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.

Horse

I rode another new horse I’ve never been on before today, and I do mean horse. Like, 17 hands of big, athletic, lovely, grey horse. His name is Frenchie.

Frenchie
Frenchie

When I first got on, I was admittedly nervous. I haven’t had that much animal to handle since I left Brooklyn. I felt so high up and vulnerable. Posting felt weird because of how big his stride is. It took some time to settle in an adjust my body to the entirely different movement that an added 2 hands brings.

It wasn’t just his size that made me a little nervous; once we warmed up at the canter I could feel a bit of a charge to him. A couple of times he tried to pull his head down on me so I brought him back to the walk before he could get worked up. I hoped he would settle down before we jumped. I also asked my trainer the best way to handle him. He had a long, long neck and I wasn’t sure if he was just pulling down on me because I was trying to keep his head too far up and his stride too collected for his comfort, or if I should be bringing his head up to forestall what felt like was pre-buck behavior. She and the other trainer standing by both said he was fine, just practically a giraffe.

But on our first warm-up jump over a cross-rail, Frenchie showed that he was being frisky. The jump felt amazing–I always forget how much more intense the airtime feels on a big horse–but afterward he picked up speed and gave a few bucks. I didn’t panic and was easily able to sit to them and pull him back to a walk, but my trainer said that was very atypical of him and maybe he was in a mood. So she had me hop off and give him to one of the stable hands for a quick lunge. It would give him the opportunity to run a little, kick and buck and get the lead out.

It’s pretty likely that the bad juju was a result of the weather. There’s a storm coming today that will be the first rain the area has seen in weeks and weeks. Horses are extremely sensitive to changes in weather and approaching storms. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason why the horses here seem so much more mentally stable than the horses I was riding back east might be because of the consistency of the weather here. Pretty much every day, they can count on the weather being just about the same: warm and sunny. Not a lot of cold fronts come through to throw them out of whack like they constantly do in other parts of the country. And there really aren’t seasons here, so they don’t have to contend with the big changes in temperature and scenery those bring. So maybe the uniformity of the Southern California weather is something that keeps the horses here sane (although clearly this argument cannot be made for the area’s human denizens).

The horse that came back to me after the 5 minutes of lunging was like a totally different horse. He was much happier and more relaxed when I got back on. We took the same cross-rail to get back in the swing of things and he approached it with aplomb. The rest of the lesson was a great time; I really loved riding him.

As much as I’ve felt that the smaller horses are more my style since returning to riding, this made me remember why I love the big ones. In my mind, small horses less daunting because they aren’t quite as strong and there’s less height to worry about falling from. Sometimes having a more compact frame makes it seem easier to fit the right amount of strides between jumps, or make tight turns. But I forget, until I get on one, that big horses suit me quite well. I found it much easier to find the distances on all my jumps today with Frenchie’s bigger, longer stride leading up to them. It also gives me a higher vantage point that makes me feel like I can look through them and soar over them, rather than getting in really deep and feeling the jumps loom. (I also like a higher vantage point when I’m driving, especially on the freeway. I drive a small SUV and feel much better in that being raised up above the traffic than being in a low car that is dwarfed by all the surrounding vehicles).

In many ways, Frenchie reminds me of my favorite horse back at Jamaica Bay, Jasper, the big bay that I always felt my best jumping with. Or even an amalgam of Jasper and another fun horse to jump there, Casper. (I can’t stand that they rhyme, either). Frenchie has the tall frame and the long neck of Jasper, making him a bit difficult to bend; he also has the smooth but lumbering stride that makes the lead-up to the jump somehow flow more easily for me. He shares with Casper his striking grey coat and tendency to hang on my hands as well as a more athletic jump.

The course we did today was very fun. It started off with a vertical on the diagonal very close to one end of the ring. After that, we had to roll back around on a tight turn to another vertical just a bit further back from it on the other diagonal. The turn was quite tight, especially with such a big horse. I had to sit up very tall and draw on all my abdominal and back strength to keep us collected around that turn.

Here's a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.
Here’s a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.

After the second diagonal and the very easy flying change, we came around to a two-stride line on the long side. The first couple of times I got into this a little bit deep and the second jump was a little tough getting out. But my last time through I made a plan and stuck to it; I decided to pull him up and collect right after my turn, not right before my first jump. That enabled me to pull Frenchie back to wait for a better spot on the first jump and gave us a more even line. After the line, we went around the end of the ring and weaved through some jumps to finish with another vertical on a diagonal. By this point Frenchie had a momentum and on the turns he was tilting like a motorcycle. I stretched up, stepped on my outside stirrup and lifted his head as best I could (I can already feel the soreness in my shoulder blades creeping in only a few hours later from this exertion) and aimed him at the final jump. It was a long enough approach that I had too much time to think about it. The first couple of times through I got excited and gunned him a bit, taking a long, flat jump. The last time through, confident from my ability to be the boss on the line, I sat up and waited and finished the thing off beautifully.

