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!…

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3 responses

11 12 2013
The Dancing Rider

Interesting lesson … and Duke. Will await your next entry, which sounds like fun! 🙂

13 12 2013
Sparrowgrass

Welcome to the wrong canter lead club 🙂 A lot of your issues with him deciding not go where you wanted are things I’ve had with D – him strongly wanting to turn to the easy rein on a figure of eight and the argument only being settled at the wall and out course the issues with the canter- striking off at all and getting it right when he does. It’s easy to ride a horse that find things easy. To convince one to do something it finds taxing is a whole other kettle of fish. It sounds like you did pretty well.

14 12 2013
Soapy Photo Girl

Thank you! 🙂

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