15 04 2013

Today was my first day back at university after a four-week holiday and it turned out to be a pretty good day. To top it all off, I rode Soapy this evening!

I arrived early to see if they’d assigned her to me as per my request, and lo – they had! I had to contain myself from doing cartwheels down the stable, but I was completely unable to suppress a little, out-loud, ‘Yay!’ After paying up, I hurried over to her side to see her, where the nice lady who takes care of the horses on that side of the indoor school informed me that she was all ready for me but it was a bit too early to lead her out to the school. So I hung around like a groupie for a bit before disentangling her reins and leading her, reluctantly at first, away from her hay.

As we were walking to the outdoor school I was reminded of why I’d developed such a soft spot for her. As she walked – not really having to be led, just walking beside me – she was looking around at all the things that were going on, and I had to give her gentle tugs on the reins just to remind her we were going somewhere. She studied the open school gate for some time, but didn’t make any moves towards it. I sensed curiosity about what the outside world is like, but as I think they do run hacks into Middleton Park (there’s an entrance to it adjacent to the school gate) I could be wrong and it could just be that she likes the woods. Someone knows, but it’s not me.

As we arrived at the outdoor arena the previous lesson were just finishing up, so I called Soapy to a halt outside and held onto her as the previous group led their horses out. She stood still for a while, still looking all around her at what was going on, and then – just as she had done on a previous occasion – she tried to walk around in front of me and head back to the stables, with her ears pricked forwards, making a hopeful little chirruping sound as she did. Actually, she was making a bee-line for the other horses’ stables as though she wanted to go and say hello, but I suspect she probably really just wanted to steal their hay. Heh.

Eventually I led her in and waited for my cue to mount up. My instructor didn’t recognize me, because I had both a different colour hair than last time and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. She had been talking to a lady who is new prior to addressing me, and was very apologetic when I told her who I was. Heh. After I’d mounted Soapy and adjusted my stirrups, it was quite clear that she wanted to go as she kept fidgetting – initially stamping her back legs on the spot, and then trying to walk off she was having her girth put up!

Once we got going, though, she was fine. Better than fine, actually. For most of the lesson, she was very forward going – so much so that I had to pull her back continuously to keep her nose out of Maddie’s backside! She never stopped, she never slowed without being asked, and – thankfully – I had no reason to use the whip even once. There was some confusion while we were doing the usual walk and trot exercises (although with no work without stirrups this time) as initially Soapy was charging on ahead in spite of my best efforts to slow her, and so we switched her with Maddie, who then decided she wanted to charge on ahead of Soapy, and we switched again only to find the same was true as had been before. So instead I just rode her right into all of the corners to try and keep her a suitable distance behind. (Apparently Soapy is a bit like Bramble in that she doesn’t really like being too close to other horses.)

In fact, it was all fun and games until we came to the canter. I felt calm and confident, and like I might actually be quite a good rider. I felt all right about trying out the canter, too; I just thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this!’ This may have been over-confidence, however, as when it was my turn for the canter I just couldn’t – for no reason I can put my finger on as I wasn’t doing anything differently than I’d been doing for the whole of the rest of the lesson – keep Soapy on the track in trot. The consequence of this was that when I asked for the canter, she went bombing it down the centre line. Concerned at having limited control without the security of a wall on either side of me, I tried to apply my leg to ride her over to the right side of the arena, all the while pulsing on the reins for her to slow down (she basically felt like she’d got the ‘Yay, running!’ bug and wasn’t listening to me at all any more). As a result she turned suddenly, and, being unprepared for this, I slipped out of the saddle and over her right shoulder.

Soapy stopped pretty much as soon as she felt me come off. I landed on my feet with both arms around her neck. I had to laugh and give her a hug.

Of course, I got straight back on, mounting from the ground. I wasn’t hurt in any way, and my instructor was very good about it. She told me to take a deep breath, said that I would have another go tonight, but to relax and take it easy until it was my turn again. We had a fast but much better controlled canter to the back of the ride on the second go. One of the many things I like about Soapy is that she’s a pony who doesn’t have a bone-shaking gait, but by God, she can go!

After the lesson I led her back to her stall, untacked her and made several passers-by laugh with my doting on her. You’ll be pleased to know I have photos!


