Weekly Photo Challenge: Solitary

It was one of those splendid mornings in early spring that are like little trailers for the blockbuster film that is summer; a taste, a touch of the loveliest parts of summer. Today’s special summer treat was that hot, bright, golden sunshine that simply screams “Africa”. In winter the sunlight is balmy and brittle; the sunrises peachy-pink, and the sky almost translucent, the palest and most delicate blue. In summer, everything is warmer, brighter, nearer. The sky is as deeply blue as a lake filled with sapphires. The sunlight spills out over the grand hills, over the marching forest in a golden flood so brightly coloured that you could almost reach out and grab a handful of the stuff, to rub its warmth against your skin and roll in its richness like a kitten in flowers.

It was one of those mornings, and the sunlight came early, seven o’ clock as the mighty fireball clambered out over the hills. The horses had just finished their breakfast and were at their water trough, drinking, when a beautiful fallow doe came skipping down the fenceline on impossibly long legs. Immediately, the horses’ heads shot up and their ears tipped forward to watch the graceful creature dancing her way down the hill. One ever-curious horse, my young, dark grey Nooitgedachter Sport Horse mare Arwen, stepped away from the others and into the flooding sunlight, and that’s when I captured this shot.

For me, this picture symbolises how solitary we are in our choices. Every decision you make, everything you do, is ultimately your responsibility, and your whole life is up to you. Let me tell you right now, right here, as someone who has been on both sides of the coin, that the best thing you can do with your life is to relinquish your proud grip upon it and to lay it down at the foot of the Cross. You’d be amazed how much better it is when that special Person we know as Jesus Christ picks it up and hands it right back to you.

But no one will make you do it except for you. It’s your life and God gave it to you alone, and whether you’ll give it back and watch it blossom is your choice. No one can make it for you and no one can force you into it. You are solitary that choice, but I promise that when you make it, when you say “I’m Yours, Sir,” you will never, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, be solitary again.

The world is in the ship, sailing on a storm-tossed sea, and the ship is doomed to sink and rot on the seabed forever. But you don’t need to worry. Your Lifeguard walks on water.

Back in the Saddle (and nearly back out of it)

After spending two weeks either away or lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, drinking cough syrup and watching MacGyver, I finally got to throw a leg over a horse’s back again on Wednesday afternoon. As Skye is still supposed to be lame (although judging by the way she charges about like a two-year-old colt on steroids, she doesn’t think so), I picked the second-to-easiest horse I have, which is Arwen.

Arwen often flies off the handle when she is given more than two or three days off, so I was expecting some gymnastics on her part and some desperate clinging on mine. She surprised me by being sane and sensible. We spent twenty minutes pottering about in the arena, getting used to English stirrups again, practicing canter from a walk and halt from a canter (the former, what with Arwen being fresh and me having done rather a lot of it at Mooikrans, was easy; the latter less so). Arwen was a saint; she was a little rusty on bringing her head in and walking off with the correct leg, but there was not a single buck, bolt or spook to be had, about which I was very pleased.

After that I was going to groom Skye, but as she was grazing quite far down the paddock, I

Skye

thought I’d ride her up in her halter to see how she was moving and if she was getting sounder. I knotted the lead rope around her neck to use as a rein; I’ve ridden her in a halter a lot of times before and although the brakes are not quite what they should be, it’s always been fine. (Riding her without any tack is the fun part; it’s rather what I imagine driving a Ferrari with a trigger-happy accelerator, no steering wheel and very bad brakes would be like). Once I had convinced her to stop marching in circles like a hot-blooded filly at a racetrack, I managed to scramble on and she headed off for the gate at a steam-train walk.

In walk she was fine, so I chanced a trot (figuring that she would stop when she reached the gate) and she picked up her head and floated forward, that high hackney action powering onward and upward, effortless, graceful, heavenly. I had forgotten how she moves, how much I love the sheer rising pleasure in her gait, but my hands and legs had not forgotten and moulded themselves to her movement as easily as they had done a thousand times before. Best of all, she felt sound, as sound as a brass bell and twice as beautiful.

We only trotted for a short while, but throughout she felt really good with not a single limp, so I have a lot of hope that she is ready to be ridden again. I can’t wait. Neither, I think, can she; she’s a real pain when I’m jumping Siobhan or Arwen because she happily parks herself directly in front of the jump, or, when she’s in a really naughty mood, destroys the jump and stands there in the wreckage looking innocent. She’s eleven years old, you’d swear she’d stop acting like a filly by now. I love it.

