The admin of an equestrian Facebook group asked a question the other day that was terrifying in its simplicity: Why do you have a horse?
It seems like such an easy question until you have to answer it.
The answers to her post grew longer and longer as horse people from every walk of life waxed lyrical with their reasons for adding a large and expensive flight animal to their lives and hearts. It seems at first glance that there are hundreds of reasons why people have horses: Because they are therapy; because we’ve always wanted one; because they’re our friends; because they give us freedom; because they help us reach our dreams; because they give us a few moments’ escape from the brutal world of human interaction. Because we love them. Because we find them beautiful.
But in reality, there aren’t hundreds of reasons why we have horses. There is only one.
We have horses because God lent them to us.
Only He knows why. If I had created an animal so perfect – a beast with the speed of the wind, the grace of an unfurling storm and the heart of a warrior – I wouldn’t have given it to the loud, messy, selfish, violent human race. We are the ones that fell, after all. He gave us the horse, a creature whose very movement heals us, whose emotional connection to us goes beyond what we can really explain, and we have been abusing that privilege ever since. They’ve been pulling our loads and fighting our battles for centuries, and we built our civilization upon their willing backs.
We don’t deserve them. But then again, it’s never been about what we deserve. Their presence in our lives is just a drop in the ocean of His grace.
The great mercy is that God didn’t give them to us to keep. It’s only ever a loan: sooner or later, and we never know when, they’ll all be called Home to stand in the stables of the King.
He gave us dominion over them. Let us never, ever forget how sacred our duty is towards these magnificent animals. Let us never lose our appreciation for what our horses do for us. Having horses is not about us and it has never been about us.
The arrival of some beautiful rain has transfigured the face of our landscape from the dormant browns of winter to vibrant life.
And no matter that I’ve been living here since I can remember, it still takes my breath away. So do these, my three dance partners. Faith must be about Arwen’s height already. I expect her to mature about Thunder’s height and probably also quite solid.
The damp earth has helped eliminate the various coughings, sneezings and nose-runnings of all the allergic horses.
Longer days make for those stunning late afternoon rides in the golden light. I teach until at least 5:30 most evenings now.
Lullaby is back on fighting form, her old, happy, bouncy self. She’s even off her joint supplement. She led the way on this hack up the big hill.
Liana and her kid followed. I’m so honoured to be a small part of providing kids with experiences like these.
Jamaica also went hacking with Vastrap and his kid, and behaved impeccably.
The big hill is my favourite place for hacking. It’s interesting, has amazing views, and is good work for the horses too.
Clouds have changed the skyscape, making the world seem bigger. I don’t know why, but the sky is a deeper blue in summer around here.
We now have a sign. Each step forward feels like a miracle, probably because it is one; we depend so entirely on our Jesus, and He never lets us down. This year testifies to that.
Our yard is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
This is the place where my soul can’t sing loud enough to Abba Father. Where the miracle happens. As an aside, the footing held up impressively well in the rain. We’ve been able to jump every day.
For some reason the sky is a lot smaller in town, but it’s still beautiful. My personal space is about 228ha.
That’s more like it.
Sunrises haven’t quite reached the height of splendour yet, but there’s something more subtly majestic in their muted colours.
The jacaranda tree is in bloom.
The long one-sided love story of God and I starts with sunrises. Years and years ago, since I can remember thinking about bigger things, it was the beauty of the world that convinced me that there had to be Something out there. I felt its presence; something dynamic, vibrant, powerful, and very much alive. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t have a name for it, but I found it utterly irresistible. I longed to know it. My longing was inexpressible; I wanted to feel it, to be drawn into it.
And the greatest miracle of them all was discovering that this amazing Thing was not only alive, it was Someone, and He had a Son, and He had given that Son up for me. The power that made the wind and stars, He wants me to talk to Him, to cry out to Him, to love Him. The sunrises stopped being splendid creations of some distant and mysterious magnificence and became something more: an intimate, personal expression of love from the God Who never lets go.
Today amid the madness, I spared a thought for what it means to be a woman of God.
