Going Off-lead

Writing can be like riding a horse on its off gait, the best solution is to loosen your grip and let go.

Writing can be like riding a horse on its off gait, the best solution is to loosen your grip and let go.
Photo by RossoGialloBianco via Flickr

A man in passion rides a horse that runs away with him. –  Thomas Fuller

When I look back on my childhood in a small town, I can see how lucky I was – so lucky I had the luxury of not even realizing how good I had it.  I lived a block from the beach.  Our town hosted a Halloween festival in the Vets Hall every October 31st.  I grew up alongside surfers and cowboys – riding horses and floating in the sea.

I was lucky enough to get riding lessons when I turned 12.  Real riding lessons with an English saddle and a jaunty little cap.  We learned to post and jump over tiny obstacles.  We even learned rudimentary dressage.  I loved it all, but eventually gave it up for the more demanding pastimes of adolescence.

Still, I never forgot the feel cantering along the beach, the horse’s mane wound tightly in my hands as we raced along the shallows.  From time to time I dabble in hyperbole and melodrama, but believe me when I tell you that riding a horse on the beach is as romantic and poetic as it sounds.

Later – while trying to deal with the realities of law school and living in a (really) big city for the first time – I took up horseback riding again. A friend and I lucked out, finding an instructor about 45 minutes from our house willing to take on these two 20-something students for the group rate of $12 a lesson.  Once a week, on Tuesday evenings, we’d battle traffic on Interstate 8 as we headed out to the arena at a threadbare horse ranch near Alpine, Ca.  Once there, we were responsible for collecting our mount, choosing our tack, saddling up and presenting ourselves for the lesson – which focused mainly on English dressage.

For over a year, we rode every Tuesday evening – sometimes in the musty dusk of a summer night, sometimes during the angry whine of a spring maelstrom, but always wrapped in a veil of hushed excitement.  We’d make eye contact across the arena and know we were thinking the same thing – “Can you believe it?  We’re actually riding a horse!”

This time around I was smart enough to know exactly how lucky I was, and I reveled in my good fortune. I searched for the perfect pair of boots and finally bought the helmet I’d always coveted as a child – black velvet with a sateen bow.

If you don’t know anything about dressage, the basic premise involves learning to direct your horse using your body, rather than just the reins.  If memory serves, dressage was originally a battlefield tactic – soldiers on horseback were two busy wielding weapons and defending themselves against attack worry about reins.  And so tactile directions emerged – and now you can see riders in fancy breeches and top hats parade around Olympic arenas, with nary a combatant in sight.

Though I hail from redneck country, and my early riding days involved bareback jaunts and western saddles, I loved everything about dressage.To me, it felt like horseback riding rather than “horseback driving.”  I loved how you can tell the mood of the horse by the way it moves under you and how that horse could also tell just how you were feeling too. I loved the communication and the interplay between mount and rider.

And I loved the way riding informed me about myself.  Once I sat down in that saddle, my entire state of mind was on display.  If I was tense, the horse could feel it and that hour in the arena would morph into a power of wills.  When I was confident, the horse followed my lead.  On the days when we were both feeling lazy, we’d aggravate the hell out of our instructor as we made halfhearted figure eights in the dusty paddock.

One of the dressage moves we worked on endlessly – my least favorite – involves compelling the horse to move off its “lead.”  Just like we can be righties or lefties in baseball or goofy footed on a surfboard, horses have a preferred gait.  When they are allowed to choose, they’ll start off on their lead leg and move smoothly underneath you.  Force them to start on the other foot, and you’re in for a bumpy ride.  A trot off the lead is jumbling and chaotic, but a canter off the lead is the worst – every stride is a lurch, and you can feel the confusion and frustration seeping up from the horses neck and shoulders into your own body.

I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason why a horse would need to move off its lead.  Perhaps in a battle, if one leg is hurt it makes sense to lean on the other.  Or maybe switching gaits is used to put the other rider off his game.  I could probably google it…but I think I’ll let it go.  Sometimes we don’t need to know everything.  A little mystery is okay.

It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.   – Adlai E. Stevenson

I’ve been thinking about this off lead canter a lot recently, because I feel it’s a perfect metaphor for life’s rhythm and what happens when we get out of balance.  We might still be moving forward, hitting all the goal posts and benchmarks, but something feels off. We’re getting tossed and turned and holding on for dear life.  Our footing feels unsteady and we end up holding on tighter and gripping harder at precisely the moment when we should be letting go.

Our instructor always had to remind us to relax in the saddle during these exercises.  Tensing up only impaired our rhythm, making it harder to stay mounted.  But if we loosened our limbs, eased up on the reins and gripped lightly with our legs, the horse would sense the calm and fall easier into the gait.

It was never a perfect ride – but we found a way to limit the jostle and stay firmly planted in our saddle.

Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider. –  Saint Augustine

When my own life gets off track, I call to mind my old riding instructor’s advice.  Instead gripping tightly, I try to let go.  I fight to loosen my hold because I know if I grasp more fiercely, the ride will only get bumpier; the bruises will only multiply.

Whenever summer arrives, I follow Sarah Ban Breathnach’s advice and crack open Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book A Gift from the Sea. In the book, Lindbergh talks about living in grace – not a religious or theological grace, but rather “an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.”

How do you know if you’re off lead and out of grace?  Lindbergh explains:

“Vague as this definition may be, I believe most people are aware of periods in their lives when they seem to be “in grace” and other periods when they feel ‘out of grace,’ even though they may use different words to describe these states.  The first is a happy condition one seems to carry all one’s tasks before one lightly, as if borne along on a great tide; and in the opposite state one can hardly tie a shoe-string.”

The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea. – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Lindbergh advocates simplification.  And in a busy world – the “circus act” as Lindberg called it – the path to simplification is to take lessons from life on the beach.  Having always lived within a mile of the ocean myself, I carry the secrets to a graceful life inside my muscle memory – I just need to stretch and flex a little and get it all out.

For Lindbergh, the principles of beach living include shedding and basic shelter.  Lindberg talks about giving up expectations the way you shed your coverall for a dip in the sea.  As for shelter, Lindbergh questions the need to cover every surface of our house with things.  She wonders at the energy spent on never-ending cleaning, mending and decorating.  She talks about living with basics, and forgoing unnecessary accouterments

After some soul searching on the seaside, Lindbergh eventually decides that although inward simplicity is the goal, it’s outward simplicity that can lead the way.   She vows to continue to cultivate simplicity in her own life, and as she looks at the simple beauty of an abandoned seashell she realizes the freedom we’re all so lucky to have, “one is free, like the hermit crab, to change one’s shell.”

If you surrender completely to the moments as they pass, you live more richly those moments. – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Cover photo by Arup Malakar via Flickr

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