Oh, Nell. It’s just kind of unfair to have a horse like Nell in your life.
You sit down to look at her goals and sort of go, “Well…” because this horse is schooling and showing higher level Novice, and she just turned five. For the record, in our country, that’s kind of on track for a top level prospect. It’s the level required of five-year-olds in our young horse performance series… so I entered it.
Honestly when I got the schedule I kind of regretted the idea (apparently big names also like young horse series, like WEG kind of big names) but hey, the mare can do the test – has done the test at shows multiple times – so why not? She will be one little grey Nooitie in a whole class of Friesians and Warmbloods, she’ll at least draw some attention to the breed.
Nell’s goals are also a little wobbly because she’s not mine. Her owner has every right to decide at the end of the year that she has done quite well enough, and then take her back and breed glorious little dressage Nooities. Still, if it’s his will (and God’s will) the judges who’ve seen the horse believe she could go to a pretty high level, so we’re going to work towards that. It might not happen… but if it does, we’ll be ready to go and do it.
Nell’s 2016 Goals
Qualify for the Provincials at the Young Horse Performance Series. All we need here is to complete at two of the three qualifiers. The tests will increase in difficulty within the Novice level as the series go on, but I’m not too worried about that – she’s already entered for Novice 4 and 5 at the Nooities’ dressage this weekend, so she can deal with it. IF she keeps her brain in her pretty head, she should be able to do this.
Compete, graded, at the higher Novice tests. Getting our points for Elementary would be ideal, but that’ll also depend on our show calendar for the year. I’d like to get at least a few points, so we have to score 55% or above.
Go to a jumping training show at a low level. Nell’s not just an awesome dressage diva – the little lady has a careful but confident jump, too. She’s no showjumper, but my ultimate jumping goal with her would be to do working hunter at next Horse of the Year, too. Because Nooities rock the versatility thing.
School lower level Elementary successfully. We have most of the required moves – they just need polishing. The 2017 goal would be to compete in Elementary, starting with the 6-year-old classes at YHPS.
Compete in any available Nooitgedachter shows. Nell needs some more mileage before she’s going to be a winning show horse under saddle, but she’s proven that she can kick butt in hand already.
Most of Nellie’s goals this year are going to be about reinforcing, polishing, and improving on training she already has. I’m taking off the pressure in terms of learning the higher level movements quickly, unless she gets bored or offers them; she’s learning very fast, and the last thing we want to do is cook this promising brain and body. If we’re careful about how we lay this foundation, it’ll stand us in good stead through the levels.
Exavior is one of my biggest learning curves at this point. It’s true – warmbloods are a different kettle of fish. I had always thought that they must be rather like large, glorified thoroughbreds, but there is definitely an extra element of power – and pushiness – with them. The sheer size factor is also something very new, with almost every other horse I work with standing under 15 hands and Exavior standing nearly 15.3 at the age of two. But there’s no getting around the fact that there is something a little heart-stopping, a little breathtaking about that rippling power packaged in burnished chestnut. He can also be a little maddening because when he puts his mind to it he’s smart, talented, and infinitely trainable; the rest of the time he’s too busy goofing off to pay attention and merely plops around doing as he pleases.
This big baby did well on his goals last year, though:
Exavior’s 2015 Goals
Complete advanced halter training – Done. He will walk and trot politely, stand up square when asked, and lead from both sides without issues. Sometimes when going past mares he wants to jump up on his hindlegs, but this is improving and should improve exponentially when he’s no longer a colt. We put him to Magic Lady this spring and he was well-mannered enough that I could handle him for all the covers, so that’s quite a win – I never dared go near any of the other stallions I know at cover time.
Leading over, through and under scary things – Done. We’ve led under low roofs and branches, over logs and tarpaulins, and in narrow passageways.
Leading away from his group – Done. He’s way more excited to go see the girls than stick with his paddock buddy, currently Magic.
Bathing – 75% done. You could probably bath him but it wouldn’t be pleasant. He’s cool with water being on his forequarters but can throw a tantrum about having a wet butt.