I thought about Proverbs 31, as you do. Strength and dignity. Sense and faith. A strange mixture of submission and power, rolled up in meekness and confidence.
I thought of the women of the Bible. I thought of Sarah, who mocked the Lord and then had a child that would become the ancestor of the nation through which God saved the world.
I thought of Deborah, Israel’s lady judge, the warrior woman who fixed her eyes on God and led her faltering people charging to victory against the looming foe.
I thought of Ruth, the sweet, loyal, vulnerable girl whose meek purity shone through; the storms that should have scarred her only washed her innocence and gentleness whiter.
I thought of Hannah, the mocked, the belittled, the neglected, the distressed, the faithful; who prayed without words, and birthed the man who would anoint Israel’s first king.
I thought of Esther. The girl whom life threw down, a slave, a concubine, her family killed, stripped from her foster father by a selfish king, her nation accursed; a new queen who laid down her life to save her people. A woman sent for such a time as this.
I thought of Elizabeth and Martha. I thought of Mary the mother of Jesus, maybe the greatest of them all – Behold the handmaid of the Lord! I thought of Tabitha and Mary Magdalene and I wondered – who does God want me to be like? Which of these great women would be my single role model?
God’s response was simple.
“I am your role model, daughter; I made you to be Firn.”
Go fix your eyes on Him and be the wonderful lady He created. Happy Woman’s Day and glory to the King.
It’s truly amazing what a long hack, with a prayerful attitude and John 15 in the back of your head, at sunrise, can do for the soul.
Arwen and I headed out at about 6:30 this morning, before the sun had dared to show its face.
As we started down the hill, it was just slipping into the sky from behind the hill and the brooding woods.
The world became rose-tinted; its edges softened, illuminated by golden light. It was beautiful, it was breathtaking, it was pure, and it was deeply humbling.
The challenges of running a not-so-little-anymore stableyard can mount dauntingly at the beginning of each day, leaving me as thunderstruck as the traveller in Psalm 121. Stressed. Burned out. Hopeless. Exhausted. Complaining. Selfish.
But like the traveller, today I’m reminded of where my help comes from.
On a scale of one to God, none of today’s challenges are anything more than a speck in the face of majesty.
I’m reminded of how vastly, limitlessly, with how much abandon and abundance I have been blessed. Wouldn’t it have been enough if Christ had just died and lived again for me? It is enough. Why then am I so spoiled? Why sunrises and rustling fields of ripening maize and shadow-silent little duiker buck slipping across the paths and the sweeping expanse of Highveld magnificence and a good, grey mare who never quits? Why do I, who deserves only death, not only gain life and redemption and peace, but also beauty and grace and friendship?
There can only be one answer to such an impossible question: an answer utterly complicated in its very perfect simplicity.
After SANESA and with the long weekend looming, everyone’s been in a bit of a holiday mood.
And around here, that means only one thing:
I think my kids must hate me because I’m still not so happy with cantering with kids on hacks, but this managed to be a lot of fun for all concerned, regardless.
We headed off in a bunch: L on Stardust, Sunè and her adorable kid, Liana and her kid, Vastrap and his kid and Lullaby bringing up the rear, peeved at having to pack my fat behind around.
Accompanied, as always, by the ever-faithful Ice. How he manages to keep up on those little legs, not to mention running after all the fieldmice and smells that catch his fancy, nobody knows. But I love that he’s always right beside us.
Sunè is just a superstar. Her kid is only eight and tends to get distracted and forget where he’s going, instead choosing to drop the reins and admire the view, but Sunè never minds being left behind and just ambles patiently along. Shouts of “Catch up, buddy!” spur the kiddo to flap his legs and Sunè happily canters to the middle of the ride and then flops back into walk without being asked.
Needless to say, spooking isn’t even in her vocabulary.
Isn’t creation amazing? It always awes me that God didn’t just make a world that was functional and complex and amazingly engineered down to its last atom, down to the deepest miracles of science. It would have been enough if the world was just incredible, if creation provided us as creatures only with nourishment and necessities. But because He’s a God of love, an Artist and a bit of a Poet sometimes, He didn’t just make the world good. He made it beautiful.
