Closing Doors

Today was a lovely ride, yet I left feeling kind of low.

My riding buddy and I switched it up this week, trading our usual mares. I was a little tired and preoccupied to feel comfortable riding the high-strung Sparkling Gal, and had been wanting to try out Misfit after my riding buddy’s raves about her. Now that I’ve tried her, we’re going to have to be drawing straws for her in future lessons, because I loved her too. She’s like all the good things about Sparkle–the beautiful conformation, the athleticism, the sweet temperament–minus the anxiety-provoking skittishness.

Misfit hasn’t been ridden as much as the other school horses, which probably explains her relative sanity. She had been on lease and now is available for lessons again. The one difficulty with her is that she is very unbalanced on her right canter lead. When you are cantering, the inside front leg is the one that should be going first in order for the horse to keep their balance around the turns. Misfit has a hard time with this and will often try to switch up mid-stride to the left lead, where she feels more comfortable. The solution to this is to ride her in a very tight circle going right, holding her in a deep bend in order to force her to have the correct balance.

Keeping her tight on the circle isn’t scary or difficult compared to, say, trying to slow down a horse that wants to run out from under you, or buck, or do something purposefully bad. At no point does it feel like she’s doing something “wrong”, it’s just something that she needs more training on to get her used to it. So I don’t feel any trepidation at having to school a horse this way, or feel that I’m not up to it. My mind completely understands the principles of what needs to happen, and I know in my body, in my muscle memory, how to do it. But this is where my frustration comes in: I can’t do it well enough. I am able to get the horse to do what needs to be done, but my position is woefully out of whack; I feel sloppy and weak and because of that, ineffectual. I lose my stirrups like a beginner, and it feels terrible.

I mentioned this in my last post, about not being able to keep my heels down. It is certainly a symptom of how generally out of shape I am. But in the last few weeks I have returned to making a greater effort to eat well and exercise. I am starting to see and feel a difference: a slimming down, a little more strength and tightness in my muscles, better posture and increased energy. And hopefully I’ll be able to remain consistent with this and things will only get better. However, the problem here is more specifically that I am out of riding shape. Riding horses uses muscles that nothing else really exercises. I could go to the gym five days a week and still not really be able to stop my lower leg from swinging, as it is not supposed to do, even on Misfit’s extremely comfortable left lead canter.

My trainer gently reminds me of these position faults: that my heels need to be down, that I need to sit up more, and I become frustrated because this is deeply-ingrained knowledge. My body is not on par with my mind.  I can’t physically do the things I know how to do.  My thinking all along has been that if I could just get to a place where riding is easier to come by, or the cost of living was lower and I could eventually get a horse; if I could just get into a situation where I was riding several times a week, then I could get my body to the same level as my mind. Then this could be what I want it to be, a challenging, fulfilling activity that I am putting my all into, something to grow with. In practicing an art, or a sport, or any kind of activity, the more you do it, the deeper you realize you can go with it, the more nuance you uncover and delight in. I am there, after so many years of riding. Sitting on the tip of the iceberg, and feeling its immensity underneath me, so excited to explore the depths and simply not having the time, money, or lifestyle to do it. And now, starting to really question if I ever will.

I’m about to be 33. I ride one or twice a month. I haven’t showed since 2003. These are facts that, in the light of which, I can’t help but begin to think that my “dreams” are really just “fantasies.” When I returned to riding nearly two years ago, I told myself, “Yeah, I’m 30, but equestrian isn’t like gymnastics or these other sports where your career is over at 18. There are people in their 50s and 60s competing at a high level; that could be me.” And that could be me. If starting right this minute, I was able to devote all my time, money, and energy to riding. But that’s not reality. My life is such that I don’t know how I would do that. I’m feeling at a loss for what I will do for work (both in the sense of my life’s work, what I am meant to do to feel I am contributing to the world, and “work” in the sense of making money, since it is more and more apparent that those two are not likely to be the same thing). I’m not sure where I want to live, not sure where I will be in a few months, let alone a few years. Everything feels constantly up in the air. So in attempting to figure this stuff out, to pin something down so I can have a starting point, I start thinking about closing doors.

I vacillate on this. There’s the idealistic part of me that shrieks in terror at the thought of giving up my dreams; that stridently refuses to just roll over and accept the mediocrity that most people seem to be content with but that I know I never will be. Then there’s the responsible, rational side of me who can accept that certain things are just not for me, like that since I haven’t played in a band since I was 17, I probably won’t ever be a rock star. But once again, where can I find balance? What dreams are not unrealistic? What can I reach for? I have to reach for something, since I never have and I’m completely unsatisfied with what this “safe” life has to offer. Is it too late for that? Did I miss my chance to live the kind of life I want? I know we all feel our mortality to varying degrees at different times in our life, and as we get older it becomes more in focus. But lately I have felt it so acutely, have been living with this fear that I will have to accept that the things that are important to me, that I want more than anything else out of life, are just simply out of my reach. That I will have to die not ever having experienced them. I see my life slipping away, time spent in pursuits that are not those that I value, and I am scared and angry.

