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.