Work

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Old Stomping Grounds

While researching dream jobs recently, I came across Nancy D. Brown. She’s a travel writer who decided to combine her love of travel with her passion for horses and now runs a website, Writing Horseback, that gives tips and reviews for creating the ideal horseback vacation.

Ms. Brown invited me to write a guest post on where to ride in Brooklyn. I gladly accepted and mentally returned to my old stomping grounds to review the barns where I used to ride. You can read the post here: Horseback Riding in Brooklyn, NY

Finding (What’s Good for You)

After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.

There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.

So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.

I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.

Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.

Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong.  Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air.  (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).

Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.

We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.

All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.

Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.

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.

Shut Up and Look Up

I rode a horse I’ve never ridden before today, named Rosie. She’s a real beauty; a small, bay mare with a sweet face.

IMG_3762I got to the barn with plenty of time to warm up today, and it was a good thing. When I got on Rosie, she was pretty lazy. I haven’t really experienced a horse just kind of refusing to move in a long while. Even my big, lumbering pal Jasper back in Brooklyn would get a move on if you gave him a good squeeze and flapped his reins at him.

At first this got me all in a huff. It is pretty warm today, and I found myself getting worked up about her not even wanting to trot, sweating and breathing kinda hard from the effort. But then I slowed myself down and reminded myself that I do actually know how to handle this behavior. I gave her a couple of “I mean business” kicks to get her going, and then a light tap with the crop whenever she started trying to slow down. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget the basics sometimes.

When I look back, it feels like the first several years I rode were just all about trying to get the horse going and preventing him from stopping. This was back when I was small enough that I probably felt like a fly on the horse’s back and the nickname my trainer gave me was “Noodle Legs” (after a while, she informed me that they had become more al dente). I used to ride this crazy Appaloosa back then named Alvin who would really put me through the ringer. He’d basically mosey into the corner of the ring and stand there, adamantly refusing to move an inch. He’d stolidly withstand my squeezes and kicks and clucks until I was so frustrated I’d be ready to give up. And then my trainer would tell me, “You’re in charge. Make him.” I never really did anything different physically after that; it felt like the same squeezes and kicks and clucks, but they came from a different place, internally. The place where I wasn’t a tiny child asking a big animal to please be nice and do what I wanted him to do, but the place where I was a rider and I was telling my horse it was time to go. And the thing with Alvin was, once you showed him you had that mentality, he’d do anything for you.

With Rosie, it was much the same. She wanted to fool around at first but once I told her what’s what, she picked up her pace. She’s quite a nice mover. Her canter is a little longer and lopier than the ponies I’ve been riding lately but even at faster speeds, it never feels strung out. It’s a smooth, graceful movement with all of her muscles in concert. Maybe part of the perception of her canter being longer is just that she’s actually a horse. With the exception of one ride on Flash and one on Sjapoo, I’ve only ridden ponies at this barn. Bella is in the upper realms of ponydom but I still always feel a tiny bit too big on her, or that I expect her to take bigger, horse-sized spots when it would make sense to wait and add. Rosie is a small horse, probably only 15.1 or 15.2 but that tiny bit more height seemingly makes such a big difference, especially when jumping. Jumping her was fun today, because she was quite willing to go for a bigger spot.

This was most apparent on the line we took at the end of our course. The course was short today; starting with a diagonal cross-rail, to a vertical on the other diagonal and then around the turn to a line. My classmates on ponies were taking it in 4 strides, and another girl riding with us on a giant horse was taking it in 3, so I asked my trainer what she thought would be good for me and Rosie, being in between. She said I could either push for the 3 or try to get a quiet 4, and perhaps the latter would be better. I agreed, but when it came to actually doing it, I found out that the 3 was definitely the way to go. We didn’t jump in huge but immediately on landing I said to myself, “No way is 4 happening here,” so I squeezed her on to the 3, which didn’t feel crazy and out of control, it felt just right. (You can see a video clip of this line on Instagram.)

My mind just felt so different today than it has, so much more stable and strong. At the beginning of the lesson, on a new horse that I didn’t know who was seemingly going to give me a tough time, I felt the old anxiety start to vibrate in my chest. But then I just took control and it went away. I felt more capable on the jumps than I have in weeks and weeks. Even in between them, I felt like I was stretched up taller with my heels further down; I felt so much less sloppy in my equitation. It was like I had all this extra space inside my head, and literally like time was moving slower, so I had time to do things like, you know, breathe and think.

I’m still not used to the higher jumps. The thought of them makes me fluttery inside. But this week, instead of allowing myself to indulge in the gibbering nonsense I’ve been thinking as I stare down at the jumps and flail over them recently, I used my new strength of mind to cut through that with this: “Shut up and look up.”