16 12 2013

So, my final lesson of the year was a bit frustrating, but very helpful. Neither of the two other ladies I usually ride with were in this week, and I was surprised to find myself being paired up in a cut-price semi-private lesson with one of the Interchangeable Emmas. This one in particular apparently now lives at the school (the school owners live on site), I learned from overhearing her conversation with my instructor, who appeared to know her quite well. I also gleaned from passively listening in that all of the school horses are loan horses, so they will be going back to their owners for the Christmas holiday. This was useful knowledge, as I had been thinking of asking if they needed any volunteer help during the break but I know not to ask now.

The lass was clearly ahead of me in terms of ability, and was riding Quarry, who I have ridden before; he’s another fairly green horse, who is reasonably forward-going but needs a lot of rider input to stay on the track, transition and what have you. She managed him admirably, even with a bit of finesse. I, on the other hand, had Dan.

We warmed up in open order, like one of my usual lessons (my instructor explained the format of our lessons to the Interchangeable Emma, and we stuck with that). As in the previous week, she pushed me to try and get Dan to strike off into canter on both reins. Frustratingly, both times around – along with all the usual problems I’d expect to have with Dan, such as having to constantly fight to keep his head in front of him, having to be firm and put up with him stopping suddenly and going, ‘Nope.’ and veering into the middle of the school for no real reason, I did manage to get him on the track in a nice, forward-going trot and to get the transition into canter a couple of times, but only for one stride at a time before he went headlong into Just Trotting Really Fast. My instructor asked me if I wanted to take my stirrups away and ride without them, and I gratefully accepted; we resumed our warm-up riding walk-trot-walk-halt transitions, with me working on my position with input from her.

From the warm up, we each took half of the school and rode a 20 metre circle with transitions. I didn’t pay any attention to what my instructor told the Interchangeable Emma she wanted her to work on, because I was concentrating on two things: Keeping Dan going forwards, and getting him to bend into a circle, rather than a square with rounded corners. My instructor asked me to ride walk-halt-walk-halt transitions, while standing behind me and telling me to keep my seat bones square on his back, as too much movement from my seat as I applied my leg aids was making it more difficult for him to move. She also told me which leg to push him on from when his shoulders were incorrectly aligned for the bend I would like, and it was like a ‘Eureka!’ moment. After we’d been doing that for a while, we worked in trot, and in the faster gait I felt him lighten, become much more responsive to my asks, and tangibly softer to the inside (like he’s supposed to feel on a circle!)

Then we moved onto the canter exercises, where once again I proved to be my own worst enemy. We re-tried the exercise in which one trots a 20 metre circle, then transitions into canter and goes large. I got a very fast trot with excellent impulsion out of Dan… but hesitated on the transition because it was so unexpected from Dan that I’ll freely admit I panicked a bit. My instructor saw that this was exactly what had happened and made me go around again and repeat the exercise; then I got the canter. The first time, she highlighted that I’d panicked because something I didn’t expect from the horse I was riding had happened, and that she has noted that this my main problem, but reassured me that everything had been going perfectly right up until the moment I’d hesitated, and if I could just get that going again and go with it it would be much better. So on my next go, I did, but failed to keep it going because I was so surprised by how easy it was that I forgot to move with the canter.

We went around again on the other rein and I had more success that time, and a lively canter that lasted almost to the back of the ride and left me giggling. Then my instructor paid me what I’m choosing to take as an enormous compliment: ‘If we could just iron out your hesitation, you’d be a really good rider.’ I do appreciate that it’s a criticism and it’s quite a back-handed one at that, but I know my nerves hold me back; they always have done. I do think they’re getting better, though, little by little, and as frustrating as horse riding can sometimes be because you can’t easily see your own progress over time, Rome was not founded in a day, etc.; It’s nice being told that apart from my one biggest nemesis, everything else looks good. After all…

Incidentally, here is the video from yesterday. I love to see the horses all running around together, it makes me happy 😀 Starring Dan (black cob), Dylan (chestnut sport horse), Elvis (piebald pony with the most black patches), Paddy (the other piebald pony) and Dezzy (the big skewbald horse).

