The Hoof Print
Horse News. Christian Living. Equine Education
The Christian Equestrian's Literary "Stamp" in Type
Greenwich Park, 2012. The horse strides down the side of the arena, hooves sinking deep into the golden sand, ears flickering gently from one side to the other as he takes in the murmur of a crowd thousands strong. One ear remains always tipped backwards towards his rider, who sits so tall and deep that the line between her movements and his is blurred. She guides him carefully, with subtle movements. A touch of her legs stirs him into a trot; he glides, white socks flashing, bay coat burnished in the sun, into the Olympic arena. He doesn’t move like an animal. He moves like music.
They come to a halt; the collection of the movement is in itself a salute to years of training. The rider makes her salute and then puts both hands on the reins, gathering him. The music begins, and the horse comes to life. He floats, perfectly in time with the music, through movements so difficult as to be impossible for most horses; yet he piaffes, pirouettes and passages as though it all comes naturally to him, as though he has been doing it since he was born. His rider appears to sit motionless as she guides him through the movements they both know so well. Extending, his trot seems ready to lift off; collecting, he barely seems to touch the ground.
The music rings with the peals of Big Ben and fanfares with the high wisdom of I Vow to Thee, My Country. The sound fills the hearts of the spectators, twines around the horse until it seems that horse and song become one, until it is uncertain whether the horse dances to the song or the song dances to the horse. Horse, human and music become one glorious spectacle.
One moment, they lengthen the canter to fly across the arena with impossibly long strides. The next, they piaffe, trotting on the spot, all the horse’s energy contained and yet exuberant. The next, they walk, the reins loose, the horse’s head stretched out, yet even that simple movement is regal, controlled, magnificent.
At last, with the whole stadium ringing to the last notes, the great horse comes to a halt and his great rider lowers her head and stretches out her right arm. The routine is finished. The stadium erupts into a mighty applauding.
Later that day it is announced that Charlotte Dujardin, the British dressage rider, and the KWPN gelding known as Valegro have won the individual gold medal for dressage at the London 2012 Olympics, and broken the Olympic record with 88.022%. Before long the pair will hold three world records, too, including the spectacular freestyle score of 93.975%. For now, they stand, revelling in a job well done, and the people of London applaud their majestic display of power, grace, and willingness.
And while they set their records, in a dingy corner of Gloucestershire, hidden and forgotten, a young pony colt is starving slowly.
Semi-abandoned stableyard in Gloucestershire, 2014. So weak that he can barely stand, the colt huddles in a corner of the field, his shivers making his long, dull coat ripple over his ribs. His neck looks too thin to support his pathetically bony head; his eyes are sunken deep into their sockets, and have no sparkle. Breathing laboured, neck stretched out, belly low-slung and grotesquely large for his spindly legs, the colt is days from death.
Stableyard caring for horses from charity, Gloucestershire, 2014. Charlotte Dujardin chats with her friend, walking past the row of stables from which sleek and well-groomed heads look out, the great eyes and wide brows speaking of breeding and quality. The double winner of the FEI World Cup and double Olympic gold medallist, among many other accolades, runs her eye down the row of beautiful horses. She is used to them; huge, shining, well-trained, unbelievably valuable, deeply treasured.
Then, she reaches a stable door with no head looking over it. Curious, she stops and peers inside. Two huge, sad eyes, half hidden in a head that is little more than a skull with skin, look back. They belong to a tiny black colt that was found by the RSPCA. He was starving, riddled with parasites and sick with a lung infection. In the words of an Inspector, the colt was a week from dying.
Now, he is safe, but his ribs still protrude, his belly still dangles, long hair hanging off it like moss dripping from an old tree trunk. His disproportionate body, half hidden underneath a dog blanket stretched across his thin frame, looks much too ugly for the prettiness of his fine-boned little head.
He is a far cry from Valegro, and Dujardin has no illusions that he will ever be Valegro. But she falls for him instantly. Straight away, she contacts her sponsors to custom-make him a proper rug instead of the old dog blanket. And not long after, the little colt, christened Santa, moves into the possession of Charlotte Dujardin OBE.
We all have days when we feel like Santa compared to Valegro. We feel like a raggedy little pony, scrawny, weak and on the brink of starvation, a scruffy mongrel in comparison to that man in the church, that girl in the youth group, that preacher at the pulpit – those Valegros. We compare ourselves to those around us, and cast ourselves in a dim light: I’ll never be brave like her. I’ll never be wise like him. I’ll never be virtuous like her. I’ll never be patient like him.
