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 week Sunday, Magic and I had our second attempt at a show, by a miracle.
We did not exactly have the best ever preparation for it. Don’t get me wrong – he’d been a superstar all week. Still piling riser pads and extra numnahs under my Kent and Masters and riding him in that, I was sticking to Magic’s back easily. He was jumping everything in sight willingly (albeit messily). He didn’t even get a skin reaction to the shampoo I used to bath him with, which was a definite improvement on last time. In fact all was going swimmingly right up until Saturday morning, when the Mutterer’s white gelding had a refusal so embarrassingly random that facepalming just wasn’t enough; I facepoled instead. When I got up I thought I’d broken my face, but I got away with a bloody nose and scuff marks all over my face and left shoulder.
Once I’d ascertained that neither horse nor rider had been hurt, my first thought was for my confidence at the show. As we all know, I’m already not the most confident when it comes to jumping Magic, and crashing headlong into a jump hadn’t been pleasant. But what was I to do – scratch? No. We walk by faith, and not by sight. So I girded up my loins and went forth, not without considerable trepidation.
As always, the King carried me through, and that gave me the strength to help carry Magic through. He loaded and travelled like a star and got off the horsebox looking calm enough. I hacked him around an empty and awesome dressage arena (MIRRORS. MUST HAVE MIRRORS), expected him to spook at the random emu that was wandering around, nearly jumped out of my skin when he spooked at a feed bin instead, and forgot all about yesterday. Partially because I was too busy reciting Psalm 23 to myself, and partially because I couldn’t stop staring at my gorgeous horse in the mirrors. Seriously, guys. MIRRORS.
He was stunning. Just a bit strong in the hand, maybe, but no disasters. No attempts to buck when I asked him for a canter – in fact, as usual, he felt better than normal because of the lovely arena surface. We headed up to the warmup arena and as we approached the first little cross-rail my stomach fell into my boots, but I planted my hands in his mane and locked my trembling legs around him and he jumped. No facepoling happened, so after that I was fine. We were both fine. In fact, we were both loving it. There was a 70cm vertical set up in the warmup and after a while we started jumping that as well, which was more fun and completely not terrifying.
Then it was time for our class and dear Rain, without whom horse shows would be rather more difficult, whisked us off to the jumping arena, wiped my boots and helpfully reminded me that the horse was supposed to accompany me over the jump instead of letting me take the leap solo.
I rode him into the arena and made an immediate beeline for the Scary Corner. It is apparently law that all show arenas must have a Scary Corner, which is usually in shade and used as a storage area for haphazard piles of jumping equipment and (heaven forbid) a groom waiting to pick the jumps back up. According to many horses, Scary Corners are the most terrifying black holes of this universe. It is unhelpful that Murphy’s Law dictates that the most frightening jump on course usually has to be jumped towards the aforementioned dreaded dragon lair. Magic, however, plodded past the Scary Corner at a free walk without turning a hair, dissipating a considerable amount of my nerves. He did startle a little at the speakers that were playing in the other corner of the arena, but then the bell rang and we were trotting through the start and Magic said, “CROSSRAILS I LOVE CROSSRAILS” and jumped everything with enthusiasm.
I used the strategy that seems to work best, for Magic; trot the first jump, legs on lightly, but try not to make too big of a fuss and keep the hands super soft. Only canter if he offers it; if we trot all the way round, no problems. Magic landed over the first 40cm cross in the canter so I let him cruise around at a ploddy dressage canter, popping over everything bravely, sort of schooling him as I made him bend the right way and stay on the right lead because he was confident and attentive. We weren’t quick, but we were straight, accurate, enthusiastic, and forward. I’ll take it.
The classes were very small and the jumps inviting, so there were few mishaps and not a lot of time to hang out between rounds. I shot down to the warmup to scramble over a little oxer and some slightly bigger jumps (still real lead-rein fences, though) before going back up to the arena and starting on the slightly twisty 50cm course. I chose a shorter line to the second jump than most people, but it was an easy sort of circle line and the jump was an inviting little cross so the risk turned out not to be a risk at all and Magic had no trouble with it. He had a look at the sixth jump, which was an oxer, but I talked to him and kept my legs on and over he went. We were resoundingly clear, so we went through to the jump-off.
Immediately, the first jump became a little oxer and my blood pressure went up for no reason other than that I suck at oxers and I suck at jump-offs and I was terrified we were going to stop so obviously as Magic reached it he realised that I was terrified, so he stopped. Luckily, I didn’t fall off, but unluckily he sort of staggered forward and fell/walked through the jump, demolishing it. One of the poles must have rapped his leg a little because he threw his head in the air and screamed that all four his legs were irreparably broken. One of the ground crew cried, “Oh no! Jump off – your horse is dead lame!”
