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.
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.
As promised a couple of weeks ago, Urban Equestrian now has a new look! The blog just turned four years old this November (which also marks four years back in the saddle for me), and I thought it was about time for an updated design.
Last weekend, Dunnie and I also got a new look at the world as we went on our first trail ride together. My trainer brought us, along with six other girls that I ride with and their horses, out to 7IL Ranch to practice riding on trail and see if we’re interested in doing some competitive trail riding.
Dunnie and I did a trail class at the SHOT show we went to in September, but that was different; it was trail obstacles laid out in a ring. Back in college, I did one competitive trail ride that was actually on outdoor trails on a lark (in an English saddle) and really enjoyed it, so I’m interested in doing it again.
Competitive trail riding is a set of obstacles spread out along trails, maybe about a mile apart. They can include elements such as riding over a bridge or through a stream; opening, going through, and closing a gate; riding up to a mailbox and taking something out or putting something in; or riding up a hill without letting your horse break into a faster gait than a walk. The competitors ride through the trails and are judged at each obstacle; there are three levels of difficulty available at each stop, with more points awarded for the higher difficulty skills.
This weekend on the ride, we didn’t encounter any man-made obstacles, but we did find some of the ones that crop up naturally on trails: fallen trees to jump over, ditches that make the trail narrow and steep, branches to avoid (or to barrel through, oblivious to the fact that you have a rider on top of you, whichever).
I was interested to see how Dunnie would react to being out in the open. During the SHOT show, he had reacted poorly to the trail class and the ranch pleasure class being outside near a wooded area, but I had to chalk some of his being so keyed up to all the excitement of being at a show as well as my own contribution in the form of performance anxiety. I predicted that he would be excited to be out on the trails and might be a bit alert, but I also knew that since I had no goals other than to relax and enjoy the ride, I was confident I could keep him calm enough for that.
Right off the bat when we got the horses out of the trailer on the open field in the picture above, he was super alert — but that was because next to that field was a pasture full of his favorite thing in the world, cows. As I trotted him around trying to get a feel of how the open space would affect him, he kept craning his head back around to look at them like a dog that wants to chase a squirrel. He cracks me up.
Once we got away from the cows and out onto the trails, he was able to focus a bit more. At first, all the tall grass along the side of the trail was a potential threat that required his complete vigilance. Aware that when he does shy away from scary things, it’s a lightening-fast move where he drops his shoulder — the speed and the sudden imbalance being a tricky combination to stick with as a rider — I had to consciously work to remove anticipatory tension from my body. Once we left the more open trails for the narrower, wooded ones, he relaxed a bit of that vigilance. I think that was mostly because there he had something to think about, being forced to negotiate the footing more attentively.
His main concern for the rest of the ride was whether the lead horses in front of us were getting too far ahead for his liking. My tendency in a trail ride is to want to be in either the front or the back. If my horse isn’t a leader, I like to ride all the way at the back so I can keep track of everyone (this is probably a holdover from hiking with a bunch of kids in my camp counselor days). Dunnie would certainly have enjoyed being the leader, but would have quickly gotten out of hand had I let him. He would not tolerate being towards the back, and even when he was comfortable in the middle of the pack, we had to be cognizant of train getting too spread out or he’d start to get charged up.
Overall, we spent pretty much the whole six-mile ride in an energized, but contained, trot. At first I kept trying to bring him down to a walk, but I quickly realized that this small release of energy would keep him happy, whereas trying to tamp it down completely might result in an explosion later on. Luckily, his trot is very easy to sit. And even more luckily, he was willing to communicate with me.
Often when we start our ride in the ring, I have to take a few minutes to get his attention. He’s excited or distracted by other horses, by the wind, or some birds, and I need to say, “Hey, listen to me now. We’re gonna do stuff.” Since we’re in a ring and in familiar surroundings, the distracting things quickly recede and after a few minutes, he’s ready to give me his attention and get to work.
