After his break during the beginning of 2019, Thunder was impeccably behaved coming back into work. But he was also fat and unfit. Really, really unfit.
To be fair, I wasn’t the fittest I had ever been, either. Thanks to my job at the Arab stud, I was still exercising 2-3 horses a day, but they were mostly either babies or impeccably trained old show horses. The former requires mostly the “hang on and don’t die” muscles to operate; the others are so soft and light and smooth that they barely require muscles at all. Certainly none of them were the full-body workout that is riding a half-schooled dressage horse whilst not really having any idea of how to do so.
So when J told us that we needed to get fit, he was totally right. He put us to work lungeing for 20 minutes three days a week (schooling once or twice a week) and so, combined with having tons of babies to work, I find myself in the middle of a lunge ring quite frequently.
To be honest, I kinda like lungeing. I mean, it’s extremely boring (Thunder is getting a bit tired of it now) but I sat lungeing exams for my stable management modules and might pride myself just a teeny bit on being a bit on the pedantic side when it comes to lungeing.
Lungeing can be a little controversial sometimes. Many trainers absolutely swear by it (lookin at you, J) while others prefer hills or cavaletti for fitness. Personally, I think all of the above can be beneficial depending on the horse and human and situation. But lungeing can certainly be a tool for evil.
Lungeing has a set of benefits that makes it an important tool in my toolbox, though. Some of them include:
Teaching the unbacked horse to move in rhythm and balance, respond to voice commands, and accept tack
Laying a foundation of fitness without the rider’s weight – for horses with poor topline or unbacked youngsters
Allowing a less experienced person, like a good groom, to exercise the horse for a busy rider (it takes a few months to learn to lunge really well, much longer to learn to ride)
Warming up a stiff back before riding
Perhaps most importantly, giving the rider an opportunity to see the horse move, which allows one to connect what it feels like to what it looks like.
Lungeing, however, is often easily misused. Even though there’s no rider involved, it’s still hard on the horse’s body. Typically lungeing involves fewer walk breaks than riding and working on a circle isn’t easy on the joints. I have a few ground rules to help lungeing do what all training tools should – make the horse’s life better.
Preferably not before four, and certainly not before three. Look, five minutes twice a week won’t kill your two-year-old. But I don’t work my three-year-olds more than three or four days a week, and even then, only for 15 minutes at a time. Just enough to show them how to move in balance. Four-year-olds can do 20 minutes or so, but slowly and judiciously. What are you going to do with a four-year-old anyway? They’re basically camels with no brains at that age.
Whatsoever you do to one side, do also unto the other. Nothing makes a horse asymmetrical faster than asymmetrical lungeing. Working the weak side harder than the strong side mostly only makes the horse stiff and resentful.
Lungeing is schooling. My pet peeve is horses who CHARGE off onto the circle in a mad trot. No. Mine are expected to stand stock-still until asked, at which point they shall walk briskly and calmly onto the circle and continue walking until asked to trot. All transitions should take place on voice command. When asked to stop, they stand quietly. This makes life much more relaxing for the horse.
Lunge in all three gaits. Some babies, especially the gawky types, have trouble cantering on a small circle. Apart from those, mine lunge in walk, trot and canter. Jackhammer trot is not a gait.
Pay attention to gait quality. The gaits in lungeing should be the same as under saddle, if not better due to the lack of encumbrance from uncoordinated humanity. Jackhammer trot is not a quality gait. Young horses should be able to lunge smoothly and in balance without gadgets in all three gaits before being expected to carry a rider. Nothing is worse for the horse’s joints and muscles than tearing around madly, hollow and counter bent.
If you use a gadget, understand it. I like elasticated side reins and maybe a neck stretcher/chambon, but only for horses who already understand the contact and are strong enough to carry themselves. I prefer introducing the contact on the long lines. That way, they can have plenty of little stretch breaks while the muscles develop.
I’m sure others have different rules, and that mine will change over time, but that’s what I’m doing right now. And that is how I try not to die of boredom while lungeing 6 horses in a day lol. But it’s starting to pay off.
Here’s hoping J will be happier with us next week. Thunny certainly feels a LOT more powerfully forward under saddle now – the canter-walks are suddenly back, a medium trot came out of nowhere (yesssss) and we even have changes again. Yay!
Yesterday was a lovely young horse show at Penbritte (my favourite venue in the world), and since I have nothing but good memories of the young horse classes I used to do years ago on the illustrious Nell, it was the perfect opportunity to take the babies.
Gatsby has been on a little trip to my own yard, but never off the farm before that, so I was ready to do some slow breathing and apply some Velcro to my butt.
However, I need not have worried. He was perfect to travel and arrived looky, but calm. Once I got on he was a little up and he did have to stare at every single horse that went past on the noisy gravel path (his home yard is a lot quieter than mine), but in 20 minutes or so he had come right down and was relaxed and listening.
Water was being noisily pumped into a tank right by the judge’s box when I went up to introduce him, and it was very spooky – to be fair I would have been concerned riding Thunder up to it. But Gatsby was fantastic. He was looking, but he didn’t run back or jump, just stopped to have a look. Dad came over (thanks to the very kind judge, who was supremely patient) and just walked ahead of him up and down a few times and that was that.
