Ups and downs in the saddle

DSCN3960Just before Easter Drifter and I were not doing well together. We were not communicating well under saddle and steering was a real problem. He’d worked out how to get around my weaknesses as a rider and was taking control of the steering. I had so little steering in trot that there was no chance to work in canter. The day before the Easter show I had a lesson in which I just couldn’t steer and my instructor gave very little in the way of helpful advice. She did mention my leg was a little bit far forward and I should work on that. On the day of the show there was nowhere to ride, so on Easter Monday I got back on, quite optimistically hoping he’d be better because now I knew my leg was too far forward and I could solve that. He was worse. I had no steering and not a lot of say in anything else. He reduced me to tears of frustration. On the way home I decided that I’d give him a month. If we hadn’t managed to get some decent communication going under saddle by then I’d look into selling him.

So I went home to my husband and told him where I was and what I’d decided. He was supportive. I calmed down and rested and he persuaded me to go back for another go. We marched down there with the attitude that I would be winning any arguments about direction and that I would be taking no nonsense. I tacked up, led him out and rode him. Circles, diagonals, good rein & bad I rode him. All the things I hadn’t had a chance with earlier that morning were there for the taking. There were no arguments because I won every argument before it began. I even had a little canter on each rein, which I hadn’t even dared to try for a week. Then I quit while I was ahead.

Crikey, what a rollercoaster! Where do we go from here?

Well, we started with a new attitude. That he wasn’t going to get a chance to forget that ride. I decided to try to ride him 5 days a week and work him harder to keep making progress. I decided the private lessons weren’t helping much but that if I joined a group I’d get some teaching more cheaply and it would do us good to ride regularly with others. I might even make some friends on a similar riding level to myself.

So I signed up for a group lesson. The regular instructor was on holiday so there was an external instructor covering the class. Only one other lady turned up, which made me feel much more confident as I was worried about our steering, particularly as it is a walk-trot-canter class. This instructor who’d never met Drifter before really seemed to have his measure. Towards the end of the lesson she said he was a great deal like a pony she used to have. That he was a difficult horse to ride but I shouldn’t feel like a poor rider because of it. I really, really needed to hear this. Suddenly it was OK to be struggling with him. It was OK that we weren’t managing much. She explained how to do a half-halt that worked for us and suddenly I could get his attention back when he was getting strong and trying to trot off in the wrong direction like a rocket. Obviously she was not the first to attempt to teach me a half-halt, but she was the first that spotted my attempts weren’t working, understood why they weren’t and tailored her advice accordingly. Armed with my new half-halt I had much better control and was much better equipped to work on the canter.

Since that lesson I have worked in canter almost every time I ride him. Unfortunately the canter has its own challenges.

Challenge 1 – get him to strike off in canter

Challenge 2 – get him to stay in canter without disuniting (e.g. front end in canter, back end in trot)

Challenge 3 – steering

Challenge 4  – stay on his back while failing challenge 1 or 2 (which leads to the bouncy-rocket-trot I can’t sit to) or challenge 3 (which can lead to fast changes of direction and me nearly exiting through the side door). So far I’ve not failed at challenge 4, but there have been close calls.

So I’ve been working on those. In the course of which we discovered Challenge 5 – don’t let him go round corners leaning like a motorbike (because there’s a risk he’ll fall over with me on top. Or we’ll fall together with me landing underneath.) It was a massive challenge to get him around a corner in canter in the first. After I’d experienced it I was in no hurry to do it again and understood why he’d been so reluctant.

We needed instructor input. I tried to book in for the group lesson again, but no one else had booked, so there was no group and it was back to the private lessons. However the cover instructor was still around so I was able to have my lesson with her again. Hurray!

As we warmed up I told her of the motorbike corners. She announced that in that case we would teach him to balance when cantering by working on a circle. Huh? Canter the horse I can’t canter straight, but do it on a circle? Scary business. But she was right.

Once he’d had a bit of a warm-up she had me come onto a 20 meter circle and stay on it while doing a lot of quick transitions between walk, trot and halt, mixing it up and getting him to pay attention and come into balance. Once we felt he was listening and balanced, I’d ask for a canter transition. Then come back down to trot and continue with the basic transitions. He found it hard. We kept working on it and eventually managed to canter a 20 meter circle on his good rein. I was elated. We then turned to work on his bad rein. We didn’t get more than a few strides of canter in that direction, but there was real progress and I now have an effective way of working him. Once he gets the hang of this I am hopeful that we will be able to canter all sorts of shapes one day.

It really made a difference to have an instructor who saw our particular weaknesses and gave us a way of improving them rather than what I have felt since getting him – that I get generic “How to ride a horse” advice which doesn’t help us much. It’s unfortunate that this instructor was only available for the fortnight. If we were able to book schools I would arrange to have lessons with her (she teaches freelance) but as we can’t I wouldn’t be able to guarantee anywhere to ride when she turned up to teach me.

We’re only half way through the month I gave him to improve, and the difference is massive. There will be downs again in the future, but I don’t think he’s in any danger now of failing his probation.

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6 thoughts on “Ups and downs in the saddle

  1. mellchan says:

    Aww, sorry to hear that you had hit a wall with Drifter but it sounds like things are improving. I am not someone who encourages giving up on a horse but sometimes if its not working it may never work. But it sounds to me like you and Drifter just need a translator for a bit until you get accustomed to each other. Good luck!

  2. He sounds to me not so much that he’s a bad or awkward customer, maybe more that he’s stiff or unaccustomed to being schooled? That’s good progress you’ve made, hopefully he’ll gradually find it easier to bend, corner and circle. It’ll be hard work for him as well as you and I’m sure you’ll have good and bad days, but he’ll be happier as he gradually gets more supple and balanced. Different instructors can make an amazing difference, can’t they… Good luck!

    • Sparrowgrass says:

      Yes he is genuinely finding things hard in the school. He’d rather hack, I think, but until we can have reliable steering there’s no chance we can go on the lanes without an instructor (and it’s a bit dicey even with one) and there are no other options unfortunately.

      Thank you too for the good luck wishes – the good days are very good and the bad days are very bad so I need the luck to get more good days 🙂

  3. Liz at Libro says:

    I found this really moving to read, I’m so enjoying reading your story and I hope it doesn’t come to a point when you have to part ways. Keep up the hard work, it sounds like improvements are coming along and you’re learning a lot about Drifter and how he operates. I know we’ve only scratched the surface of our cats in the month we’ve had them, and a horse that you ride and interact with in such a close way will take a while to learn.

    Good luck! We’re all here alongside you to listen to the stories, sympathise and celebrate!

    • Sparrowgrass says:

      Thanks. I’m finding the emotional rollercoaster side of things rather challenging! And with the high costs in money, time and energy to balance as well, when things are hard they’re very hard. But Spring is in the air and that seems to be helping both of us.

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