Talking to Horses

In addition to riding three or four days, I’m now also working at the barn two evenings a week. I say that partially as an explanation for why I am updating this blog so infrequently. But it also represents a huge turning point for me: I’m now actually getting paid to do what I love.

Obviously teaching horseback riding to children two nights a week isn’t allowing me to quit my day job. But it’s a start on the path that hopefully one day leads to horse work being my life’s work. And it makes me think of the thousands of times I’d be stuck at my desk, consumed with depression because I never thought I’d find a way out, positive that there was no way I’d ever have the opportunity to do work that was meaningful to me.

Coworkers.
Coworkers.

I was fond of saying, when particularly drained from the utter pointlessness and repetitiveness of the busywork I did all day at my last job, that I would rather be mucking stalls. At least then I’d be using my body instead of deteriorating in front of a computer. I don’t have to muck stalls at this job, but I certainly do use my body. I’m in constant movement: getting the horses from their stalls, grooming them and picking their hooves and tacking them up and untacking them and putting the equipment away and turning them out, cleaning up the barn and the tack room and the arena. And that’s not even taking into account the work in the ring with my students: lugging the mounting block around, helping them mount, walking (or running) alongside them to help them control their horses or understand new concepts, moving around poles and jump standards…I downloaded a step counter for my phone, and in the approximately 3 1/2 hours I work in an evening, I easily get in 8,000–10,000 steps. And that’s after doing all those things with Dunnie and then riding him. The first week I worked, I was utterly wrecked.

But I also slept amazingly. And I can already feel my legs getting stronger and tighter, and my posture improving, and even my pants fitting a little less tightly.

The work isn’t just physical, either. It’s totally mentally engaging. It has to be. When you’re dealing with large animals and small children, safety is the utmost concern. So there’s the running mental checklist and potential-disaster-scanner part of your mind that’s always going. On top of that, teaching riding is all about problem solving. You tell the children what to do. Since they’re not only new at this, but it’s also an activity that takes body awareness, coordination, sensitivity, cooperation, and muscles that few other activities or circumstances provide the opportunity to exercise, it takes quite a while for them to learn how to do what you’re telling them to do. The indicators of whether they’re doing it right are large, obvious behavioral outcomes — like whether they are able to get the thousand-pound animal underneath them to trot, for example — but all of the factors that may contribute to or prevent success in reaching that outcome are extremely subtle and involve an intuitive alchemy that’s not always easy to articulate. So much of what goes on when teaching riding is looking at the horse to see if it’s moving in the way that you’d expect it to based on the instructions you gave the rider. Then if it’s not, you have to analyze the many potential cues the rider is giving the horse to confuse it. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rider is telling the horse “go!” with her legs, but also pulling back on the reins, which tells the horse “stop!”. But other times, there are signals sent through the body that aren’t even visible. So you go through the catalog of your own riding experience, thinking about horses you’ve ridden that are similar to this one and how you solved the problems then. You ask your student creative questions about what she’s feeling from the horse that allow you to project yourself onto the horse’s back with her so you can understand what’s going on.

Ultimately, more than teaching just a sport or a physical skill, what you’re teaching when you teach riding is a language. You’re instructing someone how to communicate with an entirely different species. To convince a creature way, way bigger than them to accept that they have the authority to decide where to go and how fast to get there. It requires instilling an understanding that they must talk with the animal through their hands and legs and seat, using the symbols that the horse has been trained to understand the meaning of in terms of actions. One of the biggest things to overcome there is to make people understand that even though the horse has been trained to respond to these cues, they aren’t machines that will react as though we’ve pushed a button — especially because so much of our lives are infused with technology that works in exactly that way — and that instead they are living things with whom you must take into account personality, preference, mood. So many of the questions students ask me center around trying to come to grips with that. They ask, “Why is she doing that?” “Does he always act like this?” “Do the horses like each other?”, and many others that reveal their attempts to piece together an understanding of the horse’s mental life. I love trying to answer those questions more than any others, because it feels like I’m handing someone missing puzzle pieces that they’re fitting in to get a picture of something elusive and beautiful.

Starting to teach has also prompted me to step up my already pretty intense desire to learn, and ever since Dunnie and I got back to work after the holidays and his short stint of lameness, we’ve been reaching some new levels of refinement. I’ve been working a lot on trying to make his responses to my cues crisper; asking him to react more quickly and strongly to ever-decreasing amounts of pressure from my leg and hands. It’s been going pretty well in most areas. We canter all around the ring now and I ask him for lead changes at random times and in random places. The changes are smoother and more accurate, and since I’m keeping him on his toes now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate when he thinks he should change the lead. So when we canter circles and I don’t ask him, he’s not constantly switching around the turns like he was before. I also realized that by using more leg pressure to turn when I am planning to ask him for a lead change — speaking more loudly with my outside leg, as it were — then the cue to change is clearer to him when I take that leg away and give pressure with the other to ask him to switch (which means I can speak softer with that leg). The constant refinement of our communication is a really interesting process to me. It’s kind of like the longer you’re in a relationship or a friendship with someone, your communication flows more easily through the way you use shorthand or inside jokes to refer to something you both know together. I feel that happening with Dunnie now, like we are really connecting.

