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.
The dentist calls him Princess. My instructor calls him the big baby. The chiro calls him a wuss. My sister goes so far as to call him gay.
They all have a point, except for my sister. He is kind of a delicate flower. Okay, so he’s a wimp when it comes to many things, like rain falling on his ears, or ribbons on his bridle, or having his teeth done or having freshly trimmed hooves.
Yeah, Magic is oversensitive. He spooks at things that just don’t exist, and then spooks at them again, just to be sure. He has broken more halters and leads than I care to remember. He almost always manages to scrape himself up in the horsebox and needs to travel with earmuffs and a gigantic poll guard and all the windows shut because he hates the noise of the traffic. He injures himself on a freakishly regular basis and then has a huge drama queening session about it. If it can happen, it happens to Magic. He loses weight if the wind blows the wrong way. One day I found him staring in consternation at his full feed bin; a tiny Jack Russel had his head in it and was merrily gorging himself on Magic’s food, and Magic, easily a hundred times the dog’s size, seemed utterly baffled as to what to do about this. Another day he knocked a cross-rail down and was so lame I was certain he’d fractured something, but really it had just stung him a little.
Yeah, so he’s a social retard. He has a way of terrifying new horses by galloping up to them in exuberant friendliness and then snorting at them very loudly to beg them to be friends. He bites them playfully to invite them to a game, but when they nip him back he squeals like a filly and runs to hide behind Skye (well over a hand shorter and almost twenty years older than him). He is both utterly terrified and irresistibly attracted to new horses, has no idea of how to make friends with them, and has even less idea of what a pecking order even is, much less where he should be in one. At nearly eight years old, he behaves like a weanling that hasn’t figured out how to horse yet.
Sure, so he’s a goofball. When it rains, he runs like a maniac because he’s convinced he’s melting. He gallops recklessly on the slick grass and then he falls, and while he falls he flails around madly with his long legs and whinnies shrilly. Then he gets back up and runs and bucks and farts and more often than not, falls again. He jumps up on his back legs and pirouettes in the air because he’s too silly and spirited to know that gravity is a thing. He will keep doing this until Skye bullies him into the shelter or he notices that he’s hurt himself… again.
But he is also courageous in a way that thick-skinned people cannot understand. He’s also generous, gentle, smart and loyal.
My horse is a ninny. But he’s also amazing.
Magic was created, right from his over-at-the-knees legs to the majestic jump that slaps gravity in the face. Every detail of him, from the tail that won’t grow to the face that radiates kindness, was handmade with love. He was fearfully and wonderfully made just the way he is. Sure, life and people have scarred him, and he’s still got a lot to learn. But they all do.
We all do.
Over time Magic will learn not to spook at flowerpots or at nonexistent monsters; he’ll learn not to panic in the horsebox and he’ll learn to tie up. And if I am to stay friends with my dentist, he’ll stand still to have his teeth done. But if Magic ever learns not to be goofy or melodramatic or sensitive or a little silly, then I’ll know my training has gone wrong somewhere. Because my ultimate goal, the greatest thing I want to do for Magic, is not to compete at A-grade or make a name as a great event horse. I want to help Magic become more Magic. I want to amplify him. I want him to be more himself than ever before. And yes, that means allowing him to be kind of a loon in the paddock even as it means allowing him to be brave. It means allowing him to be daft even as it means allowing him to explore the full extent of his honesty. Because no matter how silly Magic is, he is never malicious. He’s never pushy, or irritable, or selfish or lazy. He’s never tried to hurt anyone and he’s never disobedient. Magic always tries. Some days he doesn’t have much left to give, because the sheer effort of surviving the world has drained him. But whatever he has, he gives it all, every day. And as long as he is trying, and as long as it’s going in the right direction, I want him to express the wonderful thing that is himself.
Forget magic. My horse is a miracle.
You may call me sentimental, but I know this, and I know that he knows I accept him. He can’t tell what I’m thinking or reason his way to conclusions but like all horses he reads every feeling in the lines of my body and the movement of my muscles on his back. He knows I’m okay with him, and he begins to be okay with himself. Because right underneath, at the deep emotions, horses and humans are more similar than we sometimes think.
Magic is my mirror. And helping him become everything he can become is my key to making myself into the person that I can be.
