I kind of hesitate to write this post because I really am not writing this for sympathy, though I know it may come across that way. But I know scars can only do any good when they’re shown as a symbol of hope and survival, so I write this for everyone who is where I am and was where I have been, anyone for whom it might be a glimmer of hope.
Because I know how alone it feels to be afraid.
It feels so stupid to have riding nerves, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to believe that nobody else feels the way you do. That there’s something wrong with you that other people just don’t have wrong with them. Maybe you’re just not cut out for riding, maybe you just can’t. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless it’s your living. Your calling. A part of you. Something you’re on fire for. People my age so often complain that they don’t know what they want to do. Is there any worse agony than to know what you want to do and be unable to do it for a reason as humiliating as fear?
It’s not just nerves. Everyone has nerves. Nerves are the little buzz I feel at shows; an added sharpness that can develop into tension if not managed. No, this is fear, borderline phobic. It’s paralytic. I come down to that fence and I can’t move or think. I freeze and mess up, and that makes it worse, over and over again.
I have screamed why. I have been sobbing on my knees begging to know why God would give me such a burning passion and such a debilitating handicap. Why can’t I be like the other riders I see floating over 1.20, 1.30? I’m willing to bet some of them haven’t ever taught a horse a thing but here I am, the horse trainer – a good one, too – freezing to the base of 70cm jumps. Through me God has fixed horses that you couldn’t touch, trained remedial buckers to dance, breathed the light back into the eyes of the broken. Why won’t He help me jump this fence?
It’s jumping, mostly. Young horses, even hacking are OK. Not as OK as I look; the silent battle remains – but OK enough that I can enjoy it and do it well. But jumping…
Today’s jumping exercise in my lesson with coach K was just a vertical of about 75cm, sharp right turn to a slightly bigger oxer, six strides to another oxer. I put up that kind of stuff in my lessons every day. I buried poor old Al so many times that eventually even he stopped. I was using every single trick I know to calm myself down and it wasn’t working.
Coach K is worth her weight in gold; she figured me out and remains endlessly patient. But from where I’m sitting, jumping 85cm on a horse I don’t know in my exam is looking like a very, very big ask.
I went home feeling exhausted from the battle. There’s just never a respite from it, no riding situation in which that dark clouds lifts completely. It’s so heavy sometimes and I couldn’t understand why.
Until this afternoon when I was helping my own little student with the very, very bad nerves. And I had to argue with him to let me put the lead on when we went for a little hack. And when I took him for his first little trot, he didn’t panic and squeal the way he used to when we just lifted him onto the pony. No. He laughed. He laughed and a smile burst over his little face like a sunrise.
And I could almost hear God saying, This is why.
He could lift this struggle from me. He could make this cup to pass away from me, but He leaves me to drink it because He’s got a plan. I don’t take it lightly when I say that God has made me a good coach for nervous riders. I can help them because I am them. I’ve been there and I know they can’t help it, they can’t just get over it magically. But I can help them get over it. Step by tiny step.
So I’ll drink that cup to the very dregs.
I still hate the struggle. I’m still so tired of it. But I know I have to bear it for a reason, so I pray, Not as I will but as Thou wilt. Tomorrow I’ll shoulder the cross and march on and share the truth about the struggle because it can help someone. There will be haters who’ll think a nervous rider can’t be a good one. They will be wrong. I make a living out of something that terrifies me – that has to stand for something.
And one by one, I’ll watch my riders blossom. And with each one, I’ll continue to hope that someday, that might be me, too.
We leave for Pre-HOY tomorrow and I’m terrified, for the dumbest reason.
I’m not worried about boxing nine horses there and back – I trust the drivers. I’m not worried about the horses – they know their jobs. I’m not worried about the kids – they’ve worked hard. I’m not even that worried that Exavior will knock my brains out (OK, so I’m a bit worried about that, not gonna lie).
Oh, no. I’m worried about what they will think.
I’m so worried about what they will think when Exavior loses his brain and pulls away from me and kicks the judge or something. She can’t handle him. She’s no horsewoman.
Or what about when somebody notices how scuffed my saddle is, or how the girth really doesn’t match either the saddle or the horse? What does she know? She’s such a newbie.
Or when everything dissolves into chaos and I arrive in my class with my collar sticking up and Midas galloping about with his nose sky high? She’s not good enough to be a trainer!
And you know, all of the above could quite probably be true. It could be impostor syndrome or it could be sense or whatever because right now I don’t really care. Because I don’t know what they think or how it’s gonna go on Saturday or whether or not I’m coming home with my brains in my head (although that would be nice).
Here’s what I do know, and these are the truths I will hold up like a shield against any fear or doubt that tries to come between my kids and horses and calling and me.
