TOABH: Their Favourite Things

Beka at The Owls Approve asks: What is your horse’s absolute favorite thing?  Outside of riding!  Are there treats that instantly convert your pony into an addict or liniments that leave him yawning and chewing?  What does your horse just love to have?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do not consider my horses to be adorable. Well, not most of the time. Not always, anyway. They’re not pets, they’re partners. Well, apart from Thunder, and he made himself a pet.

Still, there’s few things cuter than a horse begging for what he likes best, so without further ado:

Arwen has a particular weakness for being sweet-talked. She is ordinarily a brisk, businesslike horse, so much so that her partnership with me can almost be described as “cold” from the point of view of an outsider, and responds well to a correspondingly brisk and businesslike voice, but if she doesn’t want to be caught or is being a jerk then I baby-talk her for all she’s worth and she melts into a puddle of mush. I accidentally taught her this behaviour by sweet-talking her repeatedly just before giving her a carrot, but now the sweet-talking itself appears to have grown on her. If you want to see Arwen make a total idiot of herself, just pitch your voice high and say, “Whosa pretty Narwie then? Are you a Narwie-warwie ponyfacey?” and she’ll do this:


Magic LOVES to run. Of course, most sound horses do. It’s in their very DNA. But he has a passion for movement that I’ve never seen before. He’s already seven years old and by then most working horses settle for just the occasional run when called or when it rains, but Magic will run for no apparent reason; he’ll just kick up his heels and take off like a shot, not going anywhere in particular, just running for the sheer wonderful enjoyment of it. He varies the running with leaping into the air with all four feet at once like a goat, rearing, bucking, falling over (he doesn’t always keep good track of his legs), trotting with the kind of floating elevation a Lipizzaner would be jealous of, and stopping dead to throw up his head and tail and stare into the distance as if he hears the horizon call his name. Of course, he occasionally gives me minor heart attacks when he wipes out full-speed and slides across the wet grass neighing loudly and waving his legs around in an attempt to get back up, and he frequently has little scrapes on his silly pasterns from over-reaching, but who am I to stop him? It makes him so happy.

This is his I’m-gonna-run-now face

Thunder is so in love with life that it’s surprising that I can pick out one thing he adores above all else, but really, it’s easy. Thun loves all living things. Horses, donkeys, dogs, geese, cows – he’ll run up to anything in an attempt to get it to play with him. But above all else, he loves humans of any shape, size or description. This can be very annoying when the vet is vaccinating horses and Thunder is following him around so close that his nose is almost bumping the vet’s back, going “Pick me! Pick me!” when the vet asks “Who’s next?” But most of the time, it’s pretty special to walk into the paddock and see those two little ears pricked up as he runs towards you. He is especially fond of the Mutterer’s two-year-old daughter, and the feeling is mutual; several times we have had to leap to the rescue as she toddles off almost under his feet. Once I was perched upon him when suddenly his head dropped down and when I peered down his neck the little girl had her arms around his nose and was hugging him and chanting “horsie”. And when the Mutterer plants her in the saddle in front of me and Thun and I take her for a spin, that big horse walks as carefully as if on eggshells, for all the world as if he’s entirely aware of his precious burden. Even when the precious burden flaps her legs and clicks her tongue loudly to him, he refrains from obeying her and sticks to a steady plod.

Photo from more than four years ago
Photo from more than four years ago

Skye’s favourite thing is obviously going on outrides, but apart from that, she loves foals with a fiercely protective passion, demonstrating this by lactating every single summer whether there are foals around or not. When she had Thunder, she never let another mare babysit him; she was always fussing over him, licking him, playing with him, following him around, calling to him. And when the other mares had foals, Skye was permanently babysitting them. Two mares grazing happy and alone at one end of the paddock, with Skye standing fiercely guard at the other end with two sleeping foals sprawled beside her, was an everyday sight. She has even adopted Exavior despite his being a yearling already, which he appreciates endlessly.


Exavior, like most colts, likes all types of attention but despite being very touch-sensitive, he loves to be touched. It took me a while to figure this out because he’s very picky – don’t tickle him, finger-comb his mane, scratch his withers, or run your fingertips down his coat. But rub him firmly with a flat hand or scratch his forehead with your knuckles, and he groans with pleasure. His all-time favourite is simply for you to stand next to him with your shoulder or back touching him. Something about it just makes him calm and relaxed. He doesn’t lean – I don’t need to be leant on by a potentially 17hh monster – just stands there in contact with you and loves it. I’ve seen him do it with Skye, as well; he stands right next to her, shoulder to her flank, leaning his little head on her ribs. Even if I’m standing a foot or so away from him and talking to him he likes to come up, lower his head and lean his forehead on my chest. He doesn’t rub his head on me, he just wants to stand there like that. Which is frankly too cute for words, a gesture of trust. At first he would pull away if I moved, but now he lets me very gently run my hands up his ears. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of my favourite things, too.

