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When I think about riding a horse, the first thing I thought of was how great it would be being that high off the ground and not falling off. That’s the first couple of things that come to mind. The second thought is that I enjoy equine sports on television and those moments when the rider falls off.
That first time wanting to own a car… you know all about the car before you get one. You get in the one you wanted from all that “imagine if” stuff we do because it’s probably going to be so great and everything, after passing a test that lets you know that once you get on the road you’re probably going to be involved in a collision. You just brush that bit off because of the statistics.
That’s how I remember the first few seconds before I climbed up onto a horse standing 17.3 hands. I remember it getting bigger and bigger as I got closer to it even though I had black leather boots with a decent amount of heel on them, and I also remember the sound it was making; the sound of impatient irregular snorting as if to take flight in whichever direction didn’t have a 6 foot fence and its large, dark bulging eyes seemed to be of the hope that I wasn’t going to pull on the reins before it got to fly through the air 7 feet off the ground. The one thing I noticed was the muscle groups on this horse, the smell, and the fine glossy chestnut coat. The horse didn’t stand completely still, but when it shifted, you could see the bulges move about, like rolling hills affected by a blowing wind.
I probably shouldn’t have told somebody that I was, “confident about this and I can’t wait to get started”. I’m not a nervous person, but as I launched myself from that first foot in the stirrup, upward and over to impress everybody in the yard, a thought crossed my mind, “This feels like I’m going into battle and about to charge the enemy.”
I don’t know what it’s like for everybody else, but sitting on a horse in clothes that look like everyday casual wear you’ll never take anywhere else is an odd feeling. The first thing you’re holding onto are leather reins in one of your hands or both, as you get ready – a sensation that you can’t do anything more with them should something happen – and they’re attached to the horse in such a way as to suggest that if you didn’t have them, you’re probably not going to have a lot of fun. And then there’s this other thing where you’re wondering why you don’t also have a safety belt that holds you securely in the saddle. One of the yard assistants walks over and gives a strong pull on the strap below me from the middle of the horse that holds the saddle in place as if sensing what I was thinking. There was a brief moment where I thought I was going to slide around the mid-section of the horse as the saddle lurched slightly more than I expected, ending up with me getting a great view of looking up at the sky.
My head is about 9 feet from the ground, but it feels a lot higher – other people around me are way down there. It’s strange looking over the neck of the horse toward its head. It’s like, for a few seconds, you forget it’s attached to 700kg of muscle and bone, because most of it disappears beneath you as you get a view of your surroundings, so you focus instead between its ears and go through a film of ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’ in your head while somebody is talking to you. When you look behind you, there is a substantial amount of horse-backside that has more muscle mass in it than 3 of the biggest, strongest, strongmen in the world. I got the feeling thinking about this that, when I was mounting the horse, it had probably thought somebody had thrown a blanket on its back and it was about to be let free into a field.
I’m being led by the riding instructor toward the center of an arena shaped to an oblong. There are no Gladiators in it fighting each other. I keep getting these films coming into and out of my mind. I also see that sequence where two horses are rushing together and one of the riders on top of one of the horses gets bashed off from the end of a long pole.
The arena is set no more than a hundred yards from the riding school itself, through some trees, and then it backs onto a field with endless fields to the horizon with lines of trees in the distance going across and toward the area. There were a few staff on the outside looking over the fence, and to one side an enclosed building as big as the arena itself with concrete around it where various people in riding gear were moving about back and forth. At least I had a small audience to watch me.
The horse I’m on is attached to a long rope line that ends up in the hands of the riding instructor. The horse has remained walking, but the riding instructor somehow makes the horse move outward as they remain in a central position – I thought I had done it myself.
There’s a couple of things I know about horses that you should all know. This is my first few times riding a horse under the control of somebody else – the lunge – and before this time, I had tried horses that were small and a little bit on the ‘narrow’ side. That is, they were about 15.2 hands and had a narrow mid-section that always seemed to be a little too long. Every time I got on one of these horses, it was the second most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done with the exception of passing a stone down my urethra, no matter what saddle they put on it. A big, muscly, bunchy, horse has a completely different feel to it and it will have a pendulum like motion when it moves – as if it’s moving in slow motion – and I just seem to be able to blend into that motion. There’s only one problem… the strength and power of a horse from 15 hands to 17.3 is substantial even if the horse is 10 years old (you do not want to get on a horse under 7 years at 17 hands unless you know what you’re doing). Because to be quite honest about all of this, horses can be very unpredictable unless they’re either a) unfit or b) old.
When you’re under instruction in the horse world, don’t say anything. Just listen. If you have a problem, there’s a very good chance the riding instructor already knows about what that problem is – they’re watching you as much as the horse. Concentrate on what you’re doing. After a few weeks learning to ride, you’re going to realise that nobody helping you to ride a horse is in a state of mind where you’re behind on what you’re supposed to be doing timed to what they’re telling you to do and when to do it. The last thing they want is you falling off the horse for whatever reason. The sure way of that never happening is when the riding instructor knows you’re relaxed, knows you’re listening and knows you’re doing it as close to doing it right as they would expect you to, otherwise, they will not move forward with your training.
