What’s it been, almost a year and a half? Who am I kidding? I don’t need to ask. I know. It’s been a few days less than seventeen months since we lost her: my friend and fellow medic. She was the same age as me, but now I’ve had a birthday that she never will.
The saving grace, literally, is that she’s never actually been less lost. Not to Him: to Him she’s finally Home. Nor, honestly, to us. She’s never been more important to us all. She’s just not here in the flesh anymore.
As long as we’re still here, we’ll continue to miss her.
Seventeen months. Here we all are now, living our lives again. We say we got through it. Sometimes maybe we look like we’re over it. But the truth is that you never get over it. A loss like that is not so much a storm to weather as it is a divider. A great, open gap ripped in your life, diving it forever into two pieces: a before and an after. Two pieces so different they feel like they belong to different people.
People say you should be trying to get back to normal. But the truth is that the old normal doesn’t exist anymore because the old you doesn’t exist anymore. You never heal from that wound.
You just rise from the ashes.
Who I am and what my life is will never ever look or be the same as it was before. It’s seventeen months later and I am happy, whole, blessed beyond anything I ever expected, and changed. So, so changed. The way I see and interact with the world, the things I value, the things I fear – everything is different. I will never get over it. I will never get back to normal.
I cannot go back.
But I can go forward. Because while I have changed, one thing never has: the God Who will never let go.
The process isn’t healing. It’s transformation. I didn’t get better: I was reborn.
There’s no way through grief. There’s no road back to the way it used to be. But there’s not supposed to be.
Grief only rips us down to rebuild it. Grief only tears down the road ahead to build a bigger bridge. And grief, soul-wrenching, heartbreaking, gut-ripping grief above all does one great thing:
Grief changes us.
And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
* * * *
I am happier and more free right now than I have ever been before, for I have plumbed the depths of grace to an extent I thought impossible. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ll always miss you.
Hebrews 11Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.2 Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.
3 By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.
4 It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.
5 It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.”[a] For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God.6 And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.
7 It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going.9 And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise.10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
11 It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed[b] that God would keep his promise.12 And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.
13 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.14 Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own.15 If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back.16 But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
17 It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac,18 even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.”[c]19 Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.
20 It was by faith that Isaac promised blessings for the future to his sons, Jacob and Esau.
21 It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.
22 It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left.
23 It was by faith that Moses’ parents hid him for three months when he was born. They saw that God had given them an unusual child, and they were not afraid to disobey the king’s command.
24 It was by faith that Moses, when he grew up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.25 He chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin.26 He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his great reward.27 It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible.28 It was by faith that Moses commanded the people of Israel to keep the Passover and to sprinkle blood on the doorposts so that the angel of death would not kill their firstborn sons.
29 It was by faith that the people of Israel went right through the Red Sea as though they were on dry ground. But when the Egyptians tried to follow, they were all drowned.
30 It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down.
31 It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
32 How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets.33 By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions,34 quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight.35 Women received their loved ones back again from death.
But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection.36 Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons.37 Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half,[d] and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated.38 They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
39 All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.40 For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.
And by faith, this most undeserving of all His children would find herself most abundantly blessed.
I love my little mustard seed. ❤ Glory to the King.
Nine months down the line and I once again found myself in the position where I had more kids to teach than ponies they could ride. Both Stardust and Thunder were starting to look burned out again, and I frequently had to rope Arwen in for lessons (she was not popular; apparently super-fit event ponies do not make awesome schoolies…). When Bruno was sold, my lesson situation went from just making it to somewhat dire and something had to be done.
This time I had a little cash on hand from the sale, but I knew we’d barely broken even on Bruno and his money had to stretch really far. It’s amazing how expensive the dentist gets when it goes from four horses to twenty-four… Either way, I put up a wanted ad and started shopping. We spent an exhausting morning in Pretoria trying ponies that were so almost perfect, but just… not quite. Then one of the yards right here in Heidelberg put up an advert for one of their schoolies. I gave it a cursory glance and decided to go have a look, mostly just because it was close by. The pony was smaller and older than I wanted, but I was getting desperate. As always, it’s at this point that God stepped in – right where desperation meets necessity.