I still apparently am holding my breath during my courses because I always have to work to catch it afterward. In my last several lessons I’ve been so beat that when I finish a course doing a decent job and my trainer says that’s it for the day, I’ve been at least partly relieved. Today I could have gone a few more times. I felt again that I had the presence of mind to be a more critical rider and to stick to decisions that improved my course each time through. I hope that I can ride Frenchie again on Friday now that I’ve got into the rhythm of him; I think we will be awesome together.

 

 

Shut Up and Look Up

I rode a horse I’ve never ridden before today, named Rosie. She’s a real beauty; a small, bay mare with a sweet face.

IMG_3762I got to the barn with plenty of time to warm up today, and it was a good thing. When I got on Rosie, she was pretty lazy. I haven’t really experienced a horse just kind of refusing to move in a long while. Even my big, lumbering pal Jasper back in Brooklyn would get a move on if you gave him a good squeeze and flapped his reins at him.

At first this got me all in a huff. It is pretty warm today, and I found myself getting worked up about her not even wanting to trot, sweating and breathing kinda hard from the effort. But then I slowed myself down and reminded myself that I do actually know how to handle this behavior. I gave her a couple of “I mean business” kicks to get her going, and then a light tap with the crop whenever she started trying to slow down. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget the basics sometimes.

When I look back, it feels like the first several years I rode were just all about trying to get the horse going and preventing him from stopping. This was back when I was small enough that I probably felt like a fly on the horse’s back and the nickname my trainer gave me was “Noodle Legs” (after a while, she informed me that they had become more al dente). I used to ride this crazy Appaloosa back then named Alvin who would really put me through the ringer. He’d basically mosey into the corner of the ring and stand there, adamantly refusing to move an inch. He’d stolidly withstand my squeezes and kicks and clucks until I was so frustrated I’d be ready to give up. And then my trainer would tell me, “You’re in charge. Make him.” I never really did anything different physically after that; it felt like the same squeezes and kicks and clucks, but they came from a different place, internally. The place where I wasn’t a tiny child asking a big animal to please be nice and do what I wanted him to do, but the place where I was a rider and I was telling my horse it was time to go. And the thing with Alvin was, once you showed him you had that mentality, he’d do anything for you.

With Rosie, it was much the same. She wanted to fool around at first but once I told her what’s what, she picked up her pace. She’s quite a nice mover. Her canter is a little longer and lopier than the ponies I’ve been riding lately but even at faster speeds, it never feels strung out. It’s a smooth, graceful movement with all of her muscles in concert. Maybe part of the perception of her canter being longer is just that she’s actually a horse. With the exception of one ride on Flash and one on Sjapoo, I’ve only ridden ponies at this barn. Bella is in the upper realms of ponydom but I still always feel a tiny bit too big on her, or that I expect her to take bigger, horse-sized spots when it would make sense to wait and add. Rosie is a small horse, probably only 15.1 or 15.2 but that tiny bit more height seemingly makes such a big difference, especially when jumping. Jumping her was fun today, because she was quite willing to go for a bigger spot.

This was most apparent on the line we took at the end of our course. The course was short today; starting with a diagonal cross-rail, to a vertical on the other diagonal and then around the turn to a line. My classmates on ponies were taking it in 4 strides, and another girl riding with us on a giant horse was taking it in 3, so I asked my trainer what she thought would be good for me and Rosie, being in between. She said I could either push for the 3 or try to get a quiet 4, and perhaps the latter would be better. I agreed, but when it came to actually doing it, I found out that the 3 was definitely the way to go. We didn’t jump in huge but immediately on landing I said to myself, “No way is 4 happening here,” so I squeezed her on to the 3, which didn’t feel crazy and out of control, it felt just right. (You can see a video clip of this line on Instagram.)

My mind just felt so different today than it has, so much more stable and strong. At the beginning of the lesson, on a new horse that I didn’t know who was seemingly going to give me a tough time, I felt the old anxiety start to vibrate in my chest. But then I just took control and it went away. I felt more capable on the jumps than I have in weeks and weeks. Even in between them, I felt like I was stretched up taller with my heels further down; I felt so much less sloppy in my equitation. It was like I had all this extra space inside my head, and literally like time was moving slower, so I had time to do things like, you know, breathe and think.