 

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For Real

My first horse show as a Western rider (and as an adult) is coming up at the end of September. The last time I rode in a horse show, it was an IHSA competition my senior year of college, 13 years ago.

Dunnie and I have been working hard to get ourselves in shape for the show, but much of the work we’ve been doing is on isolated skills or strengthening specific areas. It’s important work, since I am still learning these skills, and he’s still re-sharpening them, and there has been a lot of really satisfying improvement over the last couple of months. But over the last week or so, things have started to come together on a whole new level.

Reining is going to be just one part of four parts to the show that will also include Western Pleasure, Trail, and Working Cow, but it’s the one I’ve been most focused on. In reining, you ride a pattern of circles, spins, and stops; there are three different patterns that could potentially be the one chosen for us to ride at the show in September.

With just under a month to go, my trainer has started us on learning all three of the patterns and fine-tuning them, so when we get to the show we’ll have them down pat.

You’d think, given my exceptional lack of spatial-relationship sense, that learning and memorizing the patterns would be just about impossible for me. I’ve been notorious in the past for going off course when learning jumping courses, but for some reason these reining patterns make sense to me. The elements all seem to flow together and connect in a way that after I’ve ridden them once, I can visualize them in my head thereafter and go over them in my mind. I realize this is a basic skill that most people take for granted, but for me it’s like I’ve all of a sudden developed mental superpowers.

Even more amazing is the effect all of this has had on Dunnie. There have been times when we’ve tried something new (to me) that I’ve felt stirrings from him, a kind of reawakening of memories of doing all this stuff. But when we started putting it all together with the patterns, it really woke him up. It’s like “Oh, we’re doing this? Like, for real, not just playing? Ok.” He’s always willing, and he always tries, but now he’s also really focused — and it’s impressive how I can feel his impeccable training and his talent shining through.

Despite my many years of riding, I’ve had very few opportunities to ride real working show horses. I’ve been on hundreds of random school horses, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds and quirks. I’ve ridden a few OTTBs and former polo ponies who, while being quite athletic, weren’t originally trained for what I was doing with them. The first time I got on Dunnie back in April, I had zero expectations or preconceptions, because I didn’t even really know what a reining horse was or was supposed to be. I just knew that something clicked with us and I wanted to keep riding him. Seeing him transform, and now feeling him becoming so focused and enthusiastic about what we’re doing has been an incredible experience because he’s getting back to what he was born and raised for, what he was meant to do. And in learning with him and from him, maybe I’m finding that for myself, too.

 

Past the Plateau

This week’s riding has been some of the best of…well, ever.

So far, I’ve been out to ride three days this week (still up in the air about going today, since storms are predicted this afternoon), and on every one of those days, I’ve felt improvement. I haven’t had the opportunity to ride like this since I was a pre-teen in a summer riding camp, and it’s possibly the best thing (riding-wise) that’s ever happened to me.

One of the biggest frustrations I had while riding back in the city was the length of time between lessons. I’d start to feel like I was learning something and then it’d be a week, or two weeks, or several months before I got on a horse again and by that time it was back to square one. There comes a point in learning where you need to just put in hours. First, you learn things. If you can do the thing at all, it feels like an accomplishment. But then you reach a level where it feels like you’ve plateaued. You can still do the thing, but the more you do it, the more you realize you’re not doing it that well, and the desire to get better is kindled. At that point, you just need to spent a lot of consistent time reinforcing and refining the skills you learned when you were at a more basic level.

That plateau level is basically where I’ve been for the three years since I’ve gotten  back into riding. I’m more mature now than I was when I stopped at the age of 21, and in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot more about how to learn. So since I’ve been back on the horse, I’ve been happy, grateful, relieved … and also, fundamentally frustrated, knowing that there was so much more to riding and wanting to go there but never quite being able to get there.

And now, I’m there. One day, this amazingly trained, patient, willing horse was dropped into my lap and now I’m finally, finally able to ride and train at the level I’ve been yearning for. I set goals and then every day I work at them a little more and I improve a little more and then I achieve them.

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What’s next?

Like last week, when I was struggling to get Dunnie into a good canter transition without running into a sloppy trot. I had a breakthrough then with figuring out a better way to ask him for the canter, and I set myself a goal for this week: to be able to canter around the entire ring, getting the flying change in both directions. I thought it might be a stretch for me, given how weak my legs felt at that point. But then yesterday we did it. From a complete standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter in a perfect transition. We cantered around the ring, got the flying lead change in both directions. I even went a little bit further than that, backing him up after we stopped, doing a rollback (which I didn’t even really know how to do, but just felt like he did so thought I’d try it) and then picking up another perfect canter transition in the opposite direction. I felt…real. As in, “I’m really doing this.”

