Hacking and Coughing

31 10 2013

I do have a real penchant for a terrible pun – I don’t know whether regular readers will have picked up on that or not. Anyway, today’s title is a prime example, and I’m not remotely sorry. What I am sorry for, however, is the tardiness of this update – I’ve been trying to post this since Tuesday, but WordPress has been being flaky until tonight!

The sore throat/cold I spoke of in my previous post persisted, and continued to get steadily worse over the last week. It undoubtedly peaked on Friday, when I was sent home from work by my line manager, who said I deserved the early finish for having a tough week and for sounding like a duck. I went home and straight to bed. I didn’t feel much better when I got up on Saturday morning, but it still wasn’t enough to keep me from an early start to go riding.

That’s correct – riding on a Saturday. I think I’ve mentioned before that the school at which I have my usual lessons is generally too busy on the weekend to be able to secure a booking (unless you’re lucky enough to call on a Friday afternoon after they’ve had a cancellation), but I’ve found another riding school that’s closer to where I currently live, and I wanted to try it out. Not so much for the lessons as they’re more expensive and I’m quite happy with what I’m getting at the moment, but because they have access to bridleways for hacking, which I’d like to do more of.

I’d called them in the week to ask if they had any availability that weekend, half expecting them to say no (given that in mine and my friends’ experience, riding schools are invariably either over-subscribed or shambolically disorganised). Instead, I got a ‘yes’ straight away, and was booked on a hack for the sociable hour of 11am that very Saturday.

After a lovely (but muddy) walk through the woods and along the river to get there, I arrived. The one thing about my experience that slightly concerned me was that as warm a reception as I was given and as promptly as they checked I had a hat, boots and gloves, they never asked me to complete a rider registration form or sign anything. Nevertheless, from what I saw the place looked tidy and well-organised, and the ponies I met seemed healthy and contented.

Unfortunately, due to heavy rain the night before, I was told early on that we wouldn’t be allowed to go fast, so there was no cantering, although along the way I could easily distinguish the paths that were ideal for it. The route didn’t just take us through the woods of the park, but along a lot of quiet, residential roads as well. Some of the trees with their low-lying branches were a bit hair-raising, to add a bit of excitement to the proceedings, and there were some steep declines on the way back to the stables that seemed quite perilous on the back of a horse who was palpably eager to get home.

Speaking of whom, I rode a gorgeous 14.2hh Haflinger gelding by the name of Boheme. He was very stockily-built with a very luxurious blond mane that I was actually quite jealous of. He was lovely to ride – just the right balance of responsive and cheeky, and very eager to transition upwards when we went into the trot – and I got the feeling he’d be lovely to canter, too. As soon as we hit the homeward stretch, he started trying to trot on when we were in walk, but while he grumbled, he listened when I brought him back to me. Like most horses, he tried it on when passing every tasty bush, at one point with what could have been disastrous consequences for me as my head got caught up in the branches before I had time to lean forwards to dodge them. Fortunately I didn’t get caught up in them, but this did invoke a lecture about the importance of ducking under the branches for personal safety from the hack leader. Hah.

What really won me over about Boheme, though, was his behaviour after I’d dismounted. We rode our ponies back into the courtyard in front of the stables, to a low wall with some head collars and lead ropes tied up along it, each lined up in front of one, dismounted, removed the horse’s bridle and replaced it with the head collar. While I was doing this, a member of staff came and finished untacking him for me. I fussed Boheme for a little while and took some pictures before repairing to the bench outside the office to change back into my walking boots, chatting to the young man who’d led the hack as I did so; as we were talking, he stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘Oh-oh, Boheme’s off.’ I looked over, and Boheme had slipped off his head collar and, far from making a mad dash for freedom, was casually sauntering into the stables in the direction of the feed. He was intercepted by staff before he got there, who said that this was something he often did, and that he never went very far, only off looking for food. I cheerfully declared that I liked him, and smiled.

