Thursday, November 26, 2009

Slippery Slope

I was having a hard time with the school saddle. I had been using it for a few months and I had come to the conclusion that it was too small for GM and it was way too small for my butt. It felt like I was sitting on a piece of wood. The Instructor said he could get me a good saddle, but it was going to cost $2,000.00. I decided to take the plunge. I thought that if, down the road, I decided that riding was not for me, I could sell it. When I told my husband what I was doing, his eyebrows rose ever so slightly, but he had the good sense not to say anything. He knew that if he did, I would immediately question his golf membership and golf-related expenses. My order was placed and after 6 weeks of waiting, it finally arrived. It was beautiful!! I was the envy of the barn. I couldn’t believe the difference. It was soooooo comfortable.

GM's tummy was a tad too big for the regular girth that came with the saddle. Unfortunately for GM (or maybe fortunately) they don't make Spanx for horses. Off I went to get an extender. This little device added an extra 5 inches to the girth and hid discretely under the saddle flap. No need for GM to be embarrassed!

I did not want to risk having one of the younger students taking my new saddle out for a spin when I wasn’t there, so I took it home with me after each lesson and stored it in my basement. Carrying it up and down the stairs was a work out for me in the beginning and walking back and forth from the car with it was also taxing. But, over time it became easier. Could it be that I was actually starting to get some flexibility and muscle tone???

My new saddle made me realize how my body was changing....subtle changes, but changes none the less. It occurred to me that I wasn’t dropping the girth as often when I was carrying it back and forth. I wasn't banging my fingers on the gate when I opened and shut it while holding the saddle in my arms. The weight of my new piece of leather used to pitch me forward, causing me to stumbled down the pathway. No longer an issue; my coordination was improving. Eventually, I could easily lift my saddle up and gently place it on GM's back. My saddle measured improvement, but it also highlighted problem areas. After a few months of using my saddle, I noticed that the leather was wearing in certain places from the stirrup straps rubbing against it, an indication that my legs were not as "quiet" as they should be. Having a beautiful expensive saddle did not guarantee that my riding skills would improve.

After I got my saddle, I went out and bought my own grooming supplies - assorted brushes and combs, hoof pick, sponge - and a carrying case to put it all in. I purchased my own red crop, saddle pad and a halter; basic black, of course. I upgraded my boots, bought beautiful insulated riding gloves and a neck warmer. I was now able to carry my saddle AND my grooming supplies back and forth in one go. One day when I was grooming GM, one of the boarders at the stables noticed all of my supplies and my gorgeous saddle and said “Geez, you need your own horse to go with all that stuff!” The seed was planted.

What was I thinking….?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I always admired the young ladies at the stables. It was like they were all cut with the same cookie cutter – tall, slim, blonde, blue-eyed. They always looked gorgeous in breeches and a T-shirt. Dirt and sweat did not seem to deter from their fresh beauty. There were times I was envious of their youth and energy.

Initially, I wore T-shirts, a pair of black stretchy flared pants and regular under garments to riding lessons. I soon discovered that, for the first time in my life, I needed a SPORTS BRA!! I was quite excited about this. I proudly consulted a couple of my jogger friends on what I should be looking for and started my search. It became apparent fairly quickly that women with breasts larger than a “D” cup were not meant to be doing sports of any kind. I fell into this category. I went to my specialty bra store and, yes, they had one model that came in gynormous sizes. It was probably the most unattractive bra I had ever seen – it looked like the pointy model that Madonna used to wear in the 90’s. But, it fit.

My black stretchy flared pants didn’t actually offer any protection to my calves from the stirrup straps. I always had bruises on my legs. I went to my local tack store and after trying on 10 pairs, I purchased a pair of basic black breeches that had a medium amount of elasticity to help stop my thighs from jiggling.

Getting dressed for my next lesson almost killed me. My sports bra was extremely tight. Made sense – it had to hold everything in place. I had to fasten it from the front and twist it around my body. What kind of torture device was this?! I am sure it chaffed off skin as I pulled it around my body. The shoulder straps had no elasticity. I held out one of the very taunt straps and put my other arm through. With great effort, I started to pull the strap up my arm and on to my shoulder. My hand slipped and flew back and hit me in between my eyes at the bridge of my nose with such force that I was knocked back and saw stars. After I wiped the tears from my eyes, I unwrapped my new breeches.

My new breeches seemed a lot tighter than I remembered. I pulled and stretched and pulled and stretched. Did a little jumping up and down dance and they were on. It was almost as bad as putting on control-top pantyhose. I now basically had an elastic band around my midriff in addition to an elastic band around my rib cage. I broke out into a sweat and realized that I couldn’t breathe. My sports bra kept my breasts in place, but it did not allow me to get a lungful of air. I was starting to hyperventilate. I calmed myself down and put on my slightly fitted T-shirt, which accentuated all of the rolls created by the bands that now surrounded my body.

