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Would never have imagined a better official tenth anniversary post. It’s a bit tl; but please do read.

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‘Are you going to do the eventing?’

Eventing? As in ‘three day’? It was the first I’d heard of it and I had to think twice, to be honest, before I said ‘Yes’. Despite the usual trepidation about doing something horsey I’d never done before, any excuse to be up at the yard is a good one, and I really wasn’t ever going to say no.

Three day eventing is comprised of dressage, cross country and showjumping, and was originally developed to test the cavalry for mastery in all three disciplines. Taken as a whole, it’s daunting, and the variables of each, in terms of riding Connell, were fodder for the sort of mind games I could play to psyche myself out. Taken over three separate weekends, one event each Sunday, there was way too much time in between to get lost in my head — or, if I was choosing to be optimistic, loads of time to focus in my weekly lessons in between disciplines, and psyche myself in.

Dressage: boom. No worries there. In fact, I was keen to show off how good he is at it, how well he listens to the aids, how we actually manage to do this pretty well, together.

Cross country: eh. He has his moments, which do not run on a spectrum but are either 0 or 60. I prefer the latter because we are at least going at speed and I needn’t break a rib trying to get him to go, and I was pretty sure that there was a time factor involved in this aspect — we’d need all the help we could get.

Showjumping: *sigh*. This leg of the competition was bound to be in the upper arena, and we had yet to even get round a course up there, much less me staying aboard. Okay, we were improving in the latter aspect, but despite my intellectual awareness of what was needed to get him to stay a course, I had yet to bring this to fruition physically.

Ah sure, feck it. What did I have to lose?

DAY ONE
We got the test on the Wednesday, to learn by the Sunday. Two years ago, maybe even as little as one, this would have felt utterly impossible. But like anything else, the more you learn a technique the easier it gets. I have a method that has to do with drawing the test out over and over until I ‘know’ it — but knowing it in my mind is not enough. I tried some of the transitions in warming up before my Saturday lesson, and that helped — but the ‘knowing’ comes from the doing. I wouldn’t be doing it until the actual moment on the day.

No pressure.

On the day, everyone was in their proper clothes — jackets, white jodhs, even ties and shite, like the hairnets. Dammit! I have all that stuff but have never worn any of it, because things are generally low key up at the yard. Was I going to lose points for wearing the wrong thing? I was assured I would not, and frankly I hadn’t ever ridden in the jacket and had no idea of how it actually fits in action and wouldn’t want to test it out at the last minute. (Note to self: wear that jacket sometime when actually on a horse.)

I shook it off, and went and groomed Connell, stopping short of trying to plait his mane. I reckoned I could use about half an hour to warm him up. Up in the arena, I felt pretty good: he was awake, aware, perhaps happy to have gotten a good brushing before setting out to work.

The white boundary markers were down, there was a stranger in a Jeep parked at C, the whole thing was utterly official and I managed to be excited by this rather than intimidated. I knew the time for my test but hadn’t bothered to note who was in front of me so I could figure out when I was meant to go. I wanted to make sure we had just enough time to chill before going in, but not so much that Connell (or I, in fairness) would lose focus. At some stage, after doing a bunch of transition and some moves that I thought we might not do so well, it became clear that I could go at any time, so I went.

I introduced us to lady in the Jeep. I brought Connell up to trot, waited for the honk of the horn (my signal to start), got the beep and began.

Well, overall it felt pretty good. We entered, and I thought That entrance was not great, but just kept going, one transition at a time, just went forward into one thing after the next, feeling when something went well, realising when things could have been better, forward, forward until the end, which came as a relief and a paradox: every 20 metre circle felt like it took about 20 hours, but then all of a sudden we were done. Madness.

I got my sheet: 114 out 220, mainly 6.5s and 7s. I also got the insight that what I feel may not match up to what it looks like: I earned a 7 for that entrance, which had felt pretty wobbly. Peeks at other participants’ marks revealed that Con and I were pretty much in the middle of the class; I had hoped to do better, but felt like the pressure was off.

Until showjumping day.

DAY TWO
This ought to have been cross country day, but due to the possibility of rainy weather, the showjumping was moved up.

In my Wednesday lesson, we had jumped in the upper arena. Connell ran out once, up the side of the hilly verge at the edge of the arena, and tanked off to the back of the ride. I stayed on, kept him under control, and tried again. We got over the fence. Later, he tried to run out again, I prevented it, we got over, he tanked off, I stayed on, and… yeah. What an amazing confidence-building exercise.

