Today was awesome!

The first big piece of news is that my riding buddy got a car. So no more paying for Zipcars every week and no more fretting about returning them on time. This lets us be so much more relaxed during the lesson and then after it, while cooling down our horses. Walking them out after the lesson and then hosing them down is really relaxing and makes me feel so close to my horse. Being face to face with him and caring for him creates a much stronger bond than just riding him and handing him off to someone else.

The other good thing is that Hannah was back. We were both a little rattled after last week’s lesson with Omar, and Hannah’s calm energy soothed us immediately. We warmed up with flatwork like we usually do with her and that made us both able to jump at our normal level. It was a relief.

I rode a large bay gelding with a long neck named Jasper, and my riding buddy had a compact flea bitten grey (that’s grey with little flecks of darker colored hair throughout) named Casper. Both of them were new mounts for us and both were a pleasant surprise in their own ways. My poor man, Jasper, was really tormented by the flies today. We rode outside in the sunshine to escape the crowded indoor and despite the fly spray we had a swarm of them following us. It’s too bad I couldn’t explain to Jasper that standing still and biting the flies is a never-ending and futile battle and that if he would just keep moving they’d have less of an easy target to bite him. I could have very easily gotten extremely frustrated with his stop-and-go-and-swish-and-bite routine, because constantly squeezing him to walk forward gets tiring on the legs, but I just decided to let it go. We just walked slowly on our breaks with a lot of fidgeting; not the most tranquil way to rest between exercises but after fighting it in the beginning I kinda just had to let him have his little OCD fantasy of killing all the flies with his teeth.

Once we got moving and I told him that we needed to focus, I found him to be a very solid and comfortable ride. He is larger than the other horses I’ve mostly been riding, like Jubilee, and had a long fluidity to his stride. Especially at the canter, it was a joy. When you’re moving at a faster gait like the canter it can be hard to sit deep in the saddle and drive your horse forward if his stride is short and choppy. But I love when the stride is long and lope-y; it’s like sailing on waves that are smooth swells instead of chop. While jumping, this also makes it easier to maintain position in the saddle and use your seat and legs to guide your horse instead of frantically gripping to just hold on.

I could really feel the difference in Jasper’s jump as opposed to Jubilee’s as we did our first line. It was the one that she sped through in four strides a few lessons ago. Jasper took the line in a much slower pace but with his longer strides that just eat up the ground, we took the line in five.  I loved the solidity of his jump. When I was younger, I  loved riding bigger horses. I was like a tiny bug on the back of these 17-hand giants and I felt secure with all that horse under me, especially over jumps. As I have aged, my taste has turned toward smaller horses because I felt I had more control and frankly, less distance to fall from with them. But today I was reminded of that feeling of solidity and steadiness of a larger horse. I felt like I had more time to plan for the next jump this way. It is not as heady as the swoosh down the line where my muscles just throw themselves into jumping position from instinct, but it is in some ways more fun and interesting. This was very useful because today for the first time since returning to riding about a year ago, I got to jump a course.

There are several jumps scattered throughout the ring in different configurations; a course is simply a prescribed path through certain of those jumps. It takes a lot more control and a lot more planning than simply going over one jump or even over a line.  The one we did today really challenged us to do just that. We started out with the first jump in a line on the long side of the rectangular ring but turned away instead of doing the second element and instead made a rounded turn to take a jump that was placed on the diagonal in the center of the ring. Then we made a very sharp, very deep turn around to the right to take the second element of a line on the opposite long side of the ring. Then we came around and took the second element in the… Hahah. I just realized no one will be able to picture this like me and that I was getting carried away into real nerd territory here. Suffice to say that it was a challenging and fun course with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that kept us and our horses on our toes. And we did great! It felt awesome. My riding buddy looked so professional steadying her faster mount as he was having a tendency to charge some of the jumps. And she said that Jasper and I looked so collected just floating along and then popping over the jumps as they came. We were in much mutual admiration today and both feeling so good about our progress and abilities after last week’s setbacks. We felt like champs!

Tough Times

Today’s lesson was a little bit tough for a number of reasons. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was out of town so we opted to ride with a new guy named Omar. We started out with kind of a rushed vibe to the lesson; he is new to the barn, and I think anxious to not get behind on his lessons schedule. So we didn’t get a chance to talk with him first and to let him know our riding level and where we were coming from.

