Finding (What’s Good for You)

After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.

There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.

So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.

I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.

Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.

Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong.  Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air.  (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).

Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.

We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.

All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.

Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.

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Challenge!

I rode Bella again today and we did a (for me) very challenging course. We were back in the Big Girl ring again and the jumps were on the higher end of my experience (2’6″-ish, I think, and one was an oxer!).

There were a few challenges with the course, but as seems to frequently be the case with me lately, they were mental rather than physical. My new training schedule seems to be working well, and I feel I’ve trimmed down and tightened up quite a bit. I do always feel a little bit rushed to warm up, especially today when I got to the barn a little later than planned. But even with a quick warm-up at the trot and canter, my muscles seem much more supple than they were even a month ago. I’m going to make it a point to get there a little earlier next time and have a thorough warm-up.

We dove right in with a low vertical on the diagonal to warm up with. I went to it with the confidence of last week’s realization that I have to stop being a control freak and just feel the rhythm more freely with my horse. We took our first two jumps very nicely and even got the flying change afterward, and I was feeling confident and ready for a challenge.

That’s why it felt especially clumsy when we did the course. Basically a figure-eight shaped design, we started on that same vertical on the diagonal (which had a weird approach through all the other jumps), then took the line containing the oxer on the other diagonal, then turned around and took a roll-top on first diagonal, then came over another vertical on the other diagonal again. That’s the best I can describe it; the jumps were haphazardly placed so there was a lot of negotiating obstacles to find the best approach.

My first time through felt pretty disaster-y. Even though Bella was more up and responsive than last week, we still didn’t quite have the right pace for the height of the jumps we were doing. We got in really, really deep to all of them and I was honestly surprised we even made it over some of the jumps. I owe that entirely to Bella, who kept her head and used her athleticism to rock far back on her hind legs and save both our necks.

I also can’t blame this entirely on our pace. I know I was focusing too much on the jumps themselves, looking down at them and anticipating them rather than looking up and through them. It’s new for me to be doing these more challenging jumps and it’s both exciting and daunting (even though I recently read this cute and helpful article on Horse Collaborative). So instead of doing the things my head is supposed to be doing, like counting strides and using its knowledge of how to get flying changes and take turns properly, it’s doing something like this: “Oh ok wow here’s the next jump. It’s high! Holy shit, this is awesome–wait no–god, can I do this? Yes, yes I can. Gotta move her up, let’s go, let’s go…oh, shit, where’s the spot?…aaaah we are in too deep are we gonna make it? Ok yes! Thank you, Bella! Phew. NEXT.”

In between my first and second round, I watched one of my classmates take a fall. She went into the line deep, got a little bounced out of the saddle going to the oxer, and then her horse helped her along by giving a tiny buck afterwards. She was not seriously injured, just a little bruised, but it was a hard-sounding thud when she hit the ground and that’s always terrifying. I had to talk myself down from starting to feel anxious before my next turn, which seemed easier than usual. But then when I went through the course I was still a bit distracted by the fall and wasn’t able to do it much better than my first time.

The third time through, I started to get it. The jumps started coming together better with a little more pace. I had to stop halfway through to re-organize, but that was because of trying to get the flying change in between. I pulled Bella down to the walk, caught my breath, and did the second half of the course in a way I was much more pleased with.

Our last time through was the best. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a vast improvement. We had a good rhythm and the spots came more easily. We only got a little deep on one of them, but it wasn’t disaster-y deep, it was just like a normal added stride that made it not perfectly smooth. I pretty much gave up on trying to get the flying changes by this point and just did simple ones so that I could entirely devote my attention to the course itself and do it well. Given one more go, I think I could have gotten it perfect, but that was a good one to stop on, employing the motto of riders everywhere, “Quit while you’re ahead.”

I was pleased with how the lesson went. It can be alluring to just stay in your comfort zone and feel like you’re doing everything well, but stretching myself and challenging myself is what I’ve wanted to do for so long. When I’m doing it I sometimes feel clumsy or foolish, but ultimately, I feel proud that I’m getting better, little by little. It was also nice to hear from my trainer that she knows she’s pushing me and that it’s tough, but that I’m doing really well.