Desensitisation to noise and sight – Done. Plastic bags, tarps, whatever – he just deals.
Loading preparation – Done. Leading over a tarp, under a low roof, and in a narrow passage just fine.
Loading – Not done. We just didn’t get to this last year, but with his pressure/release understanding being good and the preparation work done, he should be quite easy to train.
Injections – Improved. He used to jump up immediately on seeing a vet or syringe, but now he just fusses. You still have to be careful and really, really quick but I’m seeing improvement with every shot.
Be gelded – Not yet. This whole winter the necessary bits refused to descend; that’s for next winter.
Lowering of the head when requested by pressure on the halter – Perfect. He’ll put his nose on the floor for me to take his bridle off, which is kind of awesome when you’re as short as I am.
Basic lunging with a halter and long line only – Done. He lunges really nicely in three gaits now, on voice commands.
Wearing a roller – Done. It took him a few tries but now he accepts it beautifully.
Lunging over poles – He has been introduced to poles, but not yet a proper series of them.
Wearing boots – Done. He didn’t bat an eye.
Preparation for clipping – Not done. Mostly because his owner is kind of broke and doesn’t have a pair of clippers around that can be destroyed during desensitisation of stupid young elephant-sized colts.
Bathing. If you’re going to insist on being chestnut with four white stockings, you’re going to be good to bath. This is just going to be a matter of steady repetition, but we’ll get there.
Loading. I think this should be a pretty quick fix, but he needs to self-load. I’m not a fan of baby warmbloods jumping on their back legs when they don’t want to go in the box.
Continued improvement on injections. Again, this is just a matter of repetition without any bad experiences.
Lunging over poles. This is an important one for strengthening and developing the muscles in his butt and hindlegs, which will help to push his slight cow hocks straighter.
Introduction to small free jumps. The sooner he learns that he goes between the uprights every single time, the better. He’s too young for real jumping, so we’ll keep the fences small enough to just trot over.
Backing. He’s a baby so I’m in no hurry, but I’d rather get on him while he’s not quite the size of a monster truck yet. He is nearly there; he accepts the saddle and bridle, works correctly in side reins and long-lines fairly well. He allows me to put my foot in the stirrup, stand over him in one stirrup and lean over him without issues. He just needs to have his long-lining perfected and to carry the sandbags I use to desensitise the babies to weights and movement by their sides, and we’re golden.
Basic aids in walk. There’s no need to trot and canter around with me on him just yet, but he can learn a solid foundation of whoa, go and turn in a walk only.
This is stuff I normally try to achieve in about three months with client horses, so he’s got a slow year ahead of him, but it’s about what his baby brain can cope with right now. He will probably be turned away for several months throughout the year just to relax and grow up – in fact he has a month off ahead of him from next week.
He is my little miracle horse and God’s will has been so abundant in his life already. Glory to the King.
More than any of the others, I’ve learned to make Magic’s goals flexible. Force isn’t an option with him, but he’s made so much progress nonetheless that just going with the flow seems to work for him. Nevertheless, we shall make a plan, if only so that we can do the exact opposite.
Magic’s 2015 Goals
Improve fitness – Done. He gets and stays fit very easily, and has so much nervous energy anyway that he never tires out at shows.
Tie up – Done, well enough. Magic will never be the type you can tie to whatever and forget about, because forgetting about Magic is just a dumb idea, but he no longer habitually flies back. One can tie him and groom him and all will be OK as long as nothing terrifies him.
Load – Again, never going to be the type that just plods along in, but he loads in half a minute so no worries here.
School Novice – Done. We’ve trained up to Novice 3, snaffle and all, completing all the figures and transitions obediently and in good rhythm, frame and straightness.
Survive a hack – Well, we did this. But we’re not awfully likely to do this again. It’s just not something I need to deal with right now, and as a competing horse, hacking is a thing that should be done for relaxation and a change of scenery for the horse. For Magic, it’s a torture session. Not his thing.
Be confident at 80cm – Done! He skips over 80cm like nobody’s business.
