Saturday, March 31, 2012

dragons, dressage, and our first trail ride

I am trotting with Merlin in a circle around my instructor Andrea. If you are watching us from a distance it looks like a boring activity. All you see is a chubby gal on a chubby black pony making wobbly turns around a suggested center point of Andrea's red hair. Looking at me from above, the circles are even more convoluted. As Merlin and I trot around our teacher, the circle bends and extends, shortens and cuts across as mistake after mistake is made. My mind is trying to remember everything I have been told. I am mentally crossing off a checklist of what I should be doing, and I am managing to correct each body part or posture just long enough to forget to do something else. It's not about finishing school, it's about staying alive. A horse is a 1,000+ pounds of power and if it decides to bolt, rear, or hop a jump there is a reason my weight is back in my seat and my heals are down in my stirrups. Because this posture will keep me on a horse in nearly any situation on the ground. In a dressage saddle there isn't a lot keeping you on the horse. It is smooth and thin over his back. It is up to the rider to stop being a passenger and start being the cockpit.

English riding reminds me of how the characters in the movie Avatar rode those flying dragons. See in that picture how tight his hands are on the "reins"? How high up in his seat he is? How his entire body has to bend, flex, and adapt to the animal below? He looks exactly like a jockey in a sprint, or an eventing rider about to take on a high fence. I try to keep dragon riders in mind as my lessons with Merlin progress. Andrea is trying to get me into the right frame of body and breathe to ride well. As prim and proper as it looks from the outside this style of riding demands total commitment of mind, body, and presence with the animal below. And all my riding lessons are doing is teaching me the language to tell this horse exactly what I want to do. Merlin isn't a dragon, and I'm not a blue warrior, but you can understand this is more than a a trail ride. It's the hardest thing I ever tried to learn...

This video above is where I learn to ride, the arena (indoors and outdoor) Merlin and I take lessons in. It's called Riding Right Farm and its just 10 miles south of Cold Antler. Hollie recently published THE BOOK on the fundamentals of English riding. That's her in the video, and that is her voice too. Her and Andrea are my instructors (started with Hollie, but now am with Andrea since Hollie has off Fridays). Here's a sample of the trot, and how such a basic style of movement can be broken down and explained in various styles and uses. Amazes me.

So back to my lesson: I ride. Andrea reminds me to rest my whip near my own thigh, and I remember this wild card of a 3-foot-long metal rod in my left hand. I try to shorten my reins without dropping the whip, but in the effort to have the proper tension (conversation with his bit, as Andrea says) I start forgetting to close my fingers. Open fingers aren't just sloppy, they are dangerous. If the horse freaks you don't have a lot of time to regain control, and if you get thrown your open fingers may get wrapped up in the leather reins. Imagine a horse taking off at full blast and you being dragged by the reins with three fingers....Bad things have happened to novice English riders with loose fingers. I close my fingers. I try to concentrate.

"Shoulders!" Andrea comments, not unkindly, and I realize how tense I have become in the trot. We are working on leg yields. This means I am using my butt, legs, and heals to move the horse and not the reins. In dressage reins are a last resort, and when used they are used subtly. If I want Merlin to trot in a circle I do have a bit of tension on his inside rein, to offer the flex I need in his neck to retain both his attention and his forward direction, but that is the extent of my suggestion. With his eyes always pointing where I want him to go, my legs and butt are the real commands. Horses move away from pressure, so if I ever-so-gently suggest with my outside leg I want to make a turn inside, he gives to me. I keep doing this and the circle we are making grows tighter around our teacher. "You got it!" exclaims Andrea. But now she wants me to do the same thing with opposite parts of my body to move him out into a wider circle. Oh boy...

My shoulders are still tight. I am reminded to loosen them. I am being explained how to relax without her actually telling me to "relax", which of course, no one does when told. Merlin is a better equestrian than I am, and puts up with my clumsy attempts to communicate. But while I get the leg yield thing for a second, I need to remember 30 other things. My mind reels...Are my heals down? Is my weight balanced? Are my stirrups even? Is my diagonal right? Are the reins the right tension? Is he trotting evenly? Is my butt squeezing the right part of the saddle to match my leg on the other side? Is my whip sinking down to his shoulder? Oh, and I am trying to think all through this while staying on a 1100 pound animal who is more interested in the mule Ashley on the opposite side of the fence, so while I am trying to keep all this in mind while a pro evaluates my competence I am in a mental wrestling match with Merlin, who is far more interested in the possibility of Mule sex than listening to me tell him to turn in a circle. Merlin is bored and horny. Andrea is patience. Ashley is over it. And I am trying with all I've got.

