Horse

I rode another new horse I’ve never been on before today, and I do mean horse. Like, 17 hands of big, athletic, lovely, grey horse. His name is Frenchie.

Frenchie
Frenchie

When I first got on, I was admittedly nervous. I haven’t had that much animal to handle since I left Brooklyn. I felt so high up and vulnerable. Posting felt weird because of how big his stride is. It took some time to settle in an adjust my body to the entirely different movement that an added 2 hands brings.

It wasn’t just his size that made me a little nervous; once we warmed up at the canter I could feel a bit of a charge to him. A couple of times he tried to pull his head down on me so I brought him back to the walk before he could get worked up. I hoped he would settle down before we jumped. I also asked my trainer the best way to handle him. He had a long, long neck and I wasn’t sure if he was just pulling down on me because I was trying to keep his head too far up and his stride too collected for his comfort, or if I should be bringing his head up to forestall what felt like was pre-buck behavior. She and the other trainer standing by both said he was fine, just practically a giraffe.

But on our first warm-up jump over a cross-rail, Frenchie showed that he was being frisky. The jump felt amazing–I always forget how much more intense the airtime feels on a big horse–but afterward he picked up speed and gave a few bucks. I didn’t panic and was easily able to sit to them and pull him back to a walk, but my trainer said that was very atypical of him and maybe he was in a mood. So she had me hop off and give him to one of the stable hands for a quick lunge. It would give him the opportunity to run a little, kick and buck and get the lead out.

It’s pretty likely that the bad juju was a result of the weather. There’s a storm coming today that will be the first rain the area has seen in weeks and weeks. Horses are extremely sensitive to changes in weather and approaching storms. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason why the horses here seem so much more mentally stable than the horses I was riding back east might be because of the consistency of the weather here. Pretty much every day, they can count on the weather being just about the same: warm and sunny. Not a lot of cold fronts come through to throw them out of whack like they constantly do in other parts of the country. And there really aren’t seasons here, so they don’t have to contend with the big changes in temperature and scenery those bring. So maybe the uniformity of the Southern California weather is something that keeps the horses here sane (although clearly this argument cannot be made for the area’s human denizens).

The horse that came back to me after the 5 minutes of lunging was like a totally different horse. He was much happier and more relaxed when I got back on. We took the same cross-rail to get back in the swing of things and he approached it with aplomb. The rest of the lesson was a great time; I really loved riding him.

As much as I’ve felt that the smaller horses are more my style since returning to riding, this made me remember why I love the big ones. In my mind, small horses less daunting because they aren’t quite as strong and there’s less height to worry about falling from. Sometimes having a more compact frame makes it seem easier to fit the right amount of strides between jumps, or make tight turns. But I forget, until I get on one, that big horses suit me quite well. I found it much easier to find the distances on all my jumps today with Frenchie’s bigger, longer stride leading up to them. It also gives me a higher vantage point that makes me feel like I can look through them and soar over them, rather than getting in really deep and feeling the jumps loom. (I also like a higher vantage point when I’m driving, especially on the freeway. I drive a small SUV and feel much better in that being raised up above the traffic than being in a low car that is dwarfed by all the surrounding vehicles).

In many ways, Frenchie reminds me of my favorite horse back at Jamaica Bay, Jasper, the big bay that I always felt my best jumping with. Or even an amalgam of Jasper and another fun horse to jump there, Casper. (I can’t stand that they rhyme, either). Frenchie has the tall frame and the long neck of Jasper, making him a bit difficult to bend; he also has the smooth but lumbering stride that makes the lead-up to the jump somehow flow more easily for me. He shares with Casper his striking grey coat and tendency to hang on my hands as well as a more athletic jump.

The course we did today was very fun. It started off with a vertical on the diagonal very close to one end of the ring. After that, we had to roll back around on a tight turn to another vertical just a bit further back from it on the other diagonal. The turn was quite tight, especially with such a big horse. I had to sit up very tall and draw on all my abdominal and back strength to keep us collected around that turn.

Here's a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.
Here’s a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.

After the second diagonal and the very easy flying change, we came around to a two-stride line on the long side. The first couple of times I got into this a little bit deep and the second jump was a little tough getting out. But my last time through I made a plan and stuck to it; I decided to pull him up and collect right after my turn, not right before my first jump. That enabled me to pull Frenchie back to wait for a better spot on the first jump and gave us a more even line. After the line, we went around the end of the ring and weaved through some jumps to finish with another vertical on a diagonal. By this point Frenchie had a momentum and on the turns he was tilting like a motorcycle. I stretched up, stepped on my outside stirrup and lifted his head as best I could (I can already feel the soreness in my shoulder blades creeping in only a few hours later from this exertion) and aimed him at the final jump. It was a long enough approach that I had too much time to think about it. The first couple of times through I got excited and gunned him a bit, taking a long, flat jump. The last time through, confident from my ability to be the boss on the line, I sat up and waited and finished the thing off beautifully.

