A skilled dressage rider makes riding seem so quiet, beautiful and effortless. Riding is easy but the sport of dressage is actually physically and mentally demanding. It requires focus. The slightest shift of balance, hand or leg movement can affect the quality of the ride. Tension is the enemy and unfortunately I have that in abundance.

Charlie and I moved around the arena at a trot in the early morning sun. I massaged the inside rein, sat into his back and tightened my calves around him. Charlie responded by coming over his back and rounding his neck. I laughed as he switched to passage. Bouncing beneath me like a huge ball as we continued moving in a slow trot.

“Stop showing off!” My instructor shouts from the opposite end of the arena. Her voice is tinged with laughter too.

“I’m not,” I replied. “I just can’t trot!”

“That’s because you’re too tight!”

Blech, those words of wisdom again. I’m too tight. I have admit that passage feels great! But what I really want is a trot. Just a good old fashioned trot. Please!

Oh, there it is! Oops. Back to passage. Laughter bubbles up from within me.

Bounce, bounce, bounce

Okay, let’s focus and attempt to relax. I need to make it around at least once at a trot.

Woot, woot success!

I love school masters! That is when I’m not busy hating them for exposing every fault in my position and aids.

A lot has happened in the past year. At times I’ve thought that I just couldn’t do this. It’s frustrating, discouraging and disheartening.

And that’s just the trot!

Correction. That’s the walk. I still haven’t gotten him to trot!

I can’t believe this! I’ve reverted back to beginner level.
Why, why, why did she put me on Charlie?

Please trot. Please.
I hate schoolmasters!

“Most people don’t have this problem with Charlie. It’s you. You’re too tight today,” said my instructor. “Looks like I’ll have to chase you around.”

Ah, pearls of wisdom. It’s you. I know it’s me. Sigh. Now how do I fix it!

Uh-oh. Here she comes! (Trottt, trottttttt, trotttttttttttt)

Oh, the shame of it! (Hanging my head in shame.)
Someone please give me a paper bag.

I give up.

Wait.
Was that a trot?
Yah! Let’s go!

Nope. I don’t think so. Nada. Not happening.

Sigh. It’s just not happening today. I give up. Sigh.

Wait.
Another trot?
Hmm.

Let’s go!
Nope.

I give up. Sigh.
(Trot)

Hmm, I think I’m onto something here. My legs and fingers are relaxing when I sigh and say “I give up.” That’s allowing Charlie to move forward. Then when I start to think abut trotting and “Let’s go!” my legs start to grip and my fingers tighten. I’m telling him to stop not go! What’s wrong with me?

And that was an awesome lesson.

Ugh, it’s another hot, humid day.

Big Black is especially fierce today. At least one of the buggers nibbled on my ankle earlier and poor Rusty acts as though he’s being tortured. Big Black is chasing him from one end of his paddock to the other.

I enter the ring with Gracie, whose flesh is in a state of constant motion. Big Black has it in for her too.

As I tighten Gracie’s girth I hear someone shout out, “Go into your shed Rusty! Big Black won’t go in there.”

Huh? Hello. It’s a fly. Of course Big Black will go in there.
As a last resort, or perhaps it’s just reverse psychology Rusty obeys.

I turn my attention back to Gracie. She’s standing there flicking her tail, twitching, and stomping. Poor thing. Hmm, maybe some fly spray? Wait. I think she’s got an issue with it. Or does she?

Spritzzzzzz
Eyes widen
Ears perk
Moves in reverse

Uh-huh. Issue.

OK, we’ll just stay in motion and hope Big Black doesn’t catch up.

The ride was interesting to say the least. It felt as though I was riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo.

Twist to the right
Twist to the left
Duck head to nip at fly on belly
Burst forward in acknowledgement of my aids
Can’t stand it!
Halt
Ignore rider’s aids, nip at legs

In slow motion. Without the bucking.

