Where Are You Going?

It’s a question I often ask my students: Where are you going?

New riders often don’t realize that they have to ride their horses the whole time they’re in the saddle. There’s no point during the lesson at which they can just sit there. They have to keep a feel of their horse, anticipate the horse’s next moves, and always have in their mind where they want to go and what they want the horse to do. (This is a concept that is illustrated nicely in this video by Carson James.)

If they don’t, the horse will decide for them.

And that decision will probably not be to the rider’s liking.

I’m starting to realize that this is a pretty apt metaphor for life. You can passively let it take you where it wants to go. Or you can decide what you want out of it and use all your tools to get there.

I spent a very long time searching for what I wanted out of life. But the only reason it took me so long was that I knew the whole time what I wanted, and I wasn’t pursuing it because I didn’t think it was a valid option.  For nearly ten years I constantly changed apartments, changed jobs, I tried new exercise regimens, explored new hobbies, and none of it ever satisfied me.

Then, nearly five years ago, I finally found my way back to horses. Since then, I’ve chronicled my journey from being a 30-year-old starting over and trying to regain the muscles needed to ride well again while taking one lesson a week in insane conditions in the middle of New York City, to leasing a horse in Texas, riding four times a week and learning an entirely new discipline, just starting to show again at the lowest level at the age of 35.

When I started out, I had no idea where this was going. I just knew I wanted to ride again. That my body and my mind and my heart missed it and it was time to do whatever it took to fill that hole in my life. I was just glad to be sitting on the horse; the direction didn’t matter.

As I got more involved, I started to realize that it wasn’t just filling the hole of a missed hobby. It was actually something that could stop the emptiness left by not having a career that engaged or fulfilled me. It was something that I could throw myself into wholeheartedly and never get bored learning more about. It was something I could aspire to mastering, and which I would feel proud of myself once I did.

I started to dream about working with horses. I learned about training programs for wild mustangs, and that opened up the whole world of understanding how to relate to these animals on their own terms, to studying ethology, to learning about conservation efforts, and ranching, and all the riding disciplines associated with that, and a million other fascinating things that had always been at the heart of me, ever since I was a tiny girl telling my parents that I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up.

So many different threads have come together to bring me to this point. Frustrated at my inability to find English jumping lessons in the area, I reached out to a trainer and asked her if she thought someone with my background would benefit from Western lessons. I figured if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, maybe I should look at what was right there in front of me. That resulted in the trainer offering to lease Dunnie to me. It brought me the closest working relationship I’ve ever had with a horse. It also brought me a mentor relationship and friendship with that trainer that I’d been looking for my whole life. It brought me back to teaching riding again, finally for the first time since I was 16 years old getting paid to work with horses.

So here I am. I’ve got a great horse underneath me (both literally and metaphorically), and it’s for me to decide in what direction to travel — and then to use everything I’ve got in my toolbox to get myself there.

That’s what I’m working on now. I’m researching different fields of horse work, I’m reading up on them, and I’m finding out how to get trained and certified. Look for some big changes coming around here, including the launch of a new site in the not-too-distant-future. Urban Equestrian has been a wonderful place to reflect on what I’ve been learning on my journey back to being a horsewoman, but now it’s time for action.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Talking to Horses

In addition to riding three or four days, I’m now also working at the barn two evenings a week. I say that partially as an explanation for why I am updating this blog so infrequently. But it also represents a huge turning point for me: I’m now actually getting paid to do what I love.

Obviously teaching horseback riding to children two nights a week isn’t allowing me to quit my day job. But it’s a start on the path that hopefully one day leads to horse work being my life’s work. And it makes me think of the thousands of times I’d be stuck at my desk, consumed with depression because I never thought I’d find a way out, positive that there was no way I’d ever have the opportunity to do work that was meaningful to me.

Coworkers.
Coworkers.

