Getting Good

Holy crap, I love my new barn.

There was a chance of showers today and because of that I ended up being the only one who showed for class. Rain happens so infrequently here that it really puts these people in a tizzy. There was no actual rain other than a tiny sprinkle on the drive over, so I ended up having a private lesson. The trainer I rode with last week was out of town at a show so I rode with her assistant and we had a great time.

I’m trying to remember the last time I rode for a full hour in a private lesson. It never happened at Jamaica Bay, and not at Kensington either…but it also never happened in college, since I rode with the equestrian team. So the last time would have been back in high school, when I was 17 years old. It was luxurious today, but man was it a workout. I am beat. I have that super-relaxed feeling throughout my body that I can only get from really pushing myself, where I’m so tired out that everything is just copacetic. It’s only the exhaustion of exertion that brings this feeling; knowing I worked hard and nothing can really rile me anymore because now it is time to rest.

I rode a really adorable little mare today named Jackie O., an appaloosa (spotted horse) who is mostly black with some white spots on her backside. I have a soft spot in my heart for appaloosas ever since I rode one named Apple Jack in my first show when I was nine years old. She had without a doubt the most comfortable canter I have ever experienced in my life. I could have just cantered around on her all day long and barely broken a sweat.

IMG_3505

Having so much time to play with, the trainer set up a number of flat exercises for me. First while warming up, she had me do four circles as I went around the ring (one at each end and then two more in the middle) to work on bending. She said she often has kids in her lessons who aren’t advanced enough to understand the theory behind it but that it’s good for Jackie to be trained this way since she had a tendency to fall in on the inside of the circle. The idea was to keep a good bend on her by pushing her out with my inside leg (something I had to work on a great deal with Misfit back in NY.) The trainer said something that really illustrated the movement I needed to do with my legs to get the desired effect, putting it a way I’d never heard before that was incredibly clear: she said, “Pretend like you’re trying to cross your legs through the horse.” My outside leg would go back a little bit, to keep the horse moving forward, but my inside leg would come a little bit forward and move into the side of the horse to push her toward the outside. As soon as she said that, it clicked perfectly in my mind and I was able to get a much more consistent bend.

The next exercise we did was using the tall lamp posts at each quarter of the ring to change the length of the trot. When I came to the lamp post at the end of the ring, I used my seat to sit deeper and post slower, putting my horse into a shorter, more collected, more upright stride. Then at the next lamp post on one side of the ring, I pushed her into a longer, more extended trot. We went back and forth between these two extremes at each quarter of the ring, trying to make the transition perfectly abrupt right at the lamp post. This is kind of a dressage-y exercise. It’s no secret that I don’t really get into dressage; I just think it’s kind of no fun, especially compared to jumping. But the few basics I’ve been taught over the years can be incredibly helpful exercises to build control with your horse and your body. It’s nice to slow it down sometimes and take this more mindful approach to training, so today I quite enjoyed doing it. It was nice to have several opportunities–with all of these exercises–to improve as well. I could see, and my trainer pointed out constructively, where I made mistakes or how I could do it better the next time and then I got a chance to put that into practice.

The next exercise was almost exactly the same as the previous but the difference was that each lamp post signaled the alternation of trot and canter. This was a little bit more of a challenge, but not for the reasons I expected. Typically I have a little trouble with the upward transition from trot to canter. When I ask for the canter, often my horse simply speeds up at the trot, getting into this sort of frantic, disorganized mess of running that makes me feel sloppy and ineffectual, and I compensate by inappropriately using my upper body to rock us into the canter. That was not an issue at all today; Jackie O. smoothly transitioned right into her perfectly smooth canter with the barest of urging. She’s even more responsive than the horse I rode last week, Bella. The challenge came on the downward transition, when Jackie didn’t want to come back to the trot. I think she would have been as happy as I would to have been cantering around for hours as well. The downward transitions therefore required a little more planning and a lot more work from my seat and my mid back to really sit up deep in the saddle and ease her back down to the trot. Luckily I’ve recently discovered the joys of the mid-row weight machine at the gym, but I still think this is going to leave me pretty sore there for at least a day or two.

Then we did an exercise with cavaletti, which are just jump poles that are laid on the ground instead of raised up to jump over. The horse either trots or canters through them, having to lift her feet more exaggeratedly than normal to step over. The three poles were placed across the center of the ring between (parallel to) the two long sides of the oval ring.  It looked like this, if you imagine that the equal sign has three lines instead of two:

(        =         )

When I rode through them, it created the shape of two back-to-back uppercase Ds. The first time through I turned right afterwards, the next time through I turned left afterwards, making it a kind of squared-off figure eight maneuver. This incorporated skills we had used in earlier exercises, namely the bending on the turns and the lengthening and shortening of stride over the poles.

