Wild Horse

I didn’t have a riding lesson last weekend because the weather finally caught up with me. It’s been a pretty mild winter so far, but snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s is beyond the pale. Growing up, I never rode outside in the wintertime, instead moving into my barn’s large indoor arena in late fall. It’s a reversal that seems funny to me: in the city, where the majority of our lives is lived indoors, I am riding outside all winter. Indoor space is simply at too much at a premium here; we’ve penned it all up to rent it out for millions of dollars. The horses have their small barn to live in, but we’ve gotta ride them outside in the park.

To make up for the horse deficit that a week without riding creates in my heart, I rented this movie called “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” from Netflix. I discovered it during one of my periodic binges on the Apple Movie Trailers site and was immediately taken by the description:

Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up and removed from public lands by the U.S. Government. All will need permanent homes. None has ever been touched by a human hand.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride tells the story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that dares 100 people to each tame a totally wild mustang in order to get it adopted into a better life beyond federal corrals.

The movie follows a handful of contestants in the Challenge from when they take their horses home on Day 1 all the way to the competition on Day 100 as they do what has quite simply been my lifelong dream: train a horse from scratch.  The horses are completely wild at the start; confused, restless in a paddock, shy to human presence, let alone touch. Wild horses have personalities as distinct as the schoolies I know; some are congenitally calm and take to training very easily, some are more aggressive and recalcitrant. The trainers take small steps every day, forming bonds of trust that cut both ways–the horses must learn to trust trainers, but also the trainers must trust the horses enough to push them forward. Some of the best moments in the film are when the trainers are able to get on their horses for the first time, in their own time–one as early as Day 3, and one as late as Day 90.

Watching the movie reminded me of my dream to undertake this crazy mission of training my own horse. Not that I’d forgotten it, exactly, I just had sort of let it shrink away. As I’ve become more entrenched in my life here, the possibility of ever being able to do it has simply become more remote. But lately I’ve been re-examining my priorities. I think it began with my decision to start riding again after such a long time away from it. I realized that I never stopped wanting to ride and that if that was true, I just had to do it. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to ideal, but for now I am riding and I am getting stronger and more confident and more in touch with my horse instincts every time I go.

I have been thinking, however, that it isn’t enough. I have this dream to train a horse, and it is not a dream that I can achieve here. In fact, most of what I want to do is not something to be done here. I want to ride horses every day. I want to hike in the woods and I want to watch birds. I want to drive a car and sing out loud with the music. I want to be able to play my bass guitar without worrying about disturbing my neighbors, who live 18 inches away from me. New York City is an amazing place to live, with a zillion incredible things in it. But they are not the things I want. So why am I paying a gargantuan rent to be near all these things? Additionally, it is inconvenient and expensive to do the things I like to do here because they are not city things, but elsewhere they are a regular part of life. It’s hard to see beyond the city sometimes, to imagine a life elsewhere. It’s a very special kind of tunnel vision wherein the awareness of the rest of the world recedes, and all you can see is concrete and stores and throngs and throngs of people…

For now, these are just thoughts. But they are gaining traction. I am tired and worn down from this city life, and ready to stop putting all my time, energy, and money into it while neglecting my true goals and dreams. All of this is to say, I guess, that perhaps I won’t be an urban equestrian for too much longer.

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Barn Girls

Despite the occasional alienation that riding in the city inspires, there’s one thing that remains reassuringly familiar at the barn: the young girls that spend almost all their free time there. I suspect they are to be found at every barn in the country. Some of them work there, helping to groom and tack the horses in exchange for lessons; some of them seem to just hang around. I know these barn girls well, having been one for most of my teenage years. They can be clique-ish, or  competitive with each other, but are mostly sweet and helpful to those of us that only ride there and aren’t part of the little barn family. They can fall in and out of favor with each other and with the various instructors that teach them, but one aspect of their loyalty remains unwavering: the intense attachments they form to the horses.

If they see you riding up to the barn on one of their favorites, they’ll scamper up to hug your mount and no matter how many times they’ve already seen the horse already that day, exclaim, “My baby!” and breathlessly ask you, “Was he good?” They don’t really want an answer; they want a connection. They love this animal so much and simply want to talk to someone else who loves him too. It’s like a teenager with a crush, having the absolutely insatiable compulsion to speak about the object of their affection, constantly, to know and to discuss every detail about them.

There’s one girl in particular who loves my favorite horse, so I end up talking to her most often. She’s probably fourteen and just slightly more awkward than the rest of her friends at the barn.  So in response to her asking me if he was good this Saturday as I dismounted and handed her the reins, I didn’t tell her that in fact he was a cranky nutjob that day. That he, despite being a male horse with no balls, sometimes for no reason tries to kick the other horses like the bitchiest mare. That for no reason whatsoever he has formed some strong convictions about going in the rightward direction around the ring. (We always start off the lesson going left, trot around several times, and then switch direction.) When I turn him to go right, the horse that was enthusiastic and responsive turns into a stubborn little mule who puts his ears flat back on his skull, bucks, backs up, and paws the ground. I didn’t tell her about turning him in tiny circles for ten minutes to prevent him from continuing with this rude behavior and that while I pulled his nose around toward his own tail he actually tried to–I swear I laughed out loud at this move–bite my foot. I didn’t bother to tell her these things because despite all of that–actually, because some of that, frankly the foot biting attempt was incredibly endearing to me–this horse is also my favorite horse at the barn.

He’s fun and he’s comfortable and he responds to the slightest little touch of my fingers on the reins when I want him to shorten his stride and become more collected so we can look pretty together. He doesn’t dance around when I’m trying to mount up and once I’m on, waiting, he stands patiently. He’s calm with loud noises and not that fazed when the more skittish horses in the group get jumpy. He’s small and wonderfully proportioned and has a shiny, liver chestnut coat that stands out among the more common bays and lighter chestnuts. When I lean down to pat him after the lesson is over, after we’ve fought and made up and he’s spent the rest of the time being his normal charming self, I bury my face in his mane and inhale the most reassuring and homey smell I know. I feel closer to this huge animal on this day than any other so far. And as I tell her, “Yes, he’s such a sweetheart!” and smile at the young girl, I feel close to her, too.

Push for Perfection?

I didn’t post about last week’s ride because when I got home, freezing and beat up, I fell asleep for hours in a wide swath of sunshine on the bed, still in my breeches. Nothing that bad happened. It was just brutally cold and windy. My horse, a large Thoroughbred named Professor, is a big, energetic boy in normal circumstances. In those biting temperatures, he was ready to GO, charging forward and tossing his head to escape the pressure of my half-halts as I attempted to slow him to a pace reasonable enough for a ring full of other horses. With a martingale and a double rein, he was still simply too strong for me. We ended up trotting in small circles in one part of the ring for the whole lesson, lacking space and strength to do anything else. Then on the ride back to the barn, the wind picked up a stray plastic garbage can and it came skidding across the pavement in the traffic circle toward the horses, freaking them out. Professor wheeled in the opposite direction, which happened to be straight into traffic. It took everything in my arms and back to keep him still and safe. I was dunzo when I got home.

That’s why this week I was relieved to be greeted by a milder, sunny day and a ride on my favorite horse, Aladdin. I just needed a sane, productive ride after last week’s shitshow. But walking to the barn today, hoping for some respite, I wondered about my attitude. Shouldn’t I be pushing myself? A challenging horse can only make me a better rider.

Finding the right balance in how far to push myself has always been one of the toughest things in life for me. I want to push myself so I can get stronger and better. But it’s possible to push myself too hard and risk injury or burn out. My perfectionist tendencies have prodded me too far in that direction before, like when in one weekend I biked 50 miles, had softball practice (at which I also pitched the entirety of batting practice) and then attempted to do level 2 of Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred, during which I injured my quad so badly that I couldn’t get up off the floor. My pitching performance in the softball game later that week was piss poor because I still couldn’t put much strain on the muscle. After episodes like that, I vow to go easier on myself. But in my impatience I become a bully. Dissatisfied with my progress, I’ll start pushing myself again, wondering if I’ve been too easy on myself all along and thinking about the success I could have had if I’d only been less of a soft lazyass. And so it seesaws, back and forth. This seems to be the only way I ever acquaint myself with balance: I get a glimpse of it as I pass by while running back and forth between extremes.

I think that it was a good thing to have a break this week. Aladdin is small, quiet, and responsive, so I didn’t have to push myself to contend with a challenging horse. The thing is, I grew up competing with girls who only ever rode immaculately-trained pushbutton ponies and they looked like perfect pretty princesses out there in the show ring, but in my opinion that’s not riding. I rode every horse in the barn, running the gamut from sweet-tempered old friendlies to hot-blooded, tweaker Thoroughbreds, most of them outright batshit crazy in their own individual ways, and because of it in my prime I could handle just about anything.

Today I got to ride a horse that was easier to manage and because of that I was able to work hard on my equitation–my position, my horse’s balance and stride and bend around the corners–all the little things that one would be judged on in a show. Aladdin tends to drift inwardly on the long stretches and then can get stiff on the outside around the turns; so I worked my inside leg pushing him over to the rail and bending him around it on the corners. Then the next time around, I tried to do the same thing with more subtle movements of the reins and of my legs. Instead of just being a parcel on the horse’s back, I worked on uniting us, making us a single entity working in rhythm together.

These things may be subtle, but they aren’t easy. Every horse has his quirks; smoothing them over without looking like you’re doing anything and also maintaining correct position in every part of your body is no small feat. But equitation is about balance and subtlety, not perfection. I think that’s something it would be helpful to remember in the rest of my life as well.