I have probably forever written my name amongst the animal abusers in that particular stable’s history books, because I said, “Oh, he’s just a drama queen” and walked him in a little circle until he took a deep breath and the jump had been rebuilt, when I asked him for a trot and he was as sound as a brass bell. (The foot wasn’t even swollen the next morning, don’t worry.) I was timid, so he stopped again and we were eliminated (do two stops at one jump count as an elimination?), but they very kindly allowed us to finish the course and took away the back bar of the oxer to make it a bit more inviting. At which point I relaxed, so Magic relaxed and we cantered around the course without batting an eyelid.
I was extremely proud of Magic for recovering from our mistake. Six months ago he would have had a total meltdown and we would have been fighting to get over trotting poles for the next week. But as soon as that particular oxer was behind him, he left it in the past, looked up at the next jump and charged. For that reason, I was happy not to scratch from the 60cm.
It turns out that it was a good choice. The first jump was the dread oxer we had crashed through, but I planted my hands in the mane and said “The Lord is my Shepherd!” as we approached it and he jumped it like it was the Hickstead Derby. We went clear, resoundingly and perfectly clear as I didn’t have to kick once; he took me to the jumps, snorting in glee and thoroughly enjoying himself. We were absolutely dead last since it was a speed and precision class and we cantered around like it was a Sunday hack, but I fell on his neck hugging him as we left the arena. I couldn’t have been happier.
Dear, daft, amazing Magic. We fight the same battles, him and I – so many of our fears and weaknesses are the same. How blessed am I to stand before nearly sixteen hands of dapple-grey grace and fire and power, and to see in his eyes a kindred spirit. Glory to the King.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, horses can make you humble. With Arwen, I wanted to be jumping 80cm by our May show. Well, we had had three stops by the second jump and after that it took three people and four attempts just to get us over the jump for practice. This was more due to my nerves than anything else; the jumps looked about 1.50m tall and as wide as the Nile even though they were really reasonable, and it definitely messed with my riding.
So even though I really, really wanted to enter the 80cm class at this show, I had to humble myself a little. And I entered the 30cm class. Yes, the lead-rein class where everyone gets a rosette so that all the little kids don’t feel left out. It was a bit humiliating, and I was probably the oldest person in the class. But Arwen goes better when she gets to see the jumps before she has to actually jump them, so humility it was; I entered it. Then to build her up slowly I also entered class four, the 55cm; and class seven, the 70cm.
Sunday found the longsuffering Mutterer dutifully towing Arwen and me off to a little local show in Springs at a prestigious eventing stable – owned by the same people as gave us the cross-country class last month. Arwen was a bit of a twerp to load. I tried for about half an hour to get her to walk on by herself, and while I got all four of her feet on the ramp, that was about it. I should probably have tried putting a line around her bottom like you do with a foal that’s learning to lead, but either way, when the Mutterer showed up and slapped her butt she walked on in about five seconds. She also did not try to send her back boots into orbit this time.
Although it was only about 45 minutes’ travelling, Arwen was barely sweaty at all and was happily looking out of the window when we arrived. The setup was perfect for her – the arenas are right in between all the paddocks, so she didn’t feel lonely.
This had a huge effect on her manners. She didn’t call, didn’t yank me around, didn’t dive at the nearest patch of grass, and stood still to be saddled up. We were both in a calm, non-irritated frame of mind when we headed for the warmup; it was quite early so only one little pony was trotting around when we got there. It was a blessed relief to be warming up in a bigger ring – 60x20m felt ample compared to last time!
Although the arena was bordered on one side by a hedge, on the other by a scary judge’s box and on the third by a stallion in a paddock, Arwen walked calmly on a relaxed rein around the ring. She had a look around, but realised it was nothing to worry about. The stallion looked like an amazing type – he just stood there eating his hay and didn’t bat an eyelid as Arwen walked past, although she certainly batted hers quite violently. (I didn’t mind; he was a nice-looking horse and I would not have minded a foal from him. Unfortunately, wind pollination seems to have let me down this time.)
One thing that was really nice was that everyone seemed to know what the enormous red ribbon in Arwen’s tail meant and we avoided any chaos in the kicking department.
