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.