The Fall

Today I fell off a horse for the first time since starting to ride again.

The last time I fell off was in 2006, when I was visiting someone who let me ride her horse. The mare was frisky and excited to be out after having not been ridden for a few weeks. Excited myself to be on a horse again after a nearly three-year gap between my last days on the riding team in college and this unexpected chance to ride, I decided against my better judgement to take her for a few jumps. Out of practice, I got left behind on the take off and was off balance when in her giddiness, she let out a buck in mid-air. I flew over her head and landed partially on my shoulder, partially on my back, knocking the wind out of me. I was stunned but uninjured, but it was the one and only time in my entire riding career that I fell off and didn’t get back on again. I was too shaken up.

Today’s fall was significantly less dramatic. I was riding Emma, the small, grey mare whom I’ve come to know quite well. At the start of the lesson, tracking right around the ring, she was moving very well; my one gripe with her is that she can often be very pokey, but today she was up and forward. On the ride over there, I had been distracted and anxious, stuck in my head worrying about some of the more looming aspects of the sort of general life crisis I’ve been going through lately. But as we trotted around, avoiding contact with the five other horses in the ring, I was able to settle my mind and focus. Emma can get very distracted by looking at what is going on around the ring and today there was a race in the park. Apparently not many people want to run a race in early March weather, so it was sparse attendance. However, there was a refreshment table set up right outside the ring that posed a potential threat. Each team we rode by it, I pulled Emma’s nose to the inside, making her connect with me and look away from the table. By the third time, she was ignoring it and working well with me. I felt relieved by the smoothness of her gait and our connection.

Once we switched directions, things changed. Emma prefers the right; on her left she can be awkward sometimes. Her speed cut in half, her feet stumbling and unsure, we quickly got out of sync. I squeezed and clucked, trying to coax some more energy into her trot to regain the fluidity that we had felt in the other direction. My sense of calm satisfaction evaporated, it was like someone threw a wrench in my gears.

Anxiety and frustration mounted, until it was our turn to canter. I set her up on the right spot on the rail and asked her for it, sitting deeper in the saddle and nudging her forward with my outside leg. No dice. One of the most frustrating feelings in the world, for me. You ask and ask and all your horse does is speed up her trot. You use all the strength in your legs squeezing as hard as you can to get her to go, and then your muscles get weak and you flop, disorganized and ineffectual. I pulled her back to a walk, reorganized myself, and tried again. I got a slow, short, and awkward canter out of her. I was a mess: frustrated with myself, angry at her. And feeling oh so sorry for myself that things were not going my way.

But then we switched directions again to take the canter on the right. Little miss perked right up again. She went right into a good, energetic canter that felt nothing like the awkward gait we had going the other way. I would have kept going, but my trainer was warning me about some activity at the table as I approached it. I pulled her down to a trot, employing the same inside rein that I had used to get her past there at the beginning of the lesson. But this time it didn’t work. The man at the table had a big garbage bag that he was rummaging around in and that was way too much for Emma. As I was trying to pull her nose toward the inside of the ring and nudge her body with my inside leg, she shied away from the bag, dropping her shoulder and veering away quickly and causing me to lose my balance.

Sometimes falling off a horse is a bit like vomiting when you’re too drunk. You sense it coming and you think “No no no no don’t wanna” and you fight it. But there comes a point when you realize its near inevitability and that it will be easier and probably better in the long run to just give in and let it happen. That’s what this fall was like. I was far off balance, hanging out over her side. I considered fighting it out, but didn’t know if she’d spook again or try to run. The upside to a situation like this is that you have a modicum of control over the fall. I was in a relatively good position to take the fall and decided to let it happen before the situation got worse. I went off to the right and landed on my right shoulder. The only scary part is that my foot got briefly caught in my stirrup, but I kicked it out and rolled. The ring is loosely-packed gravelly dirt, so I had a fairly soft landing and got up quickly. My trainer asked if I was ok as I walked Emma toward the center of the ring, groaning a bit as I pulled myself up on her back. “Yep, just annoyed,” I answered.

As I trotted her back to the rail, I felt much better. The fall had dissipated all of my earlier frustration and had somehow lifted my spirits. Without fear or hesitation, we picked up a beautifully smooth, fluid canter. It was the kind of movement that is the reason I do this, the kind that makes me feel alive and free. We slowed to a walk past the table, and finished on that high note.

There’s a lesson somewhere in all of this. Maybe it’s that getting worked up about things, being self conscious and worrying and overwhelmed by frustration is only going to end up with you on your ass. That sometimes “the worst” thing that can happen isn’t the worst, and isn’t even that bad. That sometimes taking a fall reminds you that you’re strong enough to take one and to get back up again.

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Yoga of Riding

In the past couple of months I’ve started going to yoga the day after my riding lessons. Riding is hard on the body (especially in conjunction with my almost completely sedentary lifestyle) and yoga has really helped with putting my body back together and strengthening my back muscles. Usually I ride on Saturdays and then go to a Sunday afternoon yoga class; it’s also a nice start to the week. This week I ended up riding Sunday morning and therefore will do both on the same day. It got me thinking about how there are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines.

When you ride with equitation in mind, there is a great deal of body awareness needed to not only keep yourself in correct position, but to effectively communicate with your horse. For example, I have a tendency to twist my right wrist about 90 degrees at this one part of the ring that is slightly downhill. This spot is a challenge for a few reasons: 1) it is near the entrance/exit to the ring, which the horses have a heightened awareness of since it is the path back to their warm, hay-filled stalls and 2) because of the slight downhill grade, it presents difficulty in the horse’s footing, balance, and stride. The ideal is to keep your horse at an even pace and stride throughout the ring; on a completely flat surface this is easier. But going downhill, the horse’s weight is shifted unevenly between front and back hooves. Being that this hill is on a turn, they also have a tendency to drop their left shoulders and cut the corner, throwing their left-right balance off as well. As a rider, going downhill can pull you forward. It’s important to keep your back straight, chest open and head up while sitting slightly back on your sit bones. If you keep your balance this way, you can help your horse keep his front-back balance. In addition, slight pressure with the inside leg and a small amount of tension on the outside rein will prevent him from cutting the corner, keeping him left-right balanced and making a nice round bend around the turn. This is where my wrist twist comes in. I was unaware that I was doing it, so focused on all the other elements of the turn. My instructor pointed it out to me. She often makes position suggestions based on first looking at how the horse is moving and then searching for the problem in the rider’s position. She saw that my horse’s gait was not flowing smoothly. We were generally balanced but kind of choppy and awkward going down the hill. Once she pointed out my incorrect wrist position and reminded me to achieve tension on the reins through a give and take from my elbows instead, everything changed in an instant. My horse’s head came up, his weight shifted, and his stride smoothed out. And that made everything else I was focused so hard on much easier too.

That feels so much like what happens in a yoga class. When moving into a new pose, I’m thinking hard about trying to juggle all the pieces of my body into place. Sometimes the instructor reminds the class to bring awareness to a part of the body that might be neglected in thinking about the more obvious parts. It’s amazing when you make one little adjustment, one tiny change and everything just clicks. Your body seems to flow and you stop thinking so hard. You breathe and relax into the position and that, for me, is kind of what it’s all about whether I’m doing yoga, or horseback riding, or anything else I do. That’s the moment where I feel free and powerful and right.

In Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, he talks about bringing awareness to every aspect of life. There are talking mynah birds all over the island trained to speak the words “Attention” and “Here and now, boys” as a reminder to sustain this awareness.  He writes:

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

As I continue to learn to bring awareness to myself and my horse, I feel like I’m engaging in the yoga of riding.