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.

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Thoughts

A pony book dream come true

Have you ever read a pony book where a keen and determined young rider gets given the opportunity of a lifetime to ride an amazing horse due to the generosity of some mysterious benefactor? I know I have. And although I was never that young rider, today I got to play my own part in a pony book story.

I’ve had my horse JJ since he was six years old, and six years on from when he first arrived as a nervous, head-shy youngster he has become a very confident, happy horse. We’ve had a lot of fun together but recently we’ve reached a point where he has learned everything I have to teach him. So we’ve been fumbling along for the past few months, trying to work out how we fit together these days, and the only thing that has made both of us really happy has been when he has been out competing with other riders. Lately he’s had a lovely 12-year-old on board, and he has taken her from never completing a 90cm course to placing 1st and 2nd in the two rounds they’ve done at that height! They’ve been to three shows together, done ten classes, and they’ve won two firsts, two seconds, two thirds and a fourth.

I love my horse, but a few weeks ago, I came THIS close to advertising him for sale. I even wrote a ‘For Sale’ ad, but when I finished it, I saved the file as “JJ is not for sale” and closed my computer, completely torn. I knew that what we were doing wasn’t working – I could barely catch him and no matter how many different things I tried, we weren’t really enjoying our rides anymore – but the thought of selling him scared me. Even when you sell a horse to the best possible home, you never know where they might end up long-term.

But although he’s worth a fair amount of money, at the end of the day money is just money, and I would rather have a happy horse than $$ in the bank. That’s not what life is about. And he is so happy with his new rider – they go for bareback rides to the river, share snacks and snuggles and generally adore each other. What you get to see in pictures and videos is their success at shows, but it goes much deeper than that, which is why I knew this would be the right lease home for him. He will be cherished, which is how he believes he deserves to be treated, so this way, we all win.

And in case you missed it, here are some of the highlights of the new #dreamteam‘s adventures over the past month. They make a great team, and I couldn’t be prouder of them both. Here’s to many more successes and even bigger smiles to come.

How lucky am I to be able to make someone’s dreams come true?

Thoughts

When your world turns upside down

Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but this has been a hell of a week. The American public elected Donald Trump as their next president, which was shocking enough as it was (to me at least), then New Zealand was hit by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and continuous aftershocks, and now flooding and landslides have hit many regions, including the one where I live.

The image below shows the earthquake pattern around NZ in the last 48 hours (image from NZ Herald, for more information click here).

nzherald

It was just past midnight on Sunday morning and I was just about to go to bed (well, to go to sleep) when I felt an earthquake. Living in New Zealand, quakes aren’t that unusual, but this one had a little bit more force behind it than usual, although it was still fairly mild. I paused the YouTube video I was watching as the quake started building, and getting stronger. At a certain point, perhaps 20 seconds into it, I decided to get off my bed and into my doorway. We were always taught at school to get in a doorway if there is an earthquake, and there was nothing in my bedroom that I could easily get underneath so it was the best I could do. My cat lay on the bed and watched me as I braced myself with back against the frame on one side and feet against the other, riding it out. It got stronger, and stronger. I could hear things rattling around in the kitchen, and then the power went out. The sky seemed to light up, then the power came back on for a moment, before going off again. It wouldn’t come back on for several hours.

The light in the sky was due to the phenomena known as Earthquake Lights – see video here.

quakelights

I live in a flat below a bigger house, and my bedroom is right by the access into my neighbours’ garage. At the strongest point of the quake, a shelving unit of some kind crashed to the ground in the garage, and I gritted my teeth and looked at my cat, who was still lying on the bed by the laptop, watching me with the detached curiosity that cats reserve for humans that seem to be behaving oddly. Eventually, the rolling stopped, and after a moment, I realised my legs were shaking so sat down, still braced in the doorway, and tried to call my parents. I couldn’t get through, so I logged on to Geonet to check out where the quake was centred and how strong it was, then popped onto Facebook and looked at the pile of OMG and HOLY CRAP statuses that were flooding my wall.

I posted the following status at the time:

THAT was by far the biggest earthquake I have ever felt. Scary! Power is off and phone is dying but the cat and I are both fine. Hope everyone is okay and safe. Aroha to the people of Christchurch as it was a 7.5 located just north of Hamner Springs. Ground is still shaking…stupid earthquakes.

(And yes, I realise now that I spelled Hanmer Springs wrong, but I was under a bit of pressure at the time!)

