I haven’t been such a great blogger lately because I’ve been working on The Next Big Thing – actually the Two Next Big Things. They’re books two and three, the first of which will be underway this spring, and the second needs whipping into shape so that it can be rolled out sometime next year. I’ve become more of a Twitterer as a result, but there’s one big, considered blog post that I’ve been mulling for a while and I’m going to type it up now.
In February and March I spent three weeks in the UK and had two very different and very interesting riding experiences. On my return I got stuck into a book my brother got me for my birthday, and my reflections on the book have been drawn into my thoughts on those riding experiences and the way I learned to ride at a British child in the late twentieth century. When I started riding again after an eleven year break (as documented in If Wishes Were Horses) I thought it would be pretty straightforward – after all, hadn’t I spent countless hours having lessons as a child and teenager? Of course I’d overlooked the fact that I’d lost my nerve aged 14 or so and spent the next five years pootling around inoffensively on a pony called Tav, so I had quite a rude awakening when I found myself riding big old warmbloods and being asked to do things like “shoulder in” (what?).
At the same time I was also reading about the history of riding for the first time, and becoming aware of classical equitation. As a bookish type who’s preoccupied with at least trying to be as benevolent a rider as possible, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the equestrian philosophy derived from Xenophon and developed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Sylvia Loch’s Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding, flicked a switch and I began to think, “If I had the cash to learn to ride all over again – which I clearly need to do – this is how I’d do it.” I was spellbound by Nuno Oliveira and the écuyères of the nineteenth-century French circus. The artistry and care required to not only make a horse dance, but to do so without coercion, drew me like a magnet. Classical riding is about perfecting what the horse does naturally. Its philosophy is irresistable to the horse lover. Xenophon, quoted by Loch, wrote:
“Now if when his fire is thus kindled, you let him have the bit, the slackness of him makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with the proud gait and prancing legs, imitating exactly the airs that he puts on before other horses. Everybody sees that such a horse cries out that he is free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant and at once beautiful and fiery in appearance.”
At the same time I’d become fascinated by side-saddle, not just because of those écuyères, but also because of lady riders like Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Mrs Hayes, Lady Salisbury and Catherine de Medici, all of whom were something I’m not, namely brave huntswomen who, like the “Fair Girls on Grey Horses” in Will H Ogilvie’s poem, never went wide of a fence. I asked for a side-saddle lesson at Christmas 2010, and my mother activated the Norfolk horsey network and found me a teacher operating at Pine Lodge School of Classical Equitation, which turned out to be a classical riding academy of the Oliveira/Loch kind only a few miles from home in Costessey. At the end of last June I had my side-saddle lesson, documented here, and found myself legged up on Xis, a beautifully trained and very patient Lusitano. I chatted with the Lodge’s owner and presiding spirit, Sue Barber, about my interest in classical riding and she said I should come back for a lesson. Due to the vagaries of income and travel, it took me a mere nine months to take her up on the offer, but I finally returned in March 2012.
I’d travelled to the UK to launch If Wishes Were Horses and to write a piece about side-saddle and the Flying Foxes Display Team for the Telegraph. On February 19th Mum and I went to Audley End to meet the Foxes, who’d decided that I was going to have not just a lesson, but a bit of a jump, no matter if it was my first leap in 14 years. Becca Holland’s big grey hunter, Henry, was a trooper, loping gently into the fence as I sat back with the reins as loose as I could leave them – I was determined not to snag him in the mouth – and good-naturedly putting up with my inadvertant acrobatics. Becca encouraged me to ride short and although in my first side-saddle lesson at Pine Lodge I’d used my left leg so little that I’d wondered why I bothered bringing it, I now found myself actively gripping with both legs, poised for speed and take off, feeling like a jockey rather than a lay-dee. Bex Hathway White took a series of photos of our efforts for the Flying Foxes Facebook page as a visual aid for others who are experimenting with jumping side-saddle, and you can see them, and my
terrified concentrating face here. The crowning moment for me came later as we cantered for the photographer in full rig in front of Audley End, and Henry took wing.
