Thunder Update

With his biggest dressage show yet on the horizon, Thunder hasn’t actually competed in a single graded dressage class this year.

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Our first show of the year was in the very end of January, where I took a bunch of kids to a pre-SANESA training show for their dressage tests and packed him along too because the schedule was just too hectic to allow for another show. We did Novice 1 and 2 again, for sort of mediocre scores, but at least he won the one and came second in the other. He felt sort of mediocre on the day as well; trying hard, as usual, but tense and scattered, as usual for a show. If he had just lifted his back he would have had another 70%, but again, as always happens when he is a little tense, our scores were in the low to mid 60s.

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Our next show was Horse of the Year. I couldn’t afford HOY and dressage in the same month, and he is such a hunter type that it seemed a shame never to show him as one. I didn’t feel up to jumping the working hunter on him, so we entered for show hunter and working riding. The show hunter day he was absolutely fantastic. He didn’t gallop, or I think he would have placed, because he behaved impeccably and was forward and relaxed through his whole body. I found myself wishing we were in a dressage test because he would have done so well.

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Either way, we enjoyed ourselves but didn’t place because apparently hunters really should gallop instead of just making flat ears and bouncing.

The working riding day was absolutely dreadful. He was horrible in the warmup, screamed in the lineup, and then spooked at every single obstacle. But I did learn something that I can definitely use for future shows: Thunny is absolutely perfect if he goes anywhere alone or with a gelding, and absolutely horrible if he goes anywhere with a mare. Somebody is just a little proud cut, I presume.

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I know I should really just make him go to shows with mares until he gets over himself and behaves, but honestly, life’s too short and I don’t have the kind of money to waste entry fees on miserable experiences. Henceforth, unless unavoidable, Thunder is going to shows by himself so he can relax and we can actually achieve something other than getting frustrated and tense. This is our strategy for Easter Festival this weekend, and we’ll see how it goes. Considering he has just been to KPC for HOY, and is going by himself, I think he should be very chill. I hope for a nice score, but I don’t expect a placing. You wouldn’t either if you’d read the entries list in our class.

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Schooling has been kind of magical lately. We have worked through a lot of the initial drama that surfaced shortly after we started lessons with Coach J; the running and the falling out with the shoulder. He has learned to be both relaxed and forward, and I love it. We’ve sorted out a lot of our old issues – he has a stretchy trot now, he has a superb walk-canter transition, his lateral work is very much in place – and learned a whole lot of new things, too: travers, better lengthenings, shoulder-in, leg-yield zigzags that make him feel like he’s really dancing, four steps one way and then four steps the other just floating off my leg. Most exciting, we even started the flying changes.

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It happened like this. We spent the entire lesson working on leg-yield zigzags, with Coach J alternately shouting “LEFT leg!” and “Keep his neck straight!” until finally we got it right. Then we tried in canter, leg-yielding across the diagonal to the right. Coach J ordered, “Outside leg and leg-yield left” and I obediently did so and Thunder obediently popped out a flying change. Ever since I have been too nervous to really do them at home, but we have been pulling them out at lessons quite frequently, and as long as I keep his neck straight and push his bum over – as opposed to trying to pull his face around – they just magically fall out of the sky. I was definitely not expecting to be doing changes in March when we started lessons, a just-barely-Novice combination, in November.

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So mostly our schooling consists of doing whatever Coach J said, with occasional bits of test riding scattered in there, but honestly whatever it is that Coach J is making us do seems to make all the other stuff easier because the Novice work seems to be just sort of happening. It’s still rough around the edges, and I don’t expect the same scores we were getting for Prelim this weekend as we’re doing Novice 4 and 5 and they’re quite hard, but it’s all just there. Our one major downfall is that all of our downward transitions are poor – all of them. I think, though, that it’s me and not him. I ride too many green horses and have too much of a tendency to want to pull on his face, which makes him hollow through the transition.

Honestly, lessons with Coach J have been revolutionary. It was hard at first because I was trying so hard to prove ourselves to him, but now I’ve chilled out a bit and it feels like the bulk of the responsibility for getting Thunder up the levels doesn’t fall on my inexperienced shoulders anymore. I get to just relax and ride the horse for a change, and I absolutely love it. Of course, we still work very hard, practice hard, and learn hard, but at least we know what we’re doing now. I look forward to Easter Festival and I can’t wait to go dance with my horse again.

Thank You, Father. Glory to the King.

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Gauteng Finals High Schools

This show seemed to be determined to end the SANESA season on a typically chaotic SANESA bang – six classes all in one morning all over vast KEP and I was determined not to miss a second of anything. I almost succeeded, and I’m incredibly glad that I did – because God did something mighty that day!

All the ponies and riders absolutely showed up and brought their A-game that day. Pennie was jumping out of her skin – standing off and overjumping by miles. I have never seen her feeling soooo good in her body and she was showing off. They blasted through their A2 speed with G cheering Pennie on at the top of her lungs, me cheering G on at the top of my lungs, and G’s mom and I almost having a collective heart attack. They won it and with a fat margin, too.  No mean feat at Gauteng Finals.

They followed it up by bounding through the huge and technical competition round for 4th place. We’re going to Nationals!

Their equitation was not their best – G didn’t get the chance to plan her test because they were busy winning stuff and I was busy cleaning Zorro so I didn’t even see it, but they still placed 15th. By working hunter they were both absolutely flattened. They tried hard, but Pennie didn’t really have the steam to show a good jump and kept disuniting, so they ended 13th.

I am chuffed. Just a little. This pony shouldn’t even be sound according to what I was seeing eight weeks ago; it was remedially stopping and getting elimination after elimination last year and now look at her. No, look at God – and the things He does! Nothing is impossible. ❤

G also thought (as did we all) that she’d sacrificed her chance to jump at Finals at all when she had to make the choice to leave the last qualifier because Pennie wasn’t quite right. It was a decision I left up to her and she made a mature one, so for this more than anything, I’m proud.

Zorro cleaned up great and headed off to working hunter positively sparkling. I was chewing my nails when I saw the track – both technical and spooky, with some obstacles he’s only seen once or twice at xc schooling. But he and Z-kid plunged forth at the most wonderful hunter pace and proceeded to cruise around majestically, taking every fence in his stride. They had a careless pole, but even so their manners and pace marks were high enough to earn tied 9th and a place on the Gauteng team.

Their jumping track was VERY soft and unimpressive and Zorro was just kind of bored with it and took a naughty pole. Their time was solid and they would have placed but for that, so I am building gymnastic lines as we speak to get the brat to pick his lazy feets up.

shiny feets though

This horse was a camel when he arrived and I really didn’t think much of him but God is using him mightily.

It’s not the placings that awed me at this show, although those did feel good. My primary school riders tried just as hard and so did their ponies. It’s that we have really, really struggled with these two horses in the past and they were just in such a happy space this weekend – absolutely knocked it out of the park, and loved it.

God is moving. Glory to the King.

First Aid

*** Disclaimer – this post is not intended to give medical advice nor seek it – merely to discuss! ***

I had my first fall in six months today. It was rather a relief and very minor; the last time I came off was in July, which is ages ago for me, and I knew it was coming. Arwen and I were jumping a course of fences (and she was jumping absolutely fabulously, I may add) when as we cantered around a bend suddenly there was no more Arwen under me. I did the tuck-and-roll move my body learned when I was falling off a lot of buckers as a yard rat; Arwen hit the deck next to me but simply bobbled back to her feet like a little rubber ball and cantered off with her tail in the air like a middle finger. It was nothing, but it did get me thinking again about the perils of the sport and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

None of us really ever want to think about it, but as a riding coach – or as any horseperson – one always has to have the possibility in the back of one’s mind that everything could go sideways in a split second. And with a half-ton flight animal and a child involved, it can go really, really sideways.

Of course most coaches have first aid training. But what about the average ammy just hacking with buddies? I never really gave it much thought, but now that I have had a little training, I would argue that everyone involved with horses should have level one, at least. Horse injuries are terrifying because usually they could be spinal injuries, which is where you can mess things up really fast if you’re well-intentioned but just don’t know what to do.

Just before I had my level one, I had a kid come off at fairly high speed right onto her head. She was, of course, wearing a helmet, but in hindsight I think she must have been mildly concussed. Despite having done extensive research on first aid I promptly proceeded to do almost everything wrong. I bumped her back onto her feet, plonked her back on the horse and finished the lesson because she wasn’t seeing double, she wasn’t disoriented at the time, and her mom encouraged her to. It all turned out OK, but I shudder in retrospect to think of what could have happened, had God not been looking out for her.

In sharp contrast, less than a month after getting level one I witnessed my first proper serious fall. I was leading a hack and the next moment a pony came by me at high speed with flapping stirrups. This fall was a LOT more serious than the first one – we had broken bones to deal with, but this time my training stood me in very good stead. I did all the primary survey steps, held C-spine, called for help, reassured the kid – the only thing I didn’t do was splint the suspected break, mostly cuz I didn’t have any out there in the fields. The kid was turned over to qualified hands and made a full recovery. If I hadn’t had level one – well, I would probably have shunted her back onto her feet just because people look so much less injured when they’re at least sitting up, possibly complicating the fracture in the process. I thank God that we never had any drama like this before the level one.

I find now the hardest thing to do is to decide whether or not your rider needs a medic or ambulance. As we know, most falls are decidedly minor, and it would be wasteful of valuable resources to call out a medic for just a little tumble. But where is the line?

Personally my rule is if they don’t sit or jump up before I get to them, I’ll ask them to hold still, hold C-spine and probably call the medics. Most of the time when one falls the adrenalin rush is such that you’re at least back on your knees before you can really think about it. In my experience most people sit up at once; if they don’t, they could well be hurt somewhere, and then I’d far rather be safe than sorry. That’s not to say somebody that stood up immediately might not be injured – sometimes the rush is such that they could still have hit their heads, so I would probably still at least check them out myself and have a parent take them to a doctor for checking out if I had any doubt at all.

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that time I faceplanted off a kid pony

Magic’s 2017 Goals (or lack thereof)

Year in, year out, I have faithfully set a careful string of goals for all the horses – as long-term readers very well know. I think this may be the first year ever that I haven’t set any goals for Magic.

And I don’t intend to.

Last year was a rollercoaster with him. It started with his promising comeback after his terrible illness in 2015, winning both his first graded classes in fine style and staying absolutely sane throughout the show. Then it all came down around our ears a bit when I fell off him three times in as many months – my first falls off him, ever. We were heading in the right direction again when he decided he would like to have colic again after all and then the outbreak crashed any plans of returning to shows after that. All in all, he only had seven outings this year – and I stayed on top for five. (Of the ones that I stayed on, he jumped all clear rounds, barring one, which he won anyway). It was an unimpressive year, except that it wasn’t.

We made very little progress, training-wise. 80cm still looks about the size of the Great Wall of China (to me anyway; he’s good). Our flatwork remains low-level but rock solid. We go to shows and jump some jumps, sometimes, or not, as the case may be. But in terms of understanding this shining, suffering enigma of a horse, we made giant, groundbreaking leaps. Subtle, but groundbreaking.

I figured out the most important thing I could have, to help him. I figured out why he has panic attacks and how I can get him out of one when it’s happening. Anyone who knows anyone with PTSD knows how huge that is. To be able to look in his eyes when they’ve gone glassy and the horse I know and love just seems to be gone – and to know why he’s gone, where he’s gone and how to get him back… that’s tremendous. I feel like I can finally help him. I have finally found the hole that he falls into and how to get him out. After years of helplessly watching him leave into a terrible inner world that seemed to mentally torture him, at last I can break down those walls and bring him back to safety.

It’s so simple and self-explanatory that I’m amazed I didn’t see it long ago. Then again, if it was that self-explanatory, horse PTSD wouldn’t be the only thing we can deal with better.

I get in there with him, and I show him the way out.

In the face of discoveries like these – things invisible to man, but oh so important in the sight of God – the goals I’ve been setting just can’t compare.

For my own guts, I think it would be good for me to try and jump him higher. If he was always the Magic he is when he’s okay, he’d pack my butt around and teach me that jumps bigger than 70cm are not deadly and evil. Even when he is having a moment, he’ll jump 90cm as happily as he’ll jump 60cm.

But it’s not about me.

He needs a perfect rider. He needs a rock-steady lighthouse of a rider that can show him the way out of fear. He needs someone who’s never in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or focused on something other than being there for him. He needs someone who cares way more about him than about anything else. I so much want to learn to be that rider, not only for my training skill, but for my living skill. And I’m just not that rider when I’m scared.

Even if I did push him, he’s all of nine years old and already has bony changes in his withers. He won’t be sound forever. I don’t know how many years I’ll still be able to go jumping stuff with him. Maybe three? Four? I don’t want to spend those years fighting in order to jump mediocre heights badly.

I want to spend them listening to that horse’s soul. Because it tells me things about God and people and bullying and mental illness and myself that I really need to learn.

Goals can’t hold a candle to that.

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the day we came third won champion of the universe

Q2 Goal Review

So it’s a little late, but better late than never, right?

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  • Qualify for the Provincials at the Young Horse Performance Series.
    – Done! We needed two completions and we have three. So we finished last at two of them (and won the last one! … OK, so nobody else showed up), but who cares? We’re going. The logistics are going to be a bit fun, considering finals are on the same day as the Jacaranda Nooitie show, but at least we can cross this off our list.
  • Compete, graded, at the higher Novice tests.  I’m calling this done. We did Novice 4 and 5 graded and Novice 6 at YHPS, which is a similar standard. We’ll continue to compete higher Novice for the rest of the year to get our grading points (one down, four to go).
  • Go to a jumping training show at a low level. Eh, maybe after YHPS. We at least can jump now, but every time I do a jumping training show I find myself with a horsebox full of kids and ponies, so we’ll have to see.
  • School lower level Elementary successfully. We’ve done most of the movements, but I’m not crossing this off until we’ve done a couple of complete tests at home.
  • Compete in any available Nooitgedachter shows.  In the process of doing! We’ve done two out of the three annual Nooitie shows and are tentatively aiming for the third one – with YHPS finals being on the same day, it’s a bit complicated.

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  • Go double clear at EV7o – Still aiming for this one. We did go double clear at a stadium event, but that doesn’t quite count. Our next full horse trial in August will be at EV60 to build our confidence, then we’re back at EV70 if it goes well.
  • School Elementary Medium 1 and 2 – We’ve done some of the movements, but not the full tests just yet.
  • Compete Elementary –  Not yet. We have most of our grading points and have happily schooled the level, so it’s just a matter of getting out there.
  • Gallop through water –  Done! At a schooling, not a show, but we came down a bank, through the water and over a fence without breaking rhythm.

Magic

  • Finish getting back the topline muscle he lost when he was sick.
  • School Novice 4, 5, and 6. We’re so close to finishing Novice 6, too. None of our tests are awesome – we’d be very hard put to get 60% – but all I want is for him to benefit from the flatwork schooling, so just doing the moves as well as we can is fine by me.
  • Make 90cm our comfort zone at home.  – We were so close! In fact we were popping 90cm at home and now we’ve taken it back down a few notches. It’s no fault of my precious Magic’s; he could probably do like 1.20m right now with his eyes closed. However he needs his nervous saddle monkey and after our little tumble a few weeks ago, I’m not there yet. So the journey goes, and so God makes something more amazing through His plan than anything I planned for.
  • Show graded at 70cm.
  • Show at 80cm, graded or training. –  We were close to this one, too! We may still do it yet. Magic certainly can. We just need a few confidence-boosting rounds at 70cm first.

Exavior

  • Bathing. –  There’s been improvement, but we’ll finish this up properly in the summer when he won’t hate me for spraying ice water on him.
  • Loading.
  • Continued improvement on injections.  Yay! He is still by no means an easy critter to inject, but we’re progressing. He just had his AHS shot and when my helper and I caught him he smelt a rat and went ballistic, but after about five minutes of reassurance, he decided that he wasn’t going to be injected after all so he stood perfectly still and didn’t even notice when I slipped the needle in. It’s all in his empty little brain. We’ll see how he does with his next shot in three weeks.
  • Lunging over poles.
  • Introduction to small free jumps.
  • Backing.
  • Basic aids in walk. –  Ugh, I so want to get on this horse now! His groundwork is done apart from poles and jumps. I literally just have to throw a leg over him and teach him to whoa, go and turn. But with his still being entire, working him isn’t feasible at the yard right now. As soon as the colt is a gelding we’ll bring him back and I’ll probably be able to finish this in a few weeks.

Taking every second of this year as it comes, hand in hand with the King ❤

The Best Way

In short: there isn’t one.

Gasp! How could you say that? Obviously only [insert guru here]’s Miracle Way of the Horse is the only right way to do [insert training obstacle/goal here], which of course you can’t accomplish without [$$$$$ glorified lunging whip/bitless bridle/neck strap], and all other ways are Wrong.

Bitting up is Wrong. Bitless is Wrong. Draw reins are Wrong. Whips are Wrong (but not carrot sticks or whatever). Or maybe the One True Way involves a magic gadget of magicalness. And don’t even think about deviating from the training scales!

Um, guys. How many horses do you know that read Principles of Riding or watch YouTube?

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Snaffles are kinder than Kimberwicks the book said
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he didn’t read the book

The funny thing about these methods is they all work. For certain people and certain horses in certain circumstances, they work. The better ones work for the vast majority of horses. But nobody would be peddling these methods, or accepting them for hundreds of years, if they didn’t work.

There are only two wrong ways. The way that really hurts somebody (equine or human), and the way that doesn’t work.

Take Magic, for instance. Magic will curl up, flip his head, invert and flail to the best of his ability if subjected to the horrible cruelty of an apple mouth snaffle. I did the Wrong thing and bitted him up to a Kimberwick. He almost instantly transformed into a horse that could go forward into a steady contact in a relaxed and more or less graceful manner (most of the time).

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This horse had been trained (badly) for polo and was the most extreme case of head up = adrenalin up I have ever seen. Her rhythm and tempo were appalling and she had no concept of suppleness until one day she nearly broke my nose with her permanently raised head, so I put a martingale on in the interests of my nasal well-being. She put her head down and suddenly she could float and bend and relax. We turned the training pyramid on its head, starting with something a little like connection, which is Wrong. She is now being a riding school pony that competes in dressage with kids. It was Wrong but it worked for Flare.

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Liana had similar problems to Flare, being extremely tense with a very high head carriage and tiny, piggy little strides. Her flatwork sucked so I did only jumping and relaxed hacking for nearly six months. Which is Wrong. Everyone knows you need to have solid flatwork before you can jump. But Liana adores jumping. She became so relaxed and happy over fences that when we returned to flatwork, she was suddenly and magically a dressage horse.

So my horses got happier and better thanks to my incorrect training, but that doesn’t make the training scale wrong.

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I trained Nell according to convention and she earns her highest scores for the basics and her lowest for connection, as according to the training scales. It worked for her, and for Arwen and Whisper and Sookie and Reed and half a dozen other furballs I trained “properly”.

OK, so how about starters? Surely a clean slate should always come out the same way when a certain method is applied?

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Bruno was fresh off the veld – cleanest slate you could find. I never did Join-Up or desensitisation on this pony. I started him bareback and spent most of my initial groundwork just hand grazing him, and he’s a relaxed, happy, obedient, responsive and laid-back ride.

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With Quinni, on the other hand, I did practically everything by the book – Join-Up, despooking, pressure-release exercises, the works. She is also a happy, relaxed, responsive horse to ride.

Ultimately it is very easy to get bogged down in a method or a way. We all say we train dressage, or soft feel, or Parelli or whatever. But realistically, we all train something Handmade – a unique, created being that, just like us all, has emotions and quirks and sensitivities and vices and scars and secrets and baggage.

What we all really train is horses.

And they all train us.

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What Really Matters

[Side note: I will write a brief recap of June at some point, I really will. Bad blogger! But for today, here’s some drivel that’s been floating around in my head for a while.]

My own riding has me a little disheartened lately. I have never been the most confident rider or someone that finds riding easy, but I have always been ambitious. And lately, that’s led to a whole lot of disappointment.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying my guts out to get better at this. I was the kid that was forever drawing pictures of her first pony winning the Olympics. I’ve had goals and plans and lofty dreams all my life; since I was seven years old I would watch the pros on TV, then close my eyes and picture me riding that perfect 1.60m course or Grand Prix freestyle on old Skye. I want it so bad I can taste it. It’s not really about the victory, I just have this craving to be so good at it. I really want to feel what it’s like to ride a 10 for a half-pass. I really want to go double clear at 4* with the grace of a dancer. And I’ve been working for that since I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t riding at least 6 days a week, and since I was 12, that’s been multiple horses a day. That’s a lot of saddle time and a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and all I have on my show record is one grading point at Novice, one at 70cm, and one at EV70. I have been eliminated repeatedly and dramatically in every discipline I ride in with the exception of dressage, and I know that’s only a matter of time. The only graded classes I’ve won have been ones where I was the only one that showed up, barring one, where my 8-year-old was competing against a real greenie. It’s not exactly the kind of show record you expect from a trainer, much less a coach. Horse riding takes years, this I know, but at every show I see juniors and pony riders doing medium and 1.20m and EV100 and they’re winning.

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adult riding for a living, losing at EV70

The last thing I can blame is the horses, because I have some really, really incredible horses. These horses have more scope and talent than I do, and they try their courageous hearts out for me.

And that is kind of discouraging sometimes because I have many shortcomings, but lack of drive is not one of them. Every year, I ride more horses, I take more lessons. I ride when I’m sick and hurting, I ride in the rain and the cold, I get back on over and over. For the last six months of 2015, I have 569 sessions recorded in my logbook, and I ride a lot more now than I did then. I did my stint as a working student and I did my share of falling off wild ponies for peanuts. I have never quit on riding, not once; the longest I have gone in my memory without riding has been two weeks – the two weeks that Magic was sick. And sometimes it’s like it’s just not achieved anything. And that was so painful and confusing. I keep wanting to ask God what I did wrong. Why hasn’t He taken me up the grades? What have I missed? Where did I mess up? Is this not His plan for me after all? Why don’t I have anything to show for it on paper?

And God said, “I wasn’t looking on paper, daughter.”

He opened my eyes to what really matters and it hasn’t been the destination or the dreams I’ve been chasing. It’s been the things that matter to Him, the things He has been calling me to all this time, this time that I’ve been trying to follow His light through the dark glass of my own ambition.

Because looking back, the changes in my horses’ training and ability haven’t been huge. But the changes in their minds and emotions? They have been enormous.

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Few weeks after coming home. Not a happy camper.

When I got this horse he was relatively fresh off the track, but he could walk and trot and canter and whoa and go and turn and pop over little crosses. Almost four years later, he’s doing 70cm with mixed results. You know how long it takes a pro to take a baby off the track to 70cm? We’re not even using the same calendar here.

But when I got him he was also a hypersensitive, neurotic creature you couldn’t sneeze near or his brain would exit stage left. You literally could not move your hands too fast or he’d jump up in the air like you’d hit him with a cattle prodder. He was anxious to box, he was anxious to saddle, he didn’t tie up, and his frequent and relentless panic attacks would have him a trembling, eye-rolling, lip-poking, leaping mess for an incredible amount of time. If something set him off, he’d literally be highly strung for days afterwards – days. He wasn’t just a silly baby off the track, he had horse PTSD. When his switch flipped, you could forget it, you weren’t getting him back that day. Maybe not even the next.

You know he’s now one of the quietest horses to handle at the yard? You can park him wherever, chuck his lead rein over his neck and he’ll just stand there looking adorable while you flap around looking for his boots. He ties up. He loads like a charm. He travels perfectly. He doesn’t hide from rain anymore, he runs and bucks and plays in it. He is just this giant happy puppy dog of a horse. Magic still has his edge, he’ll always have his edge. Like humans, horses get some scars that won’t ever heal perfectly. He still has all the same triggers and they still set him off just as quickly, but I can talk him down off his ledge in minutes. Minutes. Yesterday we had an off-site lesson and something set him off and he stopped at this 20cm cavaletti and I ate a little dirt, but I got back on him and in 30 minutes we were jumping the biggest fences we’ve ever done off property. He was so happy. He was just cruising. And I am his anchor. Nobody else in the world right now would have gotten him back so quickly, nobody else can ride him like I can. And it’s not that I’m a good rider. I’m not even a good trainer and I’m really no good at baby racehorses. But I am the world’s leading authority on Magic because I really truly care about him and that’s turned him right around. Magic does not care that we’re only doing 70cm. Magic cares that his spinning world has stilled. Magic cares about cookies and ear rubs and that I never, ever push him past what he can’t handle, even if that means we’ll do 70cm until I’m 40.

Magic cares about the love in me, and we all know that the other name for love is God. And if you put it like that, I’d take it over A-grade any day.

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Three years later at a show. Jump the same height, but the happiest eye you ever saw.

He hasn’t been the only one. Arwen was a promising but unbacked two-year-old. She is now a nine-year-old that gets extravagantly eliminated at EV70. But she was also a skittish, insecure, lazy, excessively herdbound filly. Now she is a wonderful, confident, enthusiastic fireball of a horse that loves galloping away from home on outrides and kicking the butts of anyone who thinks they can stop her.

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Nothing insecure here

Nell was hypersensitive, resistant, and amazingly spooky. Her first dressage tests are a long string of 3’s and 4’s with comments like “tense” and “very uncertain”. Now she comes down that centreline like she owns it and judges call her “obedient” and “willing”.

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Floppy ears

There have been still more. Horses you couldn’t touch, now shoving their noses into your hands, asking for attention. Horses that leaned on all your aids, wringing their tails with frustration, now stepping forward with an easy, swinging, enthusiastic stride. Horses that were so tense they had their ears up your nostrils and jumped at every touch, now packing nervy kids around at shows.

My horses are not particularly well-schooled horses. I am not “one to watch”. I am not the next Charlotte Dujardin or Monty Roberts. But after enough of my work, my horses are really, really happy, healthy, relaxed, enthusiastic, confident horses. They love their work.

One of Nell’s first dressage tests, when she was jumping like a gazelle and my heart was sitting somewhere in my boots, holds the greatest compliment I have ever received as a rider. “Empathetically ridden.” And I have my impatient days, but I do everything I can to understand these most wonderful of God’s creatures.

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Even the crazy babies have happy ears

I don’t think it matters to the Olympic committee, or to anyone that reads my show record, or to prospective clients. None of the top riders I see at shows notice me for it and it definitely doesn’t win me any ribbons. But it matters to me, it matters to the horses, and it sure matters to God.

So yeah, I would still love to ride Grand Prix and I’m still going to work hard and dream and God willing someday a happy athlete will carry me down the centreline at a collected canter. But mostly, I’m just going to love my horses and my people. Jesus loves when I do that, and it’s the only thing I can do that has any real consequence. All the rest is just fluff. And fluff is cool, but it’s still just fluff.

I love my horses. Nobody can ever take that away from me. And for God, that’s enough. So right now, I’m deciding that it’s enough for me, too.

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