Slow Down

I’ve been in the grip of a sort of spring mania the last week and a half or so. Daylight savings mowed me down, like it always does, but once the days lengthened a bit and the sun started rising earlier, I’ve been back on track with getting up early and making use of the whole day. There are just so many things that I want to do—my editing work, writing my blogs, read the huge stack of books that I have out from the library at any given time, and now I’ve been learning to draw and to carve wood, so I’m constantly drawn towards making new things and improving.

Add to those things that I now have the opportunity to ride four days a week. Only one of those is a lesson, so the other three days I am left to my own devices. My trainer gives me suggestions for exercises to work on with Dunnie when I’m riding on my own, but I’m also possessed with this thirst for learning that leads me to read everything I can find on the Internet about reining and Western riding in general. When I was riding as a kid, there was no Internet, so for the longest time, I haven’t even really thought of it as a resource. I didn’t read about techniques or watch videos when I went back to riding about three years ago; it didn’t really occur to me. In that decade that I wasn’t riding, I realize I could have been reading and learning and connecting to horse-related things online. But I stayed away from that; I’ve never enjoyed learning in the abstract. I don’t want to just read about things, I want to do them; there’s no point if I can’t put the knowledge into practice. My mind is always excited by new ideas, and reining techniques are even more interesting because they feel like they are leading me to be a better rider overall, to have the best communication with horses that I’ve ever had.

The best thing I’ve found online is this series of video diaries from a woman training a 2-year-old stallion from scratch. It’s fascinating to watch all of the foundational work that goes into teaching a horse to understand our communications of what we want out of them. Seeing how she approaches each step of training, the conversation she engages in with the horse, is really eye-opening. There are many times when he, being a young, green horse, doesn’t do what she’s telling him to do. He stops and looks at her and asks questions, like “Can I stop now?”  And she, as she puts it, “doesn’t get offended” by the questions. It makes sense that a horse trying to figure out what you want from him will question what you’re asking of him, and it doesn’t mean he’s “being bad.” When you’re riding a horse that is already trained and he doesn’t do what you want, it’s so easy to get frustrated or annoyed. Watching these videos has reminded me that it is a conversation between me and my horse, and being in a situation where I’m learning new cues for everything in a whole new style of riding makes me take a step back when Dunnie seems not to listen to me and ask myself, “Am I communicating clearly to him?”

The thing about being around horses is that you cannot be manic around them. They pick up on your demeanor and it infects their own moods. Horses, being pack animals, always want to know who is in charge in any situation. It’s not about domination, or “showing them who’s boss” in an aggressive way. If you interact with them in a calm, sensible manner, they’ll gladly go along with most of what you want to do. If you’re crazed, they will be crazed by it, and they will also decide that you’re not fit to be the one who decides what’s going to happen. So going to the barn has been somewhat of a respite from my own energy. It slows me down, makes me be deliberate and think about what I’m doing instead of flitting from one thing to the next.

This morning I went out intending to ride and ended up just spending time with Dunnie. There was some work being done near the ring with power tools, so instead of taking the chance of him getting spooked, we just hung out. I groomed him and grazed him. He’s still shedding his rather shaggy winter coat, and it’s so satisfying to watch curry comb-fulls of hair come loose and drift to the ground. This morning was beautiful weather, cool and dry with the sun shining. I led him to the grass field with little patches of yellow and purple wildflowers growing in it, and he happily grazed while I basked in the sun and watched him and the other horses go about their ways. The turkey vultures wheeled slowly with their giant wingspans above us and I told them, “We’re all very much alive down here, thanks.” It was so peaceful. I haven’t had a chance to do all that in such a long time. Everywhere I’ve ridden since I started riding again has been busy; it’s been, tack up, get on, untack, go home. I’m loving being able to ride so much, but honestly, spending this quiet time with a horse is the best part.

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Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.

 

New Tricks

After some months of traveling, I’m back in Texas for a few months and ready to ride again. I was unsure of where to start, after last summer’s search for the right barn and then the subsequent disappointment of not really feeling the one that seemed to be the best fit, I bemoaned my apparent lack of options. But then I changed my perspective, and took another look at what was there. One of the barns I had communicated with over the summer had seemed like it was going to be a good fit, but then didn’t work out because they don’t jump their school horses and I was very focused on picking up where I left off with jumping when I was in LA. I was trying to find a place that offered what I was looking for, but what if, instead, I looked at what this place was offering?

On their website, they advertised both Western and English lessons. Western lessons intrigued me; I couldn’t imagine what they would consist of. I’ve been in a Western saddle a handful of times in my life, but only on trail. I’d never had any instruction other than the rudimentary “this is how you stop and go” talk that they send everyone out with on trail rides. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to learn a whole new perspective on riding. Maybe learning some new tricks will be challenging and interesting and fun.

I contacted the woman with whom I had communicated last summer and explained my situation, asking if she thought that Western lessons would be worthwhile or interesting to someone with my experience. What she wrote back was unexpected. She said she had a wonderful reining horse who was coming up for lease, and was I interested?

First, I had to look up what a reining horse was. Then I asked if I could come try him out.

Yesterday I went out to the barn and met Dunnie. When I drove up and walked past the first barn, I saw a small, well-proportioned buckskin with a friendly face looking out his stall window at me with his ears up. I wasn’t sure it was him, since the only thing I knew about him was his color, but I guessed it was.

I watched while he was tacked up, all the straps and pieces so different from English tack, trying to learn and remember so I can do it for myself.

While I got on, my trainer explained a few basics to me. I had also been watching YouTube videos during the day to get a sense of what I’d be learning. Reining seems like it is not that different from dressage, except that it is like the opposite of dressage. What I mean is, there are certain elements and movements expected, and they are to be done with maximum finesse and minimum appearance of overt control. But instead of feeling fussy and stifling, it feels natural and at ease. In my dressage lessons, I was instructed to keep a strong hold on the reins with constant contact; in this lesson I learned that hands are the last resort, and everything should be done with leg and balance. This is so much more my style.

After a few basic instructions and some guidance about how my position should be different in the Western saddle as compared to English seat, my trainer suggested that I should just ride Dunnie around and do what I needed for us to get used to each other.

Everything just…clicked. Immediately. It felt like what I’ve always thought riding should feel like; like the best it has felt in fleeting moments when I’ve been really strong and confident. It didn’t feel like I hadn’t been on a horse in 6 months, it felt like I’d been riding this horse every day for the last 6 months.

Over the next month, I will likely take lessons on him, and then take over his lease at the end of March when his current lease term is up. I want to get more comfortable at the barn to know how things work there and where everything is, and I feel that I need to get some more groundwork down before it makes sense for me to spend so much time training on my own. I’m so excited to learn these new skills, and be able to immerse myself in something that felt so natural to me right off the bat. I’m also so excited at the thought of riding several times a week, having time on my own with Dunnie to keep getting to know him and learn from him.

Does Anyone Remember Laughter?

I have been riding, but I haven’t been writing. I just haven’t felt inspired.

I just looked back at a draft for a post I started to write about the second lesson I took at my new barn. It’s all about how my new trainer, who is very good at what she does, is encouraging me to develop some new habits as a rider. Her training is grounded in dressage techniques, concerned with getting the horse into a particular frame of body in order to make his movement more efficient and effective. It all makes a lot of sense and is interesting from an academic viewpoint.

The problem is, it’s not very fun.

Every moment and every movement is an intense juggling act to hold myself and my horse in what seem to me counter-intuitive postures. Although intellectually I can see how doing some of these things work with the anatomy of the horse and its movement, physically I just cannot feel it.  Well, it’s not that I can’t feel it–I do feel the horse doing what the trainer says he should be doing in response to my cues. I just think there are other ways to get there.

I just feel hemmed in by it all. Maybe part of that is having the full attention of a trainer, something I haven’t had since I was a teenager. But there just feels like no freedom, no time to figure things out by myself or have my own communication with my horse without my trainer reminding me to use her techniques. I get off my horse at the end of the lesson and I don’t feel like I know him very well because we didn’t have time to speak privately.

All of this returns me to a consideration of what I really want out of riding. What do I love about horses?

Do I love achieving the perfection of equitation? No. The constant striving for “perfection” is stifling and crazy-making and misses the point of life.

Do I crave equestrian competition? No. I love watching the shows because they are exciting competitions. And while the thought of being recognized as being very good at something I love to do is alluring, the show world is really not my scene and not a place I would be very happy or comfortable.

What do I love about riding, then? I’m pretty sure the answer is just “freedom and joy.” That’s what it gives me. I’m happy when I’m riding. I’m happy when I’m connecting with a horse. I love being outdoors and around animals. I love movement and activity. I love the feel and the sight and the smell and the sounds of horses. I want to be around them as much as possible.

What’s the problem then? Why am I so dissatisfied by my lessons?

I think it’s because they are framed as a means to an end. Every moment on the horse is about creating a response, and there’s no rest from that. Maybe that’s a form of good horsemanship, but it’s not my style. It’s all business.

Maybe the real problem is that everything feels that way lately. In trying to shape a new career for myself, trying to find work that I love, my thoughts run in circles trying to find ways to parlay doing what I love into a paying job. I need money to do what I love. I need to do what I love to make money.

And another problem is that it seems like “making money” is the only goal anyone has in this country anymore. The corporatization of everything is destroying creativity, destroying people’s capacity for joy, destroying peace, destroying nature, destroying fun…destroying life.

There’s a scene in “The Song Remains the Same” where Robert Plant ad libs onstage during “Stairway to Heaven”, asking the crowd, “Does anyone remember laughter?” It is a ridiculous moment and he’s supposedly still embarrassed by it, having asked for it to be cut from the movie during editing. But that’s how I feel right now. When I’m trying to find work writing and editing–trying to share ideas and stories that might in some way make life better for people and trying to help others do the same–and I am drowning in people talking about marketing verticals and SEO, I want to ask the whole goddam world if anyone remembers laughter.

It’s like everyone is simultaneously too serious and not serious enough. Maybe what it comes down to is just priorities. People care the most about things I don’t care about at all, and in doing so they miss the importance of the things that actually make life worth living.

 

 

 

 

The Old Stomping Grounds

While researching dream jobs recently, I came across Nancy D. Brown. She’s a travel writer who decided to combine her love of travel with her passion for horses and now runs a website, Writing Horseback, that gives tips and reviews for creating the ideal horseback vacation.

Ms. Brown invited me to write a guest post on where to ride in Brooklyn. I gladly accepted and mentally returned to my old stomping grounds to review the barns where I used to ride. You can read the post here: Horseback Riding in Brooklyn, NY

Finding (What’s Good for You)

After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.

There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.

So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.

I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.

Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.

Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong.  Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air.  (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).

Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.

We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.

All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.

Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.

Equestrian Fitness: Yoga Tune Up® for Recovery

One of the problems with the methods of training I use (running, cycling, and weightlifting) is that they all result in a lot of muscle tightness that builds up over time, making me inflexible, sore, and irritable–all things that make me want to avoid working out.

Since riding itself can contribute to muscle tightness, especially in the hips and lower back, I’ve found a number of ways to combat this unfortunate downside of my training regimen.

Swimming

Getting in the water is a great way to ease sore muscles. Swimming is itself an excellent full-body workout that is especially helpful to sore joints because of its lack of impact. But even going for a dip without doing laps can be quite restorative.

After a hard run or weightlifting session, getting in the pool and relaxing helps my muscles recover more quickly. Doing some flowing movements and stretches in the pool stimulates the muscles with a light resistance created by the water, preventing them from getting stiff as they heal.

Yoga

I’ve written before about the benefits of yoga for a rider’s flexibility, and in my opinion, yoga is the best cross-training for riding and all of my other training methods. It contributes to the length and suppleness of the muscles, a perfect counterbalance to the tightening caused by building strength.

But what if you don’t have access to a pool and can’t find the time for a regular yoga practice?

I found a very inexpensive, effective solution that I can do at home: Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls.

I was actually introduced to these amazing things back at my yoga studio in Brooklyn and recently I’ve been incorporating them more often into my recovery program.

They’re basically two racquetball-sized balls that are used for self-massage, not dissimilar to the rollers found at the gym. The balls target trigger points and can get in deep to alleviate muscle pain in more specific areas than the rollers.

It’s quite an experience. Laying down on your back with them underneath you, you find all sorts of amazing mayhem in your muscles that you weren’t even aware of. The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it as long as it takes to alleviate the pain in each muscle, without being rushed off a masseuse’s table or trying to air-traffic-control your significant other to massage just the right spots.

Spinal erectors.
Spinal erectors

For me, the most productive area seems to be my lower back. The long muscles going parallel to my spine–the spinal erectors–became extremely tight, and are often the source of my hip pain. Hamstring tightness contributes as well, and my poor hips become pulled between these two very large muscle groups.

After using the Therapy Balls, I feel a huge difference. Often, I can feel the release while I am using them, as a muscle finally lets go of its tension and everything around it relaxes. I used the balls yesterday afternoon and then went for a run in the evening. My body felt refreshed, limber, and there was a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a couple of weeks.

I’m going to try incorporating the Therapy Balls once or twice a week–especially after I ride–to see if more regular usage keeps helping my muscles retain their flexibility and elasticity.