Change of Scenery

On Memorial Day weekend my riding buddy and I made the trip out to Jamaica Bay Riding Academy to try it out and to take a jumping lesson. Both of us have plenty of jumping experience, but it’s been almost a decade since we’ve done it and jumping is not available at Kensington. Now after several months of flatwork lessons and rebuilding our strength, we felt we were ready to make a go at it.

The problem with Jamaica Bay is getting there. It’s not that far, just down on the southern coast of Brooklyn, but it is not easily accessible without a car. It is possible to take the subway to nearby, but since the barn is located off the Belt Parkway, one would need to get a taxi from the train station. We chose to go this weekend because my riding buddy’s friends went out of town, leaving her with their car for the week. She planned to pick me up and drive out there, but at the last minute the car wouldn’t start. We hopped in a car service and made it in time for our lesson anyway. It worked out fine today, but taking a car service every time wouldn’t really be sustainable money-wise.

But oh man…I really, really wish I had a car because this place is so nice. It was  a little shell-shocking to be confronted with an actual working lesson barn like that after so many months of craziness at Kensington. When you walk in, there is a huge room with a snack bar and tables and observation windows looking into the  sizable indoor ring. Off to the side of that is an office where a friendly and efficient woman with a microphone announced our arrival to our trainer. The stables are sprawling and well-organized with several large outdoor rings in addition to the indoor. Everything is clean and the horses look not only remarkably well cared for, but like very nice stock.

The lesson itself was great. Unsure in new surroundings and still lacking a little bit of confidence from the stressful situation at Kensington, I mentioned I like to ride smaller, calmer horses. I was paired with a funny little chestnut with a slightly strange gait named Homer. We rode in the gigantic indoor arena with about three or four other lessons going on around us. When I first entered the ring, I was nervous, thinking it would be very difficult to maneuver with so many other horses in the ring. But it wasn’t a problem at all. Everyone riding in there was very aware, responsible, and vocal and we all managed to stay out of each other’s way. I soon realized that even when crowded, being in an enclosed ring made all the difference for my stress level. I was far less tight on my horse’s mouth, far less tense in my entire upper body, and so much more able to enjoy myself.  I will certainly feel confident enough to push myself with more challenging mounts going forward. I would have no problem handling a horse like Max from Kensington in a closed ring like this; the problem is merely that at the ring in the park (and in the damn traffic circle) there is nothing preventing him from running totally wild if he gets spooked or simply doesn’t want to listen.

Best of all: there was jumping! We warmed up by cantering over some cavaletti, which are just jump poles placed on the ground; the horse doesn’t actually need to jump them but it sets the horse and rider up for the timing and movement of jumping. Then we moved onto some crossrails, which are two poles crossed like an x, the center point of which is usually less than a foot off the ground.  After so long, the feel of it all came right back to me. It’s like I immediately picked up right where I left off so many years ago, right down to having the same bad habits. The first couple of times we jumped a single crossrail, but we soon moved onto a line of two crossrails placed a certain distance apart. The idea is to get a certain number of strides in between these jumps in order to take off from a good spot for the second jump; this number of strides varies depending on your horse’s size and stride length as well as the speed at which you enter the line. I have always had a tendency to stare down at the second jump, getting myself too deep for a clean take off. I felt myself do it the first time and shook my head with a smile all the way around the ring. By the end of the lesson, I had forced myself to look up and through the whole line instead of staring down and we were able to get in a couple of perfect take-offs.

Jumping in general feels pretty incredible because you are briefly flying on the back of a thousand-pound animal. But when you hit the right spot and take a jump with a flowing, forward momentum and you stand up in your stirrups to get in jumping position, leaning over your horse’s neck as he arches through the air and the two of you are flying in perfect unison, there’s nothing like it. The only thing that I can think of that gives me anything like the same kind of pleasure is when I’m singing with someone in harmony and it’s so right on that you actually feel a “buzz” in the air. But this is far more intense, given the adrenaline that the physical thrill elicits. The first time I ever jumped, a tiny ten year old on the back of a fat little bitchy white pony named Delilah, I was hooked for life. After this lesson, I feel just as I did then. I want to jump, and I don’t ever want to stop.

