It’s 50 degrees and sunny, which feels like a goddam miracle after the endless snow and bitter cold we’ve had for what seems like as long as I can remember now. Sitting in the passenger seat of my riding buddy’s car as we drove down the highway to the barn, I baked in the warm sun coming through the windshield. This has put me in a blissfully relaxed mood, and has brought incredible relief to the sun-starved, anxiety-ridden wretch I’ve degenerated into this winter. I can’t let the relief become total, cannot completely relax and soften with the knowledge that it’s over and we’ve come through to the other side, because we haven’t. This isn’t Spring. This is merely a respite before the cold snatches back its sovereignty. But while the respite is available, I will enjoy every last drop of it.

Maybe this is why I approached today’s lesson as I did, with much less thought than I have been recently. I came to a realization last night on the treadmill (where I seem to be doing my best thinking these days, movement having always been the best way for me to shake loose new ideas) that I really need to have something that matters in my life. Riding matters to me, and I think it could be the thing that I want to drive me. I want to eat and sleep and exercise because of riding. I want to structure my life around it, sacrifice all the other worthless crap I have in my life now that doesn’t fill the void of wanting something to throw myself into, but merely weighs me down. But the way I am living now, it can’t be that thing. Riding every other week or so is not enough, not satisfying that urge. But the problem is that I have been trying to cram that significance into these occasional lessons, and I think that’s working against me as a rider. I will continue to work toward changing my lifestyle to get it to be one in which riding can be central, or at least more central. But in the meantime, I’ve gotta quit running myself into the ground, making every second I’m on the horse be something I need to learn from. Forced, focused learning like that doesn’t stick on me. It doesn’t enrich, it drains. I’m making a bottleneck of experience, shutting down the “play” part of it all. The doing it to do it. The doing it out of love.

So while warming up on Cisco while walking around the ring, I originally started to think again about the techniques from Centered Riding for feeling the horse’s rhythm at the walk. But my mind kept shirking this kind of focus, and eventually I just said to myself, “Forget it, and enjoy.”

Hannah had warned me that Cisco has been very slow of late, and armed me with both a crop and spurs. I can’t remember ever having ridden with spurs before, but with my legs already well-used from a hard run yesterday at the gym (the first time I’ve been there in about two weeks), I was willing to have them as a backup. I was surprised, though. I’ve only ridden Cisco maybe once or twice but I remembered him as pretty straightforward. And at the walk he seemed willing and responsive enough. But I accepted the extra aids and I still don’t really know if I needed them. Cisco seemed to be in just the same sort of relaxed, energetic mood as I was in, and we had a fantastic lesson. Hannah and the other trainers in the ring expressed their confusion with what was apparently a big transformation. Just two hours prior, another trainer had to take her student off Cisco and school him herself for being stubborn and difficult. I had no problems with him at all. I started to wonder what could have brought about the change in his behavior, always wanting to chase down the “why” driving the actions of both people and horses, but then I just let it go. Why ask why today? The horse I’m riding is the horse that he is. His earlier mood has no bearing on me.

Everything came very easily. My core is becoming much stronger thanks to a return to my former regimen of 100 crunches every morning when I get up. I could really feel the difference at the canter and over the jumps, building on establishing more upper-body stillness like I did in my last lesson. There’s nothing much more to say about it all than that. I rode a horse today and I did it well and I loved it.

Thinking vs Doing

One of the symptoms of being cooped up in the indoor is that I have a lot more time to think about my jumping. Doing courses outside, I get into a rhythm with the jumps. I have space to feel the movement of my horse before, between, and after the fences and because of that my body is more attuned to what it needs to do; I can rely on instinct to feel the spots. In the indoor, everything is so stop-and-go. There’s a lot more downtime between fences because we are usually only doing a single jump or a line. It requires a lot of planning, like deciding whether I prefer to negotiate a clusterfuck of ponies on the approach or on the landing. On the approach it can make me so disorganized, often putting us off-center on the first jump because the turn has to be cut short to dodge all the other horses. That makes the whole line out of whack. I find that dealing with them on my landing is preferable, although only the lesser of two evils. It means that the whole way down the line I’m thinking about where I’m going to take the barreling 1,500 lbs underneath me so that it doesn’t crash into or run over anyone.

