louie, post-lesson sweaty, playing coy for the camera
It's something I've dreamed of perhaps since I was a little girl, learning to ride and care for horses (dare I say owning one or two) and living in the country on acres of land in which to lose myself in creation's rhythms and cycles.
Living in Yonkers, New York, I've clearly not reached the living in the country dream--not yet. But I have inched closer to it. Each time over the past 20 years, and it must be hundreds of times, that I've passed the stables and fenced rings within Van Cortlandt Park on Broadway just over the city border in Riverdale, Bronx (and now only five minutes drive from our home) I've felt physically tugged by the scene, but kept on path, resisting attraction.
That is until a few months ago, when my resistance was low shortly after my mother's passing and I allowed myself to be thrown off habitual course, toward their rustic red and white painted barn office where eagerly and trepidatiously I entered and paid for my first set of five horse riding lessons.
I'd ridden horses a handful of times in my life, though now I'd not call what I did on those excursions riding, only hanging on for dear life. I never felt safe and was totally dependent on the person leading me, so it is surprising even to me, that in the hands of my current excellent instructor and on the backs of these magnificent animals I feel I've landed fully in my seat, in a safe place up on the saddle, legs embracing their wide bodies, reins in hands.
Depending on your perspective, I've been blessed or cursed. Many of life's physical experiences have come relatively easily to me. But, as I did not initially with pottery making and still at times don't, I've NOT cottoned readily to dressage style horse riding. I began working seriously with clay in my twenties, so I didn't as much have the excuse of age-challenged learning as I do now with horse riding in my middle years. But the truth is, they're both damn difficult, requiring you to coordinate and integrate multiple movements simultaneously, and all with the attitude and posture of doing nothing at all.
My teacher once mentioned she has some students, young siblings, whom when she gives them instructions, they absorb them instantly and never need to hear them again. This awes me, as she repeats the same instructions to me over and over, class after class. "Stay in the middle of your saddle. You're too far forward, tuck your butt under, it's sticking out, hands down...and don't wave them around, keep them steady, sit up straight, make your shoulder blades touch, engage your core, heels down, stay to the wall, tell him go, make him stop, his engine is in the back, don't let him get away with that, you're the boss..." And the most absurd instruction of all, "Stop thinking." "Yeah, easy for you to say," my flip response to her litany of directives. Then we chuckle.
Early on, I remarked while trying to contort my body into the shape she was describing, "This doesn't feel good. It feels so unnatural." She laughed and replied, "There's nothing natural about what you're doing." It was then I'd understood that dressage riding is an art or craft, a tango between horse and rider, not a sport, though it works muscles I've not heard from in years, makes me sweaty, breathe hard and my heart pound. In pairs dancing there can be only one lead, and in this case it's supposed to be me.
The same is true in pottery making. With rare exception, the beginning pottery students' biggest challenge is to actually move the clay, to lead it. As a teacher you always hear from new adult students, "I'm afraid to ruin it." So it is learning to ride horses. I must let go my fear of leading and moving the horse. It's not forcing or manipulating the horse or clay that works, but generous, open-hearted listening, to acquaint myself with their personalities, properties, and limits. And these factors can change from day to day, moment to moment. The usual culprit at the root of my fear is self-judgement and over-thinking.
Horse and clay speak to me only if I'm able to empty myself enough to hear them. It's this challenge of learning to step out of my fears into the scarier wilderness of trusting and being present that is the essence of deft horse riding and pottery making. My journeys with clay, and especially horses, can be bumpy, but when they are smooth, I meet fleeting moments of transcendence that keep me returning for more.