Hand and Leg

Today I rode a slightly more challenging horse named Flash. A good-tempered, not-very- large chestnut with a blaze, he was a good boy but we didn’t really make a connection.

There were a couple of things that added to the struggle. First, there was some road work being done out in front of the barn, which made a class of four rather advanced women leave the front ring and come join us in the back. So there were six of us in there–only one other girl from my class came, the one who typically rides Jackie. Six horses seems not that much compared to the twelve I would typically share the indoor with at Jamaica Bay, but there mostly big, spirited horses and they were jumping. I started to feel a tinge of the old anxiety that I would get in situations like this, but was able to just breathe and take it slow, focusing on what I was doing without worrying too much about the commotion around me.

The other trouble came from my boots. I forgot to mention that last week I rode for the first time in my new Ariats. They are lovely and the zipper up the back is a luxury after how many years I spent getting a charley horse mid-way through taking the pull-on kind off with the boot jack and falling to the floor in agony because my foot was still stuck in the boot and I couldn’t put it down and put weight on it to release the cramp. The best thing about these new ones is that they are pretty soft. Breaking in new boots can be hell, and I was surprised last week that they didn’t hurt at all while I was riding. When I got home I saw that I just had a small cut behind my left knee from the top rubbing there. Once they break in and sink into the ankles more, the tops won’t come up so high. This week, however, they hurt a lot for some reason. Both boots were cutting into the backs of my knees whenever I bent my leg more to squeeze my horse on. Since Flash was a bit stiff and pokey to start the lesson, I had to do a lot of that. I had to force myself to push through the pinching and urge him on.

Once the trainer got me a crop, things were a little easier and Flash started moving on. For the record, I don’t like riding with a crop and will avoid it if at all possible. It’s annoying to have another thing in my hands, it gets caught up in the reins and gets in the way. I also don’t really want to use a crop. I feel like I should be able to get the horse to do what I need him to with my own aids. But sometimes when the horse is being particularly unresponsive, it can be helpful just to carry one. Simply feeling it resting on the shoulder will sometimes make a horse more willing to go, and that was the case today.

The biggest challenge with Flash was finding the right balance of hand and leg to keep him moving forward in a collected way. This was most apparent at the canter. When we started cantering, I was at first disappointed with how uncomfortable it felt compared to the pleasure cruise that was Jackie O’s. But I was able to find Flash’s rhythm and go with it after a little practice. I found that really getting in the front of the saddle and being perched on my thighs instead of on my butt, and even giving a little bit of a half seat was the best way to ride him. I can sometimes overcompensate for a tendency to lean forward by sitting too far back and driving with my tailbone. Doing that on Flash was so uncomfortable with his lopey canter that I was forced into riding in a more correct way.

Once I adjusted my position, it was much easier to sit the canter when he was moving, but around the corners he kept breaking to the trot. I needed to use a lot of outside leg to push him through the turn. Once I did that (with the backs of my knees still protesting in pain), he started getting too quick and disorganized on the long side and I needed to establish some connection on his mouth to collect the canter. Flash uses a pelham bit due to his past as a polo pony, which is stronger than a regular snaffle bit used on most horses. The bit is the part of the bridle that goes into the horse’s mouth and is connected to the reins. The strength of the bit determines how much pressure the rider will need on the reins for the horse to respond to them.  I like to ride with very light hands, letting the horse have as much slack on the reins as possible, but like in this case, some contact is necessary. The hard part today was finding how much contact to use. With the stronger bit, even the slightest pressure on the reins made Flash break to the trot. In order to keep him going around the ring at an even pace, I found that I needed to put on more leg than I thought I needed and less hand. Every time we went around, I made slight adjustments, trying to go lighter and lighter with my hands until we struck that right balance, where he was moving forward up into my hands.

We ended the lesson with an exercise that really emphasized this. First we cantered two poles on the ground, trying to fit in an extra stride. Five was easy to get, as Flash was responsive to my leg moving him up just before the pole. But six, as the trainer asked me to do, was more of a challenge since I needed to keep the leg on and pull him back with the reins enough to cram in another stride, but not so much that he broke to the trot. The first few times this was difficult and the best I could do was really five and a half strides–where the front end of his body fit in before the pole, but the back legs were split over it. Once we got the six, the next challenge was to come in cantering and go over one pole; then we had to slow to the trot and trot over two poles, then pick up the canter for the last pole and continue around the corner without breaking. We were able to do it both times through, but I felt it was a little herky-jerky. When I pulled Flash down to the trot from the canter before the two poles, he practically stopped on a dime. It was the strangest sensation of halting in mid-stride, and then going forward at the trot from there. It honestly felt terrible to me, but the trainer was generally pleased. She said it was better to do it that way than to not get him down to the trot before those two poles. Afterward, when someone mentioned to me that Flash had done polo in the past and also had Western training, it all made sense. I had sensed some of the Western cues in the way he responded to indirect rain and the lopey canter, but the hard stop and the sensitive mouth fit into place as well. I think next time I ride Flash, this understanding will help me out.

I was a bit disappointed not to jump this week, although all of the pole exercises we did will certainly be helpful for judging distances and stride numbers when I do again. I think the main trainer will be back next week and it is likely we’ll go back to the way the class was the first week I rode there. Next week I’m going to a) stretch more before I come, since my lower back was so tight after today’s lesson and I can’t blame it all on Flash’s canter b) put bandages on the backs of my knees to prevent my boots from exacerbating the blisters I now have there and c) bring my own saddle! I asked this week if that’s all right and they said people can bring whatever of their own equipment they’d like. I haven’t used my saddle to ride since college, so I’m looking forward to that.  No one else has ridden in it but me, so it’s perfectly molded to my body. And I don’t have to worry about adjusting my stirrups since they are set to my height. (This doesn’t sound like a big deal but for some reason I have an inordinately difficult time getting my stirrups even and the correct length; I sincerely believe I’m lopsided.)

Can’t wait to ride again. I’m loving all these different exercises and trying out a bunch of new horses. After two weeks of mostly flatwork, I’m itching to jump again. I also can’t emphasize what a difference it makes to ride every week; the consistency is great for me and I feel like I’m improving.

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