The remedy for this, I’ve found, is to take a lot of time to get set up. To circle, to plan, to wait. And all that time, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do. How my left leg is going to push my horse over to the center of the jump. How I’m going to hold him to the base, wait to find the closer spot. These are important things to think about. But thinking about them too much in previous weeks has, I think, gotten in the way of me doing them. In today’s lesson I focused a lot more on my bodywork on the flat and because of that was able to get back to more instinctual jumping.

I rode Jasper, who I believe is my favorite horse in the barn. He’s not the best mover or the best jumper. He doesn’t have the finesse of Max or the verve of Summer. But something just between us just gels and I tend to have my best jumping lessons on him. He was fresh when I got on him, making the flatwork energetic and fun. I worked a lot on lengthening and shortening his stride, making a game of weaving in and out of the other horses to keep our forward momentum. I also tried out the technique I used last week with Max to get him off the forehand. It was not as drastic a result with Jasper, but I certainly felt his head come up and his weight shift backward. With this balance, I was able to bend him a lot better than usual as well. As Hannah described it, he “turns like a motorcycle”, just chopping corners left and right. But today he was really responsive to my leg and more flexible than usual.

The main thing I wanted to focus on today was quieting my upper body–particularly on my transitions and over the jumps. Two things helped me do that. The first is a concept that I just recently re-read in Centered Riding, where Swift describes growing your upper body out of the saddle like a tree. The image in the book shows that below the waist are the roots, while above are the trunk (your spine) and branches (your arms, your jaw, everything that hangs). She suggests trying to stretch yourself up in the saddle to illustrate that “growing” is different.  When you stretch yourself up, your seat loses contact with the saddle. When “growing”, your body extends from your center upward as your legs reach down and around your horse. You have much more stable, and much less rigid, contact with the saddle and your horse. I’ve been practicing this growing with my upper body all week as I stand at my desk at work and as I walk around. I think what has contributed to being able to do that more easily is the second thing, which is that I’ve been swimming regularly. I finally have gotten on track with my workout schedule and have been swimming a few times now. I can already feel the difference it is making in my upper body, particularly in my chest and upper back. These are historically weak areas for me and have always been a problem spot in my riding position. But with this increased strength in my chest, the upper back is able to relax open, the shoulder blades moving down my back instead of my shoulders being forced open by my upper arms. The chest itself is more open as well. The area around my sternum pushes forward and upward, allowing room for my spine to extend naturally and my neck to lengthen, lifting my head.  With everything open like that, there’s so much more space for my muscles to do what they need to do. Instead of scrunching down and rounding my lower back to firm my upper, it feels like my muscles are free to stretch out and support the framework of my bones. There is simultaneously much more stillness and much less tension in my whole upper body.

So these things helped a great deal, and I was able to do what I set out to do. With my transitions, I took some extra time to set my horse up and with my tall and quiet upper body, had so much of an easier time using my legs to push Jasper into the canter. He picked it up smoothly and then once we were there, I didn’t have to take several strides to pull myself together as I usually would do when rocking my upper body to generate momentum; we were already collected.  And then when we were jumping, focusing on keeping my upper body still took my mind away from over-thinking my fences. I was much less hesitant than I have been in previous weeks. Jasper can always use some encouragement, even on an up day. We trotted into the cross-rail and cantered out over a low vertical. I know he can tend to hold back and go for the closer spot most of the time, but I wasn’t into “knowing” today. More connected than I have been in weeks, I could feel his rhythm, and without thought I closed my leg and went for it. He was right there with me and every time, we took off from a smooth, even, slightly big spot. And it felt great. The line felt like the exciting place it is, a place containing our inexorable and united movement toward the jump.