Every woman ought to know how to ride. It is the most healthy of exercises; and in a life of vicissitudes she may some day find it the only method of travel—perchance the only method of saving her life.
The first element of enjoying horse exercise is good riding. Good riding is an affair of skill, a collection of trifles, which, if thoroughly mastered, makes the rider feel thoroughly secure.
A man or a boy may learn to ride by practice; that is, he may tumble off and on until experience not only gives him confidence, but security and even elegance. It is not so with a woman. Her seat is artificial; she must be taught how to keep it; for though she may have a father or brother who has “good hands,” and who can show her how to handle reins and humor her horse’s mouth, he cannot teach her to sit in her saddle because he cannot sit in it himself.
The horse which a lady rides should be up to her weight, well-trained, and docile, for a woman on horseback has little to help her but her hand and her whip. If the flap of the saddle be large, the pressure of the left leg is almost useless, and the folds of her riding dress very often interfere with the discipline of the spur.
The whip is therefore her chief reliance, and its management is of great importance. As it is really to supply the place of a man’s right leg and spur, it should be stiff and real, however light and ornamental. The skin of the hippopotamus makes one both light and severe. There is little difficulty in using it on the right side of the horse, but to use it on the near side is a matter of both skill and caution. Remember, first, never to strike a horse over any part of the head or neck; second, if necessary to strike him on the forehand, quietly lift the whip to an upright position, then let it firmly and suddenly descend along the shoulder and instantly return to the upright position; third, to strike the near hindquarter properly requires a firm and graceful seat. Pass the right hand gently behind the waist, as far as possible, without distorting in the least the position of the body, and strike by holding the whip between the first two fingers and thumb. This action ought to be performed without disturbing either the position or action of the bridle hand.
As the riding dress of a gentleman should never be groomish, so that of a lady should never be fast or flashy. The hat should sit tightly to the head, for the hands are needed for reins and whip, and cannot safely be continually occupied in its adjustment. The plainer it is, the more ladylike; but if plumes are used, then those of the cock, pheasant, peacock, or heron, are most suitable. The habit, if for real use, may be lined a foot deep with leather. In English hunting counties light vests are sometimes worn in bright weather, and in winter, over-jackets of sealskin. It is well to remember that it is the chest and back which need double protection, both during and after hard riding. Skirts are seriously in the way. The snug flannel under-dress and the pantalets of the same cloth as the habit are all that is necessary. Light, high boots are a great comfort in riding long distances, and almost equally good are gaiters of heavy cloth, velvet, or corduroy.
The saddle ought always to have what is called the hunting-horn on the left side; yet however common it is in the North, I never saw it on a saddle in Texas during ten years. The right-hand pommel is in the way, and the best saddles have now only a flat projection in its place. It prevents the rider from putting the right hand as low as a restive horse requires it, and young and timid riders are apt to get a habit of leaning on it.
The value of the hunting pommel is very great. If the horse leaps suddenly up, it holds down the left knee, and makes it a fulcrum to keep the right one in its proper place. In riding down steep places it prevents sliding forward, and assists greatly in managing a hard puller. A rider cannot be thrown on it, and it renders it next to impossible that she should be thrown on the other pommel; besides, it gives the habit and figure a much finer appearance.
But it is necessary for every lady to have this pommel as carefully fitted to her person as her habit is. Not only see the saddle in progress, but sit on it. A chance saddle may seem to suit; so also, if a No. 4 shoe is worn, a ready-made 4 may be wearable; but as a shoe made to fit the wearer’s foot is always best, so also is a saddle that is adjusted to the rider’s proportions.
A stirrup may be an advantage, if the foot is likely to weary; but since the general introduction of the third pommel it is not necessary to a woman in the way that it is to a man. A woman, also, is very apt to make it a lever for “wriggling” about in her saddle,—a habit that is not only very ungraceful, but which gives many a horse a sore back, which a firm, quiet seat never does.
Reins should not be given to a learner; her first lessons should be on a led horse. The best horsewomen in England have been taught how to walk, canter, gallop, trot, and leap without the assistance of reins. I do not advocate the plan for general use, but I do know that learners are apt to acquire the habit of holding on by the bridle.
