The saying is that one doesn’t really gain mastery of a skill until she’s done it 10,000 times.
It may be so. What it is saying is that one must practice, practice, and practice. I know this works. There are skills I learned in the military that I practiced so often that they did become automatic. For instance, I can probably still strip down-and re-assemble-an M-16 with my eyes closed, even so many years after retiring from the military.
I now know, too, that as one ages, that ability to gain and keep a skill, such as riding, seems to take longer.
Riding, for instance.
I got back into horses in early 2011. I had never been good at riding before, as I’d not been a regular rider as a kid. Nor had I lived in an area where there were horses, or when I did, I couldn’t afford lessons, or, while in the military, didn’t have the time.
The children who are blessed with riding lessons in their early days are truly lucky. Most of the horsemen I know are like me: they had lives that didn’t include horses up until their children left home and they had enough time and money to indulge in their passion.
I owned Jordan for the last five years of his life, and rode bareback, but I was still working and didn’t have an arena in which to ride.
So. I’ve been riding, mostly bareback, since 2011. I’ve had a few lessons, picked up several good books, but still, I’ve relied mostly on just getting comfortable on a barebacked horse.
At times I’ve grow discouraged. I will never get this, I would think. I certainly don’t have ten thousand hours atop a horse, even at this point. I’m old enough, though, to know that, starting so very late in life, I will NEVER be the rider I see all around me. If I can be a little bit better than I used to be, that is good enough for me.
I didn’t put a deadline on my desire to be a better rider. I decided, I won’t push it. I will relax and just enjoy the feel of a good horse underneath me.
It was with a sense of astonishment, and I should say, pride, when I made a breakthrough last month. I have found my core and can engage it. Why that makes a difference, or whether it does, I don’t know. I don’t really think it matters, despite the fact that it seems to be the cause de jour lately.
I was riding Raven, bareback. We were alone. I have been practicing turning him and moving him without reins. He’s so very patient and willing for me. He’s a good horse.
I-and I hate to use the word suddenly as often as I’m going to in this post- but I suddenly felt as if I was truly plugged into his spine. I’ve had brief glimpses of this feeling, but this time it wasn’t ephemeral, here and gone like mist in the wind. No, this time, that feeling of my spine being connected to his in one fluid, crystalline piece was here. I was balanced. I was IN the horse, not on him. I was amazed. I lifted both my legs off his sides and wagged them back and forth and felt as solid on his back as if I were truly plugged into him. He spooked at something, went sideways, and I hardly moved. I even laughed. It was a lovely feeling.
Three days later I got back on…and felt it again. And the next time. And the next.
I am balanced. I am comfortable on his back. This feeling, it’s here to stay. I have finally learned to sit on a horse.
That was more than enough for me. I felt proud. My patience and Raven’s teaching had finally been translated into muscle memory. My confidence has climbed several notches.
I wasn’t done with breakthroughs.
Two days ago, I led Raven into the arena. I hadn’t planned on riding. It was raining very hard, the wind was blowing into the arena, and all the horses have been confined to quarters, because our monsoon has arrived and the paddocks are fetlock deep in water.
Raven is a horse who wants and needs work every day, and I knew he was very fresh. I thought it’d be safer to just lunge him.
Raven, though, had other plans.
He dislikes ‘dope on a rope’. Sue can free lunge him, but I am not that adept at it, so I tacked him up with a lunge line and asked him to ‘walk on.”
He turned and faced me.
It wasn’t arrogance, or stubbornness, or an obstinate refusal. It was just a polite no.
“Come on, Raven, walk on.”
His warm brown eyes bored into mine.
No. Get on.
“Really, Raven? Don’t you want to work?”
Get on. I have something to teach you.
Okaaaaaaaaaaay. So I untacked him, left him free in the arena while I ran for my bridle and helmet. When I returned I could see he’d rolled, which I had hoped he’d do. It’s good for their spine, and I suspect he’s not had a good roll in three days.
I bridled him and mounted. The wind was howling louder than the rain, but I trusted him to be calm as always.
I settled myself. I always give him a carrot per side, reward for standing until I’m ready to move off. Seat bones? Got ‘em. Core? cough cough there you are. Arms, click click cuffed to my ribs. Shoulders back, head up. Breathing? Nope, I still to this day can’t remember to breathe when I ride. Someday I’ll pass out and fall off.
We walked off, sans reins. I like to let him drop his head, stretch his topline, and just generally walk the kinks out before I touch a rein.
I’ve been practicing my hands. I imagine my upper arms to be handcuffed to my ribs. I pretend I am holding a baby chick in each hand. Now I can feel Raven’s mouthing the bit. That’s a new one, too.
Once we were both settled and ready to ‘’’work”” I picked up the reins. I cheated by looking at where I try to keep my thumbs on my laced reins. (I love laced reins, more for their looks than anything else, but having a definite spot for my thumbs helps me a LOT). C’mere, chicks, hop into my hands, we’re going for a ride.
After several rounds of the arena, I thought, what happens if I just gently squeeze those chicks. Not even to hurt them, just to see what happens.
I have to explain a failing of mine. I don’t take verbal instructions very well. It’s not obstinacy, or arrogance. I just get easily confused, especially if the instructions are multi-faceted, as riding almost always is. It’s hard for me to put two legs, two arms, two hands, all doing different things at the same time. Let’s not forget that I must also think of seat bones and weight shifts and which side is out and which in.
Thus, when taking instruction or lessons, I’ve listened and reacted backwards. I would tell my teacher, I want to learn to do a half halt. (a subject always one of contention. Every rider I’ve ever met does a half halt differently and can’t tell you how. They just Do it.) So my instructor would say, do this, do that, do the other thing…THERE! Did you feel it?
Well, no. I’ll say “yes” but I know I didn’t do it. I think, I’ll memorize what she just said, and I’ll repeat it the steps in order, and by reverse engineering, I should get the same result.
But it doesn’t ever work right. I’ll do it the same way and if I’m alone, Raven continues on serenely as if I never asked a thing. If I’m being taught, I eventually get a GOOD, you did it! But I am lying to her.
It’s a case of Raven figuring out what I want, due to the instructor’s voice, and he does it. Hey, don’t laugh. This is a horse in front of whom we must spell ‘c-a-n-t-e-r’ because he loves it and will at the mere breath of the word. One of these days he’ll figure it out. He already knows “C”. The rest will come, sooner than later.
I think Raven just responds because he hears me wishing he would do it. We both know I didn’t make him do it, I didn’t do the steps right or at all. He’s just a kind, loving teacher.
Which is another reason I prefer riding bareback, and alone. I can fumble along, take things at my own pace. If I accomplish nothing but enjoy the ride, and he’s happy, I’m good.
But this time…this time I was listening to him. I squeezed the reins, gently…and felt SOMETHING. Something Different. Something…collected.
What do you feel?
“Oh my god, Raven, what did you just do? Can we do that again?”
It wasn’t until late that night, in bed, that I, rehearsing what I’d felt, finally understood a phrase I’ve heard so often but have never experienced.
I dropped the reins, we did another round of the arena, then I picked them up and asked the same way.
I felt Raven “come up underneath me”. His ears were pricked forward, his neck arched so beautifully and for the first time in my life, I knew I was riding a collected horse.
I finally know the best teacher I will ever have is the one underneath me.
I might finally be on my way to learning how to ride.