They always say that the difficult horses have the most to teach you. That good horses don’t make good riders and that the more times you’re thrown, the more tenacity you learn. That the top horses are always a little sensitive, a little quirky, not everyone can ride them (as Valegro nods sagely in the background whilst carrying an eleven-year-old girl around on his patient back). There’s an undercurrent of feeling where if your horse isn’t that horse that’s a little crazy, maybe you’re not that rider who can do all the hard things.
But today I’m going to tell you everything I learned from my easy, sweet and safe horse.
Sure, he’s not the best ever on outrides and he’s got a spook in him, but he’s always been a steady sort. Even as a little foal he never had those crazy little baby tantrums while trying to navigate life with humanity. He wore his first saddle without a buck and fell asleep while I was putting on his first bridle. I was 15 and knew nothing. He was 2 and patient as a monolith, even then.
He was a clotheshanger-shaped two-year-old when I sat on him for the first time. I hadn’t done one quarter of the necessary groundwork, but he just turned his head to sniff at my toe and then went to sleep.
Fast forward seven years and he is still a good boy. He has his nervous moments, but in all our years of riding, I have only once believed I was actually going to come off him. We were walking and I was mostly asleep, one hand on the buckle, when huge lizard jumped up a rock out of nowhere and he jumped. I didn’t have reins, so he cantered off a few steps as I slithered down his side, stopping when I managed to get hold of a rein and drag myself back on board. Both times that I actually did fall off him, he was 3, we were hacking, and my (unreliable) girth came off. He always came back for me.
He has a quiet mouth. He doesn’t really go lame. He has a soft, supple back that doesn’t really go into spasm. These are probably reasons why he’s easy in his mind. He’s comfortable to sit on, not particularly flashy in his gaits, and rather on the slow side.
He’s not the horse that holds a grudge or gets offended by my myriad mistakes. His chiropractor, who has a deep intuition for horses, summarized him: “Oh, you just feel like everything is going to be OK when you’re with him.”
He is my easy, sweet and gentle horse. And here is what I learned from him.
I learned to ride a flying change, a half pass, renvers, travers, piaffe. A real shoulder-in, a straight leg-yield. A good simple change. A true connection, a supple bend, and a square halt. A figure eight in rein back. I learned these while he was learning them, because he was willing to learn, because he was helping instead of hindering.
I learned that mistakes are forgivable. I learned that there is a depth of grace out there that absorbs all sin, because a droplet of that grace lives in my little bay horse.
I learned that manes are still good for crying into when you’re a grownup.
I learned how to try, to give my best even when it’s not much on the day, to rise above fear and uncertainty and to try regardless because of how this horse always tries.
I learned about the depth of what horses do for us, about the scope of their kindness, about how much better I need to be for them. I learned to put aside everything and ride for the sake of the threefold cord, for the dance, for the joy of the fact that God made horses and he made us.
I learned to find a taste of eternity in the swing of a stride. And I liked it.
I learned that even on the worst days, horses still smell like heaven.
I learned that there are few greater gifts than a stalwart friend, even if that friend has four legs and a fluffy forelock.
I learned that I do have wings after all.
I learned that we can do anything.
I learned all these things from a 15.1 hand bay gelding who doesn’t rear or buck or bolt or kick or bite or get wildly wound up about life. I learned them from an easy horse.
And I love him.
Glory to the King.
By the way, ROW is now on Instagram! Find me on @ridingonwater for daily adorable Thunder pics and bits of philosophy.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I see them everywhere: in tack shops, showing up wide-eyed at lessons, determinedly kicking their greenies around at shows, and in amazing numbers, all over any Q&A board or group on the Internet. And most of all, in myself and everything I was – and mostly still am. Sometimes even scraping together titbits of knowledge and scraps of grazing and starting a stableyard (no judging here – what have I just done?).
People who think they want to be horse trainers.
