Lesson 1: “Evaluation Ride”
The time-slot I managed to secure was Sunday morning. On one hand, I see why this is great for the horse - the beginner lesson is basically their warm-up. On the other hand, mornings and I don’t always get along.
Anticipation managed to drive me out of bed - which was good, but I was still a bit bleary. I drove past the place three times before I saw the small sign set back a ways from the road. When I got to the stable I was… honestly a little confused and disappointed. I confess, I was expecting the sort of big-budget stable I had been seeing on Youtube. Where I had arrived was, as far as I could tell, basically a smallish farmhouse.
I was still a little early, and there was no one in sight. I was growing increasingly paranoid I had found the wrong place. Trying to find the trainer I was here to meet, I ended up wandering around tentatively and hoping I wasn’t about to get squacked at for trespassing.
I came across, first, an open-side barn with the tack, with various saddles sitting out for someone to grab. Then spotted a jumping course out a slight ways which I recognized from photos on the web. Finally, rounding a to the back of the house I spotted a small herd
of horses grazing at a hay feeding area not a hundred feet from me. They were an oddly mismatched bunch - one small pony came up hardly to the elbow of the largest horse. Most appeared to be large ponies/small horses with a few notably taller exceptions. There were a couple trees in there and the horses went back a ways - I’m still not sure how many horses there actually were in that area, nor how far back that area went. If I were to guess, I’d say probably 8-10 in that little group.
One of them also clearly spotted me. While most of the horses kept on happily grazing a single large horse poked their head up and turned to face me directly - ears straight up and obviously paying attention. There were two full sets of fences between us, but we stood there squared off for about a minute before I thought that I might well be coming off as aggressive (based entirely on what I saw on youtube) - even to a horse that far away from me. I turned my shoulders to be at an angle and looked somewhere else for a bit. The horse relaxed a little, lowering their head slightly. I turned back, the horse looked up but didn’t set themselves quite so square - interested, but not seeming quite as cautious.
That horse, as it turns out, would end up being my lesson horse for the day.
There were a few things I had known about this stable before I came here. I knew the owner loved re-training off the track thoroughbreds and had been a long-time proponent of the practice. This was one of the things I actually was a bit excited about, as I had fallen in love with OTTBs and was looking forward to see a place that by all reports did re-training very well. I knew that the stable (which I will call “High Road” - a pseudonym) was often gone to by people who were looking to move from basic lessons to more advanced training. They regularly traveled as a team (which included adults) to hunter/jumper shows, and also taught eventing
and all its components - one of the only places around here which would do so on school horses. I did not know (but quickly learned) that first-time-beginner training was less their typical focus.
After a bit of paperwork (.. I am both comforted and terrified that you want my health insurance policy number…), fitting a helmet, and moving my car (apparently the area I parked in was used for horses, not cars) we were ready to officially begin.
This is when I got to meet Dragon (pseudonym), a 17 HH OTTB Mare. She apparently competes jumping on the A circuit regularly and is often used as a teaching horse more on the advanced skills side. She’s a gorgeous dark chestnut and while I know very little about conformation I can recognize balance and she looks like something I’d see while watching the Grand Prix. Basically, she is everything I fantasized about when I thought what sort of horse I might want to have/work with, but thought would probably be a bad idea because OTTBs are generally seen as being too hot and not for beginners.
My first lesson was in grooming. She had rolled a bit in the mud, which had dried on her coat. I started with the curry comb going over her, starting with her shoulder, moving onto her back and rump, and finally (very, very gently) to her legs and face. Then there was brushing the dust out and giving her a treat. By the time this process was done we had both managed to get a bit more comfortable with each other. She was looking at me sort of curiously. I was figuring out where she liked to be scratched/petted. The little bit of nervousness we both had was gone.
There was a quick tacking lesson (which fortunately I recognized most of from watching training videos - though I did not say that) and then without much ceremony it was over to the mounting block and right up onto the horse’s back.
We walked off for a ‘pony ride’ to the Arena without bothering to check much of anything. Those first 10 seconds were the most nervous I would be on the horse all day. Advice on position from youtube was running through my head. I focused quite hard on not
gripping with my legs and leaving them relaxed (because squeezing with the legs can mean ‘go’ and the last thing I wanted was this horse speeding up - never mind that she was being led), keeping my back straight and legs down (“Imagine if the horse were to disappear - you should still be standing”) and trying to find some semblance of balance and moving with the horse (“you’re at your most balanced when your center of gravity is low, near the horse’s - so heels down and try to stay down into the seat”).
