On Not Riding

At a writing workshop I attended back in 1998, our instructor, Marita Golden, urged vigilance against opening a door in an essay if we didn’t intend to lead readers through it at some point. In other words, don’t distract your audience, or cloud their expectations, by using details not pertinent to the narrative focus. This is a variation on Chekhov’s gun, a principle based on the playwright’s advice that if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act, it should be fired in the second.

So, in writing about our equine pets back in November, when I mentioned being queried about whether I’ve been riding lately, I knew I was framing a door in this blog, and should eventually lead readers through.

When it comes to not riding, lack of time is the standard rationalization, even though we all know time is in no shorter supply now than it ever was. Prioritizing how to allot the hours of my days is a luxury I’m grateful to have, but choosing what takes precedence after work, necessary chores, and activities of daily living are complete is more convoluted than I’d like it to be.

Allocating as much time as I can to writing has been one reason for de-prioritized riding. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect on the physical side of things: sitting at a desk more and riding less leads to being more out of shape; being out of shape makes it harder to motivate myself into the saddle. Being out of shape makes riding a bit less fun when I do manage to do it–and sometimes considerably less fun after I’ve done it.

The matter of my partner in the endeavor presents further complications. For fifteen years, Moondo has been my riding horse, but as he’s gotten older and his neurological issues have worsened, I’ve become less demanding and more cautious.

Since we have two horses, the obvious solution would be to simply ride Jake instead of Moondo. And, indeed, this would be a simple matter if riding a horse were like riding a dirt bike. Swapping mounts in that case involves little more than momentary adjustments to compensate for differences in feel or the configuration of the seat.

Riding is a partnership, though, and the larger part of “knowing” how to ride involves learning how to make yourself receptive to the back-and-forth needed to communicate in a distinct dialect—a shared body language in which neither party is a native speaker.

Jake is perfectly rideable, but he doesn’t have any training in dressage, which is the riding discipline I fell in love with back when I was a teen. Even if I were riding him regularly, it would take a year or two to teach Jake what Moondo knows.

Moondo isn’t a world-class dressage horse, but he is a nerd, interested in learning and perfectly happy running through exercises in the arena. In his prime he was quite zippy, too, and always eager to show off his moves. Jake is smart and he’s athletic for his size, but he may never be as thrillingly responsive as Moondo. Right now, riding him is like driving a 1970s station wagon that needs a tune-up. The steering is sloppy, the brakes are spongy, there’s a delay when you step on the accelerator. Moondo is getting old and he’s got a bad knee, but riding him is still like driving a souped-up little coupe in comparison.

It must also be said that Jake is a big horse, and by that I mean not just tall but also W-I-D-E. Getting my legs around him would be taxing even if I were in decent riding shape. Did I mention I’m out of shape?

Even all that, however, doesn’t outweigh the most powerful deterrent to riding Jake rather than Moondo: guilt.

Moody is very expressive, and if I get on Jake he stares over the fence at us with an expression of forlorn consternation. His eyebrows knit in affront, and the antenna of each ear swivels backward at its own perturbed angle. The wounded look is gut-wrenching, frankly, which ratchets down the fun factor.

Not that Jake is indifferent to being the unridden one, left in the pasture. He tends to express his objection more energetically, vying for my attention by, say, galloping laps up and down the fenceline, throwing in an occasional fart-punctuated buck as an emphatic “Hey, look at me, look at me!”

One solution would be to ride both horses, but did I mention I have trouble figuring out how to prioritize riding even one? Or that I’m out of shape?

Even though I haven’t ridden regularly for a couple of years, I do ride irregularly: I’ll reach a point where I am determined to throw a leg over a horse, dammit. I reached that point one day last fall, and was further determined to document the event. (A between-the-ears angle has a history that predates the smartphone era; perhaps the most famous image from this vantage is a painting by English artist Snaffles (Charles Johnson Payne), titled “The Finest View in Europe“).

I gave Moodles a quick grooming, saddled him up, led him to the mounting block, and swung aboard. He moved off before I was fully settled, which he’s not supposed to do, but who could fault an old horse still eager to do work he enjoys?

We warmed up with a few turns around the arena, Moondo’s ears tuning toward me then to the track ahead, and then back again. Like me, he seemed a little aggrieved that the movements were a bit rickety, the proper positions harder to get in than they used to be, but I think it’s fair to say we were both enjoying ourselves.

Jake, meanwhile, had retreated to the far end of the Long Pasture as if indifferent, pretending he would pass the time nibbling around the feed bins.

Instead, he flipped the metal feed tank upside-down, and started beating on it with one hoof. If you zoom in close enough, you can see him in the background of the picture above. Here, let me help you:

As I said back in November, the horses make me happy. They also exasperate, inspire, annoy, or make me laugh–and sometimes some combination of any of those the same time. They’re beautiful, smart, hilarious, smelly, annoying, knot-headed, expensive. As comrades in life, they make me think, point my attention to things I wouldn’t otherwise notice. They open up new perspectives, stretch my senses. They exercise my emotions, my mind, and, occasionally, my muscles.

Finest View in Colorado.

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7 Responses to On Not Riding

  1. C.M. Mayo says:

    Marita Golden! What a small world. Hers was one of the first literary personal memoirs I ever read and I admired it immensely. And your horses!! I loved this post!!

  2. Reading your blog took me back to a time when I was in high school and I took care of a friend’s horse all winter. It was as you describe; she always made me happy despite all of the other challenges! Thank you for taking me on your journey as well as reminding me of mine!

  3. Pat Dubrava says:

    Florida is also cattle country and I rode horses there growing up, Western style, but for many years after, never. Then got on a horse for a simple trail ride with students maybe twenty years later…and when I got off that horse…oh, lord. Wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk.
    Love this description of the complications of riding and not. Who knew horses could be jealous of who’s being ridden?

  4. Andrea Jones says:

    C.M., back in 1998, I had no clue how fortunate I was to be in Marita’s workshop group…although I knew it in 1999 when I took another with her. My writing efforts still build on the solid foundation she put down.

    What’s a little kooky about our horses, to me, is that they live their days independently, wandering in the pastures on their own whims and schedules, and are still such attention-seekers…and clowns.

  5. Andrea Jones says:

    Nancy, I know dogs are a bit the same way, bringing happiness, challenge, complication, mess, exasperation, beauty, and all the rest. I’m not sure if the size of horses, and their existence at a distance from domestic rhythms, amplifies those dynamics, but definitely count myself lucky to have them in my life. I’m so glad the post took you back to your own horsey memories.

  6. Andrea Jones says:

    Pat, riding, no matter what style, reminds you of all those muscles you didn’t know you had, doesn’t it?

    I know I’m my own biggest complication when it comes to riding or not (or writing or not), but I think it’s fair to extend a little credit to Jake and Moondo. They are very creative in their expressions and efforts to communicate, and I’m pretty sure they’re thoroughly exasperated with me in those times when I fail to demonstrate what they’ve trained me to do.

  7. I love your witty transition from “not writing” to “not riding,” Andrea. And how you interweave your point-of-view (literally and figuratively) with that of your horses. May you find more time to see the world from the back of either one of your idiosyncratic mounts.

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