Listen To Your Horse

This weekend was the “Great Googamooga,” a grand shitshow in Prospect Park glorifying our culture’s current excessive obsession with food and drink, plus indie music. It’s not really my thing, and it’s definitely not an atmosphere I would recommend riding a horse into. But we did anyway and it wasn’t that bad.

Getting out of the barn and over to the ring was the tricky part. The transportational difficulties imposed on the area by the event caused a great deal of strain, particularly on drivers, who felt it was appropriate to honk their horns and scream in frustration at a line of horses returning from a trail with small children on their backs. Waiting for our lesson to begin, my riding buddy and I rushed to assist the short-staffed barn helpers to grab the distressed horses and get the kids safely to the ground.

I was filled with massive anxiety before I even left my house, doubled up on the floor with a stomach ache five minutes before I had to walk out the door. The jumpy horses and crying children did nothing to soothe my jagged nerves as I waited for my trainer to tell me who I’d be riding, hoping it would be someone I trusted (oh please let it be Allie, please please). She put me on Peaches, who can get pretty basketcasey in the traffic circle.  I tried not to freak out as I mounted up.

As we started walking around the first arc of the circle, I was on high alert. But Peaches wasn’t. Her ears were up but not super tense, they had the sideways droop that means your horse is pretty chill at the moment. Her walk was loose, her head was relatively low. She was fine. As we pulled up to wait for the crosswalk signal to count down, I let this information sink in. If she didn’t think there was anything to worry about, then I didn’t need to think so either. I didn’t need to rile her up, so instead I let her calm me down. We walked through the honking, screaming, siren-blaring bloody traffic circle and through the crowds of drunken, oblivious revelers thronging the main loop without incident. I must say this, though: These events are meant to bring people together, yes? They are ostensibly for enjoyment. But man, do they bring out the worst in some people. I have to believe that so much of the tension comes from so, so many of us–too many of us–all fighting for the same limited resources in this ridiculously small amount of land we all share. And I’m sure my awareness of this is heightened given that when I’m on the horse, I am in a very precarious, dangerous position. I know it’s a huge risk every time I get on a horse and I’m taking my life in my hands. But the thing is, it’s in all these strangers’ hands too. People who don’t know or just don’t care that they are putting me and anyone else who rides in the park in undue danger when they honk their horn, or scream, or rev their car through a line of horses crossing the street, or weave in between us with their bikes, cussing at us for ruining their workout rhythm, or wander in front of a horse with their headphones on, not even noticing that we’re there. Please, please understand that if you are around horses you are around volatile, sensitive creatures. Living things. Animals that will react in fear to protect themselves from what you may perceive as a typical New Yorker display of irritation at yet another thing getting in your way, but what they perceive as a massive threat that they should run away from immediately or they will die. So please be aware and please be careful. And be nice, for fuck’s sake! Just everybody everywhere, be nicer. Ok, PSA over.

The area by the ring was not more crowded than usual, since the Googamooga crap was in another part of the park. The lesson illustrated what I’d been realizing on the walk over, which was that I had to shut up all my nonsense and really listen to my horse. That was something that I used to really get deep into when I was a teenager, and I was riding horses for the first time whose training I actually had a hand in. I’d forgotten about it in the anxiety of everything else going on and on focusing so hard on regaining my strength. Peaches tends to be very uneven with her gait; on the bottom of the ring she would get very forward and almost out of control, but up around the turns and on the top of the ring she’d slow down and try to break into a walk. So as she changed, I changed my approach to her, sitting up tall and giving her half-halts along the bottom, then releasing almost all tension on her mouth up top and urging her on with my leg as much as I could. I found this leg toning exercise when it was Pinterest O’Clock at work the other day (http://www.t-tapp.com/articles/legs/index.html) and used it as a warm up before my lesson. I found that it gave me more to work with, as my legs tend to cramp up when they get fatigued from squeezing my horse and with a good warm up they felt more supple even when tired.

