It Takes a Nation of Millions…

28 08 2013

Denizens of the United Kingdom reading this will be aware that we have just had a bank holiday. Because of this, my regular riding slot was cancelled and I made no other plans to have a catch-up lesson on a different day to compensate. However, my weekend plans wound up including riding at a different riding school and in another city. It seems that not even I can stop me.

This was because, in advance of our upcoming trip to Historic Equitation, my good friend Damian had wanted to get in as many riding lessons of his own in order to improve his confidence and capabilities somewhat in the saddle. A mutual friend had suggested a school she’d heard good things about while he was looking for a school with horses suitably built to carry his statuesque frame, and this was one of only two his research had led him to that did. So we went there for a 30 minute semi-private taster lesson. Mainly because they are a busy yard and couldn’t fit us in for any longer.

The day we attended ended up being fairly hectic as it began with a bus journey from the centre of Nottingham into Derbyshire to try on a jockey skull he had ordered from a tack shop set on a country lane, basically in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully it fit, so that was purchased, and then we waited in the store for an hour until the next bus came by, while the shopkeeper was very apologetic about not being able to offer us a cup of tea while we waited as it was raining. From there we went back to his to collect boots and whathaveyou, and alighted another two buses out of the city to the riding school.

On arrival, Damian immediately said that it felt like a far more professional establishment than he’d been to before. For a start, it had a bar, with a real old country pub feel to it, although it had no alcohol was being served there. The walls were decorated with framed pictures of horses and riders racing, doing dressage tests, showjumping and – most excitingly of all – jousting. It turns out a local group of jousters are based there, and they teach it. *gets ideas*

We paid and got hatted- and booted-up, only for Damian to be told that he wouldn’t be allowed to ride in the boots he’d brought with him and, after some deliberation, would be better off in the ones he’d arrived in. Once that was all sorted we moved on out to say hello to the horses. (At least that’s what I told the staff in the bar. To Damian I said, ‘Let’s go and bother the horses!’)

The first horse we encountered was, as it turned out, a full Arab, and although he regarded us with typical equine curiosity as we went over to say hi, he didn’t seem terribly impressed with us. We were impressed with the demeanor of all the horses, though; they were all friendly and curious, to varying degrees, but not a single one of them was rude or frisked us for treats. After giving one or two of them a neck rub, carefully establishing first whether each of the horses we interacted with minded us touching their necks, some of them got nibbly, but in that nice, soft way, not in the bullying or demanding way. They also had notably soft, silky manes and fur!

Anyway: The riding. I was assigned a small Dunn horse/pony called Dolly who can’t have been any taller than 14.2hh, and Damian had a larger bay horse called Mitten. (It later transpired that he had Mitten because another horse called Pocket was lame. Because I am juvenile and my mind resides in the gutter, I had to politely suppress my laughter when that came to light.) Mitten was the first mare Damian has ever ridden.

Myself and Dolly outside the school.

Dolly was very pretty, and she was as good as gold as I led her out to the indoor school. When I started adjusting stirrups and girths, she got grumpy and bitey,  but our instructor said that this was normal for her – but that she was ‘a dream to ride.’ I will freely admit that given her stature I expected her to be a lumpy jackhammer. I was wrong; she felt wonderfully smooth to ride, so much so that her smoothness combined with the shortness of her stride really threw me to begin with, and I didn’t really get into her rhythm until two thirds of the way into the lesson.

I didn’t really learn anything, as we just trotted on both reins, in succession and as a ride. The instructor told me that Dolly didn’t respond well to a firm contact on the bit, which was good for me as softening my hands is something I need to work on, but to ‘dominate her with [my] legs’ (also good practice). I didn’t take a whip, but I found that as long as I was firm when repeating my leg aids she would respond. I kept having trouble keeping my foot in the right stirrup and had to have it twisted to maintain my balance, which took up some time. She gave me some correction on the positioning of my leg and my rise in trot, which was very helpful; I think that possibly, having the same teacher all the time, certain faults in a person’s way of doing something are overlooked in the name of progressing on to the next thing, so it’s good to get criticism from a fresh set of eyes every now and again.

She was also the first riding instructor I have ever heard be honest and admit that a horse was simply refusing to listen, rather than claim that the rider was in any way at fault.

Waiting while Dolly had her hooves cleaned.

As we led the horses out, Mitten was taken by another rider for their lesson, and I halted with Dolly outside the school while a lady we’d seen previously who must have been a groom cleaned her hooves before leading me back to her stall to put her away. She had a half-hour reprieve before her next lesson, so she and I twisted her reins under her chin strap and loosened her girth two holes, but didn’t untack her. Damian and I hung by her stall for a little while. She was very companionable towards us as we stood either side of her stall door and she stuck her head out over the top, enjoying some neck rubs (which made her lips go adorably trembly) and shoving her face right in mine to breathe on my face.