He’s not resilient Arwen, steady Vastrap, or fearless Skye. He’s Magic.
Due to life being insane, weekends being booked, and me catching flu the day before a planned outing, I haven’t been anywhere with horses since the dressage training show in mid-June. I really wanted to get back into the show ring before a showing show with the Nooitgedachters in two weeks’ time and then graded eventing in early September, so I pounced on the first open weekend and enthusiastically entered a jumping training show. With three horses. So what if I’m only just used to riding two horses at a show? I had to try sometime, and I figured that if things got too hectic and our emotional states started deteriorating, I’d just scratch. It was only a training show.
Hence for the first time I actually had more than two horses in our box, so I didn’t look like a total idiot turning up in a giant aluminium four-berth with one small pony in it. Loading was quite interesting; we had more than an hour’s drive and I was in the first class, so by 6am we were shoving reluctant equines into the box in the dark. Arwen was a horrible influence on Magic; she had to be bodily pushed up the ramp before she agreed to go in, so Magic decided he’d try that too. Luckily Magic does not sit down on people and ignore them the way Arwen does, so he was a bit quicker to get in. We were ten minutes late and Dad was already frustrated and tired when we turned to Vastrap, but that dear little horse plugged up the ramp and then rolled his eyes at the babies (Arwen digging a hole in the floor, Magic neighing frantically) and pulled at his haynet. Thank goodness for sweet little white Nooities.
They travelled more or less all right; Arwen removed her halter about ten minutes in (don’t ask me how), and Magic did his usual head-flipping thing all the way to the show, breaking his lead rein and scraping his nose and foreleg in the process. Considering he’s Magic, I won’t complain. At least he didn’t rear or hang a leg over the partition or any of the other awful things that seem to happen to Magic. (Vastrap, of course, stood quietly and ate hay).
We arrived at 7:40, so I thought I would at least have a little breathing space to get to my first class, but as soon as I got out I heard the announcer: “This is the bell to open the 40cm course for walking.” Cue absolute pandemonium. I bellowed at my sister Rainy to go and find Magic’s calmer, e. g. an unlucky friend who happens to be amazing at keeping Magic happy at shows and had hence been roped in to babysit him while I was riding the Nooities. Unfortunately, this left Dad and I alone with a box full of hyper horses, and obviously Vastrap was right in the back and so had to be unloaded last. (I think Magic and Arwen would have self destructed left to their own devices anyway).
By some miracle, Magic’s bestie arrived, Arwen’s lead was flung at Rain, Vastrap was dragged out and had his stuff strapped on, and we were only slightly late to the class. Thankfully, the show organisers were extraordinarily patient, tolerant and understanding of this crazy person that had entered three horses in three classes each of the first five classes. (I had one in 40cm, two in 50cm, three in 60cm, two in 70cm and one in 80cm; I’m sure they must have had nightmares afterwards). Poor Vastrap was totally ungroomed and had hardly gotten off the box when I was on him and walking to the warmup. Once again, thank goodness for sweet little white (sort of; he was a bit yellow and had hay in his hair) Nooities. The poor animal had about 10 minutes’ warmup before I booted him into the arena and learned the following three things:
It is possible to jump a nice clear round without having had any idea of where any of the jumps are when you rode in.
Fourways builds awesome courses.
I didn’t even get the chance to see the course ridden, let alone walk it, but I found my way just fine and dear old Trappies didn’t think twice about anything. He just said, “Yes, ma’am” and jumped everything I pointed him at unquestioningly.
And this continued to be Vastrap’s mentality throughout the show. He didn’t spook at a thing, he contentedly stood and ate hay between classes, he happily put up with being yanked into the arena with half a warmup when I was running out of time between other horses, and he jumped three clear rounds without turning a hair. That pony is worth his weight in solid gold. I kind of feel guilty that I’m not 12 years old and nervous, because then I’d deserve him better. But still, he is amazing and I love him to bits. I am going to have to find a way to bribe Mom to half lease him to me, because I need a schoolie like that.
Vastrap’s only mistakes happened as we were warming up for the 60cm jump-off. He was getting a little up and excited, nothing naughty, but he ran at an oxer and threw in one of his rare dirty little stops. Those dirty stops are my fault since the time I catapulted up his neck and ate his face (and then the fence at me) rattled him quite badly, and he stopped twice more before I finally came to my senses and left his face alone and he jumped fine. We were already late so then we ran into the jump off and went enthusiastically clear. He’s an absolute jewel. We just need to work on his habit of running at the fences like that – longer strides, buddy, not just faster legs. (And stay out of his face).
