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.

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