horses, language versus lived experience, birth, death and horses

I haven’t posted about riding for a while because the week after my last post, about falling off Elle, I fell off again. That one was worse. Again at the canter transition, but this time Elle tripped and I went over her head and faceplanted in the arena sand. (The fabulous Miss Kirsty alone in the universe made me feel better about it: I twittered that I had sand in my hair and up my nose and she replied “I am so hot for you right now.”)

Otherwise I felt like hell. Riding, which was supposed to replace Zoloft as the key endorphin guarantor of my week, had become a problem instead. I was afraid again, of falling, of hurting myself, of looking like a prize idiot. The week after the second fall I had to have a long stern conversation with myself on the drive down.

I don’t know if I can put this conversation into words. I just read Samuel Delany’s “The Tale of Old Venn” (I am only now noticing the brilliance of that title) which not only describes but tries to embody the limitations of language in encapsulating lived experience. There’s a passage in which one of Venn’s students, trying to absorb the lesson, suddenly wakes up to the play of sunlight in the leaves, the air on her skin, the distant hum of human affairs – direct sensory input. And she feels, right down in her gut, for the first time, the way language acts as a bottleneck for conveying the truth of life. However precise and brilliant the language, most of life is left out.

You’ll laugh – Salome did – when I say that reading this was the first time I realized it. I have lived in my head for so long. I have lived other peoples’ lives in books far more vividly than I ever lived my own, right up until Christmas Day 2002. And here my tale loops around. I want to make a lame Derrida-derivative pun about the Christmas *present*, but for you, dear reader, I will refrain. Feel the love.

I thought about Claire’s birth on that drive down to the barn. I thought about how I needed to find the strength to push, and how I thought it would kill me, and then the moment came when I was perfectly okay with that; I was happy enough to die if it meant that Claire would be born. At which point of course my body opened and Claire was born.

We are mortal. Forward movement is movement towards our death. To get back on the horse means accepting that I might fall off again and hurt or kill myself; but the alternative is not to live at all. Oh, these words are so hopelessly inadequate! I couldn’t know this thing until I felt it in my body, and I can’t convey it to you except in cliches. This is why it is so hard to communicate between generations! I look at myself in my twenties, pathetically cyclothymic, my judgment hopeless, my competence all over the map, and I wish I could give that smooth-skinned young self some of my own wry strength. But where did the strength come from? From all those mistakes, all those falls, all that fear, every time I got back on the damn horse. There are no shortcuts.

I rode Elle that day and we jumped a course in a light and forward and happy frame, as well as could be imagined given my current fitness and capacity. For my next lesson I rode Austin, my friend Beth’s magical Paint and an old, old friend of mine too, my partner in winning the first blue ribbon of my life. Austin and I get on like a house on fire. He’s a jumper, as opposed to Elle’s hunter style, much more what I am used to from Noah and the Samarai days, and I feel so safe and confident on him. We jumped a 2’3″ course! Which is tiny but still! It was amazing!

My classmate Olynda was on Elle for that lesson and this was fascinating to watch. Olynda is an ex-eventer like me, used to an uphill horse like Austin, and like me she found Elle’s long low frame very disconcerting. It was reassuring to see someone else struggle with her balance trying to make the transition from jumper to hunter style. There’s a real difference! It’s not just me!

Yesterday, greatly enfeebled by a hot sun and a very sore shoulder, I rode Elle again. It was not by any means a brilliant lesson, but I am finding my balance. I am learning to give with my hands and hips when I ask for a canter, and to make my lower leg the foundation of my seat so that I don’t risk toppling off. I also suddenly and completely got the point of show hunters.

The action of the field hunter is efficient: the horse does not waste energy bending its legs any more than it has to. This relates back to the hunt field, where the horse had to work for several hours on end, often galloping, and inefficient movement would tire the horse more quickly.

I got Elle into her perfect, cadenced, hypnotic, rocking-horse canter, and despite my various infirmities, I felt like I could stay there all day. If I haven’t already alienated every one of my dozen readers worldwide (you can blame Rose for encouraging me), I will write further obsessive essays about the origins of English equestrian culture in foxhunting and the balanced versus the hunter seat. You can’t wait! I love horses. Did you know?

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