Springs Horse Trials One-Day

Sunday the 24th dawned cold. There was one of those wispy, peachy sunrises that you only get in autumn, with a sky so pink it would be sickening if it wasn’t so pure and real and beautiful. The sun wasn’t up yet and I didn’t even want to know how cold it was. My fingers knew exactly how cold it was and needed a few minutes under Arwie’s blanket to thaw.

Arwen sniffed bemusedly at her own legs when I wrapped them up in her brand new travelling bandages, apparently unconcerned, but as soon as I bandaged her tail she knew something was up – and she liked it. She pawed unstoppably while I strapped on all her stuff and, once I finally let her out of her shelter, she charged for the horsebox snorting like a dragon and ready for anything. I flapped along behind like a tail on a kite. Loony beastie has definitely decided that outings are fun, anyway. She loaded okay with Dad and a lunge line behind her butt, and off we went. The drive, due to extreme mist over Nigel, didn’t go as planned and we whirled into the parking lot at President’s Park with only an hour before my class was due to start. In a mad panic, I only waited for the ‘rents to nail up the awesome wonderful portable paddock Dad made before stashing a very relaxed Arwie in it and charging off to walk the cross-country. (The paddock’s top strand is 1.80m high so she better not jump out of it or we’re moving up immediately).

Once I’d found my number and the startbox, I proceeded to walk the course at probably something close to the ideal speed of 420mpm and was still too late to walk the showjumping. At least xc didn’t look too bad; we had jumped almost everything before in lessons and the height wasn’t ridiculous. There were two white slanters, an ominous colourful house with a stuffed rat (mouse? kitten? I don’t even know) on top, flagged water, and a rather tricky little drop with a related distance to a shady log in a spooky corner. Apart from that, the 18-effort, 1740m course didn’t look too bad. I didn’t have too much time to worry because by the time I had Arwie saddled and walked up to the showjumping arena, I was desperate to watch some horses go because I hadn’t walked it. Arwen looked around like a seasoned old show horse and went to sleep.

Well, that didn’t last. When we reached the warmup, the ears went up and my daft little horse suddenly had her fireworks back. We bucked merrily during our first few canter transitions and after our first few jumps, but she felt wonderful. Joyously aiming kicks at any big horse in range, being prevented from landing them but taking pleasure in the thought anyway, Arwen charged around and jumped everything without really being asked. One thoroughbred nearly had his bottom autographed by Arwen’s feet when he decided to panic and zoom backwards towards us, but I was quick with my crop and prevented the disaster by a hairsbreadth.

Still, the showjumping course looked massive compared to the tame little fences in the warmup. Almost everything seemed to be at max height, 75cm. There were plenty of oxers and a rather dreadful big yellow combination. I stood beside Arwie in a quiet corner of the warmup and stared at it, hoping the fences might magically shrink if I stared hard enough.

Luckily, the Mutterer chose that moment to turn up, looking wonderfully calm amongst the other nasal-voiced, white-jodhpur’d, slightly panicky instructors.

“It’s huge!!!!” I bleated, gesticulating at the course.

“No it’s not, it’s tiny,” quoth the Mutterer. He patted Arwie’s neck.  “She travel well?”

I launched into a recital of my horse’s amazingness, boosting my spirits immediately, probably exactly as the oracle planned. Then it was time to go; Mom was clutching Dad rather tightly, Dad looked unflapped, and the Mutterer most worryingly held my stirrup while I mounted, risking accidental decapitation. I wandered in and clung to my beast as she spooked at an old couple sitting by the rails, but she was mostly just full of fireworks and looking for something to do. The bell went, I prayed, “Not by power, nor by  might but by Thy spirit, my King!” and we cantered through the start. I totally forgot to be nervous as Arwie’s donkey ears went up at the first fence. Target locked. It was an inviting vertical and she ate it up, and off we went galloping at number two only I had forgotten where it was and we nearly jumped number nine from the wrong side before I remembered and we floundered off and jumped it kind of sideways with my dear careful Arwie totally saving my bottom. Our little detour wasted some time, so I put my foot down and Arwen obliged by putting in probably her fastest round to date. She even tossed in her flying changes. The only hiccup was when I fluffed the tight right-hand turn to number ten, taking it miles too tight and presenting poor Arwen at the final oxer from the most ridiculous angle. She put up her knees and jumped it for me anyway, but just rolled the pole down with her back feet. The whole crowd groaned at my awfulness, as did I, but I couldn’t have been happier with that insane little mare. She didn’t even think of stopping.

Scary xc jump number five
Scary xc jump number five

The ‘rents were delighted; the Mutterer was, to all appearances, a stone pillar, but at least a patient one. Arwen got to relax in her personal paddock, sneering arrogantly at all the horses that had to graze on the end of lead reins, for half an hour. I ate chocolate and worried aloud about the drop, the water, the white slanters, and the stuffed rat/mouse/piece of course builder sadism. Then I worried about everything else because I always mess up at the innocuous jumps.

We only had an hour between showjumping and cross-country, and Arwen was rather too settled when we went up to the warmup. She was responsive and keen and jumping very carefully, but not the firebreathing creature she had been before Le Godimo’s xc. Still, it was hot and she’d just jumped a fast round, so it was only to be expected. Mom and Dad enjoyed watching the other horses go while the Mutterer was giving Mom a holiday from her usual job of reminding me to drink Coke and breathe. And then “Number twenty, on standby”, and we were in the startbox feeling that addictive adrenalin rush as the starter counted down and shouted “Go!” and I yelled “Go!” and clapped my heels into Arwen a bit over-enthusiastically. She blasted off and we thundered over the first log and onto the wide open course thrown out in front of us like a beckoning adventure. Number two was at the end of a long stretch. I planted my hands in the mane and Arwen accelerated, ears pricked up in excitement.

I love cross-country. The course is so big and open and alone, and out there it’s easy for the world to slip away until it’s just my amazing God, my beloved horse, and my somewhat squeaky self. And speed. Arwen had a wobble when we approached number two, but I kicked on and over she went. Number three went by with nothing but a mild spook at the terrifying jump judge and we ran at number four, which was on top of a hill next to a CIC** skinny about as tall as we were. Arwen shied violently at the skinny and we very nearly had a stop, but I clapped my legs on and fiercely shouted, “The Lord is my Shepherd!” and we sort of clambered over. Number five, a white slanter, was unexpectedly easy.

Arwen started to lose some steam as we galloped up and down the uneven terrain towards number six. Number six is a curved log set on a sharp downhill – a drop, really – and right in the spookiest corner of the Park. On one side is the main road, on the other is a wall, on the next is a tree and most inconveniently there was a bunch of judges hiding in a bush nearby. I flapped my arms and legs and Arwen sort of half-stopped and then plopped over. I was basically on her neck and clung on shouting “UP!” and trying to get back into the saddle, so it was a mercy she didn’t buck or do anything stupid, just saved my sorry butt over number seven and charged on.

