Grin and Bare It

I rode my pony bareback yesterday.

What would be your first clue?

It’s been several years since I’ve been brave enough to hop on her bareback.  The whole “lack of withers, round barrel, flat back, low head carriage” thing makes riding Mimi bareback a rather interesting proposition.  There is nothing there to hold you in place.  No handy leg channel, no airbag withers or neck, no secure back dip.  And she has nothing by way of long, grab-able mane.

And despite all of that, I’ve only come off of her bareback once.  That could also be due in large part to the fact I have avoided much bareback riding in the last eight or nine years.

I grew up riding her bareback.  It was pretty common practice to pull saddles after our lessons and hop on a ride for another 15-20 minutes bareback.  This worked well because most of us rode in cut-off shorts in the summer, and the ponies’ backs were already sticky and sweaty from the saddles.  It was pretty easy to have Velcro-butt under those circumstances.

I even did some jumping bareback.  (What can I say?  I was young and stupid, riding with several other young, stupid, teenage girls and we spent a great deal of time coming up with outrageous challenges to one-up each other.)

I was also lighter weight back then, and there was less of “me” to balance and sort out, which made the “cling like a limpet” thing a lot easier.

There was also incentive to practice bareback frequently and stay good at it, because one of the classes at every show was bareback equitation.  I was good at equitation, so that alone gave me incentive to do everything in my power to retain that status.  (Full Western suede chaps at the shows made for easier sticking on the pony as well.)

When I stopped showing and started distance riding, I stopped riding bareback.  There is no way I’m taking Mimi out on trail bareback.  I don’t have that much faith in my Velcro-butt, and really hate to fall off.  So I stick with a saddle for on trail.

But yesterday, I knew I wanted to ride.  But I’d had a busy several days doing all the cooking for one of my mother’s in-home memory art events, and Sunday was my decompression and relaxation day.  But neither did I want to make the trek down to the barn simply to drop off her bags of supplements.  So that meant riding.  But I just didn’t want to deal with thorough grooming, saddling, and all the proper schooling that a full session entails.

So I grabbed my helmet and her bridle, scraped a shedding curry over her (more white fluff removal), slithered on from the fence, and we started wandering around the arena.

Oh yeah, did I mention the wind was blowing at about 25-20mph during all of this?  We had multiple dust devils go racing through the arena, tarps flapping around on neighboring properties, all the fun stuff that happens with high wind.  And it didn’t faze the pony a bit.  She’s a rock star.  :)

Walking felt good, so I got brave and bumped it up to a jog.  She did wonderfully well, actually giving me a proper Western jog that was more than a shuffle but still rideable.  Good girl.  Then I got really brave and attempted a canter.  We actually made a full circle around the arena, but she wasn’t thrilled with me.  Her canter is not smooth anymore, and she really doesn’t do slow Western lope these days.  In a saddle, I can ride it out and stay pretty quiet.  Bareback, it throws me around and I can’t help the inevitable bouncing.

Apparently my recent weight loss means less padding on my rear end, and she’s less than appreciative of my seat bones in her back.  It’s the only thing I can think of that’s different, since she’s more than happy to canter with a saddle between my bum and her back.

I think a good bareback pad might have gotten added to my wish list.  But until that happens, we’ll just stick with a walk and jog on the occasions I lose my marbles and decide bareback riding really is still fun.

"Good" Riding

What makes a “good” rider?

Is it the ability to stay on the horse, no matter what?  Is it the ability to sit quietly with perfect form and look pretty?  Is it the ability to get your horse to do what you want? 

Everyone probably has their own idea of what makes a “good” rider.

I had one of those defining moments today, in which I realized I don’t know if I would fit into my own definition of a “good” rider.

I’d like to put forth the idea that I’ve never truly learned to ride well on a consistent basis. 

I’m a competent rider, most certainly.  Pony antics have taught me to always be prepared for the unexpected.  Beamer has taught me how to (mostly) ride out a buck.  Others have taught me how to stay on through spooks, spins, and general naughtiness.