Dusty, of course, was her reliable little self – albeit pulling somewhat on the way home. The dentist saw her today and sorted out her bit seats so he said that’ll help but honestly I think she was just kinda excited.
Even Liana and Vastrap, traditionally hot on hacks, plopped along very happily and enjoyed the view.
It’s a beautiful thing to be a kid with a good chestnut mare and miles upon miles of open space at your disposal. I know because I was that kid. Nostalgia.
A good little bay mare will do fine, too.
Look at those little faces. If you want to make your kid happy, buy them a good Nooitie.
Gasp! How could you say that? Obviously only [insert guru here]’s Miracle Way of the Horse is the only right way to do [insert training obstacle/goal here], which of course you can’t accomplish without [$$$$$ glorified lunging whip/bitless bridle/neck strap], and all other ways are Wrong.
Bitting up is Wrong. Bitless is Wrong. Draw reins are Wrong. Whips are Wrong (but not carrot sticks or whatever). Or maybe the One True Way involves a magic gadget of magicalness. And don’t even think about deviating from the training scales!
Um, guys. How many horses do you know that read Principles of Riding or watch YouTube?
The funny thing about these methods is they all work. For certain people and certain horses in certain circumstances, they work. The better ones work for the vast majority of horses. But nobody would be peddling these methods, or accepting them for hundreds of years, if they didn’t work.
There are only two wrong ways. The way that really hurts somebody (equine or human), and the way that doesn’t work.
Take Magic, for instance. Magic will curl up, flip his head, invert and flail to the best of his ability if subjected to the horrible cruelty of an apple mouth snaffle. I did the Wrong thing and bitted him up to a Kimberwick. He almost instantly transformed into a horse that could go forward into a steady contact in a relaxed and more or less graceful manner (most of the time).
This horse had been trained (badly) for polo and was the most extreme case of head up = adrenalin up I have ever seen. Her rhythm and tempo were appalling and she had no concept of suppleness until one day she nearly broke my nose with her permanently raised head, so I put a martingale on in the interests of my nasal well-being. She put her head down and suddenly she could float and bend and relax. We turned the training pyramid on its head, starting with something a little like connection, which is Wrong. She is now being a riding school pony that competes in dressage with kids. It was Wrong but it worked for Flare.
Liana had similar problems to Flare, being extremely tense with a very high head carriage and tiny, piggy little strides. Her flatwork sucked so I did only jumping and relaxed hacking for nearly six months. Which is Wrong. Everyone knows you need to have solid flatwork before you can jump. But Liana adores jumping. She became so relaxed and happy over fences that when we returned to flatwork, she was suddenly and magically a dressage horse.
So my horses got happier and better thanks to my incorrect training, but that doesn’t make the training scale wrong.
I trained Nell according to convention and she earns her highest scores for the basics and her lowest for connection, as according to the training scales. It worked for her, and for Arwen and Whisper and Sookie and Reed and half a dozen other furballs I trained “properly”.
OK, so how about starters? Surely a clean slate should always come out the same way when a certain method is applied?
Bruno was fresh off the veld – cleanest slate you could find. I never did Join-Up or desensitisation on this pony. I started him bareback and spent most of my initial groundwork just hand grazing him, and he’s a relaxed, happy, obedient, responsive and laid-back ride.
With Quinni, on the other hand, I did practically everything by the book – Join-Up, despooking, pressure-release exercises, the works. She is also a happy, relaxed, responsive horse to ride.
Ultimately it is very easy to get bogged down in a method or a way. We all say we train dressage, or soft feel, or Parelli or whatever. But realistically, we all train something Handmade – a unique, created being that, just like us all, has emotions and quirks and sensitivities and vices and scars and secrets and baggage.
Thursday was the day; poor Arwen was starting to suffer under her typical Nooitie winter coat (i. e. strongly resembling that of the average yak). She sweats like a pig and feels the heat, too, so there were no two ways about it – that coat was going to have to come off.
