28 09 2013

I meant to make this reflective post days ago, but for one reason and another (not because of my riding lesson on Monday) I have been feeling very tired this week, both emotionally and physically. Now I have the time and energy to do it and I don’t know where to start.

I would like to thank everyone who replied to my previous post with words of encouragement – you have all really helped me to feel better about things. Ordinarily I do like to reply to comments individually because I think it’s more personal then, but while each of you made quite different reassuring and helpful points, the message I have in return to each of you is the same, and it’s a sincere thank you.

In trying to focus on some positives, I haven’t been able to pick anything out from that last lesson, but I have been recalling my fond memories of all the excitement of the bits of Historic Equitation that went really well and how much fun I had, and the pony trek at Exmoor, which I came away from not only feeling like a calm and competent rider, but in fact surprised at myself by how unphased I was for the full duration of it. Sure, I had a bad lesson at the start of the week, but being able to ride continuously over open moorland for three hours including a fair amount of cantering shows I’m a competent rider? And cantering in a straight line while lowering a British Army lance to knock over a tent peg in the sand?

True to what others have said, I do think I expect a lot of myself, I am very hard on myself when things go wrong, and I do take it to heart when things don’t go how I intend them to. I think I just need to chill and learn to take the lows in my stride. Easier said than done perhaps, but it’s always going to come back to this, isn’t it?

As it happens I do not have a riding lesson at the usual time on Monday. Nothing to do with the lesson last week, I have an appointment elsewhere and it’s impossible to get a substitute private lesson at my yard without booking time off work and going in the daytime. Nevertheless, I think that the week out might do me good; it might help me to put the last lesson further behind me, so that I’m eager for the next one when it comes.


Losing Heart

23 09 2013

I didn’t have the happiest of experiences at my riding lesson this evening. Before I recount it, I want to make a disclaimer of sorts. I imagine the overall tone of this post is going to be rather negative. Now, I know I have a tendency to take obstacles very hard, and I know that wallowing in self-pity is no way to overcome anything. At the same time, however, I don’t think it’s good to bottle up bad feelings, and it can be beneficial to let them out instead, however much of a crybaby it makes you sound like. So after careful internal deliberation, what I have decided I am going to do with regards to writing about this is write about what happened and how it’s made me feel while it’s still raw, with the intention of revisiting it in a couple of days when I’m feeling better able to be objective, reflect on it, attempt to extract some positives from the experience, and give myself a bit of a pep-talk about how I’m going to deal with things moving forwards.

The irony is, I arrived at the centre this evening full of beans, and really looking forward to my lesson. The success and enjoyment of the Exmoor pony trek the week before had given me a real boost, and I was eager to get back to horses and a setting that was familiar to me to crack on with the Learning and Progressing. I was even more pleased when, after a long spate of riding the slacker, safer beginner’s horses, I’d been assigned to Duke again. Although he didn’t look up from his hay when I went to fetch him, he wasn’t difficult to lead away from it, and walked companionably by my side as we made our way to the outdoor school. As we stood waiting for the lesson before to end, he even snuffled my hand companionably.

I really don’t know what went wrong from there. He was a nightmare throughout the lesson. We started off behind another horse and rider, but he was going forwards too eagerly in spite of my asks for him to slow, and when the instructor (who was not our usual instructor) saw this and asked me to ride him out into the lead, he wouldn’t go. I tried the usual routine of asking nicely, asking firmly and asking with a back-up from the whip, but he still refused. I had him on a long rein at this point as we were just warming up the horses, but I picked up a firm contact just in a bid to steer him. Once we were in front, he slowed considerably, and my attempts to push him on were frustrated and largely ignored. I was still undeterred at this point.

To begin with, we did a series of exercises continuing in the theme of bend, each of us taking a turn at lead file. They largely involved trotting 20 metre circles or figures of eight, or changing the rein down the length of the school. Duke was a real pain in the arse, to put not too fine a point on it. He wouldn’t go forwards, he stopped suddenly a couple of times, he suddenly and strongly cut corners and he tried to overtake the other horses. All the while, I was doing my utmost to be firm with him; outside leg, inside rein, half-halts, whip when appropriate. He didn’t soften at all, and I think we were lucky that Symphony – a horse so laid back she’s practically horizontal – didn’t buck and kick us at least a couple of times, as I saw ear-pinning and tail flicking to that tune a number of times as we encroached on her space.

The next exercise the instructor wanted us to do was trotting a 20 metre circle, transitioning to canter in the last corner and then maintaining the canter to the back of the ride. I went first. Where we’d managed to mostly get the circles in the previous exercises, albeit not especially consistent ones, this time Duke was throwing his head out to defy my asks and we were going careering uncontrolled towards the back of the ride. When I didn’t immediately get it the instructor shouted at me to keep going around past the other riders until I eventually called out frustratedly that I didn’t want to complete the exercise. By this point, I was frustrated, nervous, and on the verge of tears. Again. Even in the walk Duke was actively fighting me, pulling down on the contact to pull me forwards, trying to walk out into the centre of the school and trying to broadly cut the corners.

Seeing my difficulty, the instructor said that I could just canter to the back of the ride when it was my turn, to give me less to think about in the exercise, and suddenly Duke had oomph in his trot – way too much of it, in fact, and was ignoring my half-halts. The first couple of times, the transition to canter was a merciful release, as fast as it was it was consistent and felt controlled. Then we changed reins, and suddenly we were out of control in the trot and he refused to canter. I went around again, and this time he transitioned to canter, but went hell-for-leather, not only going fast but also running so close to the wall I took a physical battering. Finally, as if to rub salt into the wounds, when I gave him a long rein at the end of the lesson to cool down he went forwards with his head up into a nice, positive walk, and paced a full circuit of the school without trying to cut corners and without any input from me. I learned something about myself, though: It’s not really the canter that I have ‘hang-ups’ about at all. It’s going too fast in any gait when I don’t feel like I’m in control. I felt just as nervous in his too-fast trot as I did in the violent canter against the wall.

The instructor was quite understanding about all of this. I could have done without her matter-of-factly asking me (by shouting down the length of the school) how I was feeling at intervals when the honest answer was Tired, scared and frustrated with myself, but I do appreciate that her intentions were good, and she did offer me some words of reassurance and encouragement at the end of the lesson that were very positive, urging me not to just think that I was ‘shit’ (she used that word) at riding and ought to give up, saying that if I just keep trying I will get there in the end. She had said previously that sometimes when horses can sense that a rider isn’t feeling totally confident they’ll push them to see what they can get away with, and that she thought that that was what she was seeing Duke do this evening. Her advice to me was not to stand for it, but (forgive my defeatist tone here) that’s often easier said than done when the animal that happens to be testing you weighs a tonne and has more strength in his neck than you have in both of your arms put together.

She’s right, of course, and all the way home I could hear Dom of Historic Equitation’s voice in my head, telling me that I mustn’t take it personally if things don’t go how I expect. I was struck, however, by a feeling of how unfair it seemed that I’d taken some intense knocks to my riding confidence in such a short space of time, and each time being an occasion I was, for one reason or another and to varying extents, really looking forward to. It also feels like a regression; I’d been so pleased with my own progress, over the last few months in particular, and I am worried that these hard blows to my self-confidence will have a lasting impact that it’s going to be hard to claw my way back from.

Of course, I do understand that adopting a defeatist attitude isn’t going to help me in the long run. Nor is agonising over what I did wrong, or on the contrary blaming Duke. Nevertheless, I do feel very disheartened this evening.

Exmoor Pony Trek

18 09 2013

While I was travelling from Leeds to London on the first leg of my travels down South for my much-needed holiday, I received an email from The Moorland Mousie Trust asking me if I wouldn’t mind swapping the day of my trek from Tuesday to Wednesday, or coming an hour earlier on Tuesday if this was not doable. So I swapped days. I never found out the reason for this, but I don’t suppose it matters. Anyway, that’s why this is a day later than intended.

I had a wonderful time out on the moors with the Exmoor ponies this morning. I arrived slightly late due to us getting lost on the drive in to the centre, and unfortunately this meant I missed out on grooming my assigned mount for the day, who was a sweet-natured mare called Abbi (who can be seen on their website on the ‘Pony Profiles’ page), the tallest of two in the Anchor herd at a mighty 13hh. She was perfectly receptive towards me as I went over and introduced myself to her, but was difficult about lifting her back legs up for me to pick out her hooves. She was otherwise well-behaved as I tacked her up, at first placing the saddle too far up her back due to an inability to detect her shallow withers through her thick winter coat. She didn’t take the (snaffle) bit into her mouth willingly, but she didn’t refuse it, either.

As I was doing this one of the centre staff came and chatted to me. She explained that she had a policy of not riding anything over 14 hands, and I told her that I rarely ride anything under that – so this was quite a change for me! I remarked on how lovely Abbi seemed, though, and the lady candidly told me that the purpose of the treks was to demonstrate to people what a nice breed Exmoors are in the hope of raising their profile. She also explained that Abbi was very responsive and would go from a squeeze, but that if I kicked her she wouldn’t do anything. I said that this was fine by me. We all took turns to mount up from a block in the middle of the tiny sand school, and followed our trek leader out onto the moors through the paddock that the Anchor herd currently inhabit.

I will admit that while I came to the centre enthused at the idea of meeting adorable Exmoor ponies in the flesh at long last, I arrived with certain preconceptions about riding ponies. I expected Attitude with a capital A (not necessarily a bad thing), a short stride and poor suspension in the faster gaits, and for them not to be especially comfy to sit on. Nevertheless, I thought that riding Exmoors in their native environs would be exciting, to say the least, and was willing to work with the things I find less agreeable about ponies than larger horses in order to enjoy that. I was for the most part proven wrong, however!

In spite of her short stature, Abbi did not feel at all unlike some of the heavier cobs I’ve known to sit on, and her movements felt extremely similar to those of a horse more like them, too, in spite of her short strides. Due to heavy rain the previous day many of the pathways and tracks we covered over the moorland (which was mainly just open for the majority of the route we travelled) were waterlogged and so we were unable to trot on them, but to make up for this our leader took us back along a route that included more flat or uphill spaces for us to canter in (which was fantastic!), and along some roads, which we trotted the length of. I know I am wont to employ the words ‘lumpy jackhammer’ when describing what it feels like to ride a short pony, but Abbi actually had a lovely, smooth trot that was easy both to rise with and to sit to. She transitioned to canter beautifully, and although I could see the outward flick of her little legs in front of her each time as though she was throwing them out into the transition it didn’t feel like a sudden leap forwards as it might have done on a different equid.

