"Don't you worry about your daughter riding that big animal?"
My Mom knows that I have been riding for a long time and that I do not take unnecessary risks (i.e. I ride with a helmet and I do not just jump on any old horse that comes my way.) and she trusts that Harley is a good boy. She usually tells people these things and then adds,
"Harley is not that big anyway."
At 15.1 hands, I have to agree. Harley is rather short, as riding horses go, and also of lean build. I used to ride a couple warmbloods that were a hand taller and had much more substance. I liked them, but I like riding Harley better. He fits me like a glove.
Occasionally, I have an opportunity to ride a big horse. I have ridden a couple Belgium-crosses, a Percheron-cross, a Freisian-cross, and one full Perch that was just massive. I have also ridden a handful of Fjords, which are not tall, but can be very wide in the shoulders and barrel, which categorizes them as a draft-type riding horse, in my book.
Recently, my farm acquired a big horse for lessons. As an instructor, one of my responsibilities is to evaluate the horse on the ground and under saddle. After working with the horse in various ways on the ground, I decided that it was time for a ride.
|The Big Guy: For a Percheron, 16.1 hands is not that tall, but he makes up for it in bulk. I am not sure if he is a pure Perch or a cross.|
No matter how nice the horse, working with a new horse always makes me appreciate my own horse more. I know that my horse is not perfect, but he is perfect for me and we have nearly six years of understanding and communication between us. I missed this rapport as I was cleaning up the Big Guy and getting his tack together. The Big Guy likes to dance around a little in the cross ties. He fusses and walks forward when I brush him or leave to go in the tack room. I also discovered that he will paw with his front foot when he gets impatient in the aisle. I corrected him gently yet firmly for these things. I understand that in his fourteen years, he has not been taught to stand nicely in the barn, which is not his fault, but I would be lying if I said that it didn't test my patience. I tried to remind myself that Harley didn't stand well when I first got him either.
Saddling was fine, but then I went to bridle him and he walked away when I took off the halter. When I take off Harley's halter, he drops his head and then opens mouth for the bit. I do not have to reach up to put the crown piece over his ears, because his ears are right in front of me. Having a much larger horse not only keep his head up, but also walk away and try to enter my horse's empty stall is not cool. The good news is that the Big Guy is a fast learner and obliged when I brought him back to the original spot where I started bridling him. He stood still for take two, but needs work keeping his head low for bridling. I could barely get the crown piece over his outside ear.
I brought him outside and did some leading work in the ring. I tested his response to the bit, the dressage whip, and rein pressure. This was as much a skills test as a safety test and allowed me to develop more of a rapport with the new horse. I like to be prepared. Everything looked good, so I brought him to the mounting area and got on.
And he was great. The Big Guy moves off of light leg pressure, which was a huge relief. I used to work with a super-lazy draft-cross that took all the fun out of riding, because he just would not move without a strict progression of aids and relentless repetition. That horse eventually would canter off of just my leg, but I noticed that he "forgot" his training if anyone rode him between our training sessions. He was the master of dogging the rider into working too hard. Thankfully, this horse is very different.
The Big Guy also has a nice, soft mouth and lovely, smooth gaits. Of course, riding him is a lot like sitting in an easy chair, so I am not surprised. I can see why draft owners like to hack and school bareback so much. His back was seriously comfy. The downside is that his body is so wide for my conformation, that I lose a lot of leg and my right hip was hurting a little bit shortly after we started trotting. I dropped my stirrups a couple holes, which helped, but my legs need a lot of bend to wrap around his barrel. This is why Harley's barrel shape is so nice for me. I actually feel like my legs are longer when I ride him.
Draft horses are bred to have big, heavy shoulders, so shifting their balance back and getting power steering can be a challenge, but this horse was not too bad. He would get a little stuck on his shoulders in turns, but if I lifted the inside rein and supported with the inside leg or tapped his shoulder with the whip, he was able to straighten up. I use this same technique to help Harley lift his inside shoulder. He was also surprisingly balanced in the downward transitions. He runs into the canter a little bit, but I was tickled pink that he was willing to pick it up and will keep the canter all the way around the ring. He can even canter a circle with a little extra encouragement from my voice and taps from the whip. This Big Guy is the nicest draft horse I have ever ridden. Forward and sensitive, yet calm. I guess I will forgive his manners in the cross-ties, but continue to educate him. I would like to see the Big Guy learn to stand still next to the gate while under saddle, so that gates can be opened and closed from his back. And he tosses his head from time to time in the walk. I suspect that he has learned to snatch the reins from inexperienced riders. This is something to work on, but it is pretty minor. The dentist will check his teeth.
There is something that I find really amusing about riding big horses and riding Harley. I look at the big horse's size and I think, "Oh my gosh, that horse is so powerful." But what I have found, is that few horses can match the turbo engine in Harley's hindend. Even when this big horse was cantering, the energy behind the gait does not come close to my little horse. The canter might look bigger, but the movement feels "deflated". Harley can push with those hind legs like few horses I have ever ridden. My trainer said that it is his "biggest problem" and his biggest asset. When he uses that power to propel his front end forward and with an uphill balance, holy mackerel! I guess with horses, bigger does not necessarily equate with more horse. That is probably a good thing from our perspective!
|Even though the picture is dark, you can get a feel for his size.|
|He is a beautiful horse and barefoot! He is going to work out great for lessons.|