Book Excerpt · Eleventh Hour · equestrian · New release · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek · writing

Sneak Peek – Pony Jumpers #11 – Eleventh Hour

CHAPTER 1
HELPING HANDS

A cold wind whipped across the winter-bare paddocks, tangling my hair around my face. I shivered, snugging my scarf up around my neck, and continued the short walk to the barn. I could hear Forbes banging his hoof against his stable door, impatiently demanding his breakfast.

As I unlatched the sliding doors and slipped inside, my dark bay pony laid his ears back at me and snarled up his nostrils, making his opinion of my lateness well and truly known. His bright chestnut stablemate, Skip, greeted me with a hopeful whinny and much friendlier expression. I smiled at them both, feeling my heart lift. I always felt at home in the barn, much more so than the large, glass-plated house that I’d just left behind. The barn was a comfort, drawing me in like an old friend, giving me a place where I felt like I always belonged. The combined smell of horses and hay and shavings and leather was the best perfume I could ever imagine, and I greeted the ponies warmly.

“Good morning to you, too.”

The dark bay pony banged on his door again, louder this time.

“All right, Forbes. You’re not going to die from hunger in the time it takes me to mix your feed,” I told him as I headed into the feed room.

The look he gave me made it clear that he didn’t believe me, and he continued to bang on about his hunger while I added soaked beet pulp to the feeds I’d prepared the night before, gave them a quick stir and took them out to the ponies. Forbes shoved his head into his bucket and started munching like a dying thing, while Skip politely stepped back and waited for me to put his bucket into his stable, then delicately began lipping it up.

I was stuffing a couple of biscuits of hay into the steamer when I heard another whinny from outside, followed by the yeehaw of a small but opinionated donkey. Forbes laid his ears back at the sound as he munched, and I rolled my eyes at his peevishness as I walked to the other end of the barn and let myself out the back door. My retired show jumping pony Buck and his best friend, Emily the miniature donkey, were waiting at their gate, ears pricked and eyes bright. The wind whistled past the barn as I carried their feed buckets out to them.

“Vet’s coming today,” I told Buck as he tucked into his breakfast. “Don’t worry, just for a check up. Just to make sure you’re in the best of health.”

I slid a hand under his cover and across his dark coat, thick and fluffy in this winter weather. Buck munched on, unfazed, and I left them to eat and went back into the barn, where I set to work removing stable rugs and bandages, then putting warm waterproof rugs and turnout boots onto both ponies.

Skip finished licking the last of the grain out of his bucket as I fastened the last strip of velcro around his neck, and reached around to nuzzle my face with his grain-encrusted muzzle.

“No need to share, thanks anyway,” I told him, pushing him affectionately away, then giving him a cuddle in case his feelings were hurt. Skip was a sensitive soul with a kind nature, but his feelings were easily bruised.

Forbes, on the other side of the aisle, was his polar opposite. He was snarky and opinionated, the kind of pony that, if he were human, would spend large portions of his day writing vitriolic comments on Twitter, just to get a rise out of people. I changed his rugs and put his boots on as well, taking a little more care over it as I dodged his attempts to nip me and his propensity to lash out with a hind leg when I put his back boots on.

“I know you don’t like the cotton wool treatment, but you have to deal with it,” I told him. “It’s par for the course around here, and you know it.”

Forbes wrinkled his nostrils at me as I slipped his halter on and led him out into the aisle, then retrieved Skip from his stable and led them both out into the wintry morning.

 

I was halfway through mucking out when Lesley arrived. She breezed into the barn with the casual confidence that I envied so much, her thick mane of auburn hair hanging down her back and veterinary kit in hand.

“Morning!”

“Hi.” I set down the pitchfork and stepped out into the aisle. “How are you?”

“A bit late,” she admitted. “Sorry, but my vet student called in sick this morning, so I’m already behind schedule.”

“Oh no. I hope she’s okay.”

“Probably just hung over,” Lesley said dismissively. “How that girl made it through four years of vet school is beyond me. Now, where’s my victim?”

I grabbed Buck’s halter from his peg and we went out together to see him. Buck’s dust allergy had caused breathing problems and recently forced him into early retirement. I held him while Lesley listened to his heart and lungs, took his temperature and checked him over thoroughly. We both knew that this check was simply a routine measure — I knew enough to be able to spot anything untoward — but it made Dad feel better to have Buck regularly looked at, and Lesley was always very thorough.

“He’s doing well,” she declared after recording his temperature in her notes. “Keeping him out of the barn is clearly working, and he’s coping well with the colder weather.”

“He’s happy,” I said, rubbing Buck’s forehead. “I’d wondered if he’d mind being retired, since he always seemed to love being ridden, but he’s happy as.”

“They usually are,” Lesley said with a wink. “Horses are far less ambitious than their riders.”

I smiled bashfully as I removed Buck’s halter. He didn’t move, staying with his head resting against my arm.

“He’s a sweet boy,” Lesley said. “You’re lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have you.” She sighed, then looked down again at her tablet. “Right, onto the next one.”

“Do you have a busy day planned?” I asked her as Buck returned to his freshly steamed hay.

“Frantic. And now I have to do it alone. Unless…” She looked at me, eyebrows quirked. “You said you’re not doing anything today?”

“Um, no. Well, I have to exercise the ponies, but other than that…”

“Wanna come with me and help out? It won’t be anything complicated, just holding horses, handing me bandages, that sort of thing, but since you’re mad enough to want a career doing this, you might as well tag along. If you’re up for it.”

