Last Lesson

Today was my last lesson at Jamaica Bay.

I’ve been planning a move for some time now, and it’s finally happening. At the end of the month, I’m going to get in a car and drive to California, like I’ve been pretty much saying I was going to do on and off since about 2002.

It’s no secret that there are few things I will miss about New York City, especially in winter. It’s inhospitably cold, it’s oppressively crowded, it’s exorbitantly expensive, and it is very difficult to do most of the things I love to do here. But there are some things I will miss dearly: my friends, my softball team, and riding with my Riding Buddy at this barn.

This isn’t the first time in my life that my riding lessons were one of the only things keeping me sane; I don’t imagine it’ll be the last. But whatever else was going on in my life, every Saturday when Riding Buddy would pick me up in the car, I’d feel so relaxed and happy, chatting with her about our lives: our jobs, our relationships, our attempts to get on a regular workout routine, horses, and books. I still feel like there was something cosmic in our meeting, our riding history and circumstances–and even our birthdays!–being the same, and both of us finding our way back to horses at the same time. At first I was just so pleased to have someone to share my lessons with, to share the craziness at Kensington with, and to share a Zipcar with. But she’s turned into more than just an activity partner and has become a true friend. We cheer each other on, we helpfully critique each other, we rehash the our lessons on the way home. I’m going to miss riding with her so, so much.

I’m also going to miss Jamaica Bay terribly. Having so recently begun riding with our new trainer, Jess, it’s such a disappointment to have to leave. She’s the best trainer I’ve had as far as being so engaged with us, being so knowledegable and fun and understanding, and being so aligned with my philosophy of riding. So many of the people at the barn have been so friendly, and I’ve come to feel like I belong there and am known there. And I will, of course, miss the horses. Jasper and Summer, and Misfit and Sparkling Gal. For all their quirks, they are some of the nicest schoolies I’ve had the pleasure of riding.

Part of me had hoped to ride my favorite, Jasper, for my lesson today, but it wasn’t in the cards. Instead I had a very rewarding, wonderful ride on Misfit. I think in the long run, leaving on the high note of having a great lesson on a more challenging horse rather than one that I love because I’m so comfortable with, is a better way to go. After last week’s lesson on her and then another great ride today, I feel confident and strong.

We lucked out on weather today and as a special treat got to ride outside. There was a cold breeze but it was warm enough in the sun, and it’s always easy to keep warm between the exertion of riding and the horse’s body heat beneath you. Misfit was perky and looking around a bit at things, but steady. I talked soothingly to her as we went down to the far end of the ring, by where the tall cattails sway. I looked out over the edge of the wetlands that begin there and remembered how calm and beautiful it is to trail ride there, wishing I’d done it more often.

The lesson was everything I could have hoped for. Before I left my house, I was having to remind myself to get out of a perfectionist mindset, to not heap so many expectations on this lesson to be a certain way just because it was the last. But it was great. We got to jump a bit more because we were outside, and I didn’t have to worry about landing on any little children. Misfit and I found a good rhythm together and pretty much all of our spots felt just right. I felt a small tingle of nervousness when our trainer suggested we put a couple of the jumps together for a mini course; there was a stiff, cold breeze and I worried for a moment that Misfit would get fast. But she didn’t. She was there with me, listening to my hands and my seat and my voice. We took a small solid jump at an angle and then went around the ring to do a line. She came right back to me in between, steadying and getting the four strides. Lately after jumps I’ve been immediately concerned with pulling my horse back down from the canter, I suppose mostly because there’s not much room to canter away in the crowded indoor. But after that last line, Misfit cantered away so beautifully that I decided to just let her go. We floated on in a big circle around Riding Buddy and my trainer that I called my “victory lap,” Misfit moving effortlessly and me riding in a half seat and patting her neck all the way.

For all that I’m sad to leave and know I’m going to miss here, what I am gaining right now is worth it. I’m leaving the place I’ve lived for ten years, and the general region that I’ve lived in my whole life. For a long time now, that lack of mobility has not felt settled or comfortable. Living here has always felt temporary, and as time stretched on where I felt a desire to move on and a seeming inability (due to jobs, relationships, etc.) to do so, it began to feel like a trap. I was filled with a dread of the uncertainty of life because the uncertainty in question was whether I’d ever be able to break out of that trap. With this move, I am facing a great deal of uncertainty. I don’t know what it will be like in LA, whether I’ll stay there or move somewhere else, what my professional life will look like as I continue to try to make change in that…but this uncertainty doesn’t fill me with dread. It’s exciting, and galvanizing and makes me feel like I’m finally, in a way, beginning my life.

