Scaling Back but Feeling Full

Nothing like a pandemic to make me thankful for what I have, and to show me just how much of my life falls into the privileged sphere. I am one of the lucky few whose routine has barely changed, and what has changed so far has been mostly for the better.

I still get to work! This alone is immense, as many millions of people will end up unemployed as a result of the pandemic, if they are not already. Just like some people may not survive COVID-19, I fear that many people may never recover economically from this crazy situation. But addressing the pandemic is much more important than addressing the economy in the immediate future, as difficult as that may be for many, many people.

Conrad gets a few more walks. I don’t think he minds. He’s not too happy at me about working from home and not paying more attention to him because I am at home. But my home office area has a couch he can nap on. He’ll figure it out eventually.

I am still able to go to the barn to see Eli. I know barn access varies from state to state right now and many people are relying on barn employees for all of their horses’ care. Lesson programs in my area have been suspended at many barns, but some barns are still allowing access to boarders.

So what am I scaling back? Driving — my commute either involves a drive in to work three days a week with little traffic, or a really short walk over to my desk at home. Running everyday errands — I am avoiding this if possible. I have a bracelet that needs fixing at a jeweler and a snap on a tall boot that needs replacing, for instance, that I’d take to a shoe repair place. But this kind of thing is on hold indefinitely. Riding Eli — Eli can be a bit spooky, as we all know. I am limiting his under saddle time to just a few rides a week when the weather permits it and keeping the rides at a walk or trot. I am going for low impact and minimizing risk. I do consider his exercise as essential pet care and it’s also my outdoor, socially-distanced exercise anyway, so I do not really feel like I am skirting any stay-at-home orders in my area with this. I understand that MANY people may disagree with my interpretation of the local stay-at-home orders. However, I am at the barn at times when few other boarders are there, and I am only touching Eli’s stuff, so I am minimizing risk in that way, too. Eating out — oh how I miss Mexican restaurants. I am not on a budget that allows constant take-out, as much as I would like to do that to support the restaurants around here that I like to go to. This does seem to have the benefit of cleaning up my waistline a bit, at least. Visiting friends — I don’t visit very many people, and now I am hardly seeing friends in person at all. I am not going to rule it out completely because when I do visit friends, it’s usually one person in a private residence and it’s to watch streaming stuff, drink wine, and catch up.

I find myself asking daily the question, “Is this really necessary?” A lot of the time, whatever it may be, it is not really necessary.

And here’s my last little editorial thought for the day: Even if inadvertently, COVID-19 is showing us a path to mitigating climate change. We are quite obviously capable of making many of these changes for the long-term, if there is even much of a long-term to look forward to.

That being said, I CANNOT WAIT for all the restaurants and bars to reopen! When that happens, maybe we could all consider tipping at 30%-50% for a month or so if we can swing it. I also want to go to ALL THE MUSEUMS and donate $$$ to their programs and collections. I miss having a Manhattan at Lamberts. I miss the Austin Opera. I miss meeting up with somebody for lunch downtown on a weekday. I MISS QUESO. But we could all stand to drive or fly a little less after all this craziness subsides, right?

Bit Thoughts

Strap yourself into the ramble seat.

Let me just say at the outset that this post is not advice or counsel or applicable to horses in general. This is my experience with one bit for my slightly quirky horse. Anything I write here applies to me and to him. Only.

Myler bits have been a curiosity to me for a little while now. I know some equestrians lament the sale of the Myler imprint to Toklat, and I have no experience with the Myler bits of ye good olde days. I also recognize that Myler is an aggressively marketed brand and any claims surrounding the action of the bit should probably be questioned. I am not saying the claims are wrong, but no bit will fix training issues.

And I didn’t think a Myler bit would “fix” anything Eli is doing or not doing. He goes quite well in the Dynamic RS (yes, Herm Sprenger is also an aggressively marketed brand but I have years of experience with the bits and I am not shy about being a devotee). Our biggest struggle right now is Eli getting flat and on the forehand through the corners while jumping a course. We do lots of flat work and exercises over fences to address this, and a lot of the issue is more my upper body position than anything else (LEEEEEAAAANN what why not).