Show graded at 70cm showjumping – Halfway done. He’s shown at 70-75cm in training shows five times now with all clear rounds, and he’s ready to go up. But his getting sick in September put the brakes on showing for the rest of the year, so we never registered for graded.
Finish getting back the topline muscle he lost when he was sick. His butt and back are good again, but his neck still needs to develop all over again.
School Novice 4, 5, and 6. He’s no dressage horse, but he needs these basics. Lateral work, counter canter, and medium canter can only help him.
Make 90cm our comfort zone at home. 80cm is now where we’re happy. We do 90cm from time to time, but it’s kind of pushing my nerves. He has miles and miles of scope and guts to spare at this height, so if we can just ease into jumping this by the end of the year, we can keep on going up and up.
Show graded at 70cm. We could do this really easily if he keeps his brain in his head at the next show. We’re doing another training show at 70cm this month, and if it goes well, we’ll sign up for graded.
Show at 80cm, graded or training. This will more than likely be graded, but if I’m not up to that pressure, I’m not going to sweat it. Height has never been an issue for Magic so we can cope with this just fine.
“Stop that,” the Mutterer opined, “and get back on the freaking horse.”
It was a year after I had started leasing Magic and we were having a tough lesson. The combination we were jumping was just big enough to make me nervous; I kept trying to make him jump the way I wanted, and he kept trying to please me and having to overjump his way out of trouble as a result. “Give him his head,” the Mutterer was bellowing. “Let him do his job.” Try as I might, I was just as green as the horse; even when my head said one thing my hands were still hauling back on his sensitive mouth, locked on the end of arms as tense as a high wire.
The horse was brilliant and beyond. But I couldn’t ride him the way he needed to be ridden. I wasn’t good enough for him.
“If you say that again,” said the Mutterer calmly, “I will kick your little butt to the other end of the arena.”
Facing this petrifying threat, I reluctantly hauled myself back onto the horse and we trotted back into that combination to fluff it again. And again. And again.
I can’t ride him right. He deserves better.
Magic felt my negative tension getting worse with every stride, and escalated accordingly. He approached the tiny 60cm oxer with his neck getting higher and longer every time his hooves hammered the floor. Once he got there, I hauled back, desperately wanting the deeper spot. Magic knew he would bring us both to the ground if he took the deeper spot so he jumped anyway, like a gazelle, popping me up out of the tack. I landed on his neck. He bolted, terrified. For the sixth time that day.
I’m going to ruin this horse. I don’t deserve him.
“Lord Jesus, I don’t deserve him, but please, I don’t want to lose him.”
It was the fifth day straight of seeing the terrifying agony in the horse’s eyes. He swayed in the horsebox, head hanging low, sweat drenching the coat that was now pulled tight over his bony frame. I pressed my forehead against his brow; he was burning up. “Come on, buddy. Keep fighting.” He rolled a great brown eye to me and it was filled with fire. He wasn’t going to quit. And I, swaying with him, filled with his agony, sleep deprived beyond expression and sick with tension, wasn’t going to quit either.
“I know I don’t deserve him, but I love him. Lord, save him, if it’s Your will.”
“You got this, buddy.”
He cantered through the start with four feet coming down like a waltz, with giant muscles lifting and dancing underneath me. First fence; he had a little look, but I gave my hands forward and he took it in that easy leap that only he has. The course rolled by underneath him until we reached the bending line to the one-stride combination. He saw the long spot; so did I, but I was sure we wouldn’t make the stride if we took it; I reacted before I could think and pulled. It was a mistake. He launched himself into the air, landing so hard we both grunted with the impact, and the next element was right under his nose. I scrambled, grabbed mane, managed only to make a feeble little clicking noise and he bailed us both out. We thundered off, disunited and in a complete mess, but the last fence was still waiting. I braced a fist against his neck, shoved myself back into the saddle and sat up. “The Lord is my Shepherd!” And we floated down to the last fence with his dizzying grace, cleared it without a second thought.
I fell on his neck, intentionally this time, and hugged him. The pure, sleek curve of muscle flexed in my arms, powerful as a breaking wave. “Thank you, buddy. I could never deserve you.” I sat up, rubbed gloved knuckles across the satiny coat; my horse’s whole frame lit up with pleasure, dancing forward. And it’s true: I don’t deserve him. But who could ever deserve half a ton of power and spirit, submitting itself to your foolish whim? Who could ever deserve a heart so mighty, yet so willing to beat in time with yours? I don’t deserve him, but nobody deserves horses.
So I’ll probably never take him to A-grade even though he could take those heights in his stride. So it’s unlikely he’ll ever be ridden to his fullest potential. Magic dances when I touch him, bails me out when I fail; Magic is the horse I didn’t quit on and he doesn’t care that I don’t ride him well enough.
I don’t deserve him, but if you know God, you know it’s not about deserving.
We called her Stardust, because she is something of light and hope that not everyone believes in.
It was two days after I had made the impossible decision. The riding school is growing, and the two schoolies aren’t coping. First one, and then the other began to sour; both coming to their work and doing it as well as they could, but both starting to make flat ears at me when I brought them to saddle up, or wandering off when their groom went to catch them. They weren’t happy in their work and it was not the fault of the work; there was just too much of it. Even I get tired in the three hours’ lessons every afternoon and I’m not the one carrying the kids around.
I needed another schoolie, and I was pretty sure the growing business could support one. But where on earth the money to buy one was supposed to come from, I had no idea. I’m flat broke. The little yard has just begun, and when you’re 18 years old and have a grass arena and questionable stables, you are a dwarf in a world of equestrian giants. Low prices and fire in your eye is all you’ve got to attract clients with. And fire is only useful when it spreads.
But this is Morning Star Stables, the high calling of my dreams, and if we do not walk by faith now we never will. It is God’s now as it has been since it was just a spark and will be when it can be a giant too. So I made the decision: We were getting another schoolie. I started to look for it, and as usual, I was picky. Something a bit smaller than galumphing Thun – 14 or 14.2 would do it. Easy-keeping, chunky, with powerful legs that could stand up to the rigours of the schoolie workload. Smooth gaits. Basic training, and a naturally fearless, quiet and people-loving nature. As for my budget, I didn’t have one. I couldn’t afford anything and whatever pony God wanted for His new schoolie, He’d pay for somehow.
Not quite two days later, a new lesson kiddie showed up and had her lesson on Thunder. All was going swimmingly when her dad leaned on the fence and asked, “You don’t need a new kid pony, by any chance?”
To make a long story short, Stardust is here for her month’s trial period. Free of charge. In case you were wondering, she stands 14.1hh and is fat on air. She is broad across the chest with stout little legs made apparently of cast iron. Her gaits are like sitting on a waterbed. She has all the basic gaits and aids, and when I tried her out at her previous home, there were kids running and yelling and hitting things in this spooky little farmyard and she didn’t do a thing. Just put her nose down and did what I said. We have a month to get through before we can be sure, but I think I am pretty sure.
And that is why we walk by faith, and not by sight.
The 10th January training show at one of my favourite venues was a no-brainer for the first show of 2016. I spent the days leading up to the show dead nervous. Recently back in work, Magic was performing brilliantly; he jumped everything I pointed him at in style and sensibly, and I was confident he’d make short work of the little classes I’d chosen for him. But the last time we showed Magic was when he colicked so badly and I had no way of being absolutely sure that he wouldn’t do it again.
Still, we had the all-clear from the vet, and armed with drums of water and ample nets of the best hay we could find, the Mutterer and I braved the challenge with Magic and Liana. It was Liana’s first show over fences but I wasn’t overly worried about her. She had been jumping 80cm at home without a moment’s hesitation; her first combinations and oxers had gone effortlessly. She has a natural eye and enthusiasm for jumping, which, combined with her careful technique and abundant scope, is going to make her one epic eventing pony.
Magic was very nervous to load but consented to get in without too much of a fight, and once Liana had pretty much self-loaded, we were off. Both travelled very well and got off relaxed and ready. I was a different story – late, as usual. Luckily the Mutterer saved my butt by having the little mare saddled by the time I got back from entering.