Keep Calm and Canter On

4 03 2013

It’s Monday night again. Before I skip ahead to updating about my lesson, I have some sad news and some happy news. I’ll begin with the sad: Felicity, my adoption donkey, has also now passed away. She had been sent to Hapton for ultrasound as she was off her food and losing weight, and they found tumours in her stomach, one of which was inoperable. So she was put to sleep. The most heartbreaking thing about this is that now poor Glasgow – her best friend, who has not been separated from her in nine years – is alone, but they are going to try and pair him up with another donkey called Brandy, who they said they knew would take good care of him. I hope he’ll be okay. I received a letter in the post today telling me that my adoption would be transferred to another donkey, and to email them if I had a preference.

The happy news concerns Will Scarlett, who, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, passed away last month. In addition to a letter updating me about Felicity, I received a separate letter about Will, handwritten by the communications officer and containing a disc with some footage of him from the adoption club website; specifically, him being led back to the paddock and his friends running to the fence to greet him. I had emailed them last month to ask whether I could obtain this from them, stating that I would be willing to pay a fee to download it. Such kindness! It’s a wonderful tribute to him and I shall treasure it.

And then onto today’s lesson! I had a different horse today who I’ve never had before; his name was Monty, and he was a big brown cob with a rather spectacular white Major-General’s ‘tache. Heh. He’d already been led out to the outdoor school when I went to collect him.

He was absolutely the most forward-going horse I have ever ridden. I mean, I remember the TBs at Gakushuin being very willing, but always waiting for your asks before moving onto different things; Tara (who, in spite of our recent falling-out, I have caught myself pining for recently) has been described as a horse who ‘GOES‘, and having had to rein her in from sudden bursts of energy and found myself doing unintentional dressage moves on her because of her reluctance to stop or slow I can attest to it, but none of them were like this guy. As soon as I was mounted and my girth had been tightened, he was off to the track without any input from me, and tried though I did to stop him so I could shorten my stirrups he didn’t listen, but kept going in such a nice, active walk that I didn’t want to stop him in case I couldn’t get it going again, so I just adjusted them while moving.

The lesson today was merely walk, trot and canter as before. We did most work in trot. Having such a responsive and forward-going horse reassured me that I do know what I’m doing with my legs now, but I need to work more on my use of the reins (remembering to relax the hand I’m not using to keep the horse on the track, mainly) and on my core. If I had more strength in my core, literally everything would be so much easier, and I can feel it now. Beware, core, for you will now be trained!

There were only two of us in the group tonight. Our instructor separated us out this time so we were trotting independently of each other, and made us separate ourselves out when we got too close by riding in 20-metre circles. She explained the rules of ‘open order’ to us as well, and said that this was something we’d work towards using in the future. She prompted us frequently to check we were on the right diagonals, and she noticed and praised me when I got it right. She instructed me to use my outside leg when taking corners in trot so I didn’t ride Monty right into the corners and lose momentum (which happened a few times). I did this without thinking and found it effective; it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that applying the outside leg in rising trot is actually pretty similar to asking for canter, and in retrospect I’m impressed (at him, not myself) that Monty didn’t misread it as an ask for canter.

However, Monty’s trot was difficult to work with. It was like he had no awareness of how powerful he was, and he didn’t either understand my asks for him to slow down or was ignoring them altogether (I tried half-halts, relaxing into my seat and pulsing on both reins simultaneously while shouting ‘Whoa!’), and the only way I could get him to slow down was by steering him into a 20-metre circle at the next corner – at which point I would have to kick him on to pick up a sensible speed again! My instructor praised me when she felt that we had gotten better in synch with each other and I was riding him around with better control, but this all went to pot when we moved onto sitting trot. As soon as I sat down and relaxed into the motions of the trot, he accelerated, and again, ignored my asks for him to slow down. I was advised to try rising again to slow him down a bit, and told that I should sit and stand at the pace I wanted him to move at. Monty, in addition to being so very eager and strong felt really heavy on the head, so I’m afraid that this was completely beyond me. I turned him out to the outside to get him to stop, and then continued in walk and transitioned to rising trot again after a last attempt at sitting drove him forwards at what felt like break-neck speed.

