Champs

Today was awesome!

The first big piece of news is that my riding buddy got a car. So no more paying for Zipcars every week and no more fretting about returning them on time. This lets us be so much more relaxed during the lesson and then after it, while cooling down our horses. Walking them out after the lesson and then hosing them down is really relaxing and makes me feel so close to my horse. Being face to face with him and caring for him creates a much stronger bond than just riding him and handing him off to someone else.

The other good thing is that Hannah was back. We were both a little rattled after last week’s lesson with Omar, and Hannah’s calm energy soothed us immediately. We warmed up with flatwork like we usually do with her and that made us both able to jump at our normal level. It was a relief.

I rode a large bay gelding with a long neck named Jasper, and my riding buddy had a compact flea bitten grey (that’s grey with little flecks of darker colored hair throughout) named Casper. Both of them were new mounts for us and both were a pleasant surprise in their own ways. My poor man, Jasper, was really tormented by the flies today. We rode outside in the sunshine to escape the crowded indoor and despite the fly spray we had a swarm of them following us. It’s too bad I couldn’t explain to Jasper that standing still and biting the flies is a never-ending and futile battle and that if he would just keep moving they’d have less of an easy target to bite him. I could have very easily gotten extremely frustrated with his stop-and-go-and-swish-and-bite routine, because constantly squeezing him to walk forward gets tiring on the legs, but I just decided to let it go. We just walked slowly on our breaks with a lot of fidgeting; not the most tranquil way to rest between exercises but after fighting it in the beginning I kinda just had to let him have his little OCD fantasy of killing all the flies with his teeth.

Once we got moving and I told him that we needed to focus, I found him to be a very solid and comfortable ride. He is larger than the other horses I’ve mostly been riding, like Jubilee, and had a long fluidity to his stride. Especially at the canter, it was a joy. When you’re moving at a faster gait like the canter it can be hard to sit deep in the saddle and drive your horse forward if his stride is short and choppy. But I love when the stride is long and lope-y; it’s like sailing on waves that are smooth swells instead of chop. While jumping, this also makes it easier to maintain position in the saddle and use your seat and legs to guide your horse instead of frantically gripping to just hold on.

I could really feel the difference in Jasper’s jump as opposed to Jubilee’s as we did our first line. It was the one that she sped through in four strides a few lessons ago. Jasper took the line in a much slower pace but with his longer strides that just eat up the ground, we took the line in five.  I loved the solidity of his jump. When I was younger, I  loved riding bigger horses. I was like a tiny bug on the back of these 17-hand giants and I felt secure with all that horse under me, especially over jumps. As I have aged, my taste has turned toward smaller horses because I felt I had more control and frankly, less distance to fall from with them. But today I was reminded of that feeling of solidity and steadiness of a larger horse. I felt like I had more time to plan for the next jump this way. It is not as heady as the swoosh down the line where my muscles just throw themselves into jumping position from instinct, but it is in some ways more fun and interesting. This was very useful because today for the first time since returning to riding about a year ago, I got to jump a course.

There are several jumps scattered throughout the ring in different configurations; a course is simply a prescribed path through certain of those jumps. It takes a lot more control and a lot more planning than simply going over one jump or even over a line.  The one we did today really challenged us to do just that. We started out with the first jump in a line on the long side of the rectangular ring but turned away instead of doing the second element and instead made a rounded turn to take a jump that was placed on the diagonal in the center of the ring. Then we made a very sharp, very deep turn around to the right to take the second element of a line on the opposite long side of the ring. Then we came around and took the second element in the… Hahah. I just realized no one will be able to picture this like me and that I was getting carried away into real nerd territory here. Suffice to say that it was a challenging and fun course with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that kept us and our horses on our toes. And we did great! It felt awesome. My riding buddy looked so professional steadying her faster mount as he was having a tendency to charge some of the jumps. And she said that Jasper and I looked so collected just floating along and then popping over the jumps as they came. We were in much mutual admiration today and both feeling so good about our progress and abilities after last week’s setbacks. We felt like champs!

Tough Times

Today’s lesson was a little bit tough for a number of reasons. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was out of town so we opted to ride with a new guy named Omar. We started out with kind of a rushed vibe to the lesson; he is new to the barn, and I think anxious to not get behind on his lessons schedule. So we didn’t get a chance to talk with him first and to let him know our riding level and where we were coming from.

