Listen To Your Horse

This weekend was the “Great Googamooga,” a grand shitshow in Prospect Park glorifying our culture’s current excessive obsession with food and drink, plus indie music. It’s not really my thing, and it’s definitely not an atmosphere I would recommend riding a horse into. But we did anyway and it wasn’t that bad.

Getting out of the barn and over to the ring was the tricky part. The transportational difficulties imposed on the area by the event caused a great deal of strain, particularly on drivers, who felt it was appropriate to honk their horns and scream in frustration at a line of horses returning from a trail with small children on their backs. Waiting for our lesson to begin, my riding buddy and I rushed to assist the short-staffed barn helpers to grab the distressed horses and get the kids safely to the ground.

I was filled with massive anxiety before I even left my house, doubled up on the floor with a stomach ache five minutes before I had to walk out the door. The jumpy horses and crying children did nothing to soothe my jagged nerves as I waited for my trainer to tell me who I’d be riding, hoping it would be someone I trusted (oh please let it be Allie, please please). She put me on Peaches, who can get pretty basketcasey in the traffic circle.  I tried not to freak out as I mounted up.

As we started walking around the first arc of the circle, I was on high alert. But Peaches wasn’t. Her ears were up but not super tense, they had the sideways droop that means your horse is pretty chill at the moment. Her walk was loose, her head was relatively low. She was fine. As we pulled up to wait for the crosswalk signal to count down, I let this information sink in. If she didn’t think there was anything to worry about, then I didn’t need to think so either. I didn’t need to rile her up, so instead I let her calm me down. We walked through the honking, screaming, siren-blaring bloody traffic circle and through the crowds of drunken, oblivious revelers thronging the main loop without incident. I must say this, though: These events are meant to bring people together, yes? They are ostensibly for enjoyment. But man, do they bring out the worst in some people. I have to believe that so much of the tension comes from so, so many of us–too many of us–all fighting for the same limited resources in this ridiculously small amount of land we all share. And I’m sure my awareness of this is heightened given that when I’m on the horse, I am in a very precarious, dangerous position. I know it’s a huge risk every time I get on a horse and I’m taking my life in my hands. But the thing is, it’s in all these strangers’ hands too. People who don’t know or just don’t care that they are putting me and anyone else who rides in the park in undue danger when they honk their horn, or scream, or rev their car through a line of horses crossing the street, or weave in between us with their bikes, cussing at us for ruining their workout rhythm, or wander in front of a horse with their headphones on, not even noticing that we’re there. Please, please understand that if you are around horses you are around volatile, sensitive creatures. Living things. Animals that will react in fear to protect themselves from what you may perceive as a typical New Yorker display of irritation at yet another thing getting in your way, but what they perceive as a massive threat that they should run away from immediately or they will die. So please be aware and please be careful. And be nice, for fuck’s sake! Just everybody everywhere, be nicer. Ok, PSA over.

The area by the ring was not more crowded than usual, since the Googamooga crap was in another part of the park. The lesson illustrated what I’d been realizing on the walk over, which was that I had to shut up all my nonsense and really listen to my horse. That was something that I used to really get deep into when I was a teenager, and I was riding horses for the first time whose training I actually had a hand in. I’d forgotten about it in the anxiety of everything else going on and on focusing so hard on regaining my strength. Peaches tends to be very uneven with her gait; on the bottom of the ring she would get very forward and almost out of control, but up around the turns and on the top of the ring she’d slow down and try to break into a walk. So as she changed, I changed my approach to her, sitting up tall and giving her half-halts along the bottom, then releasing almost all tension on her mouth up top and urging her on with my leg as much as I could. I found this leg toning exercise when it was Pinterest O’Clock at work the other day (http://www.t-tapp.com/articles/legs/index.html) and used it as a warm up before my lesson. I found that it gave me more to work with, as my legs tend to cramp up when they get fatigued from squeezing my horse and with a good warm up they felt more supple even when tired.

So, all in all, a good lesson. No panic attacks in the traffic circle. Better understanding of my muscles and how to get what I need out of them. And, ok, some disgust with humanity, but at least that hole of alienation in my heart can be filled with a renewed connection to a horse.

