All the Winter Ponies

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I was recently lamenting to a friend that I hadn’t gone horseback riding in two weeks because of the weather, and she was surprised. “You’re still riding, when it’s all cold and snowing all the time?” she asked. As if a little cold and snow would stop me! But lots and lots of snow, along with subzero temps…well, there’s dedication and then there’s dangerous, I suppose.

Still, it’s not easy. Forget the long rides of the summer — within an hour my toes are frozen and I can’t feel my hands, no matter how many gloves or socks I wear. Your body feels so much stiffer and it takes me forever to loosen up and find my rhythm. And of course there are the horses — they’re either cold and don’t want to work, or they are so anxious to get and keep moving that they’re a little (or a lot) harder to handle. But I do love how fuzzy they get, with their fluffier winter coats and manes. (The little Shetlands get so fuzzy, they look like weird misshapen dogs in the cutest way possible.)

I was telling my father recently that riding was a form of meditation for me. You need absolute focus on your horse and on your form, a kind of awareness that is both vigilant yet relaxed. Your mind can’t wander on a horse because it will realize you aren’t paying attention and start doing whatever it wants. You really have to listen in a whole body-and-mind kind of way. I really miss that in the past few weeks — I’ve been meditating a little more in a traditional way, but it’s not just the same, though it’s nice in its own way, of course. I miss that feeling of everything non-essential just falling away, and it’s just me and the horse and the feeling of hurling through the air on its back.

And on some level, I miss my horse friends! Horses are not like other animals — they aren’t affectionate in the same way as, say, a dog or even a cat can be. They are magnificent, intimidating, self-possessed and powerful: there’s nothing cuddly about them. Relating to a horse at first is much more about being calm and confident and gaining their respect and trust. But then you get to know them and they trust you, they start to come to you when they see you, or nuzzle their noses against you looking for treats, or let you hug them around the neck. So I miss Ruby and her gentle patience, Lakota and her mischievous curiosity, Ladybug and her energy, and Hondo and his watchful intelligence and eagerness to please. They feel like friends now, or at least comrades in my quest for a good ride. Not seeing them makes me a little sad.

The last time I rode, I groomed Ruby, brushing down her toasty red coat and blonde mane. Horses eat so much in the winter — digesting food keeps them warm by raising their body temperatures — and she was bulkier than she was in the summer, and I could feel the stiffness in her muscles as I brushed her out. The ground in the indoor area was still hard and semi-frozen, so we couldn’t canter, but we did sustain a trot for a good 10-15 minutes. (Which, frankly, is eeeyowza on your bottom! But in a Pilates-painful kind of way.) I did OK with just making her mind me, considering how rapidly the temperature was dropping. But we had to stop early because I lost feeling in my toes, and instead of that calm, purposeful peacefulness I feel after a ride, I still felt restless, like there was energy inside of me still waiting to be ridden out.

When I drove home from the barn, surrounded by countryside blanketed in snow against an equally grey-white sky, it felt like I was driving right into a blankness. I kept thinking of Sylvia Plath and her horse, Ariel, whose name graces her famous poem. Plath rode regularly when she was a student in England, and apparently once her horse bolted, her stirrups fell off and she rode two miles clutching its neck until it stopped. I kept thinking of the “…Red/Eye, cauldron of morning” stanza, and the poem’s evocation of how terrifying yet alive the act of riding can be. I imagined myself on a horse, hurling towards the farthest point of infinity on the winter horizon, willing the cold and the wind and the snow to end — because I miss riding in the open air, at full speed, losing worries and gaining pieces of my self all at once.

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