Where Are You Going?

It’s a question I often ask my students: Where are you going?

New riders often don’t realize that they have to ride their horses the whole time they’re in the saddle. There’s no point during the lesson at which they can just sit there. They have to keep a feel of their horse, anticipate the horse’s next moves, and always have in their mind where they want to go and what they want the horse to do. (This is a concept that is illustrated nicely in this video by Carson James.)

If they don’t, the horse will decide for them.

And that decision will probably not be to the rider’s liking.

I’m starting to realize that this is a pretty apt metaphor for life. You can passively let it take you where it wants to go. Or you can decide what you want out of it and use all your tools to get there.

I spent a very long time searching for what I wanted out of life. But the only reason it took me so long was that I knew the whole time what I wanted, and I wasn’t pursuing it because I didn’t think it was a valid option.  For nearly ten years I constantly changed apartments, changed jobs, I tried new exercise regimens, explored new hobbies, and none of it ever satisfied me.

Then, nearly five years ago, I finally found my way back to horses. Since then, I’ve chronicled my journey from being a 30-year-old starting over and trying to regain the muscles needed to ride well again while taking one lesson a week in insane conditions in the middle of New York City, to leasing a horse in Texas, riding four times a week and learning an entirely new discipline, just starting to show again at the lowest level at the age of 35.

When I started out, I had no idea where this was going. I just knew I wanted to ride again. That my body and my mind and my heart missed it and it was time to do whatever it took to fill that hole in my life. I was just glad to be sitting on the horse; the direction didn’t matter.

As I got more involved, I started to realize that it wasn’t just filling the hole of a missed hobby. It was actually something that could stop the emptiness left by not having a career that engaged or fulfilled me. It was something that I could throw myself into wholeheartedly and never get bored learning more about. It was something I could aspire to mastering, and which I would feel proud of myself once I did.

I started to dream about working with horses. I learned about training programs for wild mustangs, and that opened up the whole world of understanding how to relate to these animals on their own terms, to studying ethology, to learning about conservation efforts, and ranching, and all the riding disciplines associated with that, and a million other fascinating things that had always been at the heart of me, ever since I was a tiny girl telling my parents that I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up.

So many different threads have come together to bring me to this point. Frustrated at my inability to find English jumping lessons in the area, I reached out to a trainer and asked her if she thought someone with my background would benefit from Western lessons. I figured if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, maybe I should look at what was right there in front of me. That resulted in the trainer offering to lease Dunnie to me. It brought me the closest working relationship I’ve ever had with a horse. It also brought me a mentor relationship and friendship with that trainer that I’d been looking for my whole life. It brought me back to teaching riding again, finally for the first time since I was 16 years old getting paid to work with horses.

So here I am. I’ve got a great horse underneath me (both literally and metaphorically), and it’s for me to decide in what direction to travel — and then to use everything I’ve got in my toolbox to get myself there.

That’s what I’m working on now. I’m researching different fields of horse work, I’m reading up on them, and I’m finding out how to get trained and certified. Look for some big changes coming around here, including the launch of a new site in the not-too-distant-future. Urban Equestrian has been a wonderful place to reflect on what I’ve been learning on my journey back to being a horsewoman, but now it’s time for action.

 

 

 

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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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The Thighs Have It

Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.

Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.

Dunnie, being happy with Happy.
Dunnie, being happy with Happy.

While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.

Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.

It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.

I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.

Me (I wish).
Me (I wish).

Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.

Equipment Change

My trainer left and now I’ve started riding with the woman who formerly owned the horse I’m leasing. She knows him incredibly well and I feel like we are finally on a really good track towards making some progress.

In the last couple of weeks, Dunnie was starting to get really, really ornery. I wasn’t quite sure why; I speculated that it could have been the arrival of all the summer camp kids, or the ridiculous heat (upwards of 105 with the heat index). But I also noticed that he was becoming less sensitive to my cues and that things we had done pretty well before, like spins, seemed to be getting worse, not better.

