Wednesday, 25 January 2023

In Which Working Equitation Gets Dragoned

 Is "dragon" a verb? I think Arwen makes it one.

Had my saddle slipped forward? Yes. Was this a direct result of ferocious Dragoning? Maybe.

There's a growing community of working equitation riders on the East Rand, not far from us. I'd only ever seen videos of WE, but it looked like a ton of fun. Arwen has won her share of championships in working riding but always wishes she could go a bit faster. Since the maneability part of WE basically looked like working riding on steroids, I'd always had a pipe dream of trying it out with the dragonbeast itself.

When I saw an introductory WE clinic advertised for last Sunday, it was a no-brainer. We made our (amazingly inexpensive) booking, tossed the beast in the box, and off we went on our first husband-and-wife horse-related excursion.

As usual, Arwen sweated the whole way there. She's always a sweaty person in general and, in eight or nine years of traveling to things, she's never stopped sweating on the way there. (Never on the way back, though). Still, I was a little concerned when we unloaded a snorting, sweating dragon when we got to the small, pleasant yard where the clinic was being held. Arwen has only been off property twice since Wynnie was conceived - once to the vet and once to look after Wynnie when we showed her in hand at HOY 2022 - and hasn't been ridden off property at all for more than two years.

Despite the rising dragon vibes, I didn't have time to stress about it. I was, as usual, late. We strapped on her saddle and headed for the arena, where my trepidation only increased when I discovered that there were about twenty of us. It was a large jumping-size arena with plenty of space around it, certainly enough to accommodate all of us, and on Lancey or Thunder I would not have batted an eye. However, Arwen, being a Dragon, kicks mightily when provoked. Eyeing the couple of young horses already losing their various marbles, I sincerely hoped that she wouldn't be provoked today.

Still, to my surprise, Arwen felt relatively chill as we strolled around the edge of the arena. She tipped an ear toward one or two spooky things but was immediately happy to settle in and get to work. We trotted a few circles, and while she was hot and I did not regret my choice to leave my whip at the horsebox, she was listening well and not running through my aids. I could, however, feel a buck brewing right behind the saddle.

We got right to the obstacles, starting with the stock pen. It wasn't that small - maybe a 15m circle on the outside with a volte on the inside - but, mindful of that brewing buck, Arwen and I trotted it.

clearly applying the lesson to lift my hands lol

While we were waiting for everyone else to go, I schooled her a little on the grass, and the buck magnificently came out when I asked for canter left. It was just a porpoise really, so I put my leg on and growled through it and she obliged. She did offer a few more bucks throughout the day but they felt like pure excitement and honestly, who can blame her? Life is awesomely exciting if you are a dragon, even if you're a 16-year-old one.

The next obstacle was a little lane, at the end of which there was a bell. One had to canter in, halt, ring the bell and rein-back out (there were easier options, like just walking in and doing three steps of rein-back instead, but Dragonbeast and I felt like we had it handled). Apart from the fact that Arwen randomly decided that she couldn't rein-back anymore while we were waiting, which we sorted out quite quickly before actually trying the obstacle, this was a non-event.

The next obstacle was the easiest and also the one with which we had the most trouble, for whatever reason (perhaps not stimulating enough by mare standards). Simply cantering up to a drum, picking up the jug, holding it over my head, and putting it back down again. Easy, right? Not if you have a dragon. Arwen decided that this was far too exciting to stand still, and nearly knocked the drum over with her voluptuous buttocks. We practiced this one repeatedly while waiting for other obstacles and eventually she did remember her manners.

I anticipated some drama around the bridge. Arwen has never minded going onto mats in working riding classes, but this was a very different kettle of fish. When we went up to the bridge the first time, I let her put her head down and sniff, and she stepped onto it without even being asked. After that she took it confidently from both reins, no questions asked. I think it was her favourite obstacle.

We followed this with side-passing over a pole, which was also very exciting in her mind, but we didn't quite managed to complete the full side-pass any faster than a walk. I think once she gets the idea a little more cemented in her mind she will do it easily, so it's just a matter of practice.

The next obstacle was definitely the easiest for us: halting between two poles and switching an upturned flower pot from one to the other. It was done quickly enough that it held a certain dragon's attention and she didn't squirm.

Next was the slalom, which was bending poles in canter, with the emphasis being that you had to go right through the middle of the poles - not hug them like bending poles - and do a simple or flying change between each one. This was piece of cake for her, with easy changes in walk, and loads of fun, even though the many transitions did cause rising excitement and a few moments of difficulty for me.

