Monday, October 19, 2015

Riding in Another Language

Last week I finally put on my big girl pants and made a phone call I'd been putting off - because I really really dislike talking on the phone in German with strangers. I called a riding stable near us (so near that I can even drive there without my guts twisting up with terror) and made an appointment for a riding lesson.

The riding lesson was today!!

It was a bit awkward because the instructor didn't know how much I know, I didn't know the horse, and I am unfamiliar with their routine.

Oh, and the damn language:
  "gibber-jabber, blahblahblah."
  "Sorry - I should do _what_?"  (do a half-circle)

Thank goodness for body language and pointing.

She (Frau Hirsch) didn't know anything about me before the lesson except that "I have ridden before", so she was in an awkward position as well. I told her I expected the language would be more of an issue than the riding. She put me on a mare she called "sehr brav" (very well-behaved), but when I entered the stall to brush her, she stuck her head in the far corner and pinned her ears. Uh... Fine. I brushed her anyway. At hoof-picking time she pinned her ears again and flashed her teeth at me. Look, I'm not afraid of horses at all, but one never knows with an unfamiliar one! Frau Hirsch was standing in the doorway of the stall, scolded the horse and assured me she (Mallory, the horse) was just testing me and wouldn't bite.

Mallory and I had no other issues except that she hugged the rail so closely that I think she was pondering trying to scratch me off. I talked to her mainly in English, and she didn't seem to mind. Luckily much of the horse world is pretty much the same in Germany as in the U.S.. The one main difference is that to get a horse to stop, you don't say anything resembling "whoa", but rather make a noise that sounds like "brrrrrrr" with the German rolled R.

It was just a 30-minute lesson, but still I'm feeling wonky. I'll stick to 30 minutes for a few weeks until I'm in better shape and then I think I can join a group on Friday mornings that rides for an hour - it's several women who start at 9:30, go for coffee afterwards (of course), and are home by noon. Sounds about right for me, except the woman who invited me spoke in such a strong dialect that I could only understand about half of what she said. It didn't sound like Swabian to me.

Thank goodness Frau Hirsch at least tried to speak slowly and clearly. However, at one point she said something about the length of my stirrups, and I stopped and came up to her to say I did think they were a notch too long. She told me the stirrups were fine, and then I understood she had told me to shorten my reins, not my stirrups. Yeah, I better actually study some German horse vocabulary rather than just saying I will.

Since she had no idea about my abilities, I think Frau Hirsch was surprised (relieved?) that I could confidently do everything she asked me to do when I understood what it was she had said. For obvious reasons we stuck to the basics - walk, posting and sitting trot, canter, switching directions (though no flying lead change just yet), circling... None of that was a problem (though perfect stylistic execution of the commands was not, perhaps, achieved), as long as I understood what she had told me to do!

There were several awkward moments for me. For instance, Frau Hirsch told me in the beginning to bring Mallory to the middle and have her face the place where spectators would be - that's their routine for getting started and the horses know the drill to stand quietly while riders mount, dismount, adjust the stirrups and tighten the girth. I went to the middle of the large arena, right under the center chandelier. Apparently she meant, though, just the middle in one direction - meaning I could pick any spot along the long center line. So she had to haul the mounting block quite a bit further than she should have, had I understood more than just the phrase "in der Mitte"!

It really is a strange experience to do something I know well enough how to do, but in a new environment and in a still-foreign language. I guess it's a little like starting a new job. You get a simple instruction to do something you know how to do, but you don't know how this company does things. The first days are always awkward. Add to that a second language, so you're not entirely sure you understood every detail, but you want to make a good impression. Luckily for me, I'm much more comfortable around horses than people (I swear, horses are therapeutic with their mere presence), so the awkwardness is off-set by being able to be around horses.

The world of horses is pretty much the same in Germany as in the U.S.. There is, however, one glaring difference I noticed. There was no paperwork to fill out before I approached the horse where I signed off acknowledging that I know horses can be dangerous and unpredictable, and promising that I will not sue the stable if I get kicked, bitten, stepped on, thrown off, injured in any way, or killed. That notice is on their website, which is good enough for Germans.

Have a good evening. I'm off now to study German horse vocabulary.

"Weeeeee!!!" (riding in Scotland, 2010)


  1. I loved reading this post. Something that really struck me as being different from the US is the chandelier ;) I don't think I've been to a barn with one before, though I must say that I've been to a carriage driver's barn that might have had one.

    That's wonderful that you're riding again. I think I know the noise for "whoa" that you're talking about; the trainer with whom I rode in Maryland does it too, which is no surprise considering that she apprenticed under German trainers.

    Don't you laugh about riding levels, too? I've met people who've been on two dude rides and they think they're advanced. I'm sure that sure that the instructor was bracing herself for that possibility then was relieved when you knew what you were doing.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      It wasn't like a chandelier like in "Phantom of the Opera", but it clearly marked the middle of the arena! :-) I can't tell you how glad I am that I made this first step. I felt a little bit in a fog, and I'm really hoping next week will go better and I will be less nervous. And if I ride Mallory again (which I hope to), she'll start learning "whoa" - though in Wisconsin what we say sounds more like "Ho".

      Riding levels - I think that's why riding instructors don't have high expectations with new riders. Who can blame them? I knew where she was testing me, and I always tried not to fail. "That's enough brushing - now pick out the hooves." BIG test. If a person has only been on trail rides, she won't have a clue how to clean hooves. Estimating the stirrup length from the ground, cinching up the girth, changing the post in the middle of the ring when switching directions... I think I achieved the status in the instructor's mind of "not hopeless." Good enough for a first ride! :-)

  2. That's true; there are so many tiny markers that show whether a person knows her stuff or not. I thought I knew a reasonable amount but only had a year of lessons before leasing my horse when I was a teen. The instructor I had wasn't available any more so I was mostly on my own with a few lessons here and there that I worked off at another farm. When my 4H leader came out to rate my skills, she chewed me out for the way I shortened my reins and almost lost her mind when I went to get my mare without out a leadline. However, it was a good learning experience and I was glad to have such a stickler on safety and horsemanship.

    You mentioning picking out hooves reminded me of something cute my horse would do. I always picked out his hooves in the same order. When I was done with his front hoof, he'd pick up the back one in anticipation. Well, sometimes his brain signals would get crossed and he'd pick up the back hoof on the off side. I'd tap him on the near side and he'd pick up the other hoof even higher - kind of like, yeah, lady, my foot is already up. Then I'd have to move his hindquarters over so I could get the correct hoof because he legitimately though he was already holding up the correct hoof. It was funny!

    1. Ha! That would make me laugh, too! Mallory also picked up her back legs (but in the right order!) after I'd cleaned the front ones. To be honest, I didn't like grooming her and picking hooves in the stall rather than in cross ties. I suppose that was mainly because it was an unfamiliar horse. Funnily, I would have spent a whole lot more time on the grooming - that's a great way to get to know a new horse! - but of course the instructor only had 30 minutes set aside.

      I'm already looking forward to Monday! :-)

  3. That is very brave to have gone out for riding lesson in a different language! We went horse back riding a few weeks ago - my boyfriend rides but I never have and it was so fun! Will definitely keep it going :)