Closing Doors

Today was a lovely ride, yet I left feeling kind of low.

My riding buddy and I switched it up this week, trading our usual mares. I was a little tired and preoccupied to feel comfortable riding the high-strung Sparkling Gal, and had been wanting to try out Misfit after my riding buddy’s raves about her. Now that I’ve tried her, we’re going to have to be drawing straws for her in future lessons, because I loved her too. She’s like all the good things about Sparkle–the beautiful conformation, the athleticism, the sweet temperament–minus the anxiety-provoking skittishness.

Misfit hasn’t been ridden as much as the other school horses, which probably explains her relative sanity. She had been on lease and now is available for lessons again. The one difficulty with her is that she is very unbalanced on her right canter lead. When you are cantering, the inside front leg is the one that should be going first in order for the horse to keep their balance around the turns. Misfit has a hard time with this and will often try to switch up mid-stride to the left lead, where she feels more comfortable. The solution to this is to ride her in a very tight circle going right, holding her in a deep bend in order to force her to have the correct balance.

Keeping her tight on the circle isn’t scary or difficult compared to, say, trying to slow down a horse that wants to run out from under you, or buck, or do something purposefully bad. At no point does it feel like she’s doing something “wrong”, it’s just something that she needs more training on to get her used to it. So I don’t feel any trepidation at having to school a horse this way, or feel that I’m not up to it. My mind completely understands the principles of what needs to happen, and I know in my body, in my muscle memory, how to do it. But this is where my frustration comes in: I can’t do it well enough. I am able to get the horse to do what needs to be done, but my position is woefully out of whack; I feel sloppy and weak and because of that, ineffectual. I lose my stirrups like a beginner, and it feels terrible.

I mentioned this in my last post, about not being able to keep my heels down. It is certainly a symptom of how generally out of shape I am. But in the last few weeks I have returned to making a greater effort to eat well and exercise. I am starting to see and feel a difference: a slimming down, a little more strength and tightness in my muscles, better posture and increased energy. And hopefully I’ll be able to remain consistent with this and things will only get better. However, the problem here is more specifically that I am out of riding shape. Riding horses uses muscles that nothing else really exercises. I could go to the gym five days a week and still not really be able to stop my lower leg from swinging, as it is not supposed to do, even on Misfit’s extremely comfortable left lead canter.

My trainer gently reminds me of these position faults: that my heels need to be down, that I need to sit up more, and I become frustrated because this is deeply-ingrained knowledge. My body is not on par with my mind.  I can’t physically do the things I know how to do.  My thinking all along has been that if I could just get to a place where riding is easier to come by, or the cost of living was lower and I could eventually get a horse; if I could just get into a situation where I was riding several times a week, then I could get my body to the same level as my mind. Then this could be what I want it to be, a challenging, fulfilling activity that I am putting my all into, something to grow with. In practicing an art, or a sport, or any kind of activity, the more you do it, the deeper you realize you can go with it, the more nuance you uncover and delight in. I am there, after so many years of riding. Sitting on the tip of the iceberg, and feeling its immensity underneath me, so excited to explore the depths and simply not having the time, money, or lifestyle to do it. And now, starting to really question if I ever will.

I’m about to be 33. I ride one or twice a month. I haven’t showed since 2003. These are facts that, in the light of which, I can’t help but begin to think that my “dreams” are really just “fantasies.” When I returned to riding nearly two years ago, I told myself, “Yeah, I’m 30, but equestrian isn’t like gymnastics or these other sports where your career is over at 18. There are people in their 50s and 60s competing at a high level; that could be me.” And that could be me. If starting right this minute, I was able to devote all my time, money, and energy to riding. But that’s not reality. My life is such that I don’t know how I would do that. I’m feeling at a loss for what I will do for work (both in the sense of my life’s work, what I am meant to do to feel I am contributing to the world, and “work” in the sense of making money, since it is more and more apparent that those two are not likely to be the same thing). I’m not sure where I want to live, not sure where I will be in a few months, let alone a few years. Everything feels constantly up in the air. So in attempting to figure this stuff out, to pin something down so I can have a starting point, I start thinking about closing doors.

I vacillate on this. There’s the idealistic part of me that shrieks in terror at the thought of giving up my dreams; that stridently refuses to just roll over and accept the mediocrity that most people seem to be content with but that I know I never will be. Then there’s the responsible, rational side of me who can accept that certain things are just not for me, like that since I haven’t played in a band since I was 17, I probably won’t ever be a rock star. But once again, where can I find balance? What dreams are not unrealistic? What can I reach for? I have to reach for something, since I never have and I’m completely unsatisfied with what this “safe” life has to offer. Is it too late for that? Did I miss my chance to live the kind of life I want? I know we all feel our mortality to varying degrees at different times in our life, and as we get older it becomes more in focus. But lately I have felt it so acutely, have been living with this fear that I will have to accept that the things that are important to me, that I want more than anything else out of life, are just simply out of my reach. That I will have to die not ever having experienced them. I see my life slipping away, time spent in pursuits that are not those that I value, and I am scared and angry.


