A small step for a horse, but a giant leap for his rider!

Today I jumped! Okay, now don’t get too excited. It wasn’t exactly the kind of jump you’d see at a horse show. It was a teeny tiny flowerbox obstacle that my lesson horse Kobe just hopped over without even thinking about it–in fact on his approach for my last jump, he even broke stride and simply trotted up to it before taking off. But for the emotional impact it had on me, it may as well have been a meter high!

As with any skill you learn, you start with baby steps and build up. Because of the type of exercises we’d been doing in recent lessons, I had the feeling my trainer Nathalie was going to have me try one of the little jumps soon.

I had so much fun last week cantering a ground pole course that she set up, and was thrilled that she positioned two poles on the ground next to each other between two jump standards so that I had to ride through the “jump” and over the poles as part of the course.

I have enormous faith in Nathalie, and I always trust her when she asks me if I’m up for a challenge because I know she’d never suggest it unless she was certain I’m capable of it. So when she suggested to me that I try this little jump today, I knew I could do it. I gave it a shot, and I’m delighted. I left the original audio on this video so you can hear Nathalie’s directions, and get an idea of how much fun she has in the lessons, too!

Seriously, if you had seen me six months ago, you wouldn’t have believed I could do this now. A couple of the other riders at the barn have mentioned that it’s as though I’m a different person since I learned to canter in July. With Nathalie’s amazing coaching, my confidence has grown in… well… leaps and bounds!

I’m so looking forward to my next chance to hop over the little fence and do a much better job of it, and am eager to begin the steep learning curve needed to take on all the other novice jumps in the ring.

What happened today was a small step for a horse, but a giant leap for his rider. Once again, I’m thrilled stoopid! 🙂

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More fun at the Farm

Wow, what a hot and humid day it was yesterday for my Saturday riding lesson at Acorn Farm! At each class, we always get to practice all of the major skills I’ve learned to date. The most recent skill that Nathalie introduced was cantering in a two-point position. That’s where you lift your bottom out of the saddle, push your weight down into your heels and bend forward slightly, chest out and head up. I’m learning that because it’s the position for novice jumping. By taking your weight off the horse’s back, it makes it easier for him to bend and take off, carrying him and his rider safely over the jump.

The two-point position requires good balance, because your only points of contact with the horse are your hands on the reins and your leg from the knee down. My balance was a bit off on my first attempt yesterday, but then I managed to get it and hold it better on subsequent attempts.

After all of our trotting, posting, diagonal-changing, figure-of-eighting, framing, cantering, flying-lead-changing and two-point cantering exercises, Nathalie asked me if I was up for a new challenge. I love when she does this! I have absolute trust in her that if she suggests a new challenge, she believes I’m ready for it, so I’m always delighted to try whatever it is.

While Kobe and I took a break in the shade of a tree, Nathalie set about creating a ground pole course for me to ride. Previously, I’d only ridden over poles that were either set a few strides apart along the rail, or put in a row of three as a foot-placement test. This time she set up four along the outside rail, two at each side, and two diagonals. What was really fun was that she placed a couple of poles next to each other between two proper fence standards, so it looked like I was approaching a jump. That was a thrill for me, made me feel like I’m really progressing.

Then she explained to me the order in which she wanted me to canter over the poles, just as if it was a real jumping course. I’d never done that before, and was quite excited at the prospect. Since there were a couple of direction changes, it meant that I would have to make sure Kobe performed a flying lead change in certain places to keep him balanced. Also, Nathalie told me that she wanted me to count strides between two of the poles and to aim for the optimum seven strides between “landing” after the first one and “taking off” for the next.

Man, it was fun. Nathalie made a video of two of my attempts at the course. Now that I’ve seen it, I can see I have a lot to work on. One of those things is keeping my butt in the saddle! When Kobe shifts his weight to his outside hip for his lead changes, it really does a number on me. Anyhow, here is the video:

After my lesson, I gave Kobe’s sweaty body a hose down that must have felt really good to him (I know because getting some of the spray from the hose on me felt really good too!). Then I let him have his grazing-in-the-grass treat to allow him to dry off a little in the sunshine, before going back to his stall.

