Reflection

2019 was… long.

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It was in many ways both a terrible year and a wonderful year – but one thing stayed the same: for every beat of my heart, for every breath in my lungs, God’s grace was there to carry all of us through.

January-May, I’ll be honest, totally sucked. It was a long, long five months of being so deeply buried under all kinds of work and personal issues that I didn’t get to spend any time at all with my horses. In the beloved’s words, “Firns need horsies and sunlight to thrive”, so I just wasn’t happy. I had just started working at the Arab stud, though, and I rode there every day as well as riding Tilly, so at least I stayed moderately fit and still learned something.

I showed Faith at HOY 2019, where she was really good right up until the part where she bucked me off in the working riding. After that I took the longest break from competing personally that I’ve ever taken. Thunder pretty much hung out in a field for nearly five months. I did the logical thing when one has no time to ride and bought a new horse, too – Lancelot.

In April, the Arabs had their auction. It was really awesome to be a part of that, and it was a great learning curve to be behind the scenes at an event of that magnitude. I rode Lancelot at the auction (as he’s the only progeny of Silvern Lance under saddle in the area) and he blew me away with how chill he was. We even jumped a few fences and he was perfect.

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face clipped Lancey pie

May saw everything change for the better. I sorted out my finances, hired an instructor to teach the beginners at my yard for me, and finally had my schedule open enough that I could work on my own horses again. I left Faith for the end of the year, since she was still growing up anyway, and put Lancelot and Thunder into work.

June, July and August saw me taking more lessons and getting the two guys fitter. Thunder was muscular but ridiculously chunky and unfit; the more inherently athletic Lancelot could go on forever but needed a ton of muscle tone. In fact, I did little other than rebuild fitness and muscle tone for most of the last half of 2019. I showed Tilly several times in both dressage and jumping, but Lancelot and Thunder stayed home except for lessons until October, when I showed Thunder at elementary. He was wonderfully relaxed; so was I.

Arwen, who had been in work with a child all year, went to Standerton Show in September with me and absolutely cleaned up. She won every class she walked into bar the working riding championship, where she was reserve. It was one of my best rides ever on her and I loved it.

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In December, I held the biggest pony camp at my yard yet, which was a resounding success. I had worked really hard throughout the year to stabilise the yard as a business, and it’s been turning a little profit ever since, enough to support my own horses. We also ran a really fun and wonderful Christmas show, which I desperately enjoyed.

Overall, when it came to achievements this year, I kind of felt like I’d really underperformed. Looking back, though, I learned a lot and we did well when we did compete. Just turning the yard around financially was a feat in itself and something that might not have earned any ribbons or show photos on Facebook, but will certainly help to support my riding going forward.

In my heart, though, God accomplished so much in the space of twelve short months, especially when it comes to riding. In March/April, I was the closest I had ever been to giving up on my competitive riding career. I never stopped loving horses, but the overwhelming time and expense required just made me feel like it was never going to work out. I had to find a way to be okay with that. I had to figure out where riding fits in my life when it is not the only thing in my life. As a teenager, horses were my entire life – even though I would never have admitted it, they were my identity. There was nothing else out there for me. I lived for it, and it wasn’t healthy. It became an idol, as surely as a golden calf, and the Lord was good to me in making it seem like it was being taken away.

Because I found out that life is so much more than riding and I am so much more than a teenager who rides. I am a child of God, and there’s more to me than just one thing. My success or failure in the saddle no longer defines my worth as a human being. And once I’d learned that lesson, Abba Father was gracious in giving me back my riding, and for the first time since I was a kid I genuinely love it again. I’ve always been committed to it; I’ve always been devoted to it. I’ve always loved horses. But the feeling of sitting on a horse and letting it dance – it was always worship, but now it is joyous worship. It doesn’t just teach me and connect me to my God in ways that nothing else can. It brings me joy, a pure, radical, heavenly joy, one that comes straight from the Hand of the King.

