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.

The Fall

Today I fell off a horse for the first time since starting to ride again.

The last time I fell off was in 2006, when I was visiting someone who let me ride her horse. The mare was frisky and excited to be out after having not been ridden for a few weeks. Excited myself to be on a horse again after a nearly three-year gap between my last days on the riding team in college and this unexpected chance to ride, I decided against my better judgement to take her for a few jumps. Out of practice, I got left behind on the take off and was off balance when in her giddiness, she let out a buck in mid-air. I flew over her head and landed partially on my shoulder, partially on my back, knocking the wind out of me. I was stunned but uninjured, but it was the one and only time in my entire riding career that I fell off and didn’t get back on again. I was too shaken up.

Today’s fall was significantly less dramatic. I was riding Emma, the small, grey mare whom I’ve come to know quite well. At the start of the lesson, tracking right around the ring, she was moving very well; my one gripe with her is that she can often be very pokey, but today she was up and forward. On the ride over there, I had been distracted and anxious, stuck in my head worrying about some of the more looming aspects of the sort of general life crisis I’ve been going through lately. But as we trotted around, avoiding contact with the five other horses in the ring, I was able to settle my mind and focus. Emma can get very distracted by looking at what is going on around the ring and today there was a race in the park. Apparently not many people want to run a race in early March weather, so it was sparse attendance. However, there was a refreshment table set up right outside the ring that posed a potential threat. Each team we rode by it, I pulled Emma’s nose to the inside, making her connect with me and look away from the table. By the third time, she was ignoring it and working well with me. I felt relieved by the smoothness of her gait and our connection.

Once we switched directions, things changed. Emma prefers the right; on her left she can be awkward sometimes. Her speed cut in half, her feet stumbling and unsure, we quickly got out of sync. I squeezed and clucked, trying to coax some more energy into her trot to regain the fluidity that we had felt in the other direction. My sense of calm satisfaction evaporated, it was like someone threw a wrench in my gears.

Anxiety and frustration mounted, until it was our turn to canter. I set her up on the right spot on the rail and asked her for it, sitting deeper in the saddle and nudging her forward with my outside leg. No dice. One of the most frustrating feelings in the world, for me. You ask and ask and all your horse does is speed up her trot. You use all the strength in your legs squeezing as hard as you can to get her to go, and then your muscles get weak and you flop, disorganized and ineffectual. I pulled her back to a walk, reorganized myself, and tried again. I got a slow, short, and awkward canter out of her. I was a mess: frustrated with myself, angry at her. And feeling oh so sorry for myself that things were not going my way.

But then we switched directions again to take the canter on the right. Little miss perked right up again. She went right into a good, energetic canter that felt nothing like the awkward gait we had going the other way. I would have kept going, but my trainer was warning me about some activity at the table as I approached it. I pulled her down to a trot, employing the same inside rein that I had used to get her past there at the beginning of the lesson. But this time it didn’t work. The man at the table had a big garbage bag that he was rummaging around in and that was way too much for Emma. As I was trying to pull her nose toward the inside of the ring and nudge her body with my inside leg, she shied away from the bag, dropping her shoulder and veering away quickly and causing me to lose my balance.

Sometimes falling off a horse is a bit like vomiting when you’re too drunk. You sense it coming and you think “No no no no don’t wanna” and you fight it. But there comes a point when you realize its near inevitability and that it will be easier and probably better in the long run to just give in and let it happen. That’s what this fall was like. I was far off balance, hanging out over her side. I considered fighting it out, but didn’t know if she’d spook again or try to run. The upside to a situation like this is that you have a modicum of control over the fall. I was in a relatively good position to take the fall and decided to let it happen before the situation got worse. I went off to the right and landed on my right shoulder. The only scary part is that my foot got briefly caught in my stirrup, but I kicked it out and rolled. The ring is loosely-packed gravelly dirt, so I had a fairly soft landing and got up quickly. My trainer asked if I was ok as I walked Emma toward the center of the ring, groaning a bit as I pulled myself up on her back. “Yep, just annoyed,” I answered.

As I trotted her back to the rail, I felt much better. The fall had dissipated all of my earlier frustration and had somehow lifted my spirits. Without fear or hesitation, we picked up a beautifully smooth, fluid canter. It was the kind of movement that is the reason I do this, the kind that makes me feel alive and free. We slowed to a walk past the table, and finished on that high note.

There’s a lesson somewhere in all of this. Maybe it’s that getting worked up about things, being self conscious and worrying and overwhelmed by frustration is only going to end up with you on your ass. That sometimes “the worst” thing that can happen isn’t the worst, and isn’t even that bad. That sometimes taking a fall reminds you that you’re strong enough to take one and to get back up again.