lessons with sam

(Even if you love me dearly, you are not expected to read this; it’s mostly for my future reference. Also: my birthday saddle is back from the saddler’s and the new knee pads and blocks have made it amazing. I sink into it and ride like a centaur.)

Colin’s daughter Sam McIntosh has moved back to New Zealand from Europe, and is spending a couple of weeks in California, so she took a bunch of us for lessons. She is a Big Deal, considered one of the prettiest and most correct Grand Prix showjumpers in the world. I was nervous as hell.

My usual Tuesday night lesson I was surprised to see that I was down to ride the big blood-bay gelding Dillon. I rode him once, when he arrived, and could not make head nor tail of him. He’s very tall and very long-backed and was, at that point, quite green. I couldn’t get him to go in a straight line and therefore I couldn’t get him to go around corners either. I’ve seen other friends ride him since and knew that he has no vices to speak of, so I wasn’t scared. But Tuesday night made it obvious that either he had improved or I had (actually both). He goes along in a nice light contact and is very responsive to my leg, not in a hot way, just in a friendly, forward, willing sort of way. I still had trouble getting him to track around a corner with his hind feet in the prints of his front feet, but Dez gave us a clever little exercise with a shallow serpentine from the quarter line to the rail, and that helped a lot.

Wednesday night I ran late, and I couldn’t find Dillon’s bridle, and my hands were shaking. I saw Beth and she said “How are you?” and I said “Nervous as hell, glad I am riding with you and Austin,” and then Sam, who was standing right there, introduced herself and I felt like an utter tool. And then I was late getting out and warming up.

And then I just stopped freaking out because, why. The sun was slanting through the aspens and Portola Valley is beautiful and there is nothing I’d rather be doing. We rode trot circles at the far end of the arena. Colin was watching and he chuckled: “They never sit up straight like this when it’s me teaching.” I sat as still as I possibly could, concentrating on keeping my shoulders back and my hands still and my bum in the (awesome new!) saddle and my lower leg quiet. We trotted and cantered poles and changed direction after and did figure eights with the poles in the middle. Then Sam gradually added fences.

This, of course, was the first time I had ever jumped Dillon. Being as long and thin as a noodle he has an enormous stride and is maybe the scopiest horse I ever sat on. The first exercise was the canter poles, then a hard right turn to a vertical, then back over the canter poles. Hard enough getting that turn, although I could feel my lower leg holding me still and my core balancing me on the landing side. Reassuring! Next we did a bending line over the vertical to a pole on the ground, then a more-than-rollback to the wall.

Then, the first course: the wall to the bending line, a rollback to a HUGE oxer (me biting my tongue not to say “That’s too big for me;” I checked later, it was only 2’9″), and then a one-stride both elements of which were also huge (2’6″:). I sank into my heels and kept my contact as light as I could. When Dillon tried to get fast, I tried to lift him back in front of my leg then leave him alone. As Sam said afterwards, there were a few mistakes, but it was effective. My lower leg was there, my balance was there, and the speeding up and slowing down came from that. My confidence has improved as a direct result of my improved fitness and strength. And from my point of view, there were a couple of moments where we hung in the air like planes over San Francisco airport, like ringed planets. I had time to think, “This is going rather well,” before he landed. It was like a dream. Music of the spheres.

Then we jumped the whole thing going back the other way! He got much too fast over the one-stride to the huge oxer and I dropped him in a dreadful spot, but did I mention how scopey he is? He overjumped it, and I stayed on. He bucked, which is more than fair, but I got him back in hand nicely for the last three. Then we did it again, and Sam pointed out that he actually needed more canter going into the double so that I could rock him back for the oxer. I tried it that way and he jumped it perfectly.

Sam’s very different from our usual trainers, in that she’s quiet and apparently very shy, and doesn’t say anything while you’re actually on course, just lets you figure it out for yourself. Makes me feel much more competent and independent. What really impressed me was how she increased the difficulty of each exercise while building on what we’d achieved in the exercise before. There was a huge amount of narrative logic to the lesson.

Colin said: “I’ve never seen you ride that well before.”

Utterly illogically, I was even sicker with nerves the next night, Thursday. I was hideously early and warmed up in the dressage arena for about half an hour, until my feet had gone to sleep because I was forcing my ankles so far down at the walk. Sam said “We’re going to ride in the big ring,” and my heart sank with my dead feet into my boots. It was a long walk out there.

And of course as soon as I put Dillon into a trot, the circulation came back into my feet. I could feel all the work I’d put into my lower leg, all the two-point and sitting trot with toes pointed up. I could feel the new muscles in my core. I didn’t need to haul on the reins because he likes a long low contact, and he is honest and kind and mellow and will come back into my hand if I so much as think of collecting him. All this without being the slightest bit lazy. By this time, of course, I loved Dillon with a desperate passion.

“He really likes you,” said Sam.

Pole on a bending line to a vertical with a ground pole before and after, then four strides to another pole. Easy uphill, much harder downhill and we kept missing it until Sam told me to add a stride in the first part. Then he popped through it, five, vertical, four, pole. The vertical kept getting bigger and bigger, by the way! Oh, that feeling of having him collected under me, his short stride, his calm competence. That was key to the whole lesson.

We added an oxer (that kept getting bigger as well), then we did exercises, and finally a course bigger than the moon: panels to a water jump, inside turn to the original vertical, another vertical, a picket fence, a one-stride. We sped up and sped up. Second time through, we crashed through the first two fences, then managed to get it together as we went along.

Finally, what Sam called a jump-off: water and panels going the other way, very sharp turn to the black oxer, winding back through the other fences to the original vertical, jumped at an angle, then the one-stride going the other way. I knew I had to balance him going into the water and panels – the opposite problem to what I’d had the day before. And I found that popping canter again, as I had done in the five strides after the pole. He popped over the water and the huge panels like they were nothing. I felt my seat deep and square on the sharp turn into the oxer, then put my leg on and took off and landed like we were one being. I found my line across the vertical at an angle, then as he wanted to race into the one-stride I caught him and made him add the extra stride, and he was full of joy and so was I.

“He goes really well for you,” said Toni. I couldn’t wipe the huge stupid grin off my face.

I remember looking at Beth and Austin in the sunset light, Austin with the look of eagles on his face, and thinking “Let me keep this. Let this be one of the memories I get to keep until I die.”

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