When I arrived for my riding lesson last week, I was met by the centre owner, who was in a bad mood. Fortunately, she’s not my instructor and soon disappeared. There had been some confusion about the day I was booked for – I had no idea about this, and the situation could’ve been easily resolved with one phone call on the centre’s part, but that would just be too easy – which was part of what caused the manager’s mood. But it wasn’t a problem: my instructor was free, there were a few horses available as well as an arena so we were away. Well, after this conversation:
Instructor: Who did you ride last time?
Instructor: I’m going to put you on another horse.
Me: [with a hopeful tone] One which doesn’t buck?
Instructor: [laughs nervously] Er. You’ll enjoy him. I’d like you to push him.
Me: [enjoying the sound of a challenge] As in, doing some more lateral work or…?
Instructor: Um. No. Just try and get something out of him.
My instructor explained that my new mount has been on holiday, she’s used him for a couple of lessons, but he’s only just coming back into work. I didn’t dare ask if this were due to injury, but I did ask if he’d been on loan or livery and got a no to both. He’s another youngster, so my guess is that they didn’t have time to work with him previously, so he got put on ice. Great.
The good news is there was minimal bucking (just two very small ones), possibly because this horse is a cob-type and isn’t very tall (I used to be able to guess height very accurately, and my radar puts him at about only 14.2hh) and, against my 5’8” and post-Christmas frame, he didn’t have much of a chance.
My instructor warned me that this horse/pony has “steering issues”, which I’m learning is her code for “he leans on your outside rein, tries to scrape you on the fence and naps”. At first, he moved really nicely (that said, I only tried forwards, I made no attempts at any lateral movement!) off my leg, and almost lulled me into a false sense of security. As with the other horse I’d been riding, we had him working on the inside track to try and prevent him from dragging me around the arena against the fence.
Getting used to a pony-ish trot stride again took some doing on my part, and I was holding him fairly well together (with my current main flaws rolling constantly through my mind, reminding myself to sit up better, keep my reins the same length and look further ahead) until we came onto a circle. Then, he dragged me to the fence and tried to nap down the arena. And that’s where I lost the flatwork slightly, because as well as putting my leg on afterwards and being more determined with my shoulders, I shortened my reins drastically, which produced a bit of resistance in him.
Better news came when he was much easier to get into canter than the previous two horses I’ve ridden, but I was floored when my instructor put a small jump up. He’s not half as disorganised as G (who trots like he’s drunk), but I still couldn’t see how I was going to produce a jump from this animal. My gut feeling was correct: he saw the jump, got excitedly distracted and wouldn’t hold a straight line into the fence (which meant that I spent the entire approach trying to keep him focused). We got from one side to the other in a wonky trot, and I kicked myself afterwards because I knew I’d succumbed to one of my other current major mistakes – looking at the fence, not beyond it.
I approached again with my mind on the horizon rather than the rails and he hopped it better, gaining confidence. By the third time around, he’d decided he knew what he was doing and tried to rush it, but I kept him ticking along and he cleared it nicely. But now we had an audience: several of the centre’s staff had stopped to watch and I started feeling self-conscious (the rational side of me knows they were curious to see how my instructor’s “project” was coming along, but I still felt like I was under the microscope).
I was also starting to feel irrational about my jumping: as I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t done much in a long time, partly because I lost my nerve a bit. My current problem is that I don’t trust the horses I’m riding enough – that, if I make a mistake, they’ll help out or not take advantage of that – and therefore I’m under pressure to do something perfectly when I’m all too aware that I’m rusty. My instructor added another rail onto the fence to see how the horse and I would cope, and I completely bottled out of taking it in a canter, because of my own issues, the horse’s napping and keenness and the fact that I had an audience. I’m disappointed in myself, but confidence isn’t something you can buy or force, which is what makes my situation all the more frustrating for me.
The horse actually hopped the larger fence nicely, and I was relieved to have it behind us. The lesson ended there, and my instructor was actually really happy with how well the horse had gone. I, too, am pleased with what I got out of him, but I’m still not over the moon about what I’m getting out of myself. Maybe I’m expecting too much, and maybe I’m missing the point, but I really would like to ride a horse which falls into the “easy to do” category for a change. Easy horses don’t really exist, and if we wanted an easy sport, we wouldn’t pick riding. But whilst I was riding, I mused about this with my instructor and steered her towards what I want: I said that I feel like I’ve got a handle on my seat in walk and trot again (and that, if it does go awry, I spot it now and fix it quickly), but that riding these horses with difficulties in their way of going isn’t doing me any favours at the canter. I knew what I thought I’d need to do to fix this, and she said it without me asking – that I need to ride a schoolmaster so that I can pick the rhythm up again and do some work without stirrups.
Here’s the rub: I don’t think they have such a horse. This doesn’t really surprise me, but it is frustrating. It’s not my only frustration either, but my other issues stem from my personal situation, the fact that I don’t have my own transport at the moment and I also don’t have an unlimited supply of money to spend on riding lessons, so it’s all too infrequent to be making a big difference in my technique anyway. I think it’s come to the time to make a decision, and my options as I see them are these: do I stay where I am, enjoy the challenge of these dysfunctional horses and put my own issues and priorities to one side; or, do I try to find somewhere else?
The last thing I’ll say is that my posts on my riding lessons always feel very negative, but the truth is quite different. I know I’m getting something out of them. I’ve progressed, I’ve learned new exercises and I’ve gained exposure to certain situations. I like my instructor a lot and I come away smiling, feeling like I’m in a better mood and I’ve enjoyed being on the horse. That all matters a great deal to me. Perhaps it’s just a case of the grass seeming greener?