Horses who shaped me

Horses who shaped me

I have been fascinated with horses for as long as I can remember. My first pony - Whiskey - came to me in the form of a 12.2hh, mischievous and fun loving pinto with the most incredible dark blue eyes. As a school kid I read every horse story in the library - Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, The Crumb….sometimes I even read them while lying across Whiskey’s back in the sun on our family farm - Te Rangi - in Hunua.

Whiskey was a great teacher. We started out at Hunua Ponyclub doing rallies, games days, dress ups. I remember winning a game where you had to race down to a barrel and grab a wrapped lolly then race back….Whiskey and I toddled down to the barrel as fast as we could then Whiskey inhaled the lolly, wrapper and all, and we raced back - sure saved me time in lolly collection. 

As we grew together we went on to do all kinds of pony club show days - show hunter, derby days and even completed our first ODE. Given we jogged the majority of it there was no surprise when we finished with 180 time faults at the end of the cross country...clear jumping though! Whiskey was an absolute treasure. We later learned that his career had started pulling a sulky cart when I competed with him in a show jumping day and the judge happened to be Snow Bennett -  who had started Whiskey as a pony in a cart.

I guess there is no surprise that I caught the eventing bug given our local pony club is still a favourite event today with many - Springbush Equestrian.

Springbush is owned by Tich Massey - renowned as a top NZ cross country course builder - he was also our head pony club coach and a terrific confidence builder. Tich had us doing all kinds of things at Ponyclub - always pushing us a little out of our comfort zone, but in a way that was fun and safe. 

Like so many families with horse mad kids we didn't have a lot of money. My father built a box on a tandem trailer that belonged to my grandfather and added a ramp so we had a float to get out and about it. Our driveway was a steep 1km long track which, at the time, was one way and gravel. To get the float to the top of the driveway dad used to take a bit of a run at the hill with the valiant ranger and homebuilt float in tow...I would ride whiskey up the hill bareback in his halter and we would load him safely at the top then head off to pony club. I felt then, and still, feel now, that I was the luckiest kid alive.

Whiskey saw his days out on our farm and brought joy to many a cousin who wanted to have their turn at sitting on a pony. Like most ponies Whiskey was very clever and occasionally took off home with a poor unsuspecting cousin. Sometimes I'd get home from school and need to ditch the sandwiches I hadn't eaten and so I'd head out to Whiskey who was clever enough to pull the slices of bread apart, wipe the marmite off on the ground and then eat the bread.

After Whiskey I went on to have a lovely pony called Princess - a 13.2hh part thoroughbred part welsh pony with a divinely smooth canter. She was a real show hunter type who naturally held a beautiful rhythm. At a game day we were doing bending poles and Princess did a neat flying change around each pole. She was every bit as elegant as she was gentle by nature.

Surprisingly we took her to a kids hunt one winter with the Pakuranga Hunt club and as soon as she heard the hounds and the horn she started shaking under the saddle. Suddenly my quiet, show hunter pony transformed into a hunting machine….clearly this was not a first hunt experience for her. It was all I could do to hold on for dear life. Princess stood off the spars by a country mile, clearing them with air to spare. She passed the huntmaster twice and there was little I could do about it. At one point we ended up above the hunt field and given I had lost all brakes she flew over two 7 wire fences one after another. At the end of the hunt I had huge blisters on the insides of my ring fingers where I had held my reins. 

Princess at our first kids hunt

After Princess I went on to Sebastian - a 14.2hh arab cross chestnut pony with a big white blaze. Sebastian was 6 years old when we got him and was fairly green. I adored him - he was then, and is now, the type that gets my heart pounding. Gorgeous golden boy with a splash of white on his face and a white stocking. I used to tear around the farm on him bareback in a halter - we would go for kms on a ride beyond Te Rangi and into the neighbours then loop back to home. I'd easily lose half a day trekking around the farm and think nothing of it - what a life! 

Sebastian was also a great teacher - as every horse I have ever encountered turns out to be! He was naturally spooky and sharp being ¾ arab but he was also clever and sure footed. He had a really cheeky side and would often whip a cap off my head in his mouth if I was within proximity. This pony really taught me to ride and I learned how to stay aboard something that could be a little sharp and slippery at times. 

Then there was Ginty. An absolute darling and gentleman of a horse. He was 15.2hh and by McGinty. A full thoroughbred, quite a plain bay but nicely conformed fellow to look at. Ginty took me from pre-training ODES to what we called ‘open eventing’ at the time - now called pre novice. I did 2 pony club championships with Ginty starting from around age 15/16 and had an absolute ball of a time. He was the most even tempered, sweet, gentleman of a horse I think I have ever encountered. 

Ginty competing at ponyclub champs 1995


I drifted away from the farm and horses for a few years as I pursued my degree in visual arts but of course the bug never really left me and it wasn't long before I started frequenting the farm and the horses again. By this time, my father had bred a big chestnut gelding who he named Xas after a character in a novel called ‘The Vintner's luck.’ Xas was by Nevernever ( warmblood ) out of our mare Golden Feather ( Tb ) and was a gorgeous big 16.3 chestnut fellow, solid boned with a big white blaze - just how we like them! Dad came across a horsemanship trainer - Taukiri Te Whata - and worked with Taukiri to start Xas under saddle. This was really the beginning of the horsemanship journey for me. I was pretty fascinated with some of the things I saw Taukiri doing when he worked with a horse and I soon began reading about Bill Dorrance, Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. We had a channel on sky TV at the time called Country TV and I used to spend a portion of my Saturdays flipping between watching Pat Parelli and Grand Prix dressage.  My fascination grew and I soon followed on and joined the Parelli online group and learned Pats “ 7 games of horsemanship”. This of course led me right back to horses and I decided that I would buy a horse to start under saddle myself. 

I happened to find a cute 3 year old appaloosa fellow called Merlin out in Whenuapai. He seemed to have a nice inquisitive nature and moved well I thought - so I bought him. This is where my journey with Merle started….I didn't want to change his name entirely but Merlin never really seemed to fit so we just shortened it to “Merle”. As far as teachers went Merle was - and still is - one of the best. 

I worked with Taukiri to start Merle under saddle learning how to ground work, how to work with a flag, how to park and use the top of the round pen to introduce a horse to the idea of you being above them before you got aboard. I spent time with Merle at home, in the round pen, working from the ground to prepare him for ridden life in every way that I had been taught by Taukiri. 

One of Merle's first rides

Eventually, dad and I started to work on the riding. Dad rode with me in the pen as “boss horse” and I started to introduce Merle to ridden life. Merle is an incredibly amicable little horse and the only slight issue I ever encountered with him was that he was naturally quite girth sensitive or ‘cold backed’ as it is sometimes called. The skills I learnt working with a horse from the ground were invaluable for starting Merle's ridden life. 

Around the same time as I was getting together with Merle I also started riding another home bred horse of ours called Tucker. The plan was to get Tucker going and earn a few dollars when dad sold him on, but I ended up buying Tucker for myself. Tucker was by Mighty Heights out of Golden Feather. 

Merle & Tucker at home on the farm

As I continued on the horsemanship journey my passion for eventing also reignited and I started competing Tucker with some success in eventing and slowly brought him up the grades from 80 to 105 eventing. Alongside this I competed Merle in dressage and found that he had quite an aptitude for it. He was always a nice mover and as he became stronger in his body and developed in his training he became quite competitive at level 1 and 2 and even held his own at level 3. 

Competing with Merle at Auckland Manukau Dressage

I continued to pursue horsemanship attending several Dromgool Horsemanship clinics where I was able to consolidate a lot of the earlier horsemanship I had learnt with Taukiri. I had attended Equitana in Melbourne the year prior to my first horsemanship clinic with Ken Dromgool and, at Equitana, I encountered Double Dan Horsemanship. I was pretty taken with what these 2 Aussie horsemen could do so I spent break times at clinics pestering Ken to teach me some tricks and liberty techniques and eventually he gave in.

Ken warned me that it was a bit like learning how a magician does a trick - once you know the magic is a little lost - and I agree to some extent but I still love teaching tricks and liberty and I know Ken does too. Ken fueled the fire and empowered me with some great learning about tricks, liberty and all things horsemanship related.

I taught Merle and Tucker to both play with me at liberty in the round pen, run to a mark and to step all 4 feet up onto a box pedestal. Although I taught the horses these things purely because I was interested in what I could achieve with horsemanship, I often found the techniques around these activities beneficial for all kinds of practical applications including floating and safe handling. 

Tucker and I had our fair share of successes at pre novice eventing and eventually I made the very tough decision to sell Tucker to a rider who would be targeting lower levels. It was really hard to make the decision as I loved him dearly but a wise and experienced eventing friend encouraged me to put Tucker at the centre of my decision. The time had come for Tucker to step into a slightly easier pace of life than what I was hoping to do and he was sold to a lovely young pony club rider who absolutely adores him. 

Competing with Tucker at Taupo

Merle moved into his next phase with my mum as his new owner and there is almost nothing in this world that makes me happier than seeing the 2 of them learning and growing together.

So here I am now with 2 young horses on my current team. Willow is a 7 year old Hanoverian x Swedish warmblood mare by Worldly and Hoot is a 6 year old Tb by Thewayyouare. New journeys, new beginnings and new teachers. I am still pursuing my passion for eventing and continue utilizing and balancing the training for eventing with my love of horsemanship.

If Willow and Hoot were people Willow would be the conscientious girl with her hair in a ponytail sitting at the front of the class. Hoot would be the class clown who secretly wants to do very well but can't help himself when there is an opportunity to act a fool for a laugh and a bit of attention.

At the time of writing Willow has completed her first season out eventing starting at 95cm and ending the season at Taupo 3DE finishing 4th in her second 1 star.

Hoot has been out to a handful of 80cm events and done some winter show jumping starts.

On with the journey! Its been a very slow spring season for 2021 with Covid interruptions but it has been a great time to put our heads down in our training and it sure will help us to appreciate the shows that little bit more in the summer season.