But would a different bit get Eli’s attention in the corners? A bit with a different type of action and a smidge of leverage? Faster than my leg, seat, and atrocious posture could?

I do remember when I first started riding Eli, the leg confused and startled him. The seat was a bad idea. But he wasn’t my horse and I rode him in what I was told to ride him in — usually my Sprenger snaffles were readily approved. A few times I was told to ride him in draw reins.

But then I bought him, and I could experiment wholeheartedly with my little psycho shark project that jumps so willingly and relatively well. I ditched the draw reins and the short version is after years of work and care, Eli gets the leg. He even understands the leg WELL. He accepts a deeper seat (or, erm, not when his back is tight and it’s 40 degrees but whatever). He is very light in the bridle at the trot. Can be a bit heavier at the canter but seems well-balanced enough for our purposes. The journey to adequate gaits has no end.

What I am getting to is that the Myler with hooks is not a bit I would have used on Eli early on in our relationship. He didn’t understand the leg, and a bit with a little leverage and independent action on each side would have been counter-productive; at least that is what I believe. I wanted to keep it simple and comfortable, so that when he did take up the bit and respond to leg, there was not a question in his mind about what I was telling him. He needed a bit with basic, straightforward snaffle action that wouldn’t pinch his tongue or nail him in the palette.

But he’s a different horse now, and at least a little more sophisticated in his understanding and acceptance of the seat and leg. I can play with a different bit now as a tool of communication without causing confusion in Eli. We pretty much trust each other. He knows I am not heavy-handed, and that I am not going to put anything drastic in his mouth. (Can we melt down all the double twisted wire bits yet?)

I picked up a Myler dee “comfort” snaffle with hooks, the exact variety of which I am not sure. It doesn’t seem to have a port and I don’t know what “level” it is or whether it’s what Myler calls a wide barrel. I bought it used knowing I could easily sell it if I hated it. (Doesn’t all that “level” stuff seem a little gimmicky?)

Ultimately the hooks offer a little bit of leverage and tongue relief at the same time. Slight poll pressure, but nothing extreme. (I cringe at the thought of using a Cheltenham gag with rope cheeks on Eli, although I did use one with leather cheeks on a different horse with excellent results. It’s interesting to me how individuals respond to leverage.)

But the hooks do something else, and this is my primary reservation about the Myler with hooks: provided the horse is at or behind the vertical, the top hooks hold the mouthpiece off the tongue. So yes, the horse gets relief from tongue pressure. But maybe not if he’s poking his nose out a bit, which we like to see in a hunter flat class (for example). Like. Whoa. What if someone puts one of these on a young horse, a green horse, a horse that is not well educated to the aids? That hasn’t accepted tongue pressure well yet? This in my mind is an invitation to evasion and could potentially encourage a false head set and hollow back. All to avoid tongue pressure, rather than encourage it, which in some instances is necessary. That’s how a lot of bits work! It’s not a wonder the hooks aren’t dressage legal. This is not a bit for the inexperienced, in my mind — horse or rider. I could not have used this bit on Eli with any success 4 or 5 years ago. My preference is for a bit that relieves some tongue pressure but doesn’t remove it entirely regardless of how the horse carries his head. I think a horse has to learn that a little tongue pressure is okay and part of a concert of aids from the rider.

But Eli’s 15 and he is what he is, so knowing what I know, I tried the bit on him. I have ridden him in it 4 or 5 times now, to really get a feel of the action in my hand, on my horse, before passing further judgment. And this is a truly interesting bit. Eli did not and does not seem bothered by the changes in tongue relief and pressure, and half the time I’m riding him on a loopy rein anyway. I took him over a few jumps the first time we rode with the bit, just to get a sense of how Eli might respond. While the bit seems to add a boost to our power steering, and a bit more of a check to our half halts, it also exacerbates our problems in downward transitions. While Eli doesn’t seem to mind a little poll pressure during work in a gait, changing that gait is perhaps too big a move, too inelegant in terms of my own faulty aids and he tosses his head — a thing he does not do anymore while working on downward transitions in the Dynamic RS. He does lean and poke his nose out in downward transitions (working on it for all eternity) and I think when he tried to do that in the Myler, he was like wait wtf was that, lady?