After walking around to identify any monsters, we picked up the trot. I felt confident enough to go straight into rising trot without sitting a bit to ride out any friskiness, and it paid off. She put her nose in and settled into a businesslike working trot. A few figures later we broke into a canter and for the first time ever, Arwen didn’t offer a buck during her first canter offsite. She was in her happy place; her mind was on her work, and she flowed into the canter just like she does at home. In fact she felt better than she does at home because of the good, level footing, a luxury we have yet to obtain.
She floated through a few circles and lead changes and we popped over the warmup jumps a couple of times. They were small and nonthreatening, but had a number of poles in them so looked solid, but Arwen felt great. She took me forward to each jump, didn’t look at them and charged over without bucking or losing control.
As usual the 30cm was a very big class with all the little kids and school ponies trotting around the course, but it was too adorable to watch to be boring. Arwen and I hung out next to the arena waiting for our turn – I wasn’t too worried that she was going to cool off; she could literally trot around the course without even jumping. It was a small and undemanding course; 8 jumps, only very tiny oxers and no combination. The jumps were not brightly painted either, with minimal filler. Just what we needed to build her confidence.
Our turn arrived and I took a deep breath and pretended we were still in the warmup, since this class was pretty much just a warmup. I decided to bring her into the course in a trot. If she then felt like cantering, she could; I’d let her decide on the speed of our approach. We trotted into the first jump and it was pretty small so I gave her a bit of a kick to make sure she took it seriously; she looked, jumped, and went on. We started cantering around the third jump, which was on the end of a long straight line (she loves those) and finished the course in a brisk, relaxed canter with not a single misstep. She didn’t even look at the numerous Scary Things, drift, or buck. It was an awesome start to our day. Plus we got a really pretty purple ribbon out of it.
Under the Mutterer’s guidance we parked next to a horse-walker with our haynet, loosened the girth and let her rest; Arwen put her face in her haynet and was as happy as a bird. Towards the end of Class 2 I got on and we had a fifteen-minute canter and jump, then let her rest again until Class 3 ended and I warmed her up for our 55cm. Again, she was relaxed, forward, and alert in the warmup, and jumped everything well. Including the side of the ring. Which was awkward, but I jumped her back in quickly and hopefully not too many people noticed. (Apart from the Mutterer, who was unimpressed).
The 55cm class was over an uncomplicated 8-jump track with only two slightly tricky serpentine turns in it. This was the first competition round, so I quite dearly wanted to make it into the jump-off if we could. Still, I kept up my trotting-the-first-jumps strategy and did my best to keep her relaxed.
We ended up trotting the first jump and then cantering the next four; on the sharp turn to jump six we found ourselves trapped between the fence, a jump, and a kid on a pony, who was next to go. I applied the brakes sharply and Arwen, being a barrel racer, skidded to a near halt, dodged the pony, trotted to jump six and jumped just fine, already having forgotten the little incident. We charged on to jump seven and she had a good look at it but I committed, kicked her on and over we went. She thundered at the last jump and flung herself over it with great gusto to give a clear, if slightly ungraceful, round. We were into the jump-off.
The jump-off was over more or less the same course, just with the first and last few jumps omitted. I brought her in at a trot, but pushed her to a hand-gallop after the second jump and took the turn into jump three ways too tight. Arwen looked for a jump, found only a wing, and ran out in a panic; I cursed my silly mistake but kept my head, cantered her in a little circle and this time aimed her at the jump, not the side of the jump. She gave a little snort of relief and popped over and we finished the course with far the best time, but four penalties for the run-out. We went unplaced. Lesson learned.
Again, we let her chill and eat hay for the next class, gave her a little ride midway through our wait, and then warmed up for the 70cm. I was getting a bit nervous; the jumps didn’t look big, but it was still bigger than we’ve jumped clear at a show so far. Arwen pretty much pricked up her ears at the bigger obstacles and had this attitude of “Finally! Real jumps!” I was more or less holding her back as she attacked the warmup jumps. She thought about having a little buck after the jumps, but I didn’t put up with it, and we set off for the show ring in a cautiously optimistic (me) and eagerly excited (Arwen) frame of mind.
This time there was a bit more competition; some of the more advanced kids on schoolies who by now could do the course in their sleep, and some very beautiful, talented young horses obviously practicing for the bigger heights. My goal being to not get disqualified, I wasn’t too worried about them. There were a few parallel oxers now, none as wide as they were tall, and quite nonthreatening.