One of the other mature students, Nancy, was going to be participating in a show jumping competition at the adjacent show grounds that afternoon, so Nathalie, Paige (a young student), Paige’s mom, Nancy’s husband Tim and his friend, and I all piled onto two golf carts and rode over to the show ring.

Nancy did a terrific job on her stunningly beautiful horse Romany Way, with Nathalie supporting and advising her right up to the second she entered the show arena (and even doing what she could from the sidelines!). Watching Nancy and the other competitors ride the courses so skillfully showed me how very far I have to go. But that’s not a hardship. I’m enjoying it so much, making terrific progress and good friends since I started at Acorn Farm last April.

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Thrilled Stoopid!

Meanwhile, back at the Farm… My last post about riding lessons was to share that I’d just learned to canter. It was a HUGE milestone for me, having trotted like crazy since last October, never progressing till I began lessons at Acorn Farm with trainer Nathalie Cooper.

While I was only able to trot, I honestly believed that once I could canter, the riding lessons would be far less physically demanding. At the canter you don’t have to do all that up-down-up-down-up-down posting that you do when you’re trotting, so it seemed to me it would be much less effort. I was in for a surprise!

During some of my first attempts to canter on Kobe, Nathalie said something funny that woke me up and demonstrated the mistake in my thinking. She told me that once Kobe begins to canter, you can’t just sit back, say “Hallelujah!” and sit there like a sack of potatoes; he needs encouragement to keep up the new gait.

Her point was well-taken. I had sincerely believed that all I had to do was ask the horse to canter, then sit there and enjoy the ride. After all, when you watch a good rider at the canter, isn’t that what it looks like they’re doing? The truth is a little different 😉

Last Sunday morning I had an intense work-out lesson with lots of cantering. This was my practice, that included cantering and flying lead changes:

It’s hard to put into words how this progress makes me feel. At the end of each lesson there’s an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I look back at what I did and it takes on a dream-like quality. As I watch the videos there’s a sense of detachment as if I’m watching someone else.

That Nathalie now has me warm up with a couple of laps of trotting and then casually asks me to “Pick up the canter at the next corner” — like it’s no big deal and just a part of what I do — well that just thrills me stoopid! And when she taught me how to do flying lead changes and Kobe immediately knew what I wanted and without hesitation gave it to me the first time and every time since then — unbelievable!

For so long, I’ve watched with envy as other people competently trot and canter, and I have to pinch myself and say, you can do that too. You’re not dreaming. It’s just that your dream came true.

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Woohoo! I’m cantering!

What an amazing week Dream Boy Kobe and I have had together. At my riding lesson a week last Saturday, after a thorough trotting warm-up, my trainer Nathalie told me she wanted me to ask Kobe for the canter. She explained how to do it: bring Kobe to a walk, pull slightly on the inside rein (the one nearest the center of the arena), tap him with my offside leg (the one next to the rail) behind his girth, keep my head up and my hands down towards his neck, squeeze with both legs once he lifts into the canter and relax!

This is what I’d been working towards for most of the past year. My goal was to be able to trot and canter a horse with control. It was a long, long time coming.

A false start learning to ride Western, taking weekly lessons with two different horses took me from October 2009 to mid-March 2010. During that time, I had 14 lessons and didn’t progress. I figured maybe I was just a horse-dork and I’d never get it. But then I decided to give it another shot.

In April  2010, I was so blessed to find Acorn Farm at the Oaks in San Juan Capistrano and trainer Nathalie Cooper. I signed up for twice-weekly lessons in hope of making much quicker progress. It worked. Hardly suprising really, that a trainer who has been riding since infancy, and has national championships to her name, obviously has much skill and experience to share!

When Nathalie took me on I had very little skill except how to post to the trot. I had no confidence in my ability or my sense of balance, and clung to the saddle and the reins for dear life. Nathalie went way beyond the call to get me comfortable at the trot and to teach basic good horsemanship skills.