So, all in all, a good lesson. No panic attacks in the traffic circle. Better understanding of my muscles and how to get what I need out of them. And, ok, some disgust with humanity, but at least that hole of alienation in my heart can be filled with a renewed connection to a horse.

Relief

This morning before I went to riding, I was filled with dread carried over from last week. I just wanted to stay in my comfortable bed and not get up and make myself confront the overwhelming anxiety I had developed about riding.

But I got up anyway and I walked to the barn in just a t-shirt for the first time this year on this lovely spring day. On the way there, I made myself enjoy the sun, the light breeze, and the pretty flowers instead of dwelling on how many other people would want to take advantage of this weather and would therefore be in the park, posing a threat to my safety.

I got to the barn and watched as all of my usual mounts either came in from a lesson right before mine or went out with other riders as I stood there: Emma, Allie, and Lieutenant all crossed off the list of potential horses I would ride today. All the safe ones, the easier horses I had to admit to myself I’d hoped my trainer would put me back on today. Yet when she handed me Max’s reins, I felt a kind of relief. It might have been relief that she still thought I could handle him, but I think it was also relief that I wouldn’t be allowed to fall back, that even though I was nervous I would be forced to try to push myself.

As we rode out to the ring, Max was in the lead with Emma behind us and my trainer in the back. We always cater to the horses’ preferences for the order we walk in. Max likes to be in the lead. I do not. I prefer that someone goes in front of me to provide a sort of buffer for whatever might startle the horses. I mused about the matching of personalities between horse and rider and wondered if Max and I were just a little incompatible. But that didn’t quite sit right with me. It’s not really my personality to want someone else to lead; it was only my anxiety in this particular situation that caused me to want to defer responsibility.  Naturally, it’s my way to take the lead. Even if I don’t fully know what I’m doing, I trust my instincts enough to carry me and anyone else with me who’s willing to trust them through. So that’s what I decided to do with Max. I bluffed. I told him that I was in control. I pretended to be confident when I was not. And in general, that served me pretty well.

This lesson went a lot better than last time’s. The park, while lively, was full of way less mayhem than last week. Max was lazy and perhaps a bit less playful.  In my attempt to prove to him that I was in control, I clamped down a bit too hard. Of course I always have to overshoot my mark when attempting balance. It was most apparent in the canter, but throughout the whole lesson I was holding on just a little too tightly on Max’s mouth. Even though he was trotting very slowly, I was vigilant, expecting him to try to cut in or buck at every second. Because of this, I didn’t give him enough rein for him to be comfortable and he fought back, tossing his head and getting wound up. This of course made me more wound up and more tense, making it more difficult for me to give him rein and trust.

After several attempts, I was able to relax my hands a little more and we got in a good, collected canter for about half the ring. He has the most comfortable, smooth, easy-to-sit canter of any of the horses I’ve ridden at this barn and really all I want is to be able to enjoy it. It is frustrating to stop and go so much because we are out of sync, especially when I can see that it’s largely my own doing.

In my frustration, there were times when I started getting annoyed at how difficult Max can be. I started thinking that I just wanted to enjoy my ride and that I would prefer a less green, more trained horse. But then I thought to myself that if I ever want to train horses myself, as I believe I do, then that’s crap. I can’t just ride for the enjoyment of it. I have to push myself to learn how to deal with these things all over again. I have to get over my fears and remember how to deal with misbehaving horses like I used to. And I have to do it in an unforgiving environment. Because like Frank says about New York in general: if I can do this here, I can do it anywhere.

Spring Trauma

Today was harrowing. Like, I-don’t-know-if-I-can-keep-doing-this level of anxiety. I came home and sobbed on my cat just out of relief to be on the ground and back home.

My usual riding buddy was out of town this week so I was paired with two people who haven’t ever ridden at the barn before; a guy and a girl both just out of college who were clearly very experienced. The three of us rode out to the ring with me leading on Max, the horse I rode for the first time last week, the guy riding my friend’s usual mount, Bingo, and the girl on Allie.

