Good Girl, Damnit, Part 1: The Adventures of Smokey

At twelve years old, I became a Pony Club dropout.

Pony Club is a safety-first organization that teaches young riders how to take care of a horse and how to ride a horse over jumps. It should have been a 12 year old’s dream come true, but I chafed under the strict rules and emphasis on cleanliness. I had no patience for rules for the sake of rules and for meticulously cleaning an animal who would prefer to be covered in dirt. Moreover, I had no social skills to speak of and found interacting with other kids both terrifying and frustrating. However, my mom thought it was good for me, and I loved riding.

My Arab-Connemara pony cross, Smokey, was a brave and honest jumper who’d leap over any obstacle he was pointed at. During Pony Club meetups, Smokey would cruise smoothly over the fences, and I’d sit around and wait smugly while everyone else tried to wrestle their surly little ponies over the fences. Unfortunately, as I moved up the Pony Club ranks, Smokey’s suspensory ligaments gave up. He strained them twice. The first time, he was unrideable and miserable, locked in a stall on restricted movement, for four months. The second time, it was half a year.

Without jumping, we couldn’t do most the Pony Club events, certainly not the fun ones. All that was left was Pony Club’s love of rule-mongering and flatwork, and yet another group of kids I didn’t fit in with. Disappointed but relieved, I quit.

Smokey’s rehab involved hand-walking him for thirty minutes daily. Itching to move, he snorted and spooked at every rock and waving leaf. I vacillated between irritation at his behavior and sympathy for its cause.

One day, Katy, a friendly acquaintance from Pony Club, wandered up while I was icing Smokey’s legs. “Why don’t you try dressage?” she suggested. “It’d be easier on Smokey.”

I liked Katy better than most of the Pony Club people. While she knew how to look good at a show, at home she was casual, down-to-earth, and easy going. She was also about five years older than me, and I was surprised she was deigning to speak to me. “Dressage is boring,” I replied loftily, wondering if my mom had put her up to this conversation. “You go around in circles.”

Katy was unphased by my attitude. “You might like it,” she said. “Nancy’s a good trainer.”

While I was usually inclined to argue points like this into the ground, I admired Katy and her employers, Nancy, a Grand Prix dressage trainer, and Sharon, the owner of several warmblood horses that Nancy trained. I didn’t want to be too uncooperative. “Maybe,” I allowed. Katy went and introduced me to Sharon and Nancy.

It was Sharon who actually convinced me. Once a Grand Prix dressage rider and breeder and importer of warmblood horses, Sharon had gotten fed up with the stress. If she wanted to, Sharon could get on an obstinate, thick-headed horse built approximately like an elephant and make it dance. Instead, she was selling off most of her stock and had taken up riding Icelandic horses.

“You could learn to really ride with Nancy,” Sharon told me simply, when I mentioned I was thinking about dressage. Unlike many people at the barn, Sharon did not care for pretense and posturing. She rode a scraggly black Icelandic gelding who she’d named Stimpy. She also owned his brother, who was called Ren. Sharon had no further interest in dressage; she was telling me the simple truth.

The idea that I could learn to ride like a real rider, and not just a kid in a club anyone could join, appealed to me.

I started taking lessons from Nancy. At six feet tall, she should have been intimidating, but she moved so quietly, with such a nonthreatening tilt to her body, that I found her easy to be around. Her posture, it turned out, was meant to soothe horses. It worked on me, too.

For the first lesson, we walked in a circle for thirty minutes, discussing principles of dressage. It should have been absolutely mind-numbing, but Nancy knew her sport inside and out. She explained the theory behind each step. I not only felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, I felt like she had respect for my intelligence and judgment–not a common trait in adults who taught me. In Pony Club, I’d been expected to follow orders. Nancy would explain until it seemed like the right thing to do. I started hanging around her at the barn, chatting at first about horses, then books, then music. I was making an actual friend.

I began to hear rumors about Nancy. More than once, she’d stalked out of the arena mid-lesson in disgust with her student and not come back. Katy and Sharon confirmed this. One of the barn people warned me that Nancy wasn’t stable, and that I should watch out. Although I didn’t entirely disregard these warnings, Nancy was one of the most comfortable people I’d ever been around. While many people in my life meant well, Nancy actually understood how unsettled and upset most social interactions made me; she shared similar anxieties. She noticed me.

I did not expect her to notice my vicious temper.

Smokey was an old hand, but he didn’t know anything about dressage, and I wasn’t exactly god’s gift to riding. Dressage involves asking the horse to bend its neck without actually stepping around into a turn. This concept turns out to be deeply confusing to many horses, especially when they’ve spent years going in the direction their noses are pointed.

I thought it sounded simple enough, until the lesson where I went around in a circle for a half hour without success. Nancy was calling instructions to me to bend him, no, bend him more. No, don’t TURN him. BEND him. Stop him with your outside rein! MAKE him bend. MAKE him stop before he turns! And I was getting more and more fed up with Smokey, who was wiggling around and not doing what Nancy and I wanted him to. I’d make him stop, all right. I jerked first on the inside rein, giving Smokey a solid kick in the ribs, and then jerked on the outside rein to “stop” him.

Nancy was at Smokey’s head, with her hand closed around the rein, before I saw her move. I glared down at her, hands tight around the reins, and scowled at her. “I made him stop,” I said defensively.

The look on her face was cold, and I wondered if she would walk out of a lesson with me after all. “All you are doing right now is scaring your horse,” she said. “He doesn’t understand what you want. Being angry and frightening him does not teach him anything. If that’s what you’re going to do, you should get off right now.”

By the end of her brief speech, I started crying. I respected Nancy’s opinion, and being called a bully had the alarming ring of truth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Horses don’t understand sorry,” Nancy said, matter of factly. “Don’t ride like that.” While I got myself together, she explained that you needed to be firm with horses, yes, but that you also had to be fair and clear about what you were communicating. She finished with, “Would you like to try?”

I was shocked that she would even offer, that her speech hadn’t been the beginning of the end. I nodded a yes. We backed down a lot from the previous exercise, just going around at a walk and getting Smokey to understand. I tried to listen to him and react accordingly. I was badly shaken, but on some level relieved. Scaring Smokey wasn’t training him. I had to make figure out how to make him understand.

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