I’ve been following Tamarack Hill Farm’s page for a while now, avidly gathering the abundant pearls of wisdom that Olympic horseman Denny Emerson has been so freely dispersing to the masses. His new book Know Better Do Better is definitely on my wishlist, but I’m not here to rave on the words of the oracle today.
Instead, I find myself in the midst of what Emerson describes over and over on his page, with photographical evidence: the power of unexciting progress.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than I wanted success. I worked so hard – riding multiple horses a day every single day since I was in my preteens. Drilling myself every single day. I had the golden opportunity of free access to horses, and I absolutely took it. They were the front and centre of my life. They were practically my identity, and as I grew up into a young adult, I only knew how to push harder. Faster. I wanted more, quicker, and I wanted success – now. Nothing was too high a price to pay for progress on a horse: not other areas of my life, not money, not time, not my mental health, and God forgive me, not even that horse’s state of mind.
These days, though, through a long path of frustrating steadying, God has led me to another place. A place where not every ride has to show improvement. A place where I just plain slow down. No more riding 12 horses a day, no more frantically chasing the next level, no more competing every single horse in every single show regardless of whether they (or I) were ready for it.
There was no time then for anything but hurry and anxiety, and I remember only the wins as good times. But these days, I move a little bit slower. I ride 5 or 6 a day instead of 12. I got a day job to take some of the unrelenting pressure off the riding. I put the goals in the backseat, tucked the future up in bed, breathed deep and slow and tried to see every day the way a horse does: one moment at a time.
I didn’t set goals for 2019. This was by design. I don’t want them right now; I want to give up all of that desperation to chase the next horizon in favour of slowing down my brain and making room for compassion, learning, and understanding.
I took a hiatus from showing – and even from Thunder – early in 2019. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a good thing, because I learned what it was that called me to horses in the first place. It wasn’t the shows. It was Him: the voice of God, whispering in the quiet moments when horse and human move spine to spine, breath to breath.
It took a journey of years, but I think I’m finally getting there. Getting to the place where I can crush the aching noise of pressure and the fear of what others will think, in favour of listening to the souls of horses. That’s what I’m here for, after all.
I was sixteen when I came down centreline for the first time and I didn’t even know how to get my horse on the bit. I had taught myself the diagonals the week before from an article on the Internet. I had no instruction and no knowledgeable support for the next five years. My family made it possible for me to keep riding, though, and I did. One ride, one article, one blog post, one Youtube video at a time I trained my own horse without lessons to Elementary. I taught dressage to myself on a hillside by God’s gracious provision, and I have nothing to prove anymore. I know I have it in me to be brilliant because God put it there. I can be an outstanding rider, and maybe I will be one day. But it’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, it might not happen in 5 years or 10 years or even 15 years or even ever if I break my neck tomorrow. And I’m not going to do this by myself: it’s going to take support and it’s going to take lessons from the coach who’s changed my riding.
I don’t know for sure if I ever will enter at A, collected canter. But I do know that I have this ride, this breath, this moment. I have this transition. I have this stride. And God put me here, in this moment, to be with Him.
I can’t say for sure I’ll be a Grand Prix rider in 10 years, but I can be a kind rider right now. The road to the FEI tests is a long one, and it starts with lungeing. It starts with trotting large, trying to get my hands under control. It starts with inside leg to outside rein. It continues with practice, constant patient daily practice, and I can find the greatness in practicing when every ride breathes life into the soul of a horse.
Grand Prix horses aren’t built in a year. Elementary horses aren’t even built in a year. They’re built in hundreds of thousands of slow rides, and lessons, and training shows. They’re built in the tedium of unexciting progress, progress so slow as to be nearly invisible, until five years later you have a different horse. And that slowness would be unbearable, if every moment wasn’t filled with the awareness of that beautiful thing God made between a person and a horse.
I think I am only now starting to see what it really means when I say, “Glory to the King.”
Last Saturday morning at early o’ clock saw us boxing Vastrap and Liana in the dark. Good little VT strolled right in; Liana had never seen a two-berth before and needed a rope around her bum, but we got her in with minimal drama and headed off to beautiful KEP.
We arrived with enough time to spare before the jumping class to plait VT, to his kid’s delight. This kid absolutely loves to be well turned out and is forever badgering me to plait her pony for jumping, but I’m afraid on a SANESA day when I have like five to plait and a million classes to get to, it never happens.
The neatly turned out Vastrap and contented kid headed off to warm up in a glow of excitement and I pretty much stayed out of their way and chewed my nails watching them navigate a really chaotic warmup. Vastrap was being an absolute little professional as usual, but so much more relaxed than normal. His kid has been so good for him – I’ve never seen him in such a positive emotional space at a show. He was just cruising.
There were 39 horses in their 60cm speed class and the competition, as usual for finals, was enormously strong. Coming from Sedibeng qualifiers to Finals is always a bit of a culture shock; Morning Star is probably one of the medium to stronger yards at qualifiers, but then we get to Finals and find ourselves competing against the cream of the abundant crop from Kyalami and Pretoria, deep horse country.