We trotted the first jump and she popped over it without looking at it, and my nervousness levels vanished. I quit worrying about the course or the next jump and just rode her to the jump that was in front of me in a relaxed, forward canter. She was loving it. As we cleared jump four and headed down the long line to jump five she started to gallop a little but I’ve jumped her out of a gallop enough times to not be worried, so I trusted the turn to jump six to slow us down and let her go at her own pace. She again had a look at jump seven but put in an extra stride instead of stopping and then floored it to jump eight with me staying soft and just steering. We thundered over the finish with Arwen being showered with pats and me grinning all over my face.
Our awesome clear round put us easily through to the jump-off. As the Mutterer reminded me, I was not going to worry about speed, not going to worry about turns and just think about going clear. The only thing I did differently was to shorten one long turn, which I was confident she could do easily, and brought her to the first jump in a canter instead of a trot. By now, she was having fun, not yet tired, and not frightened of the course at all, so she just hand-galloped around it and enjoyed herself; I steered, kicked her to the jumps whenever she felt a little looky, and enjoyed myself too. We cantered over the finish in a time that was brisk enough to earn us our first jumping ribbon. We were third, just behind two school ponies and their great little riders.
This ended the day on a really good note. We unsaddled Arwen, took two minutes to put her back in the box with the Mutterer giving her a bit of a push and me at her head, and set off for home with a tired rider and a relaxed horse. She hardly sweated on the road and trotted off into her paddock when we got home with no signs of exhaustion. It was a fantastic day, and I thank God for making it possible and wonderful and fun. All glory goes to Him; He knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t, and He cares enough to give us our heart’s desires.
One thing I learned was not to worry about future goals or bigger heights or even the next jump in the course. She jumped best when I rode each jump as it came to me. And I suppose that’s something worth learning – to ride in the moment. Now is the only time we can do anything.
After the jumping, we had about three hours’ break until the dressage, so I unsaddled Arwen and took her back down to the box. I’ve heard that horses load more easily when they see the box as a sanctuary of rest and food, so (with about five minutes’ persuading) I put Arwen back inside and tied her up with a haynet. She only relaxed for about half an hour before she started to neigh, stamp around, paw the ground and throw her head up. I didn’t want her to split her skull on the top of the box, so I calmed her down and then took her back out.
Eventually, while I was trying to get her to graze instead of stand there neighing, it clicked: she didn’t want to be alone. While the other horses at the show were still in sight, they were quite far away. I led her back up to a quiet, grassy spot beside the warmup ring and she instantly settled down and started to eat.
Before long it was time to get ready for the dressage and as the pony riders started their tests, my sister and I quickly plaited Arwen’s mane and tail, slapped a quarter marker on her rump and applied shine spray to horse and rider. Prettied up, we set off to warm up.
The pony riders were riding their tests in the 20x40m sand arena we had used to warm up for the jumping, so we prelim riders warmed up in the big arena where the jumping had been held. We were also going to ride our tests in that arena, which was nice because I could make sure my horse was chilled in it before the test. I know it won’t happen that way at graded shows, but it was nice to have it like that for our first dressage test ever. Arwen was by now very calm and the arena was quiet. I let her walk around until she’d quit staring at the markers and then started our warmup.
We must have looked ridiculous. Everybody else was being very sensible and doing simple things so as not to overload their horses’ minds. On the other hand, I know that the best way to get Arwen calm, focused, relaxed, and light in my hands is lateral work. Lots of lateral work. The more complicated, the better. So while everyone else trotted around and free walked, Arwen and I were doing shoulder-ins and big leg-yields and walk pirouettes and turns on the forehand until we were both ready for anything. We even tried a couple of steps of canter leg-yield, which really got both our heads in the game.
Arwen felt fabulous. She was awesomely relaxed; a little heavy on the forehand, as usual, but there was no resistance in her. Her head was bent obediently to my hands and she was moving forward with a lovely, supple swing through her entire back. She felt like she feels on a really good day at home, perhaps a bit better because the arena and footing were better. I was able to chill out, not worry about the test, and just sit there enjoying my horse and playing around. All that went wrong in the initial warmup was that she kept halting with her legs all in a mess instead of nice and square, but we eventually came to an agreement: she would halt in a mess, I would immediately ask for one step of rein back, and she would square up perfectly. Not ideal, but not too much of a problem either.
