There isn’t a lot standing between an exercise rider and the ground.
Admittedly, there is the horse, but that isn’t the most substantial of barriers. It is quite the opposite. On the best of days, the best of horses is just a few tail-wringing seconds away from depositing you in the deep sand of the track. Hopefully. That’s better than the hard-packed gravel of the horse path or, heaven forbid, the concrete walls and metal pipes of the shed-row.
And of course we aren’t really well-armed against equine eccentricities and moments of psychotic anti-human behavior. A vest, a hard hat. In most cases, nothing but an eggbutt snaffle without so much as a noseband to keep their mouths shut. Most riders I know wouldn’t take out a Children’s Hunter with an eggbutt and no noseband. Let alone a three-year-old racehorse. I rode Final Call in a flash and a martingale. You know all those pages and pages of tack catalogs full of gadgets and gizmos? Yeah, there aren’t any of those things in my tack room.I do have a whip.
I rode my first school pony with a whip. (And spurs, for that matter.) My riding instructor used to yell at me when I tapped gently. “One good smack, Natalie!” he’d shout. “Stop tapping him on the shoulder and reach behind – one good smack will do it!”
(I Googled his name recently. He was training high school dressage horses in California. Uncanny. I do high school dressage in New York every morning.)
He was right, of course.
For example, take The Bad Apple. (Please! Kidding.)
The Bad Apple and I have come to a sort of an uneasy understanding. He hasn’t yet decided if he wants to use his powers for niceness or evil, but at least he is acknowledging the possibility that, perhaps, someday, he might want to behave like a classy gentleman and not make me cuss, shout, scream, kick, and otherwise display my remarkable temper.
But he still has moments when he reminds me of why I call him The Bad Apple. He had a brief but alarming period where ducking his head, bucking, and spinning were the order of the day. Come on, even the most ardent animal rights activist has to acknowledge that the only way to discipline a horse like that is to give him a whack (or five) on the ass. He’s being dangerous. He is bigger than me. What would you like me to do, sing him his favorite song and rub his neck reassuringly?
Now, the fact is, The Bad Apple has a long ground-covering trot and a canter that is akin to dozing off on a deep sofa while listening to The Weather Channel drone reassuringly in the background. He woos you with his comfort, he seduces you into quiet contentment with his pseudo-honor, and then – every now and then – dips his head sideways and makes for the big buck.
I asked his previous rider how he got him around the track. He said you had to stay on him with the whip – keep tapping his shoulder to keep him moving. That sounded familiar. Like a certain gray pony named Silver. I could hear my riding instructor yelling at me already.
So – there it was. You could stay on the offensive, yell at him, and kick him on. He’ll do it again, though. At every quarter pole, like clockwork, and in a few extra places for good measure, just to keep you on your toes.
Or you could flip your whip over the way a certain un-named Olympian once taught you to do, give him three emphatic whacks right on his ample hindquarter, and scare him straight for the rest of the ride. Which you will enjoy, lulled by that easy, round stride of his.
Well, thanks, David. You were right now as you were when I was a little jockey-worshipping kid. Because three good smacks sends him on, and sends a message,
and that’s all you need. None of that tap-tap-tapping nonsense.
There’s gadgets and gizmos a-plenty in the horse business, but I guess the most useful one is the one I was handed the first afternoon I got on a pony. It’s one of the few tools I have, when hands and seat and weight and voice aren’t enough – and those times do come, and those times remind you of just how shifting the ground beneath your feet truly is, when that ground is the latex-wrapped treads of your stirrup irons.