So will I keep it? I think so, at least for now. I have no plans to jump in it, and I don’t think I will use it regularly for flat work, but just periodically. Because, somehow through the dynamic of the extra check in our half halt, the bit helps through those corners, and Eli takes fewer steps downhill with the Myler, in transitions within the gait. He seems quite comfortable with the action of it, and doesn’t even mind leaning on it a little (but don’t fear, he’s never heavy in my hand, never has been). It’s almost like that minute poll pressure is some kind of comfort to him.

I will say I do use this bit in a bridle that has a heavily-padded monocrown piece. That is probably a part of why the poll pressure is mostly acceptable to Eli. I am definitely interested in trying the same bit without hooks — although the independent side action intrigues me; Eli seems responsive to it. The mouthpiece itself is unquestionably forgiving.

But of course if I stayed tall, kept my inside leg on, and lifted and squared my shoulders through the corners, that might, you know, help some, too. None of that needs any kind of bit.

Five Things I Try to Remember

I think a lot about riding horses. I think about all the inspirational quotes — the ones truly filled with wisdom — about riding horses. Words like, “Perfect practice makes perfect” (George Morris). Or my favorite, “The harder you work, the luckier you get” (Bill Steinkraus). But riding horses is not just about working hard, or working on myself, or trying to create an end-product of a perfectly rideable, athletic, and obedient animal. None of that matters if the relationship I have with my horse sucks. I can’t fight my horse for a better relationship with him, for better performance. If it’s my willpower against the horse’s, no amount of work or perfect practice will matter. I will not have a good horse.

But if I set my ego aside and try to listen to what the horse is telling me, things start clicking, and we accomplish more. We don’t end a ride exhausted — we end a ride after a success, no matter how small. So I try to remember things about my attitude and my riding that help me and Eli to have a good ride.

Pretty sunsets also help

1. Patience
Yeah … I am not a patient person by nature. I am really more of a stubborn person by nature. But riding with a stubborn attitude is a quick road to absolute failure. Maybe what I am asking Eli takes him a second to figure out. He can have that second. He can have that minute, if he needs it. He ALWAYS pauses when stepping into the wash rack. It’s a step up, and he gets his front feet in and then just stands there. I cluck and pull the lead rope a few seconds later and he walks in. What if I were impatient in that scenario? I really don’t want to turn the wash rack into an issue, or a fight, or melodrama. If Eli needs a few seconds to figure out how to step up into the wash rack with his hind feet, he gets them.

2. Consitency
This is a little easier for me to do — asking for the same thing the same way every time. Really, it’s so much easier to be consistent than not. When I go to pick Eli’s hooves, I start with the left front. Every. Day. He knows what to expect. Subsequently, because he knows what to expect, he meets me halfway and picks up his left hind after I put down his left front. Then right hind, to right front. This doesn’t just work for handling, but also for riding. I tend to be a bit uncoordinated in a saddle about some of the more complex things we do, like flying changes, so I am still saying to myself what I need to do and what order I need to do it in as I am trying to do it. Eventually it will become muscle memory, not just for me but for Eli, too. I am not saying I do the exact same thing every ride — it’s more like doing the exact same aids for whatever it is we are doing that day.

3. Tact
Or maybe just subtlety? No jerky movements, no big pony kicks, no yanking on the reins, no reliance on a back-up aid when the primary aid will do. Why yell if my horse can hear a whisper?


4. Self-carriage
Riders strive to attain self-carriage in the horse, right? How about in their own riding? I cannot flop around in the saddle and expect my horse to be balanced. If I am trying to balance myself on the reins, I end up riding a downhill freight train. If I just teeter around trying to balance on the balls of my feet in the stirrup irons, what’s to keep my horse underneath me and going forward? I have to use my legs and my core to get Eli balanced, uphill, and carrying himself. Push, not pull.

