dragons, dressage, and our first trail ride
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.