sorry unapologetic that this has nothing to do with EDS, but I am so overjoyed right now that I can’t not talk about it. A lot of this story won’t make sense if you don’t have experience with horses, but I urge you to read on because it has a great ending!
I taught a riding lesson tonight with a 14-year-old girl I’ve known for years but just began working with about a month ago. She’s owned a large Haflinger pony for about two years, but as she’s a beginner rider and he’s only five years old they both have a lot of room for improvement. She has also ridden only western until recently, but she and I agree that they are both happier riding english, which is why I am working with her.
So far we’ve worked mainly on Hannah (name is changed), fixing her posture and leg position, balancing her in the saddle, softening her cues (i.e. not kicking him and tugging on the reins all the time), and working on her confidence. And from lesson to lesson I see noticeable improvements!
She is learning to keep her heels down and legs wrapped equally around his belly, she’s sitting up better and is trying to keep her elbows in. But Sammy (the horse) is still young and not only does he have a lot of learning to do, but he tends to take advantage of Hannah’s inexperience.
Tonight we began with softening Hannah’s focus so that she uses more of her peripheral vision. The idea was both to help her relax and to make her more aware of her surroundings as she rides. After that we did some sitting and posting trot on the rail, then moved onto riding some large circles. Neither rider nor horse are very experienced with circles, and as Sammy is still fairly young and Hannah’s balance is not great, this is the first we’ve attempted them.
I had her sit the trot during the circles so that she could have better balance and drive him forward through the circle with her seat. The shapes were more of ovals, rectangles and other polygrams that sort of resembled a basic circle. It takes a lot of practice to have the eye to ride a decent circle, so I helped her use the proportions of the arena to map out her circles, and they did get better.
We alternated between railwork and circles, but at one corner of our work area Sammy decided he was going to stop and turn toward the other end of the arena, and there was no stopping him. The first few times Hannah yanked on his mouth and got pretty frustrated, so I reminded her of the proper cues (outside leg, outside rein, and guide his head with an opening inside rein – I don’t know that this is the perfect way to do it, but it’s my interpretation) so that she could push him in the proper direction.
Sammy continued to ignore her cues, which were admittedly lacking in confidence as he became more and more disobedient. At this point Hannah was obviously upset by the situation, so when we put him on the rail and asked for a trot she was a little too harsh with her legs and he ended up bucking and taking off at the canter.
She managed to get him slowed down in about 5 strides and stopped within 8 strides, of which I was very proud. Unfortunately this really shook Hannah’s confidence and tears soon erupted. I’ve been there and I totally understood what she was feeling in that moment. Unfortunately, I rarely had someone there to help me work through it.
I had her walk until she was calmed down a little and ended up getting on him myself. We worked through it for the next 20 minutes or so until he rounded the problem corner without stopping or bullying me.
When Hannah got on again she was much more relaxed, which reflected in Sammy’s behavior. It helped that I got on and made him do his job the right way, but when her patience and confidence returned I could see his back swing more freely and he became a much happier, more comfortable horse. By the end of the lesson they rounded that corner at both the walk and trot without slowing and with no resistance from Sammy. And, Hannah’s cues were much softer than they had been at the beginning of the lesson. In a half hour he went from balking and pushing her around to listening quietly and doing exactly what he was asked to do.
This is me riding the handsome Sammy in a generation gap class at the 2013 Crawford County Fair.
It’s hard to explain on a computer screen how this felt to witness, or what it meant to me and to Hannah. I’ve never witnessed a transformation like this come from something I’ve done to help someone else. I was so proud of Hannah for the way she came back from a very frightening and frustrating moment. She went from tears and extreme anxiety to laughing and walking on a loose rein by the end of the lesson, and I’ve never seen her so happy on that horse.
I think this is a lesson she and I will remember for a long time. When I started out I was fairly confident that I could get both Hannah and Sammy in better shape for the county fair next summer, but I’m realizing that these lessons go so much deeper than just looking good on the horse. I have no formal training in giving lessons, but thanks to having two AMAZING coaches in college (Sid and Allison, I love you!), I’ve learned so much that I can pass on to new riders like Hannah.
I am so excited to see how Hannah and Sammy continue to transform, and the lessons Hannah is learning will reach far beyond riding horses. I feel so privileged to take part in this journey.