I grinned at the vet. “Absolutely!”

 

We’d seen our first case of the day, a horse with a cut heel that needed its wound dressed, and were on our way to the second when Lesley abruptly slowed the ute and swung it into a driveway almost obscured by trees.

“Sorry,” she said lightly as I was flung sideways in my seat by her sudden change of direction. “I just remembered that I promised I’d drop in on Faye this weekend, and since we’re going past…”

We bumped along a narrow, pot-holed driveway, and I gritted my teeth against the ute’s lack of suspension. Tall trees on both sides cast a dark shadow overhead, and we turned a corner and arrived in the middle of a dilapidated yard. A long, low brick building with barred windows and a door at one end squatted in front of large slab of cracked concrete, and a shabby cottage with weed-filled flowerbeds lurked on the opposite side. Lesley parked the ute as a cacophony of barking started up from the brick building, which sounded as if it was filled with dogs.

“What are we here to—” I started to ask, then saw the thinnest, most miserable horse I’d ever seen in my life. Her hips and ribs protruded starkly through her dappled grey coat, her spine was clearly visible along the ridge of her back, and her dark mane couldn’t hide the painful thinness of her neck. She stood in a tiny, muddy paddock with more weeds than grass, her head down as she munched slowly at the meagre rations. “Oh my god!”

“Bit of mess, isn’t she?” Lesley agreed, opening her door and jumping out of the ute. I followed suit, and walked around to the front of the vehicle to stare at the unhappy horse. She lifted her head and watched us, pieces of grass falling from her lips as she chewed.

“What is this place?” I asked, looking around in disbelief.

“Animal rescue. Faye has dogs mostly, but she’s somehow ended up with this mare, too.” Lesley gave a rueful smile. “She’s obviously not set up for horses, but this is what comes of an utter inability to say no to people. Her heart’s in the right place, though, and she does her best. I do what I can to help her.”

I walked closer to the fence and the mare raised her head warily. Her chewing stopped.

“Where did the horse come from?”

“No idea, to be honest. You’d have to ask Faye.” She looked around, then her expression brightened. “And here she is.”

I turned to see a stoutly-built woman with wispy grey hair and mud-encrusted gumboots trudging towards us.

“Morning!”

She clasped Lesley’s hand warmly, then turned to me with a smile. Her face was weatherworn, with prominent crow’s feet around her brown eyes, but the warmth in her expression was genuine, and I found myself smiling back as I shook her head.

“This is Susannah, she’s helping me out today,” Lesley introduced me. “We don’t have long, because we’re supposed to be at our next appointment ten minutes ago, but we were coming past so I thought I’d pop in. How’s she doing?”

“Better, I think.” Faye frowned as she considered the mare. “She’s still terribly thin, of course, but you said not to feed her too much.”

Her expression was worried as she returned it to Lesley, and I could tell that she was anxious about doing the right thing.

“Slow and steady is the key with rehabs,” Lesley confirmed. “In her condition, if she gets too much feed at once, she’s at high risk of colicking, and that’s the last thing we want. But she’s at the stage now when you can give her as much hay as she’ll reasonably eat.”

Faye looked perplexed. “I meant to ask you about that. I’ve got a couple of bales left, but hay is hard to come by, and everyone else I’ve talked to wants an obscene amount of money for it.” She opened her hands in a helpless shrug. “Fifteen dollars a bale can’t be right, can it?”

“We had a drought over summer,” Lesley reminded her. “Good hay is expensive this year, but whatever you can get is better than nothing, as long as it’s not mouldy or stale.” She patted Faye’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’ll see if I can track some more down for you. Have you had any luck catching the horse?”

Faye shook her head. “I’ve tried, but she won’t come near me. Not even for carrots. I ended up throwing them out into the paddock, but she seemed to have trouble eating them.”

“Probably needs her teeth done,” I said, and Lesley nodded.

“And her hooves trimmed,” she added, and I looked at the mare’s feet and winced. “They’re starting to split, and they’ll cause her some serious issues if those cracks get too wide. We can sedate her for that if necessary. I’ll give Barry a call, see if I can tee something up with him during the week.”

Faye smiled gratefully. “I really appreciate you taking such an interest,” she said happily. “I wouldn’t know what to do without your help.”

“You need to find someone else to take her on,” Lesley said matter-of-factly. “You’re not set up for horses here, and you’ve already got your hands full with the dogs.”

“I know, but how would I know that whoever took her would take proper care of her?” Faye sighed, rubbing her hands on her dirty cargo pants. “Well, I suppose I’ll keep trying, and keep you posted if I have any luck.”

Lesley glanced at her watch. “Tell you what, why don’t I come and see how Sprocket’s getting on after his surgery, while Susannah has a go at handling your mare.”

“Uh…” I wasn’t sure how good my chances were, but I couldn’t say no without trying. “I guess I could attempt it.”

There was a tattered halter and lead hanging on the gate, and I let myself into the paddock while Lesley followed Faye towards the brick building to see the dogs. When the barking doubled in volume, I knew they’d gone inside, and that the grey mare and I were alone.

My boots sank into the gluggy mud in the gateway as I hitched the gate shut. The horse watched me suspiciously as I walked in her direction, but waited until I was a few metres away before turning around and walking into the far corner of the small paddock.