I still apparently am holding my breath during my courses because I always have to work to catch it afterward. In my last several lessons I’ve been so beat that when I finish a course doing a decent job and my trainer says that’s it for the day, I’ve been at least partly relieved. Today I could have gone a few more times. I felt again that I had the presence of mind to be a more critical rider and to stick to decisions that improved my course each time through. I hope that I can ride Frenchie again on Friday now that I’ve got into the rhythm of him; I think we will be awesome together.

 

 

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Shut Up and Look Up

I rode a horse I’ve never ridden before today, named Rosie. She’s a real beauty; a small, bay mare with a sweet face.

IMG_3762I got to the barn with plenty of time to warm up today, and it was a good thing. When I got on Rosie, she was pretty lazy. I haven’t really experienced a horse just kind of refusing to move in a long while. Even my big, lumbering pal Jasper back in Brooklyn would get a move on if you gave him a good squeeze and flapped his reins at him.

At first this got me all in a huff. It is pretty warm today, and I found myself getting worked up about her not even wanting to trot, sweating and breathing kinda hard from the effort. But then I slowed myself down and reminded myself that I do actually know how to handle this behavior. I gave her a couple of “I mean business” kicks to get her going, and then a light tap with the crop whenever she started trying to slow down. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget the basics sometimes.

When I look back, it feels like the first several years I rode were just all about trying to get the horse going and preventing him from stopping. This was back when I was small enough that I probably felt like a fly on the horse’s back and the nickname my trainer gave me was “Noodle Legs” (after a while, she informed me that they had become more al dente). I used to ride this crazy Appaloosa back then named Alvin who would really put me through the ringer. He’d basically mosey into the corner of the ring and stand there, adamantly refusing to move an inch. He’d stolidly withstand my squeezes and kicks and clucks until I was so frustrated I’d be ready to give up. And then my trainer would tell me, “You’re in charge. Make him.” I never really did anything different physically after that; it felt like the same squeezes and kicks and clucks, but they came from a different place, internally. The place where I wasn’t a tiny child asking a big animal to please be nice and do what I wanted him to do, but the place where I was a rider and I was telling my horse it was time to go. And the thing with Alvin was, once you showed him you had that mentality, he’d do anything for you.

With Rosie, it was much the same. She wanted to fool around at first but once I told her what’s what, she picked up her pace. She’s quite a nice mover. Her canter is a little longer and lopier than the ponies I’ve been riding lately but even at faster speeds, it never feels strung out. It’s a smooth, graceful movement with all of her muscles in concert. Maybe part of the perception of her canter being longer is just that she’s actually a horse. With the exception of one ride on Flash and one on Sjapoo, I’ve only ridden ponies at this barn. Bella is in the upper realms of ponydom but I still always feel a tiny bit too big on her, or that I expect her to take bigger, horse-sized spots when it would make sense to wait and add. Rosie is a small horse, probably only 15.1 or 15.2 but that tiny bit more height seemingly makes such a big difference, especially when jumping. Jumping her was fun today, because she was quite willing to go for a bigger spot.

This was most apparent on the line we took at the end of our course. The course was short today; starting with a diagonal cross-rail, to a vertical on the other diagonal and then around the turn to a line. My classmates on ponies were taking it in 4 strides, and another girl riding with us on a giant horse was taking it in 3, so I asked my trainer what she thought would be good for me and Rosie, being in between. She said I could either push for the 3 or try to get a quiet 4, and perhaps the latter would be better. I agreed, but when it came to actually doing it, I found out that the 3 was definitely the way to go. We didn’t jump in huge but immediately on landing I said to myself, “No way is 4 happening here,” so I squeezed her on to the 3, which didn’t feel crazy and out of control, it felt just right. (You can see a video clip of this line on Instagram.)

My mind just felt so different today than it has, so much more stable and strong. At the beginning of the lesson, on a new horse that I didn’t know who was seemingly going to give me a tough time, I felt the old anxiety start to vibrate in my chest. But then I just took control and it went away. I felt more capable on the jumps than I have in weeks and weeks. Even in between them, I felt like I was stretched up taller with my heels further down; I felt so much less sloppy in my equitation. It was like I had all this extra space inside my head, and literally like time was moving slower, so I had time to do things like, you know, breathe and think.

I’m still not used to the higher jumps. The thought of them makes me fluttery inside. But this week, instead of allowing myself to indulge in the gibbering nonsense I’ve been thinking as I stare down at the jumps and flail over them recently, I used my new strength of mind to cut through that with this: “Shut up and look up.”