Searching and Exploring

The other goal of my life lately, in addition to becoming the best rider possible, has been exploration. Leaving New York was like being sprung from a trap and starting this work-from-home existence has been like being released from prison. It was a ten-year long sentence and I see now it was a prison of my own making. I knew intuitively the moment I joined the office world just a couple months after graduating from college that it wasn’t right for me. I simply wasn’t cut out for it–but I didn’t listen to my body and myself. I just changed jobs, every time getting the same type of work that didn’t suit me, and every time believing that it was the only path available. My confidence eroded over time and I saw no other options. I knew that I wanted and needed to get out of the commuter lifestyle because it was killing me–but I came to believe that desire was unrealistic and wrong. “This is just the way it is,” was the message that was drilled into me by the surrounding culture.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Now several months into the working from home, my perspective is so much clearer. So many paths and opportunities and adventures now feel open to me that I thought were closed off.

The biggest one of those has been the ability to explore other parts of the country and places to live in. My boyfriend and I tried out LA for a few months, and decided it was not for us. On the surface, it seems easy to live there–the mild weather, the friendly-seeming people. But beneath that, it is an unnatural place and life there is very out of balance. And for someone who grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of woods and water, the landscape there–carved out in a desert–is not comforting or inspiring.

The one great thing about living in LA was my barn there. I was too busy to write about my last several lessons before leaving, but they were wonderful. I felt comfortable at this barn and like I was thriving and learning and growing as a rider. The courses felt less intimidating and more solvable and exciting. My trainer remarked that I was getting better every lesson. The horses there were some of the best quality horses I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride–and that in itself gave me the opportunity to grow and jump more and higher than I ever have. In my last few lessons I also discovered a horse that suited me very well–a chestnut quarter horse named Flash who seemed to move at my rhythm and who was very fun to jump.

Leaving the city was a no-brainer–it’s expensive to live there and not what I’m looking for across many factors–but the part of that decision that meant leaving that barn was a tough one. Ultimately, I realized that I will likely be able to find a similar level of riding and a comfortable barn at which I can grow elsewhere. To remain in a situation in which I was otherwise not satisfied would have been a trap in its own way.

So, we packed up our few belongings and the cats into our trusty truck that had already gotten us across the country once and headed East. For now, we’re staying with family in Texas, taking a breather and taking stock. Discussing priorities, compromises we are willing and unwilling to make, and dreams to pursue. Talking about the kinds of lives we want to live. One thing I know for sure is that I never want to stop riding like I did for all those years back in NYC. I want horses to always be a part of my life, and a big part of it.

While we’re here in Texas deciding on the next place to explore, I’m making it a priority to keep riding. Even if I’m not staying to put down roots at a barn, I can keep myself in riding shape. Last week I had a lesson at a barn that turned out to not be for me–it was almost distressingly run down and dilapidated. I rode a horse that in his day was quite a nice showjumper, from the pictures the owner showed me; now at the age of 30, he is in incredible shape for a horse so old, but is certainly not capable of performing at the level that I need in order to progress. We had a relaxed flat lesson working on transitions, which is always useful, but I left feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged.

I’m currently looking around for another barn to try in the area. There are a few of them, and it’s just about narrowing down which one has the right feel. It’s just like what I’m doing in the rest of my life–exploring, trying things out, and for the first time since I can remember, having the freedom to decide what is right for me and actively shape my life to be the way I want it.

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Horse

I rode another new horse I’ve never been on before today, and I do mean horse. Like, 17 hands of big, athletic, lovely, grey horse. His name is Frenchie.

Frenchie
Frenchie

When I first got on, I was admittedly nervous. I haven’t had that much animal to handle since I left Brooklyn. I felt so high up and vulnerable. Posting felt weird because of how big his stride is. It took some time to settle in an adjust my body to the entirely different movement that an added 2 hands brings.

It wasn’t just his size that made me a little nervous; once we warmed up at the canter I could feel a bit of a charge to him. A couple of times he tried to pull his head down on me so I brought him back to the walk before he could get worked up. I hoped he would settle down before we jumped. I also asked my trainer the best way to handle him. He had a long, long neck and I wasn’t sure if he was just pulling down on me because I was trying to keep his head too far up and his stride too collected for his comfort, or if I should be bringing his head up to forestall what felt like was pre-buck behavior. She and the other trainer standing by both said he was fine, just practically a giraffe.