“Hey, girl. Come on, now. Let us help you. We both know could use it.”

I spoke softly to her as I approached on an angle, knowing better than to walk towards her head on. The mare kept a close eye on me, stepping away as soon as I breached the large personal bubble she had around herself.

I stopped, and so did she.

I stepped forward, and after a moment, she did too.

We moved in a slow dance, a step at a time, while time seemed to stand still around us. Slowly, gradually, the distance between us decreased until I was close enough to reach out and touch her. I moved carefully, slowly extending my arm to brush my fingers against her thin neck. The mare flinched away from my touch, tripping on her overgrown hooves. She was standing against the fence, and I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her in case she panicked and ran into or through it. So I lowered my hand and stepped back, waiting for her to relax a little before I moved closer again. This time she stood still, and I was able to run a hand down her thin neck.

But the moment I lifted a hand to the lead rope over my shoulder, she burst past me in a flurry of speed, almost knocking me down in her desperate panic to escape. I watched her stumbling across the uneven ground, and a desperation to help filled me.

“You have to let someone help you,” I told the horse. “You can’t do this by yourself.”

Once she’d stopped moving, I began the process over again. This time, when I reached her side, I managed to slip the rope over her neck without her running away. But when I tried to lift the halter up to her face, she half-reared and pulled away. I barely kept hold of the lead rope around her neck, and had to drop the halter on the ground. It took me several minutes to calm her enough to let me touch her again, but she eventually relented, allowing me to run my hand down her narrow scabby face.

“You poor, poor girl,” I said sympathetically. “How could anyone let this happen to you?”

I looked up to see Lesley and Faye exiting the dog building. I tried to lead the grey mare towards the gate, but as soon as she felt pressure on the rope around her neck, she baulked, almost pulling the lead rope out of my hand. .

“It’s okay.” I held a hand out to her, and she blew warm breath over my skin. “Come on, let’s go see what Lesley can do for you.”

I started forward again, applying only the gentlest pressure to the rope around the base of the mare’s neck, and this time she followed me. The loosely knotted rope around her neck didn’t give me much control over her movement, but it was better than nothing.

Lesley met me at the gate with an approving nod. “Nice work.”

“I couldn’t get near her with the halter,” I explained as she came into the paddock. “But hopefully this will do.”

“We’ll manage,” Lesley agreed.

Faye was more effusive with her praise. “You’ve really got a way with horses,” she gushed. “I haven’t been able to get that close to her since she arrived! How on earth did you do it?”

I shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

Lesley was running her latex-gloved hand across the mare’s back, which was covered in scabs and bare patches of skin.

“You know what this is?” she asked me, and I nodded.

“Rain scald.”

“That’s the one.” She picked off a few scabs, and tufts of hair came out with it. “Is that a  fungal or bacterial condition?”

“Um.” I bit the inside of my cheek, thinking. “I don’t know. Bacterial?”

“Trick question. It’s both,” Lesley said with a grin. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty unsightly and it won’t be too comfortable for her. Treatment?”

“Antiseptic wash and keep it as dry as possible?”

“Yep. But I suspect — woah there, good girl — that she won’t love the idea of being scrubbed down. She’s barely tolerating this as it is,” Lesley said, stepping back to allow the mare to relax again. “But I’ve got a good topical spray that’ll help clear it up. I’ll drop some round in the next day or so, and rustle up a rug that’ll fit her. One that’s waterproof. That’s very important, because if moisture gets in under the rug, it’ll only make matters worse. Assuming, of course, that she’ll let you put one on.”

She looked at Faye, who shrugged. “I can try, if you’ll show me how.”

“Hmm. Might need to get her haltered first,” Lesley said. She glanced at her watch, and winced. “We really have to go. We’re half an hour late now, and even I can’t drive fast enough to make up that much time.”

Faye thanked her effusively as I gave the mare’s thin neck one final stroke, then untied the lead rope from around her neck. As soon as she was freed, the mare turned around and trotted in her ungainly way across the paddock, determined to get away from us.

It started to rain, a light misty sort of rain that wafted across the yard in sheets. I turned my collar up against it and stood with my back to the weather. The mare did the same, ducking her head down, and I watched the dampness settle onto her scabby coat.

“Oh, I almost forgot that cream for Caesar,” Lesley said as we headed back to the ute. “It’s in here somewhere, I’m sure of it.” She rummaged around in the back, then pulled out a tube of cream and another pair of latex gloves. “Let’s do this, shall we?”

The moment we stepped inside the long, low brick building, the barking started up again.

“Noisy beggars, aren’t they?” Faye said fondly as she led us down a narrow aisle between two rows of dog enclosures.

Each one contained at least one dog, some tattered bedding and toys, and empty food bowls. The smell was nothing like the warm, comforting smell of a horse barn, and the loud barking couldn’t compare to the warm nickering of a horse – although Forbes’ ear-splitting whinnies would give some of the dogs a run for their money.

I walked behind the two women, glancing through the chainlink fences into each enclosure that we passed. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes — small yappy ones, big floofy ones, hyperactive ones flinging themselves at the cage doors, shy ones who sat on their blankets at the back of their pens and watched us suspiciously with their ears and tails lowered. Faye stopped at the far end of the building, and I gasped at the sight of the saddest and meanest-looking dog I’d ever seen.

“Stay back,” she cautioned us as the dog let out a low, threatening growl.

“What happened to him?”

