A Wonky Donkey

25 06 2013

Yesterday’s lesson was with lovely Maddy again. I went along with the thought in the back of my mind that if I got to lead whichever horse I had back to the stalls and untack them, I would ask nicely if I could give them a bit of a go-over with a dandy brush, since little Chilli was shedding like a, uh, sheddy thing when I took his saddle off him last week, but while I had no such luck (another lady came to collect her after my lesson) I did get to stand with her for some time outside the outdoor school before we went to mount up, and she was far more cuddly than I’ve previously known her to be. As soon as I took the reins, she gave my hands and my face a friendly snuffle, and stood calmly looking contented with a slightly droopy and wobbling bottom lip while I rubbed her neck and stroked her chin. Once I’d lead her into the school and halted her on the centre line, before I went to put her stirrups down in readiness to mount, she nuzzled her snout into the crook of my left arm; I thought she might be frisking me at first, but once there, she just held her head in place, resting her brow against me. Head huuug! I wrapped my free hand around her and stroked her cheek. She didn’t pull away until the mounting block came along. It was very sweet.

Once again, it was just me and the other, newer lady, who had Chilli this time.  As sad as I am to think that the other ladies might have given up, I’m certainly not complaining about getting a semi-private lesson for the cost of a group lesson, for as long as that lasts. The extra focus on each of us tuition-wise and having to work harder due to effectively having more time can only be a good thing. She’s also the friendliest out of all of them, which is nice.

The key point of the lesson was straightness. We explored the idea that in order to keep a horse on track, you need to be straight and balanced on top of the horse yourself, but also mindful of whether the horse is aligned straightly. In order to check this, we rode transitions down the centre line from A to C without stirrups, between two trot poles that had been laid parallel on the ground. First of all we rode halt transitions, halting between the poles, and then we moved on to trot transitions, transitioning from walk to trot between the poles. At the start of each exercise I struggled with both, but got better on each attempt.

Something I’ve noticed about Maddy specifically is that she’s quite willing to go forwards positively, but she is a bit cheeky in that in spite of this she will try to do so by taking the shortest route possible; she’s difficult to keep to the track when you’re going large around the school, she cuts corners at either end of the school, and if she thinks she can get away with it she’ll turn and cross right over the centre line to get to the other side before you even get near a corner. I thought this was something I was doing wrong to begin with, but I am now convinced it really is just her trying to see what she can get away with, because yesterday when she ignored my leg, the outside rein and my seat-bone asks for her to move over or stay on track, I tentatively tapped the edge of her saddle with my whip (tentatively, because I thought she’d misinterpret it as a cue to go faster, and her saddle rather than her because I dislike having to use the whip as it is, and Maddy has a tendency to jump in the air like a Looney Toon when she’s tapped on her side, which is unpleasant on a number of levels; I’ve learned that the sound of the impact of the whip on the leather is enough to get her attention back without actually hitting her with it, and prevents this) and she got the message. This suggests to me that she knows exactly what she’s doing, and is trying it on. My instructor also referred to her as ‘a bit of a wonky donkey,’ which I thought was adorable. Maddy seemed to have a bit of a thing about her yesterday, actually; whenever she was close to her, Maddy would start to veer towards her, and she concluded that she must have thought she had some kind of treat for her, saying, ‘I seem to be a bit of a Maddy-magnet tonight.’ Heh.

My leg position continues to be a bug bear. The problem seems to stem from the fact that I have quite a pronounced curve to the small of my back, which works against me when I’m trying to keep my seat beneath me in the saddle, which in turn causes my knees to naturally clamp against the saddle rolls even when I’m totally relaxed. This seems to be what is causing my feet to slip out of the stirrups quite often when I ride transitions. I’m being assured that it’s getting better, and I’m trying to be mindful of – as crass as it sounds – keeping my legs as open as possible all the time that I’m riding to aid it. The main advantage of this mindfulness so far that I’ve noticed has been that I’m not thinking so much about what I’m doing with my hands on the reins… and so I’ve been relying on them less! That’s something, at least. Nevertheless, what my instructor said that was positive and very flattering was that in spite of this, the way that I sit and move with the horse is very nice. So that’s good!

From that exercise, we had plenty of time to work in canter. I managed to get Maddy to strike off into canter on every attempt. We had several goes on the left rein, which is my stronger rein. (There has got to be a reason for this – some other activity I partake in regularly that gives me more strength and flexibility in one side than the other – but I’ll be damned if I know what it is!) I even managed to go large around the school, and sit the canter nicely! I had less success on the right rein, but still managed to get the transition and keep the canter most of the way down the first long side of the school. So that was good.