I was fond of saying, when particularly drained from the utter pointlessness and repetitiveness of the busywork I did all day at my last job, that I would rather be mucking stalls. At least then I’d be using my body instead of deteriorating in front of a computer. I don’t have to muck stalls at this job, but I certainly do use my body. I’m in constant movement: getting the horses from their stalls, grooming them and picking their hooves and tacking them up and untacking them and putting the equipment away and turning them out, cleaning up the barn and the tack room and the arena. And that’s not even taking into account the work in the ring with my students: lugging the mounting block around, helping them mount, walking (or running) alongside them to help them control their horses or understand new concepts, moving around poles and jump standards…I downloaded a step counter for my phone, and in the approximately 3 1/2 hours I work in an evening, I easily get in 8,000–10,000 steps. And that’s after doing all those things with Dunnie and then riding him. The first week I worked, I was utterly wrecked.

But I also slept amazingly. And I can already feel my legs getting stronger and tighter, and my posture improving, and even my pants fitting a little less tightly.

The work isn’t just physical, either. It’s totally mentally engaging. It has to be. When you’re dealing with large animals and small children, safety is the utmost concern. So there’s the running mental checklist and potential-disaster-scanner part of your mind that’s always going. On top of that, teaching riding is all about problem solving. You tell the children what to do. Since they’re not only new at this, but it’s also an activity that takes body awareness, coordination, sensitivity, cooperation, and muscles that few other activities or circumstances provide the opportunity to exercise, it takes quite a while for them to learn how to do what you’re telling them to do. The indicators of whether they’re doing it right are large, obvious behavioral outcomes — like whether they are able to get the thousand-pound animal underneath them to trot, for example — but all of the factors that may contribute to or prevent success in reaching that outcome are extremely subtle and involve an intuitive alchemy that’s not always easy to articulate. So much of what goes on when teaching riding is looking at the horse to see if it’s moving in the way that you’d expect it to based on the instructions you gave the rider. Then if it’s not, you have to analyze the many potential cues the rider is giving the horse to confuse it. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rider is telling the horse “go!” with her legs, but also pulling back on the reins, which tells the horse “stop!”. But other times, there are signals sent through the body that aren’t even visible. So you go through the catalog of your own riding experience, thinking about horses you’ve ridden that are similar to this one and how you solved the problems then. You ask your student creative questions about what she’s feeling from the horse that allow you to project yourself onto the horse’s back with her so you can understand what’s going on.

Ultimately, more than teaching just a sport or a physical skill, what you’re teaching when you teach riding is a language. You’re instructing someone how to communicate with an entirely different species. To convince a creature way, way bigger than them to accept that they have the authority to decide where to go and how fast to get there. It requires instilling an understanding that they must talk with the animal through their hands and legs and seat, using the symbols that the horse has been trained to understand the meaning of in terms of actions. One of the biggest things to overcome there is to make people understand that even though the horse has been trained to respond to these cues, they aren’t machines that will react as though we’ve pushed a button — especially because so much of our lives are infused with technology that works in exactly that way — and that instead they are living things with whom you must take into account personality, preference, mood. So many of the questions students ask me center around trying to come to grips with that. They ask, “Why is she doing that?” “Does he always act like this?” “Do the horses like each other?”, and many others that reveal their attempts to piece together an understanding of the horse’s mental life. I love trying to answer those questions more than any others, because it feels like I’m handing someone missing puzzle pieces that they’re fitting in to get a picture of something elusive and beautiful.

Starting to teach has also prompted me to step up my already pretty intense desire to learn, and ever since Dunnie and I got back to work after the holidays and his short stint of lameness, we’ve been reaching some new levels of refinement. I’ve been working a lot on trying to make his responses to my cues crisper; asking him to react more quickly and strongly to ever-decreasing amounts of pressure from my leg and hands. It’s been going pretty well in most areas. We canter all around the ring now and I ask him for lead changes at random times and in random places. The changes are smoother and more accurate, and since I’m keeping him on his toes now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate when he thinks he should change the lead. So when we canter circles and I don’t ask him, he’s not constantly switching around the turns like he was before. I also realized that by using more leg pressure to turn when I am planning to ask him for a lead change — speaking more loudly with my outside leg, as it were — then the cue to change is clearer to him when I take that leg away and give pressure with the other to ask him to switch (which means I can speak softer with that leg). The constant refinement of our communication is a really interesting process to me. It’s kind of like the longer you’re in a relationship or a friendship with someone, your communication flows more easily through the way you use shorthand or inside jokes to refer to something you both know together. I feel that happening with Dunnie now, like we are really connecting.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save