Glory to the King.

Happy New Year! Have a minor heart attack! In fact, have two!

This was how my horses wished me “happy New Year.”

The day started out just fine and continued happily with me taking the Mutterer’s white gelding for a hack, which turned out to be an awesome first ride of the year. The white gelding is taking long to sell for reasons I cannot imagine because he really is the most enjoyable little horse and with plenty of talent to boot. Anyway, I shall not complain because I get to ride him in the interim, which is no great burden whatsoever. He was his usual steady, gentle, comfortable self and we had a lovely long hack through the summer grass.

Then I took my sister and her QH mare to go and swim in the dam while I perched myself on an absolutely rotund Arwen. She had a nice two weeks off, which were very well deserved because she worked hard this year, but now that she’s starting to get very hyper I’ve put her back in as much work as the vaccination will allow (we have three more weeks to go). She looks beautiful, shiny, glossy and healthy, but also extremely fat, which has always been her downfall. The fat beast and I both need to get back in shape (although, in my defence, I am nowhere near as fat as she is).

The walk down to the dam was quiet and uneventful and Arwen even stood very still for me to strip off her saddle and my boots (thank you Arwen, I hate hopping around through the burrs trying to mount an errant horse bareback). I scrambled on and we set onto the banks. I gave her as good a kick as my bare heels could give and she went straight in without hesitation. I had just enough time to praise her when suddenly, with a horrible sensation that I have no desire to ever feel again, Arwen’s legs vanished into the mud. In a matter of seconds my feet were dangling in water that should have been knee-deep. Ten seconds of absolute terror ensued during which Arwen floundered valiantly and I, clinging to mane and kicking for dear life, egged her on at the top of my voice. If it had been anything but strong, stoic little Arwen we would still have been trying to dig her out of the clay. But she put down her hindlegs until she found solid ground, coiled up her big (fat) haunches and launched her way out. By the grace of God, we found ourselves on the safety of the bank. I was much to terrified and grateful to do anything except hug her wet neck and tremble; Arwen took a few seconds to get her breath back and then nearly catapulted me off by putting her head down to start grazing. Thank God for tough little Nooitgedachters.

She was as sound as a brass bell all the way home and we shall never, ever be swimming in that particular dam ever again ever, but it did start the year off with a shock. I foresee some trouble trying to get her to go into water complexes again, unfortunately, but I’m sure the brave little grey mare, my King and I will overcome that as well, eventually.

My heart rate had just started to slow down when Exavior came in for supper with his superorbital fossae (temples, to you and me) all swollen up (a typical symptom of the dreaded African horse sickness). His appetite was good, manner perky, mucus membranes nice and pink, capillary refill time normal, temperature slightly elevated at 38.4 degrees Celsius. We came to the conclusion that he was either reacting to a bug bite or to his vaccine, which is known for causing the mild swelling and fever in youngsters. Today the swelling is unchanged but his temperature is down to a dead normal 36.8 degrees. God willing, he’s just being a daft sensitive baby warmblood.

What a way to start the year. Thanks, ponykins.


Why Ride?

Clients closing their stables for the holidays + ALL my horses having downtime due to AHS = very little riding for this Horse Mutterer’s apprentice. In fact, I am down to one poor little grey horse to ride; the Mutterer’s white gelding. Luckily, he is a pleasant ride and can jump and do outrides, so I’m able to keep sort of in practice, but I’m down from 4-6 hours of saddle time daily to that many hours a week.

I’m in no position to complain – 6 hours a week? I know people who would kill for that much – so I won’t complain, I’ll rejoice. I’ll rejoice because my job is so awesome that I spend the holidays in eager anticipation of starting work again.

That brings me to a question that stops me in my tracks a little: Why do I ride?

Just last week, a big stallion took violent objection to the fact that his girth was pinching him and after the third rear in as many split seconds, I ate dust. I rolled, spat out some arena surface, fixed the girth, convinced the Mutterer that I was fine, and got back on. Why, though? When half a ton of animal sends you flying, why get back on?

Why do we even do this crazy sport? Life is dangerous enough without large flight animals in it. I have been kicked, trodden on, bitten, thrown, struck, knocked over, dragged, and squashed more times than I care to remember. I come home with aching muscles and a brain so fried that I’m asleep by eight-fifteen. Instead of soft lady’s hands, I have rough, calloused fingers and scars on my knuckles. Instead of attractive curves, I have ridiculous biceps, skinny calves and forearms like a man’s. I don’t go out on Sundays because I’m showing; I study in the dark so that I can ride in the light.

I would never have it any other way.