We also didn’t have much of a warm-up. With Hannah we usually do a least a little while of flatwork before we begin jumping, trotting and then cantering around the ring several times to warm up our muscles and our horses. We didn’t really do that today, just trotted a bit and then went right into jumping. That didn’t really work for me because Jubilee, who I rode again today, can be sassy and slow at the trot to begin with before she warms up and gets interested in doing the fun stuff. I also realize now just how much I need it. As I get older, it takes me a longer time to get warm even doing things I do frequently, like pitching softball. For something like riding, which I only get to do twice a month, it is even more necessary. And it’s not only for my muscles, it’s for my mind as well. Establishing a rhythm and a connection with the horse takes a little time, especially on a school horse who experiences tons of different riders in any given week.

So going into the jumping I was already feeling somewhat harried. Omar was after me to get more trot from Jubilee, which I was trying to do but which I knew wouldn’t be an issue once we got warm. I was trying to explain this to him, someone who was unfamiliar with my mount to the point that he kept calling her “he,” but he wasn’t really listening. Without enough trot going to the first couple of jumps, she slowed down in front of it and and refused, pulling off to the left at the last second. Unfortunately, that set up a pattern that continued throughout the rest of the lesson as we jumped the different elements around the ring. First it was the crossrail, then it was a line of 5 down one long side of the ring, then it was a stand-alone oxer (a jump with two rails next to each other, making it wider than a regular jump) on the diagonal, then it was another line of 5 down the other long end of the ring. With every one of these, it was the same thing: Jubliee refusing the first time, or the first several times, rushing out to the left.

My frustration was mounting throughout this, not with her, but with myself. Each time, Omar was coaching me, telling me what I already knew I was doing wrong. I was getting more and more upset with myself because I knew that I could do these things, have done them thousands of times before, and was making such a poor showing of myself with a new trainer who had no idea of my abilities. It didn’t help that some of my fear came from the fact that this was how I fell last week, with her pulling off to the left unexpectedly. Each time I would try for a jump and she’d do it, I knew deep down I could make her go to the jump but became hesitant, allowing her to slowly drift to avoid it rather than pushing her on faster with my leg on the off chance that she’d cut quickly away at the last second.

But nevertheless each time I finally did it. I turned her right around after every refusal, tapped her with my crop, and tried again. Sometimes it took four or five tries, but I got her over every jump. And of course she took them all beautifully. The first line I think we actually got in 5 strides, which was unexpected given her performance last week. The oxer was a joy; I haven’t jumped one of those in a very, very long time and they are super fun since you’re in the air longer.

The final sticking point was the other line. I was so worked up by this point, tired, frustrated, anxious, and parched with thirst. We missed that jump what felt like a zillion times. Then we finally got over the first one and she refused the second one a zillion more. I was at the end of my rope with myself, and with this trainer who I felt didn’t understand me and wasn’t listening to me and didn’t see that I actually knew what I was doing. He was talking very fast and I couldn’t catch my breath and all of a sudden I was having a full-on panic attack. It’s hard for me to even admit that this happened to me, especially because it was over nothing. Panicking in the traffic circle at Kensington? Fine. That is a dangerous situation. Panicking because I’ve frenzied and pressured myself into a frustration meltdown? Not fine.

I dismounted and went and sat down on a jump. I asked Omar for a minute to regroup, and started breathing again. In the meantime, he worked with my riding buddy, who was having a similar tough time with him and with her mount, but who was at least getting over most of the jumps. Then I got up, apologized, and got back on my horse. Of course she was full of spikey energy at this point, feeding off my frustration and also just wanting to go run around. Oddly, she seems to love to jump. I’m not really sure why she kept running out on them today. Maybe she just wasn’t ready either, like me, and it created a feedback loop. Who knows. So I walked with her around the ring once, calmly. We passed the jumps that were giving us such a hard time, and she watched my riding buddy take her last turn at the line. I talked to Jubliee soothingly, asking her to remember how much fun we had last week flying through the jumps.