It was last week that I finally admitted to myself just how much anxiety the ride through the traffic circle gives me. Every honk, every rev of an engine or squeal of breaks goes like a jolt through my nervous system and I tense up, preparing for my horse to run. Even if the horse ignores all that, the tension I am putting on the reins when pulling on his mouth in fear is going to infect him with my nervousness. It’s a terrible feedback loop.

Today going out to the ring I tried to be calm, feeling stable on Max and trusting him after he was pretty good about the traffic last week. However, when we got into the park we were greeted by an awful sight on the loop. An ambulance was parked on the bike lane and there was a group of people milling around. I think there was a biking accident, but there only appeared to be one injured person. The horses were alert and skittish as we neared the flashing lights, the crowd, and a woman pushing her stroller the bridle path to get around it. When asked to move off, she said she didn’t want her kid to see the accident, somehow oblivious to the danger she was putting herself, her child, and us in by getting in our way. Max started getting more agitated, pulling to the right and letting off some crow hops, and I immediately made the decision to get off and walk him past. I silently berate myself for not sticking it out when I do this, but the truth is I’d rather be safe than dead. As we walked past the accident, I heard the injured woman screaming, making horrific noises of pain or trauma or both as the paramedics attempted to move her.

I got back on and we rode to the ring without incident, despite the crowds of people running, yelling, throwing shit, playing loud music, clapping, etc, on the ballfields right next to the ring where the Little League had games today. The lesson itself wasn’t that terrible. Max is a bit of a handful. He’s a very sweet horse who is a pleasure to ride because of his very comfortable, smooth gaits. He has a great disposition; happy-go-lucky and friendly with the other horses. But he likes to play. He isn’t even that scared of everything going on around, but uses it as an excuse not to work and to mess around. Every time we got to the bottom of the ring, which is the part closest to the ball fields, he wriggled and cut in and tossed his head, threw a few bucks for good measure. I handled this all right, but we were very stop and go since I had to collect myself and reorganize us every time he did it.

Toward the end of the lesson his bucking became more exuberant and it was starting to wear me down. I was able to stay on just fine, the instincts of many years overriding any weakness in my legs, but the fear of getting bucked off was starting to gnaw at me, making me less sure in my seat. I have a tendency to lean forward when that happens which is exactly what you should not do when your horse is about to buck. My trainer decided it was time to intervene and she got on him and schooled him a bit at the canter. After that, she orchestrated some musical chairs so that the other girl got on Max and I got on Allie. She got a bit of a canter out of Max and was able to move him forward better than I had, with less antics. I had a lovely canter on Allie and felt happy to be able to do something right.

Part of me feels so bad about myself for not stepping up to the challenge that Max presents. He’s exactly the type of horse that I liked to ride ten years ago. He’s the type of horse that I think I would like to ride now and that I think I could learn a lot from, given the right atmosphere. If I was riding him in a quiet place, with a fence around the ring, it would be different. This situation is insane. I’m distracted and anxious almost the whole time I’m riding. The people around the ring, many of whom are children, have no awareness that their actions could scare the horses. Riding is a dangerous thing to do and that’s something I came to grips with a long time ago, but this is another level. This feels reckless. In this situation, I can only remain in my comfort zone, riding one or two horses like Allie and Emma that are small and easy. I’ll feel safer, but what’s the point? I won’t develop as a rider or ever get back to the level I used to ride at, which is incredibly frustrating since the physical level I’m at doesn’t match the mental level I’m at. Or, I can keep pushing myself on these more difficult horses. Which in a more stable environment would be my ideal, but which in this situation is massively stressful and seems like it will inevitably lead to me getting hurt.

This goes back to my earlier post about how my struggle with how much I should push myself. It’s a complex issue. I’m older now and I have more fear. That’s hard to admit to myself. I don’t want fear to limit me. But there’s a point at which as an experienced and responsible rider, I look at the situation and think: this is a disaster waiting to happen.