Why, though? Why is it that every time I’m thrown, I do everything I can to swallow the fear and throw my leg back over that animal’s rump and try again? Why do I want to spend my life baking in a dusty arena with my sweat trickling down to mix with the perspiration of the half-ton animal that chooses to work for me? Or breaking ice on water troughs on mornings so frigid even the dogs stay under the covers and think me mad?

Is it the sense of achievement when we finally get something right? The flash of satin on the rare occasions when we actually place? Or the surge of power when a gigantic animal breaks into a full gallop underneath me? Or the star-touching moment in midair over a triple bar? Or the glorious yielding, dancing balance as we perfect a half-pass?

No, it isn’t any of those.

What, then? The way a horse shines in the sun? The way he smells, the creak of leather, the swish of his mane and the grace of his rippling muscles as he bears down the long side of the arena like an approaching tsunami? The unbelievable, dragonfly lightness with which he lifts his muscular bulk into an effortless leap over that gigantic fence?

No, none of those, either.

Shall we delve deeper? Is it that nameless and indescribable thing that the equine heart does to the human soul? Is it the communication that runs deeper than language? The partnership between thinking human and moving beast? The threefold cord of God, human and horse that seems, for those star-touching moments, unbreakable? The wonder of an interspecies friendship that has understanding without words, love without expression and acceptance without comprehension?

Not even that. Oh, those are all what I love most about riding. But they’re not why I ride. In fact, the short answer to the question “Why do you ride?” is this one: I can’t say.

The long answer is this: I ride for reasons there are no words to explain. I ride because when jeans meet saddle, heart meets heaven. I ride because the rhythm of a horse’s gaits beats in my heart, because the flow of his movement runs in my blood. I ride because in the silent communion of girl and horse, I feel the wordless love between God and girl. I ride because I feel I was born to, like I am fulfilling His timeless will every time I take up the reins. I ride because I cannot imagine not riding. I ride because not even the hardest day’s riding is harder than not riding. I ride because although I could die each time I get on, I know that part of me will die forever if I don’t get on again. I ride because, though I know God made me for a higher purpose, He also made me a horsewoman. I ride because when I fall, no matter how scared I am, the idea of not getting back on is inconceivable, because walking away is not an option. I ride because mounting up is coming home.

I ride for the glory of the King.


December’s 10 Questions

Thanks again to Viva Carlos!

1. What size horse do you like to ride? My happy zone is 14.1 to 15.2hh. Arwen at 14.3hh feels and looks pretty much perfect. I can ride 16.2hh but I look like a dweeb and it’s extremely hard work.

2. Do you school in tall boots or half chaps and paddock boots? Oh, for a pair of tall boots! No, I use what we in SA call ankle boots and gaiters.

3. What do you do with your ribbons after shows? Write the horse’s name and class on the back, then hang them up in the tack room/corner of my room serving as the tack room.

4. Do you ride/board at a large show barn or a small private barn? Home is about as private as it gets. Even the stables where the stud is are pretty quiet. I think I’m the only rider who competes.

5. Have you ever seen a horse give birth? Twice. I saw Arwen give birth to Dancer in 2010, and then a nasty little pony we had decided to pop out a colt foal in front of my bewildered eyes in six minutes flat, early in 2012.

6. What is your favourite breed? It’s a tie between Nooitgedachters (for their amazing trainability and tenacity) and thoroughbreds (for that indefinable class that belongs only to this crazy breed). I like how Trakehners look, but have never sat on one. Lipizzaners are also stunning.

7. Favourite tack brand? Anything that comes from England.

8. Would you ever buy used tack? Sure thing. It’s just hard to find. My beloved old Solo saddle was used (and is now used up).

9. Ever been on a carriage drive? It’s a small tragedy that I’ve never ridden in a horse cart, much less learned how to drive, unless you count those tricky moments in long-lining involving a panicky young horse, high speeds, and myself becoming an impromptu sled.

10. How often do you go to the tack store? Once a fortnight or so. My parents tend to keep me away from them as money magically disappears there.

What We Sow, We Reap

One of the things I love most about horses is that you get back whatever you put in. If you love hard enough, a horse will eventually love you back. And if you work hard enough, with most horses, that hard work pays off in the end.

It wasn’t that fun to be plopping around over tiny cross-rails on a horse that I know could jump 1.50m if only he believed he could. Hours of drilling dressage in the sandbox was all the more frustrating for knowing that the horse under me could jump the socks off anything else I’d ever ridden. But neither of us were ready for anything more than that. So it’s been months of flatwork, groundwork, tiny jumps, little grids, nothing to challenge him, but to slowly bring him on step by step. And bit by bit, tiny jump by tiny jump, our confidence is building. I’m slowly, slowly learning to ride him. And with each good session, he’s starting to believe in himself as much as I believe in him.