If this sounds confusing, it is.

...But It is also why I ride English. I can't imagine an activity that devours your entire being in such a productive way outside farming. I can not think about bills or the sheep with the cut head. I can not worry about my relationships or the meanings behind texts and emails. These are luxuries of people not working on leg yields. Work does not exist. The Farm does not exist. There is me, and this horse, and this muffled and confusing infant of language between us. Every ride for me is a fight to better speak this tongue. We know such few words right now, and everything is primal. But if we keep at it, ride with teacher's fluent enough to get us to start talking it will result in such a beautiful thing.

Good English riding looks like the rider is doing the easiest thing in the world. But every single aspect, horse and human, has been developed. The saddle, the bit, all of it is minimalistic compared to Western or Driving tack. It's not because it is "better" but because the style itself is about subtly. About the horse doing exactly what you want. And when I say "exact" I mean it. The length of his stride, the curve of his head, the placement of each hoof. And the rider is supposed to be practically doing nothing, because all his chatter of asking commands is in his entire quiet body.

Watch that video above. There are no jumps, no barrels to circle, no cows to rope. There is a just man having a detailed conversation with a horse on solid ground. A conversation so complicated I can not even imagine how he is doing it. I think about how asking Merlin to make a 20-meter circle in trot (in a pace of ohis own choosing) and how damn hard it is to make it look natural and consistent. For me it requires such an effort of will. This man seems like a passenger doing nothing. He is actually asking for every single move. Now that I know what goes into it, the work to get there makes me want to cry. This is poetry.

I know cowboy hats, horned saddles, heavy bits, and woven blankets are what people expect me to be into. That may be exactly why I love this complicated dance so much, because it isn't something I should like. Everyone knows me as the girl with a dented truck, farm, and a cowboy hat but when I get to slip into breeches and high boots, a form fitting shirt and a black velvet helmet...well, I feel like a girl. I feel feminine in a natural and earthy way. and I am backed by all this history of communication and dicispline of a well-oiled machine. I like English riding. Some day I hope to pass as a rider. Right now I am a student.

Hollie, the head instructor at Riding Right here in Cambridge explained everything that is English riding in once phrase. During one of my really frustrating beginner lessons my hands were pulling on the reins like an extra in a bad battle horse movie. She explained that yanking on a rein was like shouting at a horse. "You don't need to shout, he is right there. " She said, and I started to understand her methods. "So breathe, relax, and understand that everyone starts out shouting, but after a few months you advance to talking. And as you start learning true dressage, you ask in whispers. And when you really understand this animal you will just think, and he will know what to do."


That is my M.O.

Toady is Merlin and my first trail ride. We'll be out in Patty's vast fields with her and Steele riding on this overcast and chilly afternoon. I've never ridden Merlin outside the arena so I am a little scared, but I am cautiohsly optimistic. I know this horse and how to handle him. I know how to read him. If I get worried and all we do together is walk a mile into her fields and back and he is calm and I am calm, then that's a wrap. But by this autumn we will be driving, riding, and trotting all over those highland acres, two girls and their horses.


Blogger Noël McNeil said...

I know what you mean about English saddles. I rode my friends warm blood (who happens to be 18 hands and highly trained-english/dressage) and had a fun yet scary time. I grew up riding western so wasn't used to the saddle or the concept that you could use your legs to tell the horse what to do. I had him at a trot and then all of a sudden he started to run right at the fence! Let's just say I almost had a heart attack when I realized that this 18 hand giant of a horse was about to jump a fence with me on it's back!! I was able to get him to a stop before it happened, but I was rather shaky and jittery for about a half hour afterwards. Riding horses is sooo much fun, but it is definitely a different experience when you aren't used to English saddles and everything that goes with it. Keep up the good will someday be second nature for you. And won't that be nice? ;)

March 31, 2012 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I would have DIED!!!!

March 31, 2012 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I would like to learn western basics too. Merlin was trained in Western as well and I have a western saddle, cinch, and blanket, but no western bridles yet. I'll pick one up as we get more comfortable together. eventually i want a full day ride with that big couch saddle, packs for lunch, blue jeans, boots...the works!

today will be breeches, sweaters, and an english helmet! Next to patty and steele we'll be quite a sight!

March 31, 2012 at 10:04 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Montero said...

You know, Riding Right Farm used to be owned by the Goodrich family. Pam Goodrich was an Olympic dressage rider, so maybe that ground is infused with the right stuff!

March 31, 2012 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I didn't know that!

