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.

Penbritte Training Show

Photos by Monica Delport

Last Sunday we towed Magic and Vastrap off to a show; Magic’s third, Vastrap’s first – as far as I know. Both had loaded fine; Magic did need Dad to stand behind him, but Vastrap pretty much loaded himself. The little dude sure learns quickly when carrots are involved.

As expected, both boys also travelled well (Magic appreciative of his quiet buddy) and were super calm at the showgrounds. It was a relatively big and busy show, with a vast and dauntingly fancy venue. These people are sure serious about their footing, which is nice when you’re on the footing and not so nice when you’re on the young horse that is afraid of tractors, hoses, sprinklers, water, etc. Magic nearly killed one of our guests (I do have a social life, I just drag friends to horse shows – free labour… they volunteered, don’t worry) flying back at the sight of a hose. He was all right with it once it stopped making noises, though.

Vastrap had been entered in the 20, 40, and 50cm classes, for my courage and for the sake of logistics. He held his head up in the warmup, but was his usual obedient and quiet self; he just drifted towards the gate quite badly, a horrible habit he picked up with his previous mounted-games-riding owners. (Mounted games are wonderful – but only when done correctly. Suffice it so say that Vastrap’s previous owners did not do it correctly). He also had a peek at the first ground pole we went over, but then calmly trotted over it as only Vastrap will do.

He was still fairly looky when we went into the 20cm, trotting with his head in the air as if waiting for me to hit him in the mouth, his previous owners’ speciality. For the first couple of jumps, he semi-stopped, looked, and clambered over. Then we came around the corner at jump number three, which was set on a four-stride line with number four, and suddenly his little ears went up. I almost saw the light bulb popping up above his head. Oh, so this is what we’re doing! Suddenly he floored it. Surprised, I clung on in bemusement as the jumps flew past with that game little pony taking me to every fence and only looking to me for steering. He was proud of himself and prancing with delight when we came over the finish with a clear round (well, how can you not get a clear round at 20cm?).

<3 Nooitie faces
❤ Nooitie faces

Mom was grinning all over her face, probably as proud of Vastrap as Karen Swann was of Adventure de Kannan when he won the Hickstead. She snuggled his face, which he never lets me do, while I hopped off and gave him a break. Magic was eating hay and staring at things, but looked very settled.

For the 40cm I returned to the warmup to find it a complete war zone. 40cm is the height where kids actually have to warm up their ponies, or at least jog around whilst clucking loudly and upsetting my cluck-happy horses. It’s also the height where people with really insane thoroughbreds have a go, especially polo horses. I’ve always thought Magic was pretty stupid about things but he’s an old hack horse compared to some of the lunatics I’ve seen in warmup rings, and I have total sympathy. I have no desire to be riding one of those in a busy warmup and I’m sure I shall find myself in that position sometime. Vastrap and I dodged a gelding that was spinning around and around, a mare who was neighing and staring at things with her eyes bugging out, and a pony that kept pinning its ears at us and tried to jump some things past all the loose instructors. Luckily, Vastrap is a Nooitgedachter and Nooitgedachters are wonderful, so he just went about his job with a workaday air and soon we could go back to work.

ZOOM!
ZOOM!

The courses were really beautiful; well designed, and with the most gorgeous jumps. One was a beautiful, enormous blue butterfly jump that nearly killed several of us, but they were sensible jumps; big colourful wings, almost no filler. Like the jumps at the upper levels – they’re nowhere near as big on filler as some of the training shows I’ve seen. I liked them (and they made for awesome photos). Vastrap wriggled a bit at the butterfly jump but apart from that he was Mr. Zoomy again, charging around with every sign of confidence and enjoyment. He went fast and clear; I was extremely proud of him.

<3

After that class I got on Magic to start warming him up for the 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm. He likes a long warmup. I think his brain is connected to his legs; when they work, it works. I hacked him quietly around the arena on a loose rein and he was looking around but not fussing, pulling or spooking. He was very forward in the trot but didn’t rush around in the canter; as usual he overjumped the first cross a bit, then took everything else a bit more sensibly.

Due to the well-organised stewards calling people to the gate, I was able to time my warmups nicely. I got on Vastrap again just in time to pop over a couple of fences, then go down and zoom effortlessly through our course. Then back up onto Magic, coming down to the main arena just as the rider before us went in, so that I didn’t have to make him stand. He worries about things when he stands still for too long. He was also spooky and looking around the arena as we made our way to the start, and again spooky to the first couple of jumps, but he didn’t actually ever offer to stop. Once he’d cleared a few we both relaxed and he hit his stride and loped around without any trouble at all. He did go down to a trot and wriggle a bit at the butterfly jump, but happily popped over anyway once we got there.

IT'S THE GRAND PRIX MUST LEAP (because if you've got it, flaunt it!)
IT’S THE GRAND PRIX MUST LEAP (because if you’ve got it, flaunt it!)

