Horses That Aren’t Grey

I apologise in advance for the almost complete absence of photos. I plead Internet issues. Now on to the post…

I promise that I don’t refuse to compete any horse that isn’t grey. I rode a spotty palomino one at shows once, see?

He was sold on months ago but I still miss him...
He was sold on months ago but I still miss him…

Still, it is kind of hilarious that I have to compete four horses (six, hopefully, including the stallions I’ve been asked to show in August) and they are all grey, every last one. Erin wisely suggested that I should get a shampoo company to sponsor me. I’m not complaining  – I adore greys; it is uncertain whether I love grey because grey or because almost all the grey horses I’ve ridden have been lovely.

Anyway, so today the blogosphere shall get some bay and chestnut love.

Exavior has been learning rapidly. We started working on baths, which was a battle – he doesn’t like water on his butt and ran over me once or twice before a well-placed elbow sorted that one out – but had to stop working on it because winter happened. We shall face it again in summertime; drenching him with icy water isn’t exactly going to improve his enjoyment of baths.

Apart from that, we got to work on lunging, leading and bowing. Lunging was a flop the first time because Mr. Smarty Pants knows exactly where the gate is but thankfully has not figured out that he could pop over the ring fence without a second thought. He liked to stop and/or spin around and/or rear half-heartedly in protest, especially on the right rein. We sorted this out in a few sessions, though, and now he’ll happily walk and trot around. I’m not pushing him too hard because he is such a baby but three laps of walk and two laps of trot each side once a week isn’t going to kill him.

We’ve also been going for little walkies around the homestead – up past the heifer paddocks, around the house and through the arena-in-progress. It’s quite a spooky route especially if you are terrified of bovines, and Exavior has cowophobia. We spent a little time walking around after Fiona, who is eleven years old and unlikely to be able to move fast enough to spook anything, until Xave realised that she was actually afraid of him. We had a huge argument about a narrow gate with a bar over the top, too. It turns out that Exavior has a special fear of low things he has to walk under, which is a bit of a bummer for a colt standing 15.2 at the age of 19 months. In the end I used my head-down cue to make him drop his head so that the bar appeared taller and he sort of tiptoed underneath it. We’ll be practicing this – dropping the head to walk under things – a lot in the next few months since I think it’ll be an important skill for him, especially when it comes to loading.

I also had to give him his herpes vaccine last week, not without considerable trepidation because the one thing he will get violent about is a needle. My other horses all stand like rocks for their shots – I vaccinated them all that day and Exavior was the only one that I bothered to put a halter on; Flare didn’t even get up from her nap – but he has problems with it. I think it may be that he had to have lots of injections when he tore up his leg, and he was pretty insane at that point anyway so they probably had to hold him down and twitch him for it. So I fed him bits of apple with one hand while rubbing the syringe on his neck with the other – he accepted this fine – and once he was totally occupied with apple I injected him in 0.02 seconds flat. (Vaccinating cows is good practice – you learn to accurately inject 2cc out of a full 20cc syringe while holding your hands above your head to get to the airborne heifer’s neck). He proceeded to shake his head violently and complain for five minutes afterwards, poor idiot, but kept all four feet on the ground.

Thunder has been his dear sweet self. We did another long hack around the neighbour’s game camp, this time accompanied by Flare, and the only thing that frightened him was a car that passed by on the road. The driver went wonderfully slowly and cautiously, though, so we survived. Nothing else – the sound of motorbikes next door, someone target shooting, the galloping game, or Flare, whose brain evaporated for half an hour or so – fazed him in the least. He plugged along like an old hand. Alone, he can still be really spooky, but not violent. The nice thing about Thunder is that his adrenalin comes down really, really fast. He’ll spook, sure, but thirty seconds later he’ll have gone right back down to completely calm again. He also has an amazing ability to be completely obedient even when scared out of his skull. No matter how frightened he is, as long as I keep my act together and give clear, firm aids, he’ll do what I want. And ultimately that will develop him into the horse I can trust completely – the one that I know will obey even when he is terrified. Horses that “never spook” always worry me somewhat because one day they will, and they won’t know what to do with their fear. Friesians (sorry Friesian lovers) are particularly bad at this: they “never spook”, until the day something pushes them over the edge and then they just can’t deal with their newfound fear and fly off the handle with 500kg of extreme power.

Thun has also been a star in his schooling. His lope is really coming together now, much more balanced and coordinated. He neck-reins in all three gaits most of the time and can go on a loose rein in a lope now, too, without needing my hands for balance. He can even slide now, which is awesome. My footing is bad so I don’t push it much, but he’s definitely getting the hang of scooting along (I am not, but I learnt the hard way to keep one hand on the horn… just in case). It’s kind of hilarious when I forget that he’s a reining horse and not a dressage horse, and we’re loping home on an outride in company and we want to go back down to a walk and he sits down and slides, much to everybody else’s consternation.

The chestnut horse formerly known as Duiwel (Demon) has been renamed David; I figured he needed a good Bible name after being called Demon for most of his life. He’s actually not a bad guy at all, and very handsome. I’ve been taking it easy with him, just lunging  and light riding, but he hasn’t put a toe wrong. Somebody has been really rough with poor old David, but he’s coming round very quickly. He’s stopped that dreadful, continuous, nervous snorting of the abused horse and doesn’t roll a white eye at me so much. To his credit, David has never turned aggressive, even in self-defence against things he obviously perceives to be major threats. Good boy. He’s my first real experience with a Saddler cross and much less nutty than I expected. He shall soon be for sale.

