So … I left the last post on a high note, feeling like I was getting somewhere, did I? But I’ve said it time and time again, riding is a constant rollercoaster and what goes up usually comes down, doesn’t it. This week I rode Oblivion, metaphorically speaking.
Literally speaking I rode Drifter. Or tried to.
You see, we had a lesson.
Every so often the powers that be at the stables get some well-known or otherwise reputable member of the riding community to come and teach a day/evening of lessons at our yard. This time it was a dressage line judge, who they’d had before and lots of people were raving about. The info we were given was that he’d teach all levels, from walk-trot upwards. Great. So we booked in for a lesson with him on Wednesday.
It is only fair to say that I was tired and not at my best before I even got to the stables, but I was relaxed and expecting to enjoy it. The evening was running late, but I wasn’t fussed and when we entered the school I introduced us, explained how long I’d had him, how long I’d been riding and our issue with the weak right hind quarter that prevents him from cantering on the right rein properly.
He asked me to ride around him in a 20 m circle spiralling in to 10 m and out again. This is a challenge on a horse that finds circles very hard. This is a challenge for a horse that finds circles very hard. Then he had us try it with counterflexion (i.e. horse looks to the outside of the circle not around the circle, and so isn’t looking where it’s going). And it became absolutely impossible for both of us.
I have to say that had he explained how to ride counterflexion rather than just assuming I’d done it before I might have done better. After we’d been trying for what seemed like forever he said I seemed to be twisting against the flexion of the horse. Yes I was because that’s how I’ve been told to ride a circle – looking around it, hips and shoulders following where I’m looking. Apparently this is wrong for counterflexion and I was supposed to look and point myself outside of the circle as well as pointing him to look outside. Once he’d explained that it got slightly less impossible, but degrees of impossibility are still pretty impossible, so it didn’t help that much. Still, it’s good to know 😉 . I’m so drilled in the “look round the circle, let your hips and shoulders follow” that the idea it was possible to ride a circle without that drill was almost shocking to me.
I would hazard a guess that the rider was not the only one who’d never done a 10 m circle with counterflexion before. In fact we still haven’t done one, or even a quarter of one, although we did manage the odd stride here and there I think. Drifter just couldn’t do it. He tried. He always tries. But it’s so hard for him, so he falls out of the circle and we end up going large. “Keep him on the 10 m circle” says the instructor, apparently under the impression that I can do something about the fact that I’m now at the opposite end of the school from where I am trying to be. I can’t. I have not built enough riding specific muscle to be able to stop 1/2 ton of animal who is doing his best but can’t stay on the circle. Eventually I had to tell the instructor I couldn’t carry on without resting my arms. I’d already carried on well beyond the point of burning agony and was getting worse and worse at stopping him running off. When he’s finding things hard he trots faster and I end up in a tug of war with him. And lose. We had time for another little go after my rest, and we did better for it, but it was still so far outside either of our abilities.
The point of all of this is that by doing the small circle in counterflexion a horse has to use the inside hind, so by doing it on the right rein he has to use the right hind. (Which it admirably demonstrated that he can’t. But then I knew that.) If while he’s doing that he is then asked for the canter he’s already using that right hind so cannot avoid using it to push off onto the correct canter lead.
I think this guy assumed he was physically capable of doing the trot circle in counterflexion. Perhaps he is. But not without a rider who can make him do it.
1) I cannot make him. I am not strong enough.
2) If this obedient, submissive horse is putting up that much fight should he be made to do it? There is a difference between a personal trainer who pushes you through pain but knows when to stop and a bully who makes you do something that hurts and doesn’t care. I do feel that he is weak enough at this that it probably is painful to work the muscles. When I made serious postural changes in myself many muscle groups were very painful until they adjusted to my weight. When retraining this muscle/group in him I not only expect him to carry his own weight but mine too. We’re all mammals. I can’t believe that this would be a pain-free experience for him just because people expect horses to be able to do it. And for that reason I would be highly reluctant to put someone on his back who would push him too hard.
3) I felt he and I were both pushed too hard in this session. And I should have stopped it. Not because my arms were in agony, but because it was too much for him. But I was prey to the “he’s a professional he knows what he’s doing” and “I am lowly and want to please” thoughts. Also the “I am tough and can take this and must keep up appearances” which is both untrue and pointless.
The 30 minute session ended and he was the sweatiest horse I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve really made him sweat before. One of the teens saw us afterwards and she’d never seen anything like it either. We had to get out of the indoor school for the next lesson to go in so I took him to the outdoor school to walk him to dry off. As we walked and walked I sobbed on his back.
Partly because I was so drained. Partly because I had nothing left in the tank for the rest of the week. Partly because I felt bad about how I’d worked him/let us be worked. But mainly because I’d seen how very very hard it was for him to use that hind quarter. Because I’d seen how much further away we were from that exalted destination of a reliable canter on that rein. Because I saw that I can’t school him on that myself.