The next day I decided to take Arwen for a bit of a jump since I hadn’t jumped for ages and missed it. Since she was going so well, I decided to challenge her and put up a quite big cross – probably 60cm in the middle, which isn’t high for Arwen, but she’d never jumped a cross of that size before. She gawped at it and jumped hugely the first time, very cautious, but quickly settled down to jumping it with her usual relaxed attitude.

Then I set it up to a real jump, about 90cm, and she popped over it several times with ease. She was going brilliantly and I was on cloud nine, so I took a chance and made it 1.10m. Taking it first from her best side, I let her down and rode her in too close to the jump without any rhythm to speak of, so naturally she stopped. The second time, I pulled myself together and committed to it. She responded beautifully and cleared the jump easily.

Then it was time to jump from her least favourite side. She has jumped it from her bad side before, but took the pole down every time, so I was determined to get her to jump it properly this time. I once again messed up the rhythm entirely, so she stopped, skidded into the jump and knocked it down. A stop and a pole down all in one. Impressive. Sorry, Arwen.

I put the pole up and we got back to work. It started out quite pretty, with a steady canter on the correct leg and me looking up and trying to judge the distance. Did I mention that I suck at judging distances? I gave her a kick to speed her up and that’s where it all crumbled as I realised that there was no way she was going to fit in another decent stride and we were all going to die. Thankfully, my six-year-old mare hauled my inexperienced butt out of trouble as if she was twice her age. Instead of putting in half a stride like I’d expected, Arwen and took off a stride early. I got left behind a little, but slammed my hands into her mane and gave her the reins. Arwen stretched out her neck and cleared it.

Another leap of faith

She might be a total airhead on outrides, and quite slow to learn new things, but when it comes to jumping she really is  sensible for her age. She loves to jump and wakes up the moment I put up the poles; her head comes up, she pricks her ears and responds to even slight touches of my hands and legs. But she doesn’t lose her head and do stupid stuff like buck, bolt or get over-excited, and she only ever stops if she feels intimidated by a jump that is much taller or wider than normal and challenges her. Even then, if I get my act together, ride her to a good take-off point and commit to it myself, she will usually jump, and I think most of our refusals are my fault.

Yesterday, after brushing Skye and giving her a massage (which she doesn’t like very much because it means she has to stand still for ten whole minutes at a time), Rain and I saddled Arwen and Siobhan and rode them in the arena. I started with some figures-of-eight on Arwen to work on using the correct lead. When she was concentrating she did very well; when she drifted off she did terribly. She focused better as we went on, and by the time we started to canter, she picked up the correct lead about four times out of five. We would canter one circle of the eight, slow down to a trot for a few strides in the middle, and then ask for a canter on the new inside leg again. This worked well and she really started to pay attention later on. She was forward and responsive, and I hardly had to do any kicking at all, which is wonderful compared to how she was six months ago.

Siobhan was apparently being naughty, and, Siobhan being a four-year-old on 2kg of feed containing maize every day, who had just had three weeks off, I was not surprised. We swapped horses and I told Rain to practice some cantering with Arwen while I got the tickle out of Siobhanny’s feet.

She was pretty fresh and obviously wanted to trot or canter, sometimes breaking into a trot of her own accord, but despite Rain and Arwen cantering around, she didn’t try any tricks like bucking, bolting or rearing. Once she was walking on a relaxed rein, I asked her to trot and she was superb; I had to hold her in tightly once or twice, on downhills and around corners, but she wasn’t foolish about it at all. I expected a buck or two during the first canter and was pleasantly surprised when she cruised off at her usual slow, steady pace. Siobhan might not look like much, but she does have a lovely canter, and she was sure using it. I handed her back to Rain knowing that she was as safe as she ever was, rest or no.

Cute or what?

Rain and Arwen had been trotting over a pole around 15cm off the ground, so I cajoled Rain into doing it with Siobhan (after showing her how easy it was by playfully galloping over it with Arwen, who decided that, due to our pace, it was HUGE and jumped it accordingly). The pony reverted to her usual tactic of trotting up to it and then walking over it, looking bored.

I knew that she was playing the fool, so I got back on her and she immediately realised that I meant business, trotting over the pole like an old hand; she even jumped once, and stayed very calm when we cantered it. Rain rode her again and she was stunning, popping over it without any trouble at all, and massively pleasing her rider.

