Jan 292012

TENDERFOOT TALES by John Roy – the second in a twelve part series first published in the WES magazine


(All horse names have been altered in these articles to protect the innocent.)

In the first article, readers will have learned that “Tenderfoot” got into horse riding, and Western horse riding at that, pretty much by accident.  So, there he was in his mid forties, in the tender care of Trisha Wren, getting up close and personal with a horse for the first time.

“Big isn’t it” thought Tenderfoot on being introduced to “Boots” the quarter horse gelding that was to be his schoolmaster for the first few years.  “Smells a bit too.”  Then it was off to the school where Trisha showed off what Boots could do and explained how one sat, held the reins and how easy it all was.  It looked easy enough.  Tenderfoot was not too bad a car driver and boat handler, played with dangerous things like pistols and assault rifles and got on well with most dogs and the occasional cat.  (The four-legged variety, that is!)  So let’s try a horse.

Up the steps of the mounting block and gently sit in the saddle.  Hey, never mind the width, look at the view!   Tenderfoot was led around the arena with Boots imparting that gentle sway that his quarter horse butt generated.   In a matter of seconds Tenderfoot was hooked.  His long-suffering friend Anne was also smitten.  So this pair commenced weekly, and occasionally twice weekly, lessons aboard Boots.

In the early days, all the hard work of grooming and tacking up was done for you.  You just rolled up, mounted up and got on with being shouted at.  Shouting.  Over the years I have become aware of just how much shouting a riding instructor has to do.  For those of a military background, your average Drill Sergeant with the “awkward squad” is a mere beginner when it comes to the art of “voice projection” when compared to a riding instructor. True, your DS will introduce you to a fine selection of expletives but for true wit and stiletto like sarcasm you need to hear a riding instructor in full song.  Perhaps it’s because the novice rider, however elegant and precise on his two legs, seems to lose all notion of co-ordination when ascending onto a horse.  The idea of being capable of doing more than one task at a time falls into the same area as running too many programmes on the PC at the same time.  Things kinda get hung up.

The TV cartoon character Homer Simpson encapsulated this when he said that “when he put something new into his brain, something old fell out”.  The idea that you can – make sure that the reins are the correct length; you have light contact: you are sitting correctly; your arms, elbows and wrists are correctly aligned; your legs are correct; your heels are down, is all fine BUT to look where you are going as well???  Get real!

Every time I looked where I was going, one of the other tasks failed.  My personal view is that we can get so used to using inert equipment which, short of a mechanical or electrical failure, produces the required result at the touch of a button, that beginners expect the same from a horse.  It took me several lessons before I became fully aware that our equine buddies do have a mind, eyes, ears and an agenda of their own.  Luckily for us we can usually influence them into doing what we ask when we want but, interestingly, not all of the time.  My early endeavours at staying in the saddle (aka “on the horse”) went reasonably well and my first of many unscheduled dismounts was much later when practicing a lope.

Tenderfoots other “dismounts” will be retold later but, for now, let’s examine the first and its effects on a novice rider.  Perhaps, like Tenderfoot, you last considered the “Laws of Physics” some years back but you will no doubt recall the adage “what goes up must come down”.  This thought stayed in Tenderfoot’s mind pretty much from day one.  Almost immediately after admiring the view from Boots’ back, a quiet wee voice in his head whispered, “It’s a long way down”. This negative thought lurked in the back roads of Tenderfoot’s memory, together with the inescapable fact that he knew that he no longer bounced as well as he did in this younger days, until that fateful day when the **** hit the fan, (or Tenderfoot bit the dust).

It was dark.  It was an evening lesson after work and the outside arena was lit, with pools of light interspaced with areas of shadows.  So what?  We had been here many nights before without incident.  What caused Boots and Tenderfoot to part company is a mystery to this day but part they did.  Seconds after a lope departure, so did the rider, on a bend at the end of the school.

In situations like this people say that everything slows down.  This Tenderfoot can confirm but, in actual fact, it’s more like your brain goes from a walk to a cattle-cutting sprint in less time than it takes to squeak “oops!”  Being a little slow, Tenderfoot didn’t manage even the squeak.  He knew things were not right when he passed down the right hand side of Boots’ neck.  He knew he still had at least one rein but was holding it loosely.  (No point in hanging onto his mouth.)  He had an excellent view of Boots’ cantering feet and time to consider that ending up under them got you no “brownie points”.  He even had time to consider the old rider’s tale that “a horse will not stand on you if it can help it”.  There was even time to check on how fast terra firma was coming up (or, if you prefer the converse – how fast Tenderfoot was going down).

“Thump!”  Tenderfoot landed.  Boots took a couple of strides, stopped and looked back.  Even a novice rider like Tenderfoot could partly “read” the horse’s expression.  Further exposure to Clinics and other horses would expand on this ability but, for now, the word “prat” seemed the correct translation.

“Are you alright?” asked Trisha.  Now, for all their shouting, there are a few occasions when riding instructors show concern.  Most of the time it relates to the horse but just now and then it will be for the rider.  So it was this time.  Gathering up his manly pride from the furrow it had just ploughed in the arena sand, Tenderfoot muttered that he was just fine.  The next question from Trisha was “What went wrong?”

“Dunno” said Tenderfoot.  Boots probably knew but was saying nothing.  “If you’re ok, mount up again” said Trisha. Doesn’t compassion evaporate quickly?  His lesson continued without mishap but another mental hurdle had been cleared.  Tenderfoot had come off but was just as keen to stay with the programme.  That said, Tenderfoot’s unscheduled dismounts have left him with a kind of fetish.  At clinics and events, especially prior to his riding, he is to be found helpfully removing “horse apples” from the arena sand.

Tenderfoot, like most beginners, found the co-ordination required in riding difficult.  It is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  “Heels down” was also a problem and the following thought may help others.  Try thinking “toes up”.  Tenderfoot’s wee brain tried getting his heels down but almost invariably this made him put pressure into the stirrups which, in turn, pushed his backside up out of the saddle.  The mental picture of “toes up” left his butt where it ought to b – in the saddle.

The lessons continued, each building on the previous, sometime back to the beginning to reinforce some of the basics (Remember? Something new in – something old out).  Boots just kept being his great self providing a schoolteacher to a greenhorn and making Tenderfoot keep coming back for more.

As all of you who ride know, horses have accidents and Boots was no exception.  He had an argument with a fence resulting in a badly cut foreleg which put him out of commission for a spell.  It has been said that a cowboy (or a native American) without a horse is a sorry sight and so it was with Tenderfoot.

The withdrawal symptoms were such that serious thoughts were given to his acquiring his own horse.  Thus Princess entered his life, but that’s another tale.


Speak to you next time,

John Roy