I’m still not used to the higher jumps. The thought of them makes me fluttery inside. But this week, instead of allowing myself to indulge in the gibbering nonsense I’ve been thinking as I stare down at the jumps and flail over them recently, I used my new strength of mind to cut through that with this: “Shut up and look up.”

 

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.

 

It’s All In the Head

Today was my second lesson this week! I cannot remember the last time I’ve ridden twice in a week, but it was probably in college. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel having ridden just three days ago, but I felt great. I noticed that I warmed up a lot more quickly today than usual. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I rode even more days a week.

Another thing that made me feel great was that today I rode for the first time in my new helmet. I’ve had the old one since college and ever since the interior padding disintegrated from sweating it in for years, it hasn’t fit me properly. To compensate, I have been putting my very long, thick hair in a bun and using that to hold it in place. But that a) hurts my head and b) sometimes comes loose. That happened last summer when I took a fall. My helmet protected me when my head hit the ground, but it also slid forward on impact and hit the bridge of my nose, nearly breaking it. Finally, it’s recommended that you should replace your helmet after a fall if it hits the ground, even if it appears undamaged. And mine was long beyond the 5-year-old mark past which it is recommended to replace your helmet anyway. So it was definitely time for a new one.

I went with the Intrepid by Troxel. It was affordable and it also had some features of particular interest to me. First, it has a cinch system that makes it easy to adjust it to exactly my head size and shape. It’s also very low-profile and lightweight. Those are great things for me since I have a really tiny head. A proper fit is imperative for safety and I don’t have to go around looking like I’ve got a big ol’ heavy salad bowl on my head. It also has air vents, which is an incredible improvement on comfort after years of a fully-covered velvet cap.

The Intrepid by Troxel.
The Intrepid by Troxel.

After the first ride, I have to say I’m pretty satisfied with it. I think its lightweight design also made it easier to balance my body without my head coming too far forward. I feel much less neck and back strain than I sometimes do after my lessons.

Consequences of incorrect head posture.
Consequences of incorrect head posture.

In addition to those improvements wrought by getting better equipment, the lesson itself was also quite fun. I rode Jackie O. today, the little appaloosa mare I rode once before in a fun and challenging flat lesson. We did a course book-ended by two lines on the long sides, similar to the one in my lesson on Tuesday. But instead of just a diagonal plank jump in between, there was an in-and-out.

I had less trouble today with my spots than I did on Tuesday. Jackie is more experienced and savvy than Bella, which helped, but I also had a clearer mind today. The first couple times through on the first line, I again didn’t have enough impulsion going in. Jackie loves to add a stride, so we got in deep and had to push to get out. She built from there, however, so the in-and-out and the final line were forward and clean.

I thought about this tendency to not have enough speed going in for the last two lessons and wonder if it’s a control issue. I know that I felt I was pushing Bella last week to go forward and just wasn’t getting anywhere, but then I felt that this week on the more-responsive Jackie and still had similar results. I suspect that I’m unaware of body language that is contradicting my leg. Really it comes down to the fact that I’m over-thinking the jumps and being too controlling. When I ask for the canter at the beginning of the course and on the approach for the jumps, I’m taking too much contact and making the canter too collected. Because I’m uptight in my head about the spots, it’s as if I feel that a very collected canter will make me able to pick the perfect spot–but that’s not the case. It’s the fluid motion of the rider and horse together that make the spots feel natural, not this clamped-down nonsense. On the final line, once we had really gotten moving, as horses tend to build speed throughout a course, I was able to just go with it and that one was beautiful.

The last time through the course today, the trainer encouraged me to push Jackie forward before the first line. I did that, but I also kind of mentally let go. I still retained contact and my mind was still focused on riding my horse down the line, but I wasn’t trying so hard. Not being so much in my head allowed my body do what it needed to do (including breathing). You don’t think rhythm, you feel it.

Just Breathe

It’s been two weeks since I’ve had a lesson, first because I had things to take care of at home and then because my trainer was away at a show, so this week I get to ride twice. Today was the first of the two lessons, and what a relief to be back in the saddle.

I rode Bella again and I think that’s good for me. She’s a good girl, but difficult in very specific ways that are things I need to work on as a rider. The continuity of working with her to improve on those things has been nice.

The major issue I had today was finding my spots. Sometimes when you approach a jump, you’re at the right speed and rhythm that the take-off feels natural; it’s the obvious, reasonable spot. That didn’t happen today. Every jump we took felt like a negotiation. I never felt like I was getting enough impulsion from Bella to make the jumps smooth (largely due to my lack of exercise lately and my legs getting a little soft). Without enough impulsion, we should have waited and added another stride. But she and I both didn’t seem to want that. I wanted us to be going more forward and taking the longer spot so I was pushing for that right up until the jump. She would take the longer spot, which is what I wanted her to do, but I was then surprised by it and left behind because her lack of forward movement was telling me she was going to add a stride.

