Okay, maybe not 50…
Today has been an extremely productive day. Realising that the sun was shining proudly for the second day in a row, going into the yard didn’t seem too bad a thing despite the fact that I might have preferred to sit around in summery clothes, drinking summery drinks and thinking summery thoughts.
Once we’d sorted our plan of action for the day, Kelly and I went into said action. Horses were fed, fetched in where necessary, watered and told to hold it in if they could so that we wouldn’t have to clean up too many stables later. We proceeded to poo-pick in record time before beginning possibly the most exciting task of the day.
If no-one else notices, if the rain washes it all away, if lightening strikes and sets them on fire, at least Kelly and I know that we successfully painted the benches. At the beginning of the day they were brown. And by lunchtime they were…well…brown. Maybe a slightly more uniform shade, marginally. The mottled bits on the top still show through a bit because despite the two coats we threw on, you just can’t hide that worn weather-beaten look. I said to Kelly that we should have taken before and after pictures, but that I’d realised there would be no point because it’d be practically the same picture twice!
They do look a lot better though, it’s just a shame all the nearby fencing looks even worse now that they’re all clean and fresh looking. If you look really closely you can even see bits of the concrete that I artfully splodged with paint. I wanted to create a bit of interest you see…grey concrete is so last season. I did also manage to flick myself in the face. Well, actually the brush flicked out from one of the slats of the bench and teeny tiny little spots of brown paint hit me, all up my neck and across my face. Extra freckles to go with the ones that are starting to come through now the sun is out more. Hoorah. I like freckles.
Our hard work doesn’t stop at the painting though. Oh no sir! We then went and emptied out three stables in the big barn ready for pressure washing next week. And when I say emptied, I mean properly cleared out. Clean bedding was transferred to stables on the main yard, dirty bedding went on the muck trailer. The rubber matting was laboriously turned over and the now visible black/red/beige gunk swept out from underneath them. And the drainage at the back of two of them was swept out in its entirety (cue retching).
You know how sometimes in your life you experience things that stay with you forever? For example, the first time you ever see the sun rise over the ocean, saying goodbye to someone for what you know is the last time, or holding a baby/puppy/kitten (insert other cutesy thing here) for the first time. Lovely stuff, amazing memories, wonderful things to have etched into your memory for the rest of your life. Brilliant. Well, today I had one of those experiences. I was party to something that will never, ever leave my memory. It is something that will be etched into the echoes of my mind for eternity.
The smell. The smell of the stuff we cleared out from those stables. OH GOOD GOD THE SMELL. I think it will be impossible for me to ever, ever forget that smell. If I had any hairs inside my nose, they were singed off. Any hope of a healthy respiratory system is gone forever. It burned. Like the fires of hell. Except it smelled worse than hell ever could. A fetid rank lingering stink. I can still smell it now. Although that might be the jods that are on my bedroom floor still.
After that life-changing experience (Truly. Kelly and I share a bond now. You can’t go through something like that with someone and maintain the same friendship you had before. It’s just one of those things), I was able to bag a ride. I’d mentioned to Kelly beforehand that if there was a chance, I’d like to get a lesson or three from her over the holidays as I had a few things I’d like to work on. It helps that I find her lessons particularly helpful. She has a no-nonsense approach that works for me and from the first time she taught me (last Easter on Jackamoley in fact) her techniques when it comes to getting you to visualise what you want to happen and focusing your mind on different parts of your body seem to click in my head in a way a lot of other stuff just doesn’t.
So today we got everything else done, and then she told me to tack up the lovely Midge. I realised part way through the lesson that she didn’t have her Market Harborough on when she probably should have. It wasn’t attached to her bridle when I chucked her tack on, so I completely forgot. As it was, she worked pretty well without it, so it was no biggie. We started off just working around the arena, chucking in the odd circle and change of rein to keep her switched on. I was trotting quite happily and Kelly got me to shout out statements about Midge as I went.
She had me start with the easy stuff. “This horse is called Midge. She is a mare. She is 15 years old. She is 15.2 hands high. She is an Irish Sports horse. She does not like being on her own. But she can not go out with other horses because she kicks. Sometimes she is too quick and runs in her paces. Sometimes she is very lazy and doesn’t move off the leg” … and so on. We then progressed to things that were relevant.
“This trot has a good rhythm. It is consistent and active. She could be more active and still not run. She could be softer.”
Once we had established that the trot was good, and thrown in a couple of unexpected direct transitions, Kelly announced that she wanted me to do the rest of the session in sitting trot.
So I established a nice gentle trot, and sat. As Kelly watched me going around the arena, she commented on different aspects of my position, giving ways I could improve it. At first she had me focus on my seat, getting me to really think about having two precise points in the saddle (my seat bones) each of which should bearing exactly equal weight (easier said than done). Apparently I tend to get thrown in the saddle a bit, and allow my weight to shift from left to right rather than keeping it anchored in the centre. So I worked hard, focusing on keeping myself balanced. As I did so, trying to remember to keep my leg on at the same time, I noticed Midge gradually coming softer and softer. Kelly then explained that the more I was able to “carry my own weight” as it were, the softer and more in balance the horse would become. Basically, we expect these horses to carry themselves for us, but they’re usually carrying us too. If we can centre ourselves and maintain softness and sureness with our seat, the horse can follow our lead and be soft and balanced too. It hit home when I realised the harder I worked at maintaining my seat correctly, the harder she worked in response.
