Down a level…

24 12 2012

Last Monday, I had what I consider to have been one of the most useful lessons I have had since I restarted riding this April.

You may remember from my write-up of my previous lesson that I said I had chosen to drop down into the beginner’s class rather than stay in the slightly more advanced group. At the beginning of my lesson, my instructor asked me whether I’d been in her 7pm group the week before, and when I said I had, she said that she thought the level of the lesson would be too basic for me, based on what she’d seen of my capabilities the week before. As flattering as I found that, I explained to her my reasons for deciding to change classes. She advised me that I would be alongside people in this group that were all at different levels – the lowest being someone who’d only ever had two lessons prior to starting there – and that I might not find the lessons terribly useful. I said I would see how I felt after the class. Then the next rider came in with her mount. We were in the outdoor arena this time; although it is outside it still has a roof, and it was raining quite hard. It was very pleasant to be riding outdoors with the sound and smell of the rain all around us, but not actually be in it.

There are meant to be five in our group altogether, but three of the others had cancelled and so we were lucky enough to get a semi-private lesson for the price of a group lesson. This week I rode a seal brown mare called Bramble. (I rather think that the name Bramble is to horses what Willow is to cats, and if I’d been responsible for naming her I would have called her Thorn, but that’s by the by.) She seemed nice enough to me as I lead her out, but I was told to keep and eye on her and be firm with her, because she was ‘grumpy’ and could be aggressive towards other horses. The other lady in was told to try and keep her own mount at least two horses’ distance away from her at all times.

Bramble was perfectly pleasant towards me on the ground, but she was a bit of a pain once I was in the saddle. She just didn’t want to do anything I told her. Even getting her to walk on initially was difficult – but this was where the lesson came in useful. Our instructor told us, very clearly, what was wrong with the way in which we were sitting, pushing on with our legs and our conformation generally and just how it impacts on our ability to ask effectively and to control the horse.

We did nothing more advanced in the class than walking, trotting and changing reins, but all the while the instructor was keeping a close eye on our posture and telling us what to correct and how to do it. I learned that I’ve been using my legs incorrectly when I push on; I’ve always understood that you push onto the girth, but never realised that you have to extend the leg downwards so it curves around the horse’s sides and under as far as it can. I knew when I’d got it right, because I felt the stretch all the way down my legs right from my groin into my ankles. It was pretty strenuous, actually.

Although Bramble became noticeably more responsive to my asks as I listened to these pointers and tried as best I could to put them into practice, it was still very clear that she didn’t particularly want to listen to me. So, the instructor gave me a few tips on discipline that were really useful. I’ve been told at least half a dozen different ways to use a crop; she advised me to take the reins in my outside hand and strike firmly across the girth as I push on with my leg, both because the horse is sensitive there, and because by doing it simultaneously with the leg I’m sending a clear message to her that that’s what I want her to be listening to. However, she stressed that I should only use the whip if she was persistently refusing to respond to my asks. She encouraged me to be firm and make the horse work for me, because if I didn’t start off that way with every horse I rode it would be even harder for me to get them to listen to me and stop them trying to take liberties later on. She had me dismount and watch her pushing Bramble on around the school for a few minutes, calmly, confidently and without fear. When I mounted again Bramble was far more responsive to me; I’d like to think that this was at least in part because I had taken on board and put into practice what I’d been instructed, but I suspect it might have had more to do with the fact that having the instructor ride her for a few minutes made her realise that one way or the other she wasn’t going to get away with lazing around.

Following that, we did some work together without stirrups. Regular readers will be aware that I love riding without stirrups; it feels so much more natural. The purpose of this exercise was to help us get a feel for what our seat and leg position should feel like all the time. To begin with, she had us sit stationery on our horses and hook our legs up over the front of the saddle. This was so we could feel how our seat bones should feel against the saddle. After holding that position for a few moments, she had us keep that position while returning our legs to their natural relaxed position. Then she asked us to walk on, and then trot, changing reins in trot.

With ten minutes to go until the end of the lesson she had us return to the centre line and take the stirrups back. She said that after this exercise, we might feel like our stirrups were now too short and want to put them down a hole or two. I certainly did, and adjusted them accordingly. We went into rising trot together large, and it was so much easier and felt more natural. I felt disappointed when she told us to slow to a walk and turn into the centre line for dismount. Heh.

I lead Bramble back to her stall. I wanted to untack her, but I didn’t know if she was going out again, so I didn’t. Once back in her stall she went straight back to her hay net and started chomping away obliviously, completely ignoring my attempts to fuss her. I thought it best to leave her to it.

Before leaving, I wanted to call in and say hi to Soapy, whose stall is around on the other side of the indoor arena, so I walked around to the other side. On my way to her stall, a lady I often see around the stables asked me who I was having, and I explained that my lesson had finished but I’d just wanted to say hello to Soapy if I was in. She thought nothing of this and just said, ‘Yes, she’s there.’ I walked up to the door of Soapy’s stall and called out, ‘Hello, Soapy!’ She was standing at a right angle to the door of her stall, but was busy attending to her own net of hay on the wall opposite. When I called out to her she momentarily turned away from the hay and as our eyes met I saw that spark of recognition and acknowledgement, but she turned back to the hay almost immediately after. I remember saying something else to her – I can’t remember specifically what, but it would just have been something along the lines of, ‘How are you doing, Soapy?’, and she turned to look at me again, this time showing me the whites of her eyes (but without looking angry), and it seemed clear as day to me that what she was saying was, Go away, I’m eating! I think I apologised for disturbing her and left, chuckling. It had been an amusing exchange.

The school is now closed until the 7th January, but I am booked in for another lesson on that day. I have a feeling that restarting in the beginner’s group is actually going to be really good for me and correct a lot of minor things I’ve been doing ever so slightly wrong, and that instructor really is fantastic. I look forward to progressing with her help!

The next riding experience I shall have will be my Own a Pony Day with beautiful Princess Tara! I am so excited about that. I have decided that that is going to be my official Christmas day ❤




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