I was relieved to be on Allie for the ride back. Along the way, we encountered a large trail ride group full of total beginners. One of the riders was walking along side while one of the girls who works at the barn was trying to walk both her horse and the woman’s horse. It wasn’t going well, so my trainer took one of the horses from her. Max saw this mayhem and decided it was an opportunity; he wheeled and bolted off in a gallop in the other direction. I was impressed by how quickly and calmly the other girl brought him to a halt; as she turned him I actually heard his shoes skid across the asphalt. I think that was the last straw for me. Even though Allie is generally pretty chill about the traffic circle, my nerves were shot to hell. There were more than ten horses out there, and the more there are, the more one is likely to spook and scare all the others. Then the fire trucks came wailing through, their sirens screaming their approach. One of the trail horses took off for a few steps and the trail leaders scrambled to catch him. I was clamping down on Allie’s mouth, terrified that he’d bolt too. Telling myself to relax, hearing myself mutter soothingly, “it’s ooook, it’s ooook” to Allie but knowing I was really telling myself.  He started to prance a bit, speeding up and lifting his head. I knew it could be fine if I could make myself be calm, but I realized I just couldn’t. I hopped down and walked him the rest of the way. My instructor looked down at me from her horse and said that it was ok, that she understood my decision. I felt dumb anyway, but I also felt relieved. I walked next to Allie, who quieted down now, swinging his head low beside me and nuzzling me as I patted him. I pressed my cheek to his warm, shiny neck and took a deep breath.

I feel like I’m at an impasse. I don’t want to stop riding. I don’t ever want to stop again, not after I let so long go by without doing it. And I don’t have many options in the city. This barn is the only one I can really get to without a car. But days like this make me feel that this situation is not only unsatisfying, but also untenable and unsafe.

Wild Horse

I didn’t have a riding lesson last weekend because the weather finally caught up with me. It’s been a pretty mild winter so far, but snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s is beyond the pale. Growing up, I never rode outside in the wintertime, instead moving into my barn’s large indoor arena in late fall. It’s a reversal that seems funny to me: in the city, where the majority of our lives is lived indoors, I am riding outside all winter. Indoor space is simply at too much at a premium here; we’ve penned it all up to rent it out for millions of dollars. The horses have their small barn to live in, but we’ve gotta ride them outside in the park.

To make up for the horse deficit that a week without riding creates in my heart, I rented this movie called “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” from Netflix. I discovered it during one of my periodic binges on the Apple Movie Trailers site and was immediately taken by the description:

Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up and removed from public lands by the U.S. Government. All will need permanent homes. None has ever been touched by a human hand.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride tells the story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that dares 100 people to each tame a totally wild mustang in order to get it adopted into a better life beyond federal corrals.

The movie follows a handful of contestants in the Challenge from when they take their horses home on Day 1 all the way to the competition on Day 100 as they do what has quite simply been my lifelong dream: train a horse from scratch.  The horses are completely wild at the start; confused, restless in a paddock, shy to human presence, let alone touch. Wild horses have personalities as distinct as the schoolies I know; some are congenitally calm and take to training very easily, some are more aggressive and recalcitrant. The trainers take small steps every day, forming bonds of trust that cut both ways–the horses must learn to trust trainers, but also the trainers must trust the horses enough to push them forward. Some of the best moments in the film are when the trainers are able to get on their horses for the first time, in their own time–one as early as Day 3, and one as late as Day 90.

Watching the movie reminded me of my dream to undertake this crazy mission of training my own horse. Not that I’d forgotten it, exactly, I just had sort of let it shrink away. As I’ve become more entrenched in my life here, the possibility of ever being able to do it has simply become more remote. But lately I’ve been re-examining my priorities. I think it began with my decision to start riding again after such a long time away from it. I realized that I never stopped wanting to ride and that if that was true, I just had to do it. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to ideal, but for now I am riding and I am getting stronger and more confident and more in touch with my horse instincts every time I go.

