Give it a Rest

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.

I cued.

My left hamstring hurt.

My mare pinned her ears and stiffened her neck, hollowing her stride.

I swore.

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.”

Before and After

“Now push her underneath your hands, and add the spur to ask her to jig.”


No, I was not at the mercy of a truly bizarre square-dance caller. I was in the saddle, learning what dressage practitioners call a half-step.


“You want to sit back, to see if you can make her quicker off the ground, rather than moving further forward. Think like she’s trotting behind. Does that make sense?”


Mentally, I got the image of a car squealing its back tires. “I get the idea, but I don’t really understand how she could be trotting behind but not totting in front.”


Dauntless, my dressage coach began jogging toward us. “So, this is a trot, eh?” She paused, jogging in place, her knees and feet rising higher in their steps. “And this is the jig we want. Quicker off the ground. Like the floor is lava. That quick.”


Having grown up in Arizona, where summer sidewalks can steam during rainstorms, this was a concept that landed.


“Got it!”


I held my hands steady, reins taut, seat tentatively still as I turned my pressing ankle inward to apply the spur.


First, Fiona swung her haunches into my leg, as though trying to push me off; then she swung them the other way, trying to avoid me. When I still kept up the spur’s pressure, she raised her left hind leg the way I might feign throwing an elbow. Finally, tired of me, she kicked out with the left hind, throwing me forward in the saddle.


My coach laughed. “So that’s her telling you very nicely that you’re pushing too hard with that spur.”


I flexed my ankles outward to remove the spur’s contact with Fiona’s body, then rode another round of the arena braced for the buck I knew was coming before stopping, slumped before my coach, reaching to remove the first spur from my boot.


“I think I’m disappointed that she’s so reactive today.”


My coach peered at me as though I’d proposed that Fiona wear tap shoes.


“First, she wanted to spook at the pattern of my shirt in the mirror, then she spooked when you moved the chair earlier—”


The dressage arena sits away from the barn on a plateau carved out from the hillside, with a tented seating area on the downhill long side, and double-decker horse-sized mirrors at the far end that can help riders evaluate things like their horse’s straightness or frame. Usually blasé  about our growing size in in the glass, today Fiona had wanted nothing to do with the bouncing diamonds of my argyle blouse, and even less to do with the chair that had levitated next to my coach a few minutes later when the lesson began.


“And what happened when she spooked?” my coach asked.


I removed the spur from my second boot hoping to hide the flinch on my face.


The short answer would have been ‘not much,’ but I’ve never been an especially concise student.


“I kept riding, circled around, let her look at things, got our bend and flexion back, then did a few exercises with walking and halting next to the scary things so she could look at them—”


“So, she got back to work?” my coach summarized, taking the spurs back from me.


“She did,” I agreed. “And—”


“And you had the tools to help her do that?” she queried.


To say the weeks we’ve been working with her have been instructive would be like saying Gene Kelly’s had some dancing talent. I had learned to ride and lead Fiona without fear, knowing I could stick with her and help her through anything scary, for instance, like the grinds and shots and bangs associated with the barn re-roofing next door. Fiona had also unwound from much of her prior pain, muscles smoothing and softening and manner relaxing to the point of sleepiness. Some days I’ve had to wake her up to put her halter on.


“I did,” I agreed. “But I haven’t had to use them lately, and I guess I’m a little bummed because we’d been doing so well, and last time we got such a good ride, and today we’re doing something new, and it’s unfamiliar, so it’s hard again, and it’s fair that she’d get reactive—”


“Reactive would have been taking off bucking,” my trainer laughed. “She’s not reactive, she just communicated, very nicely, that she was uncomfortable with what you were asking her to do.”


All three of us know that the left direction is harder for my mare, who has a kind of J-curve to her body, the left hind traveling at a bit of an outside angle compared to her other legs.


“It was fair that she’d let me know it was hard,” I agreed. “And she wasn’t mean about it.”