When I stopped letting her make the decisions and started actually being a rider, things went better. I forget that she’s quite young and needs a bit more direction than the horses I’m used to riding. I pushed and pushed for the forward spot but when I saw that I wasn’t going to get it, I started waiting and adding. I also think I forget how small she is. We weren’t jumping high, but shorter legs means shorter strides. She’s not tiny, but she’s just a little bit smaller than I would prefer. I have to remember that and ride the horse I’m riding.

The course we rode was two lines on the long ends of the ring to a vertical plank jump on the diagonal. My boyfriend filmed me again today, which is very helpful in identifying areas for improvement. I noticed that my shoulders are getting a little rounded over the jumps; partly that might be because I was getting a little left behind the motion but partly I might need to get back in the gym for some work on my upper body strength.

We did the course several times, as I was lucky enough to be the only one there for the class. The lines kept presenting problems; one time I took out a stride on the first and added a stride on the second, and we had a run out on each of them. Finally I was able to put it all together. I’m not crazy about my equitation; I can see that I’m a little bit left behind on some of the spots and my jumping position isn’t quite right, but I feel a sense of accomplishment of completing the course with all the right number of strides and even getting the flying change on the final diagonal.

But my biggest problem today was one that has been historically something I struggle with, and that is breathing. I hold my breath when I do a course. It’s the dumbest. When I was a kid and I’d be gasping for air after jumping a course, my trainer actually expressed concern that I had asthma. That seemed unlikely since I played other sports and ran around through the woods like a wild animal with no apparent breathing problems. Then we figured out that I was concentrating so hard that I was holding my breath. My trainer back in Brooklyn would remind me to breathe periodically, specifically right before the jump to decompress the tension and anxiety I was feeling with jumping basket case OTTBs in a small indoor arena jam-packed with children.

Today I was extra bad at breathing. I asked my trainer to remind me as I went along; she said that she handles this by making sure to take a breath each stride. I responded that I feel like it’s an accomplishment if I take a breath each jump!

This is not something I’m sure I know how to change. I’m incorporating more yoga into my equestrian fitness routine, mostly for strength and flexibility, but maybe the centered breathing in that discipline will help me in my riding as well.

Pushing and Pulling

Today I rode Bella and jumped one of the more involved courses I’ve ever done in terms of height and difficulty. It was fun and challenging. It was a little bit daunting to begin with, and it was also exhausting. The trainer said she is pushing me, which I appreciate because I take that to mean she thinks I can handle it.

I wasn’t on the top of my game today. I skipped psychotic spin class last night because I was feeling tired (and don’t think that didn’t generate an internal dialogue where I swung back and forth between telling myself alternately to listen to my body and rest, and then that I was a lazy jerk who needed to suck it up and go). I am glad I chose to listen to my body, since I woke up feeling still a bit low-energy today. But I had a good breakfast, did some warm-up calisthenics and stretches, and headed out to the barn.

I was extra excited to ride today because my boyfriend was coming with me to watch. He’s seen me ride once before at Jamaica Bay, but the lessons out here are at a whole new level. I was also excited for him to record me while I was jumping.

We rode in the front ring this time, what I call in my mind the “big girl” ring that I’ve never been in before. That’s where all the bigger jumps are, and where I had kind of assumed I wouldn’t ever ride in. It’s an assumption that belies my mindset of not being as advanced as I apparently am, and that’s something I need to get out of my head if I’m going to keep pushing myself to improve.

Headed for the big girl ring.
Headed for the big girl ring.

I was a little behind everyone else getting on, so I didn’t get to do a long warm-up before we dove into jumping. I could have used a little longer to get warm and stretch into my legs; I felt especially tight in the area behind my knee. The tops of my thighs have gotten a little bit more toned and flexible, so they feel less tight, but the area around the knee is still difficult.

The course we did was tough. It involved changing direction a couple times, which was difficult mainly because Bella is sticky on her flying lead changes (she gets them in front but sometimes not in back). There were also a couple of oddly-angled jumps that made the approaches interesting. The first couple times around, my reins were too long and I was being too passive; Bella is a young horse and needs a lot of riding. I really had to push her up and pull on the reins to take contact on her mouth for us to be connected enough to get the distances right. Pushing her up was hard for me today, I just felt like I had no energy in my legs. Pulling her back was difficult too; she is stronger than I expected given her size and had a tendency to pull me forward in the saddle. I needed to sit up and wait instead of anticipating the jumps as I did many times. Going over a jump awkwardly feels awful, but once I took that control things went more smoothly. At least, upon watching the videos my boyfriend took of me, it doesn’t seem to look as bad as it felt.

