Well, that was an intensely rockin’ awesome use of a few hours. I haven’t been riding in about a month, now, due to Weather. My riding teacher moves the lessons to a place where there’s an indoor ring during the winter months, and between her being sick, and the holidays, and me being sick, and skiing, we haven’t managed to get our act together to get me back in the saddle. Fixed that this morning.
And now, I have Barn Envy. The place she has me riding for now is up in the hills, on an absolutely Bijou New England Farm. A yellow-and-white Bijou New England Farmhouse (with smoking chimney). A big, sloping, sweeping Bijou New England Field. Quaint, sloping, rocky Bijou New England Paddocks with Bijou New England Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses gazing out over the Bijou Berkshire Hills. The five-stall Bijou New England Farm Barn, with an extremely Bijou Indoor Arena that has doors on all four sides so you can open them up and admire the view. And – I understand – an equally Bijou crushed-rock outdoor ring, currently in disuse and covered with grass, because the people who live there ride on the Bijou Country Dirt Roads and in the Field. And the indoor ring, of course.
The setting, as you can see, was simply too charming for words.
And the horse, also somewhat Bijou. He’s an old-school, traditional Quarter Horse. Meaning: small. None of your 16-hand monster, this one. None of your broad, sweeping shoulders and large barrel. He’s a throwback to the times when we weren’t breeding for Tanks. He’s got old-school coloring, too. He’s a buckskin, a nice light yellow with striking black points and a striking dorsal stripe connecting his mane and tail.
Or, at least he was last time I saw him, back in, oh, September.
I didn’t recognize him at all this morning. With his winter coat in, he looks like a bay. Rich walnut brown coat, black points. Dorsal stripe still there upon close investigation. And his hair? Oh. my. God. His winter coat is so thick and long, he’s fluffy. He’s like a big 800-lb super-plush teddy bear, shaped like a horse. I had a hard time getting on him, because I wanted to just stand there and run my fingers through his coat. It was…sumptuous.
Huey the Wonder Horse, now, doesn’t have much of a winter coat. Yeah, it’s a little thicker than it is in the summer. Yeah, he’s sprouted a few longer coarse guard hairs around his cheeks and chin that make his muzzle fuzzy, and yeah, he’s got feathers that are maybe an inch long (and full of nasty, nasty much at the moment). But otherwise, he looks pretty much the same as he does in the summer. His erstwhile BFF Tango, on the other hand, is a Chincoteague pony (pinto), and looks like a Tribble with hooves and lips by now. She’s blanketed just like Huey, so I’m not sure why she’s so hairy and he’s not. Or why JR – today’s ride – who was just as sleek as Huey this summer, is now covered with hair three inches long.
Since I’ve been sick all week, I haven’t been able to spend any quality time with HTWH. I got Roy Tha Man to drive me out to the barn on Monday so I could say “Hi” and give Huey a carrot. Little bugger somehow knew that I had a carrot on me before I even got into the paddock, and was Nine Kinds of Pest thereafter. Mr. Pushy wanted to put his muzzle in my pockets, my elbows, you name it. I wasn’t going to reward this behavior, so I pushed his head away. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Then he went for the Distraction Ploy of nipping at my feet. I don’t know why he thinks to try to bite my feet. Usually my feet are about 8-foot away from his mouth. But he’s done it before and he tried to do it again. Got a mouthful of the pointy toe of my cowboy boot, and then got another, and another, until he finally decided that getting toed in the face wasn’t all he thought it would be, and stopped. I made sure that he was standing patiently, not getting into my space, while I scratched his neck, for maybe two or three minutes before I produced the carrot.
I swear, they’re like three year olds in some ways.
Anyway, since I had to go to the barn to pick up my boots and helmet anyway, I paid Himself a brief visit. He grazed, I chattered. Or, at least, he grazed until I told him “Oh, by the way, I’m going to go ride another horse now.” at which point he whipped his head up and stared me right in the eye.
Oops. I know he understands a lot more than it seems like a horse ought to. But I’m always surprised at what he understands, and how much. Like that time, right when I was buying him, that I admired his old arch-enemy Max as Max trotted around in the ring. I wasn’t even looking at Huey when I said that, and talked about Max’s elegant carriage. And damned if I didn’t hear a gigantic disapproving snort from behind me, and when I turned, my boy was giving me the hairy eyeball as he hung his head, his tail, his ears. He radiated dejection. I soothed him up, of course, right away. But, by golly, the very next time I rode him, he showed me how to put him on the bit, and then demonstrated exactly the same thing that I’d been admiring on Max the day before. You riders will understand just how incredible this is…but for the rest of you, this is like a 4 year old kid watching someone ride a bike on TV, and then turning around and teaching his own dad how to put the bike together and how to teach the kid to ride it.
