeks, long enough for the cosmos to bloom, and then summer died in a blaze of white and purple.
Now winter steals across the hills like a stalking wolf in grey and brown. Instead of finishing my evening work before the deep purple twilight, I find myself still working after the moon has begun to smile in the sky. Also, more prosaically, my horses are all as hairy as wild bush brumbies and Magic now has to be followed everywhere by a dutiful human being changing his blankies in case the poor creature catches a chill.
If I’m going to be totally honest, summertime is my favourite. The horses are shiny, the grazing is good, everything is either green or flowering or wet and you can swim in the dam. Also, grooming is a pleasure instead of a dusty chore, your hands don’t get chapped and you don’t have to ride in the semi-dark. Haynets can be thrown back into the foul and demonic lair whence they come and Skye replaces her worrying dust allergies with the merely annoying bug allergies. Oh yes, and no breaking ice on water troughs in the morning with bare, blue fingers. That’s always nice.
I’m ready for the winter to come, though. The recent outbreaks of African horse sickness throughout the country has made me nervous, and the first frost will kill the midges and signal the end to the horse sickness season. With the midges will die the ticks, the flies, the horseflies, the bot flies (hate those things) and all the other horrible buzzing and crawling things bent on eating my horses alive. I’ll be able to take a break from my ongoing war on parasites.
The parasites will take a lot of the horse illnesses with them as well as horse sickness; biliary and West Nile among them. I’ll also be able to ride in the middle of the day without frying my face and killing my horse. Long, hot, sweaty summer days are the bane of people with epic manes like mine; in winter I don’t have to try and wring out my hair after every ride, or squish the corkscrew curls that appear every time it rains. The horses’ feet, if oiled occasionally, will be healthier because of the drier ground and lack of mud; no more mud fever and thrush to worry about. Oh, and thunderstorms will be gone for the next while, so the risk of lightning strikes will be significantly reduced. Magic’s face won’t get rain scald, either, and hopefully Thunder’s mane will grow back if he quits rubbing it.
For now, my biggest problem is winter coats. I know why winter coats are around and I’m jolly glad they are, or horses would be permanently catching colds. For that reason, I mostly put up with them; Thunder and Skye can be as woolly as they like, no matter how much I hate the dull fuzz and the dust it collects. God made horses fluffy for a reason.
Arwen and Magic, however, for their sake of their health as well as my sanity, have to have something done about the hairiness. They work harder than the other horses in short, intense spurts, and they both sweat like pigs. In summer, you just hose them off and forget about it. In winter, however, it’s a long maskerade of walking them until they’re dry, choosing riding times carefully and perpetually changing blankets to prevent them from catching cold. Plus, showing a horse in a full winter coat is highly unappealing.
For Arwen, the solution is pretty simple: a body clip and a New Zealand rug. She’s tolerable to clip (although the legs and face sometimes have to be left long, depending on her mood and the behaviour of the clippers) and she always looks nice clipped, being grey. Her sweating virtually disappears, too.
Magic, however, is so ticklish that grooming can be a mission, let alone clipping. Right now, I’m not even prepared to go there. So for him, we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned (and arguably much better) way: grooming. It is possible to groom out a winter coat, with a lot of elbow grease and a sharp shedding comb; the results look far better since the coat is clean and its natural colour, and you don’t have to spend three hours dodging hooves and teeth whilst holding a very sharp, noisy piece of machinery near a very large, nervous animal. It’s a lot more work, but I’m up for the challenge.
See, I’ve been reading horsy stuff. If my horses knew this, they would run away. Unfortunately, the poor unenlightened creatures have to suffer the effects of me reading horsy stuff, which usually include more/harder/new work for them.
First, I watched with great interest as my favouritest horse blogger The Sprinkler Bandit rocked around a cross-country course on her cute OTTB. Then my almost favouritest horse blogger The Rubber Curry Comb was having fun over sunken roads and other exciting obstacles. Not along ago I published a blog post on eventing at eQuest for Truth.
And then I was like, well, why not us? I mean, the Horse Mutterer had even given me a body protector (which I, eyeing the numerous unbacked horses at the stud, filed under “very ominous”). Plus, Arwen has been schooled for showjumping as well as dressage. Why, the Mutterer himself said she would be a nice little eventer.
Arwen’s infinite trainability always makes her the guinea pig. She’s done dressage, showjumping, outrides, some rather peculiar groundwork, and Western mounted games. By now, she’s pretty used to her human trying get another fool idea and saving aforementioned human from making an idiot of itself.
So yesterday I built us a log pile. Not a proper one, unfortunately. I took a couple of tyres and then lined up four unpainted poles on top of them, stacked another three on top of those, then two right on top, creating about a 50cm solid-looking heap. (50cm is a baby jump, but it was quite big enough for me given what could happen if she decided to crash into it. Besides, I was running out of poles). I grabbed the unsuspecting Arwen and we charged off to get to work.
We warmed up quickly because we were losing the light; a couple of walk circles, some working trot laps and circles (with a bit of light seat thrown in cuz I need leg muscles), and then a few laps of a nice, relaxed, forward canter. She rushed through the lead change, but I decided to choose my battles and focus on the jumping. We warmed up over a 1.10m vertical. I brought her in too close for some really dorky rabbit hops a few times, but she took everything in her usual willing way. Her canter was miles better than last week; she was relaxed, responsive, calm but eager. In fact, by the time we were done jumping the vertical, Arwen felt amazing.
There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re riding your best and your horse knows it and gives its best for you. You feel utterly in balance and poised upon the movement of your horse, which is calm and focused, every ounce of its attention on the job. The horse is perfectly on the aids, and so you feel like you’re just sitting there, guiding it with the merest touch of your leg, squeeze of your finger or shift of your weight. This is the time when voice commands seem utterly ridiculous; you communicate effortlessly by touch and in silence. Best of all, there is absolutely no resistance in the horse towards you. None. Your aids just flow through it, and it does exactly what you want, but willingly and eagerly, as if that was what it also wanted to do all along; its whole body is working and supple. You two work as one. In dressage, this is known as losgelassenheit, but whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty awesome. Arwen gives me moments of it now and then, and yesterday we had it.
With this awesome feeling, I took my wonderful, losgelassenheity horse towards the log pile. She cantered towards it happily until about two strides out, where she went “OMW lady why all the poles???” and hesitated. “Just jump,” I ordered, firming my legs around her. She shrugged equinely and popped over without a problem. The next time we circle around, she had a look, I ignored the look and she jumped again, no worries. After that we just had fun gliding over the tiniest log pile in the universe like it didn’t exist; eventually each jump was barely a break in her stride and I decided to call it a day before she got too blasé and tripped over it and broke our silly necks.
Looking for cross-country facilities in our area now. Eventing world, here we come.