Magic was in 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm, and there were only four horses in the 50cm class. Since two of them were mine, this was a bit chaotic and I had horrible visions of me riding a brain-evaporated Magic into the class. Magic normally leads at least 45 minutes of slow work at a show in order to scrape his brain off the floor and put it back into his head. Well, we had about 20. My stomach was doing slow little somersaults when I got on, but wonder of wonders, I got onto a grownup horse that knew what he was supposed to do.
It was a subtle but important difference from the Magic I climbed onto at our end May show. Magic never, ever sets out to hurt someone, and at the shows he’s done, he’s been confused and terrified and ready to blow up but never malicious. This show, he was worried, a bit stressy, and a bit spooky… but he knew what he was supposed to do. When I asked him for a trot he didn’t go AAARGHREGOHUEHOHOWEHROEWHTOR, he said, “Mom, I’m terrified! But okay, this means trot” and did as he was told. I only had three or four laps of trot before I sat and asked for canter and he flowed straight into his gorgeous easy canter with his head down and his brain on. When I turned him to the itty bitty little cross, he didn’t do his usual trick of tiptoeing towards it and then overjumping majestically. I had him in a trot, but with a soft allowing hand, so he popped in a little canter stride as he got there and then hopped over. A little extravagantly, but nothing like his old wild springbuck leaping.
My horse knew what he was doing. He was scared, but he was okay. And so was I. Sometimes I swear we hold up mirrors to each other, because we had exactly the same frame of mind: We were both worried, we were both a little frightened, and we were both spookier than was necessary, but we knew that we knew what we were doing. So we did it, worried and all. And my beautiful courageous grey gelding jumped every single fence he saw without ever offering a stop. Everything else was terrifying, obviously, necessitating huge spooks at other horses, flowerpots, photographers, the gate (the gate was evil), dogs, and his own rosette, but he didn’t spook at a single jump. The first jump on the 50 and 60cm courses had a white latticey gate under it, and a couple of the oxers had planks in them or wings, but he didn’t care. He just jumped, because he knew that that was what he had to do. Magic is starting to find solace in his work, and to make jumping his comfort zone, just like Arwen did at the start.
I was so happy with him. Apart from one lazy pole in the warmup arena, he jumped everything cleanly. Sure, we took a few dodgy distances, awkward leaps and overjumps (though not as bad as at his last show), but I’ll take it for a young horse ridden by a total newb to thoroughbreds. Best of all, he stayed relaxed, for Magic. I don’t think Magic will ever have the dragonslaying attitude of Arwen or the workaday approach of Vastrap. Life is just too scary for him to be that bombproof and quiet, but for a horse that spooks so easily, he is very brave. I don’t mind. Magic is Magic and that’s just fine by me.
Still, his 70cm class was markedly calmer than last time. Mostly, of course, because I actually gave him a release over the jumps (our partnership has improved alongside his confidence), but also because he’s just got more miles under his girth now. He did overjump a few fences if I got him to a poor distance – including doing a rather interesting midair manoevre over the second element of a combination; somehow Magic is able to climb stairs in thin air – but he was sane and ready to go to work.
The only real meltdown he had was about having a ribbon attached to his head and then having to trot around the arena with it on. We jumped a whole invisible course, then performed a Grand Prix dressage test worthy of Valegro, finishing off with a handful of airs above the ground that Podhajsky would have been proud of. But this is the good part – it was funny. Sure, I was quite glad when his ribbon flew off and I had an excuse to get both feet on solid earth again, but my spine wasn’t melting and I wasn’t shaking when I had to get back on him. Just as Magic felt like a frightened horse that nevertheless had plenty of talent and knew his job, instead of a confused and terrified greenie, I felt like a young rider with a lot of horse under her that was riding him tolerably well and learning how to ride him better. Not like an overhorsed, petrified beginner.
The other majorly spooky object was an odd little thatch thing standing by the gate, which I assume was a wing or something, but Magic said it was terrifying and tiptoed past it. Arwen, upon entering the arena for the first time, took advantage of my loose rein and reassuring hand and took a gigantic bite out of it. Mortified, I just sat there as she walked off thanking the organisers for considerately supplying a pre-class snack.
