Category Archives: Good Girl, Damnit

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 6: Feather, How Bad Could It Be?

2014-05-02 07.25.11
Feather and I, 2014

The episode on that hill had finally made a dent in my confidence about my ability to survive Feather. Luck had played too large a role in keeping either of us from getting injured. I still didn’t want to tell Nancy, my trainer, but at least Sharon, who had seen me handle all sorts of terrain, knew I could ride. She was also unlikely to chew me out.

“Feather… isn’t steering well,” I told Sharon. “And she’s running away with me. I’m having a little trouble.”

Sharon looked skeptically at Feather and asked a few more questions about the issue. I could see her assessing the small, round chestnut mare and comparing her to the monstrous warmbloods she’d regularly brought through horsey boot camp. “I’m sure you can handle it,” she said.

I squirmed and gave her a watered down explanation about the episode on the hill, following it up desperately with, “Could you show me what you’d do?”

Sharon’s eyes narrowed as she listened. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s take Feather into the roundpen.” A roundpen, Sharon explained as we led Feather over, was the first step in handling a difficult horse. Basically, the fenced-in circle limited any shenanigans a horse might try, since the horse couldn’t get up the speed or space to become really unstoppable. We went in, and I stood in the middle, arms folded tightly across my chest. Sharon swung up onto Feather.

Feather has smooth gaits even for an Icelandic Horse: a beautiful flat-footed walk, a soft, floaty trot, and a rocking-horse canter. Sharon put her through all of them without any trouble. Feather, made cautious by the new rider and the new setting, didn’t put a foot wrong. Sharon’s skeptical look was returning. “She’s a nice mover,” said Sharon, “and very responsive to shifts of weight.”

“Try turning her some more,” I suggested. “She doesn’t like to turn.”

Sharon shrugged and put Feather through a few sharp turns. By now, Feather’s breathing had begun to quicken with the exertion. She wasn’t tired yet, just realizing she needed to work. Sharon asked her for another tight turn. Feather braced against the pull of the rein and took off at a brisk canter, head in the air. I’d only ever felt her do it, so it took me a moment to realize that not only had she taken off with Sharon, she’d gotten away with it.

“Huh,” said Sharon, as she experimented (unsuccessfully) with asking Feather to stop. Feather kept right on cantering, neck braced and jaw tight. “This is a really dangerous trick.”

Sharon got her stopped, eventually, through a combination of Feather having no where to run and rollbacks. She rode her another few laps, and Feather took off again. Unlike me, Sharon didn’t get angry and shaken. Instead, she looked thoughtful and a little grim by the time she finished and stopped Feather beside me.

“You can’t ride this horse on the trail. You’re going to get hurt. You have to tell Nancy about it.”

Sharon, far from thinking I was making a fuss over nothing, actually thought Feather’s behavior was legitimately dangerous. I absently ran my hand along Feather’s cheek, a weird mixture of stunned and relieved. “All right,” I said. “I’ll see what she says.”

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 2: The Continued Adventures of Smokey

Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s
Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s

I hadn’t ever thought of training a horse as communication; I hadn’t thought of my responsibility in making myself clear to the horse, of rewarding and correcting in ways the horse had understood. When I’d kicked Smokey, I thought he deserved it, the stubborn jerk. I thought if I got mad enough, he’d finally pay attention and listen to me.

When I realized how wrong I’d been, I was sick to my stomach for weeks. I’d been scaring the horse. That was it. All I had done was act like an asshole. I didn’t like it. Nancy forgave my angry outburst, and helped me learn how to actually train a horse.

“Think about what you’re teaching him,” she said. “When you pull on the reins, and he doesn’t do what you want, and you stop, what do you think he’s learned?”

“Not to listen to the rein,” I answered. It was, as she taught it, staggeringly obvious. You figured out what was a reward for the horse–usually a release of pressure: no pulling, no kicking, and no working–and rewarded the responses you wanted.

