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

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!




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.


I’ve been fighting (and occasionally succumbing) to this cold/cough/flu thing that has been going around, so I didn’t make it to the gym once to carry out the fitness plan I decided on last week or really have any physical activity at all. But riding two weekends in row has helped, and I stretched really well before I left today so I felt much better than I expected to.

I’d like to take a second to note that I am writing this with a tiny kitten in my lap. A friend found her last weekend in a Christmas tree on the sidewalk and I decided to take her in as a companion to my first cat, Simon. Her name is Darby and right now her slightly-under-2 lbs frame is reverberating with her surprisingly loud purr.  I dream of the day that I can report that I’ve adopted a horse, but until then caring for tiny lives is just as satisfying in its own way as taking care of big ones.

The lesson this week was very productive; it felt like a good marriage of focus on training the horse and training myself. Normally Hannah chooses our mounts for us, but today she told my riding buddy and I just to look at the list of available horses and choose for ourselves. We rode later in the day so the options were limited to horses who hadn’t already been ridden twice. My riding buddy took her favorite mare and I had a choice between Jasper and Max. Jasper is one of my favorites, but I haven’t yet ridden Max, although I’ve seen my riding buddy have a few lessons on him. I was tempted to go with Jasper because he’s familiar, but after a moment’s pause and at my riding buddy’s urging, I chose Max and I’m glad that I did. I’ve always loved having the opportunity to ride different horses and learning to adapt to their different ways and personalities. I have to keep pushing myself to do that in my old age, instead of becoming too comfortable with one horse.

In some ways, Max isn’t too different from Jasper, and they are both very different from the horse I’ve had the last two times, little Summer. They are both tall and have quite long necks, which makes them both tend to be a bit heavy on the forehand. This means that the weight of the horse is more in his front legs instead of balanced or in his back legs. This is not ideal because the impulsion that moves the horse forward comes from the back legs. When a horse is heavy on the forehand, it can feel like you’re riding into the ground. It can be frustrating to constantly feel pulled down and like you’re not getting anywhere. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to pull Max out of this. Hannah suggested that as I was trotting around, I should occasionally give him some half halts, pulling upwards a little on the reins to get his head up. At the same time, I should squeeze him forward with my legs, letting him know that I didn’t want him to slow down or lose impulsion and in a way pushing his body and momentum up into my hands. These things together served to rock his balance backward; I could actually feel this as it was happening. Max’s movement immediately became more comfortable and forward.

The forehand issue is the same when cantering, but he was just as responsive to my hands and leg and once collected, he felt great. I felt very connected to him in a way that I hadn’t even really realized I’d been missing on so much of a smaller mount these last two times with Summer.

The interesting contrast came when we started jumping. The first few times over cross-rails and even over the lower verticals, he didn’t put in much effort. I rode him down into the ground right before the jump and then he barely picked his legs up going over it. I overcompensated, like I do, by sort of throwing my upper body at him over the jump. In retrospect I realize that when I do this it’s like I’m trying to take the jump for my horse, to pull us both over it with my body, which obviously doesn’t work. But once I was able to be patient and wait for my horse to rise up to meet me, the jumps were much smoother. When we cantered to the vertical, it was so easy to find the spot with Max; easier than with any other horse I’ve ridden in memory. Because despite his typical heaviness on the forehand, he had this incredible lightness on his feet right before the jump when we approached it with a collected canter. It’s hard to describe, and I was tempted at first to refer to it as scope, but that really refers to the over-the-jump ability. It’s analogous, though, and I’m not sure there’s a word that refers to what I’m talking about.  On the approach, he collected himself in a way beyond what I was doing to keep him off the forehand, it’s like in preparation for the jump all laziness or clumsiness left him and he became light as air. And in that state, becoming almost intangible, it was easier to meld with him, to be in perfect rhythm for finding the spot.

