When you’re in college it’s funny what you can find to be your “Physical Education” credits that the university requires for your degree. My sister took judo at the community college when she was going. I took ballroom dance as my first credit…and equitation as my second.
I was always a western girl when it came to riding and style, but there was something I had decided I wanted to do, so I took Beginning English instead. It was quite a learning experience. The bridles were different. The saddles were different. And we had to wear the silly little black fuzzy helmets.
I had been riding—irregularly—for the past few years and I had thought I was pretty good. Reality check!! It’s amazing how big a difference it was changing to English from Western. It was more than the helmet and using both hands on the reins rather than just one.
I quickly learned that my balance wasn’t that good, my foot position in the stirrups was wrong, I was slouching and trying to sit too far back in the saddle. In one word, my seat was sloppy. So thus my transformation began.
We had a classroom portion of the course—the parts of the bridle, types of bits, parts of the saddle, and of course parts of the horse. They went over the different gaits of the horse and the different riding positions. Three-point being the standard way you sit, with the three “points”—shoulder, hip, and heel—all in a vertical imaginary line. The other is two-point, when you’re standing in the stirrups as jockeys and jumpers do, with just heel and hip lined up with your shoulders forward.
My professor was English, accent and all, and was overall a pretty cool lady. Her main rule was if you got thrown from your horse, the next day you had to bring doughnuts or cookies for the whole class.
The first horse I had was a palomino named Trigger, and he was the only one that you’d ride while carrying a crop. He wasn’t very responsive to heel pressure. You would hold it there in your hand with the reins so you could just turn your wrist and it would hit his shoulder. That would usually speed him up to the trot or canter you wanted, but if you didn’t keep at it he’d slow back down. I remember my professor calling out, “Don’t be afraid to beat him, Eliza!”
Trigger wasn’t the only character of a horse they had there at the school’s equine center. There was Misty, a horse who had won a silver medal in competitions but was the most ill-tempered mare there. She’d kick and bite whenever she got the chance, to both horse and human alike. There was Roy, a gentle horse that was blinded by cataracts in one eye.
I was a quick “study” in the class, and soon found my seat and became comfortable and even quite fond of the English riding style. So much so that I could soon post without stirrups and actually began to prefer the English saddle over Western.
The following summer, I signed up for Intermediate English. I was very excited about this class. We were doing more than just the “flat” work that was in the beginning class—gaits, lead changes, serpentines, and even a touch of dressage. We were doing what I had gone the English route for. We were beginning show jumping.
I was incredibly excited and nervous and just a huge bundle of energy when we were finally getting to that part of the class. We started with trotting poles, a tool used to train both new horses and new riders to jumping. Soon, we got to jump our first fence.
It was incredible!
I can’t even begin to describe the feeling it was for me to guide the horse to the fence, to be perched on the tiny saddle, leaning forward over his shoulders as he lifted off the ground and flew over the horizontal pole. I was addicted.
The class continued that summer with more jumps, longer jumping courses, more dressage and other flat work, and never a dull moment. It was ending too quickly, however, and soon it came time for the final exam. The exam came in three separate parts: written, flat, and jumps. All went well until it came time for my turn at the jumping course.
I had a horse named Mikey the day of the jumping exam. He was a pretty bay, tall and lanky. Unknown to me, this caused complications. Simply put, the problem was that he seemed to be going a lot faster than he actually was, which could makes some of the jumps…..interesting.
Quite interesting, in fact. He and I set off and sailed through almost the entire jumping course without a problem. But then the second to last jump in the course that problem of his long legs showed up. We were too close to the gate. I didn’t realize this, being the novice at jumping that I was, and I asked him to jump. Which he did.
He took off, and we left the ground together. We were somewhere over top of the fence when I knew that something was wrong. I had somehow lost my seat, and I could see myself falling in slow motion over his shoulder. What I did next I’m not sure if it was wise or stupid.
I closed my eyes and just……let go.
They always say that when you try to hold on instead of just falling its much worse. That’s when feet get caught in stirrups and people get drug along behind a galloping horse while their head finds every little rock on the trail. That was the only thought that flashed through my mind that instant as horse and rider separated and landed independent of each other.
I landed flat on my back, parallel to the fence that we had just gone over, and this is still the only time I have every truly had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t find air. It didn’t seem to exist at that point in time.
Dirt coated me where I lay. I could feel it on my face and eyes (and when I got home that day I actually found dirt down my boots, under my riding britches, and even in my socks). I opened my eyes the smallest amount…just enough that I could see through my lashes that were holding back the dirt. Mikey stood over me, his head down, reins dangling to one side as he stared at me. That’s gotta be the most panicked look on the face of a horse I’ve ever seen. He then took off, though I don’t recall if his means of escape was jumping over me or running around me. Either way, he ended up somewhere on the other side of the arena.
I must have scared my class. I hadn’t moved at this point and was still struggling for the slight gasps of breath I was slowly able to force into my lungs. A couple of people came over and made sure I was “okay” (or as okay as one can be when they’re trying to find a way to get their lungs working again). After I was finally able to breathe, they helped me up and had me walk around while the rest of the class finished the jumping course.
I shook off as much of the dirt that I could and walked through the stands that surrounded the arena. Soreness was already creeping into my lower back, and I was grateful that the dirt had at least been “soft” and clean, as they had plowed it the day before, loosening it up and removing the manure.
After the last student had gone, the professor explained to me what had happened with Mikey. Since he had been too close to the fence, when I asked him to jump he had kind of sat back on his haunches before springing over the gate which had popped me right out of the saddle. She then gave me pick of the lot to use to take the jumps over again. I took a suggestion given to me and selected Roy.
I had ridden him before, but only on the flat. “Just keep him going. He’ll go wherever you point him, but don’t let him slow down.” I pulled my riding gloves back on, made sure my fuzzy helmet was buckled, then went to put my foot in the stirrup of the half-blind horse.
I couldn’t reach it. Pain seared my lower back and tail bone when I tried to raise my foot more than a few inches off the ground. I then did something I hadn’t done or needed before. I took a leg up. That is to say, one of the other students took hold of my knee and foot, and boosted me up onto my mount. I adjusted the stirrups for my legs, and we were off.
Now one thing about jumping, if you’ve never seen it or haven’t really paid attention, is the rider only goes into two-point right before and during the jump, but otherwise is in three-point. This ride, however, I couldn’t bear to sit. When we started moving, Roy and I, the pain from sitting was too much, so I remained standing in the stirrups through the whole ride.
The course went smoothly. I kept my heels tight on Roy, keeping him in a canter, and he did indeed do exactly as I told him to. He soared over each fence effortlessly, and we completed the course as one unit. Once I landed the last fence, I gathered the reins in one hand and lifted the other in triumph.
Despite the little tumble I took off of Mikey’s back, I got an A in the course. I doubt I would have had I not gotten back up in the saddle and taken a second lap around the fences that day. And the best thing—other than being eventually able to sit down again after a couple weeks—was that I didn’t have to bring in doughnuts as it was the last day of class.