We also had some wonderful moments while trying to outrun Big Black. Her hind legs were active — I wonder why? — and she was as light as a feather. I suspect that it had more to do with the flies than me.

Oh-uh.
I
can’t
zip
my
boots.
(Pull…tug…stand up…sit down…rest…pull…)

It’s first thing in the morning too. It must be really humid. Like really, really humid.
Hmm, let’s find out. I’ll ask my very own personal weatherman.

“Hey Willy? Was it humid when you went outside with the trash?”
(Pull…tug…stand up…sit down…rest…pant…pull…)

“Yeah. Why? Having trouble with your boots?”

“Yes.” Gasp “Woot woot!” I exclaimed. “I got them zipped! I’ll see you in a few hours.” I bent over to kiss him goodbye then dashed out the door.

A Little Later

I’m dripping wet. Soaked. I haven’t even started my ride yet. This is not good. I wipe sweat from my forehead as we walk around the indoor. Boy is it hot.

Spurs? Check. I’ll need them in this weather.
Whip? Check.
Gloves? Uh-oh. Sinking feeling.

I can’t believe that I forgot my gloves! Sigh. Too late now. There’s no way am I dismounting to go get them. Or even worse, asking my trainer to get them for me. Gasp! I’d never hear the end of that. OK, just suck it up. You’ll live.

A Bit Later

Ow, ow, ow…
These rubber reins are killing me. Damn, I think I have a blister too. OW!

Get off my left leg.
Get off my left leg.
Get off my… OW!

Definitely blisters on my left hand.

We’re both hanging on the left. Soften the left rein, relax my left arm, push her into the right rein.
Uh-oh. I think I’m getting one on my other hand too.

When, oh when, will this lesson end!

Oh, thank God! Finally, I can examine the damage but do I dare look? I decide to sneak a peek at my left hand. Ow, three blisters along the length of my left ring finger. One of them has opened.

Then I glance at my right hand. Not as bad. Only one blister.

Note to self. Stop hanging on the reins! Especially the left one. Get the horse between both reins and soften. Hmm, maybe I should ride without gloves more often.

 

 

 

“Open your hips!”
“Open your hips!”
“Open your hips!”
“Open…” Um, I think you get the idea.

I can’t possibly tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase and every time my response was the same. I opened my legs.

I bet you did too. C’mon tell the truth now.

Well, I think that I’ve finally – after all these years – figured out what they couldn’t articulate. I was supposed to lean back and by doing so I’d open my hip angle.

That’s right. Angle. Hip angle.
The distance between your chest and the saddle.

Besides how do you open your hips? They’re not hinged.

Lesson learned the hard way

Twice within a six month period the scary cat horse managed to dump me. Why? Because I was riding with a closed hip angle. Uh, that means I was tipped forward. I ate dirt because I couldn’t recover my balance. So when he slammed on the brakes and scooted to the side off I went over his left shoulder. Twice.

The only time a closed hip angle has worked to my advantage is on a bolting horse. When her head and shoulders popped up I didn’t fall off toward her back end.

I guess not falling off is an advantage.

Ah, what a wonderful sunny day. You just couldn’t ask for better weather. Sigh.

Okay. Maybe it’s a little hot riding in the ring.
I wasn’t expecting that. Should’ve used sunscreen.
Shoulda woulda coulda. Yeah, yeah I know.
My fair Irish skin is going to burn to a crisp.

Enough of that. FOCUS!

Trotting.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Inside leg to outside rein.
Ahem. Wouldn’t it be easier to say leg yield without the sideways?

Oops. FOCUS!

Trotting.
Aw, the horse’s ears are twitching. Poor girl.
Where’d all those bugs come from?
Let’s pick up the pace and see if we can lose them.
Trottingtrottingtrottingtrotting

OW!

I think a bug just bit – stung me?
That hurt. A lot.
Stop being such a baby. Suck it up and ride.