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2019 was hard, but it was good to me because God used it. And now I’ve never been happier in my life, nor more determined to take on the challenge of my great equestrian dream. I might achieve it. I might not. It’s in the arms of the Lord, but I know that He has a purpose for me in the trying, and I know that every breath is joy and love and grace to me.

I deserve to die for my sins, but not only did He give me life and Himself, He gave me horses and a beautiful view and a career that I love and a tiny house on a horse farm and a man who loves me like breath – and I am so, so happy. Genuinely, ridiculously happy, thanks only to one thing: the love of the King.

Forever and ever, glory to that King!

Standerton Show 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pictured: barely containing full-blown dragon mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Lesson of 2019

After weeks of our plans being thwarted due to, variously, Thunder being sick, me pitching off of Rio and hurting myself, and then both of us being unfit, we finally managed to schedule a lesson for last week. Poor darling found himself boxing us across the province in rush hour traffic, but he did sign up for it, poor wonderful chap.

Thunderbird is still not super fit, but able to do half an hour of solid work, so I figured it was time that J helped get us back on track.

We’re still struggling with the same things: downwards transitions, angle and suppleness in shoulder-in, collection and mediums. I mentioned this to J when we arrived. He doesn’t seem too concerned over our mediums: they are generally straight and not rushing, but not yet very powerful, which he says will come with strength and practice.

The first thing J wanted to address was the shoulder-in. At our last show it was one of our worst marks, with the judge saying there was too much angle and not enough suppleness. At home, obviously, I decided that this would be fixed by pulling the inside rein (plot twist: this didn’t work).

J doesn’t want too much bend in the shoulder-in, as the exercise is not about bend as much as it is about the connection on the outside rein. Instead, he wanted Thunder more active, more connected into my outside rein, softer on the inside rein, and a lot rounder. As we push into shoulder-in I tend to forget everything and concentrate only on getting the angle, thus losing the activity, throughness and connection, with the result that when I put my leg on for the movement he immediately slacks off by losing his hindquarters and throwing up his head.

So our homework there is to ride the transition from straight to shoulder-in as just that – a transition, during which the activity and connection must be maintained. J also mentioned that riding him a little lower and deeper – longer in the neck, but with the poll down more – helps to supple and stretch him rather than fighting with him in a perfect competition frame. It’s also vital that I ride him in the right angle. He needs to be so rhythmic in the angle and so soft and supple in the connection – not over bent, but soft – that I could even ride him in shoulder-in right while bending his spine to the left, essentially turning the movement into renvers.

On the subject of the trot, J also warned against making him run. He needs to be more active now without being faster – I need to slow the legs down to create a collected rhythm.

He also needs to stretch down significantly more, but this he does really nicely at home. At home he’ll take his nose to the floor – his relaxation levels at other venues always negatively affect his connection and ability to stretch.

This was evident when he decided to have an enormous spook in the middle of the short side, resulting in a hilarious screenshot and a few dry comments from J.

Moving on to the canter, first we worked on the collected walk. J says that it’s impossible to ride a good transition to collected canter unless the collected walk is outstanding. He needed to take significantly shorter steps, without losing the activity, and be softer and more yielding in the bridle as well instead of going against the hand. Only once the walk was perfect were we allowed to canter. The canter itself had to be much straighter as I tend to permanently ride him in too much inside bend. Once the canter is straight, the transition to walk can be through and balanced.

I was really happy about how Thunder behaved. He was a bit tense and a bit behind my leg, but the long drive had much to do with that, and he was trying very hard as he always is. I am a bit disappointed that the shoulder-in is still a problem but now we have more tools to work on it. I asked J if we were making progress, though, and he seemed to think we were doing just fine.

After the lesson I asked J what we should be doing show-wise this year and he said that the priority with competitions is to get him more relaxed. So the more small cheap local shows we can do, the better. I haven’t renewed our memberships so we’ll be doing training shows for a while – we may end up having to do all our grading points again, but that’s all right.

Well with my soul, dancing with my horse. Glory to the King.