By the time we got into the arena I felt I had ‘gotten’ it a bit and my balance was considerably better. This was the first time Jill (my trainer -pseudonym) turned around to check the details of my position… She seemed pleased. I felt a little clever. It was my first mini-accomplishment of the day.
I was put out on a lead line to check my position and balance in the walk. We did a few exercises - hands out airplane, out in front, above my head… airplane arms and turn torso to the center, now away from the center… turn the horse around and do it all again.
This stuff, fortunately, was not at all hard.
I was taken off the line, handed the reigns, and after a very
quick description of hand positions we were going over basic steering and halt.
Then, without further ado, I was off and walking slow circles around the arena and practicing my ‘walk-halt-walk-halt’ and steering. There were a few jumps set up which acted as obstacles I could practice walking and steering around. I got her to weave around them - change direction, and head back. I had now honestly made my goal for the first several lessons and was really starting to feel the magic of riding. I was getting the tiniest bit excited.
After probably ten minutes of this Jill called me back over to the lead line, and we started doing circles again - this time at a slow seated trot. I did the same balance exercises as before. Once again, I found the first three easy - though the rotating at the torso was doable but genuinely a little trickier (and I said as much). We then did a walk-without-stirrups, then a trot-without-stirrups, then dropping and picking up the stirrups up while trotting. Then a bit of a faster trot. All of this felt pretty solid and not as tricky as I had been nervous it might be.
We did not try the torso-twist without stirrups at a trot, for which I was thankful.
Then I was off on my own again, and going around the arena practicing speed changes and basic steering (including halt from various speeds).
A lot of things started happening at this point. First, Dragon seemed to wake up a bit. It’s kind of difficult to describe - but she seemed sort of thrilled to be moving. I did not have to ask
her to speed up so much as let
her. Jill and I had idly talked about Thoroughbreds and how she viewed them as the Ferrari of horses (it’s clear she loves the breed a lot
). That was sort of what it felt like - learning to drive in a Ferrari.
I could literally get her to walk by thinking
walk. It took less than an inch of movement in the reins to steer her. In fact, I realized to some extent I only really needed the reins much at all if I wanted precision - she would steer from how I was gently turning in the seat.
Getting her to slow down and halt was harder. I worked hard on making sure I was leaning back slightly when I wanted her to halt. It was clear to me she was a little confused/distressed when I leaned forward and touched the reins, I got a pretty clear sense of ‘what the hell are you asking me to do?’ until I leaned back and she settled. After that the lean-back-to halt sort of 'clicked' for me and I found myself doing it without much thought. I found I could stop her from the walk with just the seat.
I started working on more complex patterns, weaving around the jumps and working on steering. I also got a quick lesson in preventing her from falling in on turns using my leg, which she responded to nicely.
As this went on a bit Dragon started to relax and - this is hard to describe, but sort of get happy and excited?. This wasn’t at all in a nervous way - but more almost playful. She started to get just slightly trickier to manage. I could feel
her energy below me - she wanted to go faster and I was gently holding her back. She also was drawn towards Jill, so I practiced getting her to halt from a trot while facing her but still a ways away. This was the only time I had to actually pull
the reins a bit and actually correct a little rather than just signaling with them.
In fact, that was really the next little part of the lesson - getting her to realize she needed to listen to me
rather than keep looking over towards Jill. I started using the reins mostly to gently get her attention whenever she looked over rather than to steer her. We also had a few gentle discussions about what speed we were going to go at. Dragon listened perfectly - but I needed to actually tell
her to stay slow.
There were only two very slightly concerning parts during all this.
The first time was while I was in the trot (quite intentionally opening up a bit) and apparently she drifted over to an even faster trot then I realized she was able to do. I was bouncing in the seat and focused on trying to figure out how to stay down - without realizing that the problem wasn’t my seat, but the fact that the horse had sped up on me without me noticing. Jill asked me to slow her down - which I did - before going into a turn. Honestly, I’m glad she asked. In retrospect I was too focused on what my body was doing to realize that my mistake was the speed rather than my form and that trying to turn on her while bouncing like that probably wasn't the greatest idea. I don't think I would have lost my seat, but I wouldn't have been totally in control. In retrospect, catching this so quickly was one of the things that gave me more confidence in Jill.
The second was that while weaving through the jumps Dragon very clearly kept trying to line up on them. I don’t think she thought that was what I was asking her to do - it was more a suggestion
of something more fun we could try. I had to politely tell her that no, sadly, today we would not be going over the jumps - even the cute little ones she was trying to line me up on.
