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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Drifter 'n' Me

It's hard to believe it, but nearly a year and a half has passed since I first started my horse-riding experiment and that I've been either leasing or taking lessons at Sage Meadows for 15 months! As is to be expected with my health in general and the trials--foot/back injury, stomach woes--of the last year in particular, I was only able to be with the horses about half of the time, but the horses have proved to be powerful medicine even on a part-time basis.

I was at the park where I took my first lessons the other day and spied Lacey, the horse who gave me my first lessons, on the far right. Drifter is both much larger and a much better teacher, but she did help me figure out that riding and being with horses was something that I wanted to do.

My guy.
The benefits of hanging around equines in general and Drifter in particular have been numerous. One of the most valuable has been that my weekly horse fix has given me something to look forward to. Weeks or sometimes even months will go by when I do not leave the house except for medical appointments--or to be with the horses. When I'm at the stable, I cease to feel like I have any kind of disability. I get to exist in the moment, whether it is brushing Drifter in a meditative state on a winter afternoon or trying to perfect my posture while riding him around the arena on a sunny spring day. I love the act of grooming itself, so the winter months when I was leasing and not riding were no hardship. I love the solidity of Drifter's massive warm bulk and the pleasure he gets from a thorough grooming. One of my favorite things is when he stands in the cross-ties, nose against my chest, and descends into a drowsy, trancelike state of pleasure as I brush and caress his face. I know that Drifter has taught hundreds of students during his 20-odd years as a school horse and that there are several other students currently riding him, but Drifter feels like MY horse. I like to think that I am the very best groomer of all the students and that therefore he likes me best!

The tree-lined arena is a beautiful place to be on a sunny day.

Bear, one of the other school horses, looks up to see who is interrupting his grazing session.

Drifter's grooming tools.
This is rather silly, but I was delighted to learn that Drifter and I have something unusual in common: we both turned 32 in June! Yes, good ol' Drifter really is OLD. The average lifespan for a horse is 25-30 years, but Drifter is still plugging away and I think the good care he receives and the fact that he's still working (part-time) at a job he loves helps keep him young. He's been switched, much to his pleasure, to a pure alfalfa diet to help him keep weight on his old bones. I intend to keep learning from him and giving him excellent grooming session for as long as he's around.

So when I looked like this...

....Drifter must have looked like this!

(These are not actual pictures of Drifter as a baby, but I searched for images of a sorrel quarter
horse foal with a white face, so they are probably pretty close to how he looked in June of 1981!)

The two of us looking good together at 32.

Halters hung on pasture
Other benefits from my association with the horses include building up my strength and a sense of mastery. As someone who can no longer do many activities that I once excelled at and whose life is such that even the ability to do chores or run errands is a luxury, it's nice to get a sense of accomplishment from something! It turns out that I'm good at riding a horse. Missing lessons due to not feeling well and fatigue often limiting what I can do when I can show up has slowed my progress, but even so, I have something of a feel for it. By the end of each lesson, I always feel that I'm a little bit more skilled than when I began. The progress may be small, but I have so little progress elsewhere in my life that it makes a big difference. I also like the sense of mastery I get from making a large animal ten times my weight do as I say. Drifter, of course, is as obliging as they come, but he is a little bit fussy about having his feet picked sometimes and, like with dogs, it's important with horses that the animal listens to you. That means if I say we are going to clean hooves, I can't give up until all the hooves are cleaned. The last thing you need is a giant animal who thinks he can walk all over you--especially when there's the possibility that he could do so literally as well as figuratively! So having the gumption and stubbornness not to give up on those days when Drifter is feeling lazy during lessons or fussy about his feet is very rewarding for me, especially given the size of the payoff. I also like that working with Drifter helps me build up my physical strength. My spindly arms now have muscles in them from all that intensive grooming and my legs have been regaining the strength they lost during those months when I was on crutches and then going through physical therapy to get my back stabilized. I also love that riding well requires using exactly the same core muscles that I was working on strengthening in physical therapy. It also demands a certain looseness that is beneficial to my hips and my shoulders when I'm out of the saddle, too. Riding has turned out to be a natural extension of what I was striving to accomplish in physical therapy and now that I've been discharged from PT, I'm pleased that I'll continue building on what I learned there, resulting, as I continue to ride, in a strong, stable, but flexible core that provides equally strong signals to both of my legs. Talk about a bonus!

Syd, another Sage Meadows horses, heads off for a lesson with an advanced student.

Now that I have some mastery of the basics of riding a horse, my growing skills are being channeled into the discipline of dressage. It makes sense for me to go this direction because a) I'm not going to be riding Western for anything other than pleasure and b) Drifter is the only horse at Sage Meadows trained in Western riding, so switching to the English disciplines in general and dressage in particular creates a framework for perfecting my control even after Drifter passes away or I grow skilled enough to graduate to a more advanced horse. Dressage is best known at its highest level, where the rider guides the horse through a series of dance-like steps, but entry-level dressage is quite different. It involves riding the horse in a variety of formations at different paces. The most important part is for the rider to maintain steady speed at each pace during the maneuvers. The other important skill is riding in perfect circles. Horses naturally slow down while being ridden in a circle, making the task of maintaining a constant speed more of a challenge. I'm pretty good at executing circles, but Drifter and I are still working on the steady pace aspect.