We took in some stunning views along the way, travelling uphill past The Cleaves (which, as an acrophobe, I found it a bit daunting to trot alongside, but okay as long as I ignored the deep valley to my right and kept looking where I was going) until we reached the highest point of the moors we could reasonably access on horseback, and then wove our way back down again gradually by a different route, with our trek leader having to pick a route for us carefully as the moors form bogs after heavy rain that are capable of taking cows. Fortunately, we didn’t recreate any scenes from Never Ending Story. We also passed the Caratacus Stone, which is housed in a little shelter the ponies all wanted to stick their noses into as we passed it, and in the first field (with cows) we passed through I saw some manner of World War II bomber pass over our heads; I at first thought it was a de Havilland Mosquito from the shape, but subsequent internet digging has shown that neither of the two airworthy Mosquitoes surviving today are anywhere near the West Country, so this would seem unlikely. I will keep digging to see if I can work out what it must have been! Regrettably, we didn’t see any wild Exmoors; apparently this can be quite an experience, as they will regard their cousins under saddle with curiosity, but are never aggressive towards them or their riders.

Abbi proved to be willing and responsive, but not especially forward-going, preferring instead to plod along sedately behind the leading pony, Peter, who our trek leader said was the same in her experience, in spite of having a reputation for being a ‘pocket rocket’ for his performances in their sand school. In fact, both Peter and Abbi were terrors for suddenly and strongly pulling their heads forwards to snatch a mouthful of ferns as we went along – almost as though the minute you relaxed, they were taking liberties. In fact, at one point I had issues getting Abbi to go forwards to trot because she had a mouthful of ferns she was unwilling to surrender, and each time I asked her for the trot while she was still chewing on them, she grumbled at me defiantly as if to say, ‘Will you cut that out? I’m eating here!’, eventually catching up to Peter when she’d swallowed them all. Just enough to keep me on my toes! The more forward-going ponies of the group were actually at the back, and their names were Rama and Yorrick. Yorrick is apparently the largest of all of the Anchor herd at 13.2 hands.

At the end of the ride, we rode our ponies back into the centre, into a fenced-off concrete rectangle, so that they were each facing a metal ring mounted on a post with a loop of string threaded through it. As we dismounted, we were each given a headcollar and a body brush to tether, untack and groom them before returning them to the paddock. Abbi seemed to really enjoy being groomed, but looked like she enjoyed being released in the paddock even more, walking away and putting her head down to graze as soon as I unfastened her headcollar.


Abbi is the larger, darker of the two on the right.

I’m really surprised at just how taken with Exmoor ponies I am. I fully expected to enjoy myself, but I didn’t expect to come away from it actively wanting to own one, nor to be finding myself later looking online at prices to buy one. I recall that based on illustrations such as the ones found in illuminated manuscripts and the Bayeux Tapestry, it’s assumed that early medieval warhorses would have been similar in stature to an Exmoor, and I found myself wondering if they might be any good at jousting. Daydreams spiralled out from there.

Unfortunately, just as I had arrived late due to the centre being a little hard to find, I then had to leave in a rush after turning Abbi back out due to catching a lift back to my parents’ with them and it being a rather long drive. While I was changing back into my normal boots, however, I met Winston – one of their other ponies, and one I’d been hoping to meet after reading in his pony profile, ‘He likes everything!’ Sadly, he is now missing an eye (which is present in his profile picture, so this must have been a fairly recent occurrence) – although he seemed no less friendly or cheerful in his demeanour for it, and politely snuffled my hand as I held it out to him by way of saying hello. I wonder what happened to it?

Winston and Friend

Winston is the one on the left. I was seated on a platform above them. I don’t recall the other fellow’s name, but they were grooming each other’s withers so they must be good friends.

Back to Reality

12 09 2013

That’s not even your lot for this week! I still went riding on Monday evening as usual. I was just as eager for my lesson as any other Monday and looking forward to seeing the horses as much as on any other week, of course, but I went very aware that whatever we did in the lesson, it wouldn’t be quite the same as tilting against a quintain.

I arrived to find I had been assigned Symphony for a change. Symphony is a very capable horse, but one I am accustomed to hearing my regular instructor describe as a ‘bone idle’ one, so the lesson’s activities were something of a far cry from riding the excellently trained, highly-responsive stallions I’d sat astride on the weekend. She was in the lesson before mine, too, which won’t have helped with her motivation. As I mounted up, I told my instructor a bit about the riding I’d done at the weekend, and from my touching on that we got onto talking about the jousting tournaments at the Royal Armouries; apparently she enjoys them, too, and usually takes her children down to see them. We agreed that they were too short, and we wished they would sacrifice the stunt riding displays so there could be more jousting!

