At this point, I’ve been walking for a week. I’m starting to get bored, but I’m not totally there yet. I am, however, starting to itch a little bit. Walk just isn’t doing it for me. But I’m still rather shaky, and I know it.
This particular week, Deysha is off with her own horse at a dressage clinic. But before she left, she gave me a couple of gifts. Gift number one was a horse. Instead of riding Charlie this week, Deysha put me back on my old school horse buddy, Tank. Charlie is wonderful, but at 16.2 hands he cuts an imposing figure. Being half Friesian, he is rather wide, and has a stride that covers a ton of ground at any gait. When you’re working on your own confidence as a rider, that may not be the best horse to start back on. Deysha knew that, so she stacked the deck a little more in my favor, and took me back to the familiar comfort zone of my 15.2 hand appendix buddy with the shorter and less intimidating stride.
Gift number two was the fact that our substitute instructor was also my regular dressage instructor, Sisse. She has a fabulous background in European training, and has done just about every English discipline there is. And this week, in class, we are supposed to jump. That’s no problem for her or the rest of the class. But I’m not so sure about me.
I’m constantly amazed at how a horse reflects the emotional state of his rider. But now, I’m noticing that I’m getting to be the same way, drawing confidence and steadiness from my instructor and my horse. Fortunately, both are smarter than I am right now, and they acknowledge the weird place my head is in.
Sisse has a quiet confidence about her. She coaches by telling you what to do, instead of telling you what not to do. And she’s very animated with her voice, shouting encouragement and praise when you get things right. I’m starting to feel a little bit like a horse. Hmmm…
Presumptively, she sends the class into a group trot. And without thinking, feeding off her inherent confidence, Tank and I begin trotting. Before I know it, it’s beginning to feel a lot more natural. And like riding a bicycle, it begins to come back to me. Wobbly for sure! But not so foreign this time.
OMG! I’m trotting! Victory! My classmates continue, unaware of my struggle.
Then, as we usually do in dressage class, Sisse had riders go in pairs on a 20m canter circles at each end. She really likes to keep a watchful eye out — position, tempo, rhythm, responsiveness — so she limits the number of riders she has to watch at once. Everyone else went first. It’s just a class of six, but it felt like hours while the others took their turns. Then it was time for Tank and me. Sisse turned her full attention to us, and, knowing the situation, talked us through a lot of stress releases: crunching your shoulders up next to your ears and then dropping them, breathing in time with the horse’s footfalls, even closing our eyes at the walk for a bit.
As we came around toward the wall at K, we picked up our left lead canter. I had to think hard about sitting up and back, about staying deep in my seat, and about giving Tank that tiny sweeping aid with my right foot to ask for the transition up. He responded calmly and stepped right into his canter. We went all the way around the 20m circle, and came back to a trot with nice rhythm and tempo — which was high praise for both of us. Then we changed directions and did it the other direction.
I was so excited at the end that I thought I’d burst. My classmates didn’t quite understand the importance of what they had just witnessed, but I didn’t care. Cantering! Another victory!
Then came the jumping. Again everyone else went first. We started with a small, single cross rail. Sisse reminded me of the basics: it’s just another stride, keep your eyes up, and do a bigger release than you think you need so you don’t catch his mouth. I swallowed hard, and we set out, hands forward, eyes up, and counting our trot strides out loud. Because Tank isn’t so big, it was easier mentally to ask him for a decently forward trot as we approached. And then, it was done. We had jumped. Trot in, and canter away. No big deal. Yeah! We repeated a small four jump course several times. I trotted every last one of them, but we jumped.
When class was over, I thanked both Sisse and my classmates for their patience, and told the class what was going on. They never knew a little 2′ vertical could be so monumental. I know it didn’t look like anything much to a regular spectator, but to us it was a major turning point.
I could do it. Now all I needed to do was translate the experience back to my own horse.