Harsh Truths for the Aspiring Trainer

I see them everywhere: in tack shops, showing up wide-eyed at lessons, determinedly kicking their greenies around at shows, and in amazing numbers, all over any Q&A board or group on the Internet. And most of all, in myself and everything I was – and mostly still am. Sometimes even scraping together titbits of knowledge and scraps of grazing and starting a stableyard (no judging here – what have I just done?).

People who think they want to be horse trainers.

You have such tremendous dreams, fuelled by horse novels and the romance of Hollywood and that thing you felt happen in you the first time you smelt the indescribable homecoming that is horse smell. You just want to be with them. You want to make them your life.

Of course, as a Christian, I have rather unique views on how one should choose one’s career (One shouldn’t. You let Jesus do the choosing) but let’s assume, for the moment, that you haven’t been called yet and you have to do something in the meantime to stay fed and busy while you wait on God. Let’s say you picked horse trainer.

Here are some ugly truths you don’t want to hear, but that I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old.

You are going to have to deal with being hurt. Often and rather painfully. This is just the simple reality of horses and if you’ve been riding for a while, you know this. The difference is that if you’re a trainer, you’re likely to have to suck it up and carry on.

In an ideal world you’d rest every injury until it gets better, but this is not an ideal world. If you have four horses to ride or handle in a big show on the weekend, and you come off and sprain something on Thursday, your business and your clients probably can’t afford for you to put yourself in bed with an ice pack. You will become well versed in gritting your teeth (and pain medication).

You will face the reality every day of being seriously hurt. The good thing about breaking something is that nobody is going to expect you to work with your arm in a sling (except possibly yourself). The bad thing about breaking something is that it’s part of the job for most trainers.

You will be broke. For a long time. This is possibly the second most misunderstood fact about becoming a trainer: do not expect to make money until you do something worth being paid for, consistently and reliably.

People look at me funny when I say this because I was a paid trainer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The reality is that I’d been riding multiple horses every day for about six years by that point, taking weekly lessons for seven, and shadowing my trainer – unpaid – for five. I’d been riding for twelve or thirteen years.

The other reality is that I was just good enough at it by then. Clients do not care what you want to do in the future or how much potential you have or what sob story you give them. They care about your skill: that you can consistently and noticeably improve a horse with every ride, giving substantial progress over a period of a few months. If you can’t do that yet, you shouldn’t be getting paid yet. That simple.

If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you. Especially if you don’t have a boatload of cash for endless lessons, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty earning lessons from your coach. Be a yard rat. Hold horses for the farrier. Fetch horses in from the field and tack them up… for someone else to ride. Feed hoeses in the rain. Do whatever you’re told and you might get the chance to fall off someone’s bush pony. Deal with it.

You want to train fancy warmbloods for dressage? Spend two or three years backing wild farm ponies and fixing remedial vices on random plot donkeys. No fancy warmblood owner in their right mind is going to give a newb trainer their horse to ride. Besides, those wild veld horses teach you more than the warmbloods ever will.
You do not have a magic touch with horses. Even if you do, nobody really cares. While it’s true that some people and some horses just click and get along regardless of the inexperience of the person and the craziness of the horse, your clients don’t care that you once rode a wild stallion on Uncle Joe’s farm that none of the totally clueless other people could handle. Horse training is about making progress and bonding with horses you don’t click with.

To compete client horses, you first have to compete your horses. Your first competition horse is going to be a mess and you’ll embarrass yourself repeatedly on it. Don’t even try use a client horse. You’ll embarrass your client, and they hate being embarrassed.

You have to deal with people. All the time. So many young people want to be horse trainers because they’re “not a people person”. News flash: horses have owners. Horse owners can be difficult. They can have opinions about how their horse should be trained that conflict with yours. They can be late, or unable to handle their horse even after you trained it, or in a bad mood or bad payers. You have to be able to deal with all this compassionately because they’re just people, just like you. You’re not above them: you serve them.

GET. LESSONS. FIRST. This is the one fact that is most misunderstood by young horsepeople. You have to ghet lessons. Lots of lessons. For many years. And you get lessons first and then you go train horses. There is no avoiding or sidestepping this: there has to be a long learning period BEFORE you can start professionally training.

There are no shortcuts in horses. “But I love them so much!” Good. Channel that love into patience and hard work. If you really love them, humble yourself, rein in your ego, practice patience, and work your back end off until you reach excellence.

Nothing can stop you. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this? Well, because it nullifies all excuses.