After that, the trainer had me do the same pattern but with alternating trot and canter. I was to canter the whole way around but return to the trot for the poles. The tough part was that I was only allowed to trot after I made the full turn toward the cavaletti, giving me a very short distance to slow her down and not allowing me to use the movement of the turn to accomplish that. If her hind end wasn’t completely on the straight line toward the poles when I began trotting that, the trainer said with a smile, would be cheating. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, given Jackie’s enthusiasm for cantering, but it went surprisingly well. After talking softly to her and employing some rather strong half halts to get her settled, she seemed to understand the game very quickly and came back to the trot much more easily than she had before. Over the poles, I encouraged her with plenty of praise, patting her and telling her she was a good girl. The trainer said I should tell that to myself, as well.

Finally, we did a bit of jumping. There was a crossrail set on the diagonal of the ring and we jumped it on a figure eight pattern as well. Coming off the left lead it was a relatively easy turn because of the angle it was at. When I had to come at it off the right lead, the turn was much, much tighter and shorter. The first couple times through it, my rhythm was way off. I had felt really strong and supple throughout the lesson but could now finally feel a bit of muscle fatigue from all those exercises. But really the problem was just me being a hothead who wanted to leave out a stride that needed to be there. Jackie apparently has the tendency as well, but she was smart enough to see that with her little stride she needed another step. I was pushing her up too close and she was jamming it in there last minute as I was already up in jumping position expecting us to have taken off. We did it again and at the trainer’s suggestion I waited a beat, sitting up and opening my shoulder blades early in the turn instead of closer to the jump. Once I understood that we needed one more stride in there and didn’t try to push for the long takeoff, the timing fell back into place and we were able to do it a few times very smoothly.

I feel great about today’s lesson for a number of reasons. I haven’t put that much work into my riding, physically and mentally, in a good while and that is what I have been longing for, to really nerd out on it and get deep into theory and the repeated, punishing practice of that theory to whip myself back into shape. I also felt proud of my improvements as I learned better how to do each exercise. It was really nice that the trainer kept saying how much fun it was to do these things with me since she normally teachers younger students who aren’t advanced enough for it.

Everyone I meet at the barn continues to be really friendly, helpful and welcoming. Both horses I’ve ridden so far have been stellar. The barn manager was even playing some Judas Priest while I was untacking.

Another great thing is that my classes here are a few dollars cheaper than my lessons back in Brooklyn. With that savings, plus the much larger savings of not having to pay for a Zipcar, I’m going to be riding much more consistently, pretty much every week. I can’t wait to see where I am after a month, or two months of this more consistent training.

Advertisements

Hello LA

Today was my first riding lesson in LA.

We left New York just about a month ago, taking the long, slow way to get here. First we drove down to North Carolina to see my folks for Christmas. After several days there, we made the two-day drive through South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana to my boyfriend’s family’s home outside Houston to stay through the New Year. Then we had another stretch of what was supposed to be two days of driving across Texas and through New Mexico and Arizona, but it turned into three when we were taken by surprise by an ice storm in West Texas on our way to El Paso. There we were graced with incredible luck that prevented two near misses of unfortunate setbacks to our travels:

1) We nearly had to sleep in the temporary shelter of the First Baptist Church in Fort Stockton, a small West Texas town, when the ice storm forced us to stop there for the night only to find there were no hotel rooms. We were lucky enough to still be in the lobby of the La Quinta when someone called to cancel her reservation for the night, and we were so relieved to have our own room and a bed, especially because we were driving with two cats.

2) We woke up the next morning to find that the roads were passably thawed but that the entire town had run out of gasoline. We had half a tank, but out there you can go 100 miles without seeing another town–the nearest was an hour and a half away–and we weren’t sure of the road conditions in between. A chance encounter at one of the empty gas stations with a local man who pointed my boyfriend to an unmarked, unmanned pump that had escaped the notice of travelers not in the know was the only reason we were able to get some of the last few gallons that the town would see until two days later when the gasoline delivery trucks would next make it out there due to the weather and road conditions.

By the time we reached El Paso, on our second day of driving through Texas, we got to see the sun for the first time since one day of it back in Georgia–and that was the only one in the approximately three weeks that the trip took us altogether. It was a massive relief. We walked outside in the evening without jackets on and stood under palm trees, enjoying the late afternoon rays in our eyes.

New Mexico and Arizona passed by pretty uneventfully. In New Mexico there were billboards advertising a Dairy Queen 130 miles away, so that gives you an idea of how much is going on around those parts. Arizona had some incredible, cartoonish scenery with Wile E. Coyote rock formations and fields of Road Runner saguaro cacti.

We entered California through the mountains while a dramatic sunset lingered for what seemed like an hour, painting the sky bright red and magenta and purple and gold. We drove through the Border Patrol checkpoint in a landscape of sand dunes that looked like a caravan of camels should appear any moment over the horizon. We finally made it to my boyfriend’s sister’s house in San Diego, frayed, exhausted and (unfortunately for me) carsick. The next few days were a marathon of apartment hunting, but four days after our cross-country drive ended, we moved into our apartment in the city of Glendale in Los Angeles, California.

———————-

High on my list of things to find, along with such essentials as a mattress, a tea kettle, and some houseplants, was a new barn to start riding at. Out here there are a lot more options than in Brooklyn. Given the availability of horses where I now live, I’m questioning whether I can still rightly call myself an “urban” equestrian any longer. Glendale might be called “the burbs” by some, but it is, in fact, a small, lovely city just adjacent to and incorporated into Los Angeles. I’m still living in an apartment building without any outdoor space, even though now I have a car and easy access to it. Parks and protected areas abound; I live a twenty minute drive from the Angeles National Forest.

The first and most obvious place to look into was the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. It’s a huge complex of twenty-odd barns located in Burbank, about fifteen or twenty minutes away. I read about a couple of barns there that could work, but had a feeling that it might not be the right feel for me. That suspicion was confirmed when I dropped by the saddlery there; the prices were outrageous and the atmosphere a little stuffy.

Instead I looked east to Pasadena and settled on the San Pascual Stables. It’s about the same distance away, but seems to be a much more comfortable atmosphere for me. Jamaica Bay back in Brooklyn might have been short on space in the indoor arena, but I always felt spoiled by how friendly of a barn it is. I worried that I’d not find anyplace like that again; it can certainly seem a rarity in this sport. Everyone I’ve met so far at San Pascual–my trainer, the barn staff, and my classmates in the riding class–were all friendly and helpful. I think I’m going to feel at home there.

Instead of a semi-private lesson, the situation here is a jumping class that could include up to four riders. There were four of us this first time, and we were the only ones in the large outdoor ring that was bordered on one side by steep, brush-covered sandy hills crowned by palms tress and a couple of houses. I luxuriated in the space I had to move around in, but not as much as I did in riding outdoors early on a January morning wearing only a t-shirt.

The class is for jumping, so we were all expected to warm up on our own prior to beginning. That hasn’t been typical of my experience so it surprised me a little, but I was pleased to go at my own pace after more than a month out of the saddle. I followed the lead of another girl in the class and trotted around and then cantered on my own. It was interesting; the trainer was sitting outside the ring and watching, although not offering instruction, and there were my classmates with me in the ring as well. Being the newbie, I was very aware that I was being watched and assessed. But it didn’t make me nervous at all. I felt supple and in control and graceful, even. I felt like a good rider that was making a good first impression.

Two things contributed to this, I think. The first is that I have been exercising almost every day since we got here. Running, lifting, cycling, hiking, yoga. I am getting a lot stronger. The second is that the horse I was riding made me look really good. A small, 6-year-old, gleaming chestnut mare named Bella was my first mount at my new barn and I was happy to have her. She was super responsive and a good mover. She also fit my body well. She had that perfect curve of the belly that was enough to grip onto, making my calves look secure and not swingy.

Once the class started, we got right into it, cantering a plank jump twice to warm up before launching right into building courses. It was the most I’ve jumped in years, probably since college. We each took a turn going through the prescribed sets of jumps until we put together a whole course and then each got to run through that a couple of times. It was a blast. After the first couple of times through, my trainer put the height up–nothing vertiginous, probably two and a half feet tops–but still higher than anything I’ve jumped in a long, long time.

The trainer seemed pleased at my performance, at least enough to be satisfied that I know what I’m doing and can be taught. Free from anxiety and with a sensible mount underneath me, the distances came naturally. The biggest challenge of the lesson was in persuading Bella to do flying lead changes; as a relatively young horse she is still a bit clumsy with them and sometimes only gets the front and not the back, but even that came successfully after a couple tries.

I felt great after my lesson, driving home in the sunshine with the windows down, the sunroof open, and the radio on. I’m so relieved to have found a place to ride that seems like a good fit, and a place where I may have the room to grow as a rider. I’m looking forward to next week’s class (which will be the first with my new pair of tall boots!)