Still, Vastrap strolled into that class ready for anything. We’d walked a tricky little track, cutting a lot of turns and taking a couple of risks, but VT and his kid absolutely smashed it. They nailed turns that were making good ponies stop, giving a clear round in a solid time for 14th place. I was so proud of them both. The placing left them just out of the team for Nationals, but I was still very happy with their performance.
We sat around for a long time then, waiting for something to happen, and then – as usual – it all started to happen at once. Liana and VT had to be hustled off to their classes almost simultaneously while I frantically tried to finish Liana’s plaits for prix caprilli and keep everyone calm (not least my panicking self).
VT and his kid made the first round of their competition look easy, skipping around clear without any difficulty. I just had time to watch and cheer before bolting down to the dressage arenas to find Liana nowhere in sight ten minutes before her ride time. After some frantic running about, Liana was located and shunted into the warmup, times were sorted out, and we managed to get a time ten minutes later – to my great relief. Ana, at least, was being relaxed and well behaved. Her kid had completely forgotten how to ride figures of any description (a first Finals will do that to you) but we used those ten minutes to re-learn them all and by the time we were called, everyone had settled.
The two of them proceeded to ride a solid, obedient test. Liana’s bend and connection were a bit all over the place, and there were a couple of inaccuracies, but Liana’s kid kept a lid on a very hot pony and stood up well to the pressure of Finals. They missed out on the placings, but for me it was a resounding end to a SANESA season that had not started well, and I was proud of them both.
Then it was time to sprint back up to the jumping, just in time for VT’s jump-off. His kid actually had to wake him up a bit to get him forward, and in they went, planning to ride another twisty track. In the end I had told them to cut a turn where I think, in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I should have had them go round and gallop a bit. But I’m always a bit chicken of letting kids go too fast. So off they went, VT jumping like a little superstar and his child doing everything I said and they were quick and clear.
It was not quite good enough for Nationals, landing them in 15th place, but it absolutely was good enough for me. This pony used to gallop inverted at fences and panic through all of his courses, taking poles as he went, and now he just toddles around in a rhythm with soft eyes and happy ears. Nationals or no, that counts for something.
I tell the kids that only two opinions matter: your horse’s and God’s. And I know for a fact that both of those have very high opinions of these two kids.
With AHS vaccination season – and hence a required six-week rest period – around the corner, I entered Arwen in one more show to cram in some cross-country practice before our rest and subsequent return to graded eventing.
It was eerily peaceful to only have one horse to dress up, load and show; I got up at the luxurious hour of 5:40 (albeit waking at 4:15), she loaded fine with a line around her butt, and we were early for our first class. I got to hack her around on a loose rein and warm up nice and slow. She responded by not producing any bucks, just one enormous exaggerated spook at a hole in a hedge (the hedge was fine; the hole was a monster).
We wrapped up a gentle walk, trot and canter warmup by opening up into a cross-country gallop down the long side of the arena, then sitting down, collecting strongly and making a 10m circle to check for brakes and adjustability. She was super, so we popped over each jump once and trotted off to our class.
I’d entered 60cm and 70cm, and when I walked the course, I was having second thoughts. The 60cm course started with three inviting little showjumps that we had jumped on August 9th’s training show. Then things started to get a bit complicated. There was a brush fence, which Arwen loves but never ever brushes; then a very tight turn to a narrow fence made of imposing black barrels (and Arwen habitually drifts). Straight after the narrow fence was two banks down, first a little one and then a slightly bigger one. Not enormous, but still a bank down. Quite a long gallop then to a large colourful house in the shade. Then a tight turn to a showjump, an enormous steep bank (Derby bank type that you gallop up instead of jumping up) and woe is us, a skinny. A proper one, and a very skinny one. The last three fences were even worse; a scary vertical made of tyres, a St. Andrew’s cross (which neither of us had ever even seen before), and a corner (ditto).
I put a prayer in my pocket and let Arwen look at the house, whereupon she promptly tried to eat the plant that was acting as a wing, before the bell rang and off we went. She merrily ran away with me towards the start, although I still had steering so I decided to diplomatically ignore the lack of brakes, and attacked the three showjumps fearlessly. The brush rushed up on us awfully soon and she jumped hugely and without a trace of hesitation. We got into a spot of difficulty approaching the black barrels; she wriggled all over the place and considered running out, but thought better of it and jumped cleanly.
The banks were quite funny. I clapped my spurs into her because I expected hesitation; Arwen was considering no such thing and took a flying leap off the bigger bank, launching me onto her neck. Luckily for her daft rider, Arwen threw her head up on landing and tossed me neatly back into the saddle. She was very looky at the house but with lots of encouragement she popped over. When we came over the vertical, she was ready to go kill something, and charged up the bank and towards the skinny at a terrifying speed. Once again, a huge wriggle at the skinny, possibly due to going too fast, but I clamped my hands and reins down and made it clear that the only way were going was over. So we went over.
We both gawped at the St. Andrew’s cross; I gawped at the sides because they looked enormous, and she gawped at the middle because it was a hay bale. We reached a compromise and jumped slightly to one side of the bale. The tyres were no problem and then we were galloping downhill at the corner. I was shouting “IT’S NOT AN OXER ARWEN” and Arwen was shouting “BOXES THERE ARE TERRIFYING BOXES” and unfortunately the boxes were under the narrow end. We reached the wide end, and I planted my hands in the mane, certain she would stop. Arwen snorted that she would do no such thing and leapt over the wide end without any apparent effort. I nearly strangled her with hugging as we walked out of the arena.