I then tried my parents again and this time got through – their power was off as well and most of their phones are cordless and don’t work if the power isn’t on, so I had to give them time to get downstairs to the office. I spoke to my Dad, who told me that they were all fine and he’d heard from my brother in Wellington who was also fine. That was a relief, and we chatted briefly before I said goodnight as my phone was very low on battery. I think that was one of the scariest parts – my work phone was downstairs but the charger cable had given out a few days earlier and it was completely dead. Living alone, with no power and a phone on 11% battery and swiftly fading, I started to feel quite cut off.

Meanwhile I was still bracing myself for aftershocks. Years of experience have taught me that aftershocks are an inevitability after a quake, and generally the bigger the quake, the bigger (and more frequent) the aftershocks. I still remember a quake that we had one night when I was living in Wellington. I got out of bed and into the doorway (possibly not the best place to be, given that the door was made of glass, but still safer than in my bed below the window) and rode it out. It wasn’t too big, and after a few moments of stillness, I decided to go back to bed. Halfway across the room, an aftershock hit that almost knocked me off my feet and had me scrambling back into the relative safety of the doorway.

Click here for live updates on the quakes we’re getting and how severe they are:

I decided that I needed to rest my phone and save its battery, so once the ground had mostly stopped moving, I went back to bed. I plugged my phone into its charger in case the power came back on, but turned the mobile data off (I didn’t have much left anyway) so that it wouldn’t drain its battery faster. I had no way of knowing how long the power would be off for, but I switched on my beside lamp so that I would know when it did come on (which happened a few hours later, when the bright light woke me up).

What I never considered was the threat of a tsunami. It wasn’t until I woke up later that morning and checked Facebook again on my now fully charged, wifi enabled phone, that I realised how many people had evacuated overnight due to concern over a tsunami. Fortunately the threat was mainly on the east coast and never eventuated here (or anywhere else really, though apparently a big wave did hit Kaikoura – more on them later). But it was a bit remiss of me not to even think of that one!

Most earthquakes hit you like someone’s just reached out with a giant elbow and bumped your house – the ground jolts suddenly and everything rattles around, but it’s usually over fairly quickly. Sometimes you can feel (or hear) it coming, sometimes things rattle in the cupboards for a moment or two beforehand, and you know there’s a jolt coming and you just wait for it. But this recent string of quakes have been more like being on a ship at sea – during the big one, the ground seemed to be rolling, and it lasted for a full two minutes. Initially, Geonet had it listed as a 6.6 magnitude quake, but it was later upgraded to a 7.5 – the biggest quake here since the 7.8 at Dusky Sound in 2009.

Radio NZ (who have been brilliant throughout) posted this series of photos showing earthquake damage across the country.

The aftershocks could last days, weeks, months or even years. Every time there is a quake of magnitude 6 or higher, there are predicted to be approx. 10 corresponding aftershocks of magnitude 5, and so on down the chain. Most of the time, it just feels as though you’re slightly light-headed – that kind of “Am I moving?” sensation. (Like right now…) But sometimes you really feel them, and there have been a couple in the past two days that had me on my feet and moving into a safer space in the room, but none have been as scary as that first one. My view from my desk is of my horse float and car, and on Monday afternoon, more than once I looked out of the window and watched the horse float swaying from side to side.

The quake caused this landslide which rerouted the railway line near Kaikoura (for more pictures and info click here).

railway.jpg

What was also unusual about this quake was how widely felt it was. Earthquakes are often quite centralised, but other than the Far North and the bottom of the South Island, almost everyone felt the big one. Swimming pools had their own private tsunamis as far north as Auckland, but it was the coastal town of Kaikoura that was eventually revealed to have been hit the hardest. Roads are still closed in and out of Kaikoura due to slips, and tourists are being evacuated by helicopter. Kaikoura (kai – food, koura – crayfish) is a small settlement on the East Coast of the South Island, and is a popular tourist destination. Whale watching is particularly popular in the area, and they also fish for paua and crayfish in the area. They already have big catches of both that may have to be thrown out as they can’t get them out of the area to sell. One of the quake’s two tragic fatalities occurred when Kaikoura’s famed Elm Homestead collapsed. (The other fatality was due to a heart attack brought on by the quake in North Canterbury.)

Closer to home in Wellington, my brother lost most of the plates in his kitchen and his TV is done for. He lives on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the central city, and it’s designed to move slightly, which is probably good for its own stability but not so good for his possessions. (It’s so moveable that it actually sways in high wind, which Wellington gets a lot.) Also in the city, shop windows smashed, and today they closed off Molesworth Street when a routine check of a (fortunately vacant) building revealed a broken beam and a possibility of collapse.