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Impossible

I haven’t been writing lately for a number of reasons, but mostly because I just haven’t felt like it. I’ve had a few lessons that were generally positive. I’ve even started volunteering at GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding program for children and adults with disabilities. I go once a week and help out as a side-walker, helping the rider be secure on the horse while they go through the exercises and activities that the instructor has planned. It’s rewarding work, and I get to be outside and around horses another hour a week.

But most of my time lately has been spent trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. I don’t want to do this anymore, and I need a plan to make a change. My boyfriend and I talk non-stop about what work we could do to fulfill us, where we could live that we’d feel connected and comfortable, and how, at our age, educational level, economic situation, and extent of career experience, we could possibly ever get to a place where we’d be even just not miserable, let alone truly satisfied.

This came up most recently after my lesson yesterday. Our old trainer, Hannah, has moved on since graduating, going back upstate to start her career in a less expensive place, so we now ride with Jess. We rode with her once when Hannah was out and clicked well, and I think it will continue to be a good match. I rode Jasper, whom I was surprised to find out that Jess doesn’t think much of–when I suggested him as someone I could ride, she said she thought he was kind of a dick. Apparently most of the trainers don’t trust him all that much, as he has gotten a little cranky in the indoor of late. I’m not surprised, though. Even though it is finally spring here, we’ve still been stuck in the indoor due to some heavy rains that have soaked the ground on the ring outside. I’m cranky about that, too. Despite a bit of sassiness the last time we rode, where Jasper threw a few bucks as we were cantering toward the jumps, I’ve never had a problem with him. That was true this week too, and Jess chalked it up to Jasper and I just “vibing” well with each other. I think he and I are just awkward in similar ways, and it works.

But despite him going well for me and having a generally good lesson, I was frustrated. I haven’t been as active as I’d like to be, lately falling into the spiral of “I haven’t exercised so I’m too drained to start exercising” that usually isn’t a problem for me this time of year. But softball has been irregular due to scheduling weirdness from the fields being renovated, I haven’t made it to the gym because I’m demolished after work, and I only ride twice a month at best. I’m a bit overweight, my muscles are weak, my stamina is reduced. I’m just not where I want to be, physically or mentally. I want to be an athlete: strong, fit, and pushing myself to do amazing things with my body. And as it stands, I am just a sort of thin person who is rapidly deteriorating at a rate that seems wrong for my age. I feel old. My joints hurt. My muscles are so tight that no amount of daily stretching seems to mitigate it; I fantasize about being put on the rack just to feel some space opened up inside my knotted-up body. This is the worst part for riding. I get on the horse and I know what I am supposed to do. I know to keep my legs back and my heels down, but I can’t physically do it because of how tight my inner thigh muscles are, and no amount of stretching beforehand seems to help. I know I need to keep my upper body still at the canter and between jumps, but my abs are a gelatinous mess. And I know, if I could ride a horse more than twice a month, I would be able to reverse this. I would get fit, my muscles strengthening and becoming flexible again. And because of my circumstances, because of how difficult and expensive it is to ride here, I despair of this ever happening.

I walked around, cooling Jasper down, and I thought about how I would like my life to be. I thought about my dream of becoming a horse trainer. I thought that I’m nearly thirty-three, totally out of shape, and with little to no experience training horses. Sure, I’ve been around them my whole life. Sure, I’ve ridden for nearly fifteen years in total (counting the time before and after my decade-long hiatus). But do I really have anything to show for it? No. I have no accomplishments, no awards, no job experience, no name. I have my abilities, I have my knowledge, but I can’t even show that properly since I’m so damn out of shape. And I think all these things, and I think I’m kidding myself that I could ever make a change, that I could leave this destructive, meaningless office work behind and work with horses.

Chatting at the end of the lesson, Jess mentioned a friend of hers who had just done a month-long internship in New Mexico gentling mustangs. I became excited to find out information about it, since that’s pretty much my dream. I came home and looked it up. For $1,500, which includes room and board for a whole month, I could go out there and learn how to do exactly what I want to do: learn how to train wild horses. They have a certification program that teaches interns how to privatize excess government horses and get them up for adoption (the process that I first learned about and became fascinated with over a year ago when I saw the documentary “Wild Horse, Wild Ride”).

This sounds amazing to me. I get so excited at the thought of going to do this, and I want to fill out the application right away. But then reality must be considered. How can I go to New Mexico for a month? I only have two weeks of vacation. In order to go, I’d have to quit my job. And then what? I go do this for a month, and then after the month is up I have no income, and no place to live. And this drives me wild. I can’t take one month out of my life, away from my job, to explore something that I think could be my life’s work, but which I don’t know until I try whether I have what it takes.  The only way to make a change is to entirely give up income, insurance, security, and stability.

It’s depressing. So many things seem impossible right now.