When the lesson was over, I was told that Maddy was being used in another lesson, and I stood with her while the other rider came to collect her. Maddy looked contented and a bit tired when I came in front of her to hold the reins while her next rider made her way over, but you could see her understanding when she realised she wasn’t yet done for the day. It was quite sweet, really; she didn’t look distressed and she didn’t try to simply walk out as I have known other ponies do before, but an unmistakeable look of disappointment passed over her face and she breathed a deep sigh. Bless her.

As I left the school, I saw the other member of the next group’s lesson dragging a very reluctant Bramble in by the bit. I called out, ‘Hello, Princess!’ to her, having not seen her in a while, and she acknowledged me with her eyes but was too busy resisting being led out to do any more. To my right, I could see a tall piebald cob whose name I don’t know sticking his [since I don’t know the horse’s sex, and horses don’t do gender politics] head out of his stall looking at me. I wandered over to say hello, and he gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek, gently pinching my skin with his soft lips. I don’t know enough about horse body language to know whether that was friendliness or not, but I certainly enjoyed it, and my face still feels funny in the spot where he did it every time I think about it, a bit like when you get kissed by a boy you like as a teenager. I’m such a sap.

Finally, I went to say hi to Soapy, who had given me a good eyeballing on her way out of the lesson before mine. A more advanced rider was untacking her, and while she had her head out of her stall, it was obviously because she could see her feed bucket just out of reach and not to greet me or anyone else. Once her rider had managed to get herself out of the stall, Soapy started rudely frisking her as she fumbled for a packet of Polos. She must be in the habit of receiving treats from lots of different people, then, and yet she still doesn’t behave towards me like that ordinarily, which I like the thought of. I also discovered that Chilli, in spite of his youthful looks, is actually quite an old pony and is new to riding school life! That at least explains why he’s so willing and responsive. I wonder what his background is, then?…


Pony pony pooonyy

17 06 2013

I couldn’t decide what to call this entry. I was tempted by ‘Putting the Hay into Hayfever’, since I got home this evening with it so bad that it was hurting me to keep my eyes open, but after a shower and a little patience it eased off. I had already taken antihistamines beforehand.

But yes, I went riding as usual, and I felt normal doing so. At least, the parts of me that landed me in hospital last weekend did. I feel a bit like my knee and hip joints have been forcibly realigned, but I take that as a sign that I’m doing something right. Heh. Therefore, my previous exercise regimen of a run around the Armouries followed by 20 minutes of Pilates will resume from tomorrow.

As for riding itself, I had little Chilli today, the chestnut newcomer of my previous lesson. He was in the children’s group lesson prior to ours, so while I was waiting for that to finish I went to look at the paddock properly, which I’d never done before. It’s not especially large, but it was nice to see the horses out grazing as a herd for a change. They certainly looked happy.

There were only two of us in the lesson this evening, and the newest member of the group had Soapy again. She led her out, and we hung out with her for a bit while we waited to be allowed in the arena. Soapy recognised me, and brofisted me the way she usually does. I was flattered by the way she seemed to disconnect from the lady who’d led her out and fix on me when I put my hand out to her. As usual, she didn’t frisk me or anything, just stuck her head out to investigate me with her ears pricked forwards, doing that slightly cat-like thing of inclining her neck for a fuss. Then she crunched on something in her mouth and I caught the scent of mint; the lady said she’d given her some Polos, and would feed her more if she was good in the lesson. After my experiences with hand-feeding horses over the last year have led me to become almost evangelical in my stance against it, I was seized by the urge to raise my voice and say, ‘Don’t you ruin my horse!’ (she’s not really my horse, of course, but you know…), but I was too much of a pussy to actually say anything. Hah. I just hope that getting that sort of treatment from someone else she regularly sees at the same time as me doesn’t affect the lovely, friendly-but-polite manner in which she’s hitherto always behaved towards me.

Lapping up the attention from her adoring fans.

Lapping up the attention from her adoring fans.


I don't know who this friendly fellow was, but he certainly enjoyed a fuss.

I don’t know who this friendly fellow was, but he certainly enjoyed a fuss.


When I went in to take Chilli from the girl who’d ridden him before me, she tried to tell me something about him but I didn’t understand what she said. He was quite determined that he was going back to his stall for the night, and tried to just walk through me! I stood my ground and pushed into him, and eventually he stopped. I had to lead him around in a circle to get him back on the centre line in a sensible orientation to mount him.