I just really like this picture a lot

5. Praise
I don’t keep track of how many times I pet Eli when I am riding him or handling him on the ground. But if he moves over, when I ask him, I pet him. It’s like saying thank you and you did the right thing. If he canters around for me, I pet him. He trots over a crossrail, I pet him. He looks at something he’s not sure about but stays still, I pet him. Every time he does something I ask, or makes a good decision, I reward him. It’s how he learns. I remember the first few times I rode him (like back in 2011-12 probably), I couldn’t even pick out his hind feet because he was so antsy and intractable in the cross-ties, and I didn’t want my face rearranged by his hoof. But now he’s damn near genteel on the ground (unless you have needles but he’s getting better about that, too). I didn’t get him here by smacking him every time he kicked out at a brush. I ignored the bad, kept doing the grooming routine, and pet him when he did something right, no matter how basic. Maybe that means it took a ridiculously long time to brush him off on some days, but he gets it now. There is nothing for him to fight.

It takes a lifetime to internalize these things. So until I’ve made it that far and no longer have to think about them, I will repeat these things to myself every time I interact with Eli. I think it’s working so far.

Also … my toe is broken! BUT nothing is displaced and the metatarsals are all okay so I will just ignore the toe from now on.

Weenie Wednesday: Integrity

I am slightly hijacking Conrad’s day to appreciate what Enviro Equine and Pet has done in response to one of their sponsored riders running cross country AGAIN on a horse with a bloody mouth. When Enviro Equine and Pet announced that they had ended their relationship with Marilyn Little, I thought my best chance of expressing appreciation would be to purchase products from them. The company responded quickly, with integrity — that shows me what animal welfare means to them. While it’s disturbing that I discovered this brand because of a horse welfare controversy, I am glad I did! Conrad will get to try their Healthy Hound Treats and their Fly Spray PLUS Wipes.

Hoping the wipes help with making him less itchy

To be honest, I am almost MORE disturbed by the tightness of RF Scandalous’s noseband during all three phases of the LRK3DE competition. And sadly, other nosebands looked too tight to me, too. While the literature is not voluminous, more and more studies are looking at how tack and equipment and how it’s used affect competition horses. (I am seeing more and more studies of horses and their behavior in general, which is very gratifying to me.) I’d like to highlight two recent studies, the results of which are both available for free online at PLOS ONE.

The Effect of Noseband Tightening on Horses’ Behavior, Eye Temperature, and Cardiac Responses

Noseband Use in Equestrian Sports – An International Study

They are about nosebands, as you can see. The findings will hopefully not only trigger more and larger studies, but will be noticed by governing bodies of horse sports and taken seriously.

You still get Conrad pictures, anyway!

Riding is Hard, but it’s not a Battle

Maybe let’s not even quite so much attack the jumps, either, Eli. (SGL Photo)

To make up for losing a Saturday to bad weather, I schooled with my trainer Wednesday afternoon. It. Was. Difficult. Eli and I warmed up fine, but we struggled with pretty much every part of the jumping portion. We had to regroup on the flat a few times in between fences. I felt frustrated at times, but also very happy with my horse when we did get what we were going for. There was a lot of circling and transitioning, and at one point I even said I was having a bad day! The wind wasn’t helping either — it was hard to hear my trainer sometimes.

But, never once did I see the struggle as something my horse was causing. Never once did I have thoughts assigning blame to my horse for things going wrong. Never once did I see the struggle as a battle between me and my horse. We may have been challenged by the deceptively simple the fences, but we were in it together.