That was basically Arwen’s attitude for the whole show. I was already flustered and tired when I got on her for the 60cm, but I couldn’t help grinning when I asked her to walk on. When Arwen walks into the warmup she owns it. She was yelling, “Let’s do this thing!” and I was with her.
She aimed a few merry kicks at some thoroughbreds (luckily letting none of them fly), almost crushed somebody’s luckless trainer (to my great embarrassment) and jumped everything unquestioningly. We blasted into and through our 60cm class, both of us having an absolute ball. On the photos later I would realise that Arwen was jumping with quite… interesting technique (in one picture she’s taking off for an oxer with both hind feet on the ground, but both forelegs flung out straight… I don’t even know). Luckily, this is showjumping. Nobody cares. We won. Arwen beamed at the pony that came second and luckily refrained from bucking in the victory gallop.
The 70cm class was a one-round speed competition on quite an open course, so obviously my fat pony came second and my thoroughbred was nearly dead last. Arwen once again had the course for dinner and was beaten only by an experienced thoroughbred with a good rider. She felt like kicking him in the lineup but I applied a diplomatic spur to her guts and she thought better of it. Victory laps on Arwen are awesome, especially when the winner let her horse blast off at a mildly inconsiderate speed; while the crowd held their breath in anticipation of Arwen’s bucking fit, she genteelly obeyed her French link snaffle and lined out in her rhythmic cross-country gallop all around the arena, flaunting her blue ribbon and informing the crowd that in America it would have meant she had won. And as we reached the gate, I brought her down to walk and threw my reins down and she stretched to the floor. No, you can’t have her, sorry.
80cm was no longer a game: I really wanted to jump clear in this class, and Arwen was on her A-game, so I was ready to ask her for it and ride my best. It was a fairly demanding course, with a couple of related distances and a two-stride combination (Arwen’s nemesis; in a 6-stride line she has space to add for seven strides, but a two-stride is just too short for three and just too long for two), as well as at least two max height oxers, but she was as brave as the day. I concentrated hard on using my inside leg to flex her around the turns so that she came to the jumps straight and balanced, and the team effort paid off; we went clear.
Unfortunately, by the jump-off, my energy and concentration were leaving me and I was giddy on our previous success. I forgot that my inside leg even existed and poor Arwen was asked to jump the oxer at number seven from the most preposterous angle. She tried anyway and took the rail, but when I got her to a similar angle with even worse balance at number eight – an oxer and the first element of the double – she said, “Uh, human, hello??” and stopped. She really can’t be blamed for this, but accepted her bad luck at having me for a rider with good cheer; we circled around, I rode a better line, and she jumped it without a second glance. Then we accidentally jumped two extra fences because I forgot the course, but the organisers graciously let this slide.
We were an exhausted but happy bunch that trooped back up to the horsebox. Magic had, at one stage, pulled free of his bestie; but to everyone’s relief (and my pride) he ran two steps and then stood in the road looking confused while helpful bystanders tiptoed towards him. Magic’s bestie is a lifesaver. I can hardly express what a relief it is to take my poor, delicate, sensitive creature from someone and find him in an even better frame of mind than he was when I gave them to him.
My legs didn’t want to leg anymore, but luckily the horses all loaded and travelled well, so the day ended much better than it had began. It was a great day filled with amazing horses, awesome people, and of course the reason for all we do and the strength behind all we ever achieve – our beloved, magnificent, merciful Creator God. Glory to the King.
Bear with me, guys. At some point I will finish catching up on all the shows and you can hear about horses that aren’t grey.
The latest expedition was to a big venue up in Kyalami that holds frequent and very handy training shows. I rode the adorable Reed there last November, so I knew I could expect it to be pretty busy.
First, I must rewind a little. On Saturday evening the Mutterer and I first made a trek to Grootvlei to pick up two horses; a chestnut gelding (my next training project for the Mutterer, incidentally named Duiwel, which means “demon”. Charming, right?) and dear beautiful Arwen Jnr., who was coming to the show with us and would spend the night at my home. I only really have nice things to say about Arwen Jnr. so I may as well call her by her stable name – Nia-Nell. Or Nell because it just works for her.
