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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For Real

My first horse show as a Western rider (and as an adult) is coming up at the end of September. The last time I rode in a horse show, it was an IHSA competition my senior year of college, 13 years ago.

Dunnie and I have been working hard to get ourselves in shape for the show, but much of the work we’ve been doing is on isolated skills or strengthening specific areas. It’s important work, since I am still learning these skills, and he’s still re-sharpening them, and there has been a lot of really satisfying improvement over the last couple of months. But over the last week or so, things have started to come together on a whole new level.

Reining is going to be just one part of four parts to the show that will also include Western Pleasure, Trail, and Working Cow, but it’s the one I’ve been most focused on. In reining, you ride a pattern of circles, spins, and stops; there are three different patterns that could potentially be the one chosen for us to ride at the show in September.

With just under a month to go, my trainer has started us on learning all three of the patterns and fine-tuning them, so when we get to the show we’ll have them down pat.

You’d think, given my exceptional lack of spatial-relationship sense, that learning and memorizing the patterns would be just about impossible for me. I’ve been notorious in the past for going off course when learning jumping courses, but for some reason these reining patterns make sense to me. The elements all seem to flow together and connect in a way that after I’ve ridden them once, I can visualize them in my head thereafter and go over them in my mind. I realize this is a basic skill that most people take for granted, but for me it’s like I’ve all of a sudden developed mental superpowers.

Even more amazing is the effect all of this has had on Dunnie. There have been times when we’ve tried something new (to me) that I’ve felt stirrings from him, a kind of reawakening of memories of doing all this stuff. But when we started putting it all together with the patterns, it really woke him up. It’s like “Oh, we’re doing this? Like, for real, not just playing? Ok.” He’s always willing, and he always tries, but now he’s also really focused — and it’s impressive how I can feel his impeccable training and his talent shining through.

Despite my many years of riding, I’ve had very few opportunities to ride real working show horses. I’ve been on hundreds of random school horses, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds and quirks. I’ve ridden a few OTTBs and former polo ponies who, while being quite athletic, weren’t originally trained for what I was doing with them. The first time I got on Dunnie back in April, I had zero expectations or preconceptions, because I didn’t even really know what a reining horse was or was supposed to be. I just knew that something clicked with us and I wanted to keep riding him. Seeing him transform, and now feeling him becoming so focused and enthusiastic about what we’re doing has been an incredible experience because he’s getting back to what he was born and raised for, what he was meant to do. And in learning with him and from him, maybe I’m finding that for myself, too.

 

Patience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Dunnie.
Happy Dunnie.

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.

Past the Plateau

This week’s riding has been some of the best of…well, ever.

So far, I’ve been out to ride three days this week (still up in the air about going today, since storms are predicted this afternoon), and on every one of those days, I’ve felt improvement. I haven’t had the opportunity to ride like this since I was a pre-teen in a summer riding camp, and it’s possibly the best thing (riding-wise) that’s ever happened to me.

One of the biggest frustrations I had while riding back in the city was the length of time between lessons. I’d start to feel like I was learning something and then it’d be a week, or two weeks, or several months before I got on a horse again and by that time it was back to square one. There comes a point in learning where you need to just put in hours. First, you learn things. If you can do the thing at all, it feels like an accomplishment. But then you reach a level where it feels like you’ve plateaued. You can still do the thing, but the more you do it, the more you realize you’re not doing it that well, and the desire to get better is kindled. At that point, you just need to spent a lot of consistent time reinforcing and refining the skills you learned when you were at a more basic level.

That plateau level is basically where I’ve been for the three years since I’ve gotten  back into riding. I’m more mature now than I was when I stopped at the age of 21, and in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot more about how to learn. So since I’ve been back on the horse, I’ve been happy, grateful, relieved … and also, fundamentally frustrated, knowing that there was so much more to riding and wanting to go there but never quite being able to get there.

And now, I’m there. One day, this amazingly trained, patient, willing horse was dropped into my lap and now I’m finally, finally able to ride and train at the level I’ve been yearning for. I set goals and then every day I work at them a little more and I improve a little more and then I achieve them.

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What’s next?

Like last week, when I was struggling to get Dunnie into a good canter transition without running into a sloppy trot. I had a breakthrough then with figuring out a better way to ask him for the canter, and I set myself a goal for this week: to be able to canter around the entire ring, getting the flying change in both directions. I thought it might be a stretch for me, given how weak my legs felt at that point. But then yesterday we did it. From a complete standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter in a perfect transition. We cantered around the ring, got the flying lead change in both directions. I even went a little bit further than that, backing him up after we stopped, doing a rollback (which I didn’t even really know how to do, but just felt like he did so thought I’d try it) and then picking up another perfect canter transition in the opposite direction. I felt…real. As in, “I’m really doing this.”

 

Slow Down

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

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

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

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

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

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