Wellington Live on Facebook posted this video from security footage inside the Golf Warehouse at the time of the quake – you can see when that big jolt hit that sent my neighbour’s shelving to the ground!

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, less than 24 hours later we had almost 24 hours of torrential rain which has resulted in flooding, road closures and landslides.

This is how State Highway 1 out of Wellington ended up being closed for most of the day (photo from NZTA):

slip

And this is the alternative route out of Wellington along SH58, which was also closed as the flood water kept rising (photo from NZTA):

haywards-roundabout

My cat continues to be utterly unfazed by all this, and if you’re wondering how JJ is coping, based on this photo I took of him today, he’s been comfort eating his way through it. (Ye Gods, the boy is fat. Spring grass is coming through and I haven’t been riding much, but I think it’s time to get the grazing muzzle out!)

i-dont-feed-it

He’s certainly faring better than this unfortunate cow family:

cows

Don’t worry, they’ve been rescued. (Click the link above to find out how.)

So last night and tonight, and for the next few nights, I will be sleeping with a solar powered torch radio next to my bed, already tuned into Radio NZ. I have filled my car up with diesel and my cupboard up with food that I can eat without having to cook it. I’ve got bottled water and my phone lives on its charger (I bought a new charger cable for my work phone too, so I now have two fully charged phones.) And I have my car parked right outside the front door, a sleeping bag and boots by the door, clothes on the end of my bed when I go to sleep and a packed bag nearby in case I need to evacuate in the middle of the night. I also keep my contact lenses right by the bed instead of downstairs in the bathroom, just in case. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

All photos belong to the respective copyright owners and where possible have been linked to their source. 

 

Jonty · Pony Jumpers series · Thoughts · writing

Let’s hear it for the boys

for-the-boys

It is a truth universally acknowledged that although a majority of top professional riders are male, equestrian sports in general are dominated by women. Perhaps as a reflection of that, the majority of equestrian fiction, especially juvenile or YA equestrian fiction, is told from a female perspective.

As someone who has read countless pony books over the years, and with over 200 volumes on my bookshelf with an almost comparable number on my Kindle, I can think of fewer than 20 that are told from a male perspective. From classics like Walter Farley’s Black stallion series and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka trilogy, through to contemporary novels such as Sheena Wilkinson’s brilliant Taking Flight and Grounded, there are some excellent equestrian novels with a male protagonist, but they remain the exception, rather than the rule.

Boys don’t ride

Even in looking for an image to use on this blog post, I discovered that typing “boy+horse” into a free photo search engine brings back markedly fewer results than “girl+horse” does. Why are boys so outnumbered? At my local Pony Club, we currently have eight boys enrolled, ranging in age from six to seventeen. That seems pretty good, but when you take into account that we have fifty-five riders enrolled at our branch, that’s a fairly low ratio! Most of those boys are under the age of ten, and it will be interesting to see how many of them choose to continue riding as they get older. (We did have one sixteen-year-old boy last season who has since decided to focus on soccer instead of show jumping. Just as girls often leave the sport for boys, boys leave the sport for, well, sport.)

In my experience, boys are more likely to start riding because they genuinely want to ride, rather than because their friends are doing it, or because they think horses are pretty. And if they persist through to their teenage years, they reap rewards that they perhaps weren’t going in for in the first place – being one of only a few boys in a swarm of teenage girls is not a bad spot to be, so they tell me.

Jonty was sitting on the fence watching me, giving me an encouraging smile when I rode past, but not offering much else in the way of support. I supposed that with Katy on one side of him and Susannah on the other, he was a little distracted. It was annoying me a lot more than it should have, but it was probably my fault for bringing him along. Teenage boys were pretty thin on the ground at horse events, and while Jonty wasn’t necessarily pin-up material, he was far from unappealing. I was just glad they weren’t going to see him ride, because his skill in the saddle was easily one of his most attractive traits.

excerpt from Four Faults (Pony Jumpers #4)

What’s the difference?

What is the difference then, between female and male protagonists – especially when it comes to a mainly female-dominated genre? Are most pony books written from a female perspective because the majority of riders and readers are female, and they want to read about people like themselves? Is it because the majority of writers in the genre are female? (Of the 21 books listed at the bottom of this post, only two were written by men.) Is it because horse books are often, essentially, romances – but between a girl and her horse, rather than a girl and a boy?