But on our first warm-up jump over a cross-rail, Frenchie showed that he was being frisky. The jump felt amazing–I always forget how much more intense the airtime feels on a big horse–but afterward he picked up speed and gave a few bucks. I didn’t panic and was easily able to sit to them and pull him back to a walk, but my trainer said that was very atypical of him and maybe he was in a mood. So she had me hop off and give him to one of the stable hands for a quick lunge. It would give him the opportunity to run a little, kick and buck and get the lead out.

It’s pretty likely that the bad juju was a result of the weather. There’s a storm coming today that will be the first rain the area has seen in weeks and weeks. Horses are extremely sensitive to changes in weather and approaching storms. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason why the horses here seem so much more mentally stable than the horses I was riding back east might be because of the consistency of the weather here. Pretty much every day, they can count on the weather being just about the same: warm and sunny. Not a lot of cold fronts come through to throw them out of whack like they constantly do in other parts of the country. And there really aren’t seasons here, so they don’t have to contend with the big changes in temperature and scenery those bring. So maybe the uniformity of the Southern California weather is something that keeps the horses here sane (although clearly this argument cannot be made for the area’s human denizens).

The horse that came back to me after the 5 minutes of lunging was like a totally different horse. He was much happier and more relaxed when I got back on. We took the same cross-rail to get back in the swing of things and he approached it with aplomb. The rest of the lesson was a great time; I really loved riding him.

As much as I’ve felt that the smaller horses are more my style since returning to riding, this made me remember why I love the big ones. In my mind, small horses less daunting because they aren’t quite as strong and there’s less height to worry about falling from. Sometimes having a more compact frame makes it seem easier to fit the right amount of strides between jumps, or make tight turns. But I forget, until I get on one, that big horses suit me quite well. I found it much easier to find the distances on all my jumps today with Frenchie’s bigger, longer stride leading up to them. It also gives me a higher vantage point that makes me feel like I can look through them and soar over them, rather than getting in really deep and feeling the jumps loom. (I also like a higher vantage point when I’m driving, especially on the freeway. I drive a small SUV and feel much better in that being raised up above the traffic than being in a low car that is dwarfed by all the surrounding vehicles).

In many ways, Frenchie reminds me of my favorite horse back at Jamaica Bay, Jasper, the big bay that I always felt my best jumping with. Or even an amalgam of Jasper and another fun horse to jump there, Casper. (I can’t stand that they rhyme, either). Frenchie has the tall frame and the long neck of Jasper, making him a bit difficult to bend; he also has the smooth but lumbering stride that makes the lead-up to the jump somehow flow more easily for me. He shares with Casper his striking grey coat and tendency to hang on my hands as well as a more athletic jump.

The course we did today was very fun. It started off with a vertical on the diagonal very close to one end of the ring. After that, we had to roll back around on a tight turn to another vertical just a bit further back from it on the other diagonal. The turn was quite tight, especially with such a big horse. I had to sit up very tall and draw on all my abdominal and back strength to keep us collected around that turn.

Here's a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.
Here’s a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.

After the second diagonal and the very easy flying change, we came around to a two-stride line on the long side. The first couple of times I got into this a little bit deep and the second jump was a little tough getting out. But my last time through I made a plan and stuck to it; I decided to pull him up and collect right after my turn, not right before my first jump. That enabled me to pull Frenchie back to wait for a better spot on the first jump and gave us a more even line. After the line, we went around the end of the ring and weaved through some jumps to finish with another vertical on a diagonal. By this point Frenchie had a momentum and on the turns he was tilting like a motorcycle. I stretched up, stepped on my outside stirrup and lifted his head as best I could (I can already feel the soreness in my shoulder blades creeping in only a few hours later from this exertion) and aimed him at the final jump. It was a long enough approach that I had too much time to think about it. The first couple of times through I got excited and gunned him a bit, taking a long, flat jump. The last time through, confident from my ability to be the boss on the line, I sat up and waited and finished the thing off beautifully.

I still apparently am holding my breath during my courses because I always have to work to catch it afterward. In my last several lessons I’ve been so beat that when I finish a course doing a decent job and my trainer says that’s it for the day, I’ve been at least partly relieved. Today I could have gone a few more times. I felt again that I had the presence of mind to be a more critical rider and to stick to decisions that improved my course each time through. I hope that I can ride Frenchie again on Friday now that I’ve got into the rhythm of him; I think we will be awesome together.