You, my friend, are a passionate, dedicated human being with a dream. The world may tell you otherwise, but there isn’t anything stopping you from achieving it except yourself. Throw yourself into learning and working and trying and failing. Be on fire. Grab that dream. Push aside all obstacles and go do it.

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.

2015: The Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

Skye1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder3

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

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

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

For this year, though:

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

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

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

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

Competitions: Show in at least one graded EV70 event.

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

Arwen1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic5

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

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

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

Exavior1

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

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

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

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

RuachReed8

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

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

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

TOABH: Shining Star

Beka from The Owls Approve asks: Let’s talk about the biggest achievements your horse has accomplished.  I’m not talking about you as a rider – I want to know what your ponykins has done to make you proud.  Is there a glorious satin collection, did he/she figure out some dressage movement that took months to learn, or are is it just a great day when your butt stays in the saddle?

Let’s go alphabetically, shall we?

Arwen has achieved so much and gone so far in the six years I’ve had her that I really have trouble choosing any particular moment of awesomeness. That’s pretty much Arwen; she very rarely is truly amazing, but is always pretty good, which has totalled up to a slow, gradual trickle of amazing in the end.

Possibly the most notable thing she achieved was conceiving at the age of 11 months, successfully producing a healthy filly foal around her second birthday. This oopsie was before I had her, but it is apparently against all the laws of nature and yet she did manage it somehow, little twerp.

More seriously, I think the hardest thing I ever asked Arwen to do was go out alone. She was very insecure, skittish and herdbound as a filly. While the term is probably somewhat archaic by now, she was the worst napper I’ve ever known; she’d be all right up until we left the big electric gate, and then she would stop. Attempts to make her walk on would result in terrified little spinny rears. The first quarter mile of every ride was engaged in walking two steps, rearing, walking another two steps, rearing again, reversing six steps, walking two steps, repeat. There was no malice in her, but for the life of her that little grey filly just could not go out alone.

It took a bit of guts from both of us, and a lot of time, but now Arwen loves hacking out by herself. I need a Kimberwick to get her to stop going, sometimes. Usually we mostly gallop on outrides, which are up to 10km long, but anytime I want I can drop the reins down to the buckle and go home at her trademark giant stretchy free walk. I can even put newbies on her for little slow hacks and not worry about them as long as they stay in the back where she won’t kick anybody. Hacking out alone is a very basic skill that most horses already know, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the biggest psychological hurdle that Arwen has overcome.

Magic is Arwen’s carbon opposite. He is either wonderful or abysmal; his wonderful is quite awe-inspiring and his abysmal is frankly scary. There have been days when not wanting to die is pretty good, and other days – last year when I was apparently unafraid of anything – when we jumped 1.20m without dying at all.

He’s also come quite a way in the past two years. Mostly, he’s transformed from neurotic race monster to happy pet, but at least we have made a little progress from racehorse to sport horse.

His biggest achievement was definitely his show in the end of November. We’d had a tough winter with massive confidence issues from us both. In fact, the whole of my time owning him has been pretty tough; the Mutterer will be able to tell you about lessons where I stood in the middle of the arena swallowing tears and telling him that I was not a good enough rider for this amazing horse. Luckily for me, the Mutterer managed to resist the temptation to walk away and would boot me back onto the horse and tell me to get over my [bleeped profanity] and ride, and between Magic and God and the Mutterer they got me to our first show where he was amazing, I rode to the best of my ability, and it went stupendously well. Magic was foot perfect and I relished the feeling of having one huge amount of horse between my knees, and all of his talent and spirit working in harmony with me. There’s just something about a really nice thoroughbred that can’t be beaten.

Magic6

Skye has achieved almost nothing in terms of being trained and so much in terms of training her little human. The fearless old charger has always been – and still is – my trusted destrier on the battlefield of life. Probably the hardest thing she ever did was to survive African horse sickness. Unheard of outside of Africa, over here AHS is feared as the recurrent killer that can cause a perfectly healthy horse to drop dead overnight. She caught a milder strain of the virus, but it was still a very dark autumn that we spent nursing and praying and crying and fighting our way through it. Skye never considered quitting, but it was then that I – fourteen years old, and that horse was my world – hit rock bottom and met my Rock: only the King could possibly have carried us through it, and carry us He did. And Skye fought the virus and won, now thriving almost four years later.

