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15 September 2014

Growing with the Miles by Carola MacCallum



I have shared my life with Stazi (Sandy to his friends) for two and a half years now. He was an impulse buy after I had my daughter and, in the middle of nappies and sleepless nights, regretted that I had not fulfilled a life long dream to ride and own if 'owning' them is ever possible an Arabian horse. I saw him advertised online one night, phoned his owner the next morning and went to see him on that afternoon. He was in his field wet and bedraggled on his winter break with no shoes on but I was instantly taken in by his beauty and grace. His then owner, and breeder, Lisa Miller said that 'people either get Arabs or they don't but if they do they will never want anything else.' It has taken me two years to understand what she meant and now I wholeheartedly agree. Stazi certainly is not like any other horse I have ever known. He is a walking, or shall I say floating, conundrum. He is moody and generous, bolshy and sensitive, arrogant and kind, curious and frightful, hot headed and gentle and all of these in a day. It took me a long time to understand him and I am still learning. 

It has not been an easy start for us. Stazi took badly to the big change in his life, all he had known was gone and he didn't understand what had happened and he fought everyone, he wouldn't tie up, he would refuse to load into a trailer, he would rear when I tried to lead him, he would spin and buck when I tried to ride him. I now understand it was fear, insecurity and lack of leadership on my part but at the time I was at my wits end. I checked everything from his saddle to his back to his teeth, had his nutrition assessed, took lessons and got experienced horse people come to work with him. Had I not made a deal with myself to give him a year before making any decision I would have sold him many times over. Horses are great teachers and great levellers too.  He is teaching me patience and not to take anything for granted. It was him who finally made the penny drop for me. I needed to listen to him. His expectations were actually quite small, all he needed from me was strong leadership but with a gentle touch, diplomacy and constant negotiation. I now understand that I can't 'make' him do things I have to negotiate with him, see things from his point of view and and pick my battles. He is the most challenging horse I have ever ridden but also the most rewarding. He is not an easy ride. I have to be switched on the whole time I am on board. 

Our road to team selection has not been straight forward. At the beginning of the year Stazi fell over in a trailer and was on box rest for many weeks. I thought that was the end of the selection process for us as, even without the worry about his future fitness and health, we had lost the first six months of the year. We did, however, manage to gain enough fitness to attend the Scottish Championships in July where we finally got our first BTQ (Bronze Thistle Qualifier 30km the first step on the grading ladder) with a gold award. We had a super weekend and the following week we got the phone call to say that we were selected to represent Scotland at the Home Internationals as the Novice Combination.  What a proud moment ! After the initial euphoria the worrying began if Stazi would cope at such a big event being the sensitive horse that he is. 

He didn't cope too well on the first day as he didn't like being stabled and the excitement of the event caused him to be very excited during the trot up phase at the initial vetting. He leapt and half reared all the way down the lane and it was difficult for the vet to get a clear picture of his paces. Luckily we were asked to repeat the trot up rather than being eliminated there and then. It only hit me afterwards that his naughty behaviour could have cost us our place in the team. 

We had another challenge in the evening as Stazi was so stressed by being in the stable that he refused to eat anything. He is turned out 24/7 at home. It had everybody worried. When I checked him at midnight he hadn't touched any of his food or haylage. I stood next to his stable trying to decide what to do when suddenly he started eating. I stayed with him silently until he had finished. I then knew he would be fine and I was moved that he allowed me to do this for him. 

On Saturday it was decided that Stazi should be out in his corral for as long as possible and should be fed in there as well to avoid him getting stressed again. We also decided that he needed to 'let off some steam' before the big ride tomorrow. I lunged him for 30 mins to get all the bucks out of him and then took him for a brisk trot round the local roads. He was bolshy and strong and full of himself but I knew that meant that he was feeling good. 

In the middle of the night the wind suddenly got up to gale force strength and I worried about riding Stazi in those conditions. He is very sensitive to wind and I will usually avoid riding him in strong wind. Riding for the team meant that I didn't have that choice. I voiced my fears and concerns and the team rallied round. Evelyn Frame, the Chef d' Equipe took Stazi to the vetting to avoid my nerves rubbing off on him and Kate Robertson, my very experienced crew took over looking after him while I got myself ready. The start was fraught. When we arrived at the start line we were told that it might be wise to walk down the field as the previous horse had just bolted with his rider and just as we were waiting for our countdown a paper cup blew underneath the hooves of the horse of a fellow Scottish team member and his horse literally leapt 6 feet into the air dumping him in the process nearly landing on top of him. Luckily they were both fine and started and finished the ride successfully but it did nothing to help our nerves. To top it all off the tarpaulin start sign chose that particular moment to tear loose. Off we were! All the credit goes to Stazi, while I was frozen with fear he marched over that start line and got on with business. He gave me the best ride ever ! He ate up the miles of the difficult terrain, his ears pricked, he was focused and clearly enjoying himself. His joy in running is obvious he never needs to be asked to go forward. He always wants to go further and faster and I have yet to find his limit. Riding him is like flying and a quote from 'Henry the V' by William Shakespeare always comes to mind: 'When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.'

As usual he objected to being sloshed (having cold water poured over him to cool him down) but as it was a cold day I didn't insist. We made such good time that we were near the finish with 46 minutes to spare. (The aim of the exercise was to come in as close on 11kmph as possible with as low a heart rate as possible.) So we calmly walked towards the finish, stopping on the way for some grass and then, keeping a close eye on our stopwatch and walking calmly across the finish line. We had done it ! What an achievement under those conditions ! He vetted in under half an hour with a heart rate of 41/40 which is very good. Not only did we come in at optimum time we also did it with a gold heart rate. We had done our bit for the team. I have now learned to give Stazi more credit, he delivers when it matters. I am so proud of him not just of the physical achievement but especially of how he coped with the day mentally.

Scotland won both team competitions, the Home Internationals and the Celtic Challenge. We were the only team to get all our horses and riders home, which is a wonderful achievement. Stazi and I won best Novice Combination based on our exact timing and his low heart rate. It shows that he has an aptitude for the sport and it means that I will have to work a good bit harder to keep up with him. He is a very special horse and I am looking forward to many many years of fun together and learning from this wise Arabian.