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.
Whenever I meet a stallion, my first thought is usually “Should he really be a stallion?”
While there’s a lot of thinking going around that stallions are by default miserable, savage, difficult, dangerous creatures who need to be castrated as soon as possible, I’m not really under that illusion. Stallions are horses just like any other horses, and the possession of their manliness is by no means automatically a cause of unhappiness or aggression. It depends largely on how they are managed; sure, if you’re going to overfeed him, lock him up in a paddock alone and out of sight of any other equines, and spoil him with little work and no discipline, then he’ll likely be a danger to himself and to everything else. A well-managed stallion, on the other hand, can be a joy to ride and handle, even though he’ll probably always need an experienced person on hand to make sure the wheels don’t fall off if a mare on heat wanders in. The wonderful Lipizzaner stallions performing within inches of one another with not a squeal or kick, and the innumerable stallions competing alongside their female colleagues at the very top level, are a testimony to that fact. Even the little palomino at the stud is a shining example of a good stallion. You could put beginners on him.
Also, obviously, we need stallions. Otherwise there wouldn’t be horses. A high-quality, well-managed stallion is the king of the equine world and a thing of grace and beauty, plus usually makes high-quality babies, which is good.
However, there’s no denying that stallions can be difficult to manage without the right facilities and experience. (You just can’t turn them out with open mares, for instance, if you’re being responsible about it; and many of them will break out of ordinary paddocks). I learnt my lesson the hard way when my stallion escaped and resulted in three unwanted pregnancies; there will be no more stallions for me until I have the right facilities for them. But possibly the major issue about keeping stallions is that sooner or later they are going to breed. And in my opinion, if we are going to be responsible horse people, horses should be bred with a purpose in mind, and their parents should be selected as horses that have already proven and excelled at that purpose. In general, I’m not a fan of backyard breeding. I’d recommend leaving it to the professionals – even if that just means taking your mare to a quality outside stallion instead of using the farmer’s stallion down the road.
But with all that said, I still don’t for one moment regret breeding baby Thunder. And many people may frown upon me for this because by conventional standards I did nearly everything wrong. Let’s start with the mare: a creature of absolutely unknown breeding, who stands with her toes in, has a rather fleshy throat and a crest like a stallion’s. As for the stallion, he was an unbacked three-year-old and the first entire male horse I could get my hands on. Granted, he had a good temperament, nice proportions and okay conformation but his feet were the wrong shape and he was also a crossbred, although with a very strong Friesian influence and a well-known grandsire.
So, I hear you ask, why didn’t it all go pear-shaped?
Mostly, by the grace of God. I make a lot of mistakes, but He can be relied upon to rescue me from the worst of the consequences, as long as I figure out not to make them again. Secondly, my one practical redemption was that I actually did breed Thunder with a purpose in mind: he was going to exist to be my pleasure horse. And since Skye, pigeon toes, fat neck and all, is without a shadow of doubt the horse who has given me the most pleasure in the entire universe, and in terms of temperament and character is a horse in a million, she was simultaneously utterly unsuitable and completely perfect for breeding. I’ll take character over conformation any day. Achilles also had a fine personality; he ruined my confidence, of course, but that was through no fault of his own; he was a forgiving, stoic and loving horse. And so Thunder was conceived, and so he was designed by the hands of my King.
If I was to breed a horse today, I would work and save up and work some more and save up some more and then buy a mare from the cream of the crop – preferably an old broodmare who’d proven herself over and over again in whatever discipline I was intending to breed for. If I couldn’t afford a proven broodmare I’d get a youngster and prove her myself. Then I’d take her to the best stallion I could afford, one that had proven himself in both his own career and in his offspring, and breed them. It’s a very different approach to the slapdash one I took with Thunder, but I still consider him a resounding success.
You see, I aimed to breed a gentle, loving horse who would be game for anything; something with tremendous willingness. Not the type of horse who would go to the top level in competition, but the type of horse who opens his mouth for the bit and would gallop until he dropped dead if you asked for it. Something infinitely kind, generous, and trainable. In terms of conformation I wanted only soundness, functionality, and a pretty neck. Oh, and I wanted a colt with a coat colour the same as Skye’s and a star and preferably a sock or two.
And so God gave me Thunder, who fits the bill exactly. (Okay, so the mane and tail is black, but the coat is the same colour). He has already grown into the kindest baby horse I’ve had the pleasure of working, and he still has a lot of growing to do. Thunder is a heart horse, the kind of horse I’ll never sell, the kind of horse I’d spend a lifetime on. That’s why, even though I’d never breed anything else the way I bred him, I consider him a great success. God even blessed him with relatively nice conformation – he does show an ever-so-slight toe in, and his back is just a shade too long, but overall he is a functional, nice-looking, gentle, loving guy.
Regret Thunder? Not in this world. I love this horse.