When the hand is trusted with reins, hold them in both hands. One bridle and two hands are far better than two bridles and one hand. The practice of one-handed riding originated in military schools; for a trooper has a sword or lance to carry, and riding-schools have usually been kept by old soldiers. But who attempts to turn a horse in harness with one hand? Don’t hold the reins as if you were afraid of letting them go again, for this not only gives a “dead” hand, but compels the rider’s body to follow the vagaries of the horse’s head. Lightly and smoothly, “as if they were a worsted thread,” hold the reins; and from the time the horse is in motion till the ride is finished, never cease a gentle sympathetic feeling upon the mouth. Women generally attain a “good hand” easier than men. In the first place, it is partly natural and spontaneous; in the second, they do not rely so much upon their physical strength and courage. A man in the pride of his youth is apt to despise this manipulation.
Many riders say it is better for a woman to use only the curb; but if she does this, all chance of learning “hand” is gone. I say, let her use the reins in both hands, slackening or tightening according to the pace she wishes, and the horse’s eagerness. If she succeeds in this, and never keeps “a dead pull,” she is a long way toward being a good horsewoman. As to turning, there is no better rule than Colonel Greenwood’s simple maxim: “When you wish to turn to the right, pull the right-hand rein stronger than the left”—and vice versa.
All women should learn to canter before learning to trot. It is a much easier pace, and helps to give confidence. To canter with the right foreleg leading, make an extra bearing on the right rein, and a strong pressure with the left leg, heel, or spur; at the same time bring the whip across the near forehand of the horse. If he hesitates, pass the hand behind the waist and strike the near hindquarter.
To canter with the left foreleg leading, the extra bearing must be made on the left rein, by turning up the little finger toward the right shoulder, and using the whip on the right shoulder or flank. Never permit the horse to choose which foreleg shall lead; make him subject to your will and hand; and it is a good plan to change the leading leg when in a canter. In all movements remember to keep the bridle arm close to the body, and do not throw the elbow outward. The movements of the hand must come from the wrist alone, and the bearings on the horse’s mouth be made by gently turning upward the little finger, at the same time keeping the hand firmly closed upon the reins.
The horse is urged to trot by bearing equally on both reins, and using the whip gently on the right flank. Sit well down in the saddle, and rise and fall with the action of the horse, springing lightly from the in-step and the knee. Nothing is uglier than rising too high, and besides its awkward, ungraceful appearance, it endangers the position. If the horse strikes into a canter of his own accord, bring him at once to a halt and begin again, or bear strongly on both reins till he resumes his trot, or else break the canter by bearing strongly on the rein opposite to his leading leg. Always begin at a gentle pace, and never trot a moment after either fear or fatigue is felt.
The horsemanship of a lady is never complete until she has learned to leap; for even if she intend nothing beyond a canter in the park, horses will leap at times without permission. When a horse rises to a leap, lean well forward, and bear gently on the mouth. When he makes the spring, strike the right flank (if necessary). As he descends, lean backward, pressing the leg firmly against the hunting pommel, and bearing the bridle strongly on the mouth. Collect the horse with the whip, and urge him forward at speed.
I shall now say a few words about mounting and dismounting, though every tyro imagines these to be the easiest of actions. In mounting, stand close to the horse, with the right hand on the middle pommel, the whip in the left hand, and the left hand on the groom’s right shoulder. Do not scramble, but spring, into the saddle; sit well down, and let the right leg hang over the pommel a little back, for if the foot pokes out, the hold is not firm. Lean rather back than forward, firm and close from the hips downward, flexible from the hips upward. The reins must be held apart a little above the level of the knee. In dismounting, first take the right leg from its pommel, then the left from the stirrup. See that the dress is clear from all the pommels, especially the hunting one; let the reins fall on the horse’s neck, place the left hand on the right arm of the groom, and the right hand on the hunting-pommel, and descend to the ground on the balls of the feet.
I have one more subject to notice. It is this: If a woman is to go out riding, no matter who may be her chaperon, nor whether it be in the park or the hunting field, she ought to know how to take care of herself; not with obtrusive independence, but with that modest, unassuming confidence which is the result of a perfect acquaintance with all that the situation demands.
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