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.

Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining, Part 2


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

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

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

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

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

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

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

Well, none of that happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Lessons

It has been weeks since we’ve been riding, since my riding buddy and I both had plans for the last several weekends. In the interim, however, I’ve been working on getting fit in earnest.

There are a some lessons in life that, when realized, are blatant, obvious, and so clear that I think they become underestimated, lost in plain sight. These are things that we must learn over and over and over again and then kick ourselves for all the time spent living poorly without their practice. One such lesson, which I will have to get tattooed on my forehead it is so vital to living, is that I have to be active. Ideally, I’d be engaged in a sport or a hobby, or–even better–a job that keeps me physically active. Softball and horseback riding are two such pursuits, but they are not enough. In the absence of a nonstop fun-filled sporty lifestyle, I need to make exercise a priority. And perhaps the lesson I’ve learned lately is that it needs to be one of the main priorities. It can’t be something that is done half-heartedly, as a dispirited attempt to mitigate the bodily strain caused by the sedentary life of an office worker. It needs to be something I that I really challenge myself with.

The first week or so of getting back to the gym is always hellish. It is a chore and everything feels awful. But there’s a hump to be gotten over and once I have, I actually start to feel awful if I don’t work out. Once I start really feeling the results–as I did this week during my riding lesson–I get even more motivation to keep going.

But then something always happens to interrupt the momentum. Usually for me, it’s the shortening of the days and the dropping of the temperature. Despite the clear evidence that exercising is the best thing to mitigate the worst of my Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, those very symptoms are what usually keep me from exercising. Fatigue, depression, a physical sensation of heaviness in the limbs all eventually combine to convince me that I’m not capable of doing much of anything, let alone going to the gym.

I’m hoping that this time around, I can finally make exercising a part of my lifestyle, instead of just a habit that I form briefly between periods of inactivity. I feel like I am working out smarter than ever before, using weights to build up all the muscle I’ve lost over the years and then doing a bunch of cardio to burn off the fat. And there is a focus this time around that I’ve never really had before. The gym, with its TVs on every machine, is set up to distract people from what they are doing. The message is, “This is horrible, but you have to do it…so you can watch TV at the same time to make it more palatable.” I can’t watch the TVs. In addition to my seeming allergy to TV these days, it takes away my focus from what I am there for–to make myself stronger. If the mind wanders, I can’t think about getting the most out of what I’m doing. It’s easy to fall into a rut of just absentmindedly lifting the same amount of weight or running the same distance and speed. It takes a lot of mental energy in addition to physical energy to keep adding weight, to keep pressing that button to raise the speed on the treadmill. And that’s what keeps me engaged. Playing games with myself, negotiating with myself about my limits–“Can you do another whole minute at this speed?”

All of this paid off this week in my riding lesson. The muscle tightness that has been preventing me from being effective on the horse is not there anymore. Instead of taking almost the entire lesson to warm up, I was warm after a few minutes of flatwork, as I should be. I was able to get my heels down, able to support my horse with my leg, and able to hold my upper body steady. I realized as I was riding that I wasn’t having to try to force it. There’s enough strength in my body again to give it suppleness. And that suppleness allows me to do something that makes me even more effective than simply muscling my way through it–it allows me to relax.

I’ve been reading The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley and I thought about it while cantering on Jasper this week. Huxley wrote the book in 1939 after a time of near total blindness and then a years-long period of severely impaired vision, after which he was introduced to the methods of W. H. Bates. Bates wrote about a re-education in the way we approach seeing that for Huxley, as well as many others, completely transformed and improved vision malfunction. According to Huxley, one of the main problems in any art–whether it be seeing, learning an instrument, or horseback riding–is the amount of tension and anxiety brought by the performer. He speaks of something called “dynamic relaxation,” the counterpart of “passive relaxation,” or a state of complete repose and rest. Dynamic relaxation is “that state of the body and mind which is associated with normal and natural functioning.”

When my muscles are weak and I’m straining to just keep up the most basic equitation, it makes me get in my own way. Worrying about why I can’t do what I need to do and feeling the ego loss associated with not performing to the level I know how to perform at make the tension and anxiety worse. Huxley says,

“Malfunctioning and strain tend to appear whenever the conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use, either by trying too hard to do well, or be feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes. In the building up of any psycho-physical skill the conscious ‘I’ must give orders, but not too many orders–must supervise the forming of habits of proper functioning, but without fuss and in a modest, self-denying way.”