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Muscle Memory

Another one of the odd things about riding in the city is that I never tack my own horse. Back home on Long Island and at school in Virginia, I always arrived at the barn early for my lessons and groomed, saddled, and bridled the horse I would ride.  This barn is different. First of all, it’s completely disorganized. There’s no tack room, since the guy who owns the place seems to be a hoarder and the room that should be a tack room is filled with boxes, scraps of equipment, and other odds and ends. It makes my organization-loving fingers itch to get in there and straighten everything out. Without a tack room, there seem to be a number of cubbies and corners where the saddles are kept. The bridles are hung outside the stalls, sometimes on a proper hook but most often around the bars of the stall door or stuffed into a bag outside of it.

This disorganization makes the barn a very hectic place, especially on weekends when there are lots of people coming to ride. There are people, like myself, there for a scheduled lesson with a trainer. But there are also a number of walk-ins for trail rides or pony rides. Then there are the barn girls who are there either hanging around or working. They don’t seem to have any set schedule, so the trainers are always trying to figure out who’s staying, who’s going, who’s riding, and who’s working, in order to get somebody to help tack up the horses they need. There are only a limited number of people who know what equipment goes on which horse and where it is stored, so even with helpers it takes a great deal of management.

This weekend was especially hectic for some reason, so while we were waiting for my riding buddy to get there my trainer decided to put me to work. She shoved a big Western saddle into my hands and beckoned me to follow her, showing me the horse she wanted it lifted onto. She then led me down another aisle of the barn and back behind some stalls to a dark, dusty corner I’d never seen where we picked out another saddle for me to put on another horse who I had never met. After that, wiping my hands on my breeches, I said, “Ok, what’s next?” ready to throw myself into the work. I was kind of enjoying myself, walking around parts of the barn I’d never been to, doing the work that I enjoyed for so many years. But now we were ready for my lesson, so she told me I should just go bridle Allie, who had already been saddled and was waiting in his stall.

I walked off confidently, but as I approached his stall, I started to think doubtfully. I realized I hadn’t actually bridled a horse in about a decade. Saddling a horse was no sweat, all you do is put the saddle on his back; it’s like placing something on a shelf. But bridling is more complicated and is something that takes a certain amount of finesse. There are a lot more pieces of leather and buckles to negotiate, and it can also sometimes be a challenge to get your horse to take the bit. The way a bridle works is that the reins are attached to a metal piece called the bit. That goes inside the horse’s mouth and when you pull on the reins, the pressure steers them or tells them to stop. I think it’s important to be aware of this when you’re riding; through fear or through forgetfulness people sometimes treat the reins like a mechanical device, like the steering wheel or the brakes of a car. But it’s a metal thing in the mouth of a living creature. There’s no reason it would hurt the horse if used properly, but it is possible that it could hurt the horse if used improperly, as when people pull too hard or saw at the bit. So yeah, don’t do those things. But my point is, sometimes horses are like “Nuh uh, I don’t want that thing in my mouth,” and who can blame them? It reminds me of the talking door knocker in “Labyrinth” who Sarah has to trick into accepting the metal ring so she can knock.  I had no idea how Allie would react to it, and wasn’t sure I remembered all my tricks from back in the day.

I grabbed the bridle and walked into his stall, talking to him as I opened the door and patting him on the neck gently as I walked in so he wouldn’t be startled. I lifted the reins over his head and placed them further back on his neck. I stood next to his head, kind of awkwardly holding the loose amalgam of straps of leather that is a bridle in my left hand while I asked myself, “Do you remember how to do this?” But then I changed my approach. Instead of standing there trying to figure it out, I just started doing it. I shut my brain off and let my hands do what they remembered. Within seconds, it was done. I held the bit in front of Allie’s mouth, he took it nonchalantly like the lovely gentleman he is, and I pulled the crownpiece over his ears, tidying his mane underneath it and pulling his forelock out of the browband. My brain caught onto what was happening as I was buckling the throat latch and it was awed. It was like there was magic in my fingertips. It gave me that same rushing, tingling feeling in my gut that accompanies the faint whiff of  a scent from childhood, or the first few notes of a bass line from a song that I haven’t heard in years. It was frankly thrilling.