Friday, November 25, 2022

Horse riding is hard

I'm not a beginner at this. I've done it before—endurance riding in Turkey and Mongolia, a week or two each time. Eight years has elapsed since then, so in preparation for Colombia this time I kept up my running fitness and got some practice in the ring to rebuild my confidence. 

It's important to have confidence on a horse. The horse needs to know you're the boss. And the first thing it will typically do is find out if you are. It will try to do what it wants rather than what you want, by going slow, eating grass, or choosing the direction. This is the first test of firm and just confidence.

Engage the horse. It is not a car. You're not a passenger. This is not a pony ride at the Easter Show. If you're not engaging with the horse on every single step then you're not riding. When you drive, do you take your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals? Riding horses needs a similar amount of attention, and actually more. 

The horse's bit (that piece of hinged metal in its mouth) should always be engaged, gently, with the reins. Just like keeping a car in gear; coasting in neutral is dangerous, isn't it? But more than this, horses are not machines. They are individuals with personalities as varied as dogs and people, are of different ages with different energies, and they are social creatures with a dynamic language between them that you need to read—language that includes kicking and biting. 
The idea is not to allow this or foment it, and to prevent it with awareness by not crowding them. Be the boss to whom the horse listens. And to be that you need to be competent and confident, and also kind, not brutal. If you bond with the horse and be likeable so it likes you, it will give all you ask of it. Perhaps some cruel riders could disagree on that point and insist you can dominate a horse with discipline—which indeed is also necessary—but to my mind (and to most riders) the horse will give more when asked to a kindly rider than to one that whips it with a riding crop.

This is the third and hardest endurance ride I've done. Every ride is different, for so many factors, but what makes this one so hard is the control. Unlike in Mongolia, where the horses are half wild and the landscape is a wide and vast steppe that invites wandering recces, this is a very controlled ride—up steep mountains and down into narrow valleys, single file on narrow jungle paths and rural road edges, not uncommonly with cars or motorcycles passing within feet and dogs shooting out randomly, barking and snapping.

You need correct posture and to adjust it with the terrain; to be aware of your shoulders, which will turn the horse; to control the pace and not allow the horse to decide it; and to maintain tight contact with the horse through your legs, your pelvis, and the bit.

And this is all just at a walk. At a trot you need to post—rhythmically rising in the saddle with the gait—and you need to time this with the horse's pace so you don't stall the trot. (The exception here is with the Colombian Paso Fino blooded horses, ridden by some more experienced riders in the group, which have a different gait that smooths the trot and eliminates the need to post.) At a canter you need to be up out of the saddle and rolling fluidly with the horse, holding yourself in position and balancing with bent knees as the horse "rolls" under you like a sea swell.

It is a workout. You need to be fit, with strong core muscles and strong leg muscles, the latter of which are a different set than a human seems to usually use. This, to beginners, is a sore and surprising discovery the following day. 

And actually, not only to beginners.

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