I tried the pony. It was adorable, but violently spooky and well into its teens. Driving away, I knew the sensible decision would be to say thanks but no thanks. I’d seen better ponies in Pretoria. And yet… something kept me from making that call. There was just something about her that I couldn’t ignore and I didn’t really know what it was. A vibe, a gut feeling. She just felt quiet and gentle even though she hadn’t acted like it. Honestly, though, I believe that feeling wasn’t all about the pony. The other ponies had been quieter, but they hadn’t had the irresistible attraction that this one did. I texted the owner and asked if I could view her again.
The endlessly patient seller agreed to let me ride the pony again, so I arrived, not totally clear on why exactly I was doing this, and remounted the pony. She started to nap near the corner she’d spooked at last time and overjumped a little cross extravagantly, but her rhythm was excellent. She had that I’ll-do-this-all-day, stuck-to-the-track patience of a real riding school pony. She was also sound – sound as a brass bell, healthy as could be despite her age. And adorable, obviously used to children, easy to tack up and handle, and thoroughly experienced. But I was still kind of undecided about the whole thing given the spookiness. What kind of a yard manager buys a spooky schoolie?
Eventually, I couldn’t resist the pull anymore. Nothing else felt right. So I threw up my hands. “Lord, as Thou wilt.” We bought the pony. The poor little soul was shunted straight into my lesson program the next day and became an instant hit. Kids started to fight over who got to ride her, whether they were tiny tots or already jumping. That weekend, I put her and Stardust in the horsebox and shipped them off to do pony rides. It was at the back of the feed shop, with a busy road next door and vehicles coming in and out to be noisily loaded; at one stage an enormous trailer drove in and started to offload 5000l tanks with a tremendous racket.
The new pony was unbothered by the traffic, unphased by the vehicles, and merely walked a circle around me at the offloading of the tanks. She didn’t spook. Not even once. I could almost hear God saying, “Do you trust Me now, daughter?”
She came with the name Lulu, and remains Lulu to friends. But I named her Lullaby, because like the song*, she’s become a reminder of True Love.
* WARNING – mild profanity in the song. Sorry about that, but its message makes it worth the listen.
After a very damp and slow time last week, we were all raring to get back into action this week. The weather played along absolutely beautifully with a whole series of calm, sunny, balmy days and bone dry footing making for some serious riding.
My jump exercise of the week was a little grid, mostly because I fear and despise grids and therefore should do several of them to get myself over it and convince myself of their usefulness. It was a simple one, but quite daunting for pole-phobic yours truly: 3 trotting poles to a small cross, one stride to a vertical, one stride to another vertical.
Magic was the highlight of my week, which he’s pretty good at being. Still working on getting him forward off the leg, I was also able to get a couple of consist trot leg-yields from him, riding him in the snaffle. He’s no Valegro, but I was thrilled when he gave me the Novice 5 leg-yields beautifully (10m circle at L, then leg-yield back to the track around R). I was nervous to take him through my little grid because I thought he might make a mistake and then we’d flail and panic through it, but what do you know – he was perfect. I did have to make the one strides a little longer as I’d set them for ponies, but even when it was too short, he just took the short distances and popped in an out like a good grownup horse. I have video evidence.
Arwen was the one who actually introduced me to the grid. She was good up until I put up the first vertical, at which she had a dishonest and unreasonable stop, so I gave her a good one along the backside with my crop. These stops are becoming a naughty habit of hers. Thereafter she didn’t try it again and jumped with a more Arwen-like gusto, popping through the whole thing with great enthusiasm and even some straightness. She was so good that it stopped being scary and even became really, really fun at one point, something Arwen is excellent at doing for me. She also put in two solid flatwork sessions, giving me her best haunches in along the track so far. Her canter was a little weak on Friday, though. She also packed some students around on outrides, which she enjoyed greatly as they don’t seem to be able to stop her from eating anything that happens to grow at nose level.
