Searching and Exploring

The other goal of my life lately, in addition to becoming the best rider possible, has been exploration. Leaving New York was like being sprung from a trap and starting this work-from-home existence has been like being released from prison. It was a ten-year long sentence and I see now it was a prison of my own making. I knew intuitively the moment I joined the office world just a couple months after graduating from college that it wasn’t right for me. I simply wasn’t cut out for it–but I didn’t listen to my body and myself. I just changed jobs, every time getting the same type of work that didn’t suit me, and every time believing that it was the only path available. My confidence eroded over time and I saw no other options. I knew that I wanted and needed to get out of the commuter lifestyle because it was killing me–but I came to believe that desire was unrealistic and wrong. “This is just the way it is,” was the message that was drilled into me by the surrounding culture.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Now several months into the working from home, my perspective is so much clearer. So many paths and opportunities and adventures now feel open to me that I thought were closed off.

The biggest one of those has been the ability to explore other parts of the country and places to live in. My boyfriend and I tried out LA for a few months, and decided it was not for us. On the surface, it seems easy to live there–the mild weather, the friendly-seeming people. But beneath that, it is an unnatural place and life there is very out of balance. And for someone who grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of woods and water, the landscape there–carved out in a desert–is not comforting or inspiring.

The one great thing about living in LA was my barn there. I was too busy to write about my last several lessons before leaving, but they were wonderful. I felt comfortable at this barn and like I was thriving and learning and growing as a rider. The courses felt less intimidating and more solvable and exciting. My trainer remarked that I was getting better every lesson. The horses there were some of the best quality horses I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride–and that in itself gave me the opportunity to grow and jump more and higher than I ever have. In my last few lessons I also discovered a horse that suited me very well–a chestnut quarter horse named Flash who seemed to move at my rhythm and who was very fun to jump.

Leaving the city was a no-brainer–it’s expensive to live there and not what I’m looking for across many factors–but the part of that decision that meant leaving that barn was a tough one. Ultimately, I realized that I will likely be able to find a similar level of riding and a comfortable barn at which I can grow elsewhere. To remain in a situation in which I was otherwise not satisfied would have been a trap in its own way.

So, we packed up our few belongings and the cats into our trusty truck that had already gotten us across the country once and headed East. For now, we’re staying with family in Texas, taking a breather and taking stock. Discussing priorities, compromises we are willing and unwilling to make, and dreams to pursue. Talking about the kinds of lives we want to live. One thing I know for sure is that I never want to stop riding like I did for all those years back in NYC. I want horses to always be a part of my life, and a big part of it.

While we’re here in Texas deciding on the next place to explore, I’m making it a priority to keep riding. Even if I’m not staying to put down roots at a barn, I can keep myself in riding shape. Last week I had a lesson at a barn that turned out to not be for me–it was almost distressingly run down and dilapidated. I rode a horse that in his day was quite a nice showjumper, from the pictures the owner showed me; now at the age of 30, he is in incredible shape for a horse so old, but is certainly not capable of performing at the level that I need in order to progress. We had a relaxed flat lesson working on transitions, which is always useful, but I left feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged.

I’m currently looking around for another barn to try in the area. There are a few of them, and it’s just about narrowing down which one has the right feel. It’s just like what I’m doing in the rest of my life–exploring, trying things out, and for the first time since I can remember, having the freedom to decide what is right for me and actively shape my life to be the way I want it.

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Hello LA

Today was my first riding lesson in LA.

We left New York just about a month ago, taking the long, slow way to get here. First we drove down to North Carolina to see my folks for Christmas. After several days there, we made the two-day drive through South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana to my boyfriend’s family’s home outside Houston to stay through the New Year. Then we had another stretch of what was supposed to be two days of driving across Texas and through New Mexico and Arizona, but it turned into three when we were taken by surprise by an ice storm in West Texas on our way to El Paso. There we were graced with incredible luck that prevented two near misses of unfortunate setbacks to our travels:

1) We nearly had to sleep in the temporary shelter of the First Baptist Church in Fort Stockton, a small West Texas town, when the ice storm forced us to stop there for the night only to find there were no hotel rooms. We were lucky enough to still be in the lobby of the La Quinta when someone called to cancel her reservation for the night, and we were so relieved to have our own room and a bed, especially because we were driving with two cats.

2) We woke up the next morning to find that the roads were passably thawed but that the entire town had run out of gasoline. We had half a tank, but out there you can go 100 miles without seeing another town–the nearest was an hour and a half away–and we weren’t sure of the road conditions in between. A chance encounter at one of the empty gas stations with a local man who pointed my boyfriend to an unmarked, unmanned pump that had escaped the notice of travelers not in the know was the only reason we were able to get some of the last few gallons that the town would see until two days later when the gasoline delivery trucks would next make it out there due to the weather and road conditions.