 

 

Fitness

My lesson yesterday left me pretty sore so this morning instead of going to the gym, I’m in recovery at home. When I’m tight and sore, the natural response is to not want to move at all. But I’ve learned that “recovery” is not simply about doing nothing–rest is important, but so is stretching and moving in a way that will help those muscles heal.

This morning while doing my own version of recovery–some light yoga and using these amazing things to work out the really painful kinks–I was thinking about my own fitness regimen. I’ve read many articles and blogs talking about the best exercises to get you in shape for horseback riding. All-over muscle tone, but particularly core and leg strength, is usually the focus. Clearly, the best way to develop riding strength is to ride often. But I’m finding that there are certain exercises that develop enough tone to make my lessons much more productive; having that “head start” of some tone in the muscle helps those parts of my body warm up more quickly and operate with more suppleness in the lesson, which in turn probably leads to building the muscle more quickly.

I thought I’d share what I’m finding here–basically through trial and error–in case it’s helpful for anyone else. The fitness regimen I’m trying to establish is not only for riding, although getting back into the best shape I can for that is one of my main goals. I’m also realizing how important fitness is as a part of life. I’m at the age where during the next several years, muscle tone will start sharply declining and I want to head that off at the pass as much as possible so I can continue leading an active life. Putting the work in now is setting me up to include fitness as a major part of my lifestyle for the rest of my life, and I need that.

As a child I was incredibly active. I was naturally athletic, energetic, and thin. As I’ve aged, my metabolism has changed and I’ve accepted that as a natural part of aging. I’ve continue to consider myself “active” since compared to most people, I was. I walked a lot. I played softball twice a week for half the year. I rode horses every other week. I tried to make it to the gym once or twice a week for a run on a treadmill and some weight-lifting. I occasionally rode my bike around the track in the park a few times. As I type that now, it sounds like a lot. But it’s not. At no point in any of those activities did I really consistently push myself.

In the last three to four years, I put on what for me was a lot of weight. Part of this can be attributed to turning 30. Part of it can be attributed to sitting in a dim hole of a cubicle without seeing a window for the better part of a year and my Seasonal Affective Disorder getting out of control. Much of it can be attributed to a great deal of stress from a variety of sources. I looked ok. I was still “thin” by most people’s standards, and my friends mostly told me to shut up because I was fine. But I didn’t feel fine. I felt like I wasn’t myself, like the body I was inhabiting wasn’t even mine. And a huge part of what felt integral to my personality–my ability to be active–was slipping away. Fatigue, muscle aches and worsening headaches became the norm rather than the exception. I started to become depressed at the thought that I’d never be able to feel energetic and healthy again.

Since moving out to LA about a month ago, I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. It’s a lot more accessible to do so, since I just hop in the car and drive for about 5 minutes to get there, instead of negotiating bringing all my gym clothes to work and convincing myself to get off the subway a few stops before home to walk several blocks in the cold to work out. The gym here also costs me about $40 a month less than it did in NY while at the same time being much nicer and having more equipment, classes, and amenities.

After this month of working out, I’m starting to feel a little bit better. But really, I’m just scratching the surface. It’s made me realize how much damage has actually been done by the complacency of my sedentary lifestyle. I realize that because fitness came so naturally and easily to me as a child and a teenager, I’ve expected it to be that easy as an adult. And it’s not. It’s hard. If I want the level of fitness and athleticism that I had before, I have to really, really push myself to get it.

I’ve also realized how important that is to me. I think there’s a kind of shitty peer pressure pervasive in our culture to not make fitness a huge priority because if you do, it makes the people who don’t feel bad about themselves. There’s the stereotype of an image-obsessed “gym rat” chick who is trying to get impossibly skinny, or the musclebound meathead guy who can’t put his arms down. The fitness world certainly does have its own particular breed of psychosis (as does every sort of niche); I’ve seen some of that here and I don’t even live in the really crazy part of town. But as with everything, balance is key. Pushing your body to freakish proportions is unhealthy and so is neglecting it entirely.

So, going forward in addition to my weekly lesson post, I’m going to also write about my adventures in getting in shape. I’ll mainly focus on what works and doesn’t work for me as a rider, since that’s the topic of this blog, but obviously there will be overlap on what just works generally. I want to become the best rider that I can be–I’m curious as to how good that really is when my body is also the best it can be.

Hand and Leg

Today I rode a slightly more challenging horse named Flash. A good-tempered, not-very- large chestnut with a blaze, he was a good boy but we didn’t really make a connection.