That landed us in the jump-off, which was over the first four jumps and the last three jumps. We floored it, Arwen jumped kind of in the middle of the corner, and we came second in good company.
The course grew somewhat for the 70cm; now it included a tight turn after the corner, leading to a bank up and a vertical with a big filler in it. The distance from the bank to the vertical walked for a short two strides, so I knew Arwen was going to make an easy three. I was starting to detest the corner, which brought multiple horses and riders to grief that day, including the only fall I saw.
Arwen came into the show arena blowing smoke and looking for something to attack, so I pointed her at the jumps. She charged onwards, now scared of absolutely nothing. She even jumped the St. Andrew’s cross rather perfectly. We survived the corner and then I rode Arwen straight at what she considered the arena wall. She snorted in shock and wriggled madly, but I kicked on, so she scrambled up the bank and over the vertical without further protest. This time we took the down banks in a rather more ladylike manner and even trotted at the top of the big bank, leading to a rather nicer pop over the skinny.
Once again we landed up in the jump-off. I knew we could either go quick or we could go clear; the course was technical and spooky, challenging for Arwen’s level, so if I was going to gun it and cut the corners we were going to have a stop. I opted to take our gallop up a notch, but to keep to wide easy lines. We jumped the widest end of the corner once again – which was by now tremendously wide; Arwen appeared to enjoy scaring the living daylights out of me – but this did mean that our landing spot set us up nicely for the tight turn towards the up bank. Having realised that this was actually a thing we jump, she jumped it unquestioningly and galloped through the finish. She didn’t stop at or knock down a single thing all day long, so going unplaced seemed totally irrelevant.
Sometimes I just can’t believe this mare. As one lady gushed as she stopped me to ask what breed my horse is, “She’s just so honest.” She has so much guts and she has so much try. “No” just isn’t in her vocabulary.
Thank You Jesus for this amazing brave little grey mare. Glory to the King who made horses and people and that wonderful, nameless thing that the equine heart does to the human soul.
It’s so easy to feel completely stuck in a rut with Magic. Easy to look at how far we have to go instead of how far we’ve already come. To see how much more he can physically do, instead of how much he’s emotionally grown.
But these two pictures really struck me. The top one is from November 2014, at his first ever show. The bottom one is from the show in late May.
Obviously, the thing that really jumps out at me is his neck, because I have a thing for horse necks. In both pictures he has engaged his neck muscle, but in the bottom one he just has so much more of it. The dude actually has kind of a crest. It’s also easy to see why; while he’s going in a nice outline in both shots, in the top photo, you can see how strong of a contact I still have. I’m holding him there. In the bottom photo he’s holding himself up – his self carriage and muscles have developed together. The more he carries himself, the more he muscles up; and the more he muscles up the more he can carry himself.
The second thing is the balance; okay, so he is at different moments of his stride in both shots, but in the bottom photo he’s so much lighter in front. It’s also evident in my position. I don’t know if my position picks up his front or if his light forehand rocks me back into balance, but it’s still better. (It does help that in the second photo I’m in my beloved Kent and Masters instead of the horrible ancient starter kit saddle I used in the first shot).
We both look stronger throughout our bodies; you can see how much condition and muscle Magic has put on by how much further down his barrel my leg is in the first picture compared to the second. (Let’s try not to think about the fact that Exavior is destined to be almost two hands taller than Magic, and about how stupid I am going to look on him considering I look like a kid on Magic).
I have to admit that, much as I may feel like we’re going nowhere, Magic is a different horse. Not just in his body, and not as much in his training as I would like him to be or as he would be with somebody who was better at training competition horses than breaking in crossbred veld ponies for kids, but he has changed for the better. He’s still quirky, daft Magic, but he no longer believes that the whole world is out to get him.
“I’ve had him two years. I’ve gotten nowhere,” I told the Mutterer.
“Of course you have. Just think about it. How has he improved?”
I thought for a while. “Well… he’s not as much of a weed. His neck looks better. He’s muscled up.”
This did not impress the Mutterer. “Let me tell you what I see. I see a really nervous horse that… is still nervous.”
I glared. “Great. Thanks.”
“But now, he can work through the nervousness. He can face his fears and carry on because you taught him how. That’s a huge thing, quite aside from his physical appearance.”
I said nothing, but I got the feeling that it was important. More important, perhaps, to Magic anyway, than the height of jumps.
Lord Jesus, let me never forget that I ride my horse, not my discipline.
Sunday the 24th dawned cold. There was one of those wispy, peachy sunrises that you only get in autumn, with a sky so pink it would be sickening if it wasn’t so pure and real and beautiful. The sun wasn’t up yet and I didn’t even want to know how cold it was. My fingers knew exactly how cold it was and needed a few minutes under Arwie’s blanket to thaw.
