…Or perhaps, things you should have learned in Pony Club?
I myself was not in Pony Club. But I read the novelization.
Okay, so it’s a fancy way of saying “Back to Basics.” But that is what writing is all about.
Today Final Call and I went for a pre-violent thunderstorm ride. These tend to be especially exciting rides, probably quite similar to what equestrians in earthquake zones experience preceding seismic activity – do you freak out if you are riding your docile gelding somewhere in California and he engages in an out-of-character aerial maneuver? Anyway, the wind was blowing, occasional rain bursts were slapping against the saddle, Heckel and Jeckel were putting on their usual acrobatic comedy routine in the neighboring paddock – everything, in short, that you’re looking for when you are about to put in the sixth ride on a recent racehorse.
The moment I swung into the saddle – and let’s backtrack here, because my first attempt to mount was aborted by a very naughty lunge forward and someone got a smack and profanity was used – the head went straight up and I had to kick him on to remind him of our No Nose-Breaking Clause. So there I was, in a muddy paddock, with no stirrups, on a wet saddle, with freaking War Admiral underneath of me, bouncing around like a rubber ball.
It is in these precarious moments that we would all do well to remember our earliest, most sadistic instructors, the ones that took our stirrup leathers off of our saddles and made us bounce around on our ponies in endless circles, the ones that made us jump fences with our arms folded across our chests, the ones that insisted that emergency dismounts were not only perfectly safe to practice at a hand gallop, they were a necessity. What is the one gait that you spent most of these distressingly awful/wonderful riding lessons at?
The trot is the perfect gait. It is perfectly balanced. It is not tiring. It builds muscle. A horse can trot all day or, failing that, as long as you can. (Probably most horses can trot significantly longer than their riders can.)
At the trot, you have every advantage over a naughty OTTB. First, if you’re already prepped for the Bolting Leaping Demon Horse experience by sitting well forward in a safety seat, you’ve realized that it is very difficult to keep your leg on – it’s so far forward. But you have to keep him moving forward – what to do? If, when you post, you drive your weight into the stirrup – remember, this isn’t a dressage test – you will press your calf against the horse. Most racehorses are so ignorant of lower leg pressure that this squeeze with every stride will be perfectly adequate, although with a more trained horse you may find him very much against the bit.
Second, posting gives you the built in metronome that you need to keep your horse in rhythm. That fast-slow fast-slow stuff is fine at the canter and walk. At the trot you are teaching the horse that in order to keep his balance, he has to follow your body. Whoa, there’s a shift in thought! Even diagonals come into play here. As you figure-eight your way around the paddock or arena, swapping diagonals when he gives you some foolishness is a quick and easy way to throw his balance. Now it all makes sense, that’s why she was always shouting, “Check your diagonal!” at me. Oh teenage memories!
Third, when you stop posting and sit deep, you shift the horse’s balance back onto his hindquarters, and he finds himself halting as much out of the surprise in the balance change as because your seat bones are suddenly digging into his skinny little back.
And just like that, with the basics of the trot that you have already logged miles and miles of saddle time with (always, of course, in anticipation of being allowed to canter!), you have started teaching your OTTB balance, and restraint, and, if you are lucky, after fifteen minutes or so he will be putting his head down and starting to stretch. Which, I’m happy to say, Final Call did.