As I walked out the door with my pointy Madonna breasts, my non-jiggly thighs and my neck still slightly damp from sweat, I realized that I would suffer just about any discomfort to be able to ride.

What was I thinking…..?

Friday, November 13, 2009


If I didn’t have a carrot in my hand, GM would turn away and leave me staring at her butt as I entered her stall. This gesture did not improve my confidence and, in fact, scared me. If she was eating, she would hunk over her food and not budge. My approach was to beg. Not pretty, and certainly humiliating. "Please let me cross-tie you. Here's a carrot....please!"

Putting the bridle on GM was becoming the most stressful part of my riding experience. After going through the Chicken Dance while grooming and putting the saddle on her, I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as the time approached to put on the bridle. I was terrified that those large teeth were going to connect with one of my fingers. Snap, snap! I was grateful that I was able to tack her up in her stall because I felt better about the fact that she couldn’t run off while I fumbled with the halter then the bridle. I knew what I was supposed to do and, in reality, she was pretty darn patient in this area. But, I would work myself up into such a tizzy that my fingers would not work. It didn't help matters that I couldn't actually see what I was doing - magnifying reading glasses were not part of my ensemble. I would end up poking her in the eyes or banging the bit into her teeth or try to put the bridle on backwards. The pressure was on. My classmates would be walking by GM's stall on their way to the arena. I'm late! I would eventually panic and ask for help.

Word got around about what a baby I was about the bridle and how intimidated I was by GM. One day the barn manager told me she would help me get GM ready for my lesson. We entered the stall. As GM started to turn, the barn manager quickly put her arm under GM’s jaw and softly stopped her from turning. Then she quietly started scratching GM behind her ears, slowly down her neck and withers all the way to the base of her tail. She found a sweet spot on GM’s rump. GM's body started to relax and she was totally glazed over. I think I heard her sigh!! The barn manager continued scratching her for about 10 minutes. The saddle and bridle went on without incident. I was in awe. No begging, no carrots. “You wouldn’t want someone barging into your space during dinner and throwing a saddle on you, would you? Stop and say hi and then ease into it. Don't rush her. Respect her.”

I came 20 minutes earlier than usual the next time. There was no activity in the barn, other than the munching of horses eating. I stood just inside the stall and talked to GM for a while and let her continue eating. Her ears twitched. She was listening to me natter away! She did not show me her butt. Then I started to slowly scratch her all over. No Chicken Dance. No cross-ties. No begging. No carrots.

This exercise was supposed to be for her, but I think I benefited from it more. Taking that extra 20 minutes for quiet time with GM helped me calm down after a busy day at work. I could feel the stress leaving my body, my mind started to clear. In some ways, it was almost as good as having a vodka soda - almost!! She did not attempt to bite me that evening, or any other time after that. There were still times she thought about it....but she didn't. Old habits die hard. We had reached a mutual understanding. Another lesson learned.

Not having to do the Chicken Dance or beg someone to help me with the bridle was a BIG boost to my confidence. I think GM felt the difference because she seems to be a little less grumpy with me. Unfortunately, this exercise did not eliminate her need to pin her ears back and kick if one of the other horses got too close during lesson. My vise-like thighs still came in handy!

What was I thinking…..?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


A few weeks before he left on his Caribbean holiday, The Instructor purchased a couple of mares from an auction. One of these horses, Abby, was actually purchased for a lady who recently lost her horse to a chronic illness. Abby was lovely and, after spending 30 minutes grooming her, if she had been available I would have purchased her – it would have been a HUGE mistake, but I would have purchased her! She was gentle, loving, very pretty and had big liquid brown eyes. She was very polite when she was being groomed; the complete opposite of GM. I did not have to do the Chicken Dance with Abby. She loved the attention. She was also young – 6 years old, compared to GM’s 20 years of experience.

Abby was being used for some lessons. This was to help burn off some of her energy and to socialize her. I was to ride her during my Wednesday evening class through the winter months. I was thrilled!

She was slightly smaller than GM. She stood very nicely when I mounted, and allowed me to get comfortable. She was pleasant! "Walk on!" She sort of pranced. I wasn't used to all of the movement, but it was nice. "TA-rot!" I applied a whisper of leg contact and....she was off! She was unable to break into a canter because of all of the other riders in the arena (thank God!), but she started passing the others in the arena doing a very fast, extended trot. It probably would have looked quite impressive if it hadn't been for me bouncing around on top of her like a rag doll. Thank goodness for sports bras! The Instructor was not impressed. The yelling and arm waving started.

As much as I was excited to be riding a horse other than GM, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I could not continue riding Abby. Even with learning how to "Milk the Cow" it was a challenge. Abby just wanted to run.....all the time! Milking the cow helped, but it wasn't the solution and I certainly wasn't the person qualified to help her transition into a "broke" horse. She was not push-button like GM. I found that I spent the whole lesson just trying to keep Abby under control. It wasn’t pleasant for me and I am sure it wasn’t pleasant for her. I felt frustrated and inadequate.