So… How does one ‘iron out’ one’s hesitation? Answers on a postcard, please.



15 12 2013

I spent another very pleasant afternoon at the riding school with my volunteer hat on today. I managed to convince myself that even though I hadn’t mustered the energy to get going to be there any earlier it would still be worthwhile, and would do me a world of good to get out there rather than languishing indoors the whole day.

I was right, of course, and far from treating me as though I was somehow lazy or unhelpful for not being there any earlier, they were as gracious and welcoming as they have been on the previous occasions when I found them. It was a quiet Sunday this week and there wasn’t an awful lot to do, so I mainly swept up, kept water buckets topped up and tidied away tack and equipment that had been strewn across the floor throughout the day.

I’d like to blog about my interactions with the horses, though, you’ll be unsurprised to hear. On arriving and being told there wasn’t much to do, I went off to shovel up a pile of droppings I’d seen on one of the paths, took it to the muck heap and then went around to see Bramble, hoping for a similar reaction to the last time I called in on her. She wasn’t there, but Quarry was in the small paddock next to the outdoor stables, and on spotting me his ears pricked forwards and he whinnied loudly at me. That was a really wonderful reception!

When I did eventually see Bramble, in fact, it was some time later on in the afternoon after she’d come in from a lesson. She made the sort of noise Muttley (of Wacky Races/Catch the Pigeon fame) would make when I said hello to her, and although she greeted me with a snuffle of my hand, she wasn’t really interested in further interactions and retreated back into her stall, so I left her be. Soapy was similarly unbothered by my presence today, but I felt for her upon noticing that she still has an itchy foot.

Mid-afternoon I was asked if I wanted to lead in a children’s lesson. The ponies were Elvis and Li’l Legs; given the choice, I would have chosen Elvis, but I was handed Li’l Legs and told to wait outside for a moment because she’s frightened of him. (It turns out she’s frightened of Duke, too; we were sharing the indoor school with an adult rider who was having a semi-private lesson, and she was palpably wary as we walked along the poles that had been laid down to divide the school in half. Then she is only wee.) I enjoyed leading again, actually; I think I’ve got the hang of having a firm enough grip on the lead rope to be reassuring, but slack enough that the rider is free to control the pony. At first I didn’t even have a lead rope and was just hanging on to her inside rein, but I picked one up from the side of the school as we walked past and clipped it on while we were walking. The little girl I was riding was funny; at the start of the lesson, she was insistent that she didn’t want to trot at all, she just wanted to walk; by the end of it, she was begging me to let her have a canter. Heh. The girl had been wearing a Christmas jumper with a pom-pom on the front of it (it was supposed to be Rudolph’s nose), and when she was on the ground Li’l Legs kept trying to bite it.

After the lesson, I led Li’l Legs back into her stall, loosened her girth and tied her reins up because she had another lesson fifteen minutes later. Then I went across to the other yard to see if I could do anything there. It was swept up and all of the staff were just hanging around talking by the office, so I turned my attention to handsome Duke, who was staring at me again. This week, he was about as affectionate towards me as Bramble had been the previous week, and it was lovely. I looked over from him to see that Quarry was now back from the paddock and looking forlornly at me, as though he wanted some attention, so I went over to give him some. He responded amusingly, with his lips wiggling around all over the place, then giving me sloppy kisses on my hands and face before trying to remove my glasses in his mouth (I soon stopped him), when I heard a disgruntled-sounding nicker immediately behind me, saw Quarry pin his ears and reach over my shoulder. I turned my head, and saw Duke with his ears pinned attempting to bite Quarry through the bars on the front of his stall, then suddenly kicking the wall between the two stalls with a loud bang that made me jump. I asked Duke what was wrong and walked over to his stable door, and he walked back and stuck his head out to greet me again, giving me that daft baby-horse look and breathing on my face. There was a repeat performance of the horsey-posturing the next time I walked in the direction of Quarry’s stall. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have been the object of horsey jealously. As flattering as that was in a way, given its manifestation I decided to just go to the other end of the yard and pet the horses there instead. Duke continued to watch me the whole time I was on that yard, and was soppy and affectionate towards me whenever I approached him. It was funny when I physically couldn’t get into his stall to fill his water buckets because I was being mugged for attention.