I could not have asked for better during his test. He did break to walk at C to look at the water tank again, but just for a few steps. If I had flapped and kicked at him then he would have kept trotting but I elected to let him have a look and it paid off because he didn’t look again for the rest of the test, and of course it was a young horse test so that didn’t hurt us at all. He was responsive, calm and obedient and even stretched down in both walk and trot. I didn’t quite get the rein back like I wanted it, but everything else was fine.
I was pleasantly surprised at his mark of 65% because he may be a 5yo but he really isn’t strong enough to do this test that well, plus, I was extremely conservative and didn’t ask him for too much. If I could ride it again I’d still be conservative, though. I’d rather we had a quiet round and both of us felt more confident afterward than that I kicked him and chased him into gaits he can’t balance yet.
Nonetheless we got lots and lots of awesome prizes by dint of a tiny class and really brilliant sponsorship from Equi-Feeds. Old Skye is on Equi-Feeds Golden Years this winter and has done much better than previous winters even though she’s almost 31, so do go and check their website. I’ve also fed their lucerne chaff and shandy cubes and the chaff has always been beaufiful and clean.
There was just enough time to stuff Tilly’s hair into plaits before we went to warm up. Tilly is an absolute professional by this point. She was a little bit hot when we started warming up but settled right down, didn’t even look at the water tank, and plonked down centreline totally relaxed.
Her test was fabulous. I only put the lengthenings on her a few weeks ago and they just come naturally to this lovely lady. Her only mistake was taking the wrong lead in her first canter transition, but we fixed it and she didn’t get flustered about it (Tilly doesn’t get flustered about anything).
After watching the other two horses in the class, I’ll be honest, I was pretty sure she’d be coming home with a day sheet. I was surprised when she came third. I was riding quietly but not quite so conservatively as on Gatsby, and the other two horses were not as through, supple, obedient, rhythmic and connected as Tilly is. The judge, however, was looking for more power and forward movement, so that’s fair. I was test riding too much and not showing off her potential enough for this judge, but she still had a mark of 66% and behaved absolutely impeccably all day, so it was still a super show. And we won unicorn cookies!
I would not have changed my ride on Gatsby, but I’ll be riding bigger lengthenings on Tilly this week to see if she can balance them. However in light of J showing me not to chase the horse onto the forehand demanding more forward, I’m still more inclined to build the strength slowly and not ask for more power than the horse can comfortably contain.
It was another well organized show at Penbritte and with wonderful sponsorship. My two horses could not have been better and their owners can be extremely proud of them!
I’ve been following Tamarack Hill Farm’s page for a while now, avidly gathering the abundant pearls of wisdom that Olympic horseman Denny Emerson has been so freely dispersing to the masses. His new book Know Better Do Better is definitely on my wishlist, but I’m not here to rave on the words of the oracle today.
Instead, I find myself in the midst of what Emerson describes over and over on his page, with photographical evidence: the power of unexciting progress.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than I wanted success. I worked so hard – riding multiple horses a day every single day since I was in my preteens. Drilling myself every single day. I had the golden opportunity of free access to horses, and I absolutely took it. They were the front and centre of my life. They were practically my identity, and as I grew up into a young adult, I only knew how to push harder. Faster. I wanted more, quicker, and I wanted success – now. Nothing was too high a price to pay for progress on a horse: not other areas of my life, not money, not time, not my mental health, and God forgive me, not even that horse’s state of mind.
These days, though, through a long path of frustrating steadying, God has led me to another place. A place where not every ride has to show improvement. A place where I just plain slow down. No more riding 12 horses a day, no more frantically chasing the next level, no more competing every single horse in every single show regardless of whether they (or I) were ready for it.
There was no time then for anything but hurry and anxiety, and I remember only the wins as good times. But these days, I move a little bit slower. I ride 5 or 6 a day instead of 12. I got a day job to take some of the unrelenting pressure off the riding. I put the goals in the backseat, tucked the future up in bed, breathed deep and slow and tried to see every day the way a horse does: one moment at a time.
I didn’t set goals for 2019. This was by design. I don’t want them right now; I want to give up all of that desperation to chase the next horizon in favour of slowing down my brain and making room for compassion, learning, and understanding.
I took a hiatus from showing – and even from Thunder – early in 2019. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a good thing, because I learned what it was that called me to horses in the first place. It wasn’t the shows. It was Him: the voice of God, whispering in the quiet moments when horse and human move spine to spine, breath to breath.
It took a journey of years, but I think I’m finally getting there. Getting to the place where I can crush the aching noise of pressure and the fear of what others will think, in favour of listening to the souls of horses. That’s what I’m here for, after all.
I was sixteen when I came down centreline for the first time and I didn’t even know how to get my horse on the bit. I had taught myself the diagonals the week before from an article on the Internet. I had no instruction and no knowledgeable support for the next five years. My family made it possible for me to keep riding, though, and I did. One ride, one article, one blog post, one Youtube video at a time I trained my own horse without lessons to Elementary. I taught dressage to myself on a hillside by God’s gracious provision, and I have nothing to prove anymore. I know I have it in me to be brilliant because God put it there. I can be an outstanding rider, and maybe I will be one day. But it’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, it might not happen in 5 years or 10 years or even 15 years or even ever if I break my neck tomorrow. And I’m not going to do this by myself: it’s going to take support and it’s going to take lessons from the coach who’s changed my riding.
I don’t know for sure if I ever will enter at A, collected canter. But I do know that I have this ride, this breath, this moment. I have this transition. I have this stride. And God put me here, in this moment, to be with Him.
