I wasn’t expecting to ride this week. I’m currently having a lesson once per fortnight, and that was last week. After last week’s lesson, I was supposed to meet up with someone I’d connected with by pure chance when I was working in a shop before Christmas and got chatting for long enough to discover that this lady is setting up an equine learning business and likes what I have to say for myself (this is the point at which I sent a mental “thank you” to the person who taught me the importance of being able to talk to anyone who’s put in front of you). However, due to the horrific weather and fairly-remote nature of this person’s property, the meeting was cancelled.
Fortunately, we re-arranged for this week. The weather clung on and I found myself at a beautiful private yard, watching as this woman did some ground work with one of her mares – a four-year old Quarter Horse who is much-loved and has a huge personality. We chatted at a million miles per hour and I know my brain didn’t take in everything that was said about personalities and Parelli, but I tried my best to absorb by watching the way this mare worked.
She worked in a Western saddle and Parelli halter, with her owner using a combination of voice, click and carrot stick commands, as well as body language. Apparently, I did the right thing without being told: I didn’t invade the mare’s space, but stayed involved in the exercise by remaining at a consistent distance (she spent most of her time on a kind of short lunge distance, so I was mainly staying out of the way so that I didn’t get run over!). This mare is great – she walks, trots and canters on voice commands, which isn’t something her owner does as a standard, but something they learned to do occasionally together because the horse finds it comforting.
I love finding horse owners who are so doting without being misguided: every yard has the owners who baby their horses, who won’t see that their beast does any wrong, and the reality is that the horse has the owner wrapped tightly around their fetlock. But this person is a brilliant example of using love and devotion to understand her horses and make their mutual working more effective, rather than it making the horses soft. The horses know there’s a boundary and a chain of command, but they also know that right and wrong exist. Positive reinforcement is used and there’s a keen understanding that work must be done, but that it can be fun.
At the same time, it’s not perfect. Learning takes place every time. This has been the mare’s home since she was a yearling, and the bond between her and her owner is strong, but it’s a lifelong process of growing together. This is what happens when you can’t communicate verbally – there is always an element of unpredictability and having to figure each other out. So rather than getting cross with each other at any point, this pair tell each other in their own way when they’re confused or it’s not going how they want it to, and in a good way, they work through it.
After I’d seen the ground work with the mare, I was invited to ride one of the other horses – a beautifully-looked after 18-year old who was supposed to be a show jumper but didn’t make it, and has been with his owner for 10 years now. He was tacked up in an English saddle and a Parelli halter and rope reins, rather than a bridle. I was told that he’d work with both English or Western reins and that, initially, I could pick.
I mounted up and we went to the arena. He’s a lovely big horse, the kind I enjoy riding, with a fantastically comfortable saddle and a swinging gait which often belies his years. If you’d just landed from another planet, you also wouldn’t know that this horse has had little work due to the weather – he’s very quiet (read: older and a little on the lazy side), and I had no trust issues (in fact, I realised I’m going to make a more conscious effort to wait for a horse to give me a reason to mistrust them, rather than being anxious from the off). However, he did test me quickly… by stopping.
I was told that he’s stubborn, and that the more you ask for something, the less likely you are to get it. Meaning: don’t boot and flap your legs, because he’ll just stay stock still. This was a real challenge for my currently-weak position, because it meant really thinking and using my seat and thigh contact to create impulsion and forward movement, rather than relying on my lower leg. Remember: I’m also riding in a halter, so I have no hand contact either.
Another clue I was given is that this horse doesn’t enjoy schooling and going round in circles. There are a few Parelli “toys” in the arena that the horses like and are used to – a set of two ground poles, a ball and two barrels, so I looped around the toys for a while letting him work in and play a bit. It was great fun riding him up to the ball and seeing what he’d do – the first time, he stood and licked it for quite some time, because I’d not ridden to it with any impulsion and purpose, but later in the session he kicked it along very playfully in both walk and trot.
As I think back on the session, I’m really proud of myself. It’s always hard riding a horse in front of his owner, but this felt like a very low-pressure situation, possibly because we’d been chatting for an hour beforehand and I was relaxed and happy. I received some good comments on my position and enjoyed riding in the halter – it’s such an interesting thing to see how we rely on our hands. We weren’t aiming for me to have the horse completely rounded and working into the “bridle”, just to have him going forwards and doing what I wanted. I often think my downwards transitions are sloppy, so to take away the crutch of a mouth contact and force myself to really think about what I’m doing with my seat was a fantastic exercise and I’m pleased to say that the horse and I picked up on each other quickly: my first walk to halt transition was very drawn out, but the next one was far better (I think he was testing me, because after that, I was much happier with every single transition).
With the help of a schooling whip, I moved on to some trot work. The owner suggested that, given that this horse can back off too persistent a leg aid, I try really focusing on my seat and thigh contact, with the whip as backup. So we started to trot and, following some transitions which I was quite proud of, the trot picked up nicely. Again, focusing on my seat, I spiralled him in and out on a 20 metre circle at walk at one point – not concentrating overly on bend or flexion, just experimenting with seat contact and body position to make him go where I wanted, rather than relying too heavily again on my lower leg.
The brief canter work was also lovely – and great to ride a horse who didn’t fight me into canter with a buck – and I pretty much didn’t want it to end. The last few minutes were spent asking the horse to move sideways. He’s apparently not big into dressage, but sidesteps he can do when persuaded, and his owner helped me to move him sideways along one of the poles. I was amazed that I was able to do it, again without a bridle, but still holding him together on all planes to stop him ducking backwards or stepping forwards, and taking into account his stubbornness.
Both the horse and I came away from the session very relaxed, and I’ve been invited back to hack him out at the weekend with his owner on another horse. One of the other things today reminded me of was the importance of horses as my breathing space – my riding was stressing me out again, as were a few other things, so today could have gone terribly. But I think a change of scenery, focus and mindset helped me to re-adjust, settle and produce what’s possibly the best work I’ve done since last summer. My time in the saddle today was spent concentrating entirely on the horse and me, when I was in a very precarious situation mentally. I’m glad I was able to switch off, reset myself and get ready to move on.
I don’t know what is ahead beyond Saturday but, if nothing else, I had a great ride today. It’s still there, I just have to tap into it.