I can’t wait to go outside again and jump a proper course with Max. With anybody, really. I’m feeling very cooped up these days. But the work we’re doing on individual jumps in the indoor is going to show once we get outside again.


Returning to riding today after the long break for the holidays finally makes everything feel back to normal again, like I’ve returned to a rhythm of regular life. It was a long, slow, restful holiday time this year, which is just what I needed. I could really feel the good it has done me today during my lesson; I felt supple and focused.

One thing I’ve learned is that physical activity the day before riding makes a huge difference to my muscles. Even if I don’t have time to stretch or warm up much before my lesson, having worked out the day before means that I will get warm more quickly at the start and have so much more energy and flexibility throughout.  So it looks like more exciting Friday nights at the YMCA for me. I’m trying to be a bit more disciplined about my exercise schedule these days. Before, I just went whenever I had some free time and as long as I was going semi-regularly, that was enough. Now I’d like to be on more of a training schedule for riding and in (premature, but I’m so antsy for it) anticipation of softball starting up again in the spring. My ideal is to be going two days a week. One day I’ll do cardio (a combo of running/elliptical/bike) and weights to target muscles I use on the horse (mainly core stuff). The other day I will go swimming for however many laps I can handle.  I went last week and was able to do twelve. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any swimming, so I’m sure I’ll build up from there. I felt incredible after those twelve laps, though.  I’ll also keep going to yoga once a week to stretch everything out. Those things should put me in good shape for my approximately two riding lessons a month. Or, I could forget all that other crap and just ride a horse every day. Then I’d be in amazing shape.

But for now, I’ll just have to be thankful for what I’ve got. Today’s lesson was great. I was really on and so was my horse. I rode Summer again, who is just such a sweet, pretty girl. When I went to get her in her stall and she looked at me, ears perked on top of that perfect little Arabian face, I actually caught my breath for a moment at just how pretty she is. Her disposition is so lovely; she doesn’t have that mareface bitchiness even when she’s displeased enough to put her ears back. But she’s no dummy. It’s not a vapid sweetness that shines out of her soft brown eyes, but a sort of calm intelligence that makes her easy to trust.

There was a moment today during the lesson when I had to put that trust to the test. We were standing still in the middle of the ring as Hannah explained something to us when a huge boom of thunder sounded, spooking all the horses. Summer leaped forward a few steps and then stopped; everyone dismounted and stood around stroking their horses’ necks while we waited to see if the storm would continue.  When we got back on a few minutes later and started trotting again, she was understandably skittish. So was I, tense with wondering whether there’d be more thunder to set her off. I was doing the thing I do where I get grabby with the reins and lean forward with my upper body and drive my mount crazy, and Hannah suggested that I needed to give Summer a little more rein and show her I trust her. It wasn’t easy…but it wasn’t as hard as it used to be, either. I find lately that in all areas of life, I’m regaining this control of myself wherein I’m able to just be ok. I can let go of anxiety and have confidence in my capability to handle things. So I sat back, lengthened my reins, and squeezed her forward. We trotted the long side of the ring with her being a little spikey and me half-halting her as gently as I could while focusing on breathing and keeping the tension out of my muscles and my mind clear of thunder anxiety. And just like that, she relaxed. As we rounded the turn I felt her whole body change. Her head dropped and her back unwound, her movements became smooth and she was her game, responsive self again. It’s amazing how that works. I showed her trust, and she trusted me back. That’s the thing with horses: if they think that you think that everything is ok, they are likely to think so, too.


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.

Anniversaries and Firsts

It’s been a year since I’ve returned to riding and today was full of some great firsts for me.

My riding buddy and I brought our boys with us–her husband and my boyfriend–to the barn today so they could watch us ride and see what it’s like. Clarke had seen one of my (more frustrating) lessons at Kensington and has ridden with me twice on vacation trail rides, so it wasn’t his first time seeing me ride. But the difference in focus, organization, and athleticism in the lessons I take at Jamaica Bay as compared to Kensington is huge. He had also never seen me jump, which is of course a completely different level.