I can’t say for sure I’ll be a Grand Prix rider in 10 years, but I can be a kind rider right now. The road to the FEI tests is a long one, and it starts with lungeing. It starts with trotting large, trying to get my hands under control. It starts with inside leg to outside rein. It continues with practice, constant patient daily practice, and I can find the greatness in practicing when every ride breathes life into the soul of a horse.
Grand Prix horses aren’t built in a year. Elementary horses aren’t even built in a year. They’re built in hundreds of thousands of slow rides, and lessons, and training shows. They’re built in the tedium of unexciting progress, progress so slow as to be nearly invisible, until five years later you have a different horse. And that slowness would be unbearable, if every moment wasn’t filled with the awareness of that beautiful thing God made between a person and a horse.
I think I am only now starting to see what it really means when I say, “Glory to the King.”
Since December of last year, I’ve been working at a nearby Arabian stud – a dream come true, considering that I used to only gaze at the shiny stallions in the roadside fields as we passed them on the way home every single day when I was a kid.
These days, I get to handle those shiny stallions, and the serene old mares and the little dinky foals that look like they’ve been cast out of finest porcelain.
I have absolutely loved it, and gotten to know a bunch of such lovely personalities too. I had sworn off stallions completely, but now find myself handling them on a daily basis thanks to Lancey’s ever-gentle daddy (who also goes by the barn name of Lance) and his big shiny chestnut colleague, Belrock.
My main mission, of course, has been the young horses. My favourite, a chestnut half-sister of Lancey’s, won her class in hand and was then sold at the stud’s production auction to a very very lucky buyer. Now, I’m working Lancey’s full sister (she is nothing like him lol but beautiful and smart) and this handsome little chap.
Gatsby is five years old but I’ve only had him under saddle for five months or so. Nonetheless, he is a great guy. He learns things almost instantaneously and never seems to run out of try. I love him to bits. Gatsby is about to make his training show debut, so he’ll be making a few guest appearances on the blog in show recaps.
Generally I try not to talk about client horses on the blog, but I just had to gush about the beloved Arabs a little bit. Another pony that’ll show up here from time to time, while not an Arab, also lives at the beautiful stud farm. His name is Christopher and I had no idea how badly I needed a Welsh pony named Christopher in my life until God brought him into it.
Christopher is in his teens and has been around the block a thousand times already – including being a winning EM pony. His breeding is drool-worthy and so is he. Impeccably schooled though he is, he is a sassy lil dude and knows his job, and it’s very cool to get to play around on him. Thunder can only school so many days a week, and everything else I ride is Prelim level or lower, so I jumped at the chance to ride Christopher and get some more mileage at the more difficult movements.
If funds allow, Chris and I will get to go to a few shows soon. Get used to this adorable little dark bay face, blogosphere – there will be more of him.
At this point, I’m just going along with God’s wonderful ideas. Glory to the King.
With memberships being cripplingly expensive, Thunder and I are limited to ride n go tests or those few shows that offer higher levels than novice to non-members. Shout-out to those venues, by the way – they make dressage so much more accessible! Especially to young riders trying to make it to the top on a shoestring.
Grateful for the opportunity, Thunder, Tilly, the parents and I headed to the most magical venue of them all – Penbritte. It’s one of the best in the country, and right on our doorstep. Thunder was a little bewildered to disembark after only 45 minutes instead of the usual two hours to J’s.
We had the luxury of time, too. So I finally busted out these cute lil beaded plaiting elastics that Arwen and I won five years ago in our mutual first ever dressage test (Prelim 1, with 63% – I’ll never forget it). I have never had the courage to actually use them, but they are fabulous and ain’t no one gonna tell me not to put colourful beads in my longsuffering horse’s hair.
He warmed up GREAT – the best he ever has, despite the fact that the arena next door was being watered and making him look a bit. He’s become such a lovely, mature, grown-up horsie at last. He was a bit heavy in my left hand, normal for him, so we did some shoulder-in and then just ran through all the movements once. I was extremely chill, which was great. We suffered one small disaster right before we went in when my hair decided to rebel and came tumbling down my back, requiring a frantic last-minute mounted fix with the reins pinned down between my thigh and the saddle in the knowledge that if he did take off I would be dead. He didn’t take off, I didn’t die, and we were actually early when we headed round to the judge.
A huge part of being more relaxed in the ring for me is being more relaxed right before entering. You have 45 seconds after the bell, which is a surprisingly large amount of time – enough to ride a transition or two before embarking down centerline. I do a quick trot-walk-trot with Thunder to remind us both to breathe. So we came down centerline for Elementary 1 and halted, straight and steady but not square, for 6.5.
I was riding from memory and a bit tense about it but actually the new elementary tests flow great. The turn E-X and serpentine X-A felt fabulous for a 7.0. The judge commented “light in neck” – not sure if that was good or bad, but he was very soft in the inside rein on both loops and bending well. The first lengthening was a 6.5 with the usual comments “needs more forward” (always and forever) but I’m totally happy with that for his weakest movement. The halt immobility 5 seconds at C, once a huge struggle for Thunder, was PERFECT. He felt just slightly unbalanced into the halt but the judge said it was square and he was attentive and calm for a 7.
