I hit a huge milestone today as a rider, but it doesn’t make sense without the context, so I’ll just let the story unfold.
Some of the story is Ancient History: I’ve been around horses all my life, and definitely did my Time as a Barn Rat down at a big hunter-jumper barn in Texas when I was a teen. Dressage was something new on the horizon in those years – we had one person at the barn who was into that. Otherwise, dressage was out there somewhere in the context of the Spanish School and the Lippizaners. For years I didn’t even realize that horses other than the Lippizans even did dressage. To me for most of my life, “riding lesson” = “jumping”. It was the crowd I ran with. The other crowd rode Western, and for them, “riding lesson” = “barrel racing” or “cutting” or “pole bending”. Then there was the ever-present trail riding, something no one seemed to equate with any kind of lesson. You saddled up the horse, preferably with Western tack – or, in our case, with a halter and lead rope looped around and tied on the other side (if you don’t know what I mean, believe me, you don’t want to know) and you hopped on, and you went. Whether it was in the pasture (or paddock, if your buddies rode English), or out on the dirt roads, or on an actual trail somewhere, it didn’t matter. Boots, sneakers, flip-flops. Jeans? Shorts? Whatever you have on, it’s good.
Did you say “helmet”? What the heck is that? Helmet. It’s not like we’re taking these guys over a bunch of jumps, ya know. Don’t need no stinkin’ helmets.
That’s what riding involved, where I came from.
It’s all different today. Everyone wears helmets, because, well, it’s not like they’re a major hassle, and they do prevent a lot of damage. Or, I suspect for riders, they prevent a loss of time in the saddle.
Dressage is all over the place, and you can even do it with an off-track Thoroughbred. Or a mustang, or a shaggy Shetland pony. Or, thank all the Gods in heaven, on a camel.
There’s jumping, and hunter jumping, and cross-country jumping, and stadium jumping, even on a zebra.
Then there’s Relatively Recent History, which involves working a couple of jobs to put myself through college, going off to get a Ph.D., taking a job in the Frozen Tundra of Wisconsin, meeting my spouse right after, and commuting between Wisconsin and Massachusetts for the next six years. None of this stuff implies the possession of “spare time”. In fact, for the better part of 20 years, “spare time” referred to the two hours per month that was available for doing laundry.
You know things are bad when you find yourself thinking that it’s a luxury to be able to drive a truckload of clothes, wrapped in the sheets that also need washing, to the laundromat, where you have a blissful three hours of fighting other people for the working dryers and cajoling quarters out of the change machine while reading academic journal articles, designing research studies, or grading homework.
When the Duds & Suds laundromat and pub opened up I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
When I got a Real Job and could afford an apartment with an actual washer and dryer inside the apartment where I didn’t have to worry about someone stealing my wash (or washer) I knew I had died and gone to heaven.
So. We’re talking a 20+ year Hiatus from Horses here. I just boxed that Horse Stuff up into a little corner of my mind where it wouldn’t torment me, and went about my business.
And continued to do so until last year when I realized that – at last – I had time and money all at once, and I could finally realized my Life-Long Desire to get riding lessons. Only, this was complicated by the last few decades, because “riding lessons” no longer equals “jumping” or “barrel racing”. There is now a choice. Oh, my.
I settled on English, because, you know, I don’t see myself barrel racing, pole bending, roping, cutting, or any of that other stuff. Not enough room to do it in New England, for one. Shortage of local rodeos, for two. (Although, there is some kind of regular rodeo up in Vermont during the summers, and I am definitely going to be checking that out).
That brings us up to Totally Recent History, which is that about 13 months ago, I met Huey The Wonder Horse. I met him as a recent addition to the lesson program. He was my second ride in the lesson program. He was brilliant. Every other time I’d ridden a horse, I’d felt like a passenger. With Huey The Wonder Horse, I felt like a flipping centaur. Part human me, part horse him. One Thing moving around the arena. He was brilliant. I’d never been on a horse that responded to the smallest thing. Most of the horses I had been on would be recognizable by their practice of stopping at the gate, or trying to eat grass while tacked up with a rider. Not Huey. He was 110% on board for whatever.