We picked up the canter on the other side of the ring and headed toward the jump. I wasn’t letting her get out of this one, and squeezed her to the base of it. But I lost my nerve after the landing and she refused the second jump. Again.

The lesson was over; we heard them calling Omar for his 1:00 lesson over the loudspeaker. But I was not ending like that. He said, “Go again.” I squeezed her to the first one and then, eyes through the line, with all of my will, I said, “GO”. We flew through the line in 4 strides, taking them in that perfect unison I had felt with her last week.

Despite my embarrassment at not looking my best today and at letting myself psych myself into a panic attack, I feel good about this lesson. I feel good about toughing it out, about getting my mount over every jump, and about proving to myself–not to anyone else–that I could do it.

Another One Bites The Dust

Today’s lesson was hands down the best and most fun I’ve had since I returned to riding nearly a year ago EVEN THOUGH I completely bit it while jumping. Funny though, I made my boyfriend listen to “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen right before I left the house because I heard it recently on the radio and was struck by how amazing of a song it is. I think certain songs just end up residing in our blind spots because they are so familiar, but sometimes you hear them again after a long time or in a certain context and they surprise you. This song has an incredible tense energy, a very tightly restrained mania to it that makes it infectious and exciting and fun. This is what my lesson was like: the percussion and guitars hold everything into a springy steady rhythm like me holding my horse into a forward but even pace toward the first jump and THEN comes the exuberant outburst of Mr. Mercury’s chanting and the rush of a happy, excited horse taking a 4-stride line in 3, then galloping full-out around the ring after with a gigantic grin on my face.

Today I rode a small chestnut mare with a big jump named Jubilee and I am crazy in love with her. We started out indoors but my trainer asked us if we were all right with taking it outside where it was hot but less crowded and we agreed. The sun was beating down but being so close to the water down in Jamaica Bay provides a forgiving breeze that makes it more comfortable. Jubilee was being a little mare-y indoors, pissy about the other horses, but once we got outside she cut the sass and perked right up. Despite the heat, she was full of energy, cantering around and around with barely any leg encouragement from me. I was able to work on my position and breathing and to just enjoy the ride.

It was when we started jumping that Jubilee really started to shine. After a few passes at a crossrail to warm up, we started jumping a line that went diagonally across the center of the oval-shaped ring. My trainer said we should take it in 4 strides, but my girl was having none of that. Heading to the first jump, I sat up and restrained her with some half-halts, giving and taking on the reins strongly to slow and steady her. As we neared the base of the jump, her ears went up and I could feel her engine revving as we galloped through the line to take it in 3 strides instead of the 4. This can sometimes be a problem because if a horse goes too fast and cuts out a stride, the take off for the second fence can be too far  away, causing the jump to be kind of low and flat and potentially knocking it over, which would cost you in a show. Not so with Jubilee, who for a smallish horse (probably around 15.2 hands) had a nice big arc on her jump. Another problem with a long take off is that if you’re not ready for it, you can get left behind in the saddle, instead of getting up in jumping position with the right timing to flow with your horse. But I was right there with her today. Her energy was so infectious that even though I was trying for the more conservative 4, I couldn’t help but go with her on the 3. The 3 strides felt AMAZING, like flying, like I don’t even know what, I can’t describe it to you. Like the best feeling in the whole world.

After we did the line a couple of times, my trainer added another jump. It was an element of another part of the course and so was not directly in line with the first two jumps, but slightly on a left- bent course after the second jump. After enjoying the rush of the 3-stride line a couple of times, I was now trying to make a sincere effort to calm her down to the 4. We got it in but she was still moving so fast that it was kind of a tight fit, forcing us to take the second jump in the line a little awkwardly. Because of that, I made the decision to avoid the third jump in the bent line the first time around; I felt I was too disorganized to take it.

