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.

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

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Hebrews 11 Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.

By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

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It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.

It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.”[a] For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

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It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.

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11 It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed[b] that God would keep his promise. 12 And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.

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13 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. 14 Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. 15 If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. 16 But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

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17 It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, 18 even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.”[c] 19 Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.

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20 It was by faith that Isaac promised blessings for the future to his sons, Jacob and Esau.

21 It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.

22 It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left.

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23 It was by faith that Moses’ parents hid him for three months when he was born. They saw that God had given them an unusual child, and they were not afraid to disobey the king’s command.

24 It was by faith that Moses, when he grew up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his great reward. 27 It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible. 28 It was by faith that Moses commanded the people of Israel to keep the Passover and to sprinkle blood on the doorposts so that the angel of death would not kill their firstborn sons.

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29 It was by faith that the people of Israel went right through the Red Sea as though they were on dry ground. But when the Egyptians tried to follow, they were all drowned.

30 It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down.

31 It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

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32 How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. 33 By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. 35 Women received their loved ones back again from death.

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But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. 36 Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. 37 Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half,[d] and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. 38 They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.

39 All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. 40 For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.

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And by faith, this most undeserving of all His children would find herself most abundantly blessed.

I love my little mustard seed. ❤ Glory to the King.

CHG Leg 4 Goals

I have never been so relaxed the night before a dressage show. I suppose it makes sense; tension seldom goes hand in hand with either worship or dancing.

I still care too much about scores. But this week’s dressage rides have been… something other. Some of them were still the run-of-the-mill awful. But as we went on, there was an upward incline, towards the light. I focused less. I laughed more. I turned my Jesus music up loud and sang along. Judging by the swing under the saddle, the horses? I think they liked it.

I still worry a bit. There will be a judge out there who’ll eventually tell me that Arwen and I don’t belong in Elementary. And they won’t be wrong. But we’re not here to belong.

We’re here to dance.

Arwen’s goals: ride the tests from memory without too much trouble. Get a grading point or two (55% or more). Attempt to avoid setting the judge’s box on fire.

Thunder, on the other hand, has been feeling amazing, technique-wise. The stretchy trot wasn’t that hotshot this week, but his canter is about a thousand times better.

Thunder’s goals: show an improvement in his scores (last time 66% for the same tests). Subject to baby brain falling out of his ears, of course.

Firn’s goals: show the fruit of the Spirit. By my fruits I will be known.

Show love to the horses and the people.

Revel in the joy of a God-given day, even if it collapses into perfect chaos, as they tend to do. Let it be a joyful dance, a praise to His Name.

Be at peace with the fact that we’re not perfect and neither is anyone else.

Be longsuffering – be patient – with the horses, students, grooms, and fellow competitors.

Be gentle. Let each aid be as soft as possible, every word as kind and polite as can be managed.

Be good; treat fellow competitors justly, be good about the warmup arena rules, don’t push for a ride time that’d suit better.

Have a little faith. God’s got this.

Employ meekness; submit to parents, judges, marshalls, and the needs of others; surrender every breath of the day to God.

Have temperance – self-control – and don’t allow negative emotions to become negative actions when they arise (they will).

Tomorrow and every day, so help me God.

I can’t wait.

Glory to the King.

What Really Matters

[Side note: I will write a brief recap of June at some point, I really will. Bad blogger! But for today, here’s some drivel that’s been floating around in my head for a while.]

My own riding has me a little disheartened lately. I have never been the most confident rider or someone that finds riding easy, but I have always been ambitious. And lately, that’s led to a whole lot of disappointment.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying my guts out to get better at this. I was the kid that was forever drawing pictures of her first pony winning the Olympics. I’ve had goals and plans and lofty dreams all my life; since I was seven years old I would watch the pros on TV, then close my eyes and picture me riding that perfect 1.60m course or Grand Prix freestyle on old Skye. I want it so bad I can taste it. It’s not really about the victory, I just have this craving to be so good at it. I really want to feel what it’s like to ride a 10 for a half-pass. I really want to go double clear at 4* with the grace of a dancer. And I’ve been working for that since I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t riding at least 6 days a week, and since I was 12, that’s been multiple horses a day. That’s a lot of saddle time and a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and all I have on my show record is one grading point at Novice, one at 70cm, and one at EV70. I have been eliminated repeatedly and dramatically in every discipline I ride in with the exception of dressage, and I know that’s only a matter of time. The only graded classes I’ve won have been ones where I was the only one that showed up, barring one, where my 8-year-old was competing against a real greenie. It’s not exactly the kind of show record you expect from a trainer, much less a coach. Horse riding takes years, this I know, but at every show I see juniors and pony riders doing medium and 1.20m and EV100 and they’re winning.

