Heavy

I’ve been fighting (and occasionally succumbing) to this cold/cough/flu thing that has been going around, so I didn’t make it to the gym once to carry out the fitness plan I decided on last week or really have any physical activity at all. But riding two weekends in row has helped, and I stretched really well before I left today so I felt much better than I expected to.

I’d like to take a second to note that I am writing this with a tiny kitten in my lap. A friend found her last weekend in a Christmas tree on the sidewalk and I decided to take her in as a companion to my first cat, Simon. Her name is Darby and right now her slightly-under-2 lbs frame is reverberating with her surprisingly loud purr.  I dream of the day that I can report that I’ve adopted a horse, but until then caring for tiny lives is just as satisfying in its own way as taking care of big ones.

The lesson this week was very productive; it felt like a good marriage of focus on training the horse and training myself. Normally Hannah chooses our mounts for us, but today she told my riding buddy and I just to look at the list of available horses and choose for ourselves. We rode later in the day so the options were limited to horses who hadn’t already been ridden twice. My riding buddy took her favorite mare and I had a choice between Jasper and Max. Jasper is one of my favorites, but I haven’t yet ridden Max, although I’ve seen my riding buddy have a few lessons on him. I was tempted to go with Jasper because he’s familiar, but after a moment’s pause and at my riding buddy’s urging, I chose Max and I’m glad that I did. I’ve always loved having the opportunity to ride different horses and learning to adapt to their different ways and personalities. I have to keep pushing myself to do that in my old age, instead of becoming too comfortable with one horse.

In some ways, Max isn’t too different from Jasper, and they are both very different from the horse I’ve had the last two times, little Summer. They are both tall and have quite long necks, which makes them both tend to be a bit heavy on the forehand. This means that the weight of the horse is more in his front legs instead of balanced or in his back legs. This is not ideal because the impulsion that moves the horse forward comes from the back legs. When a horse is heavy on the forehand, it can feel like you’re riding into the ground. It can be frustrating to constantly feel pulled down and like you’re not getting anywhere. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to pull Max out of this. Hannah suggested that as I was trotting around, I should occasionally give him some half halts, pulling upwards a little on the reins to get his head up. At the same time, I should squeeze him forward with my legs, letting him know that I didn’t want him to slow down or lose impulsion and in a way pushing his body and momentum up into my hands. These things together served to rock his balance backward; I could actually feel this as it was happening. Max’s movement immediately became more comfortable and forward.

The forehand issue is the same when cantering, but he was just as responsive to my hands and leg and once collected, he felt great. I felt very connected to him in a way that I hadn’t even really realized I’d been missing on so much of a smaller mount these last two times with Summer.

The interesting contrast came when we started jumping. The first few times over cross-rails and even over the lower verticals, he didn’t put in much effort. I rode him down into the ground right before the jump and then he barely picked his legs up going over it. I overcompensated, like I do, by sort of throwing my upper body at him over the jump. In retrospect I realize that when I do this it’s like I’m trying to take the jump for my horse, to pull us both over it with my body, which obviously doesn’t work. But once I was able to be patient and wait for my horse to rise up to meet me, the jumps were much smoother. When we cantered to the vertical, it was so easy to find the spot with Max; easier than with any other horse I’ve ridden in memory. Because despite his typical heaviness on the forehand, he had this incredible lightness on his feet right before the jump when we approached it with a collected canter. It’s hard to describe, and I was tempted at first to refer to it as scope, but that really refers to the over-the-jump ability. It’s analogous, though, and I’m not sure there’s a word that refers to what I’m talking about.  On the approach, he collected himself in a way beyond what I was doing to keep him off the forehand, it’s like in preparation for the jump all laziness or clumsiness left him and he became light as air. And in that state, becoming almost intangible, it was easier to meld with him, to be in perfect rhythm for finding the spot.

I can’t wait to go outside again and jump a proper course with Max. With anybody, really. I’m feeling very cooped up these days. But the work we’re doing on individual jumps in the indoor is going to show once we get outside again.

Advertisements

Trust

Returning to riding today after the long break for the holidays finally makes everything feel back to normal again, like I’ve returned to a rhythm of regular life. It was a long, slow, restful holiday time this year, which is just what I needed. I could really feel the good it has done me today during my lesson; I felt supple and focused.

One thing I’ve learned is that physical activity the day before riding makes a huge difference to my muscles. Even if I don’t have time to stretch or warm up much before my lesson, having worked out the day before means that I will get warm more quickly at the start and have so much more energy and flexibility throughout.  So it looks like more exciting Friday nights at the YMCA for me. I’m trying to be a bit more disciplined about my exercise schedule these days. Before, I just went whenever I had some free time and as long as I was going semi-regularly, that was enough. Now I’d like to be on more of a training schedule for riding and in (premature, but I’m so antsy for it) anticipation of softball starting up again in the spring. My ideal is to be going two days a week. One day I’ll do cardio (a combo of running/elliptical/bike) and weights to target muscles I use on the horse (mainly core stuff). The other day I will go swimming for however many laps I can handle.  I went last week and was able to do twelve. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any swimming, so I’m sure I’ll build up from there. I felt incredible after those twelve laps, though.  I’ll also keep going to yoga once a week to stretch everything out. Those things should put me in good shape for my approximately two riding lessons a month. Or, I could forget all that other crap and just ride a horse every day. Then I’d be in amazing shape.

But for now, I’ll just have to be thankful for what I’ve got. Today’s lesson was great. I was really on and so was my horse. I rode Summer again, who is just such a sweet, pretty girl. When I went to get her in her stall and she looked at me, ears perked on top of that perfect little Arabian face, I actually caught my breath for a moment at just how pretty she is. Her disposition is so lovely; she doesn’t have that mareface bitchiness even when she’s displeased enough to put her ears back. But she’s no dummy. It’s not a vapid sweetness that shines out of her soft brown eyes, but a sort of calm intelligence that makes her easy to trust.

There was a moment today during the lesson when I had to put that trust to the test. We were standing still in the middle of the ring as Hannah explained something to us when a huge boom of thunder sounded, spooking all the horses. Summer leaped forward a few steps and then stopped; everyone dismounted and stood around stroking their horses’ necks while we waited to see if the storm would continue.  When we got back on a few minutes later and started trotting again, she was understandably skittish. So was I, tense with wondering whether there’d be more thunder to set her off. I was doing the thing I do where I get grabby with the reins and lean forward with my upper body and drive my mount crazy, and Hannah suggested that I needed to give Summer a little more rein and show her I trust her. It wasn’t easy…but it wasn’t as hard as it used to be, either. I find lately that in all areas of life, I’m regaining this control of myself wherein I’m able to just be ok. I can let go of anxiety and have confidence in my capability to handle things. So I sat back, lengthened my reins, and squeezed her forward. We trotted the long side of the ring with her being a little spikey and me half-halting her as gently as I could while focusing on breathing and keeping the tension out of my muscles and my mind clear of thunder anxiety. And just like that, she relaxed. As we rounded the turn I felt her whole body change. Her head dropped and her back unwound, her movements became smooth and she was her game, responsive self again. It’s amazing how that works. I showed her trust, and she trusted me back. That’s the thing with horses: if they think that you think that everything is ok, they are likely to think so, too.