Then came the leg-yields. In the old Elementary, there was shoulder-in in four out of the six tests. Elementary 1 had no lateral work and Elementary 3 had a leg-yield zigzag, H-X-K. So Thunder and I practiced almost exclusively shoulder-in until the new tests came out and Elementary 1 now has a steep little leg-yield: B-X half 10m circle, X-H leg-yield. I was worried about it because leg-yield into a corner doesn’t leave much margin for error, and thus curled up my daft outside leg too much, but he was perfect and floated exactly to H for a 7. The highest mark either of us have achieved on lateral work.
A door slammed behind him in our next lengthening, which gave him a bit of oomph even though he was feeling more tired now, but the judge didn’t like it and said 6.5 for being slightly hurried. The next leg-yield was K-D half circle, D-B leg-yield and to his harder side. I panicked a bit and didn’t finish the half circle properly, and he’s a little stiffer to the right so lost a bit of activity, but it was still a respectable 6.5. That was the end of the trot work, and when we transitioned to walk at R, I could feel he was getting a little flat. Not enough that I was going to pull him up, but he was starting to feel it. I patted him to give him some encouragement and didn’t chase the walk too much so his usually wonderful walk was a boring 6.5.
The transition up to canter was fairly good, and his canter was much more forward, but we still had to crank around the 10m circle at E for our worst mark – 6.0, with comment “circle too large, more uphill”. He was trying to buck but didn’t have the energy so that didn’t help lol. We redeemed ourselves with a 7 on the counter canter loop and then came the canter-walk at H. I did my best to stay out of his face and ride it from my seat, and he was so good, but put in a couple of trot steps before stepping nice and round into walk. I cringed a bit, but it was a 6.5, not bad at all for a movement that gets in my head so much. Honestly I have no idea what the judge commented. The scribe got a little bit distracted and made squiggles.
The free walk, normally a great mark, lacked energy and I just let him take a bit of a break because he needed it so it was tracking up and stretchy but lacklustre for a 6.5. The transition back to canter was another 6.5, as was the lengthening, which was nice and straight but – in the judge’s words “not enough”. We were both tired by now and got 6.0 for the next 10m circle and counter canter loop, but ended on a high note with 7.0 for the final halt.
The collectives gave us a 6.5 for paces (with comment “tempo in canter”), a 6.0 for impulsion, a 6.5 for submission and a 6.5 for rider position. The final mark was 65% with comment “Obedient horse, now needs more impulsion and self-carriage for better expression. Well done”. It was nice to have “well done” at the bottom instead of “well tried”, which characterized my old elementary tests on Arwen.
I was soooooo happy with the big boy. He was so mature and easy to ride, and even though we’re both still getting fit and definitely started flagging in the canter work, we got a solid mark at a level that I used to find practically impossible. In fact it didn’t feel impossible at all; it felt kind of easy. There weren’t any movements that I really worried about and he was familiar and relaxed with everything. I think we could easily have gotten half a mark more on everything if we were both fitter, which is something we’re working hard at.
Tilly was next in Prelim 1 and 3, and she was just exemplary. What a lovely little horse she’s turning out to be! I got lost at the start of Prelim 1, but then scraped it back together for mostly 7s that ended with a mark of 67.8 and a 2nd place.
Prelim 3 was even better; she still needs work on her squiggly wiggly baby centrelines and on the fact that she’s still a bit young and uses my hands as a fifth leg, which I allow because J said so even though my biceps and abs are dyyyyyying, but she is extremely solid for the level and got a 69 and a first place.
We also got the second ever 9 of my career for her walk, so at least I can still do that even though Thunder ran out of juice in his walk on the day.
It was a great day and so nice to have both my parents with me even though darling was away again. Tilly is going from strength to strength considering she’s only four, and my Thunder was amazing and will be far more amazing when we add some more fitness. He already felt a hundred times better than our lesson.
The guys and I made good on our resolution to spend more time outside of the arena two weeks ago.
Lancey is already a lot less spooky for taking little walkies before and after his sessions, and Thunder went out to a hillside to work there – revealing how DEEPLY unfit he still is. We only managed to canter (light seat, very forward) about 5 circles in each direction before the poor guy was visibly flagging. It did help him to carry himself a bit more in his next schooling session, but as we found out in our lesson on Friday, this was nowhere near enough.
Darling is home (yaaaaaay!!!) so at 4:30am on Friday morning he was blearily helping me to push two recalcitrant geldings into the box. Neither of them was amused with being dragged out of their nice warm stables to stand in a horsebox for two hours, but they eventually got in and off we went.
Both of them were pretty relaxed when we got there and put them in the paddocks that J super kindly provided so that darling could watch, take videos and freeze rather than hang onto a horse and freeze. (Poor old darling knew what he was signing up for).
J was much happier with Thunder’s shoulder-in and leg-yield, albeit reminding me (repeatedly) that more inside leg is not the answer to everything in the leg-yield – if it starts to lose straightness, I probably need more outside rein. (Always, more outside rein!) The moment we began to canter, however, J was instantly dismayed. Thunder had only been working for about 20 minutes and he was already over it, so I flapped and kicked like a kid on a pony and so he bucked and kicked at my leg. It wasn’t pretty. J ordered me off and sent us to the lungeing ring, where, embarrassingly, he proceeded to teach me everything that I thought I already knew about lungeing. I kind of pride myself on my good lungeing technique, but apparently I have a Thunder-sized blind spot. We were sent home with a scolding and the other to do at least three days a week of lungeing to get his back and bum fitter without me flapping around up there.
