Friday, September 21, 2012

Riding lessons

I began taking riding lessons a few years ago, having belatedly realized that now that I had a real, grownup job and my own money, I could finally get myself on a horse. As of this moment, I can now (mostly) tack up, retrieve a horse from a field despite said horse's uncanny ability to vanish behind a blade of grass, mount with the use of a mounting block (I did once achieve the top of the horse sans the block, but it was ugly and I believe it may have traumatized me, the horse and my instructor equally), stay aboard reasonably well and in something vaguely resembling equestrian form at a walk and a trot, and, with varying degrees of success, canter. I can even, when my blood is up and my instructor is armed with a longe whip, canter cross-rails.     

This only took years, a pair of extremely long-suffering horses and a series of valiant instructors to accomplish.  But somehow, this direct experience of the awkward fact that riding a horse is actual hard work doesn't detract from my enjoyment of horse books and their untutored but effective little riders whose light hands, natural seat and perfect sympathy with all things equine are forever being applauded by hard-bitten stablemen and wealthy old ladies who just happen to need someone to ride Corinthian in the upcoming show. I think the reason for my lack of resentment is that I secretly believe that had I had the opportunity when I was 10, I'd have ridden off across the moors on my magnificent wild stallion too, just like all the fictional heroines who never experience a moment's qualm but enjoy a Perfect Bond with their pony. The Perfect Bond issue must be why so few horse books even mention lessons. I've trolled through many books, searching out lesson scenes, and have not found much. The most vivid and realistic actually were in memoirs, and I'm going to have a different post about them. Below are some of the fictional lessons I've found, and a particularly appealing illustration from Panky In The Saddle. Panky's expression is just as confident and happy as my own felt, the first time I attempted to transfer myself from the top of a mounting block to the top of a horse.

Panky In The Saddle interior

As the colt trotted steadily around he would release the mane and raise his arms to shoulder level. Then, to the moorman's orders, he would swing them from side to side, up and down, together and alternately; touch his toes, one at a time and both together; lie back until his head touched the pony's rump; then he would pick up the reins, knotted over the colt's withers, and take a gentle contact, learning how to keep his wrists supple so that his hands could move with the colt's head and keep a "living" contact on the bit.
The White Colt by David Rook (1967)

Yes, this is exactly how my lessons are: private longe sessions where I do gymnastics. I find Jinny more appealing:

"I don't know enough," Jinny thought desperately. "I don't know the right things to do. My riding just isn't good enough. I've never had any proper lessons and sitting on Bramble isn't really riding. Not like riding Shantih. Books are no good. Reading them it all sounds so easy, but they're no use when I'm flying through the air."
A Devil To Ride by Patricia Leitch (1976)

But then again, Jinny and her Shantih are also a bit off-puttingly magical, albeit in a grungy, socially aware 1970's way.

Try as she might, Marcy could not find the posting rhythm again and slithered and slathered around in the saddle.
Everyday Friends by Lucy Diggs (1986)

Now that's more like it. Then there's the competitive kids and their trainers:

"You will please to remember you are not a passenger. You will please to remember that you are the boss. You will grip. You will be firm in the saddle. You will hold the reins and give your commands with authority."
The Colonel And Me by John W. Chambers (1985)

Ruth heard the hollow booming noise of falling poles behind her like the tolling of a funeral bell; she turned Toad in a large, wild circle, in no hurry to face Mrs. Meredith again, and certainly not Peter. The Team by K.M. Peyton (1975)

At first everything I did was wrong. "Sit down in the saddle. Sink into it. Let your weight sink down through your heels. Relax. Relax. How can you be with your horse unless you can feel its every breath through your seat?" I couldn't answer. I could only nod and go on trying.
Dream Of Fair Horses aka The Fields Of Praise by Patricia Leitch (1975)
Far more common than the official lesson are heroines who wing it, often with the help of what their horsey bibles have said.

I remembered what the Book said. I pressed in with my heels. At the same time, I lifted the reins in one hand. "Tluck-tluck," I said, feeling foolish. The result was amazing! Bonny lurched forward. Between those ears, I saw the meadows rolling slowly toward and under us. We were walking straight ahead.
The Rain-Cloud Pony by Anne Eliot Crompton (1977)

Or, even worse, just their instinct.

But she felt a piece of fear, realizing that her skill at riding was nothing and she had no saddle or bridle to give her superiority.  All that held the mare to her was a slim leather line; if she broke loose, not yet knowing home and barn, the mare could canter for miles and be lost and gone.
Blueberry by Helga Sandburg (1963)

And always, of course, the horse is the ultimate teacher.

But she had never yet felt reins that had a trained mouth at the end of them, and as she cantered up the slope of the sunny field with the brow of the hill and the height of the sky in front of her, Sir Pericles taught her in three minutes what she had not known existed.  Her scraggy, childish fingers obtained results at a pressure.  The living canter bent to right or left at her touch.  He handed her the glory of command.
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold (1935)