One of the most frustrating feelings in the world is knowing what you need to do, and being physically unable to do it.

I’ve been back to riding for just about two years now. I rode for how many years when I was young–thirteen? The most basic piece of information–the first thing–you can tell someone about riding position is to put their heels down. And yet, for the last two times I rode, I just couldn’t do it.

I’ve been doing a standing desk at work for a while now. In many ways, it’s much better for me than sitting–my upper back hurts less, I have less mental fatigue, I walk around more. I’d probably be even more out of shape if I weren’t doing it. But I think it’s making my lower back really tight. And from my lower back, a straight line down through my hips, hamstrings, and calves. No amount of stretching seems to relieve this tightness throughout my lower body. Exercise would help, I think, but with that unfortunately we go right back to the first sentiment in this post: knowing it would help, being unable to do it.  For the last couple of months, that has been the case. Worn down, I haven’t been as active as I like to, need to, be. I’m picking it up again now, having exercised every day for the last six days, and I’m starting to feel better.

Today, however, was a rest day. I intended to go to the gym but thought the better of it after yesterday’s lesson. The reason I’m bitching about my heels, seemingly such a little thing, is because without your heels down, other position problems arise: like not keeping your weight down in the saddle, like having a difficult time sitting up and back; all things that make you insecure in the saddle when the former racehorse you are jumping gallops away from the fence and stumbles on the turn. And when you’re insecure in the saddle under those circumstances, you go flying over that former racehorse’s lovely, sleekly muscular shoulder, and hit the hard-packed dirt of the indoor arena with plenty of force. And maybe your helmet, not of the most secure fit itself, despite protecting your brain from bashing itself on the ground with a good bounce, still manages to bang down onto the bridge of your nose and hurt like hell. I thought for a bit yesterday that the nose might actually be broken, but the lack of blood and minimal swelling have convinced me otherwise.  But it’s not pleasant. My glasses resting on it and my boyfriend leaning in for a kiss are both making me wince a little today.

The fall wasn’t Sparkling Gal’s fault. She just tripped. And, according to my trainer, she did so after “the most beautiful jump” she’s ever seen me take. We were in the indoor, having gone out intending to do a “club ride”, wherein you take a horse out without an instructor, thinking that ours was going to be out of town and we could just work on our own. But when we were surprised to find she actually was there that day, we hurried onto our mares (me on Sparkle, and my riding buddy on her new favorite, Misfit) for a regular lesson.

I had already been slightly frustrated on the flat, especially at the canter, at my inability to get loose enough to really stretch down and sit deep in the saddle. Sparkle has a choppy canter, and makes me think that I’m looking quite sloppy on her, despite reassurances from the riding buddy and instructor both that it’s not as bad as I think it is.  Knowing that she is a joy to jump, I looked forward to that part of the lesson, even though being in the indoor due to the high temperatures outside limited us from doing anything resembling a course. There were two jumps set up: a small cross-rail and, on the opposite side of the ring, the vertical after which I took my tumble. Since the vertical was big enough to require us to go at it at the canter and both of our mounts can get quite strong, our instructor only wanted us to do it by itself once before connecting it with the cross-rail, intending us to trot the smaller jump and then come around to the vertical at the canter.

I got up pretty quickly after the fall. It doesn’t take long to take stock and know there isn’t anything terribly injured, and I’m always anxious to put everyone else at ease that I’m fine. After a brief inspection of my nose, I knew I was well enough to get back on even if it was broken, and was ready to do so after a quick, steadying drink of water. My instructor was not going to push me–she said it was entirely up to me how much or how little I wanted to do. My first instinct was that I would just take the smaller jump at a trot and be satisfied with that. But I really knew that I needed to take that same vertical again in order to be pleased. So I said, “I’m going to take the cross-rail, and then we’ll see about the vertical.”

The first time, the cross-rail went fine; Sparking Gal went in very quiet and was manageable on the landing. But with the other horses in the ring, our approach to the vertical wasn’t great and I circled, deciding to forego it. At that point, again, I said, “Ok, I think that’s enough.”

But I watched my riding buddy go again through the jumps, taking them beautifully, and I felt the restlessness stirring inside me. “Ok,” I said. “I’m going to try it again. The vertical is still a ‘we’ll see'”.

This time, I did it. The sweet mare was good to me over the cross-rail and I sat up as best I could with my stupid heels and settled her back through the canter approach to the vertical. She ate up a little bit of ground on the approach, but we took off with good timing and had a nice jump on the vertical. My right foot jiggled a little bit in the stirrup, I felt my balance loosen through the turn as she was a little skittish going through the spot where she had stumbled, but I pulled myself together and held on, very pleased with myself for having done it. I knew that if I hadn’t, it would be an issue the next time around. This way, I won’t be–at least mentally–insecure the next time I jump.