I aten’t dead

20 10 2014

This weekend, our rescheduled annual trip to ride with Historic Equitation took place. But that’s not what I want to write about this evening.

No; before I launch headlong into another ‘OMG THAT WAS BRILLIANT’-sounding (and possibly multi-installment) post, I’d like to make a concise update about how my weekly riding lessons have been going lately, since I did that awful thing of updating again as though I was back from a hiatus, and then failed to update again for a further six weeks or so. The thing is, in addition to my life outside of riding getting busier and free time becoming an ever more precious commodity, there is getting to be less and less to report in terms of my riding progress. That’s not because I’m not progressing, you understand; it’s more because I’ve come to understand pretty well what I’ve been doing wrong, what I need to get into the habit of doing differently, and how to go about it, and it’s now just a question of working on those things week-in and week-out to get it down so that it becomes natural. And we’re getting there, slowly but surely. Of course, if I could justify riding several times a week as opposed to just once for an hour it would be coming along faster, but sadly I can’t.

Anyway. At the point when I made my last post, things had been going pretty swimmingly with Elvis. Elvis is definitely one of the more forward-going horses I’ve become accustomed to riding, but he’s not so forward going that if he thinks he can get away with not doing something he won’t try it on, so he’s a good match for me in that I need the confidence boost that his responsiveness to my aids offers, but also to learn not to hesitate and just go with the way things pan out. Things were going so well that I finally started to feel as though I’d turned a corner with my riding, as opposed to making such incremental improvements from one week to the next that they were barely noticeable to me.

But then I had a run of being given Bramble every week, and as much as I love that mare for her personality, her stubbornness upset the applecart quite a bit, to the point that the focus of lessons with her became just getting her to go forwards and to respond, rather than learning anything new. I regret to say that having to contend with her see-saw-like canter set me back in the progress I’d made in that regard, too; in my attempts to sit to it, I slipped back into old, bad habits of clamping my legs around her sides and then not being able to use them effectively to give aids. I carried on regardless, determined I wasn’t going to let it get to me. Sadly, by the end of last week’s lesson it had. I just felt so frustrated that it seemed I’d been set back two months in my riding all over again.

Realising this, I think, my riding instructor sympathetically wrote on the booking sheet for this week for them to give me a different horse. I was allocated Jake, who I’ve not ridden before. That wasn’t a problem, only the other lady I ride with had been assigned Elvis, and our instructor suggested we swap as then we’d each have a horse we liked and got on with. I’d have been happy to have a go on a new horse, but I won’t deny I was very happy to be back on Elvis.

We did the usual warm-up in open order. I got a canter on both reins in the warm-up, which I was happy about. I had difficulty keeping him on the track on the right rein, but it got better when I stopped trying to correct it. Something I’ve been told a lot recently is that, as a rider, it’s natural to think you should be doing something – anything – to get a horse under control when it’s not doing what it’s supposed to, which usually results in you doing things like tightening your contact on the reins and giving all sorts of unnecessary leg aids, when probably what you really need to do is none of that, but to relax and check your position to make sure you’re sitting balanced on top of the horse and he’s got his head and neck in front of him. I think that was what was happening there.

We do a lot of work without stirrups on asking for bend from the horse in our lessons in general nowadays, which I see the value of. It teaches you the subtle differences in asking a horse to go forwards, asking it for a leg yield and asking it to soften to the inside of a bend, and the importance of keeping yourself upright and correctly aligned while doing all of those things (for example, I am terrible for letting one hand sit lower than the other; this actually messes up a good bend, so it’s really helping me keep a check on that). It also switches the horses onto you, so that they respond better to your asks, and I am finding it a helpful exercise. My circles are becoming neater as a result, even when I ride them at the start of a lesson in the warm-up. When we would normally take our stirrups back to move onto canter, however, I’m being asked not to.

