I’ve been trying to sit down and write about this for a few hours, but I’ve been struggling to focus because it was such a fun experience that I’m finding it difficult to put it into words. I wasn’t expecting to ride until the weekend, so when I received a message yesterday inviting me out for a ride, I grabbed the chance with both hands.
I had a feeling it was going to be a good day when I arrived at the yard and was greeted enthusiastically by all five horses popping their heads out of their stables to say hi. I got the horse I’d be riding ready, pleased to see him again having not been able to spend time with my friend and her horses for almost two weeks. Sadly, she ultimately wasn’t able to join me, but she very generously told me to do whatever I wanted with her horse whilst she reluctantly holed up in her office.
With James the horse ready and raring to go – he’s been struggling with some jealousy issues whilst my friend works on her project horse, so she was relieved somebody was able and willing to give him some attention – we headed out to the arena to spend some time together. I was frantically trying to remind myself of everything I’ve been learning and working on at this yard – I’m practicing some natural horsemanship skills in the hope that it can help the team at camp work more effectively with our horses this summer, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have access to some clever horses and a well-versed owner to assist me in my mission – so, although I usually fail to go into a session with a clear goal or picture in mind of what I want to achieve, something positive usually happens (even if, at the time, it appears to not be such a good thing).
I find working alone in this scenario difficult, because I’m still very attached to the “am I doing this right?” mentality. What I keep having to remind myself is that it’s not really a case of correct and incorrect – as long as the horse and I are both safe, there’s always something to be learned, providing my behaviour is also consistent. I was also concerned today that I’d be rusty – my rope-handling skills still need a lot of work, especially given that I’m not the most coordinated person at the best of times – but I decided the best approach was to leave my worries at the gate and give it everything I had.
James was in easily the liveliest mood I’ve seen him in, so I quickly chose to take full advantage of that. I put him to the test straight away: when I got to the arena, there were a few pieces of equipment I wanted to move around, so I made his rope safe on the saddle and left him standing by himself whilst I moved poles around. I’d usually be very anxious to leave a horse standing tacked up without being tied up, even if I knew they were in a safe place, but these horses are used to being treated a little differently and, as I mentioned, I wanted to test him. James passed my test – as soon as I moved away, he followed me around like a dog, clearly eager to be involved with me and curious as to what we’d be doing. I knew it’d be a good session.
With the poles in place, I decided to make a bolder move than I ordinarily do and rev the horse up a bit. As he’s older and has a tendency to be a little lazy, I haven’t managed to get any trot work out of James whilst on the ground without resorting to classical lunging-style techniques, but I had a good feeling this time. If anyone unaccustomed to these methods had been watching, they’d have thought it looked very strange, but I shrugged my inhibitions off and began to run around the arena – James followed at a bright trot, stopping abruptly every time I did: the plan was working.
With James listening to me, I continued to work him on the line, watching as he lifted his tail and gave some playful bounces and skips throughout the session. I tried not to think about the part of our practices I’ve generally been worst at – mounting up. He’s around 16.2 hands (for the non-horsey, that means he’s about 5’4” measuring from the ground to the base of his neck) and his owner has taught all of her horses to stand quietly and sensibly next to anything their rider chooses to stand or sit on, which is a tactic designed by her so that when the horses are out hacking, they can be re-mounted easily should the rider need to get off and back on again. The way we do this at home is to sit on top of the arena’s post and rail fence and guide the horses to stand next to us, with our knees touching the side of the saddle so that there is no “leap of faith” whereby you need to fling yourself at the horse in order to get on. Previously, James has literally led me in a merry dance when I’ve tried to do this – he knows the rules, but most of the time he gets me in a flap and stands facing me wearing a smug grin and waiting to see if I can figure out how to re-assert myself on the situation.
Mainly due to the fact that he can be twitchy about his girth, I stopped periodically during the in-hand work in order to tighten it slowly until I was satisfied that it was safe and we were also at a point where it was time for me to ride. I knew that this smart horse would figure out what was next the minute I pulled the stirrups down, so I prepared myself for what I had to do next and headed over to the fence feeling determined. As I climbed up, something unexpected happened: James sidled over behind me and positioned the saddle next to my knee as soon as I sat down. Huh. Outfoxed by a horse, again.
My lack of confidence held me back – this horse has fooled me before, and I didn’t want it to happen again so I did something I perhaps shouldn’t have and failed to trust him. I tried to duck around and figure out if he was stood square – I was concerned that he might move away at the crucial moment – but couldn’t see properly, so I did something I’ve watched his owner do when trying to build a horse’s confidence and wiggled the saddle with my hand instead. When he remained still, I praised him and waited a minute longer before getting on. Part of me wanted to send him away so that I could see if I could align him correctly by myself having failed to do it previously, but my gut told me not to look this gift horse (sorry) in the mouth and just get on.
The saddle is where I’m much more comfortable, assertive and confident around horses, because it’s the habitat I’m used to, so although James was feeling pretty lively, once I was mounted up I was happy. As he wears a halter when ridden, it’s a great chance to test my ability to manoeuvre using my seat bones, thighs, balance and other body parts rather than relying on rein contact.
Buoyed by my positive in-hand session, I pushed myself in the saddle too, expanding on some things I’d achieved previously. I re-visited the trot to halt transition I’d managed before and was pleased when it went well, then racked my brain for something else I could try. I settled on walk to canter, which I knew could be tricky given James’s tendency to be less than quick off the leg and, although he was in a bouncy move, his walk was still typically sedate. I summoned my best visualisation powers (the words of riding instructors past ringing in my ears: “think gallop!”), asked the question and got the answer I wanted! I’m pretty sure I squealed with joy at that point, and repeated the exercise a few times throughout the session to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke.
As I was riding around, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and took a couple of videos. Below is the most interesting of the bunch (sadly, that’s not saying much!), and is unfortunately shaky, but it’s been on my mind for a while to put more pictures on my blog and, strangely, I didn’t take any today. So instead, here’s a quick video of James playing his favourite game of kicking a ball around the arena.
I’ve come away from every session over the last six weeks excited by the new things I’m learning, but mostly daunted by the task in front of me. Today felt like the first time I had a bit of a breakthrough and could see that I really have taken some significant steps – it’s made me feel more positive about what I might achieve when I get to work with the same group of horses daily: if this is what I can do when I’m getting maybe an hour or so per week, the potential with full-time focus is enormous. Hopefully, I’ll continue to learn as much as possible from James before I fly out for the summer – I can’t wait to see what he’ll teach me next.