The big question for me in taking him out on this trail ride was whether I’d be able to get his attention in a more chaotic, more interesting, potentially scary out-in-the-open situation. I remembered the helplessness I felt at the SHOT show when it seemed that I just couldn’t get through to him. Ultimately, he came back to me for the afternoon classes, but those had been back inside the arena, not outdoors like the morning ones. But since then I’ve continued to develop as a rider and every day I feel more confidence. And so much of the detailed work we’ve been doing — especially on flexion — has focused and refined our communication. I was extremely pleased to see that even though he clearly just wanted to run amok through those trails — to charge ahead of everyone else, freak out about figmentary predators in the grass, and probably charge back to the trailhead as quickly as possible to bite some cows on his way out — that he was willing to listen to me when I said that we weren’t going to do any of those things.
I was excited to go on that trail ride because being out in nature is restorative and calming for me. I love hiking and it can only be made better by being on horseback. I didn’t exactly get the relaxing ramble I was hoping for, but what I got was much, much better. I got to see that Dunnie trusts me and that I can trust him.
Two weekends ago was my first horse show and it has taken me this long to recover from it, let alone write about it.
Sitting down to write about it now, I almost don’t know what to say. Mostly because there are too many things to say. It was an intense, exhausting, instructive, surprising, and joyful experience with a lot of ups and downs. I learned things about riding, about Dunnie, and about myself and felt my brain come alive as it connected concepts from all over the place: my own experience, things I’ve been taught in the past, and disparate things I’ve read.
The clinic was awesome; in ways I enjoyed it better than most of the actual show. I was in the saddle pretty much the whole day from 9 a.m. to 4-ish p.m. with a decently long lunch break in between. I was bit concerned about being in the saddle that long, given that I typically ride for about an hour at a time, and by the end of the day I was feeling it — lots of tightness in my hip flexors, especially. But with stretching before bed that night and then again the next morning before the show, I was not too sore for the day ahead.
For the clinic, we were separated into groups that rotated through classes that matched the four classes we’d be competing in the next day: trail, ranch pleasure, working cow, and reining. Since three out of those four were things I really hadn’t practiced very much, I spent the day soaking up as much info as I could to try to do well (or, in the case of the working cow class, merely survive).
Trail isn’t what it sounds like; it’s not actually on a trail, it’s an obstacle course set up in the ring that represents things you might encounter on the trail, things such as: tree limbs set on the ground like poles that you have to trot or canter over; L-shaped chutes that you have to walk into and then back out of; wooden bridges your horse has to step up onto and down from without hesitating; and a big, metal gate that you have to sidle up to, open, walk through, and close. We had practiced all of the elements other than the gate once or twice in the back ring at the barn, and in the clinic Dunnie did really well on them. When we got to the gate, however, it didn’t go great. He was being very skittish about approaching it, and then I mistakenly opened it the wrong way and we had to start over. Then it took forever for me to get him near enough to open it again. We finally made it through, and then he wouldn’t let me get near enough to close it, and finally Dunnie had enough of it all and just pushed it closed for me with his nose (which is cute, but is not allowed; horses can’t touch the gate). We finished the rest of the course easily. The clinician was really encouraging and started out the whole class by saying that if we made mistakes, we should just laugh them off. So I didn’t get worked up about our troubles with the gate, but I suspected it might be troublesome in the show.
I was right, but I didn’t realize how right I was. The trail class was our first class of the day at the show, but it turned out that they had moved it outside to a hill area instead of in the covered arena where we’d had the clinic. Even though it was the first class of the day, I ended up drawing a very high order number so I didn’t have to go for like two hours after I got on and went over there — and it was already blazing hot then. Dunnie had been pretty excited the morning of the clinic, prancing around and whinnying at everyone, and then deciding he should touch all the horses standing around us with his nose all day — but when we did our classes, he had settled down and listened to me. So I thought we were in the clear, that he’d gotten his excitement out of the way the first day and the show day would be fine. When I took him out first thing on Saturday morning to warm him up, he felt great. But the combination of the new outdoor locale for our trail class and so many people around and my own excitement all contributed to him being jacked up beyond reach. I couldn’t get him to listen to me at all; instead he was just looking around at everything and charging around. I had never experienced him acting like that before. I knew going into the trail class that it was going to be a disaster, and it definitely was. Even all the elements that were easy for us the day before went awry. We made mistakes on every single element, all leading up to the ultimate fiasco wherein we couldn’t even approach the gate for what felt to me like 20 minutes but was probably 5 minutes or less. The part of me that knows that you need to school your horse in these situations and just get through the course, and the part of me that was determined not to fail, kept pushing forward and trying to calm him and make it work. But ultimately the part of me that was frustrated and hyper-aware of how much time we were taking when the show was already falling behind schedule, and just feeling confused and a little betrayed by my horse, won out and I motioned to the judge that we’d be bowing out of the class there.
