While researching dream jobs recently, I came across Nancy D. Brown. She’s a travel writer who decided to combine her love of travel with her passion for horses and now runs a website, Writing Horseback, that gives tips and reviews for creating the ideal horseback vacation.
Ms. Brown invited me to write a guest post on where to ride in Brooklyn. I gladly accepted and mentally returned to my old stomping grounds to review the barns where I used to ride. You can read the post here: Horseback Riding in Brooklyn, NY
After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.
There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.
So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.
I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.
Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.
Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong. Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air. (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).
Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.
We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.
All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.
Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.
Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.
Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of. It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.
To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.
The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.
In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.
You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.
The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.
I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).
It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.
One of the problems with the methods of training I use (running, cycling, and weightlifting) is that they all result in a lot of muscle tightness that builds up over time, making me inflexible, sore, and irritable–all things that make me want to avoid working out.
Since riding itself can contribute to muscle tightness, especially in the hips and lower back, I’ve found a number of ways to combat this unfortunate downside of my training regimen.
Getting in the water is a great way to ease sore muscles. Swimming is itself an excellent full-body workout that is especially helpful to sore joints because of its lack of impact. But even going for a dip without doing laps can be quite restorative.
After a hard run or weightlifting session, getting in the pool and relaxing helps my muscles recover more quickly. Doing some flowing movements and stretches in the pool stimulates the muscles with a light resistance created by the water, preventing them from getting stiff as they heal.
I’ve written before about the benefits of yoga for a rider’s flexibility, and in my opinion, yoga is the best cross-training for riding and all of my other training methods. It contributes to the length and suppleness of the muscles, a perfect counterbalance to the tightening caused by building strength.
But what if you don’t have access to a pool and can’t find the time for a regular yoga practice?
I was actually introduced to these amazing things back at my yoga studio in Brooklyn and recently I’ve been incorporating them more often into my recovery program.
They’re basically two racquetball-sized balls that are used for self-massage, not dissimilar to the rollers found at the gym. The balls target trigger points and can get in deep to alleviate muscle pain in more specific areas than the rollers.
It’s quite an experience. Laying down on your back with them underneath you, you find all sorts of amazing mayhem in your muscles that you weren’t even aware of. The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it as long as it takes to alleviate the pain in each muscle, without being rushed off a masseuse’s table or trying to air-traffic-control your significant other to massage just the right spots.
For me, the most productive area seems to be my lower back. The long muscles going parallel to my spine–the spinal erectors–became extremely tight, and are often the source of my hip pain. Hamstring tightness contributes as well, and my poor hips become pulled between these two very large muscle groups.
After using the Therapy Balls, I feel a huge difference. Often, I can feel the release while I am using them, as a muscle finally lets go of its tension and everything around it relaxes. I used the balls yesterday afternoon and then went for a run in the evening. My body felt refreshed, limber, and there was a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a couple of weeks.
I’m going to try incorporating the Therapy Balls once or twice a week–especially after I ride–to see if more regular usage keeps helping my muscles retain their flexibility and elasticity.