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adult riding for a living, losing at EV70

The last thing I can blame is the horses, because I have some really, really incredible horses. These horses have more scope and talent than I do, and they try their courageous hearts out for me.

And that is kind of discouraging sometimes because I have many shortcomings, but lack of drive is not one of them. Every year, I ride more horses, I take more lessons. I ride when I’m sick and hurting, I ride in the rain and the cold, I get back on over and over. For the last six months of 2015, I have 569 sessions recorded in my logbook, and I ride a lot more now than I did then. I did my stint as a working student and I did my share of falling off wild ponies for peanuts. I have never quit on riding, not once; the longest I have gone in my memory without riding has been two weeks – the two weeks that Magic was sick. And sometimes it’s like it’s just not achieved anything. And that was so painful and confusing. I keep wanting to ask God what I did wrong. Why hasn’t He taken me up the grades? What have I missed? Where did I mess up? Is this not His plan for me after all? Why don’t I have anything to show for it on paper?

And God said, “I wasn’t looking on paper, daughter.”

He opened my eyes to what really matters and it hasn’t been the destination or the dreams I’ve been chasing. It’s been the things that matter to Him, the things He has been calling me to all this time, this time that I’ve been trying to follow His light through the dark glass of my own ambition.

Because looking back, the changes in my horses’ training and ability haven’t been huge. But the changes in their minds and emotions? They have been enormous.

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Few weeks after coming home. Not a happy camper.

When I got this horse he was relatively fresh off the track, but he could walk and trot and canter and whoa and go and turn and pop over little crosses. Almost four years later, he’s doing 70cm with mixed results. You know how long it takes a pro to take a baby off the track to 70cm? We’re not even using the same calendar here.

But when I got him he was also a hypersensitive, neurotic creature you couldn’t sneeze near or his brain would exit stage left. You literally could not move your hands too fast or he’d jump up in the air like you’d hit him with a cattle prodder. He was anxious to box, he was anxious to saddle, he didn’t tie up, and his frequent and relentless panic attacks would have him a trembling, eye-rolling, lip-poking, leaping mess for an incredible amount of time. If something set him off, he’d literally be highly strung for days afterwards – days. He wasn’t just a silly baby off the track, he had horse PTSD. When his switch flipped, you could forget it, you weren’t getting him back that day. Maybe not even the next.

You know he’s now one of the quietest horses to handle at the yard? You can park him wherever, chuck his lead rein over his neck and he’ll just stand there looking adorable while you flap around looking for his boots. He ties up. He loads like a charm. He travels perfectly. He doesn’t hide from rain anymore, he runs and bucks and plays in it. He is just this giant happy puppy dog of a horse. Magic still has his edge, he’ll always have his edge. Like humans, horses get some scars that won’t ever heal perfectly. He still has all the same triggers and they still set him off just as quickly, but I can talk him down off his ledge in minutes. Minutes. Yesterday we had an off-site lesson and something set him off and he stopped at this 20cm cavaletti and I ate a little dirt, but I got back on him and in 30 minutes we were jumping the biggest fences we’ve ever done off property. He was so happy. He was just cruising. And I am his anchor. Nobody else in the world right now would have gotten him back so quickly, nobody else can ride him like I can. And it’s not that I’m a good rider. I’m not even a good trainer and I’m really no good at baby racehorses. But I am the world’s leading authority on Magic because I really truly care about him and that’s turned him right around. Magic does not care that we’re only doing 70cm. Magic cares that his spinning world has stilled. Magic cares about cookies and ear rubs and that I never, ever push him past what he can’t handle, even if that means we’ll do 70cm until I’m 40.

Magic cares about the love in me, and we all know that the other name for love is God. And if you put it like that, I’d take it over A-grade any day.

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Three years later at a show. Jump the same height, but the happiest eye you ever saw.