I woke up on the Sunday feeling actually nauseous and I didn’t want to go. What difference did it make if I didn’t continue? I wouldn’t look like an fool, that was for sure. I wouldn’t look like I didn’t know how to ride a horse. I wouldn’t look like I had some nerve even joining in at all. I kept up this equally amazing confidence-building monologue as I dressed, got on the the bus, walked up the laneway of despair to the hill of death… and as much as I hate that quarter mile uphill, it served to get me out of my head, into my body and onto the horse.

It also served to help me start repeating different thoughts. I am staying on that horse today. Connell and I are going to get round. If I have to take him down to walk in between each fence so he doesn’t tank off, I will do that. I am going to stick to the 70s and stay the course. One fence at a time.

I am going to ride this course one fence at a time.

I walked the course with another rider, went and got Connell, warmed up, popped a few fences. There weren’t too many other participants up in the arena, but we got cracking anyway. I went third. Leg on, head up, heels down, canter, fence one, two, three… He wasn’t fighting me and after a while, maybe around the sixth fence, I didn’t feel the need to bring him down to trot after every element… we went clear through the first round and went for the second, a repeat of fences one to six — and I got into my head before fence three and tried to prevent him running out even though he’d given me no indication he was going to, and he knocked it — but we got over the last three, only four faults, the first time he hadn’t managed to get me off, put in a dirty stop, run out of a fence. We got round, and while I berated myself a bit for that fallen fence, as far as I was concerned, it had been a triumph.

Somebody said, ‘Well done, Sue!’ and I babbled a bit about how this was the first time we’d got round and they said, ‘Yeah, but you’re also in fourth place.’

Whaaaaaaaat. I immediately took a picture of the standings and Insta’d it. If this was as far as I got, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

DAY THREE
Woke up feeling not quite as nauseous because we’d gone out into the fields the day before in my lesson (yaas); got a lift halfway up the laneway of despair, felt pretty good… then saw that there were flags up at the elements in the tyre field, like a proper legit cross country event and got breathless all over again.

I had somehow managed not to Google ‘three day eventing scoring’ throughout the week. Had those four faults knocked me out of the standings entirely? All the other adults went double clear, or only had four faults as well, how would it work, even if they had done the 80s and I had only done the 70s? There wasn’t an updated list… hmm, maybe I needed to concentrate on my course.

I wasn’t going to walk it but realised I ought to because the fence markers were a jumble of numbers and letters. I was going to do the minis which comprised two fields, starting downhill — hate jumping downhill! — in the four jump field into the tyre field and then back to the four jump field, which was now more of a six jump. New logs were down on the ground, and even though I knew to look for the red flag to be on my right, it was helpful to the nerves to have an idea of where I would be going. Anyone in a position of authority was pelted with questions, and one glance at the sheet laying out the fences for the other courses cured me of any notions of doing the midis.

So, the children and I got ready to go. We warmed up in the upper arena, followed the leader down the gate, and went in the order we just happened to be in, in the ride.

Some of the kids looked peaky. ‘I’ve never done this before — gone over these logs by ourselves,’ I said. ‘I’m nervous.’ And the girls exploded with agreement: none of us had ever ridden in the fields basically alone, we all knew how the ponies were, chasing each other, what if we went too fast/what if we went too slow? ‘We are all going to be great!’ I said, and the girls (and I) took a deep breath.

Connell and I were fourth. At the start of the warm up, he felt a bit sticky, a bit distracted by the ponies, a bit bolshy, but I worked through it slowly, mainly because I felt mostly okay. When it was time for us to go after our ‘three… two… one…’, he gave desultory hop over the first log, and then started to trot down the hill after the pony ahead. I wanted to keep him going, but I didn’t want to get up the pony’s butt, so we took it easy — and it became easy. Once we got over the downhill log, it was smooth sailing — he even waited calmly with me until we let the ponies go ahead, and then went from 0 to 60 properly as we trotted through the break in the hedge to fly over the last elements.

‘How’d you do?’ ask the scorekeeper. ‘Clear!’ I replied; I brought Connell down to the walk, patted him heartily on the neck, and the watchers at the gate cheered.

Delirious with relief, I put Connell back up, gave him his well-deserved Pink Lady, and hung around and watched the midis and maxis, standing on the highest hill freezing to death but feeling so well in myself. I had given it a bash. I hadn’t given up. I learned so much: how to gauge how Con and I were doing and how to either do something about it or take advantage of it; how to move forward through something like that challenging pre-showjumping lesson and leave it behind; how to do the thing one event at at time, one transition/fence/log at a time… which is what horseriding is all about, if you ask me. It’s about learning from your mistakes and building on your successes without clinging to either; about moving through the rubbish self talk and overriding it with activity and action; about setting manageable goals and of not over-facing myself due to pride and ego.

After the last rider went, I debated legging it down the hill to the laneway to the bus stop. I put on my rucksack and wondered if I could get a lift from someone, but I was asked if I was leaving? ‘Eh, no?’ I said, and leaned on the windowsill. Everyone had gathered and I guessed that ribbons were being given out? Maybe I got a ribbon?

The first place winner in the minis was announced: me.

eventing-2016

I accepted my rosette and trophy, euphoric and humbled. I couldn’t have predicted this and wouldn’t have experienced it if I had based future events on past challenges.

For every fence I fail to get over, I learn how to change something so that my chances of success increase.

For every time I think I may not bother trying, I find myself moving through the thought to take an action.

Next time when I think I have to do a whole thing all at once, I hope I recall this and break the thing down into smaller parts.

Ten years may seem like a long time, but in horse years it equals about a minute. Okay, maybe an hour. Whatever it adds up to, at bottom it’s all about intention. The only intention I had when I got up there on Mercury in 2006 was to stay up and not end up, ignominiously, on the ground. The intention I have now is to keep going forward, forward, forward. And to go double clear in the upper arena*. And from there, who knows? I may even get my own horse one day.

Until then, I’ll just keep showing up, one day, one lesson, one fence at a time. And I’ll keep my trophy in the loo, I think — I hear that’s where Kate Winslet keeps her Oscar.

***

*Which I did do! And then the next week got decanted onto my face! That’s horses!

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I went and completely re-wrote the epilogue to my book because of this event. It only made sense, as the title — Many Brave Fools — happened because of the mnemonic that one my instructors used, and it applies so perfectly to the themes involved. Just one of those things maybe, or what happens when you’re paying attention. The experience is teased out in the manuscript (I am happily inviting literary representation, btw), but the essence of it is below: that good marks are good, but knowing why we got them is even better.

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You Gotta Start Somewhere: My Very First Dressage Test Ever

Ever done correctly, that is, with the white things down on the ground, and the silence.

There have been any number of times in which instructors have tried to incorporate a dressage test into a lesson. Sure, we do loads of flat work in the warm up, but the flat work never gets its own time to shine, unless we try to do a test. ‘Try’, because what happens is, we get the test, we go away, we come back the next week and all get a chance to do it with the instructor correcting us as we go along… except one or two haven’t shown up that week. So we resolve to do it all over again the next week — and those one or two show up, but the weather is dreadful, so it has to be put off.

And then one or two others don’t show up the next week, or all the arenas are booked for something else, so the white things can’t be laid out properly — and then the week after that, there’s a course still set up from pony camp and we’d all rather do that

So it never gets done.

We had a test, a simple pre-novice sheet, and we did the thing where we all did it in the lesson, and the ones that hadn’t gotten it, got it, and we were all meant to do it the next week; cue all of the above, and after IDK, six weeks, we forgot about it. I had the sheet folded up into eighths in my pocket, and then gave up and left it home. That very Wednesday, as we all mounted for our evening lesson, our instructor said, “Head on out to the upper arena, we’re doing the test.”

Ah, seriously? Everyone looked at me, because I always had the sheet, and I said, “I don’t have the sheet!” and we moaned, communally. As we warmed up, we asked each other if we remembered what happened after the walk from F to H on the loose rein? Or: what happened after that last canter, did we just head straight up from A to C for the final halt or did we have to go around and change the rein and then halt?

Gahhhhhhhhhhh.

The test was simple, and I had spent a lot of time during my commute drawing it on my palm: enter at A, track left at C, 20 metre circle at B, etc. There was always a bit where it felt like my brain went on hold, after the canter — when do I walk? — and the picture in my head went all fuzzy the way TVs used to do when the signal went out. And then I’d somehow pick up the signal again, which luckily I did on the night.

It was exactly the way I imagine a proper competition to be. We didn’t warm up as a ride, we had to cope with the nerves, we had to line up outside the 20×40 metre area and trot around before we entered… I was going second and I was glad I was getting it over with. The night was warm, Connell is ‘black’, the sun was glarey — oh, the excuses were mounting!

Honestly, though, I felt confident. Connell had been surprisingly good when we practiced, even though he tried to hare off every now and again when he felt like it. His circles were nice and round, even in the canter, and that was quite a feat, since I remembered the very first circle I’d tried to get him to canter, which was more in the shape of a fried egg. I also found that his transitions were really spot on. I was raring to go, in fact, because I thought we’d do pretty well.