So she was scrubbed to within an inch of her life and then clipped. She was a hooligan, but I shall give her the benefit of the doubt and blame it on the poor guy I had holding her, who is one of the farm workers. He has been saddled with the duties of grooming my client horses because he is patient and not afraid of horses, but he will most definitely not be holding a horse for a clip again. (A bit too patient, I’m afraid). Once Arwie figured out that she could go merrily in circles without any consequences she did so, with the result that not only are her head and legs left unclipped as usual, but she also has an unflattering hairy patch on her stomach.
Either way, we accomplished what we needed to; I have a shiny pony that can work in comfort,
Arwie has a bright pink blankie,
and we both have a reminder as to Who we belong to and why we do what we do.
The shaven beastie, much as she detested her clip, is evidently much happier to be ridden. It can’t be nice to work out in the equivalent of a winter jacket. Her stamina has dramatically increased and her attitude towards the end of a session is markedly more perky. She was superb in her flatwork session on Friday, including one (semi-accidental) flying change while we were practicing canter leg-yields. Today she even carried the Mutterer up and down hills for two hours without breaking a sweat anywhere except under the saddle.
Magic put in a wonderful jumping session on Friday, too. I put the sticks up to about 80cm and he was still popping over without any fuss. I’m now faced with the next dilemma of Magic’s education: His confidence is fine now. It’s mine that’s holding us back. I’m still grabbing his mouth in panic at the base of the fences, and he’s still not deserving it, because he is quiet and reliable and knows his job. Poor old Magic, he doesn’t deserve me, but he does have me so I assume the King has a plan for us. Our session, though, actually went extremely well because I concentrated really hard on giving him my hands nice and quietly. Reciting Psalm 23 out loud helped a lot. It forced me to relax, prevented me from micromanaging, and gave Magic a calm, confident voice to listen to, which means a lot to him. When I stay out of his face, he is simply amazing. He carries me to the jump, takes off at a good distance right out of his stride, and glides effortlessly over.
After Magic, I rode dear old Vastrap. Last time we jumped, I faceplanted rather painfully into the first element of a combination, so we were both a bit shaken and I pushed the jumps all the way down to 40cm. I find it’s always better to play it safe and have a good experience or two before building back up and onwards. Anyway, I needn’t have worried, because Trappies was his usual saintly self and popped over everything very well. He did get a little panicky after a few jumps (I assume he remembers me shooting up his neck and eating the pole) but nothing major. Vastrap is good practice for Magic, because he doesn’t easily overreact and is generally less scary, but he still appreciates a nice quiet hand at all times. Arwen, either by personal preference or being trained by a newb like I was, prefers a quite strong contact, so she’s no help except for my courage.
Yesterday was Storm Horse day. I hadn’t seen him for over a week and I think I had forgotten how beautiful he is. I was so excited when I saw him looking over the fence at me that I totally forgot to greet his owner, just grabbed my saddle off the back of the Mutterer’s bakkie and vanished. Storm Horse insisted on smelling me thoroughly before allowing me to touch him, just to make sure I was me. He was a little more spooky on the ground than usual, especially about having his bridle put on (methinks that in the period between the Mutterer backing him and my meeting him, somebody has twitched his ears), but once I was on he was absolutely impeccable. He makes me smile every single time. When I walk up to that horse there is nothing in the whole world but him and Jesus and me.
Another of the Nooitgedachters, a glorious filly that we shall call Arwie Junior because she looks almost exactly like Arwen, was my second ride for the day. Junior has been backed for less than six months, but she could already score fairly well on a Prelim dressage test and scrape through a Novice, too. She has a natural aptitude for dressage unlike any I’ve seen before, putting warmbloods to shame. Today we worked on leg-yields for the second time ever and got walk leg-yields all the way across the arena on the diagonal, as well as a little trot leg-yield from the quarter line to the track. Such a pleasure to ride her. Her greatest flaw is also her greatest strength – her tremendously long stride. She sees no reason to shorten it when moving at full extension is so much fun, but it’s improving.
