This comes from FD CR - I have learned to love, love, love finding holes.Sometimes how we learn to find them can be a lttle unsettling.
Worth Every Penny
Having come back to horses after going cold turkey in my thirties, it’s been a slow process regaining something of the skill I possessed as a heedless twentysomething.
There’s been riding school horses, catch rides, short loans, holiday cover, a bit of backing and schooling and manners instalment, with a summer helping with project ponies for flipping and the occasional happy hack when I can cadge a ride.
Rather hit and miss really. So I was thrilled when an old acquaintance asked if I’d like to ride her horse, Socks, for a while. Just to keep him fit and have a bit of fun.
He’s had something of a chequered history – went GP before he was eight, and then a cycle of injury and recovery and competition, rinse and repeat, and finally a bit of a nervous breakdown followed by a long spell in the field and a short, decidedly inglorious career as a schoolmaster for a riding stables.
In his teens now, but he’s still not a novice ride: somewhat stiff, resentful of inexpert riding, a bit of a termagant and inclined to the occasional air above ground when he feels like it.
Loosened up though, he’s powerful, supple, responsive and sharp; a bouncing rubber ball of energy who throws in changes and passage for the love of it and requires his rider to be a movement ahead always. Of course I said yes.
And mostly we’ve had fun, albeit with a few explosions while we got used to each other. It probably doesn’t help that his owner is 5’10 and all leg and I’m 5’2 (ish) and…not leggy. I had to relearn to sit again; it’s quite horrifying how out of shape I was considering I wasn’t outwardly out of shape.
Mostly, it was working out well. However, he just wasn’t quite as through and swingy and carrying me as he was for his owner. It was all good, nice, obedient, energetic, coherent, even almost elegant (a serious achievement for me, even at my best I was better described as workmanlike!); but not as good as it was for her.
She came and watched, and we agreed that it was so. We ruled out physical causes. I varied his varied routine a bit more, thinking maybe he was bored. (Bear in mind I wasn’t training him; he’s plenty trained. Also bear in mind he’s not a horse to suffer in silence; if I was doing something egregiously wrong, he’d definitely let me know about it.) It did not make an appreciable difference.
I asked the trainer at the barn to give us some lessons; she had us a bit more collected, but again it was all very… nice. I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but I personally am not looking for nice in my dressage (although it’s a start of course). I associate correct dressage more with words like uplifting, thrilling, edge of exploding, riding the crest of a wave feeling. Admitted some horses more so than others, but this is a more so horse.
So, money was laid out on a session with a (very expensive and booked months in advance) trainer. We drove over, with a somewhat excited horse – I think initially he thought we were competing, I’d polished him to such a high gloss. I got on, and went into the arena and he told the owner that he wasn’t interested in hearing about the horse or the problem – I was just to ride as I usually did. Not that he used those words – it was more of a grunt and a shut up gesture and a point and circle gesture at me.
So I warmed up and after about fifteen minutes, he waved me over and wordlessly indicated that I should take my feet out of the stirrups.
I did so. Silence ensued. After a minute or so, (and one minor reprimand to the horse to not paw please) he grunted, then walked around us, still in silence. I must admit I was having second thoughts at this point – I’m not keen on trainers who play head games. Still, not refundable so I kept my gob shut and waited.
He came back over and had me remove my stirrups altogether, and gestured us out onto the track. After a half a circuit, he (still in silence) had us halt again, and he came and repositioned my leg. He sent us off again, and we continued walking. He asked for more walk; we gave it and he said “No!” in tones of great irritation. Halted again, repositioned again – not so much of a movement of the leg, just a twist from the thigh, and said: and “Leg off!” We walked again; again he reminded me, “Off!”
It transpired he wanted me to carry my heel further from the horse. Variations of this repeated through trot sitting and rising and canter. He had us shift from working to medium and to extended and back again, mostly via gesture and “More!” The only movement we carried out was an eternal twenty metre circle. Every now and then: Off! Or occasionally: “Sit!”
It was disturbing how much that minor change in position destabilized my position. It was even more disturbing and humiliating how much of a change that minor change produced in Socks.
Light became lighter, and sharper and more responsive; he was keyed in and listening and anticipating my every breath. Supple became swinging and he lifted so much through his back in the trot I was unable to sit it again and had to keep rebalancing myself. The less I did the more I got; it was a case of getting out of his way.
After a bare forty minutes I was exhausted and Socks was getting sweaty, but we were finally moving between the paces without that nagging stickyness that had been present between us from the start. We called it a day, and went out and washed down a perky, pleased with himself horse and left him tucked up on the lorry with a hay net. We walked, (well, Sock’s Mum walked, I wobbled) over to pay at the office and say thank you. His groom offered us a coffee and we watched him working with one of his students. I was relieved to see he was wordless with them too!
He came over – I am not sure but I suspect I was rather woebegone – I’ve rarely had such a crushing object lesson delivered in so few words, and he said: “Not to worry – a clever horse – he’d rather you try than him.” He nodded, took his coffee and walked off.
So I have had a salutary reminder about how easy it is for my body to lie to me and how the real proof of my correctness is always in the way the horse goes. I have another lesson in three months time and something to work on with Socks in earnest and a new (old) mantra to remember: Less is more. And also a new desire to work on my abdominal and thigh muscles, because I seriously couldn’t walk the day after.