You have such tremendous dreams, fuelled by horse novels and the romance of Hollywood and that thing you felt happen in you the first time you smelt the indescribable homecoming that is horse smell. You just want to be with them. You want to make them your life.
Of course, as a Christian, I have rather unique views on how one should choose one’s career (One shouldn’t. You let Jesus do the choosing) but let’s assume, for the moment, that you haven’t been called yet and you have to do something in the meantime to stay fed and busy while you wait on God. Let’s say you picked horse trainer.
Here are some ugly truths you don’t want to hear, but that I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old.
You are going to have to deal with being hurt. Often and rather painfully. This is just the simple reality of horses and if you’ve been riding for a while, you know this. The difference is that if you’re a trainer, you’re likely to have to suck it up and carry on.
In an ideal world you’d rest every injury until it gets better, but this is not an ideal world. If you have four horses to ride or handle in a big show on the weekend, and you come off and sprain something on Thursday, your business and your clients probably can’t afford for you to put yourself in bed with an ice pack. You will become well versed in gritting your teeth (and pain medication).
You will face the reality every day of being seriously hurt. The good thing about breaking something is that nobody is going to expect you to work with your arm in a sling (except possibly yourself). The bad thing about breaking something is that it’s part of the job for most trainers.
You will be broke. For a long time. This is possibly the second most misunderstood fact about becoming a trainer: do not expect to make money until you do something worth being paid for, consistently and reliably.
People look at me funny when I say this because I was a paid trainer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The reality is that I’d been riding multiple horses every day for about six years by that point, taking weekly lessons for seven, and shadowing my trainer – unpaid – for five. I’d been riding for twelve or thirteen years.
The other reality is that I was just good enough at it by then. Clients do not care what you want to do in the future or how much potential you have or what sob story you give them. They care about your skill: that you can consistently and noticeably improve a horse with every ride, giving substantial progress over a period of a few months. If you can’t do that yet, you shouldn’t be getting paid yet. That simple.
If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you. Especially if you don’t have a boatload of cash for endless lessons, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty earning lessons from your coach. Be a yard rat. Hold horses for the farrier. Fetch horses in from the field and tack them up… for someone else to ride. Feed hoeses in the rain. Do whatever you’re told and you might get the chance to fall off someone’s bush pony. Deal with it.
You want to train fancy warmbloods for dressage? Spend two or three years backing wild farm ponies and fixing remedial vices on random plot donkeys. No fancy warmblood owner in their right mind is going to give a newb trainer their horse to ride. Besides, those wild veld horses teach you more than the warmbloods ever will. You do not have a magic touch with horses. Even if you do, nobody really cares. While it’s true that some people and some horses just click and get along regardless of the inexperience of the person and the craziness of the horse, your clients don’t care that you once rode a wild stallion on Uncle Joe’s farm that none of the totally clueless other people could handle. Horse training is about making progress and bonding with horses you don’t click with.
To compete client horses, you first have to compete your horses. Your first competition horse is going to be a mess and you’ll embarrass yourself repeatedly on it. Don’t even try use a client horse. You’ll embarrass your client, and they hate being embarrassed.
You have to deal with people. All the time. So many young people want to be horse trainers because they’re “not a people person”. News flash: horses have owners. Horse owners can be difficult. They can have opinions about how their horse should be trained that conflict with yours. They can be late, or unable to handle their horse even after you trained it, or in a bad mood or bad payers. You have to be able to deal with all this compassionately because they’re just people, just like you. You’re not above them: you serve them.
GET. LESSONS. FIRST. This is the one fact that is most misunderstood by young horsepeople. You have to ghet lessons. Lots of lessons. For many years. And you get lessons first and then you go train horses. There is no avoiding or sidestepping this: there has to be a long learning period BEFORE you can start professionally training.
There are no shortcuts in horses. “But I love them so much!” Good. Channel that love into patience and hard work. If you really love them, humble yourself, rein in your ego, practice patience, and work your back end off until you reach excellence.
Nothing can stop you. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this? Well, because it nullifies all excuses.
You, my friend, are a passionate, dedicated human being with a dream. The world may tell you otherwise, but there isn’t anything stopping you from achieving it except yourself. Throw yourself into learning and working and trying and failing. Be on fire. Grab that dream. Push aside all obstacles and go do it.
What is your favorite ribbon / prize / award that you’ve won in relation to horses? Is there a story behind it? Or was it a bucket list prize you’d been chasing for ages? It doesn’t have to be from a traditional horse show, and ribbons that are the favorite bc they are the prettiest are just as awesome as awards with a great story.
My favourite ribbon is probably Arwen’s first place in her first dressage test, not only because it was one of my few actual successes in terms of placings, but also because it took quite an effort to even get in the dressage arena to do the test. We had just been eliminated from the 80cm class for having three stops by the second fence, so we both had to dig pretty deep to forgive one another and get back in harmony. In the end we just settled back into each other and rode the test as well as we’d ever ridden it, barring one botched transition.
But come to think of it, there is one another ribbon that comes in a very close second, and that’s the first ribbon I ever won on my own horse. It was almost six years ago, I was twelve years old and blissfully unaware of my extreme ignorance, and the local riding school was holding a gymkhana. We borrowed somebody’s trailer and Skye, despite not having seen a trailer for about six years, stepped right into it.
It was chaos, as the local gymkhanas usually are. Skye was a woolly mammoth and I gave up on trying to get the dust out of her hair, making up for it by plaiting a bunch of red ribbons into her mane. (Poor Skye has put up with a lot). I strapped on my old starter kit saddle, which I still use for backing baby horses because now I don’t care if they fall on it, and scrambled on. The arrangement was somewhat haphazard; we all warmed up together in a 20m lunging ring, during which Skye had every right to kick the other horses and most graciously did not. The instructor bellowed at me through her megaphone when I dared to ask my horse to trot, telling me I was going to make her tired before I even got into the ring.
Skye, albeit unendingly trustworthy and entirely bombproof, had nearly no schooling. In fact, horses that come to me for 8 weeks’ backing are probably better schooled when they leave than she was then. She could walk and trot and canter and stop and turn and jump little jumps, and that was it. Bending was optional, going on the bit was a rare bonus, and cantering on the correct lead was totally out of the question. We were both, however, totally fearless, and there was also the matter of the riding school horses’ schooling – there wasn’t any. Skye looked like a graded dressage horse. We blasted through the gymkhana course and came second in the jumping, having gone clear.
The walk-and-canter race was our great moment of triumph. It was simple enough; we all lined up at one end of the field, galloped across to the other side, turned around and walked back. If you broke into a trot you had to make a circle. The first one across the finish line was obviously the winner. Skye and I won by half the length of the field for the simple reason that when we finished the gallop we were the only ones who could stop and turn around immediately instead of randomly wandering off towards the bottom of the field. Also because Skye walks like a steam train when she’s on a mission.
The old charger deserves a medal. She got a ribbon with “clear round” on it, but in my eyes, it might as well have been the 554 red roses awarded to the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Because when you can use an Emperor’s New Groove gif, why wouldn’t you?
So the last two weeks were insanity, but also awesomeness. We took a truckload of Jerseys to Bloemfontein and my pet prized heifer was Northern Champion Jersey Heifer. She deserved it.
We slept in the horsebox, which was awesome but cold, and I came home sick with flu. Last week Wednesday I decided I was all better just because I didn’t feel like dying when I was in bed, and nearly repeated that rather embarrassing incident last year when the Mutterer had to scrape my unconscious body out from under a horse’s feet. Whereupon I stayed in bed some more, and only actually got to climb on my horses for real again this afternoon.