I haven’t gotten around to working the other horses this week; I was planning to work Thunder and Secret yesterday morning, but it was cold and drizzly and I don’t need another week in bed. The four boys are living together in complete harmony, happy as birds. I hope to get a move on and finish the lungeing ring before summer; Dancer and Thunder will both be two in October and they both have only very basic lungeing training (not to mention Dancer’s Issues with a big I), and it’s time they learned more than manners and work in hand.

I think I might get back on Achilles eventually, but I’ll need to do a lot of lungeing work before then; I could probably just get on and ride him, but simply don’t have the guts. If I lunge his head off, maybe I’ll feel confident enough to ride him decently and then perhaps he will be more easily sold. He should be calmer now that he’s a gelding.

The writing has been going relatively well. Another Sword is around 45 000 words in length now, and I have high hopes that it will turn out under 100 000 words; I’m in the middle, which is always the hardest part, so it’s going a little slow. However, I think I’ve just found a way to cut off easily 10 000 words I don’t need (and mercifully haven’t written yet). I was halfway through writing loooong scene that was going absolutely nowhere when I got fed up with it, deleted it, and am changing it entirely; I hope that’s a positive sign that I’m learning to tighten my work. The action is building a little too slowly for my liking, though. All shall be revealed in the revisions, or at least bits of “all” that I can possibly fix.

After all, like everything else, it is all still a work in progress.

Lastly, a photograph from the Standerton Show on Friday, where I showed a lovely Holstein heifer belonging to Brett Gordon of Lovett Holsteins. Lovett 11047 – better known as the Duchess – was stunning to show and I had a fantastic time. Hopefully, a more in-depth post about the show will follow on the Hydeaway Farm blog. My Jersey adventures are recorded in the Joyful Jerseys blog. Both are struggling with readership, so if my loyal followers – 10 now, thank you! – could pop over there, I would be delighted.

The Duchess and I in her stall at the showgrounds

Weekly Photo Challenge: Near and Far

I spent days mulling over this one. As a clueless newcomer to the world of photography, technique isn’t my strong point. But it all came together this evening as I was feeding my rowdy crew of boys; three little colts and a big black gelding, Achilles.

I love landscapes and I take far too many pictures of sunsets over the hills, but the “near” element was eluding me. Until this evening I looked down the fence line and it clicked. The light was soft, golden and lovely; the fence may not be a very good fence for horses, but its slight ricketiness appealed to the artist in me. Add Achilles conveniently grazing right next to the fence and I had my photo.

African sunset in the early spring

Vryheid

To all my non-South African readers, don’t worry. I have not entirely lost my mind. “Vryheid” is a word in Afrikaans – my native language – and you pronounce it “fray-hate”.

It means “freedom”.

I spent last week at Mooikrans Equus, a beautiful horse farm in the great sprawling grassiness of Mpumalanga, alongside about 60 other homeschoolers from eight to eighteen years old. Unlike some of the teens, who seemed to have spent half their lives there, it was my first trip. In my riding helmet and gaitors, I instantly felt out of place amongst the bandana-wielding cowboys and girls. And that was before they dropped my “long” dressage stirrups by two holes and told me to hold the reins by the buckle. I wanted to learn Western riding, after all, so I gritted my teeth and went for it.

I needn’t have worried. The instructors are incredibly patient and skilled. The horses are dependable and well schooled. I’m no expert, but I’ve been to a few riding schools and I’m getting to know the typical bratty school pony (I own one). There are 42 horses at Mooikrans Equus, all of them were ridden both in the arena and on long outrides, and not a single one gave serious problems. There are, of course, youngsters and the odd one with issues but during my stay there was no aggression, no serious bucking or bolting or rearing or shying or napping or any of the things that undisciplined school ponies so often do. The difficult horses are matched to riders who can handle them, and of the over 60 kids at camp, only three or four fell off, none with serious injuries.

