Three months since that call came in and changed my life and myself forever.
A lot has happened in those three months. A lot more has changed than just me; a lot has moved. But all of it has moved in one direction. The right one.
Deeper. Further. Higher.
Deeper into God’s love. Higher up this tremendous mountain. And further and further from the shallow end, from the place where I can stand.
I have never before had to ride on water so deep. But I am grateful. Grateful for the priorities He set straight in my head with that life-changing moment. Grateful for every breath I get to share with those I love. Grateful for every second chance with the lost. Grateful even for the fire, as it burns me pure.
And grateful, oh, so grateful that I now have a mighty comrade in every battle.
I’m still here, still doing what I do. Following my King and riding on water. There have been some exciting new developments, and there will be more, especially with regards to the blog. Don’t mistake my silence for loss – this blog is about to undergo changes that will only make it better.
Year in, year out, I have faithfully set a careful string of goals for all the horses – as long-term readers very well know. I think this may be the first year ever that I haven’t set any goals for Magic.
And I don’t intend to.
Last year was a rollercoaster with him. It started with his promising comeback after his terrible illness in 2015, winning both his first graded classes in fine style and staying absolutely sane throughout the show. Then it all came down around our ears a bit when I fell off him three times in as many months – my first falls off him, ever. We were heading in the right direction again when he decided he would like to have colic again after all and then the outbreak crashed any plans of returning to shows after that. All in all, he only had seven outings this year – and I stayed on top for five. (Of the ones that I stayed on, he jumped all clear rounds, barring one, which he won anyway). It was an unimpressive year, except that it wasn’t.
We made very little progress, training-wise. 80cm still looks about the size of the Great Wall of China (to me anyway; he’s good). Our flatwork remains low-level but rock solid. We go to shows and jump some jumps, sometimes, or not, as the case may be. But in terms of understanding this shining, suffering enigma of a horse, we made giant, groundbreaking leaps. Subtle, but groundbreaking.
I figured out the most important thing I could have, to help him. I figured out why he has panic attacks and how I can get him out of one when it’s happening. Anyone who knows anyone with PTSD knows how huge that is. To be able to look in his eyes when they’ve gone glassy and the horse I know and love just seems to be gone – and to know why he’s gone, where he’s gone and how to get him back… that’s tremendous. I feel like I can finally help him. I have finally found the hole that he falls into and how to get him out. After years of helplessly watching him leave into a terrible inner world that seemed to mentally torture him, at last I can break down those walls and bring him back to safety.
It’s so simple and self-explanatory that I’m amazed I didn’t see it long ago. Then again, if it was that self-explanatory, horse PTSD wouldn’t be the only thing we can deal with better.
I get in there with him, and I show him the way out.
In the face of discoveries like these – things invisible to man, but oh so important in the sight of God – the goals I’ve been setting just can’t compare.
For my own guts, I think it would be good for me to try and jump him higher. If he was always the Magic he is when he’s okay, he’d pack my butt around and teach me that jumps bigger than 70cm are not deadly and evil. Even when he is having a moment, he’ll jump 90cm as happily as he’ll jump 60cm.
But it’s not about me.
He needs a perfect rider. He needs a rock-steady lighthouse of a rider that can show him the way out of fear. He needs someone who’s never in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or focused on something other than being there for him. He needs someone who cares way more about him than about anything else. I so much want to learn to be that rider, not only for my training skill, but for my living skill. And I’m just not that rider when I’m scared.
Even if I did push him, he’s all of nine years old and already has bony changes in his withers. He won’t be sound forever. I don’t know how many years I’ll still be able to go jumping stuff with him. Maybe three? Four? I don’t want to spend those years fighting in order to jump mediocre heights badly.
I want to spend them listening to that horse’s soul. Because it tells me things about God and people and bullying and mental illness and myself that I really need to learn.
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.
Here we stand, you and me; you, half a ton of muscle, nerves, spirit, instincts, past experiences, and emotions; me, about fifty kilos of intelligent, emotional, spiritual human being. You probably don’t believe me, but we need each other.
You see, we stand at a fusion of two worlds – the equine world and the human world. You have been born into the world of men, and you depend on man for your physical, mental and emotional needs. I have chosen to welcome you into my human world, and depend on you to fulfil many of my hopes and dreams; I need you to dream with me, to befriend me. I need you to help me fly.
So here we meet, you and me, at the borders of our worlds; an intersection of species meant to lead to friendship. And I stand before you with a contract as old as men and horses, one necessary to our happiness in this special place between the worlds.
Horse, I am your human. I am also your friend, your teacher, your healer, your caregiver, your protector and your nurse. I am your guide through my world. To be all this, it is absolutely essential that I am at all times your leader. My word is law, my decisions final, and my authority absolute. I will prove to you that I am fit to lead you; you will test my leadership to determine whether I have what it takes to look after you, and I will pass every test of courage, conviction, confidence, knowledge, compassion, loyalty, cool-headedness, and selflessness that you care to throw at me.
