Bring It, Springs!

With our next horse trial on the horizon, I’m feeling confident, in a way. I say “in a way” because I feel really confident, but before our previous successes I have been dead nervous, so I feel nervous because I’m not feeling nervous, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I have given up on trying to understand my own psychology.

Arwen, however, has given me not a scrap of reason to doubt her. There will be no stressage at this event (hooray!) so we don’t have to worry about the sandbox. We’ve been putting in brisk workouts around the neighbour’s fields; following her clip Arwen magically appears twenty times fitter and has been burning up the “track”. She comes out to work every day with bucketfuls of enthusiasm and energy; her workouts seem to steady her more than tire her out and after 45 minutes mostly spent hand-galloping, she’ll have covered at least 6km and still have plenty left in the tank.

Showjumping has also been going very well. At the beginning of April we blundered off to a training show (which never even made it into the blog), and blasted around the 60cm, 70cm and 80cm classes. 60cm was a speed trial, so I totally wrote it off knowing that I go around a showjumping course at the approximate speed of a continental drift, and we ended up coming third on top of a class of enormous thoroughbreds. We went double clear in the 70cm and had the last pole down in the 80cm, which I wasn’t upset about because I got her a terrible distance to it and she was exhausted anyways. This was pre-clip and it was a brutally hot day. So we know that she can jump an 80cm course without fuss.

At home we’ve been jumping a little course that I set up to challenge us. It starts with a vertical of around 1.00m, followed by a turn to a skinny about 65cm high (she takes the skinny in her stride, to my amazement), then a little bank up to an 85cm vertical, then a bank down and a turn to a 95cm parallel oxer. She had a few stops at the two bigger fences, but mostly this is rider error. 1.00m is reaching the end of the little mare’s scope and I can’t expect her to jump that sort of thing when I’m not doing my job. She saves my butt enough over the little jumps.

Much love for this fat beast
Much love for this fat beast

Cautiously confident over here; rest assured that walking the cross-country will probably dissolve me back into a suitable state of pressurised anxiety.

Magic has also been super. He managed to injure himself on Friday, another of his mysterious impossible idiotic injuries; some kind of an impact right above the hock on his inner left thigh, leaving a swelling and a graze. Dweeb. By Monday it was fine, though, so we went back to work. We jumped the same course as Arwen, except without the skinny and with everything down to about 60cm. He was his usual: honest as the day, excellent as long as I let go of his face. I think I should start singing “Let it Go” while I ride him. Unfortunately…

I’m also deeply puzzled as to Magic and the French link snaffle. Not because Magic fights the snaffle; that’s pretty normal. But for all the world Magic behaves as if the dear little copper-jointed French link is twenty times harder than his big nasty Kimberwick. He hides behind it, he overreacts to downward transitions in it, and he fights it every step in the canter, alternating violent head-throwing with coming up behind the bit. He’s even worse with the single joint and his teeth are up to date. Then with the Kimberwick he puts his little nose down and goes confidently into the contact. Lunatic. I know he hates the bit to touch his palate, so maybe he hates it to touch his tongue too and the Kimberwick’s port suits him. Either way, he detests dressage anyway, so for now the Kimberwick it is.

Take away this nasty evil snaffle, Mom
Take away this nasty evil snaffle, Mom

Further news is fairly limited, especially as it is too late for my brain to retrieve any of it. Vastrap jumped the same course as Magic like a superstar; one day when I have the courage I’ll have to do a power jump with him because I’ve seen him overjump 1.10m by miles – he’s got quite a pop in him. Baby Thun was much less stupid during his flatwork session yesterday than last time and even slid for me, on my poor footing no less. Exavior is being adorkable and growing like a weed. Skye continues to bully and babysit him, despite now standing almost a full hand shorter than him. The Mutterer’s chestnut mare has gone to her overjoyed new home. The little roan pony bucked me off rather painfully onto my left buttock, which now bears an impressive bruise; the impressive bruises are always somewhere that you can’t show off.

Except for the time that I faceplanted off Vastrap
Except for the time that I faceplanted off Vastrap

To bed with this exhausted equestrienne. Praise God for full days and good horses.

Glory to the King.

Looky, Another Post!

What can I say, I’m actually a cooler blogger when I have a little extra time on my hands.

I got done studying early today because I gave up on English (exam is tomorrow, tutor has already told me to rewrite the exam in November, super promising, right?) so I had a subject less to slog through. In all seriousness, I did not give up on English, I merely decided that cramming is not my style. Besides, it’s English. What’s to cram? One day’s practice is not going to solve my apparent suckiness, although don’t tell my numerous editors that I suck at English because apparently they did not receive the memo and accept my work anyway.

Magic was first up, and seeing as he burnt quite a lot of energy yesterday, I just lunged him for a few minutes before getting on. He was excellent and calm to lunge, so I expected him to be just fine. He stood like a saint for me to get on and then walked quite calmly into the arena, right up until the point where we passed some rather high khakibos (brush, to non-South Africans) and a tiny sparrow chose that moment to come whirring out of it. Whereupon Magic entirely lost his mind and leapt about three metres into the air. When he touched down I was luckily ready for more freaking out because he did it again, flailing his legs and face in all directions. He was typical Magic, though – no bucking, no shying, nothing dirty, just a total mental meltdown while I sat there like:

until he returned to earth and stood there quivering. Poor guy. Life is so hard on him sometimes. I patted his neck and told him that he was okay, and lo and behold, he believed me. Our relationship truly has improved vastly; neither of us were extraordinarily rattled, and we put it behind us and continued the session calmly, with only one more terrified leap-flail until Magic went to work and totally forgot about the flesh-eating giant mutant monster sparrow. He was, after that, truly excellent. He didn’t buck, he didn’t poke out his nose, and when we jumped a little teeny cross he didn’t turn a hair. I have to seriously work on trusting him to the jumps, though. He doesn’t deserve me hanging onto his face. He’s got this.

Thunder hadn’t been ridden for three weeks due to shows, flu, and the general chaos that my life had dissolved into, so for the first time in many months I threw him on the lunge for a few minutes. It was amazing to see how much stronger he’s become. He used to canter like a real baby in the ring, haphazardly, occasionally disuniting and sometimes crashing into the sides for lack of balance. Today he picked the right lead and cruised around on a little circle with apparently no effort.

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Sorry, I know my lens was grubby

Riding was a different story. The Bush of Killer Sparrows was apparently deadly to Thunny as well, so he spooked violently every time we passed. Same story – nothing dirty, just his standard spin-run maneovre. I was unimpressed with him because it’s unlike him to be quite that stupid for quite that long over a relatively minor spooky thing, but I put it down to vast amounts of excess energy. We didn’t do much apart from circle around and around in the scary end until he gave me one relaxed walk circle on a loose rein. His lope was all over the place, way more than it has been recently, but he did spin and rein back very nicely for me.

Arwen is entered into her next event (again, an unaffiliated class at a recognised event) in the end of May. I’m not sure whether to be happy or worried. Happy because it’s at President’s Park over fences that she’s jumped before, so the spook factor should be minimised and travelling shouldn’t be a problem.  Happy because it’s a one-day, so we don’t have to spend the night in a stable again. Worried because it’s a one-day, so poor Arwie will have to do showjumping and cross-country on one day. Fitness is obviously quite a priority, so we went for a ride around the neighbour’s racetrack maize fields. I’m not allowed off property without my trusty guard dog, Blizzard, who is quite unfit, so we kept it down to 6km and had a couple of walk breaks, but we definitely burnt some energy. Currently we’re working on trying to find a variety of different types of canter – obviously our working canter, then a showjumping/medium canter, a highly collected and bouncy “changes canter”, a big travelling hand-gallop that I’m trying to make just over 25kph (440mpm), and of course our full gallop. Always fun to be going at speed on a fit horse.

