Everybody’s Got to Start Somewhere

29 07 2013

It was not as hot today as it has been lately, although the weather has been very schizophrenic over the last few days where I am – dry, sunny spells one minute, crushing humidity the next, then torrential rain without warning, back to dry sunshine again at the drop of a hat. Nevertheless, it was sunny but not too hot when I arrived at the riding school.

I had taken the liberty of booking a taxi rather than walking to the school tonight as I was short of time, and thus I was able to arrive already dressed in my riding gear. I paid, listened in on a conversation between one of the stable managers and my stand-in instructor about a new horse who is on a two-week trial at the yard called Blue (apparently he had been a bit nervous on a hack that morning, and they were discussing his suitability for advanced riders and debating whether he was a dapple grey or a blue roan. Heh) before going off to check who I was riding. On the timetable, my name appeared in type next to Maddy’s, but had been crossed out with another rider’s name handwritten beside it. My disappointment lasted seconds before I saw that I’d been assigned Duke instead.

To say that the first time I rode Duke my usual instructor had praised me for my ability to get on with him as he is apparently not the easiest horse to ride, I wondered today if horses can sense that a rider is happy to be with them, because in spite of the slight struggle, steep learning curve and final relaxation into one another we experienced on our first lesson together, today Duke was very responsive to me. He listened to my leg, he was very responsive to my voice, he heeded my half-halts and he responded to my seat. It wasn’t a fight to keep him on the track at any point, and the times he didn’t do as I asked it was because I’d let something slip and confused him and not because he was defying me; mainly, I was holding the reins too tight and so pulling him back, not looking where I was going or not pushing him on enough with my leg when things didn’t go as intended. Perhaps he was just having a good day, and the cooler climate worked in my favour. I’d still like to think he picked up on my enthusiasm to be with him.

For about the first 30 minutes of the lesson,  we trotted large around the school on the right rein. Trotted and trotted and trotted. At least, myself and the lady on Maddy did; the other two riders had more difficult horses who were showing personality in the early part of the lesson, so the instructor focused her attention on them, occasionally glancing over and shouting a tidbit of advice for one of us; in my case, mainly, ‘Tuck your toes in! Keep your heel under your hip! That’s better!’ We changed reins and kept going after they’d managed to gain the upper hand over their horses. I was breathless and very thirsty when we stopped, even though I’d been careful to breathe in time with the rhythm of the trot as we went around so as not to pass out. The sensation soon subsided, though.

At around the time we slowed to a walk and gave the horses a long rein for a bit of a breather, the heavens opened. We were in the outdoor arena, but since we were sheltered above and on three sides there was no danger of getting wet. The intensity of the rainfall varied, and our instructor had to pause whenever it became too loud for her to shout over. There was thunder and lightning, too. She told us not to worry about the horses because they weren’t bothered by it, but advised us to pat them and offer a bit of reassurance after one particularly loud rumble of thunder.

I had noticed earlier as we’d gone in to mount up that she had set up a course of trot poles down one long side of the arena. It transpired that she wanted to do some pole work with us – ‘And,’ she added, with a look of delight on her face, ‘if that goes well I might set up a tiny jump for you all at the end.’

Now, I have done pole work before, in my semi-private lessons in Nottingham with Damian. Thus I had an idea of what to expect. I was not remotely fazed by this; I was on a horse who was much less obstreperous than Barron! Nobody else in the group had done it before, though, and admittedly, having only done it the once and then not again for nearly a year, I wasn’t expecting to be amazing.

Just as well, really. On my first attempt we flew over the poles in perfect synch, although I lost control after we came off the course (probably because in my surprise I hesitated), and Duke slowed to a walk and cut a huge corner to the back of the ride. I fudged my second and third attempts, but after some reminders from our instructor about looking where I was going, pushing on with my leg and relaxing my hands, I made a much better attempt on my final go. Finally, we trotted over the poles as a ride a couple of times. It went much better then, but then Duke wasn’t leading, which of course takes some of the pressure off me to ride him on.

Then, true to her earlier threat, our instructor set up a tiny jump.

When I say it was a tiny jump, I really mean it; she set up a low cross over two of those blue boxy-things with a dip in them for you to rest a pole in (anyone, technical term please!) The newest member of the group – a lady with some experience who has re-started riding after a pause, as I understand it – nervously asked if we were going to approach it at a trot or a canter. With a deadly serious face, she replied, ‘I want you to canter.’ Then she paused, and laughed, adding, ‘The look of terror on your face. Of course I don’t want you to canter, you’re going to trot.’ That made me giggle.

And so, leading file and in succession, we all had a bash at jumping.

I had four goes in total. My first go wasn’t so bad. We went over without me really thinking about what I was doing and looking straight ahead, which was probably the best thing I could have done. However, once we’d gone over, Duke immediately slowed to a walk. It was my hands gripping the reins too tightly that did that, I think – the feedback I got was to keep the reins short, but to relax my fingers on them. On the second attempt (which I didn’t think I was going to get, because time was pressing on), I felt Duke’s hooves hit the poles as we went over the jump and we lost balance for a moment, but I managed to ride him on past it and my instructor called me back to ride him around and back onto the track and have another go. Which I did, and which went better, but still not as smoothly. As with the trot poles before, Duke was getting confused when we were past the jump. I was advised that it was because I was trying to concentrate on doing too many things leading up to the jump, and that I should just relax, let go and let Duke’s legs do the work. My final attempt just felt like rising in trot; I didn’t even notice the jump. Unfortunately however, as we trotted back to the back of the ride, Duke stumbled and we got confused again! Still, not bad for a first go, I don’t think. And I would emphasise that for extra drama/badassery, the thunderstorm was still going on over our heads as we did all of this!

That concluded our lesson. I was surprised by how unfazed I was at the prospect of attempting my first jump, even though I still have a bit of a hang-up about cantering (although I don’t know why!), especially with a new horse or through an open space. It could have gone better, but of course there’s always room for improvement, and if you could just be an expert at something without ever having to try, it would take the fun out of learning. I’m just really stoked – not only that I got to jump for the first time, but that it was on a horse I’m so enamoured of. I want to do more! 😀

As I stepped off the bus that brought me back to town, rain was still pouring down but the sunshine had put in an appearance once more, which led to my completing the last leg of my journey home under the arch of a beautiful, storybook rainbow. A fitting end to this particular story, I feel. Heh.


Confused, Ted!

23 07 2013

Shall I kick off by bringing you those photos I couldn’t post last week? Here you go, then: Introducing my girl-crush and a lovable nuisance.

This week I was on Maddy again, who I have learned is an Irish sport horse of 16.1hh and, at 19 years of age, one of the oldest horses at the school. I was glad of this; as much as I do like to meet and ride new horses, Maddy and I have the measure of each other and I wasn’t sure what our stand-in instructor would be like.

She was excellent, as it turned out, although I received a bad first impression of her when she scolded me like a child for not checking my girth before mounting. I don’t deal well with people speaking to me in a condescending fashion (if there’s a surefire way to make me snap at another person, that’s it), but I bit my tongue and politely explained that we are not in the habit of doing this ourselves at the start of our lessons (our regular teacher usually does it for us), whilst demonstrating that I do know how to do it, and then tightening it for myself after I’d mounted. Thankfully she didn’t talk down to me like that again after that.

She made us work hard, though. She was tough and very critical, but cheerfully so, and praised us all graciously when we did things right or improved on our first attempt. She put us through some valuable bend exercises, working with circles, was hugely critical of my leg position (it actually physically hurt me when she twisted my leg into what she insisted was the ‘right’ position, and it was tough work trying to keep it that way. Roll on my physio appointment on the 22nd in the hope of some correction!

For having said all of that, I was hugely flattered when she told the rest of the group to watch me in sitting trot, because she thought my sitting trot was very good! Having been made to do lots of it in the early days of my riding endeavors as an adult must have paid dividends.

I am very confused about two things she said to me, though. I meant to ask her about them, but each time she gave me guidance she moved on to the next rider too fast for me to interrupt, didn’t leave time for questions at the end, and I had my hands full with Maddy by the time she’d stopped talking. The first was that more than once she said I needed to ‘open up my hips’. I don’t understand what she meant at all. Second, I am really confused about what to do with my legs in canter now. Previously I’d thought that you keep your inside leg on but you relax, as with going around in any gait; she seemed to instruct that we keep the sweep back with the outside leg going for as long as we wished to remain in canter (which is not dissimilar to what I was taught to do in Japan). At least that’s what I thought she was telling me to do. On my second attempt she told me I wasn’t pushing on with my leg like she’d told me to, when I thought I was doing exactly what I was doing, and that made me question whether I was doing the right thing with the right leg. I wanted to stop her and ask her to explain to me, slowly and in layman’s terms, exactly what each part of me was meant to be doing after the transition but again, I had no opportunities to do so. Answers on a postcard!

It was blistering hot and much as I had enjoyed the lesson, I was glad to get down when I did. I handed Maddy over to her next rider and ducked behind a low interior wall to get my jodhpurs off as fast as I could under a skirt I had been wearing previously with no regard for who might have seen my arse in the process. One nice thing about having a pet at home now is that I don’t feel quite so disappointed when I realise that I really should leave the stables and go home…

Update! Update!

18 07 2013

Argh! It’s been too long. Between working full time for summer, maintaining some level of social life, moving house and obtaining an adorable pet tarantula, I haven’t until now found time to sit down and write about my interactions with horses while all of that was going on. But I have been riding. And tonight, it seems, I can actually access my dashboard to update this thing – I was having issues with this yesterday.

I moved house in the first week of July, on a Monday. I fully intended to go riding on that day, but moving house always takes longer than you imagine, for one thing, and for another I was feeling very run down with a cold, so at the very last minute I cancelled my lesson, deeming that the sensible thing to do.

The following week, I met Duke. WordPress doesn’t appear to be working properly, or I’d post a picture of him; he was a handsome black cob of around 15hh. They let me tack him up myself, as he was in a state of undress when I arrived. He disinterestedly continued to munch on his hay as I approached, placed his numnar and saddle on his back and fumbled with his girthstrap; I looked at my handiwork, momentarily wondered if I’d made any errors, and shrugged, thinking he’d soon buck if he wasn’t happy with the feel of things when I mounted up. Heh.

But he didn’t buck. He lethargically hung his head, balancing his weight on all four hooves, as we waited to go forwards to walk. I pushed him on when told I could go, but had to give him a warning tap with my whip when he initially refused to co-operate. Eventually he went forwards into a perfectly positive walk… but I could feel that he was having difficulty staying on the track. It didn’t feel like Maddy’s lazinessin veering off to make the circuit shorter, it felt like he really had difficulty going in a straight line and needed my input to help him. Initially he fought me a bit, but  by the end of the lesson we’d relaxed into each other and he was responding magically to all of my asks. He struck off into canter beautifully for me every time I asked him to, in spite of having an impossibly bouncy trot I had real trouble sitting to without being thrown in the air. I left the stables feeling a bit like I’d developed a girl-crush on this horse, and inside of our one hour lesson we’d been on a journey together and both benefitted. My instructor praised me at the end, saying that he was one of the more difficult horses to ride and that she was impressed with how well I’d coped with him.

Sadly I think this praise went to my head. This week I had another large gelding by the name of Quarry, who, for visuals, is that friendly piebald I posted a picture of a couple of updates back whose name I didn’t know at the time. Easily as tall as a draught horse without actually being one, I was quite excited to be getting the opportunity to mount such a tall horse again, and I was enthralled when he greeted me with adorable equine curiosity when I went to fetch him from his stall. (I have a photograph of the skin between his nostrils. Heh.) As I mounted him, my instructor was holding onto little Chilli, and asked me whether I’d rather have Quarry or Chilli. I said I’d stick with Quarry as I liked riding different horses; she smirked and said, ‘You haven’t ridden him yet.’ It transpired that neither had she.

For her having said he was a difficult horse to ride the previous week, Duke was nothing compared to Quarry. Where Duke had fought me a little on top of having a real difficulty I could help to correct, Quarry just fought me. Full stop. He didn’t want to co-operate. His game plan was clearly to be as troublesome as possible in the hope that he’d be let off the hook and taken back to his stall. He was obstreperous, and did just about everything short of bucking or trying to throw me off to try and get out of having to work.

I had to spend a full ten minutes warming him up at a walk just to get him onto the bit, and even when he picked up my contact he was still fighting me. I tried to go from that to a trot, but he sensed my slightly diminished ability to rein him in in this new gait and purposefully broke away from the track and ran in an uncontrolled zig-zag. I tried again. He sensed that when he picked up speed of his own accord I would hesitate, and he used it to his advantage. I held it together as best as I could but I was struggling, every muscle in my body – including ones I didn’t even know I had – locked into applying all of the things I’d learned in the last fifteen months in a vain attempt to soften him to work with me and not against me.

It was no use. We were out of control. I turned him onto the centre line and my instructor took over, riding him around. I could see that she was struggling against his acts of protest as well, and he began to emit grumbling noises – but he did everything she asked.

It seemed to take her longer to get him to soften than other horses she’s taken over on for me in the past when I’ve struggled, but after a few minutes of riding him around at a walk and working to get him to accept her contact on the reins he did buckle down and they rode a couple of nice, controlled laps of the school at a trot. I tried again, and found him more amenable – possibly also because I took my instructor’s advice of sitting back better. I have a tendency to lean forwards to steady myself when I’m uncertain on a horse, when I should be doing the exact opposite.

We didn’t do any work without stirrups in this session because Quarry was being difficult, but we did do some work with circles. I struggled more than I think I might have if I had been on a more obliging horse but we managed to ride the shape if not the requisite diameter.

Finally it came to the canter. My instructor said she was pleased when I didn’t duck out of doing this exercise in spite of being on a difficult horse, and I was pleased with myself, too. I had difficulty getting him to strike off into canter, but I think I was spoiled by Duke the previous week just going on cue immediately as I asked, almost like I only had to think the transition, whereas Quarry – regardless as to whether he wanted to do it or not – turned out to be another one of those horses who has to take a sort of running jump into the transition. When he did, I ended up emitting a load, ‘WHOA!’ – it wasn’t like I expected at all. He was such a large horse it felt like his stride into canter was a long leap forwards. We managed to canter once on each rein, though, even if we then cut corners across the school and only made it so far before the unintentional transition back into trot.

When I dismounted, I was shaking all over and every muscle in my body ached. My instructor is away for two weeks now so I will have a different teacher for a couple of weeks, but she did say she would request for me to have someone a bit easier to ride next time!