Kelly got the giggles after a bit though, and told me that my tightness had now shifted. My seat and hips were soft, absorbing the movement and maintaining balance. Beautiful. But I was now allowing myself to collapse through my core, and wobble across my shoulders. I explained that I often worry when it comes to my shoulders, because I never feel like they’re relaxed enough and that the minute I try to relax and soften one part of my body, somewhere else seems to tense in response. So she built it up gradually for me.
Keeping the balance and softness in my seat, she then had me think about lifting my ribcage with every stride, particularly around bends and on circles. Once I was achieving that, she got me to tighten my tummy muscles at the same time. Soft, lift, tighten, soft, lift, tighten. After working like that for a bit (it hurts) she then added in the leg. Soft, lift, tighten, step down, close the leg, soft, lift, tighten, step down, close the leg.
By starting off focusing on one thing and gradually adding in the other bits, I was eventually able to sit the trot quite comfortably, in balance with the horse and encourage her to soften at the same time. If Kelly had just planted all that information on me right at the start, I’d have panicked and said “I can’t do it, nope, that’s not happening, it’s too much” and given up then and there. As it was, albeit unintentionally, she was able to pinpoint different areas at different times.
By the time it came to cantering, I was already shattered! But it was actually my canter transitions that I wanted to work on. Of course, I’m not daft. I understood exactly why she was getting me to work so much in sitting trot and really establish it. Because to get a good canter transition you first have to be able to sit to the trot effectively. Our first transition was diabolical. The mare wasn’t switched on enough, and I was therefore asking, then not asking too quickly for her to sort herself out.
After a quick rebalance and discussion of “well that was rubbish”, “yes it was, try again”…we tried again. This time, we worked together and got a much better transition with a nice canter to follow. We stayed on a circle down by Kelly so that as she shouted directions, I could hear. Bit by bit, transition by transition, we got better and better. The mare certainly woke up, and I managed to keep entirely focused and concentrating the whole time. Every stride she took, I was mindful of all the things Kelly had set me to work on. As we came down from canter, I had to lift my ribcage high, tighten my core hard and take all of her transferred weight into my right arm, half-halting and rebalancing the trot as quickly as I could. I ended up having to do some strides of rising trot immediately after the downwards transition, as the mare does run through her transitions from canter to trot. The half halting worked well though, and the last canter we had began with a very controlled balanced transition, and ended with one too. We also kept a good rhythm in the canter, and I felt my position throughout was much better.
Although I was somewhat grossly warm by the end, it was a very good session. Whereas previously I might have felt overwhelmed or downhearted by how much Kelly was getting me to think about and work on during the lesson, today I just felt emboldened by it. To know that it is absolutely 100% possible for me to improve on the things that bother me, is a very positive thing to know indeed. And the more I worked during that lesson, the better I felt about my riding. Tiny things like, turning with my hips and realising just how much pressure I need with my outside leg and then seeing the effects, were enough to make me feel like I was progressing. I had Midge doing a figure of 8 on something close to volte circles, just by pushing with my outside leg and turning with my hips. Realising that I could do that, was all it took for me to realise the importance of what Kelly was saying to me.
I think sometimes I struggle to take on board all the things I am told. I listen, and I do what I am instructed to do. In that respect, I am a good pupil. But I forget to do things the next time and fall back into a kind of non-action state. And most of the time I think that is because I do not fully understand exactly why those things are important. Like outside aids, for example. Until experimenting with the tiny circles and figure of 8 using my outside leg, I didn’t realise how effective your outside leg can be. Once I’d cottoned on to turning with my hips rather than my shoulders, our circles had a better shape and I was able to use my legs better at the same time.
Little things, but they all add up. And once I understand why they are important and how effective they can be, then I will remember to use them again. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve always found Kelly to be a particularly good instructor. She gets you to visualise, which works in my head. And she explains why certain things are relevant. I’ve also come to realise that a lot of her methods have to do with a more positive thought process. For example instead of telling me to push my shoulders back and down, which is quite a forceful and actually quite restrictive motion, she got me to lift my ribcage up. For me, saying something like “lift” or “up” has a much more positive message. By being taught with words and phrases like that, I am able to think in a more positive light about the numerous things I need to work on. And they don’t seem so daunting.
I’m one of those people who, on having a productive and positive lesson like today, will go away and mull it over. So I spent the drive home thinking quite hard about all the things I’d done, where I’d got it right, where I’d been weak and how I could carry it forward to the next time I ride. I considered the things Kelly and I discussed, her answers to my questions, and that’s when I ended up thinking on the way she said things. Because, to be honest, it struck me as odd (good I guess, but odd nonetheless) that in that one hour of riding I felt like I had learned and progressed more than I have in the few weeks prior to today.
She also said that if we get the chance, she wants to do some more sessions like that to continue working on various aspects of my position. I’d like that, of course. Any chance I get to have a one-to-one lesson, I’m going to take. I find them much more productive than group lessons. And I count myself lucky to learn from an instructor like Kelly. So I’m definitely hoping to have the opportunity for another session.
And that, my dears, concludes the chapter for today.