Unfortunately for us, “whatever” included an inadvertent signal on my part to bust into a canter, which he happily obliged. And, because I wasn’t exactly expecting this and found myself at a loss when it came to formulating an appropriate, immediate, and assertive response to the developing situation, it ended in an ambulance ride, a CAT scan, and unexpected week off from school, and quite a lot of vomiting.
Worse, when I’d been cleared back to Active Duty by my Physician’s “Oh? What kind of horse? My family raises Thorougbreds!” Assistant, I found that Huey The Wonder Horse was Hors De Combat. A migrating bone chip in the hock sent him into stall rest. For months. I was crushed. Partly because I thought maybe I’d broken him (thus we set the stage for a decade worth of angst), partly because I kept thinking all Black Beauty and worrying that this would be the End of Him, and partly because there was nothing I wanted more than to ride him again.
NOT because I had anything to prove. What could I prove? That I’ve got a Pair? Good grief, anyone can figure that.
NOT because I had to face some kind of fear. I didn’t fall off him, I bailed out and hit my head. These are very different things. I miscalculated, I didn’t freak out. Well, I did freak out, but that was earlier, and the decision to bail out came after the freak out ended.
So why did I want more than anything to ride him?
Because he freaking seemed to read my mind, that’s why. Once you’ve had a taste of centaur-land – Being One With Your Steed and all that – it’s really hard to go back to Piggy Back. Good grief. Who wouldn’t want to ride a horse that responds almost before you’ve finished formulating a plan?
Also, I liked him. He had…mojo. He had style, he had elan, he was a total professional, and he was just a little bit goofy too. And he was gorgeous. And huge. In the same way I am. Big is Beautiful, Baby.
So this is why it came as a surprise when my trainer said, one day, “Go ahead and saddle up Huey” and followed this with a stream of advice about being careful not to communicate fear or apprehension to the horse. It was incredibly valuable advice, in general, but it took a few minutes for the penny to drop that she thought I might be worried about riding him again due to the whole concussion thing. I knew this wasn’t going to be an issue, and it wasn’t. And you can fast-forward a couple of months from that moment, and you’ll find me signing paperwork the upshot of which is that Huey The Wonder Horse is mine. ALL mine. Mine mine mine mine mine. No one else”s.
I felt then, and feel today, like a kid in the candy shop.
Huey, the Wonder Horse, is mine. No one else gets to ride him unless I say so. And I can ride him whenever I want. That is, unless I’m trying to go six days in a row, because he really does want a day off there, or trying to ride him in bare feet, because he needs the support from a shoe for his suspensory on the right front leg. But I know all that, and it’s my business to know all that, because he’s mine.
Damn. I have The Wonder Horse. I must be about the luckiest person on the planet.
Now, Huey The Wonder Horse isn’t a horse for anyone you know. If you want a casual mellow trip, he’s not for you. If you want a horse that will not challenge you and push you to more, he’s not for you. If you are afraid of getting plowed over by your horse, if you’re reluctant to voice your requests and put some power behind them to make them stick, if you’re intimidated by dispute, if you don’t have a taste for High Drama, he’s not the horse for you. If you want a slow poky ride, and a horse that will never, under any reasonable circumstances, get startled, distracted, or spook, he’s not the horse for you. If you demand unthinking obedience and submission from your minions, he’s not the horse for you. If you see your communication as a one-way street, where you issue the directives and expect instant and complete compliance with no discussion, he’s not the horse for you. If you’re afraid of speed and power, he’s not the horse for you. If you’ve had a hip or knee replacement, he’s not the horse for you.
But…if you respect power, admire self-confidence, are willing to meet the creatures in your life in a relationship where you inspire and command respect, understand that the Drama is the necessary flip-side to the incredible sensitivity, or love to see and be around a bold spirit…then you can’t look for better than The Wonder Horse.
We can all tell which side of this I come down on.
And that brings us to today. Yesterday was gaspingly expensive. Acupuncture from the vet, which went beautifully until HTWH decided the needle in his withers was a biting insect, tried to twitch it off, and succeeded only in bending and displacing the needle, at which point the Huey and Lori Show went on the Road. Thank heavens that 1) I was holding him and paying 100% attention to him (if only to keep from him destroying a part of the barn again in a fit of jealousy) and 2) the vet was paying enough attention to him to unclip the ties when he started to get antsy, which let me keep both hands on the rope, and 3) I’d had front-row seats watching a couple of majorly experienced hands (the barn owner and the vet) deal with a horse freaking out over acupuncture last month. So I kept a firm hold on his head, stuck to him like a tick, and as soon as we’d cleared the area with the barn implements, circled him around until he decided to stand. At which point I had the leisure to say “Look Huey! GRASS!” and after that, the Drama was all over.