You can watch the video of the best course I did here. (I have about 300 times, studying all the ways I can make it better next time.)

Flying

This week I got to ride a horse like I’ve never ridden before. I’ve ridden hundreds of horses: mostly the wide gamut of schoolies, some sale horses, some former racehorses and former polo ponies, even one or two really nice horses owned by friends. But I’d never before gotten to ride a real serious show horse. The one I rode this week, Sjapoo (pronounced like “Chapeau”; it’s the Belgian spelling) was pretty amazing.

When I first got on he seemed very excitable, with his ears perked up and head raised high despite wearing a running martingale. His gait was prancey and the movement vertical, and I thought to myself, “Oh great, another choppy Thoroughbred that’s going to make me feel like a total mess. Can I even handle this?” He wasn’t extremely big or strong–probably around 15.3 hands and athletic but not bulky (built like a soccer player rather than a football player). But he was clearly spirited in a way I’ve not often experienced. It was kind of like this: when I was younger, I had a Saturn. It was a good car, reliable, got me where I needed to go with its four-cylinder engine. It was a like a school horse. The road my family lived off had one lane going in each direction and a speed limit of 50 mph. There was one section that had a short passing lane right near my barn and, being 19 years old, I pretty much always felt I had to pass whomever was in front of me when I drove there. In my Saturn, this was a bit of an effort. I had to give it a good push on the gas pedal to get up that hill and around another car. But one day I borrowed my dad’s Infiniti. When I got to that stretch of the road, I barely had to breathe on that gas pedal to put the other cars in my dust. I realized very quickly that I had a lot of power underneath me and that it was important to be aware of that and be in control. That’s what riding this horse was like. He was like the luxury car of horses: very beautiful, but also very finely-tuned and powerful.

Sjapoo with his owner (not me) at a show.
Sjapoo with his owner (not me) at a show.

Luckily, being a professional show jumper also meant that he was incredibly well-trained. After my initial apprehension, I just got to work doing what I needed to do as a rider to settle my mount and I found that he adjusted almost immediately. I took a little bit of soft contact on his mouth, I sat deeper and posted slower and as soon as he warmed up, he transitioned very nicely from that more strung out trot to a collected and comfortable working trot. The same was true at the canter. I took him around the ring a couple of times to get warmed up and we did a few circles; he gave me a perfect bend at just the slightest suggestion from my inner leg.

Since the main trainer was back, after we warmed up on our own we went right into jumping. We started with a line of low verticals at the canter. She wanted us to get four strides in between the jumps, but Sjapoo and I came in right off the bat with three. Right before the first jump, I gave him a lot of leg like I would normally do to encourage the horse forward to his first jump of the day. But he didn’t need that much, only a light touch on the accelerator. “He’s not a school horse,” the trainer reminded me.

The next time through, he came to the jump expecting it and I didn’t collect early enough. We got the four strides but it was uneven; the first jump was a little big so the first three strides were more forward and the fourth was jammed in there at the last second. The next time around, I was more prepared. From the get-go, I did everything in a more understated manner, even asking for the canter. It really took nothing more than shifting my weight and bending him slightly to set him up and then the barest whisper of my leg on his side to get him going, and in approaching it this way the transition was much nicer. Before he had kind of leaped into the canter, like a horse out of the starting gate, and then I’d have to calm and collect him quickly before we got to the jump. This time the transition was far more organized and gentle, which changed our whole approach. We went into the first jump with a perfect distance and the four strides flowed easily and naturally from that; it only took a little bit of sitting up and woahing in between to get the perfect fit.

The trainer added a couple of other low jumps to make it a small course, but for me, the line remained the main event. After a few times through, she raised the jumps in the line. I took a look at the second one and told her, “That’s probably the highest I’ve ever jumped.” It was a vertical of about 2’9″, not very high in comparison to those 5’9″ jumps I watched people take in the show last week. I may have done 3′ once back in the day, but I’ve never had much opportunity to do anything with much height, partly due to space constrictions and largely due to horse limitations.  She said not to worry about it and told me to take the line in a forward three this time around.

As we approached the jump, I could feel Sjappo’s excitement match my own. Horses that love to jump really perk up once things get going. I spurred him on with a little leg on the approach to the first jump, keeping light contact on his mouth. We cleared the first one and had three long, smooth strides to the second and when he took off, it was beautiful. We soared. I could feel myself break into a huge grin in the air, quite literally just elated. Often when training and working on a course, each jump is like a piece in a puzzle, a thing to be solved. That’s fascinating and I love that kind of work. But riding such a knowledgeable and responsive and athletic horse took the experience to another level. It reminded me of the beauty and grace and the pure fun of jumping. It made me want to do it again and again. More, and higher.