When they said I could go, I waited in the foyer for a moment to send a text message before setting off home, when one of the owners came and told me there was no way I was walking down the road in the dark by myself, and said they’d arrange for someone to give me a lift. So one of the Interchangeable Emma’s dads gave me a lift home, which was nice. I was shocked to hear their disbelief that I’m completely happy to work at the stables for nothing, though; I couldn’t seem to make them understand that I love horses so much, and I’m so glad to have found a school where they’re so well taken care of without all of the elitism that’s assumed to go hand-in-hand with equestrianism that I was just glad to be able to help out in exchange for more time around the animals.

Tomorrow is my final riding lesson of the year. I’m actually finding myself really hoping that I get paired up with Duke again, partly because I think it’s good for me having to face a bit of a challenge, and partly because I’ve been told a number of times by experienced riders that if you’re friends with a horse that bond carries over into your relationship with them from in the saddle. For having seen him (if only briefly) being ridden by someone else in a private lesson, I’d also be really interested to give that a go myself at some stage in the New Year – I know that horses behave very differently when they’re on their own to when they’re around other horses, and I’d be interested to see how different he would be.

I was going to sign off this post with a video I recorded of some of the geldings all running around together in the indoor school, but my internet connection doesn’t want to upload it fast enough and I’d like to go to bed now, so you’ll have to wait until tomorrow’s exciting update 🙂


Messy Christmas

11 12 2013

Since I really haven’t been making the most of my stable-visiting rights since I was made an official volunteer at the riding school, this weekend I saw to put that to rights. I won’t lie – on Sunday morning I snoozed after my alarm went off and struggled to get myself moving when I eventually did get out of bed, meaning that in the end I didn’t make it to the stables until about 11am, but it didn’t really matter in the end – when I got there, they just seemed really happy that I’d come at all.

As it turned out, it was a really good day to show up. Unbeknownst to me, the school was having its Christmas fayre, and they were really busy as a consequence. Admittedly this meant that I saw some things that made me cringe and feel sorry for what the poor equids had been subjected to – mostly, there were horses pulling carts decked out to look like sleighs while wearing antlers, and two of the small, white ponies were on display in temporary stalls with tinsel plaited into their manes, Santa hats secured under their head collars and red and green glitter glue on their hooves. Poor things.

The day proved to be utterly delightful in spite of that, and I bit my tongue and told myself that much as the horses concerned deserved to have had their dignity spared, the day was helping to raise the profile of the school and make money that would go towards their keep. My first job of the day was leading pony rides, which was a nice job I could live with, and all the better for it bringing me into direct contact with the ponies!

I was paired up with Paddy. In terms of appearance, he is practically indistinguishable from Elvis, so I mistakenly thought that that was who he was to begin with (and apologised to him afterwards when I realised my mistake). I have ridden Paddy once before. He is a very cheeky and random wee fellow. The Interchangeable Emma who handed him over to me warned me that if I didn’t watch him he’d try to ‘get’ me, and demonstrated that he just really loved attention, specifically in the form of you pulling your cuff over your hand and vigorously rubbing his lips with it. She demonstrated, and it was clear that he really did love that, so I did the same and got a similar response. From that, when I was stood not giving him attention, he would attempt to nip at my arms with his teeth, but I gently bopped him on the nose before he ‘got’ me and t0ld him off for being rude. After that he decided to lean on me instead, and one of the Interchangeable Emmas told him off for being lazy. Heh. He was an awkward bugger when I was leading him, frequently stopping and having to be dragged on forwards, but I was surprised by how easy I found it to talk to the children as I was leading them around, which was a requirement of the job. Many of them hadn’t ridden a horse before and were understandably quite nervous, but I think they all left with a smile on their face, which is good.

