Change Up

I haven’t written after the last couple of lessons, mostly because there hasn’t been much to say other than complaining about being stuck in the indoor arena now that the cold (brutal, unexpected, demoralizing cold) has arrived. I’ve been trying to put a good face on it, but the truth is that it sucks. It’s a madhouse in there–as many as eleven or twelve horses at a time–and it feels like it has been stunting my ability to ride. It makes everything stop-and-go, with much more walking downtime and much less jumping. It’s very difficult to focus on your position and to work on improving the finer points of your skills when you have to navigate around a bunch of children who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re all over the place! Half of them can’t get their horses to move, most of the other half are oblivious to any other horses but their own.

But to keep things in perspective: I’m riding. I’m riding very nice horses with a patient, articulate trainer with whom I get along very well. And as she said during our last lesson, this experience is valuable. When you go to shows and are schooling in the ring in preparation, this is what it’s like. Well…you’re riding with people on your own level, not little kids…but the ability to block out the traffic and the shouts of other trainers and just focus on yourself is important. I see that. It’s not something I’m great at. I get frustrated fairly easily by all this. It tends to make me distracted and disorganized.

It was a bit better this weekend, when a snowy day kept some people away and brought the clusterfuck grand total to only six or seven horses. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was away this weekend but with the holidays looming this was our last chance for a lesson before my riding buddy leaves to travel for Christmas. So instead we rode with a trainer named Jess.

Every once in a while, I think it’s a really good thing to have a change up. Developing a rapport with a trainer is very important to me and in order to grow as a rider I definitely need the consistency that relationship provides. But it’s also great to have a new perspective sometimes; someone who isn’t so familiar with your bad habits and patterns and who might have a fresh take on explaining them in a way that helps you work through them.

The thing I liked most about Jess is that she used the flatwork time in a more focused way than I have become used to. Hannah usually has us walk in two-point to stretch out and then repeat that position at both the trot and the canter. She gives us a lot of helpful pointers about our position and especially focuses on getting us working well with our mounts, since we are often riding horses that are new to us. It’s productive, but mentally I’ve been viewing flatwork as a warm-up to jumping. Jess, however, really put us through our paces. She had us go around and around and around the ring in the two-point at the trot, focusing on firming our abdominal muscles to really pull our chests up off the horse’s neck. We then moved onto a posting trot where we put two beats to each post instead of one–up up down down–going up, holding for another beat while standing in the stirrups and then sitting for two beats. That was an eye-opener into how weak my inner thighs are and how piss poor my balance is. I kept falling back onto the saddle on the second “up” beat. She also had us work with extending and collecting our horses’ strides. Hannah usually has us do this over cavaletti, by moving them closer together and further apart each time we trot over them; this is in preparation for adjusting the stride length between jumps. Jess had us doing this by working into the most propulsive, forward, extended posting trot we could get from our mounts on the long ends of the ring, and then on the short ends we collected them back into a shorter stride for a sitting trot. Swapping back and forth like that can be difficult for some horses. The horse I rode this week, Summer, was a pro. Practically, if not actually, a pony, she had a compact frame and seemingly a lot of body awareness.

I really enjoyed having these more focused exercises during the flatwork. They not only made me warmer and more limber for jumping, they also reminded me how much I get out of training. These are the kinds of things I used to do by myself when I leased a horse as a teenager, the only time I’ve ever had any sort of non-directed riding time. I would ride by myself without a trainer and focus on getting my body into shape, and on working with my horse to be the most connected we could be. Having the time to focus on the real specifics of training my body and my horse without distractions is difficult to get when I have a riding lesson every other week, and it’s something I miss terribly.