There were a couple of things that added to the struggle. First, there was some road work being done out in front of the barn, which made a class of four rather advanced women leave the front ring and come join us in the back. So there were six of us in there–only one other girl from my class came, the one who typically rides Jackie. Six horses seems not that much compared to the twelve I would typically share the indoor with at Jamaica Bay, but there mostly big, spirited horses and they were jumping. I started to feel a tinge of the old anxiety that I would get in situations like this, but was able to just breathe and take it slow, focusing on what I was doing without worrying too much about the commotion around me.

The other trouble came from my boots. I forgot to mention that last week I rode for the first time in my new Ariats. They are lovely and the zipper up the back is a luxury after how many years I spent getting a charley horse mid-way through taking the pull-on kind off with the boot jack and falling to the floor in agony because my foot was still stuck in the boot and I couldn’t put it down and put weight on it to release the cramp. The best thing about these new ones is that they are pretty soft. Breaking in new boots can be hell, and I was surprised last week that they didn’t hurt at all while I was riding. When I got home I saw that I just had a small cut behind my left knee from the top rubbing there. Once they break in and sink into the ankles more, the tops won’t come up so high. This week, however, they hurt a lot for some reason. Both boots were cutting into the backs of my knees whenever I bent my leg more to squeeze my horse on. Since Flash was a bit stiff and pokey to start the lesson, I had to do a lot of that. I had to force myself to push through the pinching and urge him on.

Once the trainer got me a crop, things were a little easier and Flash started moving on. For the record, I don’t like riding with a crop and will avoid it if at all possible. It’s annoying to have another thing in my hands, it gets caught up in the reins and gets in the way. I also don’t really want to use a crop. I feel like I should be able to get the horse to do what I need him to with my own aids. But sometimes when the horse is being particularly unresponsive, it can be helpful just to carry one. Simply feeling it resting on the shoulder will sometimes make a horse more willing to go, and that was the case today.

The biggest challenge with Flash was finding the right balance of hand and leg to keep him moving forward in a collected way. This was most apparent at the canter. When we started cantering, I was at first disappointed with how uncomfortable it felt compared to the pleasure cruise that was Jackie O’s. But I was able to find Flash’s rhythm and go with it after a little practice. I found that really getting in the front of the saddle and being perched on my thighs instead of on my butt, and even giving a little bit of a half seat was the best way to ride him. I can sometimes overcompensate for a tendency to lean forward by sitting too far back and driving with my tailbone. Doing that on Flash was so uncomfortable with his lopey canter that I was forced into riding in a more correct way.

Once I adjusted my position, it was much easier to sit the canter when he was moving, but around the corners he kept breaking to the trot. I needed to use a lot of outside leg to push him through the turn. Once I did that (with the backs of my knees still protesting in pain), he started getting too quick and disorganized on the long side and I needed to establish some connection on his mouth to collect the canter. Flash uses a pelham bit due to his past as a polo pony, which is stronger than a regular snaffle bit used on most horses. The bit is the part of the bridle that goes into the horse’s mouth and is connected to the reins. The strength of the bit determines how much pressure the rider will need on the reins for the horse to respond to them.  I like to ride with very light hands, letting the horse have as much slack on the reins as possible, but like in this case, some contact is necessary. The hard part today was finding how much contact to use. With the stronger bit, even the slightest pressure on the reins made Flash break to the trot. In order to keep him going around the ring at an even pace, I found that I needed to put on more leg than I thought I needed and less hand. Every time we went around, I made slight adjustments, trying to go lighter and lighter with my hands until we struck that right balance, where he was moving forward up into my hands.

We ended the lesson with an exercise that really emphasized this. First we cantered two poles on the ground, trying to fit in an extra stride. Five was easy to get, as Flash was responsive to my leg moving him up just before the pole. But six, as the trainer asked me to do, was more of a challenge since I needed to keep the leg on and pull him back with the reins enough to cram in another stride, but not so much that he broke to the trot. The first few times this was difficult and the best I could do was really five and a half strides–where the front end of his body fit in before the pole, but the back legs were split over it. Once we got the six, the next challenge was to come in cantering and go over one pole; then we had to slow to the trot and trot over two poles, then pick up the canter for the last pole and continue around the corner without breaking. We were able to do it both times through, but I felt it was a little herky-jerky. When I pulled Flash down to the trot from the canter before the two poles, he practically stopped on a dime. It was the strangest sensation of halting in mid-stride, and then going forward at the trot from there. It honestly felt terrible to me, but the trainer was generally pleased. She said it was better to do it that way than to not get him down to the trot before those two poles. Afterward, when someone mentioned to me that Flash had done polo in the past and also had Western training, it all made sense. I had sensed some of the Western cues in the way he responded to indirect rain and the lopey canter, but the hard stop and the sensitive mouth fit into place as well. I think next time I ride Flash, this understanding will help me out.