The next time around, we were a little slower coming in but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to slow her enough between the jumps for the 4 and so about halfway down the line gave her a big squeeze and she responded right away for the 3, but was in such a little maniabunny headspace that I think she was surprised when I turned her toward the third jump. We had a moment of miscommunication and indecision–she went left, I went right–as we missed the jump and I tried very hard to stay on her back. We were moving quite fast at a quick canter so I could have gone flying, but was able to fight it out long enough, using the reins to slow my momentum down so I took a decently soft landing on my right shoulder. I did thunk my head on the ground but with my helmet on, it just bounced. I didn’t then and still don’t feel any neck pain so I think I’m in the clear on injuries. After catching my breath and catching my mount, who calmly walked off a little ways, I got back on. This time my trainer suggested that we just take the third jump by itself; we did that with a calm, lovely jump. Then she said, “How about doing the whole line again?” I hesitated a moment, I have to admit. But then I was like “Fuck that!” and went for it and I’m so glad I did. It was beautiful. I also said “fuck it” to the 4 and just went for it with the 3. There was plenty of room to the third jump even at almost a full gallop and to try to add another stride was just working at cross purposes to my mount. Once that decision was made, everything just flowed. The world was perfect in those 30 seconds as we tore down that line, hitting our spot on all three jumps, in total euphoric unison.

Moving to this other barn has been the best thing for me. After only three lessons there, I’m almost right back to the level of jumping I was at before I stopped riding.  My riding buddy is on the exact same level as I am and within a couple more lessons, I feel confident that we will be doing full courses, which is the most fun. I feel challenged and excited here instead of anxious and down on myself like I did at the other barn. I feel like a real rider again.

Big Sur

I took a trip out to California for vacation and started it off with three days in one of my favorite places on Earth: Big Sur. I’ve never been anyplace else quite like it. It’s one of a few places in this country where the natural landscape is largely untouched, a place where there is only one road that winds its way through the mountains and forests along the rocky, severe cliffs of the coast. That road offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the rocks several hundred feet below the highway, as it stretches out to eternity in striations of myriad blues, but these views are guarded jealously. The mists can seep in at anytime, bleaching the world of sunlight, obscuring the views of ocean, mountain and tree and even the winding road itself. To drive up and down Highway 1 on those 90 miles of coastline is to remember that you are small and that nature is big, and to know that no matter what we do on this planet, nature will remain untamed before us.

I don’t often travel without trying to ride wherever I’m visiting. I’ve ridden a horse through the fields on a farm in eastern Australia, through the jungle and onto the beach in Mexico for a gallop and then a bareback dip in the Caribbean,  raced at full clip up a mountain in the Dominican Republic, ambled through the woods in Lake Placid, and have taken to the trails in Big Sur once before as well. The place to ride there is in Andrew Molera State Park, an almost 5,000-acre area situated at the mouth of the Big Sur river. There are miles and miles of trails that take you inland, through meadows and hilltops within sight of the Santa Lucia mountains, and finally out onto the beach.

What a great, relaxing ride. My horse was, Roy, a 16-or-so-hand bay gelding that suited me perfectly. He was a very chill guy, yet awake and present and energetic–not a brain-dead, overworked trail nag like you can find at a lot of places that cater to tourists. All the horses at this place were remarkably well-trained, perhaps better than any other place I’ve ridden. Roy and I happily clipclopped along behind our guide, Sarah, who was a cool chick that I loved chatting with.

We rode through some forest and then waded our horses across the ankle-deep Big Sur River into a wonderland of meadows with gnarled old redwoods and coastal pines, including one old man that is over a thousand years old. We happened upon a wandering deer that nearly startled Roy, but she disappeared and we walked on, spotting a pair of quail hopping around in a bush. The park is home to the condors that have been banded and released for monitoring. We think we saw one, but it is really difficult to tell the scale of something even so large when it is flying so high, so it’s possible it was an eagle. We finally came out onto the beach and stood watching the misty coastline with our manes flying in the salty wind. The guide took this picture before we headed back to the stable.

Riding in a Western saddle always feels like a vacation to me. It’s nice to get nestled into the deep seat, stretch out my legs in longer stirrups, and only worry about my position in regard to how it will help my horse, like sitting back going downhill. When I first started Western trail riding in college, spending one lesson out of every few at the trail barn riding through 500 acres of Virginia woodlands, I use to try to steer my horse past every obstacle. I would try to move her around exposed roots, prevent her from tripping over small rocks in our path, or avoid the more rutted part of the trail. Then somewhere along the line I realized that such micromanagement was not necessary and allowed her to choose the best path for her while I just enjoyed the ride. I was able to do this with Roy, forgetting for once about being a rider and simply riding.

