Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Horse that I Grew Up On

It has been a week since Belle died--a week to the day. It still feels physically and emotionally awful--the violence of it, as much as her passing.  I have two other horses, but Belle was the one I grew up on.

I was 44 years old when I bought her.

She was five and unbroken. My friend Jen Williams trained her to be ridden, and I resumed riding lessons with Jen from where I left off at age 14.

Learning how to ride at 44 was a completely different experience from when I was a girl. As a child, I was accustomed to steep learning curves. I knew that I had my whole education ahead of me, and my parents seemed impossibly smart. I was young for my grade, and I looked ahead to the academic year with a sense of dread, as though it would be utterly beyond my grasp.

In middle age, I was no longer accustomed to steep learning curves. I was an experienced professional; I was a wife, mother, and home-owner; I was able to hold my own in conversations with  my parents. I was, in effect, a grownup.

Or so I thought.

I think it's fair to say that I was not an athlete. For one thing, I had never been trained in a sport. I did not grow up when little girls were encouraged to play soccer.  In grade school, only the very bold and athletic girls played sports. They had to be tough and they had to be good, or suffer the slings and arrows of public humiliation...To which I said, at every opportunity, no thank you.

By mid-life, I had long been immersed in professional and amateur pursuits for which I had some aptitude. I was not a mathematician. I was not a scientist. That would have been uphill. No, I had spent my life on what they refer to in Nepal as the Apple Pie Trail.  I was not pointed toward Everest. I meandered through the Annapurna region, which was not easy but quite doable with tea and biscuits every two or three hours.

I brought no aptitude for sports. None. I was like Betsy, our Border Collie, who used to get a hurt look in her eyes when we bounced a biscuit off her face--not like our Basset Lab, who caught and ate the biscuit without questioning our motives.

At 44, learning how to ride was profoundly--profoundly--humbling. I knew how to post to a trot, but I could not remember how to bridle or saddle up a horse (not because I didn't do it as a kid, but because I was transitioning from English to Western tack). I did not know how to tie a quick-release knot, and had difficulty learning it; Jen had to show me a dozen times before I could do it myself.

I made the humiliating discovery that I was slow.

Take a trained or natural athlete, put them on a horse, and what you have is someone who is balanced in the saddle, whose riding position is close to perfect, and who will adjust their bodies to the horse's movement and rhythm. They will quickly learn to post to the trot and sit to the canter. They will quickly learn how to handle the reins properly.  They will learn because they already have good mind-body synergy.  They are like the quick-catching Basset, not the Border Collie who needs to understand the theory of biscuit tossing before she can grasp the concept of catching a biscuit in her mouth.

So, that was me as an adult learning to ride: Ponderously, if not stupidly slow to learn how to tie a quick-release knot; with no feel for the reins being connected to the bit in my horse's mouth; with no feel for the position of any part of my body in space, or relative to my horse; no sense of the cause and effect of my gestures; no sense of balance at all.

And then there was Belle, who, on the face of it, was all wrong for me. I should have had what Mark Twain referred to as "a genuine Mexican plug," a horse as slow and dull as I was.

But instead, I had Belle: a young, green, fast, spitfire.  Belle was athletic, but inexperienced.  For her brief period of training, she was ridden by Jen exclusively--a sensitive and balanced rider.

After that, she had to put up with me, riding her like a sack of potatoes.

I made all of the mistakes: I fumbled with the reins and jerked on her pretty face.

I rode passively, the way a novice rides a seasoned trail horse, because that was all I knew or understood of riding.

After riding four or five times a week for an entire year with a Western saddle, I bought a smaller and leaner English saddle like the ones I had used at summer  camp. My memories of riding as a girl were in the English saddle, or riding bareback on wooded trails. It had all been so joyful and easy.

Imagine my surprise when I rode with the English saddle for the first time as an adult and felt like I was going to fall off.  I was too unbalanced for the smaller saddle--a shocking disappointment. But I continued to use it, and eventually, my balance improved.