It costs 35 bucks to take a 30-minute private lesson there (or an hour group lesson), and that's using their horses, tack, instructors. Some people spend more than that for pizza and beer on a Weds night. I think a lot more people would be into it if they realized it isn't for the super rich. It's for people who want to ride horses. If you gave up cable, that's easily 2 or 3 lessons a month.... gave up cable and your cell phone, then you have double that. And if you gave up the trip to disney world the whole family could learn to ride (any style!) in a few months.

March 31, 2012 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can tell you're a little scared with the misspellings! :) Hang in there, each time can only get better even if it's just a little. This will carry over into everything you do, even non horse related.

I had no idea what all was involved with those folks who sat pretty on their horse while it looked like the horse was doing everything.

Does the size of a horse scare you or are you or do you get comfortable with that? I'm small and horses have always scared me and I don't see the attraction because of my fear. The last time I rode a horse, he threw me off. I had no control to stop the horse or me from flying in the air. He took off across the woods till he came to the next street which was not close by. The owners had to go find him. I don't feel bad about it because it the only instructions I got was, "you can do it." I proved them wrong!

March 31, 2012 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I'm a lifelong english rider, although I've ridden western on a occassion and I think your comments will be offensive to many western horseman out there.
Proper riding in a western saddle is the same as it is in an english saddle, the terms may be different, but they are doing "dressage" in their own way and it is just as difficult to master. Look up Reining horses for an example. In fact, many english riders are taking lessons and attending clinics of master western trainers to improve their riding and horsemanship skills.
Pleasure riding can be as simple as sitting and steering regardless if the saddle is english or western.

March 31, 2012 at 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see in a few years, we'll all be playing the fiddle, banjo, making cheese, chasing sheep and riding a horse every which way possible. The U.S. won't know what happened!

March 31, 2012 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger Heather Ann said...

I've been in that place of 'just think it' and it is one of my best accomplishments. As for work, at times it was, but over all it was just fun - learning the cues and watching her respond, watching that response become near perfect over time. I think time was the key, hours and hours and days and years of the dance. Little things will come sooner, like the ability to turn with your legs smoothly - you can do it! And it'll be so, so sweet on the way :)

March 31, 2012 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

How is a person writing about english riding offensive?! This is an English rider's blog. IF I read a blog about a western rider with no english experience at all talking about how much she/he loves it and what it teaches them, the last thing I would do is be offended because it wasn't my discipline. Even if they poked fun or made jokes about English (easy to do).

And why does everyone (save 3 people) who thinks I'm offending people tell me behind a screenname without identity?

March 31, 2012 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger Meagan said...

I rode and owned horses most of my youth. I'm glad you're training dressage- I think it allows you to "have that conversation" with the horse that is sometimes lost when you barrel your animal over fences too soon. Seeing Blue Hors Matine was a delight- sad that she died a few years ago in an accident. Amazing animal. I miss horses- the smell of the barn, the warmth of their breath. I need a horse, too!

March 31, 2012 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger Kirsten said...

OMG, loved that video. I've been riding dressage many years but Of course nowhere near that level. Amazing. But yes, as you get to know your horse he will learn your cues and you his, and at times you'll feel like poetry in motion. It's a beautiful thing. Good luck to you and Merlin!

March 31, 2012 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Dawn said...

As someone who has ridden since toddlerhood, I appreciate the beautiful way you captured the feeling of riding in your post. Sometimes I think those of us who have ridden our lives take it for granted as normal and it is noce to take a step back and hear someone explain the intricacies of riding. I grew up showing hunters and doing equitation medal classes mostly but, thank goodness, always had trainers who valued crosstraining when no one would have thought of using that term with horses. I took dressage lessons to help with my equitation tests and did some stock seat equitation and some competitive trail classes to devlop a better vocabulary and knowledge base. I agree with the reader above that regardless of tack, the conversation really needs to be the same. You may enjoy watching Clinton Anderson's work. He dresses the part of a cowboy but teaches people and horses of all disciplines all over the world. Very much the "natural horsemanship" philosophy without some of the hype others employ. In my area of NC, we also have a trainer who is working to get national recognition for a "working dressage" class which kind of combines a western-style trail class into a dressage test. It's called versatility and really is the basis of just enjoying your horse and having the best communication possible. I'm so glad you are enjoying the journey toward becoming a horsewoman not just a rider. There is a BIG difference.

March 31, 2012 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Dawn said...

Sorry for the misspellings above. My fingers got away from me!

March 31, 2012 at 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From an old young rider sponsor and horse show mom, I say you are in the right place with Merlin. I love reading your stories. If you haven't yet, do watch the DVDs "Buck" and "the Path of the Horse". You will whisper their praises too. Thank you so much for your detailed and honest sharing!

