Trust

Returning to riding today after the long break for the holidays finally makes everything feel back to normal again, like I’ve returned to a rhythm of regular life. It was a long, slow, restful holiday time this year, which is just what I needed. I could really feel the good it has done me today during my lesson; I felt supple and focused.

One thing I’ve learned is that physical activity the day before riding makes a huge difference to my muscles. Even if I don’t have time to stretch or warm up much before my lesson, having worked out the day before means that I will get warm more quickly at the start and have so much more energy and flexibility throughout.  So it looks like more exciting Friday nights at the YMCA for me. I’m trying to be a bit more disciplined about my exercise schedule these days. Before, I just went whenever I had some free time and as long as I was going semi-regularly, that was enough. Now I’d like to be on more of a training schedule for riding and in (premature, but I’m so antsy for it) anticipation of softball starting up again in the spring. My ideal is to be going two days a week. One day I’ll do cardio (a combo of running/elliptical/bike) and weights to target muscles I use on the horse (mainly core stuff). The other day I will go swimming for however many laps I can handle.  I went last week and was able to do twelve. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any swimming, so I’m sure I’ll build up from there. I felt incredible after those twelve laps, though.  I’ll also keep going to yoga once a week to stretch everything out. Those things should put me in good shape for my approximately two riding lessons a month. Or, I could forget all that other crap and just ride a horse every day. Then I’d be in amazing shape.

But for now, I’ll just have to be thankful for what I’ve got. Today’s lesson was great. I was really on and so was my horse. I rode Summer again, who is just such a sweet, pretty girl. When I went to get her in her stall and she looked at me, ears perked on top of that perfect little Arabian face, I actually caught my breath for a moment at just how pretty she is. Her disposition is so lovely; she doesn’t have that mareface bitchiness even when she’s displeased enough to put her ears back. But she’s no dummy. It’s not a vapid sweetness that shines out of her soft brown eyes, but a sort of calm intelligence that makes her easy to trust.

There was a moment today during the lesson when I had to put that trust to the test. We were standing still in the middle of the ring as Hannah explained something to us when a huge boom of thunder sounded, spooking all the horses. Summer leaped forward a few steps and then stopped; everyone dismounted and stood around stroking their horses’ necks while we waited to see if the storm would continue.  When we got back on a few minutes later and started trotting again, she was understandably skittish. So was I, tense with wondering whether there’d be more thunder to set her off. I was doing the thing I do where I get grabby with the reins and lean forward with my upper body and drive my mount crazy, and Hannah suggested that I needed to give Summer a little more rein and show her I trust her. It wasn’t easy…but it wasn’t as hard as it used to be, either. I find lately that in all areas of life, I’m regaining this control of myself wherein I’m able to just be ok. I can let go of anxiety and have confidence in my capability to handle things. So I sat back, lengthened my reins, and squeezed her forward. We trotted the long side of the ring with her being a little spikey and me half-halting her as gently as I could while focusing on breathing and keeping the tension out of my muscles and my mind clear of thunder anxiety. And just like that, she relaxed. As we rounded the turn I felt her whole body change. Her head dropped and her back unwound, her movements became smooth and she was her game, responsive self again. It’s amazing how that works. I showed her trust, and she trusted me back. That’s the thing with horses: if they think that you think that everything is ok, they are likely to think so, too.

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.