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Trot and Canter: Horse riding for beginners

I had for years been watching the horse riders on magnificent Noordhoek beach from Chapman’s Peak drive, cantering in the wind-swept surf. Such breezy freedom I had to one day experience for myself. But you have to learn to ride a horse if you want to go at anything faster than walking pace. So to get there I sign up for a course over six months at Camelot Riding School in Durbanville.

Beach At Noordhoek

Beach At Noordhoek

Martinique is my trainer and a huge gelding called Silver Ball is my first horse. We saddle him up, I put on my helmet, mount and Martinique leads us to the beginner’s paddock, the circumference of which is furrowed by horse tracks. In what passes for dressage we start slowly with proper posture, how to sit, hold the reins and how the feet should be placed in the stirrups. We are ready to move. I kick Silver Ball on and he starts a slow walk. Now the walk is the slowest of the four gaits.1 The experience for the rider is one of evenness and calm. We take three lessons to master the walk during which Martinique concentrates on posture, continually issuing instructions so they sink in.

Martinique and Silver Ball

Martinique and Silver Ball

By the fourth lesson it’s time for the trot. I kick Silver Ball on in the walk and he suddenly undergoes a phase change. Silver Ball starts trotting.2 The trot is very bumpy and exhausting for the rider, who has to stiffen and relax his legs up and down with the motion of the horse. You really have to have strong thigh muscles to manage. I can only manage a few minutes at a time and my legs are all stiff the next day. The trot is however a quite efficient gait for the horse which can sustain it for prolonged periods.

Riding Silver Ball

Riding Silver Ball

“Strengthen your legs, squats in the gym are the best training for the trot”, one of the instructors tells me. I do so but it’s still tough. The lessons progress nicely. By lesson seven I’m not leaning that forward anymore, I have an open shouldered posture, my hands are nice and low on my lap, my legs are well positioned around the horse and I am more assured and balanced. Time to move to the larger paddock and to step up to the canter.3 But as risk levels are rising, Camelot Riding School puts me on a tamer horse for that – an old mare who takes well to novices. Martinique orders me to change her from the trot to the canter and once again a palpable phase shift occurs. The canter is faster – I have to hold on and feel less in control. But you can sit in the canter at least, which is easier on the legs. You have to keep your nerve at first – it’s fast and scary. “Damn it damn it, don’t fall off don’t fall off, take grip”, says my mind to fortify itself. The mare also keeps on wanting to fall back to the trot, the canter’s too trying for her, so to keep her in the canter I must use the crop and kick her, which I’m loathe to do. At any rate, my cantering improves to the extent that I’m comfortable with even Silver Ball on the canter by lesson ten.

The next gait is the gallop.4,5 This is a level too far for my abilities or aims. After one of my sessions Martinique gets a junior provincial show-jumper to demonstrate some advanced horse riding skills to me.6 We notice that her horse leads with the left foot on the canter, which is a natural preference for that horse, like a person being left-handed. “Get the horse to change lead”, orders Martinque. The rider does, and the horse now leads with the right hoof instead. How on earth did she do that? “Now get the horse to gallop from standstill!” The rider shakes up the horse and it just about flies immediately into a gallop, snorting and striding out. It looks breathtakingly elegant and scary at the same time. The rider has to hold on really low. “That’s the gallop. It takes years to master”, says Martinique. “Can she please do it again” I ask, still panting from the thrill. “Yes, but I’d rather not. These are show-jumping horses, not racing horses, and are not used to galloping. The canter is essentially the fastest they go. And the horse was disliking it, he was bucking, wanting to throw her off. I’d rather not risk it.”

 

Horse Riding an Extreme Sport

Horse Riding an Extreme Sport

So the gallop was out for me. It’s for others. In life one must know what point one can reach in a discipline – you can’t reach the pinnacle of everything. But at least I was good enough to go cantering on Noordhoek beach. Or so I thought.

Noordhoek on horseback before the fires

Noordhoek on horseback before the fires

Last Sunday the great day arrived. Carin and I pitched up at the Sleepy Hollow stables at Noordhoek. We mounted our horses, a lazy trio called Nutmeg, Raka and Rebel. We had to ride behind our instructor who was overly cautious as she had had a recent accident with a client. The horses also had a sort of pecking order in which the second horse slavishly followed the first and so on… years of imprinting were playing out as we walked to the beach. Where was Silver Ball, I wanted Silver Ball! We eventually got to the beach and after the horses were warmed up, it was time to let rip, time to feel the sea breeze in my hair, the wild energy of the beasts! The instructor kicked us on from a walk to a trot and kept looking back to see how we were doing. Then she slowed down to a walk again, before kicking us up to the trot again for a while. “When are we going canter, to move?” I asked. “We’re not”, she said. “Why not? That’s why I came, it’s for what I trained!” “Because you’re not stable enough on the trot and we’re not going to risk it today”.

Horse rising with Carin on Noordhoek Beach

Horse riding with Carin on Noordhoek Beach

Horse Shadows on Noordhoek beach

Horse Shadows on Noordhoek beach

Well, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in and I had made it to Noordhoek beach on a horse after all and there was a breeze of sorts blowing. But I did not get to canter. Sometimes our goals take a little longer than we think to realise. Sometimes it just goes like that…

Towards the setting sun

Towards the setting sun

oooooooooooooooooo

Notes:

  1. A gait is a mode in which the horse moves. Depending on its speed, a horse has four different gaits, each of which is experienced differently by the rider. The walk is a four beat rhythm. It starts with the horse putting its hind left (or right) leg forward, then its left front foot forward, followed by the hind opposite leg and the front opposite leg. So it shifts one side of its body forward, followed by the other. To understand the way horses walk, get down on your hands and knees and crawl very slowly and watch what you do. Your natural slow crawl will be a horse’s walk.
  2. The trot is a two-beat rhythm. The left hind leg and the front right leg move together, as do the right hind leg and front left leg, in a diagonal co-ordination (some breeds have an asymmetrical trot called the lope). To experience the trot, unthinkingly crawl quickly and look at your movement – you’ll be trotting.
  3. The canter is a three beat gait and although faster than the trot, is smoother for the rider provided she has control. The change from the trot to the canter is very noticeable on the body.
  4. The gallop is also a four beat rhythm, but is very unlike the walk.   The horse kicks off the gait with one of its hind legs, followed by the other hind leg, it then springs fully off the ground, body extended, and comes to land on one of the front feet followed shortly thereafter by the other, followed by a skipped beat when all legs are off the ground, and the procedure repeats itself. It’s not for the faint-hearted and is the domain of experienced riders only. Horse-riding can be a dangerous sport!
  5. For a good animation of the four gaits of the horse see https://www.drgarfinkel.com/client-education/equine-care-and-anatomy/common-gaits-of-the-horse.   For a short video clip that clearly demonstrates the various gaits of a horse on a treadmill, as well as the lope, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOTc35OrNgw.
  6. That is, selected to ride for Western Province in South African show jumping competitions, the province to which Cape Town belongs. You’ve got to be talented for that!
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