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“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?

 

 

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.)

This is so embarrassing.

I jinxed myself.

My next ride on the wiggly horse wasn’t nearly as nice. He had resorted back to being a scaredy cat. It was so bad that I couldn’t get him to go past the trailers at the end of the arena. The trailers are always there. I did what I was always taught to do. I circled around, turned his head slightly away from the trailers and tried to push him past. Nope. Not happening.

I had to be rescued.
By a tow truck!

We were totally broken down.

You know what I’m talking about right? Another horse and rider had to move in front of us so that we could continue forward. Tow truck style. Apparently he spends a lot of lesson time like this. Embarrassing. (shaking my head)

Later on he must’ve spotted the trailers again – or maybe it was the cat.
Anyway, in a blink of an eye we went from canter, to a screeching halt, to sitting down like a dog.
That has never happened to me before.

I could hear the playground taunt, “scaredy cat, scaredy cat, nah-nah.” But instead of crying I laughed.

Go ahead and laugh. I did.

Amazing. I laughed after a spook while cantering. What’s gotten into me?

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve noticed my absence.
Nah, probably not.

Well let me reassure you that it had nothing to do with cantering, spooks or fear. I’ve continued to ride each and every week. I’ve even cantered. <gasp!> Three times, unexpectedly in one lesson. <sigh> But what’s one to do when the wind threatens to pick you up and carry you across the ring? Or a horse eating car moves in the driveway? Yeah. <sighs deeply>

Ride it out, baby.
Ride it out.
Then realize that you can ride it out.
Even with your heart lodged in your throat. <Can’t breathe.>

Back to basics—again
So we took things down a notch. Working on my confidence and bringing my body back to vertical. All stuff you’ve read before. Boring drivel that didn’t exactly inspire me to post. Um, here that is. Uh, posting.

————- • ————-

Then it happened.
I had a riding break through!

My oh-so-clever instructor fixed my duck butt.
Not permanently. At least not yet.
A million more times and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be permanent.
But I’m able to maintain my vertical position for the majority of the time.

Wanna know how?
I just bet you do.
Well, for starters, forget about sitting up straight and tucking your butt.
Believe me. If it hasn’t worked for you yet it’s not going to. Why? Because the problem is a symptom of something else.

Instead, I want you to make the following adjustments.
• Lift your hands up. I’m talking ridiculously high. Like a T-rex. Especially if you’re petite and riding a strong horse.
• Then bring your elbows against your sides. That’ll get rid of those chicken wings.
• Lastly, look up! Way up to the sky. I’m serious. Don’t look down. Our heads weight about 10 lbs. If we look down we’ve shifted our weight forward. This encourages duck butt and our horses will fall on the forehand. Hey, I said look up!

Whew! Now you’re finally vertical.

In this position my seat felt flat. I also felt confident and secure. I actually started cantering again. Intentionally. <gasp!>

To quote Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners.

“BANG, ZOOM! Straight to the moon!”

I sighed.

In the dim light of early evening I look around the indoor. The flutter of butterflies increases as I ride toward the door. The scene of fleeting spooks, barely there and then gone. Nothing serious but still my heart knocks a little stronger each time I approach it. I no longer want to canter. Fear is starting to take up residence.

Yes, that’s right.

Fear.

It’s our natural mental response to a real threat and an important element of self preservation. Riding is a life threatening sport. One that many of us do on a daily basis. If you perceive that your life’s in danger and you’re not afraid you’re a moron. Sorry, but it’s true.

Fear is annoying.

It’s time to move on.

In order to do so, however, I have to look directly into the face of fear. Why? Because fear is one of the key ingredients to courage and it’s time to open up.

I’m afraid of falling off and getting hurt. There. I did it. But that’s not all. I’m also afraid of my vulnerability, being judged, failure, and the unknown. A lot of which has nothing to do with riding and a lot to do with the last few months. They’ve been turbulent. I’m dealing with the loss of my job and a niece that’s been hospitalized several times this month.

“Do you want to canter tonight?”

Huh?! I have a choice? Do I? Flutter, flutter. “No.” Dang it, I’m still not ready to canter. “Can we work on improving my seat and position at a trot?”

“Sure.”

Cop-out? Not really. I’ve taken a slight step backwards in order to build on the basics. If I can improve upon my current body faults at a walk or trot it will carry over into the canter. In the meantime, I’m building my confidence. My heart doesn’t knock as loudly as I ride pass the door without incident. My position is improving and I’m thinking about cantering.

I just need a little more time.

Life can change in a heartbeat. I know that. I’ve lived through many of it’s twists and turns. Knocked down more times than I care to remember—just like you. Every time I come back a little stronger. Why? Because better things are coming.

I can feel that old spark coming back. A warmth spreading inside my chest as I approach riding with renewed energy. No longer am I weighed down by work stress. I’m relaxed and it shows in my riding.

The Three Little Pigs

Uh, did you hear that? My horse’s ears flick in response.

Overnight a front had blown in and the weather has changed quite a bit. The wind is creating eerie sounds that echo within the indoor. In the distance, I can hear the faint clang of metal. As we trot past a door, the wind howls and knocks it against the frame.  Winter has finally arrived in New England and it’s attempting to get inside just like the Big Bad Wolf.

“Little pig, little pig, let me come in!”

There are now three horse and rider pairs in the indoor. Despite the wind I’ve had a fantastic lesson. What a difference it makes when you’re not carrying work stress in with you. I’m actually relaxed, huh.

Two of us picked up a canter. As we passed the open doorway the wind huffed and puffed and blew us in. Just like a straw house.

In slow motion I had witnessed her head pop up as she prepared to bounce to the side like a cat. I had just enough time to register that I was still holding the whip in my inside hand. “Crap!” (OK, so my language was a bit stronger than that.) I can’t perform a one rein stop! Drop the whip! Turn her to the inside! Bend, bend…

Whew! I looked around to see that we’d stopped in the center of the indoor.

My instructor applauded my ability to sit the spook and drop the whip. Then she confesses that three other students had come off horses earlier in the day.

Silly Wolf, you’ve filled your quota.

This is not something I usually do.

Great opening, huh? I’m already telling you that what I’m about to do is bad. Really, really, bad. As in there’s absolutely no excuse for my actions. Well, maybe one. It made me laugh and laughter is meant to be shared.

A little background
There’s a certain equestrian duo that I’ve been watching. I won’t reveal names but he sports a mustache and she’s well known for wearing visors. I find them fascinating. Why? Marketing. They’ve built an Empire (notice the capital E) around their equine products. Now they’re trying to enter the dressage market. First I noticed their ads appearing in Dressage Today. Then an email announced the duo as dressage trainers on a video subscription website. The fallout was incredible and led to the removal of the press release from two websites. We, uh, dressage riders, were labeled “dissenters” because we didn’t buy into it.

What spurred my reaction  (Tee, hee, spurred.)
The latest and greatest damage control, er, email, announces that Visor Lady has been endorsed by an Olympian. Eh, big deal. Never heard of him.

What tickled me
“…[Visor Lady] a masterful dressage rider…”
Masterful? Really? Then why isn’t her butt glued to that saddle? I can see air. Don’t be fooled by the horse. Look at the rider’s butt. Not that I should talk after last night’s lesson but enough about me.

Visor Lady is a masterful dressage rider.

“[Visor Lady’s] brand-new system teaches riders how to engage their horses physically, mentally and emotionally into collection…”
Uh, isn’t that classical dressage? Hmm, and the training pyramid. Ha! None of that’s brand-new. The training methods existed before she did. The duo just wrapped it up into a prettier package.

Educational moment
Now what made me feel bad about writing this is my lack of open-mindedness. I truly believe that we all have something to teach and that we’re in a constant state of learning. It doesn’t matter what discipline you ride. We can all learn from each other. Along that line a photograph is merely a moment frozen in time. It could be good or bad but it’s merely a moment.

Just do me a favor, please. Don’t use a photograph demonstrating a bad dressage seat (above) and tell me that she’s “a masterful dressage rider.” I had a moment like this last night and I’m not called “masterful.” No, instead I heard, “Sit your butt down! Sit on that saddle!” I have had teeny, tiny, masterful moments. Don’t blink or you’ll miss them.

Now let’s compare Visor Lady’s photo above to another one I found.

Both horses are shown at almost the same canter stride moment. One horse seems to have a better bend and the hind leg is really engaged. (psst! One leg is really reaching underneath.)

Now look at the riders. Both are good riders but which one is part of the horse? I’ll give you a hint. No air.

Bingo! Class dismissed.

“Crap! Lee, I just found out that he’s not here.”

“Well, I’m just around the corner. Do you have another horse I could ride?” I’m fondly remembering cute, little schooling  ponies and the Quarter Horse that really likes team penning. Yeah, that works for me. A nice low key ride.

“Hmm, how much of a challenge do you want? You could ride Tucker.”

Tucker? Memories crash to the surface of her daughter attempting to mount him. It took three people to hold him there. Three. Then there was a schooling show where he attempted to explode several times. Gulp. His name has induced an instant response of sweating hands and a racing heart.

“Uh, I don’t want to die.”

“You won’t. He’s more mature now and you have a lot more experience.”

“Okaaay.”

“Great! See you soon.”

I let out a slow breath and wipe a sweaty palm on my breeches. Low key ride? Ha.

