Talking to Horses

In addition to riding three or four days, I’m now also working at the barn two evenings a week. I say that partially as an explanation for why I am updating this blog so infrequently. But it also represents a huge turning point for me: I’m now actually getting paid to do what I love.

Obviously teaching horseback riding to children two nights a week isn’t allowing me to quit my day job. But it’s a start on the path that hopefully one day leads to horse work being my life’s work. And it makes me think of the thousands of times I’d be stuck at my desk, consumed with depression because I never thought I’d find a way out, positive that there was no way I’d ever have the opportunity to do work that was meaningful to me.

Coworkers.
Coworkers.

I was fond of saying, when particularly drained from the utter pointlessness and repetitiveness of the busywork I did all day at my last job, that I would rather be mucking stalls. At least then I’d be using my body instead of deteriorating in front of a computer. I don’t have to muck stalls at this job, but I certainly do use my body. I’m in constant movement: getting the horses from their stalls, grooming them and picking their hooves and tacking them up and untacking them and putting the equipment away and turning them out, cleaning up the barn and the tack room and the arena. And that’s not even taking into account the work in the ring with my students: lugging the mounting block around, helping them mount, walking (or running) alongside them to help them control their horses or understand new concepts, moving around poles and jump standards…I downloaded a step counter for my phone, and in the approximately 3 1/2 hours I work in an evening, I easily get in 8,000–10,000 steps. And that’s after doing all those things with Dunnie and then riding him. The first week I worked, I was utterly wrecked.

But I also slept amazingly. And I can already feel my legs getting stronger and tighter, and my posture improving, and even my pants fitting a little less tightly.

The work isn’t just physical, either. It’s totally mentally engaging. It has to be. When you’re dealing with large animals and small children, safety is the utmost concern. So there’s the running mental checklist and potential-disaster-scanner part of your mind that’s always going. On top of that, teaching riding is all about problem solving. You tell the children what to do. Since they’re not only new at this, but it’s also an activity that takes body awareness, coordination, sensitivity, cooperation, and muscles that few other activities or circumstances provide the opportunity to exercise, it takes quite a while for them to learn how to do what you’re telling them to do. The indicators of whether they’re doing it right are large, obvious behavioral outcomes — like whether they are able to get the thousand-pound animal underneath them to trot, for example — but all of the factors that may contribute to or prevent success in reaching that outcome are extremely subtle and involve an intuitive alchemy that’s not always easy to articulate. So much of what goes on when teaching riding is looking at the horse to see if it’s moving in the way that you’d expect it to based on the instructions you gave the rider. Then if it’s not, you have to analyze the many potential cues the rider is giving the horse to confuse it. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rider is telling the horse “go!” with her legs, but also pulling back on the reins, which tells the horse “stop!”. But other times, there are signals sent through the body that aren’t even visible. So you go through the catalog of your own riding experience, thinking about horses you’ve ridden that are similar to this one and how you solved the problems then. You ask your student creative questions about what she’s feeling from the horse that allow you to project yourself onto the horse’s back with her so you can understand what’s going on.

Ultimately, more than teaching just a sport or a physical skill, what you’re teaching when you teach riding is a language. You’re instructing someone how to communicate with an entirely different species. To convince a creature way, way bigger than them to accept that they have the authority to decide where to go and how fast to get there. It requires instilling an understanding that they must talk with the animal through their hands and legs and seat, using the symbols that the horse has been trained to understand the meaning of in terms of actions. One of the biggest things to overcome there is to make people understand that even though the horse has been trained to respond to these cues, they aren’t machines that will react as though we’ve pushed a button — especially because so much of our lives are infused with technology that works in exactly that way — and that instead they are living things with whom you must take into account personality, preference, mood. So many of the questions students ask me center around trying to come to grips with that. They ask, “Why is she doing that?” “Does he always act like this?” “Do the horses like each other?”, and many others that reveal their attempts to piece together an understanding of the horse’s mental life. I love trying to answer those questions more than any others, because it feels like I’m handing someone missing puzzle pieces that they’re fitting in to get a picture of something elusive and beautiful.

