In the saddle

I have been back in the saddle on a regular-ish basis over the last 10 days and hope to see that continue. It’s weird how it’s so much easier and less tiring to sit in the saddle (at halt or walk!), with no back support, than on an ergonomic-ish office chair. I suppose it’s a sign that my weight and balance are holding me up more in the saddle than on the office chair – that I am truly sat on my seat bones with everything above them pushing down like a plumb-line.

Trotting is hard. Rising to the trot is hard. Lacking cardio fitness and core muscle tone that I used to take for granted, the theory of the energy of the horse creating the rise is all well and good, but it’s being proved to me that the rider has to do some work too – work I never noticed I was doing before! So I can rise, but badly. I’m forever getting left behind his rhythm or bumping him – not surprisingly his trot work is not what it used to be, because I’m hindering not helping. So what about sitting trot? There’s always sitting trot… except that I never really got the hang of that, which is a bit of a pain right now. I mentioned in a recent post that I’ve had minor breakthroughs on that of late, but they are pretty minor still. I can’t maintain a good sit for any decent distance at a time so it’s not that useful, although it does give me a break from rising. Also, because the sitting muscles were never worked like this before they get tired even quicker than the rising muscles! So we’re trotting less than I would like. I’ve tried introducing interval training (trot for 2 min, walk for 2 min, repeat 3 times) but it hampers the quality of the trot. I’m more focused on the clock than on getting a good trot out of him and for most of the trot time I’m too busy looking after myself to correct his bend or get him rounder. I’m not sure whether I’m going to continue with it or not. It might be better just to instigate the rule “when you feel like stopping trotting carry on for at least 30 seconds longer” or something. While it’s great that riding is exercise, a horse is not a gym machine.

The canter is of course exhausting too, but we’ve never been ones spend massive amounts of time in canter and we never found it that easy so I don’t feel the difference there so much. Also, I think we are actually making some progress with the quality of the canter, but he’s not used to working properly in canter so I’m trying to ask for very short high quality canters rather than asking for longer and losing the quality. So we have little canters usually followed by a walk-on-a-long-rein rest which we both appreciate. I’m aware I need to start increasing the duration at some point for both our sakes, but I feel like I’d rather put my effort towards trotting until my stamina increases. Some of the improvement in the canter is definitely down to me. Hurray! I’m making so many more constant little adjustments: inside leg for bend, outside hand to stop him falling flatter, outside leg to stop a drift, massaging the reins to remind him not to lean, core to stop him rushing… all of these are coming in time to do their job now. I am busy busy busy in the canter! But that’s what he needs. Naturally, left to his own devices, I don’t think he’d canter much*, so to improve that canter he needs constant reminding and supporting.

Another factor that I hadn’t considered is because I’ve been ill since the summer, now that I’m back at work full time it’s the first time I’ve had to ride in the dark. All of our schools are lit for night riding, but what a human considers suitable and what a horse who hasn’t been ridden outside in the dark for almost 12 months considers suitable may be different! He’s fine about the indoor school in the dark, and we have been in there without any huffing and puffing, but when I ride after work it’s peak time, so I might not always get in the indoor school. The first time we went out in the dark I didn’t think anything of it. It took me a little while to wonder why he was so twitchy while I took my stirrups down, etc. Then I worked it out. I managed the warm-up to avoid pushing him instantly into the spooky corners furthest from the gate – in walk we did a 30 m circle by the gate, then one in the middle and then went large before circling at the spooky end. We did hear a creature rustling in the bushes but it was obviously a small creature and D handled it well. We repeated on the other rein and he settled down nicely. At the end of the ride I usually give him the buckle**. Considering his nerves, the breeze and the darkness I thought about skipping this and cooling down on a long-ish rein, but he tugged at the reins to ask for more (I know, it’s rude, but I gave in … after making him wait a little). I gave him the buckle, but kept both hands through the reins and through the balance strap attached to the front of my saddle. If anything was going to happen I was going to be prepared! The thing that happened was almost certainly a bird, because nothing else makes a flapping sound like that. Quite what a sizable bird was doing flying out of the bushes after dark  I don’t know, but we were off! Feeling pretty smug about the two hands on the balance strap I just pulled myself deep into the saddle and waited for him to slow down, which he did quite quickly. As we bowled along away from the monster I realised we were travelling in a ridiculously fast trot – part of my reason for thinking that D doesn’t canter if he can avoid it! I took my reins back short and we went to investigate, proving that there were no monsters in the corner any more and that he is quite brave really.

The next time we rode we were again stuck outside, this time in the smaller outdoor school which is darker and spookier and boggier. Drifter was in a foul mood about being ridden at food-time and it was windy as well and the footing was pretty unappealing. Oh great. I got on and we started to warm up. He was not happy about going to the spooky end; not happy about one corner in particular. That corner is universally agreed to be the spookiest corner of the spookiest end of the spookiest school so I wasn’t that surprised, or that understanding to be honest. We survived 3 or 4 passes round that corner on each rein before an unexpected thing happened. The first my sluggish human reactions knew was that I was standing in the left stirrup with my left foot, with my right foot stepping down to the ground. Then I stood by his shoulder in perfect balance on the ground, facing his shoulder with my reins still in my hand as we stared at each other in utter incomprehension.

The only explanation I can imagine is as follows.

There was a monster. It attacked. In response D drew on hitherto unknown magical skills in order to teleport about 50 cm. to the right. Consequentially all of me was now to the left of the horse and gravity encouraged me downwards. So astonished was the horse by the unexpected behaviour of the rider that he stood stock still also.

