Anniversaries and Firsts

It’s been a year since I’ve returned to riding and today was full of some great firsts for me.

My riding buddy and I brought our boys with us–her husband and my boyfriend–to the barn today so they could watch us ride and see what it’s like. Clarke had seen one of my (more frustrating) lessons at Kensington and has ridden with me twice on vacation trail rides, so it wasn’t his first time seeing me ride. But the difference in focus, organization, and athleticism in the lessons I take at Jamaica Bay as compared to Kensington is huge. He had also never seen me jump, which is of course a completely different level.

It was fun showing him around the barn. Seeing it again for the first time through his eyes, I was reminded of just how nice it is and how lucky I am to be able to ride there. The whole evolution of riding this past year from excitement and then disappointment with Kensington, to meeting my riding buddy and finding not only that we were on the same level with similar riding history but that we also have the exact same birthday, to deciding to try out Jamaica Bay and loving it and expanding so much as riders in the short time we’ve been there…has been intense, and wonderful.

Today was a nice day to have an audience as well, since I felt particularly “on.” I joined the Y this week and went for the second time last night. I think that the light workout limbered me up a bit for my lesson today. Also, last week I didn’t gel very easily with my mount. The opposite was true this time, riding Casper. My riding buddy rode him once before, the medium-build flea bitten grey of a couple weeks ago. Sometimes you sit on a horse and his body shape and your body shape are just not very compatible. Sometimes you get on and it feels like you click right into the saddle; you and your horse are just proportioned in ways that fit well together. That’s how it felt with Casper.

The interesting thing about him is that he rides with a bit-less bridle. Typically, horses have a metal bit in their mouths that the reins connect to; this is how you steer and stop the horse. Casper once had an abscess on a tooth that prevented him from accommodating the bit in his mouth, so he went without it for a while. By the time it was healed, it was apparent he was fine to ride without one and preferred it, so they just kept it that way. It is generally a more gentle and humane way of riding and some barns have all their horses fitted out this way, like the trail barn we rode at in Lake Placid. It’s a little less common to find on a jumping horse, as that requires a lot more control. But a well-trained, trustworthy mount can handle it.

Casper is very forward, wanting to go so much that even during walking rests, he tended to break into a trot like he was saying, “Ok, let’s go! I’m bored now!” But aside from the little extra effort it takes to convince him to stop, he was remarkably responsive. He was very flexible about contracting and expanding his stride as we rode over some poles on the ground (cavaletti) in preparation for jumping. He was very responsive to my leg for steering as well. What the bit-less bridle amounts to is basically like driving without power steering. It helped that I could move him over with my legs when tugging on the outside rein to pull him into the corners had less of an effect.

He was fun to jump with and we ended up doing a whole course. The first time through was slightly disorganized due to some sloppy turns and confusion over changing leads. When a horse canters around the ring, the leg on the interior of the ring should be first in order to maintain balance; that’s called being on the “correct lead.” When you do a course it often involves jumping through the diagonal of the ring and changing direction, which necessitates a changing of the lead. Some horses can do what is called a “flying change”, where mid-stride they pick up their feet and switch which one is going first. That’s the ideal. Some horses aren’t coordinated enough to do that and must do a simple change, where you slow them down to the trot for a couple of strides and then quickly go back into the canter, picking up the correct lead. Casper usually doesn’t do flying changes, but apparently sort of attempted one in our first course. He didn’t do it all the way though, only switching the front legs and not the back, which led to a cross-canter. That feels extremely awkward, but I was already so close to my next jump when I realized it, so we took that one a little badly. We left the ground not in accord about the rhythm and he knocked the jump slightly with his hoof. The second time we did the course, I was aware of his limitations and able to get him to do a simple change, so we were much more organized and smooth over all the fences. We ended with a long approach to an oxer up the middle that just felt like heaven.

This all brings me to another first for today: it was the first time I’ve ever gotten to see myself ride. I’ve been on horses since I was nine, but never had access to a video camera. Apart from the simple vanity of wanting to know what I look like, I have always felt this would be a great tool in understanding and correcting my position problems. Having your trainer tell you to sit up and open your shoulders is a lot different from seeing yourself do it the wrong way. So I was very excited to watch this footage. Clarke did a great job of iPhone videography and captured some of my flatwork and my entire course on film. It was amazing to watch it and to discover that I looked a lot better than I thought I did! When you’re expending so much effort to just keep everything together, to keep your horse going and aimed in the right direction and then also to remember to keep every part of your body in perfect position, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and sloppy. Especially since the goal of equitation is to not look like you’re doing all that much work. So that’s how I usually feel. But even the first course, which, as I described, wasn’t great, just looked a hell of a lot better than I’d imagined it to.  That feels great. It’s also good to have a better understanding of the effects of what I’m doing. When I ride, I’ll know that if I do X, then I will get Y results.

After we untacked the horses and hosed them down, we took the boys on a trail ride. Neither my riding buddy nor I have done the trails at Jamaica Bay before–another first–and neither of us had ever ridden in both an English and a Western saddle before within the same day. It’s an interesting transition because the stirrups are so much longer and steering is totally different. But the trail ride was fun. The trails go through Gateway National Recreation Area, which are lovely protected wetlands. Clarke got a smallish paint named Picasso and he did very well on him. I rode an even-tempered bay named Peter Pan who was a pleasure and just hung back, enjoying the breeze. The trails wound through marsh vegetation, like cattails grown high above our heads even on horseback, that swayed in the wind and made that perfect rustling sound. We came out onto the beach of the bay and rode around its curve, making horseshoe prints in the wet sand right next to quite large horseshoe crabs washed up on the shore. I’ve ridden on beaches before, but never on the beaches of my home. I grew up near the water on Long Island, so the salty smell of the water is, along with that of a horse, one of the dearest and most evocative smells there is. The combination of those two scents today, the salty tang of the water cutting through and mixing with the warm muskiness of sweat and horse, was wonderful to bask in. The sun warmed my back and the breeze cooled the sweaty tendrils of hair around my neck. It felt like a reward. A moment of complete pleasure and enjoyment to mark this first year’s anniversary. And hopefully the start of many, many more years of firsts.