Change of Scenery

On Memorial Day weekend my riding buddy and I made the trip out to Jamaica Bay Riding Academy to try it out and to take a jumping lesson. Both of us have plenty of jumping experience, but it’s been almost a decade since we’ve done it and jumping is not available at Kensington. Now after several months of flatwork lessons and rebuilding our strength, we felt we were ready to make a go at it.

The problem with Jamaica Bay is getting there. It’s not that far, just down on the southern coast of Brooklyn, but it is not easily accessible without a car. It is possible to take the subway to nearby, but since the barn is located off the Belt Parkway, one would need to get a taxi from the train station. We chose to go this weekend because my riding buddy’s friends went out of town, leaving her with their car for the week. She planned to pick me up and drive out there, but at the last minute the car wouldn’t start. We hopped in a car service and made it in time for our lesson anyway. It worked out fine today, but taking a car service every time wouldn’t really be sustainable money-wise.

But oh man…I really, really wish I had a car because this place is so nice. It was  a little shell-shocking to be confronted with an actual working lesson barn like that after so many months of craziness at Kensington. When you walk in, there is a huge room with a snack bar and tables and observation windows looking into the  sizable indoor ring. Off to the side of that is an office where a friendly and efficient woman with a microphone announced our arrival to our trainer. The stables are sprawling and well-organized with several large outdoor rings in addition to the indoor. Everything is clean and the horses look not only remarkably well cared for, but like very nice stock.

The lesson itself was great. Unsure in new surroundings and still lacking a little bit of confidence from the stressful situation at Kensington, I mentioned I like to ride smaller, calmer horses. I was paired with a funny little chestnut with a slightly strange gait named Homer. We rode in the gigantic indoor arena with about three or four other lessons going on around us. When I first entered the ring, I was nervous, thinking it would be very difficult to maneuver with so many other horses in the ring. But it wasn’t a problem at all. Everyone riding in there was very aware, responsible, and vocal and we all managed to stay out of each other’s way. I soon realized that even when crowded, being in an enclosed ring made all the difference for my stress level. I was far less tight on my horse’s mouth, far less tense in my entire upper body, and so much more able to enjoy myself.  I will certainly feel confident enough to push myself with more challenging mounts going forward. I would have no problem handling a horse like Max from Kensington in a closed ring like this; the problem is merely that at the ring in the park (and in the damn traffic circle) there is nothing preventing him from running totally wild if he gets spooked or simply doesn’t want to listen.

Best of all: there was jumping! We warmed up by cantering over some cavaletti, which are just jump poles placed on the ground; the horse doesn’t actually need to jump them but it sets the horse and rider up for the timing and movement of jumping. Then we moved onto some crossrails, which are two poles crossed like an x, the center point of which is usually less than a foot off the ground.  After so long, the feel of it all came right back to me. It’s like I immediately picked up right where I left off so many years ago, right down to having the same bad habits. The first couple of times we jumped a single crossrail, but we soon moved onto a line of two crossrails placed a certain distance apart. The idea is to get a certain number of strides in between these jumps in order to take off from a good spot for the second jump; this number of strides varies depending on your horse’s size and stride length as well as the speed at which you enter the line. I have always had a tendency to stare down at the second jump, getting myself too deep for a clean take off. I felt myself do it the first time and shook my head with a smile all the way around the ring. By the end of the lesson, I had forced myself to look up and through the whole line instead of staring down and we were able to get in a couple of perfect take-offs.

Jumping in general feels pretty incredible because you are briefly flying on the back of a thousand-pound animal. But when you hit the right spot and take a jump with a flowing, forward momentum and you stand up in your stirrups to get in jumping position, leaning over your horse’s neck as he arches through the air and the two of you are flying in perfect unison, there’s nothing like it. The only thing that I can think of that gives me anything like the same kind of pleasure is when I’m singing with someone in harmony and it’s so right on that you actually feel a “buzz” in the air. But this is far more intense, given the adrenaline that the physical thrill elicits. The first time I ever jumped, a tiny ten year old on the back of a fat little bitchy white pony named Delilah, I was hooked for life. After this lesson, I feel just as I did then. I want to jump, and I don’t ever want to stop.

