Monday, January 22, 2018

Life on Four Legs

This was me, maybe nine years old in Sonoma, CA on my sister's horse "Silky Penny." But this isn't where this story starts; it starts as far back as I have memories. I have always loved horses and have been riding since I was about six when a sister popped me up on a cantankerous Shetland Pony named "Whiskey Pete" at the barn where she hung out after school. Despite being on a lunge line, he still managed to bolt away from her, jumping over a fallen-over bicycle to escape the pen we were using. I can't say that was when I learned to ride, per se, but certainly where I learned how to hang on for the ride. In those days, every book I read was horse-themed, every drawing had four legs and hooves and every present on Santa's list made by Breyer.  I wanted to be a jockey when I grew up and at about nine, learned how to muck stalls and roll bandages in the shed rows of Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows when staying with my oldest sister during her years as a race track groom. 

With my beloved "Sparky," a middle sister and her "Ginger", and you already met "Silky."
My father lived in the country with plenty of open land, so the horse collection grew to three. From then on every summer and every-other weekend - regardless of the weather - was spent traversing the hills and town of Sonoma.  As we took off down the drive, Dad shouted that we had to wear our helmets (we did, until out of sight of the house where we promptly ditched them in the bushes) and be home for dinner.  My sisters were four and six and ten years older and eventually grew out of their horse passions to follow other pursuits, but I didn't.  Down the road were good friends with their own horses and those who didn't have their own rode my sisters' horses.  This incredible independence also taught us to be responsible and sharpened our problem-solving skills. Like the time we had to extricate Ginger from a hidden wire fence she'd tangled herself in... miles from home... when we were twelve.

Even moving to Manhattan to study at New York University didn't stop my riding. Weeks after classes started freshman year, I joined the brand-new NYU Equestrian Team and served all four years as the co-captain.  This was the first time I'd had proper, structured lessons and our somewhat less-than-patient French-Israeli coach, when not throwing small objects at us, did his best to shape my bareback wild country style into something called equitation.  He took me from this:

With Ginger. 

Sparky and our back-yard horsemanship were no match for the fancy show barn riders. 

To this...

NYU Intercollegiate Equestrian Team scores blues in a team hunters class. 

At the Intercollegiate National Stock Seat Championship.
A year after NYU found me unenthusiastic about a full-time city girl job. Living in NYC was expensive and I just wasn't ready to put my foot on that first rung of the ladder.  Instead, I got hired long-distance to be a wrangler at a guest ranch in northern Colorado.  I got on the plane with my small collection of western wear and spent the next few years working ranches in the summer and ski resorts in the winter.  Wasn't a bad way to live. 

"Jingling" in the herd each morning at the Home Ranch. 

In front of Mt. Wilson, near Telluride, CO. 
It was here, at the request of the guests who wanted to get more out of their ranch vacations than just holding onto the saddle horn, that I tried my hand at instructing.  The monosyllabic cowboys were happy to have someone else deal with the greenhorns, so I stepped into the middle of the arena and did my best to explain what I'd mostly figured out on my own over the years.  After two summers of this, I decided that if I was going to be telling folks what to do - I'd better know what I was doing. 

Two years and one degree in Equine Studies later - I took the plunge to become a full time riding instructor.  My coursework covered all aspects of barn management, equine health, nutrition, breeding and riding theory and I learned more in those few years than I had in my previous 25 years, and the Dressage-based training changed my riding trajectory forever.  It led to an extremely fulfilling career as a riding instructor lasting 12 years. 

First Dressage show on "Virtues and Vices" in Spokane, WA

My students get rewarded for their efforts.
During this time, I collected my own two horses: Gold Trimmings and Babe.  They were former school horses at the riding academies where I'd worked and became my best friends for many years (besides the cats that is!).

The love of my equine life, Gold, being shown by my teenage student.

My sweet Thoroughbred mare Babe takes good care of my soon-to-be step daughter on her first lesson.

Babe with my little niece and nephew. 

All this time, I saw other professional trainers around me seeking advanced-level, or just plain wealthy, clients who could provide them opportunities to compete at increasingly higher levels and on fancier horses. I'm not a competitive person in that respect, and had no interest in elbowing others to snatch up clients. Instead, I'd always been drawn towards teaching basics and plain good horsemanship to whomever wanted it. For my young students, the riding was as more about life lessons than anything else. The  competitions we took part in were for fun where the goal was the learning and the conversation with between horse and rider. To continue my own education, I took trips to Portugal and Germany to ride with trainers on the types of horses I didn't have access to at home.  

The biggest horse I've ridden, Dayton, near Verden, Germany. 

A quadrille of Lusitano stallions and my first time with the double-bridle.

But after a while, I lifted my head and saw where this road was taking me.  Did I want to be outside in the wet or inside in the dust for another few decades?  What if I got dashed into a wall and couldn't work? What if the economy changed and people cut out the luxury of riding lessons? The greener - and more solid - grass looked like a career where I wore girl clothes, had clean hands and came home before 9 pm each night. My step-father suggested a job with an elevator.  My father said my avocation didn't have to be my vocation. And frankly I was tired of being cold. 

With that, I hung up my helmet and spurs.  

But I didn't stop riding - I kept Gold and Babe through their last days. I just got a job with  carpeting instead.