Finally, we moved onto canter. I was quite happy with this when I was told to go, but Monty seemed to be pumped at this stage and to just really want to fucking go for it (excuse my French). I asked him to go into trot for me, which he did without a second thought. We approached the corner, I sat down, and he accelerated sharply again, making me very nervous and try and get him to slow and, when that failed, stop. Actually terrified, I panicked and tensed up, and couldn’t get him to do anything. He veered off the track – still trotting faster than I was really comfortable with his head down, almost as though he was charging – and I tried to steer him into a circle again. This worked. My instructor called out for me to try and start another canter. I stalled, asked for him to slow, and this time he stopped.

Walking on, I apologised to my instructor, and said that he was going so fast I didn’t feel secure transitioning to canter, and I didn’t want to canter tonight. She was very kind, and said that she wouldn’t make me do it if I really didn’t want to, highlighting that even very capable riders do things they wouldn’t normally do when they’re nervous – but said that she thought I would be pleasantly surprised by Monty’s canter as it was much easier than his trot, and reassured me that she thought I was capable enough to do it. I thanked her for this; after the other rider had a go around on (a less willing) Elvis, I agreed to try once more. She suggested I start the trot just before the first corner so Monty wouldn’t have time to pick up too much speed. So that’s what I did.

Monty responded instantly to my ask for trot at the appropriate letter. He did speed up when I sat, but I decided to deal with this by asking for canter. The first time I asked he didn’t transition. I managed to remain calm and asked again, and he went straight into a lovely canter, that was certainly fast but felt controlled and steady, and lasted a circuit of the school!

I was so surprised that when he transitioned back to walk of his own accord I laughed and fell down over his neck in a floppy sort of hug. I had another go; he responded immediately this time, and once more we cantered large, fast but controlled. His canter was much easier and less terrifying than his trot!

Following the lesson, I led Monty back to his stall and fussed him a lot. He responded with what seemed to be affectionate nuzzles before turning his attention to the hay net on the wall. There wasn’t anyone around, so after locking his stall and removing his bridle I checked the timetable to make sure he didn’t have another lesson, and then untacked him myself. I also put his rug on him. This was funny; because of the angle he was stood to the door at, I had no choice to approach him from behind. I talked to him while I did this so he could hear where I was, but when I approached his shoulder with his first rug he turned around with his ears back as though he was going to bite me, but he didn’t – he just gave me a sort of warning look, as though he was saying, Don’t creep up on me like that, all right? I held out his rug for him to inspect and explained to him what I was doing, and he almost shrugged and went back to the hay net.

He was very patient with me while I fumbled with his two rugs. When I approached him with the second, he gave me that same ears-back look he’d given me before; this time I gave his forehead and his cheek a rub, and again he seemed to shrug and turn back to the hay. When I’d finished I gave him a pat on the neck; he turned his head into my chest, and I felt compelled to give him a little kiss on the brow. Then, when I exited the stall and locked the door shut behind me, he broke away from the hay net and came over to give me a sloppy kiss on my hands before I left.

I can’t make Monday’s class next week, so I’ve asked to go in Tuesday’s walk, trot and canter group instead, and I’ve requested Soapy as I’ve not ridden her in a while. I did see her tonight, before my lesson; she acknowledged me, but she didn’t come over and say hello this time. I think it was the first time I’ve seen her not wearing any ‘clothes’. Heh.

Putting a Neck Strap on the Carrie

25 02 2013

There were a couple of amusing quotes from the lesson this evening that I thought about using as the title for this write-up, but I’ve settled on that one. Heh.

Yes, Monday has come around again and, true to form, I have been for my riding lesson again. Actually, just recently in my ‘real life’ I’ve been getting increasingly stressed out with the demands on my time of university – and thus not working hard enough to meet them, consequently making myself more stressed out to the point of becoming quite anxious. I know that this is a destructive and illogical cycle, because if I just knuckled down and got on with it I wouldn’t have any reason to feel stressed any more, but I’m finding that it’s one thing to say that and entirely another to enact it. I mention this only to express what a lovely breather it was to go down to the stables and put all of that out of my mind for a few hours this evening.

