After making a beautiful recovery, Thunderbirdy was given three weeks off to hang out in the field.
Technically we probably would have gotten away with less. Still, biliary is so harsh on them. I wanted to give him enough time to regain his weight and rebuild all his blood cells before we got back to work.
It has been ridiculously hot, so after riding baby horses all afternoon, I decided to work with Thunder at sunset (about seven o’ clock) to make things more fun for both of us. I just wanted him to play and rediscover his body and reduce the risk of launching me into the stratosphere, so I put him on the lunge line just in a halter to see how he moves.
He was surprisingly chill, given all his time off. Not flat, but not too loopy. He just seemed pretty relaxed with everything. Maturity, is that you?
He is pretty unfit though. We only did about 20 minutes and he wasn’t tired, but he was hot and sweaty. I think he’s not the only one though. Nobody else gives my abs the same workout as he does, and tragically, it kinda shows.
His canter needs work though. I can’t tell if it was always like this or if he’s just lost a lot of strength, but it was pretty flat today – lacking some jump and uphill. I’ll have to feel what he feels like tomorrow.
I’m so honoured that God healed him so perfectly. Many more dances lie ahead with this incredible, wonderful creature. I’d forgotten how lovely he is to look at, how there’s something soothing and soulful in the way a strong horse moves that just fills the soul.
None of us ever really deserve each other. Glory to the King.
Despite the fact that we’re struggling to get to lessons and the last time we went down centreline in competition was in March, Thunderbirdy has been making awesome progress.
Looking back on blog posts from November last year, I’m a little awed at what God has done through Coach J and Thunder. Last year this time we were tentatively testing the Novice waters. Now, we’re schooling the early EM tests at home, and it feels… well, I don’t want to say easy. But it feels good. And it comes way more naturally than it ever did with Arwen. Not to deprecate any of her achievements – she took me to Elementary based solely on articles I read on the Internet, for goodness’ sake.
But beautiful Thunder has had guidance, and it really shows. He is so powerful, so elastic, so much better in the connection than I could ever have hoped for before. Basically if we struggle with anything then I’m making a mistake somewhere. There are no real roadblocks right now; we just keep building, brick by brick, getting stronger and more confirmed in all of his work.
Even the changes aren’t stopping us. Even the canter-walk transitions have suddenly clicked when we revamped his canter and I learned to ride them in shoulder-fore. Those were major roadblocks for Arwen and I, and with them out of the way, I really kinda feel like there’s nothing stopping us from Medium, from Advanced, maybe even PSG. Who knows? Right now he is young and sound and just amazing with everything, and I’m not going to believe in any limits until we reach them.
Sunday will be our first show in many months, thanks to incredible provision that the Lord has been blessing us with via my ghostwriting. It’s a local training show with a judge I respect, so I went ahead and signed up for Elementary 1 and 2. The tests are not very difficult but it will be his first time having to do canter-walk and halt immobility in the show arena, as well as only his second time ever doing lateral work at a show.
I’m not expecting anything like what I get at home. At home on a good day I’m sure we can get 70% or above for both of those tests, but we haven’t shown in a while so I’m gonna be a mess and he’s gonna be a mess so we’re just going to go in and get a feel for those tests.
Right now all my main goals when it comes to showing are about what’s going on inside my messed up little head. My mentality is the single greatest obstacle standing in our way, and if we can overcome that, then there’s really nothing going to stop us.
So today I’m excited to show. I’m not nervous because it doesn’t matter if it all goes horribly wrong. Dressage is not about marks or movements. Dressage is about celebrating the connection that exists so spectacularly between horse and person, no matter how messy that celebration can look. I’m inordinately blessed just to swing my leg over my gorgeous horse every day. And no amount of nerves is going to ruin my joy in that.
Today I’d like to talk about something that I feel strongly about, and forgive me if I get a little passionate. I almost wrote “It’s something that the sport needs to hear”, but actually, the sport is generally quite good about this. This is something that the average rider needs to hear. The one-horse rider, perhaps on a bit of a budget, perhaps just having two ponies on a plot somewhere, perhaps the parent watching their kid pop around at SANESA – the ordinary, average horse owner that makes up the vast and overwhelming majority of horse owners in South Africa today.
The something is this: your horse should be insured.
It expands into this: your retired horse should also be insured.
This is Magic. Say hi, Magic.
Magic is 11. Magic is also retired. There’s nothing really wrong with him physically, except ordinary OTTB stuff – his feet are a little flat and he’s got a bit of KS going on. We showjumped a bit, and for about four out of five shows he would be amazing and perfect. But that one out of five, he would do one of two things: he would fly backwards across the arena gasping in abject and genuine panic for half an hour, or he would get home and colic. It wasn’t fair on him anymore, so now he decorates the lawn, and has done so for two years.
In short, Magic is worth approximately R0.00. More accurately, he’s worth about -R1500 every month, conservatively, and only because we live on the farm and have grazing.
Magic also has a five-figure vet bill sitting on my desk.