Now I'm seven years into a career in the Foreign Service: girl clothes - check; elevator - check; home by six - check.  I haven't forgotten about horses, however.  In fact, I've  ridden at each of my posts abroad so far.  In Colombia, I took a handful of lessons at a beautifully manicured military base in Bogota.  The lessons were taught in a rigid line formation in Spanish. As my FSI 2/2 Spanish training didn't include any applicable terminology beyond "left" and "right," the Major stuck me behind an eight-year old local boy and told me to just follow what he did.  Naturally, he was on a quiet old school horse and "with all my experience" they stuck me on the horse that hadn't been out in a few months.  Thanks. Unfortunately, it wasn't much fun. 

In Juarez, the moons and stars came into perfect alignment when I met a coworker eager to ride, and a family in El Paso with a son in med school and not enough time to get on his string of polo ponies.  This wonderful family watched my friend (also a life-long horsewoman) and I ride a time or two and satisfied that we could manage on our own, gave us "free rein" over their horses.  We schooled their lovely Thoroughbreds in the flat pasture behind their house that served as a practice polo field, or took them for long rides along the Rio Grande just a block away.  Such liberty and such kind people - it couldn't have been a nicer situation. 

Who would have guessed I'd find such lovely horses in a pasture in El Paso, TX?

Polo ponies and fun company along the Rio Grande

After Juarez, I figured I'd never have the kind of horse luck I'd found in El Paso.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Over lunch in the Embassy Bucharest cafeteria one day, I listened to an American colleague whose young daughter had been taking lessons at a barn just a short drive away.  As she described the instructor - how she competed internationally in both Dressage and show jumping and her patient teaching and training philosophy - my ears pricked up.  Shortly after that conversation, I took my first lesson with Izabela on her rotund school horse, Madison.  A few lessons later, I came to the barn to find Izabela's tall gelding Bubble Touch waiting for me in the cross-ties instead of the sturdy paint mare.  "You're going to ride the big boy today." she told me.  I was nervous that I'd be discovered as a fraud when put atop such a well-schooled horse, but instead it felt like Bubble and I had studied the same game plan. Wow, it was exhilarating!

Bubble Touch in Bucharest who taught me so much.

And after that, Izabela mixed in lessons on her other beautiful chestnut, Feivel.  

Feivel - such a flirt, such a squirrel, so much fun. 

So far, this reads like a common story of a girl who loves horses, and I suppose you're right. But these stories and photos mean a lot more. This is also a compilation of the horses in my life and what they've brought me. Whether I was racing friends on their ponies through the vineyards, bush-whacking through the Rocky Mountains hoping to find the way back to the barn, showing eight-year-olds how to pick hooves and post the trot, or cantering an FEI-level horse down the long wall of an arena in Romania - it's the horses who have been the teachers this whole time.  Horses not only respond to our physical state, but also reflect their riders' intangible states: consistency, fairness, kindness, clarity and confidence, thus transforming a "simple" one-hour ride into a session of yoga, aerobics, ballet, meditation and psychotherapy.  I chuckle when non-horsey people ask why, after over 40 years in the saddle, I still need to take riding lessons.  
I say, may the lessons never end.

Sometimes it felt like time just stood still on Feivel

Next: Astride Abroad - Your Guide to Ride in the FS

Monday, January 15, 2018

Urge for Going

Soundtrack:  Joni Mitchell "Urge for Going" 

The new year in my mind is always clear blue and white, fresh, and full of possibility. This image plus my page-a-day calendar reminding me that "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it," and I've decided to find small pleasures in 2018 to chase out the overwhelming noise of 2017.  It's not deep stuff, this quote from my "What We Learn from Cats" calendar, but it offers a recipe to escape a funk and seems fitting for the new year. Therefore, when faced with a dearth of positive, I'm now determined to recognize the sunny side wherever I can.   

On to find it!

Pleasure #1: Analog life. 

My husband and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve on the Delaware coast, in a frigid and nearly-empty tourist town.  We had miles of vacant beach just outside our door, shared only with local residents and their exuberant dogs seasonally freed from the no-dogs-on-the-beach ordinance.  

Dewey Beach, DE in December

On the beach in my eskimokini.

Sand pipers like school kids, dashing in small groups in and out of the frothy surf. 

The boardwalk won't look like this in six months. 

Frozen foam.

Sunset over Rehoboth Bay. 

...and what the sunset does to the sea oats. 

A thinking man's horizon.

During this no-cats-yet time, we're also taking advantage of being able to look at each other and say, "Let's just grab a bag and explore somewhere."  This long MLK, Jr.  holiday weekend felt like the perfect time to do just that so we headed west into hills of north-central Virginia.  There's something so calming about an expanse of empty landscape, whether it's a beach dotted only with sand pipers darting in and out of the sea foam, or farm fields, their crops shaved close to hunker down for winter.  I appreciate the understated beauty of winter's muted colors, the tinkling of icicles along moving water, and the satisfactory crunch of walking over icy crisp fallen leaves. It's far more subtle than the sensational spring or flamboyant fall - their colors screaming for our attention.  

Frozen above, rushing beneath. 

With the backdrop so neutral, the few bright colors shine. 

Icicle glockenspiel.

Strong sunshine leaves strong shadows in the tiny town of Washington, VA.

Farm house with Shenandoah National Park as it's backdrop. 

Almost tall enough to remind us of the Romanian wooden churches. 

Weathered barn in Brandy Station, VA

I'm drawn to timeless landscapes, easy to find in this region's rural colonial towns.  No billboards to sell me things, nothing digital to attract and then distract - just glimpses of times when life seemed a lot less noisy.  I'm certain that these days we could all use a break from the screaming.  Therefore you'll find us pulling off the road to simply survey the horizon, watching the light change or laughing at the squirrels chasing each other barber-pole style around the trees.  

That's my 90% recipe for reacting to life these days.  Give it a try.