As I wrote in the Telegraph,
Henry … lengthened his stride and suddenly there we were, bowling along beautifully. I sat back and thought, “This is it. This is how those Victorian amazons felt when they were leading the hunting field. Easy, elegant, smooth and so fast.”
It was a hell of a rush. It was also, I realised, very horse friendly: you sit back and let the horse get on with his business with relatively little interference.
Three weeks later I was back at Pine Lodge, watching as someone warmed up a grey Lusitano called Sasa with a few canter pirouettes before my lesson. He was, I was told, currently ranked eighth in the world in working equitation and worth more than every horse I’d ever ridden combined. No pressure then… Sue warned me before I hopped on, “People pay not to be taught by me. You’re going to wish your parents bought you some shoes rather than a riding lesson for Christmas” and she lived up to her threats, although she wasn’t right about the shoes. I didn’t care if she was scarcastic or strict because I was there to learn, and though an hour of riding without stirrups left me as crippled as dancing on a pair of four-inch stilettoes, I knew which I’d rather have. Sasa and a whole new way of riding.
It was far more intense than I’d anticipated. I had to grip solidly with my upper legs and use not my seat but my calves alone to ask for a transition. Without realising it I’d gotten into the bad habit of holding my reins in my fingers, not the palms of my hands, and of rocking back and forth in the saddle and not, as Sue demanded, rising up and down. “You’ve got to look like you’re doing bugger all,” she stressed. “Effortless. Get that fire,” here Sasa leapt and surged, “and energy, and don’t let him doze off. Watch his ears. He’s not paying attention to you. Get him concentrating.” We walked, trotted and cantered in circles, all without stirrups, as I tried to pull off the confusing new style that seemed like the old puppeteer’s challenge of “rub your head, pat your stomach”. “Turn him with your shoulders,” she called, as I failed again again to get Sasa to canter on the correct leg. I knew that my seat was important (what was that line from Sylvia Loch’s book about Oliveira being able to direct a horse purely with his lower back muscles?) but I could only use it heavily and crudely, and Sasa was both confused and contemptuous.
By the end of my hour I was aching all over and full of questions: the art of doing “bugger all” seemed to be quite a work out. I also wanted more lessons, and to pursue classical riding when I next had the chance. I began to realise what effort must go into the decades-long partnerships that great classical riders forge with their horses as they both work towards perfection, achieving physical communication so swift that it looks like mind reading between rider and mount. However, I was also beginning to wonder how on earth one could ride like that cross-country, or even on a hack. Which was best? The light seat I was used to (although imperfectly executing) or the “effortless” classical style? How can two styles of riding be so different and both “good”? I emailed my friend Karen, who spent years studying dressage, and she sympathised “Classical equitation really fucked my hunting and my huntseat. But it does feel pure.” I turned to history for clues.
The book I mentioned at the beginning of the post is Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, by Donna Landry. It’s a cultural history of the way in which the English not only adopted Turkish, Arab and Barb horses and turned them, within a generation, into the “most English of horses”, the Thoroughbred, but also appropriated Oriental riding styles and repackaged them as the English hunting seat. In contrast to the classical Continental European style with its long stirrup leathers and firm seat, Eastern jockeys rode short and lightly in a manner that favoured galloping over open country on rangey horses rather than cantering in a menage on stouter baroque horses. As hunting evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English lost their residual interest in classical haute école and focused instead on speed and leaping, riding in a manner that encouraged their mounts to be “forward going” rather than collected, their outline extended and relaxed.
