For years I have subscribed to some kind of physical training program, but the maneuver I have never perfected is giving myself (at least) a day of rest.
In barn as well as gym life, it’s very common for Sundays to be unscheduled. Everyone, including trainers, needs a day off to do their lives, however those days off have always felt like ‘off days’ to me. I like knowing that for some space of time during the day I will get to move, to release emotional knots from what I’ve held in tension during the day. (I don’t know if there is such a thing as spiritual stretching in the same vein of at-your-desk neck and back care, but I haven’t found it.) I love the sense that motion and music and sweat have unkinked anything stuck, making emergence from a workout feel like time travel: before a workout I am ever in Next Time, the most frequent question I ask being ‘what’s next?’, whereas afterwards I can be in the Present with all its proverbial blessings. Without some kind of moving exertion to look forward to, I feel stuck and stagnant, too much like a drippy growling creature in a swamp. So, rather than be a horror show, I find something physical to do each day.
Part of what I love about riding horses is entering a world so vital and sensory that anything not of that world can’t keep up. During the best rides, lists drop away and the importance of calls mutes. Sky re-appears above me. I know my own heartbeat. I am carried, rather than trying to heft myself through the day.
That said, I am genius at turning delight into a project: I don’t just ride horses for fun, I ride at least four times a week so I can learn to ride them better, plus work out at home so I am stronger during my rides, so that the fun I have I can have again, more often and in greater quantity.
Or, so I think.
There have been times in the past weeks when I have looked at the physical therapy I do so I can keep up the training so I can keep up the riding so I can learn on the horse and wonder, ‘does this make sense? Surely there are other ways to be happy?’
I’m sure there are. They just don’t apply to my situation: three months old with an uneducated horse whose physical challenges trigger mine as we learn an activity we both enjoy and are reasonably suited for.
In these past three months, Fiona and I have progressed from muscling through careening oval shapes to bending around circles of decreasing size at walk, trot and canter. We can transition between our gaits without fuss, adjust speed, lengthen and shorten stride, and halt without lurching. We weren’t ever flabby to begin with but we’ve both done a lot of core work over the past two months, especially, and it shows: Fiona can support her weight with her hind end which allows her front to lighten and the tension in my reins to be lighter. For my part, I can post and sit her very animated (what dressage folk call ‘suspended’) trot without most of the bounce and wobble from my shoulders and back. We’re doing great by any measure, but there is also a lot more to learn to do.
We were attempting some of it, working on trot to canter transitions after doing a trot-to-halt exercise in figure eights which had challenged both our strength and balance. By the time we got to the canter work, my bounce was back, not in a good way, and I could feel that my cues were confusing my mare. Working left is our harder direction, not helped by full sun and brimming humidity. It felt like a fountain’s cool when our coach suggested,
“If you’re having trouble with the left, try going right.”
We did, got the canter transition twice, then turned back to attempt it left.
My left hamstring hurt.
My mare pinned her ears and stiffened her neck, hollowing her stride.
Our coach called out a correction.
All the aforementioned happened again, but trot also somehow turned to canter.
“Good enough!” my coach pronounced. “Let her walk with long reins.”
Mopping my dripping face, I said, “thanks for letting us go right first. I know I’m not helping her on these transitions.”
“Some days are just harder than others,” she shrugged. “You do what you can, and, if she’s really struggling, you back way off so she can succeed at something simpler, then stop and try again another day.”
“I don’t think it was her struggle that was the problem,” I shared.
She laughed. “That happens. Don’t worry about it.”
Have we met?
If worrying were a sport, I would be an Olympian.
I was upset to feel so tired and sore. Isn’t this what I’ve been training to avoid? Shouldn’t all my effort be paying off? Aren’t I right to worry that I might never ride pain free?
Later that afternoon I emailed my gym trainer, who is also a horsewoman, explaining what had happened, then reviewed my current training schedule with the question, “Is there something more I should be doing?”
When she called, her first suggestion was that I find a way to do less.
“You don’t have a proper rest day,” she pointed out. “And you need at least one because, the thing is, Julie, rest is when your body puts everything together.”
In my experience, Fear is a talented mimic.
It can make itself sound like my junior high basketball coach calling us to the line for another sprint drill.
It can echo the high school guidance counselor who looked at three test scores in the upper nineties and one in the high eighties and say, “if you would learn this other skill, you would have gotten a really good score.”
More than that, though, I think it carries flashcards.
Every rejection to every query letter I ever sent to a literary agent.
Every number higher than anemic on the bathroom scale.
Every break-up text.
Fear is so good at making me feel bad, the natural question to ask is why I keep paying it any attention. After all, it’s never satisfied. The only number Fear can really count to is ‘more,’ and it always, always leaves me feeling as though I am less: less than capable, teachable, loveable, Fear’s lists of what I will never be go on and on.
Sometimes the only way to shut down a monologue is with an even better line.
Fortunately for me, I consider my friend Lisa and her relatives to be the royal family of one-liners. One of her Dad’s is: “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
I had gotten tired and a little sore. Hardly the stuff of catastrophe.
Miffed at being upstaged, Fear went mum.
Then must have made its way to my gut because the next day everything in my intestines wanted out.
I took the day off from the barn and did not much, trying to get my system to calm. At some point I admitted to myself that I was resting, and it’s really not so bad.
The next morning I felt good enough to go back to the barn for Fiona and my weekly trail ride.
We walked out along the scrubby shaded greenbelt watching bunnies scamper and hawks circle.
Passing by the arena on the way in, I decided to try a quick review of our lessons that week: in ten minutes we bent, flexed, trotted, and (oh yeah!) cantered circles, corners, angles and straight lines with no hesitation, the slightest nudges and little effort. Everything I could ask for and more for the very reasonable price of saying to Fear,
“Give it a Rest.”