Magic Lady has been super; we’ve mainly been schooling because she has a hay belly like a gestating elephant, not exactly the most flattering look for being admitted into the SA Warmbloods. She’s taken to dressage most beautifully and has so far shattered every OTTB stereotype I know, except for that stargazing thing Magic used to do with his head. I’ll have her teeth fixed soon and then that should also go away. She free jumps fearlessly but apparently jumping with me on top requires lots of wriggling, although never overjumping or such silliness. I think once her broodmare stint with me is over, she’s going to make some junior really really happy. She’s so kind and bombproof, but with plenty of athleticism. Her 2014/2015 foal has just been weaned, so she’s sitting in a paddock waiting for me to come get her, which should be soon. She’ll be joining the Horde alongside a stunning little bay gelding bred by the Mutterer, who will be my own first resale project.

As for the Horde’s warrior Queen, her life is happy. She has Magic and Exavior to look after, Vastrap to hang out with when she’s tired of looking after them, lots of hay and her weekly hack. These are a highlight for her; I feel a bit sorry for her with the cold and thought I should give her the winter off but she has started doing these little excited half-rears in anticipation of our traditional tiny little canter. After eleven years I should know when she’s enjoying something, and she’s loving her rides, lame as she is. Learning to stay on a rearing horse bareback is good for me and she has a nice thick mane, so all is well. I don’t think you’re supposed to canter with 26-year-old arthritic mares, but I still need that horrendous giant curb for whoa, so it occurs to me that maybe her knees aren’t hurting all that much.

Health-wise she’s actually doing better than she has in years. The old knees still make her slightly lame, of course, but she is probably the shiniest of all my woolly donkeys. She’s staying as round as a barrel on just a tiny handful of concentrate twice a day, which I mainly give her so that she’ll take her joint medicine. That nagging COPD cough has entirely gone and even her permanent eye infection seems to be finally leaving after years of fortnightly antibiotic ointment.

Lord, not what I will, but what Thou wilt, but Sir, if Thou will it, as many more years as possible with this golden mare.

On Bits, Bridles and Big Jumps

It’s been a busy month. Between studies, horses, preparing for a big show with the cowies, writing the eQuest for Truth blog, novelling a bit and studying for my learner’s licence, blogging kinda fell by the wayside.

The Bridle of Awesome
The Bridle of Awesome

Skye has been doing some dressing up; I gave myself permission to be just a little bit tack-crazy for a while and blew some extra cash on a bunch of awesome Western stuff, including a beautiful silver lace bridle, Western curb bit and Navajo saddle blanket to match the saddle.

She has been going extremely well in the curb. Its mouthpiece and port are identical to that of the pelham she was going in, but the shank is significantly longer and slightly curved; she feels a lot more sensitive to it, and I wouldn’t trust a lot of riders with it because I think it is a pretty harsh bit. I doubt I’d ride her English-style on a contact with it either, but as it is now, it’s perfect. She’s learned to neck-rein quite consistently so I actually don’t have to touch her mouth except to slow down, and even then it can literally be just a touch. So most of the time, the bit just sits there in her mouth and I can guide her with a gentle touch and no severity is involved, but if she gets overexcited and I need some good brakes I have the backup of the strong curb if I need it.

Skye has just always gone a lot better in a curb of some sort and, when used with care, this bit seems to be the best one for her so far.

Although for years I believed that changing a horse’s bit from a snaffle to something harsher should be absolutely the last resort and even then was something of a failure, I’m starting to rethink this. We all know, after all, that the bit is only as harsh as the hands that use it. After riding both Skye and Magic in snaffles for months and finding myself bullying them around with my hands because it was the only way to stay in control, I got tired of being frustrated and yanking on my horses’ jaws and put them both in curbs. Skye is in her Western curb now and Magic is in a pelham with the reins through the top ring, so it has something of a Kimberwick action. Both of them are significantly happier, and so am I. Magic now goes in a proper outline and I can ride him with an extremely light contact, using just faint pressure for aids. He still flips out every now and then and tosses his head in the air and threatens to rear, but he did that rather more in the snaffle. I also took him from a standing martingale to a running martingale, which has no effect up until he wants to break my nose, and is then quite invaluable.

The other thing is that in the snaffle I used to hang onto his mouth for dear life whilst jumping, because otherwise I would have no control at all when he hit the ground. In the pelham I can give him as much rein as he needs, knowing that if he does take off when he lands I can get him back in a stride or two with no trouble.

I certainly don’t think that all horses should end up in curbs, but I do believe that in the right hands a curb can be a lovely thing. All Grand Prix dressage horses go in double bridles after all, because a snaffle just doesn’t have the subtlety. It should by no means be the quick fix for every horse – yanking on a curb is going to ruin a mouth much faster than yanking on a snaffle – but it can make riding a whole lot more pleasant for horse and rider both.

Summer coats still holding on...
Summer coats still holding on…

Speaking of Magic, he is now sound again. The wound on his leg has healed nicely into just a little bit of a mark with a bump of scar tissue; it’s a bit unsightly, but doesn’t affect his soundness in any way. I brought him straight back into work and he is a lot more sane in the paddock and happier in his own skin. His flatwork is quite good at the moment; transitions can be messy and panicky, but on the whole he is much calmer and more obedient. Jumping has been either awesome or terrible. When I jumped him for the first time after his holiday he was stunning, didn’t overjump a thing, never stopped and went about his business calmly and happily. The next time, I overfaced both of us and he had a stop because I wasn’t there for him. With horses like Arwen and Reed, I can afford a stop because chances are the next time I’ll be annoyed with myself and ride intentionally, and they’ll go for me. Magic doesn’t. He’s a much more sensitive soul, and he decides that since he was allowed to stop once it’s okay to do it again until the next thing I know he’s refusing 60cm cross-rails. The trouble is that it makes me timid because when he does jump after a stop he overjumps, and when a young thoroughbred with a lot of talent overjumps, I mean clears-the-1.8m-uprights kind of overjumping. I haven’t come off yet, but it is a bit nerve-wrecking.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of Magic all of the time. I certainly used to be; cantering him was a bone-meltingly scary experience for the first few months. Now, I’m totally fine with him 90% of the time, but when he starts pretending to be a giant pogo stick I lose my nerve.

There’s an easy way around it, though, and that’s not to overface us before we’re ready and to build the heights slowly, because as long as I’m confident he’s confident and jumps sensibly.

Little horse, big spirit
Little horse, big spirit

Arwen has been amazing. Our show was unfortunately cancelled, but I’m looking at another one later this month. Her canter and canter transitions have improved significantly, but her canter can still tend to be on the messy side, either being an awkward half-trot half-canter or being rather too fast. Part of it is that the arena is on a slope and it’s very hard for her to balance whilst going downhill, but some of it is just training. She tends to be pretty heavy on my hands; easy enough to stop, but very hard to get into a decent outline. She works beautifully with her hindquarters and her hindlegs come right down underneath her, with a good round back, but the head and neck just aren’t there. I’ve been schooling her in side reins to try and correct that.

Lateral work in trot is coming along well with leg-yield, haunches-in and shoulder-in all there, just in need of some fine-tuning. I also asked for her first few steps of leg-yield in canter, and although it was awkward, she understood what I wanted and gave me three diagonal strides before losing her balance and fumbling along on a straight line. Flying changes are still a huge struggle, but she has suddenly decided that she always halts squarely. As in, always. When she’s led, when she’s lunged, when she’s ridden, probably even when she stops at a jump.

Thankfully this seldom happens; the last time we jumped was fabulous. We were just popping over an upright in a circle, working on landing on the right lead, and once she’d worked hard at that I decided to have some fun and go up to 1.10m. She was utterly pro at that, of course, so I took a risk and put it up a little higher. She put up her ears and cleared that too, so I made it a bit higher and promised her that we were only going to try once, and the next thing I knew we had cleared about 1.30m.

“Wow,” the Horse Mutterer opined when I showed him the jump the next day. He looked from Arwen, who was about on nose level with the obstacle, to the jump and back again and added, “Just don’t punish her like this too often, okay?”

I doubt Arwie will ever be competitive at that height – it is rather ridiculous to ask that of a 14.2hh pony – but it was still plenty of fun. And considering the Mutterer once doubted we’d ever go higher than 1.00m, anything is possible.

So cute
So cute

Reed has been amazing at dressage recently. I rode him in side reins a couple of times to fine-tune his outline, and he now goes like a real little spotty Lipizzaner, light as butter in my hands with his proud little stallion neck all arched. His canter is an absolute dream, slow, measured and rhythmical. I put on a pair of spurs and discussed some lateral work with him too, and he was fabulous; shoulder-in he knows, but he also gave me turn on the forehand, some leg-yield, and his first few steps of pirouette.

His jumping was a bit up and down. At the start of the month I challenged him by putting up a 1.10m upright, which he bunny-hopped over and earned my great praise; but last week he had a really off day and stopped consistently at a 90cm double that he shouldn’t have batted an eyelid at. I made him jump it a few times before writing it off as a bad day. They happen.


Baby Thunder has been dressing up as well, rocking the Western look. I wasn’t going to buy him a bridle, but then I saw this Poco bridle and it was cheap and I really liked the browband and that very afternoon he bolted on an outride and one of his reins broke right off, so I bought it. He has been hard to stop from a lope recently, setting his jaw against my hands a bit; in fact his whole lope needs work. Although he has been changing leads absolutely beautifully, he lopes too fast and falls out on circles.

He is also jittery on outrides, especially where I fell off last time; the memory has probably made him nervous. We’ll work through it, though. He’s still a baby, after all.

Sookie and I when we first met
Sookie and I when we first met

To wrap it up, look who’s back. CWT regulars will recognise this big, odd-eyed, German giraffe as Sookie Lynn von Samaii, an imported warmblood bred in the purple and born to do dressage. She had a bit of maternity leave but now we’re aiming for HOY next year and she needs to come back, get in shape and behave herself, and as she’s always been my project I’m really happy to be back on her.

Watch this space. I’m still busy. Glory be to God for allowing me to be healthy and happy and working hard at what I love.

Pitiful Study-Related Excuses, and also cool photos

Still have time to play with ponies

Dear readers, the ponies and I are still alive and very much kicking. Life happened a little and got in the way of blogging, but thankfully not much in the way of riding, and the horses and I are still plugging happily onwards. You all know the standard excuses for not blogging by now; today I’m playing the “I was studying” card. Cambridge IGSCE, for the record, is not for the fainthearted.

Thanks be to God, I’m still homeschooled, so there’s still plenty of time left over for riding. I started off the week by bringing Arwen back into work. Having taken six weeks after her vaccine off but for the odd hack – if ridden too hard straight after having an African horse sickness vaccine, a horse could potentially contract the virus from the vaccine – Arwen has luckily stayed slim. There is a bit of a hay belly popping out there, but nothing that a few weeks’ work won’t fix. Her muscle tone and condition is still fine, so we’ve gotten off almost scot-free.

With three weeks to go before our dressage show it was time for Arwen’s holiday to end. I brought her in on Monday for my lesson and the Mutterer marked out a 60 x 20m rectangle in the middle of the big grass area I use for an arena. Our dressage letters being anonymous tyres, this makes for a little confusion (“Working trot to B” “Which one’s B?”), but after sniggering at some quite interesting mnemonics I seem to be getting the hang of them. The actual dressage is relatively easy. We’re only doing Preliminary 1 and 2, which are the lowest of the low. About the hardest thing we do is lengthening the reins at the trot, and Arwen stretches beautifully, so even that isn’t too bad.

Rocking the new bandages (and the hay belly)
Rocking the new bandages (and the hay belly)

I rode her in spurs and side reins this week. Arwie has never been the responsive sort and I always carry a whip or spurs when I’m riding her; usually a whip, but spurs actually work a whole lot better. For one thing, they are wonderful for lateral work. There’s a reason why even the most responsive horses in advanced dressage are ridden with spurs. They give you much more accuracy and subtlety with your aids. Arwen’s leg-yield and shoulder-in in trot were virtually nonexistent, but with a pair of spurs she’s quite brilliant.