I’m thinking of trying to go to two lessons a week instead of just the one. Hopefully that will speed up the improvement. The more jumps I get under me, the more confident I become.

 

Heavy

I’ve been fighting (and occasionally succumbing) to this cold/cough/flu thing that has been going around, so I didn’t make it to the gym once to carry out the fitness plan I decided on last week or really have any physical activity at all. But riding two weekends in row has helped, and I stretched really well before I left today so I felt much better than I expected to.

I’d like to take a second to note that I am writing this with a tiny kitten in my lap. A friend found her last weekend in a Christmas tree on the sidewalk and I decided to take her in as a companion to my first cat, Simon. Her name is Darby and right now her slightly-under-2 lbs frame is reverberating with her surprisingly loud purr.  I dream of the day that I can report that I’ve adopted a horse, but until then caring for tiny lives is just as satisfying in its own way as taking care of big ones.

The lesson this week was very productive; it felt like a good marriage of focus on training the horse and training myself. Normally Hannah chooses our mounts for us, but today she told my riding buddy and I just to look at the list of available horses and choose for ourselves. We rode later in the day so the options were limited to horses who hadn’t already been ridden twice. My riding buddy took her favorite mare and I had a choice between Jasper and Max. Jasper is one of my favorites, but I haven’t yet ridden Max, although I’ve seen my riding buddy have a few lessons on him. I was tempted to go with Jasper because he’s familiar, but after a moment’s pause and at my riding buddy’s urging, I chose Max and I’m glad that I did. I’ve always loved having the opportunity to ride different horses and learning to adapt to their different ways and personalities. I have to keep pushing myself to do that in my old age, instead of becoming too comfortable with one horse.

In some ways, Max isn’t too different from Jasper, and they are both very different from the horse I’ve had the last two times, little Summer. They are both tall and have quite long necks, which makes them both tend to be a bit heavy on the forehand. This means that the weight of the horse is more in his front legs instead of balanced or in his back legs. This is not ideal because the impulsion that moves the horse forward comes from the back legs. When a horse is heavy on the forehand, it can feel like you’re riding into the ground. It can be frustrating to constantly feel pulled down and like you’re not getting anywhere. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to pull Max out of this. Hannah suggested that as I was trotting around, I should occasionally give him some half halts, pulling upwards a little on the reins to get his head up. At the same time, I should squeeze him forward with my legs, letting him know that I didn’t want him to slow down or lose impulsion and in a way pushing his body and momentum up into my hands. These things together served to rock his balance backward; I could actually feel this as it was happening. Max’s movement immediately became more comfortable and forward.

The forehand issue is the same when cantering, but he was just as responsive to my hands and leg and once collected, he felt great. I felt very connected to him in a way that I hadn’t even really realized I’d been missing on so much of a smaller mount these last two times with Summer.

The interesting contrast came when we started jumping. The first few times over cross-rails and even over the lower verticals, he didn’t put in much effort. I rode him down into the ground right before the jump and then he barely picked his legs up going over it. I overcompensated, like I do, by sort of throwing my upper body at him over the jump. In retrospect I realize that when I do this it’s like I’m trying to take the jump for my horse, to pull us both over it with my body, which obviously doesn’t work. But once I was able to be patient and wait for my horse to rise up to meet me, the jumps were much smoother. When we cantered to the vertical, it was so easy to find the spot with Max; easier than with any other horse I’ve ridden in memory. Because despite his typical heaviness on the forehand, he had this incredible lightness on his feet right before the jump when we approached it with a collected canter. It’s hard to describe, and I was tempted at first to refer to it as scope, but that really refers to the over-the-jump ability. It’s analogous, though, and I’m not sure there’s a word that refers to what I’m talking about.  On the approach, he collected himself in a way beyond what I was doing to keep him off the forehand, it’s like in preparation for the jump all laziness or clumsiness left him and he became light as air. And in that state, becoming almost intangible, it was easier to meld with him, to be in perfect rhythm for finding the spot.

I can’t wait to go outside again and jump a proper course with Max. With anybody, really. I’m feeling very cooped up these days. But the work we’re doing on individual jumps in the indoor is going to show once we get outside again.