Nellie had a relaxed but good week. She has been struggling with bend and suppleness lately, so we had an intensive lesson with the Mutterer on Wednesday working on that. We did a whole lot of Parelli flexions, finding her a lot stiffer to the right than the left (as expected). She still tends to fall against my right leg quite a bit but working on getting that better. As a side note, when she got stuffy and frustrated with lateral work and flexions, I was ordered to take her for a gallop around the jumping arena. This worked like a charm. It really got her thinking forward and relaxed again. I’ll definitely be using that trick in the future. I led a couple of outrides on her as well and she was super – relaxed, confident, just a little looky.
Exavior was a bit of a dweeb. Temporarily abandoning the lunging idea – the lunge ring is inconveniently situated in a paddock full of usually very calm schoolies; I doubt they would remain so calm should an angry young colt pull free and run into them – we started working on loading. The first couple of days were dreadful. Day one he was spooky and nervous; day two he realised how sympathetic I can be when he is nervous, so he pushed his luck and became downright rude and stubborn. On the third day, both sick of arguing, we finally both pulled together. I exercised more patience, which eventually persuaded him to exercise some brainpower, and he climbed into the box without further ado. We loaded him three or four times with the butt rope and he became calmer each time.
This was Sookie’s first full week of work, having had an easy week to settle in (I spent a whole session just scrubbing her so that her white could be properly white again), and she adjusted very well. She is getting a pile of maize-containing broodmare feed at the moment; I only had to lunge her once before I decided to change her over onto something without maize in it because normally ploddy Sookie was doing handstands and trying to squash my little dog. The next day she was much better and I walked her around the ring; and on the third day I climbed right up and rode her around the ring in three gaits. Her canter right was very awkward, and she felt like bucking, but I booted her through it and put it down to poor balance and lack of muscle tone. She was very willing, supple, and responsive, though – all hugely in her favour. Then we walked and trotted around the spooky big arena and she impressed me by not doing any of the dramatic spooks she used to when she was a baby.
Bruno also had a massive successful week. He just goes from strength to strength. After having some time off for the kick to his ribs, he was hardly hyper at all and the first time I rode him I was already asking for canter both ways. He has an irritating habit of drifting towards the inside of the ring, especially on the left rein, but doesn’t get violent about it. Just general baby pony stuff. Our last session was the best of all. I didn’t lunge him, just hopped on and did 3 gaits in the ring, then had a walk around the unfenced big arena. He was super. I love him more each time I sit on him. A confidence giver since the day he was backed – some lucky kid is going to have a blast on him.
As Lancelot’s sacroiliac injury was less tender, towards the end of the week I also brought him in and gave him a little lunging. He moves quite sound, but I didn’t put any weight on his back just in case. He was very well behaved and not at all as hyper as he usually is, but a little clumsy. I am very wary to be working him much until the chiro sorts out his back, so we’ll stick to light lunging and basic groundwork – loading and bathing – until that’s been done.
Our new arrival also had her first work week. Whisper is a little cremello mare that is here to be schooled and resold. I backed her in the spring for her owner and had put in some basics – walk and trot, a few steps of canter – before she was turned away for a few months. She is a very happy-go-lucky sort that is not much bothered by anything really, and I was back on her in short order doing everything we’d done before barring the canter. She finds the ring rather too small to balance at a canter with her rider on, so we’ll try that out in the big arena next week. On the ground she’s incredibly easy and relaxed to handle, which is a good thing, because dabbing sunscreen around pink cremello eyes is made considerably easier by a cooperative horse.
Thunder and Stardust had a very busy and good week being loved to bits by their kids. Dusty went on her first proper long group outride and was a perfect little angel, not putting a toenail wrong. Dusty is rather good at being a perfect little angel. Baby Thunder remains occasionally careless over fences, but still his straight, solid self.
Another blessed week with my beloved King Jesus at His own stableyard. How great Thou art! ❤ With this being Easter Weekend, we are more thankful than ever for what He did for us. We will never forget Your sacrifice. How could we when what You have done sets us free every single day? When Your courage and love changed our lives forever? Thank You Lord ❤
“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.
