I had my eighth lesson the other day. Unlike before, the arena was frenetic with activity on Friday. Air compressors hissed at the near end of the arena, interrupted by the abrupt thunk of pneumatic nail guns. Some carpenters were building a set of bleachers, pushing against a deadline. Two riders were practicing a Pas de deux on their horses, intertwining in the middle space of the arena, while the owner of the barn trained a horse at the far end.
These lessons are expensive, so I approach them with an almost military mindset, a stance of silent dedication and resolve that's unusual in the history of me and horses. Still, I felt I was leading the schoolmaster into bedlam when I brought her into the ring.
We begin each lesson with longe line work in full tack, a few minutes in each direction to warm the mare up, and then a short bit of in-hand work to stretch and bend her. The coordinating of several pieces of equipment in my hands has been awkward for me, but each time I get a little better, a little more fluid, a little neater in managing side reins, whips and lines. Usually the schoolmaster will relax and blow out during that work, but not this day. She was tense, and blamelessly so, I thought.
The space left to us in the arena felt pinched and tight on the ground, but it was worse when I was in the saddle. Most of the time we were working on a 10-meter circle. It felt a little daunting to me, riding a strong working trot on a circle no more than 35 feet in diameter.
The brilliant schoolmaster was off somewhere in her body on Friday, and she displayed her displeasure by kicking out one hind leg or the other as we circled our instructor on the line. The thought I had, after several of these moves, is that a year or two ago just one of them would have been cause enough for me to dismount. My head would have dictated that course of action before I even had a chance to wonder.
The schoolmaster became increasingly tense, her ears pinning flat when other riders passed near. She crow hopped once, and then again. Sometimes she tipped me forward, sometimes not. I felt as though a two-by-four were lodged beneath the saddle, right under my left seat bone. My body felt her tension and stiffness. My body felt it, felt the lack of balance and flow between us. I know I have never felt that, and understood it, not in that way, before that instant. My body recognized it and then adjusted to help her. It just did. I moved to help her find my flow since she had lost hers. That's the only way I can think to say it. Where on earth did that confidence come from?
She blew out and snorted, releasing through her topline and settling into the easy, swingy trot that I have come to expect from her. In part, I did that for her. Maybe I did most of it.
What I think I've realized now is that some of my anxiety has come from riding with a disconnected, uneducated body, that not all of my fears reside in my mind. The body can't lie. A natural thing, it has an integrity built into its functioning. Because I didn't know in my body how to really sit on a horse, I felt ill at ease sitting on a horse. My mind picked up on that doubt and spun it into fear. On Friday, exactly the opposite thing happened. Because my body knew what to do, my mind wasn't even consulted for a second opinion.
These lessons are fantastic, they are giving me the rider inside, and I will grub for every nickel to keep on taking them.