The first rider did her test and left the boundary, and I moved Connell away from the other horses and asked for the trot. Off we went, which proved to be too early because I had no idea that it would take that much time to mark up the previous rider’s test. Was he going to tire? I brought him back down to walk, but then thought, Am I confusing him? so I asked for trot again — if he wasn’t confused before, he certainly was now — and soon enough we were trotting in at A.

All I could hear was my breath and the beat of Connell’s hooves. The space felt super-extra-small, since we’ve never ridden within the proper dimensions before. For all I knew, he could have spooked at the white things and just walked all over them; this inspired some if the best outside leg I’ve ever applied. I had to do all the thinking since no one was hollering advice or correction from the ground, and I think we both liked that. There were a couple of times I felt like we’d messed up — at once stage, he did almost step on the white things [from the brain to the rein, Sue!] and I wasn’t crazy about the way we got into the canter on the left rein between A-F, but otherwise: delighted with the circles, especially the ones in canter, we both kept those going smoothly, and that halt at X was a combination of precision and relief.

And then we got our sheets at the end, and it was all I could to wait to add up my marks. When I saw those 10s, though: OMG.

MY FIRST TEST
The perfectionist in me is always going to respond to a good score [177], but the rider in me was purely ecstatic about the progress Connell and I have made. I’ve been riding him for the guts of four years now, and I remember a time when he wouldn’t even canter past the ride, much less in a 20 metre circle, much less halt square. I know that my riding is improving when he does what I ask, because I am finally asking properly. Added to this, I can feel my legs back from last year’s injury, maybe at 90% at this stage, and that physical strength informs my mental toughness.

Connell was getting one anyway, but that night’s Pink Lady apple was very well earned.

I want to do a Prix Caprilli next…

***

Another year of little blogging as my dad passed away in March of 2013. This happened directly I got back from the funeral, so it feels even more meaningful than it was at the time.

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Acting As If: Lady Of Livery

I knew something was up, that something was out of joint: I have been out of ‘real’ time for the last while, between bereavement and jet lag — a lethal combo, do try to avoid it as best you can, is my advice to you — so I knew I was in trouble the moment I opened my eyes Tuesday morning.

I woke up, and immediately began worrying about how I was going to get to the yard later than day.

I had a launch to attend in town and I knew I’d have to do a drive-by as it was far enough away from the LUAS to be an issue; but the 44 bus has a stop near the hotel in which the launch was being held, so maybe I could grab the bus there and then get a taxi? But that was a total waste of money, even if it was going to save me a few steps. ‘Steps’ entered into it, as I am back on shanks mare {ha, ha} and walking up the laneway again; ugh, but having to walk alllll the way from the LUAS? That’s like 20 minutes, up a gradual incline of despair, which I was not in the mood for; if I skipped the launch, I could just get the bus to the end of the lane; but I said I would meet some pals at said launch; but; but; but —

Then I considered skipping the horses altogether, but I had overslept on Saturday, and missed the bus, and missed the lesson, and I really needed to go, to have a go, to move myself forward in some fashion.

Even once I decided to head into town and figure it out as I went along, well, I kept figuring out all the variables, and it was exhausting, and I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to have the energy to ride the horse. Which horse? Ha! Add this into the equation. I was fed up with Connell when last we met, and had gone back to Simba, but I still felt wobbly, and reckoned I’d rather have Connell if we were doing flat, but was not going to jump him, no way, in which case I would take Simba — or maybe even Delilah, because she knows when you’re a bit off and can take good care of you, but only if she’s in the mood —

So: I raced through the launch, got to the LUAS, used my Hailo app to get a taxi from Ballyogan to up-the-lane, rocked up to the office to pay for the term, only to discover that my usual lesson was cancelled.

{Cue laughter, somewhat demented.}

Would I just go in the 8pm lesson? Uh, no: it was 6.20.

Could I just mooch around on Connell? Yes, okay.

And thus began my very first time as a lady who is on her own, on a horse.

***

The very first time ever in my life that I had to get up on a horse all by myself was when I showjumped, also for the very first time; that was a lot of ‘firsts’ in one go. I can get up on Connell on my own, so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was: what was I gonna do? Mooch, as I had said, up and down the infamous laneway? Go down to the outdoor arena, and then mooch? It was perfect mooching weather, bright and clear, and not too cold, as excellent a spring evening as one could conjure.

But Connell can be a real slowcoach on a walk, and I didn’t fancy the outdoor, even though it was gorgeous out. I didn’t really know WTF I was doing, and I didn’t want to make a big show of it.

Except I found that I did know what to do.

Connell greeted me with perked ears; I rubbed my face all over his neck and he thought that was hilarious, and demonstrated this by nipping me on the bum. He was saddled, I bridled him, I joined a Livery Lass in the indoor, I got up there, and I started going.