That one lesson we did on bend a fortnight ago has done so much for me. Chilli proved to be quite forward-going and obliging, but quite keen to take the shortest route around the school. Actually, I thought that if I’d given him a long rein and minimal aids he’d have been content to have walked a 20m circle around the centre of the arena; willing to move, but with as little effort as possible. Knowing how to push through the hips and use the seat bones made a world of difference; I felt like I was working with him, asking and not trying to fight against what he wanted to do. We did some trotting with and without stirrups, as usual; I think something’s clicked and I’ve worked out how I’m supposed to move to sit the trot without bouncing on the horse’s back. It’s certainly a good abs workout!

Then, to demonstrate to us that posting in trot is about pushing from the hips and not off from the feet, we attempted rising trot without stirrups. A year ago I’d have said that was impossible. It’s bloody weird, I’ll give it that, and that you get to rise at all from it – even just under an inch out of the saddle – feels like sheer black magic. But I did it. And it felt weird (and really worked my gluteals. Heh).

Finally, canter. We were doing all of this work to help us move with the canter once we’d got it going, so that we can become better able to keep it going. Only, Chilli didn’t initially want to canter. I’ll admit that on the first couple of goes, I was a bit hesitant because I didn’t know what his canter was going to be like, but after a couple of false starts in which he tried to get away with just going into a really fast trot, he stopped and emptied his bladder spectacularly. The instructor said that might have been the reason for his reluctance, and suggested I try again. Same again. This time he stopped to open his bowels, and that was quite spectacular, too. I managed to get him to transition to canter a couple of times after that – once on each rein – but there had been enough faffing and false starts by then that there was no time left to do any work actually in the canter by that stage. The wee fellow had a funny way of transitioning; he seemed to want to hurtle into it, like he had to concentrate really hard on switching gaits. Once he did, he was as bone-shaking as Bramble, but I was just pleased to have made the transition – and I think I might actually have gone, ‘Wheeee!’ when it finally happened. Heh.

As usual, I led him out to untack him in his stall, before he will have been given a bucket of feed and taken out to the paddock for the night. He had so much loose hair just coming off him as I removed his saddle – his winter coat coming off. Once we were back in his stall, he became really cute and affectionate. I led him in so he’d wind up facing his hay net, but he was far more interested in gently resting his head on me. I gave his neck and his forehead a rub and tried to take his bridle off him. I said out loud to him that it was lovely that he was so cuddly, but it would be much nicer for him if he let me get that nasty bit out of his mouth. He just wanted attention, bless him, and looked disappointed when I exited his stall. Awww.

Chilli, moving too fast to be photographed. Heh.

Chilli, moving too fast to be photographed. Heh.

What, no update?…

11 06 2013

That’s right. There is no update on my riding endeavours this week. I know I said that I could now afford to go riding every week again, but unfortunately I was admitted to hospital at the weekend and was only discharged today. Thankfully it turned out to be nothing serious and I am fit and well again now. Sadly this does mean that it’s in my interests to lay off the Pilates for the remainder of this week to ensure I’ve healed completely before I exert myself again in any way, which is a shame because regardless as to whether or not it was having a positive impact on my riding, I’d developed what I thought to be a healthy addiction to it and the positive changes to my appearance it was bringing about.

More gutting, however, is that I had actually already cancelled my lesson before there was any question of my falling ill, having received an invitation to the Bramham Horse Trials from a friend from university at the eleventh hour and not really being in a position to do both, and realising that getting offered a ticket to an event like that isn’t an everyday occurrence. (I wanted to watch the eventing first and foremost, of course, and hoped to meet some of the lovely horses, but I will admit that the thought flashed through my mind that it would make an awesome blog write-up, especially if I took photos).

To add insult to injury, my friend and the mutual acquaintance who drove them there posted statuses to Facebook on the Sunday morning about how the two of them had been making and having breakfast with William Fox-Pitt, which I read from the comfort of my hospital bed on my mobile phone.

I think I am well-justified in saying, ‘Drat.’ Heh.


3 06 2013

You know how I said I was taking a couple of months’ break from riding? Well, a string of unfortunate events you don’t need to know the details of ultimately brought about a reversal of fortune, and so I am now able to resume my once-weekly lessons! Therefore, Monday = Horseday once more.

And I had a really good lesson, in spite of almost being late due to finishing work later than I was expecting and needing to hurriedly change out of my smart, pinstripe trousers and into my jodhpurs and boots on arrival. I rode Maddy again this week; she’s stiff and a bit reluctant, but we are learning to work well together. For a few brief moments in this lesson, I momentarily wondered to myself whether or not the way I was feeling was how competent riders feel when they’re just doing really basic stuff, but only for long enough that the thought entering my head was enough to distract me from what I must have been doing right and something would go wrong. Heh.