<3

There was a long open stretch through the trees to number eight and I urged her to a good clip, galloping along the wall through the shadows. Number eight was a sneaky little log in the shade and you had to make a sharp right-hand turn to get to it; she was a bit startled when it jumped out of the bush at her, but jumped and galloped straight on to number nine, a straw bale oxer. She was simply horrified by the sight of this object, but she jumped for me anyway and now she really started to carry me forward and eat up the ground. We jumped number ten right out of our stride and then started on the loooong gallop to number eleven. I had no idea if we’d collected penalties for number six or what our time was, but I was determined to finish well, and so it seemed was Arwen. She stretched out her little legs and flew. Number eleven she took confidently, then came number twelve, a log over some rocks. It had caused problems for many of the other riders and horses, but Arwen just slowed down, had a look and popped over. Number thirteen, a rail over a little natural ditch, didn’t give us a moment’s pause and on we went. Number fourteen, a burnt log, just flew by. She was tiring now but still had plenty of try in her, although I heard her give number fifteen a rub with her back fetlocks.

Nearly home and we were blasting, galloping down the bank, across the road, effortlessly over white number sixteen and there was the water. I would have been nervous if there had been time; instead I kicked on and shouted encouragement. Arwen wriggled, slowed to a trot, and then trotted through like it was no big deal.

Only the scary house was left now. We got our canter back and went up a big mound thing and galloped down the other side and there it was, a whole line of creepy white houses. Arwen’s eyes came out on stalks, but luckily ours was the smallest one. I think she may actually have come to a halt for a split second in front of the house, staring in horror at the rat/mouse/example of the sadism of course designers, but put up her knees and popped over. We blasted through the finish both out of breath and exhilarated. She was tired but when we came through the finish, she locked her ears back onto number one as if she wanted to go again.

I was speechless, quite possibly because I had run out of breath, when we returned to our ground crew; Mom was ever so slightly green around the gills but looked thrilled, Dad was appropriately chuffed and the Mutterer was still a stone pillar but this time one that was permitting itself a small note of pride. I had no idea what my time was and no idea if we had incurred any jump penalties; we had never turned out and never really stopped, but I knew there were a few fences where we might technically have come to a halt for a brief instant. I think they are a little lenient at Ev70, though, so I had some hope.

Less hope than I should have had, as it turns out; we were already home when I checked the results and found that brave little Arwen had come eighth in a class of thirty-one. We were soundly in the ribbons, only I hadn’t stayed to fetch mine. In the showjumping we didn’t have a single time penalty, just the four penalties for that pole. And in the cross country? Clear on jumps and 0.4 time penalties. 0.4! Little mare must have really floored it, especially considering most of our jumps were slow and sticky and we trotted through the water. On the long stretches she made up plenty of time. If I hadn’t had that real rider-error pole down, we would have been third overall in a big class with its fair share of big horses and good riders.

Go Arwen go. Glory glory glory to my beloved, amazing Creator God, Who made people and horses and then brought them together. And that’s not even a blip on the radar compared to all else that He has done!

And Jesus Was Enough

I always love to watch the Mutterer at work, usually taking notes in my head so that I can try whatever he’s doing when I get home. But not today. Today’s small miracle is still so far beyond my capabilities that all I do is lend a hand and watch in wonder: it’s going to be a long time before I try this by myself.

I hold the little mare’s head while the Mutterer runs a soft rope around her neck, tying it so that it can’t slip tight, then gently slips a loop around each hind pastern. The little mare trembles, rolling her eyes so that I can see the whites, her ears constantly moving. She’s supposed to be trained, but I don’t want to know what her “trainer” did to her. Beat her most likely, maybe twisted her ears, yelled in her delicate little face. She has a fear about her that goes way beyond the ordinary nervousness of an unhandled horse. Even the lightest and kindest touch makes her flinch. I can see it now as I try to stroke her neck; the big muscles jump under my hand, too scared to hold still, too scared to flee. Eventually, I give up. She’s beyond human comfort now.

So I think, anyway, but the Mutterer has a plan. “Stick on the same side as me and hang onto her head.”

“Okay,” I say doubtfully. He’s usually right, so I do as I’m told.

The Mutterer has the ends of the rope around the mare’s legs in his hands. “Okay, girly,” he says to the mare, who trembles. “Easy now.” Then he pulls.

The ropes spring tight around the mare’s hindlegs, pulling them underneath her. She fights, throwing her head against the halter, but off balance she can’t yank even my weight around. Scrabbling at the grass with her forelegs, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, she panics. But the Mutterer leans calmly on the ropes and her hindlegs fold up underneath her. She sits down on the deep grass and stares at us, gasping. The Mutterer, still as calm as a monolith (the mare and I are equally spooked), leans against her shoulder and she eases slowly down onto her side.

“Good girl.” He puts a hand on her neck, but she’s not struggling. She quivers slightly, breath racing. He rubs her neck and shoulders and face and flanks, speaking to her slowly, explaining to me as I sit in the grass and stare. Because as the Mutterer explains, the mare relaxes. Her wide eyes soften. Her breathing slows down. The Mutterer loosens the ropes around her legs, but she doesn’t kick out. She is at her most vulnerable, lying on her side with – in her mind – her most powerful and violent enemy towering over her, but she’s relaxing.

The Mutterer hears my question before I ask it. “Because we didn’t hurt her once in this whole process,” he says. The mare gives a long sigh. “We use soft, thick lunging lines that don’t burn her, and we do it in the open where she can’t hurt herself, on thick grass so that even if she falls it won’t hurt.”

I nod. The mare went down, but she went down slowly, without being able to fight hard enough to pull any muscles.

Then, the mare licks and chews, an ultimate sign of equine submission and relaxation. Now the Mutterer pats her, softly at first, then hard enough to make the thudding noise most horses enjoy. And the mare doesn’t flinch. She lies still and lets herself feel a human’s love for the first time.

I’m still a little incredulous about the whole process right up until the moment when the Mutterer takes off the ropes and the mare gets slowly to her feet. Without a backward glance, he walks away. And without a second thought, without a halter on, in an open paddock, in the deep soft grass, away from her equine herdmates, the mare follows him.

It made sense when he explained it. The mare was terrified. She understood only two things about men: that they would unfailingly hurt her, and that if she fought or fled for her life she might avoid the pain. To gain her trust, we had to reverse both those principles. She had to believe that men were stronger than her. And she had to believe that they would never do her harm.

Pulling her down did just that. She was put into her most vulnerable position, shown that she could fight as she would but humans would always be stronger. (If it were not so, horses would still be wild; we have a God-given dominion over them. The bad part is that so many of us are tyrants and dictators instead of good rulers). But even at her most vulnerable, even at her most afraid, there was no pain. The humans didn’t hurt her or threaten her. In her darkest moment, there was just a gentle touch and a quiet voice. And when the force was taken away – when the ropes were removed – the little mare did what all horses do. She chose her leader, and she chose the leader that had proven his strength and his good intentions. Then she followed him.