Eventually, sad though it was to have to leave, we had to tear ourselves away from the horses and make our way back to civilisation. I was very impressed with the school, and if I lived in the area I would certainly be extremely interested in making regular use of it. However, I’m not, and I won’t. Thankfully I am very happy with the one I am attending now.


Two for the Price of One

19 08 2013

Please excuse my not having updated for a week. I’ve had other things on, and it fell by the wayside a little. However as I have had two contrasting weeks’ riding lessons on the same lazy, stubborn, awkward horse I think writing up both lessons in one entry will work well.

So last week I arrived at the stables to find that I had been assigned Dan and one of the other ladies had been given Duke. I was disappointed, but Dan is an absolute sweetheart (on the ground, anyway!) and I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I decided I would make the most of the chance to catch up with him. For those that don’t know/can’t remember, Dan was introduced to me the very first time I rode at my current riding school; I didn’t ride him, but was privileged to get to stand and fuss him while the groom who looks after his yard groomed him. She told me he was her favourite because he was very friendly, loved kisses and cuddles, and never bites or kicks. He certainly seemed very pleased to see me at the time, nuzzled my hand lovingly as soon as I offered it to him, and has subsequently always been politely affectionate towards me when I’ve gone to his stall to say hello to him.

He is an absolute NIGHTMARE to ride, however.

Nevertheless, I take the view with horses like him that, as a previous instructor once said, they are excellent teachers because they force you to ride properly, and to be firm and persistent. Complacent from my successes over the previous few weeks with Duke, I thought to myself that it would be fine because I’d improved so much as a rider since the last time I’d ridden him. I had a rough idea of the kinds of awkward he would be from memory, distant though it now seems.

I must not be complacent. Complacency is the ability-killer.

Trouble. Trouble all lesson. Trouble getting him to even walk on at the very beginning, trouble getting him to go forwards in the walk, trouble making upward transitions – even just trouble keeping him on the track, but not because he was a bit of a leaner like Duke, or trying to cut corners like Maddy; he just decided at random intervals to defy me completely, ignore the reins and my leg aids and just turn sharply into the middle of the school, and then resist as I fought to pull him back. He was so bad my instructor actually told me to do something she said she would never normally advocate anyone doing, and that was to hold my whip upright in my hand. This is basically a scare tactic: When you hold your whip like that, it means the horse can constantly see it out of the corner of their eye. That helped for one lap of the school in trot, but he was so badly behaved and I coped with it so poorly that she called me in to dismount and took over for a while. It was a pity, because during the lesson she had given us a really good explanation of impulsion, where it comes from, how to build it and what ‘riding on the forehand’ means, and then said that we could work in open order – including in canter. Not that I managed to get Dan to strike off into canter until the very end, and then only for a couple of strides.

At the end of my lesson, I felt a little dispirited. My instructor then told me that she thought I had been having it too easy for the past few weeks with horses like Duke, who need to be slowed rather than pushed on, and that she would try and get me the more difficult horses for a few weeks to enable me to work a bit harder. I took this in the spirit in which it was intended.

Tonight was far more successful. I arrived early and went to fetch Dan, who was untacked and obviously not bearing any grudges against me for my heavy-handedness with him the previous week, as when I called out to him he looked up from his hay, bright-eyed with his ears pricked forward, came over, raised his snout to my nose and gave me a sloppy wet kiss before turning to his water. I’m so glad he did that after he decided to kiss me. Although he didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm as I led him out to the outdoor school, I wasn’t dragging him along either, and I had a sense that he might be a bit more obliging this week, and all the positivity that went along with the hope I might be right.

In fact, Dan was no less difficult this week, but I came with my game face on, and I ‘came down on him like a tonne of bricks’ (to quote my instructor’s description of her tac with him from the previous week) the moment we started moving. (As she brought me the mounting block, my instructor actually jokingly said to me, ‘Are you ready to do battle?’) Now, of course I’d prefer that all horses responded to my leg without having to be kicked and whipped, but it certainly helps with the difficult ones if you adhere to a very strict pattern of leg, kick, whip when they ignore you at the very start of a lesson; Dan listened, and as the lesson wore on he became more obliging and more responsive. By the end of the lesson he was responding to all of my asks without having to be asked twice, and when we were practising the canter it was me who was holding him back and not the other way around, because something Dan is known for is looking everywhere apart from where he’s going, meaning he needs a firm contact on the outside rein at all times. My contact was… a bit too firm, and it was literally holding him back. As soon as I relaxed my hands he softened and struck into canter. And his canter is lovely, when you finally get it!

