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.
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.
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 …]
What the #*&^?!
Okay, let’s try this again …
[Sit the trot …]
[Up, down, up down, up down … glance down …]
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.
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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