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That horizon calls Arwen’s name

The Mutterer has sent me a new mare to school after I sold his beautiful roan gelding to an awesome family. The little mare has already been sold but was out of work for a while so she’s just getting a quick tune-up. She is a rock solid, totally unflappable ride, her only flaw being some laziness, which the dressage whip should fix pretty fast.

Finally, I tossed Skye’s bridle on and took her majesty for a little walking hack. She enjoyed it tremendously, jogging and prancing all the way home whilst the human on her back wittered something about arthritic knees – she wasn’t really listening. Oh, old warrior queen. Afterwards I did milk deliveries with bareback butt, but I owe her the world. She is so happy and bright and indomitable and wonderful.

Glory to the amazing King.

<3

Our First Event

WE FINALLY HAVE PHOTOS! And amazing photos they are too, thanks to the excellent Tamara and Blake Images.

No photographers are immune to this stunning face
No photographers are immune to this stunning face

Two weekends back, we pushed Arwen into the box (literally – she wasn’t impressed with loading in the semidarkness) and set off on a long, nauseating drive to Le Godimo Horse Trials in Hartebeespoort. (My stomach can do hills. It can do winding. Winding and hills and watching Arwen on the horsebox camera? It went on strike). It was a two-hour drive, but Arwen was impressively calm, for Arwen. She was rather sweaty but not shaky when we unloaded, and unlike Magic, refrained from having tantrums on the highway.

We’d entered the surprisingly big Adults EV60 class (jumps are about 2′ in cross-country; it’ll be the equivalent of the British BE60 and as for the Americans, you guys can figure it out yourselves. I don’t get your levels. How can Prelim be that big?), but it was still a bit intimidating to get there and see the sheer amount of horses and riders – about 150 entries in all. The atmosphere was definitely different to the relaxed training show feeling. I didn’t worry about it because I had Arwen’s hair to worry about. I let her go natural because a) I love long manes, b) Nooitgedachters are supposed to be natural and c) I value my skin and do not need it ripped off by the long-mane-loving Mutterer. This is all fine and well right up until you need to plait it for dressage. By a joint effort, my sister and I managed to squash Arwen’s tremendous hair into thirteen enormous bobbles. Six or seven of which she shook out five minutes before the test. I was deeply grateful for my sister, who is used to organising ballet exams and managed to restrain Arwen’s hair just in time. At least the little mare was very good, and stood eating hay throughout the plaiting ordeal.

Poetry in motion. Her, I mean. I'm a mess. They call it stressage for a reason.
Poetry in motion. Her, I mean. I’m a mess. They call it stressage for a reason.

We warmed up all right for dressage. She was soft and forward and only tried to kick one thoroughbred (who kind of deserved it). In fact I thought we’d be excellent right up until she noticed the horse wearing a fly sheet in a paddock directly behind the judges’ box. She’d never seen anything like it before and she absolutely did not trust it.

“Arwen, seriously. It’s just a fly sheet, honey,” I said.

“It’s a warmblood, first of all, ” said Arwen, “and it’s wearing something weird. How dare it invent armour that makes it impervious to my kicks?”

She was actually quite mature about it. No panicking, no shying, no running through my aids; but she was very tense and I could feel that if I gave her an inch she would blow. So I held her down a bit too much. In my eyes the test went fine; we got all the movements accurately, she struck off on the correct leg every time, she responded obediently to everything I asked, but the judge hated us because I had overbent her pretty badly, so of course she wasn’t tracking up like she should. Next time I’ll take the chance of her blowing through my aids and see what happens. Our score was horrible but not the worst; 62, placing us 10th out of 15 entries. She nearly threw me off as we left the arena when a spectator stood up and accidentally gave her a fright, but luckily the test was over by then.

Dressage faces. Much seriousness.
Dressage faces. Much seriousness. Also crooked because fly sheet monster horse is in front of us.

We had a couple of hours to kill after dressage, which I mostly spent determinedly trying to get her mane straight again. I took the plaits out because they looked uncomfortable, but we all know that horrible crinkle-cut look of a recently plaited mane. I did not want to look like the newbie I am, so I brushed it out with a wet dandy brush and had a flat mane in ten minutes. Of course, everyone else just rode with crinkle-cut manes and all, so I looked like a newbie anyway, but at least her hair was straight.

I walked the course with my fingers locked together, praying more fervently as each jump passed. It wasn’t big, nor did it have a lot of filler, but it was rather more complex than the little training show courses. Jump one was an inviting vertical leading to a rather frightening oxer at two (as frightening as a 65cm oxer can be, anyway); number three was a little vertical, and number four was a big white oxer on top of a dyke right in front of the announcer’s box. There was a tight left turn to number five, number six was the biggest terrifying oxer of all the terrifying oxers, number seven was a boring vertical, 8a a vertical with two strides to the 8b oxer, nine was a red-and-white jump with weird filler at the bottom of a high and relatively steep bank, and number ten was an oxer that you had to jump right after turning directly past the arena gate. When I walked the course I actually didn’t think of that, but it caused quite a few incidents that day.

See, I do know what I'm doing
See, I do know what I’m doing

Arwen warmed up superbly. It was abominably hot, so I kept it short and simple. She took me to the jumps, bucked enthusiastically after one of them, and showed no fear at all. By the end of fifteen minutes’ warmup she was drenched in sweat. I sat on her and trembled as number 17 (two riders before us) jumped their round, but was comforted by a random kind lady who poked Arwen’s wayward cheekpiece back into its keeper. (Thank you, random kind lady).

Then it was one rider before us and I walked her around the jumps and made her look at them, which she said was very boring (except for number nine, which was terrifying). Kirsten the Wonderful XC Instructor hissed at me from the sidelines to walk her through the dyke, which I did; I was expecting some fireworks, but Arwen plodded through it and enquired if she should jump the oxer. I politely declined as I didn’t want to be disqualified for over-enthusiasm.

Dykes don't scare Arwen
Dykes don’t scare Arwen

As it turns out, over-enthusiasm was really the only thing I had to worry about. I did have to kick her a bit at number two, but she blasted through the dyke like it was no big deal. We had a very stupid run-out at little dumb number seven because I was being relieved about number six and quit concentrating, but she popped straight over it again. She had a look at number nine as we came thundering down the bank but I planted my heels in her and she jumped just fine. She was fantastic – fast, accurate, and gutsy. We had only the four faults for the run-out, no time penalties, which isn’t bad for a fat little mare, especially considering I really didn’t push the speed at all for the sake of the heat and my nerves.

Look how awesome we are
Look how awesome we are

Then came the part I was most worried about: trying to keep Arwen inside a stable without killing anybody for long enough that I could get enough sleep to stay awake until the end of cross-country on Sunday. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The stables were constructed of wooden poles, so she could see and smell (and bite) her stablemates. We did have to move four times before we found a stable that nobody else wanted, but Arwen wasn’t too upset by the idea. She pulled funny faces at the gelding on her left (he ignored her), snapped and squealed at the mare on her right (they were best buds by the end of the weekend), ate her hay and went to sleep. I did tie a couple of lunging lines across her door to prevent her from getting any ideas. Feeding time was kind of embarrassing as all the other horses tucked into buckets of pellets with mountains of lucerne, and I tried to be invisible as I gave her two handfuls instead of one for the sake of not looking like a total animal abuser.

Also, major big shout-out to Erin! I actually met someone who reads my blog!! People do that, you know. Erin happened to be three stables down from us with her stupendous chestnut Boerperd gelding, Burgerstrots Gedenk. Fantastic seeing you, Erin.

Arwen spent the night annoying her neighbours. We spent the night in the horsebox, which was awesome until it rained; my parents were a bit damp the next morning. Our spirits, however, were unaffected. Arwen was happy and extremely hyper despite the appalling heat. I tried to take her for a walk in the interests of letting her graze and relax, but all she did was dragon-snort at everything and drag me around, so she was put back in her stable to think about her sins.

Cross-country time found us both fidgety with nerves and excitement. Arwen was eager to get moving; I saddled her up in her stable, clumsy with excitement. She pawed the ground and bit me by accident while I was doing up her curb chain. I’ll excuse her just this once for rearing as we set off on the long-ish hack to the warmup arena, because she was excited and people were cantering randomly off with little heed to the crazy young horse that was half a breath away from going airborne. We somehow made it to the warmup in one sweaty piece.

I couldn’t believe the heat. Arwen, luckily, had been drinking well all weekend, because she sweated incessantly – she was damp just standing in her stable, so she was drenched before we even got to the arena. It was almost midday and I considered scratching, but even once she’d calmed down somewhat, Arwen was willing and forward-going, so I decided to listen to her and soldier on. I kept the warmup short – just a couple of brisk laps of canter and a handful of little jumps. She was brave as the day, just stopped at a skinny that was quite a big bigger than our class. On the second try she popped right over.

In a whirlwind of panic I struggled into my body protector and scrambled over to the marshall, praying they wouldn’t mind that my number was pinned directly to my body protector, my medical card was homemade and the stitching on my girth was getting a bit suspicious. Luckily they didn’t, so the next minute we were trotting down to the starting box and the corner of my number suddenly started flying around. Arwen thankfully didn’t spook, but as Dad was pinning it back on, she struck out a front foot to rub her face on, stood on her reins and broke them. Pandemonium reigned as Dad had a horse with half a bridle on thrust at him, I ran to the marshall to explain the problem, Rain ran to the horsebox in record time to fetch my spare reins, and Arwen fussed around saying it was time to go.

I have the most amazing pit crew ever. Two minutes later, I had my spare reins attached, my number was fixed and I was back on my horse. And a countdown from five after that, we were trotting out of the starting box and heading for jump number one.

Go Arwie go
These are our cross-country faces. Much happiness.

Cross-country is such an amazing experience. Out there, at that speed, it’s just you and the horse and God. (And the occasional jump judge to spook dramatically at). I was terrified as we approached jump number one, a simple log, but Arwen carried me over and then we’d popped over the pole stack at number two, and number three was right there in front of me and we felt that nothing could stop us. It was a long, twisty, confusing gallop to number four that I’d had to walk three times before getting it, but spectators helped out by standing in the “wrong” turns and we found it easily. Number five was a bit hairy as it was a fat log sitting in a gap between two big bushes, and obviously the jump judge elected to sit virtually in the approach to it, but we made it and then we were galloping to scary number six, which she just sailed over. Number seven was very boring and I was relieved about number six so we ran out and nearly killed a judge. Silly mistake, but we turned around, popped over and put it behind us.

CROSS COUNTRYYYYYYYY
CROSS COUNTRYYYYYYYY

Number eight was this splendid oxer, then a big gallop to number nine, which was a bit daunting as it sort of popped out of the bushes at you, but Arwen took it in her stride. Ten and eleven were in a bending line right after one another; we had really hit our rhythm now and we tackled them easily. Number twelve, thirteen and fourteen were close together on a bending line; I was a bit worried about fourteen as it would be very easy to run out to the left (her favourite run-out direction) but she didn’t even think about it.

The line from fourteen to fifteen was the longest gallop, but we lost a lot of time as there was a very scary 1* jump standing in the middle of it and Arwen said we had to keep an eye on it so we cantered slowly sideways past it. Luckily we pulled ourselves together in time for number fifteen, then tackled the water. It was not flagged so we could go around, but I wanted to give it a shot. She slowed to a trot, had a look, and then leapt right in. It was a long water complex and very deep, so by the time we reached the other side my hot, tired horse was going at a riding school trot. We managed to get our canter back by number sixteen and then we were nearly home, blasting through the trees to the last jump, then absolutely flooring it for the finish line. I was grateful for our barrel racing days because we shot over the line at a bit of a ridiculous speed, but I sat down and closed my fingers and she stopped so suddenly I nearly fell off.

Eyes on the prize
Eyes on the prize

It’s hard to describe just how I felt as we walked away from the finish. I was exhausted, sweaty, dehydrated, slightly heat exhausted and so hot I could feel my heart throbbing in my ears. My legs felt wrung out, my hands were shaking and I could feel the first twinges of my back being out (probably popped it out during our sideways canter). Similarly, Arwen was gasping for breath and dripping sweat. But I could tell by the spring in her step and the set of her ears that she felt the way I did; exhilarated, overwhelmed with gratitude, joyful beyond description. So I did the only thing I could. I dropped my reins, I lifted my hands, and I thanked my King.

Arwen5

The Thundering Thelwell

If I only owned Arwen, this would totally be my blog name.

Last Sunday found my poor dad trailering two horses to President’s Park for cross-country; Arwen and the Mutterer’s wonderful white gelding, who proved to be the good influence in the equation even though the poor thing hadn’t been to an outing for months, if ever.

Arwen appeared to enjoy her travel buddy and was hyper but not sweaty when we arrived, seeming more excited than worried; she loves President’s Park. I pulled the gelding off the trailer in a mild flap (I was, as usual, somewhat late; I invariably oversleep on show mornings) and threw him at Mom as soon as I saw that he was as quiet as a sheep. Mom stood there grinning while he grazed (they love each other) and I threw Arwen’s stuff on and cantered off only to find that my trainer was way on the other end of the Park and I was actually quite early.

IMG_201502164068
Complete with oh-so-stylish blue duct tape holding my errant gaiter closed

This was a huge relief. I’d been sick all week, so my already unfit, overweight and hyper horse had spent five days eating grass. On Friday I was able to lunge her without dying and on Saturday I managed to kind of ride, although I don’t think I achieved anything apart from burning some energy (mostly mine). The same went for the dear white gelding, but I wasn’t too worried about him because he’s a trooper. But I was expecting a bit of fireworks from Arwen.

It was not to be. She batted her eyelashes at a very pretty (and matchingly rotund) grey stallion who was also warming up, then put her head down and went to work. No spooking. No neighing. Perfect obedience. No bucking. You just gotta love little grey mares.

IMG_2015021627810
I can’t wait for my new boots to arrive… but okay, my horse is amazing

She was good and unfit, so I hopped off after a couple of canter circles and waited for my lesson, giving up on trying to stop her grazing after a few attempts – I needed to save my limited energy. Then our instructor for the day, Graham Winn, came bouncing over looking much too energetic, so I scrambled on and my round horse and I wobbled off to join the lesson.

Arwen was amazing. She warmed up like a pro, despite the grey stallion who was leaping around everywhere, and aced the collecting and lengthening exercise our instructor used to get the horses focused and quick off the leg. For a change, Arwen was instantly responsive to my leg, as well as collecting calmly on gentle half-halts from my seat alone, with the hands having to do no pulling at all; just a touch of gentle resistance.

Lengthening the trot; I think this is going to be what our medium trot will look like
Lengthening the trot; I think this is going to be what our medium trot will look like

Then off we went to jump. I actually completely lost count of everything we jumped; we just never seemed to stop, trotting all over the Park after our instructor, who jogs everywhere at a frightening pace. I’ll be the first to admit that, although not for lack of trying, I was about as effective and balanced as a bag of potatoes. Mouldy potatoes. My flu was improved, but my muscles were basically mush, so “legs on” wasn’t happening a whole lot. So I concentrated on feeling confident and making my mind positive even when my poor jelly legs weren’t cooperating and Arwen heard the “yes” in me and responded with a bigger “YES” of her own. She was a star. She thought of stopping only once, and then I summoned the strength to kick and squeak and she jumped.

