Lessons from riding

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I’ve had a riding lesson for the past two Saturdays. It has been a roller coaster where my riding skills fluctuated from newbie to advanced.

Had my skills degraded? Muscle tone wasn’t as good as it had been in 2008 when we were able to ride more. In 2009, riding time was minimized due to Isis’ and my medical issues. Even though it was hard to ride when Isis tripped several times every ride, we figured out how to compensate for it. Finding out the EPM was responsible for the majority of her tripping was both a relief and a sadness. Every time Isis and I made progress, something devastating happened and we were pushed back.

This year would be different. Nerve damage takes 1-5 years to heal and horses recovering from EPM have to be kept low-stress. This is an opportunity to improve without any pressure from shows or clinics. New year, new improvements. I went to Weight Watchers to lose the weight I had gained (ever seen how form fitting riding pants are?). My exercise program is largely based around riding and work horses.

A few weeks ago, Isis had done something (probably kicked the stall wall to get after the mare next to her) and had very sore muscles along her back. For a few days, she didn’t act right. She slowly recovered from it. Two weeks ago, she had a massage and that seemed to get the rest of the knots in her muscles out.

We picked up riding again after a few lunging sessions at the end of March. She’s moving like her normal self. She’s optimistic and reaching. It’s like having my old girl back.

When we trot, we have a bad habit of falling in around corners. The “we” means that Isis drops her shoulder and I have a habit of slouching towards the inside. We both contribute to the feeling of leaning to the inside. We’re not so bad at the walk, but at a trot it’s harder. Especially if my own posture is a contributing factor. Looking down at a horse’s head or shoulder is enough to throw off their balance.

We started riding just very easy at first, focused on figuring out posture and position so I wouldn’t hinder her movement. Two weekends ago, I asked Jon, one of the instructors at the barn, to watch us ride and see what we were doing when trotting in 20 meter circles.

Outside of reminding me to sit up straight with my inside shoulder up and back (and relax and breath and relax some more and quit bouncing — relax!), Jon had me drop my stirrups and pushed my legs farther underneath me. And then he asked for a sitting trot.

No matter what I did, I felt like I couldn’t sit the trot. I’ve been riding for a long time and have usually had a good sitting trot. Isis was feeling better and had more impulsion than she has had for some time. It was also harder to sit the trot with my legs in a different space.

Was I such a noob that I had lost my riding position completely? No matter what I did during that lesson, I felt like I couldn’t relax enough to sit the trot effectively. Even my posting seemed off.

During the following week I couldn’t go out and ride because I had to pack for my move (this Friday — eep!). I dreamed about riding a relaxed sitting trot with my hips moving with her back and hips, leaning back instead of too far forward, and with her light in my hands.

This past Saturday was a gorgeous windy day. Packing would wait, so I took a break and went to the barn. Amazing how missing one week feels like a small eternity.

The wind had all of the horses a little hotter than normal. Isis and I shared a lesson with another boarder and her mare, Gidget. Isis’ trot was in full swing: lose back, good reach, extension, and impulsion (the kind that pushes you out of the saddle).

Isis tripped quite a few times and we kept going. It felt like she was losing her back right footing a few times. Was it from EPM-like symptoms or just her being more up and not paying attention? We kept going — as her focus improved, so too did the tripping.

Initially, Jon had both of us walking and asking the horses to stretch down and relax. Once they relaxed, we were asked to trot and encourage them to keep their nice stretch. Isis did stretch down into a forward walk with her neck reaching into the stride.

When we trotted, my seat remembered where it needed to be. My hands remembered how to be quieter and move with her movement. It was like a light went off. When we started the lesson, we still fell in around corners and she was picking up speed.

I stopped, relaxed, and focused on breathing. We trotted in a 20 meter circle at one of the ring. I visualized picking up the shoulder that was dropping in with my legs: pulling up and over with my inside leg (a lift and push with my hip) while holding her with the outside leg. Imagine a balloon is tied to the top of your head: your alignment must be upright, but gentle: not stiff so you bob and bounce with the balloon and horse’s movement.

It worked. Sitting trot was much improved and when we did lean into corners, we could correct it.

We finished the lesson by trotting the length of the ring, doing a 20 meter circle at the end of the ring while pushing into the corners, and then changing diagonals and repeating in the opposite direction.

Most of the time she was light in my hands. Every time she did what I asked, I rewarded her by giving a little with the reins and petting her. We ended the lesson by trotting down the centerline and stopping at X in the middle of the ring. (Took a few tries.)

I must have had an adrenaline rush while riding on Saturday because my hands were shaking after I got off.

Our ride this past Sunday was even better. SItting trot was much better. Isis was up: windy day and she felt good. Keeping a good steady rhythm was less work. Posting was not as forced and slower. Jon agreed that I looked much better than last week.

I didn’t feel nervous about riding on Sunday. I felt like my riding skills were finally coming back.

I need to dream about riding more often.

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