Much as I’d like to pretend that I’m being allowed to canter without stirrups because I’m such a badass, it’s more a case of my instructor insisting that I canter without stirrups to help me shake out the problems I’m having with the transition, the tightness in my legs and hips, and my tendency to over-think all the things I need to do to get the transition and end up clamping my legs to the saddle without realising that this is what I’m doing, typically resulting in my losing one or both of the stirrups in the process. That isn’t to say it’s because I’m completely rubbish, either; after all, my seat must be okay for me to be trusted to do it. Anyway, it’s definitely helping. This week that was really very apparent, as I moved on from just doing my best to keep my weight down into the saddle and hoping the canter would keep moving forward and actually managed to just go, move my seat with it and – shock, horror – not only relax my legs, but apply the leg aid successfully when Elvis seemed to back off. Which is excellent, considering our instructor said this evening that she would like to move us onto applying some of the techniques we’ve used in walk and trot in canter in the coming months. The example she gave was shallow loops. Are we building up to dressage? Watch this space, I guess.

So that’s where I am with my regular riding at the time of writing. Words relating to the historic riding will follow, but to whet your appetite, here’s some GoPro footage shot from a ring gallows on the day. Please excuse the wind noise. The object of the exercise was to get the lance through the ring, which should then have come unhooked from the gallows as each rider rode on. Should.


The Fear is Gone

12 06 2014

I did it! I made it to two consecutive riding lessons! Go me 😀

This week was a bit of a funny one. It was fairly standard in that all three of us regulars were in attendance (a fourth woman’s name was on the roster, but she didn’t turn up, so I guess it remains to be seen  whether our group gets expanded), however at the start of the lesson we had a shuffle-round of horses. I’d been given Elvis, who I would have been more than happy to ride (obstreperous little sod that he is), but I’d remembered that in the previous week’s lesson our instructor had told the other lady that she’d been given Maddy for so many consecutive weeks that she’d try and get her a different horse for this week, and had suggested Elvis. The lady in question had been paired with Maddy again, so before I mounted Elvis I suggested to the instructor that we swap.

I had not yet noticed that the other lady had Bramble, so you can probably imagine the noise I had to suppress when my instructor said, ‘You get on quite well with Bramble, don’t you? Would you like to try her tonight?’ I’d have been happy with any of the three of them, to be honest, but another ride with Bramble! It felt like it’d been too long. (For anyone that didn’t know, she’s the horse coyly peering over the stable door in my user picture.) I greeted her with a lot of fuss, and she seemed initially not to be too grumpy.

That lasted about as long as it took me to ask her to walk on, but no surprises there. It was hot and she was bothered; that much was obvious. Right up until the very end of the lesson, any leg aid had to be backed up with a kick and a tap of the whip. Unbeknownst to me, she’d needed a wee since the beginning of the lesson an apparently sometimes it takes her a long time to have one, so I misinterpreted her occasional stops with refusal to move further as recalcitrance and was strict with her. When she finally did manage to go, and my instructor explained to me that this is often the case with her, I felt so bad that she got an almighty fuss. I was in lead file at that point, so I made everybody else wait while I apologised to her. Hah.

We warmed up in open order. I could feel that I wasn’t going to get a canter out of Bramble at that point, so I didn’t bother asking; instead I worked on walk-trot-walk-halt transitions in a bid to get her listening to me. The main exercise we did this week, without stirrups, was trotting between two pairs of cones on one long side of the school, to push on to a walk at the first pair and back into trot at the second. Bramble tried to give up several times but I just pushed her on. The one bit of input I got from our instructor was that Bramble was almost working in a nice outline, but she just needed a bit more energy coming from her back end. For once, in this lesson I was more or less left to get on with it while she gave feedback and instruction to the other two ladies. Partly, it seemed, because Elvis was being a little monster. I saw him stop dead in his tracks a couple of times, and on one of those he made what looked to me like a stroppy little bunny-hop with his back legs like a moody teenager stamping his feet. Bramble also pinned her ears and threatened to bite him when he got too close to her – thereafter in the lesson I tried hard to keep her away from the other horses, rather than us working as a ride.

