Change Up

I haven’t written after the last couple of lessons, mostly because there hasn’t been much to say other than complaining about being stuck in the indoor arena now that the cold (brutal, unexpected, demoralizing cold) has arrived. I’ve been trying to put a good face on it, but the truth is that it sucks. It’s a madhouse in there–as many as eleven or twelve horses at a time–and it feels like it has been stunting my ability to ride. It makes everything stop-and-go, with much more walking downtime and much less jumping. It’s very difficult to focus on your position and to work on improving the finer points of your skills when you have to navigate around a bunch of children who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re all over the place! Half of them can’t get their horses to move, most of the other half are oblivious to any other horses but their own.

But to keep things in perspective: I’m riding. I’m riding very nice horses with a patient, articulate trainer with whom I get along very well. And as she said during our last lesson, this experience is valuable. When you go to shows and are schooling in the ring in preparation, this is what it’s like. Well…you’re riding with people on your own level, not little kids…but the ability to block out the traffic and the shouts of other trainers and just focus on yourself is important. I see that. It’s not something I’m great at. I get frustrated fairly easily by all this. It tends to make me distracted and disorganized.

It was a bit better this weekend, when a snowy day kept some people away and brought the clusterfuck grand total to only six or seven horses. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was away this weekend but with the holidays looming this was our last chance for a lesson before my riding buddy leaves to travel for Christmas. So instead we rode with a trainer named Jess.

Every once in a while, I think it’s a really good thing to have a change up. Developing a rapport with a trainer is very important to me and in order to grow as a rider I definitely need the consistency that relationship provides. But it’s also great to have a new perspective sometimes; someone who isn’t so familiar with your bad habits and patterns and who might have a fresh take on explaining them in a way that helps you work through them.

The thing I liked most about Jess is that she used the flatwork time in a more focused way than I have become used to. Hannah usually has us walk in two-point to stretch out and then repeat that position at both the trot and the canter. She gives us a lot of helpful pointers about our position and especially focuses on getting us working well with our mounts, since we are often riding horses that are new to us. It’s productive, but mentally I’ve been viewing flatwork as a warm-up to jumping. Jess, however, really put us through our paces. She had us go around and around and around the ring in the two-point at the trot, focusing on firming our abdominal muscles to really pull our chests up off the horse’s neck. We then moved onto a posting trot where we put two beats to each post instead of one–up up down down–going up, holding for another beat while standing in the stirrups and then sitting for two beats. That was an eye-opener into how weak my inner thighs are and how piss poor my balance is. I kept falling back onto the saddle on the second “up” beat. She also had us work with extending and collecting our horses’ strides. Hannah usually has us do this over cavaletti, by moving them closer together and further apart each time we trot over them; this is in preparation for adjusting the stride length between jumps. Jess had us doing this by working into the most propulsive, forward, extended posting trot we could get from our mounts on the long ends of the ring, and then on the short ends we collected them back into a shorter stride for a sitting trot. Swapping back and forth like that can be difficult for some horses. The horse I rode this week, Summer, was a pro. Practically, if not actually, a pony, she had a compact frame and seemingly a lot of body awareness.

I really enjoyed having these more focused exercises during the flatwork. They¬†not only made me warmer and more limber for jumping, they also reminded me how much I get out of training.¬†These are the kinds of things I used to do by myself when I leased a horse as a teenager, the only time I’ve ever had any sort of non-directed riding time. I would ride by myself without a trainer and focus on getting my body into shape, and on working with my horse to be the most connected we could be. Having the time to focus on the real specifics of training my body and my horse without distractions is difficult to get when I have a riding lesson every other week, and it’s something I miss terribly.

This thought has been knocking around in my head all week, and it finally dawned on me last night at the gym. I was running on the treadmill and distractedly watching the Knicks game while daydreaming about playing softball. And I thought about how it seems like when I’m not playing a sport, life can seem a little meaningless. Obviously I don’t think that sports are the meaning of life. But I’m realizing about myself that I have this striving energy that requires an outlet. I need to put most of my energy into training, into improving. If I don’t have one thing to focus on, that energy spills out into everything and becomes a pressure for perfectionism in every aspect of my life. It makes me feel dissatisfied all the time. I don’t get the outlet I need from work because I’ve always had just a job, nothing I care very much about beyond a paycheck and insurance. I’ve been thinking for a long time about what kind of work to do that would give me that outlet, and what always comes to mind first is something to do with horses.

My dream is to work in a barn instead of an office. To be moving around all day instead of sitting. To look into the warm, deep eyes of a horse instead of the dead glare of a computer screen. If I’m honest with myself, that’s always been what I wanted. But I’ve never really allowed myself to be honest in that way. I was raised to think of something like horseback riding as a hobby, something you do in your time away from your real job. I’ve never allowed myself to seriously consider the possibility that working with horses could be my real job. But the more I think about it, the more sure I am that it’s the only way I’ll ever be satisfied…