This is not humility. Our God never intended for us to compare ourselves to each other, for in the end, we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Jesus alone is the example to strive for, the leader to follow (Phil. 2:5). We are to shine with His light, reflected in us; not to stand in the shadows, ashamed to shine because of the light of others (Eph. 5:8). Jesus loves all His children, and He alone can make us everything we want to be (Matt. 19:24-26).
If Charlotte Dujardin, a human being, can love both a little black rescue pony and the top dressage horse in the world, how much better can our Lord and God love each one of us? But our God will go one better. Our God will take every Santa and turn them into a Valegro. The God who designed horse, man and the entire world so perfectly will make all those who trust in His name into new creations, and we will live forever in the glory of His light.
Glory to the King.
Stables of Chilean Army Captain Gaspar Lueje, 1947. The horse moved around the enclosure at a trot so nervous that his limbs jerked like something mechanical. Fear stole his grace. At every stride, his left hind leg gave an awkward little flick, a remnant of the injury that had left a puckered scar on his flank.
Faithful was good for nothing, and not even so good-for-nothing that he was in any way unique. Just another chestnut stallion, a racehorse wannabe who never had the speed, a dressage prospect who was too much of a handful; sixteen-one hands of bad habits and worse experiences, permanently on the verge of panicking.
The Army horsemaster paused in his casual stroll across the yard to watch regretfully as the horse proceeded at his clumsy gait, both ears pinned flat and one bad-tempered eye trained on the handler that stood in the centre of the ring. The bars all the way around were more than two metres high, and the horse moved so close to them that his ribs bumped against every upright. He was a sorry sight, the stereotype of the racehorse that hadn’t made it. He was a failure.
Shaking his head sadly, the horsemaster turned away to continue on his path. Then, behind him, a whip cracked. The sound snapped through the stumbling beats of Faithful’s hooves. The horsemaster heard all four hooves strike the ground in a staccato rhythm so fast that the horse had to be moving at a full gallop. He whirled around and stared as Faithful headed straight for the two-metre fence of the ring. The handler shouted, but it served only to egg the horse on; head thrown high, he plunged towards the fence. The horsemaster felt his throat tighten as the horse came too close to the fence to stop in time. He was going to try to jump it, but he would never make the leap; those long thin legs would catch the top bar and snap like matchsticks.
The horse was too afraid to care. Huge muscles bunched in his hindquarters, knees tucked up to his chest, and with his long neck stretched out, Faithful leapt. It was as if metamorphosis took place in a split second. The stumbling caterpillar of a stallion transformed, in a breath, into a floating butterfly. He jumped as if the ground was his own trampoline, sailing into the air with an effortless grace that squeezed the horsemaster’s heart. It lasted only an instant. Faithful drifted over the fence, struck the ground and became once again a panicking animal. He bolted, stable hands and trainers scuttling in all directions to catch him.
“Hey, boy!” the horsemaster shouted. A stable boy slid to a halt near him and saluted. “Sir!”
The horsemaster nodded towards Faithful, who was now shying from one side to the other as men shouted and waved their arms, trying to corner him. “Catch me that horse and fetch me his owner. I’m going to buy him.”
February 5, 1949. Viña del Mar, Chile. The tension was so great that the crowd was silent, staring into the arena, breath bated. They could sense that history was ready to be made as, in the arena, a lone horse and rider circled a single fence.
The crowd sized them up with a mixture of hope and pessimistic realism. At almost two and a half metres, the fence stood far taller than the top of the horse’s ears, a formidable slanting construction of solid poles so close together that they were difficult to see through, and taller than any horse on record had ever cleared.
If any horse looked fit to break the record, though, it was this one. Sixteen hands of pure muscle that moved with drifting grace, the horse was the colour of beaten copper. His coat caught the sunlight dazzlingly, mane and tail rippling as he ran. His rider moved with him as if horse and man were one body, directing the horse’s movements with tiny, confident touches of his hands and legs. Captain Alberto Larraguibel and the sixteen-year-old thoroughbred Huaso looked ready to take on the world.
And it was the world record they were after: to clear the highest fence ever jumped by horse and rider.