We also didn’t have much of a warm-up. With Hannah we usually do a least a little while of flatwork before we begin jumping, trotting and then cantering around the ring several times to warm up our muscles and our horses. We didn’t really do that today, just trotted a bit and then went right into jumping. That didn’t really work for me because Jubilee, who I rode again today, can be sassy and slow at the trot to begin with before she warms up and gets interested in doing the fun stuff. I also realize now just how much I need it. As I get older, it takes me a longer time to get warm even doing things I do frequently, like pitching softball. For something like riding, which I only get to do twice a month, it is even more necessary. And it’s not only for my muscles, it’s for my mind as well. Establishing a rhythm and a connection with the horse takes a little time, especially on a school horse who experiences tons of different riders in any given week.

So going into the jumping I was already feeling somewhat harried. Omar was after me to get more trot from Jubilee, which I was trying to do but which I knew wouldn’t be an issue once we got warm. I was trying to explain this to him, someone who was unfamiliar with my mount to the point that he kept calling her “he,” but he wasn’t really listening. Without enough trot going to the first couple of jumps, she slowed down in front of it and and refused, pulling off to the left at the last second. Unfortunately, that set up a pattern that continued throughout the rest of the lesson as we jumped the different elements around the ring. First it was the crossrail, then it was a line of 5 down one long side of the ring, then it was a stand-alone oxer (a jump with two rails next to each other, making it wider than a regular jump) on the diagonal, then it was another line of 5 down the other long end of the ring. With every one of these, it was the same thing: Jubliee refusing the first time, or the first several times, rushing out to the left.

My frustration was mounting throughout this, not with her, but with myself. Each time, Omar was coaching me, telling me what I already knew I was doing wrong. I was getting more and more upset with myself because I knew that I could do these things, have done them thousands of times before, and was making such a poor showing of myself with a new trainer who had no idea of my abilities. It didn’t help that some of my fear came from the fact that this was how I fell last week, with her pulling off to the left unexpectedly. Each time I would try for a jump and she’d do it, I knew deep down I could make her go to the jump but became hesitant, allowing her to slowly drift to avoid it rather than pushing her on faster with my leg on the off chance that she’d cut quickly away at the last second.

But nevertheless each time I finally did it. I turned her right around after every refusal, tapped her with my crop, and tried again. Sometimes it took four or five tries, but I got her over every jump. And of course she took them all beautifully. The first line I think we actually got in 5 strides, which was unexpected given her performance last week. The oxer was a joy; I haven’t jumped one of those in a very, very long time and they are super fun since you’re in the air longer.

The final sticking point was the other line. I was so worked up by this point, tired, frustrated, anxious, and parched with thirst. We missed that jump what felt like a zillion times. Then we finally got over the first one and she refused the second one a zillion more. I was at the end of my rope with myself, and with this trainer who I felt didn’t understand me and wasn’t listening to me and didn’t see that I actually knew what I was doing. He was talking very fast and I couldn’t catch my breath and all of a sudden I was having a full-on panic attack. It’s hard for me to even admit that this happened to me, especially because it was over nothing. Panicking in the traffic circle at Kensington? Fine. That is a dangerous situation. Panicking because I’ve frenzied and pressured myself into a frustration meltdown? Not fine.

I dismounted and went and sat down on a jump. I asked Omar for a minute to regroup, and started breathing again. In the meantime, he worked with my riding buddy, who was having a similar tough time with him and with her mount, but who was at least getting over most of the jumps. Then I got up, apologized, and got back on my horse. Of course she was full of spikey energy at this point, feeding off my frustration and also just wanting to go run around. Oddly, she seems to love to jump. I’m not really sure why she kept running out on them today. Maybe she just wasn’t ready either, like me, and it created a feedback loop. Who knows. So I walked with her around the ring once, calmly. We passed the jumps that were giving us such a hard time, and she watched my riding buddy take her last turn at the line. I talked to Jubliee soothingly, asking her to remember how much fun we had last week flying through the jumps.

We picked up the canter on the other side of the ring and headed toward the jump. I wasn’t letting her get out of this one, and squeezed her to the base of it. But I lost my nerve after the landing and she refused the second jump. Again.

The lesson was over; we heard them calling Omar for his 1:00 lesson over the loudspeaker. But I was not ending like that. He said, “Go again.” I squeezed her to the first one and then, eyes through the line, with all of my will, I said, “GO”. We flew through the line in 4 strides, taking them in that perfect unison I had felt with her last week.

Despite my embarrassment at not looking my best today and at letting myself psych myself into a panic attack, I feel good about this lesson. I feel good about toughing it out, about getting my mount over every jump, and about proving to myself–not to anyone else–that I could do it.