Meet the Starters

With Bruno and Lancelot being well started, nevertheless I haven’t run out of unbacked babies. I have a queue of starters waiting for me (two Appaloosas, an Arab, a rather interesting crossbred, a Welsh pony and Exavior himself – and those are just the ones actually at the yard) but I have only so many rides in me every week, so right now I’m working on two of the loveliest grey ladies in the world.

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This is Olive, our first draft at the yard. She is a bit of a crossbred but there is a whole lot of Percheron there, which makes her fluffy and huge with extra helpings of adorable. She arrived in June with only very basic work done – a bit of halter training and a lot of friendliness towards people – and has made good progress.

True to draft form, she is the sweetest thing on four legs, which has made her trainable despite not being the sharpest knife in the drawer. We started out with basic lunging, where she proved much more forward-going than I expected of such a big floof,

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and now we have moved on to the roller and desensitisation and pressure-release exercises and finally, weight. (Although I don’t think my mass compared to Olive’s can really be called “weight”.)

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As expected from a homebred, she was pretty cool about being desensitised and not bad about weight. It took a few sessions for her to stop mouthing the bit incessantly, but I finally reverted to an old trick I learned from the Mutterer (AKA king of starting youngsters) and just left her in the round pen with the bridle on for half an hour. With all her brainpower free to figure out this new question, she was relaxed about it by the time I returned and we haven’t had a hitch since.

The second starter is the drop-dead-gorgeous Quinni.

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Quinni is impeccably bred, with some of the best Nooitgedachter blood in history blended with her Anglo-Arab sire to create one of the nicest young horses I have ever seen. She is drool-worthy from her impressive size and conformation to her wonderful floatiness. Add in a dash of cuteness, a high IQ and a darling personality, and you have me sold.

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Sadly for me, although I am casually on the lookout for a fancy dressage horse, I am broke and Quinni is older than what I was looking for. Also, her owner is set on keeping her for a broodmare, a decision which I wildly applaud. Lots of baby Quinnis running around can only be a good thing.

This has not prohibited me from enjoying my time with her. We had a bit of a sticky start when she came down with a horrific acute biliary, but she’s a fighter and kicked that bug with a vengeance. I had started her on the lunge and popped a saddle on her at her breeder’s, so she bounced back quickly from her illness and waltzed through her groundwork without apparent effort. The horse is naturally balanced, intelligent, eager to please and sensitive – what more could you ask for? I was expecting a little fireworks when I sat on her the first time, as she does have that sensitive streak that can cause issues during starting, but I needn’t have worried. Her first three rides were among the easiest I have ever had on a baby.

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my face says it all

After getting thrown from Dirkie last year I truly thought it would be more than a year before I pulled myself together enough to get back on a baby, especially a bigger baby like these two. But of course, God is faithful and the power of Christ is in me.

And I had help.

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one of those ponies that I know I’ll never forget

What Really Matters

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

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

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

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adult riding for a living, losing at EV70

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

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

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

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

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

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Few weeks after coming home. Not a happy camper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nothing insecure here

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

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Floppy ears

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

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

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

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Even the crazy babies have happy ears

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

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

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

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Clifftop

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

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

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

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

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

What is there to stop me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thy will be done, my King.

Canter Progression Snaps

It’s so easy to feel completely stuck in a rut with Magic. Easy to look at how far we have to go instead of how far we’ve already come. To see how much more he can physically do, instead of how much he’s emotionally grown.

But these two pictures really struck me. The top one is from November 2014, at his first ever show. The bottom one is from the show in late May.

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6 months ago

The photographer caught this moment on camera. We shall call this picture "The Prayer"
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Obviously, the thing that really jumps out at me is his neck, because I have a thing for horse necks. In both pictures he has engaged his neck muscle, but in the bottom one he just has so much more of it. The dude actually has kind of a crest. It’s also easy to see why; while he’s going in a nice outline in both shots, in the top photo, you can see how strong of a contact I still have. I’m holding him there. In the bottom photo he’s holding himself up – his self carriage and muscles have developed together. The more he carries himself, the more he muscles up; and the more he muscles up the more he can carry himself.