In April of 2011, I didn't realize that Belle had a sore back. We were walking a clover pattern in the arena when she stopped and wouldn't move forward. I felt a sinking feeling in my seat, and then Belle flung me, like a lawn dart, over her head.

I landed in the sand on my hands and knees, six or eight feet in front of my horse. My cell phone flew out of my pocket and landed next to my pinky finger, which was jutting out weirdly at a right angle to my hand.

After recovering from surgery (to my hand), I approached riding differently. My confidence, which had never been high (but still inflated), was now at an all-time low.

Since I took a cerebral approach to riding, what else could I do?  I bought a book.  A book by Clinton Anderson for people like me who had been bucked off and needed to build up their self-confidence and win the respect of their horses.

Most of the book involved working with your horse from the ground. I won't bore you with the details. I spent that summer studying it as if my life depended on it (which I felt it did). Belle and I started at the beginning and mastered every single exercise straight through to the end.

In the fall, I resumed lessons with Jen. Because I had clocked so many hours on my own with Belle both from the ground and under saddle, I was finally beginning to develop feel: feel for the connection between the reins and Belle's mouth, feel for the movement of her head and neck at different gaits; feel for the call-and-response affect of riding cues; and feel for my own mind-body connection.

I was no longer a brain in a jar shouting orders to a distant avatar. I was becoming physically and mentally integrated, sensate, in tune with my horse.

Belle was hot, for a Quarter Horse. That means she was sensitive, intelligent, fast, and high-strung. She was the kind of horse that needed a confident and competent rider. A nervous rider made her nervous and spooky. A frightened rider made her defiant--she didn't want anything to do with a frightened rider.

If we were ever going to venture beyond the arena and round-pen--if we were ever going to go on a trail ride, say--I had to learn how to be brave.

On one of our early trail rides, Hobbes, Jen's Border Collie, flushed out a rafter/gang/group of wild turkeys, and Belle, frightened, jumped up and down, kicking and bucking.  I was in the Western saddle, and I stayed on by holding the horn with one hand while executing a one-rein stop with the other, which resulted in Belle doing a jig in tight circles.

Jen told me to raise the rein higher.  I did, and it worked; Belle stopped.  I was shaken, but still in the saddle.

The early trail rides were tough. I was only too eager to return to the barn, alive.  But, over time, with experience, Belle and I steadily improved.

One of my favorite memories was when we were riding with a small group of friends at a big beautiful park, and we encountered a herd of cows. Belle had never seen cows before.  My first thought was, Oh, shit. 

But, I said to Belle out loud, "It's okay, Belle. Nothing to worry about. They're only cows."

I could feel her relax. I could feel her exhale, resigned to courage. Everything's going to be okay.

For the first time, I had managed to do what good riders have always done for their horses--horses whose survival instincts tells them to be ever-cautious and fearful: I had given her courage.  I had chosen to focus on the fact that cows are cows, instead of focusing on the likelihood of Belle flipping out at the sight of them and possibly hurting me.  I had been brave.  It was a proud moment.

And so, despite my being, like my horse, high strung and nervous,  I learned how to calm myself so that Belle could also be calm.

I learned to think straight in frightening moments when before I would have panicked and been unable to think.

I learned that courage inspires courage, and fear inspires fear.

Riding also forced me to recognize that I was indecisive. A carry-over from passive riding, whether to go left or right at the wall became a last-minute decision that forced Belle to turn hard, twisting her body instead of rounding through the arc.  Right or left. There's no wrong answer. It was simply a problem of indecisiveness, a defect in myself I hadn't even known was there.

Leading, instead of passivity.  Being brave, instead of nervous and fearful.  Making my horse put her trust in me, instead of the other way around. Developing a mind-body connection, as well as feel for my horse's body and motion.  Practicing diligence instead of carelessness.  These are the things that Belle taught me--with a lot of help from our trainer, Jen, and a book by Clinton Anderson.

At my age now, 51, seven years doesn't seem like a long time, but it is the equivalent of both high school and college, and it has certainly been an education.

I got Belle when I was 44. She was the horse that I grew up on.

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