Following that we led the ponies back in and untacked them, and had a break for lunch while the raffle and nativity took place in the indoor arena. I looked in on a bit of that while I ate the homemade soup I’d taken with me, but as soon as I had finished eating I went charging off to be around the horses again, partly to be around in case anything needed doing and partly just because I wanted to be around the horses. Here, I interacted with Blue, the friendly-but-spooky horse who only the instructors are allowed to ride, who was watching all the people intently, and locked onto me as soon as I neared his stall, nuzzling at me as though for reassurance. I gave his neck and withers a rub and his lips went all trembly, and he inclined his head towards me, until he’d obviously decided he wanted me to change sides, at which point he made this clear in the same way cats do when you’re scratching them behind the ear.

A passing child who seemed to know all the horses rather well told me that the reason why Blue is so nervous is because Benno had kicked him. I think he’s probably just an insecure young horse, really, but Benno kicking him can’t really have helped much, especially as he’s relatively new to the school. Benno was in the next stall sticking his nose out, so I went over to say hello, but all I got was haughtiness, so I went and fussed Dandy instead, the tall, inquisitive bay horse I spoke of in my previous entry on volunteering. He was similarly receptive to me as Blue, and that was lovely. I overheard someone saying that Bramble was in the outdoor stables, so I went off to say hello to her, calling in on Paddy on the way past, who pricked his ears up and walked over to brofist me with his nose. I think I made a friend!

When I called in on Bramble she had her hindquarters to me, but the horse in the stall next to her, who I didn’t know, had his head out, so I went and said hello to him. His (he might have been a she, I don’t know!) reaction to me was very much, ‘Ooh hello, a person!’ – he seemed delighted that someone had come to see him, but since I was no-one he knew and I didn’t have any food he quickly lost interest and went back to his hay.

Bramble’s reaction to me, however, was off the scale, and was really what made my day, all in all. When I returned to her stall door, she was facing me, but was stood having a wee. I’d already called out, ‘Hello, Bramble!’ before I’d realised this, and her eyes were fixed on me as she went about it. She looked so pretty in spite of the activity she was engaged in, and I got my phone out to take a picture of her once she’d finished her business, only she didn’t give me a chance to take a picture, for as soon as she was done she marched forwards to the stall door, stuck her head out and demanded my affection, nuzzling at my hands, resting her poll on me and gently nibbling at me with her lips, sniffing at my face, companionably exchanging breath with me and inclining her head with trembling lips as I stroked her withers. She seemed genuinely happy that I was there, and considering that she is known for being a grumpy and obstreperous mare, that was really lovely.

Eventually I tore myself away from Bramble to go and see where I could help out. The visitors were already dwindling in number by this stage so it was mainly a case of commencing clearing up. I went around to the RDA yard (this is the one on the opposite side, which had been closed to the public for the purposes of the day) to see if there was anything I could help with; Li’l Legs, the smallest pony, was being manhandled back to her stall, and let’s just say it was fairly clear that she wasn’t happy at having been made a laughing stock with her embellishments. Only when they took the tinsel out of her mane and sponged off the glitter glue did she calm down, after which she retired to her stall, where she stuck her nose in some hay on the floor and quietly sulked, leaving her roommate, wee chestnut mare Lily, to handle the PR. In the next stall was Maddy, who was not in a good mood. She pinned her ears when I said hello to her, and was attempting to bite Lily through the bars in front of her stall (although she couldn’t actually reach her).

So, I helped by sweeping up all the discarded tinsel, glitter and other rubbish. I was amused, as I did this, by the way that all the horses were intently watching what I was doing. As the public filed out and the fayre drew to a close, I moved on to sweeping up outside while the Interchangeable Emmas mucked out the stalls, and pushing the wheelbarrows to the muck heap. The muck heap is quite a feat of engineering; it’s just a pile of manure that’s been strategically built up so it has its own ramp for you to push the barrow up along to the top. Quite the baptism of fire for my new Doctor Marten’s boots. Heh.

Other than that, I was mainly involved in sweeping, filling water buckets, cleaning out feed buckets and putting them out to dry. With it not being a normal day, we finished early so I was able to walk home in the light. Of course, I did all my my chres with frequent breaks to fuss and talk to the horses. Heh.