Arwen sniffed bemusedly at her own legs when I wrapped them up in her brand new travelling bandages, apparently unconcerned, but as soon as I bandaged her tail she knew something was up – and she liked it. She pawed unstoppably while I strapped on all her stuff and, once I finally let her out of her shelter, she charged for the horsebox snorting like a dragon and ready for anything. I flapped along behind like a tail on a kite. Loony beastie has definitely decided that outings are fun, anyway. She loaded okay with Dad and a lunge line behind her butt, and off we went. The drive, due to extreme mist over Nigel, didn’t go as planned and we whirled into the parking lot at President’s Park with only an hour before my class was due to start. In a mad panic, I only waited for the ‘rents to nail up the awesome wonderful portable paddock Dad made before stashing a very relaxed Arwie in it and charging off to walk the cross-country. (The paddock’s top strand is 1.80m high so she better not jump out of it or we’re moving up immediately).
Once I’d found my number and the startbox, I proceeded to walk the course at probably something close to the ideal speed of 420mpm and was still too late to walk the showjumping. At least xc didn’t look too bad; we had jumped almost everything before in lessons and the height wasn’t ridiculous. There were two white slanters, an ominous colourful house with a stuffed rat (mouse? kitten? I don’t even know) on top, flagged water, and a rather tricky little drop with a related distance to a shady log in a spooky corner. Apart from that, the 18-effort, 1740m course didn’t look too bad. I didn’t have too much time to worry because by the time I had Arwie saddled and walked up to the showjumping arena, I was desperate to watch some horses go because I hadn’t walked it. Arwen looked around like a seasoned old show horse and went to sleep.
Well, that didn’t last. When we reached the warmup, the ears went up and my daft little horse suddenly had her fireworks back. We bucked merrily during our first few canter transitions and after our first few jumps, but she felt wonderful. Joyously aiming kicks at any big horse in range, being prevented from landing them but taking pleasure in the thought anyway, Arwen charged around and jumped everything without really being asked. One thoroughbred nearly had his bottom autographed by Arwen’s feet when he decided to panic and zoom backwards towards us, but I was quick with my crop and prevented the disaster by a hairsbreadth.
Still, the showjumping course looked massive compared to the tame little fences in the warmup. Almost everything seemed to be at max height, 75cm. There were plenty of oxers and a rather dreadful big yellow combination. I stood beside Arwie in a quiet corner of the warmup and stared at it, hoping the fences might magically shrink if I stared hard enough.
Luckily, the Mutterer chose that moment to turn up, looking wonderfully calm amongst the other nasal-voiced, white-jodhpur’d, slightly panicky instructors.
“It’s huge!!!!” I bleated, gesticulating at the course.
“No it’s not, it’s tiny,” quoth the Mutterer. He patted Arwie’s neck. “She travel well?”
I launched into a recital of my horse’s amazingness, boosting my spirits immediately, probably exactly as the oracle planned. Then it was time to go; Mom was clutching Dad rather tightly, Dad looked unflapped, and the Mutterer most worryingly held my stirrup while I mounted, risking accidental decapitation. I wandered in and clung to my beast as she spooked at an old couple sitting by the rails, but she was mostly just full of fireworks and looking for something to do. The bell went, I prayed, “Not by power, nor by might but by Thy spirit, my King!” and we cantered through the start. I totally forgot to be nervous as Arwie’s donkey ears went up at the first fence. Target locked. It was an inviting vertical and she ate it up, and off we went galloping at number two only I had forgotten where it was and we nearly jumped number nine from the wrong side before I remembered and we floundered off and jumped it kind of sideways with my dear careful Arwie totally saving my bottom. Our little detour wasted some time, so I put my foot down and Arwen obliged by putting in probably her fastest round to date. She even tossed in her flying changes. The only hiccup was when I fluffed the tight right-hand turn to number ten, taking it miles too tight and presenting poor Arwen at the final oxer from the most ridiculous angle. She put up her knees and jumped it for me anyway, but just rolled the pole down with her back feet. The whole crowd groaned at my awfulness, as did I, but I couldn’t have been happier with that insane little mare. She didn’t even think of stopping.
The ‘rents were delighted; the Mutterer was, to all appearances, a stone pillar, but at least a patient one. Arwen got to relax in her personal paddock, sneering arrogantly at all the horses that had to graze on the end of lead reins, for half an hour. I ate chocolate and worried aloud about the drop, the water, the white slanters, and the stuffed rat/mouse/piece of course builder sadism. Then I worried about everything else because I always mess up at the innocuous jumps.
We only had an hour between showjumping and cross-country, and Arwen was rather too settled when we went up to the warmup. She was responsive and keen and jumping very carefully, but not the firebreathing creature she had been before Le Godimo’s xc. Still, it was hot and she’d just jumped a fast round, so it was only to be expected. Mom and Dad enjoyed watching the other horses go while the Mutterer was giving Mom a holiday from her usual job of reminding me to drink Coke and breathe. And then “Number twenty, on standby”, and we were in the startbox feeling that addictive adrenalin rush as the starter counted down and shouted “Go!” and I yelled “Go!” and clapped my heels into Arwen a bit over-enthusiastically. She blasted off and we thundered over the first log and onto the wide open course thrown out in front of us like a beckoning adventure. Number two was at the end of a long stretch. I planted my hands in the mane and Arwen accelerated, ears pricked up in excitement.