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.
Inanda Country Base’s massive green property reeks of old-fashioned horsiness. One can almost imagine you are somewhere deep in England; the immaculate British-style stable blocks, vast green fields and baying of their hunting hounds in the early mornings sends a shiver down the spine. I loved it there. Arwen did too; she spent her first night in a real stable and didn’t even kill anyone, though I did take the precaution of taping my phone number to her nose in case of any nightly escapades, so she looked like a complete idiot.
Dressage was in one of the epic green fields, which was so big that three dressage arenas and a warmup ring of enormous proportions fit in effortlessly. Unfortunately, the dressage arenas were marked off by white ropes near the ground. This is fine and safe and useful, except Arwen said the ropes were Poisonous Electric Snakes and politely declined to go straight beside them. She had the best warmup in the world and then came down the centreline like she owned it and then did a perfect, unrequired haunches-in down the track, in all three gaits, and every time we went on the track. Our circles and transitions were beautiful enough that we earned a respectable 60.7 penalties (60%), landing us, as usual, squarely in the middle of the field at 8th out of 15.
Showjumping was directly after dressage. I only barely had time to yank on my bib and grab my jumping crop and we were in after a brief warmup. She was coming in very close to the fences but jumping willingly enough, so I just let it go. Honestly, though, I felt like a blob of well-chewed bubblegum. Squashy and colourless. A hectic week – 16 hour days, nine rides a day, feeding and admin on top of it all – had left me frazzled by that morning, and dressage had drained whatever brainpower I had left. We came through the start flat, scraped over the opening oxer, and took the second rail. I woke up enough to flap my crop at her as we approached the easy vertical at number three, so we made it over that. Number four was an oxer with filler under it and as we came around the corner at it, I just sat there. Arwen found exactly zero support and dawdled to a halt to look at the filler. I approached with somewhat more zeal and we made it over just fine the second time; number five had looked scary from the beginning, so I gave her a boot and she jumped beautifully.
We came down the huge bank towards number six, fell on our faces, and stopped again at six. I knew I had only one refusal left now, so I woke up and gunned it back at the fence and she jumped it well. 7, 8, and the combination at 9 were on a series of difficult rollbacks and we nailed the line to every single one, popping over the fences with no difficulty. I relaxed as we cleared number 9b and my brain left, again. We cantered towards number ten, Arwen asked if she should jump it, I said, “Huh?” and she knelt in the middle of it instead, demolishing it thoroughly and putting the finishing touch on the most ignominious round of my competitive career.
I didn’t whack her for any of the stops. In the circumstances it would have been ridiculously unfair; if I had just given her a little leg going into them I bet she would have jumped every single fence with her eyes closed. Poor old Arwen. I gave her an apologetic pat as we left. There was nothing more we could do about it, and on the bright side, because it was only EV70, we were still allowed to run cross-country the next day for schooling purposes.
This was a good thing, because the course map had me quailing. Arwen has never jumped a ditch in her entire life and the second element of 10 (also her first xc combination) was a ditch. It was a large black abyss, probably with some lava at the bottom. Number 14 was also a ditch, a large one with gigantic scary owls on either side, and there was a drop about the same height as the Victoria Falls.
Warming up for xc, I was quite worried that she was going to try stopping again just out of habit, but this time I was awake so I actually steered and pushed the go button so she took me over every practice fence we looked at without thinking twice – including an 80cm skinny as big as a house. She was blowing fire as we came up the hill to the startbox and after the countdown from five and saluting the King, I put my spurs in her and she came blasting out looking for something to kill. Number one was inviting so she hardly broke her stride sailing over it and roared off towards number two, max height and wide, no problem for her – she just ate it up. We had a little stumble crossing the dirt road, but she caught herself quickly, clicked back into her stride and bounded over number three.
I was convinced we were going to stop at number four. It was a sharp turn right into the woods to a skinny fence with bales all over it, and it caused plenty of grief to other riders that day. Arwen came at it locked and loaded and just charged over it as if it wasn’t there. Number five was simple but its approach was complicated by a branch, which was kind of in the way, except Arwen is 14.3 and I’m 5′ 4″ so we just galloped under it because we are awesome. She took 5 and 6 in her stride and then charged up the long blast to 7.