Caesar was a short, stocky pitbull. His white coat was covered in scars and scrapes, and he had patches of hair missing. His skin was mottled pink underneath, and one of his eyes had a pale film over it. His ears were so tattered as to be almost non-existent.

“He was part of a gang-affiliated dog fighting ring,” Faye explained. “The police found out about it and shut it down. They had to put most of the poor dogs down, but one of the cops is a friend of mine, and he took pity on this one. Thought he might be able to be saved.” She sighed as she crouched down next to the enclosure, and the dog tentatively approached, then sniffed her hand through the fence. “He deserves a second chance. He’s had a miserable life, but he’s only a pup, really.”

I stared at Caesar, torn between feeling bad for him and hoping he wasn’t going to bite her hand off.

“I hope you can get through to him,” I said finally.

“So do I,” Faye said. “I’m hopeful that he’ll come around. But he’ll be staying here, no matter what. It’s always too dangerous to re-home a dog like him, not least because sometimes the gangs find out where they are and come back for them. I can’t let someone else’s family take that risk.”

A shiver ran down my spine at her words. “Aren’t you worried about them coming here?”

Faye shrugged as she slowly stood up. “What else can I do?” she asked. “Who else is going to take him?”

The personal risks that she took to do what she did hadn’t occurred to me before, and I was overcome with a feeling of admiration for her. She was an older woman, living alone in a small cottage on the outskirts of town, with no neighbours to speak of. Yet she put her own safety and security on the line for the sake of one dog.

“I’d be terrified,” I confessed.

“Well, if we didn’t do things that scared us, nobody would ever get anything done,” Faye replied matter-of-factly. “You ready, Lesley?”

I stood back and watched as the two women entered the dog’s enclosure. He growled, low in his throat, but they stayed calm and moved carefully, taking their time. Faye held the dog while Lesley applied the cream to his mangy coat, speaking softly to him the whole time. It only took a few minutes, and once he was released, Caesar retreated to the corner of his pen and plopped down onto an old foam mattress.

“I’m pleased with that,” Lesley declared, pulling off her gloves. “He should make it through the physical issues. The emotional scars, well…” She shrugged. “That’s anyone’s guess.”

Faye smiled sadly. “That’s always the real obstacle,” she told me. “We can heal the outside. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and love to heal the internal wounds.”

“He’s lucky to have you,” Lesley told her sincerely. “Not many others would give him a chance.”

Faye sighed. “That’s my bleeding heart — always getting me into trouble.”

Lesley reached out and gave her a hug. “You’re my hero,” she told the older woman. “Give me a call if you need anything.”

“You’re an angel,” Faye replied. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

As we walked back down the aisle between the rows of caged dogs, my footsteps slowed. I looked in through the bars, peering at their faces, wondering what their stories were and how they’d ended up there. Each one had their name written in chalk on the wall by their door. Dodger, a black and white collie, lying on his bed with sad eyes. Jed, a big black and tan Huntaway, pressing himself up against the wire mesh. Sprocket, a wire-haired terrier that yapped and flung himself at the front of his cage, desperate to attract our attention. I felt their longing, their desperation to be loved and wanted. I wanted to take them all home, but there was no chance. Dad didn’t like animals in the house, and Mum was allergic. I just hoped that one day, they would all find a family that would love and deserve them.

We said goodbye to Faye and walked back to the ute. The grey mare stood in her paddock, watching us go.

“What’s going to happen to that horse?”

Lesley shrugged as she started the engine. “Hopefully Faye’ll find someone to rehome her, and soon. She’s not going to be cheap to rehab, and Faye isn’t exactly rolling in money.” She looked at me as she backed out and turned around. “I don’t suppose you’re in the market for another one?”

I shook my head. “Dad won’t spend money on anything that hasn’t already won several national titles and is guaranteed to land me in the prizes from day one. I don’t think I could convince him to let me bring home a scabby frightened Thoroughbred.”

“Not even as a project? Faye would give her to you for nothing,” Lesley urged. “You could keep her just long enough to get her fit and ready to go, then sell her on. I’m not saying you’d make money, but…well, she could use someone like you in her corner.”

I sighed, leaning my head back against the headrest. “I wish I could, but I don’t even have to ask the question to know what the answer will be.”

We didn’t talk about the grey mare again for the rest of the day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I wondered what would happen to her, and whether she’d get a second chance at a life worth living.

equestrian · Thoughts · writing

Horse Show Diary #2: The Pleasure Show

Another week, another opportunity to take the horses on an outing. I am not entirely sure what possessed me and my friend Alice to decide to compete in ridden pleasure classes at the Whanganui A&P Fundraiser Show, except that it was fairly local, cheap to enter and there were classes for Best Walk and Best Trot, which I figured even Flea could cope with…

So we loaded the horses onto the float (something Flea is getting progressively better at) and headed 1 hour’s drive north to Whanganui Racecourse. (Not every show in NZ is held at a racecourse, I swear – just all the ones we go to, apparently.)