By the time we reached El Paso, on our second day of driving through Texas, we got to see the sun for the first time since one day of it back in Georgia–and that was the only one in the approximately three weeks that the trip took us altogether. It was a massive relief. We walked outside in the evening without jackets on and stood under palm trees, enjoying the late afternoon rays in our eyes.

New Mexico and Arizona passed by pretty uneventfully. In New Mexico there were billboards advertising a Dairy Queen 130 miles away, so that gives you an idea of how much is going on around those parts. Arizona had some incredible, cartoonish scenery with Wile E. Coyote rock formations and fields of Road Runner saguaro cacti.

We entered California through the mountains while a dramatic sunset lingered for what seemed like an hour, painting the sky bright red and magenta and purple and gold. We drove through the Border Patrol checkpoint in a landscape of sand dunes that looked like a caravan of camels should appear any moment over the horizon. We finally made it to my boyfriend’s sister’s house in San Diego, frayed, exhausted and (unfortunately for me) carsick. The next few days were a marathon of apartment hunting, but four days after our cross-country drive ended, we moved into our apartment in the city of Glendale in Los Angeles, California.

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High on my list of things to find, along with such essentials as a mattress, a tea kettle, and some houseplants, was a new barn to start riding at. Out here there are a lot more options than in Brooklyn. Given the availability of horses where I now live, I’m questioning whether I can still rightly call myself an “urban” equestrian any longer. Glendale might be called “the burbs” by some, but it is, in fact, a small, lovely city just adjacent to and incorporated into Los Angeles. I’m still living in an apartment building without any outdoor space, even though now I have a car and easy access to it. Parks and protected areas abound; I live a twenty minute drive from the Angeles National Forest.

The first and most obvious place to look into was the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. It’s a huge complex of twenty-odd barns located in Burbank, about fifteen or twenty minutes away. I read about a couple of barns there that could work, but had a feeling that it might not be the right feel for me. That suspicion was confirmed when I dropped by the saddlery there; the prices were outrageous and the atmosphere a little stuffy.

Instead I looked east to Pasadena and settled on the San Pascual Stables. It’s about the same distance away, but seems to be a much more comfortable atmosphere for me. Jamaica Bay back in Brooklyn might have been short on space in the indoor arena, but I always felt spoiled by how friendly of a barn it is. I worried that I’d not find anyplace like that again; it can certainly seem a rarity in this sport. Everyone I’ve met so far at San Pascual–my trainer, the barn staff, and my classmates in the riding class–were all friendly and helpful. I think I’m going to feel at home there.

Instead of a semi-private lesson, the situation here is a jumping class that could include up to four riders. There were four of us this first time, and we were the only ones in the large outdoor ring that was bordered on one side by steep, brush-covered sandy hills crowned by palms tress and a couple of houses. I luxuriated in the space I had to move around in, but not as much as I did in riding outdoors early on a January morning wearing only a t-shirt.

The class is for jumping, so we were all expected to warm up on our own prior to beginning. That hasn’t been typical of my experience so it surprised me a little, but I was pleased to go at my own pace after more than a month out of the saddle. I followed the lead of another girl in the class and trotted around and then cantered on my own. It was interesting; the trainer was sitting outside the ring and watching, although not offering instruction, and there were my classmates with me in the ring as well. Being the newbie, I was very aware that I was being watched and assessed. But it didn’t make me nervous at all. I felt supple and in control and graceful, even. I felt like a good rider that was making a good first impression.

Two things contributed to this, I think. The first is that I have been exercising almost every day since we got here. Running, lifting, cycling, hiking, yoga. I am getting a lot stronger. The second is that the horse I was riding made me look really good. A small, 6-year-old, gleaming chestnut mare named Bella was my first mount at my new barn and I was happy to have her. She was super responsive and a good mover. She also fit my body well. She had that perfect curve of the belly that was enough to grip onto, making my calves look secure and not swingy.

Once the class started, we got right into it, cantering a plank jump twice to warm up before launching right into building courses. It was the most I’ve jumped in years, probably since college. We each took a turn going through the prescribed sets of jumps until we put together a whole course and then each got to run through that a couple of times. It was a blast. After the first couple of times through, my trainer put the height up–nothing vertiginous, probably two and a half feet tops–but still higher than anything I’ve jumped in a long, long time.

The trainer seemed pleased at my performance, at least enough to be satisfied that I know what I’m doing and can be taught. Free from anxiety and with a sensible mount underneath me, the distances came naturally. The biggest challenge of the lesson was in persuading Bella to do flying lead changes; as a relatively young horse she is still a bit clumsy with them and sometimes only gets the front and not the back, but even that came successfully after a couple tries.

I felt great after my lesson, driving home in the sunshine with the windows down, the sunroof open, and the radio on. I’m so relieved to have found a place to ride that seems like a good fit, and a place where I may have the room to grow as a rider. I’m looking forward to next week’s class (which will be the first with my new pair of tall boots!)