I have been thinking, however, that it isn’t enough. I have this dream to train a horse, and it is not a dream that I can achieve here. In fact, most of what I want to do is not something to be done here. I want to ride horses every day. I want to hike in the woods and I want to watch birds. I want to drive a car and sing out loud with the music. I want to be able to play my bass guitar without worrying about disturbing my neighbors, who live 18 inches away from me. New York City is an amazing place to live, with a zillion incredible things in it. But they are not the things I want. So why am I paying a gargantuan rent to be near all these things? Additionally, it is inconvenient and expensive to do the things I like to do here because they are not city things, but elsewhere they are a regular part of life. It’s hard to see beyond the city sometimes, to imagine a life elsewhere. It’s a very special kind of tunnel vision wherein the awareness of the rest of the world recedes, and all you can see is concrete and stores and throngs and throngs of people…

For now, these are just thoughts. But they are gaining traction. I am tired and worn down from this city life, and ready to stop putting all my time, energy, and money into it while neglecting my true goals and dreams. All of this is to say, I guess, that perhaps I won’t be an urban equestrian for too much longer.

Barn Girls

Despite the occasional alienation that riding in the city inspires, there’s one thing that remains reassuringly familiar at the barn: the young girls that spend almost all their free time there. I suspect they are to be found at every barn in the country. Some of them work there, helping to groom and tack the horses in exchange for lessons; some of them seem to just hang around. I know these barn girls well, having been one for most of my teenage years. They can be clique-ish, or  competitive with each other, but are mostly sweet and helpful to those of us that only ride there and aren’t part of the little barn family. They can fall in and out of favor with each other and with the various instructors that teach them, but one aspect of their loyalty remains unwavering: the intense attachments they form to the horses.

If they see you riding up to the barn on one of their favorites, they’ll scamper up to hug your mount and no matter how many times they’ve already seen the horse already that day, exclaim, “My baby!” and breathlessly ask you, “Was he good?” They don’t really want an answer; they want a connection. They love this animal so much and simply want to talk to someone else who loves him too. It’s like a teenager with a crush, having the absolutely insatiable compulsion to speak about the object of their affection, constantly, to know and to discuss every detail about them.

There’s one girl in particular who loves my favorite horse, so I end up talking to her most often. She’s probably fourteen and just slightly more awkward than the rest of her friends at the barn.  So in response to her asking me if he was good this Saturday as I dismounted and handed her the reins, I didn’t tell her that in fact he was a cranky nutjob that day. That he, despite being a male horse with no balls, sometimes for no reason tries to kick the other horses like the bitchiest mare. That for no reason whatsoever he has formed some strong convictions about going in the rightward direction around the ring. (We always start off the lesson going left, trot around several times, and then switch direction.) When I turn him to go right, the horse that was enthusiastic and responsive turns into a stubborn little mule who puts his ears flat back on his skull, bucks, backs up, and paws the ground. I didn’t tell her about turning him in tiny circles for ten minutes to prevent him from continuing with this rude behavior and that while I pulled his nose around toward his own tail he actually tried to–I swear I laughed out loud at this move–bite my foot. I didn’t bother to tell her these things because despite all of that–actually, because some of that, frankly the foot biting attempt was incredibly endearing to me–this horse is also my favorite horse at the barn.

He’s fun and he’s comfortable and he responds to the slightest little touch of my fingers on the reins when I want him to shorten his stride and become more collected so we can look pretty together. He doesn’t dance around when I’m trying to mount up and once I’m on, waiting, he stands patiently. He’s calm with loud noises and not that fazed when the more skittish horses in the group get jumpy. He’s small and wonderfully proportioned and has a shiny, liver chestnut coat that stands out among the more common bays and lighter chestnuts. When I lean down to pat him after the lesson is over, after we’ve fought and made up and he’s spent the rest of the time being his normal charming self, I bury my face in his mane and inhale the most reassuring and homey smell I know. I feel closer to this huge animal on this day than any other so far. And as I tell her, “Yes, he’s such a sweetheart!” and smile at the young girl, I feel close to her, too.

Push for Perfection?