I was a bit disappointed not to jump this week, although all of the pole exercises we did will certainly be helpful for judging distances and stride numbers when I do again. I think the main trainer will be back next week and it is likely we’ll go back to the way the class was the first week I rode there. Next week I’m going to a) stretch more before I come, since my lower back was so tight after today’s lesson and I can’t blame it all on Flash’s canter b) put bandages on the backs of my knees to prevent my boots from exacerbating the blisters I now have there and c) bring my own saddle! I asked this week if that’s all right and they said people can bring whatever of their own equipment they’d like. I haven’t used my saddle to ride since college, so I’m looking forward to that.  No one else has ridden in it but me, so it’s perfectly molded to my body. And I don’t have to worry about adjusting my stirrups since they are set to my height. (This doesn’t sound like a big deal but for some reason I have an inordinately difficult time getting my stirrups even and the correct length; I sincerely believe I’m lopsided.)

Can’t wait to ride again. I’m loving all these different exercises and trying out a bunch of new horses. After two weeks of mostly flatwork, I’m itching to jump again. I also can’t emphasize what a difference it makes to ride every week; the consistency is great for me and I feel like I’m improving.

Hello LA

Today was my first riding lesson in LA.

We left New York just about a month ago, taking the long, slow way to get here. First we drove down to North Carolina to see my folks for Christmas. After several days there, we made the two-day drive through South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana to my boyfriend’s family’s home outside Houston to stay through the New Year. Then we had another stretch of what was supposed to be two days of driving across Texas and through New Mexico and Arizona, but it turned into three when we were taken by surprise by an ice storm in West Texas on our way to El Paso. There we were graced with incredible luck that prevented two near misses of unfortunate setbacks to our travels:

1) We nearly had to sleep in the temporary shelter of the First Baptist Church in Fort Stockton, a small West Texas town, when the ice storm forced us to stop there for the night only to find there were no hotel rooms. We were lucky enough to still be in the lobby of the La Quinta when someone called to cancel her reservation for the night, and we were so relieved to have our own room and a bed, especially because we were driving with two cats.

2) We woke up the next morning to find that the roads were passably thawed but that the entire town had run out of gasoline. We had half a tank, but out there you can go 100 miles without seeing another town–the nearest was an hour and a half away–and we weren’t sure of the road conditions in between. A chance encounter at one of the empty gas stations with a local man who pointed my boyfriend to an unmarked, unmanned pump that had escaped the notice of travelers not in the know was the only reason we were able to get some of the last few gallons that the town would see until two days later when the gasoline delivery trucks would next make it out there due to the weather and road conditions.

By the time we reached El Paso, on our second day of driving through Texas, we got to see the sun for the first time since one day of it back in Georgia–and that was the only one in the approximately three weeks that the trip took us altogether. It was a massive relief. We walked outside in the evening without jackets on and stood under palm trees, enjoying the late afternoon rays in our eyes.

New Mexico and Arizona passed by pretty uneventfully. In New Mexico there were billboards advertising a Dairy Queen 130 miles away, so that gives you an idea of how much is going on around those parts. Arizona had some incredible, cartoonish scenery with Wile E. Coyote rock formations and fields of Road Runner saguaro cacti.

We entered California through the mountains while a dramatic sunset lingered for what seemed like an hour, painting the sky bright red and magenta and purple and gold. We drove through the Border Patrol checkpoint in a landscape of sand dunes that looked like a caravan of camels should appear any moment over the horizon. We finally made it to my boyfriend’s sister’s house in San Diego, frayed, exhausted and (unfortunately for me) carsick. The next few days were a marathon of apartment hunting, but four days after our cross-country drive ended, we moved into our apartment in the city of Glendale in Los Angeles, California.