The third Nooitie of the day was a little chestnut mare with a real Nooitie brain. She’d never been handled, apart from being fed apples and having her nose petted, when we first met her and in two sessions I was riding her around the ring without any tantrums. This time we finally got the canter on the correct leg all the way around the arena, once on each rein. Canter has been a bit of a sticky point for her; she is a laid-back slowpoke type that I think will do well in a riding school.
Today was a more relaxed day; the Mutterer and I took Arwie and Thun for a long outride. It was an entirely new venture for Thunder as we went up the public road and onto a neighbouring game farm, then up and down some rather steep and rocky hills and through the indigenous scrub there. Despite being dead nervous for the first ten minutes, Thunder soon hit his stride and fell into step beside Arwen with that beautiful, swinging, relaxed stride that I love so much. I could ride his walk all day long and not get bored. He had no major incidents, just a few minor spooks, which I felt was very impressive of him. He had to deal with a lot of new things, including strange dogs running up and barking, eland, springbuck, wildebeest and ostriches (HATE OSTRICHES). Arwen was also very good; she remains a bit spooky even with the Mutterer, but was much more forward-going than the last time he rode her, and seemed to carry him without any effort at all. (Although he could probably knot his ankles together under her belly).
(Footnote for foreigners: This thing is an eland, the largest of all antelope. I don’t know their exact mass, but I know they’re as tall as horses and can jump really freakishly high. Also that when a herd of them takes off running, most horses entirely lose their brains).
I was so happy with my little Thun. He was an absolute pleasure to ride, forward, relaxed and confident in his good moments, merely jittery in his bad ones. He’s developing into the horse I need, the one his mother has been for me for so many years – the horse that you can saddle up and ride into the sunset without having to worry about being bucked off, or about frame or rhythm or engagement, and spend a few hours in our glorious little corner of Africa concentrating only on praising our amazing Creator God and keeping the horse between you and the ground.
Living as far inland as I do, it’s been my dream for years to ride on the beach. My grandparents live only 1km from the shore but are sadly horseless, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to daydream but very little opportunity to do it (except for once about two years ago when my grandma, tired of my complaints, flagged down a hapless horseman on the beach and ordered him to give me a ride).
This year, I was adamant. 10 days without riding? I’d be dead by Friday! My parents graciously relented and booked me a beach ride with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures on Saturday.
On the way to the horse paddocks, I was instantly transformed into my hyper 5-year-old self from years ago, nearly incontinent with excitement over a weekly lesson. Pathetic, I know. But I love my job to the point of needing it; it has always been more than a hobby and it is now becoming more than a career. When I sit on a horse I feel God’s pleasure, and I can’t help but feel that it’s a calling. I am called above all to love everyone; but I am also called to ride.
Being an hour early (my parents might have strangled me if we had to wait any longer) I got to meet the horses while they were being fed and groomed. I was impressed; they were lean and fit, but sleek and obviously well looked after. There were about sixteen horses of all shapes and sizes and had good manners with one or two exceptions. I wasn’t awfully surprised when I was assigned the shortest horse on the place. Judging by his teeth and the sprinkling of grey hairs on his otherwise dark bay body, I estimated Tutu (named for his brand, 225) to be close to twenty. He couldn’t have been taller than 14.1hh. Being tiny, I always end up with the littlest, oldest horses, which generally turn out to be extremely fiery once they realise they’re not carting a newb around. He was a handsome little dude with the remnants of splendour in his neat little ears, curving neck and powerful hindquarters. I have a suspicion that he was an old Lipizzaner, rejected from performing because of his size; he had the right build, and he had the right kind of brand. I was pleased to ride him.
We were a big group of 13 people with varying experience; I was a little worried about one or two of the riders who looked a bit newbie, but the horses all set off in an obedient line and newbs or no newbs we were soon navigating a winding deer trail up and down the hills at a brisk trot. (Best way to squeeze in a canter on an outride: Ride the shortest horse. Tutu had several little canters to keep up). Before long we were marching down a steep slope and onto the beach. It was a wonderful, warm day with a perfect salty breeze sweeping in over the sea, and the smells of horse and ocean mingled in the air.