I must have been doing something right because the riding instructor tells me to take my feet out of the stirrups after about 10 minutes of reminding me about my hands being relaxed and “higher” and my heels “dropped”, and then, “feel your pelvic bone on the saddle… imagine your weight falling through it”. At that point, I had never had a horse go from a walk to a canter and I’ve never had a canter on a horse, but it did and I hadn’t been aware that I had. The riding instructor stepped out from the center, a few feet inward, made a few sounds and a hand movement, and I was walking again. When you’ve got no stirrups, there’s a lot of your weight you didn’t know was there instead going down the middle of you to your backside, from your legs and you feet – that just dangle somewhat. The one thing I remember is that there was a connection that was more apparent and I remember thinking that it seemed a lot better riding a horse without stirrups and then… the horse lifted and lurched forward – and this 700kg animal moved in a way I did not expect. It moved forward like there was no effort involved in doing it. As if its weight and my weight didn’t do anything to cause a loud noise of locomotion. It was silent and it had the quality of a flying sensation for a few seconds. The first canter on a horse is the best transition you’ll ever feel when riding. There’s just nothing like it.
Which is a shame, because most of the time, you’ll be doing a trot – which involves standing up and sitting down in your stirrups, which I’d done for a few weeks, every other day. Today, I was going to be doing it without. The standing up and sitting down is not for your benefit, it’s for the benefit of the horse. You can sit, and you do get trained to sit on the trot, but it’s really the best way to know how to feel that pelvis, because it’s that that makes everything else work. Once you’ve learned, you’ll barely ever trot a horse. Most of the time it’ll be a sort of walk… going faster… something happens a bit more which you won’t feel… and then canter. When a horse canters, there’s a feeling like no other about a horse you’ll ever get between when it’s walking, when it’s trotting and when it’s galloping. When it’s galloping, you’re not really in a great deal of control. When it’s cantering, you have all the control as if it were walking. It’s an odd sensation. Not only that, it’s like being on the top of a flowing river.
Unless you have difficulty connecting your body up – feeling where everything is – then riding a horse is not going to be easy. There is a difference between riding a horse and riding a horse. Don’t believe for one moment that competing in dressage is simply practice – it isn’t. It’s mastery, and some of if comes from the rider, some of it comes from the horse, but mostly, it has to be two pieces of a jigsaw that fit together.
The transition is something that is so simple, yet very difficult to get right. For instance, if you’re not balanced on the horse, it’s going to go wrong on several different levels. There’s a difference between something happening and something that looks right and invisible. There is no way you’re going to do a transition on a horse the first time and it not looking like you just hit the horse on the head with a mallet or twisted your back to achieve it.
The transition works on the basis of one simple understanding. The horse is waiting for you to tell it to do something. It’s anticipating as much as waiting, but it’s anticipation all the same. Anticipation denotes intelligence. As long as you ride a horse as if you were riding an intelligent being, you’re going to one day, understand what dressage is all about. There is no way the best dressage rider in the world could do what they do without intelligence being guided by it. And that’s what a transition really is.
When you transition a horse, you understand that it’s anticipating it, which means you need to understand how to transition yourself, because when that process comes into effect – if you’re left behind and you don’t anticipate the reaction or the horse – the horse will fall back out of it. It’s not the horse that’s falling out of it – they have an incredible memory and they’re sensitive to your weight and where it’s going – it’s you, the rider. They will do exactly what you do, even when you fail, they’ll do it – so beginner riders assume it’s the horse. The thing is, if you do this too many times, the horse will only adapt to the beginner rider, which means they think the wrong thing you’re doing is the right thing to do and the beginner rider isn’t really making the transition – the horse is. They’re clever, they anticipate, and they’re trying to make you look good because they know you’re not doing it right – and the riding instructor can see this.
The stages of transition and if I remember it, is like this: the inside leading foot of the horse must land, before you do it – and since you’re going in a circle, it’s all about looking in the direction you’re going and a subtle pull of your inside hand on the reins (the other hand does not change position). You can look 9 feet below you at this and see the inside foot land or… you can feel it, or even sense it without even looking. You don’t have to know. It’s a feeling through your whole body, transferred from the horse. Then your outside, lower part, of your leg to the heel moves backward a few inches, and touches inward – you don’t kick; this isn’t a Western – and if you’re sitting right and your weight flows through your pelvis and into the horse, you just got your transition. This feeling you get when transitioning a horse from a walk straight into a canter is like nothing I can describe the first time you do it right when you barely moved or allowed any effort in your body to trigger it. It’s just completely mind-blowing when it happens.
The point is, be one with yourself and then the horse.
I’ll stop here and continue it later this week. This is all from a short amount of experience riding a horse based on 10 years of owning a bicycle and using a bicycle pump.
The next part will be called:
“Cantering for More”
…and you can find that here.