He hasn’t been the only one. Arwen was a promising but unbacked two-year-old. She is now a nine-year-old that gets extravagantly eliminated at EV70. But she was also a skittish, insecure, lazy, excessively herdbound filly. Now she is a wonderful, confident, enthusiastic fireball of a horse that loves galloping away from home on outrides and kicking the butts of anyone who thinks they can stop her.

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Nothing insecure here

Nell was hypersensitive, resistant, and amazingly spooky. Her first dressage tests are a long string of 3’s and 4’s with comments like “tense” and “very uncertain”. Now she comes down that centreline like she owns it and judges call her “obedient” and “willing”.

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Floppy ears

There have been still more. Horses you couldn’t touch, now shoving their noses into your hands, asking for attention. Horses that leaned on all your aids, wringing their tails with frustration, now stepping forward with an easy, swinging, enthusiastic stride. Horses that were so tense they had their ears up your nostrils and jumped at every touch, now packing nervy kids around at shows.

My horses are not particularly well-schooled horses. I am not “one to watch”. I am not the next Charlotte Dujardin or Monty Roberts. But after enough of my work, my horses are really, really happy, healthy, relaxed, enthusiastic, confident horses. They love their work.

One of Nell’s first dressage tests, when she was jumping like a gazelle and my heart was sitting somewhere in my boots, holds the greatest compliment I have ever received as a rider. “Empathetically ridden.” And I have my impatient days, but I do everything I can to understand these most wonderful of God’s creatures.

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Even the crazy babies have happy ears

I don’t think it matters to the Olympic committee, or to anyone that reads my show record, or to prospective clients. None of the top riders I see at shows notice me for it and it definitely doesn’t win me any ribbons. But it matters to me, it matters to the horses, and it sure matters to God.

So yeah, I would still love to ride Grand Prix and I’m still going to work hard and dream and God willing someday a happy athlete will carry me down the centreline at a collected canter. But mostly, I’m just going to love my horses and my people. Jesus loves when I do that, and it’s the only thing I can do that has any real consequence. All the rest is just fluff. And fluff is cool, but it’s still just fluff.

I love my horses. Nobody can ever take that away from me. And for God, that’s enough. So right now, I’m deciding that it’s enough for me, too.

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Clifftop

I hope you’ll all forgive my absence from the blogosphere over the past couple of months. Updates on the individual horses all to follow, but suffice it to say that they are all very very well. Magic’s stomach hasn’t been troubling him at all; he is steadily gaining his weight and sparkle back and has started to act the fool again (which sometimes has dire consequences such as running and falling and grazing his tail, although he swore it was broken).

Life on the horse front has been not been idle. Far from it; it’s exploded.

See, since I was little(r), I knew I wanted to grow up and have a big farm with lots and lots of horses. The wanting became a wish; the wish became a dream; and when my soul was saved by my one and only Jesus, the dream was laid aside for the sake of a bigger question: “Lord, what is it that You want me to do? Send me, and I will go.” And the Lord said, “The horse is prepared against the day of battle, but safety is of the Lord. [Prov. 21:31]. Go nowhere. Stay and ride and teach for Me. The horse world needs Me and I am in you.”

So the dream became a calling, and the call was answered; I threw myself even further into riding, training, learning, failing, and failing again until I succeeded a little. Last year I started to train horses for one or two small clients other than the one with whom I’d done a long apprenticeship. All informal, small stuff, people I knew. I’m just a girl still at school, right? I can’t do a whole lot more than the odd little job, or working at studs as an assistant rider under the ever-patient Mutterer.

Except now with only one Grade 12 final paper left to write, I’m brought to the sudden realisation that I’m not a little girl at school anymore. Next week Friday marks my last day of high school (if, God willing, I pass everything). And after that? Well, I’ll study for my FEI international equestrian coach. But the burden doesn’t promise to be as heavy as AS levels were. If I am called to run a little yard in God’s name, and if the law now considers me an adult, and if I can ride and teach and train, then why shouldn’t I?

What is there to stop me?

Nothing. If God is for us, who can be against us?

The precipice is near. The time is come. The calling is serious. The dream will be lived. There’s a long road ahead. I’ve learned some painful lessons, and I haven’t even started yet. The horse world is filled with unscrupulous giants, with riders and trainers that have more skill, more knowledge, and more talent than I could dream of. But because I kneel before God I can stand before anyone.