While I don't want to over-project too much I found myself secretly wondering if Dragon was picking up on my
excitement and reflecting it in herself. To be honest, I really kind of did
want to go faster, and I really kind of did
want to touch those jumps. I just knew it wasn’t a good idea. Dragon and I honestly were actually of roughly the same mind in what we wanted
to do. I almost felt a little guilty I wasn’t ready to oblige her yet.
We ended by wrapping up the lesson back on lead as I tried to do some posting on trot. This was where my awesomeness wore off. While I could stand in the stirrups (two point) for a few strides at a time fairly easily, I just really couldn’t get the timing right on posting. We spent the rest of the lesson with me trying to get it before we ran out of time. The next lesson arrived and I got to do a walking-only cool-down with the horse while the next lesson was tacking up their horses.
Then the scariest part of the whole lesson happened: I was asked to dismount. You may laugh, but this horse was 5’8”+ off the ground at the haunches and I had no idea what I was doing. This was not
something it had occurred to me to try to figure out how to do ahead of time.
Swinging my leg over I kicked poor Dragon in the hindquarters with my heel trying to get my leg over before sliding down. She very graciously did not seem to hold it against me, but I felt bad. I was able to give her a couple more treats before she was off to her next lesson (where I think she probably got her wish to be able to do some jumping).
Jill told me I did very, very well for a beginner. I paid my lesson fee and we set up a time for the next week. Key Thoughts:
Trainer Assigned Homework:
- Dragon was probably the perfect lesson horse for me personally. I actually loved the fact that she had a bit of an opinion on what we were going to do - both because she responded to such subtle cues and because her gentle testing of boundaries gave me a bit of practice in being gently assertive. I’m not sure this would have been so great for a more nervous rider - but then, I’m not sure she would have been as assertive if I hadn't consciously tried to pull her attention from paying attention to Jill to paying attention to me. She very much seemed to change attitude based on what I was doing up there. I got to use the cues for ‘stop’ and ‘slow down’ about twice as much as anything else - which I am very glad of, as that practice was quite useful. Overall, this was a major confidence-builder.
- Let’s be honest, I’m falling a bit in love with my lesson horse. I’ve already decided at this point that Dragon is basically a dream horse. She’s not mine, and knowing a bit of Jill’s philosophy I suspect I will be on a lot of different horses over the course of my training - but right now I know that in the distant future if I think about getting a horse I will want Jill to help me find and train it. I really liked Jill as a lesson instructor - but based on Dragon I kinda love her as a horse agent/trainer.
- Jill’s constant and attentive vigilance is what really makes me, especially looking back in retrospect, feel safe. She was actually fairly quiet during the lesson proper - not trying to yell corrections out at me constantly the way I often saw on youtube. She actually even explained this at one point, saying she’d rather just give me a couple things to focus on getting right at a time rather than picking at every little detail at once. She commented once about keeping my heels down but mostly just let me get a feel for riding. She also caught that speed-up hardly two seconds after it happened, and seemed to notice/respond to any time I either did something very well or was even slightly uncertain. Her only other real correction was encouraging me when I ended up having to really pull the reins to get Dragon to halt. I felt I moved *very* fast this lesson, but I also felt very safe throughout and I am very happy with the way Jill walked that line. I think she is probably a great trainer for me. We both seemed very happy with each other.
- I can definitely feel what Dragon is going to do before she does it. Describing how exactly is a bit hard - but it’s not subtle, at least with her. I can feel both what she’s doing and what she really wants to do. I thought it might just be me projecting things - but there’s a definite and real feeling there that’s pretty darn clear. I just need to be careful to be sure I'm reading it correctly. I now think I understand "I want to go faster" and "I'm about to go faster" very well.
- If the goal of this lesson was confidence building and assessment, I think that worked. I am far, far ahead of where I expected to be at this point and definitely thinking that this will be a good sport for me. I am not sure one lesson a week is going to be enough. I am giddy to the point of dancing around like a fool. I need to keep this a little in check so I don’t go horse-crazy.
- Work on heel flexibility by standing on a stair and dropping my heels down and doing toe-touching exercises.
- Try to academically figure out the timing and correct posture on posting trot. Right now I only 50% get it. I need to watch people who are good at this so I can figure out how exactly I’m supposed to be moving.
- See what is sore over the next few days and start looking at building a fitness routine around that.
- Start pre-researching how to stay on for canter, so should that come up I am prepared. We blasted through everything I had pre-researched in basically the first lesson… I need to start looking into the next steps if I want to stay nicely ahead.
- Seriously think about requesting twice-a-week lessons. Look at my financial situation and decide if that is a reasonable thing to look into.