Arwen was fantastic. I changed our jumps a little bit, putting up a 1.00m (3′ 3″) vertical, a Swedish oxer that was around 80-85cm (2′ 9″) in the middle, and a little skinny that was more kind of emaciated. (This was achieved by making a stack of tyres, three high and two wide, so it was around 65cm or 2′ 3″). Arwen had jumped the vertical before, but we’d had a couple of stops at it mostly due to the height. Today she was awesome and popped over like no big deal. The Swedish oxer gave her pause for thought a few times, once again mostly because of me. She’s honest that way – she stops when I mess up but jumps every single time when I do my job. So when I got my act together she jumped the oxer just fine.
The skinny gave her pause for thought because she wasn’t sure that we were supposed to jump it. She kept steering out, not with a reluctant sort of attitude but giving me the impression that she was thinking “Wow, stupid human, let’s not crash into the tyres, shall we?” Eventually I insisted that I did want to jump it and she said “Ooooh why didn’t you say so?” and popped over. Because she drifts, it was a bit of a sticky point and we ran out a few times before she gave me some good efforts from the trot and canter, and I called it a day.
Next I rode this adorable 13.1hh pony that I have to back for some kids. He was easy enough to back but doesn’t have any brakes to speak of, mostly because he has some awful wolf teeth. For now I’m schooling him in a halter and he’s actually pretty sweet. He’s a very loving little pony. Interestingly enough he seems to have a goodly dose of Basuto blood, a breed that is near to my heart. The Basuto originates in the mountains of Lesotho and is renowned for its toughness, stamina, hardiness and amazing hooves, characteristics that it passed on when it was crossed with the Arabian and Boerperd to produce my beloved Nooitgedachters.
I lunged Vastrap for 10 minutes or so because he hadn’t been ridden in two weeks, but he was an angel to catch (he can be skittish about that) and was his usual saintly self on the lunge, so I didn’t even mount him myself before putting Mom on and taking them for walkies. Vastrap has begun to put on some weight and muscle tone. He’s beautiful. His personality has also started to blossom; he no longer has that hunted look about him, except sometimes under saddle. Mom’s rides are doing him the world of good because she doesn’t put any pressure on him, and he needs that.
I didn’t have a lot of time for Magic, but I put him in the ring and “free lunged” him. This, in Magic language, means standing in the middle for 10 minutes and not doing anything very much while Magic tears around at a terrifying pace, enjoying himself. Normally he’s superb to free lunge, but he really had ants in his pants today, so I decided against arguing with him and just let him run until his brain came back. Then we had some laps of beautiful relaxed canter and practiced some transitions on voice commands. Magic is excellent with voice commands. I think he uses his sense of hearing a vast amount. He’s probably my most vocal horse, and he responds instantaneously to voice commands; scary noises frighten him a lot more quickly than anything else does. My voice also soothes him an enormous amount when he’s nervous. It’s a good thing he’s not a dressage horse or one of our most important lines of communication would be against the rules.
Lastly I took Professor X for a walk. We’ve graduated to taking little hikes around the homestead; I take the precaution of a lunging line in case he freaks out and rears (I’ve had an 11hh pony come down on my empty head and that was bad enough), but I haven’t needed it yet. He does like me to approach a scary object and touch it with him standing about 10m away on the end of the line. Once I’ve touched it, it’s apparently okay. He’s extremely spooky but, most importantly, very considerate of my personal space. He doesn’t run over me even when he’s really frightened or pulling for home. In fact, one day when Thunder and Flare decided to come running up at about 100kph, Exavior understandably shied sideways towards me. Mid-leap I could see him think, “Oh, sugar!” and then he made a valiant effort and managed to miss me by a comfortable distance. With a horse his size, this is immensely important, so I’m pleased that my drilling has paid off. He’s kind of a pain about his head when I put his halter on, though. He stands with his nose on the floor and I have to bend over to buckle it. Not too bad for a colt whose ears you couldn’t touch six months ago. I love him so much.