I love cross-country. The course is so big and open and alone, and out there it’s easy for the world to slip away until it’s just my amazing God, my beloved horse, and my somewhat squeaky self. And speed. Arwen had a wobble when we approached number two, but I kicked on and over she went. Number three went by with nothing but a mild spook at the terrifying jump judge and we ran at number four, which was on top of a hill next to a CIC** skinny about as tall as we were. Arwen shied violently at the skinny and we very nearly had a stop, but I clapped my legs on and fiercely shouted, “The Lord is my Shepherd!” and we sort of clambered over. Number five, a white slanter, was unexpectedly easy.
Arwen started to lose some steam as we galloped up and down the uneven terrain towards number six. Number six is a curved log set on a sharp downhill – a drop, really – and right in the spookiest corner of the Park. On one side is the main road, on the other is a wall, on the next is a tree and most inconveniently there was a bunch of judges hiding in a bush nearby. I flapped my arms and legs and Arwen sort of half-stopped and then plopped over. I was basically on her neck and clung on shouting “UP!” and trying to get back into the saddle, so it was a mercy she didn’t buck or do anything stupid, just saved my sorry butt over number seven and charged on.
There was a long open stretch through the trees to number eight and I urged her to a good clip, galloping along the wall through the shadows. Number eight was a sneaky little log in the shade and you had to make a sharp right-hand turn to get to it; she was a bit startled when it jumped out of the bush at her, but jumped and galloped straight on to number nine, a straw bale oxer. She was simply horrified by the sight of this object, but she jumped for me anyway and now she really started to carry me forward and eat up the ground. We jumped number ten right out of our stride and then started on the loooong gallop to number eleven. I had no idea if we’d collected penalties for number six or what our time was, but I was determined to finish well, and so it seemed was Arwen. She stretched out her little legs and flew. Number eleven she took confidently, then came number twelve, a log over some rocks. It had caused problems for many of the other riders and horses, but Arwen just slowed down, had a look and popped over. Number thirteen, a rail over a little natural ditch, didn’t give us a moment’s pause and on we went. Number fourteen, a burnt log, just flew by. She was tiring now but still had plenty of try in her, although I heard her give number fifteen a rub with her back fetlocks.
Nearly home and we were blasting, galloping down the bank, across the road, effortlessly over white number sixteen and there was the water. I would have been nervous if there had been time; instead I kicked on and shouted encouragement. Arwen wriggled, slowed to a trot, and then trotted through like it was no big deal.
Only the scary house was left now. We got our canter back and went up a big mound thing and galloped down the other side and there it was, a whole line of creepy white houses. Arwen’s eyes came out on stalks, but luckily ours was the smallest one. I think she may actually have come to a halt for a split second in front of the house, staring in horror at the rat/mouse/example of the sadism of course designers, but put up her knees and popped over. We blasted through the finish both out of breath and exhilarated. She was tired but when we came through the finish, she locked her ears back onto number one as if she wanted to go again.
I was speechless, quite possibly because I had run out of breath, when we returned to our ground crew; Mom was ever so slightly green around the gills but looked thrilled, Dad was appropriately chuffed and the Mutterer was still a stone pillar but this time one that was permitting itself a small note of pride. I had no idea what my time was and no idea if we had incurred any jump penalties; we had never turned out and never really stopped, but I knew there were a few fences where we might technically have come to a halt for a brief instant. I think they are a little lenient at Ev70, though, so I had some hope.
Less hope than I should have had, as it turns out; we were already home when I checked the results and found that brave little Arwen had come eighth in a class of thirty-one. We were soundly in the ribbons, only I hadn’t stayed to fetch mine. In the showjumping we didn’t have a single time penalty, just the four penalties for that pole. And in the cross country? Clear on jumps and 0.4 time penalties. 0.4! Little mare must have really floored it, especially considering most of our jumps were slow and sticky and we trotted through the water. On the long stretches she made up plenty of time. If I hadn’t had that real rider-error pole down, we would have been third overall in a big class with its fair share of big horses and good riders.
Go Arwen go. Glory glory glory to my beloved, amazing Creator God, Who made people and horses and then brought them together. And that’s not even a blip on the radar compared to all else that He has done!
So, unlike most of us in bloggyland, I’m not an adult ammy. In fact, I’m not even an adult, at least not until February 24. But I suppose my days are quite interesting enough to blog about despite the conspicuous absence of commutes and offices, so here goes.
4:45am: Wake up.
4:46am: Wake up.
4:47am: Wake up. Try to stay awake this time by opening Bible Gateway and reading the verse of the day four times until it sinks in. Close eyes for a quiet moment of prayer asking the Lord what I should do today. Get wildly (albeit sleepily) excited and stagger out of bed. Bed is promptly usurped by Blizzard the dog. Attempt to become somewhat presentable, although why is unclear as the horses don’t care as long as I have food.
5:30am: Go to feed the first group of horses (Arwen, Thunder, Flare and currently a cheeky Anglo-Arab filly). Attempt to get Blizzard to get out of bed; invariably fail. Groom Arwen. Yell at the filly for trying to fight with Arwen; yell at Flare for trying to fight with the filly. Cuddle Baby Thunder.