I’m very happy to have found a place that looks good where I can make an appointment at short notice and go for a pleasant hack on a weekend. I can’t really financially justify going there every week (much as I might like to), but it’s going to be a nice thing to be able to do maybe once or twice a month, and I really hope that they’ll be going out throughout the winter.

And now for some photos!


Pole Position!

21 10 2013

… Have I done that gag before? I forget. It’s appropriate, anyway!

I apologise for the lack of post last week; I was quite unwell, and not in any fit state to ride. Thankfully I have responded to a course of antibiotics and am fighting fit again now (quite literally, as I have begun training with the intention of being able to do one full, unassisted chin-up by the 1st Januray). I do currently have a sore throat, but it takes more than that to keep me away from the stables.

I was quite angry when I reached my riding school this evening. I’d had to work later than I usually would on a Monday, and had thus booked a taxi to get me there on time. The taxi was fifteen minutes late, which I could accept if it wasn’t for the fact that I received the callback to tell me the vehicle was waiting outside my home ten minutes before it actually arrived. Unacceptable, especially if it holds me up from what is easily my favourite part of the week. Worse still, when the cab arrived, the driver was argumentative when I asked him if he had got stuck in traffic, and spent the duration of the journey chewing gum noisily with his mouth open. HATE HATE HATE.

I ordered him not to drive into the school when I asked him to let me out because I could see Elvis being led out of the outdoor school and back to his yard, and although I always tip taxi drivers as a rule of thumb, I sat and waited for this guy to count out my change from a ten pound note. I was ten minutes late and my lesson was already under way. Thankfully, I had had the good sense to call the school and tell them I was running late, and they’d assured me it would be okay.

Unfortunately, no-one had passed this on to the groom who was leading Elvis back as I arrived, and I arrived at his stall to find him happily chomping on his hay, fully untacked and very sweaty from the lesson before. I shouted down the yard to her as I saw her walking out with his tack slung over one shoulder, but she didn’t make out what I said and I was intercepted by the little girl who’d just finished riding him. Again, she drew me in and warned me that he had been naughty; I couldn’t make out very well what she was saying, but she seemed to want to warn me against using my whip, and she definitely said he had bitten her arm (upon which a bruise was already coming up; I was put in mind of that YouTube video of a cyclist getting bitten by a horse in the mountains). Flustered and impatient to get into my lesson, I thanked her somewhat abruptly, told her I’d be careful and bid her take care, before walking on towards Elvis’ stall.

The groom (who apologised to me for not waiting a few more minutes before untacking him) got him tacked up again very quickly for me, so quickly in fact that I was compelled to adjust his numnar myself as she’d slung it on his back with his saddle and it had gotten all creased, and I know first-hand what horses tend to do when you mount them with even just a slightly creased numnar. I’d have expected him to have been reluctant to go back out of the stable given what had happened, but he was perfectly compliant as I led him out, only stalling when we reached the gate to the outdoor school, at which point I had to tug a bit harder on the reins to get him to go back in.

I mounted up, adjusted my stirrups, my instructor did my girth and as soon as all that was done, without my even asking, Elvis went straight out onto the track and onto the right rein without my asking. This was, of course, what I was going to ask him to do anyway, but it’s still not great that I had no input, so to try and assert myself I worked on keeping the walk going forwards and pushing him as far into the corners as I could manage before asking for the trot. Getting the trot was difficult at first. He was happy with moving around and staying on the track, he wasn’t happy about having to exert himself again. When I resorted to giving him a tap with my whip, he leapt dramatically into trot and we maintained this down one long side of the school and for a few paces round the first corner before I felt him transitioning back to the walk. I went through the leg, kick, whip sequence with him, and when I tapped him, I couldn’t believe it, but he bucked. It didn’t feel like a very big buck, but I heard him growl and felt his hind legs kick out to the inside as he did it. Contrary to what anyone (myself included) might have expected, I sat it, remained calm even for knowing what was happening, and pushed on again when I felt that all of his feet were back in contact with the ground. He resumed a nice trot after that, and I didn’t have to use my whip again once for the remainder of the lesson. I don’t think my instructor saw as she was talking to one of the other ladies at the opposite end of the school at the time.