Here’s the second (better) course:


Today’s lesson was a back-to-basics sort of ride and it felt very productive. With the end of the softball season, I’m more focused again on really trying to be an equestrian athlete. No matter what I do during softball season, it seems like a little part of me hangs back; I can’t throw myself fully into other physical endeavors because at the back of my mind is always the thought that I cannot get hurt and miss any games.

With that distraction removed, I’ve also started doing some reading about riding theory. As much of a voracious reader I’ve been for my entire life, I mostly read fiction when I was a kid. I read thousands of stories about horses but I don’t think it ever occurred to me to seek out any books on riding. There was a separation in my mind: sports and the physical world in one area, and words and the world of ideas in another. This was one of the reasons I was so excited to get back to riding as an adult, now that I have learned how to learn and cannot stop doing so for how much I love it. Now riding can occupy both worlds; it can be a sport but it can also be a study.

The book I’ve started recently is called Centered Riding by Sally Swift. Her techniques are focused on reducing stiffness and tense riding in order to connect more fully with your horse through body awareness and the reassessing of habitual responses. It’s a philosophy that makes a great deal of sense and jives with what I was thinking a while ago about how similar riding can be to yoga. I love the feeling when I read an idea that is so simple and obvious that it seems like it should be something I’ve already known, but it takes this particular writer putting it in just this way for it to resonate so perfectly. I’ve only just begun reading Ms. Swift’s book, but I’ve experienced that feeling a couple of times already.

I went into my lesson today intent on using some of the techniques she described, particularly focusing on breathing and centering. Breathing has historically been a big issue for me while riding, particularly while jumping courses. As a teenager, my trainer was concerned that I might be suffering from asthma when I would be gulping and gasping for air after even a short course. But I never had breathing problems in any other context and it was soon discovered that the truth was I was holding my breath. The entire course. So from then on, while she would call out suggestions about my position–“heels down” or “eyes up”, interspersed would be intermittent reminders to “BREATHE!” I still notice myself doing this while jumping and after cantering around the ring for a long time. I think I do it because I’m trying too hard. I can feel my muscles getting tired and I’m focusing so intently on keeping them tense and strong and tight in order to remain in position that I’m actually forgetting to breathe and depriving them of what they need in order to keep performing.

The other technique, centering, made me aware of my body and posture in a completely new way. Swift suggests that our center is in the front of the pelvis halfway down from the navel. There’s an illustration in the book that shows that area in cross section and demonstrates that at that point the spine is so thick that it actually resides in the center of the body.  Being aware of this makes me organize my body in a completely different way, and not only in the saddle. I realized that my posture is often with my shoulders and head pulled forward, leaning in that direction instead of stacked over my hips and spine. This is true when I’m sitting, when I’m walking, at my standing desk at work, and certainly when I’m riding.

The horse I rode today was a medium-sized blood bay named Thibault (blood bays are like regular bays, brown body with a black mane and tail, but the brown part is a beautiful reddish color). He was a little challenging for me, or maybe just not a perfect fit because of the unevenness of his gaits. He had a tendency at both the trot and canter to start off by getting a little speedy. He would respond right away when I half-halted to collect him, but then shortly after he would start flagging and I would have to nudge him forward again, and he would speed up too much, starting the circle over again. He did the same thing with turns, cutting one corner only to go extremely deep into the next one. It was difficult to maintain a steady rhythm with him, as I felt like I was constantly chasing him back and forth to extremes in search of the mean. (As I’m writing this I’m having the realization that that’s another particular challenge of mine, balance. It’s probable that he was just more sensitive than I was aware of at the time and that I was overcompensating slightly in the use of my aids. I hope I get to ride him again sometime soon to test out that theory and try again with him because he was a good boy.) Thibault also had an especially lopey canter; the motion was very down and forward, like he was running into the ground. After my trainer mentioned that he was trained as both a Western and English horse, the pieces clicked into place and this made a lot of sense; throw a Western saddle on him with its deeper seat and longer stirrups and that would have been a lovely canter, but it could be a little difficult to sit perched up there on an English saddle with my stirrups short for jumping.

So while I was riding and focused on doing my best with this horse who, while not an instantly easy match for me, at least was very responsive and willing, I thought that I didn’t have much attention for trying out my new techniques. But actually, the challenges I faced with Thibault today were great for working on both of them.  The off-rhythm of our movement was a little frustrating, but when I remembered to breathe deeply through my whole body there were moments of connection. At the canter, it took a lot of effort to keep his head and center of balance up, but picturing myself weighted down in my newly-discovered center and sitting deeper there rather than just creating the tension on the reins through my arms and shoulders was much more effective. It was the same over the jumps. Sitting back and waiting instead of leaning forward and rushing to the first jump made me able to get into a rhythm with my horse and choose together our take-off point instead of one of us deciding and the other being like “oh now, ok now? OK!”

Today we did not jump a full course again, but rather worked on the basics over a couple of lines. It was a bit more in the realm of “study” and I appreciated it. I’m excited to keep reading this book and to keep applying the techniques in my lessons. I’m just excited about life, really, these days. So much to learn and I feel very open and ready to soak it all in.