And it probably saved the little mare’s life. The few minutes of fear and worry, now eclipsed by the relaxation and submission that flooded every line of her features, had been worth it. The mare had been a worthless, wild creature, doomed to the dark future of every useless and dangerous horse. But now, she had a second chance.

I was silent for a long time afterwards, because I know the feeling. Because I, too, have been that horse lying on the grass and gasping in terror. My legs tied up. A weight on my neck. Unable to fight back, unable to do anything to prevent my worst fear from coming true. It was a dark hour, and I was most afraid. I could not understand why I was suddenly so helpless or why the strange, higher being would force me so, anymore than the little mare could understand why the man had pulled her down.

But in that darkness, in that fear, in that helplessness, there was no pain from the One Who had put me there. Just a gentle touch and a quiet voice: “Be still and know that I am God.” And I knew He was God, and I knew He was all-powerful, almighty and all-knowing, that He could crush me like a bug where I lay. And I knew, more overwhelmingly than I have ever known, that He loved me.

You see, in that moment, it felt as though I had nothing. My herdmates felt far away and unable to save me. My own strength had failed me entirely. All I had was the loving touch of Jesus as He held me, and His soft voice as He stilled the storm inside. I had nothing but Him, and He was enough.

Horses and people have the same clockwork inside. Because when He let me rise again and gave me my freedom, when I saw the open field and the rest of the world waiting, I looked up and I saw Him. He Who was stronger than me, Who loved me. So I did what all humans do: I chose my Leader. And I followed Him.

And I am now no longer a worthless, wild creature. I am no longer doomed to a dark future. I have been given a second chance.

I took it.

Our First Event

WE FINALLY HAVE PHOTOS! And amazing photos they are too, thanks to the excellent Tamara and Blake Images.

No photographers are immune to this stunning face
No photographers are immune to this stunning face

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.

Poetry in motion. Her, I mean. I'm a mess. They call it stressage for a reason.
Poetry in motion. Her, I mean. I’m a mess. They call it stressage for a reason.

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.

Dressage faces. Much seriousness.
Dressage faces. Much seriousness. Also crooked because fly sheet monster horse is in front of us.

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.

See, I do know what I'm doing
See, I do know what I’m doing

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.

Dykes don't scare Arwen
Dykes don’t scare Arwen

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.

Look how awesome we are
Look how awesome we are

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.

Go Arwie go
These are our cross-country faces. Much happiness.

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.

CROSS COUNTRYYYYYYYY
CROSS COUNTRYYYYYYYY

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.

Eyes on the prize
Eyes on the prize

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.

Arwen5

Kindred Spirit

Magic8

Last week Sunday, Magic and I had our second attempt at a show, by a miracle.

We did not exactly have the best ever preparation for it. Don’t get me wrong – he’d been a superstar all week. Still piling riser pads and extra numnahs under my Kent and Masters and riding him in that, I was sticking to Magic’s back easily. He was jumping everything in sight willingly (albeit messily). He didn’t even get a skin reaction to the shampoo I used to bath him with, which was a definite improvement on last time. In fact all was going swimmingly right up until Saturday morning, when the Mutterer’s white gelding had a refusal so embarrassingly random that facepalming just wasn’t enough; I facepoled instead. When I got up I thought I’d broken my face, but I got away with a bloody nose and scuff marks all over my face and left shoulder.

My face is messed up. Magic's trying not to make me look bad by messing his face up, too.
My face is messed up. Magic’s trying not to make me look bad by messing his face up, too.

Once I’d ascertained that neither horse nor rider had been hurt, my first thought was for my confidence at the show. As we all know, I’m already not the most confident when it comes to jumping Magic, and crashing headlong into a jump hadn’t been pleasant. But what was I to do – scratch? No. We walk by faith, and not by sight. So I girded up my loins and went forth, not without considerable trepidation.

As always, the King carried me through, and that gave me the strength to help carry Magic through. He loaded and travelled like a star and got off the horsebox looking calm enough. I hacked him around an empty and awesome dressage arena (MIRRORS. MUST HAVE MIRRORS), expected him to spook at the random emu that was wandering around, nearly jumped out of my skin when he spooked at a feed bin instead, and forgot all about yesterday. Partially because I was too busy reciting Psalm 23 to myself, and partially because I couldn’t stop staring at my gorgeous horse in the mirrors. Seriously, guys. MIRRORS.

All smiles
All smiles

He was stunning. Just a bit strong in the hand, maybe, but no disasters. No attempts to buck when I asked him for a canter – in fact, as usual, he felt better than normal because of the lovely arena surface. We headed up to the warmup arena and as we approached the first little cross-rail my stomach fell into my boots, but I planted my hands in his mane and locked my trembling legs around him and he jumped. No facepoling happened, so after that I was fine. We were both fine. In fact, we were both loving it. There was a 70cm vertical set up in the warmup and after a while we started jumping that as well, which was more fun and completely not terrifying.

Love this
Love this

Then it was time for our class and dear Rain, without whom horse shows would be rather more difficult, whisked us off to the jumping arena, wiped my boots and helpfully reminded me that the horse was supposed to accompany me over the jump instead of letting me take the leap solo.

I rode him into the arena and made an immediate beeline for the Scary Corner. It is apparently law that all show arenas must have a Scary Corner, which is usually in shade and used as a storage area for haphazard piles of jumping equipment and (heaven forbid) a groom waiting to pick the jumps back up. According to many horses, Scary Corners are the most terrifying black holes of this universe. It is unhelpful that Murphy’s Law dictates that the most frightening jump on course usually has to be jumped towards the aforementioned dreaded dragon lair. Magic, however, plodded past the Scary Corner at a free walk without turning a hair, dissipating a considerable amount of my nerves. He did startle a little at the speakers that were playing in the other corner of the arena, but then the bell rang and we were trotting through the start and Magic said, “CROSSRAILS I LOVE CROSSRAILS” and jumped everything with enthusiasm.

Because if you have perfect knees, use them at every opportunity
Because if you have perfect knees, use them at every opportunity

I used the strategy that seems to work best, for Magic; trot the first jump, legs on lightly, but try not to make too big of a fuss and keep the hands super soft. Only canter if he offers it; if we trot all the way round, no problems. Magic landed over the first 40cm cross in the canter so I let him cruise around at a ploddy dressage canter, popping over everything bravely, sort of schooling him as I made him bend the right way and stay on the right lead because he was confident and attentive. We weren’t quick, but we were straight, accurate, enthusiastic, and forward. I’ll take it.

The classes were very small and the jumps inviting, so there were few mishaps and not a lot of time to hang out between rounds. I shot down to the warmup to scramble over a little oxer and some slightly bigger jumps (still real lead-rein fences, though) before going back up to the arena and starting on the slightly twisty 50cm course. I chose a shorter line to the second jump than most people, but it was an easy sort of circle line and the jump was an inviting little cross so the risk turned out not to be a risk at all and Magic had no trouble with it. He had a look at the sixth jump, which was an oxer, but I talked to him and kept my legs on and over he went. We were resoundingly clear, so we went through to the jump-off.

Watching the rider before our turn and re-memorising the course. Both of us.
Watching the first rider in the class and re-memorising the course. He was dead focused on them as well.

Immediately, the first jump became a little oxer and my blood pressure went up for no reason other than that I suck at oxers and I suck at jump-offs and I was terrified we were going to stop so obviously as Magic reached it he realised that I was terrified, so he stopped. Luckily, I didn’t fall off, but unluckily he sort of staggered forward and fell/walked through the jump, demolishing it. One of the poles must have rapped his leg a little because he threw his head in the air and screamed that all four his legs were irreparably broken. One of the ground crew cried, “Oh no! Jump off – your horse is dead lame!”

I have probably forever written my name amongst the animal abusers in that particular stable’s history books, because I said, “Oh, he’s just a drama queen” and walked him in a little circle until he took a deep breath and the jump had been rebuilt, when I asked him for a trot and he was as sound as a brass bell. (The foot wasn’t even swollen the next morning, don’t worry.) I was timid, so he stopped again and we were eliminated (do two stops at one jump count as an elimination?), but they very kindly allowed us to finish the course and took away the back bar of the oxer to make it a bit more inviting. At which point I relaxed, so Magic relaxed and we cantered around the course without batting an eyelid.

I was extremely proud of Magic for recovering from our mistake. Six months ago he would have had a total meltdown and we would have been fighting to get over trotting poles for the next week. But as soon as that particular oxer was behind him, he left it in the past, looked up at the next jump and charged. For that reason, I was happy not to scratch from the 60cm.

The speaker in front of him was playing One Direction, which he loves
The speaker in front of him was playing One Direction, which he loves

It turns out that it was a good choice. The first jump was the dread oxer we had crashed through, but I planted my hands in the mane and said “The Lord is my Shepherd!” as we approached it and he jumped it like it was the Hickstead Derby. We went clear, resoundingly and perfectly clear as I didn’t have to kick once; he took me to the jumps, snorting in glee and thoroughly enjoying himself. We were absolutely dead last since it was a speed and precision class and we cantered around like it was a Sunday hack, but I fell on his neck hugging him as we left the arena. I couldn’t have been happier.

Dear, daft, amazing Magic. We fight the same battles, him and I – so many of our fears and weaknesses are the same. How blessed am I to stand before nearly sixteen hands of dapple-grey grace and fire and power, and to see in his eyes a kindred spirit. Glory to the King.

<3

Gethsemane

I shouldn’t be afraid.

Because God gives us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind. Because perfect love casteth out fear. Because fear not, neither be afraid, for I am with you, saith the Lord. Because of the still, small voice that whispers, “Be of good courage, dear one.”

I don’t want to be afraid.

Because I have something better than fear in me. Because I have no real reason to be scared. Because I have a higher calling, and fear is an obstacle in the pursuing of that calling.

I can’t afford to be afraid.

Because I am a child of God. Because to live a pure and holy life is to be fearless. Because fear is not of Him.

I am afraid.

Because when I was twelve years old I thought I was invincible and I tried to break in a stallion thinking it would be a walk in the park. I did it, too. I mean, he was rideable, eventually. But he scared seven kinds of snot out of me in the process. The physical pain was minor and healed in days; the mental scars linger many years later. He was the first horse that truly frightened me beyond the standard beginner nervousness and he drove me to tears more times than I can remember. And I failed him. I failed him, I failed his breeder, I failed his owner, I failed my trainer, I failed my God, I even failed the person I sold him to because I sold them a horse that I could have made better than I did. I could have, if my hands would just stop shaking so hard I could barely hold the reins.

Even years later, I’ve always been haunted by the memory of that black stallion. If I had him today, he would be doing dressage shows. He didn’t even do standard stallion misbehaviours – he just did standard young horse misbehaviours. If I had him today I could school him in eight weeks. Because today I am stronger, better balanced, more experienced; I would have pulled up his head and given him a whack and he would have cut it out.

At least, if I had no confidence issues, that’s what I would do. Currently, there are certain horses – always the ones that remind me of him – that turn my usual cool, calm professional self into a trembling beginner. I can’t handle them. It’s like I instantly forget what I know about horses.

I fight so hard.

I try every trick I know; I breathe deep through my diaphragm, I use a firm tone of voice, I force myself as much as I can not to use jerky movements, I wear a helmet even on the ground to make myself feel safer, I force myself through my comfort zone as hard as I can, every single time. Every. Single. Time. I push until I break down and freeze and in that moment those horses know they’ve got me, know that their leader does not have the confidence to lead them, know instinctively that they have to dominate me or die because in a horse’s mind that is how it works. Only the strongest ones lead. So they walk all over me, and learn nothing, and I fail.

Over and over again.

I am afraid.

I fail.

And that’s okay.

Because God, Who is the only One that really counts, knows everything that goes on inside me in those times. He knows how hard I try. He knows the shame I feel. He hears the desperate prayers. He knows – and how true, how true it is – that the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. And that is how my God saved the world; with weak flesh, and willing spirit. Sweating blood and weeping tears. Broken. Crying. Too afraid to be alone.

He knows what it feels like, even better than I do.

There will be no fire-and-lightning miracle. There will be no sudden change, no roaring spirit suddenly bursting loose inside me and banishing all fear forever. There will be no overnight makeovers of my soul. But day after day, millenium after millenium, into all eternity, there will be the God Who knows what fear is, Who has felt it, Who has irrevocably and utterly and triumphantly conquered it. For it was that same willing spirit with the weak flesh that went as a lamb to the slaughter and saved the world forever.

So I walk hand in hand with the King of Kings. One day at a time. No more pushing until I break. No more pride. No more peer pressure. Just the King and I, and His marvellous, deadly, heart-changing creature, the horse. One session at a time. One positive experience at a time. His arms around me, His encouragement, His eternal love. For He knows – He knows, He believes – that the spirit indeed is willing. And if the flesh be weak, let it be weak; for His strength is made perfect in my weakness.

If this is Gethsemane, then it is not long before the great conquering. There will be no giving up. Glory to the King.

2015: The Year Ahead

Last year was long, interesting, busy, and a most tremendous learning curve. I made my fair share of mistakes and had a few nasty little failures, but I find myself better, stronger, and nearer to God than when it began, so I shall file it firmly under “Success”.

The horses also did quite awesomely this year, so without further ado, the 2014 goals wrap-up and the setting of our goals for 2015.

Skye’s the Limit. In 2014 I wrote: “Skye’s goals: Stay healthy; get fit; get a Western saddle.” A Western saddle we sure have, but arthritis has ended any prospect of getting fit last year or this one, or possibly for many years to come. She is, however, very healthy and happy as long as we keep up our bi-weekly walking hacks.