Ranch pleasure is a class designed to showcase the movement and versatility of the working ranch-style horse. It’s set up in a ring where there are signs posted at various intervals that tell you what gait to pick up (walk, trot, extended trot, lope, extended lope), and a lot of what you’re judged on is the transitions. Dunnie and I do a lot of transition work at home, and I expected this to be the least challenging class for us.
In the clinic, everyone in the group took a turn going around doing what the signs told us to do. Most of the advice the clinician had for everyone was to go faster. He said that the speed that most people were doing at the extended lope was a good speed for the regular lope. His point was that if you pretend that you’re not in a little ring with signs in it but actually out on a ranch, you want to move with purpose so you can get where you’re going. He told an anecdote about a ranch in Wyoming, where a boy was dropped off in the morning and told to ride until he either saw some cows or a fence, and then to turn around and come back. They picked him up at sundown, by which point he had not yet encountered either cow or fence — it’s just that big out there.
We did all right in our turn in the clinic, and I was aware of the things I wanted to do better in the show, but I was still the least worried about this class. On the show day, by the time my class time came around, we’d had a couple of hours of downtime from the trail class, and I hoped Dunnie would be more relaxed. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Due to the show falling abysmally behind schedule by this point, they had decided to relocate the ranch pleasure class outdoors to where the trail class had been in order to free up the indoor ring. I tried to ride Dunnie in the warm-up ring, and my trainer even got on and schooled him, but he was still just acting totally out of control. She suggested that I do the class, but ride with two hands in order to school him and try to control him, which due to the rules about riding one-handed with a shank bit, would automatically disqualify me. But since I bombed the trail class, I knew I wasn’t winning any championships here, so I didn’t have much to lose. We were able to get through it and complete all of the required elements — with some extra flair, like Dunnie dropping his shoulder and shying away from some of the signs — and I felt really good about battling it out. I needed a win for myself at that point, because I was going to need a booster shot of confidence going into our next class, the dreaded Working Cow.
The working cow class loomed large in my imagination going into this show experience. Direct interaction with cows in my lifetime has been quite limited. I vaguely recall briefly milking one on a field trip to a farm in elementary school, and there was that giant cow that I would occasionally buy treats for at the general store and then feed over the fence at that farm/animal sanctuary/petting zoo/whatever it is that bizarrely exists smack-dab in the middle of a suburban street in my hometown on Long Island. To be honest, I’m kind of afraid of cows. They are big, and I don’t have enough experience of them to understand how their minds work.
At the barn we didn’t have any cows to practice on, but my trainer had told me that Dunnie had experience as a cow horse and that he becomes “electric” when confronted with cows. We did spend one lesson with a young girl from the barn pretending to be a cow and running along the fence. Dunnie was confused at first. His demeanor was kind of like, “Wait…you want me to…chase this…child?” and then when I said “Yep” and urged him on, he was like “ALL RIGHT, THEN!” and got really into it.
At the clinic, I was quite nervous. I purposefully signed up to be one of the last in my group to go so that I could watch as many people as possible and learn as much from the clinician as I could before it was my turn. The ring was fenced off to be a small portion, where the cow was let in through a gate and the rider attempted to keep him along that wall. The clinician was also in there on his horse talking us through it, and there were other guys on horses that would come in to collect the cow and bring it out through the gate after each was done. Right off the bat when they let all the cows in the ring at the beginning, Dunnie was super interested, which at first made me a little tense.