March 31, 2012 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Kelpie and Collie said...

As a young girl, I learned to ride English at a riding school and we were not allowed to use our arms. We had to keep them out at our sides and do all the directing with our legs. That builds confidence in your seat like nothing else.

March 31, 2012 at 11:29 AM  
Blogger Meredith A said...

Kelpie, remove stirrups and that how I was taught...posting trot, no stirrups!

Jenna, have you hacked around bareback? No saddle, halter rather than bridle, lead rope instead of reins...simplify!

March 31, 2012 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger Talita Salles said...

Wow, Jenna!

You know, I had my first horse-riding lessons a couple of years ago for 4 months (once a week, from 40min to 1h30 depending on how tired we were, because I got a weekday with nobody after me). It was exactly as you said. Thank you for putting in words what I felt, the complexity of the language, the thousands of tiny details we have to take care of, it was amazing. I'm moving out in less than a month to my own house (with my own garden to plant), and near somewhere where I can take lessons again (all set up, just need to tell them the starting date). I'm totally going back to english style, but I'd also like to take some vaulting lessons someday (not complex gymnastics, but laying down, standing up, all that), and working lessons, and western, and all in all be the most complete horsewoman I can. Learn the language and all the different dialects.

Also, thank you so much for the second video! It was so amazing that when it ended, I started laughing and crying at the same time. Amazing. I have no idea how they do it. It's one of those moments when you remember the world, and every branch of knowledge in it, is infinite.

That's actually a new long-term goal: "I want to dance with my horse" :)

Thank you!

March 31, 2012 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Kelpie and Collie said...

Yes- me too- no nothing- including stirrups. I also used to ride bareback/halter/lead rope. Would gallop the pony up the driveway- what a rush. Life was simpler then.

March 31, 2012 at 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I see a lot of pain in the mares mouth. What is she saying with all the tail swishing?

March 31, 2012 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger MB said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 31, 2012 at 1:30 PM  
Blogger MB said...

When I gave lessons I would tell people to imagine their spine growing down to join with the horse's - I hoped it would help them gain a deeper seat and more feel for the horse. Also some time bareback does wonders for your balance.
Here is a western style reining champion - bareback with no bridle.

March 31, 2012 at 1:58 PM  
Blogger The Village Queen said...

You just need butt in saddle time. All the things to think about will come automaticlly with practice. And once you get it feeling natural, you will never lose it. Being on a horse of any type is a wonderful freedom, I envy you and am glad you are sharing this journey. I grew up in Pony Club and the many hours of posting without stirrups and bending excersises to be able to move your upper body without moving your leg. You'll get it, just takes time. And do try not to stress aobut it, the horse can feel that and it makes them tense. Although with a calm gent as Merlin its less of an issue than with a throughbred!

March 31, 2012 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger KiwiGirl said...

Great to hear you're enjoying your riding. I used to go every Saturday morning to riding school and do what you're doing now. Had to give it away after one too many head injuries (bad luck on my part) and I still really miss it. So it's awesome to hear someone else getting as much pleasure as I used to - keep it up. One question - I see you're using a long dressage whip. I know as a beginner, that I used to find them a bit of a handful (so many things in your hands to worry about, all at once!). Is that just what your school recommends, or do you like them better than a short crop?

March 31, 2012 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

It's so fun to read about your riding because it sounds like we're at about the same level! I can relate to everything you're saying! My horse is an 18-hand Swedish Warmblood and I'm an adult beginner in hunter/jumper, but I ride quarter horses in a western saddle when on vacation in the mountains. I feel more confident trail riding in the western saddle, but wow is the English saddle an incredible mental and physical workout. You're absolutely right--riding is the one time of day when I must truly be "present in the moment." Keep these great stories coming. It's nice to have an adult perspective (most of the people at my level at the barn are very young girls!).

March 31, 2012 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

When I started at riding right I spent about three months without reins with a school horse under me on a lunge line, just doing my seat. I have never ridden bareback, but would like to.

March 31, 2012 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Shannon, I know what you mean!!

March 31, 2012 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Shannon, I know what you mean!!

March 31, 2012 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Lilly said...

Great post! I started riding when I was 8 (22 years ago!) and I still ride weekly with a trainer - you can always improve and I think lessons are important even for experienced riders. Have you ever considered foxhunting? I think it's something you might enjoy. It combines the skill of English riding with the excitement of being out of the ring and it's fast-paced and exciting. With a year or two of lessons under your belt, you could easily go out hilltopping if you have a local hunt and I think you'd find it a thrilling experience. There's nothing like hearing the hounds open up on a hot line and thundering after them!