The side reins were just to help her go in a better frame instead of doing the whole pony nose-out thing. I rode her in them three times and yesterday just warmed up with them and took them off to practice the tests themselves and she went beautifully, just as if they were still on. Most of her work is pretty awesome; she’s forward, responsive, balanced and makes stunning transitions. Even her halts are getting nice and square. The one issue we’re having at the moment is her canter and canter transitions, which is really weird, because Arwen used to have an awesome canter and perfect transitions. I’m guessing she’s a bit rusty after her time off, so we’ll be cantering all week and see how it goes. She does canter and she gets us around the track okay, but she doesn’t strike off on the right lead properly and once even flopped back into a trot, which will destroy our dressage score.

Thunder's first between-the-ears shot
Thunder’s first between-the-ears shot

Thunder has been pretty awesome; I schooled him on Monday under the Mutterer’s watchful eye (this time with a new cinch 😛 ) and even the Mutterer was forced to concede that he’s quite nice. Thunder’s jog is very good and his lope is coming along as well. He went on the correct lead all of the time, didn’t rush as much, and didn’t fall out with the shoulder in his circles as much as he usually does. We even had a good gallop and then a halt from a gallop, not entirely a sliding stop, but heading that way. The trouble is that he still doesn’t neck rein. I only need one hand on the reins most of the time, but I still have to tug on his mouth, which is annoying. It took Skye months to learn this, though, so I’m prepared to be patient.

On Wednesday we went for a short hack and he disappointed me a little by being really spooky. It could be to do with the fact that we went past the same place where I came off last week, an unnerving experience for both of us. Or he was just having one of his daft days. Either way, he didn’t bolt or shy seriously; he was just tense and jumpy. He gave me two nice relaxed lopes, but balked at one point on the way home because he saw some mysterious scary object undetectable to human senses. We got home in one piece, he repeated the perfect gate-opening of last week, and there were no serious issues, so no harm done.

Reed was a little on the lazy side this week; maybe he needs a bit of a break from routine. We had a quick schooling session on Tuesday and I was hoping to get his first flying change or two, but although his simple changes were absolutely foot perfect, no flying change in sight. I introduced a little shoulder-in in walk. He wasn’t brilliant, especially to the left (he’s a touch stiff on that side), but something I found rather interesting was how much better he went after the shoulder-in. I’ve noticed it with Arwen, as well; after a little lateral work in walk, even if it is just 20m of shoulder-in or a couple of steps of leg-yield, they suddenly get supple. They arch their necks, step under themselves and get forward, obedient, and soft all along their bodies. I’m not sure exactly why this is – maybe the lateral movement loosens them up and stretches their muscles – but I’m definitely incorporating some gentle lateral work into my warm-ups.

Photo by Colett Janse van Rensburg
Photo by Colett Janse van Rensburg

I challenged Reed on Thursday by putting up a 90cm vertical with a close ground line straight away. Usually I pop him over a cross-rail or two before getting down to serious jumping, and he evidently wasn’t impressed with the new arrangement; he stopped a few times before actually jumping, and seemed kind of hesitant and perturbed once he actually jumped. Something to work on and for him to get used to. I stuck it out with him and didn’t let him get away with it, and when he was jumping rhythmically I changed the vertical into a quite wide oxer with about a 60cm cross-rail in front and the 90cm bar behind. Again he stopped once or twice before jumping, but once he jumped it, he was fine. We cleared it a few more times before I changed the cross-rail in front to a 70cm vertical. This looked much more formidable and I know how much Reed hates verticals, but he was really amazing, didn’t even look at it and cleared it at our first leap. On that high note, I ended the session. The owner of EJ Quarter Horses and Paints was around to take awesome photos, too. This must be the best photo of me riding over jumps I have yet. I seem to be riding a whole lot better than in previous jumping shots: I’m focusing ahead of us (although not quite between his ears), and my hands are following his head a lot better. Looks like I am sort of sticking to my New Year’s resolution.

Pepper, a four-week-old Pekinese and the darling of Ruach and EJ Studs
Pepper, a four-week-old Pekingese and the darling of Ruach and EJ Studs

Tuesday was madness; I had a bunch of horses to work and, while it was a lot of fun, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on each horse. Titan was a bit of a pain to lead in; he was excited about the three mares on heat around the arena and pranced around accordingly. Once I was on him, he kept prancing for the first five minutes or so, but settled down nicely, and by the end of the session he was giving me the best canter work I’ve ever had from him. To the left his canter was absolutely stunning, slow, calm, balanced; he even gave me some really nice circles. To the right he is still a little unbalanced and tends to rush, and his circles were wonky, but no bucking, tearing off or any nonsense. I was impressed.

Then I was back on a little grey Nooitgedachter crossbred I used to school last year. Tina is about 14.3hh and very adorable. An old hip injury has made her rather stiff and she doesn’t like to canter on the left lead, but she has a beautiful soft mouth and comfortable movement. As she’s a child’s pony, this and her good temper matters most.

Sunshine was my next project; a new little filly I haven’t worked before. She’s not really backed, so I just lunged her, but she was responsive and clearly knew what she was doing. She’s pretty and a comfortable size for me, so I enjoyed her.

Last but certainly not least is dear little Chrome. On Thursday, dear little Chrome decided to show me that he can buck after all, and buck he did. He was not in the mood for loping, especially not to the right, and he even did a handstand or two before settling down to his nice easy lope. He is young and very green and can be excused for having the odd daft day; they can’t be born knowing exactly how to be ridden, even though Chrome usually seems that way. Silly adorable golden retriever.

Sore leg? What sore leg?
Sore leg? What sore leg?

Magic and Skye both had the week off; Magic because his wound is not quite healed (and evidently itches, judging by how often he removes his bandages and turns up with blood all over his nose), and Skye because her poor tender fussy feet are bruised. The Mutterer will trim and treat them on Monday, and she’s not lame in the paddock, but I don’t want to make it worse and cause abscesses or something similarly horrible. She is most unimpressed with me and she and Magic are getting really annoying; the arena is in their paddock, so they like to follow the horse I’m working and gallop around like idiots just to show me how perfectly sound and rideable they are.