WE FINALLY HAVE PHOTOS! And amazing photos they are too, thanks to the excellent Tamara and Blake Images.
Two weekends back, we pushed Arwen into the box (literally – she wasn’t impressed with loading in the semidarkness) and set off on a long, nauseating drive to Le Godimo Horse Trials in Hartebeespoort. (My stomach can do hills. It can do winding. Winding and hills and watching Arwen on the horsebox camera? It went on strike). It was a two-hour drive, but Arwen was impressively calm, for Arwen. She was rather sweaty but not shaky when we unloaded, and unlike Magic, refrained from having tantrums on the highway.
We’d entered the surprisingly big Adults EV60 class (jumps are about 2′ in cross-country; it’ll be the equivalent of the British BE60 and as for the Americans, you guys can figure it out yourselves. I don’t get your levels. How can Prelim be that big?), but it was still a bit intimidating to get there and see the sheer amount of horses and riders – about 150 entries in all. The atmosphere was definitely different to the relaxed training show feeling. I didn’t worry about it because I had Arwen’s hair to worry about. I let her go natural because a) I love long manes, b) Nooitgedachters are supposed to be natural and c) I value my skin and do not need it ripped off by the long-mane-loving Mutterer. This is all fine and well right up until you need to plait it for dressage. By a joint effort, my sister and I managed to squash Arwen’s tremendous hair into thirteen enormous bobbles. Six or seven of which she shook out five minutes before the test. I was deeply grateful for my sister, who is used to organising ballet exams and managed to restrain Arwen’s hair just in time. At least the little mare was very good, and stood eating hay throughout the plaiting ordeal.
We warmed up all right for dressage. She was soft and forward and only tried to kick one thoroughbred (who kind of deserved it). In fact I thought we’d be excellent right up until she noticed the horse wearing a fly sheet in a paddock directly behind the judges’ box. She’d never seen anything like it before and she absolutely did not trust it.
“Arwen, seriously. It’s just a fly sheet, honey,” I said.
“It’s a warmblood, first of all, ” said Arwen, “and it’s wearing something weird. How dare it invent armour that makes it impervious to my kicks?”
She was actually quite mature about it. No panicking, no shying, no running through my aids; but she was very tense and I could feel that if I gave her an inch she would blow. So I held her down a bit too much. In my eyes the test went fine; we got all the movements accurately, she struck off on the correct leg every time, she responded obediently to everything I asked, but the judge hated us because I had overbent her pretty badly, so of course she wasn’t tracking up like she should. Next time I’ll take the chance of her blowing through my aids and see what happens. Our score was horrible but not the worst; 62, placing us 10th out of 15 entries. She nearly threw me off as we left the arena when a spectator stood up and accidentally gave her a fright, but luckily the test was over by then.
We had a couple of hours to kill after dressage, which I mostly spent determinedly trying to get her mane straight again. I took the plaits out because they looked uncomfortable, but we all know that horrible crinkle-cut look of a recently plaited mane. I did not want to look like the newbie I am, so I brushed it out with a wet dandy brush and had a flat mane in ten minutes. Of course, everyone else just rode with crinkle-cut manes and all, so I looked like a newbie anyway, but at least her hair was straight.
I walked the course with my fingers locked together, praying more fervently as each jump passed. It wasn’t big, nor did it have a lot of filler, but it was rather more complex than the little training show courses. Jump one was an inviting vertical leading to a rather frightening oxer at two (as frightening as a 65cm oxer can be, anyway); number three was a little vertical, and number four was a big white oxer on top of a dyke right in front of the announcer’s box. There was a tight left turn to number five, number six was the biggest terrifying oxer of all the terrifying oxers, number seven was a boring vertical, 8a a vertical with two strides to the 8b oxer, nine was a red-and-white jump with weird filler at the bottom of a high and relatively steep bank, and number ten was an oxer that you had to jump right after turning directly past the arena gate. When I walked the course I actually didn’t think of that, but it caused quite a few incidents that day.