Seven was intimidating: a stack of logs, low but wide, and the horses could just catch a glimpse of the water as they approached it. Three riders were eliminated there, and as we came up to it I felt Arwen looking and tried to kick her except my legs didn’t want to cooperate so I just made a little smoochy noise instead and poor longsuffering Arwen hauled my sorry backside over that fence and saved the day. She wriggled into the water, walked a few steps, trotted, scrambled out and willingly jumped the low side of number 8, a step. We flopped up the hill at number nine without any juice at all and Arwen put up her willing knees and did a riding-school-pony-pop over it, dragging me with her once again.
The stretch from 9 to the Combination of Doom was huge and uphill, so I let her go and she ate up the ground. At the turn to 10 I brought her right back down to a little working canter, shouting, “Arwen, LOOK at it, theLordismyShepherd Arwen LOOK!” Arwen declined. She popped over 10a and then while I was still trying to massively override 10b she was already over it and galloping off, saying, “What? It’s just a hole in the ground, you stupid little human,” while I sat there flabbergasted.
Number 11 scared me. It was under a shed and had shavings bags under it, but mercifully it was small, and Arwen had a mighty look but jumped just fine. 12 was also intimidating and she had another look and another good jump. Then came number 13 and as she saw it she leapt straight up into the air, whereupon I bounced up like a kid on a Thelwell pony, landed with a big kick, clung on and scrambled over.
We opened up the throttle on the stretch to the next ditch, which I was no longer worried about; Arwen said that because it was wide it was easy because one could jump in it instead of over it. This caused the jump judge to squeal in alarm but we shot off before she could do anything about it. 15 was a bit spooky but I slowed her down enough that we made the turn and climbed over it fine. By this point, my legs were just done. Somehow, despite spending the hours I do in the saddle, I had totally missed out on the fact that my cardio fitness sucks. I had been running on adrenalin, which promptly left as we cantered down to harmless little number 16 and stopped. This gave me a goodly adrenalin rush, so I waved my crop around and Arwen jumped 16 and the mighty drop at 17 without turning a hair. One last effort of galloping and we took 18 in our stride, blasting through the finish and stopping on a dime as is Arwen’s trademark.
I was euphoric as we left the xc with my panting pony. Despite the silly stop and copious time penalties, she had never felt more confident across a more challenging course ever before. One thing is for sure: The horse can do the job, and she loves it. The fault lies with me, but I know that just like that good little grey – “the spunky little grey”, as the announcer calls her – will take none of my inferior nonsense and will haul my sorry butt over into excellence just the way she hauls it over oxers. Glory to the amazing King.
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 have been a very bad blogger, so now for my punishment I shall write lengthy picture-heavy updates on everything with four legs on this place. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if that’s your punishment or mine, but I digress.
We’ll start with Arwen because she begins with A and is anyway ever the busy and cheerful member of the Horde. And while we’re on the subject of Arwie, we may as well include the rest of the fat, fluffy, nerdy Nooitgedachters.
Arwen had her six weeks off after her AHS shot from the beginning of September to mid-October, whereupon I promptly entered her in a show at the end of October, giving us a whole two weeks to prepare for it. As usual, Arwen came back from her rest snorting and plunging and leaping like a dragon, but stronger and more supple in her mind and body. She always seems to remember her good habits and forget half the bad ones during her time off (no, you can’t have her). Apart from a few interesting little moments in the first few days back in work (like an idiot, I jumped straight back on my fiery mare with not a day’s lunging; amazingly I am still alive), she was awesome all the way through.
At the dressage show (which was at Hope Riding, venue of one of our first shows ever), I had my two greenies standing about like school horses while my seasoned campaigner leapt about snorting at things and threatening to kill somebody. Arwen was a maniac in the warmup arena. We basically galloped around while I clung on for dear life, spooking at drains. She prompted an instructor to quirk an eyebrow as I whizzed helplessly past, lean down and whisper in her companion’s ear: “That is a very hot horse.”