Anyway, in this lesson we worked more on bend, this time riding in circles that got smaller and smaller. For almost all of the lesson Symphony was extremely heavy on the head, and she resisted my asks, then softened, then just when I thought I’d got her listening to me would go and do something unexpected like slow to a walk very suddenly, and stop, ignoring my leg as I pushed her on. I managed to get her to soften as we worked an exercise on bend in trot, riding expanding and shrinking circles using cones as a guide, but about two thirds of the way through she decided she’d had enough and started actively fighting me. My instructor said I could go large if I wanted to work on bringing her back to me, but I was determined to keep at the exercise, and eventually we got back on it. I have to admit, however, that from having spent so long in the saddle a couple of days previously, the whole process made me ache.

As has become the format of our lessons, we finished with work in canter. Amazingly, this was where Symphony woke up, and on every attempt on both reins I got the strike off into canter – not always the first time I asked for it, but I didn’t make any laps of the school without getting the canter. I remember from riding Symphony previously that she has a really nice, smooth canter and a gentle strike off into it, but that you cannot afford to relax into it as she’ll only canter for a few strides before transitioning down to a trot and then to a walk if you don’t push her on. This time, I succeeded in pushing her on to maintain it for most of the way around the school, always losing it at the point where we were in sight of the back of the ride. The problem I had, if any, was relaxing my hands sufficiently for her to transition upwards from the trot, but since I was having to keep a firm contact with very short reins in the first place I think this is understandable, and less about any residual hang-ups I might have with cantering. I had the same issue with Dan the last time I rode him, another horse who needs short reins and a firm contact (albeit for different reasons); I’d like to try riding Duke again to see how much better my canter would be from start to finish on a less reluctant horse. Or even lovely Maddy.

Thinking it had been a long time since I’d seen her, this week I made the trip across to the other side of the yard to check in on Soapy after untacking Symphony and giving her back and shoulders a bit of a rub. She was attending to her bale of hay when I called out to her, and she regarded me with the kind of indignant disinterest one might expect of a cat who has been ignored by its owner, only looking over her shoulder briefly and giving me that, ‘Oh, it’s you’ look, not wandering over to the door for a fuss or even a quite nose-fist as she has done on previous occasions. I take this to mean I should go back to bothering her after my lessons more often!…

Not next week, though, as I am away in Cornwall visiting family. I shan’t be abstaining from riding completely during my week off, however, and I have booked myself in to do this as it’s not too far from where I will be based…

Historic Equitation (part 2)

11 09 2013

Continued from Previous.

After all three of us had successfully cantered the length of the school a number of times, we assembled in a row facing Dom once more, and he brought out three wooden training lances – of the kind used for jousting. (The one he brought me was shorter, which must have been out of sympathy for my suffering right arm.) My heart skipped a beat when I saw this; I hadn’t dared to hope we’d get to cover anything similar to jousting in the time we were there, especially for my having never done anything like that before!

Dom carefully explained to us how to rest the lace, with the butt resting on the saddle just inside the thigh. As we walked around, he explained to us how to hold it (thumbs on top!) and how to lower it (cross-ways diagonally over the horse’s neck). We had a go of walking around and lowering and resting the lances. So far, so good. Then, gesturing at a quintain set up to the left side of the arena, he began to talk us through how to tilt against it; approaching at a fast trot, asking for the canter a few strides before reaching it, and then lowering the lance to hit it.

I honestly can’t clearly recall what happened next. My memory of it is hazy, which is unlike me and suggests to some extent that I may have blocked it out, but I will recount it as accurately and as honestly as I can. I remember Damian absolutely nailing it on his first attempt; he told me afterwards that his subsequent goes weren’t as successful, but I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t notice how it went for Amy, and she didn’t volunteer much afterwards other than that she’d had a fantastic time doing it. I had other problems: Marduk and I weren’t communicating any more, and all of a sudden I couldn’t seem to get him to listen to me. I had to keep passing on my goes while we went nowhere. Dom got off and got on; after tilting against the quintain himself a couple of times, he assured me that it wasn’t me, and that Marduk wasn’t responding even to his leg as keenly as he usually would. He gave me a leg up back into the saddle, and I got back on and had another go, thinking that, as usually tends to be the case when instructors have taken over the horses I’ve been riding in the past, that he’d have switched on again, but we seemed to keep going around in frustrated circles, and I became both nervous about completing the exercise on a horse who was not listening to me, and frustrated that everything had to come undone at the part that I’d been most excited about. Disheartened, I rode Marduk into the nearest corner well out of the paths of the other riders, put down my lance, dismounted and took his reins in my hands. In retrospect I am a little embarrassed about this, and concerned that it must have seemed terribly rude of me. I remember Damian riding past on Briar at a walk and asking me if I would like a hug. Wanting to appear strong, and simultaneously not wanting to spoil his fun just because I was having trouble, I put on a tough face, declined, and watched him ride off for another bash at it.