Starting to teach has also prompted me to step up my already pretty intense desire to learn, and ever since Dunnie and I got back to work after the holidays and his short stint of lameness, we’ve been reaching some new levels of refinement. I’ve been working a lot on trying to make his responses to my cues crisper; asking him to react more quickly and strongly to ever-decreasing amounts of pressure from my leg and hands. It’s been going pretty well in most areas. We canter all around the ring now and I ask him for lead changes at random times and in random places. The changes are smoother and more accurate, and since I’m keeping him on his toes now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate when he thinks he should change the lead. So when we canter circles and I don’t ask him, he’s not constantly switching around the turns like he was before. I also realized that by using more leg pressure to turn when I am planning to ask him for a lead change — speaking more loudly with my outside leg, as it were — then the cue to change is clearer to him when I take that leg away and give pressure with the other to ask him to switch (which means I can speak softer with that leg). The constant refinement of our communication is a really interesting process to me. It’s kind of like the longer you’re in a relationship or a friendship with someone, your communication flows more easily through the way you use shorthand or inside jokes to refer to something you both know together. I feel that happening with Dunnie now, like we are really connecting.

 

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Adjustments

In the post-first-show universe Dunnie and I now inhabit, we’re working on refining some of our technique — particularly, softening and lowering Dunnie’s head carriage. The result of this is that his whole body is carried differently: his back rounds and his legs come underneath him more, moving the propulsion from the front legs pulling him forward to the back legs pushing him forward.

At first, this change felt a lot more comfortable, especially at the canter. The horse is a lot more collected and has less opportunity to get strung out, so it’s easier to sit. However, I noticed at the trot that I was feeling a lot more bounced around than I had been before, and was having a more difficult time sitting deeply in my saddle. I came across an article about correcting common leg, seat, and hand problems and one of the fixes mentioned was stirrup length. Having ridden English most of my life, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make to the Western saddle is the stirrups, both their clunky size and their typically longer length. I’ve been riding with mine on the shortest setting to make myself comfortable, and if I look at myself objectively, my legs do look a bit incongruously crunched up like I’m about to go jump a course in a Western saddle. Thinking about it now, I’m sure that’s contributing to my continued struggles with arching my back too much, and I also suspect it’s causing me to sit with my weight more forward in the saddle — which, in turn, may be making Dunnie more apt to carry his head higher.

So recently I decided it was high time that I put my stirrups down to a more reasonable length and moved them down a hole. Now they fall where I don’t have to lift my leg up to reach them, but can just slide my toes right in.

stirrupsThe first few days that I rode this way were a bit difficult. I felt less secure in my legs, and afterwards could also feel the soreness in some of my interior thigh muscles that I haven’t felt for months. But I’ve been riding with the longer stirrups for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to feel the payoffs.

It’s another one of those cases where you start doing something new and the fact that you can even do it at all feels like you’re a champ…but then you get a new piece of information, or insight, or make a tiny change and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”

That happened the other day when we were cantering around the ring, and I could feel Dunnie’s back rounded, and I could feel myself perched up there, my balance and my posture so different than before. My legs feel longer and my weight in my heels counterbalances the weight of my upper body; I don’t have to grip with my knees or my calves to stay with the motion of the horse — my seat does that naturally. hipsMy back isn’t arched anymore, and whenever I find myself falling back into that habit, it’s immediately recognizable because it’s so uncomfortable. When it’s arched, I can feel the impact of hitting the saddle on my hips and my spine. When my lower back is tucked, the ride is so smooth that I could canter all day.

So lately it’s been more about little adjustments that at first are frustrating, but are ultimately leading to big wins.

Speaking of adjustments…I’m working on a new look for the blog. Hoping to roll it out in the next couple of weeks!