Anyway, we’re moving onto working on bend now. The exercise we did this week was to help with this, and because of that we sadly didn’t have any time to canter. This was a shame, because while I saw a jump in the arena when we went in to mount up and felt a bit scared that she was going to try and get us to do that, after the exercises I felt supremely confident and like I could handle any crazy and over-ambitious instruction she wanted to throw at me, even though I still kept making mistakes.

So, after our warm-up, she placed three pairs of cones at different points along the centre line, and explained that we were each going to walk our horses through them in succession. She went on to say that we were going to do this by applying a technique similar to that which is used to ask for a leg yield, and then took great pains to emphasize that we weren’t going to be doing any actual leg yields in spite of students’ tendency to say that was what they’d been doing when really they’d just been learning a similar technique to help a horse to bend. Heh.

Although we only did this exercise at a walk (the outside arena isn’t really big enough to repeat it at a trot, our instructor said), it was challenging. We did it without stirrups to help us stretch ourselves out, assist with leg position and to help the horses to soften up, too; I had a bit of an epiphany about my legs and what I should do about them while I was going around them, realising that if I stretched my legs down and turned my knees outwards pointing away from the saddle, it gave me a good stretch down the inside of my leg, and Maddy became more responsive to my leg asks. The really exciting thing about this was that we were being shown how to use our weight on our seat bones to make the magic work. In all of my work on steering horses around corners to date, this has been the thing I was missing, I have now realised; I knew I should apply the inside (to the corner) leg, I knew I should tilt my shoulders and head to face the direction I wanted to go in, I understood that I should not tug or pull on the reins, but move my hands around as though I was holding the handlebars of a bike. I didn’t know that if I pushed my inside hip forwards and shifted my weight down through it it would support the inward pressure of my inside leg and prompt the horse to literally bend, as though starting to curl itself around the leg.

Doing this, I learned that horses, like their riders, have a strong side and a weak side, but it seemed like the first time I’ve ever had direct experience of being a rider who is applying their aids correctly and it actively helping the horse to move, not merely getting it to go where you want it to, as I’ve read so many times can be the case if you know what you’re doing. And as we went round and round and around, Maddy really did soften up considerably and became far more amenable to all of my asks.

I should mention that while all of this was going on, a very affectionate ginger cat I’d never seen before wandered into the arena smiling with its eyes in that way that cats do. It made a beeline for our instructor, followed her around as she walked about and rubbed itself around her legs when she stopped, giving her eyes of love and mewing adorably. She said she wasn’t a cat person, and I joking said that that would be why it loved her. When the cat tired of trying to win her affections, it went into the middle of the arena and lay down contentedly with all of its legs up in the air, more like a dog would than a cat. It looked very comical, and also very slightly dead (it wasn’t). It then remained in that spot and that ungraceful position for the rest of the lesson. Thankfully the horses weren’t in the least bit fazed!

The end of the lesson was fun; we had a newcomer to the group, not of the human variety, but a handsome young chestnut gelding by the name of Chilli. He was very responsive and forward-going, so we had to get him to overtake Maddy as the lead after a while of him getting up her backside; Maddy has this problem where she’ll be lazy when she’s in the lead, but as soon as she’s following another horse she’ll get a sudden rush of motivation and speed up to the extent that her nose is in the horse in front’s bottom. Hence, we ended up cutting across the school repeatedly to overtake each other. I lost control and veered off the track a few times while all this was going on, but I also managed at least one turn that prompted my instructor to say aloud, ‘Nice turn!’ She also made a point of telling me at the end that my leg and seat position had improved a lot, which made me really happy.

The horses are all being turned out to the paddock now that summer is well and truly here, and although some of them still have thick winter coats to grow out they are starting to look sleeker. It’s lovely to have had such nice horse-rider interaction in spite of the weather being hot and the sun being in the sky.

Soapy was in our lesson again; she seems to have become the default horse for the newest member of the group. While we were mounting up at the start of the lesson, I kept looking over to her and she was staring straight at me the whole time. For parts of the lesson, Maddy kept trying to look over her shoulder, and the more times it happened the more convinced I became that she was warily eyeing Soapy. I went and said hi to Soapy after the lesson, and she said hi back briefly before decisively burying her snout in a bucket of pellet feed. I also got to say hi to Dylan, who was inquisitively sticking his head out of his stall to look at everything that was going on.

Incidentally I have changed my display name to Soapy Photo Girl because I was amused to discover that it’s a search term someone has used at some point to find my blog. When I first discovered this I automatically assumed it was someone from the riding school who had been looking for me, before being far more amused by the (more likely) possible explanation that a WordPress blog about horses was not what the person in question had been looking for. Heh.