Dom came over and asked me if he was not working for me at all, and I sadly shook my head and said I was sorry. Again, he reassured me that it wasn’t me, and that Marduk had been being unhelpful. He suggested I swap with Amy and have Hawthorn; again the stirrups were too long for me and needed new holes, and by the time I was sorted and had warmed myself up to Hawthorn, who seemed a lot more responsive, it was time to break for lunch. We were treated extremely well, with a selection of meats, cheeses and crusty bread, and offered delicious carrot and coriander soup to go with it. Determined to focus on what a great time I’d been having up until things went a bit wrong, I did exactly that. I thought to myself I’d get another go after lunch, and I’d just take that as an opportunity to make up for the end of the previous lesson.

So, we went back out, into the small school again this time, and mounted up. I kept Hawthorn, and Amy took Marduk. She seemed to get on with him a lot better, but then she is a far more experienced rider. In this lesson, we were each given a lightly-weighted stick (I was going to type ‘light stick’, but then you’d all have imagined us riding around with lightsabers) not unlike thin wicket stumps, to rest against our shoulders when we weren’t using them. He directed myself and Amy to the bottom end of the school and Damian to the top, and told us all to ride past each other, one to attempt to strike the other on the head, and the other to block. We each had a go at striking and blocking, generally going at a walk or a trot. So far, so good.

Then, Dom had the three of us circle him in the middle of the school and explained the next exercise: we were each in turn going to try to tap another rider on their shoulder, and the other rider’s job was to avoid being tapped, as a warm up to a melee. I went first, chasing after Damian but not managing to catch him as he upwards-transitioned to a trot and spun out from the circle. Amy’s turn was to try and hit me, and she transitioned to a canter, waving her stick at me with a grin. The thought of a significantly more advanced rider charging at me at a canter made me nervous, but I evaded her simply by keeping Hawthorn going steadily in the circle at a walk while she struggled to bring Marduk in closer in the faster gait.

However, then my mind started to slip from the melee exercises as I found myself once again struggling with Hawthorn. Here was where the self-defeat really started to kick in. As Amy and Damian excitedly and confidently went at each other with their sticks, I started having real trouble steering Hawthorn. Again, my memory of the specifics is hazy, but after the difficulties of the previous lesson I started to get frustrated at myself and getting upset, which wasn’t helping me to fix it. Dom told me to just work on getting things back under control while Amy and Damian carried on with the melee exercises; I tried to work on getting Hawthorn out to the other end of the school to them to give myself some space, but found it difficult, and into the mix I started to get really nervous about being out of control on a horse in with two other riders charging about around me. As I became more frustrated and more nervous it got worse and worse. Dom brought me spurs to see if they helped and they didn’t. I was fighting back tears of frustration – both at my own inability to get Hawthorn listening to me, and that it had had to have happened during something I’d spent most of the year looking forward to, and I felt like I was letting the others down.

In the end, Dom called me out into the large school, and left Amy and Damian to continue enjoying themselves riding in a melee while he worked with me individually. Once in there, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to have a practice canter, and he said, ‘Off you go.’ And Hawthorn and I had a lovely, fast, charged canter around the large arena, free from distractions. That made me feel a lot better. I felt like Hawthorn listened to me a lot better in this faster gait, and suddenly the problem I was having was in slowing him, not in getting the response in the first place! Dom took the spurs back from me, noticing that a problem I was having seemed to be my attempts to ask him to slow being mistaken for an ask for more because I wasn’t aware of them. Then I went off for a bit more of a canter without them, with a new problem; I was having trouble getting the strike off into canter. We got a great, fast trot with loads of lovely impulsion and he listened to my asks for turns and to push him out to the track and to slow, but when I asked for the canter, no response. So I rode back to Dom and explained. I talked him through how I asked for canter; he said Hawthorn generally found it easier to strike off from the right lead. So I tried that a couple of times, giving a little stallion in a paddock next to the area a wide berth as I went (there had been a small drama involving him and Marduk in the previous lesson, so I was wary). Then, Dom offered me an opportunity to tilt against the quintain, and I gratefully accepted.

On none of my attempts did I succeed in getting the strike off into canter a few strides before the quintain. Spending a good ten minutes careering around whilst wearing the spurs had both helped me get my confidence back and seemed to have gotten Hawthorn listening to me again, but without the spurs he seemed not to ‘get’ my ask for canter at all, and unlike the feeling I’d had from Marduk when I’d lined him up to the row of tent pegs, he didn’t once identify the task and just effectively do the work for me. Thus, on my first, cautious go, we trotted slowly up to the quintain, I lowered my lance, and I hit it – but because we didn’t have the necessary speed, I had to drop the lance or I was going to get pushed backwards out of the saddle. On the second go I missed completely; on the third I hit it, but lowered my lance much too early, and on the fourth go – in spite of not getting the canter – we went passed fast enough in trot, I lowered just in time, and I hit it successfully, causing it to spin around.

Then Dom rounded me up to rejoin the others. I thanked him for his patience, and apologised. He told me not to worry, said that my confidence had taken a knock from what had happened earlier in the day, so he’d just built me back up again so that I could go out with a bang.  He also advised me not to take it personally if things didn’t go as expected, which I think I really need to take on board. He reassuringly explained that next up, we were all going to go for a gentle hack together to a museum with Karen, and I wouldn’t have to do anything fast or scary. As I rejoined the others in the smaller school, Damian told me with a grin that he’d seen me hit the quintain ‘dead on’, and praised me for it. Then Karen rode out to join us on Duke, a full Friesian, and we went for a steady hack to the Flag Fen Archaeological Museum.

