What I Learned from My Easy Horse

They always say that the difficult horses have the most to teach you. That good horses don’t make good riders and that the more times you’re thrown, the more tenacity you learn. That the top horses are always a little sensitive, a little quirky, not everyone can ride them (as Valegro nods sagely in the background whilst carrying an eleven-year-old girl around on his patient back). There’s an undercurrent of feeling where if your horse isn’t that horse that’s a little crazy, maybe you’re not that rider who can do all the hard things.

But today I’m going to tell you everything I learned from my easy, sweet and safe horse.

Sure, he’s not the best ever on outrides and he’s got a spook in him, but he’s always been a steady sort. Even as a little foal he never had those crazy little baby tantrums while trying to navigate life with humanity. He wore his first saddle without a buck and fell asleep while I was putting on his first bridle. I was 15 and knew nothing. He was 2 and patient as a monolith, even then.

He was a clotheshanger-shaped two-year-old when I sat on him for the first time. I hadn’t done one quarter of the necessary groundwork, but he just turned his head to sniff at my toe and then went to sleep.

Fast forward seven years and he is still a good boy. He has his nervous moments, but in all our years of riding, I have only once believed I was actually going to come off him. We were walking and I was mostly asleep, one hand on the buckle, when huge lizard jumped up a rock out of nowhere and he jumped. I didn’t have reins, so he cantered off a few steps as I slithered down his side, stopping when I managed to get hold of a rein and drag myself back on board. Both times that I actually did fall off him, he was 3, we were hacking, and my (unreliable) girth came off. He always came back for me.

He has a quiet mouth. He doesn’t really go lame. He has a soft, supple back that doesn’t really go into spasm. These are probably reasons why he’s easy in his mind. He’s comfortable to sit on, not particularly flashy in his gaits, and rather on the slow side.

He’s not the horse that holds a grudge or gets offended by my myriad mistakes. His chiropractor, who has a deep intuition for horses, summarized him: “Oh, you just feel like everything is going to be OK when you’re with him.”

He is my easy, sweet and gentle horse. And here is what I learned from him.

I learned to ride a flying change, a half pass, renvers, travers, piaffe. A real shoulder-in, a straight leg-yield. A good simple change. A true connection, a supple bend, and a square halt. A figure eight in rein back. I learned these while he was learning them, because he was willing to learn, because he was helping instead of hindering.

I learned that mistakes are forgivable. I learned that there is a depth of grace out there that absorbs all sin, because a droplet of that grace lives in my little bay horse.

I learned that manes are still good for crying into when you’re a grownup.

I learned how to try, to give my best even when it’s not much on the day, to rise above fear and uncertainty and to try regardless because of how this horse always tries.

I learned about the depth of what horses do for us, about the scope of their kindness, about how much better I need to be for them. I learned to put aside everything and ride for the sake of the threefold cord, for the dance, for the joy of the fact that God made horses and he made us.

I learned to find a taste of eternity in the swing of a stride. And I liked it.

I learned that even on the worst days, horses still smell like heaven.

I learned that there are few greater gifts than a stalwart friend, even if that friend has four legs and a fluffy forelock.

I learned that I do have wings after all.

I learned that we can do anything.

I learned all these things from a 15.1 hand bay gelding who doesn’t rear or buck or bolt or kick or bite or get wildly wound up about life. I learned them from an easy horse.

And I love him.

Glory to the King.

By the way, ROW is now on Instagram! Find me on @ridingonwater for daily adorable Thunder pics and bits of philosophy.

Dance

Emma and SprinklerBandit recently wrote about the why’s of riding – how the horse you have is linked to the very reason you ride in the first place. Never one to miss out on the chance to be sappy, I’m jumping right on the bandwagon.

just because I love this photo

It’s a topic I’ve been giving some thought to lately. The answers to why I ride for a living, and why I have the horses in the school that I have, are simple. God sent me, and God sent them.

Magic and old Skye are also pretty simple. They’re semi-retired pets. They’re here because they’re my friends and they don’t owe me a thing.

