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 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.