Illustrations by Danielle Demers
How to Sit a Spook
She wore rhinestones and hated sunshine.
When you looked at Andrea, you could tell by her eyes if she was in a bad mood or not. Not that she ever had a soft expression, mind you, but when she was mad her eyes narrowed and her weathered face looked like a snake’s. She also taught my weekly riding lesson, barking orders from the sidelines of her dark, cavernous indoor arena.
Under her tutelage I rode Arabian horses, fiery desert steeds known for their exotic looks and explosive reactivity. They say horses spook at two things: things that move and things that don’t move. Arabians are no exception. At any given moment, if a horse detects anything it perceives as a threat, he will go into panic mode. In a best-case scenario, the horse will shudder a single, jarring movement as he decides oh my God, I need to have all four feet on the ground at this very moment or I am going to die. In a worst-case scenario, he bolts as you cling to his neck wondering what you did to deserve such a fate. On some days horses spook more often than others, like on windy days. It is a commonly held belief among equines that wind is the number one killer of horses worldwide.
Like the high-strung horses she trained, Andrea’s mood changed daily. On some days, she crooned and encouraged.
“You look so good up there! David, come look at this. This is how you ride western—look at the soft hands, look at how the hip moves with the strides of the horse.”
And other days, I was not allowed to ride independently at all; she controlled the horse as she picked apart my riding position.
“Sit UP. Push your shoulders back. Back further. Sit up straight. Stretch down through your heel—no, hands up and tilted in—heel pushing down. Heel down, leg tucked in. Keep your leg on him! Sit up, shoulders back. Move those hips!”
Proper position means a straight back, but I was too terrified her to tell her about my back problems: my scoliosis and kyphosis means that not only is my back crooked, but my upper back lacks enough muscle to even walk with my back straight. I could imagine her shrieking at me to stop being so lazy and just work harder. Despite my protests and obvious discomfort, on her bad days she forced me to do mounted strengthening exercises until my muscles screamed and my eyes started to tear up.
Convinced I had done something to evoke Andrea’s wrath, I once tried to explain my actions to her, but she interpreted my explanation as an excuse to be lazy. Some days she sang my praises and some days she screamed so loudly the whole state could hear her. So I blamed myself for her outbursts. It was me. It had to be me. Something I had said or something I had done. I tried and tried and tried to win her approval, but anything I said just seemed to make her angrier. My weekly lessons with her started to make me miserable.
Whenever the horse I rode during lessons would spook, the sudden and unpredictable impact sent a shockwave up my spine into the already-sore muscles, resulting in a moment of blinding pain and a day’s worth of increased pain. I would brace myself, stabilizing myself with my legs firmly around the horse’s sides and tightening my fingers on the reins, getting a firm grip in order to stay in the saddle. My mount would feel the pressure and react again—more scary things!—often tearing the reins from my hands and speeding away, leaving me clinging to his back with all the strength I could muster.
But after over a year of riding horses who panic wildly once a ride, I learned to completely relax and let the horse have his way as he snorted, wild-eyed, trying to figure out whether the water bottle sitting on the railing would eat him or not. Any sort of tension on my part would make the horse more agitated and eventually result in more pain for me. Being relaxed saved me from injury and gave the horse reassurance.
I learned to deal with Andrea in a similar way. Like the horses, I couldn’t predict nor control whether or not she would be upset. I did not know what the root of her anger was, but I figured out that it wasn’t me. From then on, I dealt with her with a relaxed attitude, polite and easygoing, letting her work her own anger out without trying to intervene.
Since then, I’ve ridden a lot of spooky horses and met a lot of spooky people, and I’ve dealt with them the same way: calmly giving them space to work through their worries.
How to Sit the Trot
There two basic ways to ride a horse: like a cowboy herding cattle on the range and like a posh English gentleman touring his country manor. While they share the same goal of effective riding, the methods they use to get there are polar opposites. English riding originated with war horses and foxhunting. An English horse should have an energetic, forward movement and its rider should ride with reins taut, feeling the horse’s mouth in the bit to try to contain the forward energy. Western riding, on the other hand, originated from herding cattle for hours a day, so it demands a horse with slow, powerful gaits to make its rider as comfortable as possible. Because a cowboy would have a rope in one hand, western riders use loose reins and only apply pressure to them as a last resort.
Needless to say, they conflict. And needless to say, it is difficult to ride one horse in a style it is unaccustomed to. And so, when my instructor put me (a western rider) on Gwen (an English horse), Gwen and I were very confused.
“Sit the trot!” my instructor, a kind-faced lady named Bobbie-Jo, called out to my group lesson. Gwen, an energetic and opinionated mare, had already been straining to move forward; I had been pulling hard on the reins to keep her from surging ahead. The others strolled along in comparison to my power walking mount. As soon as I loosened my fingers the tiniest amount to ask her to go into the next gait, Gwen took off like a rocket. I bounced on her back as she trotted past the other kids in my lesson, who jogged around quietly. That trot jarred my muscles and shook my bones; I could feel my body shudder with every stride. I ache just thinking about it.
Little by little, I could feel the wind get knocked out of me as I pulled the reins taut to try to slow Gwen down. She powered on, trying to pull the reins from my hands so she could go faster.