———————-

High on my list of things to find, along with such essentials as a mattress, a tea kettle, and some houseplants, was a new barn to start riding at. Out here there are a lot more options than in Brooklyn. Given the availability of horses where I now live, I’m questioning whether I can still rightly call myself an “urban” equestrian any longer. Glendale might be called “the burbs” by some, but it is, in fact, a small, lovely city just adjacent to and incorporated into Los Angeles. I’m still living in an apartment building without any outdoor space, even though now I have a car and easy access to it. Parks and protected areas abound; I live a twenty minute drive from the Angeles National Forest.

The first and most obvious place to look into was the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. It’s a huge complex of twenty-odd barns located in Burbank, about fifteen or twenty minutes away. I read about a couple of barns there that could work, but had a feeling that it might not be the right feel for me. That suspicion was confirmed when I dropped by the saddlery there; the prices were outrageous and the atmosphere a little stuffy.

Instead I looked east to Pasadena and settled on the San Pascual Stables. It’s about the same distance away, but seems to be a much more comfortable atmosphere for me. Jamaica Bay back in Brooklyn might have been short on space in the indoor arena, but I always felt spoiled by how friendly of a barn it is. I worried that I’d not find anyplace like that again; it can certainly seem a rarity in this sport. Everyone I’ve met so far at San Pascual–my trainer, the barn staff, and my classmates in the riding class–were all friendly and helpful. I think I’m going to feel at home there.

Instead of a semi-private lesson, the situation here is a jumping class that could include up to four riders. There were four of us this first time, and we were the only ones in the large outdoor ring that was bordered on one side by steep, brush-covered sandy hills crowned by palms tress and a couple of houses. I luxuriated in the space I had to move around in, but not as much as I did in riding outdoors early on a January morning wearing only a t-shirt.

The class is for jumping, so we were all expected to warm up on our own prior to beginning. That hasn’t been typical of my experience so it surprised me a little, but I was pleased to go at my own pace after more than a month out of the saddle. I followed the lead of another girl in the class and trotted around and then cantered on my own. It was interesting; the trainer was sitting outside the ring and watching, although not offering instruction, and there were my classmates with me in the ring as well. Being the newbie, I was very aware that I was being watched and assessed. But it didn’t make me nervous at all. I felt supple and in control and graceful, even. I felt like a good rider that was making a good first impression.

Two things contributed to this, I think. The first is that I have been exercising almost every day since we got here. Running, lifting, cycling, hiking, yoga. I am getting a lot stronger. The second is that the horse I was riding made me look really good. A small, 6-year-old, gleaming chestnut mare named Bella was my first mount at my new barn and I was happy to have her. She was super responsive and a good mover. She also fit my body well. She had that perfect curve of the belly that was enough to grip onto, making my calves look secure and not swingy.

Once the class started, we got right into it, cantering a plank jump twice to warm up before launching right into building courses. It was the most I’ve jumped in years, probably since college. We each took a turn going through the prescribed sets of jumps until we put together a whole course and then each got to run through that a couple of times. It was a blast. After the first couple of times through, my trainer put the height up–nothing vertiginous, probably two and a half feet tops–but still higher than anything I’ve jumped in a long, long time.

The trainer seemed pleased at my performance, at least enough to be satisfied that I know what I’m doing and can be taught. Free from anxiety and with a sensible mount underneath me, the distances came naturally. The biggest challenge of the lesson was in persuading Bella to do flying lead changes; as a relatively young horse she is still a bit clumsy with them and sometimes only gets the front and not the back, but even that came successfully after a couple tries.

I felt great after my lesson, driving home in the sunshine with the windows down, the sunroof open, and the radio on. I’m so relieved to have found a place to ride that seems like a good fit, and a place where I may have the room to grow as a rider. I’m looking forward to next week’s class (which will be the first with my new pair of tall boots!)

Last Lesson

Today was my last lesson at Jamaica Bay.

I’ve been planning a move for some time now, and it’s finally happening. At the end of the month, I’m going to get in a car and drive to California, like I’ve been pretty much saying I was going to do on and off since about 2002.

It’s no secret that there are few things I will miss about New York City, especially in winter. It’s inhospitably cold, it’s oppressively crowded, it’s exorbitantly expensive, and it is very difficult to do most of the things I love to do here. But there are some things I will miss dearly: my friends, my softball team, and riding with my Riding Buddy at this barn.