Boys tend to be slightly less soppy about their horses, less likely to shower them in kisses and have feelings of romantic attachment towards them. They are less inclined to declare their desperate love and obsession for their horse, but that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t feel that way.

My favourite pony book written from a male perspective is Pony from Tarella, by Australian author Mavis Thorpe Clark, and it is a story of a young man’s desperate love for a headstrong mare. Although this was published in 1959 and is now out of print, it’s well worth reading if you can get your hands on it.

For a second he stood very still, then his two fingers went up to his mouth, and the shrill insistent whistle floated across the hill. The horses kept on galloping, enjoying their game. Again he whistled. Sunflower was nearer this time.

Did she hesitate just a second? Did her ears lift?

His clear note echoed above the thud of the hooves. She was close this time, but still travelling fast. Another whistle. Her stride faltered, she eased the pace. She seemed to listen. Sandy’s heart bounded. She had heard him…

 excerpt from Pony from Tarella, by Mavis Thorpe Clark

Minority report

Even less common than a straight male protagonist is a gay male protagonist, and of the list of books below, only two of them feature a gay male as their lead character (Mary Pagones’ Fortune’s Fool and its sequel Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion, which share a protagonist, so possibly only count as one gay male voice).

In my book, Jonty is already well-established as a loyal boyfriend to Tess, another of the series’ rotating protagonists, so there is no question of his sexual orientation. But one of his closest friendships in the novel is developed with Frankie, a young gay man in his late twenties, who teaches him a lot about riding, horsemanship, and taking care of the people around you – often before you take care of yourself.

Frankie unclipped the lunge rope from the bridle and patted Last Chance’s sweaty shoulder. “Come on mate. Be a good lad, and we’ll find you a nice home with a teenage girl who’ll kiss you all over your face and give you all the treats you can eat.”

“That’s the dream,” I told the pony, and Frankie pulled a face.

“Maybe for you.”

excerpt from Jonty (Pony Jumpers – Special Edition #1)

Books for boys

But the question remains valid – as most of these books have been written by women, are they actually being written for boys? Do these horse book boys actually behave like boys, or are they teenage girls’ idealisations of boys, or boys who act and think rather more like girls?  (This is not to say that women cannot write books that appeal to a male audience, because that is of course completely untrue. S.E. Hinton, whose Taming the Star Runner I have listed below, has written from a male perspective in all of her novels, and done so very successfully.)

Writing from a male voice is not just about swapping out pronouns; boys think differently, and see the world in a different way to girls. I have spent a lot of time around teenage girls, and understand them pretty well, but I’d never even considered writing from a male perspective before Jonty came along. If you’d said to me “write a pony book with a male protagonist”, I would’ve struggled to know where to begin. But when Jonty was first introduced in Four Faults, he stepped into the story with such a sense of surety and self-determination that I always wanted to know more about him, and see further into his life. A few books down the line, I felt that he was familiar enough now for me to be able to write in his voice. And he hasn’t let me down. I thought I might struggle, but the hardest part of writing Jonty has been keeping the word count down – the only reason that it hasn’t ended up being the longest book in the series so far is because I deleted an entire chapter from the end! (Six to Ride still holds the dubious honour of being the longest, but Jonty is only around 1000 words behind it, and both books are more than twice the length of First Fence.)

There are a few female characters in the book – Jonty’s three sisters, his mother, and his neighbours Hayley and Tess are the primary ones – but the main characters that he interacts with during the course of the novel are male. From his alcoholic father to a grumpy old retiree, from a taciturn local farmer to a disreputable horse trainer, Jonty learns a lot from the men around him, lessons both good and bad.

And not too far down the line is another Special Edition in the Pony Jumpers series, which also has a male protagonist. Once you start something…


SE1 Jonty 150

Jonty is now available for purchase on Amazon – click here to find it online!


Books with boys

Are you looking for YA equestrian fiction with a male protagonist? Check out this list of recommendations below:

Taking Flight – Sheena Wilkinson

Grounded – Sheena Wilkinson

Boys Don’t Ride – Katharina Marcus

The Boy with the Amber Eyes Katharina Marcus

Moonstone Promise (Diamond Spirit #2) – Karen Wood

The Boy Who Loves Horses (Pegasus Equestrian Centre #2) – Diana Vincent

Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe / Joe and the Lightning Pony / Joe and the Race to the Rescue – Victoria Eveleigh

Fortune’s Fool / Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion – Mary Pagones

Out of print

Pony from Tarella – Mavis Thorpe Clark

Patrick’s Pony – Josephine Pullein-Thompson

Show Jumping Secret – Josephine Pullein-Thompson

Classics

Taming the Star Runner – S.E. Hinton

My Friend Flicka / Thunderhead / Green Grass of Wyoming – Mary O’Hara

The Black Stallion series – Walter Farley

The Red Pony – John Steinbeck

(Note: I have chosen to list books where the primary protagonist is male, and haven’t included ensemble books with a good mix of male and female characters. I have also left off books such as Caroline Akrill’s Flying Changes, because while a large part of the story focuses on a male rider’s career, it is never told from his point of view.)