At the end of the lesson our group only had five minutes left for canter, so we just had a couple of quick goes on each rein with Bramble as lead file. I don’t know what the logic was there, but I wasn’t complaining as it helped me keep her going forwards. We got our canter every time I asked, and I managed to sit to her tumultuous gait with some concentration. It felt weird; I had to activate and use my core muscles to synch the motion of my pelvis with that of Bramble’s back beneath me, while at the same time remaining supple. Not easy! But I managed it, and I was complimented on how ‘nice’ the canter had been. We came a bit unstuck when we got to the corner marked out by poles dividing the arena in two, which may or may not have been due to the absence of the boards. Knowing Bramble as well as I do, I don’t think it was eagerness on her part to get to the back of the ride and be reunited with the other horses!

The most positive thing I took from this lesson was that my fear of cantering would now appear to be all gone away. I wasn’t worried about it leading up to it; I didn’t hesitate to ask for the transition. I just went for it and it worked. I realise that being able to get a transition to canter and keep it going for more than a few strides is only the beginning and that I have so much more to learn and perfect going forwards, but this still feels like a major milestone in my riding.

I’d really like to go on a hack soon, in all three gaits. Hopefully soon we’ll get the opportunity to go out as a ride into the woods as had previously been suggested.

Like a Boss

3 06 2014

My attendance of riding lessons this year so far really has been extremely poor. Starting in January, this has been down to no more than two factors: Injury and lack of money. I hate that the latter had any hand in my having to cancel any of my scheduled lessons, because I blame nothing and no-one but myself for poor planning and a lack of discipline in my spending habits outside of riding. Now that moving (to a much nicer flat than I was in before, if I may say so) is out of the way, however, I am determined that I’m Back On It. Especially if I’m to have a more positive experience during my planned return to Historic Equitation this September.

So, starting as I mean to go on, I hurried along to my lesson after work yesterday evening and made it there in good time. I was paired with Ben this time, and we were one member down in our group, which was great as it meant we had a lot more time to work on some of the issues that the other remaining rider and I both have in common: Namely, loosening at the hip and lengthening the leg, which was what we spent the first half of the lesson working on, at first in open order and then as a ride without stirrups. I am delighted to say that I got a lovely canter out of Ben in our open order warm-up, in spite of his having been in another lesson immediately before ours, already sweating and thus not initially being so willing to go forwards – and the first time I asked, too, on both reins. I lost both stirrups on the left rein and ground to a walk before halting across the centre line to take them back, but that in itself was a good exercise for me as it showed me that nothing terrible would happen if I cantered without stirrups, and that it was just as great as walking or trotting without any stirrups. Having the stirrups flapping about my feet was unpleasant, though!

I learned, in the work without stirrups we did in trot that followed, that Ben’s canter is actually much less bouncy and bumpy than his trot. My instructor made a remark in the first instance about my being good at sitting a trot, and initially it felt as though she’d jinxed it as it took me some time to get myself synched enough with Ben’s rhythm! The work we did was all about lengthening the leg, however, and although gruelling (I had difficulty holding the reins because my hands were sweating, resulting in my bag being brought to the arena so I could get my gloves without dismounting, and when I apologised to the other lady for holding things up she reassured me that she was grateful of the break), it was helpful.

We finished those exercises half-way though the lesson and moved straight into working in canter. This was also great for me; usually, it is only in the final fifteen to twenty minutes that we get to do this, leading file and in succession with three of us, which means that if I have any problems I don’t have long to work on them, if at all. But oh, I cantered. I cantered and cantered and cantered. I cantered every time, no fear, no hesitation; I didn’t always manage to keep it right to the back of the ride, but I went around all the corners I hadn’t transitioned in before we stopped. I kept my hands light; I thought the transition more than I thought about all the steps to achieve it. I’d been right, and my instructor was right: It’s not nerves that are holding me up from it anymore, and the difficulty I had in getting Dan to even make the transition in previous weeks was down to him being a stubborn bugger and taking the first opportunity he was given to defy me, in this case a moment’s hesitation becoming just an excuse to keep merrily trotting to the back of the ride for another rest break.