Patience

We went through a phase in the last month or so where things weren’t going great. I think what happened is that Dunnie got over the initial excitement of having someone new to play with. When I got there, he was kinda bored and lonely and so he was willing and interested in anything I wanted to do. But after a bit of that, he decided it was time to play on his own terms, which is how I came to realize how truly smart he is. This usually took the form of doing something weird when I gave him a cue, even very simple things like “trot,” he was seemingly misinterpreting for “weird, crappy half-pass.” We had a lot of difficulty with the canter transition initially, too. And then our spins, understandably rudimentary at first as I learned how to ask for them and as he worked through stiffness and rebuilt those muscles, all of a sudden started deteriorating instead of improving.

I misunderstood what was happening. I thought that as I was going through the learning curve, I had just hit the part where things that seemed pretty simple to learn at the outset  had now reached a deeper level of complexity and revealed that they needed more skill on my part. Perhaps that is true, to a degree. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking turned it into an Ego Thing. Especially during lessons, when I feel like I have something to prove to myself and my trainer in order to feel like I’m progressing.

In reality, what I had on my hands was a bored, smart horse who was messing with me. That’s a situation that requires flexibility, not the rigidity of an ego-driven desire to just push myself and my horse harder. I found myself on some days getting very frustrated with him and myself, and that’s what forced me to take a step back.

I’ve learned recently that the biggest factor in creating frustration or anxiety for me is feeling rushed, and I’m almost always doing it to myself. Obviously there are situations in life which are under time constraints that we have no control over. But I rush myself all the time, for no reason. When I’m learning something new, I just want to know it all and master it all RIGHT NOW. So when I found myself huffing and puffing and growling at my horse like a rabid dog, my first step in getting back on track was to slooooow it down.

Everything I was trying to do, I took to a slower gait, or a lower threshold of success. We couldn’t lope a whole circle without him alternately charging with his head up or breaking down to a trot? So we did the circle at a walk, in good form. Then we did it at the trot. I couldn’t get him to do a left spin at all; he was just twisting his neck and then backing up. So I spent a ton of time undoing that. Forgetting the spin, I just pushed him forward every time he tried to take a step back in response to my cue. I literally just worked forever on getting him to walk forward. After that, I trotted him in very small circles, reinforcing that I wanted forward motion from him (ultimately where the speed will come from in the spin) and that I wanted him to cross over his legs. After awhile of tiny trot circles, I tried to use that momentum to pull him directly into a spin. It worked on the right, but I still got nothing on the left. Finally, I ended up trotting him toward the fence; when its presence forced our forward motion to stop, I immediately put on my outside leg to push his butt over toward the fence, executing a half turn. Even then, I rewarded him taking even one step the way I wanted him to.

This week I’ve ridden twice so far, and in both rides, it seems that my work has paid off.  I’m much more relaxed, because I don’t have rushed, unrealistic goals and a sneaking suspicion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dunnie is more relaxed and seems to be willing to play with me again on my terms because I’ve extended him patience and clear communication instead of frustration. He’s back to doing things just because I’ve asked him to do them. And now I’ve incorporated a sort of graduated method of working with him in our rides. Push, fall back. We try something that’s a bit of a reach and set a low threshold for what constitutes “success” at that. Then we fall back and doing something physically easy or brainless. I make him do five-foot circles at a walk to build up his spin muscles, and then I just let him trot around without schooling him at all. He’s so much happier. And because he’s happier, he’s easier to control. And because he’s easier to control, I can have a much, much lighter touch on my aids. These last two days I have been tamping down how much I need to touch him on the reins or with my heels to get to the lowest possible amount that makes him react. Often, it’s not much. Being lighter on my aids, in turn, makes him happier. And all of that makes me happier, and on top of it, actually makes me feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.

Happy Dunnie.
Happy Dunnie.

Slow Down

I’ve been in the grip of a sort of spring mania the last week and a half or so. Daylight savings mowed me down, like it always does, but once the days lengthened a bit and the sun started rising earlier, I’ve been back on track with getting up early and making use of the whole day. There are just so many things that I want to do—my editing work, writing my blogs, read the huge stack of books that I have out from the library at any given time, and now I’ve been learning to draw and to carve wood, so I’m constantly drawn towards making new things and improving.