Her quick, jackhammer gait threw my balance off center, so I clung to the saddle and threw my weight into my stirrups in an attempt to stay stable. This just made the trotting faster (as I released my grip on the reins) and the balancing worse (as I tried to balance on my toes). Again and again, I zoomed by the other riders in my lesson, shouting, “Coming up on your left! Sorry!”
I never could get her to slow down. If I didn’t wear gloves, Gwen would pull on the reins so hard that my fingers developed blisters from clenching so hard. By the end of my lessons, my legs ached from trying to balance myself on her back as she bounced. Eventually, I learned to sink my weight into the saddle instead of trying to stand in the stirrups, moving with the horse’s stride instead of bracing myself against it. But she would never slow to a comfortable speed, no matter what I tried. Most of my lessons consisted of passing other riders as I went around the arena, apologizing profusely as Gwen’s choppy, rapid trot forced me to cut people off. I wanted a slow, relaxed, western-style horse, and Gwen’s stampede was the exact opposite.
A few months after I started taking lessons on Gwen, I got the big news: my family was moving again. Again?! And to Georgia? That’s redneck country, for God’s sake. And to make matters worse, we were moving in the middle of the school year, forcing me to take completely different classes. I tearfully said goodbye to my old friends, old school, old barn, and to good ol’ Gwen, who I had grown very fond of despite her difficult trot and habit of biting whomever put her saddle on. I left my familiar life behind and embarked on my journey to Georgia.
The first three months of living in Georgia were the worst of my life. Back at my old home, I struggled with depression and social anxiety disorder, but now, ripped from my old life and forced into a strange town where I knew no one, I hit a new low. All day, my brain sluggishly churned along only to race at night. Every morning I struggled to get out of bed. When I got to school, I counted down until I could go home. When I was home, I counted down until I could go to bed. And every night I would lie awake, gripped with anxiety. My brain felt like looking up at a starless night sky, sent into a numbing trance by the open void when then firecrackers explode across your vision, jerking you out of your hypnotized state. Every bright light shocks you like a bolt of lightning, every pop and crackle sends shivers down your spine. The fireworks’ staccato rhythm keeps you in a constant state of panic, only to fade into black void again.
My daily cycle continued for months.
Then I started spending my weekends volunteering and riding at a local barn. I rode horses similar to Gwen—all speed when they should be relaxed. My old instructor would be proud of me; on these horses I mastered the skill of comfortably sitting the trot.
In order to be comfortable and balanced as I trotted, I had to work on my seat, the core of riding. I took deep breaths, letting my tensions disappear and imagined myself sinking into the saddle. When my muscles relaxed, I could feel the rhythm of the horse’s gait, and with careful application of pressure, I could slow everything to a comfortable pace. I fell into a routine at the barn, slowing down horses and slowing down my anxious, hyperactive mind. I learned to be solid in my position in the saddle and only then would I be at ease.
Life, like the trot, was pretty bumpy. I had to grow accustomed to my new school and new town. But through riding I found a sense of peace and a method to help me jump life’s hurdles: sit back, be solid in your foundations, and weather the storm.
How to Sit and Steer
It was the summer before my freshman year of college and I convinced myself that it was useless to form relationships with people. If you combine natural introversion with a heaping cup of crippling social anxiety and a dash of teenage angst, you have a recipe for seclusion. I had no friends at school, so I figured that hey, I didn’t need them anyway. Friends are dead weight.
It was also the summer I fell in love with the sport of combined driving. I had read a book on the subject and found it interesting, but when my aunt let me steer her carriage pony around for a few minutes, the sport hooked me instantly.
Combined driving is a triathlon for carriage driving, a mix of speed and precision in three parts. One part is dressage, where the driver works within an arena, driving his horses through a pattern of movements graded on precision and grace. The second is a race against the clock with horse and carriage weaving through a series of cones as quickly as possible without knocking anything down. And the third and most anticipated phase is the marathon.
Here, the driver switches out his elegant carriage for a sturdier, rough one. During the marathon, the driver and horse tear through the woods, whirling around obstacles and through ditches in an attempt to make the ideal time. The route for marathons is complex and the turns so sharp that it features something a little different: another person.
Equestrian sports are largely individual ones. A rider (or driver) works with his horse and his horse alone; any other equestrian is just competition, not a teammate. But in the last phase of combined driving, the driver is required to have another person, called a navigator, stand in the back of the carriage. It’s the navigator’s job to help the driver remember where to go and to lean in through the turns to stabilize the carriage.
I became infatuated with combined driving and read as many books on the subject as I could get my hands on before I left for school. And while away at school… I found myself talking to people for the first time in my life. Perhaps people weren’t burdens after all. I found myself gaining acquaintances. Then friends. Then a boyfriend. Then more friends. And then, somehow, life became more enjoyable. Living away from home and trying to work my way through challenging classes made me depend on a support system that I never had before. I had people to talk to, to depend on when just pushing through my problems wasn’t enough. Right now, my life is more hectic than it has ever been, but I know I can depend on my friends.
It took me until college to realize that everyone needs navigators in their lives. When you’re bolting through the woods as if you are driving a stagecoach chased by bandits, ducking from tree branches and trying to steer a hyperactive horse, it’s helpful to have someone there to remind you where you’re going and to help you lean through the turns when you get there.