Currently she is still quite happy to carry me around on her back, but I’ve also found that having Exavior to babysit has given her a new lease on life. Once I’m breeding horses, I think her job will be the weanling mommy.

Skye’s goals: Prevent the progression of her arthritis, stay healthy and happy, attempt not to get too fat. Also learn to be ponied off another horse.

Skye1

Thunderbird. His 2014 goals: This year, I’d like to spend some time working on Thunder’s physical strength, since he is old enough to handle heavier work now. Lungeing in side reins to build his loin muscles in balance, particularly in canter, will help. I would like him to lope slowly and on the correct lead (using simple lead changes for now), understand the basics of neck-reining at all three gaits, learn to stand squarely, and turn on the haunches by the end of the year. Outrides should also still be done at least once a week; I would like him to go out consistently without bolting, alone and in company, by the end of the year.

Once again, Baby Thun has made a spectacular success of his goals – for the second year running (there should be some kind of award for that).

Physical strength: Well, check. He put on a massive growth spurt at the beginning of the year and looked like a clothes hanger, but for the past few months he has bulked out at an alarming rate. Moving him to a kikuyu pasture also helped. He now looks like a rather nice Welsh cob; he has a nice round butt, a fairly good neck and his loins have filled out so that back flows smoothly into bottom. He looks like a grownup horse now.

Schooling: Check, check, check. His lope is nothing to write home about but he doesn’t tear around like a baby anymore, he goes on the right lead, he neck-reins at all three gaits, stands squarely and turns on the haunches. He also turns on the forehand, sidepasses at a walk and jog, reins back well and kind of sliding stops. Well, kind of.

Outrides: Check. He’s fine both alone and in company and does not, as a rule, bolt except when severely frightened, which is true for most horses. He can still be a bit on the spooky side but that will just take time to go away.

2015 will be Thun’s third year under saddle and it’s time for him to learn some more advanced things, as a firm foundation has been well laid.

Physical: Now that we have muscle, we can add some fitness. Long-distance riding will do the trick.

On the ground: We do need to work on his ability to give you personal space. He isn’t bad about it until he forgets and stands on top of you like an idiot, but he needs to be sharply reminded every time he does that. He also needs a bath or two because he can be a bit jumpy about the hosepipe.

Schooling: Start to work towards real reining movements. Improve on the spins, introduce flying changes, continue to practice sliding stops and rein backs, introduce rollbacks.

Outrides: He now has good manners on a hack, and the only thing to solve his spookiness is going to be many, many trail miles. Ride out as much as possible for as long distances as possible, show him new things and challenge him until he gets more comfortable on hacks.

To conclude: Fix the personal space thing and the hosepipe thing; introduce flying changes and rollbacks; improve on sliding stops, spins and rein backs; log as many trail miles as possible.

Thunder3

Arwen Evenstar. In 2014: I would like to get her on the show circuit more regularly and to raise the bar slightly to be jumping around 80cm competitively by the end of the year. I would also like to enter her in a few dressage shows and see how she does, starting with the Preliminary tests, they don’t look that hard. At home, she can learn to jump 1.10m consistently. Her canter, whilst good, needs some work; she must learn flying changes. I want her to improve her frame so that she is going in a good outline with her nose in by the end of the year. She must also learn to do all her lateral movements, which she does well in a walk, in trot (starting with shoulder-in and then travers and half-pass). She must also be able to extend and collect her trot.

Arwen did not do badly at all. Showing was a definite win (har, har, har), having attended seven outings. Though only two of these were shows, she gave no major issues at any of them barring three stops she had when I entered her in a jumping round that was rather too big at the time. Dressage with a success as we won our Prelim test with over 60%. Jumping I would also call a success; she is okay over 1.10m although I have to baby her somewhat, and comfortable at 1.00m. Given that 1.10m is very close to her physical limit, I’m happy to be a little lenient about it. Her canter has improved, but flying changes are unfortunately nonexistent. Her frame is very close to being where I want it; she keeps it at all three gaits but can lose it occasionally in transitions. Her lateral movements are up to scratch and we are developing a nice medium trot. I would call her competitive at Novice, schooling Elementary; I was hoping to school Elementary Medium, and we would have, but for the changes.

Long-term, I don’t ever see myself showing Arwen in eventing at anything bigger than 90-95cm. She can jump 1.10m if she has to (well, she can jump 1.40m if she feels like it, albeit riderless), but I see no point in forcing her right to the limit of her ability. She is also rather too small to be competitive at 1.00m or bigger because she just doesn’t have the big stride to cover ground fast enough. I’m completely cool with that, so all I want her to do with her life is go to EV90 with me, go as far in dressage as she can (she still has quite a long way before she reaches her limit there; I think she could go Medium or even Advanced with many years of training), do a spot of showing and then become a school pony in a million.

For this year, though:

Physical: I would like to see a bit more muscling at the base of her neck. Currently, she is also extremely fat, having had two weeks off, so we need to get fit. Because she is so little she will need to be extraordinarily fit to be competitive, so fitness is a huge priority.

On the ground: Nada. She loads, she clips, she ties up, she does anything I want. She doesn’t like having her legs clipped but we could do it if we drugged her (and if we wanted to).

Schooling: Develop collected trot, extended walk, medium trot and canter. Raise the forehand into an uphill balance. Improve leg-yield and shoulder-in. Introduce flying changes. In other words, be competitive at Elementary and schooling Elementary Medium by the end of the year.

Jumping: Stay consistent at 1.00m at home. Introduce more technically difficult and visually daunting obstacles. Work on her water complex problem.

Competitions: Show in at least one graded EV70 event.

To conclude: Get her fit; build her neck; school Elementary Medium; introduce scary jumps; fix the water problem; show graded in EV70.

Arwen1

Magical Flight. In 2014: To wrap it up, this year Magic must go to his first shows, and learn to make calm transitions between gaits, leg-yield in walk, start flying changes, and build correct muscle tone. I also want him jumping 1.10m.

Magic and I had such a wonderful, turbulent year during which we both learned so much about each other that goals seem pitiful things compared to how far we came. That’s not to say that we met them all. Oh, no. I wanted him solid at 1.10m by the end of the year and we are rather tremulous at 80cm. But his flatwork improved by miles. His transitions are good, his leg-yield in walk is good, and his muscle tone is awesome. He could do with some more neck, but I’m not too fussed about it. Flying changes aren’t a thing, sadly, but his first show was a resounding success.

Physical: Time to drill fitness into this monster. He has the muscles he needs for jumping and eventing, but he wouldn’t know hillwork if you hit him with it. Of course, first we need to fix the outride problem, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I would like him to be fit enough to jump 80-90cm courses easily by the end of the year.

On the ground: Tying up is a major issue of his, so work can begin on that. He also needs to load properly with only one person. Clipping is a nightmare we don’t have to deal with this year.

