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If you missed part one of this article you can find it here.
Cantering for More
When I think back on it and looking at my notes of my riding experience and learning to ride a horse I am constantly drawn toward getting a horse, out of everything it does, into a canter. If you’ve never done something before, you’re always locked to something that feels better than everything, and if it’s far enough better you tend to forget about what those other things are for. The only thing I enjoy about a horse, is when it’s cantering. Whether I’m going into it or out of it, there’s a flow that completely disappears when the horse disengages with that motion.
The cantering gait of a horse is unlike any other gait that a horse has. It’s not just the fact that it’s different, it’s the fact that it looks like the horse is supposed to do that if it has to carry a rider on its back. If there is a level of equilibrium you could apply to a horse gait while it is carrying a rider, then the canter is by far the most balanced motion a horse can aspire to without ever seriously injuring itself or the rider to whatever the terrain it is moving on. When the horse is in gallop, there are two things I not only notice just by looking at it, but feel when I’m riding on it. The horse is unstable and it is most definitely tense about doing it. That’s an opinion only, and I haven’t seen it said elsewhere. There is an instability to a horse when it’s galloping – which probably isn’t there, should a rider be absent from the picture.
I’ve never galloped a big horse more than once and I didn’t do it during the training described here – they wouldn’t let me outside the arena (and I’ve never galloped a small horse more than once either, it feels like it’s constantly stumbling). I don’t want to test out a theory that I know is probably going to be right no matter who is riding the horse.
Free in the Arena
I’m 30 minutes in with a riding trainer, the line has been taken away, so I’m free-riding and the instructor is teaching me ‘transition points ‘ around the arena – at this point, I know they’re beginning to become familiar. I’m being introduced to dressage, because I’ve read about it, I’ve watched it, and I’m having a lot of difficulty doing the transitions when you get to the turns in the arena – one after the other and close together; there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to move all the limbs on your body at the same time, all of the time – and as soon as you’re out of walk or trot you become compressed by it, as if losing sync with yourself and the horse and then back to sync somewhere, and sometime, else.
The difficulty I’m having is the timing – that’s all there is to it. There is a lot going on in my head. I’m looking down, I’m looking to the side – I’m getting distracted from the outside of the arena – I’m looking ahead, my hands go too low, they go too high, I’m leaning forward, I’m leaning back, my heels are not this or that and…
there is an approaching corner and I’m meant to transition just before it while only before I went diagonally down the middle, changed sides, changed direction, transition down to trot, then transition to walk on the next corner, then a half-circle of half-the arena, transitioning out to canter toward its other end and transitioning back… I check down, the inside foot lands, I look up, turn my head to the incoming turn, outside leg moves back, the heel taps in and my inside leg shifts just very slightly forward as the horse will tilt slightly and… the corner is obscured by the horse’s head and I’m pretty sure we’re both going to crash into it as I’ve not timed this right… I have no idea what my hands are doing, so I go by feeling. If I’m not feeling balanced, then it’s probably wrong.
Well it worked out OK, but not by me. I know this, and I’m pretty sure the instructor knows this too. On the positive side, the horse anticipated what I wanted – I could feel the control from the other side – because the horse has done this before and I suppose I’m at least half-way there. I get a “Well done” from the instructor while I’m still in canter. It’s while I’m in canter that there is nothing wrong with the way I feel I think I am riding a horse – it’s everything either below it or above it that just doesn’t quite click. But I am, however, feeling something I’ve never experienced before. Exhilaration. The kind I get when my brakes fail on a sharp corner on my mountain bike, but I make the turn, and as I look to the direction the bike is skidding down to the side where the handlebars are going to hit something, I see stones and dust fly into my face just before it miraculously sling-shots itself back to an upright position by whatever it is I did by instinct and reaction.
For the next 5 minutes I am left to ride and try out what I’ve learned. The instructor has left the arena and is walking back to the office. The yard staff have ropes ready to clip on to my ride once the time is up. It’s at this point I try out what I’ve read and see if it works. This is a cool-down period for the horse before it’s led back to its stable. A trained horse (the owner was a dressage competitor incidentally) needs freedom whenever it can get it and it gets that from being let free and/or placing the average rider on the back of it so that it can sort of let loose and have a bit of fun with them.
X Marks the Spot
Understanding how to do something is not the same as creating a visual map inside of your head of what you’re going to achieve so that you can move forward and backward inside of it – virtuality. In any form of sport, you’ll learn to do this, and the best way to achieve it is to map it out in your head in stages. Let me explain.
Think of the arena as a figure of ‘8’ with a central line going through it and where you would start in the middle – the ‘x’. That would create 4 square sections; 2 at the top and 2 at the bottom. The ‘x’ is the center part of the ‘8’ with the curvy bits removed – the two ‘o’s from the top and to the bottom.
If you followed a circuit with the various transitions at each corner starting from the center line, you’ll get 4 transitions spaced nicely apart. It’s not that you get 4, it’s that you can’t have one gait taking up the space and time you have available, or too many, before you started to repeat the circuit again. You can’t make any good transition unless you’re into a bend and the horse is turning (in an arena, as a beginner, from my point of view).
You will hit the starting central point twice and end up where you started from its opposite side where you left – and in the opposite direction – once (because you don’t count the diagonal crossing it – it’s from the bottom, opposite end, that you will meet the center, on the 2nd diagonal you take until you reach the opposite side at the top where you first transitioned in the middle). You don’t have to do a diagonal across the center ‘x’ once you take the first turn top or bottom, you could go along the full length on either side. You still hit the center ‘x’ twice if you attempted a clean full circuit however, because you’ll always come up from the bottom center in the middle of the ‘8’ to reach the ‘x’ and end the circuit. I’m pretty sure that could be explained a lot easier; it’s probably me though.
When you have completed that circuit and the transitions you’ll take and which gaits you’ll do, create a new map in your head that replaces the one you just made. You don’t replace it really, you just draw that on a piece of paper and repeat it in your head until you can visually forward and rewind that map in your head. Then move onto the next stage and repeat the same. It’ll work. Each piece of paper is a complete sequence, a stage, and you memorize it one piece at a time until it’s stuck in your head, then you do the next piece of paper, the next sequence, and so on.
You could probably pull off a complex 10 stage sequence – if you haven’t trained yourself in other areas to do this – in a few hours. I can manage 10 and do the transitions and gaits at the right time. I wouldn’t be winning any competitions, but I’m close. The lesson here is the knowing before it happens that allows you to focus on what’s important – the riding part. These two parts need to be separated (what’s going to happen before it happens and then preparing it as it’s already seen in your head, because you mapped it), because blending them together is going to end up in a bit of a mess most of the time, and each stage is not a repeat of the last.
From Beginner to End
Riding is definitely slow-time. When I’m biking, an entire day is a snap of the fingers and you’re physically worn. They’re different things entirely. The bike doesn’t have much power other than when you’re going downhill hitting 40mph, but the horse has a power all of its own. Time is different when you’re atop these two machines.
And that’s where I probably understood, more than at any other time in weeks gone by, what I was doing wrong. I didn’t decompress myself or the horse; not fully. I was trying to get the horse to function at my speed, drag it toward me, or at least a speed I thought would be best to achieve something even when downhill took that away.
And that’s about what I have as a beginner horse rider. From a mountain bike perspective – three broken fingers, a minor head injury, a black eye, and a chipped tooth. I think maybe, I should change transport.