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.

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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.

The Fall

Today I fell off a horse for the first time since starting to ride again.

The last time I fell off was in 2006, when I was visiting someone who let me ride her horse. The mare was frisky and excited to be out after having not been ridden for a few weeks. Excited myself to be on a horse again after a nearly three-year gap between my last days on the riding team in college and this unexpected chance to ride, I decided against my better judgement to take her for a few jumps. Out of practice, I got left behind on the take off and was off balance when in her giddiness, she let out a buck in mid-air. I flew over her head and landed partially on my shoulder, partially on my back, knocking the wind out of me. I was stunned but uninjured, but it was the one and only time in my entire riding career that I fell off and didn’t get back on again. I was too shaken up.

Today’s fall was significantly less dramatic. I was riding Emma, the small, grey mare whom I’ve come to know quite well. At the start of the lesson, tracking right around the ring, she was moving very well; my one gripe with her is that she can often be very pokey, but today she was up and forward. On the ride over there, I had been distracted and anxious, stuck in my head worrying about some of the more looming aspects of the sort of general life crisis I’ve been going through lately. But as we trotted around, avoiding contact with the five other horses in the ring, I was able to settle my mind and focus. Emma can get very distracted by looking at what is going on around the ring and today there was a race in the park. Apparently not many people want to run a race in early March weather, so it was sparse attendance. However, there was a refreshment table set up right outside the ring that posed a potential threat. Each team we rode by it, I pulled Emma’s nose to the inside, making her connect with me and look away from the table. By the third time, she was ignoring it and working well with me. I felt relieved by the smoothness of her gait and our connection.

Once we switched directions, things changed. Emma prefers the right; on her left she can be awkward sometimes. Her speed cut in half, her feet stumbling and unsure, we quickly got out of sync. I squeezed and clucked, trying to coax some more energy into her trot to regain the fluidity that we had felt in the other direction. My sense of calm satisfaction evaporated, it was like someone threw a wrench in my gears.

Anxiety and frustration mounted, until it was our turn to canter. I set her up on the right spot on the rail and asked her for it, sitting deeper in the saddle and nudging her forward with my outside leg. No dice. One of the most frustrating feelings in the world, for me. You ask and ask and all your horse does is speed up her trot. You use all the strength in your legs squeezing as hard as you can to get her to go, and then your muscles get weak and you flop, disorganized and ineffectual. I pulled her back to a walk, reorganized myself, and tried again. I got a slow, short, and awkward canter out of her. I was a mess: frustrated with myself, angry at her. And feeling oh so sorry for myself that things were not going my way.

But then we switched directions again to take the canter on the right. Little miss perked right up again. She went right into a good, energetic canter that felt nothing like the awkward gait we had going the other way. I would have kept going, but my trainer was warning me about some activity at the table as I approached it. I pulled her down to a trot, employing the same inside rein that I had used to get her past there at the beginning of the lesson. But this time it didn’t work. The man at the table had a big garbage bag that he was rummaging around in and that was way too much for Emma. As I was trying to pull her nose toward the inside of the ring and nudge her body with my inside leg, she shied away from the bag, dropping her shoulder and veering away quickly and causing me to lose my balance.

Sometimes falling off a horse is a bit like vomiting when you’re too drunk. You sense it coming and you think “No no no no don’t wanna” and you fight it. But there comes a point when you realize its near inevitability and that it will be easier and probably better in the long run to just give in and let it happen. That’s what this fall was like. I was far off balance, hanging out over her side. I considered fighting it out, but didn’t know if she’d spook again or try to run. The upside to a situation like this is that you have a modicum of control over the fall. I was in a relatively good position to take the fall and decided to let it happen before the situation got worse. I went off to the right and landed on my right shoulder. The only scary part is that my foot got briefly caught in my stirrup, but I kicked it out and rolled. The ring is loosely-packed gravelly dirt, so I had a fairly soft landing and got up quickly. My trainer asked if I was ok as I walked Emma toward the center of the ring, groaning a bit as I pulled myself up on her back. “Yep, just annoyed,” I answered.