The pony riders finished and we were sent down to the small arena again to continue our warmup while the judge set up next to the big arena. I paused to grab some water and tighten my girth before heading down to the small arena, in time to see a stunning big chestnut coming out of the gate backwards with his back hunched and his tail, adorned with a red ribbon, flicking ominously. Arwen hasn’t kicked anybody for almost a year, but I still don’t quite trust her not to rise to a threat. I hurriedly turned her away and it all went pear-shaped. Whether the chestnut saw her turn around and lashed out, or she didn’t want to be bullied, I don’t know. The next minute they were having a mighty kicking match with Arwen bouncing with the force of her trademark double-hoofed kicks. I planted my hands in her mane and gave her both spurs, hard, in the flanks. I was tempted to turn her and so get her bottom out of the fight, but that’s usually a recipe for getting kicked. Luckily, the spurring worked and Arwen jumped forward, effectively ending the fight. She then gave a big sigh and pretended nothing had happened.
I immediately jumped off to see if there was any human blood; praise the Lord, the other rider had been sensible and not turned her horse either, and a bystander about two feet from the match was unharmed (if somewhat ashen). The chestnut horse had a superficial graze somewhere near his tail root (how Arwen managed to kick him all the way up there, I’ll never know) and my stupid lucky mare was utterly unscathed.
Drama over, we warmed up for a few more minutes before returning to the big arena for the moment of truth. My poor sister, who was more nervous about reading the test than I was about riding it, took up her position at B. I watched the first horse and rider go through the test whilst stroking Arwen’s neck and whispering my favourite horse Bible verse to myself, which I often repeat in my head while I do dressage; it relaxes me and helps me to sit up, ride up to heaven and be proud.
Then it was time. I walked Arwen in brisk little figures of eight until the bell went, then trotted up to the judge’s stand, executed a perfect trot-halt (Arwen is THE BEST at those) and introduced myself. The judge smiled and nodded, and I trotted Arwen smartly off from M to A to begin my test with Job 39:19 in my head.
“Hast thou given the horse his strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?”
We started the centre line from A to C already going forward in a beautiful quiet trot. Arwen was in a lovely frame of mind. Each stride drove forward from her hindlegs, through her swinging supple back and powerfully but controllably into my guiding hands. She looked at C, I looked at C, and we were forward, confident and as straight as we ever get.
So began our test, and it remained consistent and felt awesome. We were very, very accurate; our circles were as close to 20m as I could get them, and Arwen was perfectly obedient, going exactly where I wanted to. In the trot she didn’t change her rhythm one iota. Her small size was an advantage as we could go straight into our corners without compromising on bend or rhythm, and I was one of the few riders who rode the test sitting; rising may well have better, but Arwen’s smooth rhythmic stride means that I can ride sitting and look as pro as I ever do.
There were only two moments that felt off. The first was our 20m half circle B to E with a canter transition after X. Where, somehow, my horse, my reader and I all simultaneously messed up. My sister lost her place in my test and told me to change rein to V; I knew I was supposed to make a half circle to E, but lost concentration; Arwen decided that, despite having practiced this movement over and over, she was supposed to change rein to F, and the end result was the messiest canter transition I have ever seen with Arwen flailing off to the right and me flailing off to the left. Thankfully, we only had one messy canter stride before I got my act together, pointed her left and asked for a trot. Arwen had a little light bulb moment, took one trot step to sort her legs out and then changed smoothly into canter left. We were going in a nice rhythmic canter on the correct lead by E, but it was still nothing to be proud of.
Oh well. Such is dressage; you can mess up one movement but still get good scores on the rest. I pushed it out of my mind, sat up straight and held her in a decent working canter with her trademark rhythm ticking over as smoothly as a waltz. She stuck her nose out a little, but was very straight and very rhythmic.
I was also worried about our walk transition at C and hence was not very subtle about it at all, and Arwen (whom we remember is THE BEST at trot-halts) just about sat on her bottom before I was all “Oh shucks!” and wrapped my legs around her. Arwen thought I was the dumbest human in the history of the world, but went straight on into medium walk without a fuss and without halting. Pony bailed my butt out of trouble again.
The best moment in our test was the free walk on the diagonal, my favourite prelim movement. Oh, silly little free walk which nobody really cares about. Well, Arwen is totally pro at it. I loosened up my back muscles, stretched my hands forward and let her take the reins. She put her face on the floor and strode forward with a fantastic stretchy stride, turning onto the diagonal to F without me having to touch her mouth. She didn’t miss a beat of rhythm or lose a speck of impulsion in the transition back to medium walk, either.
Our second canter transition was better with a correct strike-off, but she lost her rhythm a bit in the actual canter, earning us our lowest mark for the test – a 5. The dreaded halt was, in fact, completely fine. I lost accuracy whilst looking for I, but we were at least on the centre line. She stopped without throwing up her head but there was the slightest unevenness in her hind legs; I closed my fingers around the reins, she took a step back and stood square, and I ripped off a smart salute. I was unbearably proud of my little grey horse.