But as the clinic drew on and I began to understand more of what we needed to do and how to do it, and to get some sense of how the cows were going to react to all of this, I really started to relax. The girls from my barn, who were sorted into another group because they are Youth instead of Novice (like me), were able to come by and sit with me and watch, and having them around made it much easier to lighten up and have fun. They were excited to see Dunnie in action with the cows and we all laughed together about his reaction to them, especially when a rider drove one near the fence we were behind and he put his ears back at the little cow.
For our turn, we ended up having a cow that wasn’t too interested in running around. She kind of just went into the corner and I had to keep approaching her to incite her to move so we could then chase her along the fence. Dunnie was a bit overstimulated and kept backing up instead of going forward, but once we got the cow moving I could feel the cow horse I had under me come awake and start to get a sense of his athleticism. After it was done, I was greatly relieved to have survived it, and even felt like I had made some interesting conceptual connections with working the cows and a book I had read about taming wild mustangs (which I’ll save for its own separate post because this one is already becoming novel length).
On show day, the relief I had felt after the cow class in the clinic was doing little to mitigate my nervousness. So far, I’d had two classes on a horse that wasn’t listening to me because he was too riled up by his surroundings, and now I was about to put him in the ring with something that demonstrably gets him even more excited. In the show, the ring was not going to be cordoned off — it was the whole entire ring I’d be dealing with, giving the cow ample room to run us ragged. I seriously considered scratching the class for a few moments. But this was what I was there for, what I had gone through the expense and trouble to get to and then sat around in the sweltering heat all day for, to learn and gain experience. So I decided to go in there and set my goal as simply getting through it. I was definitely not, as many of the other riders did, going to chase the cow down the long side of the ring at top speed, no matter how fun that looked. I was going to go in there and do my best to control my horse and hope that now, after several hours in his stall and a thunderstorm that had broken up some of the unbearable heat of the day, he would be ready to listen to me.
And for whatever reason, he was. Maybe it was just the outdoor situation that had put him over the edge all morning, and now that we were in a ring he felt more comfortable. Maybe it was my own exhaustion that pushed me past even being capable of exhibiting anxiety anymore, ending the feedback loop of bad energy that had been carried through the reins between us all day. But when I got on Dunnie, he was the horse I know and trust again. And we went into the cow class and did exactly what I wanted to do. You can watch a video of it. It looks really boring, because the cow immediately gives us the slip and we just very slowly and sedately follow him down the ring and collect him. But it felt like a huge accomplishment, and I was incredibly pleased. And now that I’ve done it and survived, I’m SO EXCITED to do it again because when I watch people who are really getting into it, it looks like so much fun. I think Dunnie and I will have a blast the next time we do this. The relief I felt after this class at having my partner back came at a good time — before our final class, and the one that I really cared the most about — reining.
Reining has been the main thing that Dunnie and I practice at home. We had the pattern memorized and had been fine-tuning it for weeks. With the exception of the sliding stop, which we didn’t work on because Dunnie doesn’t have the right shoes for it, I felt we could do all of the required elements and do them well.
The reining clinic was very interesting, and extremely helpful in fixing a specific problem we’d been having with our lead changes. In this video, taken the week before the show, you can see that on the left-to-right change (the second one in the video), Dunnie anticipates the lead change and changes his back feet first, goes a couple strides, and then changes his front lead. The ideal is to change them both at once. I brought this issue up with the clinician, and he gave me really good instruction. First, we worked on moving Dunnie’s hip at the walk (something we’ve also been working on since we came back from the show and which I’ll write more about soon). Once we got that down, he suggested that I try the lead change again, but this time to have a little more propulsion to my lope. It worked right away; Dunnie gave me such a smooth, pretty lead change that I almost didn’t know it happened until the clinician smiled and congratulated me. Since this was the one element I had any concern about in our reining pattern going into the show, I was really pleased and grateful to have learned a fix for it.
