Today was the longest, my favorite, day of the year: the summer solstice. What a lovely one it was.

Today was the first time in a while that we’ve gotten to ride outside. We have had a lot of nice days, but the days preceding our lessons have been rainy and the ground has been too wet out there. It was perfect weather; 80 and brightly sunny, with an occasional cool breeze coming off the water.

A new horse on the list, Misfit, who isn’t new to the barn but was previously being leased and therefore not available for our lessons, prompted my riding buddy’s adventurous spirit to give her a go, so I took the opportunity to try her usual mount, Sparkling Gal. She’s a beautiful, delicate, skittish Thoroughbred who had two starts on the track before retiring from racing to become a school horse. I was slightly nervous about riding her, knowing her tendency for skittishness, but since I’ve seen my riding buddy have so many lessons on her I felt familiar enough to know what to expect.

I enjoyed riding her so much. At first, the tightness in my back and inner thigh muscles (from a period of extreme sloth in which I barely worked out at all, which I am now attempting to remedy) made a little difficult to get in tune with her upright, prancey trot, but once I warmed up and settled in at the canter, we were able to be more in sync. But the real joy with Sparkle comes from jumping her. First, there’s an adorable ritual wherein I take her over to the jump and show it to her before jumping it so she’s not scared by it; I have seen this dozens of times with my riding buddy walking her to stand in front of the jump, her finely-wrought ears perked up as she leans down, takes a little sniff, and then stands up again with a satisfied and resolute look on her face.

Once over her initial hesitancy, Sparkle loves to jump. I could feel her getting excited as we approached, and she gives a big effort even for a small cross-rail. Since both of our mounts tend to get a bit speedy through the jumps, our trainer kept them small today. When doing the line, Sparkle sped up considerably after the first jump. I worked really hard the entire time on the flat and particularly leading up to the jumps, to remove all tension from my body, to post slowly, and to use my seat to calm her down with as little intervention from the reins as possible. So we approached the first jump with a very reserved trot, taking it at a modest distance. But once in between, Sparkle wanted to GO. We took the 5-stride line in 4, not unlike how it went with Jubilee nearly a year ago. Sparkle might be the most athletic horse I’ve ever jumped; being a former racehorse not only gave her speed but a lot of power over the jumps. We took off on the second jump from what felt like halfway through the line. It felt like we were in the air forever. It was so much fun, such a beautiful feeling.

But, since it was really supposed to be a five-stride line, I had to keep trying to rein her in between the jumps. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, during which her excitement to jump kept her leaping the second one from impossibly long distances, we finally got the five. My trainer suggested that I try to trot in between. I knew that was impossible, but it drove home how much I needed to sit up and pull back on her, something I was still a bit hesitant to do, knowing how sensitive she is. The five strides were, admittedly, not as fun as the four but it felt more even and reasonable, and I was happy to have accomplished it.

My man had come out to the barn with us to see me ride and after the lesson, we celebrated the solstice by taking a trail ride together. He took lessons as a child, but hasn’t been on a horse since then. I was impressed by how much of a natural he is. He looked totally comfortable, like he belongs on a horse. Since he was game for it, our guide let us canter a good portion of the ride. I was enjoying the long, lopey strides of my trail horse, Hamilton, and the comfort of a Western saddle after the fun, but mentally and physically tiring lesson on the Sparkling Gal. It was restorative to be out in nature and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my favorite holiday: with the sun, the trees and salt marsh reeds, the water lapping on the beach. The feeling of a game horse ready to run underneath me, and the sight of the man I love riding ahead of me.

Anniversaries and Firsts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the second (better) course: