The sum of my experience

I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences with hoofed-and-toed animals, to be honest. It’s been a pretty exciting career. Let’s see, when I was two I was almost run over by a camel at Sea World. My coat was bitten and ripped off of me by a donkey at a castle in England when I was seven. I was obsessively licked by a deer with an irreparably broken jaw when I was sixteen. There are more, all pretty memorable events, and they all stick out because they were few and far between.

Horses have been like that for me as well, rather exotic and memorable, and sadly few and far between. I was one of those kids who never had the opportunity to be around horses. Sure, I’ve been on a few. Fell off my first horse when I was two or three. Wanted to get down by myself. Sure. Uh huh. 14 hands may as well have been 14 feet, for all the good it did me. And yes, I had an adult holding onto me at the time. You know how squirrelly small children can be.

I’m sure I was on a pony carousel or two when I was small. I remember riding behind my cousin on a huge black thoroughbred when I was eleven or twelve. I was mostly afraid I would fall off, but I had a good time. I was offered a ride on a tall, bright bay a few years later, at a relative’s farm. The horses were just there for the day to ride around the cornfields. I got to make one trip. Or rather, half a trip. The pony ahead of me decided she didn’t like the horse I was on (who was being led) being so close behind her, and she kicked at him, caught him in the shoulder, and somehow managed to break the girth on the saddle. My horse reared, and the saddle slid sideways, though I did not, and I ended up sitting on one of the stirrups when he came back to earth. I was understandably a little shaken by this whole affair.

No more horses for a while, though not from lack of trying. I was too tall and heavy for the ponies at most children’s lesson barns, and I wasn’t a good enough rider for the adults’ horses. When we moved back to England, I ended up helping to take care of two gypsy cobs that lived in a pasture a few streets down. The woman was handicapped (rheumatoid arthritis, or something else regenerative and hurty) and needed some help mucking and grooming. They were both fat, and happy, a father-daughter pair. The father had gone out on lease, but ended up being abused. The owner found out when the RSPCA contacted her for abuse charges. He was hundreds of pounds underweight, had been sitting in a dirty stall for months, and could barely stand. She was devastated, and did her all to get him well again. The little girl was perhaps a year and a half old, very slender and sprightly compared to her da. None of this silly Gypsy Vanner crap over here in the US, this was the real deal, and the personality on these two were off the charts.

I got used to working with these two drafty ponies who barely came up to my chest, and when I finally scored riding lessons (with a highly recommended trainer, an ex-jumping champion) I was SO incredibly intimidated by these HUGE horses that were there. In truth, they were not. I was on a cob/hunter mix who wasn’t so tall, but she was like the other two horses rolled into one. And she had no work ethic, and needed a firm handler. She wasn’t really a beginner horse, but I got the idea very quickly that this woman (crotchety old bat who was in chronic pain from a knee injury who cussed at me constantly) wasn’t really a beginner trainer. I lasted exactly three lessons. The first was spent going over basic ground etiquette and tacking. The second was in a tiny rectangular pen, where the woman was telling me I was useless and couldn’t I remember a damn thing she’d told me? (charming bitch). Turned out, she didn’t realize that that was the first time on the horse, she thought I had already come for a lesson where we covered what we were trying to work on. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and went back for a third lesson. Shame on me, right? She had me lead the horse to an empty pasture to work in, and when I mounted, the horse plodded purposefully back to her stall, with the instructor screaming at me all the way back. When she finally caught up to me, she just looked at me in disgust and told me to put the horse away. Wow.

It should be obvious by now that I wasn’t very confident about the whole process. I didn’t seek another trainer, but I ended up taking a few lessons from my friend, riding a 17 hand irish hunter that had been a cart horse. Beautiful horse, well mannered, but still getting used to things at the barn. My last lesson before she moved was highlighted by another rear. We were working in a covered round pen, and apparently it was feeding time at the pig farm next door, and they set up an ungodly racket, and this horse spooked. We were up in the air forever, and I remember being UP IN THE RAFTERS eye to eye with a startled pair of rock doves. I lost both my stirrups, and all I could think of was to not pull at the reins, so I had my hands stuck out as far in front of the horses neck as I could get them. It was probably what saved me from falling off.

At this point, I am very nervous of horses, and I wasn’t eager to get back on one until I gained more confidence. (A no-brainer, right?)

At this I ran across a local NH woman who gave children’s camps.  Just the thing: ground work plus gentle children’s horse. I took some good lessons from her that helped me read the horses, though I was still very intimidated by her. A silly thing, since she’s one of the sweetest, nicest people on the planet, but that crazy lady in England really left her mark. I quit rather reluctantly, but my schedule kept me running late for the lessons, and that wasn’t fair to her.

So here I am, confused and lacking in basic horse hours. And all I can say is that I want more, and that I think I’m going to have to have a lease or own my own horse before I can really start learning. I’m so intimidated by the lesson process that I focus on the trainer rather than me and the horse, and I don’t end up learning anything. With plenty of time between lessons for me to practice, and just spending time around a horse, I anticipate that things will get better.

It will be a long time before I am ready for such a committment.

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2 responses to “The sum of my experience

  1. dangerouspenguin

    Horse people can be a funny breed — especially those who have been successful in competition. The coach I rode with throughout my dressage years was a right bitch. We were all terrified of her, and my stomach would be in knots for half an hour before each and every lesson. The verbal abuse was non-stop, and any little compliment burned in your ears for hours or weeks. I will never forget her saying “that was a nice ride, Sarah” one year after I bought and trained the crap out of my appaloosa gelding.

    But she was (and probably still is) a fantastic rider and she made us into good riders. Fifteen years (and 30lbs) after the hay day of my riding career I still have a good seat, soft hands and reliable instincts.

    I’m not saying that it’s right to accept abuse from a riding instructor, but I am saying that there is no substitute for good training. And good training can only come from good, experienced riders. I would never take lessons from anyone not certified to teach as only those with certification have proved that they are up to the task.

    I’m also not meaning to lecture but I would advise finding a coach that you’re comfortable with and learning to rider before you lease or buy a horse for yourself. That will give you a toolbox full of knowledge to apply to your own animal, which makes it much easier.

  2. homespunheretic

    Point taken. You’re not lecturing, you’re giving good advice. I meant to say that I need more horse hours overall before I can feel confident about myself and the training process, and that I despair a little about wasting so many lesson hours getting over my trainer fear before I can really tune into the horse. But perhaps it can’t be helped.

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