Did I have to halt hard a few times? Yes. Did I have to pony-kick with my right leg once or twice? Yep. Did I make many, many mistakes? Abso-effing-lutely. Were Eli and I on the same page all the time? No … but we got there eventually. Isn’t that the whole point of a lesson? Learning from mistakes, correcting what isn’t desirable into what is? Achieving the goals for the day by the end, even if those goals seem simple? My trainer is teaching both me and Eli. I am working on NOT sitting two strides out from a fence. I am working on transitions with Eli to get him lighter in the bridle through the corners. Eli is as responsive as can be provided I ride him correctly. We still have light years to go until we can be consistent over a course of jumps in the hunter discipline. But we are getting there. If I stop sitting on him and just wait, he stops rubbing the rails. If I keep my hands forward, he carries us down the lines easily. If I use my right leg AT ALL he doesn’t drift. This is a lot of work and there are no short cuts. There is no bit that will make things easier and Eli lighter, and my hands most certainly fix nothing if I pull–pulling on a TB is pointless unless you are looking for heavy on the forehand. There is not a helmet that will endow my brain with timing. It is all practice, seat, leg, practice, leg, leg.

So peaceful as to allow birds to dine with him at his feed box.

But a battle? No. Eli is NOT my adversary; he is my partner. I can not understand when riders use language like “battle,” or “bad,” or “fight.” What exactly, are you fighting? Your horse? To get results? Think about what a battle is — conflict, violence, terror, death — is that what you want to experience while riding your horse, to get those things as results? Is that what you are experiencing when you’re riding your horse?

When I ride Eli, I am reinforcing the results I want by rewarding Eli: a cookie, a pat or scratch on the neck, a walk break on a long rein, dismounting after desirable behavior like getting a lead change without a thought … if he reacts in a way that I am not looking for, I question myself first, and usually find my answer. A horse and rider should be in harmony, a tête-à-tête in pursuit of a bigger jump, a more powerful medium trot, a gallop that feels like flying, or a consensus that today is a good day for eating grass and sitting in the sun. It means a lot of self-reflection on the part of the rider.

Riding means A LOT of self-reflection on the part of the rider.

How to Texas in Michigan Weather

My parents are from Michigan. In what I can only characterize as a stroke of genius, they moved to Texas in the 70s (and it had absolutely nothing to do with the Army. Nope.). So every time I say something about this winter of never-ending ice and wet and cold and fog and freezes, they just retort something about how I would die shoveling snow. Yeah. You’re not wrong, forebearers of Swedish, German, and Scots-Irish descent. My DNA may come from the land of ice and snow, but weathering these dank, dark, Moria-like conditions is not for me. No, really, I feel like I am in a giant cave of stuff I want nothing to do with. Where is the sun?

So, how does a Texan cope in this purgatory of dreary desperation?
1. Spirits. Self-explanatory. Flask optional. Be aware that tequila may make you a little too aggressive about demanding more tortilla chips for your queso …

2. Layer-up: Eli gets to wear his quarter sheet A LOT right now, and honestly I think he appreciates it, which is to say he doesn’t try to kick or buck it off. I wear a puffy vest under a puffy coat and groom while wearing gloves and sometimes I leave my helmet on for a really long time after riding because hunter hair keeps my ears warm. I may have driven home with it on the other day, but I can’t say for sure.
3. Stay layered-up while indoors. I wear my puffy coat at my desk at work and at the dining room table at home. I am just trying to recreate what 85F and sunny feels like. But inside. Where the heat is not turned up enough, in my opinion.
4. Scalding hot Mexican food. Slathered in scalding hot queso. Oven-warmed (or heat lamp, either way) tortilla chips are the appropriate utensil.

5. While we are on Mexican food, jalapeños. I put them on everything right now. On toast. On potatoes. On salads. I think they might be good in Greek yogurt …
6. Scalding hot showers: the only time I am actually warm.
7. Scarves … this goes beyond just layering up. I wear scarves everywhere year-round. In winter, I maybe wear two at a time. Then I can wrap my neck and my face from the nose down.
8. Keep a wardrobe of enough winter layers to satisfy a Sherpa in the backseat of your car because when the weather guy says it’s going to get up to 50 today, he means for like 3 minutes. The rest of the day will be like 36F and you might see penguins.
9. Fire. Fire pits, chimineas, grills, smokers … if you have to be outside, light something on fire and cook meat until it gets that smoky, crunchy char around the edges. And then eat it with queso and jalapeños.

