Historic Equitation 2014: Part 1

22 10 2014

So, this weekend, we returned to Historic Equitation – for my second visit, and Damian and Amy’s third.

I felt a bit sorry for Amy, actually. She was kind enough to drive us there and back again, she had to go to work on the following day, and aside from this, her riding is far above the level of my own and of Damian’s. She could probably do so much more with her time there given her advanced skill, but because she humours us goons – me with my bad habits and overthinking, Damian with his spot-on attitude to horse-handling, natural calmness and empathy but comparative lack of experience – she more or less has to go at the pace that we do, just better. Still, there don’t seem to be any hard feelings on that front, and Dom is good enough to let us all train in the same things. I suspect she enjoys having the company, too.

Still, we went, all very excited, and this time accompanied by my friend Stu as our photographer, since it’s difficult to get a picture when you’ve got a training lance in one hand and the reins in the other. We arrived dead on time, more or less, had a sit down and a cup of tea in the farmhouse (HE has moved to new premises, and while they haven’t finished all the work they’d like to do on the new place, it was easy to see how much more awesome it’ll be once they’ve finished everything they’ve got in the pipeline), and then went out to greet the horses, give them all a good groom and tack up. After some discussion it was decided that I would ride Briar this year, since of all the horses there, he’s the most even-tempered and predictable; Dom didn’t want me to be put off by a horse who was too strong for me, as I had been the previous year riding Marduk. I was grateful of the level of sensitivity with which he broached this.

So I took Briar, and Damian took my former mount, Marduk – the black warmblood stallion. I was informed that Briar had had a good jousting season, but that he had gotten a bit overweight since. He was very muddy when I found him tethered up in the barn beside his friend Duke, but I soon took care of that. Initially he refused to give me his hooves to be picked out, but after I’d gone over him with the brushes he obliged without question. I was very soon endeared to this towering, majestic warhorse, billed on the website as ‘a fierce jouster and excellent destrier,’ for his being caked in mud, obviously from rolling around in it, and for giving me baby horse looks at intervals and wobbling his bottom lip as I groomed his face and talked to him as I went around him. I could easily see how he’d gotten overweight; to his left was an unattended pile of haylage he’d clearly been helping himself to.

We had agreed upon starting the proceedings with a hack to the next village and back to warm ourselves and the horses up. Damian later said that he would have happily traded the time for extra time doing drills, but I for one was glad of the hack as it gave me a good chance to get accustomed to Briar and what he responded to (both Amy and I agreed at lunch that we’d had the same problem initially, in that our ask for a leg yield had been interpreted by our respective mount as a push to go forward) and to stretch my hip flexors over his barrel-like frame as he was easily the largest horse – in all dimensions – I have ever ridden. This was helped by the fact that the stirrup leathers the stock saddle I had been given were fitted with were faaar too long for me, meaning I was better off riding the whole way and back again without them. Giving instruction to Briar became easier when I put these up using the straps on the saddle to keep them out of the way, because of the lack of confusion from feeling something knocking against his side constantly, I think.

We had a lovely walk (with the odd trot to get back into two-by-two formation after adopting single file to allow a car to pass) along the country lanes, during the course of which Dom let slip to me that he could do with someone to come over and exercise Briar every day over winter, in reponse to his grumbling and wheezing as though he was either unimpressed at being made to work or needed a cough. (He did eventually have a good cough.) I might have said, ‘If only I lived closer!’ I would be more than happy to exercise Briar, for nothing more than the experience!

Once we’d passed some airborne kites, circling low enough that we were able to see their plumage, an array of thatched-roof cottages and a traditional British red telephone box, we returned to the farm, dismounted, tethered the horses and went inside for a hearty lunch. My legs were pretty nicely stretched at this point – so much so that while sitting down wasn’t an issue, standing up again might have been. Then, once we were nourished and refreshed, we returned to the barn to mount up again and head out for some drills. I was amused, if not surprised, to return to find Briar with his nose in the haylage. Heh.

During the hack, there was some discussion between myself and Dom about my swapping Briar for Duke in the afternoon. Duke is a pure-bred Friesian, and as Dom explained to me, he is perfectly well-behaved under saddle, but could ‘get a bit prancy’, which he didn’t want to put me off. Much as I would have loved to have ridden him, I elected to stay with Briar; I’d gotten used to him, I was reassured by Dom’s having said that you always know what you’re going to get from him, and above all else, while I was feeling confident that I wasn’t going to let any nerves get the better of me this time, I wanted to enjoy myself. So I decided to play it safe, knowing that lovely Briar would take care of me.

To be continued…


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…