Add to those things that I now have the opportunity to ride four days a week. Only one of those is a lesson, so the other three days I am left to my own devices. My trainer gives me suggestions for exercises to work on with Dunnie when I’m riding on my own, but I’m also possessed with this thirst for learning that leads me to read everything I can find on the Internet about reining and Western riding in general. When I was riding as a kid, there was no Internet, so for the longest time, I haven’t even really thought of it as a resource. I didn’t read about techniques or watch videos when I went back to riding about three years ago; it didn’t really occur to me. In that decade that I wasn’t riding, I realize I could have been reading and learning and connecting to horse-related things online. But I stayed away from that; I’ve never enjoyed learning in the abstract. I don’t want to just read about things, I want to do them; there’s no point if I can’t put the knowledge into practice. My mind is always excited by new ideas, and reining techniques are even more interesting because they feel like they are leading me to be a better rider overall, to have the best communication with horses that I’ve ever had.

The best thing I’ve found online is this series of video diaries from a woman training a 2-year-old stallion from scratch. It’s fascinating to watch all of the foundational work that goes into teaching a horse to understand our communications of what we want out of them. Seeing how she approaches each step of training, the conversation she engages in with the horse, is really eye-opening. There are many times when he, being a young, green horse, doesn’t do what she’s telling him to do. He stops and looks at her and asks questions, like “Can I stop now?”  And she, as she puts it, “doesn’t get offended” by the questions. It makes sense that a horse trying to figure out what you want from him will question what you’re asking of him, and it doesn’t mean he’s “being bad.” When you’re riding a horse that is already trained and he doesn’t do what you want, it’s so easy to get frustrated or annoyed. Watching these videos has reminded me that it is a conversation between me and my horse, and being in a situation where I’m learning new cues for everything in a whole new style of riding makes me take a step back when Dunnie seems not to listen to me and ask myself, “Am I communicating clearly to him?”

The thing about being around horses is that you cannot be manic around them. They pick up on your demeanor and it infects their own moods. Horses, being pack animals, always want to know who is in charge in any situation. It’s not about domination, or “showing them who’s boss” in an aggressive way. If you interact with them in a calm, sensible manner, they’ll gladly go along with most of what you want to do. If you’re crazed, they will be crazed by it, and they will also decide that you’re not fit to be the one who decides what’s going to happen. So going to the barn has been somewhat of a respite from my own energy. It slows me down, makes me be deliberate and think about what I’m doing instead of flitting from one thing to the next.

This morning I went out intending to ride and ended up just spending time with Dunnie. There was some work being done near the ring with power tools, so instead of taking the chance of him getting spooked, we just hung out. I groomed him and grazed him. He’s still shedding his rather shaggy winter coat, and it’s so satisfying to watch curry comb-fulls of hair come loose and drift to the ground. This morning was beautiful weather, cool and dry with the sun shining. I led him to the grass field with little patches of yellow and purple wildflowers growing in it, and he happily grazed while I basked in the sun and watched him and the other horses go about their ways. The turkey vultures wheeled slowly with their giant wingspans above us and I told them, “We’re all very much alive down here, thanks.” It was so peaceful. I haven’t had a chance to do all that in such a long time. Everywhere I’ve ridden since I started riding again has been busy; it’s been, tack up, get on, untack, go home. I’m loving being able to ride so much, but honestly, spending this quiet time with a horse is the best part.

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Work

Today was the first lesson where we’ve focused on working on reining techniques, specifically the half pass. But truthfully, it wasn’t really something that required much “work” at all. My trainer told me how to do it: At the walk, using the leg on the side opposite from the direction in which you want your horse to move, put the leg back and push him over. Putting the leg back makes sure that not just his shoulder moves, but both his shoulder and his hips. With Dunnie, it didn’t take any more than that. He immediately crossed his legs and moved in the direction I was pushing him, and after two or three nicely-executed steps I gave him a big pat.

