March 4, 2014

Horse stories


The nice thing about dressage is that there’s LOTS you can do without needing to sit the trot; so if that happens to be a problem, you can still do a ton without dealing with it. . . . your comfort will also probably vary a lot from horse to horse since different horses’ gaits feel so different.

There’s pretty much always something you can do with dressage, given that you have a good trainer, a sound horse, and can get yourself into the saddle.  One of the ironies in this skill as in so many is that sometimes what you need is precisely the skill you haven’t got yet:  I know I’ve told this blog before that my great breakthrough about sitting the trot was when I realised it was my stomach muscles, not my back or my seat, that were crucial—at which point my back stopped bothering me.  But I don’t think it would have done me much good to be told that I would sit the trot with my stomach when I was first starting to learn;  I had to be mostly there already and needing only the final thud over the line.*  The really counterintuitive thing for me was the way then that those frelling gigantic warmblood trots** became if not precisely easy, then comprehensible . . . and thrilling.

My trainer says jumping is pretty much just dressage where someone left some jumps in the way. . . .  That makes some sense to me, but I’m sure it will feel VERY different at least sometimes if I do try some jumping eventually. . . .

But the bottom line about dressage is that it’s about making you and your horse and particularly you-and-your-horse happier, more supple, better balanced and more flexible about anything and everything . . . so jumping is dressage where someone left fences in the way:  dressage is the bottom line, whether you call it ‘dressage’ or not.  This was really making some good sense with Connie . . . siiiiiiiiigh. . . .  and Jenny was a show jumper.***  Jumping was her first love and the years she had suitable horses she even earned money at it.  But she absolutely believed that dressage was the necessary basis, for show jumping or anything else.  Although she was funny about some of dressage’s little foibles.  The point of show dressage is that the horse does exactly what you tell it to† when you tell it to.  The last thing I want, Jenny would say, is some animal that waits for me to tell it to perform a flying change.  And of course a good show jumper is figuring out the next fence as soon as the rider has settled on their line so it knows where it’s going—which may be about half a stride to spare, depending on the course, so it needs to be able to make some of its own decisions.  Connie had lovely flying changes—not that I was necessarily in the right place at the right time, riding her, either to ask her or to let her do them.

. . . I am SO spoiled! I would never in my wildest dreams have thought I could have a guy as great as him! . . . . It does mean, however, that the kind of horse I’ll be wanting for my next one (when Amore can’t be ridden any more — hopefully many years from now) is going to be much different than if my first horse had been a back-yard mutt (so to speak)

Well, add me to the forum chorus of JEEEEAAAAAAAAALOUS.  But back-yard mutts can surprise you.  The woman who first taught me dressage—and totally did my head in by proving I could learn to ride††—and who had no money, did wonders with a series of back-yard mutts.  I learnt the extended trot on her first success story, one of those ‘Quarter Horses’ that has about as much QH bloodline as I do, but they arrive on the East Coast in gigantic truckloads for auction, and the paperwork says ‘QH’ I suppose because they’re from Out West Somewhere and the paperwork has to say something.  He had a back as long as a city block and his shoulders and his pasterns were perfectly upright (speaking of the comfort/discomfort of sitting to certain horses’ trots) and he had no business ever so much as coming on the bit and getting his hocks under him . . . but he did it, with Grace training him.  It was pretty funny really:  his back accordioned about six feet as he came on the bit.  Suddenly he was (almost) a normal-looking horse.  And his extended trot was amazing.

She had another horse, a mare, she’d (also) got cheap, because she’d broken a foreleg as a yearling and it hadn’t set quite right, and the foot turned out.  Eh, she’ll never amount to anything with that leg;  and furthermore, as she grew up, her rear end grew more than her front, so she was that disastrous creature, a horse who is ‘higher behind than before’ and will spend its life running downhill.  And of course never ever be capable of coming on the bit and getting her hocks under her.

You can see where this is going.  The mare loved working and couldn’t wait for Grace to ask her to do something.†††  Grace competed her in the New England finals at third or fourth level . . . and I swear every last judge Grace rode for, from her first training show, hissed through his/her teeth and said that the mare would never go any farther because of her conformation and she’d never stay sound on that leg.  She retired sound at, I think, sixteen;  she had her third and last foal two years later. ‡

And of course my hellhounds are back-yard mutts. . . .

* * *

* Your mileage may vary.  I was a very slow learner about riding as about so many things, although some of that was my going into it with the conviction that I was clumsy and stupid and wouldn’t be able to learn.  Self confidence?  What would that be exactly?

** I don’t know if this is true across the warmblood spectrum—and I’m not going to spend the next frelling hour googling my way through a lot of horse sites, I want to sing tonight—but a lot of warmblood breeding was to produce carriage horses where gigantic sit-at-your-pelvis’-peril trots were a total plus^.  The dressage thing under saddle came later.

^ Although I don’t know what the postilions may have thought.  In my admittedly limited experience posting to an eighteen-hand warmblood powering over the landscape is even less possible than sitting.

*** Connie was the last horse I rode regularly, before the ME objected.  And Jenny was her owner and my teacher.

† Because you and your horse are a PARTNERSHIP.  A good horse is never a thousand-pound machine that does the same precise thing every time you flip a lever.  I’ve never ridden a true ‘push button’ horse but I’ve ridden several excellent schoolmasters, and they have their ways of getting their point across by doing what you told them, not what you wanted.  While your human teacher, standing in the middle of the ring, tries not to laugh.

†† I’d been mostly taught by riders with natural talent who had no idea what to do with someone like me.  Grace was herself not naturally talented in that way;  she’d worked for her horse skills and had gazillions of approaches to any given horse/rider situation . . . and endless patience.  We’ve lost touch, but I hope she’s healthy and thriving, wherever she is.

††† That mare was one of my schoolmasters.  And she was . . . a character.  Her desire to do stuff was genuine, and she’d try till she exploded—but she loved working because she had a fantastic trainer.  She could have been a serious handful for the wrong person—for someone who didn’t allow her to be herself.  She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and it was a pretty great compliment that Grace let me ride her.

‡ The downside of this story is that she wasn’t going to get any farther, not because she couldn’t but because she was a back-yard mutt, half thoroughbred, half Heinz 57 and in show dressage, it matters.  If a Shetland pony can heave itself over the fences clean in an open jumping class when nobody else has, it’s won.  If a Shetland pony does every figure in a Prix St Georges dressage test perfectly, it’s still going to lose to the eighteen-hand warmblood who is perhaps only 98% perfect but is so beautiful you could cry.  And Grace’s lovely mare looked like exactly what she was—TB/mutt—and this was also happening right when the dressage fashion was turning away from TBs to warmbloods.


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