I will start a stableyard for the glory of Jesus Christ.

I don’t have an arena. I don’t have stables. I don’t even have dressage letters or a tack room. I don’t have a square inch of land to my name. But I have very gracious parents with a whopping great farm, and I have amazing horses, and I have a Bible and I have a God Who’s not scared of anyone. I will fear, I will fail, and I will make a fool of myself in the months and years and decades to come. I will have regrets. I will take chances I shouldn’t have and ignore chances I should have taken.

But I will also cling to my God with a fierce hope and a fiery passion, and His strength is greatest in my weakness. So I stand on the clifftop, and I’m tired of doubting. I’m sick to the death of being afraid. I want to be brave and confident and I want to burn and burn and burn for my Jesus. I know I’ll still doubt and be fearful because bad habits come easy and leave slow, but I will stand before Him when I can’t walk, and I will kneel before Him when I can’t stand, and we will do this. He will do this.

Horse world, you better watch this space, because Heaven already is. Here comes the clifftop. Time to fly.

Thy will be done, my King.

Horses That Aren’t Grey

I apologise in advance for the almost complete absence of photos. I plead Internet issues. Now on to the post…

I promise that I don’t refuse to compete any horse that isn’t grey. I rode a spotty palomino one at shows once, see?

He was sold on months ago but I still miss him...
He was sold on months ago but I still miss him…

Still, it is kind of hilarious that I have to compete four horses (six, hopefully, including the stallions I’ve been asked to show in August) and they are all grey, every last one. Erin wisely suggested that I should get a shampoo company to sponsor me. I’m not complaining  – I adore greys; it is uncertain whether I love grey because grey or because almost all the grey horses I’ve ridden have been lovely.

Anyway, so today the blogosphere shall get some bay and chestnut love.

Exavior has been learning rapidly. We started working on baths, which was a battle – he doesn’t like water on his butt and ran over me once or twice before a well-placed elbow sorted that one out – but had to stop working on it because winter happened. We shall face it again in summertime; drenching him with icy water isn’t exactly going to improve his enjoyment of baths.

Apart from that, we got to work on lunging, leading and bowing. Lunging was a flop the first time because Mr. Smarty Pants knows exactly where the gate is but thankfully has not figured out that he could pop over the ring fence without a second thought. He liked to stop and/or spin around and/or rear half-heartedly in protest, especially on the right rein. We sorted this out in a few sessions, though, and now he’ll happily walk and trot around. I’m not pushing him too hard because he is such a baby but three laps of walk and two laps of trot each side once a week isn’t going to kill him.

We’ve also been going for little walkies around the homestead – up past the heifer paddocks, around the house and through the arena-in-progress. It’s quite a spooky route especially if you are terrified of bovines, and Exavior has cowophobia. We spent a little time walking around after Fiona, who is eleven years old and unlikely to be able to move fast enough to spook anything, until Xave realised that she was actually afraid of him. We had a huge argument about a narrow gate with a bar over the top, too. It turns out that Exavior has a special fear of low things he has to walk under, which is a bit of a bummer for a colt standing 15.2 at the age of 19 months. In the end I used my head-down cue to make him drop his head so that the bar appeared taller and he sort of tiptoed underneath it. We’ll be practicing this – dropping the head to walk under things – a lot in the next few months since I think it’ll be an important skill for him, especially when it comes to loading.

I also had to give him his herpes vaccine last week, not without considerable trepidation because the one thing he will get violent about is a needle. My other horses all stand like rocks for their shots – I vaccinated them all that day and Exavior was the only one that I bothered to put a halter on; Flare didn’t even get up from her nap – but he has problems with it. I think it may be that he had to have lots of injections when he tore up his leg, and he was pretty insane at that point anyway so they probably had to hold him down and twitch him for it. So I fed him bits of apple with one hand while rubbing the syringe on his neck with the other – he accepted this fine – and once he was totally occupied with apple I injected him in 0.02 seconds flat. (Vaccinating cows is good practice – you learn to accurately inject 2cc out of a full 20cc syringe while holding your hands above your head to get to the airborne heifer’s neck). He proceeded to shake his head violently and complain for five minutes afterwards, poor idiot, but kept all four feet on the ground.