And like any devoted Texan, I have added both “chimineas” and “queso” to my spell-check dictionary.

Vive les Barn Rats

Barn (left), Rat (center)

If you spend any time at all on equestrian social media, news, or lifestyle sites, you may notice a trend — “kids these days can’t clean a bridle!” “They won’t put in the time or the work!” “We didn’t grow up like this!” “Does she even know how to tack up?”

Eh … bullshit.

You’d think kids never do much around horses but show up, have the reins handed to them, ride in a very structured lesson, and hand the reins back to a groom so they can go get a latte or a manicure or whatever. From my perspective, from what I see at multiple hunter/jumper barns in my area, this simply is not true. It’s not true for kids from a variety of income levels.

Although nobody is allowed to ride in tennis shoes, at least not if they are going to put their feet in the irons.

What I do see? Young women as very professional working students, soaking up every ounce of information they can get from their mentors. Even younger women waiting for the day they are old enough to be working students. I see kids showing up early, and staying all day on the weekends to help with all kinds of things, like feeding lunch, clipping, turnouts, and tack cleaning. I see kids caring for their own horses and the lesson horses with equal amounts of love and consideration. I see girls helping each other, riding bareback, asking their trainers questions, following their trainers’ instructions diligently. Even better, I talk to parents who want their children to be sure to get those horsemanship lessons along with those riding lessons. Yes, it may not be everybody. But at the barns that I am familiar with, it is the dominant culture — knowledgeable trainers teaching their students everything they know, and students wanting to learn all they can, from how to ride a rollback to how to poultice and wrap a hoof.

I remember many of the names of the lesson horses at the first barn where I rode. This is Romper. Or Rompy-Stompy. She went in a kimberwicke. But no, I have no idea what I did last week.

Perhaps part of my experience is due to selectiveness: I wouldn’t want to ride at a barn that wasn’t like the barns I know. I was a barn rat and working student, too. Even into my twenties, I spent hours at the barn, probably helping a little too much to be honest, trying to ride everything I could get my hands on and expending considerable amounts of energy on my own horses (and still made it to class most days). And every time I see a kid like that it makes me happy. I see lots of kids like that.

There is no shortage of work at any barn, but just the same there is no shortage of barn rats who want to learn.

Revisiting the Longe Line

Eli took a spill while on a longe line quite some time ago — maybe a few years ago? After that experience, it was clear to me that Eli did not have good enough training on the longe line to make it very safe for him to longe, nor did he have the mental capacity to keep his shit together in a new environment without a ton of reassurance from me. I stopped longeing him almost completely, and did not longe him at all if we were off property. Not to stop longeing would have been extremely irresponsible on my part. We had to work from square one to get him to a better understanding of what it means to be on a longe line.

I got inspired to revisit this in writing for a handful of reasons. One, to consider how well my reasoning (and ranting) from a previous post is holding up. Two, getting Eli some exercise in the past few weeks has been a challenge because of weather conditions. Three, I ran across an excellent article about longeing safely that hits so many points I totally agree with.

I have never taken ground work out of Eli’s exercise regimen. I have spent time on the ground with him in the round pen (unattached), asking for different gaits, or just letting him hang out, not ever getting after him for anything, but rewarding the behavior I like to see. I keep these sessions to 15 minutes or less. I have also, like all of 3 times probably since he fell, put him on a longe line if he has been in daily turnout and constant work–so I know he’s not “fresh,” “wild,” or “high.” He still struggles with cantering normally on a line, but we can trot and walk very obediently now. At least, the very few times we’ve tried.

