We became members of the Societe d’Equitation de Paris (SEP) in the fall of 1961. I rode there every Wednesday from 3 to 4 PM. Initially, just we youngsters got lessons. Our mother was eventually persuaded to join in and riding became the family sport.
The SEP shared facilities and horses with the Touring Club de France (TCF). There were a hundred-odd bays, chestnuts and greys stabled in ample tie stalls. The individual Dutch-door loose boxes surrounding the central courtyard housed the mounts of the few well-heeled enough to own their own. The TCF had one circular manege (covered arena) and two carrieres (outdoor arenas) while the SEP had two differently sized maneges and a special out-door round pen used in training horses to jump free-style.
That special round pen was fascinating and I’d watch whenever possible. Essentially, it was a circular lane wide enough to change directions. The inside fence was lower than the outside one, low enough to allow working on a lunge line. Horses were eventually allowed to travel free. Then a white ground pole would be introduced and gradually raised to a meter, where it would be exchanged for a dirt-colored one and, with a jump standard, slowly raised to a meter fifty. The point was for the horse to learn confidence in itself while the trainer learned the maximum comfort height of each trainee. The process took as long as it took. Some horses lost it at 90 centimeters, some at a meter twenty. It was each horse’s natural maximum jumping ability which determined how it would be used as a school horse. The end result was a horse who rounded over any fence. Training over more complex fences was done by a rider with very gentle hands.
This is where I found out how to warm a horse up by free-schooling. The SEP trainers didn’t believe in lungeing a cold horse; they said that a circle is hard enough on a warmed-up horse and not to be used until a horse was already warm. The free-school area was a rectangular fenced-in one set out of sight and away from distractions. Here I learned to use my hearing, sight and sense of the passage of time to determine when enough was enough. Here the not-tacked-up free-schooled one could be assessed for potential lameness at progressively faster gaits and, if necessary, get rid of the buck. The trick is (and was) to slow a free-schooled horse before it can run out of breath or steam, or injure itself. Once over-enthusiasm has been safely dissipated, a horse is ready for the lunge, mounted or unmounted.
I started riding in L’Isle-Adam in 1961. A family friend would drive my sisters, me and a picnic lunch out from Paris. XO of a merchant ship, he loved to ride while on shore leave. Eventually, our mother took over and made our trips more predictable.
The horses were ex-cavalry remounts from North Africa. They were perhaps not the best horses for total beginners but they were kind. This is where I had absolutely no trouble learning to post: Barbs have a spine-shattering trot!
Once we’d mastered staying on fairly consistently, we were allowed out on the trails.
The feature I remember most clearly was THE CLIFF! It was most likely a glacial moraine which had been “adapted”. You gallopped up the trail on one side, turned your mount a quarter-turn at the crest and jumped down. It was Kebira (my usual mount) who chose the best moment to leap from the moraine. He had zest in this maneuver which might have had something to do with being born in the Atlas Mountains. The moment when rider was most likely to part company with horse was after landing on level ground. Unless your seat was particularly adhesive, you’d end up either in front of the saddle with chin between ears or on the ground. The horses were not as self-disciplined after landing as they were on the moraine. And who could blame them? There was such a lovely lane nearby.
Kebira was a fifteen-hand smoky grey with darker grey points. I’ve no idea how old he was. I did ride others but he’s the one I remember best.
One day, my mother decided that we could have once-a-week more “structured” riding lessons closer to Paris.
We became members of the Societe d’Equitation de Paris, on which more anon.
(aka, on the importance of being straight!)
In the parlance of classical French equitation, a horse is “straight” when the line of its spine exactly mirrors its line of travel. So, a horse bending true to an arc is going “straight”! If following a straight line, a horse is “straight” if its right-side feet stay to the right of the line and its left to the left.
Pyrrhus had serious problems being straight. He would set his spine like a wet noodle, using this bit evasion to avoid doing what he seriously disliked doing, which was fording a stream. While the others splashed through, Pyrrhus had to be ridden over the closest bridge.
One day, the guide forgot about Pyrrhus: All the other horses gallopped across while Pyrrhus did his rubber spine thing.
After ten minutes of dithering on the wrong side of the stream, he forgot and was straight for a moment!
Eureka! The importance of being straight! I applied heels and crop with vigor and Pyrrhus shot forward! But since his straight line of travel didn’t aim him straight towards the horses on the other side of the stream, we ended up in the deep hole on the side!
Appalled Pyrrhus needed no incentive to swim to the other bank and climb out!
From then on, if I rode him on trail rides, Pyrrhus would jump off any bank into water, gallop or walk through as asked, and jump out.
Pyrrhus was probably a Friesian despite being a deep red bay. He had the most extra-ordinarily rhythmic trot, one which was easily cadenced. If not in the small covered arena (five horse lengths by six), I rode him in the Bois de Boulogne. He preferred high-school work; the rubber spine manifested itself only out on the trail.