Thursday, August 30, 2012

Just Add Water

That's really how it felt yesterday, taking Saxony to our trainer's barn. I've never had her trailered anywhere. Would she load? Yes, she would, and she did. During the hour-long drive, she plucked at her hay net and stayed balanced and steady. She backed out of the trailer calmly.

Somehow, I swelled with pride walking her into the big, double-sided barn, even as she was offering all sorts of vocal stylings. For a grown mare, she has a baby-girlish voice full of squeals, squees and trills.

The barn is intimidating to me because it is so moneyed. Still, I've quashed that anxiety in myself for what my lessons give me. Last week I was invited to do a little trunk show of things from my Etsy shop, and the money was out in dining, deco and bling. Unless I was talking with someone about some fascinating old photograph or bit of equine ephemera, I blanched and hung back with the friends who'd come along to help. But having Saxony there at the barn changed that shyness for me. She's my peeps, I guess; I breathed easier. 

After we settled her in a stall, I sat down to watch B ride her own horse, listening down the aisle all the while for sounds from Saxony. She'd paw the floor from time to time, but was mostly silent, sampling the new hay. At some point, though, my instructor calmly remarked that Saxony had gotten out of her stall. She calmly remarked that. And yes, Saxony, unused to stall guards, had simply pushed through hers and wandered in search of my voice. I started to my feet and there she was, looking at me almost longingly. I took her back to her stall and closed the door behind us to linger with her for a while. She snuffled her hay and I just stood there stroking her shoulders and back.

After my friend S had her lesson and I'd finished mine, B surprised me by suggesting we start Saxony right then. Saxony was quite startled, herself. It's not a very good picture - I was too engaged and excited to pay attention to my camera.

It's not a day spa? Really?

And I felt, driving away from the barn at the end of a long day, many things. One, that it was the first all-horse day I've had in a such a long time. How wonderful they are, those days. Two, one chapter has ended completely and another has begun, a new chapter, fresh and only just hinting at what it contains. Three, the third, that I never rushed, never hurried, never commented in my own head about every step along the way. I took my horse where we will be for a while and all of it was good.

(I'm going to write my way through this big, new experience of taking a horse for training, but I can't begin in earnest until the festival where I work wraps up its season. I won't see Saxony for six days now, which means I'll miss five of her training sessions, but I'll be writing about all of it after that.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Only an Ocean When There Isn't a Bridge

Or, How I Mythologized the Canter.

I'll be taking Saxony to my trainer in two weeks. We'll be there for four to six weeks. It's a first for me and I think it'll be a first for her too.

In my first horse life, after I graduated from wild summer-long bareback rides on a borrowed horse but found I hadn't left my love of horses behind, the options I saw were riding lessons or showing; I mean those were the milieus around me. People who wanted to learn to ride had riding instructors, and people who wanted to show had trainers. I would never show, didn't even have a horse, so I had a riding instructor. There was no middle ground; at least, I didn't know about any. I had some riding lessons and eventually I had a horse. She cost money, so I quit the lessons to pay her board. Several happy years passed during which I acquired two more horses. I became a better rider through miles and hours, but I didn't learn anything more about how to ride properly or well. Nothing, in fact.

When I came back to horses after 2o years off, I remembered the familiarity of them, the habitual nature of wanting them, the whole love of being able to touch them. I remembered all those things and it made it so easy to come back. What I overlooked was that I had never learned how to ride from beginning to end, through all three gaits, not to mention any of the other myriad nuances.

I returned to horses in the unexpected company of a fast, sturdy, opinionated mare who I eventually learned to be frightened of. I felt that I did not know how to ride her the way, perhaps, that she should be ridden. I didn't know what way that was, exactly, just that whatever it was, I didn't know it.  So I took riding lessons, the option I remembered from all those years ago. I hired someone to instruct me and "train" my mare. Fits and starts, fits and starts. There was never unity, never a unified course. I never "finished" those riding lessons and she never "finished" her training. (Understanding neither of those endeavors is ever finished, but I mean the basics roughed in.)

That's history and now is now. Before my lesson with B began today, I mentioned cantering. I was thinking that Saxony would be arriving at the barn in two weeks and those things felt connected, to me. "I'm not going to say never," B said to me, "but not until your sitting trot is there. You can't canter without it." I felt chastened and elated at the same time. Chastened like an eight-year-old, Oh, I'm not that good? Elated like an adult suddenly understanding something key, Oh, I can't canter without it? I get it. B went on to say that the canter is simpler to sit once a rider has command of the sitting trot.

It feels lame to write this, because I've had so much experience with horses, done real time with them in my own relative way. But no, I didn't continue with my lessons back then, so I never made it to the sitting trot. All these years intervening and then to come back seated on a high-spirited, spooky mare and find myself wondering what comes between the trot and the canter? Hmm. I just couldn't get Scout into a canter without both of us wigging out. There was a void there, so I filled it with fear, simple as that, and began to broadcast it, too. The canter became huge in my mind, mythic.

It didn't help at all that I had a riding instructor that used to call it "the C word." Literally. She'd say something like, "Just another couple of lessons and we'll start work on 'the C word'." Oceanlike, my fear of the canter grew, spreading as a sea of impossibility in front of me. It also became, in the negative space around it, the zenith, the height of my ambition: Cannot be a rider without it.

My thighs are just burning as I write this, sore from so much rising trot, sitting trot, rising trot, sitting. I get it. Someone has told me. I am being taught the sitting trot. It is hard, hard work, and I would go back there in an hour if I could.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where Have I Been?

The last time I experienced a real moment with my mare was in April, I think, though my mind turns back to January, really, in the way I am about connecting with horses. I had such a distracting, hard winter. It squeezed me from all sides, squeezed her out to the distance.

In part, I let that happen. Something in me said let it rest. But that voice was barely a whisper against the din of self-recrimination. We humans are so flawed in how we bargain with the days, with time, with meaning.  I am, anyway.

I just could not. Horse. 

My work caught me up then, the summer-long freight train of the festival. It's always the same journey to the same destination, always speeding, always hurtling by. Goes so fast, I can't take it in, but then I've been on that train so many times, what more is there to see? It feels like that, like I've seen it all.

But I haven't, of course. It's just finding the time to notice, or being in the right place at the right time. I watched a young new horse try on the joust, his eyes quick and shifting to take in the sweep of stimulus before him: color, sound, collision. I never took my eyes off his face, just couldn't because the process of his struggle to understand was so vividly expressed upon it. It looks like he'll make it, but he has a choice in the matter. That's the very thing that could make him a great joust horse, his having the choice.

Here at the festival I'm the unofficial Dr. Doolittle. People bring all manner of creatures to me, believing I'll know just what to do. I've tucked young bats back into trees, hosted stunned birds in my guest room until the crowds have gone, crawled belly first under old decking to recover baby wood ducks who'd fallen through. I understand the impulse of people who don't know what to do, but can't stand to worry.

I would go up to the barn from time to time and see her, check on her in the worst of the summer's heat, shine her up with an oily fly spray. She comes when I call her. Never once has she asked Where have you been? But I have. I am.