We tackled a few harder things than we’ve done before: a jump straight into water, a log with three strides to a thatch that you had to jump at an angle landing on a quite sharp downhill, a three-stride combination with the first jump on an uphill and the second on a distinct downhill, and (drum roll) a drop. I detest drops. To be honest, I am absolutely terrified of drops. Before the dynasty of the Kent and Masters, Arwen and I tried jumping down a few banks with the invariable result that my old saddle shot up her neck and I shot up her ears and she bucked in protest, which was not very fun at all and resulted in both of us hating drops. However, the instructor said go, so we went, most reluctantly and eventually horizontally; I was not expecting to leap into thin air and nearly sat on her tail. After a few attempts, however, she was already too tired to do the leaping thing and started to pop down sensibly and I realised that I was probably not going to die.

Because this is how the big boys do it, right?
Because this is how the big boys do it, right?

There was also one sort of rolltop fence that she didn’t like; she was a bit tired by this point and touched it with her toes the first time she jumped, which scared the socks off her (Arwen hates touching fences) so she hesitated and then jumped it hugely the second time. No worries, at least she’s a careful cross-country mount.

Apart from those, absolutely nothing phased her. She did throw the odd happy buck or two, which I will not protest about because she’s young and lively and not malicious and totally allowed to express herself considering that she doesn’t come anywhere near dislodging me. Even the water didn’t give her a moment’s pause; she jumped over a log into it, she galloped through it, and I sat there grinning and unable to see (on a 14.3hh horse you are rather close to the spray) because I love water. At one big log, both the horses leading us ran out; Arwen thought about it, but the moment I clapped my legs on she said, “Yes, ma’am!” and jumped without a second thought. That’s my brave little grey mare.

That's what I'm talking about
That’s what I’m talking about

We are probably going to our first event in mid-March. Mentally, I believe she’s ready; the dressage should be easy for her, and she’s successfully done both cross-country and showjumping at a greater height than our class will be (60cm, or about 2′). Physically, well, in the words of a spectator: “Oh look! It’s just like a Thelwell pony.”

Arwen watching the grey stallion with WAY too much interest... If she pops out a little grey baby in 11 months, don't say I didn't warn you.
Arwen watching the grey stallion with WAY too much interest… If she pops out a little grey baby in 11 months, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Thelwell
The resemblance is actually rather frightening

We were both exhausted when we staggered back to the trailer; Arwen, although not very breathless, was sweating so hard that I couldn’t see the difference between sweat and wetness from the water complex. She did not seem much bothered, however, and started grazing happily as I ripped her tack off and strapped it onto the white gelding. He had been grazing demurely under a tree with Mom, being his usual saintly self. I was tired and hurting but figured that cross-country was a good way to die, so I got on and trotted off for his lesson with Kirsten (who was giving me a free lesson apparently because she wanted to see how the white gelding goes, but possibly because like the rest of her family she has a heart of gold).

Thank God (really, do it) the white gelding was perfect and I lived to tell the tale. He hesitated at the first jump, then took everything in his stride with his typical generous aplomb. I’ll let the pictures speak. Speaking of which, thanks big li’l sis for the pictures!

Glory, glory, glory to the amazing King!

I LOVE WATER
I LOVE WATER
He thought he should go over the water complex. Yes, Nooitgedachters can jump like superstars.
He thought he should go over the water complex. Yes, Nooitgedachters can jump like superstars.
WHEEEE
WHEEEE

Back in the Game

Finally, the six weeks of forced rest is over and the ponies and I have all gone solidly back to work, as well as the ever-increasing string of client horses that seem to have attached themselves to me in bewildering and wonderful numbers. You just have to love the God Who drops horses in your lap.

I have twenty horses in training with me at the moment, although thankfully they are not all at my place; I am a ridiculous OCD crazy horse keeper person and would spend all day every day fussing over their hair or something. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to need a groom to keep everyone as clean and shiny as my picky standards demand.

Arwen had two days off after our impromptu offsite lesson; she looked pretty much tuckered out for the whole of Sunday and I think she would have been okay to ride on Monday, but it rained and I felt sorry for the unfit beast so she got a bonus day off. We jumped on Tuesday, during which she was basically Hickstead and didn’t refuse a thing, including a 1.00m (3′ 3″) parallel oxer that looked rather daunting from where I was sitting and was apparently totally not scary according to Arwen. Both of us have totally messed up eyes at the moment, though, mostly due to lack of practice and (in my case) lack of talent. I can’t see a distance to save my life. At least I’m getting good at not falling off when jumping from horrible distances. Next time I plan to put out a bunch of placing poles at the takeoff point just to help us both hone in on the perfect spot.

Wednesday was also an unplanned day off since there just weren’t enough hours in the day; the Mutterer and I had three horse to transport and a client to go to, which all went very well and raised the current horse population of Hydeaway Farm to nine.

On Thursday we did a bit of dressage. Since having her teeth done, Arwen is pretty much always on the bit. She loses her frame for a few seconds during some complex transitions or simple changes, but the feeling in my hands is just awesome – she has a lovely swinging stride into a supple, steady contact. I am starting to use the French link as my go-to bit more and more since most of the horses, with one or two exceptions, quite like it. Her trot leg-yields to the right are still a bit rusty, lacking some lateral movement, but not bad. Walk-canter and canter-walk transitions were the best they have been, simple changes a little rushed, shoulder-in was awesome. We also adapted the how-many-strides-on-a-circle exercise to a slightly easier version. I used a 20m circle at A to collect her and then counted how many strides I could fit between F and M, then used the M-H short side to extend her and counted how few strides I could fit between H and K. This exercise handily helps for both jumping and dressage by developing a straight, adjustable medium and working canter.

Today was galloping day and the little mare impressed me; she was a little flighty at the start, but steadied after half a mile’s working canter and proceeded to be awesome. We concentrated on both rhythm and speed, getting both of them with minimal effort from me. Then we walked home on the buckle because Nooitgedachters rule the world.

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Idyllic. And fat. But mostly idyllic.

 

Exavior has started a little groundwork to become a good equine citizen. I keep it quite short – 20 minutes is enough for his baby brain – and use a rope halter because it has a little more bite and the horses tend to respect it and not lean on it, a favourite trick of giant warmbloody types. He is quite the big stubborn donkey and I spent some time dragging him around the arena with a bum rope, but he’s getting the whole idea of walking on a loose lead. For one session he also thought it was a good idea to basically crash into me when I stopped, but a few well-placed elbows quickly sorted that one out. We have started with a little turn on the forehand now. He also now drops his head almost to the ground if I insist and he’s concentrating; when he isn’t, he still responds to poll pressure by lowering his head. This will be very useful as when he lifts his head I already have to stand on my toes like a little kid to get to his forelock.

Sleepy sabino-ness
Sleepy sabino-ness

Magic was a complete jerk for the first five or six sessions after his rest. I started by free lunging him and letting him play and get rid of his energy the first time; this proved to be a good idea as all he did was run around and buck like a maniac for half an hour straight. I did not blame him and merely stood in the middle waiting for his brain to come back. There is very little point in trying to get Magic to do anything specific when his brain is being cooked in excess energy; as long as he was going around and around the way I wanted, I was quite happy.

The next session I strapped a standing martingale to him and made him behave himself, which, with some head-tossing but no bucking, he did. After that I lunged him for a few minutes before every ride and got on; he offered to buck once, but thought better of it. We had several frustrating sessions where he fought the bit and I fought with him and it was a general hot, head-tossing, bouncing, squealing mess, but his brain thankfully came back yesterday. I schooled him in his beloved French link, carrying a dressage whip to encourage him forward into it when he loses his mind (hardest thing ever: making a horse go forward when it wants to go nuts and all your instincts scream at you to stop). He was a little heavy in my hand at the canter, but no flailing, no throwing his head, nothing.

Today I put his Kimberwick back on and when he warmed up superbly – not a single head toss to be seen, at all three gaits – decided to try a bit of jumping. He was stunning. We started with 30cm and finished around 70cm with not a single stop, rail or overjump. We both picked some horrible distances but all in all it was very quiet and harmonious, so I’m hoping we’ve dodged the dreadful overjumping he used last time he had had a rest.

