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.