I decided to practice riding a little longer in the stirrup than I have been. I mean to do this every lesson, but then I feel the pressure of being in the lesson, so I don’t. The thing is, a longer leg means better aids, and better response, and better posture, but I always feel too wobbly. So I took the time to do a longer leg, at my own speed, and worked on my balance, and we went great. Then I did a whole bunch of transitions, and then I did the reining-back-into-canter thing, and then the Livery Lass, who’d put her horse back up, came in again and asked did I want to jump, and I said yes.

So I jumped, and he only stopped once, which is still enormously irritating, but in the main, we did really well. There was no one there to tell me what to do to get him to do something, so I had to do the things myself, and it was incredibly satisfying, to be able to do something — anything! — because I thought of it myself.

Then he was so sweaty and steamy that I took him for a walk, in hand.

It was still gorgeous out, maybe even better since the sun was starting to set, a misty red haze in the west. We both took our time, and both stopped at one stage to look at something. I can’t even tell you what, I mean, the mountains are always there to be looked at, so I guess we both stopped at the same exact time and looked at the exact same mountain? It was the most peaceful thing ever. Just standing, shoulder to shoulder, setting sun, brisk air, green fields.

I chatted with other riders along the way, and it was like… it was like I was Livery Lady, doing the Livery Lady thing.

I rode for the guts of forty minutes. Now, when I warm up the Big Horse of a Monday, when I volunteer for Riding for the Disabled Ireland, I am only getting warmed up in my own brain after fifteen minutes, then it’s time for me to get down and hand him over. Just as I am beginning to understand what might be good to do — leg yielding, maybe? Work on that wonky rein back? Canter transitions? — there’s no more time to do it in. This was the perfect amount of time to do an amount of work that added up to a good work out.

Le repertoire, though, she is limited:  I would need to be stocking up on things to do, on my own. Swot a dressage test, maybe? I’ve got a book of jumping exercises, with many, many things to do with poles on the ground, working your way up to actual jumps… There’s a mental fitness that you get, I am thinking, when you have to think for yourself. I am sure that there is a many a day when you just want to hang out with your horse, and do some serious mooching, but there’s also all sorts of planning that enters into it, which I hadn’t known.

If you had told me, seven years ago, when I wasn’t even able to get up into the saddle by myself, when I didn’t even know how to pull the stirrups down the leathers, that I would have gotten to this stage — well, I don’t know what I would have said. Not out loud anyway — but in my heart I know I would have been shouting Yes, pleeeeeease! How soon? Is it now yet?!? I would have immediately begun worrying about whether or not I’d ever be good enough, and how long it would take, and how could I get there more quickly and easily — and as it transpires, it took no ‘time’ at all. It’s now, now, and it feels like it hasn’t taken that long, after all.

***

Here’s Many Brave Fools in a nutshell! 

***

Keeping an Open Heart

I was talking to a pal the other day, about a bunch of things that are going on for me at the moment, and in conclusion I said, ‘Well, I’m keeping an open heart.’

The thing is, I know I was going to say that I was keeping an open mind, and… I didn’t. I mean, I could feel the word on my tongue. It almost made it all the way out, but then this other word slipped out of my mouth, and I realised that this it was a good thing to say, and a good way to live.

This concept has been on my mind for the last week or so. I’m working on what I’ve been calling my ‘horsey-divorcey’ book, a post-divorce, pony-mad, codependency-recovery memoir. I’ve been working on it for the last forever, or at least it feels that way, and it’s another reason that I wasn’t posting very often in the last year or so. I was having a hard time switching from blog-brain to book-brain, and I feel that since I’m halfway done, and have also nailed down the memoir’s raison d’etre, I can do both at once.

One feeds the other. Each chapter features a number of posts culled from here; this post is inspired by some things I’ve been thinking about lately that have come up from the book writing. In one chapter, the main thrust of which is falling, I talk about how much I wanted to be a rider and I recount the first seven falls that were meant to ‘make’ me a rider. [All seven posts can be found in the Catalogue of Falls category.] Someone had told me that it took seven falls to make a rider; I had some fear around falling, and the notion of turning it into a goal kind of took the sting out of it.

It occurred to me that there was no way in heaven or hell that I wanted to call myself codependent, and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to take the sting out of that. I have done so by mainly turning it — the concept of it, my reality of it — into a hook in a book. By extension though, through that kind of distancing, it’s easier for me to hold the notion at a healthy distance, from which I gain perspective. It makes it easier for me to look at my behaviour in my unsuccessful marriage see how I can heal, and move forward.

