First Cold

Today was the first really cold day I’ve had for a lesson. I’ve lucked out with sunny days in the mid-to-upper 50s thus far. Today the sun is occasionally obscured by a gust-fueled bank of clouds and it’ll only top out in the low-to-mid 40s. Although yesterday was pretty similar weather, it always takes a couple days for the horses to adjust to a new season.  My guess is that we’ll keep riding outside for as long as possible; the stables have an indoor ring but it seems barely useable. It is a tiny area inside the barn that probably shouldn’t have more than two small horses in it at a time, if that.

So today was kind of harrowing. One of the strange things about the barn I ride at is that they don’t really seem to give private lessons. You show up and never really know who you’re going to be sharing the lesson with. It bothered me at first, but a) what choice do I have at the moment? and b) it can have its advantages. My trainer is pretty hands-off with me in general, trusting me to figure out what I need to do and then imparting helpful observations about my position or interaction with the horse. When I ride with someone else and her attention is turned to them for a bit, I get to basically instruct myself. I get to remember the things I learned years ago and put them to use again. I have time to adjust to and negotiate with my horse using my own instincts, and then implement suggestions my trainer has offered without having to incorporate new information right away.

Today, though, the number of cold-weather-giddy horses in the ring was unsustainable. We had three in our lesson, and another single lesson going on beside us. The ride out there was marked by conflict: my trainer’s horse crow-hopping and rearing at the cold wind and the construction equipment and my horse coming on too strong, getting up in the grill of the mare in our group, causing both of them to wheel and kick.

That’s really the one big fear I’ve always had around horses. It can be scary if they hop, or shy, or bolt, sure, but I know I can handle that. It’s when they start backing up into each other and the hooves start flying that I begin to panic. It doesn’t feel like there’s much I can do. The first impulse that comes to mind when your horse is moving and you don’t want him to is to pull back on the reins. That doesn’t work here, since in this case that just makes him back up futher. So then I overcompensate by giving him slack on the reins and try to squeeze him forward, but that only gives him room to wheel, giving him leeway to kick and bite. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the lesson went.

We all tried to maneuver around the ring, giving each other enough space to deal with our respective mount’s issues. The biggest and most forward horse circled on the oval in the bottom of the ring, while the pokey mare shared the rail with the somehow normal-acting school horse from the other lesson. That left no place for my gelding, who continued to back up and buck every time I asked him for anything. He was the loosest of the cannons in the bunch. I don’t even think he has that much of a problem with other horses, that was simply his excuse today for not wanting to work.

Since I’ve never ridden this horse before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was shaken by the earlier conflicts and my confidence was low. Eventually, my trainer orchestrated a game of musical chairs in which I ended up on the little mare, who I have ridden before and get along with. She, too, had been backing up and pawing when her rider asked her for a trot, probably having watched how successful my gelding was with that gambit.  But that didn’t work with me. I knew her and I knew her limits (as I didn’t for the gelding) and she wasn’t able to bully me the way he was. It helped that she’s smaller too, but most of it was just that I knew how far I could trust her. She’ll throw some bucks in protest but I doubted she’d truly try to dump me. After some more buck-filled theatrics, I had her moving at a nice trot on the rail. The more experienced of the other two girls had a go at my gelding without much success–horses just have bad days too, sometimes–and I was able to avoid conflict with him for the most part. Once going forward, my confidence returned and I got quickly in sync with my more responsive mount. After all that, my canters today were the best I’ve had since getting back to riding. My lower leg felt snug and the canter was very collected; it felt great and I know it looked great, too.

All in all, I got to ride less time than normal, but it was valuable experience nonetheless, dealing with the antics and interpersonal issues. I’m sure it’ll get real interesting when it finally gets cold enough to move into the tiny indoor ring. (Yikes.)

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Parade

The most obvious difference between riding in the city and pretty much all other riding I’ve done in my life is, expectedly, all the hooplah going on nearby while I’m on the horse. My trainer and I mount at the barn, which is tucked away in a residential area near the southern end of Prospect Park, and then walk our horses a couple blocks to cross through the big traffic circle where Ocean Avenue meets Prospect Park Southwest. This is a huge intersection with multiple lanes of car traffic,  motorcycles revving through yellow traffic lights, busses and trucks passing through, and ambulances screaming by with their sirens on. There are bike lanes and pedestrians crossing right next to a lane painted especially for the horses, a bridle path in the middle of essentially every other form of overland conveyance the city has to offer.