We obediently got to work once we were home, and after only two or three sessions, I was already seeing a HUGE difference in the way Thunder could carry himself. It felt a lot better once I got back on board, too. He was carrying himself instead of needing to be pushed, and the result was that everything – particularly his canter – was much better and much more pleasant for the both of us.
I’ve tailored his schedule now to do 3 days of lungeing, broken up by two days of schooling with a little hack before or after for a change of scenery. It seems to be working, but the proof is in the pudding, ie our ride n go (at Elementary, for fear of being crucified by a wrathful J) this Sunday.
Lancelot was a model citizen for his lesson. Thunder squealed and bucked in his paddock while Lancey and I headed to the arena (literally 15m away) but the crazy wild Arabian himself couldn’t be less bothered. He did spook massively at a very threatening pile of rocks, and he was frankly perplexed by the mirrors, but after taking one walk around he was ready to work.
I was a little worried that J was going to take one look at my new horse and hate him forever. He is, after all, all of 15 hands and not the most conventional dressage breed. Maybe J would see something that I’d missed. My fears, however, were utterly unfounded; J proclaimed him “not too shabby” (high praise) and said that his inherent hotness will turn into expression later on. That was exciting, because Thunder is many wonderful things – forgiving, kind, strong, balanced, supple – but hot and expressive are not on that list.
J had us start with little “shoulder-outs”, or leg-yields along the wall. Lancey has never done these before but he tried very hard. J reminded me that considering Lancey has no topline at all, everything we do needs to happen slowly. He doesn’t have the bodily strength to go forward and in balance just yet. So our leg-yields could happen at an absolute crawl. So long as his four footfalls were correct and he was straight, he could take small, slow steps. This helped a lot, as I was trying too hard as usual, and soon Lancey cottoned right on.
We moved on to trot and canter work on a 20m circle and J told us more of the same, similar to what M was saying: slower and more rhythmic until he can balance. J also encouraged me to allow Lancey to hang on the reins if he wanted to, using me as a fifth leg when he lost balance. This helped Lancey a lot as he began to lean on me with his back still up instead of hollowing and running forward. We only did about 20 minutes before J had us stop there and sent us home to do slow, rhythmic work allowing Lancey to find his balance.
I have a tendency to get ahead of myself with Lancey because I want to ride him the way he was when I had him in full training two years ago. Back then he was more than strong enough to pull out a high 60s Prelim test without any effort, and jump a couple of small tracks the same day. But he’d been in consistent work then for more than a year. He’s actually got quite a lot of miles on him, but I need to start treating him as if he is a complete greenie and rebuild him from the bottom up.
Charlotte Dujardin does it, Denny Emerson does it, J even makes me do it at the end of every ride and then yells that I should hold the buckle while my panicking horse spooks and snorts at washing lines and dogs. It’s fun, it’s good for the horse, it’s even good for the rider, it’s relaxation for everyone – and then there’s me, the self-confessed hater. Of hacking.
I like my sandbox. I spent my teenage years faceplanting off a variety of horses, many somewhere on the spectrum of insanity, most of whom should never have been outside of an enclosed space to begin with, and it left me somewhat phobic. Having grown up in the just-kick-him school of thought I frequently pressured frightened horses into the wrong situations and frequently got left sitting on air, mostly due to nobody’s fault but my own. Still, it left its scars. I’m a long way from the fearless kid in jeans and gumboots who used to gallop all over the wide world on old Skye when she was young and strong like me.
I’m a long way from the teen who was perpetually tortured by the fear of her own fear, though, so for the sake of the horses I’ve resolved to gird up my loins and incorporate a little wander around the yard into each session. It’ll be a while before I take Thunder (AKA Mr. Spook-and-Spin) out on the big trails by myself, or even with a babysitter if we’re honest, but there are lots of little tracks through the pastures within the confines of the yard that we can take walkies on. We started with an attempt at this yesterday, and he was good apart from staring and staring at my little piggy who was oinking madly and running up and down in front of our cottage for some strange porcine reason.
Today the piggy was innocently rooting up the lawn when we passed, so he was fine until she suddenly oinked while he was staring at the washing line and he did a complete 180 in a sliver of a second. To my surprise, I didn’t even wobble in the saddle. Clearly, riding a bunch of good-hearted but athletic young Arabians has improved the quality of Velcro on my bottom. With newfound confidence in my ability to not fall off, I let him stare at the piggy for a bit longer and then we continued. He was tense at first, but by the end of the 10-minute walkies he was on the buckle.
The jury is still out on whether he actually will find this relaxing or not, but he’s a big boy who can learn this life still, so wandering we will go.
His dressage ride, preceding the unplanned pirouette at the sight of the piggy, was absolutely fabulous. He was a bit distracted to begin with (distinctly not helped when Vastrap, a gelding of 16 years, decided that it would be a great idea to enthusiastically cover one of Thunder’s girlfriends down in the field) but settled well. We had a mild argument about wheter he really had to go off my leg (YES YOU DO, BRO) and once that was over he was happy to go straight to work. We did renvers and renvers and renvers as per coach’s orders to warm up the walk. Once he was really active and into the outside rein we picked up the trot, and he was REALLY into my hands. Not as pleasantly soft and round as normal, but really driving forward from behind into the contact. He felt super light in front and powerful, so I didn’t mind the heaviness in my hands too much.