Listen To Your Horse

This weekend was the “Great Googamooga,” a grand shitshow in Prospect Park glorifying our culture’s current excessive obsession with food and drink, plus indie music. It’s not really my thing, and it’s definitely not an atmosphere I would recommend riding a horse into. But we did anyway and it wasn’t that bad.

Getting out of the barn and over to the ring was the tricky part. The transportational difficulties imposed on the area by the event caused a great deal of strain, particularly on drivers, who felt it was appropriate to honk their horns and scream in frustration at a line of horses returning from a trail with small children on their backs. Waiting for our lesson to begin, my riding buddy and I rushed to assist the short-staffed barn helpers to grab the distressed horses and get the kids safely to the ground.

I was filled with massive anxiety before I even left my house, doubled up on the floor with a stomach ache five minutes before I had to walk out the door. The jumpy horses and crying children did nothing to soothe my jagged nerves as I waited for my trainer to tell me who I’d be riding, hoping it would be someone I trusted (oh please let it be Allie, please please). She put me on Peaches, who can get pretty basketcasey in the traffic circle.  I tried not to freak out as I mounted up.

As we started walking around the first arc of the circle, I was on high alert. But Peaches wasn’t. Her ears were up but not super tense, they had the sideways droop that means your horse is pretty chill at the moment. Her walk was loose, her head was relatively low. She was fine. As we pulled up to wait for the crosswalk signal to count down, I let this information sink in. If she didn’t think there was anything to worry about, then I didn’t need to think so either. I didn’t need to rile her up, so instead I let her calm me down. We walked through the honking, screaming, siren-blaring bloody traffic circle and through the crowds of drunken, oblivious revelers thronging the main loop without incident. I must say this, though: These events are meant to bring people together, yes? They are ostensibly for enjoyment. But man, do they bring out the worst in some people. I have to believe that so much of the tension comes from so, so many of us–too many of us–all fighting for the same limited resources in this ridiculously small amount of land we all share. And I’m sure my awareness of this is heightened given that when I’m on the horse, I am in a very precarious, dangerous position. I know it’s a huge risk every time I get on a horse and I’m taking my life in my hands. But the thing is, it’s in all these strangers’ hands too. People who don’t know or just don’t care that they are putting me and anyone else who rides in the park in undue danger when they honk their horn, or scream, or rev their car through a line of horses crossing the street, or weave in between us with their bikes, cussing at us for ruining their workout rhythm, or wander in front of a horse with their headphones on, not even noticing that we’re there. Please, please understand that if you are around horses you are around volatile, sensitive creatures. Living things. Animals that will react in fear to protect themselves from what you may perceive as a typical New Yorker display of irritation at yet another thing getting in your way, but what they perceive as a massive threat that they should run away from immediately or they will die. So please be aware and please be careful. And be nice, for fuck’s sake! Just everybody everywhere, be nicer. Ok, PSA over.

The area by the ring was not more crowded than usual, since the Googamooga crap was in another part of the park. The lesson illustrated what I’d been realizing on the walk over, which was that I had to shut up all my nonsense and really listen to my horse. That was something that I used to really get deep into when I was a teenager, and I was riding horses for the first time whose training I actually had a hand in. I’d forgotten about it in the anxiety of everything else going on and on focusing so hard on regaining my strength. Peaches tends to be very uneven with her gait; on the bottom of the ring she would get very forward and almost out of control, but up around the turns and on the top of the ring she’d slow down and try to break into a walk. So as she changed, I changed my approach to her, sitting up tall and giving her half-halts along the bottom, then releasing almost all tension on her mouth up top and urging her on with my leg as much as I could. I found this leg toning exercise when it was Pinterest O’Clock at work the other day (http://www.t-tapp.com/articles/legs/index.html) and used it as a warm up before my lesson. I found that it gave me more to work with, as my legs tend to cramp up when they get fatigued from squeezing my horse and with a good warm up they felt more supple even when tired.

So, all in all, a good lesson. No panic attacks in the traffic circle. Better understanding of my muscles and how to get what I need out of them. And, ok, some disgust with humanity, but at least that hole of alienation in my heart can be filled with a renewed connection to a horse.

