Roll With It

This morning, after the approximately sixty-third night of piss poor sleep that I have had since introducing a kitten into my studio apartment, I woke up in kind of a control freak mood. The cats will not let me sleep, I need to have sleep, nothing I have tried has made the cats stop not letting me sleep, so today I got out of bed and immediately began cleaning and tidying the apartment. It’s reliably an activity that can calm me and make me feel grounded when the world is spinning out of control. Like, for example, when the god damned subways will never run properly and in the few hours of sleep I have snatched from the batting paws of my feline tormentors over the past week I have dreamed of being on packed, delayed subway trains, sometimes with particular individuals that I dislike, sometimes simply afloat in the faceless, alienating multitudes. That’s the sort of thing that makes me need to eliminate all the clutter in my home that has accumulated during the days I’ve come home too tired to be perfect, the need to restore everything to its place so that my eye, at least, is untroubled during my continuing imprisonment in this madhouse while I wait for the weather to warm up enough that I can at least find the motivation to step outside for a change and interact with something other than these wild animals.

This was the frame of mind with which I attended my riding lesson today: that of a sleep-deprived, stir-crazy, desperate control freak. So when we arrived to find that not only were we not down in the scheduling book, but that our trainer wasn’t even there today, my mind pretty much short circuited. It was clearly a miscommunication and I wasn’t angry, just simply at a loss. We were offered the choice of taking a ride on the beach (an immediate ‘nope’ as it is sunny and in the 50s, but also frigidly windy), to hack without an instructor in the indoor, or to take a lesson with whoever was free at that time. I just kind of silently gawked at my riding buddy until she said, “I guess we’ll take the lesson with whoever’s available,” relieved that I didn’t have to pull it together to make a decision and could just roll with it.

Faced with the uncertainty of an unfamiliar trainer, I hoped to ride Jasper, my reliable man. But he was out in a lesson so instead I rode Casper, the grey with the bitless bridle that I last rode this summer outdoors. It was once I got on him and was reminded that he doesn’t ever feel like walking, trots off without being asked, and oh, doesn’t pay attention to requests for downward transitions since he doesn’t have a bit on his bridle (i.e. the thing that controls the horse), that I realized this wasn’t just going to be a lesson, it was going to be a Lesson. Of the “The Control You Think You Have In Life Is An Illusion, Jessica, And You’re Going To Have To Accept That” variety. I sighed, and loosened my reins.We had been going around at a reasonably collected trot at this point, but it was using all my arm and back strength to pull back on the reins and it was accompanied by Casper doing this spastic upward twisting of his neck and head while occasionally charging forward into a faster gait. Not so pretty, or comfortable. I didn’t want to race around the ring at the pace he wanted to go at. It’s too cramped in there for that nonsense. I wanted to ride at a collected trot where I could slowly warm up and ease into working on my position. But I had to connect with and calm my mount, and scrunching him up wasn’t going to achieve that. At the trainer’s urging, I loosened my reins a good deal and stepped up my posting to match the quite fast trot that resulted. We sprinted around the ring a few times, dodging all the slower horses of which thankfully there were much fewer than usual this week. Amazingly, after giving Casper the freedom to go how he wanted, he slowly calmed himself down, settling of his own volition into the collected trot that I had wanted before and had been working so hard fighting him to get.

During the working parts of the lesson, Casper was a gentleman. His canter is smooth and easy and jumping him is a pleasure. But every time I had to pull him down to a walk from the trot or the canter, it was a struggle. And once I had him at a walk for the brief rest periods we take throughout the lesson, it was a constant fight to keep him from bolting into a trot. These are situations in which I couldn’t let him have his way and which I had to exert control. At first, I was wearing myself out pulling back on sitting back in the saddle and pulling on the reins. But that soon turns into a tug of war that, horse v. rider, the rider is never going to win. So I let Casper keep walking with looser reins, but every time he started to speed up, I turned him in a small circle. This exerted control, dissuading him from the bad behavior without a fight because of instead of fighting the behavior, I directed it elsewhere.

This has me wondering if I can redirect the cats’ behavior from respectively pouncing on me in my sleep (the little one) and meowing the entire night (the big one). I sure hope so. But it also makes me want to consider how I can use this soft control on myself when times are stressful, giving myself room to walk around instead of yanking on my reins all the time.

Anniversaries and Firsts

It’s been a year since I’ve returned to riding and today was full of some great firsts for me.

My riding buddy and I brought our boys with us–her husband and my boyfriend–to the barn today so they could watch us ride and see what it’s like. Clarke had seen one of my (more frustrating) lessons at Kensington and has ridden with me twice on vacation trail rides, so it wasn’t his first time seeing me ride. But the difference in focus, organization, and athleticism in the lessons I take at Jamaica Bay as compared to Kensington is huge. He had also never seen me jump, which is of course a completely different level.

It was fun showing him around the barn. Seeing it again for the first time through his eyes, I was reminded of just how nice it is and how lucky I am to be able to ride there. The whole evolution of riding this past year from excitement and then disappointment with Kensington, to meeting my riding buddy and finding not only that we were on the same level with similar riding history but that we also have the exact same birthday, to deciding to try out Jamaica Bay and loving it and expanding so much as riders in the short time we’ve been there…has been intense, and wonderful.

