It was one of those days that everything fell right into place.
I was magic. I was golden. I was a Ray Hunt-Alec-Ramsey-horse-whispering-goddess.
This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I ride the glow for days. I know that every time I get the chance to spend time with horses I dream of having one of those Avatar-mind-meld experiences. I will hop on my faithful steed, bareback and brideless, and together we will turn smoothly in a breathlessly perfect rollback and ease off into the sunset in a smooth, collected canter.
It rarely goes like that.
Usually, it starts off with me grabbing the wrong-size halter. By the time I realize it’s too small, I’ve already got the darn thing halfway on the horse.
I now have two equally icky choices.
I can release the horse and trudge back to the trailer in my too-tight boots and 90 degree weather, grab the halter, and trudge back to the pasture. I’ll spend the next ten minutes sweaty and miserable, hunting down a horse that now knows FULL WELL what I am up to and won’t come anywhere near me.
Or I can force the halter to fit, knowing that it’s selfish, lazy, and speaks volumes about my lack of work ethic and follow-through. It also means that I have big chubby thighs, large pores and nobody loves me. At least, that’s what I tell myself in an attempt to inspire myself to return to the trailer.
In case you can’t tell, I usually force the halter on.
The horse and I plod back to the trailer, both annoyed at the too-tight halter.
I struggle to look professional as I plop a 3,000 lb saddle on his back, but the stirrup swings free and socks the gelding in his ribs. He retaliates by smacking me in the face with his tail.
By the time I’ve hauled myself into the saddle (glancing around sheepishly to see if anyone caught me using the saddle horn like a complete greenhorn), the two of us are sweaty, grumpy, and about as far away from communicating as we can possibly get.
The frustration usually gets even worse when I enter the arena. I’d like to say that the problem is the horse’s, but it’s not. The horses I ride up in Bakersfield are all extremely well trained, and under a better rider’s hands, they glide from rollbacks to flying lead changes, head lowered and collected like the horse in my dream.
Under my unschooled hands we can do the same things, but it’s awkward and rocky.
“jehdfkn?” I ask with my legs.
“Huh?” says Whiskey, the good-natured 8 year old grey gelding I’m riding.
“JEHDKlower your HJKFD?” I ask again, my commands muddied to the point where I am not even sure I know what I am asking.
Whiskey tenses slightly, leaning a little heavier on the bit. “What in the world are you asking?” he seems to say.
“JEHDKJFD LOWER-YOUR-HEAD FJDKL:DFIENDK!DJ!” I ask loudly this time, this time relying on the legs, reins, seat, and an overly-dramatic pull on his bit.
Whiskey sighs, swishes his tail irritably, and flexes at the poll. Geez, woman. Quit screaming and just ask clearly!
I decide to try to bring him down to a mincing pleasure horse jog. I think slowly about what I’m about to ask him, then move forward. I lift my hands, steadying him with the bit. I touch him with my calves. I shift in my seat, and my inexperienced hands inadvertently throw in a couple of other cues, garbling the message again.
“Lift lower fast-slower your head legs please?” I ask.
Whiskey braces for a second, then speeds up. “Faster?”
“NOOOOO!!!!! NOOOT FAAASTER!!!” I go overboard with my response, and Whiskey stops suddenly and heavily on his front end. I’m thrown forward slightly.
I peek around, but everyone else is busy and doesn’t seem to notice my complete inability to speak horsese today. Where’s the Rosetta Stone when you need it?
I settle in my seat, touch the reins lightly, and roll my calves again.
Whiskey stands there, stubborn and grumpy. No. Not moving. You’re an idiot, and I’m not moving.
I touch the reins lightly, and roll my calves a little harder.
Whiskey peeks back at me beneath his white lashes, laughing. It’s obvious you’re a moron. Make me.
Obediently, I pop him with my heels, and he lunges forward into a fast, bone-jarring trot.
And so on, and so on. It takes a good 20 minutes before Whiskey finally figures out that “Jduidjk LWR ur HD jkldfsi!” Means “Collect, slow down, and round up nicely.” I don’t blame him at all. It’d probably take me 40 minutes to figure it out if the situations were reversed.
By the time we figure out how to communicate at a trot, we move onto loping, and we start all over with the failure to communicate.
By the time we finish the ride, I’ve remembered the basics of horsese, and Whiskey has learned that humans are morons.
It frustrates me that I’m not better at communicating than I am. I know I’m a bit hard on myself, but if there’s one thing I’d like to be gifted at, communicating with horses would be it. I’m stuck in that awkward in between phase between being a complete newbie and being a good rider. I know I could push past this, but I’m at a disturbingly horseless point in my life, and once a month just isn’t enough. I know enough to understand how bad I am, and it’s frustrating to no end. I hate getting up on well-trained horses and feeling their response times slow down, their mouths go sleepy and their sides deaden up. I hate knowing that I have a horse who is trained well-enough to be able to do everything I want and not having the knowledge to bring it out. I’d like to hop on a horse and leave it better for having ridden it. At the moment, the best I can do on a good day is leave it in the same condition I found it.
