Today’s was another more physical than mental lesson. It was a good ride. In this cold and windy weather, the horses were in a frisky-but-not-yet-basketcase mood that made them fun and forward. I rode Lieutenant again and it was a relief, in my still slightly run-down state after having a cold all week, to not have to squeeze on every step to move him along. I shared my lesson with another girl I’ve ridden with before; she is the closest to my level of anyone else I’ve ridden with and it makes for less stress in the ring knowing we can both hold our own and don’t have to worry about being in each other’s way. She rode a small gelding named Aladdin and it was refreshing to have a mare-free atmosphere for a change.
Quiet and relaxed on our walk back to the barn, my mind was allowed to wander. Sometimes on these rides, I daydream about being in my favorite fantasy novels, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. I’ve just finished re-reading the series after some years so it’s prominent in my thoughts right now, but it’s always in my heart. I mean, my cat is named after the main character. In the books, there is a lot of traveling. The characters must all at various times cover a lot of terrain on horseback. In one section, the main character, Simon, travels with a few other companions first through the deepest, richest forest and then across a white waste to the furthest northern reaches of the world. These parts of the books have always been my favorites. Reading about their daily routine of caring for the horses, camping out, and then exploring new, wild territory has always been comforting to me. Of course other, more exciting things happen in the books than just these mundane things. But when I imagine myself in them, this is what I imagine.
The ride back through the park is scenic and is similar, on a smaller scale, to the forest terrain in the books: we ride through a muddy-tracked and leaf-strewn copse of trees that leads us out to the main trail that loops around the interior of Prospect Park and takes us past the lake. Today was slightly grey and gusty, with swaths of sunlight brightening the ground and warming the air, only to disappear a moment later while the wind blew in the clouds and small flurries of snow.
I watch these images go by as we ride silently in single file, the rhythm of my horse’s walk carrying up through my body to sway me slightly in the saddle. I daydream about a fantasy world that seems set far in our past and also of a future where a daily ride is simply a part of the rhythm of my life.
Today was pleasantly normal. There were no particular challenges, so it was more of just a physical endeavor than a mental one. Sometimes you just ride and there isn’t really much to learn in a pedagogical sense. It’s more like a workout than a lesson. I used to feel a little disappointed after these lessons, like I failed to accomplish something. Now I see that there are more subtle ways in which you can gain from these experiences; you’re stronger than before, but more importantly: you know your horse better in unconscious ways, through your hands and your seat, your legs and back. Your body learns even without the furious churning of your mind.
I think that kind of learning sticks harder on me. On the ride back to the barn today I felt possibly the most comfortable on a horse I’ve been since I started riding agin. In the light, soaking rain, the park was almost empty. We walked past the lake and my eyes wandered to all the honking waterfowl flapping in the water. I didn’t worry about my horse or even think much about her, we were just there together. Accomplishments and breakthroughs are satisfying, yes. But it’s these moments of physical unity, of feeling so comfortable with myself and my horse, that have always made me the happiest as a rider.
This week I rode the horse that I rode in my first lesson at this barn almost three months ago; a big, quiet, gelding named Lieutenant. I haven’t ridden him since then, and it was interesting to measure my progress by comparing how I felt on him this time around.
The main challenge with this horse is keeping him going. He’s much more chill than any of the other horses I’ve ridden there, seemingly unaffected by inter-schoolie politics, but he’s also a slow poke. This was a nice change, since I’ve been riding mostly mares and contending with their bitchy nonsense. As with my first lesson, my mind was free from worrying about my mount’s behavior and able to focus on my own.
The most obvious comparison to make was how strong my legs were feeling. On a horse that will pretty much just quit what he’s doing and walk if you don’t spend the entire time nudging him forward, leg strength is important. Every step of the trot, you have to squeeze your legs around the horse, using the little-used muscles along the inside of your calf and thigh, to encourage him to keep going. Some people have an idea that riding is easy because “the horse does all the work”. This is false. It’s friggin exhausting. On a particularly pokey animal, it can feel like I’m holding my horse up on his feet—all 1,000 or so pounds of him—using only my willpower to keep us moving and the strength of my legs. Given that I’m contending with not only a nine-year absence from this activity but also about the same length of office-atrophy time, my legs are not the steel-vise mechanism they used to be. During the first lesson, my horse quit on me time and time again. Every time, I clucked and nudged and he went forward, but it was frustratingly stop-and-go. I was pleased to see that this is no longer an issue; my legs are now strong enough to keep him going without trouble. It’s still a lot of energy to keep reminding him that we need to be at a working trot and not just dragging our hooves through the ring, but progress has definitely been made.