Archive for February, 2010

Back in the Saddle

The weather has finally turned more seasonable, and there’s talk and the smell of spring in the air.  It’s bizarre to realize that I’m agreeing with statements like, “finally, it’s starting to feel like spring!” in the middle of February.  February is not spring, I don’t care what anyone tells me.  Yet, there is that sudden softness in the air that makes me think winter might be over.  Maybe I’ll just pretend it’s April already, and things will seem less strange.

I’ve had a couple of really good rides last week.  Wednesday I had a lesson on Odette, who is a French thoroughbred who raced up until a few years ago.  She’s sensitive and tends to run when she gets out of balance, so a lot of the rider’s job is to keep your own body well balanced and in synch with her, so that she feeds off of that security and steadies herself.  I rode her on the lunge line, so all of the control of her speed was up to me and subtle shifts in my weight on her back and how much I went with her movement or held myself stiller than it.  (Sorry, for the non-dressage folks this is probably as exciting and understandable as watching cross-country skiing in the Winter Olympics.  Hang in there.  Or, feel free to skip this bit).  Anyway, she reminded me a lot of an ex-polo pony I used to ride, Gali, who was extremely sensitive to every slight movement the rider made.  Odette is slightly less rigid and tense, which means that when I did something right she responded, gratifyingly, by relaxing and coming through (Laymans’ Cliff Notes: in dressage, when a horse is “through” or “on the bit” it means that they are using their bodies in a way that the energy from their hind legs comes up over their backs and through their necks, creating a flow of energy that allows them to carry more of their weight on their back legs, lifting their front ends and making them move more balanced and athletically.).  However, getting her there took a lot of mental and physical concentration on my part, and since I’ve always been a pretty timid rider, it also took a lot of control to not get nervous when she did start to speed up and get unbalanced – because, not having any connection to the horse’s mouth (on the lunge line the instructor holds the rope attached tot he horse’s face, so the rider doesn’t have to worry about steering) makes you feel pretty out of control, even if the point of the exercise is to learn to control the horse without the reins.  It was hard, but satisfying, because I could feel myself making progress even within the space of the lesson.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several evenings per week we all go out for a hack before feeding time.  On Thursday I rode Tali, who’s a big, gangly, kind of funny-looking grey gelding.  He’s a sweetie, and one of the best trail horses I’ve ever ridden outside in the big scary world.  I was told that he used to be quite tense on trail rides, but he was relaxed and happy yesterday, seeming to have decided at some point that this whole exploring thing wasn’t so scary, and that racing the other horses home really is a waste of his energy.  He seemed to be genuinely having fun, which makes riding infinitely more fun for me.  We went down the road that leads to the farm (and by “road” I mean the one-lane track that splits off of the main, very narrow, two-lane road about a 3/4 of a mile away, and leads to this and one other farm at the bottom of the hill), and across to some fields and a dirt road on the other side of the main road.  It was beautiful, just nearing sunset, the horses were good – nobody even thought about spooking at the deer we saw leaping through the field, or the pheasant wandering down the track ahead of us – and as we were heading back up the hill to the farm I could see the Pyrenees in the distance, with a bank of reddish clouds hanging over them.  It was more than a little bit surreal.


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I seem to have brought winter to the south.  Ever since I arrived last weekend there’s been unseasonably cold temperatures, and for the last two days it’s been snowing on and off.  They say it rarely snows here, and when it does the accumulation doesn’t last more than a few hours.  This snow started yesterday, fell all night, and shows no sign of melting even now that the flurries have stopped.  Some kind of cosmic weather pattern bringing me just a taste of the blizzards back home, perhaps?  I’m not complaining  – it’s certainly pretty, and I can handle a few inches of fluffy white stuff, just to remind me that it’s really winter.

For the next nine weeks I will be a working student at a dressage barn in south-western France.  The farm, called Picoyne, is in the region called the Gers, in Gascony – closest to the tiny village of Bazian, if you really want to Google Maps-it.  The Gers (pronounced “Zhers”) is an area of rolling hills, mostly open fields and agricultural land.  Picoyne is on the top of one of these hills, with a view over the surrounding area, and, on clear days, all the way to the Pyrenees mountains a few hours’ drive south.  It’s a beautiful landscape, more like Tuscany than the plains of northern France.

I’m here working for and learning from two Scottish sisters, who moved here with their parents several years ago to start the stable and open a business offering riding holidays.  Gabby and Camille train the horses and teach lessons to some people from the local area, too.

Ca-Va (grey) and Odette looking out their back windows

There are sixteen horses on the farm, ranging from two 2 year-olds to Camille’s 27 year-old childhood horse who wanders the property at liberty, as the sort of farm mascot.  Most of them are thoroughbreds and crosses, generally bigger and heavier than many American dressage horses.  They are very interested in natural horse care here, so the horses are all barefoot (no shoes, for the non-horsefolk), but they wear hoof boots when they work, to give them a little extra protection and support.  They also eat homemade feed, made from grinding whole oats and mixing it with a powdered coconut meal that’s supposed to be a good source of energy and alfalfa pellets and soaking the whole mess in water so that it’s appetizing and not dusty.  Some also get ground corn and/or a bit of bee pollen (which has lots of good stuff in it), but none of the supplements or processed feeds that are pretty much the norm in most barns.  I haven’t learned enough about it yet to decide if the extra time spent preparing the feed is worth any benefit the horses get from it, but if you follow the theory that less processed food is better for humans, then perhaps it is.  It’s certainly interesting, and it smells amazing – the coconut meal smells like chocolate when it’s soaked, and the oats smell like bread…my stomach gets pretty growly mixing the mash in the morning before I’ve had my own breakfast!

Days start later here than any barn I’ve ever worked at – 8 or even 8:30 most mornings.  Highly civilized.  The horses go out at night, so we bring them in from the field and feed, and the come back up to the house for breakfast.  After that Gabby and Camille each work 3-4 horses, and I help groom and tack up.  I have a lesson during one of the sets, too.  They follow somewhat the theory of the Spanish Riding School, which is based on establishing a correct position in the saddle, and an effective seat before you work on any of the classical dressage movements.  They do it on the lunge line so that the rider can learn to control their body, and with it the horse’s body, without using and/or relying on the reins.  It’s a great way to become really aware of everything your body does in relation to the horse, and I think it will be really helpful for my riding in general.  It’s a much subtler way of relating to the horse, which is one of the things I really like about dressage.

After working for most of the middle of the day we go in for lunch around 3, and then back out to work another set of horses before feeding and turning them out, and cleaning the barn.  Dinner is around 9, and then it’s off to bed to sleep away the sore muscles.

It’s a long day, but a pretty laid-back one.  I’ve worked at several barns that have upwards of 30 horses who all need to be fed, turned out/in, and cleaned up after every day, usually by only 2 people, so the name of the game was always efficiency.  Don’t walk one way to get something empty handed if there’s something that needs to go that way, and the flow of the day is always planned to maximize the amount of work that can get done with the minimal amount of unnecessary effort (retracing ones steps is a waste of time, in short).  Here, though, while things all get done in an orderly manner, there’s a much more relaxed atmosphere about it.  Rather French, actually.  It’s nice, not feeling like I should be thinking three steps ahead of whatever I’m doing at that moment, but I’m so used to being on top of every move I make in a barn that it will take some getting used to.  And, Hilary or Susie, if you’re reading this – don’t worry, I won’t forget how to do it all the proper way.

Phoenix (L) and Kaffa

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