Beautiful horses. Long may you remain happy and healthy, you most exquisite and noble of all God’s beasts.

Cowgirlin’ Fail

My Beloved and I set off yesterday evening for a beautiful ride around the mealie* fields on the huge farm Swaelkrans next door. It’s about a 6-8km round trip with miles of flat, quiet paths for loping on, and hence one of my favourite places to ride.

Skye has been there scores of times, but it was Thunder’s first time off the farm in his entire life. He didn’t start out very nice. A lope turned into a breakneck gallop when a duiker, his arch enemy, jumped out of the bushes, and he also shied twice at nothing. I was annoyed by the time we reached Swaelkrans, but my Beloved calmed my temper somewhat, Thunder stood dead still for me to remount after opening the wire gate and we set off in a better mood.

From then on Thunder was stunning. We started by taking a long jog, which already settled him down, and by resolving to lope in single file to stop them from racing each other (Skye takes anything as a challenge). I took the lead for our first lope and it went very well, but was aborted when I noticed my saddle slipping and looked down to see, with horror, my cinch swinging loose. Somehow the saddle stayed on throughout our abrupt halt even though it was held on by nothing but luck, and I hurriedly dismounted and fastened it rather tighter, assuming that the knot on the right side hadn’t been tied properly.

Remounting (and thanking God for Western saddles; in no other saddle can you ride in shorts, unless you are my Beloved, who rides in shorts all the time because he’s superhuman), we continued. We jogged, loped and met several duiker; Thunder didn’t misbehave at all except for loping a bit too fast, but he never overtook his mom and stopped when she did. We took a long route between the mealie and soya bean fields before reaching the tar road. We pulled up a good 50m from the road and let Thunder have a look at the traffic – I didn’t dare ride along it yet – but he just stared and didn’t bolt.

Going home, he was equally well-behaved. We had several long, awesome lopes and Thunder stayed obediently behind his mom without any bucking or nonsense. Skye had no such reservations; when Thun and I took the lead again she promptly blazed past up next to us. To my surprise Thunder kept pace along his mom, Skye stayed in a slow lope (thanks to her rider) and we kept on for a good kilometre at this pace with no issues at all. I was thrilled with Thunder, and we walked most of the way home on a happy, chilled loose rein.

I had clean forgotten about my treacherous cinch and only remembered when we took our last lope, only about a kilometre from home. Skye and my Beloved were having a run, Thunder was staying nicely under control in a lope behind them, and then with a sickening lurch my saddle tipped up and the cinch swung wildly loose. Something – whether it was the flying cinch, the tipping saddle or my squeak of alarm – spooked Thunder and he swerved, and the next thing I knew I was cursing my carelessness and disentangling myself from my saddle, with the sound of Thunder’s receding hoofbeats in my ears.

My Beloved paused only to check that Thunder’s reins were still over his head before teleporting to my side and rescuing me. Thunder was amazing; he bolted in panic halfway up the road, then turned around and bolted back to stand beside me. Nobody could train a horse to be that loyal; he was just born that way, sweet thing. My knight in shining armour put his whiny and slightly battered girlfriend on the comparatively safe Skye, and insisted on riding home on a nervous young horse with a hazardous saddle. (Chivalry is not dead). To his credit, Thunder was calm all the way home. To hers, Skye rescued me yet again, plugging calmly homewards with the reins loose on her neck and me holding the pommel like a total noob.

It turns out that the cinch I have for my Western saddle isn’t long enough, and so the saddle straps are run through the fastening ring only twice instead of three times on the right side, which means that there’s a huge amount of strain on the knot and it pops loose rather too easily. Note to self: get a new cinch.

Never fear, I live to fall another day. Despite its bad ending, it was an amazing ride, and it won’t be long before my Beloved and me ride again. Praise the Lord for good men, good horses, and whatever dutiful angel it is that keeps catching me and breaking my falls. God rides with me even on the days that I fall, and He will always ride alongside.

On a December ride
On a December ride

*Maize/corn in South African English, viz., a mixture of badly pronounced English and any Afrikaans word that appears handy at the time, usually misspelt.

More Cowgirlin’ (and a little bit of jumping too)

Only too happy to be playing with my new saddle, I spent Wednesday morning charging around on Skye and Thunder. Skye was in a very fiery mood and enjoyed herself thoroughly; we went for a long outride which basically went like this:

Skye: Let’s run!

Me: Not right now. Walk on.

Skye: How about now?

Me: Nope. Still walking. Sorry.

Skye: And now?

Me: Fine, you can jog a little.

Skye: Whoohoo! *breaks into a jog that goes more upwards than forwards*

Me: Maybe you should have been a dressage horse after all.

Skye: Can we run now?

I love those chestnut ears
I love those chestnut ears

We stopped over at the dam to strip off saddle and boots and swim across the middle; I intended to wade, but suddenly the water came up over Skye’s back, I planted my fists in her mane and she paddled happily across, snorting every now and then. The swim cooled us both down and refreshed us enough that it was worth riding home in wet jeans on a new saddle. I did eventually give her a run by cantering the kilometre or two home without a break, which I hoped would satisfy her, but oh no, not Skye. She danced the rest of the way home, snorting, prancing and generally telling the world how amazing she was.

Thunder was in a less wild-eyed mood and impressed me no end by being absolutely perfect with both gates today. Being able to open and close a gate whilst mounted is a really useful and surprisingly difficult skill. Skye and I do it virtually in our sleep, having had plenty of practice, but Thunder still finds all the maneuvering kind of hard, thanks to a tree standing right next to the gate. This time, though, he was perfect; he went exactly where I wanted, turned on the haunches, turned on the forehand, backed up and stood dead still while I leaned down his side to latch it. I was sufficiently impressed.

