The Lesson of the Fifth Fence

I keep seeing it: over the double, and there’s that fence. Just sitting there. The number five in black on the red placard. There it is, and there we go, Delilah and I, right past it as opposed to over it.

I tell myself I felt a hesitation in her stride. Well? What are we doing? And I think that’s true: she didn’t know what to do because I wasn’t telling her.

It occurs to me that I finally understand what my role is in this whole horseriding thing.

In the beginning, the horse just went. Argo followed the other horses around and around, and even when we were in lead file, he seemed to now what to do. I was delighted to be moving, to still be in the saddle, and we did what needed to be done. Somehow.

I’ve seen Mercury canter at the sound of the word. Once, I was on Delilah, and Nikki said to cross the long diagonal at F, and Delilah’s ears went up and she turned. ‘She speaks English!’ I laughed. I know horses recognise voice cues, so, I don’t know, I figured they just always knew what to do.

Not last week. And that’s where I came in. Jumping the course threw into relief that we were a team, and that I am effectively its leader.

Or ineffectively. Delilah wasn’t just going to head to the jump without direction from me. She will head for a fence if we’re in the lesson and we’ve just jumped it, and we’re changing direction or something. In that case, I guide her away from it. It’s up to me where we go, and yeah, I think the fifth fence taught me that.

After last Saturday’s lesson, we got down, and riders for the next round came in. They were not… habitual riders. I helped the woman who was given Delilah to mount, feeling very authoritative and yes, smug, and then I held Ruby as more horses were fetched. The girls weren’t holding the reins correctly, and I bit my tongue. So inclined to boss! I stroked Ruby’s face, and waited.

Finally, I was let go. As I began to leave, Nikki told the riders to walk the horses around, and I saw the most amazing thing. Horses who had been moving freely and attentively were suddenly not going. The light taps of the heels they were being given did not translate into a signal they were likely to recognise as an injunction to move. Tap tap tap, the way you’d tap a finger, idly, to your forehead. The horses didn’t move.

The way you hold the reins, the way you sit, the way you give that commanding tap of the heels — it’s all about communication, all the time. It’s not about ordering, it’s about leading, guiding. It’s a responsibility. It’s good thing to have learned.

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