The thing I am realizing about the reining moves, from what I’ve learned so far, is that there isn’t much to them. The cues don’t seem that complex, and if you have a well-trained horse, they just kind of happen. So I’m starting to see that in Western riding, it’s not going to be so much about learning new skills as it will be about refining them, and about finding the subtlest way of communicating cues to Dunnie.

So the other day while riding him, most of what I was doing was learning his buttons. We spent a good deal of time trotting around while I learned to make him bring his head down and round his frame to get into a very slow, collected trot that’s easy to sit to. Everything is just so much more comfortable and natural than English riding.

When I used to go to my English lessons, the anticipation of it was always such a big deal. I’d spend my day eating a certain way and had a detailed pre-ride workout to get my body ready to deal with the challenges of the lesson and even with all of that, I’d feel like it took me half the lesson to get warm enough and feel like my legs lost their tightness enough to be effective. Maybe part of it’s that I’m overall in much better shape now, working out more intelligently and avoiding the overtraining trap that I had fallen into in LA. But last night when I went out for a lesson, I just felt so much more relaxed. I made dinner and ate with my boyfriend, we watched a little TV before, and did some light stretching. I wore the same jeans I had worn to the store and just slipped on my cowboy boots and grabbed my helmet when I walked out the door, as opposed to the feeling of “suiting up” in my breeches and tall boots. I don’t bother with gloves anymore since I’m just riding with the reins in one hand and I’m barely using my hands anyway. And of course, not being all ratcheted up when I get to the barn pays off in my interaction with my horse. I’m not the crazed, hyped up lady coming into the barn with a bunch of spiky energy trying to make the absolute most of every second of training. To Dunnie, I’m the calm lady who brings him carrots and who slowly and leisurely tries to learn as much as she can. Everything feels at once more deliberate and yet less driven, even though this time around I am actually more focused on getting to a place where I can compete. It just seems so much more realistic to look at a reining competition and think “I can definitely do that” than to go to a Grand Prix, like I did this weekend at the Pin Oak (as a spectator) and think “I dunno, maybe someday I could jump that high? But do I want to? I’m admittedly kind of scared to but no, that’s BS, I’m not allowed to feel that way, I have to push myself to be great.”

It’s always the same old story, finding the balance of pushing myself outside my comfort zone but trying to figure how far is too far. Watching the jumpers on Saturday, I was finally able to admit to myself that this was too far. I love jumping, and I want to keep doing it. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but as far as I’m concerned now, 3′ is high enough. Anything higher than that is just not my style. Maybe that realization comes from having found something that is.

 

Switching Focus

I haven’t ridden a horse in a while, but that’s because I’ve been switching focus lately.

Sometimes I wish that I had, from a young age, been singularly focused on one thing. I frequently regret not having mastered a skill or devoted myself to one passion so that now, in my prime, I could be enjoying the success that it feels like my level of energy and commitment merits.

But that’s not who I am. I have a lot of passions. Riding is one of the deepest ones, and I will never neglect it again the way I did for ten long years prior to starting this blog. However, recently I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in another long-neglected passion, and that has taken center stage in my life for the moment.

Possibly the worst thing (in a long list of terrible things) for me about the commuter lifestyle was how limiting it was–even for the time outside of work that was supposed to be my own. It was difficult enough to give 40 hours a week to someone else; the other 128 hours were supposed to be mine. But the necessity of returning to the same location every day severely limited the possibilities of what I could do with those remaining hours. The biggest limitation was mobility. I couldn’t really go anywhere. When your vacation time is limited to only 2 weeks for the entire year, you don’t have many options for travel. Factor in using some of those days for holiday travel to see your family and you’re left with pretty scant time for exploring this enormous, complex, fascinating world.

Since taking up the freelance life, my boyfriend and I have been working toward setting ourselves up so that we can work anywhere. We have been organizing our lives around mobility so that we have as few limitations as possible on going wherever we want, whenever we want.