Arwen warmed up superbly. It was abominably hot, so I kept it short and simple. She took me to the jumps, bucked enthusiastically after one of them, and showed no fear at all. By the end of fifteen minutes’ warmup she was drenched in sweat. I sat on her and trembled as number 17 (two riders before us) jumped their round, but was comforted by a random kind lady who poked Arwen’s wayward cheekpiece back into its keeper. (Thank you, random kind lady).
Then it was one rider before us and I walked her around the jumps and made her look at them, which she said was very boring (except for number nine, which was terrifying). Kirsten the Wonderful XC Instructor hissed at me from the sidelines to walk her through the dyke, which I did; I was expecting some fireworks, but Arwen plodded through it and enquired if she should jump the oxer. I politely declined as I didn’t want to be disqualified for over-enthusiasm.
As it turns out, over-enthusiasm was really the only thing I had to worry about. I did have to kick her a bit at number two, but she blasted through the dyke like it was no big deal. We had a very stupid run-out at little dumb number seven because I was being relieved about number six and quit concentrating, but she popped straight over it again. She had a look at number nine as we came thundering down the bank but I planted my heels in her and she jumped just fine. She was fantastic – fast, accurate, and gutsy. We had only the four faults for the run-out, no time penalties, which isn’t bad for a fat little mare, especially considering I really didn’t push the speed at all for the sake of the heat and my nerves.
Then came the part I was most worried about: trying to keep Arwen inside a stable without killing anybody for long enough that I could get enough sleep to stay awake until the end of cross-country on Sunday. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The stables were constructed of wooden poles, so she could see and smell (and bite) her stablemates. We did have to move four times before we found a stable that nobody else wanted, but Arwen wasn’t too upset by the idea. She pulled funny faces at the gelding on her left (he ignored her), snapped and squealed at the mare on her right (they were best buds by the end of the weekend), ate her hay and went to sleep. I did tie a couple of lunging lines across her door to prevent her from getting any ideas. Feeding time was kind of embarrassing as all the other horses tucked into buckets of pellets with mountains of lucerne, and I tried to be invisible as I gave her two handfuls instead of one for the sake of not looking like a total animal abuser.
Also, major big shout-out to Erin! I actually met someone who reads my blog!! People do that, you know. Erin happened to be three stables down from us with her stupendous chestnut Boerperd gelding, Burgerstrots Gedenk. Fantastic seeing you, Erin.
Arwen spent the night annoying her neighbours. We spent the night in the horsebox, which was awesome until it rained; my parents were a bit damp the next morning. Our spirits, however, were unaffected. Arwen was happy and extremely hyper despite the appalling heat. I tried to take her for a walk in the interests of letting her graze and relax, but all she did was dragon-snort at everything and drag me around, so she was put back in her stable to think about her sins.
Cross-country time found us both fidgety with nerves and excitement. Arwen was eager to get moving; I saddled her up in her stable, clumsy with excitement. She pawed the ground and bit me by accident while I was doing up her curb chain. I’ll excuse her just this once for rearing as we set off on the long-ish hack to the warmup arena, because she was excited and people were cantering randomly off with little heed to the crazy young horse that was half a breath away from going airborne. We somehow made it to the warmup in one sweaty piece.
I couldn’t believe the heat. Arwen, luckily, had been drinking well all weekend, because she sweated incessantly – she was damp just standing in her stable, so she was drenched before we even got to the arena. It was almost midday and I considered scratching, but even once she’d calmed down somewhat, Arwen was willing and forward-going, so I decided to listen to her and soldier on. I kept the warmup short – just a couple of brisk laps of canter and a handful of little jumps. She was brave as the day, just stopped at a skinny that was quite a big bigger than our class. On the second try she popped right over.