I have the ability to be a “pretty” equitation rider.  Seven years in the show ring raught me how to pose in the saddle.  Certainly not functional, and I ditched this style of riding pretty fast once I figured out how fast it would land me in the dirt out of the safe confines of the arena.

I’m a functional rider.  I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t to get me through a 50-mile ride.  Is it proper?  Probably not.  Could it be better?  Most definitely.  My riding style right now can best be describes as, “I know how to get my horse to do what I want, even if it’s not technically correct.”

But my consistent formal riding instruction took place, most recently, about 10 years ago.  A lot has changed in the world of instruction and riding since that time.  There is more of an emphasis on functional partnership of both horse and rider, instead of posed mannequins on merry-go-round ponies.  (Keep in mind I’ve been out of the show ring for eight years now…my perspective is skewed.)

I trained Mimi by myself, with the input of my trainer/instructor.  She came to me as a green three year old with 30 days on her.  I had never ridden a green horse.  We grew up together, and figured each other out along the way.  But today was one of those days that made me realize how much I didn’t know at the time, and how many subsequent holes we both have in terms of “proper” training.  She was being a true pony today — it was warm and humid, and she really didn’t want to work in the arena — and showing me how much of a snot she can be if she tries.

The plus side of all of her shenanigans?  The Skito pad I bought from Mel got a very thorough test, and I’m thrilled with how it performed.  Didn’t budge from under the saddle, and seemed to be even more stable than my Skito Dryback.  And she’s obviously comfortable — she wouldn’t have been offering up flying lead changes if it bothered her.  :)

But today was a good example of  how our show-ring specific training is now come back to bite us.  Mimi is smart.  Very smart.  And she picks up on patterns really fast.  The end result of this?  She anticipates.  Big time.  From all of our years of showing flat classes, she assumes that the routine must go “walk-trot-canter-reverse-walk-trot-canter-stop.”  And thanks to reining patterns, cutting across the arena at the midway point means do a flying lead change in the center. 

She also has a “headset,” but doesn’t truly know what it means to be naturally collected and move with impulsion.  Emphasis was on artificial means of creating a “perfect” show horse and rider — a horse that moved along the rail with its head down, reins loose, and the rider posed perfectly on top.  Ultimately, we never reached that point — Mimi never saw the use for traveling along the rail in perfect pleasure pony style, and I was always fighting with her to “get her head down.”  I fared better in my equitation classes because emphasis was on me, not her.  She’s much happier moving out down the trail.  That said, she still has room for improvement on moving most efficiently from the rear and not hollowing out.

Today, show-ring training and functional riding directly clashed, and that was when I came to the conclusion that I’m not really a “good” rider.  When the pony shenanigans came out, my (self-taught) attempts at pseudo-dressage and centered riding went right out the window, and I reverted to my rather haphazard old-school upbringing.  It ain’t pretty or really proper.  It probably wouldn’t work on a lot of horses.  But it’s how Mimi and I are both trained. 

Which brings me to my point (“Finally!” the crowd cheers): I need to learn to ride by the time I get another horse.  I would eventually like to find a centered riding instructor, or a dressage instructor who understands cross-training, not just showing (I don’t want to show, I just want to learn the principles for teaching a hrose to move functionally and optimally).  I can tell you all of my problems as a rider: I tend to lean forward (the downside of riding hunseat from age seven), I’m crooked and wriggly, and mostly, I can’t get everything to function together properly at the same time.  I’ll get my legs right, but I know my upper body is a wreck.  Or the arms and shoulder will be great, and the legs are wriggling all over the place.  So I know what’s wrong, I just don’t know how to fix it.

If I’m not going to be doing a ton of competing at the moment, maybe now is the time to look into some lessons again.  Because while I know how to ride, I don’t feel that I necessarily know how to ride well.  And I think it’s time to learn.