As I trotted her back to the rail, I felt much better. The fall had dissipated all of my earlier frustration and had somehow lifted my spirits. Without fear or hesitation, we picked up a beautifully smooth, fluid canter. It was the kind of movement that is the reason I do this, the kind that makes me feel alive and free. We slowed to a walk past the table, and finished on that high note.

There’s a lesson somewhere in all of this. Maybe it’s that getting worked up about things, being self conscious and worrying and overwhelmed by frustration is only going to end up with you on your ass. That sometimes “the worst” thing that can happen isn’t the worst, and isn’t even that bad. That sometimes taking a fall reminds you that you’re strong enough to take one and to get back up again.

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.

Parade

The most obvious difference between riding in the city and pretty much all other riding I’ve done in my life is, expectedly, all the hooplah going on nearby while I’m on the horse. My trainer and I mount at the barn, which is tucked away in a residential area near the southern end of Prospect Park, and then walk our horses a couple blocks to cross through the big traffic circle where Ocean Avenue meets Prospect Park Southwest. This is a huge intersection with multiple lanes of car traffic,  motorcycles revving through yellow traffic lights, busses and trucks passing through, and ambulances screaming by with their sirens on. There are bike lanes and pedestrians crossing right next to a lane painted especially for the horses, a bridle path in the middle of essentially every other form of overland conveyance the city has to offer.

Once we make our way into the park through the Ocean Parkway entrance, the bridle path shadows the main roadway in the park–the 3.5 mile loop shared by cars, bicyclists, runners, skateboarders, and pedestrians. Riding next to all of that is sort of like riding in a parade. Everyone looks at the horses since they are such an unusual sight in the city. Most amazed are the little kids walking with their parents, who stop and point, smile and wave, exclaiming “horsies!” (something my heart still says every time I see them too, driving through the country or even when I’m the pedestrian and see them go by in the park). I always smile and wave back to the kids, knowing that for them, this acknowledgment can make them feel somehow connected to this otherwise arcane sight. They get so excited about it and it makes my day. But the most entertaining interactions are those with people walking their dogs. Every dog is flabbergasted by the sight of a so much larger animal, whether it inspires aggression, fear, or simply dumbstruck awe. I love watching their faces when the horses come into view and I can see their carefully constructed place in the world unravelling in their tiny heads.   They bark like crazy and I laugh, sometimes sharing that laugh with their owners.

Two months into riding here, I am still amazed at the horses’ nonchalance to all this madness. This situation would cause a complete freakout meltdown for pretty much all of the other horses I’ve ever ridden, but these guys are just used to it. The thing is, horses tend to have a lot on their minds. Even when they seem relaxed, the tiniest thing could set them off. They’re always scanning the world for something that could scare them. They are also painfully aware of group dynamics, particularly among school horses; who follows who, how near will they allow another horse, and their relative speeds are all of paramount importance. That’s why I find it so easy to relate to them. These are all human concerns, too. We are often ruled by our fears, defensive about minor threats that our overactive minds have trumped up to seem like massive problems. We, too, are over-concerned about our place in the pack and what others are doing around us.

When it comes down to it, riding is so much more about relating psychologically and emotionally to the horses than it is about any notions of controlling them or having perfect position or whatever other nonsense we think we are doing. Anyone who gets on a horse, whether it be a beginner or the most seasoned veteran, and forgets for one instant that the horse is letting you ride it, is in for a bad awakening one day.

So I ride through this parade route every week, usually more nervous than the horses about all that is going on around us, marveling at their general calm. But I also empathize when that calm is broken, when a bicyclist yells at another or a car’s brakes screech too loudly, and my horse gets startled. The city is an overwhelming place for both of us. Mostly, you just have to let it all slide by without worrying about it too much. You get past the traffic circles, the packed stores and subways, the places of confluence that threaten to overspill with too much humanity, and you enter into the calm refuge under the trees in the park, or cozy in your apartment (or stall).  I take a breath and then exhale the tension and anxiety from my muscles, knowing that my horse will feel it and be infected by it. We are working together, and I don’t want to fail him. We are both out of place in the city, but we live here nonetheless and so we just do what we do, and adapt it as best we can.