It’s All In the Head

Today was my second lesson this week! I cannot remember the last time I’ve ridden twice in a week, but it was probably in college. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel having ridden just three days ago, but I felt great. I noticed that I warmed up a lot more quickly today than usual. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I rode even more days a week.

Another thing that made me feel great was that today I rode for the first time in my new helmet. I’ve had the old one since college and ever since the interior padding disintegrated from sweating it in for years, it hasn’t fit me properly. To compensate, I have been putting my very long, thick hair in a bun and using that to hold it in place. But that a) hurts my head and b) sometimes comes loose. That happened last summer when I took a fall. My helmet protected me when my head hit the ground, but it also slid forward on impact and hit the bridge of my nose, nearly breaking it. Finally, it’s recommended that you should replace your helmet after a fall if it hits the ground, even if it appears undamaged. And mine was long beyond the 5-year-old mark past which it is recommended to replace your helmet anyway. So it was definitely time for a new one.

I went with the Intrepid by Troxel. It was affordable and it also had some features of particular interest to me. First, it has a cinch system that makes it easy to adjust it to exactly my head size and shape. It’s also very low-profile and lightweight. Those are great things for me since I have a really tiny head. A proper fit is imperative for safety and I don’t have to go around looking like I’ve got a big ol’ heavy salad bowl on my head. It also has air vents, which is an incredible improvement on comfort after years of a fully-covered velvet cap.

The Intrepid by Troxel.
The Intrepid by Troxel.

After the first ride, I have to say I’m pretty satisfied with it. I think its lightweight design also made it easier to balance my body without my head coming too far forward. I feel much less neck and back strain than I sometimes do after my lessons.

Consequences of incorrect head posture.
Consequences of incorrect head posture.

In addition to those improvements wrought by getting better equipment, the lesson itself was also quite fun. I rode Jackie O. today, the little appaloosa mare I rode once before in a fun and challenging flat lesson. We did a course book-ended by two lines on the long sides, similar to the one in my lesson on Tuesday. But instead of just a diagonal plank jump in between, there was an in-and-out.

I had less trouble today with my spots than I did on Tuesday. Jackie is more experienced and savvy than Bella, which helped, but I also had a clearer mind today. The first couple times through on the first line, I again didn’t have enough impulsion going in. Jackie loves to add a stride, so we got in deep and had to push to get out. She built from there, however, so the in-and-out and the final line were forward and clean.

I thought about this tendency to not have enough speed going in for the last two lessons and wonder if it’s a control issue. I know that I felt I was pushing Bella last week to go forward and just wasn’t getting anywhere, but then I felt that this week on the more-responsive Jackie and still had similar results. I suspect that I’m unaware of body language that is contradicting my leg. Really it comes down to the fact that I’m over-thinking the jumps and being too controlling. When I ask for the canter at the beginning of the course and on the approach for the jumps, I’m taking too much contact and making the canter too collected. Because I’m uptight in my head about the spots, it’s as if I feel that a very collected canter will make me able to pick the perfect spot–but that’s not the case. It’s the fluid motion of the rider and horse together that make the spots feel natural, not this clamped-down nonsense. On the final line, once we had really gotten moving, as horses tend to build speed throughout a course, I was able to just go with it and that one was beautiful.

The last time through the course today, the trainer encouraged me to push Jackie forward before the first line. I did that, but I also kind of mentally let go. I still retained contact and my mind was still focused on riding my horse down the line, but I wasn’t trying so hard. Not being so much in my head allowed my body do what it needed to do (including breathing). You don’t think rhythm, you feel it.

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. ┬áHe 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.