It’s all a balancing act. Being focused and invested enough to perform well, but not so much that I become anxious about not. Of course, that’s the other lesson I keep having to learn: balance. It seems like every day, in every single part of my life, it’s what I keep coming back to: find balance. Security and freedom. Pushing myself to improve without browbeating myself with perfectionism. Including my emotions in my decisions without letting them overrun my thoughts. Practicality and passion.

I wrote earlier about needing an outlet in which to throw myself wholeheartedly, about needing change and finding work that fulfills me. About wanting to feel like a strong, engaged, alive person who is able to do amazing things. Most of my focus when trying to enact that change has been on external circumstances; trying to get myself to a situation in which it will be easier to do what I want to do. But recently, I feel like I’ve been doing a ton of work internally as well; throwing myself into finding the balance in all these areas to be the person I want to be, so that I can do the things I want to do. It’s a daily struggle, but just like the working out, it feels like it’s paying off. It feels like maybe soon I’ll get over the hump and then finding balance will not be something I have to force myself to do with distractions, but something I can delight in, do naturally with strength, flexibility, suppleness and without tension or anxiety.

Know Thyself

Lately I’ve been thinking about a re-centering of values, a return to navigating by my own lights. This has expressed itself often in a game my boyfriend and I have been playing, called, “I’m Tired of Pretending.” Essentially, we take turns saying, “I’m tired of pretending…” and finish that thought with something we’re no longer going to pretend to like, or dislike, accept as true just because everybody else seems to think it is, or accept as true because it used to be true about us before even if it isn’t anymore.

I’m tired of pretending that I love riding Thoroughbreds. They are prized because they are beautiful and athletic, but they are also skittish and high-maintenance and can be downright scary. I have a hard time trusting a Thoroughbred and because of that, riding them becomes a different activity. It’s no longer an athletic partnership, but rather one where I struggle to manage anxiety–both my own and that of my horse. I’m on high alert for anything that will scare her and I’m fighting letting that tension become apparent in my body since that will work her up as well. My equitation goes to hell and the focus in jumping becomes about getting over obstacles without falling off instead of gracefully and effectively flying with my mount.

I’ve come to this realization lately as my riding buddy and I have been trading off on the two ex-racehorse mares, Sparkling Gal and Misfit. Every week I have gone to the barn since I fell off Sparkle, I have had this internal conversation where I know I don’t want to ride her again because she’s so skittish but where I keep protesting to myself about how much I like her. She’s a beauty and she’s a good girl, but she isn’t really a good match for me. Misfit is less anxiety-producing because her temperament is much steadier, but she’s still very strong and a handful in her own way.

What I really enjoy are horses like the one I rode this week. Summer is a small Arabian chestnut who I’ve ridden a couple of times before. While she is slightly smaller than my ideal horse, she is definitely my ‘type’. I love compact, competent, steady-minded Quarter Horses and finely-wrought, willing, and sensitive Arabians. Perfection would be a mix of the two if I could find one close to 16 hands.

Understanding and accepting this about myself is not to say that I don’t believe I should occasionally push myself out of my comfort zone. It all comes back to my lifelong quest to find the right balance. The difference here is really a matter of self-talk. There is a balanced sort of pushing myself and an unbalanced sort of pushing myself. I could say, “Sometimes I should ride Thoroughbreds to challenge myself,” a statement that accepts who I am and what I like and yet encourages behavior that could make me improve as a rider. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time saying, “I should like Thoroughbreds,” which is a statement that carries self-judgement, saying that who I am is not the person I should be and that I’d be a better rider if I could be this other girl instead.

I’m not looking for a push-button pony. And I’m not going to stop riding Thoroughbreds altogether. But I’ve realized that I have strengths and weaknesses, that I have preferences that are acceptable and yet that I can learn from pushing myself beyond those preferences if I don’t spend the whole time beating myself up. This seems incredibly obvious as I’m writing it now, something that I probably knew unconsciously when I was 5 but which somehow seems to be something I need to keep consciously learning over and over again as an adult.


