Horse Lessons

When I was flying full time, I needed something to do in my free time that was not flying airplanes or reading. It just so happened that the stars aligned and I was able to take riding lessons, both western and modified English. I loved it, and it did wonders for my posture and my knees. I almost had a six-pack (thank you, cantering). I also had bruises in interesting places and learned how to fall with grace and dignity, sort of.

I rode Quarter Horses and Paso Finos. I liked the Pasos because they were my size, flatter-sided than the other kinds of horses, and you had to out-think them as well as out-muscle them. Actually, you can’t really out-muscle a horse. Leverage only goes so far, and if you try hard enough, they will fall backwards onto you. Horses, being prey animals, also read you far better than you realize. Even a heavy Western saddle won’t hide your reactions from them, so you have to learn to control yourself first. Only then can you work with the horse and get him to do what you want.

I mostly rode stallions and geldings. Mares… meh. When Elisabeth von Sarmas opines that if she’s not riding a mule, she wants stallions and geldings, she has good reasons. Stallions can be trained not to go berzerk around mares. Mares get hormonal. As I told my riding master one afternoon, “There’s a reason they sell ‘Moody Mare’ pills but not ‘Silly Stud’ nostrums.” That it was a mare who tried to crush my leg and break it did not do anything to improve my thoughts on mares. Granted, she’d been poorly trained and had lots and lots of other problems (she was spoiled, for one), but her being a mare only made it worse.

You move smoothly and steadily around horses. Nothing herky-jerky, don’t surprise them. They are prey. Surprise means predator means rodeo! I’ve ridden through a few rodeos. No, thanks.

Relaxed is also good. Relaxed and absolutely aware of what your body is doing, what the horse is doing, and what the world around you is doing is the best state to be in. It takes conscious effort to be in that zone. When you are, all I can say is wow. Everything clicks, and you can anticipate so much so well.

The following is an excerpt from a longer story about a battle between me and a rotten, nasty, badly-trained gelding name G.T. (as in the car, GTX). His owner was to blame for a lot of the problems, but my riding master and I got to deal with them:

Lydia decided to head outside in the lovely, cool late-spring weather and Deseré finished her ride as G.T. and I worked. At Gary’s request the women left the gate open, tempting G.T. to head for it every lap. I caught him, the started anticipating his movement. “This is to make you get better. Every time you ride a horse you train him, and you can’t let him get used to lunging for the gate. Some day he’ll do it with a green rider and it’ll be a disaster.” The picture of a berserk gray horse charging into the narrow concrete hall with other horses and people in it made me shudder.

A couple minutes later G.T. seemed to be responding to lighter cues and I dropped my guard a hair as we turned the corner at the hay bales and pointed at the gate. Stupid! The gray charged and I checked him, then he burst out the opening and ran up the hall. “Hold him!” echoed from behind me as I tried to steer and stop. We passed the open stalls, missed the round pen and finally halted between a stallion run and the trailers, just before you get to the arenas and path to the driveway and highway. “Good! Very good! Are you tight?” Breathing deeply and slowly I replied “No. Everything’s loose.” Gary chuckled (probably with relief) and took G.T.’s head. “Ask him to back.” G.T. did and we turned him around, then quietly returned to the indoor. “Actually, I didn’t have time to tense up.” If my hands were shaking I couldn’t tell.

Gary shut the gate and I worked on keeping G.T. in hand. Left turns went fine, but request a bend to the right and the gelding stiffened and fought like a son-of-a-gun. I’d had enough of the beast’s behavior and refused to put up with any more of his crap. At Gary’s command I wrapped the reins around the saddle horn, pinning his head. When he yielded a bit to the right, I just took up the slack. Gary watched, a grim smile on his face as G.T. turned, trying to figure out how to evade. He couldn’t, and there was nothing he could throw at me to make me loosen the reins. “He’s got to learn that we control his head. If he wobbles, let out some slack, but otherwise hold him until he yields.” When G.T. started chewing, ears tipped back at me, I let him out and stood him for a few moments to give the idea a chance to soak in. The next few turns went much more smoothly. If he balked, I tied his head until the yield. Then back on the wall.

Things seemed quieter (again) as G.T. chugged along on his third wind. He “spun out” a few times, which I caught. Then he lunged for the far corner of the arena. This time when I demanded a turn he slung around to the left so fast and hard I lost my seat, left foot out of the stirrup, calf where my rump should have been. Finish falling off or fight this out? Almost before I finished the thought I’d wrenched myself back into the saddle and hauled the horse into a dust-making, spinning whirl. Eventually my foot found the stirrup (right where I’d left it) and I halted the horse. Gary remained silent through the episode, or I just didn’t hear him in the adrenaline surge and struggle. “Excellent. Very well ridden.” After watching me ride through another fit, Gary decided. “We’re going to have a tack change, then I’m riding this boy into the ground.”

“Good. Because I pulled something back there.”

“Just keep him quiet while I get my saddle.”

So I rode the stewing white-gray gelding back and forth away from the gate. Just to keep him really puzzled I started singing. This had two effects: first it kept G.T.’s attention on me and second it made me relax my back and abds. I can’t sing without solid breath support, and that doesn’t come without loose muscles. Gary reappeared. “Change of plan. Stop him away from the gate, then get off quickly and lead him to the wash rack.” I did as instructed. We changed to a metal-bar noseband and single rein, as well as Gary’s saddle. Deseré had missed the show, so she followed me up the stack of hay bales and we watched an expert at work. Ten minutes of turning and lunging, backing and thinking later, Gary turned G.T. in a complete circle, rear legs almost motionless, front feet stepping over. The tool I’d needed stood before me – control over the front legs. Now G.T. wouldn’t be able to sull up and brace against me. Gary let the gray horse think, then quietly dismounted and led him out after I opened the gate.

