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…



12 05 2014

Well, horse, but anyway.


I’ve had another three lessons I haven’t written about, I think, around the bank holidays. We haven’t done much beyond the usual, although with the weather getting warmer it seems that in a bid to get the horses moving (and keep them moving) we’ve reverted back to working the full lesson as a ride. Which is fine by me.


For all three lessons, I’ve been paired with Dan again. It really does seem as though someone up above has deemed that he should be the horse that I ride; previously, I’d thought that this would have been my instructor, but from the way she commented that she’d never known anyone get paired up with Dan as much as I have been, I suspect this not to be the case.


The thing is, Dan has actually been fine to ride. He responds to my leg. When he doesn’t, I flick my schooling whip inwards, probably not far or hard enough to strike much other than the cantle or his numnar, rather to flick him with the soft lash at the end, and he goes forwards. I still have to push hard with my inside leg and have my inside rein deliberately longer than my outside one to keep him out on the track in the walk, although I have no such trouble with him in the trot (the law of centrifuges applies equally to horses in a school, I have found). I can control his stride with my rise and with judicious use of half-halts. I nearly get that feeling of my pelvis molding to the saddle when we ride sitting trot. I can get him to bend like a banana around my inside leg in the corners or on (as yet imperfect) circles, I can turn him in tight spots if I need to ride a wonky, tight circle to create space between us and the horse in front. I can persuade him to slow down or speed up regardless of his tendency to speed up when another horse (i.e. the back of the ride) is in sight, and to go forwards when there isn’t.


In short, as my instructor observed today, I seem to have worked him out. And he doesn’t bemoan me for it; every time I have seen him lately, he has looked pleased to see me, walked on without difficulty when I led him into the school, and snuffled me for fusses at the end of each lesson before I’d had a chance to put his stirrups up. (The most adorable thing he did today was when I halted on the centreline to take away my stirrups; as I took the reins loosely in my left hand, he turned around, looked at me, and wiggled his top lip at me like Mister Ed.)


But cantering is still my nemesis.


I’ve thought really hard about this on the 90 minutes-plus walk back from the stables. Incidentally, I am really looking forward to moving in the next fortnight and those 90 minutes becoming 30; I’ve started running again, and been pleasantly surprised to learn that I can manage 8km, but when you have a whip and are carrying a bag with your boots, chaps and hat in it slung over one shoulder, it’s another matter. But I digress.


It feels like I haven’t made any progress at all. An observation that has been made is that since returning from my injury, I’ve gotten back into the bad habit of leaning forwards into a canter rather than sitting up and relaxing into the transition. But that aside, my attempts all seem to go along similar lines, week after week, and the pattern isn’t much different than it was before I had to stop going because of my ankle.


On my first attempt, I will generally get a smooth-ish transition into canter, which will last down one long side of the school and be lost to a fast trot in the next corner, and round to the back of the ride. The second attempt is usually a little better, but I’ll get something a bit wrong at the transition stage, most often holding the reins too tight or too short and in so doing physically hold Dan back from striking off naturally into canter. The attempts following that will be juddery and frequently result in my getting the feeling of the canter starting, but no complete first stride before we’re just trotting again.


In expressing my frustration that nothing seemed to be changing or improving in a text message to a long-suffering friend who expressed an interest, I realised something: There might not have been much of a progression in the end result of my efforts, but something has changed, and that is that I genuinely don’t think that it is because I get nervous that I hesitate.


I am certainly not denying that I used to. Very much so, in fact. But I don’t now. Rather, the hesitation now seems to stem from my attempting to think myself through all the things I have to do to get a successful trot-canter transition as I am doing them. It’s as though, instead of going, ‘Right, this is it, hold tight…’ like I used to, I am now going, ‘Right, here goes: Inside leg on the girth- check. Soft hands-  check. Sit upright- check. Now, I sweep my outside leg behind the girth, and-‘ by which time, Dan, the lackadaisical plodder, has registered my hesitation and taken it as an excuse just to keep running towards the back of the ride.


My instructor expressed concern in the part of the lesson where we were taking turns, in leading file and in succession, that the more advice she was offering, the more correction she was giving me, the more I had to think about rather than just going for it, and it was exacerbating the problem. I am inclined to agree with her. Her suggestion was that I ask for either Ben (the disciplined schoolmaster) or Elvis (the mischievous tearaway who just loves to run) for my next lesson, as they are both equids with whom I have gotten on well in the past who are a lot less lazy than Dan. We shall have to see whether this makes a difference to my canter.


She also said, as I was dismounting, that were I to take a walk and trot dressage test tomorrow I’d be absolutely fine, which, like other things she’s said to me as [what I imagine were mere] offhand remarks in the past, was well received as a compliment of quite some magnitude. She also said that she had never had anyone in a lesson before who had been able to get Dan to go forwards as well as I do. If true, that’s amazing, frankly.


Still, frustrations about my inability to demonstrably progress in my canter aside, it’s always an absolute joy to see all of my horsey friends. This time, because one of the ladies in the next lesson was meant to have Dan (but didn’t show up in the end), I ended up holding him in the school for some time while we waited for his designated rider to show up; when she didn’t, I put him to bed and untacked him. Most horses there just make a beeline for their haynet and ignore you as you fuss around them trying to untack them, but Dan is very helpful, lowering and turning his head so you can get the reins up over it, and turning his body so you can get his saddle off. Awww.