Schooling: Have his teeth done, then school him so that he is soft and correct in his beloved French link snaffle. Then introduce Novice work so that he is solid at Novice by the end of the year. He will need to learn trot leg-yields and trot and canter lengthenings, and improve on his simple changes until they become second nature. Introduce counter canter. Also, work on hacking out without trying to kill anyone, even if we can just potter around the block in a walk without dying by the end of the year.

Jumping: One word: Confidence. Be confident at 80cm even if that’s the highest we go this year. Build confidence over different types of jumps, improve on his technique, and learn to relax on him over fences.

Competition: For the first half of 2015 continue to do monthly training shows in dressage and jumping, taking it easy on the height. As soon as he is fine at 70cm at training shows, go graded in showjumping. Eventing can wait until outrides happen.

To conclude: Improve fitness, tie up, load, be competitive at Novice, survive a hack, be confident at 80cm, and go graded at 70cm showjumping once he is ready for it.

Magic5

Exavior. Last of all, my dearly beloved big chestnut colt. He had no goals in 2014 seeing as he was not mine and there was no possibility that he ever would become mine; and yet here he is, by the grace of God, my first warmblood. If only he’ll grow up sound… Thy will be done, my King.

Exavior turns two at the end of the year and his backing, depending on his legs, will commence either at the end of 2015 or in 2016. This is the year in which he learns to be an absolutely impeccable equine good citizen and to deal with everything that life among mankind may throw at him. He already knows what a halter is, respects personal space, ties up, stands perfectly still to be groomed and have his feet cleaned, allows himself to be blanketed, and stands more or less still for the Mutterer to do his hooves. Now for more advanced citizenship.

  • Advanced halter training: leading on a slack rope, trotting up in hand, standing squarely, understanding of pressure and release (yielding the shoulder, yielding the hindquarters)
  • Leading over, through and under scary things and away from his group
  • Bathing
  • Desensitisation to noise and sight: first a numnah, then plastic bags
  • Loading preparation: leading in a narrow passage, under a roof and over a noisy surface
  • Loading. This one will be difficult, but if he will load with the help of two people and/or a lunge rein by the year’s end, I’ll be satisfied.
  • Injections; use a trick I learned with a syringe, a rubber band and a treat
  • Be gelded
  • Lowering of the head when requested. This is usually not on the to-do list, but he is going to be 17hh and I’m never going to be over 5′ 4″, so I want him to put his nose on the floor when I ask for it
  • Basic lunging with a halter and long line only
  • Wearing a roller
  • Lunging over poles
  • Wearing boots
  • Clipping. I don’t intend to give him a full clip, but we can lay down the foundation by having him stand still while the clippers are rested gently on his body

Exavior1

Yours truly. I must get into the habit of riding with a proper upper body: eyes looking between the horse’s ears with chin up, hands a fist’s breadth above and in front of the pommel, thumbs turned up, elbows relaxed by my sides with upper arms hanging almost straight. I must learn not to balance on my hands, but to push them forward and allow the horse to stretch. Oh, and I can stop doing that funky poke-one-toe-out thing. And I must ride right up to every jump.. In Western: Ha! I don’t even know what a proper Western seat looks like. Fix this. Stop leaning forward and gripping with the knees in lope and halt from lope.

Jumping was a tremendous success. Well, kind of. I used to have super fixed, stiff hands, and now I have this enormous release where my fists end up almost between the ears. I think the horses prefer the epic release, though, so I’ll take it. I have more or less quit the habit of looking down and my elbows are much softer and my habit of fixing the hands to the withers has much improved. My Western seat has also improved, as I’ve learned to bend the elbow and raise the hand and relax into the saddle better.

Dressage: Turn the hands straight, so that the thumbs are on top, instead of having turned out cowboy hands. Keep the shoulders back. Soften the lower back. Lengthen the leg and bring the lower leg further back for better hip-heel alignment. Break the habit of dropping the inside shoulder and improve straightness.

Jumping: Strengthen and correct the lower leg to keep the heel down and prevent the leg from swinging back. Break the habit of slipping back towards the cantle during landing. Break the habit of resting the hands on the neck during landing. Break the habit of staring down into airy oxers.

RuachReed8

This year promises to be a very interesting one. I’m turning 18, for one, and have to get used to the idea of being practically a grownup. It’s also my last year of school (hopefully) and the year in which I can get a driver’s licence. I’m also on the brink of buying my first broodmare and showing in Horse of the Year for the first time. I could also ride in graded shows for the first time, and since I plan to qualify as an instructor in 2016 I have to get my facilities up to scratch for a riding school this year.

To wrap up this Epic Novel of a blog post (sorry guys… this one was more for my benefit than anyone else’s), my prayer for 2015.

My King, I set goals, I work hard and I dream dreams. But no amount of my sweat or planning can ever achieve anything alone. I can hardly be trusted even to set the right goals, even for my horses. Lord Jesus, this year belongs to You. Everything in me and about me and around me I lay down at Your feet. Do with it what You will, for Your will is pure and just and perfect. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, O King. Let me draw nearer to You than ever before. Hold me close, carry me through, and be with everybody that I love, my King. Let everything I am and do glorify Your amazing name and let me decrease so that You may increase. I await the day of Your coming. Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. In Jesus’s beloved Name, amen.

Warhorses of Today

What is a knight without his destrier? From the stocky ponies that carried Khan to the world he would conquer, to the brave thoroughbreds that served and died in their millions in World War I, horses have long carried mankind in and out of battles. Some of them have become legends in their own right: names like Bucephalus, Copenhagen, and Babeica have rung down through history for centuries.

It’s commonly thought that the dynasty of the warhorse ended in the First World War, replaced by armoured tanks and battle planes that did not need to be fed and would not bleed or die. But there are many of us living in the twenty-first century who know otherwise.

The famous warhorses are all long gone, but the spirit of the destrier lives on. Occasionally one comes across a horse that has a little more fire, a little more determination, a little more courage. These seldom come clothed in shiny coats or great talent; often they are the scruffy underdogs of the equine world with crooked legs and Roman noses. But there is something in them that makes us stronger, and these have the power to change our lives.

You see, though few of us still lift guns or sabres, we all have battles in our lives. Life itself, on this Earth, is a war through which we strive, battered and bloodied, sometimes triumphant, sometimes retreating; we have glorious victories and ignominious retreats; we all have something to fight for, a banner that we rally around when we can see it through the smoke of the cannons. And often our greatest enemies are ourselves. But some of us – a privileged handful – have a powerful ally in the battles of life. A steadfast friend that has our back in the toughest fight. A reassuring curve of muscle in the circle of our arms when we feel most alone.

A warhorse.

I don’t call my old, gold mare “charger” just for the sake of old times when we played at fairytales. For centuries, horses have borne mankind in and out of the fray. And today, in the dark wars of our souls, there are still valiant steeds that gallop into battle, bear us through the fight and, at last, bring us safely home.

Thank You God for the warhorses of today.