This thought has been knocking around in my head all week, and it finally dawned on me last night at the gym. I was running on the treadmill and distractedly watching the Knicks game while daydreaming about playing softball. And I thought about how it seems like when I’m not playing a sport, life can seem a little meaningless. Obviously I don’t think that sports are the meaning of life. But I’m realizing about myself that I have this striving energy that requires an outlet. I need to put most of my energy into training, into improving. If I don’t have one thing to focus on, that energy spills out into everything and becomes a pressure for perfectionism in every aspect of my life. It makes me feel dissatisfied all the time. I don’t get the outlet I need from work because I’ve always had just a job, nothing I care very much about beyond a paycheck and insurance. I’ve been thinking for a long time about what kind of work to do that would give me that outlet, and what always comes to mind first is something to do with horses.

My dream is to work in a barn instead of an office. To be moving around all day instead of sitting. To look into the warm, deep eyes of a horse instead of the dead glare of a computer screen. If I’m honest with myself, that’s always been what I wanted. But I’ve never really allowed myself to be honest in that way. I was raised to think of something like horseback riding as a hobby, something you do in your time away from your real job. I’ve never allowed myself to seriously consider the possibility that working with horses could be my real job. But the more I think about it, the more sure I am that it’s the only way I’ll ever be satisfied…

Wild Horse

I didn’t have a riding lesson last weekend because the weather finally caught up with me. It’s been a pretty mild winter so far, but snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s is beyond the pale. Growing up, I never rode outside in the wintertime, instead moving into my barn’s large indoor arena in late fall. It’s a reversal that seems funny to me: in the city, where the majority of our lives is lived indoors, I am riding outside all winter. Indoor space is simply at too much at a premium here; we’ve penned it all up to rent it out for millions of dollars. The horses have their small barn to live in, but we’ve gotta ride them outside in the park.

To make up for the horse deficit that a week without riding creates in my heart, I rented this movie called “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” from Netflix. I discovered it during one of my periodic binges on the Apple Movie Trailers site and was immediately taken by the description:

Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up and removed from public lands by the U.S. Government. All will need permanent homes. None has ever been touched by a human hand.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride tells the story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that dares 100 people to each tame a totally wild mustang in order to get it adopted into a better life beyond federal corrals.

The movie follows a handful of contestants in the Challenge from when they take their horses home on Day 1 all the way to the competition on Day 100 as they do what has quite simply been my lifelong dream: train a horse from scratch.  The horses are completely wild at the start; confused, restless in a paddock, shy to human presence, let alone touch. Wild horses have personalities as distinct as the schoolies I know; some are congenitally calm and take to training very easily, some are more aggressive and recalcitrant. The trainers take small steps every day, forming bonds of trust that cut both ways–the horses must learn to trust trainers, but also the trainers must trust the horses enough to push them forward. Some of the best moments in the film are when the trainers are able to get on their horses for the first time, in their own time–one as early as Day 3, and one as late as Day 90.

Watching the movie reminded me of my dream to undertake this crazy mission of training my own horse. Not that I’d forgotten it, exactly, I just had sort of let it shrink away. As I’ve become more entrenched in my life here, the possibility of ever being able to do it has simply become more remote. But lately I’ve been re-examining my priorities. I think it began with my decision to start riding again after such a long time away from it. I realized that I never stopped wanting to ride and that if that was true, I just had to do it. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to ideal, but for now I am riding and I am getting stronger and more confident and more in touch with my horse instincts every time I go.

I have been thinking, however, that it isn’t enough. I have this dream to train a horse, and it is not a dream that I can achieve here. In fact, most of what I want to do is not something to be done here. I want to ride horses every day. I want to hike in the woods and I want to watch birds. I want to drive a car and sing out loud with the music. I want to be able to play my bass guitar without worrying about disturbing my neighbors, who live 18 inches away from me. New York City is an amazing place to live, with a zillion incredible things in it. But they are not the things I want. So why am I paying a gargantuan rent to be near all these things? Additionally, it is inconvenient and expensive to do the things I like to do here because they are not city things, but elsewhere they are a regular part of life. It’s hard to see beyond the city sometimes, to imagine a life elsewhere. It’s a very special kind of tunnel vision wherein the awareness of the rest of the world recedes, and all you can see is concrete and stores and throngs and throngs of people…

For now, these are just thoughts. But they are gaining traction. I am tired and worn down from this city life, and ready to stop putting all my time, energy, and money into it while neglecting my true goals and dreams. All of this is to say, I guess, that perhaps I won’t be an urban equestrian for too much longer.

