Apologies for the lack of pictures in this post – we’re fresh out of up to date ones, and the horses, particularly Otis, have all come a long way since the last lot were taken, so you’ll have to use your imaginations for now. Also last time I used pictures I got trolled for them so maybe it’s best avoided anyway.
On with the show;
This is the first part of a two part mini series that primarily concerns itself with two lessons that I had with Charles de Kunffy, and the week of prep beforehand, but is actually about so much more than that. At its core it’s about an important and brutal lesson that I’ve learned about paying attention to the fundamentals, and how quickly paying attention to those fundamentals can change your horse. It’s also about creative riding, using the arena to your best advantage, and abs of steel.
Most of you will be familiar with Otis by now, but for those who aren’t he’s a 16hh ex-racehorse, who just so happens to have taught me an awful lot in the time I’ve known him. In the early days he hated the aids, struggled to bend his hocks at all, had a head that was on at a 45 degree angle, and a back that never moved. It’s taken me a long time to get him where he is, mainly because of a lack of knowledge and experience, but also because I don’t have access to him all the time. He belongs to my friend Miranda, who is a lovely rider, and takes him off for all sorts of fun things, including galloping around sponsored rides, jumping and showing classes, and quite right too. I teach Miranda on him once a fortnight, and ride him once a week. Remember this point because it’ll come up again later – Otis is an odd shape. He’s croup high, a little cow hocked and has these little dips under his saddle where he never fully used his back.
By dint of accident and injury, loan horses going back, etc, by the time it came to select a horse to take to Charles, Otis was first in line to the throne. That meant an Andrew lesson beforehand, and I have to say I was feeling the pressure a bit. I warmed him up as usual and it was a bit all over the place; I was having trouble getting him to bend left, and everything was far too fast. I started to wonder what on earth I had gotten us into, booking lessons with Charles. Andrew, who has the wonderful quality of being able to state the obvious without being the least bit patronising said;
“You need to get into the horse’s back more.”
If you’ve seen Andrew teach before then you are familiar with the lean back, and that’s exactly where I found myself. As well as leaning back I had to sit into my inside seat bone, and use my inside leg to lift Otis’ ribcage. At the same time I was told to keep my outside rein flush along his neck, and open my inside rein. This alone made a huge difference to how the horse felt – there was some initial squirming, and I had to be very disciplined about holding my position – but after a few minutes and a couple of rein changes he was considerably softer, more available, and relaxed.
What hadn’t totally improved yet was the bend and reliability of the thoroughness – we were still dealing with the kink to the outside on the left rein, and the odd random head toss. So, with abs a-screamin’, I listened as Andrew explained the next stage. He described something called a satellite circle; a small circle used in conjunction with the lean back, which helps the rider to use the inside leg and seat more effectively, therefore helping to align the horse under the rider. The circle needs to be as small as possible whilst keeping the horse in balance, so it’s important to listen to your steed when you do this. Accentuate the lean back, rock more into the inside seat bone, and pump more actively with the inside leg. I must stress, this is not about being stroppy with the horse or dragging it around in tiny circles. This is about helping the horse using the natural dynamics of school figures.
By doing this I was able to control the bend more and more with my seat, which turned it into genuine bend rather than a turned neck. I was also able to aid more subtly as I went on, and with the help of reverse turns the throughness and positioning became a lot more solid (in a good way) and the head tossing and inconsistencies vanished.
At this point we were still walking, but I could obviously feel the benefits as I naturally wanted to sit upright again. Otis was in a correct inside position rather than bulging out around my inside leg in a slightly quarters in way, which previously has been his want, and was completely quiet and settled in the rein. His back felt great, soft and supporting at the same time. I gave Andrew a smug little smile and went to trot.
“I’d lean back again if I were you,” he said mildly halfway through the transition, and I did – Just. In. Time.
There was a moment in which I nearly lost everything, but the lean back saved me. I kept Otis through-ish, but we shot off awfully fast, so as well as the leaning back I also had some vigorous half halting to do, proving that my seat can actually multi-task. By leaning back I felt like I could really feel where the horse was, which allowed me to plan ahead. Needless to say, our first couple of satellite circles were like turning the Queen Mary. But it got better, and soon I was able to lean back less and less, although I quickly shot back at the first sign of trouble.
An exploratory canter showed how much better everything had become, because it was the first time I managed to get him through in canter without being in light seat. We finished off with some lengthened strides in trot, and I found that if the throughness started to feel slightly vulnerable, I could open my inside hand and pump with my inside leg to get it back again. I also found it useful to slow down, do another satellite circle, and then push the trot on again once I was back on the straight.
The real ‘wow’ moment came when I untacked – those hollows under the saddle had inflated considerably. After another ride they were even more diminished and we had to book an emergency pre-Charles saddle check. I rode him twice more like this before the clinic, and after the last ride they had gone completely. Fancy that.
Next time, on Equinerds:
THE CHARLES LESSONS!