Search Results

the wow signal

I’ve been riding at the new barn for a year and change now. It’s a serious barn, although not serious about showing in the jumpers (like Glenoaks and McIntosh) or in the Welsh breed shows (like Heather Hill). Not even super serious about dressage shows, although it does that. Serious about correctness, starting with correct position and then continuing through tempo and line to rhythm and bend. An intense, meditative practice, conducted in partnership with large livestock animals.

Russell, who is Heather Hill Rhodri, drew me to this barn in the first place, being literally the dream horse I described to my former trainer Laura: “Rhun, but younger.” Rhun is Laura’s horse, and Russell is his nephew. Laura bred them both.

Russell is exactly what I was looking for. I call him Black Beauty. He has a small, refined head with a big unmistakable fan-shaped star. He likes you to rub his velvet nose and cheek-ridges and fuzzy ears. It’s as tender as petting a purring cat. He’s gentle and obliging and talented and experienced, and he has taught me a lot about how it’s supposed to feel, what it’s like when you get it right, how you know.

Lenny is the horse I didn’t know I was looking for. He is a mouthy, bratty sorrel mustang with a tentacle-shaped white snip licking up the end of his Roman nose. He looks like a little Belgian draft horse, like Ice Age megafauna painted in ochre on the wall of a neolithic cave. I call him, and this is even more embarrassing than Black Beauty if you can believe it, I call him Bright Angel because the expression on his face when he sees me and knows I have sugar in my pockets is like a messenger of God’s grace. I have often been infatuated with ponies but Lenny represents a severe and ongoing case.

I rode Lenny for months when most other people weren’t very interested in him, but as he got stronger and rounder he has started to be a sought-after ride. Of course now other people can ride him better than I do, and we had a few weeks where I was frustrated about this and we lost our groove. But yesterday I somehow got over myself and found my balance again. Maybe it was watching the Spanish Riding School show and remembering to sit like a pair of wings folded into his back.

Whatever it was, he found the round soft trot of his that’s like a Zen monk deep in prayer, and I’m still thinking about it a day later. Holding the reins like I am holding hands with a little kid, dancing like we’re Nureyev. People call it round or collected or on the bit but the best word for how it feels is contact, like a burst of radio waves from a beautiful, friendly alien. The wow signal.

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!

my god, it’s full of bells

I was up late and woke early and XO was out of chocolate croissants, so that although it was a glorious day I felt a bit frail and mostly glad that I would be riding Bella.

But also just a tiny, secret bit bummed, because she’s little and has an upside down neck and doesn’t really come on the bit like the BIG horses.


“Dez,” I said to Dez, our lovely trainer: “should I be using a driving seat with Bella?” This is the sort of rubbish I get out of books.

“You already use too much driving seat,” said Dez, who is lovely. “I want her to move off your legs.”

So off we go, and I am pushing her and pushing her and also messing with the bit, because for heaven’s sake Bella you are a grown horse, do not be ponying around with your nose in the air.

“Leave the bit alone,” said Dez, fountain of loveliness. “It’s more important to get her moving forward.”

Okay, so, this isn’t working, why don’t I do a crazy thing and try what the trainer says. Leave Bella’s ridiculous head in the clouds and ride her off my leg into a light, consistent contact.

Trot without stirrups, counterflexion, circles at counterflexion, true flexion, canter, drop stirrups, flying change. Lots of work at the canter, me trying to sink into the saddle, hold my legs soft and still at her side. Not use a driving seat.

I started to feel her finding her own cadence. I tried to sit still and soft and supple, and actually felt my hips creaking, too stiff to move with her. Dez has always told me I do this, but I never felt it before. I tried to soften, and tried to soften, and tried and tried and tried.

And Bella reached her neck down into the contact.

Well, I thought. I’ll be damned.

She wasn’t arch-necked and picture-perfect like Archie and Dillon and Omni. Her little neck is too short for that. But she was moving off my leg and accepting the contact, and I had done it without my hands, just with patience and my seat.

Next we did a distance exercise and I threw away the reins and she ran out on me in front of a six-inch log, the little brat. But later again we jumped a course most of which was 2’9″ and half of which was oxers and all of which felt enormous to me. And we rode it in that same forward gleeful canter, united in a single purpose, counting strides and hitting good distances and taking off and landing like Fred and Ginger. I eased her into a trot with the biggest grin my face is capable of.

But the biggest happiness didn’t wash over me until later, when we were walking back to the barn, and I looked at the sun shining on her iridescent orange withers and her strawberry blonde mane. She may be little on the outside but don’t be fooled. Bella is large, she contains multitudes; she has infinitely more to teach me.

Showjumping is in and of itself a pointless pastime, I know that. On the drive down, Katie and I were chuckling about our habit of driving thirty miles to ride horses round and round in a small arena, and how we might explain this to our great-grandparents. But equitation is also an art, and like any respectably pointless human activity it contains both nothing and the everything that that tiny point of nothing is connected to. It is teaching me history and psychology and anatomy and genetics. It’s teaching me how to learn.

I propose a third domain of study, beside the sciences and the humanities. I shall call it, the equanimities. The queue forms to the left.

the gift

As you can probably tell I’ve been having kind of a hard time lately, and I dragged myself out of bed before dawn this morning wishing I could just stay snuggled under the covers with Jeremy and Jules. I drove down to the barn thinking about how little progress I’ve been making in all areas of my life, really, but especially with riding, and wondering about my apparently-innate predisposition to settle for mediocrity and sabotage myself. It was awesomely cold at the barn, and the rain had stripped the poplars of their leaves.

There were horses listed for our lesson but no riders assigned to them, and since Bella was on the list I took her out of her stall and groomed her and wrapped her polo wraps and didn’t make them too lumpy. It’s comforting just to be in the presence of a horse, even when you suck and are a failure. Horses are large and warm and they like to be scritched just so, and they don’t really care whether you’re getting published in professional markets or how well you are hitting your quarterly goals.

We rode in the indoor and after we had warmed up, Erin called us all in and told us we were going to work on riding in a frame. This is the new, politically-correct term for getting the horses on the bit. It’s actually a much better term because it avoids the very common but mistaken emphasis on hauling the horse’s head in… anyway, Erin made an excellent point, which is that getting the horse into a frame is as much as anything else an exercise in multi-tasking. You need to be riding off your leg and into a soft hand with a good feel, yes, but at the same time you need to be making rigorous checks of your position and correcting any bad eq. She said we all had decent balance now and should be capable of doing both things at once.

I’ve learned this before. I actually learn it about once every eight years, and always on chestnut horses for some reason. The first was George, a spectacularly ugly liver rabicano of extreme amiability. I will always remember him for giving me that first feel of a horse’s jaw softening, his neck bending and his hind feet stepping up under his body. The next time I learned it was on my Alfie, who was far better at dressage than any purebred Arabian is supposed to be. The next time I learned it was in my late twenties on Noah the Swedish Warmblood with his fiery forward trot.

Now I am almost forty and my body has been through two pregnancies and its left sciatic nerve is fond of firing randomly. On the bright side I have more tact and patience and humility and clue than I have ever had before. And I am on Bella, who is cranky and has no neck, but who is also so very clever and kind. I had already been bending her in the corners. Now I just asked for a little more bend and a little more give, and she dropped her chin and softened her back and stepped out like she was two hands taller.

As Erin pointed out, the theory of riding in a frame is very simple. You keep a steady outside rein, you push forward with the outside leg and you keep a soft and asking and giving contact on the inside. The horse should move off your outside leg and into that giving rein, and should engage her hindquarters and drop her poll and chew sweetly on the bit. I guess that’s where the old name comes from. The theory is simple but the practice, of course, is almost infinitely complex. You can go on learning this every eight years for the rest of your life, and I hope I do.

Bella was spectacular. Erin, who is never complimentary, was complimentary. The little mare stepped up behind and arched her little short neck and I could feel the muscles under the saddle all relaxed and ready for work. I felt, too, what Erin had said about my balance. It’s taken me a year to regain the strength in the saddle that I need in order to be able to ask for this kind of work. The irony is that it’s much easier to ride when the horse is engaged. The horse will respond to a much lighter leg aid; the constant communication through the bridle makes turns and changes of directions almost trivial.

And it feels so very, very good and right. This is the gift horses give us: their willingness, their power and grace, their readiness to play along. Even when I let the reins out to the buckle, Bella would still cooperate, would drop her nose almost to the arena sand to stretch her neck, would come back to the walk at no more signal from me than me flexing my stomach muscles. What a remarkable thing it is, to achieve this kind of Vulcan mind-meld with a big strange alien animal. How much of my education and the good parts of my character I owe to horses like Bella. What good timing it was to have a ride like this after so many hard weeks. And how very, very lucky I am.