We jogged up to the rocky hill known as the Unchartered Territory and walked along beside the public road; a truck blared past when were about 50-100m from the road and Thunder didn’t turn a hair. A guinea fowl leaping out of the bushes was a life-threatening danger, though, and he leapt into the air and bolted one step before I got him under control, turned him in a circle, gave him a smack and told him exactly what I thought about that kind of behaviour. Thunder, to his credit, stood dead still, watching the guinea fowl fly away. Once he was standing still on a loose rein I gave him a rub and told him not to be so daft again, and he relaxed completely. That’s the nice thing about Thun – his spooks last a few seconds and then they’re over. He doesn’t stay nervous for ages the way some youngsters do.

In fact we had a nicely relaxed canter on the way home and he didn’t even look at the handful of scary things we encountered. He just needs to get used to birds and duiker jumping out of bushes. They’re his one weakness.

Beautiful sweet filly by Amor
Beautiful sweet filly by Amor

Thursday was a hectic day; I barely had time for school, a quick blog post and to change Magic’s bandages (his wound is on the mend without any infection) before it was time to rush off to the stables for work. We were on quite a tight schedule with four horses to work within two hours, and two new foals having been born that morning. One of the mares wouldn’t push out her afterbirth and needed veterinary attention, so it was general madness.

Reed and I had time for a really good session, though. I set him up a double of two crossrails with about 8.5m in between them (I never know how to distance a double for Reed; they say a stride is 3.5m, but possibly not for a 14hh pony), theoretically two strides. I wanted to see how adjustable he was and how we could improve our rhythm. Reed definitely benefited from our transition session on Tuesday; especially his halts were much sharper and cleaner than usual and he didn’t fall onto my hands so much. His frame was a bit worse, probably because I didn’t lunge him first, but otherwise he was pretty nice.

We jumped the double a few times and we both started off extremely crooked; we would wobble along to the first jump, jump it at its highest point, veer wildly off course and then somehow scramble over the second one. This happened two or three times until I got fed up, shortened my reins and took control over him. I’m too used to Arwen and Magic, who both approach extremely straight, although Arwen drifts sometimes. Reed is the opposite; he approaches in a squiggle and then jumps dead straight. When I took control and rode him assertively throughout, though, Reed jumped beautifully straight and lost his crookedness almost completely.

Filly by the little man Reed himself
Filly by the little man Reed himself

We ended up jumping the double with both jumps 90cm uprights, and he didn’t have a single stop. I experimented with adjusting his strides. He started off putting two strides into the related distance and then a nasty little half-stride before jumping, so I sped him up and had him lengthen his steps until he was putting in two big strides and then jumping smoothly. He had to stretch a bit, but he made it. Because he had to stretch himself so much I tried asking him for three very short strides. Poor Reed shot himself in the foot. He jumps exactly where and when asked, and won’t save himself the way Arwen does, so we jumped, put in three strides and then found ourselves right on top of the second jump. I gave him my heels and hands but no horse could have jumped that from there, so he crashed through it, poor dude. I thought he might lose his nerve having rapped his front legs on the pole, but instead he just jumped hugely with his knees tucked right up once or twice before going back to his usual self.

We finished off by jumping a 1.00m upright a couple of times and then calling it a day, with a very tired Reed and a very happy rider. Poor Reed, he will eventually get fit, although our sessions are hard workouts for him at the moment.

Because I was schooling stallions, I cooled my heels for half an hour while a client had a lesson on his beautiful Arab stallion Galeel. That’s the big pain with stallions – we can’t have two people in the arena at once, unlike with mares and geldings. (Well, with Reed you usually can, but we weren’t taking chances as Galeel is still very young and green. We’re not Lipizzaner riders!). Once Galeel had gone off to his paddock I fetched cute little Chrome for his third time under saddle ever.

Chrome and I last week
Chrome and I last week

Chrome is one of those dreamy horses who seems to be born knowing the aids; he doesn’t really neck-rein yet, but he’s just as responsive to my hands as to my legs, and apart from the occasional slap with the end of the reins he doesn’t need a lot of encouragement to go forward unlike a lot of these relaxed horses. We walked in circles, walked and jogged figure eights and worked properly on loping for the first time. Chromey gave me six laps of the arena without a single real buck. The worst he did was to plunge into a gallop from a jog for a few strides before settling into his beautiful smooth lope.

He’s just a really nice, straightforward, down-to-earth, easygoing little dude and a joy to work with. Add to this the fact that he is chestnut with socks and a blaze and you have me thoroughly enchanted with him.

It was quite a scramble to get Chrome unsaddled – I had worked a bit late with him; unfortunately, when I’m schooling a horse, the rest of the world kind of disappears for me -and we charged off to art class just in time to meet Galeel’s owner at the church/studio. Galeel’s owner is also one of the best equine artists in South Africa, and I was stoked to be getting art classes from him.

Poor old half-drawn Arab
Poor old half-drawn Arab, pardon the smudgy fingerprints

Okay, so the shading sucks and my poor horse doesn’t look anything like he does on the photos, but he’s a lot of fun to draw. Hopefully I’ll finish him in the next class or two, and do the next one rather better.

This weekend is Outride Weekend; maybe my longsuffering boyfriend and I can take Thunder for his first outride on our neighbour’s farm. I’m rather looking forward to that!

Cowgirl Up

The long-awaited, much-dreamt-of Western saddle finally arrived on Thursday afternoon, to my absolute delight and somewhat juvenile excitement.

It had been a busy but good day, starting with a jumping session on Reed. He was in a bit of a lazy frame of mind, but I put up a 60cm cross and a 70cm upright and took turns jumping those until he was confident; he only ran out once. By increments, I raised the upright to 80cm, then 90cm and Reed popped over without protest.

Reed after our ride
Reed after our ride

As resolved, I was experimenting with my position, concentrating on letting my hands follow his head instead of using them to keep my balance. I notice that on landing I lose my balance slightly and my feet tip up along the horse’s sides a little. It only lasts a stride, though, and I’m back in balance and ready for the next fence almost immediately. I suppose it’ll take some practice to perfect. Once I gave Reed too much rein too suddenly, giving him a fright and making him take down the pole. He did this twice, but kept jumping well, so I put up a 1.00m upright to challenge him a little. Reed was a star. He was slightly hesitant, but I rode him right up to it and he obliged by jumping beautifully.

Titan was next. I brought him in myself this time, albeit using a stud chain to make sure I kept control over him (I can just picture him breaking away from me and galloping off to damage himself or cover someone else’s mare), but he was fine and didn’t do any acrobatics. I saddled him up and got on without lunging him, and although he did his usual trick of missioning off as I mounted, he was absolutely wonderful for the rest of the ride. His working trot was calmer and more balanced, he pulled much less, and his canter was a little slower and more controlled.

I was just thinking that next time I would introduce him to a few little crossrails at a trot (I had already done some trotting pole work with him) when the Mutterer put up a crossrail, about 40cm, and said, “Go for it.” Titan doesn’t like the stripy red-and-white poles and stopped the first time. I knew the jump was small enough to step over, so I plunked my heels in his sides and he popped over, looking shocked that the scary poles hadn’t eaten him.

After that he was just dreamy. We stuck to a trot and went up to 60cm crossrails, and he jumped every time with no bucking or bolting. He broke into a canter for a few steps after some of the jumps but was easy to get back to a trot. He also didn’t panic, and stayed in a settled working trot without running about pulling on my hands the way he used to. I was extremely pleased with the big boy.

It. Is. So. Cool.
It. Is. So. Cool.

Then, finally, I was allowed to play with my glorious new El Paso saddle. I learnt to ride Western in an El Paso, which I loved, and this one was no different. It’s not the highest quality leather, but it fits on virtually anything with four legs and a tail, and it’s incredibly comfortable even for my short legs.

I was surprised but delighted when the Mutterer brought in one of the quarter horses for me to test my new saddle on. Tees Custom Chrome has a very cool name and thinks he is a golden retriever or, possibly, a baby spaniel. A three-year-old chestnut colt, he has brilliant breeding, a beautiful temper, and a rich, red chestnut coat. Chrome has not officially been backed, but he’s been ridden bareback to and from his paddock for ages, so neither of us had any reservations in plopping my new saddle on his back. I followed, and took him for a spin. Perhaps it’s true that quarter horses are born with an aptitude for Western, because Chrome seemed to know instinctively what to do. Apart from a dramatic but short-lived bucking fit when I asked him to lope the first time, he made no protest at this new human fallacy, and he is one of the most comfortable horses I’ve ever ridden. I love him.

A perfect fit
A perfect fit

As soon as I got home I was dragging the Western saddle down to my own horses. To my delight, it fits both Skye and Thunder like a glove, and don’t they look like real cow ponies! I hurriedly put together a black bridle for Thunder from a bunch of spare pieces I had lying around – his brown bridle was poor quality anyway, and looked atrocious with a black saddle – but I’ll be looking for a proper Western bridle shortly.

Thunder went for his first proper test drive in the Western today. Accompanied by the Mutterer on a disgruntled Skye (she hates all men apart from my [awesome] boyfriend), we went for a nice, long, slow hack around the farm. Thunder was amazing. He had two little spooks – both at holes, which, for reasons unknown to the human mind, are terrifying – but apart from that walked briskly but calmly on a loose rein the whole way. We had a short jog and an awesome canter that (intentionally) turned into a mad gallop. Thunder didn’t even think about bucking and stopped the moment I asked him to. He was fantastic, and I was loving the new saddle.

The only problem is, the thing makes more noise than an asthmatic elephant. Its new leather groans and squeaks so loudly with every stride that I could barely hear the Mutterer talking. Perhaps that’s why Thunder was so well behaved – he couldn’t hear any scary noises above the saddle’s deafening racket.

Thun models his new outfit
Thun models his new outfit

I don’t enjoy going deaf on outrides, so as we speak the saddle is soaking up the last rays of the summer sun alongside a generous coating of Dubbin. Hopefully that will quieten it down a little.

Praise the Lord for all the small blessings He mixes in with the big ones. He knows our hearts’ desires, and it is His joy to grant them whenever it is in line with His will. And as His will is what is best for us, and is formed based on His mighty love, there are few things we wish for that He won’t give us, if we ask Him humbly with faith in our hearts. Blessed be His merciful and loving Name.

2014: The Year Ahead

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Jeremiah 29:11

I suppose I’m not the only one quoting this Scripture at this time of year, but it’s worth quoting again. I love to set goals, if only to keep myself on track; and yet so much of my life is entirely in God’s hands. I can do my part; get up every day, feed the horses, ride my best, look for better ways to train and care for them, strive to become a better horsewoman, a better rider, but ultimately – a better student, a better daughter, a better girlfriend, and a better child of the only Living God. Yet my Lord can flip my whole world on its head with just a flick of His little finger. He did it last year, and it was so much better than it would have been if the year had gone the way I planned it.

So I place this year in His good Hands; my plans are like the flowers of the field, here today, gone tomorrow. I will try hard and work hard to meet my goals, but ultimately, only God can decide. Without further ado, my equestrian goals for 2014:

I love to see the world between a pair of chestnut ears
I love to see the world between a pair of chestnut ears

Skye’s the Limit. I have to admit that my fine brave charger has no real training goals and has never really had any. She’s my pleasure horse all round; I don’t make her do anything she really doesn’t feel like, and she doesn’t push me around. I would be ashamed of handling a training project like that, but Skye’s not a training project, she’s my friend. She’s the horse I get on when I’m so tired of fighting youngsters that I’m on the point of hating riding. Skye’s goals: Stay healthy; get fit; get a Western saddle. (Western saddle!! Squee! 😀 )



Yes... he really does think this is a buck
Yes… he really does think this is a buck

Thunderbird. Baby Thunder met his goals for last year with spectacular success. My goals for 2013 with him were: “… I’d like to have him walking, trotting and cantering in the arena without bucking me off or doing stupid stuff like that by the end of the year. I would also like to take him on his first outride or two, if possible.”