I didn’t post about last week’s ride because when I got home, freezing and beat up, I fell asleep for hours in a wide swath of sunshine on the bed, still in my breeches. Nothing that bad happened. It was just brutally cold and windy. My horse, a large Thoroughbred named Professor, is a big, energetic boy in normal circumstances. In those biting temperatures, he was ready to GO, charging forward and tossing his head to escape the pressure of my half-halts as I attempted to slow him to a pace reasonable enough for a ring full of other horses. With a martingale and a double rein, he was still simply too strong for me. We ended up trotting in small circles in one part of the ring for the whole lesson, lacking space and strength to do anything else. Then on the ride back to the barn, the wind picked up a stray plastic garbage can and it came skidding across the pavement in the traffic circle toward the horses, freaking them out. Professor wheeled in the opposite direction, which happened to be straight into traffic. It took everything in my arms and back to keep him still and safe. I was dunzo when I got home.

That’s why this week I was relieved to be greeted by a milder, sunny day and a ride on my favorite horse, Aladdin. I just needed a sane, productive ride after last week’s shitshow. But walking to the barn today, hoping for some respite, I wondered about my attitude. Shouldn’t I be pushing myself? A challenging horse can only make me a better rider.

Finding the right balance in how far to push myself has always been one of the toughest things in life for me. I want to push myself so I can get stronger and better. But it’s possible to push myself too hard and risk injury or burn out. My perfectionist tendencies have prodded me too far in that direction before, like when in one weekend I biked 50 miles, had softball practice (at which I also pitched the entirety of batting practice) and then attempted to do level 2 of Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred, during which I injured my quad so badly that I couldn’t get up off the floor. My pitching performance in the softball game later that week was piss poor because I still couldn’t put much strain on the muscle. After episodes like that, I vow to go easier on myself. But in my impatience I become a bully. Dissatisfied with my progress, I’ll start pushing myself again, wondering if I’ve been too easy on myself all along and thinking about the success I could have had if I’d only been less of a soft lazyass. And so it seesaws, back and forth. This seems to be the only way I ever acquaint myself with balance: I get a glimpse of it as I pass by while running back and forth between extremes.

I think that it was a good thing to have a break this week. Aladdin is small, quiet, and responsive, so I didn’t have to push myself to contend with a challenging horse. The thing is, I grew up competing with girls who only ever rode immaculately-trained pushbutton ponies and they looked like perfect pretty princesses out there in the show ring, but in my opinion that’s not riding. I rode every horse in the barn, running the gamut from sweet-tempered old friendlies to hot-blooded, tweaker Thoroughbreds, most of them outright batshit crazy in their own individual ways, and because of it in my prime I could handle just about anything.

Today I got to ride a horse that was easier to manage and because of that I was able to work hard on my equitation–my position, my horse’s balance and stride and bend around the corners–all the little things that one would be judged on in a show. Aladdin tends to drift inwardly on the long stretches and then can get stiff on the outside around the turns; so I worked my inside leg pushing him over to the rail and bending him around it on the corners. Then the next time around, I tried to do the same thing with more subtle movements of the reins and of my legs. Instead of just being a parcel on the horse’s back, I worked on uniting us, making us a single entity working in rhythm together.

These things may be subtle, but they aren’t easy. Every horse has his quirks; smoothing them over without looking like you’re doing anything and also maintaining correct position in every part of your body is no small feat. But equitation is about balance and subtlety, not perfection. I think that’s something it would be helpful to remember in the rest of my life as well.

Dreams and Fantasies

Today’s was another more physical than mental lesson. It was a good ride. In this cold and windy weather, the horses were in a frisky-but-not-yet-basketcase mood that made them fun and forward. I rode Lieutenant again and it was a relief, in my still slightly run-down state after having a cold all week, to not have to squeeze on every step to move him along. I shared my lesson with another girl I’ve ridden with before; she is the closest to my level of anyone else I’ve ridden with and it makes for less stress in the ring knowing we can both hold our own and don’t have to worry about being in each other’s way. She rode a small gelding named Aladdin and it was refreshing to have a mare-free atmosphere for a change.