The route took us past the McCain factory (the entire road smelled of baked potatoes!), which we passed in a two by two formation as there were occasionally lorries travelling down the road. A young girl in a car took photos of us on her iPhone, and we later remarked on the celebrity status being on horseback seems to bring and how awesome that feels. We travelled for about five minutes in single file down a moderately quiet road, and Hawthorn was so calm I trusted him completely around the cars. I noticed that he seemed much happier when I held the reins in one hand than in both, so I tried to do this as much as I could. We went over a ‘musical bridge’, designed to resonate with a pretty sound when pedestrians crossed it, so imagine how it sounded under hooves! Finally, as we neared the museum (which, of course, we were unable to enter due to being on horseback), we passed a field of tiny ponies who all galloped over to see the big horses and defend their paddock. That was very sweet. We saw other horses in the fields along the way, but those were the most entertaining.

On our arrival back at the farm, we each rode our horses into their yard, dismounted and untacked them. Then we helped out with the grooming and laying of the beds. Briar, as the sole gelding of the group, was taken out to the field for the night. Hawthorn and Marduk were stalled – after a misunderstanding in which Damian ended up laying Hawthorn’s bed, thinking it was for Briar. Oops.

Once all that was done, the horses put to bed and the tack all put away, we asked Karen if we could do any more to help with the other horses, basically because we wanted to spend more time around them. She explained that she had to take the feed out to the horses in the field, and bring the ponies in for the night, and we could help with this if we wanted. In actual fact, she did most of this while we stood around cooing and fawning. To our credit, we did each take a pony by the lead rope and lead them back to their stables. I took a wee chestnut mare called Blossom who had a very pretty face and a cheeky demeanor, who tried to eat every weed we passed along the way, holding her head up high as though she hadn’t been doing anything of the sort every time I gently tugged on the lead rope to prevent her. Heh.

So the day ended on a very high note. We stayed the night in their guest room, and were extremely well taken care of, with a sit-down meal at the dinner table and conversations around the fire in the evening. We were offered beer and wine, but alas none of us really drink. We all slept exceptionally well that night, to be awoken – curiously – by a confused-looking bluetit knocking determinedly on the window with its beak, to then open the window after it had flown off and hear the horses whinnying for their breakfast in the yard outside, with mists rolling out over the fens on the horizon. The exceptional hospitality continued with a cooked breakfast, after which Dom went out to oversee a showjumping competition in the large arena. We stayed and watched a little of it, and were amused to see the quintain post still stood firmly in position with brightly coloured jumps set up all around it. It seemed a world away from what we’d been doing the previous day. Once the winners for the first bout had been announced, we took advantage of the break in the proceedings to say goodbye to Dom properly, and made our way home.

To wrap up, the trip was a marvellous experience. It was a lot more of an emotional rollercoaster than I expected (or, to be honest, wanted) it to be, but I have not been put off by this, and I think it is a credit to Dom as a teacher that he had the kindness and patience to take the trouble to work with me to bring my confidence back from the difficulties I had. The horses are marvellous and are a pleasure to ride (as long as you don’t let yourself become your own worst enemy when things go not as planned like I did), and everyone at the farm really went well above and beyond the call of duty with their hospitality and efforts to make us feel welcome. I would recommend arranging to go and train with them to anyone with an interest in classical/historical riding, or in fact just anyone who loves horses and riding and wants to try something different. I am  now absolutely determined to work on my self-confidence (and the strength in my arms!) some more, and go back as soon as time, money and Dom’s schedule allow for it 😀

Credit for all photographs to Damian.

Historic Equitation

10 09 2013

So the weekend came that it was my turn to visit Historic Equitation, and all I can say is wow. Quite unlike me, I can’t even think where to start – I sat down to write about this yesterday evening and found myself sat staring blankly at the ‘Add New Post’ page quite unable to focus enough to be able to put fingers to keyboard!

Anyway,  from the beginning, I guess: After a very early night and having had little difficulty in getting up for our early start (yay, horses!), we assembled somewhere in central Nottingham and embarked on the 90 minute car ride down to Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire where they are based. Props to our designated driver, Amy, who is a new-ish driver, had never gone on a motorway before and was slightly nervous about doing so; she proved to be an excellent, careful driver, and in spite of her understandable nerves, she was overtaking in the fast lane and complaining about other drivers going too slowly in no time. We arrived, and were herded into the kitchen, where we were offered tea and introduced to everybody; Dom asked us about our experience and told us which horses we’d be riding; Damian on the lovely, mild-tempered Briar, who he’d ridden on the previous year’s expedition with Amy, who was to ride Hawthorn this time (a stunning stallion thought to be a Friesian x Dales pony, billed on their website as being their most famous horse) and I was assigned a Belgian Warmblood stallion named Marduk, who I gathered is a relatively new addition. I presume he was named after the deity and not the black metal band, but I’ll admit that while I’m not massively keen on the latter I did, at the same time, think it was immensely cool I’d been paired with the horse with the metal name. Hee.

