On Horses

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I want to tell you about something beautiful, so I’ll tell you about the horses that I’ve been riding lately, and perhaps a little about riding in general. About once a week for most of the spring, I’ve been taking riding lessons, and I started on this lovely curly horse mare named Ruby. She’s lovely. She’s very sweet and accepting and patient. True to her breed, she has a curly mane — she is like the golden surfer girl of horses, and has that kind of a temperament: calm, patient but strong. The hair in her ears is also super-curly, too, and looks a bit like shearling, though she is very sensitive about her ears — you have to be careful when you put her halter on her. When I groom her, she actually likes having her legs brushed out and is very still when you do it. She has a smooth, elegant trot.

My background with riding is erratic yet passionate. I have memories of being 3 or 4 and riding horses — my dad had a friend who lived out on a farm in one of the tiny towns outlying my home city, and we used to go visit him and he’d put me on a tiny Shetland. I remember feeling astounded, and very, very small — but how fun it was to feel closer to the sky. I had friends who rode horses in a serious way but I never got to take regular lessons — they were expensive, at least for a family with four girls with parents who were very democratic. If I got to ride a horse, my sisters should be able to — but lessons for four girls was too much. So I got to ride at friends’ parties, at farm days, sometimes on the weekends when we went out to the country to hang out with my lucky equestrian friends. One of them was a serious dressage rider; she was excellent, and I envied her. I wished lazily that I could ride more, but I never forgot how wonderful it was.

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In film school, a boyfriend of mine gave me a wonderful gift: a series of private lessons at a stable based out of the Bronx. I took the 1 train to get there, and then a bus; it was a very long commute. The place itself was not friendly; like most lesson barns, it seemed fairly rushed and my instructor seemed distracted most of the time. But it was still fun to ride. I rode a few different horses, but didn’t have much time to bond with them — I only had about four lessons. It must have cost my boyfriend at the time a royal fortune, because riding in the city is ridiculously expensive — and equestrian sports are expensive to begin with. I am still so grateful to him for this day for this gift. It was well-chosen and thoughtful; it spoke to my deepest longings, to my soul.

I took lessons again a few years ago, just another short set until I went back to New York, building on what I had learned at the Bronx stable. The hard thing about riding is that you can’t really get good at it unless you do it regularly, so every time I had private lessons, I’d get to a solid point…and have to stop. I had enough to know that I loved it — and made a vow that once all the factors were in alignment, I’d pick up riding in a serious way.

When I settled back in Illinois, I felt for the first time that I finally could take up riding in a serious way. It took me awhile to find a place that I felt comfortable at. I tried serious dressage barns, but I am not a dressage person and don’t have that super-serious mentality. I am so driven and ambitious with everything else in my life — my writing, my work. I don’t want riding to become that for me. I went to a hunter/jumper stable, which I liked better — but again, it didn’t quite align with my goals for riding and the place I wanted it to have in my life. And I didn’t like the strict lesson barns because the horses seemed bored.

And then finally I found a good place for me: relaxed, unpretentious, and also where I can ride both English and Western if I want and no one is going to throw shade about it. (I ride both.) There is a lot of breaking and training of horses, and some rescue horses as well, and some equine therapy. It’s just a friendly, warm place. And the horses all have such great personalities. Ruby is the chillest, but she still has enough spark so that I’m always learning. But there is a gorgeous palomino who loves to show off, and a very outgoing Percheron and a part-Thoroughbred rescue who is so touchingly eager to please. This week I rode a mostly black horse who was often mischievous and naughty, but I learned a lot trying to get him to do what I wanted. And at the end of the lesson, it was coming together nicely. I’ll probably keep riding him for a bit until he’s taught me a bit more.

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At its best, riding is a true partnership with a horse. You don’t command it to do things: you ask, and because your horse respects you, it does it. Horses are intuitive, although it is not the right word for how they read and listen to people — they can tell what you are feeling. You can’t lie to a horse, pretend to be smarter, more knowledgeable or more confident than you are. A horse doesn’t understand pretense; it just knows you are being dishonest, and it won’t trust you enough to listen to you because it knows you’re being dishonest with yourself. Being understood by a horse is an amazing thing, though, like when it can tell you are raring to break into a fast trot and it runs off with you — or when you are sad, and she nuzzles you when you’re grooming her.

What I like about riding is how utterly focused you are when you do it. You’re absolutely present in your body; it’s like a form of meditation, really, and afterwards I always feel absolutely happy and at peace. You are going fast enough and high enough that you can understand intimately how connected all the different parts of the body are — the legs, your back, your seat, your core. You start to understand how tension travels in the body. You can’t lose focus because then your horse will, as well, and that could be bad, and slightly dangerous. You have to be strong and brave to ride well. Everytime I ride, I do something that goes slightly beyond what I thought was capable. It is always scary, but the rewards are immense. Riding helps teach me to accept fear, respect it — and then move beyond it. And horses are the best teachers for this, for the honesty and courage they ask of you, helping you get there faster than you would’ve on your own.

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