Muscle Memory

Another one of the odd things about riding in the city is that I never tack my own horse. Back home on Long Island and at school in Virginia, I always arrived at the barn early for my lessons and groomed, saddled, and bridled the horse I would ride.  This barn is different. First of all, it’s completely disorganized. There’s no tack room, since the guy who owns the place seems to be a hoarder and the room that should be a tack room is filled with boxes, scraps of equipment, and other odds and ends. It makes my organization-loving fingers itch to get in there and straighten everything out. Without a tack room, there seem to be a number of cubbies and corners where the saddles are kept. The bridles are hung outside the stalls, sometimes on a proper hook but most often around the bars of the stall door or stuffed into a bag outside of it.

This disorganization makes the barn a very hectic place, especially on weekends when there are lots of people coming to ride. There are people, like myself, there for a scheduled lesson with a trainer. But there are also a number of walk-ins for trail rides or pony rides. Then there are the barn girls who are there either hanging around or working. They don’t seem to have any set schedule, so the trainers are always trying to figure out who’s staying, who’s going, who’s riding, and who’s working, in order to get somebody to help tack up the horses they need. There are only a limited number of people who know what equipment goes on which horse and where it is stored, so even with helpers it takes a great deal of management.

This weekend was especially hectic for some reason, so while we were waiting for my riding buddy to get there my trainer decided to put me to work. She shoved a big Western saddle into my hands and beckoned me to follow her, showing me the horse she wanted it lifted onto. She then led me down another aisle of the barn and back behind some stalls to a dark, dusty corner I’d never seen where we picked out another saddle for me to put on another horse who I had never met. After that, wiping my hands on my breeches, I said, “Ok, what’s next?” ready to throw myself into the work. I was kind of enjoying myself, walking around parts of the barn I’d never been to, doing the work that I enjoyed for so many years. But now we were ready for my lesson, so she told me I should just go bridle Allie, who had already been saddled and was waiting in his stall.

I walked off confidently, but as I approached his stall, I started to think doubtfully. I realized I hadn’t actually bridled a horse in about a decade. Saddling a horse was no sweat, all you do is put the saddle on his back; it’s like placing something on a shelf. But bridling is more complicated and is something that takes a certain amount of finesse. There are a lot more pieces of leather and buckles to negotiate, and it can also sometimes be a challenge to get your horse to take the bit. The way a bridle works is that the reins are attached to a metal piece called the bit. That goes inside the horse’s mouth and when you pull on the reins, the pressure steers them or tells them to stop. I think it’s important to be aware of this when you’re riding; through fear or through forgetfulness people sometimes treat the reins like a mechanical device, like the steering wheel or the brakes of a car. But it’s a metal thing in the mouth of a living creature. There’s no reason it would hurt the horse if used properly, but it is possible that it could hurt the horse if used improperly, as when people pull too hard or saw at the bit. So yeah, don’t do those things. But my point is, sometimes horses are like “Nuh uh, I don’t want that thing in my mouth,” and who can blame them? It reminds me of the talking door knocker in “Labyrinth” who Sarah has to trick into accepting the metal ring so she can knock.  I had no idea how Allie would react to it, and wasn’t sure I remembered all my tricks from back in the day.

I grabbed the bridle and walked into his stall, talking to him as I opened the door and patting him on the neck gently as I walked in so he wouldn’t be startled. I lifted the reins over his head and placed them further back on his neck. I stood next to his head, kind of awkwardly holding the loose amalgam of straps of leather that is a bridle in my left hand while I asked myself, “Do you remember how to do this?” But then I changed my approach. Instead of standing there trying to figure it out, I just started doing it. I shut my brain off and let my hands do what they remembered. Within seconds, it was done. I held the bit in front of Allie’s mouth, he took it nonchalantly like the lovely gentleman he is, and I pulled the crownpiece over his ears, tidying his mane underneath it and pulling his forelock out of the browband. My brain caught onto what was happening as I was buckling the throat latch and it was awed. It was like there was magic in my fingertips. It gave me that same rushing, tingling feeling in my gut that accompanies the faint whiff of  a scent from childhood, or the first few notes of a bass line from a song that I haven’t heard in years. It was frankly thrilling.