Liana was bright-eyed but quiet as I walked her to the warmup, but once we got there, my heart sank. It had poured the night before in Kyalami and the arena was basically underwater. All three practice fences had approaches and landings in water and Liana has never been asked to deal with water before. Figuring that at least she’d learn something if I spent the entire morning just getting her into a puddle, I climbed on, walked her around on the dry perimeter, and then aimed her for the water. Liana strode over, dropped her nose to have a sniff, and walked right through it, without any trouble.
The little Nooitie proceeded to be completely awesome for the rest of the show. She galloped through the water, jumped in and out of it without batting an eye, and spooked at exactly nothing. We went into the 30cm feeling good; she had a good look at the few jumps with filler in them and overjumped everything by miles, but never stopped, shied, or bolted. She did have one violent wiggle over the first element in a related distance, resulting in my saddle (even its XW gullet being insufficient for Liana’s considerable girth) slithering horribly down her side; the adrenalin rush was such that in five strides I had kicked it straight again and we made it over the next fence without further ado.
The 40cm was even better, and by the 50cm, she was ready for anything. She jumped sensibly, behaved beautifully and would probably have won it if she hadn’t misjudged one fence, rushed a little and brought the rail down with her hind toes. Unfortunate, but not bad at all for a first show over fences. For the rest of the show she was completely calm, happy, and well behaved.
The same could not be said for Magic when the Mutterer brought him up to the warmup. I could spot my horse from inside the show ring: he was flying on the end of his lead like a kite, striking out dramatically with his forelegs, his tail stuck straight up in the air. The less-than-impressed Mutterer gratefully clutched at his precious Nooitie, opining that “your horse is not right in his head”. I thought better of asking for advice because the Mutterer’s thunderous expression suggested that any advice from him may include a bullet, so I just got my reins and got on my horse. Or the leaping thing that my horse had morphed into, anyway. Wherever Magic was in his head, it wasn’t a quiet warmup arena at a training show; there were dragons, and he was scared, and he was going ballistic.
He napped extravagantly, shooting backwards towards the gate, threatening to rear when I put my heels in him and throwing his head madly when I touched the reins. He was hypersensitive to everything; he struck out with his forelegs constantly and shied at the most random little things. But he never bucked or tried anything malicious. So I did the only thing one really can do with Magic; sat tight, closed my calves very gently around his side, and spoke to him until my voice penetrated the darkness in his head. At length, he stopped reversing and took one tentative, dancing step forward. Then another. Every step floated; he felt like a bubble, as if my smallest movement might burst him. But he kept going all the way around the arena, splashing through the water, and slowly he started to come back.
The work settled him by degrees. Once he was walking more like a horse, I gently coaxed him up to the trot, and we trotted until his brain came back and he put his little nose down and concentrated. From the trot we jumped the cross-rail a couple of times; he overjumped wildly, but I just stayed out of his face and a few jumps calmed him some more. Before we could address the canter, it was time to go in for our class.
This was somewhat disastrous. Bits of the arena were dry and other bits were damp; all the footing was safe, but Magic considered the lighter, dry bits to be terrifying. He shot backwards across the arena again, shaking his head, dancing sideways, shying at shadows. We stopped at the first fence because he was spooking at the dry ground behind it, then deer leaped it. The rest of the course was much the same. It was 50cm and he trotted, flailed, leapt and generally forgot how to horse. One thing was for sure, at least: we had absolutely no poles down.
After that we went straight back into the warmup and cantered around, and his brain, thankfully, continued to come back. We popped over the vertical and oxer several times and Magic started to breathe at last with his little fluttery OTTB snort at the end of each stride. Going back in for the 60cm, I at least did not have to beg my horse down to the start, but he did refuse the first fence again. I brought him back calmly and he jumped it. About four fences in, he landed in a canter and stayed in his nice smooth rhythmic canter that was custom-made for showjumping. The rest of the course went beautifully; he took a deep breath and relaxed and my horse was back. I did make a mistake at the last fence by asking him for the longer distance as he approached – a habit; he prefers a long spot – and he gave it to me along with about a metre of additional height, landing so hard my hat fell over my eyes, but we’d made it through another class and he was feeling better and better.