Today’s lesson was a back-to-basics sort of ride and it felt very productive. With the end of the softball season, I’m more focused again on really trying to be an equestrian athlete. No matter what I do during softball season, it seems like a little part of me hangs back; I can’t throw myself fully into other physical endeavors because at the back of my mind is always the thought that I cannot get hurt and miss any games.

With that distraction removed, I’ve also started doing some reading about riding theory. As much of a voracious reader I’ve been for my entire life, I mostly read fiction when I was a kid. I read thousands of stories about horses but I don’t think it ever occurred to me to seek out any books on riding. There was a separation in my mind: sports and the physical world in one area, and words and the world of ideas in another. This was one of the reasons I was so excited to get back to riding as an adult, now that I have learned how to learn and cannot stop doing so for how much I love it. Now riding can occupy both worlds; it can be a sport but it can also be a study.

The book I’ve started recently is called Centered Riding by Sally Swift. Her techniques are focused on reducing stiffness and tense riding in order to connect more fully with your horse through body awareness and the reassessing of habitual responses. It’s a philosophy that makes a great deal of sense and jives with what I was thinking a while ago about how similar riding can be to yoga. I love the feeling when I read an idea that is so simple and obvious that it seems like it should be something I’ve already known, but it takes this particular writer putting it in just this way for it to resonate so perfectly. I’ve only just begun reading Ms. Swift’s book, but I’ve experienced that feeling a couple of times already.

I went into my lesson today intent on using some of the techniques she described, particularly focusing on breathing and centering. Breathing has historically been a big issue for me while riding, particularly while jumping courses. As a teenager, my trainer was concerned that I might be suffering from asthma when I would be gulping and gasping for air after even a short course. But I never had breathing problems in any other context and it was soon discovered that the truth was I was holding my breath. The entire course. So from then on, while she would call out suggestions about my position–“heels down” or “eyes up”, interspersed would be intermittent reminders to “BREATHE!” I still notice myself doing this while jumping and after cantering around the ring for a long time. I think I do it because I’m trying too hard. I can feel my muscles getting tired and I’m focusing so intently on keeping them tense and strong and tight in order to remain in position that I’m actually forgetting to breathe and depriving them of what they need in order to keep performing.

The other technique, centering, made me aware of my body and posture in a completely new way. Swift suggests that our center is in the front of the pelvis halfway down from the navel. There’s an illustration in the book that shows that area in cross section and demonstrates that at that point the spine is so thick that it actually resides in the center of the body.  Being aware of this makes me organize my body in a completely different way, and not only in the saddle. I realized that my posture is often with my shoulders and head pulled forward, leaning in that direction instead of stacked over my hips and spine. This is true when I’m sitting, when I’m walking, at my standing desk at work, and certainly when I’m riding.

The horse I rode today was a medium-sized blood bay named Thibault (blood bays are like regular bays, brown body with a black mane and tail, but the brown part is a beautiful reddish color). He was a little challenging for me, or maybe just not a perfect fit because of the unevenness of his gaits. He had a tendency at both the trot and canter to start off by getting a little speedy. He would respond right away when I half-halted to collect him, but then shortly after he would start flagging and I would have to nudge him forward again, and he would speed up too much, starting the circle over again. He did the same thing with turns, cutting one corner only to go extremely deep into the next one. It was difficult to maintain a steady rhythm with him, as I felt like I was constantly chasing him back and forth to extremes in search of the mean. (As I’m writing this I’m having the realization that that’s another particular challenge of mine, balance. It’s probable that he was just more sensitive than I was aware of at the time and that I was overcompensating slightly in the use of my aids. I hope I get to ride him again sometime soon to test out that theory and try again with him because he was a good boy.) Thibault also had an especially lopey canter; the motion was very down and forward, like he was running into the ground. After my trainer mentioned that he was trained as both a Western and English horse, the pieces clicked into place and this made a lot of sense; throw a Western saddle on him with its deeper seat and longer stirrups and that would have been a lovely canter, but it could be a little difficult to sit perched up there on an English saddle with my stirrups short for jumping.