I do know that one of the first things I will do upon arriving is to look for a new barn. It’ll be tough to go without my Riding Buddy, but maybe in some ways it’ll be good, too. LA is still an urban environment, but it’s the sprawly kind, not the concentrated-on-one-tiny-island kind. That comes with its own set of problems, but space isn’t one of them. I’d imagine there will be more opportunities and more room to ride. And with the lovely weather out there, no more being stuck in a crowded indoor.

I’m excited to see what this next chapter brings, in my life and in my riding. I’ll continue to chronicle it here, although I’m not sure when I’ll next get a chance to ride. Hopefully soon!




Get Out of The Way

Lately, our trainer has been trying to hold horses for us to ride in our lessons. When we get to the barn at 1 pm on a Saturday, it’s pretty hectic and our usual mounts have often already had their quota of rides for the day, leaving us with few options. After a difficult lesson a few weeks ago before Thanksgiving, this week she tried to get a horse for me that I love and feel comfortable on–either Jasper or Summer–to make sure I’d have a better and more confidence-boosting ride this time.

Jasper was already being ridden and Summer would be used in a horse show at the barn the next day, so that left me with only the more challenging options–basically, the two ex-racehorse mares, Sparkling Gal and Misfit, and another mare named Star that we’d never seen before. Riding Buddy, being the more adventurous of us lately, chose to try out Star, who was a tall, lovely chestnut with a big jump. Deciding between the more mental/emotional difficulty of keeping skittish Sparkle calm in a crowded ring, or the more physical challenge of slowing the calmer but still strong Misfit in the same environment, I chose the latter. I was slightly rattled, having expected an easier mount. Sitting there, hemming and hawing over what seemed like all bad options, I was annoyed at myself. There was a time when I’d ride anything in the barn. I don’t like to think of myself as a tentative rider.

When we started the lesson, I remembered how much I liked Misfit the one time I’ve ridden her previously. She’s quite sane for a Thoroughbred mare, sensible and comfortable to ride. She wasn’t fazed by the crowded ring and didn’t seem interested in charging around.

Misfit’s biggest challenge is getting the correct lead on her right lead canter. In contrast to the last time I rode her, she and I both seem to have strengthened our muscles a great deal. The last time I rode her, back in July, my body was totally different. I was ten pounds heavier then, had no muscle tone, and as a result my muscles were very tight and cramped. That made it difficult for me to sit up and marshal her through the tight circle we canter on to keep her from switching to her more-comfortable left lead. But this time I had so much more strength and control. Last time felt like a sloppy mess; this time I felt like a rider, like I was working hard to get something done but I actually had proper form doing it as well. As for Misfit, I could definitely feel the difference in her as well. They have been working with her a lot more recently at the barn to strengthen her right lead and the results are apparent. Her balance is improved, her bend is more flexible. She didn’t break once in the canter and didn’t once get flustered and switch to her other lead. I was very proud of us both.

After the difficult right lead, it’s a reward to get to canter her on her left. Her canter is smooth and comfortable and propulsive without being manic.

As we prepared to jump, I found myself with those little prickles of doubt and worry creeping up on me. I know that Misfit can get a little fast on the approach and take a big jump and that made me a bit nervous. The important part of that sentence is that I said I felt nervous, and not anxious. I realized the distinction on the drive home from our lesson. When I say that I felt nervous this time around, the difference from the anxiety I’ve felt before was that it was more easily dispelled. The nervousness was a state I was in relating to a specific thing; I was nervous to take the jump because sometimes Misfit gets fast. The anxiety I’ve felt before has been, I think, triggered by situations such as this that might normally cause nervousness, but the feeling has grown out of proportion and has expanded to encompass larger, more global fears about myself and about life and because of that it has taken over and shut me down. Nervousness doesn’t shut me down. I just say to myself, “What’s the worst that will happen? She’ll get fast. You’ll slow her down.”

Nervousness is in my mind; it is a thought that can be dealt with rationally. Anxiety is everywhere, a fear that I feel throughout my entire body. Horses are very sensitive to this; they can feel agitation in the rider and that agitates them in turn. Because I didn’t have that bodily response, I didn’t infect Misfit with it. As a result, she didn’t even get fast over the jumps. She took them beautifully. And because she was taking them beautifully, so did I. My trainer said my equitation–something I’ve felt I’ve always struggled with because I’m generally more focused on getting the job done than looking pretty while I do it–was perfect. She keeps telling me that when I don’t put up these mental blocks, that when I get out of my own way, I’m a great rider. It’s been hard for me to feel that for a long time, but today I felt it.