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  • by Tom Eastman

Riding High in the Saddle

It takes a certain dose of courage to climb onto an animal that towers two feet or more above you and weighs 30 times more than your own 70 pounds, let along whack it with a crop to make it jump over fences of up to 3'3" with you balanced precariously on its back.

Twenty-six girls taking part in the Sixth Annual Robinwood Riding Inn's Horse Show in Jackson last Saturday demonstrated that they had the determination, stamina, and enough equine love to put up with horses that sometimes wouldn't jump, hot weather that wilted their smart looking, crisp white blouses and riding pants, and criticism of their riding technique.

Somewhere it must be written that every young girl should spend time on a horse. But not all realize that riding involves a great deal of hard work, patience and physical fitness, as well as an understanding of the horse itself. Helping the girls acquire that awareness is Robinwood Riding Inn instructor Lisa Nevens, an accomplished rider who has spent more than half of her young life around horses, beginning with a pony given to her by her parents when she was 10 in Center Conway. She began taking formal lessons at age 13, continuing them until she attended the University of New Hampshire where she received invaluable instruction from noted horsewoman Janet Briggs. Majoring in pre-vet animal science, Lisa furthered her knowledge by spending her senior year as a working student with the Canadian Olympic team in 1975, an experience which allowed her to compete and care for Olympic caliber horses daily from 6 a.m. on. Following her nine months at the Sherbrooke, Quebec, camp, Lisa received her instructor's certificate, despite the fact that the test was given in French. She has been teaching ever since, first at the Bretton Woods stables at the Mt. Washington Hotel, and at the Robinwood since 1977.

To ride well, Lisa states that one must spend many long hours in the saddle. Four to five hours of lessons a day was the norm in Canada, an amount that Lisa says is necessary, but unfortunately somewhat demanding for the 35 students she teaches. She consequently accepts the limitations imposed by the weather of New Hampshire in winter and also by her students' time, pushing them so that they learn the basics of good riding. As she says, "It's hard to find people in the area who are really serious about riding on a year-round basis, although a lot of my students are really into it in the summer. The majority of them have only been receiving lessons for the past three years, and they have shown a lot of progress. To be a good rider, though, it takes time - there's a lot more to it than it may seem."

The initial step of instruction for her students is to get them to feel comfortable around the horse, an essential facet which encompasses everything from grooming to knowing how to hold onto the animal without bothering it. "Many kids feel much more comfortable on top of a horse than they do standing beside it on the ground, and for good reason, since they're little and the horse weighs 1,000 pounds," Lisa explained, adding that the next step is to have the students sit on the horse with a saddle but no reins.

The horse is hooked up to 15-foot "longe" line, which is held by Lisa and used to demonstrate to the student how to properly get the horse to do what the rider wants. "You just can't pull on the reins and expect the horse to know what to do - you've got to show the horse who's boss in a number of ways. You have to use your legs to communicate to the horse and learn when not to pull on the reins. Once they're competent at that, we move on to balance and feel of the horse."

After two sessions of getting used to the reins at the Robinwood, students progress to group ring lessons which cover such basics as how to stop, start, turn, and how to make the horse trot. By the eighth lesson, they learn the more difficult trick of making the horse canter, a faster step which requires greater balancing skill from the rider. After nine to 10 lessons, the students begin practicing on Cavalettis, wooden schooling devices that help teach the horse and rider to jump over a rail 14- to 18-inches off the ground. In such maneuvers, the rider's weight positioning is of the utmost importance, and the rider should lean forward while releasing the reins as the horse jumps over the barrier.

"Horses work on a system of reward and punishment, and not all people realize that pulling on the reins can hurt them because of the steel bits in the horse's mouth. Once my students learn that and the other basics, they then keep practicing to improve on all the phases," Lisa explained, adding that time and experience are still the factors that determine how good a rider can be. "What they're after is a level of proficiency where it looks as though the rider is simply sitting in the saddle, or else be able to get a horse to perform with minimal effort. You lean to communicate with your horse with your whole body, and understand its moods, so that you become one with the horse. But no matter how much you practice, there's always something wrong - if not the rider, then with the horse's performance. the idea is to keep on trying to measure up to that ideal level."

The Robinwood Horse Show provides those students with the opportunity to improve by giving them the chance to compete, receive criticism from a judge on their riding technique and learn from their mistakes. Comprised of 18 class events, the emphasis of the English show is on fun and pleasure, though most of the young girls competing admit that they don't mind winning a ribbon or two in the various events staged throughout the day. A few cried when their horse didn't cooperate with what they had in mind, but each stayed high in the saddle to continue competing in other classes.

The majority of Lisa's students live in Mt. Washington Valley full-time throughout the summer, many of them staying in their parents' second homes. Most are 8 to 14 years old, although there are some students in the 40-year-old age group who just enjoy riding. A few own their own horses. Most would like to own their own horse, but are content for the time being to use the Robinwood's 15 animals. In the three short years that most of them have been taking lessons, the have shown dramatic improvement in all aspects of their riding, something which their instructor finds most gratifying and rewarding. Watching 12-year-old Holly Peckham compete in the show's Gambler's Choice class, Lisa commented, "I really like to see my kids improve each year from show to show. It's amazing to see kids who couldn't trot last year jumping this year. Holly is now definitely ready to compete, but she's still young and her horse Blackie is not quite yet up to her level. She's still got to learn when to be forceful, but it will come in time."

The Robinwood Show consisted of three categories: Pleasure, Equination, and Jumping. Simply described, Pleasure classes are judged on the performance of the horse, while Equination is determined by the way the rider looks on the horse.

The Gambler's Choice class calls for a rider and horse to complete as many jumps as possible in a designated time span. Holly's horse, Black Magic, at first refused to jump over the brightly painted fences, stopping dead in its tracks each time that the determined Jackson and Boxford, Massachusetts, resident brought it racing to the barrier. Wearing a cast on her left arm as a result of a wrist broken during a riding accident, Holly persevered through the first minute despite the fact that the horse did not make it over one fence. She used the leather drop a few times, coaxing the animal along. Suddenly, Blackie became a different horse, clearing one fence after another while the group of 70 spectators applauded, amazed at the dramatic change of spirit displayed by the horse. The time was expired, but Holly and Blackie kept right on clearing a succession of fences for another minute or two before announcer Chuck Fuller called them in.

Holly and her sister Lisa often share Blackie at the Robinwood and also are among the few students who continue their riding throughout the winter, practicing at a stable located near their Massachusetts home. Speaking about the show and why she enjoys competing, the 13-year-old Lisa said that she always looks forward to the event, but admitted that she really prefers participating in the more demanding three-day eventing shows. Unlike horse shows which basically allow riders to ride on a number of different horses for the various events, she explained that eventing consist of three-day competitions all on the same horse. Consequently, she feels eventing is a much more demanding and truer test of a horse's ability.

The purpose of the horse show, on the other hand, is to simply allow parents, friends and riders a chance to enjoy the color of competitive riding in the relaxed setting of the Robinwood's rolling lawns. The six ribbons awarded in each event will no doubt be valued and proudly displayed but the real value is in learning how to work hard at something they love. As Lisa Nevens said as the last rider was leading her horse back to the barn after the show, "Riding doesn't come easy, and the more you ride, the more you realize how much you don't know about it. But once you do start to get better, there's nothing that can beat that joy of riding. I love it."

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