Something unexpected happened on Saturday.
On Saturday, I was still feeling a little ‘boo hoo hoo’ because my weekend away in the South of France was now in the past; a little sleepy — this ‘living closer to the yard’ thing is great, honestly, but I see now that I really used the second bus journey to wake up; a little stiff from having fallen off Con on Tuesday. It was not a big one, although my back was sore. So what do I go and do?
I ask if I can take William.
Right. Here I am, sort of maybe a little out of it, and I ask to take a horse I’ve never ridden before. The part of my brain that got inherited from lizards or dinosaurs or whatever, the part that has survived this long because it does not do dumb shit — had I been hooked up to one of those brain machines, it would have lit up like an arcade: Warning! Warning! Are you insane? Take Connell, ya eejit!
The other part of my brain, that lives, like, in the Now, knew that this was not like asking for one of the fancy horses, the thoroughbred-y ones with the skinny legs. William is kin to Connell: cobby, although somewhat slimmer, and I know that he’s not exactly a walk in the park, but I wanted to try him. I had given this no thought whatsoever. I had not even known that the notion of wanting to try him was in there, somewhere. I heard the words come out of my mouth and that was that.
The young one who had had him the previous hour looked completely worn out, but then, the whole ride did. They had been doing formation riding, which made me feel better about having stuck my neck out, asking for a horse that was new to me: flatwork, grand, I can handle that. Funnily, I had thought, over the morning coffee: I would like to do formation riding today. I love formation riding because I have to pay attention to a million things at once, which allows me to not get so fussed about what the horse is doing, which allows the horse to do his thing, and me to do mine; the result of both of us being concerned with our own things is that we go really well together.
So there I was, getting up on a horse new to me. I realised that I had not ridden a horse new to me since I got up on Connell in late 2010. 2010! A year and a half ago! I felt a little quiver along the tops of my thighs. I wondered why the fear is there, in that part of my body? Huh. I shifted the block, grabbed the reins, grabbed a bit of mane, stepped up on the block, and William started to back up like an articulated lorry. Dammit. I tried once more, and then asked someone to hold his offside stirrup for me. I got up there.
I walked him around a bit. Yup: felt like a horse. Moved like a horse. I felt nothing strange. No surprises, then.
I got down again, when we get to the lower arena. I had to wrap the stirrups because the leathers were too long, and the irons were not irons, they were plastic, and I hated them already. AM stoods behind-ish him when I went to remount. He didn’t move; I got up there fast.
One instructor told me to do this thing, to encourage a horse to listen to me: walk or trot, then transition down to the halt, and then do not move. Move nothing. Not a finger. Barely breathe. Sit there until the horse drops his head down onto the bit. This is a submission thing that means the horse understands that I am in charge [which the horse prefers: prey animals prefer to be lead] and is now willing to listen to me. I did this with Delilah, to eventual good effect, and with Connell, who for all his smoochy affability, holds out for ages. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten him to do it.
I have learned stillness from the horses, and the power that is inherent in stillness. It is amazingly challenging for me to be still. If nothing happens right then I want to start fussing. Or else I get so tired at the mere thought of having to do something, I go directly into inertia. This stillness has energy. I have learned to sit, still yet strong, with intention in every muscle.
I sat William into the halt, and stayed still and prepared to — whoop! He dropped his head in two seconds.
Okay! I tried it three more times. He did it every time, in no time at all! I felt completely confident. We got on with the warm up. He was, in fact, not a walk in the park. He was difficult to keep cantering in a twenty metre circle. During the run of the lesson, I took my leg off for a split second around a corner — I was getting tired, we had been going going going for twenty five minutes — and he immediately began to slow down. Uh, no, sir, that is not correct, and up we went again. Ultimately, though, I was completely satisfied with the way William and I got on.
Then we all went for a walk down the lane… and I started to feel something funny in my butt. Here’s the thing: the rider says a lot to a horse, and a horse says a lot back, through the rider’s seat, which is the fancy way of saying yer arse. So we were walking, and I began remembering the few times I have seen William, stolid sturdy auld William, spook like a little old lady faced with a cat burglar in the bedroom at 2 a.m. This tendency of his began to make pictures in my brain. He started throwing his head around, which started to bug/worry me. We got to the bottom of the lane and his ears were going like satellite dishes… I felt myself bracing, forward, which is bad, because now I can’t feel him in my butt, and the further forward I lean, the more likely he’ll take that as an invitation to take off.
A ride-along lawn mower was doing its thing behind a hedge. It was noisy. I say, ‘I think I’m going to go back up—’ and then William jitters so that his shoes slide on the road, and then he does a 180°. Oh, how I hate this! I immediately grab with my hands, when I should have been sitting back and grabbing with my arse. Everyone gathered around to chivvy William away from the lawn-mowing area, and one of my rider-friends counselled me as to what to do, all that counter-intuitive stuff of letting out the reins and sitting back. I did them, and it was okay. We even trotted a bit, just to get our minds, William’s and mine, back into sync. We trot a few paces, on the loose rein, and I was fine, and William was fine, everybody’s oooooookay.
I got a grip on my own nerves, and tried to ease myself back into that strong stillness. I mostly got there, and this exponentially increased the closer we got to the barn.
So, no surprise, really that there was a wee spin and jitter: I had been thinking in that direction and everything in my body most likely communicated un-ease to William, who was inclined to get all flustered by the Lawn Mower of Potential Doom.
It is surprising how long a handful of seconds can be, how your mind can go completely blank, and then fill right up again [hopefully with the useful stuff.]
I remember when I was asked if I wanted to take someone other than Argo [Argo! RIP!] I had been wondering if I could try someone else, but since I’d only been riding six months, it absolutely did not feel like something that was up to me. Six years on, and beginning to ride more independently, it is something that I can inquire about. Biggest surprise? I think, even despite all his very specific challenges and drawbacks — even despite his refusal to drop to his head when I do that stillness thing, I may prefer Connell!