On the lunge line

I hadn’t been looking forward to lunging again. I did find it quite stressful before in itself and the added inconvenience of needing a free school to ourselves to lunge in (health and safety rules) adds to the stress a bit. It’s quite undesirable to check which schools are free, get all his lunging gear sorted and then get out to find a rider got to the school first so we have to wait for them to finish.

But I had no saddle and a horse that needed exercise, so lunging it had to be.

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It was a cold Friday night and after a tiring week at work I got him groomed and into his boots, roller and bridle, picked his feet and took him out into the dark. Before getting his tack on I’d checked and both outdoor schools were free. Unfortunately by the time I got out there was a livery rider in one school and a lesson in the other. (This was particularly annoying as when I wanted to have lessons on Fridays I was told they didn’t teach on Fridays.) I sighed and prepared to turn round and go back to the stable when the livery rider called out that she was just finishing and I could have the school. Hurray!

I grabbed the lunging whip and started him walking round to warm up. It didn’t take him long to get into it and I remembered how lucky I am to have a horse who knows what he’s doing and is obedient and safe on the lunge. Others on my livery block wouldn’t  feel comfortable lunging their own horses, even though they’ve had horses for years and years.

As I watched him move I was struck again by how beautiful he is. When you ride you don’t see much horse because you’re on top, but lunging lets you see all of that power and movement and beauty. The grace of a horse is never so apparent as when they move, and as a rider you miss out on the view.

The lesson in the school next door finished and we were left alone with the floodlights glinting off my dark horse. I’d been keeping it quite low-key, just a steady trot, but now there was no pony to upset in the next school (and no one watching and making me feel less confident) so I thought it was time to see if we could get a canter. I’d barely lunged him in canter before but I felt happy that he was listening and working well so it seemed like a good time to try.

I asked. He considered and trotted faster. I asked. He rearranged his legs and cantered. It was breathtakingly beautiful. He danced in the dark, black shining in the floodlights, all horse. I was laughing with joy. This! This is Horse! The platonic ideal of Horse was cantering around me; magic in the icy night. I had been visited by the horse gods.

Obviously he received much praise and many treats that night.

On a more practical level it was useful to see him go through the “rearrange legs and canter” stage. Riding him I have had the idea that I don’t always get a canter when I ask because he’s not worked out how to balance and get into canter immediately I ask and it was clearer to see that from the ground. It’s obviously something he could use more practice at.

I also witnessed a little buck or two, but I interpreted them as happy energy/release/feel good buck rather than anything less pleasant. This is a horse who’s had limited turn-out and, because of the saddle issue, hadn’t enjoyed ridden exercise for at least a week, if not longer. It must have felt good to work out and not have that saddle on.

On Sunday the saddle fitter came out to see us. It was a different lady from last time (although she works for the same company). She turned up 20 minutes early and immediately endeared herself to me by admiring Drifter; his gentle curiosity, his long eyelashes and his attitude to a stranger in his stable. She can come again! I felt more at ease with her than I had with her colleague, which was good because I was quite nervous, not knowing what to expect. I’d basically phoned them, told them the saddle didn’t fit, but then not had the experience to be able to communicate what I wanted them to do about it. I didn’t know (and to be honest still don’t) what they have in their repertoire to make a saddle fit a horse. I didn’t know whether it would be a simple on the spot job or a really challenging problem that would take considerable time and money.

We started with her re-measuring him on the withers and where the back of the saddle would sit. Then she put the saddle on him in the stable. She looked very doubtful, walked around, felt and looked from different angles and said, “To be honest it looks like a pretty good fit to me.” She then gently suggested that it might not be the saddle that was the problem, tactfully mentioning rider skill and horse attitude as other areas to consider. However, she needed to see the saddle with me on top before she could conclude, so out we went and up I got. We had only walked away from her for 2-3 meters before she said, “I’ve seen all I need. I see the problem.” It was a relief to find out I wasn’t going mad!

Apparently the flocking in the saddle had compacted. This can be common with new saddles from some manufacturers and should be easy to put right. She took the saddle away to work on and I’m hoping to hear back soon that it is finished and then we can make another appointment to check it fits properly after the work is done. She also took the nose-band from the bridle to shorten the long end and add an extra hole or two. I questioned whether it was OK to lunge without a nose-band and she assured me it would be fine.

So back to the lunge line we go.