It was all a bit discouraging. It was a sort of in-betweeny time for me where I was missing lessons due to all the nasty weather we had and I was just trying to fix problems entirely on my own, and seemingly making them worse. But one lesson with my new trainer shed light on the problem. It wasn’t me; it was the equipment we were using.

I have hated Dunnie’s saddle from Day One. It’s a nice-enough-looking show saddle, but it weighs like 3 tons. I can never lift it onto his back without giving myself a hernia and making him pissed off because I’ve got either the girth or the stirrup stuck underneath it.

And apparently he has been hating it too. Wednesday night my trainer got on him during my lesson to see what was up with him; was he stiff, or just not used to being told what to do, or what? She turned around in the saddle and realized that the saddle looked to be too long and putting painful pressure on his back by his loins. We speculated that it could be the reason he kept pulling his head up much higher than he was supposed to be carrying it, and why he seemed to be charging around the ring like he wanted to do. She also pointed out that the bit he had on was quite harsh, and didn’t give me any leeway with connecting with his mouth without putting a lot of pressure there.

I had some suspicions about the saddle. I’ve been reading Reining: The Guide for Training & Showing Winning Reining Horses by Al Dunning, and the chapter on the importance of fitting the saddle to your horse had some elements that jangled in my mind a little bit. But the equipment that I ride Dunnie in is his. It came along with him, so I kind of assumed that whoever picked it out for him chose stuff that fit him right.

A heavy, Western show saddle.
A heavy, Western show saddle.

Yeah, that assumption was wrong. Last night I went out to the barn to ride again, this time with totally different tack. The saddle that my trainer picked out from the tackroom was seriously about 1/3 of the weight of Dunnie’s saddle, and the saddle pad had a nice split in it in the place where it goes over his withers, so it wasn’t putting pressure there. It was also a shorter length, so it didn’t cut into his back where the other one was. As a nice added bonus for me, the stirrups were a lot less stiff—the leather on his saddle makes it really hard to get the stirrups straight on my feet and I always felt like my ankles were being twisted. Now my feet are straight again and I can put a lot more weight into my heels. We also put him in a different bridle with a less-harsh shank bit, and (yay for me) no split reins.

The difference was staggering. When I got on him last night, he was a different horse. My trainer said she could see him smiling—his ears were up, he wasn’t tense, he felt so much lighter in my hands. He wasn’t charging around the ring with his head in the air anymore, either. When we took off at a lope, I was able to make a slight connection with his mouth like I needed to rate his speed without him getting pissed. And he just naturally carried his head low and relaxed.

Today I went out and rode him by myself in that same tack, and it was great. He was back to being that same willing, happy horse I started riding a couple of months ago—before the accumulation of pain from his tack turned him ornery. And now that he’s not so tense anymore, I can be a lot less tense. Before when we were cantering, he would pick up his head, which would cause me to tense on the reins, which would cause him to slow, which would cause me to tense in my calves to push him forward, which would cause him to speed up too much because I was gunning him, and then back to the tension on the hands again to try to slow him down. It was a feedback loop where we were really frustrating each other. Today, for the first time, we calmly loped a circle the way we’re supposed to. He was relaxed and responded to the slight pressure of my hands to regulate his speed, so I was able to stop my death grip on his sides with my calves, and really sit deeply in the saddle. If he felt like he was going to break, I was able to push with my seat to keep him going. Everything just felt so much more free and flowing.

The whole thing has made me realize the deep importance of having the right equipment for your horse, and for that to be a serious part of the evaluation of what’s going wrong if there seems to be something going wrong. Keeping your horse as happy and comfortable as you can results in a better ride for both of you.

Before and After

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.

Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.
Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.

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.

Of course, once I got on him, I immediately fell in love. He was so easygoing, so willing, that I knew right away for sure that I wanted to lease him.

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.

struck gold
Dunnie’s golden coat shining in the sun on his withers.

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.

Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.
Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.

New Tricks

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.

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.