It was time. The Captain spoke to his horse, ran a hand down his neck, turned him towards the fence and urged him into a faster canter. Huaso’s strides extended, his ears pricked forward. He stretched out his neck and surged onwards, his rider crouched in anticipation for the leap, and at the last moment, some uncertainty wavered in the rider’s hands and Huaso hesitated. A breath away from the fence, he stuck his legs out straight and slid to a halt.
The crowd gave a collective groan. The Captain gripped his whip as if to punish the horse for the refusal, then thought better of it. He reached out and patted Huaso’s neck reassuringly. It was, after all, uncertain if any horse was capable of jumping that height; and yet the Captain believed that if any horse could, it was the brave stallion he rode.
“Come on, Huaso. We still have two chances left.” The Captain touched Huaso with his legs and the stallion strode into a powerful canter, circled once and came back towards the fence. This time there was no room for hesitation. The Captain tipped his weight forward, raised himself in the saddle, knowing that if Huaso stopped now he would throw his rider headfirst into the wooden poles. But Huaso rewarded his rider’s trust by trusting him back. He collected himself, stretched out his neck and leapt upwards with the effortless grace that the Captain knew so well. Adrenalin surged through the Captain’s veins as the horse sailed through the air for an impossibly long moment, tucking his knees right up to his chin – but as he came down the Captain felt a slight wavering in his hindquarters and heard the rattle as the top pole was rolled off. Huaso thudded down, and the pole came with him.
The Captain’s heart fluttered in his chest as Huaso circled once more for the final try. The crowd murmured; the air was tight with tension. Sweating and worried, the mighty stallion tossed his head and struck at the ground with his forefeet as if annoyed. The Captain soothed him with a hand on his neck, breathed deeply and made himself calm down.
“One last time, old horse. For me.”
They powered towards the jump. This was the last attempt. The Captain forced himself to be unafraid, to place all of his trust in the horse and his ability. “Now, Huaso!” At the right instant, Huaso tucked up his knees and floated into the air.
The moment seemed to last a lifetime as the poles flitted past beneath them and Huaso flew towards the apex of the leap. The Captain would not, could not glance down; the height was too terrifying, and he knew that at this moment he could not tremble. Finally, the edge of the jump, the ground below, Huaso stretched out his front legs, the Captain balanced his weight backwards and the stallion landed, throwing down his head and neck for balance, staggering forward, then gaining his momentum and cantering gracefully onwards with head and tail flung high.
There was absolute silence. The Captain had heard nothing fall, but his heart leapt with anxiety. He looked over his shoulder and saw the jump standing intact, the 2.47 metres that no horse had ever cleared before.
“Huaso, Huaso, we did it, old horse!”
Then the noise erupted. The crowds pressed around them, flags everywhere, photographers, people laughing and cheering. It was a blur of sound and colour, and the Captain could not stop smiling even as he stroked Huaso’s neck to keep him calm.
At last, the peace and quiet of Huaso’s stall. The Captain slid off him and stroked the smooth red shoulder, leaving a white lather in the sweat on the horse’s coat. Huaso sighed loudly and shook his mane, relaxing.
“Oh, Huaso. You fine, fine creature.” The Captain patted the solid curve of muscle that was Huaso’s neck. “Who would ever have thought it? Two years ago you did not look like half the horse you are now.” He ran his hand down the horse’s side and across his flank, his fingers tracing the black, puckered scar. “But perhaps your old name did suit you better, didn’t it? Our new world record holder for the high jump… Faithful.”
The true story of Huaso, earlier known as Faithful, the horse whose world record of 2.47m still stands sixty-five years later, serves to remind us that being thrown away doesn’t make something worthless. Huaso was a reject of the racing industry, a failed dressage horse; in fact, he even failed at jumping for a while.
But all it took was for somebody to see the beauty in him, to take him in hand and have the patience to train him and bring out the best in him, and the failure of a horse became a world-class athlete.
Many of us are much the same as Huaso. Broken, beaten down, tired of life and afraid of shadows. But there is still greatness in us, for the God Who made us all, made us all fearfully and wonderfully. And He knows what potential is in us and exactly how to make us live to our full potential and be everything He intended for us to be. If we can only be willing, trusting, obedient and faithful, He will make us into the best people we can possibly be. We can surprise even ourselves if we give our lives to Him.
Glory to the King.
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Huaso and the Captain break the world record: