Change Up

I haven’t written after the last couple of lessons, mostly because there hasn’t been much to say other than complaining about being stuck in the indoor arena now that the cold (brutal, unexpected, demoralizing cold) has arrived. I’ve been trying to put a good face on it, but the truth is that it sucks. It’s a madhouse in there–as many as eleven or twelve horses at a time–and it feels like it has been stunting my ability to ride. It makes everything stop-and-go, with much more walking downtime and much less jumping. It’s very difficult to focus on your position and to work on improving the finer points of your skills when you have to navigate around a bunch of children who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re all over the place! Half of them can’t get their horses to move, most of the other half are oblivious to any other horses but their own.

But to keep things in perspective: I’m riding. I’m riding very nice horses with a patient, articulate trainer with whom I get along very well. And as she said during our last lesson, this experience is valuable. When you go to shows and are schooling in the ring in preparation, this is what it’s like. Well…you’re riding with people on your own level, not little kids…but the ability to block out the traffic and the shouts of other trainers and just focus on yourself is important. I see that. It’s not something I’m great at. I get frustrated fairly easily by all this. It tends to make me distracted and disorganized.

It was a bit better this weekend, when a snowy day kept some people away and brought the clusterfuck grand total to only six or seven horses. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was away this weekend but with the holidays looming this was our last chance for a lesson before my riding buddy leaves to travel for Christmas. So instead we rode with a trainer named Jess.

Every once in a while, I think it’s a really good thing to have a change up. Developing a rapport with a trainer is very important to me and in order to grow as a rider I definitely need the consistency that relationship provides. But it’s also great to have a new perspective sometimes; someone who isn’t so familiar with your bad habits and patterns and who might have a fresh take on explaining them in a way that helps you work through them.

The thing I liked most about Jess is that she used the flatwork time in a more focused way than I have become used to. Hannah usually has us walk in two-point to stretch out and then repeat that position at both the trot and the canter. She gives us a lot of helpful pointers about our position and especially focuses on getting us working well with our mounts, since we are often riding horses that are new to us. It’s productive, but mentally I’ve been viewing flatwork as a warm-up to jumping. Jess, however, really put us through our paces. She had us go around and around and around the ring in the two-point at the trot, focusing on firming our abdominal muscles to really pull our chests up off the horse’s neck. We then moved onto a posting trot where we put two beats to each post instead of one–up up down down–going up, holding for another beat while standing in the stirrups and then sitting for two beats. That was an eye-opener into how weak my inner thighs are and how piss poor my balance is. I kept falling back onto the saddle on the second “up” beat. She also had us work with extending and collecting our horses’ strides. Hannah usually has us do this over cavaletti, by moving them closer together and further apart each time we trot over them; this is in preparation for adjusting the stride length between jumps. Jess had us doing this by working into the most propulsive, forward, extended posting trot we could get from our mounts on the long ends of the ring, and then on the short ends we collected them back into a shorter stride for a sitting trot. Swapping back and forth like that can be difficult for some horses. The horse I rode this week, Summer, was a pro. Practically, if not actually, a pony, she had a compact frame and seemingly a lot of body awareness.

I really enjoyed having these more focused exercises during the flatwork. They not only made me warmer and more limber for jumping, they also reminded me how much I get out of training. These are the kinds of things I used to do by myself when I leased a horse as a teenager, the only time I’ve ever had any sort of non-directed riding time. I would ride by myself without a trainer and focus on getting my body into shape, and on working with my horse to be the most connected we could be. Having the time to focus on the real specifics of training my body and my horse without distractions is difficult to get when I have a riding lesson every other week, and it’s something I miss terribly.

This thought has been knocking around in my head all week, and it finally dawned on me last night at the gym. I was running on the treadmill and distractedly watching the Knicks game while daydreaming about playing softball. And I thought about how it seems like when I’m not playing a sport, life can seem a little meaningless. Obviously I don’t think that sports are the meaning of life. But I’m realizing about myself that I have this striving energy that requires an outlet. I need to put most of my energy into training, into improving. If I don’t have one thing to focus on, that energy spills out into everything and becomes a pressure for perfectionism in every aspect of my life. It makes me feel dissatisfied all the time. I don’t get the outlet I need from work because I’ve always had just a job, nothing I care very much about beyond a paycheck and insurance. I’ve been thinking for a long time about what kind of work to do that would give me that outlet, and what always comes to mind first is something to do with horses.