Despite the Mutterer’s dire prophesying, Demon (don’t worry, I renamed him) refrained from killing anyone when loading, and despite my misgivings he did not kill himself in the horsebox on the way to Nell’s home. We were all fairly composed when we got there, and Nell got on fine with the usual arrangement: me cajoling and patting at the head, and the Mutterer swearing and pushing behind. I was also certain that Demon would shred Nell on the way to my place, but as usual the Mutterer was right and they were both completely fine when we got there. They were so happy with each other that we decided to let them stay together that evening to stave off any would-be loneliness.
Everybody was still alive the next morning, which is always a good thing when new horses have arrived, so with my sister’s help we scurried through a quick grooming and bubble-wrapping of Arwen and Nell before shoving them both in the box with aid of a lunging line. Luckily, Nell travels like an old hand, so she turned out to be a good influence on Arwen and both the girls were happy and relaxed when we got to Sunlands. This was a good thing. The parking lot was FULL, with kids and ponies and bellowing instructors everywhere and somebody’s harrassed groom trying to retrieve an insane thoroughbred from the bonnet of a nearby BMW. The family had the paddock up in record time, and Arwen was stuffed in there to wait while I dealt with Nell. She was actually quite all right – looking around, but quiet – and even stood dead still with a haynet to have her mane plaited. Because she also has a gigantic wonderful thick torrent of hair, we did it in a stallion plait. Unconventional, but it worked like a charm, and is henceforth my solution for natural manes and dressage.
When I had her walked down to the arena and popped on, for a few minutes I thought I was sitting on a firecracker. She was okay – obedient and listening – but spooky as anything. The poor animal has never even been on sand footing before, so first we had a spook at that, and then we had a spook at the White Cone of Death beside the arena and then we had to panic a couple of times about the ponies careening around at a ridiculous pace (showjumpers were warming up with us dressage bums). As we walked around, though, I discovered that violence was the furthest thing from Nell’s mind. She’d balk a little, and look a little, and maybe have a weeny little shy, but nothing else. No bucking, no bolting, no teleporting. For a horse that’s only rising four, she was superb. And once we’d had a bit of a trot around she put her little nose down and went to work just like we were at home. I was jumpy about the canter transition, but I didn’t need to be. She flowed into her canter like water to the shore.
I still can’t get over the amount of talent contained in those 15 hands of Nooitgedachter. I have very seldom ridden a horse with better paces or a better mind. I think the Storm Horse could have had better movement than her if he had been dressage schooled from the start, but apart from him, there are very few exceptions to her natural ability to move in rhythm and balance and connection. She just knows it somehow. It’s amazing. And paired with the unbelievably trainable brain of the true Nooitgedachter, it’s a combination that will someday be unbeatable if somebody took the time to school her to the top. (I sure wouldn’t mind being that somebody).
Anyway, soon we were making our way to the show arena and Nell was staring at everything but not being a pest. The dressage arena at this venue is very spooky. It’s sandwiched between the noisy jumping arena with its leaping horses and loudspeakers, and the little cafe thingy with its sizzling sounds and noisy people. And on the far end is a judge’s box that harbours all kinds of monsters, not to mention the dressage letters. Poor Nell thought she was walking into a death trap. It took us about five minutes to get from A along the track to C, but I let it. Nell is not stupid, and I knew if I gave her the time to think she would come to the conclusion that all is well. We walked up to every letter and I had her touch it while I patted her and told her she was okay. In this fashion we made it to the judge, who, to her great credit, showed not an ounce of impatience. She told me to just keep doing what I was doing, and even led Nell over to C from the ground to help her courage a bit.
If I had had another twenty minutes I could have gotten her quiet about the judge’s box. As it was, our tests were a bit inventive since she didn’t really want to go any nearer than M, and we had quite a few impromptu leg-yields. But amazingly, our FXH free walk was perfect. As soon as she was facing away from the box, I could give her the reins almost to the buckle and she put her head down and marched happily to H without a care in the world. She is an amazing little horse. Even despite getting a few 3s and 4s for teleporting sideways when we were supposed to be making a stretchy trot circle, she got 55.5% for Prelim 1 and the judge was delighted with her. Her good moments were all 7s, and for a first show on a horse that young, which has been under saddle for six months and gets ridden once a week, I’ll take it.