The reining class on show day was the culmination of an extremely long, insanely delayed day full of “hurry up and wait.” We got up at 6 a.m., got to the show grounds by 7:45, and I was up on my horse (and waiting in the sun) for my first class at around 9:30. My last class, the reining class, was originally scheduled for around 4–5 p.m.; I actually rode close to 9 p.m. By that point, everyone was hot and drained and also worrying about getting everything cleaned and packed up so that we could leave at a reasonable hour for the 1.5-hour-long drive home. I hadn’t had any dinner, but my blood sugar was saved by one of the barn moms giving me all her remaining peanut m&ms. I just wanted to shower off the 10 gallons of sweat on my body and go to sleep. But I was also really excited about the reining class, and once I got up on Dunnie and was sitting in that chute waiting for our number to be called, everything that had been so hectic and out of control and confusing and stressful all day just turned instead into a feeling of buoyant confidence and focus.
We entered the ring at a collected trot and any last concerns I had about Dunnie being there with me were gone. We stopped in the center, waiting for the signal from the judge to begin. From a stop, when we picked up our right-lead canter, everything was amazing. I’d done that same pattern with Dunnie a million times at home; some days were pretty good, some were a little messy. But it had never felt the way it did at the show. It was like being in the show arena woke something up in him and he was just on. I was feeling it too, and while it was happening it was somehow simultaneously hyper-real and dream-like. Pretty much all of it was better than we had ever done it before, including nailing the lead changes and even getting a little bit of a slide on some of the stops. It was thrilling. There’s a video of it, and when I first had the chance to watch it I actually dreaded doing so a little bit, because I was worried that it wasn’t going to look as good as it felt. But I was so happy to see that it did!
Right after I finished my round, I jumped off Dunnie, threw my arms around his neck for a huge hug, and then basically put him right on the trailer. We left right after that and got home at 11 p.m., at which point I crashed harder than I can remember doing in a very, very long time.
Because we left so quickly, I didn’t get a chance to see any of my scores. I think that SHOT will eventually post them online, and I’m looking forward to seeing them (or at least the reining score) so I can learn where to improve for next time. Now that we have our first show under our belt and have dealt with all the newness and uncertainty which that entails, I can’t wait to do it all again and do it better.
It’s been almost two months now since I started riding Dunnie.
The day I met him, I went out to the barn knowing almost nothing about him; I knew that he was a reining horse and that he had won 3rd place at the International Buckskin Horse Association’s World Show several years ago, and that he was much loved at the barn. I had no idea what to expect, and, having just about zero knowledge of reining, no idea really how to measure him.
When he came out of his stall, I thought he seemed a little small, a little pudgy, and very shaggy with a thick, hay-colored winter coat.
But I reserved judgement, trying to learn as much as possible about him. He had been leased for a while by a woman before me who rode him a couple times a week; she’d had to move away because of her job. He’d been pastured outdoors in the winter, which accounted for the unusually heavy coat in a place where it doesn’t get all that cold.
The first time I groomed him myself, I realized just how much coat he was shedding. In five minutes, I’d have several curry-combfuls of his light-colored winter coat drifting around the ground. But underneath, I could see glimmers of the shiny, golden coat that must have inspired his show name, which I learned through some Googling is “Boomtown Gold.” I began to get excited about cleaning him up, and threw myself into grooming him really well every day that I rode him.
Slowly, more and more of that undercoat emerged. One day while grazing him, I looked over at his back and saw the sun shining off the spot on his withers where all the winter coat had come off. He was still shaggy around his belly and thighs, but here was a glimpse of what he’d look like once he finished shedding. We’d had an especially good ride that day, I felt I was getting stronger and making progress on learning reining techniques. As I reflected on how lucky I felt to be where I was, doing what I was doing—how lucky I was to have stumbled upon Dunnie—I looked at him and felt like I’d struck gold.
I’ve ridden him every chance I’ve gotten for the past two months, weather and work sometimes making that tricky, but I keep finding a way. Most of the time it’s just us out there, with me doing the best I can to be the leader, taking him through the exercises I’ve learned from my trainer and from reading and watching everything on the Internet related to reining in order to build up his muscle and flexibility and get his mind and body back into competition shape. Simultaneously I’m his student, letting him teach me how to communicate with him so we can do the tricks he already knows how to do and that I’m just discovering for the first time. When we’re out there together alone, we work—the riding I’m doing now is the most focused, most directed, most in-depth riding experience I’ve ever had—but it’s also play. I can feel him responding with interest to every new game I pose, every challenge. “What if we try this?” I ask and he says, “I’m game!” Sometimes we do great and I’m amazed at how easy it is. Other times it’s not perfect, but we gave it a good try and so we move on, saving it for another day.
People at the barn have started commenting on the change in Dunnie. My trainer says she can see him getting more fit; others have commented on how much happier he seems, how much friendlier he is in his stall. Someone mentioned that he’d been allowed to get away with quite a bit prior to my arrival, and that he seems to be responding really well to me. It’s so wonderful to hear these things. There’s probably no greater compliment I can receive than “You are making things better,” and when that specifically includes making someone else happier and healthier, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. He’s making me better, too, making me learn patience and chipping away at my stupid perfectionism.
It’s a trope our society presents frequently in stories: the makeover—whether drastic and overnight, or subtle and gradual—the idea that something or someone new comes into your life and fills an empty space and you become visibly different, the changes on the outside reflecting the changes occurring inside. Sometimes, even when it is gradual, it can be startling, as it was the other day when I tacked up Dunnie and brought him into the indoor arena. I put his reins up on his saddle horn and left him standing there a moment while I dragged a stray jump standard out to the edge of the ring, and when I turned back and saw him, I was amazed. The winter coat is completely gone now, and he’s lost weight and toned up. With his fancy saddle and his ears perked up, he looked like the champion showhorse that he was before, and hopefully will soon be again.
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.
After some months of traveling, I’m back in Texas for a few months and ready to ride again. I was unsure of where to start, after last summer’s search for the right barn and then the subsequent disappointment of not really feeling the one that seemed to be the best fit, I bemoaned my apparent lack of options. But then I changed my perspective, and took another look at what was there. One of the barns I had communicated with over the summer had seemed like it was going to be a good fit, but then didn’t work out because they don’t jump their school horses and I was very focused on picking up where I left off with jumping when I was in LA. I was trying to find a place that offered what I was looking for, but what if, instead, I looked at what this place was offering?
On their website, they advertised both Western and English lessons. Western lessons intrigued me; I couldn’t imagine what they would consist of. I’ve been in a Western saddle a handful of times in my life, but only on trail. I’d never had any instruction other than the rudimentary “this is how you stop and go” talk that they send everyone out with on trail rides. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to learn a whole new perspective on riding. Maybe learning some new tricks will be challenging and interesting and fun.
I contacted the woman with whom I had communicated last summer and explained my situation, asking if she thought that Western lessons would be worthwhile or interesting to someone with my experience. What she wrote back was unexpected. She said she had a wonderful reining horse who was coming up for lease, and was I interested?
First, I had to look up what a reining horse was. Then I asked if I could come try him out.
Yesterday I went out to the barn and met Dunnie. When I drove up and walked past the first barn, I saw a small, well-proportioned buckskin with a friendly face looking out his stall window at me with his ears up. I wasn’t sure it was him, since the only thing I knew about him was his color, but I guessed it was.
I watched while he was tacked up, all the straps and pieces so different from English tack, trying to learn and remember so I can do it for myself.
While I got on, my trainer explained a few basics to me. I had also been watching YouTube videos during the day to get a sense of what I’d be learning. Reining seems like it is not that different from dressage, except that it is like the opposite of dressage. What I mean is, there are certain elements and movements expected, and they are to be done with maximum finesse and minimum appearance of overt control. But instead of feeling fussy and stifling, it feels natural and at ease. In my dressage lessons, I was instructed to keep a strong hold on the reins with constant contact; in this lesson I learned that hands are the last resort, and everything should be done with leg and balance. This is so much more my style.
After a few basic instructions and some guidance about how my position should be different in the Western saddle as compared to English seat, my trainer suggested that I should just ride Dunnie around and do what I needed for us to get used to each other.