God made me yard manager. He wants me where I am. I gave my life to Him and this is where He’s put me so by His power in me I’m gonna get this done.
I’m nineteen years old. I’m showing horses I produced, and kids I teach on ponies I produced, against some of the top riders in the country. My best horse was for free. My most promising youngster should have been dead twice over by now. Our yard has faced outbreaks and financial crisis and more drama in a year than some yards deal with in a lifetime and we’re still here, nineteen-year-old wet-behind-the-ears manager and all.
So they can think whatever they want. We’ll be late and our ponies will act up and our kids might spill Coke on their cream breeches (just kidding, that’s my signature move, they’re generally more sensible) and maybe Xave will rear and run away too but we’ll SHINE. God got us here for just one reason: to shine for Him. For our King Jesus, we will shine. We’ll keep our eyes on Him and we will shine.
Electric fences are the best, when they work. Unfortunately, they’re also notoriously cantankerous. While our perimeter fence is fairly impenetrable, our inside fences don’t always hold up to the steady abuse they’re subjected to by creatures of all sizes, and Field A’s gate decided to fail me this morning. Thankfully, the only casualties were the jumping exercise I’d painstakingly set out the day before and our mounting block.
This was not my problem however as I merrily charged off to Springs for my weekly ride-big-horses session, leaving the poor grooms to sort out the epic mess. On arrival I was vastly relieved to be given a cute little grey pony to ride and felt like I actually achieved something on him, which made me feel better about flopping around on coach K’s amazing schoolmasters. Thereafter I got to ride a beautiful white Lipizzaner gelding. He promptly bucked, and I promptly hit him, but Lipizzaners stay Lipizzaners.
To my great delight I was also allowed back on Kardinal AKA Giant Fancy International Pony. I don’t know what it is about him, but despite his being like as big as a mountain and rather on the spooky side, he inspires endless confidence; he doesn’t worry me one bit despite having spent a total of about forty-five minutes together. We played dressage and I had to roll K’s stirrup leathers so they’d fit (the apex of humiliation).
My jumping lesson didn’t go so great today. I was on a different horse, who really wasn’t bad at all, but he had a teeny look at something outside the arena and I immediately melted down. I forgot every trick I’ve taught myself to get my guts back instantly and became a trembling little heap again. This did not sit well with the poor horse, understandably, but he did his best to bail his frozen saddle monkey out. I don’t even really know what went wrong. Kardinal spooked far bigger and I was fine. Coach K is worth her weight in gold though, she seems to magically know what I can take on the day and gets a read on me really fast which is invaluable. I was kind of disappointed with myself, but on the way home when I got to talking to God about it, I was filled with the overwhelming realisation that He’s not mad. His strength, after all, is made perfect in my weakness. I’m just gonna keep fighting until the sun comes up.
See, this is why I don’t get mad at Magic. How can I? I’m just like him.
Speaking of Mr. Quirkypants, when I got home I hopped on him and he was back to his normal adorable happy self. He did have a good long look at Tara when she decided to spook wildly through the arena, but he didn’t leave at all. We even trotted a few little fences and he could barely be bothered to pick up his feet. At least his meltdowns definitely wear off really fast now.
Sunè was in heat which made recent gelding Midas lose his mind, but I explained my opinion on that kind of behaviour (forcefully, with a jumping crop) and he decided she wasn’t that attractive after all. He went on to have a forward and bold, if a little tense and rushy, jumping session. We popped over a bunch of little crosses including his first combination and finished with a slightly bigger spooky oxer, about 50cm. Little chap was fantastic.
Sunè herself was blissfully unaware of the chaos she’d been causing. She has quite enormous wolf teeth, which I will have removed, but they made her very fussy so I tried my favourite starting bit on her in the meantime. It’s huge and fat and full cheek and it was a huge success. She went much better today. In sharp contrast to my usual task of reinforcing the aids, I’m almost having to desensitise her a little to contact and leg. She gets reactive instead of responsive and instead of thinking about inside leg to outside rein she just gets stroppy because I won’t let her do what she thinks she should be doing. Totally nonviolent, though, and doesn’t know what a spook even is. We finished with some better canter. She is still unbalanced but it’s gone from feral pony gallop to unbalanced baby canter, so we’re getting there.
After a brief round of lessons (srsly lessons please start picking up!) it was off to Heidelberg for a first aid exam. I’m trying to volunteer with some local (awesome) medics to help at events, thus gleaning more experience for when I have to scrape someone off the floor again, and maybe lending a hand somewhere it might be needed. Assuming I pass, obviously. But God’s will be done.
Glory to the King.
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.
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,
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”.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.