Skye2

What Are You Waiting For?

You know you gotta give it your all

And don’t you be afraid if you fall

You’re only livin’ once so tell me

What are you, what are you waiting for?

~ Nickelback, “What Are You Waiting For?”

I’m not usually one for mainstream music, but this song grabbed me the first time I heard it on the radio driving home from the horses. It’s something that’s pretty close to my heart, especially when I look at my generation, a generation of silent, square-eyed teenagers.

It’s what I want to ask them: What are you waiting for?

I see you walking blank-eyed through the mall, showing up at riding lessons chewing gum and looking bored, hear you on the rare occasions when I visit with a group of you, saying you don’t want to grow up. Saying you’re the victims of the world, of ADHD, of hormones, of your age, of circumstance, of time, of the school system, of the government, of depression. I have long since learned not to talk to most of you about my life, because I have a pickup and a bank account and a herd of horses and clients, and I can see you turning green with jealousy no matter how hard you try to hide it. How can I blame you? You feel like you’re sinking in a swirl of paperwork and long medical terms, scrambling to keep up, losing sleep over school assignments that you pretend not to care about even while you worry about them behind those careless eyes. Apathy, boredom, fear, and eventually despair has eaten you up so much that you now feel you’re just one more statistic, another depression case, another eating disorder. Now you’re a zombie, walking sightless through the world towards a mediocre job and a disintegrating family. At least, that’s how you feel. And then you turn around and here I am, this crazy lucky chick with a career at 17 and perfect parents and this wonderful, perfect life.

Here’s the news flash: This life didn’t just fall into my lap. Of course, I have been blessed with amazing circumstances, with the right people, the right opportunities. But so have you. If you would look up and open your eyes and blow on the spark that remains inside you and reach for the light, you’ll find that you are just as blessed as I am. God loves us all the same; more than words can express, more than we can imagine.

I took lessons for about four or five years before I sat on a client horse, and I rode for free for another two years before I got paid a cent. I had one mare with pigeon toes and a filly so narrow you could have used her as an ironing board. It took years of blood and sweat and dirt and tears, pain and exhaustion and hope, to start earning what I earn now and to own better horses. It’s the clients who watched me cling to their crossbreeds that now let me ride imported warmbloods. It has taken me five years to train a horse to a level where it can actually compete, and right now we’re doing training shows.

Here’s the bad news: Chasing dreams isn’t always fun and it’s never easy. Sometimes you think that your dream is going to kill you. To accomplish what you want, to have the life you dream of, you have to get up off your butt, put down your phone, shake off the excuses and do whatever you have to do to get it done. Enough with the excuses. There will always be excuses, always. The excuses will not ever go away. The only thing that can change is your attitude, because one day, if you really want to achieve that dream, you have to be better than excuses. You have to rise above the stereotypes and ignore the condescending words of everyone who doesn’t believe in you. You have to be stronger, wiser, tougher, braver. And no other human being can ever take the blame or do it for you.

Here’s the good news: The whole world may be telling you that you can do nothing, but God Himself believes in you. Everything I’ve done? It hasn’t been me doing it. It has been Christ in me. Without Him, I would have quit long ago. He sent the right people and the right horses and the right opportunities at the right times for me, but it was also Him inside me that enabled me to step out there and grab hold of my opportunities with both hands. God is bigger than any stereotype, excuse, hormone, person, disorder, illness or circumstance. He is the LORD, God Almighty, the Lord of hosts, Creator of the Universe, Alpha and Omega, and He is on your side. You are not a victim. You are more than a conqueror through Him who loves you.

All you have to do is hold out your hand and let Him take it; all you have to do is decrease, so that He may increase. And then He will accomplish greater and more mighty things in you than you have ever dreamed of. Let Him dream for you.

You have God on your side. So what are you waiting for? Reach for the top. Give it your all. You’re only living once, so tell me: What are you waiting for?

 

Why Ride?

Clients closing their stables for the holidays + ALL my horses having downtime due to AHS = very little riding for this Horse Mutterer’s apprentice. In fact, I am down to one poor little grey horse to ride; the Mutterer’s white gelding. Luckily, he is a pleasant ride and can jump and do outrides, so I’m able to keep sort of in practice, but I’m down from 4-6 hours of saddle time daily to that many hours a week.

I’m in no position to complain – 6 hours a week? I know people who would kill for that much – so I won’t complain, I’ll rejoice. I’ll rejoice because my job is so awesome that I spend the holidays in eager anticipation of starting work again.

That brings me to a question that stops me in my tracks a little: Why do I ride?

Just last week, a big stallion took violent objection to the fact that his girth was pinching him and after the third rear in as many split seconds, I ate dust. I rolled, spat out some arena surface, fixed the girth, convinced the Mutterer that I was fine, and got back on. Why, though? When half a ton of animal sends you flying, why get back on?

Why do we even do this crazy sport? Life is dangerous enough without large flight animals in it. I have been kicked, trodden on, bitten, thrown, struck, knocked over, dragged, and squashed more times than I care to remember. I come home with aching muscles and a brain so fried that I’m asleep by eight-fifteen. Instead of soft lady’s hands, I have rough, calloused fingers and scars on my knuckles. Instead of attractive curves, I have ridiculous biceps, skinny calves and forearms like a man’s. I don’t go out on Sundays because I’m showing; I study in the dark so that I can ride in the light.

I would never have it any other way.

Why, though? Why is it that every time I’m thrown, I do everything I can to swallow the fear and throw my leg back over that animal’s rump and try again? Why do I want to spend my life baking in a dusty arena with my sweat trickling down to mix with the perspiration of the half-ton animal that chooses to work for me? Or breaking ice on water troughs on mornings so frigid even the dogs stay under the covers and think me mad?

Is it the sense of achievement when we finally get something right? The flash of satin on the rare occasions when we actually place? Or the surge of power when a gigantic animal breaks into a full gallop underneath me? Or the star-touching moment in midair over a triple bar? Or the glorious yielding, dancing balance as we perfect a half-pass?

No, it isn’t any of those.

What, then? The way a horse shines in the sun? The way he smells, the creak of leather, the swish of his mane and the grace of his rippling muscles as he bears down the long side of the arena like an approaching tsunami? The unbelievable, dragonfly lightness with which he lifts his muscular bulk into an effortless leap over that gigantic fence?

No, none of those, either.

Shall we delve deeper? Is it that nameless and indescribable thing that the equine heart does to the human soul? Is it the communication that runs deeper than language? The partnership between thinking human and moving beast? The threefold cord of God, human and horse that seems, for those star-touching moments, unbreakable? The wonder of an interspecies friendship that has understanding without words, love without expression and acceptance without comprehension?

Not even that. Oh, those are all what I love most about riding. But they’re not why I ride. In fact, the short answer to the question “Why do you ride?” is this one: I can’t say.