Throwback to his time off: I was super bored and I did his hair. He was very patient, to his credit.
Throwback to his time off: I was super bored and I did his hair. He was very patient, to his credit.

Skye is very mad at the dentist for saying that she is twenty-six years old, and made up for it by nearly throwing me off two rides in a row. I hack her around bareback because, seriously, who needs a saddle to walk around on a bombproof, arthritic old mare? Apparently I do; she is acting like a two-year-old on the GCS, which seems to make her legs feel much better, and bucked, bolted and reared. So much for being a good influence on the youngsters. I stayed on by the skin of my teeth and could only laugh; I love her so much and she’s doing so well.

One of my client horses also has a little foal, about two weeks old, so Skye is naturally in seventh heaven. She stands with her head over the fence gazing dreamily at little Duke and looking extremely broody for hours.

Exquisite <3
Exquisite ❤

Baby Thunder is being a superstar. His schooling took a few steps back, naturally, for which he can’t be blamed; soon it’ll all come back to him. His spins are a little quicker, but the lope isn’t quite as nice and his rollbacks are very sticky at the moment. On our outride yesterday, though, he was a star. My sister’s mare is quite lively and so she prefers to go in front when we lope, and Baby Thun is totally fine either way; he’s quiet in the back and confident in the front. He was a bit scared of some pigeons in a tree, but this manifested itself only in a shortening of his stride and raising his head, and he went bravely forward when I asked him to. A group of guinea fowl also flew up out of the long grass around him and he handled it very maturely; he startled and had a tiny little sideways shy, then paused and waited for instructions. I do so love it when a horse does that. I said, “Go forward, buddy” and he instantly relaxed and did so.

What a magnificent puzzle horses are; prey animals with lion hearts. Thank You, Jesus. Glory to the King.

I love this view
I love this view

Jump All the Things!

EXAMS ARE OVER!!!

So. Happy.

Anyway…

I had originally entered Arwen into a cross-training show last weekend, but it ended up being cancelled and cross-country lessons being held at the same venue instead. I was not terribly upset about this because I was really excited to have a lesson from this instructor, who was the chef d’ equipe for South Africa’s eventing team at WEG this year and has been at the top of SA eventing for many years.

The lesson ended up being totally awesome. Arwen loaded, travelled, and behaved like a superstar. She didn’t kick anybody at all, and we both got along well with the instructor; he was knowledgeable, punctual and patient, and has a teaching voice that I would kill for. (Seriously, how do you get your voice to carry all the way across a giant arena without actually shouting?). We warmed up with some showjumps first, which was slightly hairy because Arwen is much more afraid of showjumps than of cross-country, but actually went well. She did have one little stop at the dumbest tiny cross ever, but there was a puddle behind it and I wasn’t there to support her with my leg, so I won’t hold it against her.

She had one moment of absolute awesomeness as we were following the horse in front of us through a gymnastic line. I fear and hate gymnastic jumping and as such have never really tried it properly, so of course neither has she. To my horror, halfway through the line I realised that the jumps in front of us were not a one-stride combination, they were a bounce. I have never tried to jump a bounce, and this one was around 60cm so it wasn’t like we could trot our way through it, so I sat there panicking a bit and Arwen was all “I got this, human” and popped through it perfectly. Gotta love little tough grey mares.

The cross-country was also good; a little more challenging than we’ve tried before, including a dyke, a hanging log, some creepy black barrels under a tree, and a little bank down into the water. She bucked like a lunatic a few times, of course, out of enjoyment; but she was as brave as the day and jumped everything fearlessly. The only jump I really had to kick her at was a big black solid oxer that made my heart stand still, and she cleared it with flying colours in the end. The dyke was by far the hardest to ride, but we did it several times with great success. She was a little looky about the water, but as soon as she had followed the experienced pony through it once, she was fine even about jumping down into it. (Awesomest sound ever: the splash when you jump into water. So much fun).

She was a tired pony by the end of the lesson, but I learned a lot and we both had a wonderful time. Cross-country is the best! I hope I’ll have pictures soon, but for now all you get is boring old words.

The others have gone through a slight tough patch, mostly a combination of cold wet weather and moving paddocks with all the new horses arriving. I split them into three groups with Arwen, Thunder and Flare in one group; Magic, Exavior and Skye in the other; and the old donkey Benjamin keeping the Mutterer’s white horse company. Skye’s herd have formed a tight-knit little family. Skye is, of course, the Queen with Magic being her first knight. He has gotten a real confidence boost from being second-in-command. He is kind to Exavior and doesn’t bully him, but he carries himself with a bit more assurance now that he’s not the underdog anymore. Exavior, being the youngest, is the little prince and Magic’s playmate; Skye has also joyously adopted him. She treats him exactly as she treats Thunder, and whenever he’s nervous he runs to Skye and hides next to her because he’s the only one allowed in her majesty’s personal space. Skye has a new lease on life too, with her baby to be responsible for. Exavior also caught a cold; he’s had a bit of a runny nose since he arrived and I think the cold weather just brought out some kind of a virus in him. After having some needles and TLC pushed into into him, he seems 100% again now.

Never mind that he's exactly her height
Never mind that he’s exactly her height: 14.2hh

Arwen’s herd had a slightly harder time adjusting. Thunder has always been the underdog in the group, and I don’t think being Arwen’s beta suits him very well. In general the second-in-command seems responsible for protecting the lead mare, and poor Thunder is much too sweet and fragile to be any good at this. When Flare was introduced to the herd he tried his best to frighten her by pulling awful faces and trying to bite her without actually using his teeth; Flare, unimpressed, landed a couple of kicks on him and he was a bit sore for a few days. It’s so hard sometimes to let them be horses and take the knocks of group life, but he’s feeling all better now, so no harm has been done. I secretly hope that Flare eventually dominates Thunder and becomes Arwen’s bodyguard so that Thun can be the omega again, but it might be better to put him in Skye’s herd. He misses his mother, and the three boys would have a wonderful time together with Skye to put them in their places.

Thunder: Rawr! I'm fierce!
Thunder: Rawr! I’m fierce! Flare: Yeah, right

On the showjumping front, Magic and I have reached the level of confidence where I can start challenging him again. Not in terms of height – we’re not there yet – but in terms of technique. Graham Winn says, “It’s perfecting the small jumps that makes the big ones easy”, so I’m hoping all this fuss over crossrails will eventually pay off. We started by warming up over a tiny baby gymnastic line (three trotting poles to about a 70cm oxer) and then tried a little triple combination. I set it up at first as one really tiny crossrail to two ground poles just to give him a bit of warning first, because the last thing I wanted was for him to panic and crash through jumps. I had 13m between jumps and went in without worrying over strides the first time, just wanting him to stay calm and get the takeoff distances right. Once I could pick it up to three little crosses and he was still popping through without worrying, I started counting strides. He would fit in four or five, sometimes four in the first half and five in the second, sometimes vice versa. So first we tried cantering through with an equal number of strides between jumps to keep a rhythm. He was very nice about it and didn’t pull on my hands too much, and I kept him very quiet and fit in five nice steady little strides between jumps. Then I started to push him; first doing it in five strides, then coming back and trying for four. The first time I let him do the four strides he got really excited, finished the combination well, and then leapt into the air like a pogo stick with his front feet striking out the way he does when he’s playing. Obviously he was just enjoying himself, and I kept my balance, and it was thrilling, but I made him put his feet on the ground and behave like a grownup horsie. I don’t need him pulling out stunts like that all the time.

The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work...
The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work…

Once he’d gone nuts once, he seemed content to go through it nicely in however many strides I pleased a few times – minus a few mistakes when he thought three strides, I said four and we ended up running on air – and I was super proud of him. Even though we’re still jumping glorified ground poles, I think we have made progress. He had a few green moments today and did his little leap-in-the-air act, but I was able to stay relaxed and go through it again without losing confidence. He is also less of a wuss and was happy to try again without panicking. Little steps, but they’re in the right direction.