You are my horse. You are my friend, but may threaten my life; my student, from whom will undoubtedly learn; my dependant, upon whom I will daily depend. You are a magnificent puzzle, but you are also my follower and I have dominion over you. As we both know that there can only be one leader, that leader cannot be you because this is my world and the instincts that save you in your world could kill us both in mine. For our safety, you are my follower.
As your leader I am responsible for your well-being. It is my duty to provide you with everything you need: food, water, space, shelter, safety, company, exercise, and medical attention. I will take care of all your daily needs (even if I arrange for someone else to do the chores). When you are hurt or sick or tired, I will nurse you, heal you, rest you and allow your amazingly designed body to repair itself. I will strive to make sure that your tack and surroundings do not hinder your work; that your tack fits and your footing is good. I will ensure that your body is always in a fit state to do what I demand of you.
It is also my duty to be a leader that you feel safe following. By affection, respect, and above all time, I will show you that you can trust me never to harm you. Yet that will only show you that I am your friend; to be your leader, I will prove to you my strength. By setting boundaries, being always consistent, and calmly keeping us both safe in any situation, I will show you that you can trust me always to protect you. I will discipline you and persist with any of my requests until you submit and obey. This I will never do unfairly, but in a way you understand – a way familiar to you from the actions of your dominant equine herdmates. In this manner I will teach you respect for my authority and for the firmness of my convictions. You will learn that I am strong enough and caring enough to be worthy of your perfect trust.
In return, I ask of you only that which is written into the programming of your very soul; perfect trust, a respect of my sensitivity and willingness not to take advantage thereof, and absolute obedience. All these things you would give naturally and willingly to the lead mare of your herd if you lived solely in the world of horses. In the world of men, I am your lead mare.
Your trust in me is essential. If you trust me I can help you and protect you. Occasionally, in healing your injuries and illnesses, I will cause you pain. You have to trust me even despite this pain. Trust is the most necessary ingredient in obedience. It is my quest to be worthy of your trust.
Because I am one-tenth of your size, it will be very easy for you to hurt or even kill me. This will not end well for you since men defend their kindred and a mankiller is automatically an enemy, just as the killer of a horse is an enemy to horses. Also if I am hurt I find it harder to do what I need to take care of you; and it is my duty to my kin to ensure that you never intentionally harm them. Sometimes you will hurt us by mistake. I accept that. But deliberate and unprovoked aggression will never be tolerated under any circumstances and is a terrible fracture of our contract – from both sides.
Your obedience is possibly the most important factor in your happy friendship with mankind. Many of the requests I make will be for our joint mission of working hard and well together, and I must ask that you perform these to the best of your ability. Other requests will be directly important for your safety or even survival. They will not make sense to you, but it is essential that you obey me unhesitatingly. Remember that you can trust me; I act for your good and our pleasure.
Horse, in order for us both to transcend mere survival and attain a thriving enjoyment of our lives, I must make one more demand. I ask that you give me the very best of your physical performance. While I may yet be smarter, more spiritual, wiser, and closer to God than you are, I am undoubtedly far from you physically. Your majestic body leaps, runs and dances with a power and grace I will never attain. I ask to borrow some of that power when I am astride you; I ask you to leap as high, run as fast and dance as gracefully as you possibly can, for me.
But oh Horse, I know I can only ask this when our relationship transcends leader-follower and into the true deep friendship that crosses effortlessly, joyously the border between our worlds. In my leadership and your obedience, we express our unspoken and unspeakable love for one another. My dominion over you was ordained by the Lord my God, Who made us both (and Who perhaps you know just a little when you listen to His voice in the wind you make when you run). When I am a good ruler over you and you are a good and wholehearted follower, we can attain the endless joy known only by creatures doing that for which they were created.
Better yet, we express the love we feel so deeply for Him Who created us.
Mighty and beautiful Horse, you cannot read this letter. You know nothing about words or writings, communicating meaning in silence the way you do; you don’t need the cumbersome letters to say what you have in your heart. Your feelings are written across every line of your breathtaking body. It would make it easier if you could read and understand this, but you never will; instead, see this in the lines of my body, in my own silent communications with you.
It would take years, but if we both followed this promise perfectly, we would have a perfect friendship. Unfortunately, we won’t. We will have bad or tired or annoyed days, and we will both break our promises.
But we can still have a very good friendship. And here in the world of both horses and men, very good is quite amazing.
So according to the logbook I keep of all my rides/sessions, I finished 616 sessions so far in 2015. The majority of this will be riding, but there’s also a lot of lunging and long-lining and free jumping in there, and loading and halter training… and if I have to hold a particularly difficult horse for feet/teeth/whatever, I count that, too. Cuz I can.
That’s about 300-450 hours, which is cool but I can do better. So maybe in the next half I shall!
