bella the wonder horse

It is not all grief for the old horse around here, I should make clear. It may be that Bella is so spectacularly nice that she is making me miss Alfie by being so like him. I’m of the school of thought that believes Bella is an appendix QH – lots of Thoroughbred in her, but a big ole Quarter Horse butt, downhill with no neck, and a brave, sane, kind, cuddly QH attitude. Mare is golden. I am reminded of the tales of Alfie at cross-country clinics in St Ives. The younger Thoroughbreds would fuss and wig out, and Alfie would cheerfully and calmly demonstrate exactly how to tackle each question. They called him Alfie the Wonder Horse.

This morning I was riding with Erika, who is maybe the thinkiest of the trainers I work with. Friday morning lessons with her often end up being hilariously technical, in a way that would completely baffle the objective eye: we do an exercise five or seven times, then come into the middle of the ring and talk intently for a while, then go back out to the track and do exactly the same exercise – albeit, hopefully, better.

This morning’s exercise could not have been simpler. There was a pole on the ground along one long side, and two poles on the ground on the other long side. The two poles were five strides apart. Poles on the ground are practice jumps, with no risk. The idea is to meet them as perfectly as you would need to meet a 3-foot Swedish oxer.

It’s all about pace. You need a medium canter – neither long nor short – and you need it coming out of the corner, ten strides before the fence. Then you need to sit still, except that if any problems come up you need to correct them. I started out fucking up this exercise in two distinct ways. First, I thought Bella’s medium canter was too long, so I kept trying to shorten her pace. Second, in my efforts to be quiet over the fences themselves, I would seize up five strides out and be a passenger. Erika called it my “blank stare.”

Remember Bunk telling Kima that a good detective has soft eyes? Yeah, that. My fixes were, first, to stop trying to collect a poor mare who was already in a lovely pace, albeit long and low as dictated by her QH ancestors. My second was to ride actively into the fences – while sitting still. In other words, do less at the corner, and do more in the five strides in. But hardly any more. Do almost nothing. But do enough. Got it?

Oh my God, it felt so lovely when I got it right. I let her go forward and she flowed. I felt her wanting to drop her left shoulder and I put my left heel down a millimeter and corrected the angle of my left wrist a degree, and she straightened and hit the perfect distance. It wasn’t by accident, as it had been all the other times we got it right. I rode it, and it was good.

She has four white stockings and a wide white blaze that roans out on one side of her face. Her orange coat is mirror-bright and almost dappled with good health. She has soft eyes herself, except when you tighten her girth and she pins her ears and does sea-monster fierce faces. I am not at all attached to her, you will be relieved to hear.

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