Once I managed to let go of the reins, Western wasn’t quite so hard as it may have been because my trainer the Horse Mutterer has taught me to ride with a quite Western seat, to sit to the trot, and to neck-rein. By the end of the week, having ridden a few lovely, confidence-boosting types, I was on a quite lively (and very beautiful) grey gelding named Camelot. In fact, he gave me my first ever taste of barrel racing. Have you ever seen a showjumper trying to do barrel racing on a great horse? The view from the pavilion must have been entertaining. The view from Camelot’s saddle was absolutely exhilarating. Being very well trained, Camelot whipped around the barrels virtually of his own accord and all I had to do was cling on,  make sure he stopped at the end, and be extraordinarily happy. He never knocked over any barrels, never slowed to a trot and never slipped. Plus, I stayed on, despite losing a stirrup twice. Thankfully, the Mutterer also taught me to ride bareback.

I learned to canter from a halt and halt from a canter, to jog and lope, and (of course) BARREL RACING. To depend on my balance, not my stirrups or my reins, and to control a horse without hanging on to his mouth. Do I still want to ride English? Of course. Do I think my riding has improved because of learning to ride Western (however badly)? A thousand times over. And I definitely think there is some Western training lurking in Skye’s future.

Not all the lessons, however, were held in the arena. There was plenty of riding across the open veld, herding cattle, cantering up hills, riding through grass so tall it brushed our knees. Since Skye went lame, I haven’t ridden out, not really; and what is fun alone is splendid in a group of ten or twelve horses and riders all laughing and prancing and filled with life.

I had forgotten how beautiful the horizon is between the ears of a horse, and how perfect the rhythm of his hoofbeats sounds when you’re sailing up a hill you’ve never seen before. I’d forgotten the very reason people to do this crazy thing, to take half a ton of wild flesh and blood in all its pride and danger and to sit on it and to ride. We do it because a horse lends us that free spirit, and it’s a loan that stays with you long after you leave the saddle.

This is why I ride; not for the shows or rosettes or thrill of jumping or galloping, not for the satisfaction of controlling such a huge creature or even the pleasure in advancing a horse’s training. If I rode only for the feeling of speed and power, I wouldn’t ride a horse, I’d drive a car or a fly a plane. But a horse is free, and belongs to God; and it’s when I ride, flying free with a horse, that I feel closest to His freedom. We Christians, after all, have the greatest freedom, for we are even free from death itself.

It’s hard to remember that, sometimes. Fear must always be conquered before freedom is reached. As you will all know by now, I’m a nervous rider and riding out makes me more nervous than ever; in fact, I spent my first outride at Mooikrans, even amongst the experienced and kind instructors, even on a gentle and considerate horse, glued to the saddle in absolute terror. It was only when we began to canter and my wonderful old horse (who was in his twenties) suddenly came alive that the fear fell away into exhilaration and freedom. It takes a good horse and a good gallop to remind me of the freedom that Christians have and I must thank God for doing this for me last week at Mooikrans Equus and for many weeks before that, on my own horses and in my own familiar countryside, again and again.

I must also thank Tannie Elna, Gavin, Andri, An-Marie, Lene, Izak, Armand and everybody else – not forgetting my mounts Klinker, Oubaas, Kerneels and Camelot – for being so patient with the bumbling English rider and making the week so much fun. It was a fantastic experience and I will be back.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Free Spirit

I may be late for this challenge, but it appeals to me so much that I can’t resist taking part.

You see, every day, I come into contact with the wildest of spirits, hidden in the most used of all beasts. How ironic that this burning flame smoulders in the heart of the animal that has served mankind so much. A beast that has flung out its legs on the open grassland and run across the endless miles like an unchecked fire, and yet has died in our wars, suffered in our cities, and slaved under our burdens. A creature cherished, adored, abused, forgotten, a magnificent contradiction of an animal that remains forever what God made it to be; a free spirit.

I have not spent much time with this amazing creature, but even I have only to look into its eyes or hear its birdlike cry to know that no matter how obedient or patient it might be, there is still a wildness inside it, something that belongs to the wind and the sky and the whisperings of its Creator flying in the breeze. This beast may not know that it was made by the Hands of God, but like Jesus’s donkey, it knows the touch of its Master, and it knows the joy of what He made. Because He made freedom and He put it for an everlasting flame to burn in the heart of this animal.

Unlike a man, a dog or a cow, this creature learns how to run before it learns how to eat. I know; I have watched the young ones being born and seen them, still damp, rise on their shaking legs and stagger forward with tiny eyes ablaze. Because no matter how old or young or loved or hated, it knows how to dance with the storms, and to laugh at the lightning in the special silent way that it has of speaking. This special, dazzling dream of a creature is truly always a free spirit.

The horse.

Yearling filly and colt, Dancer and Thunder, playing in the rain