Did I miss any? Comment your recommendations below!

Rio 2016 · Thoughts

Lower your pitchforks, people [Rio 2016]

pitchforks

If this year’s Olympic Games in Rio have proven one thing, it’s that the world is well and truly watching. Equestrian sport has flown under the radar for years, but times, they are a’changing, and with the advent of social media, everyone now has their opportunity to communicate with the riders, to share information, to spread rumours, and become an armchair expert.

Because I live in New Zealand and don’t have TV, I have seen very little of the equestrian events at Rio (Sky TV bought the rights to exclusive coverage, and I can’t even stream it online from overseas websites). Most of what I do know has been gleaned off social media, which is always a dangerous place to get information. But there have already been plenty of controversies abounding in all three disciplines (I will post about the show jumping once it is all over).

Clifton Lush

Things didn’t exactly go to plan for the New Zealand eventing team at Rio. Coming into the competition as likely medal contenders, tragedy struck early when Jock Paget’s Clifton Lush sustained an injury in the stables, cutting his cheek on an exposed water pipe. The injury was kept quiet when it first happened, and wasn’t revealed until the first horse inspection. (Before each phase of the eventing, horses are required to ‘trot up’ for the ground jury, who check that they are sound and fit to compete. If a horse doesn’t look right, they are sent into a holding box while the ground jury deliberates, and are then trotted up again for a second inspection. If they pass the second time, they’re cleared to compete, but if they don’t, then they are deemed to have failed and may not continue in the competition – or, in the case of the first inspection prior to the dressage, start at all.)

Clifton Lush was held after his first pass, trotted up again, and subsequently cleared to compete. However our reserve rider Tim Price had also trotted up his horse Ringwood Sky Boy, and he, like the rest of the team, flew through the inspection. The decision was made to withdraw Clifton Lush due to the cut on his cheek and the fact that the horse reportedly appeared lacklustre, and Jock described Lush as “not feeling himself”. Jock was applauded for making a decision that prioritised his horse’s welfare, and was sent many condolences from disappointed fans and supporters.

Lush
PC: Paget Eventing

It was disappointing, and many people expressed frustration that the injury occurred at all in what was meant to be five-star accommodation. It was revealed that the horse had cut his cheek on an exposed water pipe, presumably after he got up to some mischief and decided to pull the tap handle off this pipe shown in the photo to the right, from the Paget Eventing Facebook page prior to their first night in Rio. (I say presumably as no official comment has been made by the Paget Eventing team about whether this particular pipe and tap was the actual culprit, but I feel that it’s a fairly safe assumption to make.)

That should have been the last we heard of it, but it wasn’t. When details and pictures came out via Horse & Hound yesterday stating that Lush had reportedly undergone a two-hour surgery to repair the five-inch gash in his cheek, which required four layers of suturing and over 100 stitches, the internet went feral once more. Suddenly, far from being a good horseman and role model, Jock was being villainised by the armchair critics who felt that he should never have trotted the horse up at all. It was also revealed in the article that, under close veterinary supervision, he rode the horse in a halter subsequent to the injury in the days prior to the trot-up.

While the injury certainly looks nasty in the photos that accompanied the article, it’s important to remember that we don’t know the full story. Here’s a short list of just a few of the things that we, as people outside of the team, don’t know:

  • Exactly when the accident happened – was it the first night at Rio, or only a day or two before the competition started? (The horses arrived on the 31st July to be acclimatised, and the competition didn’t start until August 7th)
  • Whose decision it was to trot the horse up – was it Jock’s, the team’s, the owners’, or a combination of both/all?
  • Whether they ever intended to compete the horse after trotting him up – it’s probable, in my opinion, that they trotted Lush up just in case one of the other NZ horses failed the inspection, in which case a serious decision as to whether to compete Lush would be made. Whether he would’ve been competed with his injury is still unknown.
  • When those photos of his wound were taken – straight after surgery when it was still swollen and fresh, or days later? Was the swelling still there when he was trotted up, or was it healing well?
  • What medication was given to the horse prior to and during the trot up, and what drugs would have been available to him during the competition – would he have been allowed a local anaesthetic around the wound site while competing? (I don’t know, but I think the question is worth asking). On this note, the FB comments that made me roll my eyes the hardest are the ones where people insisted that due to the FEI drug restrictions, Lush must have had his cheek sutured without any painkillers or sedation. I would like to ask those people how exactly they think that would be achieved on an extremely fit Thoroughbred – did they just ask Lush nicely to stand still and be brave for two hours?
  • What kind of exercise Jock gave him while riding in a halter – he’s being criticised for riding him at all, but the horse has to come out of his stables to stretch his legs, and I don’t personally see a huge difference in him riding the horse compared to leading him out. I know that when my horse was on box rest and then was allowed out to stretch his legs, he was much better behaved when I walked him around bareback than he was when I led him. I don’t know for a fact, but I highly doubt that any work that Jock gave Lush during that time was at all strenuous.

Here’s what we do know for a fact:

  • The horse was withdrawn and did not compete in any phase of the event
  • The horse passed the horse inspection, despite the injury to his cheek
  • The horse was cleared by the vets at Rio to be presented at the first horse inspection.

And here’s the thing that really baffles me. How on earth can people think that Jock, of all people, would willingly go into a competition wondering or knowing that his horse might test for a banned substance? The last thing he needed was this extra controversy, and while I don’t know any more of the facts than anyone else (and admit to some bias due to him being a) a New Zealander, and b) someone I’ve met, albeit briefly) – at the end of the day, all other things aside, the horse did not compete.

“She deserves a gold medal”…?

Which brings me to Adelinde Cornelissen, the Dutch dressage rider whose horse Parzival was bitten by a bug in the stables and suffered a severe toxic reaction to it. Parzival suffered an elevated temperature and was on a drip for nine hours the day before, but seemed to recover well and was again cleared by the vets to compete. After being denied a request to swap starting slots with a teammate so she would have another day for Parzival to recover, Adelinde decided to ride, and began her dressage test. However her horse was clearly unhappy, and a few movements in, she decided to withdraw.

eurodressage
Photo: Eurodressage.com

I haven’t seen the test, only some of the photos that came out afterwards, and they don’t paint a pretty picture as the horse left the arena with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and looking highly distressed. Clearly he had not made a full recovery, and was not ready to compete. However Adelinde did make the right decision in the end, whether or not the horse should have been started at all (questionable, in my mind, but again, I don’t know the full situation as I was. Not. There.).

Not long after her retirement mid-test, the plaudits started flowing thick and fast on Facebook, with emotional headlines on linked stories about her heroic decision – including the highly emotive “Gold Medal Athlete Quits Olympic Games to Save Her Horse”, an article which unfortunately includes a picture of the horse bleeding from his mouth prior to disqualification at WEG in 2010, giving the online critics plenty more to bleat on about. However this adulation was swiftly followed by a backlash after misreporting from NBC claimed that her horse had a hairline fracture. This allegation quickly descended into myriad claims on Facebook that she had broken her horse’s jaw through her forceful riding and use of rollkur as a training method. Now I am no fan of rollkur, and I have never particularly liked watching Parzival compete – admittedly the only time I really sat down and watched him go was at London 2012, and I watched it several times, followed by the soft, flowing test of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro who provided quite a contrast in my eyes – but that story seemed dubious to me. The FEI later issued a statement stating it was entirely false, and that the horse’s injury was related only to the bug bite, and that x-rays had been taken and there was no evidence of a fracture. And the horse was, after all, cleared by the vets to compete.

So is there a question around whether the vets are being stringent enough about horse welfare by allowing horses who are injured to compete? Perhaps. Anyone who has spent much time in horse sport, and any time at all in the professional arena, knows that there are questionable decisions made all over the place. Vets have an incredibly difficult and stressful job, as recent statistics re: depression and suicide in the vet industry have revealed. I don’t want to go on a witch hunt against vets, and of course there is an immense amount of pressure at an event like Rio to pass the horses as fit to compete. I don’t know what their guidelines are to approve horses for competition, but perhaps they need tightening.

Or perhaps we should continue to trust riders to know what is best for their horses. In both of the above situations, the riders ultimately made the best decision for their horse’s welfare. The situations around these decisions and the timing is up for discussion, and you only have to dip a toe into Facebook to join in with the pitchforks and knives.

