Riding in Zaharaland

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

There’s something magical about the show ring. All of the sounds and noise just fade away, and for five minutes, it’s just you and your horse. I imagine cantering down center line to halt and salute, splashing through the water, defying gravity on a huge drop, making the impossible cross-country corner to corner to vertical, and galloping top speed through a beyond-tricky triple combination to win my Olympic (gold) medal.

Later, at my next foray, the crowd is struck with awe and wonder after my Grand Prix dressage freestyle which is dramatic, fun-loving, and beautiful all wrapped into a perfect package. My fist pumps into the air in elation as they announce my highest ever score of 99.9%. We missed a percentage of 0.1% because (in the judge’s opinion) either Zahara or I had a hair out of place. But we take our adulation on the chin, and don’t mind being only near-perfect.

After a recent clinic, I think the instructor was even surprised by my amazing ability — to lose focus, that is. I’m pretty sure that along with actually looking between my horse’s ears — (wait, she has ears at the front end??) instead of the direction I want to go while allowing my horse to go the opposite — we learned about making small goals.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

For me, the goal may be focusing on my horse from “H” to “C,” and by “C,” refocusing my way from “C” to “M,” and so on. Out of all the potential horse and rider problems, actually paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing, and then trying your damndest to do it seems like a no-brainer. So how do I tell my trainer — and my horse — that as much as I want to say “yes” to what we’re doing, my mind is screaming “no?”

As a child, I’m sure my teachers thought I had horse ADD, or whatever the equivalent of ADD was back in those days. I was often caught in Mathematics class reading my horse book from the library or a coveted Saddle Club novel rather than doing fractions, or doodling horses rather than anything else. Like many horse crazy girls, and let’s face it, probably most of my classmates, my mind would rather be anywhere other than the inside of an institution of learning composing dry book reports and filling in worksheets. Long division and multiplication are only helpful when calculating days, weeks, or months until your next horse show, after all.

Even my beleaguered PE teacher raged at me for my lack of interest in any sport that wasn’t riding horses. (I was actually pretty good at kickball and putting some spin on a pigskin.) She confronted me one afternoon “Do you expect we buy a horse for every student to ride?” her scolding tongue castigated. “No; I just prefer riding horses.” I told her. But why can’t the school have horses? We have this big field used for baseball and running laps. It would be much better used as a cross-country course, I thought (and still think, although half of it is now filled up with teacher parking and the other a mini-track.)

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

The message was clear: my love and interest in horses was not in the approved curriculum. (Except when we read King of the Wind and my teacher humiliated me for pointing out the wrong paragraph to answer her question, but that is neither here nor there…) Nevertheless, I would not lose my resolve. Horses were my passion, and I was on my way to Olympic glory, my own Australian horse ranch near Snowy River, and the purse money from the Grand National.

At home, it’s almost impossible for me to ride with distractions. A horse canters up from a nearby field, the neighbor’s dog passes through the arena to hunt for chickens, fellow riders park their vehicles and start tacking up their horses, visitors drive through the gate, the barn cat chases a bird, the next student in line for her lesson checks in with our trainer. All of these seemingly innocuous actions on the part of others result in me losing focus and becoming increasingly frustrated.

How the hell am I supposed to put my horse on the bit, be round, bend, put my lower leg back, and oh yeah, not lose my balance and fall on my face with all of these THINGS happening. All these people, critters, and machines are doing STUFF while I am trying to FOCUS! Is my weekly half hour to hour arena time by myself really too much to ask?

To make matters worse, my horse senses my fear of the scary arena’s water hose, and tries to run in the other direction. With all the activity going on around me, unwelcome to me, my horse actually wants an excuse to think about something else — her friend galloping up to her out in the field, or horses whinnying from the nearby barn. After all, her goals are more like “not getting consumed by coyote whilst consuming as much grass, hay, and carrots as possible.” (In my mind, my horse is very refined with a British accent although she’s an American Thoroughbred).

My horse may love to jump and gallop, and have a beautiful canter stride, but a 65% or above on our next dressage outing is not on her high list of priorities. She wants food and friends and the occasional begrudging grooming session from some of her stable assistants (i.e. me, my trainer, kids who have carrots).

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

We all heard from our beginning riding lessons — “heels down, toes up, chin up, eyes up, shoulders back, chest up, hands together, close your fingers on the reins” basically, whatever you’re doing, please do the opposite, and by the way, every body part is in the wrong position. Amazingly, we stayed on thanks to good-hearted school horses and their overly shaggy manes used for gripping, not to mention the inexplicable force gravity has for keeping kids on the top-side while learning to ride horses.

As a returning rider, I now hear ‘Ride every stride — fix something — hands together — shoulders back — OK, your one shoulder that is impossibly forward and insanely crooked needs to go back; your other shoulder is fine.’ Now that I have gotten my hands steady, my right leg is beginning to wiggle. Now that I’ve gotten my right leg properly back, my left leg is headed to California while my horse is leg yielding to New York. There’s something not quite right with my shoulder, hip, and lower leg. My left leg can apparently support 90% of my body weight and my right side could barely support an undersized hummingbird feather. One area shifts, just to throw another area of my body completely out of whack (a technical term for ‘proper riding technique’). Once my body is actually straight in the saddle, I feel vertigo rushing over me as I am sure to topple off to the right of the saddle.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

There’s always something to make better, and when you master one concept, there’s another to learn. Apparently, I’m told, every time they rode Valegro (pre-retirement) was to improve his way of going and make him a better horse. We all want that level of achievement, the next-to-impossible perfection — to take the natural ability of the horse and transform its way of going — to take a rider on its back, leap over Sequoia-like logs, gallop at full-speed, and dance in the dirt. But what to do when one feels like every ride is making things not better, but frighteningly worse?

When I lose focus, which for me, is almost inevitable, I have a few tricks up my sleeve (and sometimes hidden in my riding glove). My trainer asks me to talk my through it — I describe what I’m doing. I tell my horse “Look at K! Look at K! Wait you’re not looking at K! — Good! Now look at C! You’re not looking! Darnit!” I count my trot rhythm “1-2, 1-2,1-2.” I try to think about each step ahead of me and create the feeling I want in my body and my mind. And I imagine cantering down center line on my way to the Olympic Games.