We got some of his best and most forward medium trot yet and then did even more renvers. It’s not great yet; he’s not fully through and connected in it yet, and the bend is not really supple yet. But he is bent the right way and in the right position so the rest will come once he’s more relaxed and used to it. At least I’m finally realizing that I do not need to haul on the inside rein to get shoulder-in position which, to be honest, is probably the whole point.
We moved on to canter and I was pleasantly surprised to find a HUGE powerful canter that was also extremely balanced and easy to collect. Amazing how when you do what your coach says, stuff gets easier. It was so good, even tracking left, that I only rode a 10m circle on each rein and some simple changes and that was it. The new Elementary 2 canter work – half circle onto the centerline with transition to walk at L, continue on centerline in medium walk to I, half circle back to track, transition to canter at S/R – is easy and horse-friendly and Thunder did it really, really well. We finished with one foot-perfect canter to walk on the track itself and stopped there.
The canter-walk has been such a huge issue in my head ever since poor Dragon and I were fighting our way through Elementary all alone two years ago. We never got it right and I hated it so, so, so much. Now, Thunder really can do them, I just have to relax and ride them softly instead of flapping about in panic because I think we’re not good at them.
Lancey also went for a ride, babysitting sweet Nugget on her first outride. I’m keeping things easy on his sweet brain, with lots of adventuring around outside and then short bursts of 10-15 minutes’ schooling. He really is struggling to just trust my hand, trust the contact, balance and carry himself. He is forever trying to rush, hollow, and then fight for all he’s worth. I don’t really know what to do – well, obviously, I can just put a martingale on or seesaw a bit and make him put his head down, but that’s not going to get me anywhere much in the long run.
So we’ll keep just touching on it here and there until he can go and see J next week and J can magically fix it. Having a coach is totally wonderful.
Lancey is weird on outrides. He’s really good, and I trust him absolutely, but he looks at EVERYTHING. He hardly ever actually jumps, just stares and does some majestic Arab snorting. Keep trying, little dude. One day you’ll figure out how to horse.
The horses all had last week off for pony camp and this weekend’s show is cancelled, but I look forward to some chill time at home just working on all the little things and enjoying each other before we get stuck back into lessons and things in the second half of July.
God has been so rich and fearless in His blessings. He’s called me out so much further than I expected, dared me into deeper waters than I ever expected. But every step is joy and every breath is grace. Riding on water, on the back of a dancing horse.
Two lessons in a single week again? What sorcery is this?
No sorcery here – just too many blessings even to count. After spending a magical week with the darling at the fire base where he works, I was admittedly reluctant to come back to our home, but I know it won’t be long before he’s with me again too. And until he does get back, I know just how to keep myself occupied.
Lancelot and I were going to do an express eventing show this coming weekend, but I ended up not having space in the box. This turned out not to be a bad thing, because – with the best of intentions of keeping him from getting sweaty and miserable in his increased work – I clipped the little guy. (He behaved impeccably; he was fast asleep by the end, although he did pull away when I started tidying up around his head, so I left that for next year’s conversation).
All fine and well; he slept in the field bundled up in a blanky. Unfortunately the winter elected that specific night for the coldest of the year, and evidently I hadn’t blanketed him thickly enough, because he got cold and was then really sore and stiff in his hind end. Sound again now, but he was not very happy. Of course, I put him straight into a nice warm stable.
I did have a lesson booked with K, though, so instead of skipping it we took the dragon out on xc for the first time in years. In fact, I haven’t even been on the dragon for months, but her kid has been riding her so I just borrowed her back for a few hours.
Of course, she was picture perfect. I had a lot of little glitches to fix in the warmup – which was a bit sad, but you know, kids – and she refused the first couple of jumps. Once she did jump them, though, a little switch flicked in her head. She realized that it was me on her back and that full dragon mode was absolutely allowed. So full dragon mode we went.
She jumped really great, her typical wild self, once she realized that I wasn’t going to let her stop. In fact, by the time we jumped a course at the end, she was actually running away and bucking quite a lot lol. I had forgotten how hot the fire in her belly burns. I am absolutely going to be stealing her back more frequently from now on!
I don’t think anyone will ever beat my dragon, just the way no one ever beat old Skye. She’s in a league of her own. Right now, the plan is for her to compete with a kid for two more years and then to breed a foal from her. She is from a rare breed that could really benefit from her bloodline, plus I think I really need a half-Friesian half-dragon to be my next young horse.
Speaking of half-Friesians, this one had a lesson booked with J for this morning – 6:30 this morning, to be precise. That meant that at 4:30 I was getting him ready to box. He was not amused with being woken at that kind of an hour.
Nevertheless, he obliged, although when we got to J’s farm we were both still somewhat bleary-eyed. Still, we missed all the traffic, so that was a win. Despite having agreed to this madness, J was NOT amused at all with having to stand in the cold arena at that time of morning (it was 4°C when we arrived) and called me a name I won’t share on the blog.
It was absolutely worth it, though, to go out onto the freshly raked river sand. And when the sun just rose and painted everything in pale gold, it was magic.
After bemoaning my terrible choice of entering Novice at the last show, J proceeded to put us through basically all of the Elementary movements to prove that we can.
And actually it was all fine. Canter left needs a lot more impulsion, but the changes were fine, and J even said “good” once or twice so that’s a plus. Thunder was also SUPREMELY well behaved throughout – he was relaxed, focused, and just a real pleasure to work with. He did spook at a few things but that only made J laugh at us.
