Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Battle of Wills

I stride into the barn, pausing a moment in the door to close my eyes and smell the sawdust, traces of sweat, hay and manure.

This is my moment, the moment when the worries of the day fade gently into the background. I roll my head on my neck and shake out my shoulders and arms, feeling the tension slide away into the dusty, scent laden air.

I continue into the barn, finding a convenient piece of wall to lean against, or stretch of concrete to park my sweaty butt on, and wait for roll call.

People stream in the doors, talking, laughing, roughhousing with each other, and I smile at the people I know, exchange a few words, trade advice on how to handle the latest quirks each horse has developed, or exchange stories of past adventures a-horseback. There are always a few boasts that they can ride anything with hair, and I jokingly offer to let them ride my horse, at which point they start muttering about having to exercise their own horses.

The instructors come in, joking with their students, commenting on the progress, or lack thereof, of each horse and rider. The middle of the barn is crowded now, bodies just beginning to sweat from the heat gathered together, twitching limbs and shaking heads in an imitation of the horses in their stalls as flies buzz around in a cloud that seems to multiply daily.

Roll call, names are shouted out, some with short comments or instructions for the day's class, each student answering, some with "here," some "yep" or "yeah," and a few with "ready and rarin to go boss!"

After roll call, instructions are given for each class... there are two at the barn at this time, one with the young colts, just learning the basics of bearing a rider and working in concert, and one, mine, riding the older horses, working on particular quirks and their own riding skill.

Students scatter at the now familiar call of "Saddle up!" Each one goes to their own horse, whether in its stall or out at the hitching rail already, and I walk to the bay's stall.

As I approach, I see through the barred upper part of the stall that he's facing the stall door, ears forward, nostrils flaring as he scents me, knowing what we're going to do, and looking forward to it, as much as I am.

He's a stubborn, independent soul, my horse. Bratty and full of youthful spirit, he knows that I'm going to make him do what he's supposed to, just like I know he's going to try to do things that he's not.

I unfasten his halter from the rail on the stall door, pulling the end of the lead rope to undo the braid that keeps it from dragging on the floor, and slide the door open far enough for me to slip inside.

"Hey, big boy, how are you today?" I eye him, especially his legs, quickly, while I pat his neck and speak softly to him, his ear rotating to catch the sound of my voice and his eyes fixed on the door, eager to get out into the sunshine.

"We're going to have a better day today, aren't we? You're going to do good enough to get some grain when we're done, huh big boy?" I step to his head and reach over his neck, grabbing the head band of the halter with my right hand and swinging the halter up, while he tips his head down and shoves his nose into it, rubbing the side of his head against my forearm as I buckle it on.

"Let's go, bubbah."

Out at the hitching rail the battle begins. Once I have him tied, I go back to the tack room for a curry comb and a brush, to get the dirt and dust out of his coat before I tack him up. By the time I come back he's sidled over until his right side is along the rail, and I begin grooming his left, before walking around him to the small wedge of space he's left me on the right, and putting a hand on his hip. I lean into him, and he leans back, as I talk to him, nonsense mostly, but with a general theme of moving his big butt over for me, until he does. I praise him and pat his neck as I finish the quick pass of grooming, and pat his butt as I walk by, headed back to the tack room to get the dreaded saddle.

Saddling up is a constant stream of soft spoken words, clucks and pats, and I revel in the smell of his hide, the silken glide of his coat under my hands and the familiar weight of the saddle. His ears swivel to catch my voice and the multitude of sounds as everyone is engaged in the same activities as us, some with more success than others, and his head pivots to watch as others walk by, headed for the high arena, or the round pens, or the rodeo arena. We're always one of the last pairs to get to the arena.

Some people ride their horses from the hitching rails to the arena, but the bay and I walk. His breath is hot on my hand and my arm as he follows me, and I keep a gentle pressure forward on the reins. He pretends to be reluctant, but his ears are forward and his eyes are bright, even as his step is sluggish.

Just outside the arena gates I tighten the cinch, and tie it off. His head comes up and he cranes his neck to look at me, a mischievous glint in the depths of his warm brown eye.

"Yeah bud, I know."

Inside the arena I lead him to one side of the gate and face him towards the fence, separating the reins and hooking the off side over the horn before taking a deep breath and squaring my shoulders. I string the near rein back to the horn and gather the off side, shortening the reins until he gives me his head, and step to the stirrup, following him as he backs up, increasing rein pressure and clucking to him to make him back further, before letting him stop and grinning at the amused snort he gives.

I yank on the stirrup, making it pop, and he starts and sidles away, just like he always does. One ear is turned back towards me and I take a moment to chuckle, before setting my left boot in the stirrup, and waiting for him to relax.

Once I swing into the saddle, he tenses again, but the reins are short.. not pulling on his mouth but keeping contact with it, letting him know that I won't let him get away with anything, just now. Leaning down over his shoulder, I adjust my right stirrup, both stirrups being shorter than I usually ride, the better to keep my butt firmly planted on his back.

He shifts slightly and I murmur a soft "whoa," before sitting back up in the saddle.

"All right, baby boy, lets ride." I give him light inside rein pressure and lay the outside rein against his neck, nudging his ribs with the heels of my boots and clucking to him. Just like always, he tries to go back through the gate, back to the barn and his stall, just to see if he can, but I keep him moving past the gate and around the arena, walking a while to loosen him up, and then moving him into a trot.

Everyone is warming up, and there are horses everywhere, walking, trotting, and loping, circles and figure eights, their riders relaxed and flowing, or stiff and nervous, patting necks and cursing under their breath, and while we're walking I have time to appreciate the beauty of the sight. The sun glints off of bays and blacks, sorrels, grullas and grays, riders call encouragement or teasing to each other as they pass, and there's a chaos of missed turns, recalcitrant mounts and over it all the sky is so blue that it hurts the eyes.

The instructor and her assistant come in, and watch us warm up for a few minutes, before calling for us to get on the rail and walk. They're looking for any strains in the horses, or misplaced tack, and soon enough they call out for a slow trot.

I take a deep breath, and increase leg pressure, clucking to the bay and keeping my attention on his ears and the horse in front of me. This is usually the moment of truth for the day. If he tries something, usually turning off the rail to head back to the gate or going faster than everyone else, I have to keep him in line. If I don't manage to curb it now, he'll try harder for the rest of the class. If I do, he'll still try, but he won't expect to get away with it, so he won't try as hard.

He moves into a trot with a little urging, and I shorten my reins to hold him in, he's trying to run over the horse in front of him, a lazy older sorrell that has the slowest slow trot in the class. I slow him almost to a walk and make him maintain the prancing gait for a few strides before I use my right leg to move him to the left, to the inside, to pass the slow horse. I know he can't keep up a trot that slow for long, his legs are too long and he's got a longer trot than any other horse in the class, at the long trot.

His head is up and he's starting to enjoy himself, moving out and loosening up. I feel the difference in his stride and smile to myself, but keep alert.

He's trying to cut the corners, now, coming off the rail at the arena ends and rounding out the turn, and we argue over which way we're going to do things for a moment before he gives in to my leg and rein cues and moves back to the rail.

He knows that when we're on the inside, we're going faster than the other horses, and he's a go-fast kind of horse. At a full gallop its like riding a gleeful avalanche, all thunder and wind whipping at your face and that joyful sense of being perched precariously on top of it all.

He struggles a little when the call comes to slow to a walk, as the instructor gives a student a hint, or a lecture, depending on what's needed. Then the stop, which we're supposed to perform smoothly... the horse stopping on cue and the rider giving the right cues. Some use a verbal "whoa" as well as sitting deep in their saddle and pulling the horse up, and I'm one of them. I've figured out that the bay listens better when you talk to him.

He stops beautifully, and I release the reins, patting him on the neck and praising him, telling him what a big beautiful boy he is. The gray in front of us is feeling frisky and fights the whoa, prancing and dancing forward and back. His rider, a tall young man, starts to get nervous, which communicates itself to his mount, which makes the horse more fractious. The instructor and her assistant are with other students, so I holler out for him to take a deep breath, relax into his seat, and simply block him from going forward, instead of hauling on his head. The gray stops and settles, resigned to standing still, and I shake my head as his rider looks around, rather than praising the correct behavior from his horse.

The call for a walk comes, and then a long trot, and then a lope. I sigh in resignation and begin the argument with the bay over speed. He resists moving into a lope as long as he can, but once he's there, he wants to lope hard, passing everyone and stretching out like a racing thoroughbred. I have to keep him held in, and try to match the speed of the rest of the class. At least I don't have to worry about his leads, he always picks up the proper lead in class, no matter how I have to battle him at any other time.

While we're loping I keep my eyes on his head and neck, paying only minimal attention to those around me. This is a prime time for him to misbehave, the open strides of the lope give him an opening to crow hop or wheel, or he'll drop back into a fast trot with a short stride, decidedly uncomfortable to ride.

Watching his neck and feeling for the tensing of his muscles under my legs that heralds his ornery coming to the surface, I sink into a place inside myself that I only reach on horseback. It's a nice place, peaceful and calm, and the outside world intrudes only so much as I let it. It's as if I'm surrounded by a cool refreshing breeze on a summer's day, while simultaneously being curled up in a big fluffy comforter on a cold winter's night. It's every home cooked meal I've ever eaten with my family laughing and talking around me, and it's quiet nights in a tent with only the stars and the crickets for company.

This is why I ride, even stubborn, restless horses like the bay. This place where the cares of the world don't just fade into the background, they vanish entirely, and its all peace, and joy. This is the place in my mind that I can't find anywhere else, not in music or books, not in learning, or teaching, or meditation. Just here, on the back of a horse. It doesn't matter that there's sweat rolling down my back, soaking my hat band and running down my cheeks. It doesn't matter that there are a dozen other people in the class, the instructors shouting directions and students cussing at their horses. I hear it all, respond to the directions, but I don't really hear it.

What I hear is the bellows of the bay's breathing, the rhythm of his hooves in the sand, the creak of my saddle and the faint sound of the breeze in my ears. What I see is the shine of his coat, the way the sun brings out the red in his coat, as if someone painted him with copper.

Even the battles bring me joy, pitting my will against his, anticipating his thoughts and feeling his movements before he completes them, teaching him something new every day, and realizing from his body language, the way he responds, the way he "talks" to me, that he's enjoying things just as much as I am, and that the battle is more of a game.

All too soon, the call comes to cool them out, and I come back to the world, to realize that the rodeo team is practicing in the other arena, shouts and whistles and the bellowing of the calves as they practice their roping. Some of the other students look exhausted, even though they have the more cooperative horses. Some of the horses are coated in sweat, lathered and blowing hard.
I slip my fingers between the blanket and his shoulder, feeling the sweat and heat from his muscles. He got some exercise today, but he's not overly hot, it won't take long for him to cool out. He's not blowing hard, he's in good shape, and he's used to being out in pasture all the time, with room to run and buck and be a horse, so this is nothing for him.

We walk a couple of circuits of the arena, and then trot a couple, with me holding him to a slow trot, and then walk a couple more so that his muscles can cool down again, before I take him to the gate and make him stop and stand for a few moments, and then dismount.

We walk back down to the barn and I unsaddle him and put my tack away, clean his stall, and then bring him inside.

When I pull off his halter and pat his neck, he turns his head and whuffles at my shirt, nosing me gently.

"You're right, bud, we had a good ride today. See you tomorrow."