Who Said Anything About Equitation?

Hobbling around today, I couldn’t tell which hurt more– my thigh muscles or my ego. Bolts of pain stabbed at my knees and calves, causing ordinary tasks to seem impossibly arduous. Getting out of my car hurt. Walking to the bathroom took forever. Tying my shoes almost made me cry. But the worst part wasn’t just all this agony shooting throughout my lower body. It was the fact that I’d been made this sore by riding a horse, the same activity I do all day every day of the year. I’m a professional, for God’s sake. Riding horses is the last thing that should debilitate me. Then why, you might ask, was I in such sad shape?

It’s a simple explanation. You see, all of my daily riding is executed with strict adherence to classical equitation and good posture on horseback and all the instruction that has been drilled into me over the last three decades of riding. But that’s not the type of riding I undertook on Saturday, which explains the crippled state I’m in right now. On Saturday, I spent 5 hours in what might best be described as a Survival Seat. This is a riding posture not described in instruction manuals or lessons. It’s the shape and form that your body adopts when mounted atop a hot-headed snorting Arabian bombing down the trail at speeds that make you whimper. This style of riding is neither pretty nor classically correct. But it does generally keep you alive, so its existence has merit among equestrians.

In the world of endurance riding, every rider at some point finds herself in this seat. Some ride this way for only a few minutes while their horses act like skittish lunatics or when the trail terrain gets harrowing. Others find it necessary to use the Survival Seat the whole time they are on the horse. It depends on the steadiness of your mount, his spookiness, and whether he moves under you like a supple athlete or like a bone-rattling jackhammer.

Saturday, I found myself on the latter. “Gordy” is an off-the-racetrack Arabian whose primary gear is GO! He charges down the trail in a trot so fast and bumpy that the rider can no longer post or remain in sync with his gait. There’s nothing to sync up to. Gordy is trying to go faster, faster, faster yanking at the reins. In order to keep from being pulled over, the rider– who has given up on posting and is standing in the stirrups hovering above the saddle– has to brace her back and clench her stomach muscles. Even a moderately fit person like myself soon fatigues in this posture. As Gordy streaked down the trail, simultaneously spooking at shadows and darting left to right, I dug my knees into the saddle flap in order to keep my butt in a hovering position over the saddle. In no time, I got a mid-back spasm. It felt like someone had jabbed a hot poker into my spine. To alleviate my ailing back, I squeezed harder with my thighs. This seemed to stabilize me decently enough for now. Gordy continued to bolt down the narrow trails like an equine rocket ship. Around tight corners, I folded over his neck to avoid getting face-slapped by manzanita branches. This maneuver required me to push harder into my stirrups, despite the balls of my feet already being numb.

By the time my right knee cricked, I was desperately starting to wonder when Gordy might ever tire out and want to slow down to a reasonable pace. Surely, he should start easing off the speed by the 18-mile mark and drop into a more rideable gait– maybe even one that I could sit normally and quit gripping with my back and knees. But, interestingly, endurance horses don’t seem to tire out when you want them to. Here I was falling apart but Gordy was fresh as a chilly morning. It occurred to me that fatigue was a long way from claiming my mount. The bone-rattling pace would continue until I lost the will to hold myself upright anymore.

Trying to ease my spinal discomfort, I now held the reins together in one hand while gripping my saddle pommel with the other. Leaning forward onto the pommel like this made my look like a hunchback, but I tried to ignore how unpolished I probably appeared. Soon enough, though, the sun peeked out overhead and threw shadowy reflections of us beside the trail. With sinking heart, I witnessed the lumpy hunched over image of me flopping atop my sleek and perky mount. In the last two hours, all traces of the elegant dressage position I had struggled for years to develop had disappeared. Gone was the honed posture, the educated seat. My reflection portrayed me as a flailing, unskilled, speed demon. A speed demon whose back muscles happened to be cramping badly in that moment.

My friend and colleague rode up beside me as the trail widened to a jeep road. He glanced over briefly. “Everything okay? You feeling alright?” he asked. I nodded in my best attempt at bluffing yes-everything-is-perfectly-fine. I didn’t want him- or anyone- assuming that I, a potentially sissy dressage rider, couldn’t handle the rigor of endurance riding. “Because I’ve never seen you look worse on a horse,” he added, just in case I mistakenly thought I was acing English equitation in that moment.

Embarrassed, I made one last effort to push my heels down and sit up straight. My inflamed joints prohibited it. I remained stuck in my hunchback position. For the next five miles, I fixated on my dreary situation– my screaming body and jackhammered spine, my wounded pride, the fact that this ride seemed like it might never end.

Then I recalled the real goal of riding and horsemanship which is to be in harmony with one’s horse. Style aside, we equestrians aim to achieve a harmonious union with our steeds. My old trainers used to teach me that true perfection was when horse and rider moved as one, with each of their intentions and efforts aligned as one. Seen from that angle, therefore, Gordy and I were darn near perfect. With me hunched over his neck, grabbing his mane for stability, we were as close to being one as horse and rider could be. Together we formed a ragged portrait of less-than-stylish rider with less-than-controlled steed. And there was no question that our intentions aligned with each other’s. From that point forward, we both wanted to get across the finish line as quickly as possible. Myself, I couldn’t wait to get there so I could spill out of the saddle and vow never to do another endurance ride in my lifetime. Gordy, on the other hand, just wanted to run fast until the trail ran out.

