One of the most frustrating feelings in the world is knowing what you need to do, and being physically unable to do it.

I’ve been back to riding for just about two years now. I rode for how many years when I was young–thirteen? The most basic piece of information–the first thing–you can tell someone about riding position is to put their heels down. And yet, for the last two times I rode, I just couldn’t do it.

I’ve been doing a standing desk at work for a while now. In many ways, it’s much better for me than sitting–my upper back hurts less, I have less mental fatigue, I walk around more. I’d probably be even more out of shape if I weren’t doing it. But I think it’s making my lower back really tight. And from my lower back, a straight line down through my hips, hamstrings, and calves. No amount of stretching seems to relieve this tightness throughout my lower body. Exercise would help, I think, but with that unfortunately we go right back to the first sentiment in this post: knowing it would help, being unable to do it.  For the last couple of months, that has been the case. Worn down, I haven’t been as active as I like to, need to, be. I’m picking it up again now, having exercised every day for the last six days, and I’m starting to feel better.

Today, however, was a rest day. I intended to go to the gym but thought the better of it after yesterday’s lesson. The reason I’m bitching about my heels, seemingly such a little thing, is because without your heels down, other position problems arise: like not keeping your weight down in the saddle, like having a difficult time sitting up and back; all things that make you insecure in the saddle when the former racehorse you are jumping gallops away from the fence and stumbles on the turn. And when you’re insecure in the saddle under those circumstances, you go flying over that former racehorse’s lovely, sleekly muscular shoulder, and hit the hard-packed dirt of the indoor arena with plenty of force. And maybe your helmet, not of the most secure fit itself, despite protecting your brain from bashing itself on the ground with a good bounce, still manages to bang down onto the bridge of your nose and hurt like hell. I thought for a bit yesterday that the nose might actually be broken, but the lack of blood and minimal swelling have convinced me otherwise.  But it’s not pleasant. My glasses resting on it and my boyfriend leaning in for a kiss are both making me wince a little today.

The fall wasn’t Sparkling Gal’s fault. She just tripped. And, according to my trainer, she did so after “the most beautiful jump” she’s ever seen me take. We were in the indoor, having gone out intending to do a “club ride”, wherein you take a horse out without an instructor, thinking that ours was going to be out of town and we could just work on our own. But when we were surprised to find she actually was there that day, we hurried onto our mares (me on Sparkle, and my riding buddy on her new favorite, Misfit) for a regular lesson.

I had already been slightly frustrated on the flat, especially at the canter, at my inability to get loose enough to really stretch down and sit deep in the saddle. Sparkle has a choppy canter, and makes me think that I’m looking quite sloppy on her, despite reassurances from the riding buddy and instructor both that it’s not as bad as I think it is.  Knowing that she is a joy to jump, I looked forward to that part of the lesson, even though being in the indoor due to the high temperatures outside limited us from doing anything resembling a course. There were two jumps set up: a small cross-rail and, on the opposite side of the ring, the vertical after which I took my tumble. Since the vertical was big enough to require us to go at it at the canter and both of our mounts can get quite strong, our instructor only wanted us to do it by itself once before connecting it with the cross-rail, intending us to trot the smaller jump and then come around to the vertical at the canter.

I got up pretty quickly after the fall. It doesn’t take long to take stock and know there isn’t anything terribly injured, and I’m always anxious to put everyone else at ease that I’m fine. After a brief inspection of my nose, I knew I was well enough to get back on even if it was broken, and was ready to do so after a quick, steadying drink of water. My instructor was not going to push me–she said it was entirely up to me how much or how little I wanted to do. My first instinct was that I would just take the smaller jump at a trot and be satisfied with that. But I really knew that I needed to take that same vertical again in order to be pleased. So I said, “I’m going to take the cross-rail, and then we’ll see about the vertical.”

The first time, the cross-rail went fine; Sparking Gal went in very quiet and was manageable on the landing. But with the other horses in the ring, our approach to the vertical wasn’t great and I circled, deciding to forego it. At that point, again, I said, “Ok, I think that’s enough.”

But I watched my riding buddy go again through the jumps, taking them beautifully, and I felt the restlessness stirring inside me. “Ok,” I said. “I’m going to try it again. The vertical is still a ‘we’ll see'”.

This time, I did it. The sweet mare was good to me over the cross-rail and I sat up as best I could with my stupid heels and settled her back through the canter approach to the vertical. She ate up a little bit of ground on the approach, but we took off with good timing and had a nice jump on the vertical. My right foot jiggled a little bit in the stirrup, I felt my balance loosen through the turn as she was a little skittish going through the spot where she had stumbled, but I pulled myself together and held on, very pleased with myself for having done it. I knew that if I hadn’t, it would be an issue the next time around. This way, I won’t be–at least mentally–insecure the next time I jump.

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.