To mix it up this week, rather than just doing the plain old going around leading file and in succession to practice getting a feel for it, she introduced a new element to the exercise, which actually proved to be extremely helpful: Lightening the seat. As she explained it to us, this essentially meant standing up out of the saddle a little bit; not so much that we stood straddling the pommel, but enough to lift ourselves a little off our seats; apparently this is called ‘half-seat’. She told us to get the canter, and then try maintaining this posture, the point of the exercise being to get us used to keeping the weight down in the heels and the leg lengthened. Actually, it felt really good, and it was helpful to do this exercise both for getting a feel for extending the leg in canter, and for getting more of a sense of balance. It was brilliant to have Ben for this exercise, as it felt like I just had to set him going and he’d stay in canter for me.

Moving on from that, we had a few turns of lifting up and sitting back down in the saddle to the rhythm of the canter, kind of like a rising trot but much milder. What struck me about this was that just that little bit of extra effort in moving with the horse’s movement felt a lot more natural and ‘together’ with the horse, and it seemed to help him as well in that we kept going forwards. Then we resumed cantering at ‘full-seat’ (when you just sit). My legs felt so much better for having done the exercises, which in turn made me feel like I had a better seat and gave me more confidence. The instructor moved on to giving us pointers for keeping our backs straight and our shoulders down. I felt like I had so much more control and balance and softness as soon as I consciously aligned my shoulders over my hips.

Her closing comment to me before we cooled down was, ‘Well done; I’ll make a dressage rider of you yet.’

I enjoyed the lesson so much, and felt I made so much progress that I wished someone could have filmed it so I could replay it to other people and to myself. A competing rider in any discipline would not have thought that my performance was anything special, but I certainly felt like I had been cantering like a boss (as the internet meme goes). Thank you Ben, and doubly thank you to my instructor!


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.

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!…

Gentle Ben

25 11 2013

Aaaaah my gluteals! They hurt… but in a nice way 🙂

In case you were wondering, the reason there have been no further updates on my horsey interactions is that I have had no further horsey interactions since I last updated about it. I know, I know, it’s been ages; the weekend immediately following my first volunteer experience I was out of town, and the two weekend following, I was feeling really under the weather and very much needed the two days off to quietly do nothing in particular to recover my energy reserves; without wanting to make too much of  a big thing of it, November is never the kindest of months to me, and in typical style it had rather knocked me for six. I’m adjusting to it now, though, and I hope to do lots more volunteering through December.

That also means I’ve skipped a lesson, though. Well, that couldn’t be helped, unfortunately. I faced some uncertainty with my work situation that I thought might mean I would have to stop riding until the New Year simply because I wouldn’t be able to afford it, but thankfully that turned out not to be the case – and I have no intention of missing another lesson between now and the midwinter break!

Anyway, tonight I made my way down, and arrived in plenty of time to enact the weekly palaver of changing into my boots and chaps from the ones I’d worn there in the warm before paying and going off to check the roster to see who my mount for the night was going to be. To my surprise, it was a horse I’ve never ridden before called Ben; he’s a skewbald sport horse of similar height to Maddy, who I have previously heard described as an ‘old school master’, although I’m not sure in what sense; one of the other ladies who rides in my lesson has ridden him a couple of times before. He was bundled up in his rug when I arrived, happily munching away at his hay, and regarded me with wide-eyed suspicion when I approached his stall to say hello.

I had fifteen minutes to wait before my lesson, and I found myself in one of those terribly British politeness quandries: Should I go and retrieve his tack and start tacking him up myself, or would it be better form to wait for one of the paid staff to come and do it? I didn’t mind doing it myself, but at the same time, I want to cause offence by seeming to forwards. In the end, I did tack up myself, but not before awkwardly hanging around for a bit, trying to catch someone’s eye to see if I could drawn a conclusion from their reaction. It would have saved time if I’d just taken the initiative as soon as I saw that he had no tack on; they obviously don’t mind me doing things for myself any more. Which is really nice.