So then this stupid cold weather hits, and cedar season starts. Daily turnout and a regular work schedule dwindled to hand walking or grazing and limited turn out in a smaller space. In the past few weeks, I have only ridden a few times. But something I did try? When the footing was adequate in the small arena, and nothing else was going on, I took Eli for a short longe. Just 10-15 minutes, mostly asking him to stay at the walk or trot. Were we 100% successful? To the left, not really (it is his weak side). He was trotting along okay and then something set him off (anybody’s guess as to what) so we were back to Eli trying to full on gallop like a fleeing rabbit but on a circle. This is how he fell before, and what I am trying to avoid. I got him back to a walk eventually, after maybe 4 or 5 circles (it seemed like forever!) and I kept him walking for a little while before changing directions. To the right, however, he actually stayed quiet and listened! Okay, now we are getting somewhere.

Starting this week, we have gotten back to more regular turn out schedules, and the footing in both arenas has been good. Good conditions for exercise, right? Sure, if my head cooperates. Cedar fever is making that a little more iffy. My hope is to actually ride this evening, and whether or not I put Eli on the line before hand is yet to be determined. Longeing will never be a regular part of our routine, but I’d like to get Eli to a point that he understands that it’s work time and not a reason to panic and stop listening to me.  Although I wouldn’t mind if he threw a buck or two, just as long as he comes back instead of taking off. We have gotten much closer to that goal.

Starving the Shade

You really can’t live in the Western world today and not suffer in some way from anxiety. What American is not anxious about something, if not multiple somethings? (For example … the opioid crisis, gun violence, international terrorism, domestic terrorism, failing transportation infrastructure, racism, lead in the water of not just Flint but many American towns, tropical diseases migrating north as the climate gradually warms, rising sea levels, and oh yeah rent/the mortgage, to speak nothing of hurricanes.) There are many manifestations of anxiety, and if you’re interested in scratching that surface, you can find statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But within anxiety, there swells a strong current of existential dread, notably at the forefront of American culture and politics today, explicated to a certain extent in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The Golden Age of ‘Existential’ Dread.” If you interact with media at all, you can’t escape the venomous tendrils of existential dread weaving together everything from climate change deniers and creationists, to universal health care proponents, feminists, and the Standing Rock protesters.

However, there is another type of existential dread and it’s personal. My own experience with anxiety has a few facets and I did not discover until recently that a big part of why things make me anxious, why I have racing thoughts, why I regularly entertain graphic fears of losing things important to me … a big part of this is existential dread. It has shadowed everything I do every day. For many years, it controlled me (and given my taste in literature and film I have no idea why this never occurred to me while I was younger). For many years, I fought it without knowing it or knowing how to fight it effectively. I found some succor in two books — My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel and Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. After reading I realized that what I suffered I did not suffer alone. And I knew I could change things myself (which included actively seeking professional help). I coveted and currently enjoy relief in some of the daily tasks I perform in relation to my dog and my horse. Horses, especially, can be a pleasurable,  purposeful, and constructive outlet for anxious or obsessive-compulsive energy. Horses don’t sink into murky anxiousness never to be heard from again, they just are, and they live in the moment. Clear your head and bask in their immediacy of existence and try to learn that ever-presence from them.

why get mad at the wind from patentlybay on Vimeo.

The burden of existential dread, however, is not assuaged wholly by fussing over my animals. The animals help A LOT and drive my motivations for doing basically anything. But there are still at times nagging feelings of “why” and “what if” that darken the ether around me. And this shade forever skirts total demise. Perhaps without it, I am not me.

Yet it no longer rules me.

Partly because of cognitive behavioral therapy and partly because I have embraced gratitude, I no longer spend hours ruminating on all the bad things ever. If I dwell on a thing, it must be a thing of beauty and must improve my life, or it doesn’t get an iota of my time or energy. This is a conscious choice. Anyone can make it. Every dumb article you read on click-bait websites about pop psychology probably says that happiness is a choice. And they’re right. Even when locked in struggle–with people, or work, or finances, or family–happiness is there to be had because your mind is that agile. My mind is that agile. I control what energy I put toward that which would otherwise dim me in shadow. I keep that energy for myself now. There is now no shade capable of consuming me.

If you think you can’t do this, know that you are wrong and you can do this. Maybe not easily, but you can do this.

