Adult Amateur Confessions: The Most Embarrassing Thing I Never Properly Learned To Do

At least I kept my eyes up when I learned to jump back in the mid-90s. Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

BY RENNIE DYBALL

When I was first learning to ride as a kid, my lesson program was all about the basics. Before cantering, we had to be masterful at the trot. I’m talking months of trotting, even bareback walk-trot lessons, to ensure we were secure before advancing to the next gait.

Then it was walk-trot-canter lessons with endless circles and trot poles, serpentines and no-stirrups, until we were deemed proficient on the flat. Only then would our instructors set up those coveted cross-rails.

Looking back, I think this is a smart way (the only way?) to teach kids to ride—allowing a beginner to jump before they are truly solid on the flat is just asking for trouble.

On Meg, one of my favorite school horses at summer camp. Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

But horse-crazy, novice 12-year-old riders don’t really see the big picture, do they? I was good with all those walk-trot lessons for a while, but right around the time that we were learning to pick up the correct diagonal without looking, I got antsy. Sometimes I could feel my horse’s shoulder, sometimes I couldn’t, but I was so focused on getting to canter that I didn’t pay enough attention to those early lessons. And today, after 14 years of riding and counting …

Can’t believe I’m about to admit this so publicly …

I don’t know how to feel for my diagonals.

Okay, that’s not 100% true. I can feel for the correct diagonal very consistently in downward transitions from the canter. And if I’m going around on the wrong diagonal for long enough, I will notice. But in picking up the trot from the walk, my brain kinda shorts out and I always look.

From the time I mentally peaced-out in those early walk-trot lessons, I began practicing a subtle glance down to confirm my diagonal, and just kept up the lazy charade ever since. I’ve half-heartedly tried over the years to re-teach myself but have always given up out of embarrassment. Since I don’t trust that I can get it right without looking, a quick, imperceptible glance confirms I’m correct and off we go. It’s like I had the chance to learn a foreign language as a child, but I didn’t do it then, and now that I need to do it as an adult, it’s 1000 times harder.

Trotting around on Seamus, having looked for my diagonal, of course. Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

The times I have tried to fix this longstanding and ridiculous problem tend to go something like this:

Okay, just feel for it … let his trot guide you and feel his shoulder come forward and then post

[Sit the trot …]

[Sit the trot …]

Ah, I got it, this is definitely the correct diagonal.

[Up, down, up, down, up down … Glance down to confirm I’m right …]

I’m wrong.

What the #*&^?!

Okay, let’s try this again …

[Sit the trot …]

[Up, down, up down, up down … glance down …]

Correct!

Okay, let’s keep drilling this until I really have it.

Uh oh, my trainer is watching me.

What if he asks what I’m doing?

I can’t admit that I don’t know my freaking diagonals after all these years … guess I’ll just keep glancing.

On my way to winning the walk-trot at my very first horse show on a mare named State Express (thanks to my lucky Champion sweatshirt, perhaps?) Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

This little cheat has gone on too long — I want to do it right. Also problematic: I lost the imperceptible part of my glance somewhere over the years I took off from riding while living in Manhattan. Now I tend to look with my whole head, and my new trainer absolutely notices. During a recent flatwork exercise with several changes of directions, she bellowed, “Stop! Looking! For! Your! Diagonal! And! Ride! Your! Horse!”

Time to get on this. My half lease starts June 1 so I’ll have plenty of time to figure it out — and I’m fully open to suggestions. Hopefully I’m not too old to learn to speak diagonals.


About the Author: Rennie Dyball is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of several books. She currently leases the world’s cutest OTTB and competes in the low adult hunters and equitation.

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