It was fun showing him around the barn. Seeing it again for the first time through his eyes, I was reminded of just how nice it is and how lucky I am to be able to ride there. The whole evolution of riding this past year from excitement and then disappointment with Kensington, to meeting my riding buddy and finding not only that we were on the same level with similar riding history but that we also have the exact same birthday, to deciding to try out Jamaica Bay and loving it and expanding so much as riders in the short time we’ve been there…has been intense, and wonderful.

Today was a nice day to have an audience as well, since I felt particularly “on.” I joined the Y this week and went for the second time last night. I think that the light workout limbered me up a bit for my lesson today. Also, last week I didn’t gel very easily with my mount. The opposite was true this time, riding Casper. My riding buddy rode him once before, the medium-build flea bitten grey of a couple weeks ago. Sometimes you sit on a horse and his body shape and your body shape are just not very compatible. Sometimes you get on and it feels like you click right into the saddle; you and your horse are just proportioned in ways that fit well together. That’s how it felt with Casper.

The interesting thing about him is that he rides with a bit-less bridle. Typically, horses have a metal bit in their mouths that the reins connect to; this is how you steer and stop the horse. Casper once had an abscess on a tooth that prevented him from accommodating the bit in his mouth, so he went without it for a while. By the time it was healed, it was apparent he was fine to ride without one and preferred it, so they just kept it that way. It is generally a more gentle and humane way of riding and some barns have all their horses fitted out this way, like the trail barn we rode at in Lake Placid. It’s a little less common to find on a jumping horse, as that requires a lot more control. But a well-trained, trustworthy mount can handle it.

Casper is very forward, wanting to go so much that even during walking rests, he tended to break into a trot like he was saying, “Ok, let’s go! I’m bored now!” But aside from the little extra effort it takes to convince him to stop, he was remarkably responsive. He was very flexible about contracting and expanding his stride as we rode over some poles on the ground (cavaletti) in preparation for jumping. He was very responsive to my leg for steering as well. What the bit-less bridle amounts to is basically like driving without power steering. It helped that I could move him over with my legs when tugging on the outside rein to pull him into the corners had less of an effect.

He was fun to jump with and we ended up doing a whole course. The first time through was slightly disorganized due to some sloppy turns and confusion over changing leads. When a horse canters around the ring, the leg on the interior of the ring should be first in order to maintain balance; that’s called being on the “correct lead.” When you do a course it often involves jumping through the diagonal of the ring and changing direction, which necessitates a changing of the lead. Some horses can do what is called a “flying change”, where mid-stride they pick up their feet and switch which one is going first. That’s the ideal. Some horses aren’t coordinated enough to do that and must do a simple change, where you slow them down to the trot for a couple of strides and then quickly go back into the canter, picking up the correct lead. Casper usually doesn’t do flying changes, but apparently sort of attempted one in our first course. He didn’t do it all the way though, only switching the front legs and not the back, which led to a cross-canter. That feels extremely awkward, but I was already so close to my next jump when I realized it, so we took that one a little badly. We left the ground not in accord about the rhythm and he knocked the jump slightly with his hoof. The second time we did the course, I was aware of his limitations and able to get him to do a simple change, so we were much more organized and smooth over all the fences. We ended with a long approach to an oxer up the middle that just felt like heaven.

This all brings me to another first for today: it was the first time I’ve ever gotten to see myself ride. I’ve been on horses since I was nine, but never had access to a video camera. Apart from the simple vanity of wanting to know what I look like, I have always felt this would be a great tool in understanding and correcting my position problems. Having your trainer tell you to sit up and open your shoulders is a lot different from seeing yourself do it the wrong way. So I was very excited to watch this footage. Clarke did a great job of iPhone videography and captured some of my flatwork and my entire course on film. It was amazing to watch it and to discover that I looked a lot better than I thought I did! When you’re expending so much effort to just keep everything together, to keep your horse going and aimed in the right direction and then also to remember to keep every part of your body in perfect position, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and sloppy. Especially since the goal of equitation is to not look like you’re doing all that much work. So that’s how I usually feel. But even the first course, which, as I described, wasn’t great, just looked a hell of a lot better than I’d imagined it to.  That feels great. It’s also good to have a better understanding of the effects of what I’m doing. When I ride, I’ll know that if I do X, then I will get Y results.

