Posts Tagged ‘riding’

All the Winter Ponies


I was recently lamenting to a friend that I hadn’t gone horseback riding in two weeks because of the weather, and she was surprised. “You’re still riding, when it’s all cold and snowing all the time?” she asked. As if a little cold and snow would stop me! But lots and lots of snow, along with subzero temps…well, there’s dedication and then there’s dangerous, I suppose.

Still, it’s not easy. Forget the long rides of the summer — within an hour my toes are frozen and I can’t feel my hands, no matter how many gloves or socks I wear. Your body feels so much stiffer and it takes me forever to loosen up and find my rhythm. And of course there are the horses — they’re either cold and don’t want to work, or they are so anxious to get and keep moving that they’re a little (or a lot) harder to handle. But I do love how fuzzy they get, with their fluffier winter coats and manes. (The little Shetlands get so fuzzy, they look like weird misshapen dogs in the cutest way possible.)

I was telling my father recently that riding was a form of meditation for me. You need absolute focus on your horse and on your form, a kind of awareness that is both vigilant yet relaxed. Your mind can’t wander on a horse because it will realize you aren’t paying attention and start doing whatever it wants. You really have to listen in a whole body-and-mind kind of way. I really miss that in the past few weeks — I’ve been meditating a little more in a traditional way, but it’s not just the same, though it’s nice in its own way, of course. I miss that feeling of everything non-essential just falling away, and it’s just me and the horse and the feeling of hurling through the air on its back.

And on some level, I miss my horse friends! Horses are not like other animals — they aren’t affectionate in the same way as, say, a dog or even a cat can be. They are magnificent, intimidating, self-possessed and powerful: there’s nothing cuddly about them. Relating to a horse at first is much more about being calm and confident and gaining their respect and trust. But then you get to know them and they trust you, they start to come to you when they see you, or nuzzle their noses against you looking for treats, or let you hug them around the neck. So I miss Ruby and her gentle patience, Lakota and her mischievous curiosity, Ladybug and her energy, and Hondo and his watchful intelligence and eagerness to please. They feel like friends now, or at least comrades in my quest for a good ride. Not seeing them makes me a little sad.

The last time I rode, I groomed Ruby, brushing down her toasty red coat and blonde mane. Horses eat so much in the winter — digesting food keeps them warm by raising their body temperatures — and she was bulkier than she was in the summer, and I could feel the stiffness in her muscles as I brushed her out. The ground in the indoor area was still hard and semi-frozen, so we couldn’t canter, but we did sustain a trot for a good 10-15 minutes. (Which, frankly, is eeeyowza on your bottom! But in a Pilates-painful kind of way.) I did OK with just making her mind me, considering how rapidly the temperature was dropping. But we had to stop early because I lost feeling in my toes, and instead of that calm, purposeful peacefulness I feel after a ride, I still felt restless, like there was energy inside of me still waiting to be ridden out.

When I drove home from the barn, surrounded by countryside blanketed in snow against an equally grey-white sky, it felt like I was driving right into a blankness. I kept thinking of Sylvia Plath and her horse, Ariel, whose name graces her famous poem. Plath rode regularly when she was a student in England, and apparently once her horse bolted, her stirrups fell off and she rode two miles clutching its neck until it stopped. I kept thinking of the “…Red/Eye, cauldron of morning” stanza, and the poem’s evocation of how terrifying yet alive the act of riding can be. I imagined myself on a horse, hurling towards the farthest point of infinity on the winter horizon, willing the cold and the wind and the snow to end — because I miss riding in the open air, at full speed, losing worries and gaining pieces of my self all at once.

Fear and Loathing in Horseback Riding (Or, Being a Big Chicken and Getting Over It)

This fall I’ve been horseback riding every week, sometimes even twice a week, and it’s become the thing that I need to do in order for everything else I want to do — writing, creating, thinking, strategizing, designing — to go well. I don’t create anything except experience when it comes to riding. I don’t have any major ambitions with riding other than getting better at it and enjoying the company of an equine friend. By ruthless productivity logic, it doesn’t do anything for my life or my goals on the surface. And yet if I don’t ride out, my days feel overstuffed, rushed and cloistered in a way I don’t like.

But I’ve been thinking about the “inner work” of riding — the way it makes you focus in a total yet relaxed way, or how to communicate with another creature in a subtle, direct and profound way. Lately, though, I realized how riding is about confronting fear. Every time I go out for a ride, there is always a moment where I feel some fear — and I always have to make an effort to get over it in order to get what I want.

