November 21, 2012

The Wheat From The Chaff: Separate It Does

This story is a little overdue, but no less worth telling.  Because it is a perfect illustration of the line of horsemanship those of us one side of it know perfectly and those on the other side are convinced does not exist.

Last weekend, Amber came out to practice her bending and I wanted to get her in a basic two point and cantering before I was laid up (ah, back when The Plan was still alive).  As we warmed up, she was doing worlds better with her bending (as in, Solo was bending!) in serpentines and circles (ok, I still tied her hand together) and making serious progress relaxing her upper body and guiding Solo with her eye.  We worked on trying to get a more forward trot and I even saw a couple steps approaching a trot that was awake -- not bad for three rides! 

So, let's do a couple of canter circles and we'll be done,  k?

No problem.  And she'd been great cantering on the longe, very well balanced and smooth.

I stressed that it was important to sit up, keep your leg wrapped around him, and to keep your spurs off of him when he was cantering and just keep a light seat, he might get excited.

She picked up her canter at A with a fairly prompt transition and made a nice corner tracking left.  Going down that long side is a bit of a down slope, so I saw Solo fall on his forehand a bit and cheat his way through by just going a little faster.  Before I knew it, he made a motorcycle turn across the arena and I yelled, "Half halt!"

He was pointed almost straight at the arena rope now and I saw the conflict on his face.  Never jump out of the dressage arena!  But she's pointing me at a thing and digging in her spurs and saying go!  NEVER jump out of the dressage arena!  But she's telling me to go faster!  NEVER JUMP OUT OF THE DRESSAGE ARENA!  OMG!!!

Fortunately for the long run, Solo made the correct decision and politely said, no ma'am, you have requested the wrong thing, and slid to a stop with his ankles against the rope.  Amber, less fortunately, had lost her leg behind her and tipped forward and did the MOST superlative Superman impression out to the side that I think I have ever seen.  We're talking full-body, stretched out, completely level airtime here.

She hit the ground on her butt, rolling (yesss, someone who knows how to roll!) and Solo sidled two steps over to me with worried eyes, saying I'm sorry, mom, but she was wrong.  I yelled to Amber not to move, patted Solo and told him it was ok, he did the best he could.

I knew Amber had a pre-existing back sprain, so I didn't want her to get up (I never let people get up anyway), to just take a minute and breathe.  She popped up a little soon, but insisted she was ok and climbed back on the horse to walk it out.  I had her walk around, stretch everything out, breathe and chat, and just relax.

This, this is where the line starts.  After calmly assessing she was unhurt aside from some road rash and bruising, she climbed right back up and said, "Let's do this because I don't want it to be a thing."

Right on.

I re-emphasized the spurs; "Now we know why we don't dig them in, yes?  Do you feel like you know where they are right now and that you can control them?"  Because Solo is nearly impossible to ride without a spur and he knows it.  She thought she was good, so I said, ok, let's try this again.

I always cantered Solo perfectly.  Ha!
We did the right lead, his easier one.  It was perfectly uneventful and had some nice strides on the short end.  When he got unbalanced, I had her take a tug and then release to rebalance in a crude sort of half halt, but she was able to keep Solo from slithering down the hill. Yeah!  So we changed direction and hit the left lead again, although I had her stay on a 20 m circle at one end this time.

Solo picked up his canter and after the first few strides, I saw Amber get a bit wobbly from nerves.  Solo shifted a bit and tried to keep his balance under hers as they turned towards me.  I love my horse.  But as they turned in the arena corner, she tipped forwards and lost it again and rolled over his shoulder, albeit much less dramatically this time.

I will say now that I HATE when people fall off when I am teaching.  I know it is part of the process, but standing in the middle of the ring, I am responsible for everything that happens there.  It's why I've been keeping our work mostly in the small grass dressage arena from which I've removed all the rocks and know every inch of the footing.  Much nicer than the bigger arena down below where you land on rocks and a very hard base....  

But Amber hopped up immediately this time (I'm going to have to work on that!) and came back over and climbed up again.

That's the line, right there.  Many people walk away after the first fall.  Most of the rest are gone after the second.  Especially within 15 minutes of the first.  Given of course, that no injuries in need of medical care occur.  One must, of course, take of those first!  

Well, I'll be.  She's the real deal.  She's someone who knows that Rome wasn't built in a day and it is definitely not a painless process.  Colour me impressed.

The second fall really gets your adrenaline going though, so I made sure she spent lots of time wandering around, relaxed, doing breathing exercises, talking about other things.  Oh yeah, and I took the spurs off.  I felt confident that Solo was awake at this point. 

I said, "I'd really like you to canter a left lead circle one time before you leave, so that this is resolved.  However, if you are not feeling comfortable, that is absolutely fine and we can pick it up next time and I have no problem with that."

Her reply, "No way, I don't want this to be a thing and I want to DO it."