I promised a happy anecdote about Duke, didn’t I? Well, mid-afternoon we took another short break. Feeling slightly awkward as I did about spending this with a bunch of people who knew each other really well in which I was the odd man out, I made an extended trip to the bathroom. When I came out, I could see through the glass of the fire door to the yard that he lives on that he had his head out of his stall (which I have never seen before) and was looking right at me. Quarry was doing the same in the next stall along, and they looked funny both looking at me, so of course I went to say hi to both of them in turn. While it was nothing like the reception Bramble had favoured me with earlier in the day, Duke seemed genuinely happy to see me, and graciously accepted my fusses. (Quarry did too, but there was nothing unusual about that.) Furthermore, later on as I made my final water-check and went in to top his buckets up, he actually looked up from his hay and acknowledged me as I entered his stall.

I am sure that all the affection I received from the horses on this day was really just a result of them being a bit stressed about the yard being busier than they’re used to, and seeing a calm and familiar person who was on hand to give them some attention was of reassurance to them. Nevertheless, it’s still nice, and I’m loving that I’m getting to know all of their personalities.

I suppose you’d like some photos?…

A Shallow Trough

10 12 2013

I got behind on my entries again. This time of year really isn’t very kind to me, and to try and counteract that I’m trying to keep busy, which puts me in the unfortunate position of either not having time to write, or not having the energy and motivation to write. My ongoing interactions with horses, as ever, seem to contribute to keeping me afloat, however, and I do have recent experiences I would like to share!

First of all, my lesson last week. I didn’t go this week (money shortages again, regrettably), but I’m hoping to make it this coming Monday for what will be my final lesson before the school closes for Christmas, re-opening in the New Year. I rode Duke again this time, and was happy when I saw his name on the roster; I thought that my confidence had recovered sufficiently from the last, unexpectedly catastrophic (at least emotionally) lesson I had with him, and I hoped to have another experience with the keen, responsive hoof-hammer I’d ridden twice previously to that.

Duke (being Duke) was waiting quietly in his stall, nose-deep in his hay net and all bundled up in a rug when I approached. (Duke’s world seems to be neatly divided between Hay and Things That Are Not Hay.) After the previous week, I decided to tack him up myself without any hesitation, and I overheard the other ladies I ride with saying to each other in lowered voices that their assigned mounts weren’t yet yacked up either, debating between themselves whether they should do it themselves or go and fetch someone. They saw me taking Duke’s tack in to his stall and I heard them say, ‘Well, she’s doing hers…’ I childishly wanted to shout back to them, ‘I’m a volunteer!’ by way of an explanation, but instead elected to avoid eye contact and mind my own business. One of the staff came over to check if I was alright, and my instructor – somewhat unexpectedly – came into the stall as I was fastening the girth and put Duke’s bridle on him for me.

I won’t say that we had a good lesson; we didn’t, really. It was clear from the start that Duke did not want to co-operate, and in the first five minutes of riding him around – before we’d even trotted – my thighs were already burning from the difficulty I was having keeping him to the track and pushing him on to go forwards. At my instructor’s insistence, I worked on pushing him into a canter while we warmed up in open order, but while I could get him to trot fast, I couldn’t get the strike off into canter. I honestly felt that this was due to refusal on his part rather than anything I was doing wrong, but I admit that my impatience and frustration each time it didn’t come off meant I wasn’t calmly counting my losses and trying again each time, which won’t have helped.

The main exercise of the week was riding a figure of eight, by the correct method of fusing two 20 metre circles by riding two strides in a straight line at X before switching the bend. Pushing Duke on to keep going forwards was hard work, and while he would reluctantly bend and ride the figure of eight while he was following one of the other horses, when we tried to repeat the exercise individually I physically couldn’t prevent him from turning the wrong way after crossing the centre line; he would pull against me too strongly for me to do anything about it in order to get to the back of the ride. I was screaming as we came inches from crashing head-on into the walls of the area as we argued about which way we were turning, but here’s the thing – it wasn’t a frightened or nervous scream, it was a frustrated, angered growl of a scream.