Just when my abs (and his butt) were dying, though, J made us go to sitting trot and do all of the lateral things. Of course, I was in trouble for not using my outside rein enough (a running theme). I have been given strict instructions to do nothing but endless renvers until I finally fix it.
J also said I could bring two horsies next time so if baby Arab’s buttocks are less tender in two weeks’ time, he’ll go too.
Honestly, I’m totally blown away by the place I’m in right now. I really, really, really miss darling, but I know he has to go work so that we can save for our wedding together. Horse-wise, though, it’s just incredible. I can’t believe the horse, the support network, the instruction, just all of it. It feels straight from a fairytale. It feels amazing.
It feels like a love letter signed by the King. And I’ll read it over and over, until the corners curl up and the very ink fades, until there is no more use for letters, until I see His face.
What’s it been, almost a year and a half? Who am I kidding? I don’t need to ask. I know. It’s been a few days less than seventeen months since we lost her: my friend and fellow medic. She was the same age as me, but now I’ve had a birthday that she never will.
The saving grace, literally, is that she’s never actually been less lost. Not to Him: to Him she’s finally Home. Nor, honestly, to us. She’s never been more important to us all. She’s just not here in the flesh anymore.
As long as we’re still here, we’ll continue to miss her.
Seventeen months. Here we all are now, living our lives again. We say we got through it. Sometimes maybe we look like we’re over it. But the truth is that you never get over it. A loss like that is not so much a storm to weather as it is a divider. A great, open gap ripped in your life, diving it forever into two pieces: a before and an after. Two pieces so different they feel like they belong to different people.
People say you should be trying to get back to normal. But the truth is that the old normal doesn’t exist anymore because the old you doesn’t exist anymore. You never heal from that wound.
You just rise from the ashes.
Who I am and what my life is will never ever look or be the same as it was before. It’s seventeen months later and I am happy, whole, blessed beyond anything I ever expected, and changed. So, so changed. The way I see and interact with the world, the things I value, the things I fear – everything is different. I will never get over it. I will never get back to normal.
I cannot go back.
But I can go forward. Because while I have changed, one thing never has: the God Who will never let go.
The process isn’t healing. It’s transformation. I didn’t get better: I was reborn.
There’s no way through grief. There’s no road back to the way it used to be. But there’s not supposed to be.
Grief only rips us down to rebuild it. Grief only tears down the road ahead to build a bigger bridge. And grief, soul-wrenching, heartbreaking, gut-ripping grief above all does one great thing:
Grief changes us.
And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
* * * *
I am happier and more free right now than I have ever been before, for I have plumbed the depths of grace to an extent I thought impossible. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ll always miss you.
I haven’t actually competed myself, due to the AHS outbreak in our area and some other factors, since Horse of the Year in February. That was something of a disaster in itself (well, Faith was second in one class, but bucked me off halfway through winning the other), and long breaks from anything often don’t do my nerves any good, so I had only one goal for this whole show: just. relax. already.
It helped that I was only riding two horses. One, obviously, was his majesticalness himself, and the other was Tilly, a four-year-old WB who can only turn right about 50% of the time. Tilly is a client’s horse, but there’s no pressure on her to score well at all right now – it was her first show and all she needs to do is not throw anybody off.
I missed darling really, really badly, but at my bestest-estest buddy Erin and my dad were both there, so I was in good company. They both were so kind and gave me so much help, and I had two students with me but they’re big kids and Rising Stars so I abandoned them to their own devices. (True to form, they rode very well).
Thunder’s ride time was at 12:16pm, so Erin and I (whilst talking the hind leg off a donkey) had a leisurely morning getting the two horsies plaited. Tilly walked straight onto the box, so that was great. She went to HOY in hand but this was her first time being ridden off property and only her third ever trip in the horsebox. She was pretty chill when she unloaded, though. As long as she was with her buddies, she stood and ate her hay without a care in the world. Good baby.
Thunder was also practically fast asleep while I saddled him up. I was getting on gracefully (and by gracefully, I mean scrambling over him from the mudguard of the trailer while he tried to wander off and made me split) when J suddenly popped up out of nowhere. He hasn’t seen Thunder since our lesson in January (see above re: AHS) and told me to ride properly. I was planning on doing so and assured him that this was the case as the big guy and I plomped off to the warmup.
The warmup at this venue is right up against the main road, and in past years I’ve gotten into massive fights with my horses right before my tests because of them freaking out about the traffic – something they never really see at home. This year, I just didn’t ride all the way up to the road end of the arena, and none of my horses had an issue. Problem solved. Thunder warmed up great – a little sassy to begin with, and chatting with the other horses like he always does, but listening. He was, as usual, a little bit tight in his neck and a little stiffer to the left than at home. That’s him at shows. It’ll go away eventually.
Our warmup was short but with his fitness level this was not a bad thing. Then we headed in, not before J discovered us and howled in despair because we were doing Novice instead of Elementary. My whimpered excuse that we hadn’t had lessons and I didn’t want to mess it up was met with much exasperation from J, who addressed Thunder (he prefers talking to him than to me) and told him that “your mother doesn’t think”, so that was a great confidence boost right before going in lol.
Thunder was still giving the odd whinny and a little bit distracted/excited, but not tense or worried. Erin read the tests, too, a novelty for me, but I honestly have not memorised the new Novice tests yet.
Speaking of the new tests, I LOVE them. They ride a lot better than the old ones used to, and I feel like they iron out the jump from Prelim 4 to Novice 1 a lot better without dumbing down the level.