After we untacked the horses and hosed them down, we took the boys on a trail ride. Neither my riding buddy nor I have done the trails at Jamaica Bay before–another first–and neither of us had ever ridden in both an English and a Western saddle before within the same day. It’s an interesting transition because the stirrups are so much longer and steering is totally different. But the trail ride was fun. The trails go through Gateway National Recreation Area, which are lovely protected wetlands. Clarke got a smallish paint named Picasso and he did very well on him. I rode an even-tempered bay named Peter Pan who was a pleasure and just hung back, enjoying the breeze. The trails wound through marsh vegetation, like cattails grown high above our heads even on horseback, that swayed in the wind and made that perfect rustling sound. We came out onto the beach of the bay and rode around its curve, making horseshoe prints in the wet sand right next to quite large horseshoe crabs washed up on the shore. I’ve ridden on beaches before, but never on the beaches of my home. I grew up near the water on Long Island, so the salty smell of the water is, along with that of a horse, one of the dearest and most evocative smells there is. The combination of those two scents today, the salty tang of the water cutting through and mixing with the warm muskiness of sweat and horse, was wonderful to bask in. The sun warmed my back and the breeze cooled the sweaty tendrils of hair around my neck. It felt like a reward. A moment of complete pleasure and enjoyment to mark this first year’s anniversary. And hopefully the start of many, many more years of firsts.

Here’s the second (better) course:


Today was awesome!

The first big piece of news is that my riding buddy got a car. So no more paying for Zipcars every week and no more fretting about returning them on time. This lets us be so much more relaxed during the lesson and then after it, while cooling down our horses. Walking them out after the lesson and then hosing them down is really relaxing and makes me feel so close to my horse. Being face to face with him and caring for him creates a much stronger bond than just riding him and handing him off to someone else.

The other good thing is that Hannah was back. We were both a little rattled after last week’s lesson with Omar, and Hannah’s calm energy soothed us immediately. We warmed up with flatwork like we usually do with her and that made us both able to jump at our normal level. It was a relief.

I rode a large bay gelding with a long neck named Jasper, and my riding buddy had a compact flea bitten grey (that’s grey with little flecks of darker colored hair throughout) named Casper. Both of them were new mounts for us and both were a pleasant surprise in their own ways. My poor man, Jasper, was really tormented by the flies today. We rode outside in the sunshine to escape the crowded indoor and despite the fly spray we had a swarm of them following us. It’s too bad I couldn’t explain to Jasper that standing still and biting the flies is a never-ending and futile battle and that if he would just keep moving they’d have less of an easy target to bite him. I could have very easily gotten extremely frustrated with his stop-and-go-and-swish-and-bite routine, because constantly squeezing him to walk forward gets tiring on the legs, but I just decided to let it go. We just walked slowly on our breaks with a lot of fidgeting; not the most tranquil way to rest between exercises but after fighting it in the beginning I kinda just had to let him have his little OCD fantasy of killing all the flies with his teeth.

Once we got moving and I told him that we needed to focus, I found him to be a very solid and comfortable ride. He is larger than the other horses I’ve mostly been riding, like Jubilee, and had a long fluidity to his stride. Especially at the canter, it was a joy. When you’re moving at a faster gait like the canter it can be hard to sit deep in the saddle and drive your horse forward if his stride is short and choppy. But I love when the stride is long and lope-y; it’s like sailing on waves that are smooth swells instead of chop. While jumping, this also makes it easier to maintain position in the saddle and use your seat and legs to guide your horse instead of frantically gripping to just hold on.