So while I was riding and focused on doing my best with this horse who, while not an instantly easy match for me, at least was very responsive and willing, I thought that I didn’t have much attention for trying out my new techniques. But actually, the challenges I faced with Thibault today were great for working on both of them.  The off-rhythm of our movement was a little frustrating, but when I remembered to breathe deeply through my whole body there were moments of connection. At the canter, it took a lot of effort to keep his head and center of balance up, but picturing myself weighted down in my newly-discovered center and sitting deeper there rather than just creating the tension on the reins through my arms and shoulders was much more effective. It was the same over the jumps. Sitting back and waiting instead of leaning forward and rushing to the first jump made me able to get into a rhythm with my horse and choose together our take-off point instead of one of us deciding and the other being like “oh now, ok now? OK!”

Today we did not jump a full course again, but rather worked on the basics over a couple of lines. It was a bit more in the realm of “study” and I appreciated it. I’m excited to keep reading this book and to keep applying the techniques in my lessons. I’m just excited about life, really, these days. So much to learn and I feel very open and ready to soak it all in.


This morning before I went to riding, I was filled with dread carried over from last week. I just wanted to stay in my comfortable bed and not get up and make myself confront the overwhelming anxiety I had developed about riding.

But I got up anyway and I walked to the barn in just a t-shirt for the first time this year on this lovely spring day. On the way there, I made myself enjoy the sun, the light breeze, and the pretty flowers instead of dwelling on how many other people would want to take advantage of this weather and would therefore be in the park, posing a threat to my safety.

I got to the barn and watched as all of my usual mounts either came in from a lesson right before mine or went out with other riders as I stood there: Emma, Allie, and Lieutenant all crossed off the list of potential horses I would ride today. All the safe ones, the easier horses I had to admit to myself I’d hoped my trainer would put me back on today. Yet when she handed me Max’s reins, I felt a kind of relief. It might have been relief that she still thought I could handle him, but I think it was also relief that I wouldn’t be allowed to fall back, that even though I was nervous I would be forced to try to push myself.

As we rode out to the ring, Max was in the lead with Emma behind us and my trainer in the back. We always cater to the horses’ preferences for the order we walk in. Max likes to be in the lead. I do not. I prefer that someone goes in front of me to provide a sort of buffer for whatever might startle the horses. I mused about the matching of personalities between horse and rider and wondered if Max and I were just a little incompatible. But that didn’t quite sit right with me. It’s not really my personality to want someone else to lead; it was only my anxiety in this particular situation that caused me to want to defer responsibility.  Naturally, it’s my way to take the lead. Even if I don’t fully know what I’m doing, I trust my instincts enough to carry me and anyone else with me who’s willing to trust them through. So that’s what I decided to do with Max. I bluffed. I told him that I was in control. I pretended to be confident when I was not. And in general, that served me pretty well.

This lesson went a lot better than last time’s. The park, while lively, was full of way less mayhem than last week. Max was lazy and perhaps a bit less playful.  In my attempt to prove to him that I was in control, I clamped down a bit too hard. Of course I always have to overshoot my mark when attempting balance. It was most apparent in the canter, but throughout the whole lesson I was holding on just a little too tightly on Max’s mouth. Even though he was trotting very slowly, I was vigilant, expecting him to try to cut in or buck at every second. Because of this, I didn’t give him enough rein for him to be comfortable and he fought back, tossing his head and getting wound up. This of course made me more wound up and more tense, making it more difficult for me to give him rein and trust.

After several attempts, I was able to relax my hands a little more and we got in a good, collected canter for about half the ring. He has the most comfortable, smooth, easy-to-sit canter of any of the horses I’ve ridden at this barn and really all I want is to be able to enjoy it. It is frustrating to stop and go so much because we are out of sync, especially when I can see that it’s largely my own doing.

In my frustration, there were times when I started getting annoyed at how difficult Max can be. I started thinking that I just wanted to enjoy my ride and that I would prefer a less green, more trained horse. But then I thought to myself that if I ever want to train horses myself, as I believe I do, then that’s crap. I can’t just ride for the enjoyment of it. I have to push myself to learn how to deal with these things all over again. I have to get over my fears and remember how to deal with misbehaving horses like I used to. And I have to do it in an unforgiving environment. Because like Frank says about New York in general: if I can do this here, I can do it anywhere.