Thunder has been his dear sweet self. We did another long hack around the neighbour’s game camp, this time accompanied by Flare, and the only thing that frightened him was a car that passed by on the road. The driver went wonderfully slowly and cautiously, though, so we survived. Nothing else – the sound of motorbikes next door, someone target shooting, the galloping game, or Flare, whose brain evaporated for half an hour or so – fazed him in the least. He plugged along like an old hand. Alone, he can still be really spooky, but not violent. The nice thing about Thunder is that his adrenalin comes down really, really fast. He’ll spook, sure, but thirty seconds later he’ll have gone right back down to completely calm again. He also has an amazing ability to be completely obedient even when scared out of his skull. No matter how frightened he is, as long as I keep my act together and give clear, firm aids, he’ll do what I want. And ultimately that will develop him into the horse I can trust completely – the one that I know will obey even when he is terrified. Horses that “never spook” always worry me somewhat because one day they will, and they won’t know what to do with their fear. Friesians (sorry Friesian lovers) are particularly bad at this: they “never spook”, until the day something pushes them over the edge and then they just can’t deal with their newfound fear and fly off the handle with 500kg of extreme power.

Thun has also been a star in his schooling. His lope is really coming together now, much more balanced and coordinated. He neck-reins in all three gaits most of the time and can go on a loose rein in a lope now, too, without needing my hands for balance. He can even slide now, which is awesome. My footing is bad so I don’t push it much, but he’s definitely getting the hang of scooting along (I am not, but I learnt the hard way to keep one hand on the horn… just in case). It’s kind of hilarious when I forget that he’s a reining horse and not a dressage horse, and we’re loping home on an outride in company and we want to go back down to a walk and he sits down and slides, much to everybody else’s consternation.

The chestnut horse formerly known as Duiwel (Demon) has been renamed David; I figured he needed a good Bible name after being called Demon for most of his life. He’s actually not a bad guy at all, and very handsome. I’ve been taking it easy with him, just lunging  and light riding, but he hasn’t put a toe wrong. Somebody has been really rough with poor old David, but he’s coming round very quickly. He’s stopped that dreadful, continuous, nervous snorting of the abused horse and doesn’t roll a white eye at me so much. To his credit, David has never turned aggressive, even in self-defence against things he obviously perceives to be major threats. Good boy. He’s my first real experience with a Saddler cross and much less nutty than I expected. He shall soon be for sale.

Magic Lady has been super; we’ve mainly been schooling because she has a hay belly like a gestating elephant, not exactly the most flattering look for being admitted into the SA Warmbloods. She’s taken to dressage most beautifully and has so far shattered every OTTB stereotype I know, except for that stargazing thing Magic used to do with his head. I’ll have her teeth fixed soon and then that should also go away. She free jumps fearlessly but apparently jumping with me on top requires lots of wriggling, although never overjumping or such silliness. I think once her broodmare stint with me is over, she’s going to make some junior really really happy. She’s so kind and bombproof, but with plenty of athleticism. Her 2014/2015 foal has just been weaned, so she’s sitting in a paddock waiting for me to come get her, which should be soon. She’ll be joining the Horde alongside a stunning little bay gelding bred by the Mutterer, who will be my own first resale project.

As for the Horde’s warrior Queen, her life is happy. She has Magic and Exavior to look after, Vastrap to hang out with when she’s tired of looking after them, lots of hay and her weekly hack. These are a highlight for her; I feel a bit sorry for her with the cold and thought I should give her the winter off but she has started doing these little excited half-rears in anticipation of our traditional tiny little canter. After eleven years I should know when she’s enjoying something, and she’s loving her rides, lame as she is. Learning to stay on a rearing horse bareback is good for me and she has a nice thick mane, so all is well. I don’t think you’re supposed to canter with 26-year-old arthritic mares, but I still need that horrendous giant curb for whoa, so it occurs to me that maybe her knees aren’t hurting all that much.

Health-wise she’s actually doing better than she has in years. The old knees still make her slightly lame, of course, but she is probably the shiniest of all my woolly donkeys. She’s staying as round as a barrel on just a tiny handful of concentrate twice a day, which I mainly give her so that she’ll take her joint medicine. That nagging COPD cough has entirely gone and even her permanent eye infection seems to be finally leaving after years of fortnightly antibiotic ointment.

Lord, not what I will, but what Thou wilt, but Sir, if Thou will it, as many more years as possible with this golden mare.