First Cold

Today was the first really cold day I’ve had for a lesson. I’ve lucked out with sunny days in the mid-to-upper 50s thus far. Today the sun is occasionally obscured by a gust-fueled bank of clouds and it’ll only top out in the low-to-mid 40s. Although yesterday was pretty similar weather, it always takes a couple days for the horses to adjust to a new season.  My guess is that we’ll keep riding outside for as long as possible; the stables have an indoor ring but it seems barely useable. It is a tiny area inside the barn that probably shouldn’t have more than two small horses in it at a time, if that.

So today was kind of harrowing. One of the strange things about the barn I ride at is that they don’t really seem to give private lessons. You show up and never really know who you’re going to be sharing the lesson with. It bothered me at first, but a) what choice do I have at the moment? and b) it can have its advantages. My trainer is pretty hands-off with me in general, trusting me to figure out what I need to do and then imparting helpful observations about my position or interaction with the horse. When I ride with someone else and her attention is turned to them for a bit, I get to basically instruct myself. I get to remember the things I learned years ago and put them to use again. I have time to adjust to and negotiate with my horse using my own instincts, and then implement suggestions my trainer has offered without having to incorporate new information right away.

Today, though, the number of cold-weather-giddy horses in the ring was unsustainable. We had three in our lesson, and another single lesson going on beside us. The ride out there was marked by conflict: my trainer’s horse crow-hopping and rearing at the cold wind and the construction equipment and my horse coming on too strong, getting up in the grill of the mare in our group, causing both of them to wheel and kick.

That’s really the one big fear I’ve always had around horses. It can be scary if they hop, or shy, or bolt, sure, but I know I can handle that. It’s when they start backing up into each other and the hooves start flying that I begin to panic. It doesn’t feel like there’s much I can do. The first impulse that comes to mind when your horse is moving and you don’t want him to is to pull back on the reins. That doesn’t work here, since in this case that just makes him back up futher. So then I overcompensate by giving him slack on the reins and try to squeeze him forward, but that only gives him room to wheel, giving him leeway to kick and bite. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the lesson went.

We all tried to maneuver around the ring, giving each other enough space to deal with our respective mount’s issues. The biggest and most forward horse circled on the oval in the bottom of the ring, while the pokey mare shared the rail with the somehow normal-acting school horse from the other lesson. That left no place for my gelding, who continued to back up and buck every time I asked him for anything. He was the loosest of the cannons in the bunch. I don’t even think he has that much of a problem with other horses, that was simply his excuse today for not wanting to work.

Since I’ve never ridden this horse before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was shaken by the earlier conflicts and my confidence was low. Eventually, my trainer orchestrated a game of musical chairs in which I ended up on the little mare, who I have ridden before and get along with. She, too, had been backing up and pawing when her rider asked her for a trot, probably having watched how successful my gelding was with that gambit.  But that didn’t work with me. I knew her and I knew her limits (as I didn’t for the gelding) and she wasn’t able to bully me the way he was. It helped that she’s smaller too, but most of it was just that I knew how far I could trust her. She’ll throw some bucks in protest but I doubted she’d truly try to dump me. After some more buck-filled theatrics, I had her moving at a nice trot on the rail. The more experienced of the other two girls had a go at my gelding without much success–horses just have bad days too, sometimes–and I was able to avoid conflict with him for the most part. Once going forward, my confidence returned and I got quickly in sync with my more responsive mount. After all that, my canters today were the best I’ve had since getting back to riding. My lower leg felt snug and the canter was very collected; it felt great and I know it looked great, too.

All in all, I got to ride less time than normal, but it was valuable experience nonetheless, dealing with the antics and interpersonal issues. I’m sure it’ll get real interesting when it finally gets cold enough to move into the tiny indoor ring. (Yikes.)