My dream is to work in a barn instead of an office. To be moving around all day instead of sitting. To look into the warm, deep eyes of a horse instead of the dead glare of a computer screen. If I’m honest with myself, that’s always been what I wanted. But I’ve never really allowed myself to be honest in that way. I was raised to think of something like horseback riding as a hobby, something you do in your time away from your real job. I’ve never allowed myself to seriously consider the possibility that working with horses could be my real job. But the more I think about it, the more sure I am that it’s the only way I’ll ever be satisfied…

New

I haven’t written the last two times I’ve gone riding. Both times I had good but uneventful lessons, but more than that, there was a great deal of upheaval in my life for the past month or so. Riding was a wonderful respite and distraction from all that was going on, but I didn’t have the time or concentration to reflect on the lessons or post here.

Now that I’m finally settled and unpacked in my new place, I’m ready to start my new life.  Today was my first weekend day waking up here and my first post-move lesson. Part of the upheaval I spoke of before was a big fear that certain aspects of my life wouldn’t be able to continue; riding was the biggest. Living in this city alone is insanely expensive and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a place that was within reason. But I did, so I can afford to keep riding. It’s a huge relief to not have to sacrifice the things I love most in order to make change in my life.

Today I rode a horse I’ve never ridden before, Mason. He’s a small, somewhat green chestnut with an incredibly sweet and willing disposition. His responsiveness reminded me a bit of my old pal Allie from Kensington, but it came with none of Allie’s mare-like sass.  Last time I rode, two weeks ago, I was in the middle of everything. I was tired, worn down, anxious. My trainer suggested Mason for me then, but I was relieved to see that someone else was riding him. I couldn’t bear the thought of a new mount, especially since we were still riding outside and the weather had finally turned. Even a horse you know well, have ridden all summer, can be a totally different horse when it gets cold outside. Instead, I ended up riding Jasper last time, much to my relief. He is so solid and reliable that I was able to push away all the worries in my head and just be with him, feeling safe and comfortable.

This week I was prepared to ride a new horse. Frankly, I haven’t ridden a horse there that I’ve disliked. Even the ones I didn’t really click with were still good mounts, well-trained and healthy and willing. Mason is pretty special, though. I didn’t have to ask twice for anything. He’s a forward, good mover. He actually moves like a larger horse than he is; I was reminded of this a couple of times going down the line. I got out of sync with him on the second jump a couple of times, forgetting about his compact frame and smaller stride because he felt like he was eating ground like a larger horse. His jump has so much heart, too. It was fun feeling him pop over everything with gusto even though we only jumped cross-rails today. Jasper can’t even care about a cross-rail. Until we get cantering and get some height on the jumps, he’s perfunctory at best. But Mason is right there, giving it all for every jump.

There was another new thing…we finally had to come into the indoor arena. It’s not that cold today, low 50s, but our trainer didn’t trust my riding buddy’s mount not to be a frisky basketcase outside. So instead we shared the indoor with a grand total of eleven horses, hence only jumping cross-rails. What a shitshow. Half the lessons are very young riders who don’t have the experience or wherewithal to control their horses enough to stay out of each other’s way. There are several trainers in the middle of the ring, strolling around and calling out to their students. It’s a little crazymaking. But it’s do-able. It’s going to be what our lives are like for the next few months, barring any (ohplease, ohplease) warm spells. At the very least, it will force us to pull back a little bit, focus on fundamentals, since we won’t be able to jump courses inside. It’s going to be very good for me, actually. I can get caught up in the drama and excitement of running around over fences, but I really do want to take my time and get to know myself as a rider, to get strong, get good habits, get a better sense of rhythm and firm my position. That’s what this winter will be about. And I kind of feel like that about my life as a whole as well. I’ve just come through a tough time and I’m feeling free and hopeful and ready for adventure. But I also need to take things slow, take time to heal and to do those same things I want to do with my riding: get to know myself, get strong, get good habits, get a better sense of rhythm, and firm my position. I’m ready.