Nell was a joy to ride, but I was pretty happy to get on my grownup horsy and be fine. It took me a few minutes to settle down and realise that Arwen knows her job and we’d be fine, but once I did, she was awesome. A few times she totally did not understand why we weren’t jumping or galloping around, but then her brain kicked into dressage gear and she was superb. Our warmup was inordinately long as I misjudged the timing, so we spent a lot of time trotting around, walking, getting off, getting on, more walking, more trotting, etc., but I think it was good for her. We only had a little bit of canter since I didn’t need her to get fired up and start looking for things to jump over, and lots of free walk to stretch and relax. I think we were warming up on and off for over an hour. At last we went into the arena, and my horse was calm and supple and working in every muscle of her body. It was rather a relief to come down the long side for a square halt at C and then to sit on a loose rein while I introduced myself to the judge. Arwen sniffed C curiously and then started to eat the grass under it, to my relief/mortification.
The judge asked, “Another youngster?!” to which I replied, “No! Luckily, not quite so young as the other one,” and the judge said, “Oh, good!” She also thought Arwen and Nell were sisters, which is entirely pardonable as they look pretty much exactly the same despite having no relation at all except for both being Nooities. Then we trotted off, the bell rang, and it was time to go. Down the centre line, easy halt at X, and I looked up far past the judge’s box to where the big blue African sky was smiling down at me, and I saluted the King.
I knew when we came straight down the centre line that Arwen was going very well. And when we made our first stretchy trot circle and she put her head down between her knees, I really relaxed. So we rode our tests joyously, effortlessly, with that wonderful feeling of oneness that is so addictive. There’s no feeling quite like it when you find your spine apparently fused to your horse’s, every movement of yours speaking volumes to your horse, muscle to muscle, heart to heart. You can call it losgelassenheit, or connection, or working through the back, or riding from the seat, or simply dressage; but it doesn’t have a name, not really. Arwen was loving it in her own quiet way, performing for me with elegance and relaxation and quietness, striving without tension, revelling without rebellion. For me there are few truer ways that a horse can love. This is why there really are no voice commands in dressage; because dressage is about stepping into the inner chamber where words are far too clumsy to communicate.
Wax poetical though I may about my Novice tests, they definitely weren’t perfect. We had a little buck into one transition, she flexed to the outside occasionally, the canter wasn’t as rhythmic as it should have been and our lengthenings were, as normal, totally mediocre. But we had some good moments and even one great moment, and the judge, the horse and I all enjoyed it thoroughly. The judge announced that Arwen was stunning with a divine walk and a brilliant mind, and I sat there beaming idiotically and slapping my pony’s neck with my new white dressage gloves.
In the end, we did pretty well. We got mostly sevens, with a sturdy eight for every free walk and a nine for that one amazing stretchy trot. I got sevens for rider position which was less than I wanted but pretty much what I deserved. Our highest score was 67.8% in Novice 1, which solidified my decision to go graded in dressage at Novice; I wouldn’t be too ashamed of scoring that, even if we wouldn’t get a bunch of ribbons. And as for Arwen, she was just happy and chilled and doing the job she enjoys.
And as for me? Well, I’m just ridiculously blessed to halt at X, put the reins in one hand, look up at the beaming sky and then salute to the One Who made horses and people and all of this possible. Thank You, Abba, Sir.
Last Sunday we towed Magic and Vastrap off to a show; Magic’s third, Vastrap’s first – as far as I know. Both had loaded fine; Magic did need Dad to stand behind him, but Vastrap pretty much loaded himself. The little dude sure learns quickly when carrots are involved.
As expected, both boys also travelled well (Magic appreciative of his quiet buddy) and were super calm at the showgrounds. It was a relatively big and busy show, with a vast and dauntingly fancy venue. These people are sure serious about their footing, which is nice when you’re on the footing and not so nice when you’re on the young horse that is afraid of tractors, hoses, sprinklers, water, etc. Magic nearly killed one of our guests (I do have a social life, I just drag friends to horse shows – free labour… they volunteered, don’t worry) flying back at the sight of a hose. He was all right with it once it stopped making noises, though.