Once again I decided to walk all the way in my boots and chaps. The boots pinched less than they had last week, but then I had padded my toes and heels out with blister plasters and put in a fleece insole to help keep my feet warm. Heh. I got beeped by a lot of cars on the way there; this is not a usual occurrence, but I’m choosing to take it as a compliment.

My lesson this evening was fun, if hard work, and we had a good giggle. There were only two of us this time; myself and the young lady who’s always been in that class with me since I first started, unlike the others who seem to come and go. I think she was even there by herself the week I didn’t make it. I saw her getting out of her car as I was leading Dan out to the outdoor school and I smiled and said hello, but she didn’t say hello back. I’m sure she must just not have recognised me or something.

So, yes; today I rode Dan, who I think I’ve described before as a ‘gentle giant’, because that seems very much to be what he is. He’s a big black cob, no feathers on him, though, and stocky though he is he has a less rotund and more elegant frame than many of the other cobs I have known. One of the ladies who works there, who I sometimes chat to, unashamedly says that he is her favourite because he loves kisses and cuddles and he never bites. This is certainly the impression I’ve got from him; he’s very friendly and affectionate. As I approached him to remove his rug, disentangle his reins from his chin strap and lead him out, he turned around, acknowledged me and snuzzled my hand, as if to demand I stroke him. He put his head down at my side and seemed to like it when I petted his forehead. He was no bother when it came to leading him out, and while I did have the reins in my hand it felt more like he was walking alongside me than I was leading him. He walked at my side, matching my pace and holding his head down low so that his ears were level with my shoulder.

In the school, he was another story entirely. I mounted him and went to put my stirrups down a hole, and he lackadaisically put his head down to the ground, as though to graze on the school floor. First he stood like that on the spot stamping alternately with his back legs; eventually, when I stopped what I was doing, he started moseying towards the track of his own volition. With both feet out of the stirrups, I tried my best to push though my seat and pull back on the reins to make him stop; we got all the way down to the track and started walking along it before I was able to persuade him to double back on himself, walk behind Symphony and take back his previous position on the centre line. This was certainly amusing, if a little frustrating.

Once I’d put my stirrups down and had my girth tightened I asked him to walk on, which he did, slowly and reluctantly. My next problem was keeping him moving forwards. My instructor said that he’s usually lazy, but he sometimes has days when he can be awkward and goes a bit crazy. At the outset it looked like it was going to be the former; it actually turned out to be the latter. I had to kick him continuously at the beginning to keep him going, in both walk and trot, and the other problem I had was that he seemed to be very easily distracted and interested in what was going on in the world around him, so I had a fight on my hands just to get him to keep his head in front of him so we stayed on the track.

At first this seemed perfectly innocent; just a bit of a dozy horse allowing his attention to wander. About mid-way through the lesson, though, it started to become clear that whether this had initially been the case or not, he was trying to see what he could get away with. I wasn’t prepared for this at all, and suddenly we started coming off the track and making unintentional circles towards the centre line and then back onto the track as I fought with both legs and hands to keep him going forwards and where he was supposed to. My instructor called out to me to use the outside rein; for a while thereafter, every time I squeezed on that rein he would toss his head towards that hand over his shoulder, making me lose my balance, giving him the momentary freedom he needed to veer back into the middle of the school again. Frustrated, I turned him onto the centre line and explained what was happening to my instructor, who agreed to mount him and ride him around the school a few times so I could see what she did to keep him under control.

As I watched them go around together, I noticed something else he was doing; a couple of times going around the school it’d felt like he’d lost his footing and tripped a little, but I could now see that he was bucking in protest at being pushed on. That was quite useful, because it reassured me not to worry if a horse does this, because relaxing and just going with it will probably keep you where you need to be. Heh. After she went around on a few times – all the while with Dan making grumbling noises underneath her with his ears back, obviously annoyed at being made to work, I mounted him again and found him a little easier to control. As on a previous occasion with Bramble, I’d like to think that this was because I implemented what I’d seen her do, but I suspect it was partly because her having taken a turn on him communicated to him that he wasn’t just going to get away with doing whatever he wanted in this lesson.

Following on from that, we had another go in sitting trot, which felt more controlled. Then my instructor explained that she’d wanted to do some work without stirrups, but that we weren’t going to because Dan was being a bit ‘… individual,’ as she put it after a thoughtful pause. The next thing she came out with almost made me wet myself laughing; she instructed me to ride to the letter H and halt… so she could put a neck strap on me. Or Dan, rather, she corrected herself. Heh.