Glory to the King.

Rockin’ the Cross-Country

May I just say that eventing is AWESOME? Okay, so I’ll do whatever discipline suits the horse best… but I am SO glad that Arwen has taken to eventing. I love it!!

Yesterday morning, I was immediately glad of the bit of loading training we’d done. It was so much less stressful for everyone involved when I could just walk my horse right on and go. Somehow, I still managed to be late, and we whirled into President’s Park with five minutes to saddle up and go. (Sorry, parents!)

Arwen10

When I pulled Arwen off the box to find her dry, calm, and happy, I was so grateful I could have kissed the new box. Evidently, slant haul is more horse-friendly than straight load; or perhaps she just liked the extra space or God gave me another little miracle. Either way, it was such a relief to be able to throw on the tack and set off on a cool, calm and relaxed horse. (My parents and I saddled up like pros; Arwen stood still in a whirl of activity akin to a Formula One pit stop).

Luckily, my instructor was running a little late too, so I found and followed her in good time. As usual, she recognised me instantly, which is nice of her considering how many people she teaches.  Arwen surveyed our group and picked out her targets – a pair of thoroughbreds and a warmblood – and made an evil face at them, so I kept her near the back with a (very beautiful) buckskin pony. Apparently, she only hates big fancy horses.

Like last time, we warmed up in the grass showjumping arena with a few big trot, canter and hand-gallop circles. Arwen was an absolute jewel despite our frantic entry; she really is turning into such a trustworthy little gem of a horse. I did have her in the Kimberwick for a little extra leverage on the long gallops, but I didn’t need it once in the warmup. She was soft as a feather in my hands and listened perfectly to my little half-halts. In the canter she was stunning – she had such a quiet rhythmic working canter going that I had to move out of the circle a few times to allow the more excited horses to go past. Still, when I went into light seat and asked for a bit more speed she lengthened her strides and sped up nicely. Offered to buck once, when the pony in front of her got a bit hyped up and she was worried about the terrain, but nothing serious.

Then we were off to do some jumping. I admire my instructor’s fitness almost as much as I admire her horsemanship – last time, she was on foot, and we were all trotting around that course trying to keep up. This time she had a pony so we just had to scramble to stick with her. It meant that we got to do a whole bunch of jumps. We started out over the same log that we’d started with next time, and she was as usual keen and brave but had a buck afterwards. I was waiting for it, so I just sat back and kept my hands firm and let her hit herself on the bit a little. She rethought the idea of bucking and was much calmer on the second try.

We popped over another log and then had a shot at a mini course; the log, then a long curve to our first cross-country oxer. I’m not fond of oxers because I tend to stare down into them, but this time I kept my eyes up and my legs on; she was a bit scared of it and wriggled a little, but as soon as she felt my determination she jumped – very carefully the first time, and with more confidence the second. Again tried a buck, but again hit herself on the bit and then decided against it.

Arwen9

Next, we attempted our first cross-country combination; a bigger log underneath a tree, then maybe five strides on a slightly bending line to a sort of log stack upright. (I didn’t count the strides, but we did get the distance right, so whatever!) She ran out at the big log, but that was mostly my fault. It was in the shade and hard to see even for my human eyes; Arwen didn’t know it was there until she was on top of it, and then she kind of hopped over with one leg and ran out with the other three. The next time she knew it was there and I kept my right rein up so she went straight over and charged over the next jump without a moment’s hesitation. Silly little rider error, but at least I know not to make it again.

We rode down to a water complex she hadn’t seen before; I was holding her back from the group to avoid overexcitement, which in hindsight was a mistake at the water. She refused to go in, but when one of the other riders trotted around in front of us again, she followed the other horse straight in and had no reservations about it afterwards. That done, we headed back up over a little bridge (she said it was scary, but marched on regardless) to try another mini-course. It was a pole over some rocks to another log stack to a log lying next to a tree, all on a long bending line. Some of the horses had second thoughts about the rock-logs-thing, but Arwen just charged at it like:

X ALL THE THINGS - JUMP all the things

so I basically hung on tight, weathered a weird moment of bucking and running, and steered her over everything. Our instructor said that she was very good, much better than last time, but I need to push her speed a bit and get her to jump across the jumps instead of up and down over them. Speed is not Arwen’s strong point, and when we’re up against warmbloods and thoroughbreds it’ll be her greatest weakness. Hopefully, her obedience, carefulness and tight turns will be our redemption. So, my new Arwen cross-country motto: Go fast, steer carefully, and don’t fall off.

We had a long, brisk trot (well, trot for the thoroughbreds; canter for Arwen) up to the top corner of the course, which is a palisade fence away from a very busy road. I was so busy looking at the jumps, which were set on a hill, that I forgot to worry about the traffic and luckily for me so did Arwen. She has never really been in traffic before, but she just had a look and then got back to work. Only baboons and pigs can rattle Arwen when she’s in work mode.

The first two jumps were easy; up a steepish little hill and over. I was grateful for all our hillwork; she powered right up like a pro. The last one was a bit scary. Its approach was on the flat, but the landing was on a downhill, and I detest downhills. Luckily I was ready for the buck on landing when it came and had my weight back so we didn’t get into any difficulties.

By this point we were all doing fine, so our instructor started to send us over 75-80cm jumps instead of the 70cm we’d been practicing (it was a 60cm lesson, but that would have been dull!). We went through a kind of dip in the ground, then through it again and over a log on the other side, then another bending line with one smaller jump and one hefty log. I had to kick a bit to the log, but as soon as I committed so did she. We also jumped a brush, which for some reason we both absolutely adore; she was bursting with joy.

The biggest fence of the day was a big log set on another downhill. I was busy worrying about the log and forgot the downhill; she took me honestly over with just a bit of support from me and then suddenly we were running downhill and I was somewhere near her ears. Luckily, I kept my stirrups and my seat and she didn’t buck. If she had it would have ended in hilarity.

Last of all was my favourite: the water complex. I love water as much as Arwen dislikes it, but I’m sure she remembered that particular complex because she trotted right in without a qualm. We once again ran through it, jumped out over a log, and then went up a steep little embankment and down the other side (a slope, not a real bank, thank goodness). Last time she had run out at this because she didn’t have enough impulsion through the water, but perhaps my endless pole work had helped, because I yelled “Go! Go!” and she charged straight through and over without a moment’s hesitation. I was exceedingly proud of my beloved little grey mare.

Arwen7

We spoke to our instructor and have decided to enter the next 70cm event at President’s Park so that she does her first event on familiar ground. We might not make our first event in this year, but that’s all right. We’ll get in lots of practice at cross-training shows and lessons; her dressage is quite solid for training-70, although we need a bit more practice jumping 75cm at showjumping shows.

Added awesomeness to wrap up the day? She loaded right up. No bum rope, no parents swatting her rump – straight up the ramp and travelled calmly home.

I love my brave grey mare. Glory to the KING!

Good mare, well done, thank you
Good mare, well done, thank you

A Poor Workman Blames his Tools?

They say it’s only a poor workman that blames his tools. It should follow, then, that it’s a poor horseman that blames his saddle or his horse or his boots or his bit.

Of course, most of the time this is very true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “But I can’t do it. The horse doesn’t want to.” This is often followed by whoever is teaching the lesson (often me, I’m afraid; this is my favourite trick) getting on the horse and getting the horse to do whatever it is he’s supposed to do with no apparent effort. The point is not that the instructor is so much better than you (if they weren’t a better rider, you wouldn’t be taking lessons from them). The point is that it’s not the horse who’s not responding; it’s you who’s not asking him the way he needs to be asked.