Sunlands Training Dressage

Bear with me, guys. At some point I will finish catching up on all the shows and you can hear about horses that aren’t grey.

The latest expedition was to a big venue up in Kyalami that holds frequent and very handy training shows. I rode the adorable Reed there last November, so I knew I could expect it to be pretty busy.

First, I must rewind a little. On Saturday evening the Mutterer and I first made a trek to Grootvlei to pick up two horses; a chestnut gelding (my next training project for the Mutterer, incidentally named Duiwel, which means “demon”. Charming, right?) and dear beautiful Arwen Jnr., who was coming to the show with us and would spend the night at my home. I only really have nice things to say about Arwen Jnr. so I may as well call her by her stable name – Nia-Nell. Or Nell because it just works for her.

Despite the Mutterer’s dire prophesying, Demon (don’t worry, I renamed him) refrained from killing anyone when loading, and despite my misgivings he did not kill himself in the horsebox on the way to Nell’s home. We were all fairly composed when we got there, and Nell got on fine with the usual arrangement: me cajoling and patting at the head, and the Mutterer swearing and pushing behind. I was also certain that Demon would shred Nell on the way to my place, but as usual the Mutterer was right and they were both completely fine when we got there. They were so happy with each other that we decided to let them stay together that evening to stave off any would-be loneliness.

Everybody was still alive the next morning, which is always a good thing when new horses have arrived, so with my sister’s help we scurried through a quick grooming and bubble-wrapping of Arwen and Nell before shoving them both in the box with aid of a lunging line. Luckily, Nell travels like an old hand, so she turned out to be a good influence on Arwen and both the girls were happy and relaxed when we got to Sunlands. This was a good thing. The parking lot was FULL, with kids and ponies and bellowing instructors everywhere and somebody’s harrassed groom trying to retrieve an insane thoroughbred from the bonnet of a nearby BMW. The family had the paddock up in record time, and Arwen was stuffed in there to wait while I dealt with Nell. She was actually quite all right – looking around, but quiet – and even stood dead still with a haynet to have her mane plaited. Because she also has a gigantic wonderful thick torrent of hair, we did it in a stallion plait. Unconventional, but it worked like a charm, and is henceforth my solution for natural manes and dressage.

When I had her walked down to the arena and popped on, for a few minutes I thought I was sitting on a firecracker. She was okay – obedient and listening – but spooky as anything. The poor animal has never even been on sand footing before, so first we had a spook at that, and then we had a spook at the White Cone of Death beside the arena and then we had to panic a couple of times about the ponies careening around at a ridiculous pace (showjumpers were warming up with us dressage bums). As we walked around, though, I discovered that violence was the furthest thing from Nell’s mind. She’d balk a little, and look a little, and maybe have a weeny little shy, but nothing else. No bucking, no bolting, no teleporting. For a horse that’s only rising four, she was superb. And once we’d had a bit of a trot around she put her little nose down and went to work just like we were at home. I was jumpy about the canter transition, but I didn’t need to be. She flowed into her canter like water to the shore.

AropNia-Nell3I still can’t get over the amount of talent contained in those 15 hands of Nooitgedachter. I have very seldom ridden a horse with better paces or a better mind. I think the Storm Horse could have had better movement than her if he had been dressage schooled from the start, but apart from him, there are very few exceptions to her natural ability to move in rhythm and balance and connection. She just knows it somehow. It’s amazing. And paired with the unbelievably trainable brain of the true Nooitgedachter, it’s a combination that will someday be unbeatable if somebody took the time to school her to the top. (I sure wouldn’t mind being that somebody).

Anyway, soon we were making our way to the show arena and Nell was staring at everything but not being a pest. The dressage arena at this venue is very spooky. It’s sandwiched between the noisy jumping arena with its leaping horses and loudspeakers, and the little cafe thingy with its sizzling sounds and noisy people. And on the far end is a judge’s box that harbours all kinds of monsters, not to mention the dressage letters. Poor Nell thought she was walking into a death trap. It took us about five minutes to get from A along the track to C, but I let it. Nell is not stupid, and I knew if I gave her the time to think she would come to the conclusion that all is well. We walked up to every letter and I had her touch it while I patted her and told her she was okay. In this fashion we made it to the judge, who, to her great credit, showed not an ounce of impatience. She told me to just keep doing what I was doing, and even led Nell over to C from the ground to help her courage a bit.