To put the cherry on top, by the end of a class dominated by big warmblood types and Friesians, it was Arwen Evenstar the wonderful little Nooitgedachter who won it. It was a wonderful surprise – watching the rest of the class, I had hoped for a place, but was certain that the Friesian in second had beaten us. He was very experienced and rode a stunning test, but Arwen was perhaps a tad more accurate. Arwen totally redeemed herself in the dressage and completely made my day by winning her first ribbon ever. Our score at 61.3% was made up mostly of sixes, with the five and five-and-a-half for our canters. I’ll be honest, I’d hoped for a seven or two, but it was still not bad for a first go.
Then suddenly it was all over and we were bundling Arwen back into the box for the long drive home. She was much too tired to be worried and stood there eating hay; in fact, she hadn’t even sweated a drop when we got home. It was pitch dark at 7pm by the time we unloaded and I took her back to the paddock. She ignored her friends, who were screaming their wonder that she had apparently returned from the dead, and ate grass while I pulled off her travelling stuff and undid her plaits. Then off into the paddock with Arwen and off to bed with her very tired, very proud rider.
All glory be to the King of Kings, Who made this all possible. The God Who made horses and humans and designed a world where a massive animal and a human being can unite, can love, can dance. A world where this great marvel is part of everyday life; a world of everyday miracles. My King, my strength, my Saviour, my Creator – He is the One Who makes everything possible, a God so big that the Olympics are tiny to Him, and yet a God so loving that a training show is worth consideration to Him.
Our day started at 6am in the crystal twilight before winter’s dawn. Actually, it started at four because I woke up and was too nervously excited to sleep, so I cuddled my dog until 5:30 and then stumbled out to load the car and fetch my horse. And it wasn’t crystal twilight. It was pitch dark and freaking cold. Sometimes, poetry just fails. I tried, okay?
Arwie was dead easy to catch, albeit a little shocked at the hour, and she didn’t have so much as a speck of dust on her at all (for which miracle I uttered a little prayer of thanks). She soon got over her sleepiness when she was presented with breakfast, which she gobbled with every sign of enjoyment while the other horses stared at her being jealous and nickering accusingly every time they caught my eye. Poor babies.
I dusted her off, combed a few bits of hay out of her tail and put on her travelling kit before marching her up to the box with her haynet and grooming kit. After getting over a very daft spook at her back boots (in her defence, she’s only used to back bandages), she was perfect, walking along at my shoulder with her ears up, alert but relaxed. The box was ready with ramp down and all, so I walked her in circles beside it until she’d stopped blowing at this random big white thing. Then I approached the ramp. She walked up to it and stopped. I walked up to the top and tried to persuade her in, but she danced at the foot of it and said it was too scary, so I stepped down beside her, stood at her shoulder and encouraged her to step forward next to me. She hesitated for about one millisecond and then walked right up.
Arwen is usually okay to load but needs a lunge rein put around her bum, so I was very pleased, and my dad was very displeased when he saw me backing her straight back down the ramp (she backs up like a lady, by the way, nice and slow and dead straight). Luckily, I made a circle and walked towards it and she again went straight up, no worries. Obviously travelling can’t be that bad if she boxes better every time.
She started shivering a little as we put up the ramp and tied the breeching strap, but I fed her carrots and she started to pick at her hay. Without further ado, we set off.
We stopped about half an hour down the road and I checked on her again; she was a little sweaty and wasn’t eating, but she’d stopped shivering and was standing calmly and looking out of the window. Last time she’d been dripping with sweat by this stage, so I was happy with her.
We arrived at the venue very late. I’m ashamed to admit that I got mixed up with the starting times and thought my class started after 9:30; we got there at 8:30 to find that the 30cm was on the go and I was riding in the 50. And the classes were by no means huge. Arwen unloaded like a lady and was very calm. I walked her around a little and let her graze; she was slightly sweaty on her neck, but dried within a few minutes. Last time her day sheet had been sodden when we arrived, so there’s a definite improvement.
As soon as Arwie was settled and we’d spied out the lay of the land, my family and I bustled to get her tack and my jodhs on and we set off for the warm-up ring. It was a 20 x 40m dressage arena without fencing and with about three people already in it, so I said a prayer that she wouldn’t kick anyone and had to be very wide awake. It was actually perfectly fine; the footing was a bit wet, which Arwen hated, but she soon got used to it (after shying at the scary dressage markers. Insert eyeroll here). She didn’t pull on my hands or whinny, but offered a few little bucks at the canter, which is normal for her in a warmup.