Riding Abby was a really important learning experience for me. If Abby had been available, I would have purchased her basically on how pretty she was! I would have spent a lot of time being frustrated and she would not have benefited from my lack of experience. Riding her made me realize that your horse companion must be suited to your current AND future abilities. Having a horse companion is a 20+ year commitment, so you need to be able to enjoy and challenge each other for the duration. I was also able to see, first-hand, the difference between an older, experienced, broke horse and a young, feisty, green-broke one.

I went back to riding GM for both of my weekly lessons. It was a relief to get back into the routine with her. It wasn’t fulfilling, but I knew what to expect. My experience with Abby did, however, make me realize that I wanted more from the riding experience.

What was I thinking……?

Friday, November 6, 2009


The stables were located 15 minutes from my home. You couldn’t get more convenient than that. Thirty years ago, the location was considered “out in the country”, but suburban sprawl now had it situated in the middle of a huge residential community.

Thank goodness there was an indoor arena. It was quite well insulated and it was great to be able to take lessons out of the wind and cold. As it got cooler, The Instructor started to combine lesson groups so he would cut down the number of lessons he had to teach in the cold. He reminded us regularly that he was looking forward to the warmth of his Caribbean condo after Xmas.

At one point, we had 8 in our lessons. In addition, there were some boarders who joined our lessons so that they could get arena time to exercise their horses. The advantage of having so many packed into the arena was the warmth that was generated from body heat. It was very comfortable. The disadvantage was that I was nervous of all the activity going on around me and I couldn't hear The Instructor. GM did not cope well with the additional activity.

As the horses started to sweat, steam would come off their bodies creating a haze in the arena. When lessons were done, they would be wrapped up in their wool blankets to cool down.

As the holiday season approached, it was suggested that we should coordinate a synchronized drill to show at the little Xmas party The Instructor was going to host in the observation lounge. He explained that it was a pot luck and it was usually well attended by the boarders and their families. Sounded like fun.

Organizing the drill was painful. Everyone had their own idea of what the drill should be and it was pandemonium. Strangely, The Instructor was not participating. He felt that the drill should be a reflection of what the beginners had learned over the last few months, so it was up to us to come up with a routine. The result was lots of yelling, disagreements and horses bucking and kicking. There were 12 of us participating. With all of the drama going on, I was starting to loose interest. The horses could certainly feel the tension. It was during a "pile up" at one end of the arena during a practice that my riding buddy, Jean, ate dirt. Unfortunately for Jean, GM acted out against Jean's horse and to avoid being kicked, her horse zigged and Jean zagged. Two other riders ate dirt during the warm up, prior to our performance. I almost ate dirt, but discovered that, even though I was still round, my thighs could now grip like a vise and I managed to stay on. Our performance was certainly not perfect and it was a little embarrassing. But, we did it and we had a good laugh. I found out later from The Instructor that this drill was put on every year by beginners as a sort of comedy show for the guests. I wasn't sure how to take that.

The Instructor left for his Caribbean hideway a couple of weeks later. We continued our lessons through the winter months with another instructor. Her style was much more of a teacher than a trainer.

During the winter months, I learned two valuable lessons from our new instructor. "Don't kill the birds!" and "Milk the cow!" I had a tendency to really grip the reins and hang on to them for dear life. My new instructor told me to imagine holding birds in my hands to soften my grip. This was a great visual for me, and it worked most of the time. Every once and a while she would yell down the arena to me "Don't kill the birds! You are killing the birds!" Classmates who didn't know what was going on would give me dagger looks - "What?! You're killing birds?!"

When I was riding Abby for some of my lessons, I was having a really hard time keeping her in check. The new instructor gave me a new exercise to try with her; milking the cow. I was to hold the birds in my hands, and at the same time gently pull up on one rein and then the other while trotting; milking the cow. When the new instructor saw Abby starting to get away from me, she would yell "Don't kill the birds!! Milk the cow!! Now!" Again, the strange looks from my classmates. However, this movement really worked on slowing Abby down most of the time. I took lessons on Abby for about a month, but eventually went back to riding GM for both of my weekly lessons.

I survived winter. The horrible driving conditions, the darkness, the snow and ice on the walkways and parking lot, the freezing temperatures, and snow piled high. I learned how to Milk the Cow and how not to the Kill the Birds. For the first time ever, I dressed for the function and not for the look...well, my outfits were still colour coordinated, of course! I wore 5 layers of clothing that made my round body look square...and I didn’t care! If I had fallen on the ice, I wouldn’t have felt a thing with all the padding I had on. I forced myself out the warmth of my home each lesson day, just so I could spend time at the stables with a horse that really didn’t care if she ever saw me again.

What was I thinking….?