Onlookers had no better explanation. One second I was riding a horse and we were both in motion. The next we were standing next to each other, perfectly still but totally confused. My first instinct, trained into me, was that I must instantly remount. I overruled it and took him back to investigate the spooky corner in-hand. After initial concerns he passed it again a few times on each side in-hand and I got on again. He did not at any point settle and after a very short ride I decided to call it quits because I felt that at any time I might part company with the horse again, but it was unlikely to be such a balanced dismount. Also, if he wasn’t going to work properly there wasn’t any point trying to achieve anything beyond staying on, so why bother?

Over the course of the second part of the ride I felt sure there was some problem in that corner. When I got off we went back to investigate again. This time my goal was not to march him back and forth and show him nothing would eat him, but to get him to show me what was the problem. Also to get him to be brave and, at his own speed, face his fear. The culprit turned out to be a substantial bit of polythene which had blown up against the fencing of the school. In itself it was almost invisible in the darkness but when the wind, which was gusty and frequent, moved the polythene the reflected flood-lights of the school ran back and forth across its surface, as if running at him out of the darkness. I gave him time to look at it and he eventually approached and sniffed it. Carefully I pulled it out. He was not sure about this, as I was moving it (!) but once I held it he gave it sniffs again and was calmer. Continuing to be careful and very much aware that I had a horse in one hand and a horse-eating monster in the other hand, I took both out of the school and got someone to dispose of the monster. It’s a shame that I didn’t manage to identify the monster the first time I had him in-hand, after the unexpected dismount, but I’d kind of assumed there had been some fleeing creature that triggered the reaction, so I wasn’t really expecting there to be anything to see at that point.

I have to say that this has left me somewhat nervous about riding outside in the evenings. This was the first time I have been detached from the horse (I can’t call that a fall!) outside of a lesson, which is also a confidence knock to my solo rides. It’s rather bad luck that these two sessions which D needed to be uneventful to build his confidence about the dark have both involved monster attacks.

Few of my posts are written in one go these days and this is no exception. Since writing the above we’ve had another little ride…

We had time for a quick ride before he saw the equine physio (she had 10 horses on our yard to do this time!) but only if I got on immediately. I wouldn’t be able to ride after he was treated so I needed to get on now or not at all.

I did a quick survey of the schools and found only the spookiest darkest outdoor was free. 😦 Do not want. 😦 But then someone pointed out that the lesson inside was about to finish and then that would be free 🙂 While I was tempted by the golden light of inside, I thought, no, we will go out in the dark and be brave for a few minutes knowing I can come in at any point. As we walked round to the school, me somewhat apprehensive, a wheelbarrow attempted to independently descend the muck-heap ramp at us as we walked past. This did not do good things of either of our nerves although Drifter was very brave considering. Other horses on the yard would have gone bonkers – he just bounced slightly and goggled at it.

So we continued round and I got on. I was really grateful that we could go indoors soon – we’d had snow (since melted), copious hail (ditto) and some rain since our previous ride out there and the surface was drowned. If I hadn’t been determined to walk around in the dark I’d have given up then, but knowing that we could do walking outside and then go in for other gaits helped. There was no way I would have wanted to trot him in that footing. Ironically the best drained corner was the spooky corner. We were absolutely fine. He was pretty calm about everything. Considering he hates standing water, he tolerated the water in and on the surface very well and he didn’t bother about what was in the bushes / outside the school at all. We squished around for a bit and I took him in. We did a very short ride inside and went back out to wait for the physio. It was just the confidence builder I’d been hoping for.

As for the physio, she was very pleased with him. We saw her a fortnight ago when he trotted up slightly high in the right hind-quarter and had stiffness in the right lower spine as well as the quarter itself. This time he trotted up beautifully and during treatment she found only a little stiffness near the spine. She declared that she doesn’t need to see him again for at least a few months – when/if I feel anything odd. Excellent. Previous times when he’s needed treatment it’s been regular sessions for months. These days I can spot things much quicker and get it nipped in the bud. If I’d been able to ride more over the last months maybe we’d have been able to avoid this, but who knows? Maybe it would have happened anyway.

It’s so nice to have the clean bill of health on his movement – now when we ride I won’t worry that any resistance in him comes from soreness and I can focus on getting us back to regular work as best I can.

Foolish it might be, but I’ve booked a lesson with Lee Pearson for a few weeks time. Am I in any shape for the lesson? Nope. But last time I saw him he said we could look at walk-only work if that’s what I needed. While I know he might push me and I need to be ready to say no to things if it’s too much I really wanted a lesson with him. If I can’t last the time in the saddle I’ll have to cut the lesson short. I’ve made sure to book the day after it off work to recover as well. I did think maybe I could ask if he’ll do me a shorter lesson than his standard 45 min., but somehow it felt disrespectful. He’s given me loads of free and valuable advice while I’ve been watching other people’s lessons when I was too ill to ride. If I pay for some lesson time I can’t use that’s all part of the cosmic balance.



*I suspect a wild or feral D would consider that most objectives can be covered by either trotting really fast or breaking out the gallop, so why bother with that wonky three-legged weirdy gait?

**I.e. ride him so that he has the full length of the reins and no contact on them. Sometimes I keep a hand through the reins, often I just let them lie on his neck.


4 thoughts on “In the saddle

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Fascinating reading – thank you for sharing!

  2. theInelegantHorseRider says:

    It sounds like you are doing brilliantly and building yourself and D back up just right. I like (if that’s not a wrong word to use) hearing about how others deal with spooking as I haven’t really managed to get that spot on yet. Impressed with your graceful, standing dismount too.
    Oh and one of the horses I ride is the exact opposite of D in that he firmly believes everything would be better done in canter, everything 🙂 Looking forward to hearing about your next Lee Pearson lesson – not in the slightest bit jealous!

  3. […] read a lot of horse riding blogs and this post by Sparrowgrass jumped out at me this week – it really reminded me of how others get on with […]

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