Apr 20, 2012

Leaps, Bounds, and Stumbles

And so my new life of riding began. I took several CR clinics with Susan and ended up getting my basic instructors certification. I audited some clinics at Southmowing Stables where Sally worked. I experimented with my own body on Tucker and on the Smith school horses. It was quite a learning time.

But don’t think it was like Ta-Da! Im a great rider! No. It was hard and at times extremely frustrating. I got back on Tucker after flying off the back of him that day. I could only get that trot about every third try. It didn’t *feel* like I did anything different those efforts, but clearly I *was*, and he could certainly tell. Hmmm.

But when I did get it right, it worked. It was crazy. I learned through time that I was hugely right dominant. All of my life I had been more comfortable on the left lead, the left diagonal, and tracking left in general. I had even only ever fallen off to the left. And yet it never had occurred to me that it had anything to do with *my* body. Well, horses were always just stiffer to the right. I usually rode OTTBs and they ran to the left. Ha! Perfect explanation. Duh.

Apr 18, 2012

Theory. Understanding. Practice.

And so, I went home. The next day, I got out the Tuck.

Everything was like it normally was, except me. I got on, went to the field that served as my ring, and rode him around with no stirrups, then both directions without my left, and both directions without my right. All I concentrated on was feeling my legs be long, my knee soft and open, my ribs up, and my pelvis following the movement. I’d always been taught to have my knee *in*, my thigh *on*. I gave that up and pretended Susan was there, stretching my leg down. I rolled my thigh back throughout, and could feel how that opened my hip and allowed my leg to be even longer.

It was all so antithetical to how I had always ridden in tack. But since I had spent so much of my riding life bareback, I just tried to feel that same sense of drapey hanging leg, but with a saddle. I practiced picking up my stirrups, one at a time, then both, then dropping them again, and trying not to let anything else in my body change in any way. It was funny how hard that was to do, when I broke it down like that. I could also tell that Tucker could feel my shifts, no matter how slight. So I kept at it till I could drop both or either stirrup, and pick them up again, with him on the buckle, in either direction, and not changing in any way.

It took about a half an hour, maybe. I felt pretty good, and Tucker was cruising and soft. 

Apr 17, 2012

I was Blind, But Now I See

In that CR clinic, with Susan Harris and all the others watching and critiquing each other and ourselves, we had ridden two hours in the mornings and two hours in the afternoons. We had done lots of work over cavaletti, low jumps, and grids. We rode with our arms crossed over our chests, we rode with only one stirrup, we rode in two-point, over and over. We rode with only one hand, the other arm stretched in various positions. We did the Three Seats exercise, wherein you post ten strides, sit ten strides, and two-point ten strides, the goal being to be able to do these position changes without any change in your horse’s way of going. We also spent a lot of time riding with a soft/loose leg, seeking a connection from the rider hip to the foot/stirrup. Susan would come up to us while standing and run her hand from the inside top of our thigh down to the lower calf, then softly pull/allow our leg to be longer and more draped. Then she would tap the bottom of our feet. It was really crazy how different this made my legs feel.

All of these exercises were extraordinarily revealing. It was particularly helpful to watch the other riders and to see how their horses responded to the work and the position changes. Remember, I was watching people riding horses I had ridden and taught on for several weeks. I saw the horses respond, change, get softer, rounder, more forward. I admit, sitting and watching and listening to the riders exclaiming this and that would never have done it for me. In fact, some of the Navel Gazers were embarrassing. "Yes! Yes!" they'd cry, as they experienced some sort of real or perceived breakthrough. Oy. There was always a lot of  'Me! Me! I am SO CENTERED' hoopla going on. I had to give Susan credit.  She kept everybody focused on their positions and while encouraging to all the Gazers you could tell she wanted them to keep the focus on *riding*. No, it was watching the *horses* respond to the position changes that was the shocker. Horses don’t lie. Ever. Nor do they have agendas or placebo effects or Things to Prove. They just are. And I could see, over and over, how they changed when the rider body changed. And it’s not like half the time you could even really see anybody do anything. But you saw the horse change, and then you realized that the rider body had changed. Wow.

Apr 11, 2012

Sing It, Sistah!

This Miracle Light Bulb was in and of itself pretty transforming. But it was brought home to me in such a clear and I Will Never Look Back way by a horse I had  started riding only three weeks before the CR clinic. His name was Tucker.

He was a very handsome Canadian TB/Trakhener cross, about 16.2, truly black. Very typey and such a mover! He belonged to a girl I’d met at Smith who was busy with college and  really couldn’t keep him. She gave him to me; we brought him to my house in Ashfield where I had a little barn and ring and miles and miles of gorgeous trails. Woohoo!

Well. I had seen this horse at shows and clinics and I knew he was a steady, willing, quiet horse who looked effortless to ride. Not to mention really handsome with an appealing friendly personality. I was so excited!

Apr 9, 2012

Epiphanies Are Us

It was an interesting three days. We started every day with lectures, followed by riding and demonstrations. We rode, we watched each other ride, we talked saddle fit and position, we asked lots of questions and Susan had all the excellent answers. Some of my preconceptions about the attendees proved true, and others were immediately blown out of the water. One of the goofiest dressed amulet wearing beaded hippie Kerrit clad CR heads ended up my best friend in the clinic. She was also named Abby and we laughed that we were opposite sides of the same coin. She was smart and funny and took it all seriously. But there were also those who could find their Centers, had Very Soft Eyes, could talk Building Blocks and Rooting Trees and blah blah blah till I keeled over, but man, ask them  to steer and it was ‘AAEEII!! <crash>'. There was a sense it was, to some people, Centered Navel Gazing, rather than Centered  *Riding*. But as the hours went on and I watched Susan teaching, and was taught by her, and as I watched the good riders Riding, and the not so great riders Centering Their Navel Gazing, I saw what I could neither deny nor dismiss.

I had been riding the Smith school horses for several weeks and I knew most of them pretty well. I knew that yes, I could ‘get them’ to do what I wanted, but I also knew that ‘they’ ‘always wanted’ to do such and such.

In that three days, I saw that those horses didn’t ‘want’ to do those things any more than I ‘wanted’ to fly to the moon.

I saw that we, as riders, ‘made’ those horses do those things. We made them lean, we made them drop a shoulder, we made them pull, we made them go on the forehand. WE did it. OUR bodies did it. When they were not carting our bodies around, they did not do those things. Sometimes it was really obvious. But sometimes it was so subtle I could hardly believe it. I would experiment with the slightest, the tiniest adjustments in my tummy or hip, and yowza, the horse would straighten, lift, what have you. Even the old half cripped schoolies. OMG. Who knew.

I saw that all of the corrections that riders have been taught to do, historically, *work*, but that if *we* didnt make the horses do those various things *to begin with*, those corrections would not be necessary. OMG. Who knew.

The most mind boggling  exercise for me at the time was what Susan called Comparable Parts. We have a dropped right shoulder, the horse has a dropped right shoulder. We lean left, the horse leans left. Lather rinse repeat. Now it seems such a given, so obvious, but to me, then, it was a Jesus and the Lepers moment. Wow. Wow!

It’s not them. It’s us. Who knew, indeed.

Pride and Prejudice

I was living in a small town in Western Massachusetts at the time. I had met, in a neighboring small town, a wonderful horsie kid and her mom and grandmother. The mom’s name was Sally. She was named after Sally Swift, who had been the grandmother's counselor at a childhood horse camp, long ago, and who had clearly, even then and as a very young person,  been able to make a pretty big impression.  I knew that Sally Swift’s influence was deep and real and seemed well deserved. I found the book, CENTERED RIDING, to be interesting and thought provoking but also weird and somewhat confusing. . I knew also that Sally had influenced some excellent horsemen and riders, including Denny Emerson, who I consider a real stylist.

But I wasn’t sure what to expect at the clinic. I got there early and had a muffin and coffee while waiting for things to start. This was a three day CR jumping clinic, with Susan Harris, who I also admired as the author of GROOMING TO WIN, as the clinician. As I waited, I looked around at the people congregating.

It was a mixed bunch.

Apr 3, 2012

It Sucks To Be Me

My riding had been sporadic between 1987 and 1992. Marriage, moving, and motherhood had kept me hopping. I had sold my jumper and putzed around periodically on my semi-retired hunter, but life was in the way of much serious pursuit. But when the girls were two and four I felt pretty able to commit to riding again. I took a couple of lessons at a dressage/eventing barn but I wasn’t thrilled about their horse care or their level of proficiency. On a whim I drove by the Smith College campus and signed up for a lesson.

Apr 2, 2012

On the Road to Find Out

I have so enjoyed sharing these stories about Bryan and I hope you have appreciated them as well. But I can hear people wondering ‘Who are you and what makes *you* think *you* could reach that horse, anyway?’ It’s a fair question and I will answer it now.

I confessed that I am attracted to pathology. Even as a kid  I never wanted the ready made horse. How boring was that! I got my first backyard horse when I was 9. I started riding at a local hunter barn when I was 12. I was in awe of the grooms, college age women who also showed. When I heard a vet describe one of them as being able to ‘put a busted leg back together’ I knew I wanted to be her. Perfectly wrapped legs in clean cottons with flannels and pins were objects of reverence and beauty. I hung out at barns and watched vets work and do PPEs and learned poultices and blisters and etc etc. At 15 I groomed at my first A show for a BN jumper trainer. My hero was Jimmy Williams, my Gods were Bill Steinkraus and The George. I was a hard core horse girl.