When I heard that my favourite show venue was holding a small training show, I just had to enter him. It was made for him. The first three classes were 30cm, 40cm, and 50cm, and I knew that this venue generally doesn’t make difficult or scary courses for the smallest classes. So with a prayer in my pocket, I bit the bullet and we loaded up the grey lunatic and took him off to Springs. He loaded well enough – Dad just had to stand behind him and tell him to get up and with me at his head he walked right in – and was bone dry and calm when we arrived.

For various reasons, I had been a bit out of action for the past week and only managed to fit in two sessions for him. He was coming off a two-day rest, which is never good, and I was dreading having to lunge him in the parking lot. I detest it when people do that, but if it was lunging or getting thrown I knew which one I was choosing. He seemed chilled, though, so I decided to take a chance and saddle him up. First I tried walking him around the arena, but he was quite unsettled and antsy – nothing naughty, but he chucked his head around and danced on the spot. I went with my usual philosophy: horses are made to move, and are happier and more settled when moving. So I pushed him into a trot and he put his head straight down and went to work like a pro.

Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now
Human, give me one reason why not to freak out right now

I could have burst with pride and relief. He had a couple of head-tossing, dancing-on-the-spot baby moments but as long as I kept him moving forward he kept his mind on the job. No bucking, no rearing, not even a spook for the dressage letters or small kids and ponies bouncing around all over the place. He did overjump the first warmup jump ever so slightly, but I was ready for it and he wasn’t unreasonable about it, so after that he jumped perfectly. He was better than he is at home, with happy upright ears and an interested expression; he was enjoying the change and the challenge. I could have screamed with delight that he finally realised that the two of us can deal with scary things.

Now I know what we're doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)
Now I know what we’re doing! (and incidentally am awesome at it)

We had one sinking moment at the very start of our first course. The first jump had a couple of somewhat spooky green tyres in front of it, and as I aimed him at it he put up his head and did his standard “Nopenopenopenope” move, involving a rapid reinback that Stacy Westfall would be proud of. Luckily, I kept my wits about me and put my hands in his mane and closed my legs quietly around his sides and softly insisted until his brain returned. And thank God (no really, thank Him) it did. Magic is smart enough and sensitive enough that he felt the pressure of his first show, picking it up in the atmosphere and in my body language, and I think he must have had one of his racing flashbacks. I can only imagine that the pressures of the track must have shattered him, because that’s the way he is, and whenever he had one of these moments at the track he was probably just pushed into the starting box and told to do his job because few people at a racetrack have time to soothe one panicky gelding. It’s probably why his racing career was so disastrous. But this time, he had me with him, and I have finally found out how to handle his moments and so his brain returned, he found his guts and he attacked that cross-rail like it had personally offended him. After that he was amazing. He locked onto every jump and knew exactly what he had to do. All I had to do was steer and enjoy the ride, and boy, did I enjoy it.

Because tiny uprights require KNEES
Because tiny uprights require KNEES

I realised again what an absolutely amazing horse he is. He has so much talent, such good movement, such a trainable mind and such an outstanding jump, not to mention his ample heart. I rubbed his neck as he trotted out of the little round and felt like we’d just won the Derby, I was that happy. He tossed out his front legs like he felt just as happy.

Of course, when I got off he went back to being dorky idiot Magic whom I know so well, and somehow while my dad was holding him he managed to put his foot through his reins and freaked out radically. Luckily he freed himself before anything got damaged. For a really talented amazing horse, he can be an absolute moron sometimes.

After that first round I just kept him moving. Even if we just walked on the buckle around the warmup, he was much happier to be moving than standing. When standing still he fidgeted or pawed the ground and was generally upset, so I figured he couldn’t be that tired and decided to keep him moving. It seemed to work; he was settled in his work but didn’t seem to run out of steam.

Happy place
Happy place

The next two rounds were picture perfect. We cantered most of them and he was amazing; he even got all his leads right, picked good distances with minimal help from me, and responded instantly to all of my aids. The arena was sopping wet, and while the footing was still safe and stable, there were quite a few shallow puddles of standing water. He didn’t let them bug him one bit and cantered straight through them, jumping in and out of them without any issues. Just gotta love the amount of heart this guy has.


After our rounds, I took off all his tack and just held him by his halter near a haynet to see if I could teach him to stand quietly. Once his tack was off, he seemed to realise that work time was over and ate hay peacefully until he was dry and we could go home. He did manage to remove both back boots and his tail bandages on the way home, as well as scraping the back of his ear and scratching his side (this is Magic we’re talking about), but didn’t seem too worried by anything very much.

I just had to realise again what a stunning horse I’ve been most undeservedly blessed with. God has entrusted a most amazing creature into my care, and I only pray that I can continue to ride him better every day until we both bring out the best in each other. I believe in this stupendously weird and wonderful horse, and the very fact that he’s been the answer to my prayers for a great horse must mean that God believes in me.

It’s a good thing that I believe in Him, because otherwise none of this would be possible. This is just the first step on an awesome journey. Glory to the King.



Jump All the Things!


So. Happy.


I had originally entered Arwen into a cross-training show last weekend, but it ended up being cancelled and cross-country lessons being held at the same venue instead. I was not terribly upset about this because I was really excited to have a lesson from this instructor, who was the chef d’ equipe for South Africa’s eventing team at WEG this year and has been at the top of SA eventing for many years.

The lesson ended up being totally awesome. Arwen loaded, travelled, and behaved like a superstar. She didn’t kick anybody at all, and we both got along well with the instructor; he was knowledgeable, punctual and patient, and has a teaching voice that I would kill for. (Seriously, how do you get your voice to carry all the way across a giant arena without actually shouting?). We warmed up with some showjumps first, which was slightly hairy because Arwen is much more afraid of showjumps than of cross-country, but actually went well. She did have one little stop at the dumbest tiny cross ever, but there was a puddle behind it and I wasn’t there to support her with my leg, so I won’t hold it against her.

She had one moment of absolute awesomeness as we were following the horse in front of us through a gymnastic line. I fear and hate gymnastic jumping and as such have never really tried it properly, so of course neither has she. To my horror, halfway through the line I realised that the jumps in front of us were not a one-stride combination, they were a bounce. I have never tried to jump a bounce, and this one was around 60cm so it wasn’t like we could trot our way through it, so I sat there panicking a bit and Arwen was all “I got this, human” and popped through it perfectly. Gotta love little tough grey mares.

The cross-country was also good; a little more challenging than we’ve tried before, including a dyke, a hanging log, some creepy black barrels under a tree, and a little bank down into the water. She bucked like a lunatic a few times, of course, out of enjoyment; but she was as brave as the day and jumped everything fearlessly. The only jump I really had to kick her at was a big black solid oxer that made my heart stand still, and she cleared it with flying colours in the end. The dyke was by far the hardest to ride, but we did it several times with great success. She was a little looky about the water, but as soon as she had followed the experienced pony through it once, she was fine even about jumping down into it. (Awesomest sound ever: the splash when you jump into water. So much fun).

She was a tired pony by the end of the lesson, but I learned a lot and we both had a wonderful time. Cross-country is the best! I hope I’ll have pictures soon, but for now all you get is boring old words.

The others have gone through a slight tough patch, mostly a combination of cold wet weather and moving paddocks with all the new horses arriving. I split them into three groups with Arwen, Thunder and Flare in one group; Magic, Exavior and Skye in the other; and the old donkey Benjamin keeping the Mutterer’s white horse company. Skye’s herd have formed a tight-knit little family. Skye is, of course, the Queen with Magic being her first knight. He has gotten a real confidence boost from being second-in-command. He is kind to Exavior and doesn’t bully him, but he carries himself with a bit more assurance now that he’s not the underdog anymore. Exavior, being the youngest, is the little prince and Magic’s playmate; Skye has also joyously adopted him. She treats him exactly as she treats Thunder, and whenever he’s nervous he runs to Skye and hides next to her because he’s the only one allowed in her majesty’s personal space. Skye has a new lease on life too, with her baby to be responsible for. Exavior also caught a cold; he’s had a bit of a runny nose since he arrived and I think the cold weather just brought out some kind of a virus in him. After having some needles and TLC pushed into into him, he seems 100% again now.

Never mind that he's exactly her height
Never mind that he’s exactly her height: 14.2hh

Arwen’s herd had a slightly harder time adjusting. Thunder has always been the underdog in the group, and I don’t think being Arwen’s beta suits him very well. In general the second-in-command seems responsible for protecting the lead mare, and poor Thunder is much too sweet and fragile to be any good at this. When Flare was introduced to the herd he tried his best to frighten her by pulling awful faces and trying to bite her without actually using his teeth; Flare, unimpressed, landed a couple of kicks on him and he was a bit sore for a few days. It’s so hard sometimes to let them be horses and take the knocks of group life, but he’s feeling all better now, so no harm has been done. I secretly hope that Flare eventually dominates Thunder and becomes Arwen’s bodyguard so that Thun can be the omega again, but it might be better to put him in Skye’s herd. He misses his mother, and the three boys would have a wonderful time together with Skye to put them in their places.

Thunder: Rawr! I'm fierce!
Thunder: Rawr! I’m fierce! Flare: Yeah, right

On the showjumping front, Magic and I have reached the level of confidence where I can start challenging him again. Not in terms of height – we’re not there yet – but in terms of technique. Graham Winn says, “It’s perfecting the small jumps that makes the big ones easy”, so I’m hoping all this fuss over crossrails will eventually pay off. We started by warming up over a tiny baby gymnastic line (three trotting poles to about a 70cm oxer) and then tried a little triple combination. I set it up at first as one really tiny crossrail to two ground poles just to give him a bit of warning first, because the last thing I wanted was for him to panic and crash through jumps. I had 13m between jumps and went in without worrying over strides the first time, just wanting him to stay calm and get the takeoff distances right. Once I could pick it up to three little crosses and he was still popping through without worrying, I started counting strides. He would fit in four or five, sometimes four in the first half and five in the second, sometimes vice versa. So first we tried cantering through with an equal number of strides between jumps to keep a rhythm. He was very nice about it and didn’t pull on my hands too much, and I kept him very quiet and fit in five nice steady little strides between jumps. Then I started to push him; first doing it in five strides, then coming back and trying for four. The first time I let him do the four strides he got really excited, finished the combination well, and then leapt into the air like a pogo stick with his front feet striking out the way he does when he’s playing. Obviously he was just enjoying himself, and I kept my balance, and it was thrilling, but I made him put his feet on the ground and behave like a grownup horsie. I don’t need him pulling out stunts like that all the time.

The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work...
The tiny (crooked) triple of doom. My course building skills need work…

Once he’d gone nuts once, he seemed content to go through it nicely in however many strides I pleased a few times – minus a few mistakes when he thought three strides, I said four and we ended up running on air – and I was super proud of him. Even though we’re still jumping glorified ground poles, I think we have made progress. He had a few green moments today and did his little leap-in-the-air act, but I was able to stay relaxed and go through it again without losing confidence. He is also less of a wuss and was happy to try again without panicking. Little steps, but they’re in the right direction.

Glory to the King.

It’s Not Always the Rider’s Fault

One of my most controversial philosophies is that it is not always the rider’s fault when things go wrong.

Maybe this comes from working with a lot of young horses, or maybe in ten years’ time I’ll disagree with myself, but right now I’m pretty sure of this. Of course, many horse problems are not horse problems, they’re people problems. Horses are so easily spoiled or scared and 80% of them will misbehave when they’re overtired, overfed or have been allowed to get away with it; it’s only the real jewels that will be good when everything else is bad. Also, many novice riders simply don’t know what to do, and for that reason things go wrong easily.

But it’s not always the fault of the rider, especially not with a young or inexperienced horse. There are very, very few young horses who do not respond with varying degrees of resistance when put under pressure, and I strongly disagree with anyone who presumes that it is possible to train a horse without putting it under pressure. Of course, some horses can take a lot of pressure, and with some you have to apply only tiny amounts of stress or their brains switch off, but if you never make it harder they will never learn anything. Sooner or later a stress response is bound to come out. I don’t understand how a rider whose horse spooks at a flappy flag and jumps out from under him is to blame for falling off. The horse spooked. Horses spook. No rider is capable of sitting 100% of equine shenanigans.

Horses are large flight animals capable of a wide range of emotions and moods. These include empathy, willingness, courage, loyalty, compassion and even love. They also include fear, anger, pain and exhaustion. Shocker alert here: they also include laziness and spitefulness.

Think about it: most horses are, at the root of it all, lazy animals. If they weren’t lazy, then why do they so predictably choose the path of least resistance? The vast majority of training methods are based around the fact that the horse always chooses the action that is, in the end, less effort. He eventually learns to work with us because it is less effort than fighting us. This is true for most horses, although there are some very special ones who will do things for you just because you are you.

If horses weren’t lazy, we would have no horses. Wild horses are forced to conserve their energy for when they need it, and if they spent all their time doing things the hard way, they would have nothing left for when predators arrive. Lions would have eaten all of them years ago and we’d be riding around on cows. Laziness is a basic requirement of equine survival.

It follows, then, that horses can act out of laziness and they can act out of fear. If your horse has learned that throwing a couple bucks will get him out of work, he will buck every single time because he is lazy. Of course, some buckers buck because their backs hurt or their mouths hurt or their rider is sitting with their heels in their guts. But there are those who will buck because they think it is easy, and you can call as many chiropractors and dentists as you want – they will buck until you make it the harder thing to do. It is also true that if the rider tenses up every time the horse spooks, the horse will decide that there really is something to be afraid of and you can feed him maize-free diets until you’re blue in the face. He will spook until you show him not to be afraid.

Those are examples of when it is the rider’s fault, albeit indirectly. But sometimes, it is not the rider’s fault. Sometimes it isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes nobody sees the hole because it wasn’t visible until you were on top of it and your horse trod in it and you both went sprawling. Gasp, horror! How could the rider injure the horse in that way? It was an accident. It’s not that hard to get up, dust yourself off, say, “Well, that was random,” and keep riding.