Vastrap had been entered in the 20, 40, and 50cm classes, for my courage and for the sake of logistics. He held his head up in the warmup, but was his usual obedient and quiet self; he just drifted towards the gate quite badly, a horrible habit he picked up with his previous mounted-games-riding owners. (Mounted games are wonderful – but only when done correctly. Suffice it so say that Vastrap’s previous owners did not do it correctly). He also had a peek at the first ground pole we went over, but then calmly trotted over it as only Vastrap will do.
He was still fairly looky when we went into the 20cm, trotting with his head in the air as if waiting for me to hit him in the mouth, his previous owners’ speciality. For the first couple of jumps, he semi-stopped, looked, and clambered over. Then we came around the corner at jump number three, which was set on a four-stride line with number four, and suddenly his little ears went up. I almost saw the light bulb popping up above his head. Oh, so this is what we’re doing! Suddenly he floored it. Surprised, I clung on in bemusement as the jumps flew past with that game little pony taking me to every fence and only looking to me for steering. He was proud of himself and prancing with delight when we came over the finish with a clear round (well, how can you not get a clear round at 20cm?).
Mom was grinning all over her face, probably as proud of Vastrap as Karen Swann was of Adventure de Kannan when he won the Hickstead. She snuggled his face, which he never lets me do, while I hopped off and gave him a break. Magic was eating hay and staring at things, but looked very settled.
For the 40cm I returned to the warmup to find it a complete war zone. 40cm is the height where kids actually have to warm up their ponies, or at least jog around whilst clucking loudly and upsetting my cluck-happy horses. It’s also the height where people with really insane thoroughbreds have a go, especially polo horses. I’ve always thought Magic was pretty stupid about things but he’s an old hack horse compared to some of the lunatics I’ve seen in warmup rings, and I have total sympathy. I have no desire to be riding one of those in a busy warmup and I’m sure I shall find myself in that position sometime. Vastrap and I dodged a gelding that was spinning around and around, a mare who was neighing and staring at things with her eyes bugging out, and a pony that kept pinning its ears at us and tried to jump some things past all the loose instructors. Luckily, Vastrap is a Nooitgedachter and Nooitgedachters are wonderful, so he just went about his job with a workaday air and soon we could go back to work.
The courses were really beautiful; well designed, and with the most gorgeous jumps. One was a beautiful, enormous blue butterfly jump that nearly killed several of us, but they were sensible jumps; big colourful wings, almost no filler. Like the jumps at the upper levels – they’re nowhere near as big on filler as some of the training shows I’ve seen. I liked them (and they made for awesome photos). Vastrap wriggled a bit at the butterfly jump but apart from that he was Mr. Zoomy again, charging around with every sign of confidence and enjoyment. He went fast and clear; I was extremely proud of him.
After that class I got on Magic to start warming him up for the 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm. He likes a long warmup. I think his brain is connected to his legs; when they work, it works. I hacked him quietly around the arena on a loose rein and he was looking around but not fussing, pulling or spooking. He was very forward in the trot but didn’t rush around in the canter; as usual he overjumped the first cross a bit, then took everything else a bit more sensibly.
Due to the well-organised stewards calling people to the gate, I was able to time my warmups nicely. I got on Vastrap again just in time to pop over a couple of fences, then go down and zoom effortlessly through our course. Then back up onto Magic, coming down to the main arena just as the rider before us went in, so that I didn’t have to make him stand. He worries about things when he stands still for too long. He was also spooky and looking around the arena as we made our way to the start, and again spooky to the first couple of jumps, but he didn’t actually ever offer to stop. Once he’d cleared a few we both relaxed and he hit his stride and loped around without any trouble at all. He did go down to a trot and wriggle a bit at the butterfly jump, but happily popped over anyway once we got there.
I was pleased with my two clear rounds right up until I realised that now I had two horses in the jump-off with only three or four others between us. With the help of parents, sister, and friends, we did it somehow though. Vastrap was blisteringly fast but took a disappointing rail on one of the most unspooky jumps on the whole course. I didn’t feel like I had gotten him that sucky a distance; my theory is that by then he was a little tired and not taking the tiny fences seriously anymore, so he just kind of went to sleep in the air and didn’t pick up his hindlegs quick enough. No worries though – being bored by the jumps isn’t exactly a cardinal sin for a horse at his first show in years, if not his first show ever. He’s such a little trooper, that pony.
In contrast, Magic was slooow but careful and clear; I was disappointed with myself because I was hitting him in the mouth a bit on landing, not on purpose, but just because of sheer nerves. He jumped for me anyway, though. Honest as the day, that one. I left the 50cm ribbonless and resolved: next time was going to be better.
It was, in terms of my riding. I gave him my hands a little more, so he jumped a little better. We had a couple of really nice moments, especially through the two-stride combination (once I had finally figured out that this horse could actually get two strides in a two-stride unlike my ponies). We had one complete flop from two to three, which was a straight line of eight strides. I, still treading the fine line between not micromanaging and not riding, kind of left poor Magic to figure out the universe by himself and he had a baby moment and thought there was a stride where there wasn’t one so he kind of stopped and then, heroically, tried to jump anyway. When I saw the pictures afterwards I realised that when he semi stopped, his forefeet actually slid under the front bar of the oxer. By all the laws of nature the dude should have stopped but he didn’t. He snapped up his knees as quickly as he could and popped over with me clinging on for dear life, and while of course he took the front rail, he left the rest of it standing. Dear brave lunatic. (In the next class I gave him just a touch more leg and he remembered his mistake and put in eight nice big easy strides to pop effortlessly over the same fence, so that was kind of an epic win).
After the 60cm there was a wait of about 20 000 years for the next class. I spent the entire time wondering why oh why it was necessary to harrow and water the whole arena for a 70cm class… Anyway, I was by then thoroughly exhausted and my stomach was playing me up and Magic was picking up on my irritation and being a dweeb, neighing for Vastrap incessantly (even though he actually doesn’t like him much) and spooking at shadows. If I had more than one-half of a brain cell, I would have gotten on him and trotted him around for ten minutes to switch his brain back on. Unfortunately, as Emma‘s trainer so wisely said, experience is that thing you get right after you needed it. We now know for next time.
Either way, when I tried to warm Magic up, I was riding an athletic ball of nerves. He napped towards Vastrap (Magic NEVER naps, EVER), shied violently at other horses in the warmup and overjumped like a complete maniac. When we rode down to the arena, he was wild. His tail was sticking straight up in the air and he was shying at things he’d been fine with before. Vastrap chose that moment to neigh and that only made it worse. The poor horse’s eyes were bugging out of his empty head. To his tremendous credit, though, he didn’t buck, rear, or bolt. He did exactly what I asked of him, with robotic, twitching movements and back muscles so tense they were like sitting on rocks. When the bell rang we were both terrified out of our skulls and we cantered sideways to the first jump with Magic’s head and tail stuck up in the air and me clinging to his mouth. He jumped in that awkward way that young thoroughbreds have, snatching his feet up as if the jump was red hot, flinging his face around in protest of my grip on the reins.
When we landed I felt myself wobble in the saddle and I was scared solid; Magic was even more scared and we were about one-third of a second from absolute disaster. I hauled the poor horse down to a trot and what was left of my sanity told me I had two options: Either this was going to be a complete flop, or I was going to call in the big guns. So I screwed my eyes tight shut and prayed silently (I didn’t have any breath to pray aloud) “I can’t do this, I can’t do this but You can, Sir!”
It took three trot strides. By the far end of the third, the Lion of Judah roared in me. I sat down on Magic and gave him my hands and closed my legs around him ever so softly and he rippled forward into that perfect mighty canter only he has. The rest of the course was like a dream. For the first time all day I actually released on him and followed him with my body, abandoning the awkward defensive position and automatic half-releases, and for the first time all day we were a team working together instead of one poor valiant horse packing a passenger around. It was like flicking a light switch. Magic went boldly into my hands and kept his head quiet. If he felt he had a dodgy distance to a jump he did what he’s good at; lengthened his stride and tucked up his knees a bit tighter just in case. He did overjump a few things, not least the jump with filler in it (the crowd gasped most satisfyingly; I was flying, way beyond terror, and only felt the joy of the bursting-bubble feeling at the very apex of his leap), but he wasn’t afraid. He was going for it, ears locked forward, and I was coming with him.
We were clear, by several feet in most cases, and I was just elated. We’d been on the very brink of a catastrophe, but we’d come through it and succeeded. It wasn’t very pretty, but we did it together. My beloved God, my amazing horse, and me.