Then we get to the topic of dressage.

After realising that upper-level showjumping and eventing were just not going to happen for me – at least not in the next decade or so – I turned to my remaining options for a discipline I could be truly competitive in: dressage and showing. Showing judges freak me out, so that left dressage. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I adore dressage, in no small part thanks to the horse that was born for it – Nell. She gave me a taste of success and I liked it.

Then God turned the whole thing on its head.

Nell was sold. My best horse left; the carpet was pulled out from under the feet of my career. I mourned; not only the loss of a friend in Nellie, but the loss of a dream. It seemed to me that God was saying, “Enough of this selfishness. The time, money and energy you dedicate to this sport is self-serving; I want you to give it up and focus on the yard.”

And in a way, I guess He was. It shattered me to accept it, but I realised that much as I gave glory to Him in the high moments, schooling every day was all about progress and points and ambition. I laid down the dream.

Then He sent me Rainbow, and I was euphoric because I thought He was saying it wasn’t selfish after all.

And then Rainybow died. The cruelty of it was like a punch in the guts. It was all I could do not to lose my temper with God for this apparent injustice. I loved that horse and now she was gone and the dream with her, like Nell, but worse.

God said, “O, ye of little faith. I’ve got a plan with this, daughter.”

That’s why, when she basically fell out of the sky, I named her Faith. Not because I really had any, but to remind me to believe even when everything looks dark.

As you all know by now, since then everything just blossomed. Suddenly Arwen decided she was good at dressage too and went Elementary, and then Thunder was like “hi mom I’m really talented” and started scoring ridiculously well at Prelim, and now I have a dressage arena and even the sale ponies were scoring better than I ever have anywhere.

So the dream lives. But it’s a different beast to what it was with Nell. I have always been so desperate to prove to the students, to the world, to God that I was good enough  for them. I failed at jumping, I failed at eventing – dressage was my great hope.

But this whole year has basically been about one thing: the only opinion that matters is God’s, and nothing I ever do will make me good enough for His love, and it actually really doesn’t matter at all because He died for me before I even knew Him to say thank you to. It is the purest freedom from guilt to glimpse the depth of amazing grace, yet the strongest motivation to live purely, all at once.

So what is dressage to me now? A way to prove myself? I don’t have to prove myself because it just isn’t about me. My students are here and I give them my whole heart; as long as I keep doing that they don’t seem to care how much satin is on my wall.

Is it something for me to finally be brilliant at? Well, what does brilliance matter? Sport is temporary. I won’t be taking any ribbons or tests into the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s become something more to me now. I don’t really have a name for it, but the closest word I know is this:

Worship.

I don’t deserve to be saved from eternal agony, yet I am. I don’t deserve to be loved by the God Who is Love, yet I am. I don’t deserve to become a dazzling, new, adopted member of God’s family, yet I am. I don’t deserve Arwen or Thunder or Faith or the 60x20m patch of sand or the opportunity to compete or anything – yet I have it. All that testifies to just one thing and that thing is grace.

So while I believe brilliance will be a by-product, and while I still hope one day I’ll get to ride Grand Prix, that’s all temporary. All just small things blowing by on the wind.

When I school now, I still tend to centre on selfish ambition. But this is my proclamation of a new mission statement for every time I throw a leg over one of the dressage horses.

The horses, the shows, the dances are a gift I don’t deserve, a reminder of the greater Gift. In riding every stride, I ride with empathy because I love the horses. I ride with diligence because I honour and appreciate the gift I have been given. But above all, I ride with love and passion, looking not at a number on a scoresheet but at the face of my God. I care less about how good the mark will be for a movement and more about the compassion behind the aid that asked for it. I care less about what the bystanders think and more about giving every breath I have to the God Who gives me life.

Dressage can be a sport, a dream, a torture session for horse and rider, a career.

To me, I choose dressage to be, in the style of Psalm 149:3, a dance.

Glory to the King.