The long answer is this: I ride for reasons there are no words to explain. I ride because when jeans meet saddle, heart meets heaven. I ride because the rhythm of a horse’s gaits beats in my heart, because the flow of his movement runs in my blood. I ride because in the silent communion of girl and horse, I feel the wordless love between God and girl. I ride because I feel I was born to, like I am fulfilling His timeless will every time I take up the reins. I ride because I cannot imagine not riding. I ride because not even the hardest day’s riding is harder than not riding. I ride because although I could die each time I get on, I know that part of me will die forever if I don’t get on again. I ride because, though I know God made me for a higher purpose, He also made me a horsewoman. I ride because when I fall, no matter how scared I am, the idea of not getting back on is inconceivable, because walking away is not an option. I ride because mounting up is coming home.

I ride for the glory of the King.

Magic8

Jump All the Things!

EXAMS ARE OVER!!!

So. Happy.

Anyway…

I had originally entered Arwen into a cross-training show last weekend, but it ended up being cancelled and cross-country lessons being held at the same venue instead. I was not terribly upset about this because I was really excited to have a lesson from this instructor, who was the chef d’ equipe for South Africa’s eventing team at WEG this year and has been at the top of SA eventing for many years.

The lesson ended up being totally awesome. Arwen loaded, travelled, and behaved like a superstar. She didn’t kick anybody at all, and we both got along well with the instructor; he was knowledgeable, punctual and patient, and has a teaching voice that I would kill for. (Seriously, how do you get your voice to carry all the way across a giant arena without actually shouting?). We warmed up with some showjumps first, which was slightly hairy because Arwen is much more afraid of showjumps than of cross-country, but actually went well. She did have one little stop at the dumbest tiny cross ever, but there was a puddle behind it and I wasn’t there to support her with my leg, so I won’t hold it against her.

She had one moment of absolute awesomeness as we were following the horse in front of us through a gymnastic line. I fear and hate gymnastic jumping and as such have never really tried it properly, so of course neither has she. To my horror, halfway through the line I realised that the jumps in front of us were not a one-stride combination, they were a bounce. I have never tried to jump a bounce, and this one was around 60cm so it wasn’t like we could trot our way through it, so I sat there panicking a bit and Arwen was all “I got this, human” and popped through it perfectly. Gotta love little tough grey mares.

The cross-country was also good; a little more challenging than we’ve tried before, including a dyke, a hanging log, some creepy black barrels under a tree, and a little bank down into the water. She bucked like a lunatic a few times, of course, out of enjoyment; but she was as brave as the day and jumped everything fearlessly. The only jump I really had to kick her at was a big black solid oxer that made my heart stand still, and she cleared it with flying colours in the end. The dyke was by far the hardest to ride, but we did it several times with great success. She was a little looky about the water, but as soon as she had followed the experienced pony through it once, she was fine even about jumping down into it. (Awesomest sound ever: the splash when you jump into water. So much fun).

She was a tired pony by the end of the lesson, but I learned a lot and we both had a wonderful time. Cross-country is the best! I hope I’ll have pictures soon, but for now all you get is boring old words.

The others have gone through a slight tough patch, mostly a combination of cold wet weather and moving paddocks with all the new horses arriving. I split them into three groups with Arwen, Thunder and Flare in one group; Magic, Exavior and Skye in the other; and the old donkey Benjamin keeping the Mutterer’s white horse company. Skye’s herd have formed a tight-knit little family. Skye is, of course, the Queen with Magic being her first knight. He has gotten a real confidence boost from being second-in-command. He is kind to Exavior and doesn’t bully him, but he carries himself with a bit more assurance now that he’s not the underdog anymore. Exavior, being the youngest, is the little prince and Magic’s playmate; Skye has also joyously adopted him. She treats him exactly as she treats Thunder, and whenever he’s nervous he runs to Skye and hides next to her because he’s the only one allowed in her majesty’s personal space. Skye has a new lease on life too, with her baby to be responsible for. Exavior also caught a cold; he’s had a bit of a runny nose since he arrived and I think the cold weather just brought out some kind of a virus in him. After having some needles and TLC pushed into into him, he seems 100% again now.

Never mind that he's exactly her height
Never mind that he’s exactly her height: 14.2hh

Arwen’s herd had a slightly harder time adjusting. Thunder has always been the underdog in the group, and I don’t think being Arwen’s beta suits him very well. In general the second-in-command seems responsible for protecting the lead mare, and poor Thunder is much too sweet and fragile to be any good at this. When Flare was introduced to the herd he tried his best to frighten her by pulling awful faces and trying to bite her without actually using his teeth; Flare, unimpressed, landed a couple of kicks on him and he was a bit sore for a few days. It’s so hard sometimes to let them be horses and take the knocks of group life, but he’s feeling all better now, so no harm has been done. I secretly hope that Flare eventually dominates Thunder and becomes Arwen’s bodyguard so that Thun can be the omega again, but it might be better to put him in Skye’s herd. He misses his mother, and the three boys would have a wonderful time together with Skye to put them in their places.

Thunder: Rawr! I'm fierce!
Thunder: Rawr! I’m fierce! Flare: Yeah, right

On the showjumping front, Magic and I have reached the level of confidence where I can start challenging him again. Not in terms of height – we’re not there yet – but in terms of technique. Graham Winn says, “It’s perfecting the small jumps that makes the big ones easy”, so I’m hoping all this fuss over crossrails will eventually pay off. We started by warming up over a tiny baby gymnastic line (three trotting poles to about a 70cm oxer) and then tried a little triple combination. I set it up at first as one really tiny crossrail to two ground poles just to give him a bit of warning first, because the last thing I wanted was for him to panic and crash through jumps. I had 13m between jumps and went in without worrying over strides the first time, just wanting him to stay calm and get the takeoff distances right. Once I could pick it up to three little crosses and he was still popping through without worrying, I started counting strides. He would fit in four or five, sometimes four in the first half and five in the second, sometimes vice versa. So first we tried cantering through with an equal number of strides between jumps to keep a rhythm. He was very nice about it and didn’t pull on my hands too much, and I kept him very quiet and fit in five nice steady little strides between jumps. Then I started to push him; first doing it in five strides, then coming back and trying for four. The first time I let him do the four strides he got really excited, finished the combination well, and then leapt into the air like a pogo stick with his front feet striking out the way he does when he’s playing. Obviously he was just enjoying himself, and I kept my balance, and it was thrilling, but I made him put his feet on the ground and behave like a grownup horsie. I don’t need him pulling out stunts like that all the time.

The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work...
The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work…

Once he’d gone nuts once, he seemed content to go through it nicely in however many strides I pleased a few times – minus a few mistakes when he thought three strides, I said four and we ended up running on air – and I was super proud of him. Even though we’re still jumping glorified ground poles, I think we have made progress. He had a few green moments today and did his little leap-in-the-air act, but I was able to stay relaxed and go through it again without losing confidence. He is also less of a wuss and was happy to try again without panicking. Little steps, but they’re in the right direction.

Glory to the King.