But was it unsuccessful? On Saturday, I woke up a bit tired, and what with my ligament thingie still bothering me, by the time I got to my lesson, I had already reckoned on the kind of lesson I was going to have. And I had exactly the lesson I thought I’d have: not stellar, largely featuring inconsistent jumping on Connell, who wasn’t doing anything but giving back to me exactly what I was giving to him, an hour in which I went in and out of focus, in which I corrected something only to let something else go by the wayside. A lesson in which, at the end when the instructor gave us all feedback, I was literally and figuratively often unbalanced.

I was not fully ‘successful’ in that lesson, but I can look at it and realise that it was successful in that I knew what was happening going in, and got what I thought I was going to get. I now, completely and utterly, understand that I bring myself to this horseriding lark, and that it’s not up to the horse to ‘make’ it go well. In this way, I can look at the things I am looking at, as regards my codependency, how it manifested in my former marriage, think about what I’ve learned and how I’ve used that knowledge, has enabled me to sit here right now, a horsewoman-in-progress, pulling all the bits of my life together and bringing it all forward.

That’s the only kind of enabling I’ll be doing now, but even as to that, who knows? I’ll do my best, and I’ll keep an open heart.

***

OMGGGGG, I have been obsessed with where I hide my schooling whips since the very beginning of my horse riding career. Luckily I have pals willing to keep them in their car boots for me, or give me a lend of their own; I’ve also got an in-case-of-emergency stick* hidden in a tack box in the loft. I don’t have to worry about finding new hiding places and being robbed; this particular long stick is long gone, but clearly not forgotten…

***

Tenth Anniversary: The Miracle Part III [2011]

THE SAGA CONTINUES This is what you get for thinking a bad thought.

On Tuesday, as I winkled my long stick out of its hiding place, I thought, You know, it’s been nearly a year since I hid this thing behind the big cabinet of hats. This has got to be a record!

On Saturday, the stick was gone. Read the rest of this entry »

This is still a good lesson – yes, even and especially the part that happened in the actual arena — and I did a quick scan of the last few years and realised that the stronger I get [mind, body, spirit] the less hard I have to work. There’s a difference between working hard and working well, and the latter only comes with repetition and practice and breakthroughs and mistakes and plateaus. And those last two are the frustrating places where the transformations take place…

***

So, despite my promise to write about the myriad books I’ve read about horses, and natural horsemanship, and the esoterica of the mythology of the horse, etc, I haven’t, but believe me when I say that I’ve read a lot. I read before I rode. I read before I do just about anything, to be honest. So I’ve been through your Monty Roberts, your Linda Kohanov, your Chris Irwin, your Linda Tellington-Jones. I’ve absorbed the teachings, and would have been trying them out, all this time, but hey, no horse, and it’s unfair to schoolies to give them a little bit of something without consistency. I’ve ridden a variety of horses over the past two and a half years — I think the count may be up to fourteen? Fifteen? — and I haven’t encountered the kind of horse I’ve been reading about, the kind that is sensitive to me, as rider and as person, and who will demonstrate, to me, in a holistic, yet non-nonsense, and if I’m being truthful, creepily prescient way, how I need to grow.

I’ve never met that horse, until now, and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Literally: ten years ago to this very day, I took my first proper riding lesson [as opposed to the improper ride out that resulted in a bruised tailbone][mine, not the horse’s] and started down a road that I am still on. This is pretty significant, as I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for ten years… except for writing, in all the shapes and forms it has taken over time. On Flying Changes, those two have met, and frankly the riding has been more consistent than the writing.

Below is my very first post on this blog, begun one year also to the day that I started horsing. To celebrate this milestone, I’ll be re-posting some of my favourite anecdotes and events; some may come as a surprise to me as I haven’t reread the entirety of the blog since I began work on my book Many Brave Fools: A Story of Codependency Recovery Through Equestrianism. The book is yet to be represented/published; several of the stories on this blog appear woven into the narrative about how I took up horseriding after leaving my marriage and discovered that the horses were as big a part of my healing/recovery process as any of the other therapeutic stuff I was doing. (The book is funny! Not at all po-faced! Promise!)

Enjoy! I’m off to find the next re-post…

 

There’s Always a First Time

9 SEPTEMBER, 2006 The wee girls circle round and round, legs pounding the sides of their ponies, and I am feeling breathless.

