Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Second lesson

I recovered pretty well from my first riding lesson. On day 1 I had sore muscles, but nothing too upsetting. On day 2, my muscles had settled down considerably, but my ME/CFS symptoms (sore throat, headache, etc) flared. But on day 3 I was back within normal parameters.

Today was my second lesson. There were good bits and bad bits.

Things started off well. I got onto the horse correctly and was led into the school. I was sitting much more comfortably, I was wearing different shoes and I think that helped my position. I remembered how to hold the reins, and I felt good and confident and totally ready to balance on top of Harvey as he went round and round the school.

Then I realised that, although the instructor (different instructor today) was going to be walking around with me, Harvey wasn't actually on a lead rein. I was supposed to be in charge of getting him to go and stop and turn.

In many ways this makes sense. A lot of how you're supposed to communicate with the horse about going and stopping and turning has to do with how you sit and conversely how you sit is going to be communicating with the horse. So it's a bit unfair and confusing and counter-productive for all concerned if the horse is being tugged left by the instructor when everything in the rider's body is saying Turn Right (and the newbie rider doesn't realise that's what she's doing). It's also about as safe as it could be - unlike cars, horses don't tend to crash into walls when you get something wrong.

However, all the sense in the world could not quell my rising sense of panic. I wanted to beg them to just let me get "sitting" nailed before I tried actual "riding". I was genuinely surprised when my pride and positivity managed to get in between my brain and my mouth, to morph the phrase "no! nooo! let me off! can't do it! don't wanna!" into "okay, absolutely, so what do I need to know?"

To my amazement, I did manage to persuade Harvey to start and stop and turn and change direction several times. But what we then experienced was a clash between my ability, and the principles of teaching.

Principles of teaching are to keep pushing the student to improve. Sit up straight - good! Now put your shoulders back - good! Now try and have your hands about the same width apart as his ears - good! But don't look at the horse, or at your hands, keep looking where you want to go - good! Let your hips move - good! Aim towards the H - use your outside leg - don't lean forwards...

My ability considered on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is my top performance, probably started at about a seven. I got on the horse, I warmed up a bit, my confidence grew, I got a few things right, and I was functioning at a ten! for ooh, maybe a minute and a half. The demands of the teacher increased. My brain was trying to handle more instructions. My body was getting tired. Gradually my ability dwindled to maybe a three. I was dizzy and not breathing well because I was holding my breath as I tried to follow all the instructions at once. We rounded another corner and I was trying so hard to remember which is my "outside leg" that my concentration on sitting up straight all but vanished, and whichever leg it was, the passable squeezes and kicks I was managing at the beginning of the lesson had turned into rather pathetic flops.

At this point Harvey quite reasonably decided that in the absence of a decent rider or a lead rein, he certainly wasn't going to be taking half-baked instructions from the weak and wobbly sack of jelly perched atop his saddle. His walk slowed to a meander and eventually stopped altogether. With the instructor, the supervisor, and the people who were there for the previous and next lessons all calling out words of encouragement, I got another few metres out of him, but by that point I was just burning with humiliation and wanted to not only slide off the horse, but continue right on into the ground.

Of course the ground doesn't work like that, and neither do horses. It's surprisingly difficult to fall off a large horse when you're sitting comfortably with a leg either side and he's standing still, and given a choice, I'd rather not cover my clothes in grubby sand/sawdust/whatever it is. My chair was still outside by the ramped mounting block and my walking stick was in my bag which was hanging on my chair, so I was sitting up there in front of the audience as I waited for someone to bring me one or the other and help me dismount.

I managed to get down more easily than last time, although I still needed help and was hardly elegant. As I joined the other students, a couple of them made sympathetic noises about how difficult it is when you're first learning... but this didn't help, as my tired and embarrassed brain, a hair's breadth away from bursting into tears with frustration and exhaustion, could only hear that people who'd watched my efforts had found me so utterly incompetent that they could only offer pity about just how awful I was. I paid and booked my next lesson as quickly as I could and then went and sat in the car park so that I wouldn't have to talk to anybody for the half-hour until my taxi arrived.