About fifteen minutes later
That was a great ride!
“Good girl.” I glanced down as I patted her neck. What’s that?!
I straightened and turned my leg slightly so I could get a better look.
Blood.
Quite a bit of blood.
Darn bug drew blood.
Enough to bleed through my breeches and pool at the top of my boots.
Correction. Bleed down my boots.
What the heck bit me?

It’s hard to take a photo of your own knee.
This is the bug bite I got while riding.

“Uh, I’m bleeding.”

“What happened?!”

“I think I was bitten – stung?”

“One of those black flies? They hurt. You would’ve yelped.”

“It did hurt. I told myself to suck it up though. Did I ever mention that I’m hypersensitive? I swell up with mosquito bites.”

“I have some ointment in the barn if you want it. Benadryl too.”

“Thanks. I think I’m okay though.”

I dismount and as I start running the right stirrup up I spot more blood.
That’s right.
More blood.
Apparently it ran down my boot and onto the saddle flap.

“You have saddle soap, right? I bled onto your saddle too.”

It’s still a beautiful day. Even though nature took a bite outta me.

“Help me canter!”

Well, not me. My student. It’s a woman that I’ve known for a long time and she’s been instrumental in my decision to become an instructor. Why? Basically because she begs and pleads for riding tips. Then when they work she tells me that I need to get my license.

So, here I am.
Watching her canter.
Actually, I’m watching her butt hit the saddle.
Bump
Bump
Bump

How I remember those days.
Actually, I think it was only last week. Sigh.

“Sit back more! Opening your hip angle will help you sit better.”
I know it helps me.
I see a momentary improvement.

Hmm, she’s tense which is causing her to be against the movement.

“Think about bobbing in the ocean. Allow the ocean wave to gently pick you up and set you down.”
There! She relaxed into the motion.
“Ocean wave, ocean wave…”

Oops!
Bump
Bump
Bump

“Be a bean bag draped over your horse.”
There. She’s got it!
Softly sitting
Softly sitting

Oops!

“Open on the up. Close on the down.”
Nope. She’s out of rhythm.

“Relax your knee and thigh.”
She’s got it! I actually saw her seat deepen.
“Good job!”

“Thank you so much! I could really feel the difference.”

That’s the payoff. Hearing the thrill in another person’s voice because you’ve given them a small glimpse into what riding can really be like when you partner with your horse. Those aha moments that are so addicting.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were totally helpless and dependent upon someone else? Oh, c’mon. Sure you have. Remember what it was like to be a child? Well animals are the same. At least domesticated animals are. They rely on us to treat them fairly and humanely. To protect them and nurture them. But trust? Well, that’s earned. We can only gain their trust by proving that we’re worthy. First we need to be patient. Not something that I personally excel at and no, having a child does not make me patient by default. Next, do not yell. Oops, I mean DO NOT YELL!! That only scares him. Lastly take care of your horse yourself and be there as much as possible to strengthen your bond.

Unfortunately this doesn’t always work with a lesson horse. I don’t own him and we only see each other once a week. Wait. Make that every other week. I’m on a horse rotation schedule.

Lessons we learn

Gosh darn wiggly horse. Sigh.

I swear you can trust me. I’m a nice person. A really, really nice person. I know I’m asking more from you than your usual riders but I won’t push too much. That is, unless I’m told to push you. And even then you’re a strong horse. You can do it!

So, what do you say, huh? Let’s ride deep into the corners like we were told. OK?

Sure.

Great! (Wait a minute. Was that sarcasm? From the horse?! Like I’m not getting enough from my teenager?) As we trot, I look straight ahead at the fence and suddenly I can feel him hesitating.

We’re gonna crash. We’re gonna crash. This psycho is riding me into the fence!

I’m not going to ride you into the fence. Trust me. We’ll turn in time, I promise. We’re just trotting deep into the corner.

OK. Whew!

See? I told you to trust me. Uh-oh, now what?
(I can feel him trying to plant his feet and his ears are perked forward.)

What’s that?! On the fence?! I swear it wasn’t there earlier!

Um, that’s a saddle. Just like the one on your back.

Oh. Whew!

“Let’s change directions and when you’re ready pick up a canter down the long side. If he gets strong or unbalanced feel free to throw in a circle.”

You hear that? We’re going to canter. Down the long side, deep into the corner and transition to a walk. Are you ready? (Ha! Am I ready?)

I get to canter? You bet!

OK, there are a lot of people in the ring so we have to stay on the path I choose. (Deep breath.) Here goes. Canter.

I feel good. This is fun.

I’m looking straight at the gate at the end of the long side. We’ll canter deep into the corner.

Wait! We’re going to crash! Psycho rider is going to canter into the fence!!

He’s been so balanced. Hmm, something’s not quite right…

What’s that shiny thing on the ground?!

Uh-oh. I spoke too soon.

I’m outta here…

I apply my inside leg to keep him out on the curve and guess what?

Bam–bam–bam

I’m rewarded by…
Not one,
not two,
but three bucks.

Silly horse. I told you we weren’t going to crash. Now when will you trust me?

 

 

“Hello – Hello – Hello,
Is there anyone in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?”

Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

Me! I’m home and I can hear you.
Oh. You can’t hear me?
Hmm, I guess that’s because I’ve been, um, busy.
Yeah, busy. That’s the ticket.

Seriously though, since I lost my job finding another has been a full time endeavor. I’ve been fairly lucky finding work through temp agencies and some freelance but no one’s biting on the permanent job front. Stark reality is staring me in the face (by the way it needs a breath mint, whew!) and I’ve had to consider reinventing myself. Which sucks because I’m not broken.

What would reinvented Lee do?
I like animals. As I child I wanted to be a vet. Who doesn’t?
I like art. That’s why I became a graphic designer.
Ideally? Art + animals = equine graphic designer.
Thankfully, I already have some equine related clients but not enough to sustain me. Not yet anyway.

I need a backup plan. Something that I’m interested in and hopefully good at that will get me through the lean times ahead. Aha! Riding instructor.

Actually the riding instructor idea wasn’t entirely mine. I recently dropped in on my first instructor and ended up giving tips to several of her students. It was her idea and now I’m her apprentice. Immersed in learning to speak “student”. Not just parroting back what I’ve heard all these years but helping them connect the dots. They can learn the theory later. Believe me. The minute you touch on theory their eyes glaze over. They want to ride. That’s good because I want to give them the tools to ride well.

Which brings me back full circle to the whole busy thing. I’m juggling a 2 month contract position, freelance, apprenticeship and family. I haven’t even had time to sleep.

Speaking of sleep (yawn)…..zzzzzzzzzzzz

That’s it. (Throwing my hands up in disgust.) I’ve had it!
Why?
It’s my hands. Look at them! (Glancing down at my hands.)
They refuse to cooperate. Instead of following the bit as one unit forward and back. They’d rather follow the hips. I look more like a jogger than a rider. See? Sigh.

The result? Torture of course!
Now I have to concentrate on keeping quiet, steady hands that follow the bit. In all gaits!
Why?
Why?! Because I can’t maintain the contact if I’m giving away the reins.
Because the horse isn’t going to seek the bit if I jab him in the mouth.
Because…because it looks bad!

When, when, when am I going to get it? (Hitting my head against the wall.)

Okay, let’s see…

Hmm, hands resting on a shelf.
Uh-huh, not working. C’mon how often do you rest your hands on a shelf?
Wheelbarrow? Pushing a wheelbarrow, pushing a wheelbarrow…

Oooo, I like that one. Let’s try it out.
Walk to trot. Nice!
Trot to walk. Yah!
Canter to trot. Good!
Trot to canter. Eeks! Um, canter? Where are you?
Walk to canter. Uh-huh. Canter? Where did you go?

Great. I fix my hands and now I can’t canter.
When will it end? (Throwing up my hands in disgust.)

Contact Me

leecullen@comcast.net

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