After the loss of her equine best friend of 20 years, Honeycomb, Jessica Fox didn’t think she’d ever ride again. In the coming months she’ll be sharing the story of her climb back into the saddle.
If you missed Part I of this series, you can read it here.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Lessons!
I didn’t need lessons. I’d taken tons while in Pony Club and showing. Besides, hadn’t I owned a horse for almost 20 years? Psh. Lessons were for… people into winning ribbons. And since that was the last thing I’d ever want to do again, I decided to find a horse to lease.
The barn I’d discovered on SoCal Equine, Imagination Farms, revealed itself to be a horsey wonderland. Ten acres (in Los Angeles County!!) of paddocks, sand arena, grass driven dressage area, track, and a menagerie of animals including but not limited to a yak named Stella.
After the wife half of the barn-owners, Jill Warren-Pond, gave me the golf cart tour, it was time to decide which of the horses we’d discussed was for me. First, we saddled up Cityboy, an amiable gelding who could switch from western trail horse to dressage mount with ease. Still smarting after leaving Morningstar behind in Maryland, Cityboy, also a paint, never stood a chance. As his canter floated us around the ring, all I could think about was the off-the-track mare Jill had mentioned.
Gangly as a Great Dane puppy and with classic Standardbred ears that stirred a breeze with each interested flick, Playday had me at hello. Before we’d even tacked her up I was kissing her nickering nose. After a lackluster performance at the track, she’d recently been started under saddle. A rising four year old, Playday knew stop, go, left, right and had a newly minted canter. She would never be sold due to her remarkable temperament and mind. All of this I barely heard as I mounted, gathered the reins and moved forward.
Her black mane gleamed in the sunlight, the soft thud of her hooves in the sand set me at ease. One look between those adorable, huge ears, bobbing as we trotted, and, behind my sunglasses, the scenery began to blur. Everything about her seemed familiar and new. Kind, fast, laid-back, eager-to-please. Honeycomb and not Honeycomb. As Playday’s huge strides whipped us around the ring, I knew I had been given a gift.
So we spent the next two months exploring sun-dappled, deer-traveled trails on the edges of the Los Angeles National Forest and the sandy expanses of the Hansen Dam Recreational area. In between hacks, we practiced picking up the correct-lead canter and maintaining a trot that didn’t clock Road Runner speeds. Things were going swimmingly.
Until Playday started going left when I wanted right. Her body a long, drunken U, we’d lurch around as I desperately tried to get her straight. And, despite how much pressure I applied to the inside, Playday’s increasing predilection for cornering like a motorcycle in The Fast and The Furious was growing alarming. Worse, ears back, tail swishing like a furious cat, she’d started kicking out before racing awkwardly into the canter.
I consulted my dusty Dressage 101. Tried to do like Janie said. Noodled instructions barely recalled from when I’d cared about things like position. Then, inspiration struck. Video! If I could see myself riding Playday, I’d definitely be able to figure out what was wrong. Then I’d fix it and we be back trying to pick up the left lead canter, practicing circles, and seeing how much ground we could cover on a one-hour trail ride.
My January day of riding-reckoning dawned bright and beautiful, awash in the clear, honeyed light that makes living in Southern California almost unbearably magic. With my husband innocently manning the camera-of-doom, Playday and I walked, trotted and cantered. Cheeks sore from so much grinning–our rides always leave me full of the heart-pounding elation Velvet surely felt while leaping through Irish fields aboard the The Pi–I couldn’t wait to see the footage.
You know how while dancing at a wedding you’re Ginger Rogers and then pictures later reveal the uncoordinated, side-to-side shuffling, lower-lip-biting, booty-shaking truth? If I were Playday, I’d have gleefully launched the piano-handed, chair-seated, elbow-flapping, locked-up, catawampus rider lighting up my screen onto the turf. I was a shadow of my former riding self. I was setting Playday up for failure. Clearly, I needed more guidance than Dressage 101 or YouTube could offer, but the prospect of a lesson sat heavier on my stomach than leftovers of unknown origin.
Nonetheless, mouth cottony from teenage memories of being drilled by a trainer (not Susan) who found my best efforts disappointing, I shuffled up to Jill. I’d seen her giving dressage lessons, her sharp blue eyes missing not even the slightest counterproductive movement. Her enthusiastic instruction didn’t seem to cause anyone to leave the ring on the verge of tears. Despite her credentials and experience, Jill certainly wasn’t one of the types I’d encountered during my California barn search who wore dressage like a cloak of superiority. Plus, those she taught ranged from serious, experienced dressage riders to people new to horses. Still, I was intimidated. What would she think of me? What if she made me ride without stirrups on a lunge line in the round pen with my arms stretched out for flight? Terribly daunted but also determined, I set a lesson date for the following week.
About the Author: Jessica Fox is a freelance writer and novelist-in-training who dreams of the day she can sit a trot without flailing about. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA where she writes as much as possible to feed her increasingly voracious horse-habit and almost rides Dressage. www.foxywrites.com