Sometimes it is the horse’s fault, believe it or not. Some horses are wilfully and stubbornly disobedient. Even if you never let them get away with it, they will still test you and test you and test you. These are the born leaders of the equine world; they would have been lead mares or herd stallions in the wild, and you just have to put up with it and stand firm until they give up. It’s not your fault that they’re going to keep testing you. It’s just who they are.

All horses have strong points and weak points. If your horse doesn’t learn as fast as everybody else’s, maybe you’re training him slowly. Or maybe he’s not a fast learner. Some horses are smarter than others, some are more willing than others, some are lazier than others, and some are moodier than others. Some horses have a more active flight response than others. Some have a greater tendency towards aggression. Some are more sensitive, some are more stubborn. There’s a reason why sport horse breeders select horses for temperament; not all horses are created equal in terms of trainability. Things go a lot better once I can admit to myself that the horse has weak points, and then learn to work around those weak points instead of butting my head against them.

What about the abused horse that wants to run a mile when you go near him? Or the horse that had a gentle groom and a rough rider, who is perfect until you get on and then randomly throws you into next week? Is it your fault that somebody else beat him half to death? Of course not. His problems are not always your problems. The horse is not merely a mirror of his rider; he is a flesh-and-blood creature, unique, responding differently to any other horse. Only a great rider who has worked with a group of horses for a long time will stamp each horse with his trademark, and even then each of those horses will be different.

Maybe that horse that leans on his rider’s hands until his jaw gapes open is 100 times better than he was six months ago. Maybe that horse that just threw his rider a mile doesn’t have a sore back; maybe he had a bad hair day and didn’t feel like carting people around today. Maybe that rider with the one heel in the air has ripped a ligament and can’t put that heel down no matter how much they want to. I try to view every problem in my own training objectively (with varied success, I admit), with the goal to solve the problem, not to lay the blame. Blaming anyone achieves nothing in the end.

Happy Birthday, Thunder

My beloved horse,

You are a horse, and have no concept of birthdays. When I pushed your luxurious black forelock back from your eyes and pressed my cheek to yours so that your sleek fur bristled against my fragile skin, and whispered “Happy birthday, buddy” to your forward-tipped ears, you understood not a word. But you pressed closer to me, your eyes lighting up at the sheer pleasure of hearing my voice.

Honestly, beyond the words you didn’t understand, I didn’t do anything special for your birthday. I even forgot to bring you a carrot. But I made your day with everything I did, because that’s the way you are. I took you for a ride; we loped down the fenceline with your big feet beating softly on the green grass and your ears pricked forward with excitement. When we had to be called back to help out with some cattle work, I turned you up the hill and pushed you faster than I have ever dared before. You flung out your long gawky legs and snorted in glee. Watch me run, Mom! you cried with pride, flinging up your tail. I’m so fast!

Yes, Thunder, I replied with one hand on your neck, you are. Even though you were barely hand-galloping. You did it with so much of yourself that it was ten times more exciting than speed alone could ever make it.


Then we cut heifers out of the herd for their owner and some buyers; the owner thought you were adorable and made your day again by rubbing your nose. You got bored standing and waiting, and tried to eat your stirrup. When we got to herd the cows, you threw yourself into it with the puppyish enthusiasm only you have; your ears were up even as you sprinted and spun to catch those heifers, because you thought it was an elaborate and wonderful game.

You turned four years old yesterday. I trust you with my life.

It seems like yesterday that I first breathed into your nose and made you mine; it feels like last week that I would press my cheek against Skye’s stomach and speak to you before you were even born. “Hi, baby Skye, when are you coming?” I swear you knew my voice when you were born, like a human baby knows the voice of his mother; I will never forget the first time you pricked your ears to me, just hours old. You will never know how I waited for you and prayed for you, or how delighted I was when you finally made your appearance, a tiny bundle of legs and fur and soft puffs of milky breath.

You were still too small to eat even a carrot slice out of my hand when you first started coming to me in the paddock, giving your poor little baby whinny. (“He neighs like a Barbie horse,” commented my sister). It melted my heart, the way it still does when your now 15.1hh bulk lopes up to me and rumbles a greeting like a thunderstorm turning over in its sleep.


Oh, Baby Thun. You’re not so much of a baby anymore, are you? It has been a long time since I first haltered you or picked up your tiny feet, struggling to fit the hoofpick into the teeny grooves of your frog. So many milestones, and so few struggles. You opened your mouth for the bit before you even knew what it was. Every new thing I introduced was a complete non-event for you and a miracle for me; I kept waiting for you to finally explode, but you never did. We have come a long way together, you and me. We’ve had our fights, of course, but I have never seen malice in you. My experiences with you are so peppered with wonder at how much you dare to trust me. The first time I looked into your star-studded eyes and reached out to brush my fingers over your downy neck. Sitting on the grass, barely daring to breathe as your head rested in my lap while you slept. Later, when you were too big to use me as a pillow, I would wait for you to lie down on your side and then crash between your legs with my head resting against your belly. The first time I sat on you, and how you just turned back an ear to hear the voice you love so much. Falling off on an outride, watching you come back to get me. Walking into the horsebox for the first time, hearing your faithful hoofbeats as you followed me without a qualm.

I don’t deserve for you to trust me this much, buddy, and it scares me a little. But you make me want to be better than I am, you make me believe in the stars, you make me know that when the world feels cold and dark there is always someone on this earth who is happy to see me. I have been proud and amazed and happy and priviledged to be such a big part of your remarkable young life, but most of all I have been humbled that God would trust me with one of the best creatures He ever made. You are amazing, but it’s not me who gave the horse his strength and clothed his neck with thunder. The King made you, and you are a glory to Him.

Here’s to a long and beautiful journey ahead with you, my beautiful bay gelding.



With love


Your person

Growing Closer

After all our trouble with confidence this winter, I think the long hours of grooming and groundwork and boring schooling drills are finally starting to pay off for Magic and me.

It’s not easy to see. Obviously, he looks a lot better on the flat than he used to; but his jumping is pretty much the same. He is a little more sensible about it, but can still do the weirdest things in midair (see below), and we’re still toodling around 70cm verticals. I’m not as all over the place on him as I used to be, but I still look like I’m levitating above him over the jumps instead of staying with him.

But it all feels so different. When I go to catch him now he comes to me with bright eyes and an expectant (adorable) little nicker. After I’ve ridden him he likes to hang out with me, just grazing around me until I leave, then he trots off to join Skye on whatever mission she’s accomplishing. Best of all, I think I’m finally learning to ride him; he doesn’t do the jackhammer-trotting-giraffe-head thing so much anymore. If I have a slip-up and bump on his back by accident he doesn’t panic anymore, and if he makes a mistake and overjumps something I can stay so much calmer than I used to. There’s a connectedness between us now, in the way we move around each other. It’s hard to explain, but I finally feel like he really is my horse.

Unfortunately, having a better bond does not immediately result in better technique. We have moments of sheer awesomeness, and then we have moments of epic fail. Frankly, we look horrible. But we’re finally learning to enjoy each other, and that’s what it’s all about.

We have jumping superpowers, among them the Superman impression
We have jumping superpowers, among them the Superman impression
and levitation
and rider levitation
and Gangnam Style, midair!
and Gangnam Style, midair!
Um... at least his legs are even
Um… at least his legs are even
Self-carriage much?!
Self-carriage much?!
And canter in a frame!
And canter in a frame!
And we finally got it right! (I know my reins are too long, but I need them like that in case I make a mistake and touch his mouth and he thinks I'm going to RIP HIS FACE OFF)
And we finally got it right! (I know my reins are too long, but I need them like that in case I make a mistake and touch his mouth and he thinks I’m going to RIP HIS FACE OFF)
So much personality <3
So much personality ❤

October’s 10 Questions

Thanks again to Viva Carlos for a quick post idea after a long day!

  1. How many pairs of breeches/jods do you own? Three – a beige one for outings, a white one for shows, and a black one for work (yes, working at a coloured horse stud in black jods doesn’t always work out so well).
  2. How many horses have you ridden? Hmm… a bunch. Probably 10 different horses with my first trainer, six of my own, maybe 15 random horses the Mutterer put me on when I used to shadow him everywhere, 10-12 horses I trial rode for people or competed on once or twice, probably another 10 at horse camps, and somewhere between 20 and 30 for my clients. So somewhere between 60 and 70, maybe a little more if we’re allowing for random horses I don’t remember (sorry random horses).
  3. How many trainers have you had? Three, not counting once-offs with dressage or cross-country trainers.
  4. How many barns have you ridden at? Not counting show/clinic venues, only three.
  5. What is the name of the horse you consider yourself to have the greatest bond with? Skye’s the Limit – with Thunder a very close second
  6. What is your favourite show name you’ve ever encountered? For Joy, name of the amazing stallion standing at Callaho Stud. Special Effects – a piebald stallion – comes in a pretty close second. Somethingroyal (dam of Secreteriat) is up there too.
  7. What do you consider your greatest weakness or flaw in riding? Lack of patience and confidence
  8. What do you consider to be your greatest strength? Perseverance
  9. Have you ever leased a horse? Yes – my gorgeous grey drama queen (king?)
  10. What is the name of the first horse you rode? No idea; in my defence, I was two. The first horse I remember riding (and falling off of) was a little bay pony named Prinsie (“little prince”).