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.

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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!