The day is overcast yet bright. It gives a light that makes me squint my eyes and regret not bringing my sunglasses.
My boots hit the dirt of the KTRA grounds. All is quiet. Horses calmly munch on hay in the field.
I follow a loud, clear voice to the main arena. A small gathering of volunteers and trainers sit at the arena's edge on white, plastic chairs, coffees steaming beside them, completely engrossed in the lesson taking place.
No one takes notice as I find a seat on the concrete wheelchair ramp.
I set down my own cup of Joe and take out my notebook, feeling the coldness of the concrete beneath me. Cool spring breezes pull at my hair.
The comforting smells of horses, manure, and hay fill my nose, relaxing me.
Closing my eyes, I tune into the sounds around the arena: the ticking of last year's brown, crumpled leaves, still clinging to the surrounding aspen, the rhythmic clumping of horse's hooves, jingling stirrups, squawking crows. Horses in the nearby stable stamp their feet impatiently.
A strong voice with a British accent cuts crisply across the arena. I open my eyes to see a lady dressed in a baby blue, knit sweater. She is instructing two riders as they guide their horses around the ring. The riders are listening intently, sitting with perfect posture. Dust puffs up around trotting hooves; the riders click their tongues.
The horses in the surrounding pens pause in their eating, seemingly watching too.
The instructor is Mary Longden, an International Level 3 coach, an Australian ‘A’ Level dressage judge, FEI ‘I’ Level Eventing judge (until 2009), FEI ‘O’ Level Para-Equestrian judge, and an International Para-Equestrian coach and consultant.
Mary’s Philosophy: Everyone who wants to ride well, can - but only if they know where they want to go. (www.longdencorp.com)
Mary's style is sharp, commanding, and witty. She engages her audience. She makes us laugh. She asks us questions.
"So you see the rider's weight is on the right side. The horse will keep leaning toward the right to get himself directly under the saddle. What is the solution?"
"Shift the weight," the onlookers suggest.
"Yes," she calls out, "and also change the direction!"
She talks to a rider: "There are two of you. Horse and rider. One of you needs to be in control. Do you know what frontal lobes are? The frontal lobe of humans is the like this!" She holds up a clenched fist. "The frontal lobes of horses are the size of peas!"
Mary changes her expression from concentrated when instructing, to joy as she jokes. She is extremely knowledgeable, noting the finest of details, yet she is down-to-earth and personable.
"Trainers need to fix the cause, not keep trying to change the result!" She coaches her trainers.
Longtime rider and volunteer, Alicia Viner, approaches Mary timidly, leading a horse named Theo. She is to have a lesson next. Alicia is nervous and explains to Mary that she hasn't ridden Theo before.
Mary smiles encouragingly.
"Are you more afraid of the horse or of me?" she asks, making everyone laugh.
Alicia visibly relaxes and grins widely.
"You!" she says, and we all laugh again.
The lesson gets underway. Mary observes and shares tips regarding how to properly approach the mount and the proper length of stirrups.
We watch Alicia and Theo working together, paying close attention to Alicia's position in the saddle and the amount of bend in her elbows.
I admire Theo's coloring, his muscled body, the bright red bridle under wavy dark mane. I take a lot of notes, trying to keep up with the equine lingo.
When it is time for me to go, I feel humbled and honored to shake Mary's hand, goodbye. The volunteers and trainers will soak up knowledge for the rest of the day.
After a weekend of training with Mary, Alicia shares her thoughts about it on her facebook page (Alicia A V Para Equestrian):
Thank you so much Mary for giving me the tools and aids, tips and goals to work on this weekend . It's a bit difficult for me to write in words how I feel and how much your coaching and teaching has impacted my rides with Theo, from saddle fitting to bending my elbows; using my legs to get Theo going to practicing his bend.
Also transitioning from the walk to a halt and shortening as well as lengthening my reins without leaning forward. The whip as an aid makes a world of difference as well when needed.
So glad I got to experience both as a rider and a volunteer. You have made my year and I can't wait to continue to carry out the skills you have taught us both in hand and riding. So thank you for all you have done.
Thank you KTRA for giving me and several others the opportunity to meet an international equine icon!
And of course, a big thank you Mary Longden.
Kamloops CBC radio did an interview with Mary and some of the clinic's participants. Link to be available soon.
Also coming soon is a blog about KTRA rider and volunteer (and para equestrian hopeful!), Alicia Viner.