After that, the farrier, where I got to see Mr. Mouthy attempt to remove the farrier’s hat with his teeth, and get a solid pop in the choppers as a result. Huey threw his head up a bit in surprise, looked at me, and said “MOM! He smacked me!” and I just said “You earned that, my boy. I told you not to put your mouth on him.”
It was a Big Day, and I wasn’t sure what to expect this morning.
What I got was a horse that was absolutely bursting at the seams with energy and drive. Little bugger was so juiced up that he couldn’t wait for me to finish getting into the saddle before moving off. We had a short…interaction…then that resulted in the renewed understanding that I Am Boss Here. We tried to leg yield at the trot, which was 98% a total bust due to 1) my general incompetence at asking and 2) Huey’s disinclination to let anything interfere with his Forward Velocity of which he had a Great Deal. He was moving out. With verve.
Towards the end of this, my trainer started talking about cantering, presumably because during the visit from the vet yesterday, Huey got cleared to start cantering under saddle. Now, my experience of cantering is 1) the above incident (including ambulance), 2) some actual cantering lessons this winter on a horse that is absolutely brilliant in his Chosen Profession of Therapy Horse, but is otherwise classically lazy, and 3) a few repeated attempts last month to “race” other horses that were working in the ring at the same time as we were starting to trot with rehab.
That is, no experience aksing Huey The Wonder Horse for a canter and actually doing it.
After a few minutes of Instruction, it became clear that we were headed in a Direction: cantering today.
Here is what it is like to canter on Huey The Wonder Horse:
We are going to canter today.
Canter. The vet says it’s time, so we’re going to canter in a few minutes, you and me. On purpose.
Are you sure?
Yes. I’m sure. It’s time.
OK. If you say so.
So, listen up, buddy. When I ask you to canter, you need to give me the slowest canter you have. And if you think I’m losing it up here, you should stop. Stopping is the right thing to do. NO WAY am I asking you to go faster. If I do, it’s a mistake. Ignore it for now.
OK. I give you my slow canter, and if you’re going to fall off, I stop.
That’s right. You’re a good boy, Huey!
No, not yet. I need to get ready. Not till I say.
Now? I think you said.
No, sorry, I didn’t say. Not yet.
NOW! Let’s go Huey!
…a moderately slow canter ensues, as does the following Internal Dialogue, not on the part of the horse…
AAAAGGGHHHH!!! What is this, escape velocity? I’m getting massive air under my butt every stride! AAAAAGGGHHH!! DON’T SQUEEZE THE HORSE!!! Where are my feet? Heels down!! Hands! AAAAAGGHHHH!!! SOFT BACK! USE THE CORE! ELBOWS DOWN!! AAAAAGGGHHHH!!! He’s like a runaway freight train! I won’t ever be able to stop him!! AAAAAAGGGHHH!!! Air!
Huey! Slow please!
…a slower canter ensues…
AAAAGGGHHH!!! We’re going to the moon! STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP trot, post, yeah.
Holy cow, I freaking forgot everything I sort of knew about cantering. What a disgrace.
From the trainer:
That looked pretty good!
What?!? I was vaulting off him with every stride, and couldn’t remember my own name? How can that look pretty good?
And Huey says “You didn’t fall off. You weren’t even going to fall off. I did right, making a slow canter?”
What a good boy! What a brilliant horse!
I did right?
Yes. No horse could have done better.
…and out loud…
Let’s do that again!!
And afterward, supplying an endless quantity of peppermints, fresh grass, head rubs, and big horse kissies (thus filling my mouth and sinuses with short face hairs), that was awesome. No wonder he could leap over tall buildings with a single bound. I wonder what it must feel like when he’s pouring on 100%. I can’t even imagine.
What’s it like, cantering Huey?
Like riding a rocket, while wearing a seat belt. Only hairier. Destination: Mars.