Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Proper Seat

Some kids dream about becoming an astronaut or a ballerina when they grow up, or, perhaps President of the United States. My dream was horses.

I loved them. Whenever I got a chance, I rode. Not many in our circle of acquaintances owned horses, so my experiences were limited to the rare treat of an afternoon ride with a friend or family member who actually happened to have a pony or gelding out back. But I persisted, attending a handful of horsemanship camps as a teen and using the next best source of information available to me, World Book Encyclopedia, to brush up my knowledge on various riding styles.

I always rode Western. If I wasn’t exactly a proficient rider, I was nevertheless comfortable enough with the saddle and its trappings to feel confident that I could keep my seat. My Western riding career reached its apex during a cattle drive that put these tenuous skills to the test. My horse and I leaped ditches, ran across meadows, and chased renegade cows back into the herd. I loved it.

But it wasn’t quite enough. I didn’t just want to ride a horse, I wanted to look good doing it. And for that, I needed to learn English riding.

Ah, English riding. What could be more elegant than sitting astride a horse, back perfectly upright, balancing effortless poise and a dash of glamour? There is a reason that dressage and not calf roping is an Olympic sport. Both require exceptional skill and horsemanship, but only dressage is beautiful to look at.

Which is why, on a cold night in November, I hoofed it down to a local riding academy and began my first English riding lessons. The saddle felt tiny, as I knew it would.  On a whim, I’d talked a friend into taking a polo class with me the previous summer, and the English saddles had seemed shockingly inadequate to the task of keeping us on the horse while we galloped up and down the field, trying desperately to connect the mallet to the ball and move it in the right direction. I discovered that playing polo before really knowing how to ride English was akin to tackling calculus before getting a grasp on long division.

The placid old gelding and I circled the arena, never moving faster than a plodding walk. I took advantage of the slow pace to check my posture. Yes, I was sitting nicely. 

The old Western habits died hard, however. I tried to turn my horse, Monkey Bread, by neck reining him. The instructor quickly corrected me, and I spent the rest of the lesson trying to habituate myself into using the English style of pulling back on the reign and pressing against the horse with my leg. It wasn’t exactly moving cattle, but it was, I hoped, moving me towards my goal of presenting a tolerable mimicry of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.   

I head back in another week for my next lesson. Maybe this time we’ll break out a walk and I can try posting, followed by a nice cup of afternoon tea.

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