He was sooooo good in this test. He was really solid, obedient, and happy in his own skin. I was not paying a whole lot of attention to the movements, focusing more on just chilling out and being in the moment with him and keeping my internal dialogue positive or at the very least quiet, so they were not really all that polished and I didn’t expect big marks. We actually did better than I thought we did, in the end.
Our first halt was a mediocre 6 which would have been a lot better if he hadn’t decided to step back into square halt, a habit that I taught him ages ago because I thought it was the done thing. The 12m circle left was another (expected) 6 because it was too big and he’s still stiff to the left because he hasn’t been in work for very long. The half circle onto the centreline, trot-walk-trot transition, and half circle off the centreline was a 7, because he was kind of perfect, again just a little stiff through his neck. He lost quarters in the second 12m circle for another 6, then achieved his best mark yet for a lengthening at a 6.5. He doesn’t lengthen well even when he is fit and J says he just needs more muscular strength, so I wasn’t sweating it, but I did accidentally penalise us by holding his frame as if for a medium. The judge commented on that and then, as usual, wanted him to cover more ground.
Everything fell apart a bit as we went into canter right. We have not been practicing a lot of trot-canter transitions because everything in Elementary happens out of walk, and Thunder executed the transition perfectly, but also onto the incorrect lead. I flapped at him and he fixed it so we still got a 5 lol. He tilted on the 15m circle right, but redeemed himself in the change of rein with canter-trot-canter transitions with a 7, so that was nice because our downwards have historically not been very good. The lengthening was pretty active but lost the quarters for a 6, which I can live with. His left 15m circle got another 7, followed by the downwards to trot and then walk getting another one, so I was really happy to see the transitions’ marks had improved. His free walk was an expected 7, but in the stretchy trot he saw a birdie and gazed at it, totally forgetting to stretch at all. We got 6.5 for that and then he didn’t step back in the final halt (albeit stepping right a little bit), earning another 7.
Our collectives were pretty fair, with 7 for walk, accuracy, and rider position, and then 6.5 for trot, canter and submission. The submission mark will come up automatically when he relaxes at new places, as, I think, will everything else; if he had the suppleness at shows that he does at home, our marks would be much better. The judge still liked him, commenting “You rode a fluent test on a willing horse, now needs a little more engagement, taking more weight behind” and giving us 66.04%. Considering our enormous mistake with the incorrect canter depart, I’ll totally take it.
As we went in for the second test, Thunder espied a large burnt log lying next to the arena and promptly announced that it was evil and he didn’t trust it. I just kind of resigned myself to that fact because the whistle had already blown and we didn’t have time to investigate it, so I was just sympathetic and patted him when he was tense, knowing that movements near the log would be messy but if I just stayed with him emotionally everything else would be fine. It was pretty much the case. The judge in the second test is really strict and has never marked him well, but she sort of begrudgingly had to give us at least average marks, so that was cool.
He halted nicely and then gazed into the distance while I was saluting, so that earned him a 6.5, but he didn’t move – just looked up. The change of rein with two half 10m circles garnered another 6.5 with the usual comment about suppleness. The new leg-yield in Novice is gloriously easy – centreline to quarterline – and a total disaster for us because he thought we should be half-passing to the track and flew sideways when I touched him, so that was a 6. The lengthening was another encouraging 6.5, and he was looking at the log in the next leg-yield and led with the quarters for a few steps, getting another 6.
The half circle in medium walk was funny because he started off by gazing around a bit first and then realised halfway through that he should be stretching, whereupon he stretched all the way to the floor only a few strides before I had to gather him back up again. It was good enough for a 6.5. The transition to canter right at C was another disaster; he rushed, I flapped, and we flopped off into canter right for a 6. At least he was on the right leg this time lol. I got lost with the half 15m circle and made it too big, getting another 6, and then in the lengthening he saw the log again and decided to gallop sideways for a well-deserved 5.5. The next half circle was better because it was to the left, so we had a 6.5, and then he kind of fell in a heap during the final halt for no apparent reason for a 6.
Collectives were 6 for everything except 6.5 for the walk, with comments “Willing horse, could be steadier in frame, appears a little stiffer on the right rein. Some good moments”. Thunder always gets “willing horse” because he is just the very best boy. Despite the spooking he still got 61.42%.
Tilly was only riding at 3pm, so Erin and I sat in the shade holding them and talked another hindleg off the proverbial donkey for a while. I kind of forgot to go to the Novice prizegiving, but mostly because I was having a good time. I tacked up Tilly with about an hour to spare just in case she wanted to be crazy, and at first I thought she might be, but I used longsuffering Vastrap as brakes for a few laps of the arena and then she settled all the way down. A little looky, but completely controllable, and she just strolled down that centreline and behaved almost better than she did at home. I hadn’t polished her tests either, wanting nothing more than a good experience, but she was really well behaved (and turned right most of the time) and fetched up with scores of 64 and 65. I was just happy that she was calm and well behaved; when she won both classes it was the cherry on the cake. And when I was collecting the tests I learned that Thunder had won his first test, too. He was third in the second one, but I blame the log.
The show was an extremely positive experience. Now, we’ll do Elementary for the next one (J might just disown us if we don’t) and Tilly will continue to enjoy her Prelim and learn how to be a grown up horsie at shows. Both horses and I had a really good time, and the King of Heaven loves the world enough to give it dancing horses.