 

Little Victories

This week’s rides have been excellent, and I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in and make progress. Last week I didn’t get a chance to ride at all because of the days of storms and historic flooding in the Houston area. All the horses at my barn were fine, just very, very wet. The place was largely inaccessible all week and all of the rings were under water.

While unable to ride, I did attend the National Reining Breeders Classic at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center, which is only about five minutes from my apartment. I wanted to get a firsthand look at what a reining competition looked like. It was exciting to watch, as the competitors entered the arena at a full gallop and the first element in the pattern was a dramatic sliding stop followed by backing up, spinning, and then heading off in a canter. Unlike the showjumping at the Pin Oak, when I look at the reining competition I feel like it is something I could definitely do with some more training.

So this week, I’ve jumped right in to really pushing myself to learn and improve in a productive way. I’m excited to try out showing again (it has been fourteen years since I was last in a horse show, the IHSA competitions I did back in college), and hope to quickly get to a point where I know enough to go to some low-level competitions.

The thing about working with Dunnie is that he’s so willing. If I ask him to do something, he generally does it. While I’m learning new things — the techniques of reining — and he doesn’t do what I ask him for, I can usually assume that it’s because I’m not asking properly, or communicating clearly enough. When that happens, and I’m riding on my own (outside of lesson time), it’s up to me to figure out where I’m going wrong and try to fix it. Ultimately, this is a far more enriching way to learn. Instead of someone else (a trainer) giving me exercises to do and then assessing whether I’ve done them and then moving on, I’m creating the curriculum. I’m still doing a ton of reading and YouTube watching, learning new exercises for making my position better, and for making Dunnie softer and more flexible and responsive. I bring those concepts to the ride, and then I’m the one who has to assess whether they’re achieving what I want them to. I have to feel it myself instead of relying on an outsider observer.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this process is that little victories are very valuable. This is something I’ve also picked up watching Stacy Westfall’s training videos for Jac. Since he’s young and green and she’s teaching him how to do everything for the first time, she doesn’t expect him to be perfect. She rewards small behaviors that are steps in the direction of what she wants him to do, and he learns step-by-step. Although Dunnie is already a well-trained and well-seasoned reining horse, this is the approach I’m taking with him, building on small victories that show me he’s listening to what I’m asking and that I’m at least kind of asking in the right way.  It’s like we’re establishing a way to communicate with each other. I say, “Do this, please,” and if he doesn’t do it, I stop and think about another way to phrase the request, adjusting the position of my hands, or rearranging my seat and the distribution of my weight. Often while we’re standing still and I’m taking a moment to think about what to change, Dunnie will turn his head and look back at me, nuzzling at my feet a little. My trainer says this is great; it means that I have his attention. He thinks of me as the leader of the game, and he’s asking me, “What’s next?”

We had a really productive ride on Thursday where we did tons of exercises and had our longest, most collected canter so far. Cantering has actually been the one thing that’s a bit of a challenge for me to adjust to in the Western saddle. The stirrups are just so long and I keep losing my left one. I’m also not used to the low head carriage and the more rolling lope feeling of Dunnie’s canter — so much so that I thought he was giving me small bucks in the transition, but learned from my trainer that it’s not happening — it just feels that way. After all the little victories we achieved on Thursday, including getting a little more speed and fluidity on the rightward spin (left still needs work), perfecting the shape of our circles, and working on doing figure-eights backwards, I thought we could use a break the next day. It was hot and muggy, so I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager — ride bareback. I thought I’d not only spare Dunnie the weight and sweatiness of his big saddle and pad, but also remove the temptation for me to push us to do a lot of work.

It was an adjustment to being on his back without the security of the Western saddle. He felt so much smaller! But after the initial shock wore off, it was quite nice. We walked almost the whole time, enjoying the breezes that came through the indoor arena, where we’ve been riding all week while waiting for the rains to stop and the outdoor ring to finally dry out. I realized that riding without the saddle can give me a new awareness of my position; without its guidance of where and how to sit, I have to really focus on my posture and the position of my legs. For fun, we did the reining pattern I had watched over the weekend at the NRBC, doing all of the elements at a walk and imagining the crowd cheering us on.  After that, we trotted a short bit just to see how that felt; his trot is so easy to sit to that I could have done it for even longer. My trainer suggested that I get a bareback pad because then I can canter and do more other fun stuff. I’m thinking about it, but I like the idea of having these bareback vacation/goof off days, and will probably incorporate them into our weekly schedule, especially as the summer heats up to near “a hunnert” here in southeast TX.

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.