After struggling a bit with Ben’s chin strap, I led him out to the outdoor arena, to be told by the instructor there that I was in the indoor arena this week. I was so surprised I had to be told this twice before it sank in, but I wasn’t complaining – the indoor arena is larger, and warmer (it was bitterly cold out tonight; to give you an idea, there was frost on the pavement outside my office at lunchtime, and it only got colder). Having been used to riding awkward cobs and cheeky little ponies recently, I remarked as I mounted Ben that his stirrups seemed rather short; it turned out that they were the perfect length, and I’m just not used to mounting tall horses any more.

What followed was a really good lesson. We were given ten minutes to warm up in open order; the last couple of times we’ve done this, our instructor has told us that we could have a go at cantering if we had enough room, but tonight she said we could feel free because we had so much space. So I did – and I’m happy to say that I managed to get the strike into canter and keep it going for a few paces without any nervousness or hesitation. Ben was really responsive, but he was initially quite reluctant to do anything. I also found that the more I thought about my position – particularly my legs and my shoulders – the better he listened to my asks. As out instructor was shouting out advice to us on how we should position ourselves, some of the exercises in the Pilates routine I’ve been diligently doing every day again for a while now started to make sense. I really do seem to have over-compensated for having been criticised for leaning too far forwards by leaning too far back, though – now I’m having difficulty bringing my shoulders in line with my hips without feeling like I’m tipping forwards! What was nice about being in the indoor school, though, was that it has mirrors, so I was able to check my position as I went fast and lo, the weird-tipping-forwards-feeling position did look a lot more ‘textbook’!

From open order, we went into working without stirrups to get us thinking about our position in general, which I’ve already pretty much covered above. I really like riding without stirrups, it does sort a lot of things out, and it feels so much more natural and together with the horse. I am starting to notice what feels right and what doesn’t in terms of how I sit and how the horse responds, too, rather than just trying what I think I should be doing and hoping the horse does what I want it to, and there’s a big difference. We were made to do rising trot without stirrups again, though. After a mere five strides my inner thighs were burning so I couldn’t keep it up, and weakened as they were I felt like my mons pubis was going to come crashing down painfully on the pommel and I decided to just sit the trot until we took our stirrups back. Heh.

Finally, we took our stirrups back and moved to working a canter exercise. This time, what she did was kept us all trotting a 20m circle, but asked us, one by one, to go large in a corner, transition to canter and canter large to the back of the ride, then resume trotting the 20m circle. When I broke off to do this, I got the canter for two strides on the corner but had to trot the long side of the school and ask for canter again in the next corner before I got it, but thereafter I didn’t have to do much to keep Ben cantering (he really seemed quite happy just to be running), and transitioned nicely back into trot when we returned to the circle. Unfortunately another rider was having a bit of difficulty controlling Duke (from what I saw, he was doing his usual thing of trying to run really fast, and he didn’t understand when he was asked to canter that he was meant to canter large and not continue to circle) so I had to halt on the centre line and wait for the two other, cantering horses to transition downwards. From there on, we each had a go at cantering large in succession, but we are going to revisit the trot-circle-canter exercise next week. Ben cantered fast, but I managed to keep it together and ride half-halts to bring him back to me, and I even had the wherewithal to push on with my leg when I felt the energy going from the canter and ask for bend in the corners. We made it all the way to the back of the ride, and it felt really good. Wheee!

I didn’t hang around afterwards this time (I will freely admit that this was because it was bitterly cold and I wanted to get moving off home), but I felt very good about how the lesson had gone. I’m especially proud of myself for the work I did in canter tonight – no fear, no hesitation, mostly smooth transitions, and all on a horse I’d never ridden before and even on my own initiative without Ben having time to suss out that that was what was going to be asked of him. It feels like real progress!

Business as Usual

13 11 2013

It is always dark now when I arrive at the stables for my Monday evening lesson, and there’s something very comforting about the intensifying smell of horses and the faint murmur of voices and hoof beats from the outdoor arena in the cold air as I approach the school gate. I didn’t arrive with loads of time to spare on this occasion, but there was enough time after I had paid up for me to have a quick chat with one of the regular staff members about my day volunteering, and hold Bramble for a few moments while the lady who was taking her for her lesson paid (it hadn’t seemed worth putting her back in her stall as it was far away). I joked about not needing any excuse to play with a pony. Bramble snuffled my hand in a friendly manner when I took the reins, but stood by my side eying me with the whites of her eyes showing. I detected that she wasn’t overly happy for some reason but I didn’t think it was specifically to do with me.

