fell off

…although I still maintain it doesn’t count if you land on your feet, facing the horse and holding the reins. More of a rapid involuntary dismount, right? I’m riding a new mare, the beautiful Elle, who is a Glenoaks veteran like me and who was originally imported from, um, Australia. She’s for sale, so if you didn’t get me anything for my birthday…

…KIDDING. Anyway about Elle; she’s just as beautifully trained as Cassie, but she’s less sort of lenient. Cassie will take the most liberal and generous interpretation of your aids and act on that. She’s a progressive on the Supreme Court. Elle requires things to be *just* *so*; she’s the Biblical literalist of lovely bay hunter-jumpers, with a strict constructionist position on the Constitution.

I learned this after the fall – look, all that happened was that a breeze went through some fabric tacked to the judge’s kiosk, and when I looked down the horse had teleported eighteen inches to the right and I had not. If I’d only kept my heels down, LIKE ERIN WAS TELLING ME TO DO, I would have teleported with her. Anyway, that was our first canter transition. After poor Erin, my sainted instructor, had hoisted me back on the horse, we cantered again on that side, no fallings-off, then tried again on the other side.

I thought I was keeping good contact with the outside rein but there is a tendency, when one has recently arisen from the dirt, to mistake good contact for hanging-on-like-grim-death. Erin brought this to my attention and told me to ease up on the poor mare’s mouth. I did so and behold, Elle moved fluidly into the canter. The second time we tried this the contrast was even more pronounced. With no more than a gesture of relinquishment in my outside shoulder, Elle picked up the contact and cantered away.

Always the same lesson: freely forward. Let go of the resistance. Do not fear. I was all messy and disorganized because, different horse, trying to feel for her likes and dislikes, her rhythm and cadence. Even more than Cassie does, Elle thinks in cadence – it’s one of the differences between jumpers, who have to be clever and forgiving, and hunters, who are judged on the hypnotic qualities of their canter. Have you seen the fantastic, the amazing film The Triplets of Belleville? There’s this running metaphor where racing cyclists whinny and snort like thoroughbreds, and it’s funny and apt because of this quality of being unwilling to break rhythm. My challenge with Elle is to sit still, to stop fussing with my reins, to keep my heels down, to be quiet. “Point her where you want her to go and ask her to go forward,” said Erin.

You could argue that Elle broke rhythm when she shied but in fact if I’d had a softer, more secure seat, we would have changed direction in perfect rhythm with each other. And indeed the bewildered expression she gave me was that of a sleepwalker woken too abruptly: What are you doing on the ground? Why aren’t you where you are supposed to be?

The good news is that slight resistance in my outside shoulder on the canter transition is about all the fear I felt after the fall. That’s a lot better than I felt for the first year or so of riding Noah, my first really good big horse. I was scared pretty much every second I was on his back. And not without reason; when I fell off him I tended to land on fences and get hurt. And I fell off a lot, because I had the reins in a stranglehold and no horse needs that.

It took me a long long long time to let go. If what you’re scared of is that the horse is going to take off and you’re going to fall off, how can you release the brakes? Only through faith. And in the end, I did. Just before we sold him, when I was riding him very nicely over big fences, I held the contact as lightly as you would hold an egg.

This fall hurt my dignity but nothing else. I got back on and rode this sweet mare and got three flying changes out of her – two of them decent and one quite nice. Part of the pleasure of starting again is feeling the years and years of riding behind me – the teenage bolting around like a lunatic and learning how to land on my feet, the years in my twenties when David drummed cadence into me – coming up and helping, like a whale surfacing under a struggling swimmer. As if those years weren’t wasted after all; as if all is not lost.

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