Spring Trauma

Today was harrowing. Like, I-don’t-know-if-I-can-keep-doing-this level of anxiety. I came home and sobbed on my cat just out of relief to be on the ground and back home.

My usual riding buddy was out of town this week so I was paired with two people who haven’t ever ridden at the barn before; a guy and a girl both just out of college who were clearly very experienced. The three of us rode out to the ring with me leading on Max, the horse I rode for the first time last week, the guy riding my friend’s usual mount, Bingo, and the girl on Allie.

It was last week that I finally admitted to myself just how much anxiety the ride through the traffic circle gives me. Every honk, every rev of an engine or squeal of breaks goes like a jolt through my nervous system and I tense up, preparing for my horse to run. Even if the horse ignores all that, the tension I am putting on the reins when pulling on his mouth in fear is going to infect him with my nervousness. It’s a terrible feedback loop.

Today going out to the ring I tried to be calm, feeling stable on Max and trusting him after he was pretty good about the traffic last week. However, when we got into the park we were greeted by an awful sight on the loop. An ambulance was parked on the bike lane and there was a group of people milling around. I think there was a biking accident, but there only appeared to be one injured person. The horses were alert and skittish as we neared the flashing lights, the crowd, and a woman pushing her stroller the bridle path to get around it. When asked to move off, she said she didn’t want her kid to see the accident, somehow oblivious to the danger she was putting herself, her child, and us in by getting in our way. Max started getting more agitated, pulling to the right and letting off some crow hops, and I immediately made the decision to get off and walk him past. I silently berate myself for not sticking it out when I do this, but the truth is I’d rather be safe than dead. As we walked past the accident, I heard the injured woman screaming, making horrific noises of pain or trauma or both as the paramedics attempted to move her.

I got back on and we rode to the ring without incident, despite the crowds of people running, yelling, throwing shit, playing loud music, clapping, etc, on the ballfields right next to the ring where the Little League had games today. The lesson itself wasn’t that terrible. Max is a bit of a handful. He’s a very sweet horse who is a pleasure to ride because of his very comfortable, smooth gaits. He has a great disposition; happy-go-lucky and friendly with the other horses. But he likes to play. He isn’t even that scared of everything going on around, but uses it as an excuse not to work and to mess around. Every time we got to the bottom of the ring, which is the part closest to the ball fields, he wriggled and cut in and tossed his head, threw a few bucks for good measure. I handled this all right, but we were very stop and go since I had to collect myself and reorganize us every time he did it.

Toward the end of the lesson his bucking became more exuberant and it was starting to wear me down. I was able to stay on just fine, the instincts of many years overriding any weakness in my legs, but the fear of getting bucked off was starting to gnaw at me, making me less sure in my seat. I have a tendency to lean forward when that happens which is exactly what you should not do when your horse is about to buck. My trainer decided it was time to intervene and she got on him and schooled him a bit at the canter. After that, she orchestrated some musical chairs so that the other girl got on Max and I got on Allie. She got a bit of a canter out of Max and was able to move him forward better than I had, with less antics. I had a lovely canter on Allie and felt happy to be able to do something right.

Part of me feels so bad about myself for not stepping up to the challenge that Max presents. He’s exactly the type of horse that I liked to ride ten years ago. He’s the type of horse that I think I would like to ride now and that I think I could learn a lot from, given the right atmosphere. If I was riding him in a quiet place, with a fence around the ring, it would be different. This situation is insane. I’m distracted and anxious almost the whole time I’m riding. The people around the ring, many of whom are children, have no awareness that their actions could scare the horses. Riding is a dangerous thing to do and that’s something I came to grips with a long time ago, but this is another level. This feels reckless. In this situation, I can only remain in my comfort zone, riding one or two horses like Allie and Emma that are small and easy. I’ll feel safer, but what’s the point? I won’t develop as a rider or ever get back to the level I used to ride at, which is incredibly frustrating since the physical level I’m at doesn’t match the mental level I’m at. Or, I can keep pushing myself on these more difficult horses. Which in a more stable environment would be my ideal, but which in this situation is massively stressful and seems like it will inevitably lead to me getting hurt.