I could really feel the difference in Jasper’s jump as opposed to Jubilee’s as we did our first line. It was the one that she sped through in four strides a few lessons ago. Jasper took the line in a much slower pace but with his longer strides that just eat up the ground, we took the line in five.  I loved the solidity of his jump. When I was younger, I  loved riding bigger horses. I was like a tiny bug on the back of these 17-hand giants and I felt secure with all that horse under me, especially over jumps. As I have aged, my taste has turned toward smaller horses because I felt I had more control and frankly, less distance to fall from with them. But today I was reminded of that feeling of solidity and steadiness of a larger horse. I felt like I had more time to plan for the next jump this way. It is not as heady as the swoosh down the line where my muscles just throw themselves into jumping position from instinct, but it is in some ways more fun and interesting. This was very useful because today for the first time since returning to riding about a year ago, I got to jump a course.

There are several jumps scattered throughout the ring in different configurations; a course is simply a prescribed path through certain of those jumps. It takes a lot more control and a lot more planning than simply going over one jump or even over a line.  The one we did today really challenged us to do just that. We started out with the first jump in a line on the long side of the rectangular ring but turned away instead of doing the second element and instead made a rounded turn to take a jump that was placed on the diagonal in the center of the ring. Then we made a very sharp, very deep turn around to the right to take the second element of a line on the opposite long side of the ring. Then we came around and took the second element in the… Hahah. I just realized no one will be able to picture this like me and that I was getting carried away into real nerd territory here. Suffice to say that it was a challenging and fun course with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that kept us and our horses on our toes. And we did great! It felt awesome. My riding buddy looked so professional steadying her faster mount as he was having a tendency to charge some of the jumps. And she said that Jasper and I looked so collected just floating along and then popping over the jumps as they came. We were in much mutual admiration today and both feeling so good about our progress and abilities after last week’s setbacks. We felt like champs!

Tough Times

Today’s lesson was a little bit tough for a number of reasons. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was out of town so we opted to ride with a new guy named Omar. We started out with kind of a rushed vibe to the lesson; he is new to the barn, and I think anxious to not get behind on his lessons schedule. So we didn’t get a chance to talk with him first and to let him know our riding level and where we were coming from.

We also didn’t have much of a warm-up. With Hannah we usually do a least a little while of flatwork before we begin jumping, trotting and then cantering around the ring several times to warm up our muscles and our horses. We didn’t really do that today, just trotted a bit and then went right into jumping. That didn’t really work for me because Jubilee, who I rode again today, can be sassy and slow at the trot to begin with before she warms up and gets interested in doing the fun stuff. I also realize now just how much I need it. As I get older, it takes me a longer time to get warm even doing things I do frequently, like pitching softball. For something like riding, which I only get to do twice a month, it is even more necessary. And it’s not only for my muscles, it’s for my mind as well. Establishing a rhythm and a connection with the horse takes a little time, especially on a school horse who experiences tons of different riders in any given week.

So going into the jumping I was already feeling somewhat harried. Omar was after me to get more trot from Jubilee, which I was trying to do but which I knew wouldn’t be an issue once we got warm. I was trying to explain this to him, someone who was unfamiliar with my mount to the point that he kept calling her “he,” but he wasn’t really listening. Without enough trot going to the first couple of jumps, she slowed down in front of it and and refused, pulling off to the left at the last second. Unfortunately, that set up a pattern that continued throughout the rest of the lesson as we jumped the different elements around the ring. First it was the crossrail, then it was a line of 5 down one long side of the ring, then it was a stand-alone oxer (a jump with two rails next to each other, making it wider than a regular jump) on the diagonal, then it was another line of 5 down the other long end of the ring. With every one of these, it was the same thing: Jubliee refusing the first time, or the first several times, rushing out to the left.

