by Eric Rasmussen
Some years ago I read a story about a man who, though in his seventies, was embarking on a study of Italian. Besides the challenges of age, this fellow also faced those of living in a dangerous ghetto. Throughout his life he had studied languages, though, and so he continued, sure that once again the rewards would merit the difficulties. That story has always inspired me. My adventures in learning to ride horses are not courageous. I am devoted to avoiding pain and injury. In fact, that devotion is proving an obstacle to better horsemanship.
Both of my instructors, first Michele, and now Christina, must repeatedly remind me to look where I want to ride, as well as to tap the animal’s belly with my boots and move the reins to confirm my desires. It’s about intention. Clear intention. The rider, not the horse, must pick the route. The rider also conveys to the horse the speed and direction of the travel.
These instructions are simple. A child ought be able to follow them. And many can. The barn is full of young, good riders.
But my progress in this area is slow. Despite the many, many reminders uttered on many different days, I persist in looking not at the far wall or the next red cone, but at the back of Annie’s head. “Is it going where it’s supposed to?” I habitually inquire.
With the continuation of this misbehavior, the subject gets attention in between rides. Early on I realized that watching is what I always do, in place of leading. Perhaps this pattern started in childhood. When I was very young, my mother took discipline seriously. From these lessons of hers I’m not sure I learned to behave better, only that I found it wise to watch her carefully. For example, I only told her about my recent activities when she was driving in traffic and I was seated behind her. The back of her head calmed me.
I’m now hoping to learn to look way beyond the head in front of me, and ride boldly into an exciting future, certain the horse will get us both there.
Every lesson is a different adventure. As is every river trip with my whitewater canoe club. And in part for the same reason. Each outing promises the possibility of great injury or death. Neither is likely, and enormous energy is devoted to reducing the risks. But they still remain. And at the ranch they are displayed in black and white. Just inside the gate, and a little ways past “Sign the release before entering” are two new signs, about the size of those “Slow for Children” ones in neighborhoods. One is ”Horses Bite and Kick.”
Before yesterday’s lesson even began a horse did bite and kick. It was standing close to the pasture gate that I unchained and pushed open to go out and get Annie. When Annie and I returned, this gray-colored mare was still at its post. Once Annie and I were outside and I had her lead coiled up in my hand so her head was just above mine, I bent over to refasten the gate, Suddenly the gray mare leaned over the fence and snapped her teeth shut inches from Annie’s brow, missing flesh only because Annie jerked back. I immediately remembered that on my very first morning with Annie, Michele taught me to hold the lead coils so that if the horse pulled suddenly, as Annie just had, my fingers would not be caught up and wrenched. I was doing what I was taught.. My fingers are fine. Thank you, Michele.
Up at the barn I reported the excitement at the gate caused by the new mare. Michele, who was standing near a small, lively white horse, quickly responded, “That’s Tess, the mother of this colt I’m weaning. She’s not new.” Then she sternly added, “You need to learn to know every horse in that pasture. Every one.”
The ranch, rural and pastoral as can be, is not a place for a brain in neutral. Appearances and smells of hay and manure to the contrary, it doesn’t have a slow lane.
Dec. 7, 2011
Yesterday the plan was to ride in the round pen. For the previous two or three lessons Christina wanted me to lope Annie. Loping is running. It’s beautiful to watch. And once, I had managed to get Annie doing it. What fun – more exhilarating than Disneyland!
But since then Annie had been stubbornly picking her own routes across the arena, or just slowing down, if not simply stopping. Christina reasoned that if we were in a more confined venue, the round pen (which is less than a quarter the size of the arena), there’d be less to distract Annie, or me. So we rode directly there.
While warming Annie up I encountered some of the familiar stubbornness, which I tried to overcome with firmer reining and foot pressing, plus my usual talking to the horse. Christina did quite a lot of talking to me, much of it along the well-ridden lines of “You’ve got to be black and white with her. If she doesn’t do what you ask, wake her up with a hard heel. She always does this with students. You’re not going to hurt her.”
I tried to apply Christina’s lessons and got some improvement, but it wasn’t consistent, which was, of course, because I wasn’t consistent. I was in the gray zone, and Annie knew it. She would trot, a little, but loping wasn’t happening. And every time Christina would start to talk, Annie would slow down and walk over to her, like She was the eager student! It did seem that the horse was making the most progress.
Realizing I needed more than a verbal picture of what to do, I asked Christina to ride Annie and demonstrate. Sure enough, she was hardly in the saddle before the stubborn, pokey horse was speeding around the pen in a lovely lope.
And it’s not like Christina is a big gorilla terrifying the horse into obedience. To accommodate her much shorter legs, I needed to raise the stirrups four notches for her to ride Annie. She’s petite, and often encourages me to use my strong legs. Like with Judo, she was, with skill, doing what my strength did not.
Fascinated, I watched. The most striking thing to me was the silence. Christina didn’t talk to Annie. Without a word she told the horse to fly her round and round. Amazing! It wasn’t easy to see the footwork that carried her wishes. There were no flailing boots. She wore no spurs. I did see that she produces the lope by pressing and rubbing her heel against Annie’s belly in a certain area.
After Christina dismounted, and reinforced the demonstration with some more verbal explanation, I asked her to remain silent while I took Annie for a few circuits round the pen. I wanted to be able to work through her instructions as I rode, without the confusion of additional input. She agreed.
Underway, I felt different. I wasn’t trying to coax Annie, or be loving. Like Christina, I wordlessly communicated my wishes with my legs. When Annie hesitated, I quickly used my legs to repeat, with more conviction, my intent. She responded and trotted quickly round the pen. When we stopped, Christina generously praised me.
Then I gave Annie the lope command, and she loped! Amazing! Suddenly she was running – with ME on her! As she loped, I laughed with delight. Her speed was exhilarating, and I was delighted that, finally, I had learned to lope. Yeah!!!
Afterwards I thanked Christina profusely for her patience and skillful persistence, then petted Annie’s neck and fed her all my carrots.
Eric on Horses