But before you do, spare a thought for the people involved. One thing I do know for sure is that Jock has been reading the Horse & Hound Facebook comments, and I can only hope that he is not taking the criticisms too much to heart. After all, nobody will be more disappointed than he is not to have had the opportunity to ride, especially given that Lush is 16 years old and unlikely to be starting in Tokyo 2020. (Likewise, Parzival is 19 years old and will soon retire.)

The amount of time, effort – and yes, money – that it takes to get a horse to Olympic level is immense, and the hope, however slight, that the horse would recover in time to compete is always there. However as these riders are well aware, trying to reason with experts who clearly know more about the situation than the people who were actually there will only make things worse. All we can do as viewers of equestrian sport is to look for the positives,  and remember that we were not there, and as a result, we don’t have the whole story. Maybe it’s worse than we think, or maybe it’s better. We. Don’t. Know. Perhaps one day we will find out more, but for now, let’s try not to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations.

After all, that’s what fiction is for…

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · Thoughts

First world problems

First world problems banner

Just a quick blog post to share this message I received on Facebook during the week:

Just was thinking about why I liked your books so much and I realised it was the ‘real life’ issues which are rarely mentioned in other books. In book 6 with Katy in it I think, the part about world crisis and how you can often feel that you are overloaded and just don’t care anymore, I could really relate to that.

So for anyone who hasn’t read book 6 (SIX TO RIDE), here’s the conversation between 16 year old Katy and her neighbour Phil:

“Do you ever feel like it’s just too hard…to care? Like, when bad things happen around the world – suicide bombings and terrorist attacks and people getting beheaded and there being millions of people living in rat-infested refugee camps and it’s so awful and you feel so bad about it, but then you still have to get up every day and go to school and live your life, and your own problems seem so little and petty but then they’re also like, huge, because they’re the only problems that you’ve got. And then you get upset about stuff, and people are like um at least you’re not living in a rat-infested refugee camp and you know that’s true and you try to see that perspective but it’s so…exhausting,” I told him, my words tripping over each other as I tried to make him understand.

“Like it’s just too hard to care that much about everyone all at once, so you just ignore it as much as possible. Until something really bad happens, something terrible and cataclysmic, and everyone gets really worked up and it’s all over Facebook and there are hashtags and memes and everyone changes their DPs and you do it as well because if you don’t then it looks like you don’t care about other people’s plights, and then someone posts something about how the media is misinterpreting what’s going on or how you’ve only been shown the stuff they want you to see, and that hundreds and thousands more people are dying that you never even hear about. So then you feel shallow and you have to feel bad for those people too, for their problems and because they’re being ignored by the media, and it makes you mad that you’re being manipulated into caring more about some people than others, and you try and wrap your head around how it must feel for people to be in those kind of horrific situations, seeing their families get killed and not being able to go to school for fear of their lives, and you think how grateful you are for where you live and what you get to do in your life.

“But then your mum yells at you for not keeping your room clean, and teachers tell you off for not studying hard enough and it’s like sorry but I have the weight of the freaking world on my shoulders right now, except that I don’t. Not really. Because all those problems are other people’s problems, and my problems are whether I’ve done my homework and whether my room is clean and how my ponies are going and whether my dad just spent a stupid amount of money on a horse I can’t ride. I can’t do anything about whether someone decides to strap a bomb to themselves and kill innocent people. All I can do is write a hashtag and change my profile picture and feel guilty for having a better life than millions of people who are living in rat-infested refugee camps, and then I hate feeling so bad about something I can’t change and I can’t fix and it’s just so…it feels like such a burden, except it’s not, because look at everything we have, and how trivial our problems are…”

My words petered out at last, my tongue finally tying itself in so many knots that I had to stop. I wondered what Phil was thinking. Probably that I was crazy. I shouldn’t have said anything, should’ve quit while I was ahead, but it was too late now. My guts were officially spilled, and Phil still hadn’t spoken, so I sat up and looked at him, trying to gauge his reaction.

He didn’t meet my eyes. Instead, he was focused straight ahead, his expression tight and his jaw clenched. I thought he was mad, at first, until I realised that his eyes were shinier than usual. Was he…but boys don’t cry. It was the first thing that came into my head, and I shoved it away immediately. Of course they cry. Everyone cries. It’s perfectly normal, and healthy, and I was not going to judge him for it. But it made me uncomfortable. Not because he was a boy, but because crying people always do. I never know what to say to them, and my hugs always seem insincere, no matter how hard I try to make them feel comforting. I wanted to be AJ just then, because she would’ve known what to say and how to reassure him, or how to lighten the mood and stop him from crying, because I knew he didn’t want to be doing that in front of me. He was looking away now, trying very hard not to blink.