The horses both travelled well and tucked into their hay nets when we arrived. We paid our entries and gave them a bit of a brush, flicked on some hoof oil, had some lunch, and discovered that Ace loves falafel (as in, will stick his nose in your tupperware and try to push you aside to get to it, LOVES it). We tacked up, brushed ourselves off and headed over to the ring. Flea had been very good when we arrived, but once I was on board and we were riding across the field, he became a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of other horses (100 or so) milling around in the large area. Some were walking, some trotting, some cantering, some standing still, some being led, but they were all horses he didn’t know (except for Ace) and his brain started to short-circuit from the overstimulation. Ace became his security blanket and Flea was quite unable to function without Ace within his line of sight at all times. I walked and trotted Flea around, attempting to get him to at the very least pay a marginal amount of attention to me, but aside from walking and trotting as requested, he was far more interested in LOOKING at everything and trying to see where Ace was and threatening to have a small hissy fit if Ace disappeared from view. So that was…fun.

There were 12 (?) or so riders in our division, Recreational Pleasure 16 years & over, with a broad range of horses on show.

The first class was Best Presented, and given that Alice and I had read “Plaiting and Jackets optional” on the programme and had thereby opted not to plait our horses’ manes or wear show jackets, we were not placed in this.

We then moved on to Best Walk. I positioned Flea behind Ace, and he walked extremely briskly to keep up. Ace was doing his best Morgan Horse walk, energetic and forward and exuding charisma and presence, as always. Flea was still wound up and yawing at the bit from time to time. We changed direction, during which Flea took the opportunity to itch his head on his foreleg and almost fall on his face. Once we were going the other way, Ace was behind us and Flea’s speed halved from brisk to hesitant shuffle with eyes rolling back to try and find Ace. This, it turned out, wasn’t precisely what the judge was looking for. Ace, on the other hand, was exactly that, and was called in first. Alice was delighted to have achieved her goal of getting a ribbon, so her day was thus declared a success at this point and she didn’t much care what happened next.

The next class was Best Trot, and Flea again participated with some unnecessary extravagance and flair. Now that the other horses were moving around him at speed, and some of them started to pass him, he got more and more wound up to the point where I had very little control over his speed and direction. He was determined to follow Ace, and when he got passed by a third horse on the outside of the circle, he threw a small temper tantrum and burst into canter. Not ideal in a Best Trot class! I got him back to a trot and kept him moving but unsurprisingly he was, once again, not what the judge was looking for. Nor was Ace that time around, and we both stepped aside while the ribbons were presented.

Next was Best Mannered, which at this point clearly wasn’t going to be Flea’s strong suit. Also, we would now be expected to canter all together, and I just wasn’t sure whether he would cope. He was very tense as it was, so although we started the class, once everyone began trotting and he again got very wound up and anxious, I decided to remove us from the ring and see if I couldn’t get him to calm down so he could actually process what was going on. He thought that Ace trotting past him as he stood by the side of the ring was a bit alarming, and when everyone started cantering he became even more worried, so I decided to dismount and see if I could get him to stand still and relax. It took a while – two more classes, in fact, in which Ace was a good boy but didn’t earn himself any further ribbons – before Flea finally decided that he didn’t NEED to move his feet, or push me with his head, or whinny to his friend, and that he could in fact stand quietly, lower his head, half-close his eyes, and sigh.

Once he could stand like that for a couple of minutes, I remounted and sat on him, aiming to get the same relaxation from him with me in the saddle. I don’t usually like sitting on horses at shows and using them as a grandstand, but felt it was important that Flea learned that he could still relax even with me on him. He did tense up quite a bit once I was on board, shifting around a little and calling out to Ace again, but he eventually found a more relaxed headspace and managed to stand still and wait.

Ace, meanwhile, had decided that it had been too long between winning ribbons, and picked up another win in the Best Learner’s Mount (Novice 0-3 wins) class. He was also getting a bit over it by this point, but Alice coaxed one more class out of him to place 3rd in Best Rider. He was then called forward for consideration for Champion and Reserve, and was just pipped at the post for Reserve by another horse that had been a little more consistent across all classes. But he seemed quite pleased with himself and Alice was thrilled with him.

We then rode the horses back down to the other end of the field and Alice dismounted to let Ace have a well-earned graze on some clover while I spent about 10 minutes schooling Flea. Once he’d stopped spooking at the practice steeplechase fences (and the tape reel, and that oddly shaped patch of lawn clippings), he produced some pretty nice work. His left rein canter transition was a little dodgy, but we got it after a couple of attempts. Back onto the right rein, and he cantered nicely, then back to the left and asked again. He was getting tired, more mentally than physically I think, and really struggled to pick up the lead. I let him go back to trot and decided to get some relaxation in trot before asking again, and he actually trotted so nicely, taking the rein forward and down and staying soft on the contact while being relaxed and rideable, that I decided to finish on that good note.

Although the day wasn’t a success as far as ribbons won (for Flea, anyway), it was still a good learning experience for him. By not pushing him to perform when he was already so tense and distracted, he had the time and space to calm down and actually process what was going on. I’ve been told by a lot of people that Spanish-bred horses are slow to mature, and he is just SO busy in his little brain that it’s hard for him to process a lot of new things at once. He’s also pretty herd-bound to Ace, which is not ideal, but they’ve been partners in crime for six months now without any other friends so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before we left for the show, Alice and I both filled in a page of a new project that I’m working on, a ‘Horse Show Diary’ where you fill in your goals and focus for the show before you go, then add in your successes and ‘homework’ afterwards. My goals were for it to be a positive experience for Flea, and for me to get him relaxed and attentive, and we achieved those goals, even though we didn’t participate in much of the actual showing part of the day.  (Alice’s goals were not to fall off, to win a ribbon and to have fun, all of which she also achieved. Good job team!)