First, Nathalie provided an exceptionally reliable lesson horse, Kobe. I’ll never forget how she began my training by putting Kobe on a lunge line and having him trot in circles around her without my having to keep him moving or steering him. She simply wanted me to experience what trotting felt like while having no responsibility for his movement but with the comfort of my security blanket: hanging on to the saddle or neck strap.

The next lesson was when Nathalie began running. She attached a lead line to Kobe’s bridle, and with me up in the saddle, Nathalie literally ran round and round the arena to get Kobe to trot, while having me do various balance and other exercises but still without the responsibility of keeping him moving or moving in the right direction. Nathalie worked SO hard. Often, she was willing to keep going long after I was feeling tired and ready to quit, which made me push on to match her enthusiasm.

After two lessons, I let Nathalie know that I no longer wanted to hang onto the saddle-strap or the neck strap. I was ready to let go and learn how to balance without holding on–something that had been a major issue for me since I had begun private lessons. By the following lesson, with Nathalie’s clear, consistent and accurate direction, I had conquered the “flailing hands” syndrome.

In the weeks that followed, as I learned how to ask Kobe to trot and keep him going by myself, Nathalie proved most creative, coming up with all sorts of different exercises to try and new challenges. I trotted in circles, figures of eight, round half the arena, all the arena, up a grassy incline and down a gentle slope, and over poles. All clockwise and counter-clockwise. There was always something fresh to keep it interesting. She must have run miles around the ring while teaching me to trot, and never complained. After six lessons, I arrived at this point:

Then at the end of May, just when I was peaking in terms of ability and confidence, I was away from riding for a month. When I went back the last week in June, everything went smoothly. After the first couple of trots, it was as if I’d never been away.

So on July 10, after about 16 lessons (2 months’ worth), when Nathalie asked me to try the canter, I was ready physically, mentally and emotionally to tackle this new challenge. My first few attempts weren’t successful. My cues were difficult for Kobe to grasp and I was apprehensive about what the canter would feel like. Several times, I managed to get Kobe to canter a couple of steps, but then he’d revert to trotting fast instead. The next day my left leg ached from having given Kobe so many little kicks to move him off on the correct lead. This is what it looked like as I tried to canter:

At the following lesson, July 14, the magic happened. A ten-year old student was there and recorded my first real canter on video. She’d never used a video camera before, so it’s rather shaky, but I’m delighted she was able to capture such an important personal milestone:

Nathalie’s voice got hoarse from shouting encouragement. On the video you can see her put her hands to her sore throat! She knew how much this meant to me. It was quite a euphoric experience; I wondered if it was a fluke. But then last Saturday, back I went and tried again. This time I was able to do a total of 5 laps cantering around the ring. Kobe gave me the canter the first time I asked for it, each time I asked. He is a terrific horse. Love him to pieces!

I guess my next goal will be to become really competent at the canter, and then skilled enough to enter into the show ring for flat classes. To do that, you have to be able to walk, trot (rising and sitting), and canter on command, and to look really good doing it, with proper form and posture.

I’m so grateful to Nathalie for her skill, patience, support, encouragement and great sense of humor that got me to this point. Forget Disneyland! Acorn Farm is the happiest place on earth, where dreams really do come true!

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Success at the trot!

At last my persistence–and my instructor’s patience–has paid off. On Tuesday evening I had my seventh lesson with instructor Nathalie at Acorn Farm in San Juan Capistrano. The following video was taken during my lesson:

When I came to Acorn Farm three weeks ago, I was still at the point where I clung to the saddle to keep my balance, was unable to steer or to keep a horse going once he decided to trot–in short, totally uncoordinated. The only positive thing I could do was rise from the saddle to post–and not fall off the horse! It really wasn’t pretty! In this short time I’ve had seven lessons and have improved exponentially.

I know my trot’s not perfect yet, but man, it’s a HUGE improvement over where I was. I’ve learned to control my hands so that now I can keep them much quieter and steer, and to use my legs properly to “squeeze” the horse consistently and keep him moving. Nathalie is beginning to teach me about diagonals, and has me correct my posting to the correct diagonal.

Kobe is a delightful horse to work with, and Nathalie’s calm confidence is very catching. I’m so glad I found them both and am truly savoring this delicious breakthrough. 🙂

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