Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dressage is Hard

When I first started riding, my primary focus was on staying on, directing the horse where I wanted him to go and stopping when I wanted. With Seabisquit, I did not accomplish any of the three with any consistency. The first time I got on him, which I still experience in my memories as if it were yesterday, he reared, spun and bolted toward the apple trees. I was slung to the side, clinging with a heel, two fistfuls of mane and sheer tenacity, the pad saddle slipped to the side. Is that the true definition of a horseperson: the inability to just let go and fall off? I clung on despite his clear focus on bashing my head into an apple tree trunk (remember, we didn't have helmets at that time), until exhaustion and slippage spilled me onto hard ground and windfallen apples. He kicked out at me as I fell, adding more danger to our relationship and left me to sob out my dreams of a sweet, loving pony into the dirt.

I was no quitter. I rode that little SOB for four years. I learned to make him go where I wanted, although he controlled the speed at which we returned. I learned to ride him at a working walk, western jog and gentle canter on the rail with one hand on the reins, which took at least three hundred million hours of riding in a circle over and over again in the stockyard of our farm. I even earned blue ribbons at the county fair. I traveled around our county on his back and finally, courtesy of a big stick in my hip pocket, figured out how to slow his return home enough for me to safely eject from his back a block or so from home. Mostly. Although there were plenty of opportunities still for him to run me through the liliac bushes and under the clothesline just to make his point.

Riding didn't really become fun until I got Queenie.

But still, it was mostly about staying on, directing her to where I wanted to go, and stopping when I asked. It just wasn't as dangerous or difficult to do those things and Queenie and I shared a thirst for adventure, a love of the long trail, and a comradeship that shaped my teenage years. She was a joy and a blessing and a savior, all wrapped up in horsehide.

From 1984 to 1992, horses were a thing of my past. I was able to catch ride a couple of times when living in LA, got to put hands on horse flesh about once a year, then moved to Colorado, where I actually got paid for riding the buck out a granddaughter of Secretariat. It was a good time and I enjoyed taking a green horse and turning it into a solid trail horse. Then I got crazy and bought Kieli because I had an idea I wanted to compete in dressage on her. She was a National Show Horse with horrible ground manners, inability to stand tied and a nasty habit of whipping her head sideways into the middle of my face.

Once again I was back in the position of riding to stay on, which was very challenging, since she could cut sideways at the drop of a hat or the sight of a shadow. Often times, that cut would cause me to launch from her back in a tight ball (sometimes even landing on my feet) while she bolted in the opposite direction. We never once got to the point where I could consider what riding dressage meant, since I was spending so much of my time chasing her down and getting back on. Finally, we parted ways before someone was killed.

Then I went almost 20 years without a horse. I rode once in that time and ended up severely injuring my back, which took years to recover from. But it was still a passion, still a dream in my deep subconscious. And then I lucked into Ashke. For the first year, I was right back to figuring out how to stay on, not because he was difficult, but because I was twenty years out of shape, had lower back issues, was still carrying baby weight and hadn't actually thrown a leg over a horse in years. It took me awhile to get strong. It took a while for the consistent riding to improve my back pain. And it took a while for Ashke and I to figure out what we wanted to do together.

So now, instead of staying on, I am learning to slightly shift my weight from one side of his back to the other, while sliding my outside leg back about two inches behind the girth, and gently touching my inside leg to his side at the girth, to ask him to lift up into a canter in one stride. Without rushing or pinning his ears or getting upset or falling in on his inside shoulder, while still maintaining contact with the bit.

I must be insane.

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