Excuses are just that – excuses. “I can’t ride properly because the saddle is too big.” “The horse is too wild.” “I’m wearing new boots.” “I’m too short.” “It’s windy.” “It’s Tuesday.” One will never improve when you are waiting for the right horse, the right arena, the right trainer, to lose weight, to gain weight, to get fit, to rest up, for your new boots to arrive, or King Arthur to return before you try your best.

The best riders can get on virtually any horse with virtually any equipment in virtually any circumstances and still look pretty pro; the best students can shut up, buckle down and get on with it as best as they can, even when conditions are not ideal, within reason. Of course, unsafe conditions should be fixed and avoided.

But coming at this idea from the other side, it’s true that one cannot ride perfectly when conditions are imperfect. Speaking as a petite rider who always seems to end up swimming about in 18″ saddles, I know how much it helps when your stuff fits and the footing is good and you’re not jumping straight into the setting sun (the Mutterer still moans at me about not telling him about that). One should be able to make the best out of very little; but there’s no denying that getting the most well-fitting and well-made equipment you can gives you the best possible shot at riding your best.

Arwen’s new saddle is what got me thinking about this. We all know how much I loved my old Solo, but looking at photos of me riding in the new saddle and just feeling the difference solidifies the idea that in my mind the new saddle was money well spent and a decision I won’t be regretting anytime soon. We did some crazy things in that old saddle (everything from jumping our first 1.10m to our first ribbon to our first cross-country lesson), but the new one makes craziness easier.

I have, somehow, taken a very big knock on my jumping confidence lately. Arwen and I used to practice around 90cm regularly without turning a hair; we used to hop around 1.10m fences, hard as that may seem to believe. Without anything really happening, our jumps just seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps it was with me polishing our technique for shows, where we’re only doing about 70cm anyway. Perhaps it had to do with Magic and I having some hassles about jumping. Whatever it is, I started freezing up at the base of the jumps, which led to stopping; after that, I developed my fear/hatred/phobia of stopping, and froze up even worse.

This all happened so slowly that I didn’t realise it until a couple of weeks ago and have been chipping away at it ever since. First, I started by working super hard on my light/forward seat/two point position/whatever you want to call it when you get off the horse’s back. Mostly, I spend longer periods in light seat when I do hillwork, galloping or intervals with Arwen. (Interval training in light seat only = death to leg muscles). The new saddle, due to the perfect positioning of the knee blocks and its stability on Arwen’s back, makes this about two gazillion times easier.

Second, I put my big girl pants on and raised the jumps whether I liked it or not. Not too much – not enough to daunt the horses (i. e. Arwen); just 10cm or so. Where I’d normally warm up over 70cm I made myself warm up over 80cm; I put up a 1.00m oxer which looked hideously big, started jumping it at the end of sessions when I was feeling brave, and then made myself jump it (making a conscious effort to give Arwie a bit of a kick into it to make sure she’d jump) earlier on. Now, it’s suddenly not anywhere near as scary anymore. Part of this is undoubtedly the fact that I feel absolutely dead safe in my new saddle over jumps. I know this is because it helps me stay solid in my position, instead of sliding back and sideways like I did in the Solo. I also know that I should be able to jump anything in any saddle; but I’m not there yet, and the new one makes it a whole lot easier to learn. In fact I’m back up to 90cm or so in the very big saddle that I ride Reed in, so we’re making progress.

Suddenly, jumping is a thrill and a wonderful joy again. I can’t wait for cross-country on Wednesday!

What do you think, blogosphere? Do you believe that a good rider rides just as well in any tack? Or is it an important consideration for optimum performance?

Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We're both guilty).
Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We’re both guilty).

Oh, Magic

Poor old Magic really doesn’t deserve the random freak accidents that are forever happening to him.

The handsome dude has been behaving really well, actually. For the first year or so that I had him, I was so thrilled with his jump that I spent most of our time jumping, the higher the better. While it was awesome fun, I don’t think it was the best thing for his education. His technique is quite sloppy. Because of his natural ability, he can jump the heights we’ve done from any distance, often pushing off with only one hindleg and dangling his front hooves a little. This might not affect him at 80cm, but if we’re going to go upwards of 1.30m one day, he needs to jump properly. Good habits are best trained early, of course, so right now we’re not pushing the height too much and doing a few little grids and small courses to build both our technique and confidence.

Exhibit A: overjumping
Exhibit A: overjumping

Our confidence has definitely improved. A month or two ago, when I was being terrified of him and he was trying to save me by jumping everything three times higher than necessary, I would start our sessions with 30cm crosses and consider it a success if we made 70cm. It was, but we’ve both rediscovered a little trust in one another and are now jumping 60-80cm most sessions. I am still learning to ride him because he is so sensitive, but I’ve figured out that the softer and slower we approach a jump, the better. This may sound obvious, but I’m used to Arwen and Reed who like a strong ride to the jump; it’s often better to gallop them to a jump than to take a deep or cautious distance. Magic is a bit of a pussy in that he only jumps properly from exactly the right distance, but he is also very willing and doesn’t need to be chased at a scary jump to ensure he jumps it. Chasing him only seems to make him nervous and causes him to overjump. This doesn’t mean I can just sit there, though. I have to give him a very balanced and quiet ride to the jump, but I also have to give him a massive amount of room with my hands. He is very fussy about his mouth and really hates it if I get left behind and accidentally give him a pull. While he still clears everything and nearly never puts his back legs down into a jump (he hates taking rails), he does charge at the next fence quite nervously and throw his face into the air.

Exhibit B: longest takeoff distance ever
Exhibit B: longest takeoff distance ever

The best part is actually that he has overjumped once or twice with me lately, usually out of my own error or just because we’re trying harder things which inevitably brings out a stress reaction, and we have both been able to cope with it. Even if I have a bit of a wobble, I can put it behind me and ride confidently to the next jump.

I’ve also shifted our focus onto flatwork. Magic doesn’t like flatwork much, but he needs to refine it, especially if we’re going to event. There are a few significant holes in his training, so I’m pretty much schooling him as if he was a dressage horse – starting with all the prelim stuff and slowly adding in bits from the novice tests. He has become a lot less panicky about his mouth, particularly as I’m concentrating really hard on my contact with him, and now does even trot-halt transitions without flailing.

Exhibit C: refusal; very rare in grey OTTBs called Magic
Exhibit C: perfect sliding stop, maybe he wants to be a reiner

I have to be very careful not to be too strict with him, which is weird. The horses I normally work with take a lot of chances and need to be kept in line, but Magic never does; he genuinely tries his best and scolding him only freaks him out, poor sweet dude, and when he’s freaked out he’s a total idiot. Bit of a delicate flower, that one.

So we were making all this awesome progress and getting him less worried about his mouth and then today while I was unwrapping his legs he rubbed his face on the fence, which I actually never let him do, and his bit got caught. Of course Magic freaked and leapt back like his mouth was on fire, causing his headpiece to snap and the bit to swing loose through his mouth. He ran a few steps while I walked after him speaking to him and then froze and stood there whinnying for no apparent reason. The poor guy shoved his head worriedly against me when I got there, so maybe he is starting to trust me after all.

Exhibit D: Um... no, I don't actually know what he's doing here
Exhibit D: Um… no, I don’t actually know what he’s doing here

I was instantly stressed about his mouth. He let me prise his lips open and there it was, Magic’s latest freak accident injury: one of his tushes had been broken. The top seemed to have been snapped off and was hanging by a thread and bleeding. My stomach did a little somersault of sympathy, but he didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, so I gave him a little piece of carrot to see if he could eat (he could) and phoned the Mutterer.

I was pretty much ready to call in vets and dentists and all sorts of expensive people, but luckily the Mutterer saved the day by snipping off the piece of broken tooth with a pair of pliers and recommending an injection of penicillin. Thankfully, the root is undamaged – only the tip is broken off – and Magic seems to have forgotten all about it. Thank God (no really, thank Him) it’s only a tush. Tushes (canine teeth) are never used to eat with; found mostly in male horses, they’re used only by stallions in serious fights. Since Magic is not a stallion and doesn’t fight with anyone anyway, I don’t think he’s going to miss it.