This, I realise, is the tradition in which I learned to ride. Leg contact only when you need it. Light seat. Snaffles and the rein, as eighteenth-century jockey Samuel Chifney put it, “silken… as fine as a hair … that you was afraid of breaking it.” Compare that to a line in K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night which I’ll always remember, as Ruth Hollis watches Peter McNair handling a brilliant but difficult pony at a hunter trial, “Toadhill Flax, as if held on a thread, trembling with excitement, pivoted on his forehand.” Compare this “natural” style also with a Horse and Hound “thruster of the week” from last year, who said that her horses were “almost feral” because she barely trained them, preferring to let them take hedges as they pleased, with minimal interference. In To Whom the Goddess the authors wrote, “For a woman riding side-saddle there is very little she can do to make a horse take off at the right moment, except give him a kick, and she is very handicapped in this way, and has to rely mostly on how she ‘presents’ her horse at his fences.” This is what I sensed with Henry, too – I could see how the grand hunting dames built up such confidential partnerships with their horses. Trust was essential. You could almost say that the British side-saddle seat for hunting with its long reins and low-positioned hands was the most extreme expression of the English/Oriental style.
Of course, as Landry is at pains to point out, this is very much an ideal which plenty of real riders miss by a country mile or flagrantly abuse. But the notion that the English rode “lightly” and “naturally” in opposition to the classical style with its complicated bits, philosophy and heavy collection, is a deep-set one. And the British were suspicious of dressage for a long time. Pat Smythe was criticised when she took the advice of the Swiss three-day event rider (her future husband), Sam Koechlin, and used dressage to train her horses. She won the Prix Caprilli, a competition in which participants both showjumped and performed a dressage test. For decades our three-day eventers excelled at the hunting-like cross country phase while falling behind in dressage – the exact opposite of the German riders. I’m guessing this is why, also, despite a decade’s worth of lessons in the UK, I never learned to “shoulder in”.
But my eleven year break from horses coincided with the culmination of a cultural change in British equitation that was a long time brewing. Dressage has become huge. Horse and Hound devotes as many pages to dressage as to hunting, and the traditional gymkhana faces stiff competition from local dressage events where expensive warmbloods line up against hairy cobs. We have a world-beating dressage team that’s a major contender for Olympic gold, and have begun to breed competition horses that wow even the Germans. There’s also an upsurge of interest in the classical style that goes hand in hand with a preoccupation with both its history and ethics, strictly and exclusively maintained by purists. As Sylvia Loch’s website states,
“Classical Dressage is correct for the horse, correct for you, and correct for that moment in time. The horse hasn’t changed in thousands of years, neither have human beings. We are all ruled by the same physical laws of nature, which is why there is no middle way. Only correct, and incorrect.”
How perfect to find the absolute Right Way to Ride a Horse, you would think, but then my childhood memories of the thrill and companionship of a darn good gallop with a sympathetic, excited pony intervene and I think of Donna Landry’s closing words in Noble Brutes:
“From the seventeenth century onward, utility and beauty were embodied, irresistably combined, in the Eastern blood horse as these equine foreigners embarked on their European sojourns. Inspired by their coming, abandoning the manège, and riding short, ‘after the Turkey fashion,’ horsemen and women in the British Isles would pursue the ideal of equestrian partnership not in dressage movements but in free forward movement over the green turf, where the love of galloping for its own sake, for the joy of liberty rather than collection and discipline, could be most keenly felt.”
So, which is it?
At the end of all these musings I realise I can’t be a partisan like Landry and Loch. Despite the clash between the two seats and the way that they have been played off against one another – especially by the British – to distinguish one nation’s horsemanship from that of others, they have more in common than purists would allow. Both classical and English-styles are performed on a rein that sags and with minimal tugging at the bit. Both involve a close, trusting relationship with the horse. Both are intended to look effortless and to enhance the horse’s natural skill to the best advantage. Both put the horse’s welfare foremost and celebrate its athleticism and intelligence. Why choose? I want to ride two horses: the Lusitano from an Uccello painting, balanced on his hindquarters in a levade that’s an expression of strength and art, and the English Thoroughbred with the loose, long stride and blood-quickening gallop.