The night before my latest riding lesson, I started to feel nervous. I couldn’t understand why at the time, so chose to focus on putting my anxiety to one side in order to take charge of whatever would happen and put my new motto into action – make the most of it. It wasn’t until after it was over and I’d arrived home that I realised the root of the problem: I wasn’t scared of riding (I didn’t think it was that, but this was the first question I asked myself), I was frightened of not enjoying it.
I’ve spent over 20 years in the saddle and I’m currently in a bit of a phase that I recognise from a previous time: my riding matters a lot to me, though not necessarily in a sense that I demand perfection from myself. I’m over that stage, and grown up enough to realise that, no matter how much you put in, it won’t always be perfect with horses. Many sportspeople will see that as a negative attitude, but it’s just the way it goes with equestrianism. So for a while, what I’ve decided to aim for is progression. It doesn’t matter what I achieve during 30 minutes in the saddle, just that I make some sort of forwards step in the process.
The problem is, half an hour isn’t a long time. Some coaches believe it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at an activity (I once tried – and failed – to figure out whether I’d hit that mark yet. I actually decided that I’d rather not know), and if we’re using that yardstick, 30 minutes really is a drop in the ocean. But at the moment, 30 minutes every fortnight is all I get. For a person who is very good at putting themselves under enormous amounts of pressure to achieve – not necessarily greatness, but to get what they want out of something – this is basically hideous.
On the morning of my ride, I conjured up my most positive attitude: I drove to the yard resolving to get the best out of my 30 minutes, no matter what I was given to ride. I tried to think of different things I’d work on depending on which of the three and a half horses I’ve ridden in the last two months I was put on, but drew a bit of a blank – maybe I sensed that it wouldn’t matter!
My instructor cheerfully presented me with a new horse: a recently-arrived livery who is supposedly easy to do and only used selectively within the riding school. I tacked him up, giving him a stroke, trying to learn a few things about him before mounting up (he’s fully clipped, a little rounder than I’d like a horse of his natural build to be, he doesn’t like his saddle being put on, and he wears a crank noseband with a flash – the bit used has disappeared from my memory, but I think it was a hanging cheek eggbutt snaffle). Once I was in the saddle, I was told there were no surprises with this horse – that he wouldn’t have major steering issues and wouldn’t test me by bucking: good news which I probably didn’t pay enough attention to until I dismounted, which makes me think I’m starting to have trust issues!
I was a little disappointed with this horse initially – despite looking very different and handling in a better way to the horses I’ve ridden previously, he’s pretty dead to the leg. I’ve ridden worse, but it took a bit to get this horse going. He dragged his back end around for five minutes, and we tried various things to get him going: walk-halt-walk transitions, serpentines, a few circles and trying to ask more from the trot once I got there, but I still wasn’t being as effective as I’d have liked. Just as I was about to crack and ask if I could canter him to get him to stretch out and pick himself up, my instructor asked me to do it.
Given that it’s been six months since I rode a decent canter transition, I sent up a quick request to whoever oversees these things before sitting and asking, whispered in the horse’s ear, muttered to myself, and the magic finally happened. I nearly cried. We sailed around the arena, the horse opened up beneath me, and when I asked him to come back down to trot, it didn’t die. I got a big trot straight away, one which I actually struggled to contain and keep up with, thanks partly to my previous lesson being on a 14hh pony.
And that’s where it nearly all went wrong. I’d now succeeded in getting the horse moving behind, but working totally on the forehand. At this point, he reminded me of the ex-racehorse I had years ago (fortunately, this ride didn’t scare me like those rides did, I’m just talking about his action), and my instructor said he was moving like a plank – too stretched out, that I needed to be a bit more forceful and gather him together. I’m ashamed to say that I think she got a bit frustrated with me – she didn’t take a negative tone, to her credit, she was trying to be really helpful. I completely understood what she meant, I was just struggling hard to put it into practice.
I started riding more circles, so that I could try and bring the horse down into my hand, using my legs and seat to steer and picking up a better contact. Whilst I did this, my instructor and one of the livery owners started putting some jumps up – mainly for me, but also for the next session. I stopped to adjust one of my stirrups, which I’d decided was bothering me and, at the same time, noticed that my horse’s numnah had slipped backwards badly. If I’d only had two minutes left, I’d have let it be, but as we were only halfway through, I pointed it out and dismounted so that we could fix it.
When I was on the ground, I decided to be blunt (see: making the most of it) and actually told my instructor that I thought I was riding this more fluid, brainy and well-schooled horse worse than I was riding the messy, green horses of my previous lessons. She talked me through it again, explaining and describing what the horse looked like and what we were actually aiming for. She also commented that I wasn’t looking ahead enough, something which I admittedly found hard to swallow, because it’s something I’m usually very conscious of and which I am normally successful at putting into practice (again, at the end of my ride, I figured out what was wrong here, and I’ll mention it later!).
She mused for a minute as to whether she should perhaps get on and demonstrate – I’m not sure if she thought I might be offended – and when I supported the idea, she did. As I watched, I thought it was strange that a horse which can be so lazy from the back is bridled in a way which could be perceived as quite harsh – a flash is one thing, and fairly standard though these days not something I’d rush to use, but a crank (which many dressage professionals use because they cannot use a flash) versus a standard cavesson feels like a different move.
My instructor got the horse moving better than I had from behind: she was being more forceful than I was – not unkind or booting like a beginner, just asking more of the horse and taking a more dominant stance as a rider. We decided that perhaps I’ve backed off a little in order to sit the bucks of the other horses. I got back on with a better understanding of what I should be doing, and my ability to do so was increased by the horse having now been corrected by my instructor. I also think he’d become a bit more enthusiastic with the jumps dotted around the arena.
I started trotting again, did a few circles and concentrated hard on moving him away from my leg, into my hand and still preparing him for what I wanted by looking ahead. My instructor asked me to take him over one of the jumps – he trotted in calmly, but I got a bit of a shock when he stood off it a little and took it half a stride sooner than I thought he would. It wasn’t bad or out of control – again a symptom that I’ve got used to green horses, who get in really close to a fence in their typically uncertain manner. This horse knows his job when it comes to jumping, and it felt like he made a really nice shape and effort, even over something which was really very small. What also surprised me was that he landed in a very enthusiastic canter – I was totally unprepared and we shot off down the arena, the horse looking for his next fence. All at once, I was pleased and in a state of shock, as I really have forgotten what it’s like to jump properly.
My instructor had me incorporate the fence into a circle and my judgment of the horse’s takeoff point improved quickly. I jumped the fence in both directions, but still couldn’t quite get a handle on his bounding getaways – I think I was too busy being pleased that I was jumping an enthusiastic horse who I trusted to get to the fence in a straight line, over it in a decent fashion, and away without collapsing.
As the lesson ended, I was asked to move from this cross pole to an upright which was in a different position. I lined the horse up, rode in and… almost died of embarrassment: it was a bigger fence, so of course he made a nice large jump, again standing off a bit more than I anticipated – which meant I socked him in the mouth on landing. I immediately cringed and apologised to the poor horse – and my instructor, who rushed to reassure me and asked me to do it again. I approached feeling better-prepared and rode the fence better second time, relieved that I’d rescued myself and not made the same mistake twice.
All at once, I’m pleased and frustrated. Jumping was worrying me, because it’s been a long time and my scrambles over fences on inexperienced horses of late haven’t done a huge amount for my confidence. It was nice to ride a horse who did a lot of the work for me, and feel the momentum again, reminding myself that I do enjoy it and I don’t have as much to fear as I thought. It’s now completely obvious that my seat and my organisation are what I need to work on. This time, because I was on a better-schooled horse, I forgot that I still needed to tell him things – I stopped thinking ahead enough, so the poor thing was probably a little confused, because I was focusing too much on him being lazy behind and therefore took my eye off the horizon.
Having seen me on a different horse, my instructor’s now aware of what I need to work on too. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next time – I’d like to ride this horses again, having another chance to tackle him and hopefully redeem myself for what I’m going to put down as a slightly off day having cranked up the pressure on myself the night before.
Next time, as well as working on my seat, posture and communication, it’s just a small matter of continuing to make the most of it.