The garrocha was definitely the hardest obstacle for me. Arwen didn't care at all about the big stick being picked up and waved around her, but the level of hand-eye coordination required for me to pick it up mid-canter was... more than I really have. We had to take several passes at it, with multiple oopsies, before I got it into my head. Something we'll definitely need to practice at home.

The final obstacle was the gate. We practiced this twice, perfectly, while no one was watching, and then as soon as it was our turn, I just... reversed my horse directly into the pole and knocked it over. Arwen even told me that "hey, mom, there's a pole there" and I insisted "no it's all good" and she took a huge step back, knocked it over with her voluptuous bottom and said "MOM THERE IS A POLE THERE". Sorry dragon, 100% my bad.

After this we had the chance to run through the whole thing ourselves. This time we did everything in canter, except for the obstacles that are supposed to be in walk and the side pass pole, and it was pretty foot perfect except for me failing majestically at grabbing the garrocha on the first two tries.

While the first few WE shows of the year clash with SANESA, HOY and dressage, there is one later in the year that I'd love to try out with her, just for fun - because she loved it and that made me love it.

I'm so happy to be riding my dragon again after she took time off for Wynnie, and I can't wait to see where this year takes us.

God is good.

oh look, a husband!

Monday, 16 January 2023

Kick Start

This week started fabulously well with a new phone. The old one was brilliant and did so well, but it had taken four years of abuse and my spare one had been hijacked for farm use. Since my contract was up for renewal, I indulged a tiny bit in something with a fairly snazzy camera. Which, you'll see, I enjoyed massively this week.

Sunflowers pop up in the horse fields at this time of year since there are sunflower seeds in the muesli we feed. They were my wedding flowers and I love them.

Obviously Wynnie and Thunder had to be some of my first subjects. Their summer coats are metallic right now. Thunder was naked for a day after destroying his fly sheet, as one does during the first week of January when there are endless shipping delays, but he survived.

Thunder had schooled nicely on Monday morning, and Arwen worked on Monday afternoon. She is always a bit barbaric to lunge but I nonetheless enjoyed being dragged all over the arena for 18 minutes.

Tuesday morning Thunder enjoyed some pole work, the fact that his mother is useless at pole work notwithstanding. I bought these glitter boots for him from Bridle Boutique because I had no good reason not to. 

 Then he got dressed up in all of his new things. The gorgeous halter was only R300 including lead from Bridle Boutique and his fly stuff is Capriole.

Lancey also got a new fly mask to protect his lil pink nosey. He's great in hot weather but that poor lil nose sunburns worse than any other horse I've seen.

Tuesday was super busy in hindsight. Our lessons started on Thursday and we were busy getting the yard ready. Old man Carnegie had his fortnightly spa day, although not after galloping away from me for fifteen minutes when I dared go to catch him, DSLD or no. One of my favourite retirees ever. He's in his twenties but don't tell him.

Then another new retiree arrived, and the same box took Dawn to a lovely new home. Diablo is 24, used to jump the highest pony grades, and has arthritis and only one eye. I would die for him. He's really cute.

Then I cleaned out the tack room, which was basically a nuclear war zone after pony camp. This took the ENTIRE afternoon.

It was worth it even if Lancey missed his schooling session.

We made up for it on Wednesday morning with a long, long ride with EM on Magic Tree Farm. She took Flashy, and the intense heat hopefully helped the little bugger to shake off some of his megachonk.

Lancey was a superstar. We fit in lots of trotting and some fun collected cantering while Flashy trotted along. Anke was in hospital so poor EM was glad to get her horsy fix.

Afterwards I took advantage of the crazy heat to paint the tack room door with blackboard paint, a lovely gift from EM.

Things got hectic for the rest of the day so Thunder had a little break, but we started bright and early on Thursday with a nice lunge. Skye supervised.

E2, our work rider, rode Faith because K is on holiday. Faith has come back into work absolutely gorgeous and really mature in body and mind.

Renè  is still holding her baby hostage. She'll be vet checked next week but seems quite happy. I thought the day had come last week when she had a sweaty, uncomfortable episode, but it passed. Last year she caught me off guard so who knows what will happen this year.

The blackboard worked great once I'd written up the schedule. We're pleasantly full but not too busy. Grateful for the balance.

