something clicks

Last Friday I rode Dudley, sweet Dudley, beautiful Dudley. He’s a thoroughbred-ish bay with a chewed-off half a tail (Jeremy: “Which half?”) and I have come to love him with a pure love. I have called him “Bella, only uphill” and “my favourite now.” It was a cold morning and he came out of the stall very short in front and stiff in the shoulder. He’s in his teens and arthritic – he was a perfect child’s hunter for years – so he’s entitled to be a little ouchy, but I am not yet a soft and giving enough rider to warm him up out of it properly, so Dez said “Let me get on him for a second.”

I love watching the trainers ride, and I had never seen Dudley under saddle before, and it was an eye-opener. I saw how still Dez kept her lower leg and how tactful but firm she was. Most of all I saw that when she asked Dudley to move off her leg and use his back and flex at the poll, he did it, and then she rode him around with almost no pressure on the reins, but his nose stayed down because he was working correctly. And behold, he was not sore. Behold, in fact, he was incredibly beautiful.

“He takes way more leg than you think,” said Dez when she gave him back, and this turned out to be the key insight.

I got back on determined to do better, and put my lower leg on and kept it on, and asked him for deep and round and low, and he gave it to me and was far happier. Dez was thrilled with me. Getting a horse on the bit is a vexed topic – look! I have written about it at absurd length already – but the critical point is to ask and not demand, to use tact and not force. If you pull the horse’s head in, it doesn’t count. On that ride on Dudley I felt how I could use that strong leg to move him forward into a steady contact from behind. (One of the things I like best about Dudley is that he lets me feel that I am in charge of where his hind legs go.)

And then I tried it with Louie, on Sunday morning, and he was a different horse, more responsive, less spooky. And then I tried it again on Bella this morning. You can’t haul Bella’s nose in when you first get on her anyway. She has too much self-esteem. That mare has nineteen dozen different ways of expressing the concept “Fuck you” with her back hooves. But when we came back from a canter I kept my leg on and held the outside rein and squeezed the inside rein. She did that “Seriously, screw you” thing she does with her neck and shoulders, and then, and then, she settled into a sweet round frame.

I kept asking and kept asking and we did two or three big circles, and for three or four strides on the last one I felt her move up into a little self-carriage, bending her whole body on the arc of the circle, arch-necked, so perfect, so beautiful.

(Dudley’s adorable and divine, but my favourite? Bella’s my favourite. Who else?)

I feel like I have taken myself apart – putting my heels down, strengthening my calves, unpinning my knees, rolling my thighs forward, sitting on my seatbones, keeping my hips elastic, half-halting from my abs, opening my shoulders, keeping my eyes tracking ahead, making my elbows soft, doing less and less and less with my hands. Concentrating on one of those things for two or three or four lessons at a time. Now, finally, I am strong and balanced enough to put it all together.

Because riding a horse is actually very easy. You think about all of those things all the time, and work really really hard to make your body relaxed and supple, and then you apply exquisitely correct aids.

Works every time!

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