In effort to beef up my horse fund, I am working my butt off with my regular full time job during the day and a part time job in the evenings, which adds up to around a 55 hour work week. Luckily, the part time job is seasonal and will wind down in the next month. In the mean time, I am squeezing in short conditioning rides with Cooper after I get off for the night. It’s starting to get dark earlier and I relish my nightly horseback ritual of watching the sun slip down at the far end of the pasture while I cool down. It’s peaceful out in the pasture, riding with no ambition or ulterior motives. I have no no lofty ambitions for my friend Cooper, which provides an odd sense of comfort and relief. My only wish for him at the moment is to get him in shape so working out isn’t so unpleasant for him. If I had any long term goals for him, it would be to soften his neck and shoulders and learn to work from behind. However, this is a drastic and long process, especially with a horse of Cooper’s build and fitness level. I’m not thinking about the full picture yet.
Tonight it was already starting to get dark when I got to the barn, so I just grabbed some treats, a rope halter, and a bareback pad and trekked out to the pasture. He knew what was coming as he saw me approach and I saw the skepticism in his eyes, but he was still a good sport about standing still to be tacked up. I hopped on and we resumed our usual routine as I coaxed him into power walking around the track of the pasture. After we had walked both ways, I asked him to bump it up to a jog. I alternated between sitting and incinerating my inner thighs with a sad excuse for posting. Again, Cooper was a good sport. I am deeply grateful to horses for putting up with all the bumping and prodding we accidentally inflict on them. I grew more and more frustrated with my uncooperative body. My hips and thighs never mastered the subtle art of the sitting trot.
It’s one of those “feel” things that I haven’t cataloged yet. Introspectively, I know what I’m supposed to do: sit up tall, legs long and relaxed, and let your hips fall one by one as the hind legs sway the horse’s back side to side. I’ve tried everything from complicated posting exercises (up up up, down down down, and other various permutations), wearing ankle weights,and gyrating my entire body from the head to my toes. Nothing has really worked for me yet, though I do have some moments of syncopation with the horse’s rhythm.
I alternated between jogging and trotting in short bursts with lots of breaks to take it easy on Cooper’s back and try not to make him feel like he had to brace against me. I blame my patchy foundation in horsemanship, not receiving any formal lessons until my body was past the formative easy learning years and less inclined to cooperate with me. Okay, I’m not that old and I’ll probably eventually get it, but I’m still jealous of the equestrians that got their start in lead line and had the advantage of getting all that muscle memory and position work out of the way as children.
I began to think about the reasons for my dysfunctional body at the trot. It boils down to issues of protection and trust. The entirety of the horse-man relationship can be distilled into the singular topic of trust. The more the horse learns to trust and rely on the rider, the stronger and more sincere the relationship will be. We want them to trust us on the ground and walk bravely past windswept plastic bags and barking dogs. We want them to trust us from the saddle to clear tall oxers or canter a loop in the opposite lead. Horses are voiceless warriors and though we ask so much from them, we hardly spend as much time thinking about ourselves. Be fearless. I know exactly what I’m doing. I will never hurt you. These are the things that our horses want to hear from us.
In a relationship where the tiniest cues and body language speak volumes, we know that anxiety and fear are easy to pick up on from either end. We are experts at hiding our feelings from other humans, but horses are never fooled by these charades.
I found myself trying to curl, hunch my shoulders forward, and grip with my thighs and calves, tipping my torso forward into the fetal position when the trot gets too fast. I realized that my position suffers because I’m trying to protect myself. I’m riding defensively, not reciprocating the sacred bond of trust I want to share with my horse.
I feel that this is an under discussed topic in the equestrian world. Horsemen and women of today are expected to be diligent and intuitive, but we rarely think of them in the context of courage and vulnerability. I struggle to strike this balance as I ride. I’m the kind of person that wants to have a plan B, C, D, and E. I hate surprises. I like plans and comfort and safety.
Learning to follow the horse’s movement in effortless symmetry is less like a pure proprioceptive process based on muscle memory and more like an intimate process of relinquishment. When you learn to ride with your chest open, your thighs relaxed, and your spine tall and elastic, you are learning to speak bravery into your horse’s psyche.
You tell him I trust you completely. I promise to be vulnerable with you. I will be courageous for you. I want to protect you over myself.
This is the prayer I lean down to whisper into my horse’s ear when the sun sets.