As excited as I was to take my first horse riding lesson, well… I’d actually have to be on a horse to have it, and they’re big, aren’t they, and watching those kids flying around the ring is making me feel increasingly fluttery and anxious. As little as I know about horses, I knew this was a bad thing. Already feeling under the weather— headache, scratchy throat, exacerbated by the heat of the day that had turned the number 63 bus into a trundling sun trap… ah, hell, I could always come back another time…

I can’t come back another time. I spent the entire week in the run up to this day talking about it to the girls at work. I have been yearning for this for four years. Why, I don’t know, but I have. In August, I got the yen yet again, and the day before I finally Googled equestrian centres in Dublin, I saw: horse statues on a house on the coast road that I’d never seen before; a horse trailer; an actual horse; and on the way home from work, my iPod opened the evening’s commute with Land from Patti Smith’s Horses. !

Okay, OKAY.
I GET IT.

So I’m here. I don’t know where anything is, I don’t know who to make myself known to, I don’t— I need a helmet, I know that much. I wander a little, I’m an hour early thanks to the bus, I’m intimidated by the thoughtless ease with which a clutch of girls in white hard hats inhabit the entrance to what must surely be the barn. I can’t go near them— I don’t have the right.

I drift back to the inside thing, the ring, whatever. Parents chat amongst themselves and happily compliment their daughters as they pass. These kids are jumping. Jesus. I drift away again.

Then a bunch of riders come back from somewhere, the horses enter the ring place, everyone slips effortlessly to the ground, ponies are lead away, voices are raised simply to be audible, I back away, I need a helmet. I go to the portakabin again, and a guy is there, and I say who I am, he says, ‘You’re late,’ and a helmet, stinking with hours of other ladies’ sweat, is jammed on my head and I’m told to go back to the arena [ah] and I do, and the teacher asks me who I am and have I done much riding, and I tell her my name, and none, and she says get on up— a black horse, big— and I do, and she shows me how to hold the reins, and I hold them, and she tells us all to walk on, and—

And the horse takes one step, and I think to myself, ‘Feck,’ and he takes another and I think, ‘Fecking hell get me the feck offa this feckin’—‘’ and another step and another and I am no longer a human woman but a sack of frozen potatoes sporting a stinking black hat.

I can hear myself breathing, air is whistling in and out of my nose. I can hear myself breathing and it’s about all I can hear, I hear a voice shouting but it’s not language, it sounds like short, sharp raps, there’s a sensation that it’s the same series of sounds over and over — rap rap rap… and I’ve yet to fall off.

And with maybe fifteen minutes to go [I can’t glance at my watch, because if I move my hands, or waver in my unstinting regard of the back of the horse’s head, something bad will happen] it occurs to me to maybe relax my stiffened legs a little, maybe grip the sides of the horse, with my calves? Is this is a good idea? It may have looked like I was doing it— my legs weren’t sticking out at ninety degrees— but it sure hadn’t felt like it, so I do it, and I’m no longer hyperventilating. The teacher doesn’t seem bothered that I won’t do anything but walk [‘Sue, want to give the trot a go?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay!’] and I can sense that my lesson mates are still where they’re meant to be, on the back of their horses, no writhing around on the ground clutching shattered limbs… and I relax.

This relaxation, and the action of the calf tightening, the action of taking a decision at all, results in a somewhat straighter spine. I’m sitting better, and I can hazard a look around, and drop my elbows, a little — although my arms are so tense you could break concrete breeze blocks on them, my hands so thoroughly clenched on the reins that my palms surely must be bleeding.

And then the sounds become language: ‘Turn in and give them all a big pat — feet out of the stirrups — swing your leg around the back — drop down,’  and I’m on the ground and a there’s a name tag on the horse’s bridle and I whisper in his ear, ‘Mercury. Mercury! You are great!’

I walk down the long hill to the long road, my hair having fully absorbed the honest sweat of women like me, women who have ridden a horse, I haven’t a trace of flu, of a headache, of a sore throat, nor of a single critical thought, of a single bad thing to think about the thing I’d just done, swaggering like a cowboy [there’s a good reason why they walk like that] and all I think is I did it, I did it, I did it!

I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so delighted with myself in my whole life.

***

RIP, Mercury.

MERCURY and ME

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_6040

I reckoned something was wrong when she didn’t turn around in her stable to come say hello. Delilah stood facing the back wall, and when she slowly swung her head around to look at me, she looked like there was a world of hurt in her eye. She picked up a hoof and put it back down, and swung her head away again.

‘Is she okay?’ I asked, and was told she had laminitis in both her fore feet. Little relief to be had, then. The next week, she was nearer the door, and got treated to a few polo mints which she took with her usual delicacy.

Last Saturday, she was back facing the wall. I didn’t go in and part of me regrets it now, because she was euthanised early this week. The laminitis was a symptom of her heart giving out, and the yard made the best, most humane choice for her, relieving her pain and stress – but my heart gives out a little, too.