This isn’t the first time in my life that my riding lessons were one of the only things keeping me sane; I don’t imagine it’ll be the last. But whatever else was going on in my life, every Saturday when Riding Buddy would pick me up in the car, I’d feel so relaxed and happy, chatting with her about our lives: our jobs, our relationships, our attempts to get on a regular workout routine, horses, and books. I still feel like there was something cosmic in our meeting, our riding history and circumstances–and even our birthdays!–being the same, and both of us finding our way back to horses at the same time. At first I was just so pleased to have someone to share my lessons with, to share the craziness at Kensington with, and to share a Zipcar with. But she’s turned into more than just an activity partner and has become a true friend. We cheer each other on, we helpfully critique each other, we rehash the our lessons on the way home. I’m going to miss riding with her so, so much.

I’m also going to miss Jamaica Bay terribly. Having so recently begun riding with our new trainer, Jess, it’s such a disappointment to have to leave. She’s the best trainer I’ve had as far as being so engaged with us, being so knowledegable and fun and understanding, and being so aligned with my philosophy of riding. So many of the people at the barn have been so friendly, and I’ve come to feel like I belong there and am known there. And I will, of course, miss the horses. Jasper and Summer, and Misfit and Sparkling Gal. For all their quirks, they are some of the nicest schoolies I’ve had the pleasure of riding.

Part of me had hoped to ride my favorite, Jasper, for my lesson today, but it wasn’t in the cards. Instead I had a very rewarding, wonderful ride on Misfit. I think in the long run, leaving on the high note of having a great lesson on a more challenging horse rather than one that I love because I’m so comfortable with, is a better way to go. After last week’s lesson on her and then another great ride today, I feel confident and strong.

We lucked out on weather today and as a special treat got to ride outside. There was a cold breeze but it was warm enough in the sun, and it’s always easy to keep warm between the exertion of riding and the horse’s body heat beneath you. Misfit was perky and looking around a bit at things, but steady. I talked soothingly to her as we went down to the far end of the ring, by where the tall cattails sway. I looked out over the edge of the wetlands that begin there and remembered how calm and beautiful it is to trail ride there, wishing I’d done it more often.

The lesson was everything I could have hoped for. Before I left my house, I was having to remind myself to get out of a perfectionist mindset, to not heap so many expectations on this lesson to be a certain way just because it was the last. But it was great. We got to jump a bit more because we were outside, and I didn’t have to worry about landing on any little children. Misfit and I found a good rhythm together and pretty much all of our spots felt just right. I felt a small tingle of nervousness when our trainer suggested we put a couple of the jumps together for a mini course; there was a stiff, cold breeze and I worried for a moment that Misfit would get fast. But she didn’t. She was there with me, listening to my hands and my seat and my voice. We took a small solid jump at an angle and then went around the ring to do a line. She came right back to me in between, steadying and getting the four strides. Lately after jumps I’ve been immediately concerned with pulling my horse back down from the canter, I suppose mostly because there’s not much room to canter away in the crowded indoor. But after that last line, Misfit cantered away so beautifully that I decided to just let her go. We floated on in a big circle around Riding Buddy and my trainer that I called my “victory lap,” Misfit moving effortlessly and me riding in a half seat and patting her neck all the way.

For all that I’m sad to leave and know I’m going to miss here, what I am gaining right now is worth it. I’m leaving the place I’ve lived for ten years, and the general region that I’ve lived in my whole life. For a long time now, that lack of mobility has not felt settled or comfortable. Living here has always felt temporary, and as time stretched on where I felt a desire to move on and a seeming inability (due to jobs, relationships, etc.) to do so, it began to feel like a trap. I was filled with a dread of the uncertainty of life because the uncertainty in question was whether I’d ever be able to break out of that trap. With this move, I am facing a great deal of uncertainty. I don’t know what it will be like in LA, whether I’ll stay there or move somewhere else, what my professional life will look like as I continue to try to make change in that…but this uncertainty doesn’t fill me with dread. It’s exciting, and galvanizing and makes me feel like I’m finally, in a way, beginning my life.

I do know that one of the first things I will do upon arriving is to look for a new barn. It’ll be tough to go without my Riding Buddy, but maybe in some ways it’ll be good, too. LA is still an urban environment, but it’s the sprawly kind, not the concentrated-on-one-tiny-island kind. That comes with its own set of problems, but space isn’t one of them. I’d imagine there will be more opportunities and more room to ride. And with the lovely weather out there, no more being stuck in a crowded indoor.

I’m excited to see what this next chapter brings, in my life and in my riding. I’ll continue to chronicle it here, although I’m not sure when I’ll next get a chance to ride. Hopefully soon!