Today I am saddle sore. The muscles between my lower back and my knees have that pleasantly sore sensation that tells me I got a good workout yesterday by using muscles that I don't always use. I grew up on a ranch and had a horse of my own but haven't actually been on one since college. Everyone I knew was involved in 4-H and we showed our horses at the county fair every year, not to mention riding for regular ranch work and sometimes just for fun.
My father-in-law, who has been crafting western saddles by hand for nearly 50 years, has recently taken up English riding and he invited me to go along yesterday. Of course, I knew right away the saddles would be different. No saddle horn, for one. Different stirrups and leg position. How hard can that be?
It was different enough that I almost felt like I'd never been on a horse! First let's talk about the horse itself. Madeline was HUGE! I've been on American Quarter Horses which lend themselves to being really tall sometimes but they are also sleek and slim. Madeline had a back end that needed a wide load sign. When we put the saddle on her it looked as ridiculous as a party hat on an elephant. Her neck is broad and her face is wide and the muscle definition in her hind quarters is massive. She's about the equine equivalent of a body builder. Earl, my father-in-law, told me that Madeline will jump higher than I am brave enough to try! I was a bit nervous.
Getting in the saddle was pretty familiar. It felt pretty good and there is nothing like the smell of a horse to lift your spirits. Once Earl began to instruct me all familiarity ended. With English riding the reins are held in two hands and need to be kept tight and all direction is done with applying pressure with your knees. I grew up with holding reins loosely in the left hand and my horse would move with barely any movement. Getting used to an entirely different reining technique was the hardest part for me! I'm amazed that I haven't ridden in about 18 years and yet I can't get my brain wrapped around a new reining technique. After many laps of walking, trotting, and some cantering (loping in the western world) and lots of instruction, Earl asked me if I wanted to jump. My palms immediately began sweating. The only thing I ever jumped was an occasional creek or ditch, nothing that was raised off the ground. Being highly competitive I asked him if he jumped on his first day. Being highly competitive as well he replied in the affirmative. So I knew I had to give it a try.
Fortunately, Madeline knows what she's doing. It was also clear that she knew that I didn't. I was pretty nervous because Earl fired off another string of instructions specific to jumping. It's not like you can do a jump in slow motion and practice each step. Either you apply them all or you fall off. At a good stiff trot we took all three jumps in the middle of the arena. My foot came out of the stirrup somewhere between the first and second jump and when the third jump came I really thought I was going over her head. Madeline isn't all that tall but I certainly wouldn't want to land under her considerable weight. I squeezed with all the thigh muscles I could find and stayed on. I'm sure it wasn't pretty but completing the three jumps was an amazing feeling; I can see why Earl got hooked and keeps going back, despite having broken his pelvis this summer and his arm this fall. I get nervous thinking about jumping again; trying to remember everything is nerve wracking. However, I have a good teacher and at least he'll know what to do if I get hurt!