When we halted across the centre line to dismount, I couldn’t help myself but to lean right forwards and give him a big cuddle around the neck before dismounting for being so well behaved once I’d established that I wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense. As soon as my feet reached the ground, he turned his head and was nuzzling me and giving me head-hugs, and walked companionably by my side as I led him back to his stall. A pity his friend the groom came immediately shouting for me not to untack him and led him straight back out to another lesson, unexpectedly.

Another observation I made is that we’re being made to work in trot for longer at a time, and this wears you out like nobody’s business. I will admit that I haven’t done any running at all since I moved house at the beginning of last month, and being thirsty and breathless after a long trot with plenty of leg to keep Dan moving forwards reminded me that running and horse riding do complement each other, because the physical stamina you develop from one helps the other. My running shoes will be coming out again. Also, I feel like the Pilates is helping. That fell by the wayside for a few weeks after I moved house, too, but I’ve picked it back up again in the last two weeks, and in this lesson just gone I could feel myself applying muscles I work on in my Pilates lesson to ride Dan – mainly around my seat, to deepen it in sitting trot and canter, and to encourage bend without compromising balance, both in the corners and in circles. Every little helps!

Finally… the jodhpurs I bought to start riding at Gakushuin have finally given up the ghost, and I have ordered a new pair. What went on them? Well, the crotch split open, didn’t it? Needless to say, my new ones have a reinforced seat! RIP reasonably-priced black Rhinegold jodhpurs, you served me well.

Thundering Hooves!

9 08 2013

It was back to normal for a Monday this week – unfortunately I have been otherwise engaged every other evening this week to write. One of our number failed to show up for our riding lesson, so I was offered Maddy instead of Duke, who I had been assigned again, but I think you can probably guess what I said. I felt a bit guilty for turning her down, though, because she’s such a lovely horse, but still.

And so we were back on with flatwork exercises, which seemed a little dull in comparison to the previous week’s pole work and tiny jump, but still all good practice and good fun. Where I had previously found Duke to be perfectly forward-going but to need a lot of rider input and correction to go into corners and stay on the track, this week he was actively defiant. He had been put ‘away’ and untacked from a previous lesson, I think, which had led him to believe he was done for the day, and so wasn’t overly happy about being made to work again. Thankfully at my insistence he did ‘soften’ eventually and towards the end we were working together nicely again. I see a pattern here.

I wasn’t criticised for my leg position overly, but we did do some work without stirrups, during which I was told that I could stretch down from the hip more – perhaps this was what the stand-in instructor meant by ‘open up your hips’? I tried to do this, and felt the difference it made. It might not be related, but I found in the days following my lessons that I was noticeably less stiff around the tops of my thighs and loins than I usually find I am. It could just be that my muscles are getting used to it – either way, a positive change.

We did do some canter this week, and it went better than usual. No neck strap for me anymore, I’m proud to say, and no panicking when I started to lose Duke in the run up to it in trot, either; just a succession of calm half-halts to bring him back to me, which my instructor praised me for. I’m getting the hang of things! On the first go we were running at quite a steady pace, which Duke obviously didn’t feel had enough momentum behind it for an upward transition when I asked, so we went round again and got it the second time. I managed to remain relaxed and upright, and to apply my leg to keep him on the track; it gave me a sense of how important impulsion is, and how if you have it, everything else becomes easier in a faster gait. Sadly I didn’t push on with my leg enough in the corner and we spun out off the track and across the centre line to the back of the ride, but I enjoyed the much-improved run up to that point. Especially given the feel of Duke’s canter; I don’t know what breed of horse he is, but stocky and muscular as he is, he has a powerful, thundering canter through which you can feel every great hoofbeat against the ground. Extremely exciting!

We changed reins, and the following exercise was to trot a 20 metre circle at the far end of the school and then transition to canter on arrival back in the first corner. Duke and I enjoyed a good trot up to it, a very controlled turn into the circle, but then Duke stalled, obviously confused that we weren’t doing the exercise he expected us to be doing and I didn’t push him on in time to get back the momentum we had built up. I still managed to kick him back on to an energetic enough trot for the upwards transition to canter in the corner, but sadly it was all a bit confused by then and only lasted a few strides.

My regular instructor always asks at the end of the lesson whether we have any questions, so I took the opportunity to ask her about legs and cantering. Her summary was to push on from the inside, apply the outside leg only if the canter was pushing you into the boards along the outside of the school (so as with the other gaits) and that she saw no reason for positioning the outside leg behind the girth as in the ask after the transition unless you were in a corner, as it serves as an indication to the horse which is the leading leg. All of this makes sense to me, so I’m going with that.

She also said at the very end to one of the other ladies, who had had Symphony, that she thought it was about time she started riding ‘someone a bit more challenging, like Duke.’ I can’t think of anything else to say about this other than, ‘Achievement unlocked.’ Heh.