Eventually we stopped walking. He was still sweaty under the tack but dry on the exposed portions and I worried that he would get cold. So I moved my sobbing to the stable for a bit. Another milestone reached in our relationship – he will now let me cry on his shoulder. When I tried this last winter and spring he would step away from me, but now stands placidly. When I got tired of standing I sat in the corner and cried there for another substantial chunk of time. Around this point I checked my phone and found a message from Mr S saying he couldn’t find one of the cats* but had had to go out anyway. Which made me feel so much better. Not.
By the time I got home the cat was located and Mr S was conveniently free to be supportive. I told him I needed serious help getting D working properly. He gave me a shoulder to cry on and permission to spend more money on it (from an account that is not the horse account).
I had a bath and food and felt a bit more normal.
On Thursday I got up not knowing how I’d last the day at work and riding (D had no turnout so even though he deserved a day off having me on his back, I’d have to ride anyway.) The tearfulness was back. At everything. But I managed to keep on the right side of tears, feeling the prickle but not letting them fall.
I mostly talked to the manager about the possibility of merging schooling & lessons into one. By this I mean that I’d book a lesson but it would be the instructor that would ride him first, get him going nicely and work him at the things I’d struggle with, during which time I would be watching, learning, even videoing, and then I’d get on and have my lesson. Of course the tears were back during this, but in a dripping-not-sobbing way, which at least left me still able to communicate. Both manager and owner agreed this would be possible, although they didn’t want to commit to any price structure for this just yet because the lesson pricing and availability will be changing from the beginning of Dec, so we have yet to hash out exactly what I can afford/fit into their week and mine. They also suggested that I’d have to clear it with my instructor, which I agreed of course, but suspected she’d be OK with it. The owner shared that she had also had a lesson the previous night and assured me that she also had found it hard and frustrating and agreed a structured plan was the way forward for me.
So I left the office feeling a bit more positive on one front but still feeling like I needed to let it all out to someone. By happy accident lady-with-a-pony was just arriving and didn’t mind listening to me for a bit. She’s also been feeling a bit down and isolated so knew exactly where I was coming from, which was just what I needed. I’d confided that I was worried about losing what limited canter skills I have myself, and she offered the use of her pony one day, which was really nice. He’s ex-riding school and knows what he’s doing. He might do it begrudgingly, but he can certainly canter in two directions!
She went off to ride and I ambushed my instructor by waiting outside her lesson until she was done and dragging her off to the relative warmth of D’s stable for a chat. She’s not confident in her (excellent) riding abilities so needed persuading that it is her I want doing this, but once I’d got her convinced I didn’t want anyone but her, she agreed. She also told me that I shouldn’t think less of myself for not being able to school him in this myself. She told me to stop comparing myself to the others on the yard who have horses that just do everything for them. It’s easy, she said, to look pretty on a horse that can already do everything. Put them on my horse and she thought they’d be in the same place as me. This was a revelation to me and helped me feel a lot better. As did the hug that came with it. Did I forget to mention I was crying again? Anyway, I feel like she, D & me (ungrammatical but it rhymes) are a team now. The best thing she said to me was that I don’t just try to ride my horse, I try to understand him. She seemed to think it was unusual that I’ve identified his problem and am looking for ways to build him up and understand how he moves and why he moves that way and what I can do about it. It’s sad if that is unusual. But even in my short horse experience I’ve come across people selling horse after horse on because it didn’t perform for them rather than looking to their own riding or what their horse needs from them, so perhaps it is unusual. I have to say that my horse helps himself. He may have only 3 strong legs, but he’s the sweetest horse on the yard (last week was an exception!). And I don’t just say that as an owner – all the staff adore him. In a way I can understand someone wanting to get rid of him and buy a horse that will canter both ways without all this, but he’s such a nice guy, who tries and tries. But someone sold him to the dealer that sold him to me…**
So I felt a lot better for having had this conversation with my instructor. I went out to see pony-lady finish riding to tell her how it went and, unfortunately she had a fall. I wasn’t watching but it was a sideways spook and suddenly there was no pony under her. She got up fine and was persuaded to get back on and walk him round a bit before calling it a day (although she was short on time). I continued to wait for her (now she needed the moral support as well as I) and in the interim spoke to the office manager who was also there, letting him know the instructor was fine with the combined schooling/lesson idea. He also said some kind and supportive things which I appreciated particularly because of the quiet and understated way he said them.
Pony-lady & went back to her stable, consoled each other briefly and then I finally started to groom and tack up, having been on the yard for 2 hours and so far done nothing but talk! I didn’t really want to ride, but as it was really only to stretch his legs I wasn’t going to put any pressure on either of us to work to the best of our ability. But when I got back in the saddle it felt good. I let him swing along with his big walk on the buckle of the reins and just went with it. I asked for a little contact … and let him out again. Did a circle … and went large again. I even asked for a bit of counterflexion occasionally, but only for a few strides. We pottered around. It was nice. I made no demands of him – it was just about getting his legs moving. I didn’t cry. After a bit we stopped. It was all we needed from the day’s ride.
On Saturday we have a lesson. I’ll ask the instructor to get on first and we’ll see where we get to. The rollercoaster is no longer at the bottom of the drop to Oblivion. I’m exhausted but it’s Friday tomorrow and I’ll probably get through it. Maybe with a few fewer tears? I hope so.