Learning the correct timing of pressure and release, and learning when to push the horse and when to back off, might have been simple, but it sure wasn’t easy. I still regularly lost my temper, either in boiling rage or hysterical tears.

One challenge was getting Smokey to walk–just walk, nothing faster–with his head down. It was stupefyingly difficult.

“It’s not working. He’s not keeping his head down,” I snarled, careful to contain my temper to my tone. My hands were light on the reins, and my legs loose against Smokey’s sides. Smokey continued moseying around the arena with head up and his nose poked forward. “Why isn’t it working?”

“You’re not insisting,” she said. “You keep letting him put his head up.”

“But you told me not to hold his head down!”

“Ask a little every stride,” she said. “If you feel him start to put his head up, ask more. Then release when he does it. Back on the circle.” When I didn’t move, overwhelmed by the difficulty of following these basic instructions, she waved me off jokingly, “Out, out, damn spot.”

I asked Smokey to walk on, and we set about trying again.

Nancy had showed me the difference between communication and intimidation, but that wasn’t the main reason I trained with her.

I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. At thirteen, hormones gave the already sickening emotional rollercoaster an added burst of speed. I loathed school. I sneered at my classmates as immature and my teachers as boring. I did not make a lot of friends. Both my parents worked full time, and my mom was taking classes on top of that to get into pharmacy school. When I refused to be reliable about chores, they called me ungrateful, and we fought constantly. While people loved me, few of them actually liked me.

Nancy liked me. She was so good with horses that people paid her to ride and train the $100,000 warmbloods they had imported from Germany. She created oil paintings of horses and horse-spirits that embodied the horses of my imagination: their edges fiery, their movements flowing. She was brilliant. When she found out I was an artist, she asked to see my work. I hesitantly showed her my writing and drawings. She gave me real, appreciative feedback, and we began writing stories and illustrating stories together.

She also accepted my wild moods. With her, my anger at the tedium of school and dread of social situations seemed natural. She told me how she, too, felt isolated and had a terribly hard time dealing with people. At the barn, she slunk around everyone else to avoid small talk, but spent hours talking to me. We trained Smokey together, and he went from being unable to walk around a circle with his head in the right position to winning blue ribbons at dressage shows.

One of the crowning glories of this time was a musical freestyle with Katy. Our barn was hosting a musical freestyle exhibition, riding to music, and I was deemed competent enough to participate. Under Nancy’s direction, Katy and I put together a performance to: me on my little white horse, and she on her strapping black Hanoverian, to the Star Wars soundtrack. We wrapped our dressage whips in green and red bandages, and during the performance, came at each other across the arena, thwacking them together and startling our good-natured horses. The little audience laughed cheered for us.

For almost two years, Nancy had a glorious time teaching my pony fancy dressage movements. I spent most of my nights on the phone with her, complaining about school and soaking up her sympathy, and then moving on to tell the next chapter of our shared story. I adored her. I felt like I’d met the first person in the world who understood me. I was 13, and she was in her 40s.

We both had depression, but Nancy had been living with it undiagnosed for far longer. Even in her blackest moods, I could coax her into talking and smiling, and I craved that satisfaction, the feeling of being necessary and wanted, and the power to make someone’s life better.

As time passed, I began to notice how dangerous Nancy’s moods actually were and how little effect I had on them. With growing desperation, I kept trying to fix her, at least to the point where I wasn’t scared for her. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing my one close friend.

The realization that I had no choice about failing her came slowly and inexorably. I told her I was there for her no matter what. I told her to go to therapy. I told her that I needed her to try to get better, for my sake if she couldn’t do it for her own. Nothing helped enough, and night after night on agonizing phone calls, I listened to my friend drowning.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt myself drowning. I wrote her a letter, apologizing for my inability to help and returning all the artwork and writing we’d exchanged. I sent Smokey up to retirement in an irrigated pasture. I stopped riding.

I missed horses. I missed being good at something. I missed my friend.

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.