Once we make our way into the park through the Ocean Parkway entrance, the bridle path shadows the main roadway in the park–the 3.5 mile loop shared by cars, bicyclists, runners, skateboarders, and pedestrians. Riding next to all of that is sort of like riding in a parade. Everyone looks at the horses since they are such an unusual sight in the city. Most amazed are the little kids walking with their parents, who stop and point, smile and wave, exclaiming “horsies!” (something my heart still says every time I see them too, driving through the country or even when I’m the pedestrian and see them go by in the park). I always smile and wave back to the kids, knowing that for them, this acknowledgment can make them feel somehow connected to this otherwise arcane sight. They get so excited about it and it makes my day. But the most entertaining interactions are those with people walking their dogs. Every dog is flabbergasted by the sight of a so much larger animal, whether it inspires aggression, fear, or simply dumbstruck awe. I love watching their faces when the horses come into view and I can see their carefully constructed place in the world unravelling in their tiny heads.   They bark like crazy and I laugh, sometimes sharing that laugh with their owners.

Two months into riding here, I am still amazed at the horses’ nonchalance to all this madness. This situation would cause a complete freakout meltdown for pretty much all of the other horses I’ve ever ridden, but these guys are just used to it. The thing is, horses tend to have a lot on their minds. Even when they seem relaxed, the tiniest thing could set them off. They’re always scanning the world for something that could scare them. They are also painfully aware of group dynamics, particularly among school horses; who follows who, how near will they allow another horse, and their relative speeds are all of paramount importance. That’s why I find it so easy to relate to them. These are all human concerns, too. We are often ruled by our fears, defensive about minor threats that our overactive minds have trumped up to seem like massive problems. We, too, are over-concerned about our place in the pack and what others are doing around us.

When it comes down to it, riding is so much more about relating psychologically and emotionally to the horses than it is about any notions of controlling them or having perfect position or whatever other nonsense we think we are doing. Anyone who gets on a horse, whether it be a beginner or the most seasoned veteran, and forgets for one instant that the horse is letting you ride it, is in for a bad awakening one day.

So I ride through this parade route every week, usually more nervous than the horses about all that is going on around us, marveling at their general calm. But I also empathize when that calm is broken, when a bicyclist yells at another or a car’s brakes screech too loudly, and my horse gets startled. The city is an overwhelming place for both of us. Mostly, you just have to let it all slide by without worrying about it too much. You get past the traffic circles, the packed stores and subways, the places of confluence that threaten to overspill with too much humanity, and you enter into the calm refuge under the trees in the park, or cozy in your apartment (or stall).  I take a breath and then exhale the tension and anxiety from my muscles, knowing that my horse will feel it and be infected by it. We are working together, and I don’t want to fail him. We are both out of place in the city, but we live here nonetheless and so we just do what we do, and adapt it as best we can.

Starting Over

I started riding horses when I was nine years old. I took lessons and then went to an equestrian day camp. Later, I worked at the day camp, teaching little kids how to ride and everything else there was to know about horses: their care, their anatomy, their habits, their markings and colors. I chose my college based on two criteria: having a good English department (thinking that I should be an English major because I liked to read. Derp.) and having an equestrian team. In college I went out partying until 3 am but still got on the van at 5 am to travel to horse shows at other colleges in our IHSA zone.

All in all, I rode for about thirteen years. And then I stopped.

After college, for a variety of reasons that were only slightly more thoughtful than those I used to pick a college, I moved to Brooklyn. I started my career in the publishing industry. I struggled to acclimate to city life, separated from the things that centered me, like spending non-public time outdoors and driving around and listening to the radio. I felt like I had been put in a zoo. I couldn’t sense the weather anymore, the millions of tiny nuanced scents and temperatures and moisture levels and pressures in the air that had greeted me upon going outside throughout my childhood growing up in the woods near the water on Long Island. But worst of all, I stopped riding. I was too poor and too distracted. Horseback riding is not very accessible in the city. I made excuses, and I didn’t do the thing I love doing most for nine years.

I started riding again about two months ago. Some cash got freed up by moving in with my boyfriend and finally paying off my student loans. I now live only a fifteen-minute walk from the barn. My former excuses didn’t make sense anymore. But most of all, I got sick of not doing the things I love and decided that now is the time to do them.

This blog is about the challenges, the strangeness, and the awesomeness of riding in the city. It’s about the process of going back to something with all of the mental aspects intact–the knowledge and instincts built up over years–yet having to start over physically, rebuilding strength and stamina and muscles that you don’t use for anything else. It’s about returning to something that I mainly experienced in an immature frame of mind and seeing what it’s like to do it as an adult. It’s about horses and how much I love them, about how I can’t believe I let myself go so long without them in my life and about the joy of having them in it again.