Anyway, wannabe brag material aside, here’s a review on some real goals:
Get her fit – Gotcha! She’s lost a tad of fitness now, with being a little under the weather over the weekend and having a slow week due to rider having to be in two places at once, but nothing major. To finish with 0.4 time penalties on cross-country at Springs, especially considering how spooky she was to the jumps, she’s got to be fit enough for her level.
Build her upper neck muscle
School Elementary Medium successfully – We knew the dressage goal was going to be the slow and tedious one. Still hammering on this. Dressage ain’t a thing you can really force, so we’re not too panicky about achieving this – quality work over chasing levels.
Introduce scary-looking jumps – We can keep working on it, but we haven’t had a stop in competition since March. She’s getting much more courageous. We worked on solid skinnies and spooky tires at home.
Have her go through water more easily
Show graded in EV70 – We did AND IT ROCKED. Okay, so there was no dressage, but who’s counting? We were 8th in a class of 31. I count that as achieved.
Complete advanced halter training
Leading over, through and under scary things – Busy on this, but not quite done with going over spooky stuff yet.
Leading away from his group – We’ve got this. No screaming, no jogging on the way back, no napping. I’ll take it.
Bathing – We got halfway with this and then winter came; we’ll resume in summer.
Desensitisation to noise and sight – I flapped my jacket all over him. He went to sleep. Mission accomplished.
Loading preparation – work in progess; I still want him to go over a tarpaulin.
Injections – Some improvement, but we’re not there yet
Be gelded – Probably going to be postponed to next winter.
Lowering of the head when requested by pressure on the halter
Basic lunging with a halter and long line only – This is fine.
Leading from the right – I totally forgot this (it’s been a few years since I raised my own baby) but it’s a handy skill. Working on it now.
Wearing a roller
Lunging over poles
Preparation for clipping – I don’t have clippers yet so…
Wearing boots – All these lunging-related goals will most likely will be left for next year unless he suddenly matures a lot. Being a warmblood, he’s really not at the same level of physical or mental maturity as Thunny was when he was this age. I’m using my work with Thun as a baseline because it’s the best experience I have, but while Thunder knew all this by the end of his second year, Exavior isn’t going to get there. I want him to get on the horsebox, lead from the right, and walk a few nice laps on the lunge and then he’s going back out of work for a little while, maybe even to the end of the year, except for a couple of baths and talking about injections. No point in cooking a baby brain, and he can go out and horse for a while with no damage to his people skills.
Tie up – He will still fly back if something truly upsets him, but he now stands tied really nicely for his grooming every morning and if he steps back and feels the pull, he yields to pressure instead of losing his brain. Honestly, few horses will stand tied under pressure, and the skill isn’t important enough in my situation to break even more halters and potentially necks. I’m okay with him now; daily tying for grooming will serve to improve this skill gently over time.
School Novice – I’m going to call this one a win, for a horse that is probably never going to compete in stressage. I practiced Novice 1-3 on him over and over again preparation for Arwen’s show and he was really good, even with the French link on. Leg-yields are also almost there, after all, Novice only requires H-L level of leg-yields.
Survive a hack – We went to the end of the road and back without dying, but that doesn’t count as a hack, so I’m not crossing this out just yet.
Be confident at 80cm
Show graded at 70cm showjumping – We jumped a terrifying and wonderful clear at 70cm at a training show, so we’re making our way towards this! Our next show will be 50cm, 60cm and 70cm again, and then I’ll play it by ear as to whether we do 80cm next show. My criterion for going graded is single and simple: I want him to walk into the arena and know exactly what he is supposed to do. No point in paying the earth to take a spooky baby to a show and have three stops by the second jump. When he goes in and says to me, “OK, I know what we do now,” then we can move on to graded. The height does not seem to be an issue but he likes to halfway stop at his first few fences every show, so I want to eliminate that first.
Fix his mild tendency to get in your space
Get him to stand dead still for a bath
Introduce flying changes – Ugh. I suck so much at flying changes. SO MUCH. I can’t get them out of Arwen yet, so poor Thun hasn’t even really been asked for them yet. Still striving for this but I won’t force him and make him worried.
Improve on sliding stops, spins and rein backs – This is an ongoing goal but we’ve already made HUGE improvements. Like, we actually slide in our sliding stops! Spins are at least a little smoother if reeeeaaaally slow (Friesians don’t do fast until they spook), and rein backs are appropriate for his level, we get 10 steps in style and 15 sloppy steps if I beg.
Log as many trail miles as possible – Work in progress. I am getting so tired and bored with hacking alone, but it’s just a matter of making myself do it. As soon as I have a really cool hack horse again I’m sure my motivation will get better, but I need motivation to get that really cool hack horse ready!
All in all, I’m quite happy with our progress so far, mostly because not only have we been getting results but we’ve been improving relationships. And ultimately, that’s what horsemanship is all about. Glory to the King ❤