Not last Sunday, though.
Last weekend I went up to Bakersfield for my monthly return-to-sanity-by-horseback-expedition. If I am going to remain sane here in Orange County, this monthly trip is a necessity.
I arrived at Bunnygal’s house with my sister on Friday night, and bright and early on Saturday morning we all headed down to the river where she keeps her horses. Don’t be fooled by the nickname I’ve given her— Bunnygal is one of those women you can see in a grocery store in a pair of shorts and flip-flops and STILL know that she’s good with horses. She’s not very tall, but she seems a whole lot taller, especially when she’s on the back of a horse and reminding it how to be a good citizen. She sun-weathered, fit, and has zero patience for foolishness. She has a tendency to help me push the limits of my riding, which is a good thing because I have a tendency to not push hard enough. She does it in a no-nonsense, get-things-done kind of a way, probably because that’s exactly what she’s doing— getting things done.
“Go saddle up Whiskey. I’m going to ride Rocky,” Bunnygal says, speaking around the cigarette that dangles helplessly from her lips.
I nod obediently, glancing over my shoulder at the squealing, bugling, muscular stud that’s crashing into the fence as I walk by. It’s not Rocky’s fault. Normally he’s placid and good-natured, but all the girls on the ranch are in season. They’re almost painful to watch, tails cock-eyed and squirting, pushing and rubbing against the pipe panels as if they can break their way through to the bay roan stud that’s calling from a couple hundred feet away. Gelding though he is, Whiskey has picked up on the excitement and he prances on the way back to the trailer, barely contained by the too-small halter I’ve wedged on his face.
I saddle up in record time so I can watch Bunnygal handle Rocky. It seems like a miracle that she’s willing to enter his stall at all, much less bully him into sheathing his equipment and standing still for his saddling. There’s a bit of a ruckus when he slips out of his bridle, hollering and rearing as the breeze carries a fresh dollop of scent from the mares. I drop all pretense and gawk. Bunnygal bellows out a command for me to get on my horse, slips the bridle on, and hops on Rocky’s back. It’s amazing me to how quickly she springs up, especially since me and my bad knees are hobbling over to the plastic, embarrassing blue Stand of Shame (otherwise known as the mounting block). It’s even more amazing to me how quickly she regains control of Rocky once she’s on his back. The fire in his eyes is replaced by a steady work ethic, and by the second turn around the arena they are a fluid pair.
Meanwhile, Whiskey and I are busily annoying each other in our corner of the arena.
Bunnygal and I work our horses down (or rather, she trains Rocky and I undo all her training on Whiskey). We pause a moment beneath the shade of a tree, and she looks over at me. “Wanna ride Rocky?”
I pause for a moment, then follow her lead to push my comfort zone. “Sure!” I say brightly, ignoring the feeling of I’m-over-my-head- dread that curdles in my stomach.
We switch horses, and I scramble up into the saddle in a way that was never intended. It’s mostly arms, body weight, and momentum, and it’s a good thing that Rocky’s not tall, because I never would have made it. My knees ache slightly, but I’m on board.
“Go light with him,” Tammy warns. I sit quietly in my saddle for a moment, then lean my hips forward an infinitesimal amount. Rocky starts out obediently, each movement smooth, sleek. Powerful. It’s like riding a large cat. I can barely feel his footfalls. After the goofy movements of the gelding, Rocky feels like he’s not even the same species. I turn around with a surprised grin at Bunnygal, and she smiles back.
“Reach forward with your outside leg, slide the reins up his neck, and lay them against his neck. The farther forward you slide them, the quicker the turn. Make sure you’re ready.” Most of Bunnygal’s most helpful advice are short, understated sentences that experience has taught me to really, really, really believe. I settle myself in my seat, and ask Rocky to turn around.
There’s a sudden surge of power beneath me. Rocky dumps all his weight on his back end and gracefully pivots in place to face the other direction. It was so smooth I didn’t even have time to think about it. One second I was asking, the next second I was facing the other direction. Rocky stalks lightly in the other direction, and beneath his soft breathing I can feel soft, deep sounds rolling around his chest. Stallion sounds. I’ve never ridden a stallion that didn’t grumble deep within his chest, and Rocky was no exception.
Steadying my seat, I follow the guidelines Bunnygal set out for me, and ask Rocky to turn around. He does it again, this time spinning so quickly in place that there’s an actual divot in the earth where his hind feet planted. I look back at Bunnygal, my grin even wider. There’s something to be said about riding a cutter.
“Wait till you try Cotton,” she said with a sly grin.