When we got to the dressage arena, I felt like an idiot. Evidently my two weeks’ preparation had not been enough and I was about to get bucked off in front of the whole stableyard, which is a fairly new stableyard and holds me in rather excessive esteem. Arwen dragoned along the edge of the arena and was barely persuaded to halt in front of the judges’ box; I grimaced at the judge and said, “I’m sorry, I brought my event horse today. My dressage horse stayed home.” The judge politely accepted the apology and we trotted off to A, came down the centreline and landed an 8. From then on it was all pie. Arwen was relaxed, obedient, submissive and ever so slightly smug at my amazement. An instructor, watching our test, turned to my mom and said, “She’ll never be great at dressage. She’s not forward going enough.”
She scored 68% for Novice 1 and her personal best of 74% for Novice 2. That would have been 26 penalties in eventing – I’ll take that any day. Arwen won a fly mask and twirled maddeningly while we tried to bandage her up for travel, demanding to know where the cross-country was. She was so excited that when I grabbed her lead and ran into the horsebox she trotted right up next to me before even noticing where she was actually going. She was infuriated to find out that we were going home instead of across country.
Our first horse trial of the season is in two weeks’ time and I feel good about it. We have had appalling heat and I haven’t conditioned her as much as I would have liked, and we’re moving up to EV70, but Arwen has been giving me some really solid work. Her dressage is on point (absolutely nothing wrong with willingness to go forward…), she’s been jumping 1.00m at home without batting an eyelid (seriously, she hasn’t had a single stop since I brought her back into work, and even lands on whichever lead I ask now), and while she isn’t as fit as I would like, her galloping has really improved. She gallops with a rhythm that a dressage judge would approve of. We still have trouble jumping out of a gallop stride, but at least in between fences her little legs can make up some ground. I think it’s going to be a boatload of fun and if we survive cross-country and I keep my act together, we should even do better than last time. The goal is simple: survive. My secret goal is to finish on my dressage score, but considering it’s a move up, I would be very happy to complete.
Nell has some extremely exciting news: she’s moved in with me. For some time the Mutterer and I have been discussing how awesome it would be if Nell stayed with me so that I can spend more time on schooling, and so that showing logistics would be far easier. It’s an 80-minute round trip to go pick her up on a show morning, and when does anyone have 80 spare minutes on a show morning? Added to that, I only make it out to her owner’s place at most twice a week. It has been adequate so far (if getting a horse from unbacked to Novice in a year can be considered merely “adequate”, considering my level of experience – she’s just something else), but now I’m stoked to be able to put more work in her. Nell is a phenomenal mare from her tremendous movement to her striking looks to her amazing mind, and the dressage world had just better watch out.
Nell also went to the show with Arwen. She was quite well-behaved, until her stablemate Liana was busy showing, at which point she ran around in her paddock yelling, and especially angelic to travel. In the warmup she was a complete loon, but judging by Arwie’s behaviour it must have been a very spooky arena for some reason. We got to the dressage arena and I was fed up with insane young horses and ready to pack her royal fatness back to the stud to have babies for the rest of her life, but then suddenly Nell decided that she was done with nonsense and was going to show the world what she can do. The world, in this case, consisted of the dressage judge, my family, the photographer, an the show organisers (everyone else had gone home by this point), but she was still amazing. She landed 65% in Novice 1 and 67% in Novice 2, without any apparent effort. The judge’s socks were knocked off. I botched half the movements in terms of accuracy because I was in survival mode and focused on keeping my baby horse’s feet on the ground and brain in her noggin, but I needn’t have been. Accuracy points are stupid to lose but at least easy to fix, so I’ll take it.
Interestingly, the first time I rode her in my arena, Nell was perfect. Not spooky, not looky, and certainly not leapingly crazy the way she can be at shows. But the first time I rode her in my arena with people watching, she was extremely nervous for the first few minutes. She even napped for the first time in her life, refusing to enter the arena at all; we backed up about 40m before I persuaded her to go forward and then she was obedient if a little worried. Stage fright? It seems ludicrous, but the coincidence is too great to ignore, so I’ll be experimenting with the idea in future.