5:55am: Go get Blizzard, who has repented and is sitting by the garden gate looking remorseful. Go to feed the second group of horses (Skye, Exavior, Magic, Benji the donkey, and the Mutterer’s white gelding, bay mare and little colt foal). Groom Magic and Skye. Scream at Exavior for taking Magic’s fly mask off. Scream at Magic for taking Exavior’s fly mask off. Discuss the mysteries of the universe with Skye.
6:30am: Eat something, discuss cheese with the parents.
7:00am: Separate cream and/or work on halter training the show cows.
7:30am: Walk the dog pack with the li’l sis.
8:00am: Feed the dog pack. Eat again. (I have a fast metabolism, OK. Three meals a day doesn’t cut it). Read the Bible. Stare out of the window contemplating the greatness of God.
8:30am: Riding time!! Pile a bunch of stuff on the pickup, pile dogs on top of the stuff and drive to the arena. (Tack room is still in the blueprint stage). Ride Arwen while it’s still quite cool; hose her off, turn her out and sigh when she rolls.
9:15am: Ride Magic, hose him off, turn him out and run at him waving my arms and shouting so that he runs off to the pasture instead of rolling in the manure pile.
10:00am: Work with two or three of the following horses: Thunder, Skye, Exavior, the white gelding, the bay mare, or the cheeky filly.
Around 12:00pm: Time for clients. Hurry off to one of the studs, accompanied or chauffered by a responsible driver (in Africa you’re only allowed to drive when you’re 18. 11 days to go). Food also happens at some point.
12:30pm: Set to work on four or five out of the following: Potency (small smoky black pinto pony), Vicky (chestnut pinto filly that is nothing you would ever expect from a chestnut filly), Braveheart (slightly more typical chestnut filly), Sookie (everyone’s favourite German warmblood), Ryka (most beautiful stallion ever, plus gentlemanly), Elbie (smart chestnut filly), Heidi (gorgeous chestnut mare), Rodei (zippy little grey mare), Reed (cutest, most adorable palomino stallion ever), Wanika (well-moving chestnut pinto filly), Texas (slightly paranoid chestnut pinto mare), Special Effects (drop-dead stunning piebald Oldenburg). As you can see, I have a suidical amount of chestnut mares. Also follow the Mutterer around in my spare time in case he does something interesting/potentially educational.
4:00pm: Go home and study. Read my biology textbook with my mouth hanging open; the more I learn the more evident God’s amazing design becomes.
6:00pm: Supper time for the horses. This time Blizzard consents to come with me all the way, so it goes a bit faster without the fetching-the-doggy stop. Groom Thunder and Exavior. Spend far too much time playing with Exavior.
7:30pm: Food, family, write, read.
8:30pm: Find a couple of dogs to cuddle and go to bed.
Living as far inland as I do, it’s been my dream for years to ride on the beach. My grandparents live only 1km from the shore but are sadly horseless, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to daydream but very little opportunity to do it (except for once about two years ago when my grandma, tired of my complaints, flagged down a hapless horseman on the beach and ordered him to give me a ride).
This year, I was adamant. 10 days without riding? I’d be dead by Friday! My parents graciously relented and booked me a beach ride with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures on Saturday.
On the way to the horse paddocks, I was instantly transformed into my hyper 5-year-old self from years ago, nearly incontinent with excitement over a weekly lesson. Pathetic, I know. But I love my job to the point of needing it; it has always been more than a hobby and it is now becoming more than a career. When I sit on a horse I feel God’s pleasure, and I can’t help but feel that it’s a calling. I am called above all to love everyone; but I am also called to ride.
Being an hour early (my parents might have strangled me if we had to wait any longer) I got to meet the horses while they were being fed and groomed. I was impressed; they were lean and fit, but sleek and obviously well looked after. There were about sixteen horses of all shapes and sizes and had good manners with one or two exceptions. I wasn’t awfully surprised when I was assigned the shortest horse on the place. Judging by his teeth and the sprinkling of grey hairs on his otherwise dark bay body, I estimated Tutu (named for his brand, 225) to be close to twenty. He couldn’t have been taller than 14.1hh. Being tiny, I always end up with the littlest, oldest horses, which generally turn out to be extremely fiery once they realise they’re not carting a newb around. He was a handsome little dude with the remnants of splendour in his neat little ears, curving neck and powerful hindquarters. I have a suspicion that he was an old Lipizzaner, rejected from performing because of his size; he had the right build, and he had the right kind of brand. I was pleased to ride him.
We were a big group of 13 people with varying experience; I was a little worried about one or two of the riders who looked a bit newbie, but the horses all set off in an obedient line and newbs or no newbs we were soon navigating a winding deer trail up and down the hills at a brisk trot. (Best way to squeeze in a canter on an outride: Ride the shortest horse. Tutu had several little canters to keep up). Before long we were marching down a steep slope and onto the beach. It was a wonderful, warm day with a perfect salty breeze sweeping in over the sea, and the smells of horse and ocean mingled in the air.