Everything just…clicked. Immediately. It felt like what I’ve always thought riding should feel like; like the best it has felt in fleeting moments when I’ve been really strong and confident. It didn’t feel like I hadn’t been on a horse in 6 months, it felt like I’d been riding this horse every day for the last 6 months.
Over the next month, I will likely take lessons on him, and then take over his lease at the end of March when his current lease term is up. I want to get more comfortable at the barn to know how things work there and where everything is, and I feel that I need to get some more groundwork down before it makes sense for me to spend so much time training on my own. I’m so excited to learn these new skills, and be able to immerse myself in something that felt so natural to me right off the bat. I’m also so excited at the thought of riding several times a week, having time on my own with Dunnie to keep getting to know him and learn from him.
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.
I have been riding, but I haven’t been writing. I just haven’t felt inspired.
I just looked back at a draft for a post I started to write about the second lesson I took at my new barn. It’s all about how my new trainer, who is very good at what she does, is encouraging me to develop some new habits as a rider. Her training is grounded in dressage techniques, concerned with getting the horse into a particular frame of body in order to make his movement more efficient and effective. It all makes a lot of sense and is interesting from an academic viewpoint.
The problem is, it’s not very fun.
Every moment and every movement is an intense juggling act to hold myself and my horse in what seem to me counter-intuitive postures. Although intellectually I can see how doing some of these things work with the anatomy of the horse and its movement, physically I just cannot feel it. Well, it’s not that I can’t feel it–I do feel the horse doing what the trainer says he should be doing in response to my cues. I just think there are other ways to get there.
I just feel hemmed in by it all. Maybe part of that is having the full attention of a trainer, something I haven’t had since I was a teenager. But there just feels like no freedom, no time to figure things out by myself or have my own communication with my horse without my trainer reminding me to use her techniques. I get off my horse at the end of the lesson and I don’t feel like I know him very well because we didn’t have time to speak privately.
All of this returns me to a consideration of what I really want out of riding. What do I love about horses?
Do I love achieving the perfection of equitation? No. The constant striving for “perfection” is stifling and crazy-making and misses the point of life.
Do I crave equestrian competition? No. I love watching the shows because they are exciting competitions. And while the thought of being recognized as being very good at something I love to do is alluring, the show world is really not my scene and not a place I would be very happy or comfortable.
What do I love about riding, then? I’m pretty sure the answer is just “freedom and joy.” That’s what it gives me. I’m happy when I’m riding. I’m happy when I’m connecting with a horse. I love being outdoors and around animals. I love movement and activity. I love the feel and the sight and the smell and the sounds of horses. I want to be around them as much as possible.
What’s the problem then? Why am I so dissatisfied by my lessons?
I think it’s because they are framed as a means to an end. Every moment on the horse is about creating a response, and there’s no rest from that. Maybe that’s a form of good horsemanship, but it’s not my style. It’s all business.
Maybe the real problem is that everything feels that way lately. In trying to shape a new career for myself, trying to find work that I love, my thoughts run in circles trying to find ways to parlay doing what I love into a paying job. I need money to do what I love. I need to do what I love to make money.
And another problem is that it seems like “making money” is the only goal anyone has in this country anymore. The corporatization of everything is destroying creativity, destroying people’s capacity for joy, destroying peace, destroying nature, destroying fun…destroying life.
There’s a scene in “The Song Remains the Same” where Robert Plant ad libs onstage during “Stairway to Heaven”, asking the crowd, “Does anyone remember laughter?” It is a ridiculous moment and he’s supposedly still embarrassed by it, having asked for it to be cut from the movie during editing. But that’s how I feel right now. When I’m trying to find work writing and editing–trying to share ideas and stories that might in some way make life better for people and trying to help others do the same–and I am drowning in people talking about marketing verticals and SEO, I want to ask the whole goddam world if anyone remembers laughter.
It’s like everyone is simultaneously too serious and not serious enough. Maybe what it comes down to is just priorities. People care the most about things I don’t care about at all, and in doing so they miss the importance of the things that actually make life worth living.
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.
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.
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.