Fear, of course, is a very basic human emotion, along with anger, joy, disgust, surprise and sadness. It’s also one that we mask with other emotion words: anxiety, panic, uneasiness. No one likes to admit they feel fear, so we use those more “acceptable” words to talk about it. But deep down, they have fear at their core.

There are big and little fears in life, and big and little fears in riding. It comes from something as simple as having to put a halter on a horse you don’t normally deal with, or something big like riding a horse you’ve never ridden and trusted before — and who knows, today might be the day it will try to buck a rider off. I have a lot of primal fears when it comes to riding and being around horses sometimes, like being thrown off and having my face stomped upon, or falling off from a hard canter and breaking a limb. I have a fear on being on a horse that freaks out and I can’t control it or calm it down. I know, at some point, I will fall off, because most people who ride will at some point. It’s a question of “Is this the day?” and will I be able to stay calm and loose even when it happens.


In Which You Meet a Lazy Teenage Boy of a Horse

Well, guys, my minor ailment actually turned into a semi-major one, and I’m unable to type for most of this week because my finger looks like someone ran over it with a car. Being a writer, this is no doubt a cramp on my style. (I’m talking into an iPhone to compose this post, but it just doesn’t compare!) I’m going to have to interrupt our regular programming, which is a pity because I had some nice topics I was going to cover. So instead…picture post! This one is dedicated to my favorite horse at the barn where I ride.

This is Mister. He is basically a lazy teenage boy in the body of a horse. He likes to come off the rail all the time, he hates cantering and trotting and he is always wanting to stop and snack at his favorite grassy patch. If he were a person, he’d be that kid that just wants to stay at home in front of his computer playing games or what not. He’s very smart, but uses his smarts to figure out how to get out of stuff. But I love him anyway. I have basically discovered that I am the type of rider that loves a challenge, and Mister is very challenging to ride. You constantly have to anticipate and head off his naughtiness, so it requires quick thinking and quick action and good instincts.


On Horses

I want to tell you about something beautiful, so I’ll tell you about the horses that I’ve been riding lately, and perhaps a little about riding in general. About once a week for most of the spring, I’ve been taking riding lessons, and I started on this lovely curly horse mare named Ruby. She’s lovely. She’s very sweet and accepting and patient. True to her breed, she has a curly mane — she is like the golden surfer girl of horses, and has that kind of a temperament: calm, patient but strong. The hair in her ears is also super-curly, too, and looks a bit like shearling, though she is very sensitive about her ears — you have to be careful when you put her halter on her. When I groom her, she actually likes having her legs brushed out and is very still when you do it. She has a smooth, elegant trot.

My background with riding is erratic yet passionate. I have memories of being 3 or 4 and riding horses — my dad had a friend who lived out on a farm in one of the tiny towns outlying my home city, and we used to go visit him and he’d put me on a tiny Shetland. I remember feeling astounded, and very, very small — but how fun it was to feel closer to the sky. I had friends who rode horses in a serious way but I never got to take regular lessons — they were expensive, at least for a family with four girls with parents who were very democratic. If I got to ride a horse, my sisters should be able to — but lessons for four girls was too much. So I got to ride at friends’ parties, at farm days, sometimes on the weekends when we went out to the country to hang out with my lucky equestrian friends. One of them was a serious dressage rider; she was excellent, and I envied her. I wished lazily that I could ride more, but I never forgot how wonderful it was.

In film school, a boyfriend of mine gave me a wonderful gift: a series of private lessons at a stable based out of the Bronx. I took the 1 train to get there, and then a bus; it was a very long commute. The place itself was not friendly; like most lesson barns, it seemed fairly rushed and my instructor seemed distracted most of the time. But it was still fun to ride. I rode a few different horses, but didn’t have much time to bond with them — I only had about four lessons. It must have cost my boyfriend at the time a royal fortune, because riding in the city is ridiculously expensive — and equestrian sports are expensive to begin with. I am still so grateful to him for this day for this gift. It was well-chosen and thoughtful; it spoke to my deepest longings, to my soul.

I took lessons again a few years ago, just another short set until I went back to New York, building on what I had learned at the Bronx stable. The hard thing about riding is that you can’t really get good at it unless you do it regularly, so every time I had private lessons, I’d get to a solid point…and have to stop. I had enough to know that I loved it — and made a vow that once all the factors were in alignment, I’d pick up riding in a serious way.