March 31, 2012 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger Melina said...

I'm learning dressage thanks to Merlin and an printed ad I saw one day on my lunch break. And an affordable instructor. I love the attention it takes.

March 31, 2012 at 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have my first lesson in over 2.5 years tomorrow, you summed it up "Are my heals down? Is my weight balanced? Are my stirrups even? Is my diagonal right? Are the reins the right tension? Is he trotting evenly? Is my butt squeezing the right part of the saddle to match my leg on the other side?" I am so looking forward to it :-)

March 31, 2012 at 8:45 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...


March 31, 2012 at 9:02 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Lilly I would LOVE to go fox hunting! I just don't know if Merlin and I could keep up!

March 31, 2012 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Lilly I would LOVE to go fox hunting! I just don't know if Merlin and I could keep up!

March 31, 2012 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger Lyssa said...

I haven't ridden a horse since I was a teenager, but it sounds to me kind of like the types of motorcycle riding - you can kick back on a Harley, or crouch on top of your sport bike as you zoom down the freeway.

March 31, 2012 at 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, let me say that I love this post. I can recognize the thoughts of someone falling in love with the amazing process of learning to be an equestrian. It's wonderful!

As for the western v. English thing, I can see how some readers might be offended, though I know that wasn't your intention at all.

Just to dissect the rhetoric of this post- I think people are raising their hackles at what reads like a delineation between Western and English riding and a privileging of the latter. What you described in your post is true of all good riding, and isn't particular to English. When you emphasize that you ride English (and pointedly NOT western), which you distinguish as complicated, delicate, and feminine, it can read as though you don't think Western riding embodies those qualities.

I'm sure that's not what you're insinuating though...Some of the most skilled and sensitive horse people I've ridden with have been Western isn't all Navajo blankets and heavy bits.

Not trying to stir things up; just trying to explain the antagonism.

March 31, 2012 at 10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, I applaud your courage on the trail ride and your efforts to learn and better your horsemanship!

March 31, 2012 at 10:42 PM  
Blogger Ivanhoe said...

Neat-o, your descriptions and those videos really convey the poetry that is dancing with horses -- I took English-style horse-riding lessons as a child, and in dressage I got about as far as getting the horse to walk sideways. I like how similar it is to playing music. I too communicate subtleties to the piano, my lifetime beast of choice.

March 31, 2012 at 10:45 PM  
Blogger Chicky said...

What mountainchicken said...

April 1, 2012 at 12:33 AM  
Blogger Rosie said...

Reining was mentioned as a western discipline additionally there is Western Dressage. The association is relatively new but a lot of the moves are similar. I got to attend a clinic last year and watch Jack Brainard explain the precision of knowing your horses every footfall.

Talking balance. I have ridden all my life both English and western. There is nothing like staying in the middle of a cutting horse while cutting a cow. It is all balance and no gripping with your legs :-)

April 1, 2012 at 12:50 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I never intend to offend anyone. I don't dislike Western Riding at all. I am ignorant of it! I know nothing at all about it, and I bet if I went out with a Western bridle and tack I'd STILL be riding English because I have no idea how to ride western. Do not confuse ignorance of one discipline with disdain. I can't wait to saddle up with trail packs and spend a whole day out with Steele and Patty, stopping for lunch, taking in the vistas, the works.

I always see this blog as a casual conversation between two people, the reader and me. I don't think of it as 'readers' just one person, a good friend, someone I can just talk too. If a close friend sat down and gushed to you over a sport she was falling in love with, how it made her concentrate, feel special, feminine, and such - you probably wouldn't see it as being negative towards something else.

This blog isn't an Op Ed, or Journalism, or anything based on making my opinion yours. It is just my life as it happens, what I am excited about or not excited about. What's fun, what's hard, what is happening now. And I ask as you just read it as a friend telling you her stories, and then I think people taking offense would fade.

April 1, 2012 at 6:44 AM  
Blogger Stacey said...

Wow, the video of Andreas and his mare is awesome. I love reading about you and Merlin. I am an adult beginner with a new horse named Bill. He is a Haflinger and our journey together has been quite an adventure. I keep him at a Barn in Bennington where I work but I actually live closer to Cambridge in West Arlington. Keep up the good work!

April 1, 2012 at 7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that you are so enjoying dressage. I was bit by that same bug many years ago and after a 10 year hiatus have finally started riding again. So happy to hear you are getting into it yourself. Yay for you and Merlin!

April 5, 2012 at 3:22 PM  

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