The second thing is the balance; okay, so he is at different moments of his stride in both shots, but in the bottom photo he’s so much lighter in front. It’s also evident in my position. I don’t know if my position picks up his front or if his light forehand rocks me back into balance, but it’s still better. (It does help that in the second photo I’m in my beloved Kent and Masters instead of the horrible ancient starter kit saddle I used in the first shot).

We both look stronger throughout our bodies; you can see how much condition and muscle Magic has put on by how much further down his barrel my leg is in the first picture compared to the second. (Let’s try not to think about the fact that Exavior is destined to be almost two hands taller than Magic, and about how stupid I am going to look on him considering I look like a kid on Magic).

I have to admit that, much as I may feel like we’re going nowhere, Magic is a different horse. Not just in his body, and not as much in his training as I would like him to be or as he would be with somebody who was better at training competition horses than breaking in crossbred veld ponies for kids, but he has changed for the better. He’s still quirky, daft Magic, but he no longer believes that the whole world is out to get him.

“I’ve had him two years. I’ve gotten nowhere,” I told the Mutterer.

“Of course you have. Just think about it. How has he improved?”

I thought for a while. “Well… he’s not as much of a weed. His neck looks better. He’s muscled up.”

This did not impress the Mutterer. “Let me tell you what I see. I see a really nervous horse that… is still nervous.”

I glared. “Great. Thanks.”

“But now, he can work through the nervousness. He can face his fears and carry on because you taught him how. That’s a huge thing, quite aside from his physical appearance.”

I said nothing, but I got the feeling that it was important. More important, perhaps, to Magic anyway, than the height of jumps.

Lord Jesus, let me never forget that I ride my horse, not my discipline.

FMNMBH: Sweating Blood

Alyssa from Four Mares No Money asks: What has been the most fearful moment you have ever experienced with a horse?

Excellent question, and I have been pondering this subject all week and still can’t think of one specific incident. (My panic is more sort of drawn-out; it seems to like carrying on for months, albeit limited to a particular horse in a certain situation). There have been quite a few moments of absolute, dry-mouth, wet-pants kind of terror, those slow, cold moments when seconds crackle through frozen time and there’s ice in your very veins.

One of the worst ones was when Arwen gave my ex-boyfriend a rather nasty kick. I thought my heart had stopped; things got bloody. Luckily, there was no serious harm done, although he has a lifelong dent in his calf muscle to remember why dating a crazy horse chick wasn’t an awesome idea.

Then there was the time three or four years ago when I was still teaching and one of my students plopped off Skye. I had told him four thousand times not to pick his hands up going up a hill but what do I know? Of course, he picked his hands up and toppled off backwards; Skye trotted merrily off saying that she’d told him so and had no sympathy, and the poor child was totally winded and couldn’t move for several seconds. I thought I’d just killed my student. Luckily, once he got his breath back and I had screamed at him for a suitable period of time (just kidding) he was totally fine.

And who can forget the time Arwen threw Rain off and broke her collarbone? Yes, once my brave grey mare was a terrified two-year-old filly. Admittedly, we were riding in the dark, on a hack, bareback, with Arwen’s first foal at foot, and everyone was already on the freaked out side when the old dog ran under Arwen’s feet and she completely lost her mind. Poor little nine-year-old Rain landed straight on her collarbone and broke it. It mended flawlessly, except for a tiny bump in the bone that she likes to brag about, but it was still quite a panicky moment.

My own worst moments ever have usually involved stallions because I am terrible at them. Nothing like looking up at a pair of shod forefeet waving over your head. The time Achilles bucked me off onto my head was particularly nasty, but I think the rides after that – with the memory (or, rather, lack thereof) of the fall fresh in my mind – were much more frightening. Yet with the love of  the King, breath by breath, I’m working through it; for perfect love casts out fear.

Ah, and of course there was the time I was holding a Quarter Horse mare and the Mutterer was trimming her hooves. I know everyone loves Quarter Horses and they are sweet and docile and wonderful, but I have yet to find one that I truly get along with, possibly barring Chrome the little stallion. This mare was being somewhat cantankerous, which wasn’t a problem until she leapt backwards into another QH mare. The other mare kicked her, she leapt forward, I didn’t manage to stop her and she landed on the Mutterer’s foot, breaking it. Somehow it’s always so much worse when it’s an apparently invincible person that you look up to that gets hurt.