Once we were all warmed up (I had a lovely, energetic trot on both reins), we regrouped as a ride, this time at five or six horses’ distance because we were going to do a pole exercise! Our instructor had laid out two trot poles on the floor a good distance away from each other. The exercise she wanted us to do was to trot over the first pole, transition down to a walk and then back up to trot to go over the second pole. This took some doing; I could easily get Elvis to move over the pole without knocking it, it was pushing him into to the walk (rather than slowing and losing momentum) by riding a half-halt and then resuming the active trot again immediately afterwards that was the difficult part. We got it in the end, but I think this was more a result of Elvis figuring out for himself what I was asking him to do from the repetition each time rather than me necessarily asking for it correctly, but then I guess that in any kind of exercise like that, getting the horse to understand what you’re asking of it is an important part of its execution.

This took us right up to ten minutes to the end of the lesson, so rather than moving into our work in canter by halting at a letter as a ride and taking turns to have a go, she had us go large as a ride, and we cantered leading file and in succession without stopping moving. She was just as pumped and excited as we were at this stage, and was consequently shouting at us not to lose ‘all that lovely impulsion’ we’d built up in the pole exercise like an enthused sergeant major. She shouted out our names in turn, making the next one of us go after she’d seen the previous one’s canter transition come off successfully. Although I’d been having trouble throughout the lesson persuading Elvis to keep his head up nicely and not pull down on the bit, I felt well able to relax my hands at the corner in which I went sitting, and we not only managed the smoothest and most synergistic transition into canter I think I’ve ever ridden, but the canter itself was collected, smooth and really enjoyable. Rather than just feeling like I was staying on whilst mentally flapping to keep it going, I maintained the mental clarity to check myself as we rode on to ensure my heels were down, my shoulders were aligned with my hips and I was sitting up straight in the saddle and looking where I was going as we went in a straight line down the long side of the school, and turned my body appropriately in the corner. It felt really good! We even managed to repeat the exercise, on the same rein, before giving the horses all a long rein to finish.

Our instructor always asks us if we have any questions at the end of the class. I don’t usually have one, unless I’ve managed to do something in the lesson and not understood how, but this week, after a moment’s thought and with a grin, I asked, ‘Can we do more pole work, please? It’s fun!’ Heh. She said that we were all ‘like jumbo jets’; we take a long time to warm up, but we’re good when we eventually do get going.

As I dismounted, I gave Elvis a rub on the shoulder, and he turned around to face me with that bright-eyed, ‘baby horse’ look (I’m sure anyone who’s ever been given that look themselves will understand what I mean by it), gently nuzzling me and breathing on me. I was a little wary as I suspected he might be thinking of biting me, but it seemed playful rather than aggressive. He stood patiently while I put his stirrups up and loosened his girth, tracking me with his nose as I walked around him, and walked companionably by my side as I led him back to bed, the only incident along the way being my having to tell him off for trying to eat someone else’s hay, which had been left in a net on the floor outside one of the other stalls.

When I got him back into his stall he went straight for the hay net, as is to be expected. His fur was really quite soggy with sweat, but he was very obliging with the positioning of his head as I unfastened and removed his bridle. Once that was slung over my shoulder, I gave his shoulders a rub while hugging him, and although he didn’t stop nibbling at the hay net, I felt him lean into me and rest his brow on the back of my shoulder briefly. Awww.

I removed his saddle, returned his tack to the tack room and came back to try and take a couple of pictures of him. They didn’t really come out all that well, but I got a lovely one of Soapy in the stall next door, who it would seem is talking to be again, and who has always seemed to know exactly what a camera is for.