To my dismay, our happy little warmup was then abruptly cut off by an arena hog. This was the first time I’d come across one, and I dearly hope I never have to meet another. A big lady on a big warmblood entered the tiny arena and started to canter around as if there weren’t four people already in it, with very little consideration for other riders. She hogged the track and ignored the left shoulder rule (despite the kids on ponies trotting around), with her instructor parked solidly in front of one of the warmup jumps. I was going around peacefully on the outside and she approached from in front; the left shoulder rule indicated that she should go on the inside. We were both in a canter, but I saw that her horse, though large and young, would comfortable be able to make the turn on the inside so I stuck to the track. So did she. So did I, not being in the mood to be bullied; Arwen pinned her ears flat and told the other horse in no uncertain terms that he was going to get a very big kick if he decided to play chicken with her. The big horse, most sensibly, veered off to the inside, clearing us by about six inches, and I had to give Arwen a sharp tap alongside the flank to stop her from making good on her threat.
Drama aside, Arwen warmed up fine, didn’t hesitate at a single jump (but threw a few bucks after them). We headed off for the 50cm and had a great time watching all the little kids and ponies zip around. Then it was our turn. Arwen was nervous from the get-go and, I’ll admit, my head was definitely not in the game. She pretty much stopped at the first jump, but I gave her a kick and she popped over. Second jump was fine, then the sharp turn to the combination, then the fourth and fifth and sixth verticals without any trouble. The seventh vertical was an ominous-looking red object with what seemed like about a thousand poles and Arwen again had a nearly-stop which I kicked her through. She jumped the rusting number eight with an almost audible sigh of relief, was fine over jump nine and we gambled on a very close corner to jump ten – nobody else took it quite so tight, but I have faith in my ex-barrel-racer and she was perfect. Jump ten was a scary blue plank thing, and she was very looky, but okay. It was a quick but messy round, but good enough to get us into the jump-off.
I don’t really know what was going wrong, in all honesty. She was spooky of the coloured poles, but she hadn’t been at her previous show. I wasn’t mentally where I should have been; my head was somewhere else entirely and maybe the rushed warmup had rattled us both, too. Whatever it was, I was riding like a chop and she was dead calm in the warmup and dead spooky in the show ring. We galloped into the warmup much too fast, scrambled over the first jump, ran out at the second (to the left! she drifts right… what on Earth?!), almost ran out at the third but made it by the skin of our teeth, and then jumped the last few jumps perfectly. We could have won easily if we hadn’t had the run-out; she was lightning fast, and we took some close corners, as usual.
The next class was the 80cm and I went into the warmup with those two run-outs in the back of my head. I had watched the 60cm and it had looked enormous, despite the fact that Arwen and I have been okay over almost twice that height at home. (Why is it that jumps always look a hundred times bigger at the shows?) There were only two riders in the 80cm, and I had the warmup ring all to myself, which was a wonderful pleasure. I put up the warmup jump to about 90cm and she jumped with no hesitation at all. In fact, she felt better than she’d felt warming up for the 50. “Finally! We mean business now!” I dared to hope, rode better, and she was fantastic.
But when we got back up to the show ring to wait in line (where her muscles cooled off again… sighs) the jumps looked HUGE. Like, 1.50m+ huge. It was stupid. When I walked the course I measured them against myself just to make sure they really were 80cm, which of course they were, but they still looked massive with about a mountain’s worth of filler. Which, of course, they didn’t really, but nerves do funny things to a person.
The rider before us had a messy but gutsy round on a young horse, earning him a few penalties, but I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and poor Arwen must have felt it. I was half on a different planet and half scared, so it was hardly any surprise when she had two stops at the first jump and another stop at the second for a disqualification. We jumped the second jump again on the way out (yay for training shows) and she was okay. I just shrugged and hoped for better luck next time. It was a bummer, and I can’t really think of anything specific that we got wrong. The course could have been a bit high for our second show, but she was jumping way bigger at home and had jumped very confidently at her last show – the run-out at the 50cm was very unlike her. Maybe the filler rattled her and we need to practice scarier jumps – but I’d recently added some new filler to jumps at home and she hadn’t even thought about stopping at a 1.10m scary jump. I guess it was just one of those days. They happen in horse riding, and you just learn to get over them and try again.
She was sound and sane and didn’t seem to have anything at all wrong with her, so I had no intentions at all of scratching from the dressage. In fact, she was getting into her usual Arwen show mood – focused and relaxed. I dared to hope that we might redeem ourselves.
