50 Miles of… um… Fun on Horseback
At about the time my right hamstring seared with a pain that knifed into the deepest nerve bundles, I began to ponder whether this was actually any fun. I inventoried the tacky roof of my mouth—dry and dust-coated—my twanging hip flexors, and a back spasm that started pulsing two hours ago, now worsening. The numbers 38 kept rising through my thoughts like the blurry waves of heat that lift from hot roads, turning scenery into drugged-like hallucinations. I pictured the “3” flopped over in the middle, the “8” vibrating side to side as though it meant to taunt me. It occurred to me that maybe 38 miles was my limit. Maybe I could ride a horse for 38 miles and no further.
We dressage riders tend to consider anything over an hour a long ride. Anything over 3 is pretty inconceivable. Hence, my pitiful state at mile 38 of a 50-mile endurance race aboard my student’s Arabian gelding. We pressed on, hurtling across a flat ridge top with an oven-like wind in my face. Under me, Louie had plenty of pep and offered to surge faster, a fact that I realized with gratitude might get us to the finish line—and a cold beer—quicker. His hooves smacked the hard ground, his body leaned to the left as he gained speed. Our gait was now not only sloppy but bordering out of control.
A few miles back, my thoughts headed for a negative tailspin, cataloging an ache that ran from elbow to sacrum to knees. Right about then, I asked myself what the heck I was doing out there, a dressage rider pounding the trails at warp speed. I assessed the enjoyment in this moment, admitting that the fun might have dropped off at mile 30. I felt a knick of something like defeat, or maybe it was surrender. Whatever its precise term, it was the humble acknowledgement that this event felt a lot larger than myself right then. I was tired and hot and dirty. Louie, meanwhile, fared much better. He looked ahead to the next steep climb, a runway of gravel up a dry hillside, which he attacked with a strong trot and then a canter. He swept down the trail as though his legs had not just crossed nearly 40 miles. From here out, I allowed him to choose our pace. He rated himself down hills, climbed up them with measured steps, and trotted like the wind across flat ground. I became a mostly passive member of our team. And right then I recalled why the challenge of long distance riding beckons me periodically, especially on a horse like Louie.
Some dressage riders like myself share a guilty confession: that we crave moments like this where we can turn off our brains and our constant quality control over the horse’s gaits. Sometimes in order to refresh our commitment to such a skillfully dense pursuit like dressage, we occasionally need to experience the raw pleasure of sitting atop a horse and moving in freedom. We might not sit perfectly aligned in these moments and we may ride miles without thinking about a half-halt. But we ride with ease and abandon, qualities I argue dressage riders must re-discover from time to time.
Louie knows—and loves—his job as completely as we know how to breathe and blink our eyes. He allows the rider to simply be along for the ride. He crosses rivers without complaint, bounds up hills without fatigue, maintains composure as frantic fellow racers bolt past him. His ears stay perked forward down the trail focused on the horizon ahead, never startling at a herd of wild turkeys or loose cows or leaping deer. A horse like this, one in total command of his task, needs little to no input from his rider. He allowed me to resemble again the 10-year old girl galloping through our Vermont pastures holding on to a clump of mane without a care on the world.
He reminded me that when we as riders get such opportunities to feel this state of freedom we must take them… twangy hamstring, ailing groin, and dehydration included.