As I made my way into the school for my lesson, our instructor explained that there had been some horsey violence in the previous (children’s) lesson, apparently between Elvis and Bramble. Dan, with whom I was paired again this week, was already in the lesson, and although Bramble had already been taken out of the lesson by the time I arrived there and the little girl on Elvis had turned in to dismount, the girl riding Dan was guided around for a final trot large. She’d dismounted too and my instructor was walking him around by the reins by the time I walked in to take him, and said, ‘Here’s a lazy horse for you,’ so I assume the reason for the last go-around was that his previous rider hadn’t gotten much joy out of him. He was very sweaty when I mounted him, though, and she joked that this was unlike him, since ‘he never does anything.’ Obviously, Dan had differing opinions. And he’s fully clipped and hogged!

Actually, I have to say that while I expected to need my game face on as soon as I saw on the roster that I would be riding Dan, he was fairly keen and responsive towards me in this lesson – for Dan, anyway. Nothing to the likes of Duke or the Historic Equitation horses, of course, but still, he went forwards when I asked, didn’t make any strong attempts to veer off the track and more or less did what I asked when I asked for it. After warming up in open order (wherein I tried to get him to canter for me a few times following some successful walk-trot-walk transitions, but failed), we did another trot pole exercise that was really difficult; we began by trying to ride walk-halt-walk-halt-walk transitions over a row of three poles down each long side of the school, which wasn’t so hard, but then progressed from that to trot-walk-trot-walk-trot, which seemed impossible to me. I think I managed to get the walk-trot-walk over the middle pole a grand total of once, but while I failed to execute the exercise what I did find was that as we went around, Dan softened to me and became gradually and palpably more responsive and willing to work for me. That, if nothing else, felt good. I found myself wondering if he and I have come to an understanding. I noticed that he goes forwards far more easily if he’s on a more relaxed rein, but balancing that against maintaining a good contact to prevent him from looking around all over the place is a knife-edge job.

At a couple of points I did feel like my feet were flapping around again. I am very conscious of this now, having seen what it looks like on video, and whenever it happened I made sure to sink my weight into my heels and point my toes forwards. This is becoming less difficult now, slowly but surely, until I found my inside leg was so well on the girth that until I relaxed it I could feel Dan’s foreleg as it came back brushing my toes. Is that what it’s supposed to feel like, or are my legs too far forwards now? Either way, my instructor didn’t pull me up on it.

Finally, we had a canter on both reins. On both of my attempts on the right rein, Dan went straight into trot when I asked, skipped into canter beautifully at the first corner, and we even managed to keep it going right up until the back of the ride was in view. I rather enjoyed his canter, enough so that I was able to relax and think about my position and how I was sitting as we went around, even remembering to ask Dan to bend in the corners rather than merely trusting that he would do it himself. I even had the wherewithal to tap him with the whip when I felt him backing off. I had more trouble on the left rein, but my instructor did explain that he either finds it more difficult on that rein or has less willingness, and I did manage to get it going, even if the transition wasn’t as fluid and I couldn’t keep him in the canter for as long.

My instructor praised me for my efforts. She said that with me, she thinks cantering has nothing to do with my ability, it’s all to do with ‘what’s going on up here,’ as she put it, tapping at her head. I think she’d probably right. When I feel calm and up for it, it’s always fine, and I enjoy it. The very moment I have any cause for concern or hesitation, it all goes to pot.

After dismounting, I led Dan back to his hay (which he was more glad to see this time), untacked him and put his rug on him, then fussed him a bit, said goodbye and went to hang up his tack. I said hi to Soapy on the way out, but while she looked up from her hay she didn’t want to come and say hi today. I left with a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done, in spite of not having been able to do the pole exercise; after all, it’s all good practice, even if you don’t nail something on your first attempt. My thighs certainly still feel as though they had a good workout, and that’s always a good sign, right?…