Three phrases I am embarrassed to admit actually came out of my mouth during my first lesson on Ephraim with Kate Hicks:
-Is my lower leg touching him? Can you tell? Because I feel nothing below the knee.
-I’d really prefer not to have to be responsible for steering today.
-Is this when we think I’m going to die?
Before I contextualize these phrases, I need to brag for a minute. Ephraim is simply the best horse ever. He went from living out in balmy Southern Pines, N.C., to significantly less turnout in FREEZING southeast Pennsylvania. No matter the temperature, time of day, or conditions, he comes out exactly the same every day.
Ever since the canter/buck/eat dirt debacle, I’d been briefly longeing prior to riding. I am generally not a fan of longeing, considering the bodily wear and tear, but I figure that if he needs to get out his yahoos, better to do so without me attached. Amazingly, no matter how fresh he is, he never bucks, runs, or acts out on the line.
I was excited for my lesson, but my feeling of complete ineptitude in the tack had me a bit wary. I’m back from a two-year riding hiatus and, while I can fake basic competence on your average horse, Ephraim is anything but average. Google “Dutch Harness Horse.” Flipping through a stallion catalogue can be similar to flipping through Vogue magazine. Both like a long, lean body. In my rational brain, I know that tall people (I’m 5’10”) can effectively ride smaller bodied horses. I used to watch Ian Silitch on Margo, and more recently Rich Fellers on Flexible, and William Fox-Pitt on anybody. I just personally haven’t figured it out yet.
Kate, who has boundless patience and a sense of humor, immediately identified that I pinch with my knee, which pulls my lower leg further away from Eph’s svelte body. She explained how to fix it, and I was trying, but I couldn’t connect with his body from my calf to my heel. Strangest feeling ever. I repeatedly tried to correct it, and sometimes she would yell, “Great!” and I’d look down at my limb and try to see where it was, realizing that it’s not great natural feel if you have to stare at your body parts to figure out what they are doing. I’d then hear, “Sit tall!”
Comment No. 2 popped out when I was trotting on a circle while sharing the indoor with Silva Martin on an incredible, extravagant-moving horse. Ephraim does steer in the macro sense of the word. In the micro sense, like effectively and consistently giving that four feet off the rail so you don’t collide with Olympic-caliber riders, not so much. Silva was gracious and didn’t make me feel badly for repeatedly getting in her way. Technically I just couldn’t get out of her way, but my intentions were good. The up-side? Eph is unafraid of horses both coming at him and passing from behind him. Good buggy horse!
As for the third comment, I had dressed for the frigid temperatures, and all of the fruitless struggling to lengthen my leg was making me sweat. I needed to lose a layer. I knew it would be scary to Eph but figured that with a person on the ground, maybe I could get my vest off, and he could have a good experience.
Wrong! Kate walked over to put a hand on him, but he’s still scared of everybody (Stranger Danger!) so he skittered sideways when she approached. I had one arm free when the vest made a swishy sound. You would have thought I had shot a gun. He coiled, and Kate and I both froze. Me, half un-vested and at risk of swishing with any movement; Kate in her approach towards us. I started to giggle (panic response) and so did Kate (normal response to my panic response), but I thought I was toast.
Rapid-fire, we ran through options, though I flatly rejected her problem-solving “Throw it off and hang on,” which is reasonable only if you’re Kate. That made me giggle more, and the vest swished again. We boinged again. Kate finally got a hand on him and covered his eye, and I got it off with only a crouch and spook. To have a great lesson and then almost ruin it with one idiotic decision! I was proud of him for holding it together.
I learned so much in this lesson. When ridden like he should be, Eph gets right to work and stays there, perhaps a nice by-product of his previous career. His trust in me is growing by leaps and bounds. And I need to put out an APB for my lower leg before my next lesson.
Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up casually riding hunters, did IHSA in college, and got started in show jumping before vet school when she took a job managing Kevin Babington's team. She's ridden with Kevin for 18 years and, while Ephraim is a departure for both Liz and Kevin, Kevin is excited to meet him!