Riding My Young Horse For the First Time

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This week I enjoyed once again one of the best experiences in horse training?sitting on a young horse whom you bred for the first time. it's the sixth time I've gotten to do it, and it's definitely a feeling that you never get tired of.

This mare?s name is Bella (her full name is Phoenix Bellisima), and sHe's out of our broodmare Lizzie?s Hero (a Thoroughbred) and by the Pinto Dutch Warmblood stallion Palladio. She'll turn actually 4 at the end of this month, and I started ponying and longeing her last April.

I used to be the first to sit on our youngsters and our clients? youngster myself, until three years ago, when I was badly hurt being thrown by a 3-year-old the first time I tried to get on her. Since then, out of concern for my wife and our 3-year-old son, I've had other people do the first-ride honors. Part of me misses doing that, but the broken parts of my body don't, and I don't want to put Heather through watching me lying unconscious in the ring until the helicopter arrives again.

So last summer we hired a young and brave rider to come and start under saddle the four youngsters we had. She sat on Bella for the first time in late August, but Bella?s riding experiences ended in mid-September, when the woman was injured falling off another horse. I wasn?t sure what we were going to do until Heather found out about a cowgirl named Amanda Wentz, whose business largely involves starting young horses under saddle.

All I needed Bella to do was to canter under saddle, because she?d walked and trotted under saddle last summer. So she spent five weeks with Amanda, who worked her in a ring full of horses numerous times and also took her out hacking two or three times.

Bella has displayed a self-assured and business-like work ethic ever since I started to work her from the ground, and sHe's continued to act that same way under saddle. So knowing her, and having seen Amanda ride Bella when we picked her up last Friday, when the moment came to get on her for the first time, I felt only a slight moment of apprehension just before I put my left foot in the stirrup.

The first few moments were fascinating, as I could feel Bella trying to translate my aids, which I'm sure were not identical to Amanda?s or to the very basic aids she experienced last summer. I spent about 10 minutes at the walk, working on bending her around corners and circles, halting and walking on, and doing five or six steps of leg-yield each direction several times. The biggest thing I noticed was that she needed only the lightest of aids for anything I wanted her to do. And after five or six minutes, I could feel her take a breath and say, ?OK, I understand.?

So I rode her forward into the trot and then into the canter. She felt fabulous?responsive, forward and beautifully balanced.

How do I describe how I felt as I walked Bella around the ring to cool her out' A bit like a proud parent who's just watched their child perform at a school play or a school baseball game. A bit like a teacher whose student just aced a test or got into a top college. And a bit like a football coach who's just drafted the quarterback he believes can lead his team to the Super Bowl.

What I mostly feel like, I suppose, is the proud father of three wonderful but very different daughters?the other two being Firebolt and Phoenix Amani, whose training and competitive careers I wrote about in last week?s blog. To me, Firebolt is my mature 20-something daughter who's pursuing her master?s or doctoral degree but is finding it challenging and is doggedly pressing on to achieve that goal, because that's how she is. ?Damn the torpedoes?full speed ahead!? is her motto.

Amani is like a 17- or 18-year-old who is a top student and is also the homecoming queen because sHe's so beautiful and so confident. She believes that she was put here on earth to be in charge.

Bella is like my 13- or 14-year-old daughter, the tallest and, perhaps, the most athletic, but also the quietest. All the world is before her, but will she have the intense drive of Firebolt and the ability and confidence of Amani' We?ll see.