Turns and Timing

I rode Bella again yesterday, the small chestnut mare I rode in my first lesson out here. No one else from my regular jumping class was there and the trainer is still out of town at shows, so I rode again with the assistant trainer and two young girls. The lesson turned out to be a good challenge. I brought my saddle along with me and rode in it for the first time in over a decade. It felt really, really good. I asked the trainer her opinion on whether it was too small for me, to which she answered, yes, it is. But not by too much. She said it’s noticeable but not glaring, that I could use a bit larger one but if it’s comfortable for me there’s no reason to run out and get another saddle. I’m going to keep riding in it for now because it is so comfortable.

The interesting thing I’ve noted about riding with this trainer is that she is very structured in her approach. Flatwork is not just a warm-up, it’s a training session that builds individual skills that will be used when jumping a course. In this lesson we really focused on turns and timing.

When warming up at the trot and at the canter, she had us do a similar drill to one she’s had me do before: alternating extending and shortening the horse’s stride. This time, instead of extending on the long side of the ring and shortening on the short side, she had us extend on the short side and rein it back in for the long side. This is a lot more difficult. This drill not only warms up the rider and the horse (all that extending takes a lot of leg and of course the horse is working hard to move that fast), but it’s also incredibly useful for jumping courses, especially lines. When you’re in between the jumps in a line you often need to either move up the horse to take away a stride or pull them back to add a stride, and this exercise builds those skills on the flat. It teaches you how to get that extension out of your horse by squeezing with your legs and how to get them to come back by sitting deeper in the saddle and using your back and hands. It also trains the horse to be responsive to those aids and flexible in changing her stride.

The next drills worked on turns. This trainer is big on circles, really emphasizing pushing the horse out with your inside leg while keeping her moving forward and on track with the outside leg. There’s a huge temptation to use your inside rein to get the bend; it turns the horse’s head and should be used subtly and indirectly to help create that silhouette. But when you’re thinking about jumping a course with some tight turns in it, you don’t just want to be wrenching your horse’s head towards a jump at the last minute. That will prevent you from coming in straight and will likely earn you at best a knocked-down rail and at worst a flat-out refusal. Instead, you want to be prepping your horse for the turn with your seat as early as possible–on the landing, if not in the air. To that end, we did two really useful exercises before jumping a course. The first was not dissimilar from one I’ve done with her before, doing a circle around different points of the ring with a focus on bending. But this time she upped the ante and took away the ability to use the inside rein at all; we had to take both reins in our outside hand and get the circle and bend entirely with our legs. This was hard. Imagine sitting on a bike and trying to make it go in a circle without touching the handlebars. And then imagine that the bike is 2,000 pounds and has a mind of its own. Pushing the horse out with your inside leg is so much work. Think of how much effort you have to put with your whole body into pushing a heavy piece of furniture; this is like that, but just with one leg.

After that, the trainer set up some poles on the ground. There were two in the middle of the ring at the longwise center line and then two perpendicular to that on a tight turn–one to the right and one to the left.  It looked kind of like this crappy drawing:

polesWe had to canter in over the two center poles and then make the tight right turn to canter the right pole, then come around and go through the center poles again to make the tight left turn to the left pole. The turns were very tight. The first time it took all of us by surprise and everyone did that last-minute jerk on the reins that made a very messy, bowed-out turn and did not get a straight approach. The trainer illustrated what needed to be done in a really helpful way though (to me at least, but not really to the two little girls): she asked if I’d ever driven a truck. I said I have, and so she likened turning the horse to turning a truck; you always have to go a little bit further out in turning the front end of it in order for there to be room for the hind end to get around the turn and come in straight. So the next time through, more prepared, I did much better; I set my horse up right after the center poles by switching my weight to the outside stirrup and pushing the horse over with the inside leg.

The course we did at the culmination of the lesson was set up to be all about turns. It started with a line on the long side, then went to a line across the diagonal, then a tight turn to a single jump on other diagonal and then around another tight turn to finish off over two poles. Like this:

course It went pretty well. I was so focused on making my turns well that I got a little messed up about my spots. This was another situation where I needed to sit back and wait; Bella knew where she needed to take off and it was a stride closer than I expected her to. I have a tendency to sort of throw myself forward in the saddle; it’s almost like I’m trying to jump for both of us. It’s something I really have to work on, for two reasons. The first is that if I’m flinging myself forward and my horses refuses, it’s curtains for me. I’m going to go over her head. The second is that it’s totally counterproductive to my horse. When a horse jumps, the power all comes from the hind legs for the take-off, so she needs to somewhat rock back on her hind legs first. If the rider is ahead of the motion of the jump and her weight is forward over the horse’s neck, it makes that movement so much harder. Jumping position should happen over the jump, coming up to meet your horse’s neck and arched back, not before take-off.

