- Riding Hunters: When Karma is Real
I am so happy to be home from my trip and riding again! I will be posting some about a few of the things I did in Spain (riding an Andalusian and going to a tack shop), but I first want to write about the 2 lessons I’ve had since I got home while they are fresh in my brain. Hint: The theme is that riding hunters is hard.
I feel a bit like a broken record, as this post is going to sound similar to my other recent lesson update #sorrynotsorry. But guys- this hunter riding thing is work. It feels like one of those “the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know” scenarios. If you have never ridden in the hunters, trust me when I say this is 100% accurate. When I did dressage and eventing back in my youth, and knew zero about hunters, I used to talk about how easy it was. “Oh hunters? That’s for people who can’t ride. They just buy expensive horses that go and jump that way naturally and the riders sit there and do nothing.” That is LEGIT what I thought. Karma is a betch.
Maybe if I had grown up doing this I wouldn’t think it was so hard, but it is so, so different from what I know. It is like learning how to ride all over again. Every time I try to “dressage it up” I get corrected. It’s just not like that. The total lack of constant contact (dressage style) and the idea that you fix the horse then let it carry itself, is just SO foreign to me still. Not that dressage principles don’t apply- of course they do. I absolutely use a lot of that knowledge still, but the way you train a hunter is just nothing like moving up the levels in dressage (which is the training system that I know for bringing along a young horse), not one iota.
Ok, moving on I promise.
So my lessons went good! Trainers all said that Rio was great while I was gone, and that he is really smart with a great brain and a great attitude. This is basically code for “he’s not very naturally talented, but he tries really hard”. And you know what? That’s fine with me! I wholeheartedly can acknowledge that Rio isn’t the most talented horse out there. He is really extra tall and super lanky. Not exactly the most coordinated. His size makes it even harder for him to collect and balance. But, I would take a horse with a great brain any day over a talented but crazy one, ANY DAY!
In my lessons we focused on the soft add before jumps/caveletties. Rio MUCH prefers the long distance, and when we do have to add it can be really super ugly and chippy. In order to improve the quality of his jump we need him to collect his stride more and be willing to rock back for the quieter distance. Obviously, this is extra hard for a super long guy like him, but we are getting it. Turns out that when I see the shorter spot I liked to sit upright more and take a feel on his mouth. Although that may work on some horses, all Rio does is tense up and go faster, or take that as a sign to take off early. Either way, it never ends up being pretty.
So if I can’t use my body or my reins… how do I convince him to keep his stride small and soft?
THE TINIEST THINGS. Seriously. Things like softening my knees and feeling the beats of his stride more (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3….). The lightest feel on his mouth to soften and then let go again, but not so much that he breaks gait. The timing also has to be just right. Relaxing my elbows and letting them move more. “Melting” 2 strides out with my whole body. It’s like all these teeny tiny nuances that actually make the difference in our ride. Nothing so concrete as a half-halt, or sitting up taller. In fact, I have to stay over him and soft so he stays soft.
And wouldn’t you know- it works. We actually started to GET the ride. Not every time mind you, but I could sure feel it when everything clicked. Cantering up to a vertical all is good 10 strides out. 7 strides out and I feel him wanting to lengthen and get bigger. I lightly feel his mouth, just enough so he slows a hair and softens and then I drop him. I do it again 5 strides out. 3 strides out I can tell it might be tight. This is when I would normally give a harder feel or half halt and sit up more. Instead, I think about staying soft in my knees, exhaling, relaxing my arms. And there is is. He relaxes beneath me and easily fits in the 3 strides. No fight, no rush. No ugly chip. It’s a quiet, balanced canter. And damn, it feels good.
…now we just have to nail that ride 100% of the time. Easy, right???
As they say, misery loves company! Who can commiserate with my current hunter woes?