This goes back to my earlier post about how my struggle with how much I should push myself. It’s a complex issue. I’m older now and I have more fear. That’s hard to admit to myself. I don’t want fear to limit me. But there’s a point at which as an experienced and responsible rider, I look at the situation and think: this is a disaster waiting to happen.

I was relieved to be on Allie for the ride back. Along the way, we encountered a large trail ride group full of total beginners. One of the riders was walking along side while one of the girls who works at the barn was trying to walk both her horse and the woman’s horse. It wasn’t going well, so my trainer took one of the horses from her. Max saw this mayhem and decided it was an opportunity; he wheeled and bolted off in a gallop in the other direction. I was impressed by how quickly and calmly the other girl brought him to a halt; as she turned him I actually heard his shoes skid across the asphalt. I think that was the last straw for me. Even though Allie is generally pretty chill about the traffic circle, my nerves were shot to hell. There were more than ten horses out there, and the more there are, the more one is likely to spook and scare all the others. Then the fire trucks came wailing through, their sirens screaming their approach. One of the trail horses took off for a few steps and the trail leaders scrambled to catch him. I was clamping down on Allie’s mouth, terrified that he’d bolt too. Telling myself to relax, hearing myself mutter soothingly, “it’s ooook, it’s ooook” to Allie but knowing I was really telling myself.  He started to prance a bit, speeding up and lifting his head. I knew it could be fine if I could make myself be calm, but I realized I just couldn’t. I hopped down and walked him the rest of the way. My instructor looked down at me from her horse and said that it was ok, that she understood my decision. I felt dumb anyway, but I also felt relieved. I walked next to Allie, who quieted down now, swinging his head low beside me and nuzzling me as I patted him. I pressed my cheek to his warm, shiny neck and took a deep breath.

I feel like I’m at an impasse. I don’t want to stop riding. I don’t ever want to stop again, not after I let so long go by without doing it. And I don’t have many options in the city. This barn is the only one I can really get to without a car. But days like this make me feel that this situation is not only unsatisfying, but also untenable and unsafe.

Yoga of Riding

In the past couple of months I’ve started going to yoga the day after my riding lessons. Riding is hard on the body (especially in conjunction with my almost completely sedentary lifestyle) and yoga has really helped with putting my body back together and strengthening my back muscles. Usually I ride on Saturdays and then go to a Sunday afternoon yoga class; it’s also a nice start to the week. This week I ended up riding Sunday morning and therefore will do both on the same day. It got me thinking about how there are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines.

When you ride with equitation in mind, there is a great deal of body awareness needed to not only keep yourself in correct position, but to effectively communicate with your horse. For example, I have a tendency to twist my right wrist about 90 degrees at this one part of the ring that is slightly downhill. This spot is a challenge for a few reasons: 1) it is near the entrance/exit to the ring, which the horses have a heightened awareness of since it is the path back to their warm, hay-filled stalls and 2) because of the slight downhill grade, it presents difficulty in the horse’s footing, balance, and stride. The ideal is to keep your horse at an even pace and stride throughout the ring; on a completely flat surface this is easier. But going downhill, the horse’s weight is shifted unevenly between front and back hooves. Being that this hill is on a turn, they also have a tendency to drop their left shoulders and cut the corner, throwing their left-right balance off as well. As a rider, going downhill can pull you forward. It’s important to keep your back straight, chest open and head up while sitting slightly back on your sit bones. If you keep your balance this way, you can help your horse keep his front-back balance. In addition, slight pressure with the inside leg and a small amount of tension on the outside rein will prevent him from cutting the corner, keeping him left-right balanced and making a nice round bend around the turn. This is where my wrist twist comes in. I was unaware that I was doing it, so focused on all the other elements of the turn. My instructor pointed it out to me. She often makes position suggestions based on first looking at how the horse is moving and then searching for the problem in the rider’s position. She saw that my horse’s gait was not flowing smoothly. We were generally balanced but kind of choppy and awkward going down the hill. Once she pointed out my incorrect wrist position and reminded me to achieve tension on the reins through a give and take from my elbows instead, everything changed in an instant. My horse’s head came up, his weight shifted, and his stride smoothed out. And that made everything else I was focused so hard on much easier too.

