Does Anyone Remember Laughter?

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.

 

 

 

 

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Technology of Taming

Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.

Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of.  It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.

To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.

The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.

In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.

You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site  that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.

The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.

I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).

It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.

TechTameJessicaFilippi

 

 

Searching and Exploring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge!

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.

 

Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining, Part 2

cliff

Last week I wrote about the destructive effects of overtraining. I recognized that I was pushing myself too hard and not allowing enough rest in between workouts and this was actually hampering my progress.

In my last post, I put together a new weekly schedule for working out 5 hours a week with scheduled rests. This is what that looked like:

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

Wednesday: calisthenics/leg and core toning (squats, lunges, crunches, etc) or upper body and core toning (planks, push-ups, crunches, etc)  at home (1 hour)

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

Saturday: cycling class/upper body weight machines (45 mins /15 mins=total 1 hour)

Sunday: treadmill intervals/lower body weight machines (30 mins / 30 mins= total 1 hour)

Well, none of that happened.

I was actually so shot from overtraining that I ended up taking the entire week off.

The body is so adaptable that it’s very easy to miss subtle signs, or to mischaracterize them. But there were things beyond “normal” tiredness that made me see that I needed a break. Like going up more than one flight of stairs made my thigh muscles feel as exhausted as doing several sets of squats.

So what did I do on my week off? Pretty much nothing. I did some stretching before bed, took some strolls around the park, but that was about it for physical activity. I also made some changes to how I’m eating, cutting sugar (almost) entirely out and adding more lean proteins and vegetables.

The surprising thing is that during that week off, I felt better than when I was working out. I mean “better” in the sense that my body felt leaner, lighter, and tighter–all the things I was aiming for with working out so hard. Towards the end of the week I noticed visual evidence of this as well. The lesson here: the body gets stronger during recovery. Rest is essential.

This is just another part of what I’ve realized is basically my life’s work for myself: finding balance. I’ve written before about my difficulty in finding balance in how hard I push myself physically; between perfectionism and a more lackadaisical approach.

I think where this comes from is a lack of self-knowledge; I don’t honestly know my own limits. Having never tried before to really be an athlete, to make my body the best it can be, I don’t know when I’m pushing myself too hard. I don’t know what is definitively beyond my capabilities and what is simply something I need to build up to. Exercise can be deceptive because in the moment it feels like you can do something and only later when you feel the consequences do you know that you overdid it. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

The Edge…there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

After this week off, I see that my body was clearly telling me that I’d “gone over” with overtraining. But where? Exactly how much was too much? Now the only thing to do is slowly wade back into working out and patiently, systematically, try to find that edge so that from there I can find balance–the place where I am training only as much as I need to for performance to be optimal.

Housekeeping, Getting Connected

I had to skip my lesson this week to take care of some things at home, but as a consolation for depriving you of a lesson post I’ve now branched out and connected Urban Equestrian to two new sites: Pinterest and Instagram.

On the Pinterest page, you’ll find boards for equestrian fitness, exercises to do with your horse, horse- and equestrian-related books, horse photography, and more.

On the Instagram page, you’ll find photos of horses I’m riding, shots from around the barn, and beautiful places that I’d love to ride through.

Please follow me and enjoy!

 

Pushing and Pulling

Today I rode Bella and jumped one of the more involved courses I’ve ever done in terms of height and difficulty. It was fun and challenging. It was a little bit daunting to begin with, and it was also exhausting. The trainer said she is pushing me, which I appreciate because I take that to mean she thinks I can handle it.

I wasn’t on the top of my game today. I skipped psychotic spin class last night because I was feeling tired (and don’t think that didn’t generate an internal dialogue where I swung back and forth between telling myself alternately to listen to my body and rest, and then that I was a lazy jerk who needed to suck it up and go). I am glad I chose to listen to my body, since I woke up feeling still a bit low-energy today. But I had a good breakfast, did some warm-up calisthenics and stretches, and headed out to the barn.

I was extra excited to ride today because my boyfriend was coming with me to watch. He’s seen me ride once before at Jamaica Bay, but the lessons out here are at a whole new level. I was also excited for him to record me while I was jumping.

We rode in the front ring this time, what I call in my mind the “big girl” ring that I’ve never been in before. That’s where all the bigger jumps are, and where I had kind of assumed I wouldn’t ever ride in. It’s an assumption that belies my mindset of not being as advanced as I apparently am, and that’s something I need to get out of my head if I’m going to keep pushing myself to improve.

Headed for the big girl ring.
Headed for the big girl ring.

I was a little behind everyone else getting on, so I didn’t get to do a long warm-up before we dove into jumping. I could have used a little longer to get warm and stretch into my legs; I felt especially tight in the area behind my knee. The tops of my thighs have gotten a little bit more toned and flexible, so they feel less tight, but the area around the knee is still difficult.

The course we did was tough. It involved changing direction a couple times, which was difficult mainly because Bella is sticky on her flying lead changes (she gets them in front but sometimes not in back). There were also a couple of oddly-angled jumps that made the approaches interesting. The first couple times around, my reins were too long and I was being too passive; Bella is a young horse and needs a lot of riding. I really had to push her up and pull on the reins to take contact on her mouth for us to be connected enough to get the distances right. Pushing her up was hard for me today, I just felt like I had no energy in my legs. Pulling her back was difficult too; she is stronger than I expected given her size and had a tendency to pull me forward in the saddle. I needed to sit up and wait instead of anticipating the jumps as I did many times. Going over a jump awkwardly feels awful, but once I took that control things went more smoothly. At least, upon watching the videos my boyfriend took of me, it doesn’t seem to look as bad as it felt.

You can watch the video of the best course I did here. (I have about 300 times, studying all the ways I can make it better next time.)