Dancing on horseback

A518037I had a great workout yesterday in my group lesson at Ladies Morning with my trainer, Sarah. I rode a fun, spicy little Arabian mare named Amira whom I’d never met before.

It took me a few minutes to get the rhythm of her energetic trot. She’s more than a hand smaller than the big horse I’ve been riding in lessons; smaller than Galahad, too, so it’s not surprising that it was an adjustment. I haven’t had enough butt-in-saddle time for it to be automatic.

Among the things we practiced during the lesson was a slowed-down, basic version of something called a “spiral spin.” Amira knows how to do it, but I’d never even heard of it. Sarah describes it as “a little, tiny circle.” As I understand the move, you gather your reins into your outside hand (closest to the rail as you travel), sit on your outside jeans pocket, slide your inside hand down the rein, and tip your horse’s head slightly toward the inside—you should only see the eyelashes and nostril.

Then, as the horse begins to turn toward the inside, you sit back and away, and pull up the outside rein slightly to signal the horse to stop forward motion and, instead, to move her front end around the back end in the spin.

The first couple of times Amira and I tried it, it was not pretty. The first time she just kind of walked around that circle. I realized I hadn’t pulled on the outside rein at all, so she didn’t get any help from that cue. Clearly, what we accomplished wasn’t a spin by anyone’s standards.

I swear, at one point I heard Sarah say, “Pull that outside rein up toward your boob.” (I could be wrong about that.) So the next time I tried pulling that outside rein. I pulled it! Amira stopped and looked at me with that inside eye as if to say, “Yeah? So you’re yanking my mouth both directions. Just exactly what is it you want me to do, lady? I’m going to stand here until you figure it out.” She stood there, glaring at me, until I let up the pressure. Then she walked in a circle again.


The third time, I remembered hearing Sarah say, about another maneuver, to “pull the rein more softly than you think she can feel.” OK, I’ll give that a shot. So I gathered the reins, tipped Amira’s head just a tiny bit, sat back and away, and then carefully moved the outside rein to ask more quietly than I thought she could possibly feel.

And dang! We did it! That little mare sat back on her haunches and moved in the tiniest imaginable circle all the way around. Yup, I can honestly say that she “spun” (slowly) on her hind legs. It felt like magic. I am not kidding.

It’s really hard to describe just how magical it was. I kept thinking, “How can that possibly happen? How can that tiniest of tiny suggestions be enough to get this horse to respond in that way?” I found myself sitting atop the moving horse with my eyes as big as dinner plates and my mouth hanging open.

Looking back, I think the most astonishing part of the entire wonderful, exhausting 90-minute lesson was realizing how softly I had to ask in order for that mare to do what I was asking–and how willingly she did it when I got softer. That’s a lesson I’ll never forget, though it will likely take me the rest of my life to be able to be that soft on a consistent basis.

That experience was the closest I’ve ever been to “dancing” with a horse from on its back, and I’m really jazzed about it. It makes total sense when viewed through the lens of “dancing,” though. For me as a dancer, there’s not much worse than a rough-handed lead: How many times have I wanted to stop, glare at my partner, and say, “Buddy, you just do NOT get it. I’m outta here.”

It did make me realize that most of the time I’m horribly clunky and rough—but I have to learn, and I’ll get better fast. And I wonder what the effect on Galahad will be? And, for that matter, on my behavior as a leader? To be continued….