We’d ridden G.T. absolutely flat. He stood quietly, feet splayed, as Gary rinsed him off and we talked about what happened. Somehow I’d handled everything, including my mistakes. I couldn’t turn G.T. in the hall for fear of him slipping on the concrete, but stayed on and calm and stopped him. And back inside, despite coming half off, I’d kept the reins, my temper and thinking, hadn’t looked at the ground but instead heaved myself back into position and rode the wreck out. Without pulling any muscles, as it later proved out. What a day!



10 thoughts on “Horse Lessons

    • Yes. They don’t run away, they don’t die during the night (as draft horses have been known to do), they don’t eat while you are sleeping. You don’t have to wait until they are four to start training them for riding. They’ll just break your wrist when you crank them.

  1. Indeed. Very good riding. I’m sure I couldn’t have done as well.

    Long long time ago I knew a guy who had experience as an elephant handler in a zoo. When questioned about how you handled an elephant, he usually said that there are two things you can make an elephant do: 1) run away from you; 2) kill you. For anything else, you have to convince the animal that it wants to do whatever it is that you want it to do.

    My own riding experience suggests that something similar is true for horses. Horses are somewhat smaller and less strong than elephants, true, but they’re still a lot bigger and stronger than a human. Try to outmuscle a horse and you’ll get nowhere. You have to out-think them and use their own basic nature against them.

    • Precisely. Imprint training can do wonders to encourage horses to see humans as bigger and stronger than we are, provided it is followed up later as the horse grows. GT had been imprint trained, then left to his own devices until he was almost four. And then permitted to do as he desired. Gary and I got to deal with the results.

  2. Great story. The Starland series, and the Westerns by other authors, take on a different complexion.

    I hadn’t ridden or worked with large animals, but was impressed into managing and herding swine for FFA events in the Better Half’s previous career. Market Swine are big enough to cause injury, and they’re way too smart. Kids and adults had to work out the truck to pen sequence first, then move them singly. Dumb, not dum, animals.

  3. When talking about “dumb animals”, we have to remember that “dumb” can mean “can’t speak” (not unintelligent). 👿

    • The dumb and the stupid are two very, very different sets. Sure there *can* be some intersection, but…. think of how some of the most stupid people you know are also the most vocal…

  4. I learned to ride while I was stationed in Germany, at a Dutch stable just across the border. My buddy’s wife had bought him lessons (which were incredibly cheap, about $6/hour in 1989-90), and he wanted someone to learn with. Turned out to be a great idea.

    We learned dressage in the arena, which was superb training for everything that followed. Ron, the Dutch guy who ran the stable and did the instruction, trained us to have good seats. We did our part by scheduling lessons 3, 4, or 5 times a week if we could manage it. Most students went once per week, but I told Paul that if we were really going to learn something, we needed to bear down early, so we effectively joined five different beginner’s classes. Sometimes that meant we were there at midnight, but that was OK.

    The first payoff of this intense approach was when the Sunday men’s riding group invited Paul and I to join. Every Sunday a group of local Dutchmen (occasionally a woman, but mostly men) who had grown up in that area and liked to ride would get together and head out into the local Brunssumerheide, the Brunssum Forest, for about three hours of riding. Paul and I, about 30-something then, were largely the kids in the group: all the other guys were older, generally successful businessmen from the local area. Paul and I were quite honored that Ron had recommended us to them and they invited us.

    We’d head out into the forest, after warming up engage in some long cross-country gallops, some hill climbing, some small jumps. Cool down at a walk and then stop at one of the other stables on the other side of the forests, let the horse rest, and we’d have a beer — all stables, including Ron’s, also had bars. I can’t imagine this in America, but the Dutch had them, and it was nice. Nobody got crazy, we just had a nice time telling stories and putting away a pint, or if it’s cold, a Jaegermeister. Back on the horses, another cross-country ride back to Ron’s, cool down and groom the horses, stop in the bar to tell more stories.

    Paul found a stable in Ireland that offered horseback riding vacations, and off we went one November. This was the best vacation I have ever been on, it was absolutely superb. Rode all over County Galway and jumped everything that was jumpable, and some things that probably weren’t. Finished the week riding in a fox hunt with the Galway Blazers, on a Connemara mare that was small but mighty. That Ireland trip is a whole set of stories unto itself.

    When I departed Europe, the guys from the riding group chipped in and gave me a Delft reproduction of the De Nachtwacht which they all signed on the back. I darn near cried, I really miss that group.

    After a couple intervening tours of duty in California and Saudi Arabia, I made it to Texas where I knew I would retire and got a horse for myself. Lots of stories there too.

    Along the way I had my share of battles with the horse, battles with myself, learned a lot along the way, especially the difference in effectiveness between “guiding” with proper seat and balance and touch, and “muscling.” Ron taught me very well, a good seat saved me many times. Especially with flight mares and the flighty ex-race horse thoroughbred I got in Texas.

    OK, long enough already but one further thought on mares and other flighty/difficult horses: I think it is very easy to amplify their “unstableness” if you don’t already have control of yourself and a light but firm, precise touch. It’s very easy to overdo it on control, which backfires and panics the horse into an even bigger reaction. Since everything you do with a horse is training it to some degree — training it well, or training it poorly — then it is pretty easy to end up with a rambunctious ill-mannered flighty horse.

    My riding experiences, especially in the Brunssumerheide, are among my most cherished memories.

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