Big Sur

I took a trip out to California for vacation and started it off with three days in one of my favorite places on Earth: Big Sur. I’ve never been anyplace else quite like it. It’s one of a few places in this country where the natural landscape is largely untouched, a place where there is only one road that winds its way through the mountains and forests along the rocky, severe cliffs of the coast. That road offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the rocks several hundred feet below the highway, as it stretches out to eternity in striations of myriad blues, but these views are guarded jealously. The mists can seep in at anytime, bleaching the world of sunlight, obscuring the views of ocean, mountain and tree and even the winding road itself. To drive up and down Highway 1 on those 90 miles of coastline is to remember that you are small and that nature is big, and to know that no matter what we do on this planet, nature will remain untamed before us.

I don’t often travel without trying to ride wherever I’m visiting. I’ve ridden a horse through the fields on a farm in eastern Australia, through the jungle and onto the beach in Mexico for a gallop and then a bareback dip in the Caribbean,  raced at full clip up a mountain in the Dominican Republic, ambled through the woods in Lake Placid, and have taken to the trails in Big Sur once before as well. The place to ride there is in Andrew Molera State Park, an almost 5,000-acre area situated at the mouth of the Big Sur river. There are miles and miles of trails that take you inland, through meadows and hilltops within sight of the Santa Lucia mountains, and finally out onto the beach.

What a great, relaxing ride. My horse was, Roy, a 16-or-so-hand bay gelding that suited me perfectly. He was a very chill guy, yet awake and present and energetic–not a brain-dead, overworked trail nag like you can find at a lot of places that cater to tourists. All the horses at this place were remarkably well-trained, perhaps better than any other place I’ve ridden. Roy and I happily clipclopped along behind our guide, Sarah, who was a cool chick that I loved chatting with.

We rode through some forest and then waded our horses across the ankle-deep Big Sur River into a wonderland of meadows with gnarled old redwoods and coastal pines, including one old man that is over a thousand years old. We happened upon a wandering deer that nearly startled Roy, but she disappeared and we walked on, spotting a pair of quail hopping around in a bush. The park is home to the condors that have been banded and released for monitoring. We think we saw one, but it is really difficult to tell the scale of something even so large when it is flying so high, so it’s possible it was an eagle. We finally came out onto the beach and stood watching the misty coastline with our manes flying in the salty wind. The guide took this picture before we headed back to the stable.

Riding in a Western saddle always feels like a vacation to me. It’s nice to get nestled into the deep seat, stretch out my legs in longer stirrups, and only worry about my position in regard to how it will help my horse, like sitting back going downhill. When I first started Western trail riding in college, spending one lesson out of every few at the trail barn riding through 500 acres of Virginia woodlands, I use to try to steer my horse past every obstacle. I would try to move her around exposed roots, prevent her from tripping over small rocks in our path, or avoid the more rutted part of the trail. Then somewhere along the line I realized that such micromanagement was not necessary and allowed her to choose the best path for her while I just enjoyed the ride. I was able to do this with Roy, forgetting for once about being a rider and simply riding.

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Change of Scenery

On Memorial Day weekend my riding buddy and I made the trip out to Jamaica Bay Riding Academy to try it out and to take a jumping lesson. Both of us have plenty of jumping experience, but it’s been almost a decade since we’ve done it and jumping is not available at Kensington. Now after several months of flatwork lessons and rebuilding our strength, we felt we were ready to make a go at it.

The problem with Jamaica Bay is getting there. It’s not that far, just down on the southern coast of Brooklyn, but it is not easily accessible without a car. It is possible to take the subway to nearby, but since the barn is located off the Belt Parkway, one would need to get a taxi from the train station. We chose to go this weekend because my riding buddy’s friends went out of town, leaving her with their car for the week. She planned to pick me up and drive out there, but at the last minute the car wouldn’t start. We hopped in a car service and made it in time for our lesson anyway. It worked out fine today, but taking a car service every time wouldn’t really be sustainable money-wise.

But oh man…I really, really wish I had a car because this place is so nice. It was  a little shell-shocking to be confronted with an actual working lesson barn like that after so many months of craziness at Kensington. When you walk in, there is a huge room with a snack bar and tables and observation windows looking into the  sizable indoor ring. Off to the side of that is an office where a friendly and efficient woman with a microphone announced our arrival to our trainer. The stables are sprawling and well-organized with several large outdoor rings in addition to the indoor. Everything is clean and the horses look not only remarkably well cared for, but like very nice stock.

The lesson itself was great. Unsure in new surroundings and still lacking a little bit of confidence from the stressful situation at Kensington, I mentioned I like to ride smaller, calmer horses. I was paired with a funny little chestnut with a slightly strange gait named Homer. We rode in the gigantic indoor arena with about three or four other lessons going on around us. When I first entered the ring, I was nervous, thinking it would be very difficult to maneuver with so many other horses in the ring. But it wasn’t a problem at all. Everyone riding in there was very aware, responsible, and vocal and we all managed to stay out of each other’s way. I soon realized that even when crowded, being in an enclosed ring made all the difference for my stress level. I was far less tight on my horse’s mouth, far less tense in my entire upper body, and so much more able to enjoy myself.  I will certainly feel confident enough to push myself with more challenging mounts going forward. I would have no problem handling a horse like Max from Kensington in a closed ring like this; the problem is merely that at the ring in the park (and in the damn traffic circle) there is nothing preventing him from running totally wild if he gets spooked or simply doesn’t want to listen.

Best of all: there was jumping! We warmed up by cantering over some cavaletti, which are just jump poles placed on the ground; the horse doesn’t actually need to jump them but it sets the horse and rider up for the timing and movement of jumping. Then we moved onto some crossrails, which are two poles crossed like an x, the center point of which is usually less than a foot off the ground.  After so long, the feel of it all came right back to me. It’s like I immediately picked up right where I left off so many years ago, right down to having the same bad habits. The first couple of times we jumped a single crossrail, but we soon moved onto a line of two crossrails placed a certain distance apart. The idea is to get a certain number of strides in between these jumps in order to take off from a good spot for the second jump; this number of strides varies depending on your horse’s size and stride length as well as the speed at which you enter the line. I have always had a tendency to stare down at the second jump, getting myself too deep for a clean take off. I felt myself do it the first time and shook my head with a smile all the way around the ring. By the end of the lesson, I had forced myself to look up and through the whole line instead of staring down and we were able to get in a couple of perfect take-offs.

Jumping in general feels pretty incredible because you are briefly flying on the back of a thousand-pound animal. But when you hit the right spot and take a jump with a flowing, forward momentum and you stand up in your stirrups to get in jumping position, leaning over your horse’s neck as he arches through the air and the two of you are flying in perfect unison, there’s nothing like it. The only thing that I can think of that gives me anything like the same kind of pleasure is when I’m singing with someone in harmony and it’s so right on that you actually feel a “buzz” in the air. But this is far more intense, given the adrenaline that the physical thrill elicits. The first time I ever jumped, a tiny ten year old on the back of a fat little bitchy white pony named Delilah, I was hooked for life. After this lesson, I feel just as I did then. I want to jump, and I don’t ever want to stop.