Poor sweet guy. I’m starting to love him even more now.

Exhibit E: Pure potential, wrapped in grace
Exhibit E: Pure potential, wrapped in grace

Adventures in Saddle Fitting

Sunday afternoon found me dragging Arwen into the horsebox for a trip to the stableyard to see the fitter. We had a small triumph when, with the aid of a lunging rein looped around her bottom like you do with a stubborn foal, I managed to load her by myself. It was another small triumph when I also convinced her to stand still in the box, untied, while I closed the breeching bar and then attempted to lift the ramp. This last was an epic fail; I got it about halfway up before turning purple, and it was a miracle that one of the big strong dairy workers turned up when he did.

She travelled moderately well, not awesomely but not at all badly, and I was very relieved when I had a relatively sane horse to unload in front of one of my clients. It would be just like horses for her to act like a lunatic. The fitter had not yet arrived so I just stripped her travelling things off and held her while she grazed and watched the client – an exceptional equine artist, whom we shall call the Second George Stubbs, SGS for short – lunging one of his stallions. My dad went off home, leaving Arwen and me all alone off-site for the first time. Arwen didn’t appear to notice.

Arwen28
In the lunging ring

The fitter arrived to find a somewhat hyper horse and desperately excited me. I held Arwen, who fidgeted, while the fitter took down her details – age, breed, amount of work, discipline, and so on. Arwen took the opportunity to dig up some arena surface and got yelled at. Really, she is such a well-mannered horse, but of course she would perform like a nervous yearling when there were knowledgeable people around.

The fitter then took out a kind of bendy thing for measuring horses’ backs. She placed it on Arwen’s back and bent it until it fit the contours of her body, then put it on a piece of paper – it held its shape – and used it as a stencil to draw the shape of her back. Three of these measurements were taken, one just behind the scapula, one just above the last rib, and one on top of the horse’s back to take in the shape of the wither.

“Hmm,” she said, as Arwen stomped impatiently. “She’s going to be a complicated fit.”

I kind of expected that, but still heard the sad little tinkle of my bank account emptying at that point.

After that we put my old Solo on Arwen’s back and the fitter found several problems with it; mainly, that the pommel was too low over her withers, and that the panels didn’t come into contact with her back properly. I told her about the saddle’s excessive lifting when we jump, and she said that this was because of the poor balance and lowness of the pommel. She suggested some things she could do to make it fit better but confirmed that the Solo was never going to be quite a perfect fit due to the design of the tree and panelling, which couldn’t be adjusted.

Then the exciting part began. I led Arwie up to the fitter’s van and we started trying on different saddles. I’ll admit that most of them looked more or less the same to me, but the fitter would go “Hmm, not quite” and whisk them away again. All was going well when suddenly one of the resident pot-bellied pigs wandered around the corner. I’m dead used to the pigs, so barely noticed, but poor Arwen had never seen such a creature in her life before. She panicked completely and danced around, snorting loudly and trying to run away while I clung determinedly to her head and prayed that she wouldn’t kick the fitter. This was probably not the time for a desensitisation lesson, so the SGS helpfully removed the pig.

Monster gone, Arwen calmed down after a few minutes and we could get back to work. The fitter had narrowed it down to two choices; a Thorowgood T4 and a beautiful leather Kent and Masters pony jump saddle. I threw a bridle onto my somewhat freaked out horse, prayed that she wasn’t going to throw me in front of everyone, and got on with the Kent and Masters.

Trying the Thorowgood
Trying the Thorowgood

Arwen did what she always does. She was dancing like a maniac when I got on, but as soon as my butt hit the saddle, a switch flicked in her head. She settled instantly, put her nose down and got on her mind on the job, as if relieved to have something else to think about. We walked around the little arena for a few laps and although it is quite a scary arena with trees and benches around it, she just had a look and then dismissed it as nothing to worry about.

She rushed a little and poked her nose out when I asked for the trot, but I stayed calm and posted to the rhythm I wanted, so she soon relaxed and matched her stride to my posting. Worrying over, I could focus on the saddle. The first thing I noticed was how wonderfully small it was. Even my beloved Solo is a 17″, and this was a 16.5″. I spend most of my life swimming around in 18″ seats not designed for midgets. As the fitter so aptly put it, “There’s not enough of you for seventeen inches.”

Us in the Solo: I think I see her point...
Us in the Solo: I think I see her point…

The other thing I noticed was the lovely squishy seat. It was like sitting on a pillow. But most importantly, the saddle didn’t touch her withers and when I asked for a brisk trot-halt transition, it didn’t slip. Arwen, who as usual applied the brakes sharply and braced herself for her load to slip, seemed pleasantly surprised.

I asked for a canter and expected a bit of a buck, especially given her frame of mind after the pig incident, but she was perfect. Instant transition, relaxed canter. She was in working mode and a complete pleasure to ride. A flawless lead change and a few more laps of canter later, I hopped off and we tried the Thorowgood.

I could see that the Thorowgood didn’t sit as flush with her back as the Kent and Masters did, but I loved the way it felt for me to sit on, although it was a hair too small at 16″. Still, I liked them both. Arwen remained awesome and I asked the fitter to set us up a little jump to try out.

I wouldn’t have been awfully surprised if she had given me a stop or two. It was just a cross, about 40cm in the middle, but she doesn’t like crosses; also very brightly painted, which she dislikes, and the arena is small enough that our best turn to the approach is half a 7.5m circle. Luckily she is little and adjustable, so it turned out not to be a problem, and she took me straight to the jump and hopped over without so much as a glance. The saddle felt awesome. I could stay forward with more confidence and my body didn’t slide back. She also felt like she was jumping rounder, lifting her shoulders up instead of jumping flat.

The next day at home: round jumping. Forgive me for my hair please
The next day at home: round jumping. Forgive me for my hair please
In March in the Solo: flat jumping
In March in the Solo: flat jumping

We switched back to the Kent and Masters to jump with it; again, she was perfect. I liked both saddles, especially the Thorowgood’s squishy seat, but could see the Kent and Masters fit her better. We rode over to the fitter, who said that she preferred the fit of the Kent and Masters both on her and on me. Then she told me its price and I nearly fell off.

But, to make a long story short, after consulting with my parents and asking a thousand questions, I went for the Kent and Masters. The Thorowgood would have worked, but the more expensive saddle had a lot of things going for it. It had a greater range of adjustable gullets, it fit the two of us better, and above all, it was leather. I dislike and distrust synthetic as a rule, and while the Thorowgood was very high quality, it just wasn’t leather. Leather improves with use and age. I felt I could count on the Kent and Masters to last beyond Arwen’s working lifetime and into the next horse’s.

Faaaaancyyyyy
Faaaaancyyyyy

While we were deliberating, Arwen got bored of standing in the lunging ring and jumped clear over the 1.40m fence. I’ve seen a few wild horses try to jump out of the ring and none of them have managed it, but the next thing I knew, my little grey horse was trotting off to meet the broodmares. I rescued two large warmblood mares from her before she could kick them and opted to hold her until my dad came to fetch us. “Well,” said the fitter, “at least we’ve established that it can jump.” Indeed we did; she had all of half a stride’s run-up.

She was a bit stressy when we loaded, but got on quite easily, and pawed the floor of the box until we got moving. I was disappointed to find that she sweated the whole way home again and was drenched when we unloaded. Poor girl. I hate it when she travels badly.

This morning, I couldn’t resist taking her for a quick spin in The Wondrous New Saddle just to feel it again. It was so much fun, and she jumped like a pro, though I kept it down to 80cm in case she was tired from yesterday. She is jumping so much rounder and I feel so much more secure.

I don’t think I’m going to regret this.

Awesome days ahead. Including a new hairdo.
Awesome days ahead. (Including a new hairdo.)