A picture from our pre-saddle owning lunging sessions.

A picture from our pre-saddle-owning lunging sessions. Blurry, yes, but that’s all the better to evoke the essence of Horse-in-motion. You won’t be surprised to hear I don’t have any pictures of magic lungeing in the night.

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On hunting for a horse without Cilla Black

Many of my readers already know this, but for those who don’t, here is an official announcement: I’m actively looking for a horse to buy!

On Monday, for the first time, I went to view a horse for sale. As a result I’ve come to the conclusion that horse-hunting is almost exactly the same as going on blind dates. ID-10097384
Isn’t this the script for both?

Someone you know comes up to you: I know a lad who is perfect for you! Here’s a picture, isn’t he a nice boy?

You (nervously): Yes he looks very nice.

Them: Shall I arrange a meeting? I think he’s just right for you and you’d do really well together. He’ll be just what you want.  He’s such a gentleman. He’s perfect for you.

You: Yes please.

[The day of the meeting, you see him across the room]

You (thinking): Wow, he looks gorgeous, look at him! And the way he moves, he’s out of my league. I hope he likes me. We could have a great future together if he does…

And then you ride him and find out you’re totally incompatible.

Obviously in the blind dating, human-on-human scenario I would hope there is a little getting to know each other before you ride him, but basically there’s no difference. People get your hopes up, in your head you think about a life together, and then you’re dashed to the ground when you realise that even if they want you, you really aren’t interested in them.

He was gorgeous though…

Plenty more fish in the sea, they tell me. So watch this space for more updates on horse-hunting.

Image courtesy of Simon Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First jump lesson

Any of you who happened to  read my (somewhat petite) bucket list a few months ago will be aware that I wanted to learn to jump on horseback. Well, as you may already have guessed from the title of this post, I’ve had my first jump lesson.

My instructor had told me that in my first jump lesson we’d just practice jump position and maybe trot over a few poles laid flat on the ground. As I arrived there were lots of actual jumps being set up in the school. I eyed them suspiciously, but she assured me they were for the jump lesson after mine. I had booked a 1 hour lesson, half flat, half jump so for the first section of the lesson I was just warming up and getting used to the horse, Danny*, who was one I haven’t ridden for almost six months, but he loves jumping and jumps easily and economically (rather than jumping a twig on the ground like it’s something in the Grand National) so he’s the best one to learn to jump on.

The flatwork part of the lesson passed as such things do, and then the instructor had me stop, shorten my stirrups and practice folding into a jump position. Then she pointed to a black and white crossed-pole jump and told me that was what I was going over. In canter. Sorry, what?? That sounds quite dissimilar to trotting over a pole laid on the floor. But I didn’t argue, and I did jump it. Kind of like this:

Trot to there … pick up canter now … turn towards the jump … nice straight line (ish) … forgot to fold (but sort of stood up at the right time) … land … canter off

Really, there didn’t seem to be much to it that first time, aside from the fact that I’d been in the wrong position going over. It all felt balanced and the timing worked and was generally less weird than I expected.

After repeating that once or twice it was time to start linking two jumps together. This I found a little more worrying because it meant I had to be mentally present and steer shortly after jumping, on a horse I don’t find that easy to steer, but, it all went OK. This is in part due to the fact that I was on Danny, who really wanted to jump. No doubt on a horse that wasn’t in the mood to jump I would have found steering to set up a second jump something more of a challenge, but with his help it was well within my capabilities. I still hadn’t really got the hand of folding properly into a nice position, but everything else was going well.

Then my instructor suggested we try going in the opposite direction over the first jump. This meant we’d have a longer run-up to the jump and a shorter space on the far side before we had to turn to avoid crashing into the fence at the edge of the school. And Danny likes jumping. Danny got onto that long run-up and eagerly headed for the jump:

Half-half, half-halt (slow down Danny!) … ah good he’s slowed …Oh no! he’s suddenly got ridiculously fast just at the last minute before the jump … going over fast… landing off-balance … I’m falling off-NO I’M NOT, I’M STAYING ON … grab mane … damn, lost mane again … try for more mane … down from canter to trot – less stable – not good … throw arms around his neck … hang on … hope he’ll stop … down from trot to walk – thank heavens I’ll probably stay off the floor … he’s still walking round … I can’t reach the reins to stop him … he’s still walking … my instructor’s coming to catch us … he’s still walking … this is going to be OK but I wish he’d stop walking … I can probably  risk reaching for a rein … he’s stopped … recover seat … recover composure.

