I had to do some adulting this year and make the decision to buckle down and get my thesis finished. Unfortunately, such adulting meant that riding had to take a bit of a back seat for me as I couldn’t justify riding until I met the next deadline for my thesis – and then there was another deadline, always right there, demanding my attention. Between the beginning of March and today, I’ve probably ridden twice a week, though there have been big gaps of a week or more where I didn’t get out to see Murray, and was intensely grateful for the team of people looking after him in my absence.
Not riding is a funny thing. In the first 2.5 years that I was with him, I rode Murray every single day that I physically could – so unless I was out of town, completely incapacitated (food poisoning and the flu did get me a few times), or on campus for more than 12 hours at a time I made it out to see Murray. I was even there on some days that I probably shouldn’t have been – hacking up chunks of phlegm as I tacked up or dismounting and discovering that I had the shakes then falling into bed and sleeping for 16 hours when I got home. Before my extended riding vacation, not riding on any given day was the insane idea to me. But everything changed during the break.
The first thing that happened was that I suddenly couldn’t get through a jump lesson without huffing and puffing like I’d never ridden before in my life. The skills were all there, but my muscles and lungs were not cooperating. I was loose in the tack and Murray saved my butt on more than one occasion. But worse than that, I had to take all kinds of breaks in my lessons, begging my trainer through gasps to give me just a moment before I tried that course again. It’s what I get, I guess, for going straight from the saddle and on to the couch (with my laptop in lap).
Next, and surprisingly suddenly, it started becoming easier to not go out to the barn than it was to go out. Don’t get me wrong, I eagerly anticipated my weekly jump lessons, and I was out there with plenty of time and enthusiasm to ride. But on days when I could have squeezed in a short ride or just a lunge and rushed back home to work, it started to be easier to just… not. I wanted to go ride, just not in the 2-hour-squeeze that I could fit in between two classes or office hours. That was really foreign to me. (But I’m happy to say that my desire to ride absolutely every day has reappeared suddenly with a little more free time.)
I stopped grooming as thoroughly when I did ride, because of the time crunch. Instead of my lovely, thorough, double-curry, double-brush, mane, tail, wash cloth to the face etc. etc. I found myself quickly picking out feet and brushing off the saddle area and tacking up. It’s not something I’m terribly proud of, especially as I’d been incredibly judgmental of riders I saw performing the same grooming routine in the past. But it was what it was, and time was not something I had in ample supply.
Then I forgot what my horse looked like. I don’t mean that I couldn’t recognize him in a field, or got lost looking for him in the barn aisle (his stall has a sign with his name on it, durrrr), but I forgot the little idiosyncrasies of his body that I recognized so well before. His one slightly lumpy knee, the little scars on his hocks, and splints were hard to distinguish from the new lumps and bumps and everyday injuries. I found myself a little more worried than I probably needed to be, and my barn manager had to remind me repeatedly that those little scrapes and nibbles were, unfortunately for me, just a side effect of someone’s overly playful nature.
There were other things too. I am all but done with my doctorate — just a few tweaks and signatures and that will be all done and dusted.
Since March, Murray has matured in ways I never thought I would see – at least not before he hit his teens. Seemingly overnight, though in reality over the course of the last six months, he has learned to take pressure and work in ways that I had never experienced before, especially not in dressage tack. Murray no longer spends half our ride (or more) trying to convince me that pushing him into the bridle is a cruel and unusual punishment, he just gets to work. If he’s a little unsteady or gets confused at times, he takes correction well. I don’t have to constantly back off with a feather light (and sometimes nonexistent) contact or employ absolute baby-horse tactics to get him to go forward and still move through his back. I just get on and say “hey, we’re doing this” and he gets to work.
And the forward! He is so forward for our rides. Sure, he isn’t very fit and gets tired quickly. But for both jump lessons and – much more magically, our dressage rides – he has been pushing forward from behind and I don’t have to chase him or kick him into it, and then ride through the repercussions of such uncouth treatment of a princess. And let me tell you, working with energy that you already have and trying to bundle that is far easier than trying to create and bundle energy all at the same time. It has had positive effects on both our dressage and our jumping.
We are also doing a fantastic job of identifying each others’ weaknesses right now. While this might be frustrating at times (Why can’t I stop collapsing to the right? Why can’t YOU stop leaning over your shoulders?!), it means that I have a laser-beam focus on the areas of our riding that Murray and I have been compensating for or doing weird things to mask, and I can actually fix them!
Had I my druthers, I would not have chosen to take a nearly-6-month hiatus from my six-day-a-week riding schedule. But I think this was, curiously, absolutely the right choice. Taking a step back for a few months allowed us to grow and gave us renewed perspective which we would never have gotten in my six day a week schedule. And now my life has stabilized somewhat, we’re ready to get back at it and attack the coming fall season!