That feels so much like what happens in a yoga class. When moving into a new pose, I’m thinking hard about trying to juggle all the pieces of my body into place. Sometimes the instructor reminds the class to bring awareness to a part of the body that might be neglected in thinking about the more obvious parts. It’s amazing when you make one little adjustment, one tiny change and everything just clicks. Your body seems to flow and you stop thinking so hard. You breathe and relax into the position and that, for me, is kind of what it’s all about whether I’m doing yoga, or horseback riding, or anything else I do. That’s the moment where I feel free and powerful and right.

In Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, he talks about bringing awareness to every aspect of life. There are talking mynah birds all over the island trained to speak the words “Attention” and “Here and now, boys” as a reminder to sustain this awareness.  He writes:

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

As I continue to learn to bring awareness to myself and my horse, I feel like I’m engaging in the yoga of riding.

Push for Perfection?

I didn’t post about last week’s ride because when I got home, freezing and beat up, I fell asleep for hours in a wide swath of sunshine on the bed, still in my breeches. Nothing that bad happened. It was just brutally cold and windy. My horse, a large Thoroughbred named Professor, is a big, energetic boy in normal circumstances. In those biting temperatures, he was ready to GO, charging forward and tossing his head to escape the pressure of my half-halts as I attempted to slow him to a pace reasonable enough for a ring full of other horses. With a martingale and a double rein, he was still simply too strong for me. We ended up trotting in small circles in one part of the ring for the whole lesson, lacking space and strength to do anything else. Then on the ride back to the barn, the wind picked up a stray plastic garbage can and it came skidding across the pavement in the traffic circle toward the horses, freaking them out. Professor wheeled in the opposite direction, which happened to be straight into traffic. It took everything in my arms and back to keep him still and safe. I was dunzo when I got home.

That’s why this week I was relieved to be greeted by a milder, sunny day and a ride on my favorite horse, Aladdin. I just needed a sane, productive ride after last week’s shitshow. But walking to the barn today, hoping for some respite, I wondered about my attitude. Shouldn’t I be pushing myself? A challenging horse can only make me a better rider.

Finding the right balance in how far to push myself has always been one of the toughest things in life for me. I want to push myself so I can get stronger and better. But it’s possible to push myself too hard and risk injury or burn out. My perfectionist tendencies have prodded me too far in that direction before, like when in one weekend I biked 50 miles, had softball practice (at which I also pitched the entirety of batting practice) and then attempted to do level 2 of Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred, during which I injured my quad so badly that I couldn’t get up off the floor. My pitching performance in the softball game later that week was piss poor because I still couldn’t put much strain on the muscle. After episodes like that, I vow to go easier on myself. But in my impatience I become a bully. Dissatisfied with my progress, I’ll start pushing myself again, wondering if I’ve been too easy on myself all along and thinking about the success I could have had if I’d only been less of a soft lazyass. And so it seesaws, back and forth. This seems to be the only way I ever acquaint myself with balance: I get a glimpse of it as I pass by while running back and forth between extremes.

I think that it was a good thing to have a break this week. Aladdin is small, quiet, and responsive, so I didn’t have to push myself to contend with a challenging horse. The thing is, I grew up competing with girls who only ever rode immaculately-trained pushbutton ponies and they looked like perfect pretty princesses out there in the show ring, but in my opinion that’s not riding. I rode every horse in the barn, running the gamut from sweet-tempered old friendlies to hot-blooded, tweaker Thoroughbreds, most of them outright batshit crazy in their own individual ways, and because of it in my prime I could handle just about anything.

Today I got to ride a horse that was easier to manage and because of that I was able to work hard on my equitation–my position, my horse’s balance and stride and bend around the corners–all the little things that one would be judged on in a show. Aladdin tends to drift inwardly on the long stretches and then can get stiff on the outside around the turns; so I worked my inside leg pushing him over to the rail and bending him around it on the corners. Then the next time around, I tried to do the same thing with more subtle movements of the reins and of my legs. Instead of just being a parcel on the horse’s back, I worked on uniting us, making us a single entity working in rhythm together.

These things may be subtle, but they aren’t easy. Every horse has his quirks; smoothing them over without looking like you’re doing anything and also maintaining correct position in every part of your body is no small feat. But equitation is about balance and subtlety, not perfection. I think that’s something it would be helpful to remember in the rest of my life as well.