In a whirlwind of panic I struggled into my body protector and scrambled over to the marshall, praying they wouldn’t mind that my number was pinned directly to my body protector, my medical card was homemade and the stitching on my girth was getting a bit suspicious. Luckily they didn’t, so the next minute we were trotting down to the starting box and the corner of my number suddenly started flying around. Arwen thankfully didn’t spook, but as Dad was pinning it back on, she struck out a front foot to rub her face on, stood on her reins and broke them. Pandemonium reigned as Dad had a horse with half a bridle on thrust at him, I ran to the marshall to explain the problem, Rain ran to the horsebox in record time to fetch my spare reins, and Arwen fussed around saying it was time to go.
I have the most amazing pit crew ever. Two minutes later, I had my spare reins attached, my number was fixed and I was back on my horse. And a countdown from five after that, we were trotting out of the starting box and heading for jump number one.
Cross-country is such an amazing experience. Out there, at that speed, it’s just you and the horse and God. (And the occasional jump judge to spook dramatically at). I was terrified as we approached jump number one, a simple log, but Arwen carried me over and then we’d popped over the pole stack at number two, and number three was right there in front of me and we felt that nothing could stop us. It was a long, twisty, confusing gallop to number four that I’d had to walk three times before getting it, but spectators helped out by standing in the “wrong” turns and we found it easily. Number five was a bit hairy as it was a fat log sitting in a gap between two big bushes, and obviously the jump judge elected to sit virtually in the approach to it, but we made it and then we were galloping to scary number six, which she just sailed over. Number seven was very boring and I was relieved about number six so we ran out and nearly killed a judge. Silly mistake, but we turned around, popped over and put it behind us.
Number eight was this splendid oxer, then a big gallop to number nine, which was a bit daunting as it sort of popped out of the bushes at you, but Arwen took it in her stride. Ten and eleven were in a bending line right after one another; we had really hit our rhythm now and we tackled them easily. Number twelve, thirteen and fourteen were close together on a bending line; I was a bit worried about fourteen as it would be very easy to run out to the left (her favourite run-out direction) but she didn’t even think about it.
The line from fourteen to fifteen was the longest gallop, but we lost a lot of time as there was a very scary 1* jump standing in the middle of it and Arwen said we had to keep an eye on it so we cantered slowly sideways past it. Luckily we pulled ourselves together in time for number fifteen, then tackled the water. It was not flagged so we could go around, but I wanted to give it a shot. She slowed to a trot, had a look, and then leapt right in. It was a long water complex and very deep, so by the time we reached the other side my hot, tired horse was going at a riding school trot. We managed to get our canter back by number sixteen and then we were nearly home, blasting through the trees to the last jump, then absolutely flooring it for the finish line. I was grateful for our barrel racing days because we shot over the line at a bit of a ridiculous speed, but I sat down and closed my fingers and she stopped so suddenly I nearly fell off.
It’s hard to describe just how I felt as we walked away from the finish. I was exhausted, sweaty, dehydrated, slightly heat exhausted and so hot I could feel my heart throbbing in my ears. My legs felt wrung out, my hands were shaking and I could feel the first twinges of my back being out (probably popped it out during our sideways canter). Similarly, Arwen was gasping for breath and dripping sweat. But I could tell by the spring in her step and the set of her ears that she felt the way I did; exhilarated, overwhelmed with gratitude, joyful beyond description. So I did the only thing I could. I dropped my reins, I lifted my hands, and I thanked my King.
Beka from The Owls Approve asks: Let’s talk about the biggest achievements your horse has accomplished. I’m not talking about you as a rider – I want to know what your ponykins has done to make you proud. Is there a glorious satin collection, did he/she figure out some dressage movement that took months to learn, or are is it just a great day when your butt stays in the saddle?
Let’s go alphabetically, shall we?
Arwen has achieved so much and gone so far in the six years I’ve had her that I really have trouble choosing any particular moment of awesomeness. That’s pretty much Arwen; she very rarely is truly amazing, but is always pretty good, which has totalled up to a slow, gradual trickle of amazing in the end.