A big part of this process is paring down to essentials. Luckily for us, we have family who are gracious enough to store a few things in their homes so that we’re not lugging around excess baggage. So my riding gear is currently in a box in Texas…while I am off exploring the world. Hopefully some of that exploring will get to be from horseback, which I will surely chronicle here. But in the meantime, I’m switching focus in my writing as well. For a continued account in my adventures in exploration, finding balance, growing and learning, seeking joy and understanding, attempting to expand my freelance business and now, traveling (with cats), please check out my new blog: Wanderlife.

Searching and Exploring

The other goal of my life lately, in addition to becoming the best rider possible, has been exploration. Leaving New York was like being sprung from a trap and starting this work-from-home existence has been like being released from prison. It was a ten-year long sentence and I see now it was a prison of my own making. I knew intuitively the moment I joined the office world just a couple months after graduating from college that it wasn’t right for me. I simply wasn’t cut out for it–but I didn’t listen to my body and myself. I just changed jobs, every time getting the same type of work that didn’t suit me, and every time believing that it was the only path available. My confidence eroded over time and I saw no other options. I knew that I wanted and needed to get out of the commuter lifestyle because it was killing me–but I came to believe that desire was unrealistic and wrong. “This is just the way it is,” was the message that was drilled into me by the surrounding culture.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Now several months into the working from home, my perspective is so much clearer. So many paths and opportunities and adventures now feel open to me that I thought were closed off.

The biggest one of those has been the ability to explore other parts of the country and places to live in. My boyfriend and I tried out LA for a few months, and decided it was not for us. On the surface, it seems easy to live there–the mild weather, the friendly-seeming people. But beneath that, it is an unnatural place and life there is very out of balance. And for someone who grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of woods and water, the landscape there–carved out in a desert–is not comforting or inspiring.

The one great thing about living in LA was my barn there. I was too busy to write about my last several lessons before leaving, but they were wonderful. I felt comfortable at this barn and like I was thriving and learning and growing as a rider. The courses felt less intimidating and more solvable and exciting. My trainer remarked that I was getting better every lesson. The horses there were some of the best quality horses I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride–and that in itself gave me the opportunity to grow and jump more and higher than I ever have. In my last few lessons I also discovered a horse that suited me very well–a chestnut quarter horse named Flash who seemed to move at my rhythm and who was very fun to jump.

Leaving the city was a no-brainer–it’s expensive to live there and not what I’m looking for across many factors–but the part of that decision that meant leaving that barn was a tough one. Ultimately, I realized that I will likely be able to find a similar level of riding and a comfortable barn at which I can grow elsewhere. To remain in a situation in which I was otherwise not satisfied would have been a trap in its own way.

So, we packed up our few belongings and the cats into our trusty truck that had already gotten us across the country once and headed East. For now, we’re staying with family in Texas, taking a breather and taking stock. Discussing priorities, compromises we are willing and unwilling to make, and dreams to pursue. Talking about the kinds of lives we want to live. One thing I know for sure is that I never want to stop riding like I did for all those years back in NYC. I want horses to always be a part of my life, and a big part of it.

While we’re here in Texas deciding on the next place to explore, I’m making it a priority to keep riding. Even if I’m not staying to put down roots at a barn, I can keep myself in riding shape. Last week I had a lesson at a barn that turned out to not be for me–it was almost distressingly run down and dilapidated. I rode a horse that in his day was quite a nice showjumper, from the pictures the owner showed me; now at the age of 30, he is in incredible shape for a horse so old, but is certainly not capable of performing at the level that I need in order to progress. We had a relaxed flat lesson working on transitions, which is always useful, but I left feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged.

I’m currently looking around for another barn to try in the area. There are a few of them, and it’s just about narrowing down which one has the right feel. It’s just like what I’m doing in the rest of my life–exploring, trying things out, and for the first time since I can remember, having the freedom to decide what is right for me and actively shape my life to be the way I want it.