Preparing Arwen started on the Monday, six days before the show. With the help of my sister, who is a lot better at hair than I am, I experimented with Arwen’s mane. She rubbed out about a foot of the middle, leaving a highly unattractive Mohawk between two hairy tufts.
While Thunder is a big drafty type and looks good hogged, Arwen is a Nooitgedachter – in other words, she’s supposed to have long, straight, flowing mane like a unicorn. Ha! Apparently, she had other ideas. We eventually settled on plaiting it in buttons and trying to squash the Mohawk into tiny knobs as best as we could. It looked pretty dreadful, but not quite as dreadful as the tufts.
After that I went through all my equipment to make sure it was safe, legal and at least not too scruffy. With Rain calling my dressage test (and, lacking markers, a hastily memorised dressage arena map in my head) Arwie and I rode through the test. She was pretty good; obedient with nice transitions (apart from one sticky canter transition in the middle of a half-circle from B to E), but not outstanding. I thought we would probably survive the test without getting a 0 for anything, but didn’t have high expectations.
Tuesday turned out to be rather too rushed to ride Arwen at all; I had a very long day at the stables, but did manage to ride my test a few times from memory on Reed (who rides a killer preliminary test by the way). Arwen spent the day eating grass, and I started to think I wouldn’t need a caller after all. In fact I knew the test by heart and rode it in my head several times a day, but I was terrified that I would enter at A and instantly forget the rest.
Wednesday was our lesson. I rode her without any training aids at all the whole week, because I wanted to know what to expect on Sunday. She was a little better than on Monday, still a bit rushy and unbalanced in the canter and rather heavy on my hands. The Mutterer was mostly concerned with making sure I didn’t burn her out before the show, so we just did some low-pressure flatwork and popped around a 50cm course. She was a little off her rhythm and knocked down one pole, but jumped very willingly with no hesitation.
We had the most amazing session on Thursday. We started by warming up with tons of lateral work, which got her really nice and light on my aids; she was so nice that I decided to play with her a bit and as we came around the corner to H in a working canter I opened my inside rein, pressed my outside spur against her side and asked for a leg-yield, expecting two or three steps or a yield to the quarter line if I was lucky. I was instantly rewarded by a forward, bouncy, willing leg-yield that felt so effortless I let her go all the way to F. It was awesome. That was just the kind of frame of mind she was in, which was too lovely for words. Even her canter was rhythmic, steady, light in my hands.
We jumped around the 80cm course, which I had viewed with some trepidation; in light of the approaching show, it suddenly looked about the size of the Berlin Wall. It’s ridiculous, of course, she pops around 1.00m without any trouble, but shows do funny things to the nerves. She was fantastic and jumped foot perfectly, not a single pole down, drifted a bit to the right but overall she was extremely willing and rhythmic. We jumped our 7-effort course three times without any issues at all and rounded off the session by riding the best test she’d ever given me, excepting a somewhat runny halt at the end. I was on cloud nine. If only she would be as good at the show as she was on Thursday, we would do awesome.
I was tempted to give her Friday off, mindful of not letting her burn out and eager to keep our confidence levels up for the show after our great session the day before, but in the end I lunged her for 20 minutes or so. Arwen is just always much better to ride when she’s had a lot of consistent work. She was her usual impeccable self for lunging.
Saturday was Arwen’s spa day. I was running around like a chicken without a head, trying to rescue my numnahs and things from the washing line, clean all my stuff and prevent her from rolling after her lengthy bath. Arwen was, as usual, very easy to wash apart from her face (which she really hates to have cleaned). I used Trident’s Glistening shampoo (which, despite my sister’s warnings, did not turn my horse purple) and scrubbed her body and hooves well. I only shampooed the mane lightly because I wanted to plait it, but I went a bit crazy on her tail. Arwen has the most wonderful tail ever, and once it’s been washed, thoroughly conditioned and carefully combed out it becomes a wavy cascade of silky wonderfulness. She spent the afternoon grazing in the garden because of the lack of dirt to roll in. I had heard all the dire warnings that grey horses will always roll directly after a bath or the night before the show. Arwen became my heroine that evening because she didn’t even think of rolling, went happily back to her paddock, and judging by the lack of grassy bits on her coat on Sunday morning, she didn’t even lie down in a dirty spot for the night.
I intended to have an early night on Saturday, but nervous excitement kept me awake reading an outdated Manual of Horsemanship until 9:30. It was only a training show, but it felt like it would be a very big day tomorrow.