Moving on Up

29 04 2012

Today’s horse riding session came as a welcome return to the format I’d become accustomed to after three days running of not being permitted to ride myself and being given the most menial of jobs to do around the stables that brought me into minimal contact with the horses themselves.

I arrived and was immediately put to work cleaning out Hokon’s stable while he was taken outside for the experienced riders to practise on. I feel like I’m getting the hang of mucking out stalls now. It’s pretty strenuous when you’re still getting used to it, and as with everything in Japan there’s a Right way to do it; there’s no ‘whatever method works for you, as long as you can get the job done’, as seems to be the approach favoured in the West. I’m getting faster at it, though, and I can feel myself becoming stronger through doing it. I hoped that my having been in there sweating and straining will have left my scent in there for when Hokon returned; I’ve really taken a shine to him, even though he is a bit of a primadonna.

After watching the upper year students practice show jumping for a while and having made an almighty fuss of Hokon himself, who had been in the circular lunging pen for a while after having his saddle and bridle removed (he had been rolling around in the mud with his legs in the air, and pricked his ears up in my direction and came over to where I was standing when I called him, then snuzzled me over the fence when I went over to pat him on the neck, instantly muddying my clean, white trousers), I was given a turn at walking and trotting practice, on Max this time.

They’re still not letting me ride independently just yet, but from today I’ve been progressed from practising on a lead being held by a sempai who walked or ran alongside myself to riding around in a circle with the horse tethered on a long, elastic lead held by a sempai in the middle. Today, my instruction came from the sempai whose emails are the reason I’m a member of the club today. She was very complimentary, saying afterwards that my trot had been ‘kirei’ (which either means ‘clean’ or ‘beautiful’ depending on the context, so I’m not sure exactly what she meant, but it was good either way); her criticisms of me were that I need to remember to keep my heels down, relax my body, and to look where I’m going and not at the horse. Heh.

Then we took Max off and gave him a wash, dried him off and groomed him. He was beautifully well behaved, but in the process of attempting to give him a good scrub assisted by the hose, I also succeeded in giving myself a shower, including in my face. Heh. Thankfully, it was a beautiful, sunny day, so I dried off quickly.


Did you say food?…

26 04 2012

Today I didn’t get to do any riding at all; out of concern that the rain would get worse, they cut basic practice short and called the horses inside. Sod’s Law then decreed that the rain eased off. Oh well!

I did have an awesome experience, though; I got to give Hokon his food. I didn’t expect this to be as much fun as it turned out to be as usually the horses ignore you completely and go for the bucket after you’ve left, but when I approached his stall he had his back to me and I called out, ‘Hokon! Gohan da yo!‘ (‘Hokon, it’s dinner!’), mainly hoping to get him to turn around since it’s dangerous to walk around the back of a horse, and he sharply turned on his hooves to face me whilst loudly making excited noises halfway between a whinney and a growl, which sounded a bit like a cross between a distressed pig and a telephone, only in a lower register. He was prancing a little and continuing to make excited noises as I entered, and stuck his head straight in the bucket before I’d even had a chance to hang it up or scatter his hay on the floor. I patted him on the neck before I left, and he turned around and gave me a big slobbery kiss on the forehead. D’awwww!

The Ups AND The Downs

25 04 2012

I had a rather humbling riding experience today.  I received one-on-one instruction in stopping, starting and steering, all just at walking pace, but my mount today was a fleabitten-grey female by the name of Shirika. She was a bumpy ride, to put it in base terms, and she was very unresponsive to my instructions, even though I wasn’t being asked to do anything I didn’t already know how to do in theory, and I was following the instructions I was being given by my sempai. Worse still, she had been beautifully compliant for the girl who went before me. I dismounted feeling a little humiliated and dispirited by this, but in spite of having been knocked down a couple of pegs, I was able to rationalise it afterwards as a healthy reminder that some horses are easier to ride than others, and that assuming I know how to do things already could become a barrier to my learning anything new, so I would probably do well to adopt a beginner’s mindset and just do exactly as I’m told all the time.