I rode Bella again today and we did a (for me) very challenging course. We were back in the Big Girl ring again and the jumps were on the higher end of my experience (2’6″-ish, I think, and one was an oxer!).
There were a few challenges with the course, but as seems to frequently be the case with me lately, they were mental rather than physical. My new training schedule seems to be working well, and I feel I’ve trimmed down and tightened up quite a bit. I do always feel a little bit rushed to warm up, especially today when I got to the barn a little later than planned. But even with a quick warm-up at the trot and canter, my muscles seem much more supple than they were even a month ago. I’m going to make it a point to get there a little earlier next time and have a thorough warm-up.
We dove right in with a low vertical on the diagonal to warm up with. I went to it with the confidence of last week’s realization that I have to stop being a control freak and just feel the rhythm more freely with my horse. We took our first two jumps very nicely and even got the flying change afterward, and I was feeling confident and ready for a challenge.
That’s why it felt especially clumsy when we did the course. Basically a figure-eight shaped design, we started on that same vertical on the diagonal (which had a weird approach through all the other jumps), then took the line containing the oxer on the other diagonal, then turned around and took a roll-top on first diagonal, then came over another vertical on the other diagonal again. That’s the best I can describe it; the jumps were haphazardly placed so there was a lot of negotiating obstacles to find the best approach.
My first time through felt pretty disaster-y. Even though Bella was more up and responsive than last week, we still didn’t quite have the right pace for the height of the jumps we were doing. We got in really, really deep to all of them and I was honestly surprised we even made it over some of the jumps. I owe that entirely to Bella, who kept her head and used her athleticism to rock far back on her hind legs and save both our necks.
I also can’t blame this entirely on our pace. I know I was focusing too much on the jumps themselves, looking down at them and anticipating them rather than looking up and through them. It’s new for me to be doing these more challenging jumps and it’s both exciting and daunting (even though I recently read this cute and helpful article on Horse Collaborative). So instead of doing the things my head is supposed to be doing, like counting strides and using its knowledge of how to get flying changes and take turns properly, it’s doing something like this: “Oh ok wow here’s the next jump. It’s high! Holy shit, this is awesome–wait no–god, can I do this? Yes, yes I can. Gotta move her up, let’s go, let’s go…oh, shit, where’s the spot?…aaaah we are in too deep are we gonna make it? Ok yes! Thank you, Bella! Phew. NEXT.”
In between my first and second round, I watched one of my classmates take a fall. She went into the line deep, got a little bounced out of the saddle going to the oxer, and then her horse helped her along by giving a tiny buck afterwards. She was not seriously injured, just a little bruised, but it was a hard-sounding thud when she hit the ground and that’s always terrifying. I had to talk myself down from starting to feel anxious before my next turn, which seemed easier than usual. But then when I went through the course I was still a bit distracted by the fall and wasn’t able to do it much better than my first time.
The third time through, I started to get it. The jumps started coming together better with a little more pace. I had to stop halfway through to re-organize, but that was because of trying to get the flying change in between. I pulled Bella down to the walk, caught my breath, and did the second half of the course in a way I was much more pleased with.
Our last time through was the best. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a vast improvement. We had a good rhythm and the spots came more easily. We only got a little deep on one of them, but it wasn’t disaster-y deep, it was just like a normal added stride that made it not perfectly smooth. I pretty much gave up on trying to get the flying changes by this point and just did simple ones so that I could entirely devote my attention to the course itself and do it well. Given one more go, I think I could have gotten it perfect, but that was a good one to stop on, employing the motto of riders everywhere, “Quit while you’re ahead.”
I was pleased with how the lesson went. It can be alluring to just stay in your comfort zone and feel like you’re doing everything well, but stretching myself and challenging myself is what I’ve wanted to do for so long. When I’m doing it I sometimes feel clumsy or foolish, but ultimately, I feel proud that I’m getting better, little by little. It was also nice to hear from my trainer that she knows she’s pushing me and that it’s tough, but that I’m doing really well.
I’m thinking of trying to go to two lessons a week instead of just the one. Hopefully that will speed up the improvement. The more jumps I get under me, the more confident I become.