When you get used to riding a certain horse, riding something different can feel more than a little awkward. Jennifer Wollenberg shares her story of “branching out.”
Ugh, I’m so sick of snow. Southeastern Pennsylvania has been almost constantly buried in anywhere from 2 to 14 inches of snow, and frigid temperatures, since December. My 13-year-old self was seemingly impervious to these conditions, and my only concession to the cold weather would’ve been to ride in a jacket or sweatshirt rather than my usual tee shirt. My 36-year-old self is not as hardy, and even my warmest fleece-lined breeches are a meager defense against the weather this winter. I’ve grown up into a cold weather wimp. And on the rare occasions that my schedule has coincided with at least marginally acceptable outdoor riding weather, the footing in our ring hasn’t been safe for riding at anything more than a walk. As a result, I haven’t been on Val since December and have just accepted that it will be a long road back to fitness for both her and me come spring.
To make matters more challenging, my wonderful riding instructor went back to work as a school teacher, which has unfortunately put a serious dent in her barn time. So before the winter hiatus, I had been pretty much on my own for several months in terms of training. I feel pretty comfortable that I know what I’m doing in terms of continuing to address the training and fitness issues we had been dealing with over the last year, but it’s still nice to have a pair of eyes on the ground and the benefit of someone else’s experience. With that in mind, I recently started taking lessons with a new instructor at a nearby farm, with the thought that when the weather clears and I get Val passably fit again, I can trailer her over there occasionally for a lesson. In the meantime, though, I’ve been riding one of the boarder’s horses at the new farm.
Taking lessons with a new instructor is strange business. I had been with my previous instructor for a few years, and we were accustomed to each other. I understood her lesson format, her expectations, her pet peeves, and her approach to teaching. She was (and still is) my friend, as well as my teacher. I didn’t know much about my new instructor, except that he’s a talented professional rider who came recommended by a source I trust and greatly respect. I had no idea what to expect going into our first lesson, and we spent it on flat work and ground rail exercises, which was fine with me. The strange thing was that when I got home and my husband asked how it went, I couldn’t really come up with an articulate answer, or even say definitively whether I liked it or not, or how I felt like I had ridden.
I mulled that over for a day or so and then finally realized what it was about the lesson that threw me off. My first lesson with the new instructor was also the first time I had been on a horse who was not Val in almost two years. It was the first time in probably five years that I had been on a horse I’d never ridden before, and knew nothing about. Our first couple lessons have been a lot about my new instructor figuring me out as a rider/student, and me figuring him out as a trainer. But for me, they’ve been even more about figuring out a new horse.
I grew up riding a different school horse every week, so I feel like this whole “new horse” thing shouldn’t be a big deal, but it kind of is. Maybe it’s because my metric for a successful lesson now goes well beyond just staying on. My 13-year-old self was happy if I could get on a strange horse and get around the ring in one piece. That’s obviously still important, but my 36-year-old self wants to feel like I got around the ring well. With passable equitation, good transitions, quality gaits, a presentable frame, self carriage, straightness, consistent pace, accurate distances, a stable leg, a following hand, etc., etc. The bar’s definitely higher now.
Each lesson has been an improvement over the last so far, but I definitely haven’t gotten it worked out yet. Hopefully over the next few lessons I’ll at least get a little closer to reaching the bar!
About Jennifer: I’m an amateur rider trying to figure out how to maximize my time at the barn while juggling the competing demands of a one year old daughter, a wonderful husband, and a challenging job. I’ve been riding for over 25 years and I’ve done a little teaching, a little training, a fair bit of showing, and a lot of just hacking around. My current project is training a wonderful Thoroughbred mare on a once-a-week riding schedule.