The other exciting bit of horsey news is that I have finally handed in my application form to work there as a volunteer! Fingers crossed…

Muuuuch Better

7 10 2013

As the title suggests, I had a much better lesson today! 😀

I got to the school really early for reasons unknown, which gave me plenty of time to faff getting my boots and chaps on, pay, book my lesson for next week and then head out to harass  say hello to the horses. The roster said I would be riding Elvis today; I’ve ridden him once before. He’s another stocky, feathery, piebald pony, who really looks like Soapy’s gelding double. I’ve ridden him before, and he was very sweet towards me, with a nice, even gait in all paces, or at least as far as I could remember.

I asked the lady who took my money (who I’ve seen working in the cash office during the daytime, but isn’t usually in the out-of-hours stable office when I arrive for my lessons) which yard he was on, and she directed me to the one on the opposite side. I went over to look for him, and while I found Maddy, who was going to be in my lesson as well (and was already sporting her winter coat with an ‘undercut’ from being expertly clipped), Elvis was already out in the children’s lesson that normally takes place before ours. So I went and said hello to Quarry and Symphony. Quarry was very frisky with me today; he seemed convinced I had some manner of tasty treat for him. I didn’t. He did give me a kiss, though.

I went outside. I didn’t want to stand watching the children’s lesson, because I didn’t want to put them off by being the stranger watching what they were doing. Instead, I walked all the way past the outdoor school to the paddocks and outdoor stables. Blue (the new boy) and a horse I didn’t recognise were out in on paddock; Little Legs and Lily, the two tiny ponies with mad staring eyes, were in another. Two little girls were calling out to them, and Meg and Benno – the two ponies stalled in the outdoor stables – stuck their heads out to see what the noise was. I wandered over to say hello.

One of the little girls asked me, very politely, if I knew what the two ponies were called. I said that I knew Benno (who was frisking me for treats at this point), a Norwegian fjord pony who is so beautiful that I can’t visualise him without a red lipstick mark on his cheek and a beauty spot in the opposite corner of his mouth, but not the other, bay horse, and suggested that the three of us go around the other side of the stable to see what it said on her door. The bigger of the two little girls then asked me who I was riding, and I said ‘Elvis.’ Then they made me laugh as they both started trying to tell me different things at once, and I couldn’t make out what either of them was saying, until the older of the two told her younger sister to shut up and put her hand over her mouth, causing me to giggle when I perhaps shouldn’t have done. She told me, very earnestly, to be careful with Elvis, because he was, ‘really naughty.’ She went on to tell me all about how he would bite and kick other horses, and canter with his head down low when asked to trot. I told her I’d be careful, and thanked her for warning me.

Turning my back on the two girls, who had dashed off at this point to say hello to the horses in the paddock, I wheeled round to keep half an eye on the proceedings in the school without being obviously stood watching. The riders were too busy concentrating on what they were doing to clock me, but they were all stood across the centre line taking turns individually to practice dressage techniques, and Soapy noticed me. The whole time she was stood still, she was looking at me; whenever she passed the corner I was stood nearest to, her eyes fixed on me as she ran past. I’d like to think she was thinking, Oh look, it’s that human who likes me, but I suspect she was actually thinking, Oh no, it’s that weirdo who keeps bothering me. It was still nice to be acknowledged, as pathetic as that sounds.

The riders dismounted, and I walked in to take charge of Elvis before the young girl who was riding him put his stirrups up. She immediately warned me that he was ‘very bitey,’ lowering her voice to tell me as though issuing a solemn warning, and telling me to watch him. I thanked her for warning me, and said I would be careful.

As I took the reins, I asked him in That Voice that we women all seem to have for speaking to animals if he was going to be bitey with me, and couldn’t resist leaning into him to inhale his wonderful horsey scent as I did so. He lowered his head and craned his neck to greet me, seeming to be enjoying me speaking softly into his ear. I checked his stirrups and girth and mounted. Everything was fine as it was, for a change.