My frustration was mounting throughout this, not with her, but with myself. Each time, Omar was coaching me, telling me what I already knew I was doing wrong. I was getting more and more upset with myself because I knew that I could do these things, have done them thousands of times before, and was making such a poor showing of myself with a new trainer who had no idea of my abilities. It didn’t help that some of my fear came from the fact that this was how I fell last week, with her pulling off to the left unexpectedly. Each time I would try for a jump and she’d do it, I knew deep down I could make her go to the jump but became hesitant, allowing her to slowly drift to avoid it rather than pushing her on faster with my leg on the off chance that she’d cut quickly away at the last second.

But nevertheless each time I finally did it. I turned her right around after every refusal, tapped her with my crop, and tried again. Sometimes it took four or five tries, but I got her over every jump. And of course she took them all beautifully. The first line I think we actually got in 5 strides, which was unexpected given her performance last week. The oxer was a joy; I haven’t jumped one of those in a very, very long time and they are super fun since you’re in the air longer.

The final sticking point was the other line. I was so worked up by this point, tired, frustrated, anxious, and parched with thirst. We missed that jump what felt like a zillion times. Then we finally got over the first one and she refused the second one a zillion more. I was at the end of my rope with myself, and with this trainer who I felt didn’t understand me and wasn’t listening to me and didn’t see that I actually knew what I was doing. He was talking very fast and I couldn’t catch my breath and all of a sudden I was having a full-on panic attack. It’s hard for me to even admit that this happened to me, especially because it was over nothing. Panicking in the traffic circle at Kensington? Fine. That is a dangerous situation. Panicking because I’ve frenzied and pressured myself into a frustration meltdown? Not fine.

I dismounted and went and sat down on a jump. I asked Omar for a minute to regroup, and started breathing again. In the meantime, he worked with my riding buddy, who was having a similar tough time with him and with her mount, but who was at least getting over most of the jumps. Then I got up, apologized, and got back on my horse. Of course she was full of spikey energy at this point, feeding off my frustration and also just wanting to go run around. Oddly, she seems to love to jump. I’m not really sure why she kept running out on them today. Maybe she just wasn’t ready either, like me, and it created a feedback loop. Who knows. So I walked with her around the ring once, calmly. We passed the jumps that were giving us such a hard time, and she watched my riding buddy take her last turn at the line. I talked to Jubliee soothingly, asking her to remember how much fun we had last week flying through the jumps.

We picked up the canter on the other side of the ring and headed toward the jump. I wasn’t letting her get out of this one, and squeezed her to the base of it. But I lost my nerve after the landing and she refused the second jump. Again.

The lesson was over; we heard them calling Omar for his 1:00 lesson over the loudspeaker. But I was not ending like that. He said, “Go again.” I squeezed her to the first one and then, eyes through the line, with all of my will, I said, “GO”. We flew through the line in 4 strides, taking them in that perfect unison I had felt with her last week.

Despite my embarrassment at not looking my best today and at letting myself psych myself into a panic attack, I feel good about this lesson. I feel good about toughing it out, about getting my mount over every jump, and about proving to myself–not to anyone else–that I could do it.

Another One Bites The Dust

Today’s lesson was hands down the best and most fun I’ve had since I returned to riding nearly a year ago EVEN THOUGH I completely bit it while jumping. Funny though, I made my boyfriend listen to “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen right before I left the house because I heard it recently on the radio and was struck by how amazing of a song it is. I think certain songs just end up residing in our blind spots because they are so familiar, but sometimes you hear them again after a long time or in a certain context and they surprise you. This song has an incredible tense energy, a very tightly restrained mania to it that makes it infectious and exciting and fun. This is what my lesson was like: the percussion and guitars hold everything into a springy steady rhythm like me holding my horse into a forward but even pace toward the first jump and THEN comes the exuberant outburst of Mr. Mercury’s chanting and the rush of a happy, excited horse taking a 4-stride line in 3, then galloping full-out around the ring after with a gigantic grin on my face.

