As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, I’m considering changing barns. I still feel kind of bad about it, but much less so after I tried a lesson this week at a new barn. Wednesday evening, I changed into my breeches and tall boots (this always makes me feel happy) and headed out to the South Hills — the land of my youth.
I arrived about half an hour early, and asked where I could find the instructor. She was in the arena, downhill from the main stables. The slope is pretty steep, which is kind of a drawback for now, but once I get used to it it’ll be fine. The instructor was teaching another student, so she only briefly greeted me and returned her full focus to the person who was riding. I liked that — I’m looking for someone who will give me their full attention during a private lesson.
Eventually I made my way back uphill to use the restroom — and this stable has a little clubhouse room with indoor plumbing. And a sink. Paradise! The instructor met me in the stable and introduced me to Willow, a 16.3hh Selle Francais mare. My first thought was something like, “Holy cats, this horse is really really tall!” And then I looked at the draft horse standing a little ways away and revised my relative opinion. Still, she’s a good foot taller than the horse I’ve been riding. She’s a gorgeous bay, and her coat is velvety soft. Like, absurdly soft, like a bunny.
The instructor (let’s just call her M) helped me to groom and tack up, which was good. Willow is a good deal feistier than the horse I’ve been riding, and moved around a lot, though responded pretty well to being told “NO!” Her hooves are huge, too, and picking them out took some effort. M was really helpful and showed me how to do this properly (i.e. don’t point the hoofpick at your freaking face), which hasn’t been done before. She also helped me to get the girth onto the AP saddle (hello, short billet straps! I’m used to dressage saddles) and explained to me that we’d be using an AP saddle so that I get used to it and we can eventually work on jumping. I was really pleased about that. Bridling was, as it always is for me, difficult; M helped me to figure it out and was reassuring and not at all judgmental. She also recommended putting my helmet on before bridling, which I thought was great from a safety and convenience perspective.
We walked Willow down to the arena; she was definitely testing me, walking fast and kind of trying to shove into me. I’m not great at leading horses on the ground, and I was really nervous being in a new place, so yeah. She grabbed some grass and M told me to get it out of her mouth, since eating with the bit in is bad news. M also had me lead with the reins over Willow’s head, rather than on her neck, which is what I’ve been doing.
Once we were in the arena, it was time to mount up. I got on the mounting block and… froze. M was great, talked me through it, and I managed to get into the saddle (which at the time looked to be as high as Mount Everest — the combination of a taller horse, shorter mounting block, and different stirrups just terrified me). For our first lesson, we worked entirely on the lunge line, which is something I’ve never done before.
We started at a walk, and it turns out Willow is a big mover. I’m reasonably sure her walk was as fast as the trot I’m used to, and it felt much different through my hips and lower back. I was also tense because of nerves. M gave me constant verbal cues to bring my right shoulder back, for example, and to apply pressure with the inside leg to outside rein to keep the horse in an even circle. I also got frequent “heels down” reminders.
We then moved to a trot. I swear, all I did was think about trotting and the horse picked it right up. Like, RIGHT up. No lagging, no lack of responsiveness. But her trot, like her walk, is fast. Much smoother — my other horse has a jackhammer trot — but much faster. And going in a smallish circle increased that perception, I’m sure. M again spoke to me constantly, correcting my position, reminding me to keep my hip angle where it should be, shoulders open, heels down. She also reminded me that I could slow the trot by slowing my posting, which is something that’s never really worked for me before. But it totally worked. I had a hard time convincing my body that it did not, in fact, have to keep up with the horse but could instead change and the horse would respond. That’s something that’s going to take a lot of work, but I feel really confident that M will help me get there.
M pushed me to trot even through my feeling slightly overwhelmed, and I’m glad she did. She also reminded me to reward Willow for being responsive at certain times, which is helping me to learn when the horse is actually listening. There was no way in heck I was going to try cantering, and M didn’t even ask, because I think that was pretty obvious. But it’s OK to not go at the canter, because I feel like I learned so much about my position and cues. That’s exactly the kind of foundation I need.
We then walked Willow back up, brushed her, gave her a carrot, and put her home in her stall. I don’t feel a bond with Willow yet, but I just met her, so we don’t know each other. She’s hotter and faster and more responsive than I’m used to, and that’s a little scary, but I know with good instruction this is going to be a great experience. I’ll be returning next Wednesday. I was very impressed with the condition of the barn and riding surfaces and with the complete focus M gave to our lesson. So now I know I’m switching; I just have to actually break the news at the old barn. And that makes me feel awkward and kind of sad, still.
Oh, and then someone backed into the side of my new car. So that part? Not so good. But it’s going to be repaired, and all will be well.