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Saddle up, but don't let the horse do all the work

September 27, 2004|Jenny Hontz | Special to The Times

Scrap the Thigh Master and hop in the saddle. Riding a horse not only provides a scenic respite from urban stress, but it means never having to worry about inner thigh flab again. Trust me. My muscles were so tight after my first lesson, I could hardly walk straight.

A class at Traditional Show Jumping Inc. in Calabasas is no leisurely trail ride. Mike Henaghan, who has trained some top Olympians, teaches competitive hunter/jumper show riding.

Under the tutelage of Henaghan and his family, beginners learn correct form and control and how to jump over obstacles, and can work up to national and international competitions. Most new riders are kids and teens, but adults of all skill levels are welcome.

For those who have never been on a horse before, it helps to be in decent shape and to have a strong, healthy back. Most riding schools don't have horses big enough to hold people who are unusually tall or overweight. Be sure to ask about size limits.

I arrived for my first lesson with only minimal experience. A couple of years ago, I took Western riding lessons for three weeks before embarking on a vacation cattle drive. That was just enough to get me over my fear of horses and whet my appetite for more.

But this was my first time riding in an English saddle, originally designed for fox hunting and more challenging for beginners. When you ride Western, you hold both reins in one hand, leaving the other free to grab the saddle horn, even though it wasn't designed for this purpose. There's no such easy cheat with an English saddle.

I live on the beach in Venice, so my designated horse, a mellow thoroughbred cross named Beach Girl, seemed fitting. At age 15, she had an unhurried pace, which was fine by me. After arranging the stirrups for my height, Erika Henaghan, Mike's daughter-in-law, led us into an indoor arena with a soft dirt floor, where I used a mounting block to climb onto Beach Girl's back.

Erika instructed me to sit up straight in the saddle, heels down, toes up in the stirrups, holding one rein in each hand at waist level, elbows in at my sides. This was the full-seat, three-point position. I paid attention to the details of proper form because they're crucial for staying on the horse.

"You can fall off," Mike says. "You are dealing with animals, not machines. They have minds of their own."

Luckily, Beach Girl's mind was on taking it easy, which made her unlikely to surprise me with any sudden moves that might throw off my balance. I started walking her in circles around the arena to get a feel for pulling one rein in the direction I wanted to go, and squeezing my inside leg to keep her close to the arena walls.

When I started to get the hang of it, Erika taught me a two-point posting position, used when the horse travels faster than a walk. The next speed up is the trot, a bouncy gait that makes sitting in the saddle tough on the animal and brutal on the rider's rear end.

Instead, I learned to lean forward and lift my backside, standing in the stirrups and sitting back down in time with the horse's trot. This requires a lot of leg and back strength, not to mention coordination.

Actually, getting Beach Girl to trot for me at all was the hardest part. I had to kick her hard repeatedly, which I was reluctant to do. I feared I might hurt the horse, but in truth, it was I who came home with a fist-sized bruise on my calf from trying to coax her to pick up the pace and stay there.

Once I finally got her to trot, it was tough for me to post while concentrating on steering her in a circle. I also struggled to keep my arms relaxed by my sides. I wanted to lift them up or pull them back, which made her stop or head the wrong way.

Beach Girl was patient with me, but after I'd trotted randomly in no particular direction, Erika finally attached a lunge line to the horse so she could hold on and I wouldn't have to worry so much about steering.

I practiced posting for another 20 minutes until I was sweating profusely under my helmet. Despite my difficulties, Erika said I'd be ready during my next lesson to have my horse jump over an obstacle, a pole lying on the ground.

While merely sitting on a walking horse doesn't burn many calories, riding at a trot or faster for an extended period of time requires a lot of core strength and endurance, much like holding a yoga pose. Mike suggests that his riders do Pilates to build the right muscles, and he says gymnasts and dancers tend to be better riders because they know how to isolate different parts of their body and move them in opposing directions at the same time.

It generally takes six months to a year to master riding fundamentals and a couple of years to successfully compete. It's easy to find schools in Malibu, Pasadena and Burbank for about $40 a lesson, although riders who compete may have to factor in the expense of buying a horse.

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