I was pleased with my two clear rounds right up until I realised that now I had two horses in the jump-off with only three or four others between us. With the help of parents, sister, and friends, we did it somehow though. Vastrap was blisteringly fast but took a disappointing rail on one of the most unspooky jumps on the whole course. I didn’t feel like I had gotten him that sucky a distance; my theory is that by then he was a little tired and not taking the tiny fences seriously anymore, so he just kind of went to sleep in the air and didn’t pick up his hindlegs quick enough. No worries though – being bored by the jumps isn’t exactly a cardinal sin for a horse at his first show in years, if not his first show ever. He’s such a little trooper, that pony.

Our one perfect moment
Our one perfect moment

In contrast, Magic was slooow but careful and clear; I was disappointed with myself because I was hitting him in the mouth a bit on landing, not on purpose, but just because of sheer nerves. He jumped for me anyway, though. Honest as the day, that one. I left the 50cm ribbonless and resolved: next time was going to be better.

It was, in terms of my riding. I gave him my hands a little more, so he jumped a little better. We had a couple of really nice moments, especially through the two-stride combination (once I had finally figured out that this horse could actually get two strides in a two-stride unlike my ponies). We had one complete flop from two to three, which was a straight line of eight strides. I, still treading the fine line between not micromanaging and not riding, kind of left poor Magic to figure out the universe by himself and he had a baby moment and thought there was a stride where there wasn’t one so he kind of stopped and then, heroically, tried to jump anyway. When I saw the pictures afterwards I realised that when he semi stopped, his forefeet actually slid under the front bar of the oxer. By all the laws of nature the dude should have stopped but he didn’t. He snapped up his knees as quickly as he could and popped over with me clinging on for dear life, and while of course he took the front rail, he left the rest of it standing. Dear brave lunatic. (In the next class I gave him just a touch more leg and he remembered his mistake and put in eight nice big easy strides to pop effortlessly over the same fence, so that was kind of an epic win).

Yes we can fly
Yes we can fly

After the 60cm there was a wait of about 20 000 years for the next class. I spent the entire time wondering why oh why it was necessary to harrow and water the whole arena for a 70cm class… Anyway, I was by then thoroughly exhausted and my stomach was playing me up and Magic was picking up on my irritation and being a dweeb, neighing for Vastrap incessantly (even though he actually doesn’t like him much) and spooking at shadows. If I had more than one-half of a brain cell, I would have gotten on him and trotted him around for ten minutes to switch his brain back on. Unfortunately, as Emma‘s trainer so wisely said, experience is that thing you get right after you needed it. We now know for next time.

Okay so scope isn't a problem right now
Okay so scope isn’t a problem right now

Either way, when I tried to warm Magic up, I was riding an athletic ball of nerves. He napped towards Vastrap (Magic NEVER naps, EVER), shied violently at other horses in the warmup and overjumped like a complete maniac. When we rode down to the arena, he was wild. His tail was sticking straight up in the air and he was shying at things he’d been fine with before. Vastrap chose that moment to neigh and that only made it worse. The poor horse’s eyes were bugging out of his empty head. To his tremendous credit, though, he didn’t buck, rear, or bolt. He did exactly what I asked of him, with robotic, twitching movements and back muscles so tense they were like sitting on rocks. When the bell rang we were both terrified out of our skulls and we cantered sideways to the first jump with Magic’s head and tail stuck up in the air and me clinging to his mouth. He jumped in that awkward way that young thoroughbreds have, snatching his feet up as if the jump was red hot, flinging his face around in protest of my grip on the reins.

Magic10

When we landed I felt myself wobble in the saddle and I was scared solid; Magic was even more scared and we were about one-third of a second from absolute disaster. I hauled the poor horse down to a trot and what was left of my sanity told me I had two options: Either this was going to be a complete flop, or I was going to call in the big guns. So I screwed my eyes tight shut and prayed silently (I didn’t have any breath to pray aloud) “I can’t do this, I can’t do this but You can, Sir!”

The photographer caught this moment on camera. We shall call this picture "The Prayer"
The photographer caught this moment on camera. We shall call this picture “The Prayer”

It took three trot strides. By the far end of the third, the Lion of Judah roared in me. I sat down on Magic and gave him my hands and closed my legs around him ever so softly and he rippled forward into that perfect mighty canter only he has. The rest of the course was like a dream. For the first time all day I actually released on him and followed him with my body, abandoning the awkward defensive position and automatic half-releases, and for the first time all day we were a team working together instead of one poor valiant horse packing a passenger around. It was like flicking a light switch. Magic went boldly into my hands and kept his head quiet. If he felt he had a dodgy distance to a jump he did what he’s good at; lengthened his stride and tucked up his knees a bit tighter just in case. He did overjump a few things, not least the jump with filler in it (the crowd gasped most satisfyingly; I was flying, way beyond terror, and only felt the joy of the bursting-bubble feeling at the very apex of his leap), but he wasn’t afraid. He was going for it, ears locked forward, and I was coming with him.

Together <3
Together ❤

We were clear, by several feet in most cases, and I was just elated. We’d been on the very brink of a catastrophe, but we’d come through it and succeeded. It wasn’t very pretty, but we did it together. My beloved God, my amazing horse, and me.

Wings are for jumps, because we don't need them
Wings are for jumps, because we don’t need them

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