Today I rode a small chestnut mare with a big jump named Jubilee and I am crazy in love with her. We started out indoors but my trainer asked us if we were all right with taking it outside where it was hot but less crowded and we agreed. The sun was beating down but being so close to the water down in Jamaica Bay provides a forgiving breeze that makes it more comfortable. Jubilee was being a little mare-y indoors, pissy about the other horses, but once we got outside she cut the sass and perked right up. Despite the heat, she was full of energy, cantering around and around with barely any leg encouragement from me. I was able to work on my position and breathing and to just enjoy the ride.

It was when we started jumping that Jubilee really started to shine. After a few passes at a crossrail to warm up, we started jumping a line that went diagonally across the center of the oval-shaped ring. My trainer said we should take it in 4 strides, but my girl was having none of that. Heading to the first jump, I sat up and restrained her with some half-halts, giving and taking on the reins strongly to slow and steady her. As we neared the base of the jump, her ears went up and I could feel her engine revving as we galloped through the line to take it in 3 strides instead of the 4. This can sometimes be a problem because if a horse goes too fast and cuts out a stride, the take off for the second fence can be too far  away, causing the jump to be kind of low and flat and potentially knocking it over, which would cost you in a show. Not so with Jubilee, who for a smallish horse (probably around 15.2 hands) had a nice big arc on her jump. Another problem with a long take off is that if you’re not ready for it, you can get left behind in the saddle, instead of getting up in jumping position with the right timing to flow with your horse. But I was right there with her today. Her energy was so infectious that even though I was trying for the more conservative 4, I couldn’t help but go with her on the 3. The 3 strides felt AMAZING, like flying, like I don’t even know what, I can’t describe it to you. Like the best feeling in the whole world.

After we did the line a couple of times, my trainer added another jump. It was an element of another part of the course and so was not directly in line with the first two jumps, but slightly on a left- bent course after the second jump. After enjoying the rush of the 3-stride line a couple of times, I was now trying to make a sincere effort to calm her down to the 4. We got it in but she was still moving so fast that it was kind of a tight fit, forcing us to take the second jump in the line a little awkwardly. Because of that, I made the decision to avoid the third jump in the bent line the first time around; I felt I was too disorganized to take it.

The next time around, we were a little slower coming in but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to slow her enough between the jumps for the 4 and so about halfway down the line gave her a big squeeze and she responded right away for the 3, but was in such a little maniabunny headspace that I think she was surprised when I turned her toward the third jump. We had a moment of miscommunication and indecision–she went left, I went right–as we missed the jump and I tried very hard to stay on her back. We were moving quite fast at a quick canter so I could have gone flying, but was able to fight it out long enough, using the reins to slow my momentum down so I took a decently soft landing on my right shoulder. I did thunk my head on the ground but with my helmet on, it just bounced. I didn’t then and still don’t feel any neck pain so I think I’m in the clear on injuries. After catching my breath and catching my mount, who calmly walked off a little ways, I got back on. This time my trainer suggested that we just take the third jump by itself; we did that with a calm, lovely jump. Then she said, “How about doing the whole line again?” I hesitated a moment, I have to admit. But then I was like “Fuck that!” and went for it and I’m so glad I did. It was beautiful. I also said “fuck it” to the 4 and just went for it with the 3. There was plenty of room to the third jump even at almost a full gallop and to try to add another stride was just working at cross purposes to my mount. Once that decision was made, everything just flowed. The world was perfect in those 30 seconds as we tore down that line, hitting our spot on all three jumps, in total euphoric unison.

Moving to this other barn has been the best thing for me. After only three lessons there, I’m almost right back to the level of jumping I was at before I stopped riding.  My riding buddy is on the exact same level as I am and within a couple more lessons, I feel confident that we will be doing full courses, which is the most fun. I feel challenged and excited here instead of anxious and down on myself like I did at the other barn. I feel like a real rider again.