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!