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.

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