First of all, we went out to the yard and met the horses, and were then permitted to give them a good groom to get to know them, and then to tack them up ourselves. (Marduk had a different saddle than I’m used to – it was stiff with crests at the front and rear, like something between a Spanish saddle and the kind I’ve seen used in jousting displays, but with a soft fleecy cover). Marduk made a good first impression on me, regarding me quizzically but in a friendly manner; he seemed to enjoy my grooming him, but wriggled about on the end of the lead rope as I tried to tack him up. I like to see a bit of mischief in a horse 😀 A lovely lady called Karen, who is part of the team there, came over to ask me if I needed any help tacking up; I said I was fairly confident but wouldn’t mind her checking it for me, as the tack was a bit different than I was used to. The bits on the bridles were like a solid piece of metal with a curve at the centre, and the bridles fastened under the muzzle with a curb chain (Marduk’s had an extra leather chin strap), which I’m not used to seeing and which I’ll gladly admit I couldn’t get the hang of fastening on straight. At this point I will apologise in advance for the lack of action photographs – between three of us, we just had two phone cameras for taking pictures, and as the whole day was pretty hands-on it was hard to even think of getting a camera out to take pictures, let alone juggle it with all the various things that passed through our hands over the course of the day!

Once we were all tacked up and raring to go, we went through into the small school (there were two, both of which were classic outdoor types with sandy substrate, similar to the school at Gakushuin), mounted up and started walking around. Mounting up for me was a bit of a faff, because I think I must have shorter legs than anybody they’re used to training or riding with. They had to make new holes in the stirrup leathers for me! I later joked with Damian about aspiring to become the ‘littlest jouster’.

Once we’d all got the horses walking around and going forwards, we worked in an open order sort of set-up; not going around as a ride, concentrating on riding out on the track, into the corners and in circles; the usual sort of stuff you’d do to warm up on a horse in a lesson. Marduk was splendid to ride – I barely had to push him on to make him go forwards, rather having to work to keep him steady and going where I wanted him to, but he was obliging when – I think – he got the measure of me. Even at this early stage it was a real treat just to be riding a horse who had a spring in his step and palpable eagerness, rather than a stuffy riding school horse who had to be pushed on constantly!

From there, we began to ride leading file around the school. Dom called out to us to all turn 180 degrees on the spot along the long side of the school on his count of three… And we did. The horses just made the turn as I asked with my legs, defying everything I’d been taught about horses’ strides and their need, as beasts with four legs, to walk in a circle to turn around. We practised making on-the-spot turns (do forgive me for the lack of technical terminology here) as a ride in leading file for a while, until he was satisified that we could do that; then we moved in closer to one another, and began riding at a walk in formation. In so doing, we all had a turn at seeing for ourselves that communication and teamworking are vital in this; taking the corners in the school in formation, we had to co-ordinate so the horse and rider on the outside moved faster and the horse and rider on the inside slowed to allow the others to move around them. On Marduk, I was flanking (we were arranged so that Amy – ironically, but perhaps appropriately, the most advanced rider in the group – was in the middle), and I found wheeling around the others when I was on the outside of the corner much easier than slowing down when I was on the inside!

From that exercise, we lined up facing Dom on the short side of the school farthest from the gate, and took a breather. He gave us all words of encouragement and told us we’d done really well, and I was flattered when he remarked that I’d gotten Marduk nicely on the bit. Then, he told us all to put both reins into our left hands and rest the right hand on our thigh (‘… or on your hip if you’re feeling jaunty!’) Then we repeated all of that one-handed. We hadn’t even got the weapons out at this stage, and Damian was already shouting across to me about how badass riding one-handed and in formation feels. I am inclined to agree!

Once Dom was happy with our ability to work with that, he fetched three British Army sharp lances, two of which had flags on the ends (which were given to Damian and Amy, who were now either side of me, for no reason other than that he liked to see a flag on either end for symmetry). We were told to carry this in our right hand, and to balance it on our right foot while we weren’t using it. That was easy until I needed to use my leg as an aid! I don’t think it helps that I have size 3 feet, so there isn’t much surface area on my foot to rest a lance on. In the end I decided I would just hold it up without trying to rest it on my foot as I was having more trouble trying to replace it onto it while we were in motion. This was undoubtedly a mistake on my part, because I don’t have a lot of strength in my arms and following the weekend, my enduring ache was in my right arm.

Then we moved on into the large school, where, for a while, Dom had us pracising walking in formation with the lances. Again my big issue was with slowing Marduk down so the others could wheel around him! We practised this in walk and in trot, before Dom brought our attention to a row of three tent pegs that had been set up in the sand. It was hot and windy, and with the dust blowing up around us as we rode, Damian remarked that it felt like being cavalry in Afghanistan circa 1878. Again, I couldn’t contradict him. We practised riding in formation, but each passing a tent peg on our right. Then he asked us each to reach forwards and stroke the surface of the ground with the point of our lances, and talked us through the correct way to do this, and the correct height to hold our lance. Guess what we did next? We rode in formation (or at least tried to! There may have been… spacing issues) past the tent pegs, trying to knock them over with our lances as we went past. First at a walk, then a few times at a trot, and finally twice in ‘any gait you like’ – which, for me, ended up being an unintentional but very much enjoyed canter – I didn’t ask for the canter, but Marduk obviously knows his job very well, and I decided to just go with it! I think I only managed to hit the tent peg on one pass in trot, but it still felt immense. I regret that on at least one pass – it all seemed to happen so fast that I can’t remember exactly – I threw my lance down on the ground on the way past, just because my arm had gotten so tired I couldn’t carry it any more, and I didn’t want to hurt Marduk by just letting it fall. After the final go in any gait we wanted, Dom took the lances off us anyway, to give our arms a bit of a rest, and put them all away. I was feeling pretty pumped at this stage.

