After losing her equine best friend of 20 years, Jessica Fox didn’t think she’d ever ride again. This is the story of her climb back into the saddle.
The breeze is midsummer-afternoon soft, the sun a warm welcome, the sound of hooves a song. Countless schooling hours have brought you to this moment.
Trotting. Cantering. Walking. Halting. Transitioning up and down and back again, all the while going through your body inventory. Elbows in? Chin up? Centered in the saddle? Arch out of the back? Loose and relaxed? Weight even in the balls of your feet? Not holding your breath?
Check, check, check, check…
And then you’re sailing around the ring, making gentle curves that once were right angles, no falling in or out, and, wait, is that my horse’s back engaging? For a few strides, maybe even all the way around, it’s unicorns and rainbows.
I’d felt that way before on Bailey, the fancy dressage horse who, along with my instructor Jill, was patiently teaching me dressage basics.
But this was aboard my buddy Playday, an off-the-track Standardbred. We’d been working on beginning collection, and, when she finally understood what I wanted, it was magic.
That trot she was bred for? So awesome that, during one of our many schooling days, a passing boarder said Playday had beautiful suspension. Suspension! Playday was doing fancy!
I felt like a million bucks.
Not only was my Standardbred buddy a total dressage prodigy, but I’d finally dragged myself out of the valley of too-much-weight-on-the-right-seat-bone, allowing Jill to focus on other things during my lessons on Bailey.
“Why are you putting all your weight into your pinky toes?“
“Are your legs in a good position? Don’t look!”
Maybe I really could do this. Ride Dressage (Yes. With a capital D). I’d be extended trotting and passaging my heart out in no time. Playday would surprise everyone. Start a breed revolution. Make Standardbreds the new Warmbloods. All those wonderful OTT Standardbreds were going to be dressage horses! It was going to be epic.
And then I figured out how to video myself.
I was horrified.
Why was Playday curling her neck so much and so far behind the vertical? I was not holding or putting her there. Was I? And why, for most of the time, was Playday so much on the forehand her booty seemed half a foot higher than her shoulders?
Though there were moments of the video in which Playday looked as lovely as it felt to ride her, what in all that’s holy was going on?
So, during my next lesson, I rode Playday.
Jill watched us take a few laps around the ring and then said kindly, “Young grasshopper, much to learn you have.”
That’s not actually what she said.
But she did explain what I was doing, what Playday was doing, and how it combined to create a perfect storm of mistakes and enabling. Because my spunky friend Playday and I share a habit of trying so hard that all goes awry.
She also gently reminded me that, unlike Bailey, Playday is built downhill, and so some things will be harder for her.
And then we got to work on adjusting my riding.
Afterwards, though feeling good, I was disappointed at how little progress I’d actually made. That night, I poured myself a strong cup of tea (really!) and watched a video my husband took over six months ago of a ride on Playday.
And you know what? I had gotten better. So had Playday.
Ok, so possibly Playday wasn’t really going to start a breed revolution, and maybe I wasn’t quite as close to moving on to fancy as I’d hoped (ahem, dreamed).
But I was improving, and so was she.
It’s just my expectations that need more work.
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