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Firn's Blog Post # 4
Arwen Owns Cross-Country
It was sheer luck (or providence) that landed me right in the perfect location for horses. Our little farm is not quite at the heart of true South African horse country, which would be the groomed arenas and small paddocks of Kyalami; but with less than an hour's drive to most of the country's major show venues, we're just far enough to have lots of open space, and just near enough to be able to attend shows quite easily.
One of the major stable yards we are close to is Winstead Stables, home of what must be South Africa's oldest and most successful eventing family, the Winns. Spearheaded by Graham Winn, who most recently was chef d' equipe to South Africa's eventing team at WEG, the Winns run a large eventing yard and host regular cross-country clinics both at the yard and at the big municipal park they have managed to turn into a fantastic cross-country course. When I heard that Graham was having cross-country lessons last week Sunday, I jumped at the chance. Arwen was duly pushed into the horsebox and off my dutiful parents and I went to Springs.
Arwen adores Winstead because there are horses absolutely everywhere on the property, so she always has company. She came out of the horsebox, looked around once, sighed and started searching for something to eat. I convinced her that it was go time, tacked her up and headed off to find a spot to warm up. This was not hard; there is an abundance of arenas, so it only took five minutes to find one that didn't have any big horses in it. (The bright red ribbon in Arwen's tail bears witness to the fact that she hates all big horses and will attempt to kick them at any opportunity, possibly out of jealousy). She was calm and quiet, but alert. Her head really was in the game.
At ten o' clock exactly we trotted up to a dressage arena to find our instructor. It was my first time in a lesson with Graham - beforehand I had always trained with his daughter, who is brilliant - and I was excited. He was very friendly and reassuring, took the time to ask me what I could tell him about my horse, checked my girth and sent us all off on a big circle to warm up. There was a large and somewhat jumpy thoroughbred behind us who threatened to bounce off Arwen's bottom, which I was worried about, but Graham quickly set this straight. "They know she kicks, and they'll stay away. Look up and ride forward." After that he showed me a way to give with my hands and reassure her at the same time so that she would feel calm and unrestricted. I would reach my left hand forward and give her a light touch on the neck, then take up the contact again and repeat with the right hand. Arwen didn't lose frame at all during this and seemed to like it, so it's something I will definitely remember as a reassurance and reward in the future. He also wanted Arwen to get a bit more in front of my leg and not lag behind the other horses - no mean feat as she must have been two hands shorter than some of them.
Warmup done, we crossed over into the big jumping arena by jumping down a tiny little bank set in the trees. It was quite a spooky crossing, but she followed the lead horse without a qualm, and we started on some showjumping. Because we had a lead, most of this was easy despite Arwen's fear of showjumps. (Gigantic solid black cross-country oxers are apparently not frightening in the slightest, but show Arwen a bright blue jump with /Despicable Me /style minions painted on it and she gets cold feet). She did stop once at a cross-rail, but it had a puddle behind it that she wasn't expecting, and I admit that my leg wasn't there to support her when she needed it. The next time we approached it I gave her a little inspiration with the crop and she jumped perfectly. There were some scary bright showjumps at or over the lesson height (2' 3", a level up from what we've previously done lessons over), but I backed her up strongly and she tackled them with courage. We had one rather hairy moment halfway through a gymnastic line, though. I fear and dislike gymnastics (grids) because I have yet to learn how to do them properly, and so of course Arwen has never done any complicated grids. This one wasn't complicated, but it did have a bounce in it, which I'd never ridden before. I had absolutely no idea of how to ride it, so I just hung on and kicked, and Arwen bailed me out by jumping it confidently and foot perfectly. Go figure. Gotta love tough little horses.
Moving on to cross-country, the jumps were much more challenging than I've tried before, not in height but in technique. Luckily for me, Arwen and I are both completely foolhardy when it comes to cross-country and will jump anything that stands still for long enough. We had a wonderful time. The only obstacle that gave her pause for thought was the water, and once she had followed an experienced horse through it, she was fine. There were many types of jumps she hadn't seen before, but she was up for it and gamely took them on. For her I think the scariest jump was a wide, very solid-looking, and quite narrow oxer, but I rode her at it meaningfully and she jumped well. She is a very careful jumper, especially with big jumps, and does tend to take a long distance if she's not sure about something just to make sure she doesn't touch it with her forelegs, but that's better than the other way round, methinks. I would rather she caught a jump with her hindlegs and fell headlong than she hit it with her knees and somersaulted. For me, the hardest ride was the dyke. I'd never even seen one before, and this one was complicated by the fact that there was a hanging log set on the top of the far side of it, with a steep downhill right after that. I took the precaution of trotting into it, but Arwen was as game as ever and jumped through it with straightness and confidence. She drifts like anything in the arena at home, but show her a narrow cross-country jump and she goes as straight as an arrow. Weirdo.
To wrap up, I learned a lot, Arwen got some good experience over trickier jumps, and we both had an absolute ball. I came away with some things we need to work on:
- Showjumps; especially bright colours. I need to make some brightly coloured fillers for my jumps at home.
- Water. There's a nice big puddle down the road that might have a safe bottom; I should take her down there and go through it a few times, even if it is too deep to canter.
- Getting her still more in front of my leg. It's something I've always had to work on with Arwen; in fact, two years ago, it took some dramatic pony-rider style kicks to get her to drag her reluctant toes into a trot, so we have improved, but I can't get blasé about it now. Incorporating a few brisk gallops into our warmup routine always helps.
And some things that I think we're on top of in comparison to the other horses I saw at the lessons today:
- Flatwork. She's not a dressage queen, but adjustable, straight, and responsive.
- Obedience. We all know how horses love to take off on cross-country, and though she did have a few bucks out of excitement (the amount of bucks decreasing each time we lesson), when I said stop she stopped and when I said go she went.
- Partnership. We worked as a team. I didn't have to be worried about her throwing me off or not listening to what I wanted, and she trusted me to keep it together when the jumps were more challenging. When things got rough we worked together to solve it with a common goal, and I think that is our single greatest strong point when it comes to cross-country. We're in it together. And ultimately, for me, that's what riding is all about - the relationship.