Then, he said he wanted to see how each of us cantered, and had each one of us canter the length of the arena to the horse and rider opposite. Still one-handed, but now with an empty right hand resting on my thigh, I gladly cantered as instructed. Marduk had a lovely canter, and I was feeling great from the day’s exercises so far. Unfortunately, I will freely admit that what followed caused my confidence to take quite a knock, which regrettably impacted on the rest of the day’s riding for me, I think, but full credit is due to Dom for bearing with me through it, and for his patience and attentiveness in helping me to recover and, as he put it himself, ‘go out with a bang.’ I think I’ll have to write about that crisis of self-defeat tomorrow now, though, because my word count is fast approaching the 2,000 mark already and I haven’t even got to lunchtime yet!

In recognition of what a lot of words this has been, I shall leave you (for now) with this picture of the lovely Briar to feast your eyes on, aptly described as being a ‘fierce jouster and an excellent destrier.’

To be continued…

Forwards, Grumpy Princess! To Victory!

2 09 2013

I’m very excited at the moment – my lesson this evening was excellent, and I’m pumped ready for Historic Equitation on the weekend. Damian, who has been before, says I’m in for a treat, as the horses there are ‘a world away from anything you’ll find in a riding school’, and I’m feeling confident, competent and up to the challenge.

Anyway, I was delighted this evening to see on the roster that I was down to ride Bramble, who I’ve had nothing to do with since our private lesson together, I don’t think, apart from patting her lovingly on the forehead as I saw other riders bring her into the school as I was leaving. The lady who always takes our money has clear affection for her as well, referring to her as ‘Grumpy Bramble-ina’ as I went to collect her, adding, ‘She’s grumpy, but she’s lovely’. I replied, ‘She’s a very good teacher, to put it diplomatically.’

And it’s true – as lovely as she is once you get to know each other, Bramble is a hard horse to push on, in my experience. She is one  with whom you who have to be strict and have no patience for right from the word go. Every ignored ask from the leg at the beginning of the lesson had to be backed up with the whip or you struggled for the remainder of the hour, and you really couldn’t fall into a false sense of security between exercises and let her go to sleep because you’d never get her going again.

Except tonight, it wasn’t like that.

I was flattered when, in spite of apparent initial reluctance to move, she switched on and started walking beside me – albeit slowly – as I took hold of the reins to lead her out. She pinned her ears and flicked her tail about sulkily as I adjusted her stirrups and girth from the ground, but didn’t make any sudden moves. I mounted her and she dropped her head, again, sulkily, but when I asked her firmly to walk on, she went.

Knowing I would have to ride her forwards all night, I rode her out to the track, as far into the corner as I could safely manage, and pushed her on firmly from the beginning. As a result, without having to nag with my leg or tap her with the whip, I got a nice active walk. So much so I was having to make half-halts to keep her the recommended two horses’ distance from Chilli in front of us in the lead. I’ll willingly admit I couldn’t believe it, and thought she was having a good day, but every time the thought entered my head I’d feel the momentum slip and have to push her on again.

The main exercise today was first riding walk-trot transitions and making the horse listen and respond first time, and then, continuing with the theme of impulsion, learning to control the length of the horse’s stride in the trot. To do this, we rode a short stride down one long end of the school, then a working trot down the short end, then a long stride down the other long side, and then transitioned back to a short stride at the next short end. We did this on both reins, and in both rising and sitting trot. After an initial… disagreement with Bramble about going forwards to trot, I pushed her on into the exercise and it went better than I would have expected. She responded to my leg, she slowed her stide with my rise, she lengthened it when I asked her for more. The more times we went around the school the better and more naturally it came. I felt so happy.

Then we moved on to the canter. Bramble transitioned to canter as soon as I started to think the transition, almost like magic, and I sat her tumultuous canter and managed to keep it going with my leg aid nearly all the way to the back of the ride. I was so happy I got a bit emotional, praised her and cried a little bit. The attempts to canter after that were less of a success- in fact on the second go I nearly slipped out of the saddle, but recovered my balance in a way I don’t think I could have done a year ago. I think I lost my focus because my reaction to probably the most competent cantering I’ve ever done – on a difficult, lazy horse, no less – was a bit intense.

At the end of the lesson, Bramble was as reluctant to go back into her stall as she usually is going out of it, but I think this was down to her disposition rather than any genuine desire to be out of it. I untacked her and gave her the biggest hug and a fuss, and then left, saying hello to another horse I’d never met before with an adorably droopy lip on the way out.

So, Bramble was my palfrey. Now bring me my destrier…