Magic’s vet bill will be paid. Because you just can’t put a price tag on some things, and the horse you retired is one of them. You see, Magic never won any real ribbons and never really got me anywhere when it came to riding. He left me with a collection of bad habits and frayed nerves and two big fat RFs on my record – at the same show. But Magic gets the best of everything. He is a shiny, round, happy 7.5/10 on the condition scale year-round; his teeth are done, his feet are done, and he has all of his shots every year. I don’t spend as much time with him as I would like because at some point I do have to work in order to keep providing him with his happy, lazy existence, but every morning he gets a carrot and a hug and I like to think he still knows that I care about him.
It’s not really about what he thinks of me, though. I don’t take care of him because I’m a warm and fuzzy person. I do it because I honestly owe it to him to give him the best and happiest life he possibly could have and even if I succeed for many years then I will still forever be in his debt.
Magic never shaped me as a rider. He shaped me as a human being.
Magic never won ribbons, but he won my heart. He didn’t teach me very much about showjumping, but he taught me about life, during a tempestuous time as I struggled with the insurmountable challenge that is adolescence. He taught me to forgive myself for scars, for pain, for being a broken piece of humanity in a broken world. He taught me to breathe deep and slow. He taught me that there’s so much more to life than success and so much more to the sport than winning. And so much more to horses than competing.
He didn’t give me all that much pleasure in the saddle or any great pride or victory or prestige. He gave me so much more. He gave me hope. He gave me forgiveness. He gave me tenderness. He gave me the power to understand my own rattled and anxious soul.
He’s not just a horse or a fine companion or even a best friend. He’s an instrument of God.
Magic gave me a part of who I am, a good and loving and compassionate part.
A thousand vet bills will never, ever be enough to pay him back.
Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t actually matter how lyrical I can wax about how much I love my priceless retiree or what he’s done for me. Of course I wanted to save him when he colicked this week. The fact remains that if he hadn’t been insured, all the wanting in the world wouldn’t have done a thing. Even what I have done was almost not enough; he needed a surgery that I couldn’t have paid for – to be fair, these surgeries extend into six figures – and it’s only by God’s grace that he’s still with us.
I didn’t have him insured for that kind of money. But I had him insured for something; enough that he could be in hospital on a drip and receiving professional, round-the-clock care by someone who wasn’t emotional, drained, and ultimately out of their depth. This time, it was enough. You better believe he’s getting better insurance in case there is a next time.
This is the real value of insurance. Not something to protect your financial investment, but something to save the horses that financially aren’t really worth saving; the horses that gave you everything and now stand in a field somewhere, hopefully with you, a bit old and ugly and broken. They gave you their hearts. Now it’s your turn.
I’m talking to you, average rider on your average horse. You the lady doing Prelim or EV60 on a Boerperd or an OTTB or a nondescript little bay horse of uncertain ancestry and deep, gentle eyes. You the daddy paying for your kid to ride. You the doting horse mom with two Shetlands in your backyard, piggy-fat and eating carrots and thriving. You all feed your horse enough and make sure he’s dry in the rain, but are you ready for a colic surgery? Are you ready for a night at the vet hospital? Are you ready for diagnostics, treatments, drips?
Medical aid starts as cheaply as R160 per month. If you can compete in one single training show class or eat out once a month, you can afford this.
I shouldn’t really be asking you if you’re ready to pay to save your horse. Rather, I should ask you this: Are you ready to watch your horse die because you can’t?
I have SO MUCH to write about and so much media that it’s a little overwhelming. Thunderbirdy has been his superb self, charging through the EM work already with great gusto, revolutionising his canter, and just being my bestest dance partner.
But today I want to gush some more about my Faith pony.
First, she actually looks like a horse now, which is a great relief. Not a super pretty horse, granted, but at least something horse-esque. We’re approaching her four-year-old year so mercifully it should be all uphill from here (SHOULD).
Her training is going great. Physically, all we’ve really achieved is a canter where all the legs go in the same direction and the ability to trot over poles.
All the training we’re doing right now is emotional. We’re talking about how standing still is a safe space, too. About how nothing I ask her to do is painful, and about how the thing I want is the easy thing.
We’re discussing how new things never mean punishment, but are neutral or result in praise when dealt with quietly. We’re talking about forward and straight.
Most of our rides are spent sparking these kind of conversations using obstacles or going on outrides. We’ve done little working riding courses and “jumps” (crosses small enough to just trot over). In fact, she’s more than ready to go into a connection and start learning throughness and bend. She just needs her teeth to be done first. For now I have her in a Nathe and ride on a long, floppy rein.
In the interim, we have quiet conversations about respect and patience. We acknowledge each other as strong-minded young women who both have valid opinions and realistic needs. Every ride, we’re learning to trust each other a little bit better.
We’re keeping it conversational. We’re keeping it fun.
I love this horse on hacks. She’s just a baby but she’s such a genuine baby – a nice, normal baby horse with no baggage and no vices who just loves to work. She prefers to lead, with her little ears pricked and her stride long and swinging through her whole body. Sometimes we still have our babysitter go in front for scary things, but she’s pretty good about everything. She has an honest little spook and if she’s unsure she just stops and has a look until she knows it’s safe.