To my surprise we walked over a short stretch of beach and then swung right, straight into the lagoon. I thought the leader had lost her mind. How were we supposed to get 13 horses to walk through belly-deep water? I needn’t have worried. The leading horse, a handsome skewbald gelding, splashed in without hesitation and the only problem we had was one or two attempts to roll. Well, I had the problem of being on a tiny horse, necessitating some quick gymnastic moves to avoid getting my boots wet. Tutu marched gamely right through the lagoon and we scrambled out onto the bank and into Morgan Bay village without incident.
Soon we found ourselves trotting down the quiet roads of the idyllic little village, filled with beautiful houses and white picket fences and small children that squealed in delight as we came past with the horses’ hooves ringing down the street. Tutu’s bouncy, exuberant, elevated stride (more evidence to the Lipizzaner theory?) had me posting in the Western saddle; I could probably have sat, with a little effort, but I was much too busy enjoying myself. We had our first canter up one of the hills and the horses remained in an orderly line with little Tutu snorting with excitement as we charged along, and somewhere around that point I reached a state of total bliss.
A steady trek up and down some hills and through a few fields full of cattle brought us to an utterly dazzling clifftops. I’d never really seen cliffs in real life before, let alone stood on one, let alone on horseback at the edge of the sea with the rippling ocean spreading out in all directions; the biggest thing I’d ever seen, and the most perfect royal blue. It was a little breathtaking, and a little scary, and utterly beautiful. It was only a small piece of the ocean, which is only a small piece of the Earth, which is only a small piece of the universe, which is only a small piece of creation, which is all held cupped in the palm of our mighty, mighty creator God. I could have cried at the amazingness of it all; of the horse between my knees and the grass and the sea and the sky and my wonderful King. Praise the Lord!
After gazing out at the sea and taking photos for a few minutes, we turned and rode back down along the clifftops. The sea battered against the rock with awe-inspiring power; spray clawed at the cliffs, then fell back in reluctant slow motion. It was enough to make me a little dizzy. Tutu, oblivious to the splendour, trotted after his herdmates in stoic obedience; he really was an awesome little horse.
Back through Morgan Bay village, we turned off the road and started a hair-raising scramble across a seriously rocky beach. Like, no sand at all, just rocks – smooth loose rocks that tumbled treacherously under Tutu’s hooves. I knew that he didn’t want to fall any more than I did, so I just sort of threw the reins at him and tried to stay as balanced as I possibly could. Without hesitating, the little guy put down his nose and expertly picked his way onto the safer sand.
We splashed through the shallow waves with Tutu giving the white foam the hairy eyeball before we came to a halt and the leader asked, “Who’s up for a gallop?” I may or may not have almost dislocated my arm throwing my hand up. A gallop on the beach?! Are you kidding?! Tutu was just as excited; he tossed up his noble old head and I felt all his muscles bunch under me. Leading one rider to look after the newbs, we gathered into a bunch and then we were off. Tutu was gentlemanly enough to wait for my signal; I clapped my calves into him and he took off like a shot without bothering with formalities such as trotting.
Lord, how amazing You made the wondrous world so that horse and man can fly together. I remember the splash and slap of Tutu’s hooves and the smell of him and the pumping of his neck and the churning mass of hooves and tails in front of us (we were left behind a little, but he was still running flat-out). It was terrifying, and it was ecstasy. One big grey had a bit of a moment and did a jump/kick/buck in our direction but Tutu rescued us by doing a funky sideways move involving a couple of tempi changes and a weird little hop. Way too soon, we were pulling up with panting horses everywhere and people wearing that slightly wild-eyed, white-faced grin you get after riding too fast.
The walk home was pleasant in the happy sunshine and Tutu was still as game as ever, although a bit tired by now. I was ready to go home to my own Horde and the wide open veld, but the beach ride is a definite bucket list item. If you haven’t yet, do. Don’t fall on the wet sand, whatever you do, but the wonderful place between sand and sea and horse and sky is well worth visiting.