We started walking around, and worked for the first ten minutes in open order to warm up. This worked for me really well – much better than warming up as a ride, as I was free to get a feel for Elvis at my own pace. We worked on trotting large and in twenty metre circles. My circles were a bit wobbly, but I managed to keep them going. I worked on walk-trot transitions, both sitting and and rising. I managed to get Elvis responding to me really well, and I was satisfied. I even managed to push him out to the ‘inside track’ away from the wall to allow the rider in the faster gait behind me to pass and still keep him going in a straight line, but they transitioned to a walk instead of taking advantage of this. Still, progress!

Then we moved on to doing an exercise as a ride. This was the ‘shallow loop’, which we did on both reins without stirrups at both a walk and a trot to begin with. This really tested my ability to get Elvis to bend using my weight aids. At first he was just following Maddy, moving out to the required position and then back onto the track, but without actually bending from my seat and leg. Towards this point, he  started to pull on the reins with his head. I tried to maintain a firm contact without restricting him too much, but found that shortening up the reins was the best way to deal with it. I will come back to this shortly.

Once our instructor was satisfied with the work we’d done in that exercise, we took back our stirrups and repeated the whole exercise on both reins in rising trot. The thing about the shallow loop is that because you need to switch from right bend to left bend and back again down one side of the school, you also need to change your trot diagonal when you change your bend. Thinking about this was a challenge! At around this time the horses in the field started making some noise, as though there was a bit of a horsey drama happening out in the paddock, and I noticeably lost Elvis’ attention to what might have been going on outside. Every sliver of clear corrugated perspex in the school wall we passed, his ears pricked up in its direction and I had to pull on the reins to get his head straight in front of him again.

Finally, we worked in canter. As usual, my first canter was my best; Elvis seemed to sprint himself into it, the transition restricted by my contact on the bit being too firm, but once we’d struck off, in spite of the canter being fast and quite strong, I felt able to relax my hands and sit it almost all the way to the back of the ride. I came unstuck a bit in a subsequent attempt, when I lost control and Elvis just went careering off at a fast trot down the middle of the school as I tried in vain to ride a half-halt to bring him back to me, but I rode him around past the other horses and had another go, and got it the second time. My instructor was wonderful; calm, patient, not in the least bit shouty, addressing the balance between offering words of encouragement (‘I know you’re good enough to do this, you’ve just got to trust yourself’) while at the same time not backing down and insisting I must try again. The second time, the canter was a bit stronger than I was really comfortable with, and in my attempts to half halt I ended up standing up in the stirrups for most of it. It didn’t hit me until afterwards that the fact that I was able to even do that – whether it was intentional or not – was actually pretty awesome in itself. Heh.

In general, though, I was the only person who wasn’t surprised by how well-behaved Elvis was throughout the lesson. When I was winding up to my canter transition my instructor remarked that it was so unlike Elvis to be this obliging that I should just go with it and enjoy it while it lasted, and one of the other ladies in my group remarked that she was impressed he hadn’t ‘done a roundabout’. (I don’t know what she meant my that.) While I had to tap him with my whip a couple of times at the start of the lesson to get him going forwards a bit more positively, he was very responsive to my leg throughout, so I didn’t really need it at all beyond that, and it was just a nuisance having to swap it over when we changed reins. Even as I led him back to his stall (which is now beside Soapy’s, whose is the only one that never seems to move), he walked companionably beside me; he spooked and let out a frightened whimper as we skirted the car park and an idiot motorist revved their engine behind us as they accelerated to exit the school, and although he threw his head and tugged on the reins as though he was going to bolt, I managed to calm him down by reassuring him that it was okay, and we were nearly home now. He let me hug him when we got back to the stall. I felt rather privileged to have only ever experienced him on one of his good days.

So yes. I am feeling better about things now, and appropriately happy to have had such an enjoyable and productive lesson. Roll on the next one!