Walk Work

For the most part, I have left Eli’s walk alone. On a long rein, it’s fine unless he’s cranking his head around one direction or another and popping a shoulder … okay, yeah, we need to work on the walk. Finally.

Get your stroll on baby

We have been doing more walking in general. I walk longer at the beginning of the ride, mostly still on a long rein. And then more walking at the end of the ride, not just to cool out — before that. We try lateral stuff (very poorly), smaller circles, just trying to have a forward, engaged, STRAIGHT walk. The forward part is fairly easy, at least.

One of the most useful things I can do with Eli while working at the walk is to teach him to halt with his hind end engaged. As I ask for the halt, Eli tends to poke his nose out and hollow his back, and for years I have done little to nothing about this. We had other challenges to focus on and I wasn’t about to addle his inscrutable brain about it and just end up with a jigging horse and getting nowhere in other gaits. At the trot and canter, we worked on upward transitions, rideability, stretching, relaxing … things we can work on at the walk, too. Maybe I have a backwards approach and I know a good walk is important, but getting a good trot and canter were the path of least resistance.

I ran across an article I really take to heart, and I encourage everyone to read it. Holly Hugo-Vidal writes on the difference between strength and education in the aids. Of course we all aim for self-carriage, but getting there is a long and never-ending journey of using aids effectively to create lighter, uphill gaits and a confident, compliant horse. So much of the article–basically every sentence–made so much sense to me; with my personal experience I could relate to the examples easily. (Plus, agh, I would be devastated if I ever even accidentally marked a horse with my spur! I hate that I have even ever seen it.)

Eli is not by any means dead to the leg, but he can get a bit resistant or dull about bending to the right. An active, light leg has gone a long way to help with this. The longer we work together, the more Eli understands what the leg means. Early on in our partnership, Eli struggled with understanding leg aids, and of course I was overdoing it a bit, too–I distinctly remember one time schooling over fences where I tried to push him over to the left with my right leg and he just shot forward–it was all he knew. And I realized that my own leg was not educated enough at the time to communicate well with this horse who did not understand or interpret the leg well.

Over time, we have gotten much more in sync, and Eli responds accordingly to my leg aids the majority of the time. We have taught each other, I think. I can now use my right leg to push him left and he moves laterally much better, without the leg startling or confusing him. This hasn’t been some on and off switch, and no single component of the puzzle fell into place and everything clicked. It has been a steady process, one in which Eli and I both have frustrating days but they are now rare.

Icing daily until it’s not Death Valley here.

We did, however, have one on Saturday. His flat work was fine, but once we started over fences, he got less and less rideable and I had not been mentally prepared to work through that kind of day on Eli. In all fairness, there was a lot going on–Eli had not jumped in over two weeks, and I had ridden him only twice over the course of the week. There was construction noise coming from an adjacent property (truthfully I think it might have been giving everyone, horse or human, a headache), and some traffic in the arena all came together to unravel us both. I had not initially put on his running martingale, but I did take him back down to the barn to put it on him, and while it helped some, mostly we couldn’t accomplish anything.

I took Sunday as a do-over for Eli. We worked basically on the exact same fences, through the same process we’ve been using — trot fences, trot in and canter out of some lines — and it’s like Saturday never happened. I had my happy horse back, who was still a bit goofy coming off a 3′ oxer, but whatever, he was rideable enough for me.

This doesn’t come from nowhere. It isn’t random. Rideability is developed over time, with educated use of the aids. The less the rider and horse know, the longer it will take for rideability to develop. It has taken years for me to develop it in Eli, but most days I consider him very rideable now.

Rideable AND extremely adorable

And so now we work on this same rideability, this same compliance to the aids — at the walk. Perhaps I should have started with that, when I first started riding him. But I think with a forward-thinking thoroughbred, the walk can be the most difficult gait for them to work on and develop into something correct and engaged. Rather than inadvertently get him upside down and backwards at the walk and possibly the other gaits, I left his walk alone all this time. The difference is that now, we are both confident in our level of communication with each other that the walk is something we can work on and be successful. I am not saying we are successful yet, but we have to start somewhere.