Monday, March 31, 2014

The Strength and Fragility of Horses

My riding lesson today was a test of strength-- emotional strength, mental strength and physical strength.
There was once a horse named Annie. I knew her for only a year, but rode her fairly consistently throughout that entire year. There reached a point when I would go to the stable and not have to ask who I was riding, I just had to get her out. She was strong and skinny and imperfect, but she was also spirited and graceful (most of the time) and fun.

I feel so lucky to have gotten to watch and ride her throughout the year. We both grew so much. When I first started riding her, we had communication problems. she was quick towards the jumps and strong against the bit. I was nervous, I'm still a nervous rider but I was way worse. When my instructor would ask me to do something I'd think "Well okay Jimmy, if you think I can." Annie helped me harden up my confidence and my "Okay, we're going to do this" attitude. By the end of our time together it was almost like we could read each others' minds (as long as I was being decisive). We were doing courses where before we could hardly do a single line. We went from only starting canters over a small jump to starting canters on the rail (That was a big deal). In fact, I even saw a rider canter her over a jump. I was so proud of her, she was very mannerly. She was even starting to work with more beginner adult riders. She was like a completely different horse. The best part was her personality change. She was a bit stingy when she first arrived but by the end of her stay at the stables she was quite a bit more affectionate, (although I'm not sure she always wanted to admit it), accepting hugs and kisses and coos. She just seemed generally happier. (Actually, I seem to remember riding her for a while where she'd duck out of turns and corners, which was rather alarming, but by the end of our year together I don't think she was doing that at all, so I don't really remember if I'm mixing her up with another horse...)

I was different too. I was a bit bossier and a bit more confident. I didn't just point a horse at a jump and ride through whatever happened, I was more involved in the approach and the away. I learned to have a presence, so that whether I was on the ground or in the saddle Annie didn't forget I was there. (Sometimes when I'd lead her she'd try to lead me, for example). I know she taught me a lot more than I probably know and I know this because every year I look back at where I was a year before and I cannot believe how much I've grown as a rider. When I think of myself pre-Annie and now, I can't believe it.

Annie was an old horse and the lessons were hard on her, but through wonderful luck, or fate or whatever, Annie was reunited with her original owner and able to spend her pasture days with her. Unfortunately, Annie slipped on ice and broke her leg. Today she was put down because of that injury. I know that death was mercy for her, and would not wish life on her for my sake. This is not the first horse who I have ridden and known to die. Plus just in general, I know animals and people die. But still it is sad. And today I am sad, not because she died but because I miss her.
So much personality!
What amazes me the most, is the fragility of horses. Horses seems so strong. I certainly bore witness to their strength today with Captain when he (for the lack of a better phrase) took off, and I pulled and pulled and pulled and thought "This isn't going to work, he can't even feel me pulling, he could just keep going and going and there would be nothing I could do," (In retrospect, I wonder if I should've pulled him in a circle. I feel like somewhere once I learned that when a horse takes off you should try to make them go in a tight circle because they can't do tight circles all that quickly. I thought momentarily while I was leaning back and pulling that I should make him do a circle, but I wasn't sure I would stay on if he suddenly spun so I thought maybe straight was a better option.) But also, horses are very, very fragile. A broken leg can end a horses life, pretty easily it seems. Or make them completely un-rideable. Most of the health problems I've seen in horses have been in the leg or hoof region. Legs and hooves seem very fragile to me. So much strength on such delicate pedestals. It's good to be reminded of that occasionally, I think.

As far as my lesson with Captain today goes: I was definitely startled when he got... energetic. And when I felt powerless to get him to stop, it was scary. The fact that you're riding a living, breathing, thought producing, emotion feeling, opinionated and clever animal is what makes riding magical, precarious, beautiful, scary, comforting. And I was basically asking for it. Here was Captain, pissy because I had him on a tight rein (Major lesson today, difference between a tight and short rein) and he had earplugs in, which he doesn't really like. Plus it's spring jitters time and there were scary motorcycles. We were plodding along and I thought "this horse has no energy, he needs energy, we're supposed to be cantering" well... got what I asked for. And it's not like I wasn't forewarned about that happening. From Jimmy, and from Captain himself. I just had never experienced it. (Now that I have, it's like, totally cool now for the future... maybe?) I handled it okay, so that was good. (Major lesson 2, I don't really think I'm that good of a rider, and that's holding me back a bit. I still consider myself a beginner.) I still was very startled, which made me cry. I don't do well with surprise. It's a little embarrassing but, it happens. And it doesn't happen all the time. Actually, I was doing pretty good at holding back tears during the lesson, but I was already holding back tears from news about Annie, then we started riding so I didn't think about it. Then the thing with Captain happened and I was like "I did good, it's good, every things good. Except Annie's accident and impending euthanasia." then it was all over. Thanks memory for your impeccable timing.

But I've never had a lesson where I haven't learned something and today was no different. In fact, today was jammed packed with strong in your face important lessons. (It was tiring). Luckily, I've never had an experience where I've thought "I don't want to ride horses anymore." This isn't the first time I've dealt with horses that do something that intimidates me. In fact, it's not even the first time a horse has decided to go for an unwarranted run. Sometimes I'm a little apprehensive about riding that same horse again. But I'll still ride them and I'll still ride. Mostly because I can't imagine a life not riding now that I am. And really the thing that gets hurt the most is my pride because whatever I did to cause whatever, or to not handle whatever or whatever, is a little embarrassing. In any case, today's lesson with Captain reminded me a lot of what I learned from Annie. I think as I ride Captain I'm going to need some of that attitude I had with Annie. I think I've softened up a bit. But also a lot of understanding that I learned with Annie and Roanie, and really all horses way back to my very first lesson on Gracie. Attitude, but still understanding that horses have feelings too. Leadership and horsemanship. It always seemed to me that riding was more about balance than strength.
R.I.P. Annie <3

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