“You okay?”

He nodded, then raised a surreptitious hand to rub at his damp eyes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I leaned into his shoulder again, because it was all I could think of to do, and felt him lean back into me, reciprocating my touch. “Never thought anyone would be crying over my first world problems,” I teased, trying for some levity.

“Don’t say that.” Phil’s voice had changed, gone deeper, and I sat up again.

“What? Why not?”

He glared at me, that deep line reappearing between his eyebrows. “That first world problems crap. Because that’s part of the problem. It’s exactly what you’ve just been talking about. Everyone’s problems are their problems, and they still hurt, no matter how big or small they are. They still hurt. So saying your problems are not real problems because there are bigger problems in the world is so unhelpful. Everyone has things in life that suck, it’s just the scale of it that changes. Sometimes people can’t get out of bed in the morning because their arms and legs have been blown off. And sometimes people can’t get up because they just…can’t.”

Click here to read another sample from SIX TO RIDE, or buy it on Amazon.

First 8 covers 150dpi

Thoughts

On positive creativity

positive creative

I went for a walk this morning. I try to do this regularly, to take advantage of the fact that I live only a short walk from a beautiful beach, to take the time out to move and experience nature and touch the world instead of lying in bed, snug under the covers scrolling through Facebook (social media = addiction).

So this morning I made myself get up and go for a walk, even though it was cold, even though it was cloudy, even though I didn’t really feel like it. And as always, the moment I stepped outside my house, I knew I’d made the right decision.

I took a walk down to the beach, and took this photo just as I came up over the dunes and saw the morning laid out in front of me.

beach

As I walked down the beach, I let my thoughts wander. I gave myself some quiet time, working on quieting my brain noise, or meditating, or praying, or whatever you want to call it. I took stock of how beautiful the world is, and how lucky I am to be a part of it. I took a moment to be grateful for the simple fact that my arms and legs work, that I can see and smell and hear and move and think, that I am so incredibly fortunate to be who I am, where I am. These aren’t things we practice thinking about, and sometimes they’re hard to remember. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s the importance of gratitude.

Halfway along the beach, I stopped and stared out across the horizon and let my mind go still. I let myself be filled with the noise of the waves rolling in and crashing on the shore and the cries of the seagulls and quiet chirps of the sparrows and the murmur of the occasional car passing on the damp road. I breathed it all in and exhaled it out. I gave acknowledgement to Tangaroa, Maori god of the ocean, simply because he gives a name and a sense of entity to the enormity and beauty of a part of the natural world that I was lost in my appreciation of, in the same way that I acknowledge Tanemahuta when I walk through the forest and listen to the birds; the same way that I acknowledge Rangi-a-nui when I stare up at the night sky, or watch the sun set, or make pictures out of cloud formations; in the same way that I nod to Papatuanuku when I am in the garden, my hands buried in the rich soil, or when I let grains of sand slide through my fingers, or when I see mountains reaching to the sky, where earth mother and sky father meet.

Then I found a new track that wound through the dunes, and I followed it, brushing against wet tussock and lupin and grass, following the narrow trail of sand back to the road, and home. And as I walked, I started thinking about creativity, and how important it is to the human spirit. I got home, and I sat down, and I wrote this post on Instagram, accompanied by the photo posted above:

Creativity is an essential part of the human experience. But how often do we hold ourselves back because we don’t think we are capable of creating anything of value? We are told or we decide that we have no talent in that area and we turn our backs on the possibility and exploration of it. But maybe we need to redefine that thinking. A painting’s value lies not in whether other people think it’s beautiful, or even whether you think it is beautiful, but in the creative experience of making it. Even if it doesn’t come out the way you wanted it to, or hoped it would. Let yourself value the act, the creativity inherent in making anything that feeds your soul and reminds you that you are part of this wild and wonderful thing we call humanity. Whether it’s something you write or paint or bake or quilt or sing, whether it’s a dance move you just made up or a doodle in the margin of your notebook, it wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t have happened, if not for you. Embrace that. Own it. Create, and find value in your creations – even if you’re the only one who can see it. #fillyoursoul #creativespirit #creativity #positivepeople

We are the world. We can make it beautiful. We can make it sing.
All we have to do is begin.