This diagram shows steps involved in an entry-level test. After riding down the center of the arena, stopping at the exact center to salute the judges, the rider then turns to the left, executes a 20 m circle with the center point of the circle being the center point of the arena, continues around the outside of the arena and does another circle starting at the point opposite to the first, crosses the arena at a diagonal and repeats the maneuvers going in the opposite direction, and then rides down the center of the arena to the center point for a final salute to the judges.

The ears of Beacon, Drifter's stable buddy.

Drifter with an English saddle.
Since I was starting to work some dressage skills into my lessons, it was only right that I switch over to an English saddle. It just felt wrong to be saluting an imaginary dressage judge while wearing jeans and riding Western! I made the switch over to the English saddle about a month and a half ago and I love it! Because it is smaller, lighter, and less stiff, I've found that the English saddle gives me a better feel for what Drifter is doing. This has made posting (rising and falling with the rhythm of the trot) much easier! I really believe I'm going to make tons of progress this summer now that I'm in the different saddle.

It's always nice to have the right outfit for whatever your task at hand may be, so once I had switched saddles, I wasted little time in ditching the jeans. I now have full seat breeches, paddock boots, and half chaps! While it may seem slightly silly to have such an official get-up when my ambitions are minimal, the breeches and half chaps (what the rest of the world would call gaiters) do serve practical purposes. The breeches, in addition to being comfortable and flexible for riding, are lined inside the legs and on the seat for better grip on the smooth English saddle. And I quickly learned the benefit of half chaps when I wore breeches inside my Western boots: everything I picked out of Drifter's hooves dropped straight into my boots and pebbles jumped in as well as we did our warm-up walk around the arena. But the whole get-up--boots and breeches--looks so official and there's no harm to getting a psychological boost from your clothes when you're trying to make a thousand pound animal trot when you say so and stop when you say stop!

Decked out in breeches and half chaps, I guide Drifter around the arena on beautiful summer day.

Me and my guy. Look how big his head is in comparison to my torso! And yet, this good-natured horse does my bidding--as long as I ask him in the correct manner. This is why he's a great beginner's horse: he's just particular enough that you've got to get your signals mostly right, but not so particular that he'll refuse to obey unless you perform them perfectly.

There's always more to be done. On days when I'm feeling strong enough, I work on posting, but even on the days when I'm more tired, I'm always working on my form and I'm learning how to tell him what to do simply by changing how I sit in the saddle. Riding requires a subtle balance of looseness and control, so I'm always having to remind myself to keep the elbows bent at a particular angle but not rigid, to have my pelvis rotated just so, to have my heels down and my legs back, to pull my shoulders back but not too far or too stiffly, to be moving my hips with the horse but keep the shoulders still and even, to arch my back just so, to have my fingers closed on the reins, to not unconsciously pull up on the reins, to keep my hands down and forward when posting while keeping the elbows loose, to try to lift from the inner thighs when posting and not from the stirrups (I'm not quite strong enough to do this yet, but am working on it), to keep my eyes up and looking ahead (sometimes I forget to do this because I am admiring the passing scenery), etc., etc., not to mention all the particulars that go along with the tack. Of course, all of the riding works best when you're not thinking TOO hard about it, so until it becomes second nature, you have to figure out how to remind yourself of all the particulars at the same time as not thinking about them at all. I find that it works best if I concentrate 90% of my focus on getting my hands in the right place and letting my body naturally (more or less) follow the information I'm getting from Drifter. I love the challenge of it, though, and it's why even slight progress can feel like a satisfying accomplishment.

Getting better all the time! Best of all, I don't look or feel like a largely housebound chronic migraineur when I'm proudly mounted on a horse. 

I've made lots of progress on my posting in recent weeks.

It's been an amazing journey so far and I hope that Drifter, despite his advanced age, will remain in good health long enough to teach me everything he knows. I will forever be indebted to his calm, patient, and willing demeanor long after I have graduated to more advanced horses and he has departed from this life. I know that with him (and with my great instructor), I am laying a foundation to make me a competent horsewoman that will serve me well no matter where this newfound passion takes me. Dogs, photography, and maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world all play a role in helping me remain positive despite my significant health challenges, but adding horses to that mix has proved beneficial beyond my wildest dreams.

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  1. What a truly beautiful blog post - as someone who (tiredly) battles disabilities that knocked me off my feet about 4 years ago, I've been trying to explain the physical as well as the emotion benefit that being around horses has given me. I will share your blog post as it summarizes it better than I could !

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that you're fighting health issues, too, but am so glad to hear that you have horses to help you!