If I had had another twenty minutes I could have gotten her quiet about the judge’s box. As it was, our tests were a bit inventive since she didn’t really want to go any nearer than M, and we had quite a few impromptu leg-yields. But amazingly, our FXH free walk was perfect. As soon as she was facing away from the box, I could give her the reins almost to the buckle and she put her head down and marched happily to H without a care in the world. She is an amazing little horse. Even despite getting a few 3s and 4s for teleporting sideways when we were supposed to be making a stretchy trot circle, she got 55.5% for Prelim 1 and the judge was delighted with her. Her good moments were all 7s, and for a first show on a horse that young, which has been under saddle for six months and gets ridden once a week, I’ll take it.

How is she so light in the front? How??
How is she so light in the front? How??

Nell was a joy to ride, but I was pretty happy to get on my grownup horsy and be fine. It took me a few minutes to settle down and realise that Arwen knows her job and we’d be fine, but once I did, she was awesome. A few times she totally did not understand why we  weren’t jumping or galloping around, but then her brain kicked into dressage gear and she was superb. Our warmup was inordinately long as I misjudged the timing, so we spent a lot of time trotting around, walking, getting off, getting on, more walking, more trotting, etc., but I think it was good for her. We only had a little bit of canter since I didn’t need her to get fired up and start looking for things to jump over, and lots of free walk to stretch and relax. I think we were warming up on and off for over an hour. At last we went into the arena, and my horse was calm and supple and working in every muscle of her body. It was rather a relief to come down the long side for a square halt at C and then to sit on a loose rein while I introduced myself to the judge. Arwen sniffed C curiously and then started to eat the grass under it, to my relief/mortification.

The judge asked, “Another youngster?!” to which I replied, “No! Luckily, not quite so young as the other one,” and the judge said, “Oh, good!” She also thought Arwen and Nell were sisters, which is entirely pardonable as they look pretty much exactly the same despite having no relation at all except for both being Nooities. Then we trotted off, the bell rang, and it was time to go. Down the centre line, easy halt at X, and I looked up far past the judge’s box to where the big blue African sky was smiling down at me, and I saluted the King.

Arwen1I knew when we came straight down the centre line that Arwen was going very well. And when we made our first stretchy trot circle and she put her head down between her knees, I really relaxed. So we rode our tests joyously, effortlessly, with that wonderful feeling of oneness that is so addictive. There’s no feeling quite like it when you find your spine apparently fused to your horse’s, every movement of yours speaking volumes to your horse, muscle to muscle, heart to heart. You can call it losgelassenheit, or connection, or working through the back, or riding from the seat, or simply dressage; but it doesn’t have a name, not really. Arwen was loving it in her own quiet way, performing for me with elegance and relaxation and quietness, striving without tension, revelling without rebellion. For me there are few truer ways that a horse can love. This is why there really are no voice commands in dressage; because dressage is about stepping into the inner chamber where words are far too clumsy to communicate.

Wax poetical though I may about my Novice tests, they definitely weren’t perfect. We had a little buck into one transition, she flexed to the outside occasionally, the canter wasn’t as rhythmic as it should have been and our lengthenings were, as normal, totally mediocre. But we had some good moments and even one great moment, and the judge, the horse and I all enjoyed it thoroughly. The judge announced that Arwen was stunning with a divine walk and a brilliant mind, and I sat there beaming idiotically and slapping my pony’s neck with my new white dressage gloves.

In the end, we did pretty well. We got mostly sevens, with a sturdy eight for every free walk and a nine for that one amazing stretchy trot. I got sevens for rider position which was less than I wanted but pretty much what I deserved. Our highest score was 67.8% in Novice 1, which solidified my decision to go graded in dressage at Novice; I wouldn’t be too ashamed of scoring that, even if we wouldn’t get a bunch of ribbons. And as for Arwen, she was just happy and chilled and doing the job she enjoys.

We can't lengthen, but boy can we stretch!
We can’t do lengthenings, but boy can we stretch!

And as for me? Well, I’m just ridiculously blessed to halt at X, put the reins in one hand, look up at the beaming sky and then salute to the One Who made horses and people and all of this possible. Thank You, Abba, Sir.