Horsemanship for Women/Part 3

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One pleasant winter afternoon a fashionably dressed young man, crop in hand, spur on heel, and mounted on a tall horse, was seen to emerge briskly from a little grove in a gentleman's place, and come to a sudden halt in the level field across which he had intended to gallop. The cause was a new ditch, deep though narrow, stretching across from fence to fence before him. He looked at the obstacle a moment, then up and down the field, and remarked to a gardener, an old Scotchman, who stood looking on, spade in hand, "Well, I suppose I must go back." "I suppose so," said the old fellow, dryly, looking up out of the corner of his eye with an almost imperceptible smile. The young man reddened, hesitated, and then turned away, saying, as if the other's thoughts had been spoken out, "To tell the truth, I don't know whether my horse would if he could, nor whether he could if he would." "An' the same o' yourself," muttered the old man in his grizzled beard. The sarcasm was not to be wondered at, as the speaker remembered what he had many a time seen, and very likely himself done in his younger days in some hunting field of the old country, for the ditch before him could have been cleared by an active boy, on his own legs, with a good run. Moreover, it is not improbable that the reader is ready to agree with the old satirist in thinking the young man a "muff." Nevertheless, both

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horse and rider might easily have come to grief, for the steep banks were crumbly, and while the rider's seat was not of the firmest, his mount was straight in the shoulder and a little stiff in the pastern. However, they were both as well fitted to overcome such a difficulty as nine-tenths of American horses and riders, and a very little previous practice would have enabled them to spring over without bestowing a second thought upon it. The total indifference on this subject of leaping among our people is really quite remarkable, for one can hardly take a ride anywhere in the country without there arising some occasions when even a little knowledge of the art would have added to one's pleasure. How often, for instance, an easy fence separates the dusty road, too hard as well as too hot for fast riding, from some cool wood with its shaded turf, where a gallop would be delightful and would do the horse good instead of harm. The reason of this indifference is not only the fear of getting shaken off, but a doubt as to the horse's ability to leap, and a dread of doing him some harm by such an unusual exertion. All these apprehensions are very likely well-founded, for if you have never done any leaping your first essay will, in all probability, give you a severe shock. Then if your horse is green at this sort of work, and the fence is at all difficult, he will not improbably refuse altogether, or jump so unwillingly and clumsily as to risk your bones as well as his own; and if he does not really fall, he may cause such a strain upon unaccustomed muscles as to set up a "splint" or "spavin," producing at least temporary lameness. Nevertheless, all these excellent reasons for not trying to leap can gradually, but rapidly and with perfect safety, be removed by practice, and practice of a kind very pleasant and interesting, while at the same time improving to your seat, giving it a firmness under all circumstances which no amount of riding on the highway could ever do.

Some horses are exceedingly fond of leaping, but the majority are indifferent, though on the whole rather averse to it, while a few positively will not try at all.

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The first thing to be done is to get your horse to take low and easy leaps without repugnance. For this purpose lay the bar you intend to use on the ground, and lead him over it without looking back at him or giving him any reason to suppose that you have any particular object in so doing. Should he object to stepping over it, be patient though firm, and when he has finally done so, pat and praise him; but if he has been bred in this country, and is used to bar places, he will probably give no trouble at this stage of his education. Now mount him and repeat the operation; then, having the bar raised a few inches, do so again, and continue doing so, always at a walk, until it is so high that he can no longer step over it. American horses are famous for their excellent tempers; nevertheless, at this point, unless you manage with care and with a judicious reference to equine peculiarities of mind and temper, you may meet with a refusal to proceed. In this event you must not use force or severity, or you may disgust the horse, perhaps forever, with the very exercise you wish him to learn to enjoy, but must content yourself with preventing him from sheering off and keeping him facing his task till, sooner or later, he will go over. Now praise him and make much of him, and ask no more jumping till the next lesson. It is not a good plan to put the bar up in an open place, for the horse will think it nonsense, and unless he is unusually docile will resent what will seem to him to be an imposition in forcing him to jump over it when he could easily go around it. A bar place or gate-way is much better, as it cannot be "flanked," and he will not wonder at being asked to go through it, but he should never be ridden backward and forward over the bar, nor allowed to see it raised, but should be brought around to it by a circuit which, if possible, should be large enough to make him forget the leaping, or think of it only as an accidental episode in the ride. The ground also should be no harder than good firm turf. Let him jump towards his stable or towards home by preference, and it will be well to let your assistant hold some little article of food which he is especially fond of in view just beyond the bar, so that his attention may be distracted from the effort, while an agreeable association is given him with it, and he is prevented from thinking that the obstacle is one of your making. Bear in mind that your object at present is threefold: to induce him to take a liking for the new exercise; to give him ease and confidence in the performance of it; and to train and strengthen by use the muscles brought into play, so that none of the unpleasant results mentioned above may follow. Therefore do not for a considerable time set the bar more than two feet high, but practise him at it several times a day; first, as already said, at a walk, then at a slow trot, and then at a canter, making him lead first with one foot, then with the other, until he not only springs over without touching and without apparently thinking anything about it, but shows by his lengthening or shortening his stride on approaching, so as to "take off" at the right distance, that his eye is becoming educated; and, finally, until a careful daily inspection of his feet and legs has proved that no soreness or tenderness anywhere is caused by this exercise. If he does not jump clean, but knocks the bar with his feet, it may be because he underestimates the height, as not only horses but men too are apt to do in the case of open fences made with posts and rails; therefore have a broad piece of board, two feet long, stood up against the bar like a post, and make him leap over it. If he still strikes, it will be well to try the plan which M. Baucher so enthusiastically recommends for all horses, and which consists in raising the bar a little just as the horse is in the act of springing.

It will be interesting to hear exactly what so great an authority has to say on this subject. After remarking that the bar should not be covered with anything to diminish its hardness, he proceeds: "I let two men hold the bare bar at six inches above the ground. The rider advances towards it at a walk, and at the moment when the horse, aided by the rider, takes the leap, the two men raise the bar six inches" The horse naturally strikes his feet against it. "I make him begin again, until he clears the bar without touching, notwithstanding the repeated raising of it at each leap. Then I have the bar held at a foot above the ground, and, as before, it will be raised six inches at the moment of the leap. When the horse is accustomed to clear this new elevation, I have the bar gradually held six inches higher, still continuing to raise it six inches at each leap, and I thus succeed, after a few lessons given with the regular progression above described, in making all horses jump obstacles of a height that they would otherwise never have been able to clear. This simple proceeding, well applied, will be useful even to exceptional horses, such as steeple-chasers, by teaching them to come more carefully to the point of 'taking off,' and will render falls less frequent." The idea of M. Baucher is to get the horse in the habit of jumping a little higher than he thinks necessary, so as to be on the safe side, and a very good idea it is. It is a practice among experienced riders to hounds in England, instead of leaping a post-and-rail fence midway between the posts, to leap as close to a post as possible, or directly over it when it is not much higher than the rail.

To return to our equine scholar having practised him for a month or so at an elevation of two feet, his muscles will have adapted themselves to the new strain put upon them, and it will be safe to begin to raise the bar higher, and gradually to go up nearly to the limit of his ability. It is well, however, never to ask too much, as even a willing leaper will be sometimes so disgusted at what he thinks tyrannical exactions as to refuse obstinately ever to try again. The horse should never be allowed to rush at the bar, but should always, if approaching at a gallop, be collected, as much as a hundred feet away, so as to be under perfect control. The higher the leap, the slower the pace at which it should be taken, for the very momentum acquired by a rush, which would be useful in a water leap, would carry the animal against the bar instead of over it. The reins should be held in both hands, and after the horse has been collected with the curb, as may very likely be necessary, the curb should be relaxed, so that on approaching the leap he may feel only the gentle pressure of the snaffle, which will not make him fear to thrust forward his head, a fear which would possibly result in bringing him down on all fours at once, or even with the hind-feet first. As he rises to his leap, keep a steady but very gentle tension on the reins, being ready to support him firmly as his fore-feet touch the earth.

It is now time to experiment with low stone walls and with brooks, being always on your guard against those concealed man-traps in the shape of loose stones, which form one of the chief dangers of leaping in this country.

All this while we have been assuming the rider to be an accomplished horsewoman, and quite au fait at her fences. If, however, the business is entirely new to her, let her not be at all disheartened, for her own education can be carried on simultaneously with that of the horse, and without the least detriment to it. In this case, keep to the standing leap—that is, the leap taken from a walk—although it is really the most difficult to sit, until you can support the unusual motion without being in the least loosened in the saddle, and do not try the higher ones till you are perfect in the lower. The hands should be held as low as possible above the right
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knee, and pretty close to the body, so that they may have room to yield, and that the sudden thrusting out of the horse's head may not jerk you forward in the saddle, in which case the powerful impulsion of the hind-legs might pitch you out altogether. The advice is often given in books to lean forward and then backward in the leap, but the fact is that beginners, if they lean forward intentionally, seldom get back in time to avoid the shock above alluded to, and teachers, therefore, as well as friendly coaches, often call out "lean back" as a lady nears the bar, which results in giving the learner an awkward though perhaps not unsafe manner. The fact is that there is no necessity to try to lean forward, as the rising of the horse will bring you involuntarily into a position perpendicular to the ground, while the play of thigh and waist to prevent being tossed up is of the same kind as that in the gallop, only proportionately increased, and it will become instinctive if leaping is begun moderately and carried on progressively as already recommended. In coming down you can hardly lean too far back. The left foot should not be thrust forward, but kept straight, or drawn a very little back and held close against the horse's side; the stirrup, into which the foot is pushed to the instep, being one or two holes shorter than for ordinary riding. On approaching the fence, be particular to do nothing to distract the animal's attention, as, for instance, by ejaculations or nervous movements of
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the reins and person; and after the leap do not fail to reward him by praises and caresses, for it cannot be too deeply impressed on the mind that he is exceedingly sensitive to them, and will consider them an ample reward for his exertion.

The object of these instructions being to enable a lady to master the art of leaping without a regular instructor, it will not be amiss to sum up the advice already given at length, in the words of two competent authorities, "Vieille Moustache" and Mr. Sidney. The former says:

"She should take a firm hold of the upper crutch of the saddle with the right knee, sit well into the saddle—not back of it, because the farther back the greater the concussion when the horse alights—put her left foot well home in the stirrup, and press her left thigh firmly against the third crutch, while keeping the left knee flexible; lean slightly forward, avoid stiffening her waist, in order to throw the upper part of her figure backward at the right moment to preserve her balance. The hands must not move except with the body, and above all no attempt to enliven the horse by jagging his mouth as he is about to rise—a pernicious habit, practised by riders of both sexes who ought to know better. Reins too short, head too forward, and pace too violent are the ordinary faults of beginners. Women have on their saddles a firmer seat for leaping than men."

Mr. Sidney remarks: "A sheep hurdle is quite high enough and the trunk of a tree is quite wide enough for the first steps in leaping. Balance, gripe of the pommels, and support of the stirrup must be combined; the seat as near the centre of the horse's back as the pommels will permit; the figure erect, not rigid, with the shoulders back, ready to bend gently backward as the horse rises in the air—not leaning forward, twisted over on the near side, like a popular spirited and absurd picture ("First at the Fence"), which really shows 'how not to do it;' the snaffle-reins held in both hands, at a length that will enable the horse fully to extend himself, and the rider to bear on his mouth as she bends back over his croup when he is landing. All this time her eyes should be looking between the horse's ears, so as to keep perfectly square in the saddle."

If the reader carries out the instruction already given with care, and exercises good sense and judgment, it is very unlikely that she will have a fall. Should this happen, however, there are two things to be remembered, first to get instantly away from the horse by scrambling or rolling, and secondly to keep hold of the reins. In any event, the timid may be reassured by reflecting that a fall is usually without any serious result, it being by no means as dangerous to come down with the horse as to be thrown from him.