Comprehending English

How I got out of my comfort zone and into a pair of breeches for my first English riding lesson.

America's Horse

Growing up, the closest I got to riding lessons was when Dad put me on the back of some of the younger, green-broke horses he was too big to get on himself.

Recently, I mentioned offhand that it might be interesting to try riding English. My boss said, “If I arrange a lesson, do you think you could turn the experience into a story?”

“Um, sure,” I said.

I should never have opened my big mouth.

I can ride a horse. I enjoy checking fence or moving cattle. I don’t cut, team pen or rope, nor do I pay much attention to proper riding posture. I just like to ride. So the thought of taking any kind of lesson stressed me out.

I didn’t want to look out of place, so I ordered some riding sneakers and riding breeches online. Still, the closer the time came for my lesson, the more nervous I became. I worried all the way to Gretchen Mathes’ Powder Brook Farm near Harwinton, Connecticut.

Boy, she’s gonna think I’m a real hick.

When I arrived, Gretchen introduced me to my four-legged instructor, a 16.3 hand, 14-year-old gelding named “Hoot.”

He can’t be a Quarter Horse. He’s too tall.

“His registered name is Latigos Poco Dude,” she offered.

OK, with a name like that, he’s got to be a Quarter Horse. But, man, he’s tall. How am I gonna get up on him? I can’t even see over his back!

As we headed for the outdoor arena, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. “Grab that step stool,” Gretchen directed on our way out.

Ah-ha, that’s how I’m gonna get on. It looks pretty sturdy. Wonder how I’ll get off?

Once in the saddle, Gretchen described the proper posture for English riding.

Here we go. The sit-up-straight-don’t-slouch speech.

“You should be able to draw a straight line from the middle of your ears, through the middle of your shoulders, through the middle of your hip down to the back of your heel,” she explained. “You want your heels down and your inside calf against the horse to secure your position. Don’t get behind on your horse; stay right in the middle, right in the pocket of the saddle.”

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OK, I can handle this.

“I like to see a straight line from the elbow, through the wrist, hand and rein straight to the corner of the horse’s mouth,” she continued. “Not a lot of tension in your elbow, wrist or hand. Use your elbow down to your hand like a spring and ride with the horse’s motion.”

That sounds easy enough.

Taking the reins, she showed me how to lace them over my pinkie, fold the next three fingers over the top of the reins and fold my thumb down onto my closed fingers.

“Your fingers should be closed,” she added. “Not tight. You’re riding from your heel and calf and deep into your seat, soft in your elbow, in nice control so that you and the horse become a pair.”

“Sit up straight and don’t slouch.”

Sounds like Mom.

With a cluck and a nudge, I asked Hoot to trot.

Hey, this is kind of nice. He’s got a soft trot.

Then, Gretchen explained posting – bouncing with the rhythm of the horse’s gait. Well, it felt like bouncing until I got the hang of it; then it was smooth.

“Rise up in your thigh and your seat,” she said. “You have to have a solid lower leg. Then, rise softly. Don’t pinch at the knees. Kind of caress the saddle.”

Wait a minute, I have to do all that other stuff and post?

I gave it a try.

This takes some serious coordination. If I bite my lower lip any harder, it’ll bleed. Hey, come back here, Hoot. We’re supposed to trot in a circle, not head for the barn.

I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s a little more complicated to steer a horse, keep your heels down, calves in, back straight, head forward, hands together, fingers closed and post. I’d get it for a little bit, then my heels would come up, my knees would start pinching, my foot would come out of the iron, and the rest of my posture would crumble.

Seeing my frustration, Gretchen asked if I was ready to try cantering. I paused, then asked – OK, whined – “Do I have to post?”

“Oh, no,” she said, laughing. “You don’t post when you canter.”

Cool. Let’s canter.

Little did I know that this required a whole new set of instructions.

“You’ll be cantering to the left,” Gretchen explained. “So, you need to hold the left rein up, nudge Hoot with your right foot and kiss to him.”

“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t realize you had to give this specific of a cue to get them to canter.”

“That’s how we train them,” she explained. “You want your horse to get a proper departure. Cluck to get them to trot and kiss to get them to canter. Use the reins and your legs to tell him which lead you want him to take. If you always do it the same way, you’re always sending the same signal. Then, use your leg to add length of stride.”

Piece of cake.

I lifted the left rein, nudged Hoot with my right foot and kissed to him. He just stood there. He turned his head and looked at me with an expression that read, “Now, what exactly is it that you want?”

I apologized, patted his neck, took a deep breath and tried the cues again. This time, he started trotting. I stopped him. He stomped his foot. “Biting flies,” Gretchen explained.

It’s more like he’s frustrated with the driver.

The third time I cued him, he took off cantering.

“Good girl!” Gretchen shouted. I got so tied up in trying to keep my posture, I didn’t have time to keep a leg on Hoot to keep him in the canter. Next thing I knew, he’d stopped.

Man, doesn’t this horse have autopilot? Do I have to do everything?

It was a small victory. We cantered a couple more times before returning to trotting.

“I think you should know how to post on the correct diagonal,” Gretchen said.

As if just learning to post isn’t hard enough. Post. Correct. Diagonal. What do these words have in common?

When you post on the diagonal, your rump hits the saddle every time the horse’s front outside leg hits the ground, she explained. It’s like you’re keeping time with his beat. The key is to stay on the correct diagonal.

So, Hoot started trotting and I started posting.

“What diagonal are you on?” Gretchen asked in a tone that indicated I was on the wrong one.

“The wrong one?” I answered.

“If you get off, you have to double bounce in the saddle to get back on,” she answered.

Oh, boy, this is gonna take some work.

It’s tricky. But, once you’re posting correctly, you can really tell a difference in the ride. It’s smoother.

Before I knew it, my lesson was over. Gretchen told me to use the step stool to dismount. I maneuvered Hoot next to the stool and looked around.

Hmmm. How am I gonna do this without falling off?

I swung my right leg over, leaned across the saddle, pulled my left leg out of the iron and slid down onto the stool.

Not a pretty dismount, but I’m off.

By no means did I become a pro at English riding in one lesson. I liked it, though. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like the English saddle. Having always ridden in a western saddle, I wondered if I’d miss the crutch of a saddle horn. This time, I didn’t even need it.

Will I ride English again? Heck, yes. I figure any time you get to ride a horse is worthwhile. And if you improve your riding ability, it’s all the better.

And now I find out that we in the United States are the only people who call it English. Everywhere else, it’s simply called riding.