 

I exit my vehicle and warily approach the barn and indoor arena. After all a fire-breathing horse lives here and I must be prepared to turn tail and run. I find Tucker in his stall calmly eating hay. We exchange glances and he resumes eating. I haven’t spotted any plumes of smoke emitting from him and offer a silent prayer of thanks.

Wait.

We haven’t introduced a saddle. Or rider.

Yet.

I wipe sweaty palms across my breeches and go in search of his owner.

 

We’re all tacked up and ready to go without incident. Mounting? A piece of cake. Now let’s get acquainted in the indoor. How much leg can I use? Hmm, not overly sensitive but responsive. Good. Tripping a little going to the right. I’ll need to support him more with my inside leg and push him into the outside rein. Better. Let’s change direction. Feels good. Let’s shorten your stride and pick you up a bit.

“Why’s he walking like that?” That would be the peanut gallery. Did I mention that this is a hunter/jumper barn? And that I don’t ride in front of an audience.

“His rider is nervous.” True. I’ll give my friend that one. “Sit back.”

“Thanks. Working on that.” When will I learn to sit back? When?

Now let’s trot. Stumbling but willing. I wonder if it’s the footing? More inside leg to outside rein. Better. Other horses have joined us for their lesson and he doesn’t bat an eyelash. Good.

A few minutes later we all exit the indoor. It’s absolutely gorgeous and we’re going to ride outside. There’s just one small problem. We have to walk past a horse-eating, plastic trash bag. Each horse gives it the hairy eyeball and attempts to walk past it sideways. No way are they turning their backs on the enemy! Thankfully, there’s no wind and the plastic bag allows us passage.

Our lesson ensues, minus jumps, and we both start to relax. As we relax Tucker’s back comes up and he starts to frame up nicely. No fire-breathing horse here. Just a horse, a really nice horse. Whew!

We trot deeply into the corners while others cut them off entirely. A little sitting trot, a little half seat—my thighs! The peanut gallery has followed us and I overhear, “…she’s so straight.” While my firend says, “Are you breathing?” Oh, how well you know me.

Then the call goes out.

“Everyone move to the center of the ring so Lee can canter! She’s never ridden him before so let’s give her room.”

Oh, boy. Sweaty palms emerge.

The peanut gallery erupts into cries of “His canter is great!”, “You’ll love him!” Uh-huh, we’ll see about that.

“You can ask from a walk or trot. You’re choice.”

That’s good. Hmm, I forgot to ask how he was with his leads. We’re almost in the corner, here goes.

Canter.

Nice, a little strung out though. Approaching the next corner. Stronger half-halt. He comes back really nicely. Wow.

“You’ve got it!”

From the corner of my eye, I notice that a latino barn hand has stopped to watch. They see it all. If he’s stopped to watch I must have it. Yah!

I decide to try an even lower gear. WOW! It feels like I’m cantering in place. This is amazing.

Now for the other direction. I’m not as good going to the left. Darn, I tipped forward on the depart. He’s definitely strung out and it’s my fault. Half-halt! Nice. Not as good as before but nice.

We both finished up slightly out of breath and the peanut gallery erupts. “You look great!”, “You did really well.”, “Great job!” but my favorite comment came from one of the mothers.

“You were dancing.”

Lately, I’ve had a vehicle handling problem. I can’t for the life of me seem to turn left without fishtailing—wildly. The rear end skids to one side and I over correct it while steering in the opposite direction. I stop breathing as the front end bobs left, then right and finally straightens out. With things seemingly under control, I can finally relax and breathe a sigh of relief. Whew! A spin out has been narrowly averted. We continue straight for a few more seconds.

But wait [dope slap]—we totally missed our turn!

Huh. Let’s do that again.

I canter down the long side, reducing engine power as we ride deeply into the corner. Straighten out for a few seconds, down shift and ride into another deep corner.

Prepare to circle left NOW!
LEFT!

Uh-oh, I can feel the rear end starting to skid.  I’m losing control!
Fishtailing ensues.

I’m informed that I need to use more outside rein in order to turn left. Yeah, right. You’re telling me that I need more right rein in order to turn left? That doesn’t make sense. Left = left, right = right. Right? I mean left. I’m soo confused.

That’s right. To go left use the right. Let’s put it to the test. Do everything you did before. Coming into the circle though, I want you to only use your inside rein. You shouldn’t be able to turn. This will show you how much outside rein you need.

Okay, I accept your challenge!

I drop my outside rein coming out of the final corner, plant my inside leg and­­…TURN LEFT!

Good for you! That shouldn’t have happened but good for you. You had him in the outside rein. That’s why you were able to turn.

Outside rein?! I didn’t have no stinkin’ outside rein.

Maybe it’s not a steering issue after all. Yeah, I think maybe the alignment is slightly out of whack. Hmm, know of any good mechanics?

Contact Me

leecullen@comcast.net

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