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.

For of Such is the Kingdom

Back in September, just after Magic’s colic, I was forced (by an all-knowing Hand) to turn back to teaching lessons. While the wonderful vet that saved Magic’s life earned every cent of the bill she sent us, it was a massive bill, and I had to find some way to pay it. Lessons were the quickest and easiest way to do so.

As it turned out, a little while later, my amazing parents talked to each other and then to me and offered to foot the bill themselves. I was and still am incredibly grateful for this – it was a hit that would have given the budding stableyard a tremendous knock. Thus God pushed me ever closer to what He wanted me to do with apparent hardship that turned to joy. How great is our God!

For once I had taught for a couple of weeks I found there was no leaving it. I’d forgotten just how fulfilling teaching can be, and no instructor has ever been so blessed as to teach such well-mannered, kind, hardworking, wonderful kids as I have. It started with a trio of older kids and then a whole crew of little ones came pouring in and all in all I have eleven lessons to teach each week. They are the highlight of my week. My kids are amazing.

No music has ever fallen so sweetly on my ears as the high-pitched voice of a shining-eyed little boy, perched upon a pony, clutching the reins in white-knuckled hands as he felt the slow power of her walk: “Oh, tannie!” (they all use the Afrikaans term of respect for me; it also means “older woman”, but I couldn’t care less) “Oh, tannie! This is so, so fun!” The exclamation was utterly spontaneous; so was the smile that burst across his little face and shone a light into my world.

Oh, Lord Jesus, how right You are! Of such, indeed, is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thus, Thunder has also found his niche in life. At five years old he is the schoolie to end all schoolies: the very definition of trustworthy. He’s one of those rare horses that really cannot get enough of human contact, likes absolutely everyone, and never gets bored of people. Most horses merely tolerate the tiny, noisy, smelly, busy little children, but Thunder genuinely loves them. He was never as happy as my hack as he is as the lead rein pony and he merrily packs my little kiddies around, obeying their commands when he understands them and plodding over to me when he doesn’t. Outrides are still a problem because he is so sensitive to the rider’s feelings that a nervous kid makes him spook massively at everything, but in the arena he is pretty much bombproof.

Flare was also roped in as a schoolie and has turned out to be a perfect all-rounder. She’s not fabulous with the older kids as her trot and canter still need a ton of work, but she’s as willing and patient as the day is long without a malicious hair on her head. She’s extremely responsive, making her perfect for my poor little kiddies that have just gone off the lead rein because she actually responds to their little aids. On hacks she is as reliable as they come; she’ll go in front, behind, in the middle, with a newb, with me, whatever.

I missed this so much. Glory to the beloved King.

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Unofficial Blog Hop: Instructors

Emma first brought my attention to the discussion of the various trainers – instructors, in the more British dialect we use in South Africa – we’ve chosen, and why we picked them and stick with them.

If you’ve been around Riding on Water for any amount of time you’ve undoubtedly become acquainted with the quirky but inimitable Horse Mutterer, my instructor of eight years – amounting to the vast majority of my riding career and not far from half my life. Geez, the Mutterer has been teaching me ever since he was just a pair of nostrils and a ponytail floating somewhere above my head. Although, come to think of it, that’s still a fairly accurate description of my view of him, minus the ponytail (to my mother’s unspeakable dismay).

My mom first recruited the poor unsuspecting young Mutterer – then only a few years older than I am now, but already boasting a total of over 700 horses he’d put under saddle and innumerable blue ribbons won in the showing arena – to teach my sister and I when I was ten years old in the spring of 2007. How exactly she stumbled upon him, I don’t remember. I was too little to care.

We then owned two horses that had been running around in the veld for several years; a goldenhearted old chestnut gelding by the name of Rivr, and Skye. Poor Mom had been dragging Skye and I around our little round pen (the remains of which my current ring is built from) for months and I was still refusing to suffer her to let go of Skye’s bridle. I also rode (for want of a better word) bareback, mainly because none of us had the foggiest idea of how you put on a saddle. The Mutterer arrived and promptly strapped his virtually indestructible trail saddle onto Skye’s back, plonked me unceremoniously upon it and sent us forth, sans lead rein. I was much more afraid of the Mutterer than I was of falling off, so I obeyed, clutching poor Skye, doing splits on his saddle (I was much too small for it then, and always will be) and, after a few minutes, enjoying myself hugely.

Whereupon the Mutterer summed up what has been basically my entire riding career to this point, with characteristic accuracy and economy of words: “She rides good, but she’s scared.”

In a matter of two years, buoyed by a tide of my unquenchable enthusiasm, under the Mutterer’s guidance I went from jumpy beginner to fearless kid who could, and would, ride anything with four legs and stay on top. It was four years after my first lesson with him that I landed my first paycheck – from one of his clients.

The Mutterer is about as atypical and yet exemplary a riding instructor as you can get. At shows people don’t spare a second glance for this tall, silent man leaning on the rails in jeans and sneakers while everybody else’s trainers are running around screaming “MORE LEG!” in their white breeches and long boots. Shouting has never suited either of us well; it makes me nervous, and it makes him hoarse, besides which the Mutterer seems to consider that once I’m in the show arena his job is done – it’s up to me then. He was also deeply disinterested in teaching me forward seat, rising trot without stirrups, or diagonals as a novice. Instead I learned how to warm up and cool off my horse by myself, how to mount without a girth (the one lesson where I came perilously close to finding a ladder and strangling him), how to work my horse equally on both sides, and what to do if she started bucking. Later on he would never teach me the aids for shoulder-in, travers, half-pass, or turn on the haunches. He taught me how a horse responds to pressure, and how to teach him to do so, and from that I’ve often believed that I could teach my horse basically anything.

Why do I stick with the Mutterer when I think I could learn more about seat and technique from a top competitive rider? For two main reasons; the first being that as a horseman, and in his understanding of the mind and body of the horse, I consider him utterly unsurpassed and have never had a reason to revise this theory. And secondly because the Mutterer and I just really get along. Over the years we’ve built a student-teacher relationship that blurs the line into friendship despite the gap of thirteen years between our ages. His oddball teaching methods are absolutely compatible with my even odder learning methods. A lot of students who would have been surprised by how far he could have taken them have quit after a few months of lessons because it’s just too hard. You need to half kill yourself trying before he considers you worthy of any form of encouragement. He doesn’t want you to ride for his praise, but because you cannot imagine not riding. For me, who rides for pretty much this reason, and to whom praise in the mouth of strangers always tastes of arsenic’s sickly tang, it works.

And I thank God that it does.

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