I think it has been about eight years since I’ve done any kind of real horseback riding. This is strange for me, since from the age of 5 to 20, I rode at least four or five times a week (except during water polo season). I knew when I entered high school that I would put horseback riding secondary to water polo until I was finished with water polo, but I have always considered myself a horseback rider, even through all the years I haven’t done it.
The break started because I decided to retire my horse. She was getting older and more injury prone. My mom had sold her horse and would no longer be at the barn to look after mine. It was a tough decision because I knew that it would mean my horseback riding career would be put on hold for the foreseeable future. However, it was also an easy decision because I knew it was the best thing for my horse.
At my level, it is difficult to ride without owning your own horse. Of couse, I could always “school” other people’s horses, as I’d done for many years, but there is a limit to what you are able to do and the amount of time you can spend with that horse. And owning a horse requires a commitment that I did not have time to give.
I have avoided riding for the last eight years, due to both logistics and grief for my horse who was put down in 2009. But recently I’ve decided that it may be the moment to return to an old love of mine, even if only in a small way.
Staying at the hotel outside of Florence gave me a perfect opportunity. More perfect than I really realized. The website said that they offered lessons, but lessons are usually on school horses who do little more than go in a circle while the rider tries to learn to stay on. This would never work for me. In 2010, I had gone on a gorgeous trail ride in the countryside of Catalunya with a friend of mine. She was also playing polo in Barcelona. I figured I could at least get a chance to experience the beautiful Tuscan countryside from atop a horse (a very different experience from the time I biked Tuscany with a boys water polo team).
Much to my benefit, there was no one to lead the trail ride last weekend. So, my only option was a lesson. Oddly, I was disappointed. It seemed boring to stay in a ring when I could see Tuscany. Plus, how much of a lesson could I really get?
On Sunday at 10:30 am, I was shown down to the stable. I was given a little bit of a test when they had me brush the horse and get it ready. Although I told them I only rode english, my horse was tacked up with a western saddle. So much for returning to my roots.
The lesson started out basic enough. My instructor didn’t speak English, although he did know a few words, and his generally jovial (though still sarcastic) attitude made it doable. Plus, I’ve had experience trying to understand instruction in another language through all the years of playing polo abroad.
Riding western is a bit different from riding english, as any rider can tell you. The horses are trained to listen to different commands, riders are instructed to have different posture, and even the saddles are built in a unique manner. One of the most fundamental differences is that in western you don’t do a “posting” trot. In western, your butt stays in the saddle. In english, you rise and fall with the gait of the horse (“fall” being completely controlled, of course).
My lesson took place with two other people, although we were all doing our own separate things. It was a typical ring, and even had dressage letters and jumps stacked in the corners. This, combined with the state of the stable, showed me that they were very serious and knowledgable about their craft. I, however, did look a bit silly as I was wearing bright blue converse. This is usually punishable by death. Riders always wear boots with a small heel so that the foot cannot slip through the stirrup. Well, it couldn’t be helped this time.
I think we were both able to impress each other. It was a bit strange for me adapting to their style, because some of what I normally do is actually “wrong.” And I never like to be wrong! A few of the things that they corrected include sitting with my tailbone tucked while cantering, only moving my reins sideways to turn, only using my seat and my voice to stop the horse, not using my reins when turning in a circle on the haunches or walking sideways, mounting the horse in a different style, taking the boots off first and then the saddle (as here you put on the saddle first and then the boots), not to use my weight when asking the horse to pick up a hoof, and staying upright and only shifting my weight to make a flying lead change (this was the only one I didn’t have time to get).
I was pretty sore after riding, although it could have been worse. Often, when you haven’t ridden in a while, we say you are “loose” the first few times you ride again. It means that your legs can’t hold on to the saddle very well. I’m lucky in that since I’ve always been active outside of riding, I keep my muscles well. However, I would always notice soreness in my inner thighs, which I experienced this time, along with sore stiz bones. Not so bad, except that I had to eggbeat in the pool the next day. That hurt!