Friday was a super exciting day. Coach J came over to teach at my yard for the first time. I've been out of lessons for a long time and there was a lot to work on, most notably on letting the boys keep their necks up and open. With Thunder, that meant letting go of his face and seriously focusing on pressing him up to the bridle from behind, especially in creating a collected canter. "More canter for collected canter, not less". We got a few steps where things started to click for me, and then in typical Coach J fashion, we called it quits as soon as the penny began to drop for me. One of my favourite things about riding with Coach J is the lack of drilling. It has never worked for me and I hate feeling my horse get exhausted and demoralized under me.

Then I hand grazed Thunder and iced his legs while one of the lesson kids rode Shaila. Coach J, ever salty with me, was, as always, super kind and sweet with the kiddo, who utterly blossomed during her lesson and had a really good time. Shaila went home to kiddo's farm for the holidays and spent several weeks climbing mountains and galloping across open fields, and it really shows. She's fitter and stronger than she's ever been.

After this I saddled up Lancey. J was originally quite impressed by the sight of Lancey, saying that he looks good, even though I feel like he needs a little weight. He did show some signs of dismay when I admitted that Lancey didn't really do any dressage for the whole of 2022, just a lot of trail riding. Still, it wasn't horrible once we got started. Once again I needed to work on carrying my hands and pushing him to the bridle instead of pulling incessantly. My feel is a bit off - I kept trying to "make him round" when he was already connected. J also had us do a ton of transitions, both within the gaits and between gaits, to help me keep him more balanced and responsive. It started out as a bit of a hot mess but the transitions really smoothed out after a while. I put highlights of both lessons on Instagram @ridingonwater with music if anyone wants to look at them.

It was really cool having J at the yard, and I'm looking forward to regular lessons with him this year. I've been riding with him since October 2017 and I've always loved my lessons, even the hard ones where there was some crying in the tack room afterwards right in the beginning. He LOVES Thunder and I don't think anyone has ever believed so fiercely in my horse (and me) as he does, and that makes it feel easy to make corrections and do things. He really trains us as though we are Grand Prix prospects even though I'm an ammy on a farm horsie, and that's the attitude that's gotten us to Medium/Advanced already.

I schooled Arwen on Friday afternoon just briefly, and she felt fantastic. She is still really stiff, but feels nice and strong now.

Wynnie is at the tail end of a major growth spurt. She got a little ribby during this, but I let her, mindful of letting her grow naturally and not buggering up her feet and legs with too much concentrate at this stage. She seems to have evened out now and is putting some weight back on again, just in time for HOY.

That wrapped up the first full-work week of 2023, leaving me with plenty of dressage homework: carry the hands, ride back to front, push the bum down in collection instead of pulling the head down, and allow the horses more up and open in front.

I am massively grateful for the lifestyle changes that let me ride as much as I want to now, without the endless pressures of mounting piles of work. I'm also hugely enjoying a study of the Bible chronologically again - it was so amazing in 2021 that I couldn't resist doing it again this year. I'm following The Daily Grace Co's reading plan and podcast, which is always full of interesting insights, and currently in the Book of Job. I'm always astonished by all the hints of Jesus in the Old Testament, and Job is also such a powerful message on how NOT to treat a friend in suffering.

Wynnie kisses!

God is good!

Wednesday, 11 January 2023


 For the past couple of years, I didn't really set riding goals. First there was the uncertainty of the pandemic and then there was so much burnout that just trying to ride occasionally was about as much as I could possibly manage.

I've often debated about setting goals and this year was no different. 2020 taught us that we have absolutely no idea what's going to happen, and my super-driven, slightly-obsessive, type-A brain loves to freak out if goals go unmet. But even though that brain burns me out sometimes, it's also pretty good at getting things done, and there are things I would love to do. So this year, I'm going to set goals - I'm just not going to live and die for them. They can just be guidelines, not must-haves. Something to shape fun time with horses, not the purpose of time with horses.

Obviously now I need to go on a whole tangent about how horses fit in my life now, so sorry about that, but here it comes.

After leaving the Friesians, I did some soul-searching on what horses really mean to me. Ever since I was a teenager, I'd been pursuing professional dressage, and I'd always told myself that I could do it and I would love it if only I had the right circumstances. The Friesians presented me with the perfect circumstances... and I didn't love it. I was living the dream and the dream wasn't what I wanted. It was hard to let go of that, and afterwards I wasn't sure that I even wanted to compete anymore. I knew I wanted to ride, but for the first time I gave myself the option to give up competition, and I was surprised by how unappealing that option was. The truth is, I'm still in love with horses. I'm still in love with dressage and I still love schooling, competing, managing and maintaining dressage horses.