Delilah was no spring chicken, but even though she showed some signs of age, she showed almost none of slowing down. I can’t recall a time, ever, when she was off unwell, so if ever there was a horse who was going to work until the end, it was she, and so it proved. She was ‘my’ second horse, a true mare who elevated the grumpiness of her kind to an art form and she taught me how to be light and yet assertive, a lesson that I call upon every time I ride.

She is such a big part of of my horse story. From my first go on her, through the very first time I went showjumping to my very first rosette… to the time when I thought she was gone but she was actually off filming (and then when she came back she was ragin’ for like two weeks, having to be back in the school and not having her hooves painted every day, and being given who knows what sort of fancy feed), to the time when she deigned to give me a good grooming — Delilah figured largely on this blog and does so in the pages of my as-yet unpublished horse book.

This is the only picture I have of her. As part of my course work for my Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning diploma, we recently had an essay question about how to break the news of the loss of a horse to a client. One of the things I noted would be useful to do, in the run of the work, was to make sure that people had pictures of themselves with their favourite mounts. If you have a horse of pony you love, go and take some pictures now.

Oh, shoot, just came across this:

There is absolutely nothing like this in the whole wide world. I really feel like I’m riding, in total concert with the horse, heading in a smooth, flowing run, in command, sharing the control, telling the horse what to do, where to go, and she listens! And we do it! And I don’t think of anything but the course and the horse, there is nothing else but the next fence and Delilah, no self-consciousness, no thought but the one thought, nothing but the pattern and the sheer un-fucking-believable joy of up-and-over.

Finally: I thought I had written about the latter part of this anecdote but the first time I had Delilah (the full story is via the first link, above, but anyway), I tried to get her to warm up to me by singing that Tom Jones song to her. Oh, did she give me a dirty look! And I wasn’t imagining it: once, I needed some help in mounting, and the livery lady helping me said to her, ‘Oh, why, why, why —’ so I cut her off, saying, ‘She hates that song!’ and the lady said, ‘I know!’ and we both laughed and Delilah gave us both a dirty look and pinned her ears back, and I never so much as thought that tune around her ever again.

Will miss you, lady.

***

…ahhh, just can’t resist, though.

I am off for The Christmas in seven weeks. I have — hang on — 12 lessons left. ‘Sue!’ I am shouting at myself, ‘Don’t!’

I have only come off Connell three times this year. I came off Connell three times in one lesson, once. Holy moly, that was a bad hour! It was a Tuesday night in winter, the floodlights were on, and there was something up, all the horses were acting up, even the most reliable ones were stopping at the double over X, and we were making up stories/excuses about the shadows being cast between the fences…

Anyway, despite there still being a healthy number of hours left in the year: only three times. One fall taught me to show him a fence if I thought it might look funny to him (and to me); one was when he seemed to have taken against one of the cross country fences, unbeknownst to me until the last minute when he ran out and I went flying; the last was my bad decision to let him go at another fence in the field and he slipped. The last two, I was off balance; the first, I am sure I communicated my own nerves to him and he just went, ‘Eh, no.’

The thing is that after that shin tear/pull from last year, it is as though I have started from zero again, in the best possible way. I feel like having to take my time with myself in order to stay healthy has finally dropped a load of pennies and my riding’s improved, I’m more clear and definitely stronger in the leg, and we just… go, and we jump and we’re fine. Canter transitions: excellent. That dressage test in the summer: wowee. Flat work: has come on immensely (leg yielding is still something of challenge, but turning on the forehand is getting there.) I’ve been a bit wary of participating in the showjumping league lately, so I have to get my head right before I give that a go.

12 to go — I think we’re going to be grand!

***

Received wisdom has it that if you hold up a hand in front of a horse, it will investigate it with its mouth, mainly to see is it edible or not. They like to have a good sniff of a head collar, bridle, or any implement of grooming, juuuuust to make sure — even though it smells totally familiar — that the thing is absolutely not a carrot in disguise. In particular, they can’t resist a camera, or indeed, the person who is wielding it.

In the past, when taking selfies {holfies? equies?} with beasties {belfies?}, they try to eat the phone. Not Connell.
CONNELL
At first glance, this looks like he’s giving me a smooch in the head, but in fact he is trying to avoid the whole procedure. Not into it a’tall! I was moving all around the place trying to keep him frame and this was the best I could do. When I tried this with Simba, it was all I could do to avoid him inhaling my handset.

Nope, not Connell. His eye be like: just, no.

***

FIGURES OF EIGHT

Ten years on from my first ever riding lesson, these posts are still wandering round and round, a figure of eight starting with today, probably, and yesterday, definitely. It's the antithesis of how I usually do things, but... that's horses for ya.

TACK ROOM

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