Warming up for the 70cm was like riding at home. He doddled around on the buckle, sneered at the silly horses that wouldn’t go into the water, and jumped everything flawlessly, obediently, passionately the way only he can. Going into the class he had never felt so good. We were the first combination in, so we walked up to the spooky judge’s box at a flowing dressagey walk. I closed my hands and knees ever so slightly and he stepped up into the most perfect square halt. With a leisurely salute, we opened the class. The announcer enquired, “Is this Magical Flight?” in tones of disbelief.
He has never jumped a class as well as he jumped that one. We galloped the longer stretches, collected up perfectly for the related distances. He never looked at a thing; all he had to know about a fence was which side to jump it from and he was over. I fluffed my approach to the combination; he took the long spot and saved my ungrateful bottom. I caught him in the mouth a little, he overjumped and landed smack in the middle of this little one-stride and Magic bounced out with not a second thought. He is a horse in a million. What am I saying? He’s one of a kind. I nearly cried when we loped through the start and fell on his neck hugging him and thanking God because I don’t deserve him. Nobody does. Nobody ever could. But he’s mine, and I can never feel not good enough for him again, because I’ll never give up on him and for Magic that is enough.
The best part? He ate, drank, and pooped with the best of ’em. He came home, ate his grass, had grated apple for dinner and went back to life without missing a beat. My horse – oh, but he could never be; God’s horse – is back and he’s just fine. And the two weeks of suffering that we both endured – he in his own pain and discomfort and confusion, mine in the agony of empathy – the horrible ordeal that could have ended in tragedy – it was turned around and made to work for us because we serve an amazing God. Magic and I have never been closer. We didn’t quit on each other and we both know it and we never will.
It sounds a sentimental, perhaps. But with the strong smooth curve of his neck in my arms, with the power of the pulse in his neck beating against my skin, sentimental can be true.
I realise it’s kind of late to be setting goals, but they’ve been in my head for a while, so I may as well now put them down on paper. Screen. Whatever. I enjoy having a plan for the year with each horse, but God’s plan is sovereign – and He always knows best.
Arwen’s 2015 Goals
Get her fit – Done. She was easily fit enough for our last event.
Build her upper neck muscles – Done. Her muscle tone has never been this good, to the point where I asked the Mutterer what muscles need building up for the upcoming showing show and he replied in tones of deep disappointment, “Well, actually, none.”
School Elementary Medium successfully – Failure there, but our Elementary work is a lot more solid. Her schooling has improved, just not to EM level.
Introduce scary-looking jumps – Done. While we have been having really disappointing stops in competition, at home she’s jumping the spookiest things I can build without batting an eye.
Have her go through water more easily – Done. She didn’t stop at water all year.
Show graded in EV70 – Done. We showed in three, but only completed two.
Go double clear at EV70. Face it – at this level, you win on your dressage score. Arwen’s dressage is very solid. We could do really well if we’d just stop incurring jumping penalties, especially stops on cross-country. This will take a whole lot of schooling, and a bunch more cross-country lessons, so I’m pretty cool with only eventing again in midwinter or spring. Another jumping show or two can also only help our confidence, or even competing at EV60 once or twice more.
School Elementary Medium 1 and 2. This is very achievable, especially with how solid her Elementary work is getting. It is, however, going to depend on how soon we get our new 20×60 arena done. Our current one is about 15×50, making it impossible to make an accurate half 10m canter circle. The more complex the figures get the harder it becomes to ride them here. She will also have to make the transition to a double bridle, which might be a bit tough.
Compete Elementary. We can totally do this. She could do Elementary 1 with her eyes closed. We just need to get enough qualifying rounds at Novice first, so this will also be an end of the year thing. Even if we just do the ungraded class at the Pretoria Nooitie show – it’s something.
Gallop through water. She goes into water just fine, but she always drops to a walk. Now we just need to school her confidence with keeping her gallop rhythm through the water and we’re good.