But I think the moment in which my heart sank the lowest in the shortest amount of time was one memorable incident a few months ago when two of my clients (one on a Friesian and one on Reed) and I went for a hack. I was riding a mare who has a bad past, but the two of us were getting along all right and I felt it was time to go for our first hack. I will admit to some trepidation when the client leading the outride decided to pick the route that led to an unfenced field near the main road, but figured that we’d just stick to a walk anyway and the mare had good brakes. Famous last words. We were just fine right up until we turned back. The Friesian broke into a trot; his rider, who had been struggling for months to get him more forward-going, delightedly let him trot faster and faster; my mare started to fret and I was just about to ask if we could walk when the Friesian suddenly realised that cantering was a thing and took off like a shot. Reed plunged joyously after him and my mare totally lost her mind. One moment we were trotting and the next all I could see was that familiar blur of mane, sky and ground that is the trademark of being bucked off. I redoubled my death grip on the reins and hit the burnt stubble shoulderblade first. I am ridiculously lucky in that I usually roll when I fall, but this time I only got halfway before the reins (which I was still clinging to) yanked me under the mare’s feet. I saw hooves come down in front of my face and decided to let go. When I got up, the Friesian and Reed were distant specks on the horizon, my mare was galloping across the tar road with her flapping stirrups making her wilder each minute, I was absolutely covered in soot and my day had just gotten a whole lot worse. As if the other two rapidly vanishing horses and riders weren’t enough, my mare was galloping down the main road with cars swishing heedlessly by, blind with panic. Seeing that catching the mare was going to be impossible on foot, I wandered after the other riders, trying to shout in a nonthreatening way so that they’d notice I was no longer with them.

By God’s grace, it all ended well. The mare finally got off the road and thundered along the verge all the way to her stable, miraculously not hurting herself or causing any accidents. The other two riders noticed my absence, managed to stop their horses and milled around in bewilderment wondering where my horse had vanished to. The farrier saw my mare gallop into the yard and (with commendable presence of mind) got in his car and charged off in the direction she’d come, so I didn’t have to walk quite all the way home. The Mutterer refrained from ripping my skin off for scaring him, although I think he was rather tempted, and made unhelpful comments about how terrible I looked while I tried to get the soot off myself.

The mare’s confidence has been entirely restored, as has mine, the soot washed out of my work shirt and I no longer ride with Friesians unless I have a quiet horse under me. But every time I head off towards the unfenced field, I am most helpfully reminded by everybody that the idea is not for my horse and I to come home individually.

Just Hanging On

Horse riding is a sport. An art. A passion. A career. It takes technique, it takes time, it takes talent. Balance, rhythm, deep breaths, impulsion, low heels, high hopes, the perfect distance, the perfect bend, the perfect seat, a draping leg, automatic release, just the right tack.

But sometimes, horse riding is just about hanging on.

Sit tall and deep. Elbows by your sides. More leg. Open chest. Closed fingers.

And sometimes, just hang on.

Sometimes, push your heel a little further down and tuck your lower leg a little further back. Relax the lower back a little more. Straighten the hands again. Focus between the ears.

And sometimes, just hang on.

Because when the muck heap hits the windmill, there’s nothing you can do except try not to fall off. Drop your heels if you can, grab mane if you need to, try to get him back under control but ultimately, just hang on. Franz Mairinger, coach of the gold-medal-winning Australian Olympic eventing team, said: “In an emergency I don’t care what you do, just don’t fall off.”

Just hang on.

Which is easy enough, when your horse has a moment and temporarily loses his mind and twenty seconds later it’s all over and you’re back to work. But many horses – dare I say most horses – go through a stage where their brains serially evaporate. Sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes for frustratingly unfixable reasons, horses can and do go through tough times in their training where they seem to regress dramatically and just become absolute lunatics overnight. Your normally safe, sound, wonderful creature loses it and broncs like a crazy beast every single ride for the next six weeks. His back, teeth, legs, brain, routine, feeding, grooming, tack, stomach, vision, and ear hairs for all we know are completely fine. Yet still he goes insane. Still he is not the horse he once was. Still he is leaping and flailing over jumps that he never used to mind and you can’t figure out why his confidence is gone. And wherever it went, your confidence is rapidly following.

But it’s going to be okay. Just hang on.