Possibly the most notable thing she achieved was conceiving at the age of 11 months, successfully producing a healthy filly foal around her second birthday. This oopsie was before I had her, but it is apparently against all the laws of nature and yet she did manage it somehow, little twerp.
More seriously, I think the hardest thing I ever asked Arwen to do was go out alone. She was very insecure, skittish and herdbound as a filly. While the term is probably somewhat archaic by now, she was the worst napper I’ve ever known; she’d be all right up until we left the big electric gate, and then she would stop. Attempts to make her walk on would result in terrified little spinny rears. The first quarter mile of every ride was engaged in walking two steps, rearing, walking another two steps, rearing again, reversing six steps, walking two steps, repeat. There was no malice in her, but for the life of her that little grey filly just could not go out alone.
It took a bit of guts from both of us, and a lot of time, but now Arwen loves hacking out by herself. I need a Kimberwick to get her to stop going, sometimes. Usually we mostly gallop on outrides, which are up to 10km long, but anytime I want I can drop the reins down to the buckle and go home at her trademark giant stretchy free walk. I can even put newbies on her for little slow hacks and not worry about them as long as they stay in the back where she won’t kick anybody. Hacking out alone is a very basic skill that most horses already know, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the biggest psychological hurdle that Arwen has overcome.
Magic is Arwen’s carbon opposite. He is either wonderful or abysmal; his wonderful is quite awe-inspiring and his abysmal is frankly scary. There have been days when not wanting to die is pretty good, and other days – last year when I was apparently unafraid of anything – when we jumped 1.20m without dying at all.
He’s also come quite a way in the past two years. Mostly, he’s transformed from neurotic race monster to happy pet, but at least we have made a little progress from racehorse to sport horse.
His biggest achievement was definitely his show in the end of November. We’d had a tough winter with massive confidence issues from us both. In fact, the whole of my time owning him has been pretty tough; the Mutterer will be able to tell you about lessons where I stood in the middle of the arena swallowing tears and telling him that I was not a good enough rider for this amazing horse. Luckily for me, the Mutterer managed to resist the temptation to walk away and would boot me back onto the horse and tell me to get over my [bleeped profanity] and ride, and between Magic and God and the Mutterer they got me to our first show where he was amazing, I rode to the best of my ability, and it went stupendously well. Magic was foot perfect and I relished the feeling of having one huge amount of horse between my knees, and all of his talent and spirit working in harmony with me. There’s just something about a really nice thoroughbred that can’t be beaten.
Skye has achieved almost nothing in terms of being trained and so much in terms of training her little human. The fearless old charger has always been – and still is – my trusted destrier on the battlefield of life. Probably the hardest thing she ever did was to survive African horse sickness. Unheard of outside of Africa, over here AHS is feared as the recurrent killer that can cause a perfectly healthy horse to drop dead overnight. She caught a milder strain of the virus, but it was still a very dark autumn that we spent nursing and praying and crying and fighting our way through it. Skye never considered quitting, but it was then that I – fourteen years old, and that horse was my world – hit rock bottom and met my Rock: only the King could possibly have carried us through it, and carry us He did. And Skye fought the virus and won, now thriving almost four years later.
Thunder is just consistently pretty awesome, but I think the one moment of which I am most proud is when my cinch snapped loose on an outride and both saddle and dismayed rider crashed to the ground. Well, I’m not particularly proud of myself, because all I did was crawl out from my saddle groaning, but Baby Thun – who was going at a steady hand-gallop in the direction of his paddock – slammed on the brakes, spun around and returned for his slightly squashed rider. The poor little guy was barely three years old and he was so afraid that he was shaking where he stood, but for me it said everything about him that in that panicky moment he did what all horses do; he looked to his leader to keep him safe, and for him that leader was me. I mean, it wasn’t a particularly smart decision as all I was good for at that point was groaning, but it was Thunder’s loyalty all over.