Then we moved onto practising canter. This was fun! I had no trouble getting Dan to transition into the canter on any of my three attempts, just keeping him going with it for more than a few strides, but once again I felt okay with it and didn’t panic on the transition. Dan’s own transition to canter struck me as funny, though; other riders will know that there’s a feeling as though the horse has jumped a little bit at first, but it’s only really one end of the animal. On my ask, Dan felt like he was suddenly flinging all four of his legs out in opposing directions so that they were all off the ground at once, and then collecting himself into a canter on landing. I still thanked him graciously for transitioning at all – by that point I had been expecting to have a fight on my hands to even get him to do it! On the first go around, my outside foot came out of the stirrup as I swept it back to ask for the canter; absent-mindedly, I called out, ‘Oo-ooh! Lost my stirrup!’, to which my instructor called back, ‘Just keep going! It’s a luxury, not a necessity!’ That made me laugh, too.

Amusing anecdotes and horse behaviour aside, I think the most useful tip from this lesson was to use my core to push the horse forwards. I found that when Dan was tripping/broncking and moving his head about to try and throw me off balance was when I was losing control, and with it my confidence as well. However, when I was instructed to ‘push him forwards with [my] core’ I applied these muscles and it made a huge difference. I started to sort of imagine that the power from those muscles was being channelled into Dan and was what was actually propelling him forwards, and it helped to keep my back straight as well. Only, now I know that this works I’ll have to make sure I’m not doing it too much so I have no flexibility in my lower spine! Oh, riding is complicated. She also explained trot diagonals to us tonight – which I already knew about – but I kept incorrectly correcting myself onto the wrong diagonal, thinking I knew what I was doing! I don’t know, riding is haaard. I’ll get there one day!

We’re going to move on to cantering without stirrups, she said. This idea does not fill me with fear and dread any more.

At the end of the lesson, I dismounted and put Dan’s stirrups up before leading him out. He was obliging and affectionate again from the moment I stepped onto the ground, snuzzling my hands as I walked around him to put the stirrups up on his other side and once again walking beside me rather than being led by me. He even walked straight past his own stall because I didn’t realise which one it was and he seemed perfectly content to go wherever I was going!

I took him back and helped the lady whose favourite he is to get his bridle off and his rug on. I chatted to her a bit; I agreed with her that he was lovely and friendly, but he had been a bit of a nuisance in the school; she made me laugh further by saying that that was her plan, and that she told him every day to misbehave so they’d stop using him and he could come home with her. Awww.

Of course, I went and said hello to Soapy before I left. She seems to like having someone to say hello to, but to not want to be petted or stroked in any way. When I approached her stall she was stood with her nose in the hay net and her tail to the door; I said, ‘Hello, Soapy!’ and she turned around, but didn’t move. Then she took another bite of hay and looked over her other shoulder at me, and then turned around and poked her head out over the door. As before, she put her nose up to mine and we breathed on each other. I put both of my hands up and rested them on top of the door, and she gently nibbled them with her lips; she moved away from me when I put one hand up to give her neck a rub, so I put it down again as soon as I saw this and then she nibbled at it again. Then she looked me in the eye and softly nickered, and it was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever heard.

Word count: 2093. Roll on next Monday!

I came, I saw, I cantered!

18 02 2013

Monday has come around again so quickly! I was prepared for it this time; as you know, I received my new jodhpur boots last week, and today – just in time – I received my new leather half-chaps as well. Half chaps and jodhpur boots are so comfortable! I’ve always been biased in favour of tall boots for reasons of pure vanity, but honestly, aside from the fact that my boots – being so new still – currently still pinch a little when I walk, but they’ll loosen up with regular wear. Images!

So, since my boots were new and therefore still rather sharp around the edges, and I hate the thought of causing unnecessary discomfort or pain to equines, I decided to walk to the stables in my new boots to try and wear them down a bit in advance. Aside from some mild pinching, they were fine to walk in. The sun was up for the whole walk, which was nice for me.