So she picked up her trot, settled her shoulders back, asked for the canter and I yelled "Relax your leg and sit up!"

And she did it.  Then we dropped back to trot, did a bit of stretching for Solo's back, stuck a fork in it, and called it done.

I hope that Amber went home feeling very accomplished (well, after she got the dirt out of her pants), because it was indeed a big thing.  It takes courage, dedication, and a heck of a lot of try if you really want to ride and she displayed every one in spades.  I would have been ok if she had just wanted to fall off once, but I guess she had something to prove... 


  1. Because of my somewhat unique situation at the moment living on the other side of the world I find myself working as a riding instructor right now. I have to say that standing and watching a student fall is so much harder than falling off myself. Less painful physically but much more stressful.

    Kudos to Amber for conquering her fear and keeping on keeping on.

  2. Good on ya, Amber! Sounds like Advil, heating pads, and Tiger Balm are all in her future. ;-)

    I once fell off a horse THREE times in under 20 minutes. After not falling off in something like 7 or 8 years. He was a giant Irish TB who did a very fast simultaneous spin/rear when you asked for canter. The first time, I asked for the canter and was like, "How did I get on the ground?" When my trainer arrived and I told him I had fallen off three times, he said, "Well, yeah--you need draw reins, cotton in his ears, spurs, and a crop carried upside down so you can smack him between the ears if he starts to go up." Yeah. Information that would have been useful half an hour ago. I did eventually have some nice rides on that horse (good lord, could he jump!), but he was very, very unpredictable and you couldn't let your guard down, ever.

  3. I totally agree, Amanda. I'd much rather fall off myself -- well, if the fall is a benign one, of course!!!

    Frizz, I have done something similar -- one of our school horses in college was NOT cut out to be a school horse. I fell off of him twice in ten minutes after not falling off for TEN YEARS. He would hit the wall, drop his shoulder and spin. After that day, they decided his riding days were over. I felt like such a useful guinea pig... :\

  4. Atta GIRL!!!
    I hadn't had a fall in a while, and had a pretty scary one on my past horse. We were coming off at E to ride a 20m canter circle and he went down with me aboard. Scary fall for both of us, but we both got up, brushed ourselves off, and off we went again. We didn't canter that night (both of us were stiff) but we did some trot work and next ride we were back in business.

    The saying of when you fall off you get back on is around for a reason!

  5. Whoa, horse falls are scary. I do have a policy that if horse falls, both stop no matter what. Actually, it's an eventing rule too, so that's a smart decision.

    There are DEFINITELY things that can wait; in this post, I am referring more to the mindset than the timeline!

  6. The first (and second) fall are inevitable if a person truly wants to ride and as cliche as it sounds, you really do have to get right back on (barring any injuries, of course).

    My advice, as a riding instructor, is to put the spurs aside and ride with two dressage whips. I have schooled some ridiculously lazy lesson horses in this manner and, in my opinion, two whips work better than spurs in motivating forwardness. Of course, you would have to teach your pupil how to correctly use the artificial aid.

    In response to Frizzle's story about the extremely dangerous, but talented jumper, I just do not understand the motivation to do anything with that horse beyond schooling away his dangerous behaviors. Who cares how high he can jump? If he kills someone or himself, nobody wins. I would immediately divorce any trainer that gave such absurd advice or left a horse like that on the list for lessons. What a mix of irresponsibility and ignorance and this is at the expense of the riders, who were essentially innocent of the situation.

    Makes my blood boil. Can you tell?

  7. Val, that would be a possibility -- if Solo did not have a sad history with whips hitting him. He will not tolerate anyone but me using a whip on or around him and NEVER when jumping. Despite over 6 years, some fears they never forget.

  8. Val, I just wanted to point out that that horse was never a lesson horse and will likely never be one. At that pont, I was working @ the stable teaching lessons. And since I didn't have the $$ for a horse, I rode whatever I could, which was usually the horses nobody else would ride, lol. Even our GP jumper rider had refused to ride that particular horse. That was many years ago and he has grown up and matured a lot since then.

  9. She sounds amazing!! That first year I started riding I crashed right and left. I think she is going to be a keeper. Good job both of you!!

  10. Oh I DO hope we get to keep her, Super Ponies!

  11. Hahaha, you made it sound so noble. Like I was doing this heroic thing by getting back on after my second surprise dismount. I just knew I'd be completely neurotic about things if I didn't do it before I left. And, you know, there was the part about wanting to do this. 15 years ago when I was riding - I'd have been done after second fall. And I'd have tentatively walked my horse around for the next few rides while shaking like a leaf. Getting older sucks in some ways, but has made me realize things aren't always easy and you have to do the scary things if you really want something.

    And it wasn't the dirt in my pants that surprised was the dirt in my bra. Apparently I employed the shovel method. #cleavageproblems

  12. It IS a brave thing -- learning to control our fear and act in spite of it, not because of it, is what makes us strong. I was just going to leave the bra part to you....