Give it time. It’s not going to be perfect tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Don’t try to make it perfect. Just try not to fall off. And if you do, just get back on again. Falling is part of it, blood is part of it, pain is part of it all; we don’t do easy, and that’s how we’ll get through it. Horses, just like people, lose their confidence sometimes for simple little reasons or perhaps no reason at all; they go through growth stages in their character. It happens and there are no quick fixes. All you can do is hang on and keep trying.

Just hang in there. Just hang on. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and once you’ve ridden all the way through the chaos and survived the sweat and the adrenaline and the dry-mouthed moments of absolute terror and the despair and the hopelessness, it will be so very worth it. Because you will be the one that clung fiercely to him when he couldn’t even keep a grip on himself. And then he will trust in you and he will fight for you, because you were there and you didn’t quit on him. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

I know I don’t.

I love you, crazy race monster
I love you, crazy race monster

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.

What We Sow, We Reap

One of the things I love most about horses is that you get back whatever you put in. If you love hard enough, a horse will eventually love you back. And if you work hard enough, with most horses, that hard work pays off in the end.

It wasn’t that fun to be plopping around over tiny cross-rails on a horse that I know could jump 1.50m if only he believed he could. Hours of drilling dressage in the sandbox was all the more frustrating for knowing that the horse under me could jump the socks off anything else I’d ever ridden. But neither of us were ready for anything more than that. So it’s been months of flatwork, groundwork, tiny jumps, little grids, nothing to challenge him, but to slowly bring him on step by step. And bit by bit, tiny jump by tiny jump, our confidence is building. I’m slowly, slowly learning to ride him. And with each good session, he’s starting to believe in himself as much as I believe in him.

When I heard that my favourite show venue was holding a small training show, I just had to enter him. It was made for him. The first three classes were 30cm, 40cm, and 50cm, and I knew that this venue generally doesn’t make difficult or scary courses for the smallest classes. So with a prayer in my pocket, I bit the bullet and we loaded up the grey lunatic and took him off to Springs. He loaded well enough – Dad just had to stand behind him and tell him to get up and with me at his head he walked right in – and was bone dry and calm when we arrived.

For various reasons, I had been a bit out of action for the past week and only managed to fit in two sessions for him. He was coming off a two-day rest, which is never good, and I was dreading having to lunge him in the parking lot. I detest it when people do that, but if it was lunging or getting thrown I knew which one I was choosing. He seemed chilled, though, so I decided to take a chance and saddle him up. First I tried walking him around the arena, but he was quite unsettled and antsy – nothing naughty, but he chucked his head around and danced on the spot. I went with my usual philosophy: horses are made to move, and are happier and more settled when moving. So I pushed him into a trot and he put his head straight down and went to work like a pro.

Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now
Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now

I could have burst with pride and relief. He had a couple of head-tossing, dancing-on-the-spot baby moments but as long as I kept him moving forward he kept his mind on the job. No bucking, no rearing, not even a spook for the dressage letters or small kids and ponies bouncing around all over the place. He did overjump the first warmup jump ever so slightly, but I was ready for it and he wasn’t unreasonable about it, so after that he jumped perfectly. He was better than he is at home, with happy upright ears and an interested expression; he was enjoying the change and the challenge. I could have screamed with delight that he finally realised that the two of us can deal with scary things.

Now I know what we're doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)
Now I know what we’re doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)

We had one sinking moment at the very start of our first course. The first jump had a couple of somewhat spooky green tyres in front of it, and as I aimed him at it he put up his head and did his standard “Nopenopenopenope” move, involving a rapid reinback that Stacy Westfall would be proud of. Luckily, I kept my wits about me and put my hands in his mane and closed my legs quietly around his sides and softly insisted until his brain returned. And thank God (no really, thank Him) it did. Magic is smart enough and sensitive enough that he felt the pressure of his first show, picking it up in the atmosphere and in my body language, and I think he must have had one of his racing flashbacks. I can only imagine that the pressures of the track must have shattered him, because that’s the way he is, and whenever he had one of these moments at the track he was probably just pushed into the starting box and told to do his job because few people at a racetrack have time to soothe one panicky gelding. It’s probably why his racing career was so disastrous. But this time, he had me with him, and I have finally found out how to handle his moments and so his brain returned, he found his guts and he attacked that cross-rail like it had personally offended him. After that he was amazing. He locked onto every jump and knew exactly what he had to do. All I had to do was steer and enjoy the ride, and boy, did I enjoy it.