My coach nodded as I struggled to find more words for what was bothering me.


“I guess, in my experience, when a horse kicks out, he’s about to try to throw you off.”


“I see.” A knowing expression came across my coach’s face. “But with horses, you have to look at the before and after. With a horse like this who’s usually so quiet her lower lip droops, if she suddenly starts bucking you probably did something really wrong.”


It was my turn to nod.


“But if she starts out calm and relaxed, and gets back to calm and relaxed after something like a kick-out, that’s communication, and you’re lucky that she’ll tell you things, because other horses won’t—they’ll just suffer in silence, stoic—until they go lame or get ulcers.”


“I’m just—” I thought of Bayley, who had walked, trotted, loped, bent, pushed, and flexed in response to my requests, never even hinting that her left hind leg may as well have been detached for all the help it could give her. Chronic inflammation had stiffened the hock and ankle joints into nearly-locked discomfort, none of which I could assess from on top of her, figuring she’d tell me when she couldn’t or didn’t want to work anymore. I just didn’t know she would choose a stoicism giving her a greater chance at reciting Shakespeare than stopping or even limping. “—I’m not used to this kind of conversation.”


My coach gestured us away. “The best thing to do after a horse gets upset with something new, is to go back to something really boring. Go trot some circles.”


Fiona wasn’t bored, she was soon grooving.


We traced circles in the arena, then a figure-eight, then a serpentine with three curves, four curves, five curves, six, smoothing through the tightening turns like a belly dancer might snake through spirals.


I couldn’t help smiling as we wound our way, relaxed and joined, through each pattern, then into a hugely stretchy trot at the end, Fiona’s strides lengthening like ribbons unspooling. I was thrilled for this mare to be capable of such fluid motion, and ecstatic to be able to experience it.


“She doesn’t hold a grudge!” I laughed as I rubbed her mane and neck at the end of our lesson.


“You also took off your spurs,” my coach joked. “But yes, she did very well. I just want to make sure you’re not telling yourself something happened that didn’t.”


“I guess what I might know as a trigger warning doesn’t have to be,” I conceded, with the creeping sense that I’d had a lesson like this before.


I untacked, then hosed Fiona down, letting her graze before I put her away. My mind worked like her munching jaw trying to break down what I had taken in.




Then I recalled it—the conversation—I’d had with a love many, many months ago when he’d suggested dinner a certain night, then had never followed up to tell me where or when, and couldn’t be reached at all that afternoon.  Eventually we’d connected, but I’d been thrown by what I had seen as indifference bordering on taking me and my time for granted. Turns out, he’d had a last-minute visit from a client.


When we talked about it later, he’d suggested that in the future if I’m upset about something I just ask him “what happened that night?” instead of going straight to queries about whether our relationship had changed. I had learned from other men that not calling meant the coming of not ever calling, but in this man’s world, not calling could mean getting suddenly interrupted or pulled aside by his customer base.


I have a friend who quotes one of her teacher that ‘life’s greatest imperative is repeat pleasure, avoid pain.’


I do not imagine that directive is limited to human life.


We all have conditioned responses based on pleasure and pain, especially where the sensations have been pronounced, but they are rarely the best responses.


As the same friend goes on to quote, another teacher suggests reminding ourselves ‘that was my first response. It may not be my best one.


How very blessed to be pairing with another creature willing to give true trigger warnings: mellow messages of discomfort approaching disobedience, not willfully, but needfully. Especially if I am able to register her behavior before and after those messages, I can place them in a context that tells me this is a partner I can trust to want to tell me things.


My coach points out that we can also ask Fiona questions: if I attempt the same maneuver in the same way and get the same response, I have confirmed a combination of things that does not work for her, which I can then attempt to break down into separate pieces to figure out which one is the main offender.


Again, the lesson as from a time before that we can ask questions. I hope not to need it hereafter.