Lesson on Stepper or How to Saddle an Ankylosaurus

I had a lesson last night, but not on Lena. Lesson Horse Lena is lame and her shoes are clickety-clacking on her poor tender feet so I can’t ride her until the farrier comes out and she has some time for her hooves to heal. Since there are no other lesson appropriate horses at the Arabian farm, my coach H. asked one of her students if I could ride one of her horses and she graciously allowed me to ride her gelding. Unfortunately, H. was too busy coaching me to take any pictures of me riding, but just imagine a plump grey Arabian version of Donnerhall (meaning he has a massive neck and powerful haunches).

The great Donnerhall, who passed away in 2002. One of my all-time favorite dressage horse heroes. Did you know that he was purchased for only a few thousand dollars and then went on to become a great Grand Prix prima donna?

The great Donnerhall, who passed away in 2002. One of my all-time favorite dressage horse heroes. Did you know that he was purchased for only a few thousand dollars and then went on to become a great Grand Prix prima donna? He sure had quite a neck.

This horse I rode, Stepper, was the large and in charge type. He thoroughly understood how to throw his weight around and get away with anything. So after an arduous tacking-up process that felt more like trying to saddle an angry Ankylosaurus (see picture).

AKL anigif_optimized-28628-1434137089-1

The Anylosaurus is the horny-backed short dinosaur known for its heavily armored tail that he used to slam the living daylights out of anything in his path. It’s the one that demolishes Zach and Grey’s gyrosphere in Jurassic World if you’re familiar with that scene.

I finally mounted and got started. Let me preface this by saying that I think it’s a really good idea to ride as many horses as you can. Horses have as varied personality types and preferences as we humans and we forget this simple fact when we limit ourselves to staying on one mount. I’ve become so used to riding springy, responsive, and forward horses like Lena that I forgot about all the other horses in the world that need a little “umph” to get going.

I forgot about the horses that have the guts to stand up to their rider when they have an opinion.

I forgot about the horses that get stressed when the rider’s aids are not clear enough.

The ride was a highly enlightening experience. From the second I asked him to walk off from the mounting block, I knew that Stepper was going to challenge me. I lightly nudged him with my heels. Nothing happened. I bumped his belly and pumped with my hips. Crickets. Eventually I womped him with both legs and gave him a firm cluck and he finally ambled forward. As I circled the arena, I began to feel helplessly inept to “drive” this horse. All my aids floated over his head and he just trudged around the arena like he was trying to ignore the pitiful creature on his back. No matter what I tried, I could not get him to round his back and put his head down. I tried sponging the reins, half-halts on both reins, and physically torqueing his head from my left knee to my right (sorry buddy). My efforts were fruitless and his patience clearly waned with every new “rounding” gimmick I tried. I got so frustrated I actually almost started crying. H. Kept telling me to ride him “seat to hand” but I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept. Stepper started getting more and more agitated and actually threw a few bucks with me. He also started a rousing game of “let’s see if I can actually scrape my rider off on the arena fence.” That was big fun and I have the shin bruises to prove it. H. put an end to that game when she made me go around the full size arena two full times with haunches in.


I eventually accomplished a nice semblance of a rounded frame but I was still struggling with keeping his head from frequently flying up. H. got so tired of me losing my connection that she stood up on the mounting block and gave a horseless demonstration of what a “seat to hand” connection feels like. She straddled her legs apart and deepened her seat into the imaginary saddle as she kept her hold on the reins. She explained that if he pulls on me or decides not to hold up his monolithic neck, I needed to squash my seat into him and push him forward into my hands by closing my legs at the same time as my seat.

This minus the yanking hands...

This minus the yanking hands…

So I sucked in my core and drove with my seat bones as he kept pulling. Suddenly I had a break through. We began trotting and he went forward with no resistance. He still bumped his head up some times but it was much more manageable and I felt more confident. All those sit ups and crunches work miracles for holding a consistently balanced and upright position in the saddle. Also, his trot was so incredibly smooth that I could actually sit his trot effortlessly (sort of). I was happier than a zombie in a nursing home. I think I’m going to move “smooth gaits” to the very tippy top of my criteria for a perfect horse. It makes every aspect of riding easier and more comfortable. I don’t care if it’s the meanest, ugliest horse on the planet—as long as he has a smooth trot and canter, he’s A-OK with me! Can you tell I’ve mostly ridden horses of the jack-hammer variety?

We moved on to canter work and I was able to nail each trot-canter transition because I could actually sit and cue for the canter, whereas on bumpy horse I usually to jiggle around for a while until I get the canter. In the end we were both sweating like Red Shirts on an unknown planet, but I felt very accomplished and I had a new respect for the stubborn horse that requires a special dash of patience and a pinch of inner peace to ride successfully.

Happy Riding!


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