Because tiny uprights require KNEES
Because tiny uprights require KNEES

I realised again what an absolutely amazing horse he is. He has so much talent, such good movement, such a trainable mind and such an outstanding jump, not to mention his ample heart. I rubbed his neck as he trotted out of the little round and felt like we’d just won the Derby, I was that happy. He tossed out his front legs like he felt just as happy.

Of course, when I got off he went back to being dorky idiot Magic whom I know so well, and somehow while my dad was holding him he managed to put his foot through his reins and freaked out radically. Luckily he freed himself before anything got damaged. For a really talented amazing horse, he can be an absolute moron sometimes.

After that first round I just kept him moving. Even if we just walked on the buckle around the warmup, he was much happier to be moving than standing. When standing still he fidgeted or pawed the ground and was generally upset, so I figured he couldn’t be that tired and decided to keep him moving. It seemed to work; he was settled in his work but didn’t seem to run out of steam.

Happy place
Happy place

The next two rounds were picture perfect. We cantered most of them and he was amazing; he even got all his leads right, picked good distances with minimal help from me, and responded instantly to all of my aids. The arena was sopping wet, and while the footing was still safe and stable, there were quite a few shallow puddles of standing water. He didn’t let them bug him one bit and cantered straight through them, jumping in and out of them without any issues. Just gotta love the amount of heart this guy has.

BOOM
BOOM

After our rounds, I took off all his tack and just held him by his halter near a haynet to see if I could teach him to stand quietly. Once his tack was off, he seemed to realise that work time was over and ate hay peacefully until he was dry and we could go home. He did manage to remove both back boots and his tail bandages on the way home, as well as scraping the back of his ear and scratching his side (this is Magic we’re talking about), but didn’t seem too worried by anything very much.

I just had to realise again what a stunning horse I’ve been most undeservedly blessed with. God has entrusted a most amazing creature into my care, and I only pray that I can continue to ride him better every day until we both bring out the best in each other. I believe in this stupendously weird and wonderful horse, and the very fact that he’s been the answer to my prayers for a great horse must mean that God believes in me.

It’s a good thing that I believe in Him, because otherwise none of this would be possible. This is just the first step on an awesome journey. Glory to the King.

Magic7

 

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.

Growing Closer

After all our trouble with confidence this winter, I think the long hours of grooming and groundwork and boring schooling drills are finally starting to pay off for Magic and me.

It’s not easy to see. Obviously, he looks a lot better on the flat than he used to; but his jumping is pretty much the same. He is a little more sensible about it, but can still do the weirdest things in midair (see below), and we’re still toodling around 70cm verticals. I’m not as all over the place on him as I used to be, but I still look like I’m levitating above him over the jumps instead of staying with him.

But it all feels so different. When I go to catch him now he comes to me with bright eyes and an expectant (adorable) little nicker. After I’ve ridden him he likes to hang out with me, just grazing around me until I leave, then he trots off to join Skye on whatever mission she’s accomplishing. Best of all, I think I’m finally learning to ride him; he doesn’t do the jackhammer-trotting-giraffe-head thing so much anymore. If I have a slip-up and bump on his back by accident he doesn’t panic anymore, and if he makes a mistake and overjumps something I can stay so much calmer than I used to. There’s a connectedness between us now, in the way we move around each other. It’s hard to explain, but I finally feel like he really is my horse.

Unfortunately, having a better bond does not immediately result in better technique. We have moments of sheer awesomeness, and then we have moments of epic fail. Frankly, we look horrible. But we’re finally learning to enjoy each other, and that’s what it’s all about.

We have jumping superpowers, among them the Superman impression
We have jumping superpowers, among them the Superman impression

and levitation
and rider levitation

and Gangnam Style, midair!
and Gangnam Style, midair!

Um... at least his legs are even
Um… at least his legs are even

Self-carriage much?!
Self-carriage much?!

And canter in a frame!
And canter in a frame!

And we finally got it right! (I know my reins are too long, but I need them like that in case I make a mistake and touch his mouth and he thinks I'm going to RIP HIS FACE OFF)
And we finally got it right! (I know my reins are too long, but I need them like that in case I make a mistake and touch his mouth and he thinks I’m going to RIP HIS FACE OFF)

So much personality <3
So much personality ❤