I have always found that it’s really helpful to write down your goals, especially with young or green horses, because success isn’t always measured in ribbons and prize money. Since I had decided beforehand what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to achieve, I was able to think logically when Flea’s level of tension and adrenalin early on at the competition started causing problems. Although I was tempted to just grit my teeth and keep going, I was aware that the goal I’d set was to help him find relaxation when he was out in a group. So I had to think about how I COULD achieve that goal, and work towards that. So often when we come home from shows without ribbons, we think that means we haven’t gained anything from the experience. But hopefully the show today will have taught Flea that he doesn’t have to freak out when he’s overstimulated, that he can be out in a situation with lots of horses all doing different things and still be able to focus and stay calm. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a small building block towards having a more relaxed, rideable horse.

Pictured: Alice and the incomparable Moon’s Ace with their ribbons at the end of the day.

equestrian · writing

Horse Show Diary #1: The Gymkhana

It’s probably obvious that I’ve been struggling a little bit with writer’s block lately, considering I released my last book almost a whole YEAR ago. (It’s true. IRISH LUCK came out in June 2018. That’s…confronting.) There have been quite a few changes in my life since that book came out, not least of which was the purchase of a new house and farm, where I have been joined by two horses, a very loyal dog and a very naughty kitten! (Regular updates on my Instagram @kate_lattey if you’re interested.)

I am still working on book 11 in the PONY JUMPERS series, and I do have large portions of it written, but it hasn’t quite gelled together yet. I find myself caught between the desire to write and release the best book possible, and the awareness that it’s been Almost. A. Year. since I wrote my last book. But I don’t want to just churn it out for the sake of it. I have been looking forward to writing this story for some time, and it is slowly coming together. It’s just taking time…and if I’m honest, I’ve been pretty slack about working on it!

So why are you writing a blog about a horse show that you attended two days ago, instead of writing book 11, I hear you ask? Good question. Because I keep getting stuck when I sit down to write. Because I keep talking myself out of just sitting down and doing it, which is the only way to actually get through writer’s block. So I thought I’d start by writing about something I know, something I can write about easily, where I won’t find myself agonising over each word or each character’s motivation.

So…here goes.

Currently, I have two horses in the paddocks at home. Ace is a 17 year old dark bay partbred Morgan gelding, currently on lease from a friend. He came to live with me a day or two after I moved into my new place, just before Christmas, but has been out of work for most of that time after slicing his heel open on a wire fence (because he was pawing at it, demanding carrots). It wasn’t a major injury, but it still cost me $$$$ in vet bills, largely because Ace kept chewing off every bandage that I attempted to cover the wound with. He is not a horse that likes a fuss being made of him – he’s pretty staunch and very independent. He has his own opinions about things, and is steadfast in them. We got off to a slow start together, when I picked a battle (or two) that I shouldn’t have. (Who would’ve thought that asking an experienced trail horse to walk through a patch of sand would have led to an outright refusal and two weeks of sulking? Not I.) Anyway, I eventually had to leave the wound well enough alone to heal, which it has finally done. He’s now back in work and thoroughly enjoying the outings.

Ace’s paddock mate is Flea, a 7 year old bright bay Andalusian x Welsh gelding who came at the same time as Ace, right after I moved in. (Both horses are around 15.1hh). Flea is a chirpy, slightly peculiar, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little horse, who enjoys an adventure but also uses Ace as something of a security blanket (although he’d utterly deny this if you confronted him about it). Flea isn’t super keen on going anywhere by himself, as he is scared of flapping things – balage wrap is a particular phobia – and finds schooling to be quite hard work and gets rather grumpy about it. (He does, however, try – unlike Ace, who will occasionally flat out refuse to participate in what he believes is pointless circling. Once you’ve been somewhere once, there’s no point in going around and around again, in his mind anyway.)

Ace and Flea are, despite their differences, great friends. Fortunately, my friend Alice is also a keen rider, and she has taken a real shine to Ace, often getting up at the crack of dawn to come and ride with me before work.

Recently, I saw an upcoming pony club gymkhana advertised on Facebook. Hosted by one of our local branches, it was open to riders of all ages, with just a blanket $10 entry fee (with free entry for all local Pony Club members). Although Flea had – to the best of my knowledge – never done mounted games in his life, and hadn’t been ridden more than a dozen times in the past couple of months, I thought it would be a great idea to take him along to compete. Alice was keen to bring Ace too, and we prepped for the show by debating the relative likelihood of Ace even agreeing to leave the start line (marginal), and whether Flea would buck me off as soon as the races began (given his recent propensity for the odd handstand, likely). But we thought we’d give it a go anyway, so on Saturday morning, having done absolutely zero preparation other than hacking a few times in the days prior, trimming their manes to a presentable length, and cleaning our tack, we loaded the horses onto my float and dragged them half an hour south to the Otaki racecourse, where the show was being held.

We weren’t the only adults competing – there was one other.  Also in our group were two sisters, senior riders from the local PC branch. The other adult elected to not participate in the first few races, possibly because her pony was acting up a bit, so initially we only had four of us in each race. With four ribbons to be handed out for each event, this would make us appear quite successful by the end of the day!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the show early (for once) and put our entries in, just as it started pouring with rain. After sheltering for a few minutes in a horse truck, the rain eased off, and we headed out to tack up. With 45 minutes to go before the show would begin, I got on Flea and started schooling him. Alice held Ace out to graze while I rode, and Flea, although distracted by looking at the scenery (and having a mild freak out about the number of Shetland ponies in the vicinity) was pretty well-behaved, leading Alice to state that “I think he’s going to be fine.” You know what they say about famous last words?