I also called in on Soapy. She was pushing her feed bucked around with her nose, and had managed to tip it over onto a pile of her own pooh. Of course, being a horse, she was eating it anyway. Horses 

I Return

31 03 2014

I’m back! I had my first lesson after my misfortune, having been cleared by the orthopaedic surgeon. His professional opinion was that if I can walk normally on a broken ankle without feeling any pain, it’s not worth putting me through the bother of surgery to put it back together, and said three weeks ago that I could begin ‘weaning [myself] off’ the walker-boot. Much to my amusement, he suggested that I continue to wear the Doctor Martens boots I had on at the time for a while before I started to wear my ‘dainty ladies’ shoes’ again. I made the medical students who were observing our consultation laugh when I chuckled and told him I didn’t have any of those. Heh.

Anyway, I made my way to the stables from work, sporting a purple suit jacket with my jodhpurs and boots, making me look like some sort of crazed goth hunt rider. This was really an attempt to get away with wearing said jodhpurs to work while looking passably smart at the same time in the interests of not having to faff getting changed on the way from the office to the stables via public transport, and I daresay I got away with it! I didn’t get quite the rapturous reception from the horses I might have hoped for, but they seemed to remember who I was, looking up and pricking their ears forward towards me as I greeted them as though they recognised me (although Soapy left her hay net momentarily to come over and give me a gentle kiss on my knuckles). This was good enough for me; I had been worried that they’d all have forgotten who I was!

I rode Maddy, and rather than my usual instructor we had the same lady I saw last time I rode there. We were in the indoor school again, but this time we didn’t have the run of it because it had been divided into two with the other half being used for private lessons. The other two ladies had Duke and Bramble. I’d asked ahead of time for a forward-going horse to help me with my confidence after such a long break from riding. Maddy isn’t really terribly forward-going, but she’s a sweetie and isn’t absolutely bone idle or stubborn like some of the other horses I am accustomed to riding and she is a very trustworthy ride, so she was an ideal choice, really.

When I went to fetch her, the groom who works on her yard told me that she should be tacked up already. I found her untacked without even so much as a rug on, and said I would be quite happy to tack her up myself, which I did. Maddy looked pleased to see me, and was beautifully well behaved and even obliging as I fitted her with saddle and bridle and led her out into the arena.

After some fumbling with stirrups and girth, I set off for a typical flatwork session in open order. At first I had the usual difficulties with keeping Maddy on the track and preventing her from cutting corners into hypotenuse triangles, but the instructor told me just to let her amble about at her own pace for a bit to put her mind at rest a bit. Her main criticisms of my position were that I needed to keep my heels down and my lower leg on the girth, not letting it swing too far back when I tried to use my leg aid. This was absolutely fine by me, as focussing on keeping my heels down and my toes in was giving my bad ankle the loveliest stretch and making it feel really good. I even wondered if injuring it was going to make me a better rider in the long run!

The most helpful pearl of wisdom today’s instructor imparted to me throughout the whole lesson, however, was nothing to do with anything I was physically doing, but a constructive criticism of the way I was thinking – she told me, every time I lost my thread and Maddy stopped being wonderfully responsive to my asks, the problem was I was wondering what I was doing wrong and trying to correct, when I needed to just take control and believe in my own ability to take control of the situation. My self-confidence (or rather lack thereof) came under fire again, so I tried addressing that instead of Maddy. I was amazed that when I stopped trying to fight her with all of my aids and just relaxed and thought what I wanted her to do, it happened effortlessly. I even got a lovely, controlled canter towards the end, not by concentrating on getting all the steps leading up to my ask absolutely correct and psyching myself up to it as I normally would, but by just easing into the trot and thinking ‘canter now’ to myself. A shame that, as usual, I was so pleased and surprised by the transition that I relaxed a bit too much and only kept it going down one side of the school, but it was quite a nice change to get a canter and let out an enthusiastic ‘Whoop!’ (which I did, quite literally) than to tense up in case of sudden death, even though I know that really, I’m not going to die just because my horse is going a bit fast. Moreover, when Maddy began to act up and tried to drift across the centre line, ignoring my asks completely, rather than fight her I gave her a single authoritative (not hard) kick with my inside leg and she went back out to the track. I didn’t even panic once when she lost her footing momentarily or tried to skip into trot without me asking!

In summary, today’s lesson was that if you believe in yourself first and foremost, there is a markedly better chance that your horse will listen to you and do as you ask. I’m not saying that this has been a major epiphany that will change my relationship with horses forever or anything (that remains to be seen, in any case), but I think it’s the first baby step on a road to bigger and better things, and is possibly more important that anything else I have learned to do using various parts of my body, implements or bits of tack.

I’m extremely happy with that. Sadly I won’t be going next Monday, but I’m not away this weekend so I might ask for a cheeky private lesson. I feel really good for having had the lesson, and I can’t wait to go back again, whether it’s to volunteer or to ride 😀

e-Petition for Equine Welfare

17 02 2014

Healing continues apace. My ankle was already broken as it turned out, and the real issue was the subluxation of my peroneal tendon, which now seems to have relocated. The swelling and bruises have certainly dissipated. I am still having to wear a ‘walker-boot‘ daily and taking a crutch outside with me wherever I go since the joint is still very weak and tires quickly, but for the most part I am not in any pain. Which is nice.

I very much doubt that at this rate I shall see a (riding) horse before my follow-up appointment with the orthopaedic consultant on 6th March. However, I did want to bring this petition to the attention of readers in the UK. It’ll probably take you less than two minutes to complete, won’t cost you anything, and concerns something I hope you’ll all agree is very close to all of our hearts.

Thank you, and happy riding!


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!…