It felt close enough to harmony for me. In fact, a warm spiral of pride filled me. Hunched over in the Survival Seat on my snorting Arabian, I had achieved perfect horsemanship I told myself. I rubbed my knuckles into Gordy’s crest and urged him faster. Run, boy, run! I streaked past my colleague, flopping even worse than when he saw me before. We splattered mud up behind us and slid over wet rocks. We charged against the wind in our faces and pounded down hills until… there it was, the blessed finish line! I sat up the best I could and smiled like a kid at Christmas. I put both hands on the reins and thanked every deity that came to mind. The finish line! We made it! Now, how was that for equitation?

Getting Too Comfortable

My left hand stirred a bucket of soupy bran mash while also using the wooden spoon to swat at the growing population of barn flies. My right hand, meanwhile, grabbed my tuna sandwich from where it rested on a nearby filth-covered bucket. Ignoring the knowledge that mice frequently trotted across my lunch’s perch with their dirty feet, I blew off a cobweb and munched away. Then, in the middle of this unsanitary lunch situation, I paused to admit what an unfortunately familiar scene this had become.

Having meals at the barn means stealing bites of who-knows-what from your coat pockets between lessons or sharing snacks with the resident dog, cat, or goat. It involves grimy hands, mouthfuls of horse hair, and standing up. You are always standing on your feet. And you often use only one hand because the other is occupied with separate tasks.

As unglamorous as this might sound to folks who work in clean office buildings with designated rooms for enjoying lunch, it’s just part of life at the barn. Soon, it feels normal to be half-slurping, half-spilling a cup of soup as you walk to the arena. Eating is an area of life that we horse fanatics have adapted to fit into our barn routines. It’s one of the events that start to feel completely normal in this fly-ridden, hay-strewn place. In time, other things start to feel normal, too.

In my case, that means bringing to the barn services for which that I once drove into town. Consider my former trips to the Farmer’s Market, for instance. In order to procure fresh local produce, I used to visit one of our community’s abundant outdoor markets weekly. Given that they were in populated areas, this meant that I needed to make myself presentable to the general public. I had to shower, brush the hay out of my hair, and wear real clothes like the other folks (read as: no jodhpurs or chaps, no manure-covered boots). A trip to the Farmer’s Market, therefore, required a few hours of time away from the barn, a senseless concept.

Nowadays, though, a dear student of mine with acreage and farming skill brings me a basket of produce from her land each week. Last week, my bounty included beefsteak tomatoes, fresh mint sprigs, and several pounds of Pippin apples. In the past, she has brought free-range eggs, preserved pear slices, and lettuce greens. Every week when she comes for her lesson, she presents me with a box or bag or basket of organic and succulent harvest. It’s like a Farmer’s Market that comes to the barn. Not only am I deeply grateful for the produce but I am also thankful for eliminating one of the needs to leave the barn.

Most recently, I have also begun receiving chiropractic treatments in the barn aisle. Dr. Michael Agrella, a long-time human chiropractor had completed licensing and begun treating some of my training horses. He got miraculous results with a couple of them; the horses appeared noticeably more comfortable. If his work was good enough for them, it was good enough for me, I reasoned. From then on, we maximized the doc’s barn visits by first treating horses and then laying me face-down on his traveling cot. At the end of the day, the steeds and their trainer all felt mighty fine. And I eliminated one more need to leave the barn.

At first, my students and colleagues viewed this as very odd behavior. How legit could it be to have your spine jerked around on a makeshift cot in the barn? they wondered. Sure, at first I missed the adornments that get one to relax in a practitioner’s office– the gurgling zen fountains, the soothing flute music, the gaudy but nonetheless mesmerizing paintings on the wall. In the barn aisle, I had none of that. I relaxed to the sound of horses kicking their stall doors, dogs barking, water buckets filling. But, maybe pathetically, I can’t think of a more relaxing setting. These are, after all, the soothing sounds that surround us every day at the barn and part of the scene that we love to occupy to escape the rest of the world. Dr. Agrella adjusts me in my jodhpurs, chaps, and boots. Except for my birthday suit, I can’t think of anything more comfortable and natural for me to wear.

As he snaps my neck back into alignment, we discuss horse training issues and crazy clients. A wheelbarrow swerves around us, driven by the young lady who cleans stalls. I lay contentedly looking up at a blue cloudless sky listening to one of my horses slurp at his bran mash. A fellow trainer walks past and casts us a puzzled glance, probably wondering if this large man pushing his knee into my chest is a qualified bodyworker or a disgruntled client.

Immediately after Dr. Agrella finishes, I slip back into my barn jacket, hand him a check, and climb on a horse. No need to drive across town. No sitting in traffic. And this is exactly my point. You see, lots of people think we horse folks are an unkempt bunch. Our appearance lacks the polish of manicures, styled hair, facials. So, others assume that we don’t care about any of that; we neglect it all in favor of looking untidy. Let me set the record straight. It is definitely NOT the case that we do not care. It is more the case that all that primping stuff requires A LOT of time away from the barn. Which explains why most of us have trimmed it from our lives. However, if we were able to get manicures and facials at the barn we would be just as polished- if not more- than the rest of our communities. The issue is not whether or not we care or have enough money or find the time. The issue is whether or not we need to leave the barn.

We might all help each other out by brainstorming what services could be adapted to happen at the barn. I’d like you all to ponder this on your next lunch break, or more accurately the next time you’re looting crumbs from your pocket to cram in your mouth.