I would have liked to keep perfecting the course longer, but we only had time to do it twice. It’s very useful to build up skills dong all of these flat exercises and I’m glad for the experience, but there are drawbacks, like not having a whole lot of time for actual jumping and also being pretty fatigued by the time we get to it. Hopefully next week I’ll get a chance to focus more on courses and take a break from all this intense flatwork.

________

To top off a good riding lesson and make the day extra horsey and wonderful, I also got to go watch some show jumping. My boyfriend and I went out to the barn in Burbank where they were having a competition and it was very nice. There weren’t many spectators, so we got to be right up close to the action. I don’t honestly think I’ve ever been this close to a horse jumping so high; the fences in the class we watched were 69″ (or 5′ 9″–three inches taller than me). I’ve seen it from far away in a grandstand and I’ve seen it on TV, but when you’re up close it really drives home the athleticism of these animals. You can feel the presence of such a huge body and the exertion of it leaping into the air carrying a person on its back. It’s pretty unreal. And exciting and beautiful, as well. Watching the riders take the course, I paid particular attention to their turns and found it to be very predictive. It was easy to see when someone was going to knock a rail down and almost all of the time it was because of a bad approach due to lack of a good turn. That’s way easier to see when you’re in the stands than it is when you’re down in the ring, especially since show jumpers don’t get a practice round. There’s no opportunity to see the course from horseback prior to entering for your round, there’s only a walk-through where riders and trainers apprehend the course on foot. If I ever get a chance to ride in one of these shows (and I want to, now maybe more than ever), I’m definitely going to keep that in mind on my walk-through and pay close attention to looking at where I’m going to make my turns.

showjump
A rider (not me) at the show jumping competition.

 

 

Getting Good

Holy crap, I love my new barn.

There was a chance of showers today and because of that I ended up being the only one who showed for class. Rain happens so infrequently here that it really puts these people in a tizzy. There was no actual rain other than a tiny sprinkle on the drive over, so I ended up having a private lesson. The trainer I rode with last week was out of town at a show so I rode with her assistant and we had a great time.

I’m trying to remember the last time I rode for a full hour in a private lesson. It never happened at Jamaica Bay, and not at Kensington either…but it also never happened in college, since I rode with the equestrian team. So the last time would have been back in high school, when I was 17 years old. It was luxurious today, but man was it a workout. I am beat. I have that super-relaxed feeling throughout my body that I can only get from really pushing myself, where I’m so tired out that everything is just copacetic. It’s only the exhaustion of exertion that brings this feeling; knowing I worked hard and nothing can really rile me anymore because now it is time to rest.

I rode a really adorable little mare today named Jackie O., an appaloosa (spotted horse) who is mostly black with some white spots on her backside. I have a soft spot in my heart for appaloosas ever since I rode one named Apple Jack in my first show when I was nine years old. She had without a doubt the most comfortable canter I have ever experienced in my life. I could have just cantered around on her all day long and barely broken a sweat.

IMG_3505

Having so much time to play with, the trainer set up a number of flat exercises for me. First while warming up, she had me do four circles as I went around the ring (one at each end and then two more in the middle) to work on bending. She said she often has kids in her lessons who aren’t advanced enough to understand the theory behind it but that it’s good for Jackie to be trained this way since she had a tendency to fall in on the inside of the circle. The idea was to keep a good bend on her by pushing her out with my inside leg (something I had to work on a great deal with Misfit back in NY.) The trainer said something that really illustrated the movement I needed to do with my legs to get the desired effect, putting it a way I’d never heard before that was incredibly clear: she said, “Pretend like you’re trying to cross your legs through the horse.” My outside leg would go back a little bit, to keep the horse moving forward, but my inside leg would come a little bit forward and move into the side of the horse to push her toward the outside. As soon as she said that, it clicked perfectly in my mind and I was able to get a much more consistent bend.

The next exercise we did was using the tall lamp posts at each quarter of the ring to change the length of the trot. When I came to the lamp post at the end of the ring, I used my seat to sit deeper and post slower, putting my horse into a shorter, more collected, more upright stride. Then at the next lamp post on one side of the ring, I pushed her into a longer, more extended trot. We went back and forth between these two extremes at each quarter of the ring, trying to make the transition perfectly abrupt right at the lamp post. This is kind of a dressage-y exercise. It’s no secret that I don’t really get into dressage; I just think it’s kind of no fun, especially compared to jumping. But the few basics I’ve been taught over the years can be incredibly helpful exercises to build control with your horse and your body. It’s nice to slow it down sometimes and take this more mindful approach to training, so today I quite enjoyed doing it. It was nice to have several opportunities–with all of these exercises–to improve as well. I could see, and my trainer pointed out constructively, where I made mistakes or how I could do it better the next time and then I got a chance to put that into practice.