Amusingly, however, I forgot to bring a change of clothes with me to riding club, and so had to attend school afterwards covered in white hairs and still smelling of horse. If anyone noticed, they were too polite to say anything…

Boot Resolution

22 04 2012

Today I was allowed to ride a horse by myself (as in, independently and not on a lead)! It was Hokon. I had fun, although the sempai who oversaw this wasn’t entirely satisfied with my control of Hokon when she instructed me to trot around her in a circle. Because of this, I was instructed to walk Hokon from the main track into the circular pen, and once we were in there, she clipped a lead onto his bridle and walked alongside me giving me instruction as we trotted (and she ran) in a circle.

This way, I was able to practise getting into the trot again. I went around in a circle a few times in one direction on a slack lead, but when I turned him around and to go around again the other way, Hokon broke into a canter – twice, which, exciting as it was for me, was not meant to happen. After the second time this happened, I was asked to dismount. Another sempai who’d been watching said afterwards that it hadn’t been my fault and that a cat had scared him, but I think it might have been my posture or foot position again; I think that because I wasn’t concentrating on keeping my heels down I’d inadvertently kicked him into it. Nevertheless, it’s good having things to work on. If one knows everything, one can learn nothing, after all. Heh.

I was really tired afterwards, and upon returning home had to have a hour’s nap. That had been the longest time I’d had in the saddle since I started, and although I didn’t ache afterwards (and still don’t), I was/am nevertheless very aware of my muscles. For all the things I’m doing on an almost daily basis now that are proving to be quite strenuous (sweeping, scrubbing, brushing and mucking out included), I had better have a body like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 by the end of this semester!

Also, I have resolved my boot worries! I took a detour and called in at Horsy International (my local tack shop) on my way home to ask if I could try on the next foot-size up in an XL, but they still didn’t fit, and the man who served me said that he regretted that he didn’t know when they’d get any XXL-sized boots in. However, on my way home from there, I walked past a boutique that was selling discounted Hunter wellies. I have borrowed a pair of these from one of the managers to ride in before, and although they’re not purpose-made riding boots they are nonetheless very comfortable and renowned for being durable. So, I stopped to have a look at those, only to see a different pair of unbranded wellies for less than half the price again that were almost identical in appearance to a more expensive model of the pair of Aigle riding boots I’d wanted to buy (the differences being that these are slightly lower cut in the leg and without the characteristic curved top), and also featuring the recommended flat, treadless sole and slight heel. The smallest size they had them in was a size larger than I wear, but I tried them on anyway and they fit, so I bought them without hesitation. Maybe not exactly what I wanted, but a better-than-fair compromise that has saved me a lot of money!

My Kingdom for Some Riding Boots

21 04 2012

Yesterday I got to trot for the first time! I rode both Hokon and Max (warmed up on Hokon, was asked to dismount so someone who had to leave earlier due to having a lecture before me could ride, then I mounted Max, upon whom I trotted). It was SO much fun, and I was surprised by how well I remembered how to rise with the motion of the horse. The only thing I found difficult was recovering my left foot position after the stirrup slipped back from under the balls of that foot and stopped at the heel of the boot I was wearing.

I was also trusted to clean and groom Max afterwards unassisted and unsupervised. He was superbly well behaved for me this time, and gave me a head-hug afterwards.

Today started with boot woes. I allowed myself to rise an hour later than usual simply because I’d been so tired the previous night, and went up to the tack shop beside Baji Kouen, the amusingly named ‘Horsy International’, with the intention of buying myself a pair of Aigle riding boots. Sadly, they didn’t have any in my foot size and calf size. Thing is I have humongous calves; the very kind and helpful shop lady estimated I would need a size XXLS, to give you an idea – and I couldn’t even pull the boots on to check they fit my feet okay. She said they could order some in for me, but I didn’t really want to agree to that without first being able to try a pair on to make sure for definite they’d fit me. So I’m stumped for what to do now. I really don’t want to keep riding in borrowed wellies because they’re so cumbersome in comparison.