Thunder has never had a bucking fit in his life, in fact he might be the only horse I know who hasn’t done a proper handstand. He walks, jogs and lopes in the arena without any issues apart from the standard lack of balance of a young horse. On outrides, he is reasonably reliable; I wouldn’t like to put anyone else on him, but he mostly behaves with me. He doesn’t nap or run home at all, but he can be quite spooky and has bolted once or twice when I was caught unawares. His spooks thankfully never include bucking and he does have brakes, but I don’t like it very much and took my first fall off him the other day (to be fair, an old girth strap snapped, so it wasn’t really Thun’s fault). He canters calmly alone and in company on outrides in any direction, as well.

This year, I’d like to spend some time working on Thunder’s physical strength, since he is old enough to handle heavier work now. Lungeing in side reins to build his loin muscles in balance, particularly in canter, will help. I would like him to lope slowly and on the correct lead (using simple lead changes for now), understand the basics of neck-reining at all three gaits, learn to stand squarely, and turn on the haunches by the end of the year. Outrides should also still be done at least once a week; I would like him to go out consistently without bolting, alone and in company, by the end of the year.

Oh, and he can also wear the Western saddle. (Western saddle!! Squee!! 😀 No, I’m not going to stop doing that 😉 )

OMW! Arwen's ears are up! Never mind the terrible frame, Arwen's ears are up!!
OMW! Arwen’s ears are up! Never mind the terrible frame, Arwen’s ears are up!!

Arwen. Arwen also met her goals last year by competing at two events; a Western mounted games clinic (off topic, but loads of fun) and a jumping schooling show. She was wonderful at the jumping show, rounding off her day with a splendid double clear for a fourth place in the 60cm jumping. I would like to get her on the show circuit more regularly and to raise the bar slightly to be jumping around 80cm competitively by the end of the year. I would also like to enter her in a few dressage shows and see how she does, starting with the Preliminary tests, they don’t look that hard. (Ha! Famous last words).

At home, she can learn to jump 1.10m consistently (whether she will ever compete at that level or not, I’m not sure, but it’s worth a shot). Her canter, whilst good, needs some work; she must learn flying changes. I want her to improve her frame so that she is going in a good outline with her nose in by the end of the year. She must also learn to do all her lateral movements, which she does well in a walk, in trot (starting with shoulder-in and then travers and half-pass). She must also be able to extend and collect her trot. This will put her at Elementary Medium level. I’ll need a pair of spurs, but to be absolutely honest, I love spurs on advanced horses, they really give a lot more precision.

Handsome or what?
Handsome or what?

Magical Flight. My splendid thoroughbred ended the year by injuring himself, not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four times. Yes, four. First his poor little feets didn’t like the mud and went all sore, then he was mysteriously lame for a week, and just as that cleared up, he cut himself. In case he wasn’t getting enough attention, he then cut himself again, almost to the bone, poor baby. Thankfully, all his injuries but for the last cut are healed. This last cut is a nasty deep one on the inside of his front right cannon bone just below the knee. The vet and Mutterer checked it out and agreed that stitches won’t be necessary, but it’s still a gory business of changing bandages and sticking on a homemade but very effective remedy – a mixture of raw wild honey and proudflesh powder. In a few weeks, handsome boy should be back on track.

Magic’s schooling improved in massive leaps last year; by the end of the year he was happy at 90cm, carried himself in a decent frame at all three gaits, led on the correct lead (simple lead changes), and had jumped as high as 1.20m. His muscle tone had also improved, especially bringing out a bit more of a neck and cutting down on that unflattering hay belly. This year, I want him to build even more muscle along his topline and tighten up his tummy. I’d like him to be jumping 1.10m comfortably at home, and also to go to his first jumping schooling shows. His flatwork could do with work – he can still toss his head in the air and rush sometimes. So to wrap it up, this year Magic must go to his first shows, and learn to make calm transitions between gaits, leg-yield in walk, start flying changes, and build correct muscle tone.

Cling to mane like beginner! So pro, right?
Cling to mane like beginner! Stare at floor! So pro, right?

Yours truly. As a rider, I grew a lot last year, but there’s still plenty room for improvement. In dressage: My leg position is fine right now, much better than the chair seat I used to have; but now I need to work on my arms, hands, shoulders and eyes. From spending ages trying to get Arwen and Magic to bring their noses in and lower their heads, I have developed a habit of nailing my hands to the horse’s shoulders, turning out my pinkies (and hence my elbows), slumping my shoulders and staring at the horse’s mane. Charlotte Dujardin does not do this. I wanna look like Charlotte Dujardin. She is a British dressage heroine and she wears a helmet. Viz., she is amazing.

I must get into the habit of riding with a proper upper body: eyes looking between the horse’s ears with chin up, hands a fist’s breadth above and in front of the pommel, thumbs turned up, elbows relaxed by my sides with upper arms hanging almost straight.

In jumping: My position always looks super weird to me on photos; I think I’m nailing my hands to the poor nag’s shoulders again. I must learn not to balance on my hands, but to push them forward and allow the horse to stretch. Oh, and I can stop doing that funky poke-one-toe-out thing. And I must ride right up to every jump instead of sitting there going “you better jump by yourself little pony, I’m much too scared to do anything”.

In Western: Ha! I don’t even know what a proper Western seat looks like. Fix this. Stop leaning forward and gripping with the knees in lope and halt from lope.

So there you have it, readers. Lord willing, this is what I hope to accomplish this year. And everything hangs on those two words: Lord willing. Because His will is pure and right and perfect, and I place everything in His hands.