The difference is, I have the freedom, by the grace of God, to do it my way, without pressure, with my sweet horses. After taking a solid break from serious riding while we were planning the wedding, I miss it. This is a beautiful gift I've been given and I intend to enjoy it to the very full.

What's more, I very carefully considered and prayed over the stableyard itself, since we honestly had a fairly miserable SANESA year (with a few exceptions) and it stressed me out disproportionately. The Lord finally led my heart back to the reason why the yard exists. The yard is my ministry. It's a way to make a difference in the world. Getting sucked into the worldly pressures doesn't serve its purpose well. So, while we'll continue with SANESA and I continue to offer my best to the kiddos and hope for good seasons for them, I'm overjoyed to have the freedom to pursue my deepest dream for the yard: to make it a place of hope and healing. Not pressure and stress. I applied to study equine-assisted psychotherapy and 2023 will be the first of two years' study. To be clear, EAP involves a team of treatment professionals: a qualified psychologist with specialization in EAP, a qualified equine behaviourist with specialization in EAP, and a qualified horse with specialization in being a horse. God willing, I'll be the behaviourist part of the team when my studies are finished, and then we can finally utilize this beautiful space and our treasured horses to help humans heal.

So that's the first goal of 2023, then: to finish the equine behavioural course for this year. Next year, God willing, will be the EAP part.

On to the dressage part. I'm lucky enough to have three horsies to ride this year - and maybe even the time to actually ride them. What a breathtaking privilege!

Thunder is obviously the one at the highest level, so I plan to keep my main focus on him. We've got a few small, local shows penciled into the calendar to gain points in EM 4, 5, and 6 or Medium 1, 2, and 3 (if I ride EM 1 and 2 one more time on this horse I will scream) in the first half of the year, which is a bit chaotic because of SANESA. Then, in winter, when the horse sickness has died down and his skin is at its best, I hope to tackle one or two big shows, maybe at Medium depending how he feels by then and on his points. The ones I have in the calendar for now are Gauteng Champs, FEI Dressage Challenge (at the non-FEI level, obviously lol) and Dressage Connection if I feel like I have the confidence to face an international judge giving feedback afterwards. I have zero delusions of winning anything against the pros and imports at his level, but I couldn't care less. It would just be for the experience.

Finally, I've got another small show for October, where it would be cool to ride Advanced 1. I think he's already done some pretty spectacular things in his life, but this would be fun and challenging to work towards together and I would get to wear a tailcoat which I would very much like to do please. The test itself is all movements we've schooled quite a bit at home but obviously stringing it all together is a different kettle of fish, plus we'd need to have the points to do it.

Another major Thunder goal, and probably the most important one, is to get him a new saddle. The old Blackburn was a gift and it has done incredibly well for two years, but I'm wearing actual holes in it now, so it's time to retire it.

Lancey is at his very best out on the trails, but he's also turning into a super cool little dressage/showing horse. He has a super work ethic and finally seems to be enjoying his arena work as well. I'm not really into the Arab shows, but if they have another one at Afridome this December, I'll turn myself inside out in order to go - it was the most fun show I've ever been to when we went in 2021. This year we were on honeymoon during the show (which was more fun than any show, without going into too much detail) so I hope to make it in 2023. It would be fun to enter some dressage shows too, maybe try to get his points up a bit, do some higher Novice and lower Elementary tests.

Most importantly, I'd love to take him out to another DRASA (competitive trail for those across the pond) ride. We've done the fun ride at Klipkraal two years running but didn't actually do a competitive ride in 2022, and we both love them. I have visions of exploring neighboring farms on him with friends this year. He's fit enough and reliable enough and it would be so much fun.

Arwen came back into work gently over the last few months of 2022 and she's not quite competition fit yet, but fit enough to do some lessons and start more intense work. At 16, having had two years off, she's come back as sound as a brass bell and flaming hot (for me, anyway. For the riding school kiddos she's as gentle as a lamb). Her big show for 2023 is right on the horizon - Horse of the Year, always our jam. I won't show her in hand again since she's won Nationals several times now and I don't think she has anything left to prove, but we'll just boogie in the ridden classes and have a good time.

We're also trying out something new - Working Equitation. It's practically free to attend and looks like fun and a good break from dressage. We'll do a clinic and maybe one show and see how it suits us. I think Arwen will love it because it basically looks like working riding but faster. If nothing else, it'll be good practice for HOY.

We might do a dressage or two later in the year, when she's fitter and can cope with an Elementary or EM test. Technically she has points for EM, so it would be cool to slowly work towards getting her to Medium, maybe in 2024. Honestly this mare has absolutely nothing to prove to me and I just want to enjoy her.

Finally, there's Wynnie, who will also go to HOY just for the experience. She's still a total baby and our main thing for this year is to get her to stand still for a bath. All the other life skills are pretty much in place, except for clipping, which can come later.

Excited and overjoyed to have so much to look forward to.

God is good.

Monday, 9 January 2023

Chaos and Grace

 The two words I can pick to describe how 2022 went for me. I don't think so much has ever changed so quickly in my life, but one thing never changes: the grace of God. He worked mightily in my life this year and I can't wait to see what He does next.

Here's a brief recap, since I was also a particularly useless blogger last year.

January, on Shy Boy, the one thing I truly miss about working at the Friesians.

February - Vainly struggling to keep Thunder in full work by lungeing in the very late evenings after days so full I didn't have time for meals. The burnout was real.

Still loving going out with the kiddos. I was wrestling very hard with myself at this point. Something had to give, but I didn't know if it was going to be the yard or the Friesians. My head told me that I still wanted a dressage career, but my heart, as always, was here at Morning Star.

Struggling through SANESA qualifiers as well as I could, but still unable to stop loving the kiddos. It was a tough SANESA year, too, which didn't help, but ultimately I'm so glad of the choice I made. Tough years or not, this yeard is my heart.

Halter training Lass and Rose that summer, then weaning them and sending them to their owners in autumn, was one of my favourite parts of 2022. I loved having the three foals and they were so, so cute and friendly. I'm so proud of the horses they're becoming and we'll get to see at least Rose at HOY in February.

My first Medium and last show on one of the Friesians.

Getting a last few points under Thunder's belt to be able to go Medium on him after this, too. This was the last time I rode him until after I left the Friesians two months later, and it was the beginning of massive change and turmoil for me, but all good things in which God was gracious even when they were hard.

Wynnie won her first show the very next day. She was another favourite thing of mine about this year and I love the person she's becoming.

Late April, and the beginning of an epic friendship and many more Lancey adventures as EM and I climbed a mountain while serving as volunteer medics for this fun walk. This was an amazing day and buoyed me through a really tough time.

The last photo of me on one of the Friesians. Miss Sassy was so good, but I don't miss it.

Another EM and Lancey adventure pic!

After that it was a mad whirlwind until the end of June. God led me to quit the Friesians and keep the yard, and I did. We still had to get through the notice period and the tail end of the chaotic SANESA season, and things only really started to change after we went on our first real holiday together, after four years of dating. An entire week of sun and sea (even in African midwinter) together was an incredible reset for us both.

And it ended in my then-boyfriend, always-perfect man getting down on one knee and asking me to marry him. This was my second favourite moment of 2022, and you'll see why shortly.

When we got back, we started to settle into a new life, while also working to plan and pay for a wedding in record time. It was a sweet, sweet time in our relationship, but also a hard time in our lives. In short order, we had to put precious Magic to sleep, although I am relieved, now, that he's running free at last. Weeks later, half the farm burned to the ground. God was with us through all of it.

Arwen came back into work - another favourite thing. I love being back on my good little grey mare.

In a matter of weeks, we loved and lost Xena Warrior Princess Sadler.

I brought Thunder back into light-to-medium work, which fluctuated a bit as wedding planning began to majorly intensify. I was also given a new ghostwriting contract which I love with all my soul.

We took our engagement pics with a favourite horse show photographer, Tanneth Bern, and they came out absolutely perfect in every way.

Then came the most amazing day of my life so far 💜 The man of my prayers married me in a tiny ceremony on our beloved farm. Lancey carried me to the aisle, wedding dress and all 💜

It was not a perfect day, but it was beautiful and worshipful and joyous, and God's presence flooded it. I pray the same will be true of our marriage 💜

Now for a whole new chapter. A new job, a new routine, a new marriage, a new vision. Walking into 2023 as Mrs. Firn Sadler, with a heart full of hope and peace, joy and love. I don't know what this year is going to be like, but I know God's in it. And that's reason enough to rejoice.

God is good.

In Which Working Equitation Gets Dragoned

 Is "dragon" a verb? I think Arwen makes it one. Had my saddle slipped forward? Yes. Was this a direct result of ferocious Dragoni...