Anyway, riding today was awesome, because in spite of bit of a bad start (they set me to work measuring the hay for the horses’ lunch, and I’d completely forgotten to bring any antihistamines or masks, and what’s more I cut my finger whilst chopping up hay for the ponies) I got to trot again, this time without stirrups! I’ve never done this before, and I was surprised when the sempai who was instructing me told me to; each of the first years received one-on-one instruction in trotting today, and I was asked to do it without stirrups. It’s pretty hard on your thigh muscles, but it’s really good fun; it feels significantly more like riding and less like sitting on a moving horse. After my first attempt, the sempai stopped me and explained that my posture had been dangerous; I naturally gripped the horse (Hokon this time) with my knees and leaned forwards as this felt like the most natural thing to do, but apparently by doing so I was signalling to the horse to go faster. He made me go around the track again in the opposite direction, this time leaning backwards slightly with my legs straight out in front of me. This was harder, but afterwards he was complimented me on how I’d done. I’m trying not to let it get to my head.

Then I mostly helped with sweeping and cleaning until home-time. Immediately afterwards, I went to Ikebukuro to visit Aigle’s retail outletto see if they had any riding boots that would fit me, only to discover that they don’t stock riding boots at all there, only outdoor clothes and wellingtons. Oh well…

Make Hay Not War

18 04 2012

Every day I show up to riding club, what I get put to work doing is a surprise. My surprise upon attending riding club today was learning how to prepare the horses’ food again I think I got it this time! However, what do horses mostly eat? Hay! And what do I suffer from? Hay fever! I had no idea this was so literal. I came out in hives! I’ve got some antihistamine cream, I’ll have to start bringing it with me, and possibly wearing one of those health masks that are popular in Japan while I’m in the stable as a precaution in future.

Fortunately the worst of this cleared up when we’d finished and I went out into the yard. I rode Hokon again, and he was an absolute darling today. Although I still haven’t been let off the lead yet, I think this will happen soon; today, the first sempai I had asked me if I knew how to tell a horse how to stop and go, which I answered by demonstrating rather than with words, and the second one was instructing me to do a bunch of weird stretches I’m not familiar with as we were walking along that either required me to reach the opposite side of the horse with my one free hand (back and front) or have my feet out of the stirrups and point with either my toe or my heel. He complimented me on both my ability to follow his instructions and how I did. It wasn’t difficult or strenuous at the time, but when I jumped back down off Hokon’s back I really felt it in all of my muscles.

Next, I was asked to help a different sempai and another newbie to groom Max. This was the same sempai who’d noticed the mistake with the brush yesterday. She told me to wash his face; he was initially unsettled upon seeing me, which made me hesitate but she told me not to worry. When I first put my hand up he tried to bite me, so I took a firm hold of his bridle, pulled down and just got on with it without looking him in the eye. He wriggled at first and kept tossing his head up forcefully, so I gently pulled it down by wrapping my arm under his head and cleaned behind his ears, and he settled down after that and let me finish his face. We cut his mane after that, which I didn’t really want to take part in; I think horses look lovely with long, flowing manes. However, Max was perfectly calm from then on, and every time I walked past his stall afterwards he stuck his head out and let me pat his nose. I hope that means we’re friends now.

I finished up by assisting in grooming the ponies and cleaning their hooves, and then sweeping up. I actually got to stay to the finish this time, but it really took it out of me, and I was tired and struggled to contribute in my Japanese classes after that.

Max Power

17 04 2012

Riding club today started on my hands and knees scrubbing the horses’ competition wear from the weekend. This was followed by a longer-than-previously (although still not independent) ride around the track on a *gorgeous*, tall, seal-brown fellow called Max, then grooming him and Shiro-chan, resulting in my lovely new all-black riding gear turning grey and hairy. I was also taught various knots used in tethering horses and tidying away their bridles and leads.

I had an upsetting experience, though; I was really taken with Max, but while I was grooming him with the brush (I was chuffed, because on this occasion they handed me the brush and rubber curry comb and left me to it), he kept twitching, then trying to kick and bite me, and then trying to wriggle away from me. I called the girl who was meant to be supervising me over to check if I was doing anything wrong, check his back for tender spots and so forth, but she couldn’t find anything, and he kept doing it. Seeing him so distressed and knowing that it was because of me was really upsetting me, but thankfully then a sempai came and said I’d been given the wrong brush, and fetched me a softer one. He was completely fine after that, and let me rub his face and neck to say sorry afterwards without attempting to bite me. They let me lead him back to his stall unassisted, too. He’s lovely, but I’m kind of worried he’ll have a lasting bad impression of me now. We’ll see.