The next exercise was almost exactly the same as the previous but the difference was that each lamp post signaled the alternation of trot and canter. This was a little bit more of a challenge, but not for the reasons I expected. Typically I have a little trouble with the upward transition from trot to canter. When I ask for the canter, often my horse simply speeds up at the trot, getting into this sort of frantic, disorganized mess of running that makes me feel sloppy and ineffectual, and I compensate by inappropriately using my upper body to rock us into the canter. That was not an issue at all today; Jackie O. smoothly transitioned right into her perfectly smooth canter with the barest of urging. She’s even more responsive than the horse I rode last week, Bella. The challenge came on the downward transition, when Jackie didn’t want to come back to the trot. I think she would have been as happy as I would to have been cantering around for hours as well. The downward transitions therefore required a little more planning and a lot more work from my seat and my mid back to really sit up deep in the saddle and ease her back down to the trot. Luckily I’ve recently discovered the joys of the mid-row weight machine at the gym, but I still think this is going to leave me pretty sore there for at least a day or two.

Then we did an exercise with cavaletti, which are just jump poles that are laid on the ground instead of raised up to jump over. The horse either trots or canters through them, having to lift her feet more exaggeratedly than normal to step over. The three poles were placed across the center of the ring between (parallel to) the two long sides of the oval ring.  It looked like this, if you imagine that the equal sign has three lines instead of two:

(        =         )

When I rode through them, it created the shape of two back-to-back uppercase Ds. The first time through I turned right afterwards, the next time through I turned left afterwards, making it a kind of squared-off figure eight maneuver. This incorporated skills we had used in earlier exercises, namely the bending on the turns and the lengthening and shortening of stride over the poles.

After that, the trainer had me do the same pattern but with alternating trot and canter. I was to canter the whole way around but return to the trot for the poles. The tough part was that I was only allowed to trot after I made the full turn toward the cavaletti, giving me a very short distance to slow her down and not allowing me to use the movement of the turn to accomplish that. If her hind end wasn’t completely on the straight line toward the poles when I began trotting that, the trainer said with a smile, would be cheating. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, given Jackie’s enthusiasm for cantering, but it went surprisingly well. After talking softly to her and employing some rather strong half halts to get her settled, she seemed to understand the game very quickly and came back to the trot much more easily than she had before. Over the poles, I encouraged her with plenty of praise, patting her and telling her she was a good girl. The trainer said I should tell that to myself, as well.

Finally, we did a bit of jumping. There was a crossrail set on the diagonal of the ring and we jumped it on a figure eight pattern as well. Coming off the left lead it was a relatively easy turn because of the angle it was at. When I had to come at it off the right lead, the turn was much, much tighter and shorter. The first couple times through it, my rhythm was way off. I had felt really strong and supple throughout the lesson but could now finally feel a bit of muscle fatigue from all those exercises. But really the problem was just me being a hothead who wanted to leave out a stride that needed to be there. Jackie apparently has the tendency as well, but she was smart enough to see that with her little stride she needed another step. I was pushing her up too close and she was jamming it in there last minute as I was already up in jumping position expecting us to have taken off. We did it again and at the trainer’s suggestion I waited a beat, sitting up and opening my shoulder blades early in the turn instead of closer to the jump. Once I understood that we needed one more stride in there and didn’t try to push for the long takeoff, the timing fell back into place and we were able to do it a few times very smoothly.

I feel great about today’s lesson for a number of reasons. I haven’t put that much work into my riding, physically and mentally, in a good while and that is what I have been longing for, to really nerd out on it and get deep into theory and the repeated, punishing practice of that theory to whip myself back into shape. I also felt proud of my improvements as I learned better how to do each exercise. It was really nice that the trainer kept saying how much fun it was to do these things with me since she normally teachers younger students who aren’t advanced enough for it.

Everyone I meet at the barn continues to be really friendly, helpful and welcoming. Both horses I’ve ridden so far have been stellar. The barn manager was even playing some Judas Priest while I was untacking.

Another great thing is that my classes here are a few dollars cheaper than my lessons back in Brooklyn. With that savings, plus the much larger savings of not having to pay for a Zipcar, I’m going to be riding much more consistently, pretty much every week. I can’t wait to see where I am after a month, or two months of this more consistent training.