To my surprise we walked over a short stretch of beach and then swung right, straight into the lagoon. I thought the leader had lost her mind. How were we supposed to get 13 horses to walk through belly-deep water? I needn’t have worried. The leading horse, a handsome skewbald gelding, splashed in without hesitation and the only problem we had was one or two attempts to roll. Well, I had the problem of being on a tiny horse, necessitating some quick gymnastic moves to avoid getting my boots wet. Tutu marched gamely right through the lagoon and we scrambled out onto the bank and into Morgan Bay village without incident.
Soon we found ourselves trotting down the quiet roads of the idyllic little village, filled with beautiful houses and white picket fences and small children that squealed in delight as we came past with the horses’ hooves ringing down the street. Tutu’s bouncy, exuberant, elevated stride (more evidence to the Lipizzaner theory?) had me posting in the Western saddle; I could probably have sat, with a little effort, but I was much too busy enjoying myself. We had our first canter up one of the hills and the horses remained in an orderly line with little Tutu snorting with excitement as we charged along, and somewhere around that point I reached a state of total bliss.
A steady trek up and down some hills and through a few fields full of cattle brought us to an utterly dazzling clifftops. I’d never really seen cliffs in real life before, let alone stood on one, let alone on horseback at the edge of the sea with the rippling ocean spreading out in all directions; the biggest thing I’d ever seen, and the most perfect royal blue. It was a little breathtaking, and a little scary, and utterly beautiful. It was only a small piece of the ocean, which is only a small piece of the Earth, which is only a small piece of the universe, which is only a small piece of creation, which is all held cupped in the palm of our mighty, mighty creator God. I could have cried at the amazingness of it all; of the horse between my knees and the grass and the sea and the sky and my wonderful King. Praise the Lord!
After gazing out at the sea and taking photos for a few minutes, we turned and rode back down along the clifftops. The sea battered against the rock with awe-inspiring power; spray clawed at the cliffs, then fell back in reluctant slow motion. It was enough to make me a little dizzy. Tutu, oblivious to the splendour, trotted after his herdmates in stoic obedience; he really was an awesome little horse.
Back through Morgan Bay village, we turned off the road and started a hair-raising scramble across a seriously rocky beach. Like, no sand at all, just rocks – smooth loose rocks that tumbled treacherously under Tutu’s hooves. I knew that he didn’t want to fall any more than I did, so I just sort of threw the reins at him and tried to stay as balanced as I possibly could. Without hesitating, the little guy put down his nose and expertly picked his way onto the safer sand.
We splashed through the shallow waves with Tutu giving the white foam the hairy eyeball before we came to a halt and the leader asked, “Who’s up for a gallop?” I may or may not have almost dislocated my arm throwing my hand up. A gallop on the beach?! Are you kidding?! Tutu was just as excited; he tossed up his noble old head and I felt all his muscles bunch under me. Leading one rider to look after the newbs, we gathered into a bunch and then we were off. Tutu was gentlemanly enough to wait for my signal; I clapped my calves into him and he took off like a shot without bothering with formalities such as trotting.
Lord, how amazing You made the wondrous world so that horse and man can fly together. I remember the splash and slap of Tutu’s hooves and the smell of him and the pumping of his neck and the churning mass of hooves and tails in front of us (we were left behind a little, but he was still running flat-out). It was terrifying, and it was ecstasy. One big grey had a bit of a moment and did a jump/kick/buck in our direction but Tutu rescued us by doing a funky sideways move involving a couple of tempi changes and a weird little hop. Way too soon, we were pulling up with panting horses everywhere and people wearing that slightly wild-eyed, white-faced grin you get after riding too fast.
The walk home was pleasant in the happy sunshine and Tutu was still as game as ever, although a bit tired by now. I was ready to go home to my own Horde and the wide open veld, but the beach ride is a definite bucket list item. If you haven’t yet, do. Don’t fall on the wet sand, whatever you do, but the wonderful place between sand and sea and horse and sky is well worth visiting.
Shamelessly adopting yet another prompt from Viva Carlos.
Is your horse spooky or bombproof? Nobody is really bombproof, although Skye is not spooky in any sense of the word; she’s seldom frightened, and if she is, her general reaction is to either a) stand very still with her head as high as it can go and be tall and scary until it goes away, or b) charge the danger head-on. Thunder can be extremely spooky but he generally shies and then looks to see what it was. Arwen’s spookiness has largely vanished because when she’s in work mode nothing distracts her (except baboons). Magic’s not flighty, but spooks at anything white.
Does your horse have a long or short stride? Arwen has a tiny little stride, which is cool for dressage (gives you more time to prepare for movements) but does make us both look like idiots in combinations built for big horses, since we either have to gallop through them or put in an extra stride and a long distance. Magic’s stride is average, Skye’s is quite short and Thunder has a very long loping Friesian-type stride, which he inherited from his dad.
Describe your current barn in 3 words? Beautiful, open, home
If you could switch barns, would you? Nope. I’ll upgrade mine as much as I can, but there’s nothing like keeping your horses in your backyard (even if your backyard is about 500 acres).
Favourite brand of breeches? I dislike them all equally (sorry, breeches)
How many blue ribbons do you have? (Red if you live in Canada or Britain) Hmm, I think my greyhound won three and my Border collie has one. The heifers and I have collected two or three over the years. Of the horses, not a whole lot. Skye got one at a gymkhana eons ago and Arwen has her dressage ribbon, but that’s it.
How many saddle pads do you own? One for Magic’s saddle, one for Arwen’s saddle, the pretty Western one for Thunder and Skye, a really old scruffy one on the roller and another one for the McLellan training saddle. Four.
Is your horse your phone background/lock screen? Yeah. Both.
Do you go trail riding often? (weather permitting) Yes, especially if interval training outside counts. Arwen goes twice a week, Thunder twice, Magic once, and then I have one outride every week on a client horse. Oh, and Skye goes out three times a week because arena work, she says, is Boring.
Favourite horsy movie?Secreteriat, but Dreamer comes really, really, really close.
Baby Thun and I went through a bit of a tough patch recently. Because of all the stuff going on right now – dairy cow auctions, my exams coming up (I passed my last math exam with an A when I was expecting a D, go figure), the biomechanics lecture – I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him as I like. I wish I would work all of my horses 6 days a week. Thun especially would just thrive on that. Maybe in summer… but right now, it’s not 100% possible.
The problem in only 2-3 days a week lay not in the horse’s behaviour (Thun always tries his heart out) but in my feelings of guilt. C’mon, guys, he comes running up anytime I come near the place with a bridle and then stands hopefully near the fence in case I work with him instead of Arwen. What kind of a stone heart can not feel guilty? Unfortunately, it creeps into my feelings when I do ride him and that messes with our minds because Thunder hates me being down and responds by also being down. This results in him being a lazy little mule and refusing to pick up the right leads.
I decided that we’d had enough of that kind of thing and gave us both a pep talk before our session on Monday, which turned out to be entirely awesome. The dressage whip I carried to give him a little reminder about leg aids probably had something to do with it, but I was in a better place in my own head and that always helps. We just schooled, but he was so awesome. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – that little dude has the most willing mind ever. Sure, he can be a twerp about some things (like reining back. I can get him to back as far as I please on the long lines, but under saddle? 5 steps) but working with him is just a general pleasure because he really does try his best. He’s basically a nice, dependable guy. Young, occasionally spooky, not the brightest of horses and possessing the attention span of a gnat, but on the bottom just a good, honest horse. Not a spiteful bone in his body.
One thing that makes him super easy to work with is that if he was any more relaxed he’d be horizontal. His head goes down all by itself, his trot turns into a job all by itself, and he lopes in balance all by himself because he’s chilled and trusting. Our sessions rarely last longer than 20 minutes in the arena because his baby brain cooks very quickly, but it’s a good 20 minutes. He gave me some great lead changes, good steady jog work and the best neck-reining I’ve had from him – a six-loop jog serpentine without once touching his mouth, and a few nice lope circles without direct reining.
I’ve seen a lot of Western horses in South Africa that have been ridden on a loose rein so much that they actually have no idea what the bit means and will resist it as much as they can, usually by opening their mouths and bracing their necks. I’ve worked hard with Thunder to get him to accept the bit, and I must say it is a nice change to pull a Western horse to a halt and have him softly yield the jaw and lift the back instead of collapse in a heap with his face in the air. Thunder will go into a contact in a good frame as happily as he will go on a floppy rein, and while that might be a bit controversial in Western circles, I count it a small triumph.
I am a total idiot about Thunder though, I really am. Especially with client horses I can usually maintain a professional exterior, bonding with the horse on his level and not going into all the sentimental kinda stuff except for the odd hug. The horse doesn’t care too much about being kissed and slobbered over – he’d much rather I was a kind rider and communicated with him in his language – and it annoys me when people go all coochy-coo over their horses, but I freely admit that I am just as stupid over Thunder. He’s the only one of my horses who is really a pet. Arwen and Magic are my partners, and Skye is my best friend, but Thunder is a big happy pet and kind of my baby. It’s terrible, but I think I’m even going to have him a little birthday party when he turns four, which is a big birthday. For the record, I think having birthday parties for horses is the lamest thing ever, but who cares? He may be a pet, but he’s my pet. It’s not like I spoil him (okay, so I spoil him, but I don’t let him get away with things). And I need not invite any clients. 😉
Oooooold and very loyal readers may remember Thunder’s half-sister, Dancer, from the old blog about two years ago. Dancer is Arwen’s daughter by Thunder’s dad, born in the same year as Thunder. They grew up together, but I was overrun with horses and sold her when she was about two. I had the pleasure of going to see D in her new home today and I was pleasantly surprised. She has grown up quite big – about 15.1, maybe touching 15.2 – and has some really nice movement on her. Although she hadn’t been ridden for two months and has barely been backed, I got on her and got walk, trot and a few strides of canter with no silliness. She’s also remembered all the good ground manners I taught her as a foal, and is doing very well. I was so happy to see D. She gave me a few grey hairs while I was schooling her and has a mischievous streak, but she’s behaving herself for her new people and turned out to be a really nice young lady.
I do wonder, now, what she would be like if I had her now and was schooling her as a dressage prospect; she would probably have turned out pretty good. Still, I don’t regret selling her. I can devote more time to the horses I have left now, and to horses, love is spelled T-I-M-E.
And I serve the King of Kings, so it’s all about love.
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.