Confidence in Action

The last few weeks we’ve been back to renting a Zipcar to get out to the barn, after the unfortunate passing of ‘Betsy’, my riding buddy’s car. This week we lucked out; after she recently drove back from Texas with a friend who is relocating here, the friend graciously let us borrow the car. We’ll see what the transportation situation is in the future; she might get a new car, or maybe my boyfriend and I will finally decide to commit to staying in NY long enough to justify getting one of our own. Until then, it’s Zipcar–adding a good $40 each for every lesson–but it’s still totally worth it, especially for lessons like we had this week.

We finally, finally got to ride outside this week and what a beautiful day we had for it.  It was sunny and warm but with the cool breeze of fall in the air, just about perfect riding weather. My riding buddy continued her streak of riding her new favorite, Malcolm, and I rode my cute little Arabian mare, Summer. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden her outside before and since she’s such a fun jumper that I couldn’t wait to take her on a course.

At the start of the lesson, I was having a little trouble getting in sync with her at the trot. I think it’s just that I’ve been riding Jasper and Max lately, two big, lumbering boys who feel like entirely different animals than compact, sporty Summer. Once we got to the canter, however, I felt amazing. It was the best canter I’ve had since I returned to riding. I felt completely in rhythm with my horse, I felt tall and graceful in the saddle…it was just that wonderful feeling of “I’m doing this RIGHT!” This is definitely a result of all the ab work and upper body weight lifting I’ve been doing. I can daily feel my posture changing as all the little muscles that hold me together become strong again, but it’s even more apparent when I’m on a horse.

I feel like I’ve finally crossed the threshold with working out where my body feels like my own again. I’ve been pretty consistent with exercising three times a week and now it feels like it has been incorporated into my lifestyle. It’s really the only way for me to live and be sane and healthy.

But the more important threshold that I feel I’ve crossed is the regaining of my confidence. I wrote last time about the space that the absence of fear left open in me; this week I realized what it feels like when that space is filled with the confidence I had lost.

It certainly surprised me when after trotting into the first jump in a line, Summer decided to bolt on the landing as if the second jump were the finish line of the Kentucky Derby, but I think what was even more surprising to my trainer was my reaction to it. We landed and I thought, “Holy shit!” but instead of blacking out with anxiety, my mind was able to make rational decisions about what to do. I considered whether I should try to pull her out of the line, missing the second jump, but figured it would be easier and safer just to go with it. While my mind was calmly deciding this, my body was acting on its own through muscle memory, getting into jumping position to be in sync with my frantic mare as she barreled through the second jump. Afterwards, we galloped around half the ring before I was able to wrestle her down to a walk. I looked over at my trainer, who seemed to be holding her breath waiting for the inevitable nervous breakdown that could have ensued. But when she saw me patting and soothing Summer, she just asked, “You all right?” to which I smiled and answered that I was. Then we talked about how to proceed.

She was a bit tentative with me for the rest of the lesson, asking always if I felt comfortable trying something with Summer, asking if I wanted her to get on and school my horse. We have a nice relationship where she’s sensitive to the fact that I’ve had anxiety issues but still wants me to push myself and is very supportive of whatever decisions I make about what I’m up for since, as she says, she knows that I know what I’m doing.  But this time there was no meltdown, there was no helplessness or fear. I knew what I needed to do and I did it.

I took Summer back over the line, bringing her in at an extremely reserved trot and then sitting up and woahing her hard in between. It worked. She wasn’t trying to get away with something; I honestly think she just got freaked out by a noise the first time down. We took it slow for the rest of the lesson, incorporating each jump in the line piece-by-piece just to be sure, but she has such a sweet temperament that it felt like we were working together rather than me schooling her.  There was one jump slightly higher than the rest, a diagonally-placed green jump that we were taking singly at a trot. We weren’t getting it. We’d go to it too deep and that was messing up my timing so I kept getting left back and hitting her mouth over the jump, which was making her land and get a little frenzied again. But the frenzy didn’t worry me, because I was actually confident that I knew what was going on. I suggested to my trainer that even though we were trying to keep her slow, it was working counter-intuitively against us here, since the jump was a little too high for her to take without more impulsion. So I asked if we could do it at the canter instead, which fixed the problem immediately. I was still able to keep her calm and collected before the jump even at the faster gait, she had more confidence in her jump because she had enough speed heading into it, and my timing with my position was right, so the jump went beautifully.

This newfound confidence is giving me a new excitement about riding, so I can’t wait until our next lesson. Unfortunately, my riding buddy is going away for three weeks on her belated honeymoon, so it’ll be a while. But in the meantime I’ll be getting stronger both physically and mentally, getting prepared to go back into it ready to be challenged.

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.


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.