It’s just not really done.
Yet, there was my boy, doing just that. And today, he, somehow, knew damned well that I was going to go off and ride some other horse while he, Huey, had to Stay At Home. Not happy, my boy. And so I found myself, in the paddock, explaining that the ground was too hard, and I would ride him later…oh, heck, how about a distraction…and switched the topic to the impending Visit of the New Farrier.
Then off we were to the Bijou Barn.
I hadn’t ridden, as I say, in a month, and I expected to spend most of the time walking, trotting, just getting my muscles back, sort of thing. And yes, that’s how it went. And yes, my memory of this horse was fairly accurate, and he needed a lot of pressure on the gas pedal to keep his forward momentum. And he was gum-necked and a challenge to keep straight…although – a testament to my progress as a rider – he wasn’t nearly as difficult to straighten out as he was when I rode him in July. I remembered his choppy little trot accurately, too…but this time, whether it was due to my dressage saddle (oops, Huey’s dressage saddle…don’t tell him!) or riding skill or whatever, I realized his choppy little trot was making for tiny little posting for me, and I thought “Hey, self, I bet I could sit this trot pretty easily”. And took the initiative, and did.
Now, this, alone, is very cool. I’ve been battling with the sitting trot on Huey for months. And I’ve had some success. I don’t bounce out of the saddle, that is. I bounce, but I bounce right back into the same place from whence I departed. And once, for a quarter-turn round the ring, I had it. See, trots are bouncy. It’s a two beat gait. That’s why people post a trot, because you’re getting vaulted out of the saddle anyway, why not make it deliberate and work it into the movement? They’re bouncy by nature. The best riders, though, manage to absorb all that thrust with parts of the body that I don’t seem to possess, and they stay pasted into the saddle. There’s a rider doing a “how to sit the trot” video on YouTube, and I swear the woman’s made of Slinkies. Me? I get air under my butt with every pace. But that once? Very. little. air. Naturally, as soon as I realized I was doing it, I said “WOOO!” and moved, and blew it to hell. Haven’t gotten it back again yet, but hope blooms eternal and all that.
My trainer, who loves Huey, did advise me that he has a gigantic movement – which will be awesome if I ever want to take him to a dressage show, which I might, if I can learn to sit. the. freaking. trot – but that this would make certain things much more challenging for me. Like, oh, sitting the trot. I understood this on an intellectual level.
This morning, when I found myself effortlessly sitting the trot on JR, I understood it with my body. It is evidently true: If I can sit the trot on Huey, I will be able to sit the trot on any horse.
But wait, there’s more. The whole reason I’ve been working so hard on sitting the trot (other than it’s an essential skill if I want to show him dressage) is that it is, or so I am informed, a Prerequisite Skill for cantering. And I have got to be able to canter. Because otherwise, I can’t give Huey a proper workout. And this, too, is an essential skill.
What’s the hangup with cantering? I hear you ask.
Well, Back In The Day, like, last April, I rode Huey for the first time. He was in the lesson program then. And he was an amazing horse, even I could tell that even with my very rudimentary grasp of such things as a rider. Bloody unbelievable, he was. Listened to my seat, listened to my hands, listen to every aid I provided. Which is what lesson horses are notorious for not doing. You don’t want them to do stuff like that…well…because of what happens next. I was in the very early stages of learning to post the trot. Like, this was my Second Whole Lesson. Not my second time on a horse, but the second time taking Official Riding Lessons. I was pretty good with the whole “walk” thing. Walk, turn, stop, I had that stuff pretty much down already. But anything more advanced than that? I was as the Blank Canvas.
Which is why it was such a problem that instead of cueing Huey to trot, like I meant to, I instead cued him to canter. And Huey’s canter? It eats. the. ground. At about 15 miles per hour, sort of thing. It is an Epic, Magnificent Canter. I had the opportunity to see him doing it with someone else before I bought him. It was wonderful to watch.
