the gift

As you can probably tell I’ve been having kind of a hard time lately, and I dragged myself out of bed before dawn this morning wishing I could just stay snuggled under the covers with Jeremy and Jules. I drove down to the barn thinking about how little progress I’ve been making in all areas of my life, really, but especially with riding, and wondering about my apparently-innate predisposition to settle for mediocrity and sabotage myself. It was awesomely cold at the barn, and the rain had stripped the poplars of their leaves.

There were horses listed for our lesson but no riders assigned to them, and since Bella was on the list I took her out of her stall and groomed her and wrapped her polo wraps and didn’t make them too lumpy. It’s comforting just to be in the presence of a horse, even when you suck and are a failure. Horses are large and warm and they like to be scritched just so, and they don’t really care whether you’re getting published in professional markets or how well you are hitting your quarterly goals.

We rode in the indoor and after we had warmed up, Erin called us all in and told us we were going to work on riding in a frame. This is the new, politically-correct term for getting the horses on the bit. It’s actually a much better term because it avoids the very common but mistaken emphasis on hauling the horse’s head in… anyway, Erin made an excellent point, which is that getting the horse into a frame is as much as anything else an exercise in multi-tasking. You need to be riding off your leg and into a soft hand with a good feel, yes, but at the same time you need to be making rigorous checks of your position and correcting any bad eq. She said we all had decent balance now and should be capable of doing both things at once.

I’ve learned this before. I actually learn it about once every eight years, and always on chestnut horses for some reason. The first was George, a spectacularly ugly liver rabicano of extreme amiability. I will always remember him for giving me that first feel of a horse’s jaw softening, his neck bending and his hind feet stepping up under his body. The next time I learned it was on my Alfie, who was far better at dressage than any purebred Arabian is supposed to be. The next time I learned it was in my late twenties on Noah the Swedish Warmblood with his fiery forward trot.

Now I am almost forty and my body has been through two pregnancies and its left sciatic nerve is fond of firing randomly. On the bright side I have more tact and patience and humility and clue than I have ever had before. And I am on Bella, who is cranky and has no neck, but who is also so very clever and kind. I had already been bending her in the corners. Now I just asked for a little more bend and a little more give, and she dropped her chin and softened her back and stepped out like she was two hands taller.

As Erin pointed out, the theory of riding in a frame is very simple. You keep a steady outside rein, you push forward with the outside leg and you keep a soft and asking and giving contact on the inside. The horse should move off your outside leg and into that giving rein, and should engage her hindquarters and drop her poll and chew sweetly on the bit. I guess that’s where the old name comes from. The theory is simple but the practice, of course, is almost infinitely complex. You can go on learning this every eight years for the rest of your life, and I hope I do.

Bella was spectacular. Erin, who is never complimentary, was complimentary. The little mare stepped up behind and arched her little short neck and I could feel the muscles under the saddle all relaxed and ready for work. I felt, too, what Erin had said about my balance. It’s taken me a year to regain the strength in the saddle that I need in order to be able to ask for this kind of work. The irony is that it’s much easier to ride when the horse is engaged. The horse will respond to a much lighter leg aid; the constant communication through the bridle makes turns and changes of directions almost trivial.

And it feels so very, very good and right. This is the gift horses give us: their willingness, their power and grace, their readiness to play along. Even when I let the reins out to the buckle, Bella would still cooperate, would drop her nose almost to the arena sand to stretch her neck, would come back to the walk at no more signal from me than me flexing my stomach muscles. What a remarkable thing it is, to achieve this kind of Vulcan mind-meld with a big strange alien animal. How much of my education and the good parts of my character I owe to horses like Bella. What good timing it was to have a ride like this after so many hard weeks. And how very, very lucky I am.

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