Soon we’ll start bending and connecting and test riding. For now, we go on hacks. We fool around on a loose rein. We ride bareback. On Sunday, we’re going to her first ridden show. We’re doing ground poles, but if we just unload and stand at the show quietly all day, that’s cool too.
It’s not about what we’re doing. It’s about what we’re talking about. I’m in no hurry and I allow no one to prescribe to me what my journey with my beautiful baby horsie is supposed to look like.
The only opinions that matter are my horse’s and God’s. And I’m enjoying every heartbeat with them both.
Nothing beats backing and bringing on a young horse from scratch for me. I love figuring out, helping and seeing improvement in remedial horses, but there’s always an element of frustration – the knowledge that this horse could have been so much better if nobody had messed it up in the first place. The blank slate of a baby is so refreshing, and they always progress so quickly with so few hiccups, comparatively. Especially babies with easy temperaments are just an utter joy if you know what to expect and what conversations to have.
Nobody is easier than baby Faith. After backing her and putting on walk/trot/a close approximation of something like a drunken camel attempting to canter, I turned her out again for a bit. L lunged her just in a halter and boots once a week for me and that was about it. Faith was never naughty, but she was just still a complete baby. At only three and a half, she had plenty of time to just chill and grow up.
Eventually, after six weeks almost completely off, I fetched her in from the field to just have a little ride and assess where she is now. Her manners are better but still babyish. She doesn’t do anything exactly naughty, she just can’t stand still for more than five minutes and wants to greet everyone who comes along. But she’s OK to groom and tack up, all while standing tied or in the stable, so it’ll improve as she matures.
I was going to lunge her a little bit first, considering she’s a green-backed baby who’d just had more than a month off, but in the end I was just kind of too lazy and ended up climbing on board. And she was absolutely fabulous. She was calm, relaxed and confident in all three gaits and, crucially, offered her first canter circle in rhythm and balance. She wanted to go to work and she had fun. Needless to say, so did I. She’s growing up into exactly the kind of horse I really love to ride.
I started toying with the idea of bringing her back into gentle work. Last week, when I actually had a look at her standing properly for the first time in months, I was pleasantly surprised with how she looks.
Gone is the dorkward baby wheelbarrow. The two inches she grew in the past year made her decidedly uphill now, which explains why balance is suddenly a thing. Her body is more ready than it was and her mind is certainly ready, so we’ve started back into work.
I love the conversations I can have with this horse. Her first real human contact was on the second of January 2017, when I loaded her in a box and brought her home to me, and so there’s nothing but my own work here. She especially has no concept of being punished for fear.
Yesterday’s conversation was about the washing line, the one thing that seems to have managed to freak her out. After a productive arena ride, we headed up the passage past the dread object alone. Some distance from it, Faith hit the brakes. I’m not sure that it’s safe. I rubbed her neck and gave her a chance to look, the reins loose. She knew she had no reason to panic, so she looked. After a few moments, she flicked her ears back to me, and I put on a little bit of leg. She took a few more steps and halted again. Rinse, repeat. No violence, no escalation. I didn’t ever even shorten the reins. Her natural curiosity and trust in me as her leader overcame her uncertainty, as a horse always will do if given enough time to look and think without fear of anything escalating.
The plan is to do 15-20 minutes two or three days a week all year. There’s lots of time. Most of our conversations will be about citizenship. Brakes and steering. Standing still to be tacked up. Going on hacks alone and in company. I’m in no hurry; we might go to a show to hang out or we might not. I know I could go compete Prelim in a month with her brain, but what’s the point of rushing now?
It looks like very simple, very boring work, but what we’re doing now is the basis on which everything else will be built. We’re not talking about connection or bend yet. We’re talking about how to deal with fear, how she’s safe with me. And as Faith learns, so do I.
When I named her Faith it was to remind myself that God can make good come of it no matter what. She came into my life after Nell was sold, Rainbow died and I felt like there would never be a good grey mare in my life again. But the faith God is using her to teach me right now is a more everyday kind. A faith like potatoes. A staple food.
Schooling a young horse like her is impossible if all you think about is the end product. Horses have no concept of their future. They certainly don’t worry about it like we do; they care about this moment. If I rushed through it now with my eye on the levels I know my beautiful baby horse can achieve, I’ll miss out on so many moments. I’ll miss out on the journey. I’ll miss out on the dance. Because much as it may look totally discombobulated right now, it is the dance, in its purest form.
No pressure. No hurry. Eyes on the prize, but hands open to receive what I’m being given in this moment. A lesson, like most lessons, in both horses and life. There is so much I want from the future. I have such tremendous dreams. But here and now, I am also blessed. So let me fix my eyes on Jesus and then run with patience, trusting Him for what is to come, knowing He is the God Who moves mountains.
It only takes a little faith to move a mountain. And she might be only 15 hands, but this little Faith is certainly moving mine.