I arrived at the stables in good time again, and went into the office to pay for my lesson. I asked the lady in there about Own a Pony Days, and she happily told me all the information about how and when they run, including that there was one going ahead this week if I wanted to book someone on. Then I asked if adults were allowed to play, too, and this thoroughly confused her! She bashfully told me that really it’s for seven- and eight-year-olds, and added that this was a shame really and that they ought to run them for adults as well. I told her about the one I had attended in Nottingham, and said not to worry if they wouldn’t allow adults to join in on one, and that I’d just thought there wouldn’t be any harm in asking. She said she would check with someone else and let me know next week if they’d consider letting me! I really hope so, I’d love to spend a whole day playing with Soapy!

Speaking of Soapy, because I was early and she and Maddy (who I rode this week)’s stalls are close together, before I collected Maddy for my lesson I went to say hello. When I called her, Soapy came away from her hay net, walked over to the door, put her muzzle up to my nose, blew on it and then turned away again. This felt like it was done in the same manner as a passing bro-fist. Heh.

Anyway, as you probably remember, this was to be my first lesson cantering with the group, and canter I did! Maddy is yet another piebald horse, only she is what I class in my head as a ‘proper-sized horse’, standing at 15.3hh. She seems to have a very sweet and forward-going nature in general, although as the lesson began it was clear she couldn’t really be bothered and didn’t really want to do any work. Our instructor started me off without a whip as she didn’t think I’d really need one given how she usually knows Maddy to behave, so I lent my own to the lady who rode Bramble, but a whip was soon fetched for me as Maddy consistently refused to listen to me. For having said that, though, her behaviour improved right from the first tap across her girth, so I didn’t have to use it much, which was good.

We did no work without stirrups this week; we practised transitioning from walk to trot (rising), then walk to trot (sitting and in a 20m circle, with transitions mid-circle), and then in the final twenty minutes we moved straight onto canter.

Because I have cantered before and I know what the aids are, I was made to go first. We were talked through everything that you need to do so well that I didn’t feel at all nervous, and when I transitioned – for the first time I can remember since a comfortable canter in the school at Woodside on Tara last summer – I didn’t panic! In the trot leading up to it, I had some issues keeping Maddy to the track. This is a recent problem, and it’s making me wonder what I’m now doing wrong that I didn’t used to get wrong, but that’s something to think about another time. My instructor told me not to worry, though, and just to go into sitting trot from where I was and ask for canter in the next corner. Ask I did, and Maddy immediately obliged! Together, we went into a very calm canter at exactly the same pace we’d been trotting at before. At first I found myself bouncing in the saddle a little, which was probably why we only managed to get halfway to the back of the ride before she transitioned back to trot without any input from me, but I felt great for transitioning successfully and for holding it together. In fact, I was grinning like an idiot – so happy that it had just worked.

The other two riders each had their turn. Everyone was successful, so we all went around again on the same rein, then changed reins and repeated twice. My success in the first go around had really boosted my self-confidence and my determination to get on with it, and I got a little better each time, on my final go managing to do a better job of keeping Maddy to the track in canter – probably because I was so much more relaxed – and even managed to take the two corners in the C-end of the school at a canter before Maddy transitioned back to trot of her own accord. It was so much fun, and I want to go again and again and again! I want to canter every day!

After the lesson, I lead Maddy back and thanked her for cantering so nicely for me. A member of staff came and loosened her girth, took her bridle off and put a rug over her shoulders so she could relax a bit but would still be ready for her next rider. I hung about trying to take pictures of her, but I didn’t get any brilliant ones, I’m afraid.

After I was done with Maddy, I looked over to Soapy’s stall to see her looking over her stall door at me. I walked over and put my fist up to her muzzle. She gently ‘kissed’ it like she usually does. I gave her neck a bit of a pat, and her lips trembled. Then she moved over to her water bucket and I said goodbye.

A shout goes out to my mother, who, after reading last week’s entry, was kind enough to order me a copy of the Haynes Horse manual! Thankfully, they do not take a horse to pieces to demonstrate how it works, but it is nicely written with lots of pretty photographs and contains useful tidbits of information I didn’t already know. The best thing I have read in it so far is an old saying: ‘Tell a gelding, ask a mare, discuss it with a stallion.’ I rather enjoyed that!