We went back to the float for a bite to eat and for Ace to get tacked up. Then we started warming up properly, with both of us riding, and several other ponies and horses trotting and cantering around as well. It was at this point that Flea became somewhat overwhelmed, especially when Ace attempted to leave his side and trot off in the opposite direction without warning. Flea had a couple of small tantrums that involved stopping, jumping in the air and then performing a controlled sort of levade that his sire (whose claim to fame was his starring role as Asfaloth in the Lord of the Rings movies) would have been proud of. I was not so pleased with these airs above ground, given that we were at pony club, not the Spanish Riding School, and did my best to dissuade him from continuing with the bad behaviour. I did this by raising my voice and growling at him, which had the effect of drawing attention to me while being utterly ignored by Flea. Good oh. I asked Alice to stick a little closer to me, feeling Flea winding up every time Ace went the other way, and being unwilling to get bucked off in front of all the children (and their parents). She conceded (I suspect in large part because she didn’t want me to end up injured, as she’d then have to tow the float home) and Flea settled down a bit.

We were then assigned to our groups and our judges, who decided to start the competition off with the Guts Gobbling race. (For the uninitiated, this involves riding up to a clothesline strung between two trees, dismounting and eating a jelly snake off a peg on the line without touching it with your hands, then running back through the flags leading your horse.) With only four of us electing to participate in this race – me, Alice, and the two pony clubbers – we all lined up together. I put Flea on the right hand end, so that if the other riders’ horses raced off the start line, I would at least have Ace as a steady buffer to dissuade Flea from leaping forward or bucking. Alice, for her part, was concerned that Ace might not stop at the clothesline but carry on beneath it, thus effectively clotheslining her, but it turned out that neither of us had anything to worry about, because when the judge cried “GO!” both of our horses left the start line at…a walk. In Flea’s case this was a rather anxious walk, and in Ace’s, a slightly confused one as he wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself in for. Happily, we made it the short distance to the clothesline without incident, and jumped off our horses. Alice’s first, failed attempt to eat her snake made the line spin around, and my snake snapped off its peg before I could even get my mouth near it. After checking with the judge that it was okay to pick it up off the ground (with my hands) and eat it, I did so. (Pony club hygiene for the win.) Now let me tell you, it is harder to eat a jelly snake quickly than you might think. Certainly, it was harder than I’d expected it to be! However I got it down and led Flea, who followed at a confused trot, back to the start line, beating Alice by a stride or two to finish in third place. And so it was that Flea won his first ever ribbon in competition for Guts Gobbling. (For anyone who knows Flea, honestly, this is entirely fitting, even though he wasn’t the one gobbling his guts.)

Our next game was the Bending race. To be more specific, American Bending, which in the parlance of New Zealand pony club mounted games means you race straight up to the top pole, weave back between the poles, weave up to the top again, then gallop home. In theory, anyway. While the two pony club sisters raced against each other, Alice and I ran a much more sedate race of our own. Again, I positioned Flea on the end row of poles next to Ace, so that he could be a steadying influence, as Alice was still under threat of having to drive home if she caused me to be bucked off. We trotted up to the far pole, turned around it, and started slowly weaving back down. The sisters, whose horses were equipped with studs in their shoes for grip on the slippery grass, were well ahead of us, even at this point. Flea was confused and excited, but obedient. We wove back up to the top pole, and had there been any bystanders, they would’ve heard me telling Alice that I would let her beat me so long as she agreed not to canter home! What a wimp. Kindly, Alice obliged, and Flea and I finished in fourth place, with Alice and Ace picking up the ribbon for third.

We rode on to the Barrel race, and I volunteered to go first. At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a much heavier shower, and we were all getting rather wet. I took Flea slowly around the barrels, going most of the way at sitting trot, but turning him slowly and carefully around each barrel as the rain came down. Alice followed me with a slightly faster run, and then the two pony clubbers ran a proper race. The ribbons were presented in effectively reverse order, with Flea easily being the slowest on the clock for another fourth placing.

We moved on to the Flag race. As, to the best of my knowledge, Flea had never been asked to carry a flag before, our judge kindly handed me one, allowing me to ride a few steps and put it back in the barrel before the game started, just to make sure that Flea had a basic understanding of what was expected of him. He was pretty quiet about it, although a bit anxious as the other horses were on the start line and he wasn’t sure what was going on. We lined up, with Flea once again on the end next to Ace, and were given the signal to start. Flea darted forward with his head in the air, feeling uncertain and a little overwhelmed, so I decided that instead of trying to grab a flag when he was in that unsettled frame of mind, I’d just trot him up to the top barrel empty handed, turn around it and trot back. We did this twice, while the rest of the field carried their flags, until Flea felt a bit more settled. Then we slowly and carefully transferred each flag into the top barrel and trotted quietly home. We finished in fourth place, but I think our exceptionally slow run had inspired the other adult rider at the gymkhana to join in with our group, clearly realising that she was well in with a chance at a ribbon if I was going to ride every race that slowly! Alice and Ace had again picked up third.

We went next to the Sack race. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like – start on the line, ride up to the other end, jump off your horse, get into a sack, and hop back. This is the kind of game that, as a kid, you enjoy. As an adult, it’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and that finish line looks a million miles away! This time, because our fifth rider had joined in by now, we ran the race in two heats. Flea and I were second in our heat, relegating Alice to the ribbon-less fifth position as Ace had decided that allowing his rider to hop along in a sack in an ungainly manner whilst trying to lead him was completely unacceptable. Rather than get into an argument with him, Alice elected to stop halfway, step out of her sack and lead him home in a much more normal manner, which I think Ace appreciated. We then had to do the Sack race again – of all the races to run twice, this was the worst – and by the time that Flea and I were back over the line, my legs were like jelly and my abs were on fire. I had, however, hopped fast enough to earn us third place. Woop!

Next up was Run and Ride. In official mounted games, this is a pairs or team relay, where the first rider will run up to the top bending pole, leap on and ride back, then their next team member will ride up, dismount and run back, and so on. In the past, when participating in mounted games training, I had elected to do the leg that required you to ride and then run. However, this game was not in the schedule as Ride and Run, it was Run and Ride, so that was the order we were doing things. I did line up with a small advantage over both Alice and one of the other girls – I can get on Flea from the ground. Ace is so round that his saddle tends to slip when you get on from the ground, and Alice didn’t rate her chances at gaining the saddle, and the other rider’s horse was too tall. However, the judge and steward conferred and decided to assist those who needed a leg-up. My concern wasn’t getting on, it was Flea standing still while I did so.  I’m not as quick at mounting as I used to be, and Flea is pretty round himself. The only time I’ve fallen off him was when the saddle slipped sideways, and the last thing I wanted was a re-enactment of that. We set off from the start, with Alice and I again keeping our horses to a steady trot while the pony clubbers (and other adult) raced ahead. Then we dismounted, and I took a moment to steady and reassure Flea. There was a brief window of opportunity in which I could’ve mounted and ridden back to the start line before Alice had got on Ace, but it closed almost before I was aware of it. With Alice legged swiftly back onto Ace, she headed for the finish line and I waited for our kind judge to hold Flea while I remounted. To be fair to him, he did stand still while I got on, so perhaps I was being overly cautious, but at a young horse’s first gymkhana, the key is to keep it all as relaxed as possible for them, as we still had a couple of games to go. We finished the race, narrowly missing out on fourth place and ending up as the ribbon-less fifth. Meanwhile, Alice’s attempt at a dash to the finish line had resulted in Ace discovering that he actually quite liked this mounted games lark, and throwing in what was, from all eyewitness accounts, a rather large and dramatic buck! As Alice had not bothered to put her feet into the stirrups before racing for the line, she was very pleased that she stayed on, but was unfortunately nosed out at the flags to finish in third place yet again.

We moved on from there to the Postbox race, which we rechristened the ‘Soggy Newspaper’ race, on account of the extremely damp rolled up newspapers that we had to ‘post’ through the postboxes at the other end. Again, I elected to take Flea steadily in this race, and he was getting the idea of it all by that point and performed pretty well. We ran a heat, in which we found the nerve to canter home and beat Ace by a nose, and then a final, where again we went slowly and finished fourth.

With the day almost done, there was just one more race to go – the Lemon & Spoon race. This is exactly what it sounds like, and I selected my lemon carefully, then balanced it on my spoon and lined up, again on the end of the line next to Ace. “Go,” said the judge and off we went. Now Flea, being Spanish-bred, has a very smooth trot. So much so that it’s almost easier to ride him in sitting trot than rising trot, as it’s honestly more of a shuffle than a trot. This is not always desirable but is of vast benefit in a lemon & spoon race, as it allows you to trot up the line of poles without your lemon moving at all on the spoon! We turned around the top pole, and managed to trot smoothly back home to cross the line first! Alice, meanwhile, had dropped her lemon between the first and second poles, and after deciding not to dismount and pick it up, had finished the game with just a spoon. Needless to say, there were no ribbons for Ace that time, but Flea was very pleased to receive his first place ribbon, which was somewhat amusingly recycled from a national Miniature Horse event.

As it was a recycled ribbon day, Alice and I decided to donate our ribbons back to the pony club at the conclusion of the show, for them to use again at a future event. (We did make the horses pose for photos with them first, however. #forthegram.) For us, the important part was that we’d had a fun day out, and had given the horses a chance to do something a bit different than hacking out down the road. The event was well-run, our judges and other competitors were very kind and friendly, and all up we had a great time. The horses even won themselves a couple of sugar treats each, although neither of them were particularly impressed. Flea is a bit of a scraggly bearded hipster, and his organic, free range, crunchy granola upbringing has made him quite suspicious of anything that’s not on his nutrition plan. (Honestly, this is a horse that will eat around pony nuts and any processed feed and just pick out the chaff.) Ace was still feeling a bit vulnerable after our judge had made a comment about the size of his neck, so he also declined the sweet treats, convinced they’d go straight to his hips. But both horses were very pleased with the carrots that Alice had thoughtfully brought along. (Just don’t tell Flea that they weren’t organic…)

We were back home within a couple of hours, and with plenty of daylight left to take the dogs for a walk. I have since scoured the internet for any more local shows to take the horses to, and luckily for them, there’s not one but two coming up in the next few weeks. Neither of them involve any mounted games, however…so we’ll see how Ace feels about going around in (pointless) circles in two weeks’ time. It could be interesting!