Quiet and relaxed on our walk back to the barn, my mind was allowed to wander. Sometimes on these rides, I daydream about being in my favorite fantasy novels, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. I’ve just finished re-reading the series after some years so it’s prominent in my thoughts right now, but it’s always in my heart. I mean, my cat is named after the main character. In the books, there is a lot of traveling. The characters must all at various times cover a lot of terrain on horseback. In one section, the main character, Simon, travels with a few other companions first through the deepest, richest forest and then across a white waste to the furthest northern reaches of the world. These parts of the books have always been my favorites. Reading about their daily routine of caring for the horses, camping out, and then exploring new, wild territory has always been comforting to me. Of course other, more exciting things happen in the books than just these mundane things. But when I imagine myself in them, this is what I imagine.

The ride back through the park is scenic and is similar, on a smaller scale, to the forest terrain in the books: we ride through a muddy-tracked and leaf-strewn copse of trees that leads us out to the main trail that loops around the interior of Prospect Park and takes us past the lake. Today was slightly grey and gusty, with swaths of sunlight brightening the ground and warming the air, only to disappear a moment later while the wind blew in the clouds and small flurries of snow.

I watch these images go by as we ride silently in single file, the rhythm of my horse’s walk carrying up through my body to sway me slightly in the saddle. I daydream about a fantasy world that seems set far in our past and also of a future where a daily ride is simply a part of the rhythm of my life.

Mind and Body

Today was pleasantly normal. There were no particular challenges, so it was more of just a physical endeavor than a mental one. Sometimes you just ride and there isn’t really much to learn in a pedagogical sense. It’s more like a workout than a lesson. I used to feel a little disappointed after these lessons, like I failed to accomplish something. Now I see that there are more subtle ways in which you can gain from these experiences; you’re stronger than before, but more importantly: you know your horse better in unconscious ways, through your hands and your seat, your legs and back. Your body learns even without the furious churning of your mind.

I think that kind of learning sticks harder on me. On the ride back to the barn today I felt possibly the most comfortable on a horse I’ve been since I started riding agin. In the light, soaking rain, the park was almost empty. We walked past the lake and my eyes wandered to all the honking waterfowl flapping in the water. I didn’t worry about my horse or even think much about her, we were just there together. Accomplishments and breakthroughs are satisfying, yes. But it’s these moments of physical unity, of feeling so comfortable with myself and my horse, that have always made me the happiest as a rider.

Comparison

This week I rode the horse that I rode in my first lesson at this barn almost three months ago; a big, quiet, gelding named Lieutenant. I haven’t ridden him since then, and it was interesting to measure my progress by comparing how I felt on him this time around.

The main challenge with this horse is keeping him going. He’s much more chill than any of the other horses I’ve ridden there, seemingly unaffected by inter-schoolie politics, but he’s also a slow poke. This was a nice change, since I’ve been riding mostly mares and contending with their bitchy nonsense. As with my first lesson, my mind was free from worrying about my mount’s behavior and able to focus on my own.

The most obvious comparison to make was how strong my legs were feeling. On a horse that will pretty much just quit what he’s doing and walk if you don’t spend the entire time nudging him forward, leg strength is important. Every step of the trot, you have to squeeze your legs around the horse, using the little-used muscles along the inside of your calf and thigh, to encourage him to keep going. Some people have an idea that riding is easy because “the horse does all the work”. This is false. It’s friggin exhausting. On a particularly pokey animal, it can feel like I’m holding my horse up on his feet—all 1,000 or so pounds of him—using only my willpower to keep us moving and the strength of my legs. Given that I’m contending with not only a nine-year absence from this activity but also about the same length of office-atrophy time, my legs are not the steel-vise mechanism they used to be. During the first lesson, my horse quit on me time and time again. Every time, I clucked and nudged and he went forward, but it was frustratingly stop-and-go. I was pleased to see that this is no longer an issue; my legs are now strong enough to keep him going without trouble. It’s still a lot of energy to keep reminding him that we need to be at a working trot and not just dragging our hooves through the ring, but progress has definitely been made.