That might sound horrible, but I don’t see it that way, and please allow me to justify that: I don’t think it was at all unreasonable that I felt that way; I was trying so damned hard, and from the fact that we were engaged in a tangible dispute about which way to turn each time, I know that I was doing the correct things to communicate to Duke what I would have liked him to do. (I know it wasn’t unreasonable of him to not want to play, either, especially considering that he wasn’t being given a choice in the matter, but I’m describing my experience as a rider.) Nevertheless, the last time I felt that strength and power from Duke manifested in his active defiance of my asks, I crumpled, terrified, almost cried, and I wanted nothing more than for the lesson to be over and to be away from all the people who had seen me get into that state. So, really, that I reacted with anger and frustration (not specifically towards Duke, just at the situation in general) but wasn’t deterred is really a huge leap forwards. I would agree that it would be better if I just didn’t have any kind of adverse emotional reaction at all and remained calm and ‘on it’, but one step at a time. Heh.

We finished with a bit of brief work in canter. The instructor had said early on in the lesson that depending on how the figure of eight exercise went, we might do some work on circles in canter, but we must have either run out of time, or she must have decided we’re not quite up to that yet. Again, I struggled to get Duke to strike off into canter, but I managed it a couple of times at the very end on the right rein. In spite of my getting a nice, controlled trot with palpable impulsion (against the odds, given his behaviour in the lesson up to that point), he launched himself into the canter when I asked, head down as though we were nose-diving for the ground, and his strong canter careered off the track so we pretty much rode a curved diagonal line across the school from the corner straight to the back of the ride. After we’d stopped, my instructor reassured me that that was as bad as it would get, and said that from ‘There to there [pointing at both ends of the long side of the school]’ I was riding him, and that as soon as we’d picked up the canter I’d stopped riding him and started just hanging on and letting him do what he wanted to do. An accurate assessment, to be fair, but to be honest I was focusing my energy on remaining calm in spite of a nerve-wracking strike off.

The second attempt was exactly the same, save for the added discomfort of us striking off on the wrong leading leg – I wouldn’t have known if the instructor hadn’t told me, but I could feel the difference, and it wasn’t pleasant.

When I dismounted, Duke was so keen to return to his stall and go to bed that I completely failed to put his right stirrup up as he kept attempting to just walk right through me every time I tried to cross over to his right side, and it was apparent that standing firm and resisting him was only going to get me flattened. In the end, one of the other instructors came and collected him from me, for use in a subsequent lesson. No rest for the wicked – poor Duke.

Did I come away feeling like I’d had a good lesson? No. Was I pleased with how it had gone? Actually, yes, and very much so: I had – for wont of a better way of putting it – adverse conditions that could have given my confidence a serious beating, but I sucked it up, and I didn’t lose my shit. I know I still have a very long way to go with my riding in terms of technique and ability, but this lesson proved to me that I’m improving in other ways through my continued efforts in the saddle, and for that reason I left the school that evening with a real sense of accomplishment, and of having something to be proud of.

I did feel a bit bad for Duke, though. After riding Ben the previous week, I’d looked up ‘Schoolmaster’ to see what it’s taken to mean in equestrian terms, to find a helpful definition on Horse and Hound broadly explaining that it refers to a horse who is responsive enough to give the rider confidence, but fussy enough that they will only respond to perfectly executed asks. Duke is not a schoolmaster. He’s been variously described to me – by three different instructors – as ‘a bit green’, ‘not bad, just a bit stiff in one side’, ‘quite needy – he always wants to be close to his friends’, ‘a bit sad and unmotivated’ and ‘too fast with poor steering’. The impression I had of him when I rode him those first, exciting couple of times was that he was perfectly willing and forward-going, he just had one side that he was noticeably better on than the other and he couldn’t easily pace himself in the faster gaits. The Duke I have ridden the past couple of times seemed very much like a horse who is being ridden under duress, when he’d really much rather be running with the herd. I have no doubt that he is extremely well loved and excellently cared for where he is, but it still strikes me as a shame for such a beautiful and majestic beast who I know from first-hand experience to be capable of some pretty awesome stuff.

Rather than end on that slight downer, though, I shall instead tease you with the promise that my next entry will be about all the fun I had helping out at the school’s Christmas fayre this weekend – wherein I got to interact with a cheerful Duke!…