Friday, February 28, 2014

Horses Who Made Me, Part 1

I won’t say I was one of those horse-obsessed little girls, because I wasn’t. I didn't have riding lessons as a young child; I didn’t go to horse day camps or do Pony Club. I didn’t play with horse toys. All the horse time I had was something I sought out myself. On the other hand every time I was around a horse I was happy, and I spent time with them whenever I had the chance. Their size and power fascinated me almost as much as their sensitivity and gentleness attracted me. Always the tomboy, I loved getting dirty and even the smell of a sweaty horse made me feel at home.

What I did get was summer camp. Looking back, summer camp was clearly the way my parents thought they could socialize me properly. It’s true that everything else had apparently failed up until that point. I very much preferred the company of myself and my pets as a child (my introverted parents should NOT have been surprised they had a super introverted and fine-with-it daughter), but I was amenable to the idea of being shipped off to camp and out of my comfort zone if it was a farm camp. With horses. The horses were required – I put my foot down on that one.

So I went to camp, and I loved it. I believe my parents thought my younger sister, who was the social butterfly of the two of us, would have even more fun than I did, but it didn’t work out that way.
The hill overlooking the barn where I spent my days.*
Camp also didn’t cure me of being introverted, but that’s a story for another day. 

I immersed myself in the barn even though there were lots of other activities I could have gotten involved in at Camp. I would wake up before everyone and go out alone to watch the sun rise and sit on the grassy hill overlooking the horse herd and watch them for an hour or two before breakfast. I would watch the herd dynamics, and take notes on what I saw. When the camp counselors came to feed them breakfast I would be there to help, a quiet shadow observing and absorbing everything I saw. I enjoyed some close relationships with particular horses over the years I went to summer camp, eventually becoming an assistant camp counselor myself before I “aged out” in high school.

Camp was the first place I really started taking riding lessons; but my favorite thing by far was riding out into the Trinity Alps on daily trail rides.

There was this ugly-as-sin mare, named Brandy, that I loved riding. She was an ewe-necked, sickle-hocked train wreck of conformation, and she grew hardly any mane and had a pathetic stringy tail. She was easy to identify from a distance, particularly since she was a washed out sandy dun in a herd of mostly bays and appaloosa horses. Brandy was also constantly harassed by the other horses and had a generally grumpy attitude toward life. She would bite if you tightened her cinch too quickly. She would stop and not move an inch (other than curling her lip in distain) if a kid was too rough with her. Brandy was an ex-barrel racer who had been quite successful at the sport in her youth. And though a patient and lovely lesson horse in the arena, I could tell she didn’t enjoy the arena work. The trails were a different story. I had tested into the “advanced” riding level for camp upon arriving (which is probably just an advanced beginner in the normal world – remember I was just a kid), and she was considered an “advanced” horse for the trails because she would occasionally get a bit excited.

I remember my camp counselor – the one I emulated in every way because she was a great horseman and OWNED her own horse (the height of accomplishments!) – teaching me about having an adaptive seat on Brandy. How after much frustration I suddenly GOT it while having a lesson in the arena, and discovered this grumpy old mare with the jarring trot moved off my seat beautifully. I remember trotting around the arena, focusing every single fiber on my being on SOFT SEAT, RELAXED HANDS while still trying to steer with my legs. And then I suddenly found the rhythm, somehow, and Brandy gave a sigh that clearly meant FINALLY and lowered her ugly head. I applied a touch more leg and she cantered. Beautifully. I don’t know what combination made that possible, but this horse with the ungodly comfortable trot had the most comfortable poised canter. And she could do it for days if the rider was quiet enough. If the rider flopped, she would stop and make snarly faces. Luckily, I didn’t flop. It was the first time I cantered on a horse and felt more than just along for the ride.

Sadly, the only photo I could find of Bandy (on the left). It does not show off the majesty of her fugly head.*

Later that week I was taken out in a very small group (again, looking back I think I may have been a favorite of the head horse counselor, because more than once I got to hang out with her and other counselors where I was the only “kid”), and I was given Brandy to ride. We went out on a long trail ride in the mountains, mostly walking. There were points where we got to pick up a faster gait and I remember my counselor turning around in her saddle and telling me that if I felt comfortable I could let Brandy canter since it was her preferred gait anyway. So we did. At first I asked for a slow canter (with my seat). This horse could have cantered in place, I swear, she was that athletic. Then when the other horses cantered I gave her a little nudge and we galloped. At one point we were allowed to canter in front of the group, and I felt like it was just me and her, alone in the world. A wonderful feeling. I felt completely safe and one with that mare. I don’t even remember touching the reins or giving her more than a gentle squeeze with my calves.

I’m sure other horseback riders can attest to this as well, but that trail ride was my first experience with that out-of-body horse-rider connection that we all crave. And when I say out-of-body, what I really mean is IN your body, but a different body than the one you inhabit normally. A more powerful body. A more beautiful body, because yes, Brandy was and still is one of the most beautiful horses I have ever known. There is no way to explain the feeling to those who haven’t felt it; I try and explain it to my husband all the time as part encouraging him to ride more.  

When we were done with the fast part of the ride I remember my counselor laughing and smiling and telling me she has “never seen that horse or you that happy”. She pointed out how Brandy’s ears were loose and relaxed, her neck soft. I guess I was grinning quite a bit as well.

That was the first time I felt the “click”. I’ve been addicted ever since.

Thank you, Brandy, for making an awkward kid who never felt like she belonged in her body, belong to something even better. 

*The crappy photos are scanned from my childhood diary, where I had them taped. I was not classy.