It seems that I stayed on using only determination to defy gravity. This opinion is shared by my instructor, who said it almost made her want to fill in an accident form just so she could put that I’d stayed on regardless. Of course I was also assisted by Danny keeping calm and carrying on instead of choosing to shake me loose, which would have cost him no effort whatsoever.

We decided it was probably best not to try jumping it from that side again just yet, and went back to approaching from the other direction with a short approach. Further jumps were pretty uneventful although I still didn’t really get the hang of folding into the correct position.

Setting aside the ‘refusing to fall off’ incident, the thing I found hardest was not (as I had expected) going over the jumps. It was the flatwork between the jumps, because having short stirrups did me no favours. My natural body/leg ratio is not the best for riding and shortening my leg even more made it very hard to keep my leg under control, especially in a downward transition from canter to a bouncy trot. I’m hoping I can work on this in my flat lessons before I try jumping again in a fortnight.

I’m a lot fonder of Danny than I was before the lesson. Generally he’s not the most pleasant horse to spend time with in the stable. He’s always ready to kick or bite when being groomed or tacked up and he had caught me with his teeth just before the lesson. But it seems that if you hang around his neck, dependant on his good will to keep you from hitting the ground, then he’s a totally different horse. 🙂

*Readers with exceptional memory may remember Danny from my post A lesson to learn from a horse. He’s not spooky in the school it seems, just out hacking.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Helping with horses

A couple of months ago I started volunteering at the stables where I have my riding lessons. The idea to do this came initially from the thought that I don’t know anything about horse-care and it seemed weird that I was learning to ride horses but not how to be around them on the ground (incidentally it’s safer to ride them than be on the ground looking after them – most accidents happen when you’re not mounted). So I wondered how you learnt how to look after horses and I came up with the idea to ask if I could work there as a volunteer at weekends.

No sooner had I formed the idea than I realised how this was a sign of how much I’ve changed in recent years – to have the energy to consider volunteering as well as working a full-time job was a new concept for me and to approach a new working environment by choice is something I would never have done in the past. You might assume that having been riding there for nearly a year I would be fairly at ease in the yard and with the staff, but that would be incorrect – I always used to feel awkward standing in the yard before my lessons because I didn’t know how the yard worked, what I was allowed to do or whether I was in the way. But I was ready for a challenge. I was ready to test my new self and find out how I would cope with working in an environment where I was more ignorant than the 5 year old Pony Club members.

With many warnings that there was no discount on my lessons and no tangible reward for doing the work, the yard manager agreed to permit me to volunteer for 5 hours every Sunday morning. She warned that I would be in at the deep end, that if I couldn’t keep up I’d have to go and that I’d get shown how to do things once and then left to do it.

So since then I’ve learned loads about horse care but also confirmed how far I’ve pushed the boundaries of my comfort zones. I’m having great times in close proximity to horses and ponies and I’ve learned how to handle them confidently but I’ve also been handling humans confidently. Sometimes literally handling them – last week a little girl was the recipient of my first time giving a leg-up onto a pony. (Unfortunately, as she was as inexperienced at receiving a leg-up as I was at providing one, we didn’t manage to get her in the saddle first time and so she was also the recipient of my second attempt, at which point we succeeded in getting her on board. Hurray!) Of course there are not-so-great moments mixed in, such as when I was removing the horse poo from a field and a horse making trouble overturned my wheelbarrow of poo tipping it back onto the field again, but, irritating moments like that excepted, I’m having a really positive experience. And when riding instructor no. 2 left suddenly I wasn’t shaken by it because I’d got to know the other instructors through working on the yard.

So here’s a few things I’ve learned so far:

  • Bad weather makes horses and people grumpy, so assume that everything you do in bad weather will be wrong.
  • The day you don’t wear steel-toe-caps is the day you’ll get a hoof on your toes.
  • Little girls can be acceptable company if you manage to separate one from the herd, but shrill squealing packs of Pony Club kids are best dealt with by hiding behind the largest horse you can find until they’ve gone away.
  • Darker coloured horses are more practical because they don’t show ‘the mud’ (i.e. poo stains) like greys do.
  • Horses have extensive wardrobes, but hot-pink rugs are not flattering to any pony.

Image: Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net