Today was a nice day to have an audience as well, since I felt particularly “on.” I joined the Y this week and went for the second time last night. I think that the light workout limbered me up a bit for my lesson today. Also, last week I didn’t gel very easily with my mount. The opposite was true this time, riding Casper. My riding buddy rode him once before, the medium-build flea bitten grey of a couple weeks ago. Sometimes you sit on a horse and his body shape and your body shape are just not very compatible. Sometimes you get on and it feels like you click right into the saddle; you and your horse are just proportioned in ways that fit well together. That’s how it felt with Casper.

The interesting thing about him is that he rides with a bit-less bridle. Typically, horses have a metal bit in their mouths that the reins connect to; this is how you steer and stop the horse. Casper once had an abscess on a tooth that prevented him from accommodating the bit in his mouth, so he went without it for a while. By the time it was healed, it was apparent he was fine to ride without one and preferred it, so they just kept it that way. It is generally a more gentle and humane way of riding and some barns have all their horses fitted out this way, like the trail barn we rode at in Lake Placid. It’s a little less common to find on a jumping horse, as that requires a lot more control. But a well-trained, trustworthy mount can handle it.

Casper is very forward, wanting to go so much that even during walking rests, he tended to break into a trot like he was saying, “Ok, let’s go! I’m bored now!” But aside from the little extra effort it takes to convince him to stop, he was remarkably responsive. He was very flexible about contracting and expanding his stride as we rode over some poles on the ground (cavaletti) in preparation for jumping. He was very responsive to my leg for steering as well. What the bit-less bridle amounts to is basically like driving without power steering. It helped that I could move him over with my legs when tugging on the outside rein to pull him into the corners had less of an effect.

He was fun to jump with and we ended up doing a whole course. The first time through was slightly disorganized due to some sloppy turns and confusion over changing leads. When a horse canters around the ring, the leg on the interior of the ring should be first in order to maintain balance; that’s called being on the “correct lead.” When you do a course it often involves jumping through the diagonal of the ring and changing direction, which necessitates a changing of the lead. Some horses can do what is called a “flying change”, where mid-stride they pick up their feet and switch which one is going first. That’s the ideal. Some horses aren’t coordinated enough to do that and must do a simple change, where you slow them down to the trot for a couple of strides and then quickly go back into the canter, picking up the correct lead. Casper usually doesn’t do flying changes, but apparently sort of attempted one in our first course. He didn’t do it all the way though, only switching the front legs and not the back, which led to a cross-canter. That feels extremely awkward, but I was already so close to my next jump when I realized it, so we took that one a little badly. We left the ground not in accord about the rhythm and he knocked the jump slightly with his hoof. The second time we did the course, I was aware of his limitations and able to get him to do a simple change, so we were much more organized and smooth over all the fences. We ended with a long approach to an oxer up the middle that just felt like heaven.

This all brings me to another first for today: it was the first time I’ve ever gotten to see myself ride. I’ve been on horses since I was nine, but never had access to a video camera. Apart from the simple vanity of wanting to know what I look like, I have always felt this would be a great tool in understanding and correcting my position problems. Having your trainer tell you to sit up and open your shoulders is a lot different from seeing yourself do it the wrong way. So I was very excited to watch this footage. Clarke did a great job of iPhone videography and captured some of my flatwork and my entire course on film. It was amazing to watch it and to discover that I looked a lot better than I thought I did! When you’re expending so much effort to just keep everything together, to keep your horse going and aimed in the right direction and then also to remember to keep every part of your body in perfect position, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and sloppy. Especially since the goal of equitation is to not look like you’re doing all that much work. So that’s how I usually feel. But even the first course, which, as I described, wasn’t great, just looked a hell of a lot better than I’d imagined it to.  That feels great. It’s also good to have a better understanding of the effects of what I’m doing. When I ride, I’ll know that if I do X, then I will get Y results.

After we untacked the horses and hosed them down, we took the boys on a trail ride. Neither my riding buddy nor I have done the trails at Jamaica Bay before–another first–and neither of us had ever ridden in both an English and a Western saddle before within the same day. It’s an interesting transition because the stirrups are so much longer and steering is totally different. But the trail ride was fun. The trails go through Gateway National Recreation Area, which are lovely protected wetlands. Clarke got a smallish paint named Picasso and he did very well on him. I rode an even-tempered bay named Peter Pan who was a pleasure and just hung back, enjoying the breeze. The trails wound through marsh vegetation, like cattails grown high above our heads even on horseback, that swayed in the wind and made that perfect rustling sound. We came out onto the beach of the bay and rode around its curve, making horseshoe prints in the wet sand right next to quite large horseshoe crabs washed up on the shore. I’ve ridden on beaches before, but never on the beaches of my home. I grew up near the water on Long Island, so the salty smell of the water is, along with that of a horse, one of the dearest and most evocative smells there is. The combination of those two scents today, the salty tang of the water cutting through and mixing with the warm muskiness of sweat and horse, was wonderful to bask in. The sun warmed my back and the breeze cooled the sweaty tendrils of hair around my neck. It felt like a reward. A moment of complete pleasure and enjoyment to mark this first year’s anniversary. And hopefully the start of many, many more years of firsts.

Here’s the second (better) course: