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.

 

 

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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.