Liana, Nell’s beautiful chestnut stablemate, came along to live with me as well. Ana is being sold and is wonderful so buy her. This dressage show was her first (or at least her first in several years), and she put the more experienced horses to shame by loading the best, standing the most nicely, and behaving the most calmly out of all of them. She is a sensitive ride, but oh so honest and sweet and levelheaded. I was extremely proud of her. Due to a frustrating old training issue that is improving but was worsened by her slight tension at the show, she had trouble lengthening her strides appropriately and came across rushed and choppy, so her scores were 56 and 58% in the first two Prelim tests, but she was extremely obedient. She did everything I asked and didn’t spook at a thing. Despite rushing, she didn’t pull and never threatened to get out of control. She will make some sweet little girl very happy. So if you are a sweet little girl, start pestering your parents.
Once at my place, she also handled my arena with aplomb and we set to doing some jumping, to which she is better suited. She has a powerful jump and is as game as they come to the fences, although we do need to work on her habit of taking a rather long distance when she jumps from a canter. She’s insanely careful, though – I would really not mind taking her across country and I’m paranoid about what kind of jumper I’ll take across country.
Vastrap went to a show in the end of September where he behaved like a maniac the whole time I was on him. I believe somebody, somewhere along the line, allowed him to run madly at fences and the old bad habit rears its ugly head on occasion. He was never malicious – even when going at a stupid pace over fences, or when he took a wild distance and I landed on his neck, he never once bucked, ever. He also didn’t stop at a single thing or ever actually bolt. He just pulled and hung his legs midair and pulled poles like it was going out of fashion. So I grounded him for at least two months and we have spent the last several weeks schooling, at a trot, over ground poles. It’s frustating because the little dude is really a talented jumper and I would love to event him, but I’ll take a careless horse across country over my dead body, probably literally. He’s also been doing some lessons with a rather fearless but very kind and soft young rider, which helps him learn to put up with things.
As for him and Mom, well, he morphs into his usual wonderful self. With my beginner parent aboard, Vastrap is the dearest and kindest and most patient little plod you ever saw. He could be a gentleman among angels. That’s what counts, so he can yank me into jumps as much as he pleases, he is still amazing.
And then a couple of weeks ago I bought Bruno, the first resale project I’ve actually owned for myself.
I love schooling ponies, and resale has always appealed to me because owning the horse gives you all the freedom you could desire to train him the way you want to, but you can still make a profit out of it in the end if you’re careful (and God wills it). I also believe there is a need in the market for safe, well schooled competition ponies in the medium price range. There are far too many dishonest sellers out there, and they (usually unknowingly) put little kids’ lives at risk. As for those that know, I support Jesus’s position – it would be better for them to have a millstone hanged about their necks and thrown into the sea, than to harm any one of these little ones!
Unfortunately the really nice ponies are exorbitantly priced, and with good reason. Good care and schooling should be rewarded. However, I’m in the blessed position to be able to keep my horses very cheaply due to my location, cheap bulk deliveries of hay due to the cattle, and my parents’ owning the farm. (Somehow horses that come to my place also magically get fat; I have no real idea why but I’m certainly not complaining). I’m also young, not steeped in experience, and virtually unknown, so nobody is going to pay me insane amounts of money for schooling, so I can keep prices in the medium range and still cream a little something off the top. In theory. We shall see how it works in practice.
Hence, Bruno. He is the most adorable little bay Nooitie pony I ever saw in my life. The Mutterer bred him in 2012 and I remember thinking that he was the most powerful-looking foal I’d ever seen. His parents were both amazingly quiet horses (I remember riding his sire, a mature breeding stallion, bareback and bridleless away from his mares; he followed the Mutterer without even a halter, quiet as a schoolie), and he currently stands somewhere around 13.3, so he should make a perfect pony-rider height – around 14.1. He also has a cute head, solid conformation, and a willing brain, so I liked him from the start. Bruny is to stay with me for somewhere between a year and two years, depending on his progress and my financial situation and God’s will.
