Weekend Adventure: I test drove a Saddlebred…

…and it was awesome, and it was hilarious, and I was terrible at it, and yes, oh yes, there is video.

Saddlebreds have always fascinated me. There’s just something about that rats-on-crack look in their eyes that is equal parts mesmerizing and mysterious. What’s going on in there? Couple that with flamboyant gaits, whistling crowds and riders dressed like a Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls”–now that’s entertainment.

Over the weekend, I attended a horse trials near Louisville, Kentucky. Since stabling on the showgrounds was limited, I was assigned to a farm located a few minutes down the road. Imagine my delight when I discovered that our temporary residence, Jo Cornell Stables, was a working Saddlebred show barn. Since I only had one horse going in the event and, thus, a lot of free time on my hands, I wasted no time chasing down the stables’ owner, Jo, to see about taking a lesson while I was there. You know, expand my horizons a little.

Jo’s enthusiasm for horses is deep-fried in a batter of Southern hospitality. She refers to herself as “retired” but she sure didn’t seem very retired to me–the weekend we were there she was at the barn from dawn to dusk, teaching lessons, carting students to a horse show, and pitching in with barn chores. “You are our guests for the weekend,” she informed the eventers, who immediately fell in love with her Dixiefied charm. (I actually saw two eventers give the woman a hug upon leaving.)

The Saddlebred Jo had in mind for me to ride was Blondie (show name: I’m a New York Gal), so named for her flaxen mane and tail. “She’s hot,” Jo warned me. “She’s REAL hot.” I wasn’t concerned; I like my horses with a screw or two loose, anyway, and was secretly thrilled that Jo was entrusting me with one of her favorite fruitcakes.

As Jo tacked the mare up, I admired the spit-polished saddle and bridle. The traditional saddle has a flat seat, a straight flap, and a dramatically cut-back pommel that allows for the horses’ higher withers and neck set. It’s customary to ride in a double bridle, but Jo had me ride Blondie in a Kimberwicke with two reins. Note to self: Wouldn’t my horse look sharp in a red patent leather browband?

I climbed aboard and Jo helped me to assume the correct saddle seat position: arms up, legs out, toes slightly in. After a lifetime of having been screamed at to keep my hands down and my lower leg tight, the pose went against every fiber of my being, but I did it. Not well, but I did it. Only because if I didn’t do it, if I accidently reverted to “leg ON,” the mare was off like a bottle rocket.

For some reason, I had this idea in my head that the point of saddle seat was to trot as fast and furiously around the ring as possible. This, I eventually realized with some embarrassment, is incorrect. The point is to make the horse’s gaits as BIG as possible.

Not unlike dressage, you want to shift the horse’s weight onto its hindquarters, in effect freeing up the front end to “do its thing.” Even with a flatshod Saddlebred like Blondie, there’s the potential for a whole lot of action up there. Jo had me do lots of trot-reinback-trot transitions, with varying degrees of success, to give me the correct feeling. She also whistled and beat her whip on things and threw handfuls of arena footing in our direction, which further animated Blondie’s step. Note to self: Start throwing arena sand at students on lazy ponies.

Another big thing about riding Saddlebreds, Jo explained, was that you want to use your hands, legs and voice uber-frequently, but always-always-always followed by a release. She compared it to playing a piano: If you hold a key down once and don’t let go, there is no music. But if you press down on multiple keys, always following each press with a release, you have a melody. While saddle seat takes it to the extreme–saying things like “Hup trot!” while kicking and fiddling with the reins is generally frowned upon in dressage–there are clearly some conceptual similarities at work here as well. If you’re constantly going around hanging on your horse’s face and using your legs like a vise-grip, what happens when you actually need to step on the gas or the brakes? You’ve got nothing left, so what happens is nothing.

By the time my 45-minute lesson was up, I was drenched in sweat and grinning like an idiot. I could kind of see why people get into this stuff. When it was good, it felt good–the horse flying along underneath you, strung tight as a fiddle, mane whipping in your face like a flag.

Note to self: Take more test drives.

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