Work

Today was the first lesson where we’ve focused on working on reining techniques, specifically the half pass. But truthfully, it wasn’t really something that required much “work” at all. My trainer told me how to do it: At the walk, using the leg on the side opposite from the direction in which you want your horse to move, put the leg back and push him over. Putting the leg back makes sure that not just his shoulder moves, but both his shoulder and his hips. With Dunnie, it didn’t take any more than that. He immediately crossed his legs and moved in the direction I was pushing him, and after two or three nicely-executed steps I gave him a big pat.

The thing I am realizing about the reining moves, from what I’ve learned so far, is that there isn’t much to them. The cues don’t seem that complex, and if you have a well-trained horse, they just kind of happen. So I’m starting to see that in Western riding, it’s not going to be so much about learning new skills as it will be about refining them, and about finding the subtlest way of communicating cues to Dunnie.

So the other day while riding him, most of what I was doing was learning his buttons. We spent a good deal of time trotting around while I learned to make him bring his head down and round his frame to get into a very slow, collected trot that’s easy to sit to. Everything is just so much more comfortable and natural than English riding.

When I used to go to my English lessons, the anticipation of it was always such a big deal. I’d spend my day eating a certain way and had a detailed pre-ride workout to get my body ready to deal with the challenges of the lesson and even with all of that, I’d feel like it took me half the lesson to get warm enough and feel like my legs lost their tightness enough to be effective. Maybe part of it’s that I’m overall in much better shape now, working out more intelligently and avoiding the overtraining trap that I had fallen into in LA. But last night when I went out for a lesson, I just felt so much more relaxed. I made dinner and ate with my boyfriend, we watched a little TV before, and did some light stretching. I wore the same jeans I had worn to the store and just slipped on my cowboy boots and grabbed my helmet when I walked out the door, as opposed to the feeling of “suiting up” in my breeches and tall boots. I don’t bother with gloves anymore since I’m just riding with the reins in one hand and I’m barely using my hands anyway. And of course, not being all ratcheted up when I get to the barn pays off in my interaction with my horse. I’m not the crazed, hyped up lady coming into the barn with a bunch of spiky energy trying to make the absolute most of every second of training. To Dunnie, I’m the calm lady who brings him carrots and who slowly and leisurely tries to learn as much as she can. Everything feels at once more deliberate and yet less driven, even though this time around I am actually more focused on getting to a place where I can compete. It just seems so much more realistic to look at a reining competition and think “I can definitely do that” than to go to a Grand Prix, like I did this weekend at the Pin Oak (as a spectator) and think “I dunno, maybe someday I could jump that high? But do I want to? I’m admittedly kind of scared to but no, that’s BS, I’m not allowed to feel that way, I have to push myself to be great.”

It’s always the same old story, finding the balance of pushing myself outside my comfort zone but trying to figure how far is too far. Watching the jumpers on Saturday, I was finally able to admit to myself that this was too far. I love jumping, and I want to keep doing it. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but as far as I’m concerned now, 3′ is high enough. Anything higher than that is just not my style. Maybe that realization comes from having found something that is.

 

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Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.

 

New Tricks

After some months of traveling, I’m back in Texas for a few months and ready to ride again. I was unsure of where to start, after last summer’s search for the right barn and then the subsequent disappointment of not really feeling the one that seemed to be the best fit, I bemoaned my apparent lack of options. But then I changed my perspective, and took another look at what was there. One of the barns I had communicated with over the summer had seemed like it was going to be a good fit, but then didn’t work out because they don’t jump their school horses and I was very focused on picking up where I left off with jumping when I was in LA. I was trying to find a place that offered what I was looking for, but what if, instead, I looked at what this place was offering?

On their website, they advertised both Western and English lessons. Western lessons intrigued me; I couldn’t imagine what they would consist of. I’ve been in a Western saddle a handful of times in my life, but only on trail. I’d never had any instruction other than the rudimentary “this is how you stop and go” talk that they send everyone out with on trail rides. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to learn a whole new perspective on riding. Maybe learning some new tricks will be challenging and interesting and fun.

I contacted the woman with whom I had communicated last summer and explained my situation, asking if she thought that Western lessons would be worthwhile or interesting to someone with my experience. What she wrote back was unexpected. She said she had a wonderful reining horse who was coming up for lease, and was I interested?

First, I had to look up what a reining horse was. Then I asked if I could come try him out.

Yesterday I went out to the barn and met Dunnie. When I drove up and walked past the first barn, I saw a small, well-proportioned buckskin with a friendly face looking out his stall window at me with his ears up. I wasn’t sure it was him, since the only thing I knew about him was his color, but I guessed it was.

I watched while he was tacked up, all the straps and pieces so different from English tack, trying to learn and remember so I can do it for myself.

While I got on, my trainer explained a few basics to me. I had also been watching YouTube videos during the day to get a sense of what I’d be learning. Reining seems like it is not that different from dressage, except that it is like the opposite of dressage. What I mean is, there are certain elements and movements expected, and they are to be done with maximum finesse and minimum appearance of overt control. But instead of feeling fussy and stifling, it feels natural and at ease. In my dressage lessons, I was instructed to keep a strong hold on the reins with constant contact; in this lesson I learned that hands are the last resort, and everything should be done with leg and balance. This is so much more my style.

After a few basic instructions and some guidance about how my position should be different in the Western saddle as compared to English seat, my trainer suggested that I should just ride Dunnie around and do what I needed for us to get used to each other.

Everything just…clicked. Immediately. It felt like what I’ve always thought riding should feel like; like the best it has felt in fleeting moments when I’ve been really strong and confident. It didn’t feel like I hadn’t been on a horse in 6 months, it felt like I’d been riding this horse every day for the last 6 months.

Over the next month, I will likely take lessons on him, and then take over his lease at the end of March when his current lease term is up. I want to get more comfortable at the barn to know how things work there and where everything is, and I feel that I need to get some more groundwork down before it makes sense for me to spend so much time training on my own. I’m so excited to learn these new skills, and be able to immerse myself in something that felt so natural to me right off the bat. I’m also so excited at the thought of riding several times a week, having time on my own with Dunnie to keep getting to know him and learn from him.