Don’t worry – he’s fine at last. After a week’s nursing at home and then five days in hospital, my poor, dear friend is finally better and relieved of the pain, hunger and discomfort he had so patiently endured for nearly two weeks. Poor Magic had a massive impaction colic that stubbornly refused to shift up until we took him to the vet hospital in Midrand, where a horse specialist vet put a tube up his nose and pumped water into him until he sloshed and, eventually, produced a glorious mountain of manure. Now he is home and eating everything in sight – 12 days of starvation can do that to you – and being his usual goofy wonderful self.
But when he was standing in the vet hospital, his head against my chest, his neck hot and sweaty under my hand, his breath racing with the pain, I didn’t know why his colic was persisting and I didn’t know that he was going to get better. I knew my friend was hurting, and I knew colic can be deadly.
I was terrified that I was going to lose him.
But by God’s grace, by His sovereign plan, I didn’t. By His hope and strength alone I did whatever I could to fight for Magic (we all did) and my amazing horse never thought of quitting or of rebelling against all the painful and uncomfortable things we did to him, and now we are both home, a little battered, a little tired, and a little skinny, but just happy to be back to the lives we’re used to. When I go feed, I am still greeted by a sharp grey face with its perfect straight nose and its tiny pricked ears and the great dark eyes with their love and their fire, and my heart swells fit to burst with relief and love. I am blessed beyond all deserving.
The past two weeks still stands as a sobering and an invigorating reminder: that not a single one of us owns horses. They are not ours in any sense other than that someone is our friend, or our brother. Oh, we can pay money for them and control what we can about their lives; we can fill in forms with our name under “Owner” and brag about them as if we were the ones that made them. But all we really have on them is an extended home lease. Their Owner and Creator has blessed us magnificently with loaning them to us, but at any time He pleases, He will bring them all Forever Home.
The loss is ours, not theirs. The God that I know loves horses enough that He must have made a place for them when they leave us; He never told us where it is, or what, but that only means that it’s not our concern. That’s between God and horses. But the fact remains that we only have a lifetime (and how short the life of a horse can seem!) with them right here, right now, on this planet. And none of us know when that lifetime might end.
We all bicker about rollkur and helmets and bitless bridles. We all fight about racehorses and the bits allowed in Western. We pick on others for wearing the wrong coats, having the wrong horses, using the wrong tack and wearing the wrong size in breeches. But while we throw stones at each other, our horses are standing patiently in their paddocks waiting for us to come home. To put a little equestrian twist on Mother Theresa’s famous quote, if we really want to change the horse world, I suggest we all go home and love our horses.
Because when your horse is fighting for his life and he turns his big dark liquid eyes on you, none of that matters anymore. Not the mistakes other people have made or the mistakes you have made or the failures in your riding or the things you don’t have money for. All that matters is that horse and you realise that when you still have him you have everything a horseperson needs. You realise that all the time you spent on bemoaning your own inadequacy, on panicking about how you can afford that next show, on feeling hurt by those who wish to see a newcomer crushed, that time was all time you could have spent loving him. Time you wasted.
Turn the other cheek. Forget the politics. Leave the barn drama queens to their drama. Go love your horse, because he needs you, because you need him. No matter how your riding is going, no matter how bad you feel about how you ride, no matter how mad you are because he won’t perform the way you want, no matter how frustrated you are with the training challenge you just can’t figure out, don’t let any of it get in the way of loving your horse.
His heart is enormous, the most precious thing in the equestrian world, far surpassing the value of even the highest level of excellence. And it is yours. Don’t abuse it.
The first step for us equestrians to begin to truly and deeply love others, is to truly and deeply love our horses. Because just as with horses, we don’t have much time to love those around us.
Love your horse. Love your people. You don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to.
As for me, I know I love Magic as best as I have ever loved a horse or a human. But there are others, horses and humans both, and I might not get the second chance with them that I got with him. So now I need to get off my computer – and go love my horses.