Thunder is just consistently pretty awesome, but I think the one moment of which I am most proud is when my cinch snapped loose on an outride and both saddle and dismayed rider crashed to the ground. Well, I’m not particularly proud of myself, because all I did was crawl out from my saddle groaning, but Baby Thun – who was going at a steady hand-gallop in the direction of his paddock – slammed on the brakes, spun around and returned for his slightly squashed rider. The poor little guy was barely three years old and he was so afraid that he was shaking where he stood, but for me it said everything about him that in that panicky moment he did what all horses do; he looked to his leader to keep him safe, and for him that leader was me. I mean, it wasn’t a particularly smart decision as all I was good for at that point was groaning, but it was Thunder’s loyalty all over.

Thunder5

What Are You Waiting For?

You know you gotta give it your all

And don’t you be afraid if you fall

You’re only livin’ once so tell me

What are you, what are you waiting for?

~ Nickelback, “What Are You Waiting For?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Happy Birthday, Thunder

My beloved horse,

You are a horse, and have no concept of birthdays. When I pushed your luxurious black forelock back from your eyes and pressed my cheek to yours so that your sleek fur bristled against my fragile skin, and whispered “Happy birthday, buddy” to your forward-tipped ears, you understood not a word. But you pressed closer to me, your eyes lighting up at the sheer pleasure of hearing my voice.

Honestly, beyond the words you didn’t understand, I didn’t do anything special for your birthday. I even forgot to bring you a carrot. But I made your day with everything I did, because that’s the way you are. I took you for a ride; we loped down the fenceline with your big feet beating softly on the green grass and your ears pricked forward with excitement. When we had to be called back to help out with some cattle work, I turned you up the hill and pushed you faster than I have ever dared before. You flung out your long gawky legs and snorted in glee. Watch me run, Mom! you cried with pride, flinging up your tail. I’m so fast!

Yes, Thunder, I replied with one hand on your neck, you are. Even though you were barely hand-galloping. You did it with so much of yourself that it was ten times more exciting than speed alone could ever make it.

Thunder6

Then we cut heifers out of the herd for their owner and some buyers; the owner thought you were adorable and made your day again by rubbing your nose. You got bored standing and waiting, and tried to eat your stirrup. When we got to herd the cows, you threw yourself into it with the puppyish enthusiasm only you have; your ears were up even as you sprinted and spun to catch those heifers, because you thought it was an elaborate and wonderful game.

You turned four years old yesterday. I trust you with my life.

It seems like yesterday that I first breathed into your nose and made you mine; it feels like last week that I would press my cheek against Skye’s stomach and speak to you before you were even born. “Hi, baby Skye, when are you coming?” I swear you knew my voice when you were born, like a human baby knows the voice of his mother; I will never forget the first time you pricked your ears to me, just hours old. You will never know how I waited for you and prayed for you, or how delighted I was when you finally made your appearance, a tiny bundle of legs and fur and soft puffs of milky breath.

You were still too small to eat even a carrot slice out of my hand when you first started coming to me in the paddock, giving your poor little baby whinny. (“He neighs like a Barbie horse,” commented my sister). It melted my heart, the way it still does when your now 15.1hh bulk lopes up to me and rumbles a greeting like a thunderstorm turning over in its sleep.

Thunder7

Oh, Baby Thun. You’re not so much of a baby anymore, are you? It has been a long time since I first haltered you or picked up your tiny feet, struggling to fit the hoofpick into the teeny grooves of your frog. So many milestones, and so few struggles. You opened your mouth for the bit before you even knew what it was. Every new thing I introduced was a complete non-event for you and a miracle for me; I kept waiting for you to finally explode, but you never did. We have come a long way together, you and me. We’ve had our fights, of course, but I have never seen malice in you. My experiences with you are so peppered with wonder at how much you dare to trust me. The first time I looked into your star-studded eyes and reached out to brush my fingers over your downy neck. Sitting on the grass, barely daring to breathe as your head rested in my lap while you slept. Later, when you were too big to use me as a pillow, I would wait for you to lie down on your side and then crash between your legs with my head resting against your belly. The first time I sat on you, and how you just turned back an ear to hear the voice you love so much. Falling off on an outride, watching you come back to get me. Walking into the horsebox for the first time, hearing your faithful hoofbeats as you followed me without a qualm.

I don’t deserve for you to trust me this much, buddy, and it scares me a little. But you make me want to be better than I am, you make me believe in the stars, you make me know that when the world feels cold and dark there is always someone on this earth who is happy to see me. I have been proud and amazed and happy and priviledged to be such a big part of your remarkable young life, but most of all I have been humbled that God would trust me with one of the best creatures He ever made. You are amazing, but it’s not me who gave the horse his strength and clothed his neck with thunder. The King made you, and you are a glory to Him.

Here’s to a long and beautiful journey ahead with you, my beautiful bay gelding.

Thunder5

 

With love

 

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