Of course after getting home and having a rest, a cup of tea, and a spot of lunch, I can acknowledge how ridiculous this was (I could sort of acknowledge it at the time but it didn't help). It's not the job of the other students to praise or encourage me, they were trying to be nice and I was behaving like a bit of a twit to run off and hide from the world. It was my second ever lesson, and I did about as well as anyone can be expected to on their second ever lesson. I can even - grudgingly - accept that I do have an illness with physical and cognitive components, and that my rapidly dwindling ability in the latter part of my lesson was to be expected and will probably happen again.

What would be useful is if any readers who've done/are doing horse riding could give me a clue how long I should persevere before I say "no, clearly I'm not cut out for this and should call it a day." When does it become fun rather than a confusing, exhausting struggle?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Riding for the Disabled

A few weeks ago, I decided to embark on a bit of an adventure. For ages I'd been trying to think of something new to do that would enable me to get out, get some exercise, meet people, but be in a safe environment and within my own abilities. Eventually I got in touch with the Riding for the Disabled Association and after a couple of false starts (many of the groups listed as being local to me were for children during term time only) I found that the nearest place for an unaffiliated disabled adult to try riding was at Lowlands Farm, in Warwickshire.

Steve took me there for an initial visit which made the whole idea seem a lot more realistic. I was able to propel myself around the site and all of the people were incredibly welcoming and friendly. I found myself really looking forward to giving it a try once the paperwork was complete (a sign-off from my doctor to confirm the basics of my condition, not too complicated, but it took a couple of weeks).

Meanwhile, I attended to watch another lesson. If I'd watched someone who knew what they were doing and had lessons X times a week trotting about being excellent on a horse, I probably would have just dropped the whole idea. I've no desire to compete, or even to excel. I don't want to own a horse or spend half my life hanging around stables. I am not really a horsey person. But instead, I was able to watch the lesson of a woman who appeared to be more or less on the same page as I was but a few months into the process. Benefiting from the stretch and the movement, her posture and muscle tone were improving. That was what I wanted to achieve and it made me even more impatient for my paperwork to come through.

Which brings us to yesterday morning and My First Riding Lesson.

First we got me kitted out with a helmet and then I rolled up the wheelie-accessible mounting block. This brought me alongside Harvey at a height that made it easy to sit on him. That was okay, I was all, hey, check me out, I'm sitting on a horse, how good is this?

Then the lady holding the lead rein started to take us away from the ramp and into the huge barn that is the riding school, and I realised just how high up I was sitting, on a moving animal, without any kind of grab rail. I didn't want to touch the reins in case I did something wrong, so I just gripped the saddle and prayed that we would stop soon. Thankfully we did come to a reassuring halt just inside the school and my instructor started adjusting bits of saddle so that I was sitting properly.

Of the next fifteen minutes, I just have a hazy recollection of going round and round the school trying to follow a thousand instructions at once while moving the whole time. I kept wanting to say look, I would be able to sit up/lean back/head up/hands here/feet there/etc if only I wasn't being jolted around on the back of this moving horse! A lot of the instructions made sense. For instance, it was actually more comfortable when I looked up and didn't lean forwards. But then she'd tell me to bang my heels into his sides and (even apart from the yes-I-know-it's-stupid fear that I would hurt the horse) I'd concentrate so hard on that, I would end up automatically looking down again at my feet/my hands/the horse/the instructor.

Nevertheless. There was an awful lot of support and positive reinforcement in with the continuous flow of instructions - it was a really good demonstration of how it's possible to push somebody in an encouraging way.

Getting off the horse was interesting, too. I couldn't get off the way I got on, with the horse alongside the great big ramped mounting block, because it's all metal and concrete and one wrong move could cause no end of trouble. Instead, one lady held Harvey still, while another stood on my right-hand side to help me swing my right leg up and over the back of the horse. My instructor was on the left-hand side and guided both my legs as I slid down to the floor, and then I stood still for a minute or two with my body against the horse, arms on his back, and the instructor supporting me from behind until the world stopped spinning. Hopefully as I gain a better idea of where I am and where the horse is, I'll be able to do that on my own.

Everyone warned me that I'd be sore the next day, but to be honest, it isn't too bad. I mean, I can feel it, certainly, especially in my back and my inner thighs, but I've woken up with worse pain and the regular ibuprofen that I take anyway seems to be holding it in check. I can still move as much as I usually can, and I've even managed to get a load of laundry done.

Next week's lesson is already booked, and I can't wait.