Somewhat less wonderful to ride, especially on Day Two Lesson. Especially since I wasn’t skilled enough, at that point, to keep my balance while getting things sorted out with the reins, and so I nipped my finger right in under the saddle pommel and Held On For Dear Life while saying “WHOA!” (a term that it turns out is not a Word of Power for Our Huey). And, you know, I had asked him to do this, and he’s about as Willing as you can get, and he definitely has a fair amount of GO!, so he just kept trucking on, in a most Obliging Manner.
The important thing is that I did not Fall Off.
No. I jumped off.
I saw that he was going to keep cooking along, and I knew that I had blown this – he wasn’t running away with me, it was apparently a lovely nice canter, I just wasn’t ready for it – I had asked him somehow to do this. And then the chilling thought occurred that I might, just as easily, ask him to go take one of those jumps that was in the middle of the ring. A spectacle of mighty cataclysm unfolded in my imagination as soon as the jumps crossed my mind, and then I took action. I did try to stop him conventionally, but my original assessment that I lacked the physical organization and balance skills proved well-founded. And so, I bailed out.
The exigencies of the situation had rendered me unable to do a comprehensive and adequate assessment of the consequences of the several physical forces at play in the situation.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s Academic Speak, there. It’s a special skill.
Translation: I managed to separate myself from the horse without getting tangled up in gear and dragged, but instead of falling on my butt and staying that way (Plan A), I fell on my butt and the effects of velocity combined with the force of gravity to whip my upper body – and my head – into the sand of the arena.
I don’t remember any of that, because the ensuing collision between my head and the ground – even with the helmet – was sufficient to knock me out cold for a couple of minutes. During which time my riding instructor assessed the situation and made a call to 911. I completely lost about 10 minutes there (my best estimate, given what state things were in when I thought I woke up, how far the ambulance had to travel, etc.).
I’m tough, and I basically don’t know the meaning of the word “fear”. I mean, I do, but it’s the same way I know the meaning of the word “onomatopoeia”…because I read it in a book and looked it up in the dictionary. It didn’t occur to me then – or now – to be “afraid” of riding, or Huey. What would the point of that be? You stay smart about preventive action, because you don’t want an injury taking out out of the sport, and then the rest of it? If you can’t control it, why worry over it?
It seems, however, that my riding teacher was not as sanguine about this. I don’t know for sure, because we never really discussed it beyond my letting her know that I’d been sidelined by the medicos temporarily and needed to take a two-week break in the lesson plan. It was ages before she put me back up on Huey. Now, he’d spent some of that time lame, so the delay wasn’t entirely due to her concerns. But it became clear when I got to ride him again that she anticipated that I’d be having some Reservations, if not Qualms. Me? I was just thrilled to get another chance to go on him again, to see if he was as awesome a ride as I remembered him being, before I hit my head and all that. (Need I say? He was.)
And so, my entree into the world of Cantering has been somewhat…delayed. I’ve been fine with that, because as a professional educator, I grasp that the teacher’s Master Plan may not be the one I’d come up with, but that’s why I’ve got a teacher. Because I don’t know my butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to understanding How To Learn To Ride. So I got someone to come canter Huey occasionally in the fall, and I learned to lunge him, and I had patience.
It’s been on the horizon, though, and my teacher started the day out by discussing cantering – with the immediate explanation that we weren’t going to be doing that today – and about five minutes later as I sat the trot and applied some more gas to JR (remember him?) to get a little more juice in his movement, I independently discovered How To Cue For The Canter. He burst into one, I gave him a half-halt (reined him back in), and we trotted.
“That was his canter!” my teacher said.
And it happened again, and I half-halted him. She explained that this horse finds it easier to lope (a Western canter) than to do a collected trot, and that’s why he was springing into the canter.
The next time it happened, I let it, and went halfway around the ring before half-halting him back to a trot.
“Hmm” I thought. “I believe I can do this.”
The same thought evidently occurred to my teacher, who said “well, maybe this is a good time…” and explained exactly how to cue him properly. And I did. And we did.
It was splendid. So much nicer and smoother than a trot. Fun. I understand it was a slow canter, but a canter nonetheless. And in both directions.
I’m so stoked. I cantered. Now I’m going to learn how to do it well, and by golly, when spring rolls around and I start riding Huey again, he’s going to be thrilled. I told him that, too, after he let me know he wasn’t pleased to smell Some Other Horse on my hands. I told him that I was going to be 1,000 times a better rider for him, and lucky boy, he wasn’t having to suffer through that learning process! I don’t know if he believed me, but I know it’s right.
We’re going to be awesome.