Conscious Riding

Photo by Olga Kravchuk on Unsplash

Dear Diary, 

Like any little girl, I’ve had this enormous passion for horses as a child. I drew notebooks after notebooks of horses, cowboys and ranch stories… Watched weekly series of Black Beauty and Folly Foot (a British show in the 70’s about life on a horse farm). Dreamed owning several different horses, rode my bike like it was a horse and indulged myself in make believe world of horse and rider. I even made a makeshift horse out of a long cardboard tubes with a tissue box stuck on the end of it because I wanted one so much. We weren’t poor by any means, but my folks just did not understand my passion so I never got a rocking horse or those horses on a stick.  

But they were good enough to indulge me in some horse riding lessons and rides when the opportunity showed itself, so that’s how my riding experience began.

My first lessons – Islamabad, Pakistan:  

I have a yellowed photo of me atop a horse, in of all places, a horse stable in Islamabad, Pakistan. My classmate from Australia took me to this place because she rode horses and her father set her up to ride here too. 

My parents were hesitant but with my pleas they bought me a few handful of riding lessons. I was only 5 years old and weighed barely anything. I looked like a tiny little indian boy sitting atop a big chesnut horse. These horses were rather skinny looking and not too well schooled but what did I know at the time? After a few lessons in walking and trotting, my instructor and I were out in the trails. In hindsight I think this was highly immature time to be trail riding but it was exciting to me nonetheless. 

Of course with any of my adventures in life, there’s always me – the exception to the mass – where my horse had decided suddenly to turn and bolt back to the stables. Making the horse stop was impossible – he had a hard mouth and I was too inexperienced to stop him. I think this happened twice and I remember hanging on to the saddle fir dear life, praying I won’t get thrown off. At one ride the horse walked into a pond to have a drink. 

I might as well been a toy monkey sitting on his back, for all we knew. I had no control over the situation, because I was too green a rider. 

Raja: Next horse I rode was actually a really fat black pony named Raja. We were in Australia when my folks took us out on a day trip and we came across a horse farm. My pony was so fat and round that my saddle will start shifting to one side as we did our trail walk up the mountains. He was a calm fellow – very low key – liked to stop and poop a lot (to my sister’s dismay as she rode behind me). The picture we have of that ride shows me sitting on an angle atop Raja.

Photo by Doruk Yemenici on Unsplash

Fast forward to Kripalu 2012:  

Some of you have read my previous experience at Miraval and the arena work as well as the Equine Experience. To further my experience and instinct in dealing with horses, I signed up for a horse riding course at Kripalu during Labor Day weekend. There were two sets of dates for this course – one was 3 days and the other was 4. I wrote to the instructor Paul, asking what the difference was between the two and I got back:

“Learning is cumulative – the more you do the more you learn. But it’s all good.”

At the time I did not understand this very zen-master like response, though now seeing it I see what he means now. 

Kripalu, we meet again: 

So day one of any program at Kripalu starts in the evening. We sat in a circle – the 5 students, Paul (the instructor), Sandra (his lovely assistant and yoga expert), and Harridas (assistant no.2 and long term resident of Kripalu). Each of us talked about our experiences with horses and it was interesting to see that we all had some form of riding – perhaps not all experts but no beginners. 

What’s unique about our sessions were that Sandra would bring some of the yoga practices into the lessons – of breathing, of relaxation and body awareness. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this combination but being that we were at Kripalu (were everything is yoga centric), I just said

“….well….. Alrighty then!” 

and went along with it. Later I came to realize how the yoga sessions helped clear our minds after a full day of riding. 

No. We were not asked to do crazy yoga poses while riding a horse. 

Riding Lesson Day One:  

We are now at the stables, being introduced to our horses. My horse was called QT and it was a painted horse with clear blue eyes. Every time I’d look at him, I’d always wonder what the hell he’s thinking (probably nothing). Most horses have dewy dark brown eyes but not my QT – his eyes were pale blue and you had no idea what was going on inside that brain of his. 

To start the lessons, we would start with walking around the ring, exercising our breathing with every four breaths. This was a way for the horse and rider to get each other’s rhythm and familiarity. A bonding moment, as you may call it.

It’s my second time this year being atop a horse and it’s always an interesting feeling, being so high up on an animal that has its own will. 

The teacher showed us the basics of horse riding, which was to find your body alignment on the horse and to do so, was to stand up in the stirrups by the ball of your feet (he referred to it as the “two point”) and balance yourself. It’s okay when the horse is stationary, but when the big animal is moving along, this becomes a little scary when it’s your first time. But think of it like you’re coasting on a bike, I guess. The next set of drills was to lean forward on the horse’s neck and balance yourself while standing on the stirrup, with your hands firmly planted on the base of its neck. This time the exercise had to be done while the horse was trotting and he called it “posting” (or was it “coasting” – and I couldn’t hear it right? LOL).

Experienced riders make this look oh so easy but for a not-so adept rider like myself, I’m sure I looked like a monkey hanging on precariously atop the horse, bopping up and down because I couldn’t keep my balance up in standing. 

All in the meantime the teacher is calling out to me and telling me to keep my hands down while I’m still bopping away. He finally came up to me and quietly said, “if you keep doing the same thing you’ve always been doing, you’re going to keep getting the same results.” 

Hmmmm…. this advice sounds very familiar.  (Think Miraval’s arena lesson).

Unfortunately for me, the helmet that I was given to wear was too big and kept sliding down over my head, so I dismounted the horse and went back to the stables to get a smaller one. All in the meantime I’m thinking about what the instructor had said. In a way, this was a good time out for me because apparently I was so overwhelmed with instructions that somehow I was not opening myself to doing something different.

Round 2. I get back on QT and we start the drills again. This time a lot better, though it’s still difficult to keep my hands down, but my balancing act is getting a wee bit better. It’s also hard for me because my horse likes to pull his head down a lot and therefore I feel like I’m going to get pulled up and over his head. Luckily this never happened but I soon learned that my horse “carries his head low” according to the stable hands and that is what I had to learn to get used to while riding. 

Photo by Thomas Peham on Unsplash

Zombie Toe Redux:  

Part 1 of riding lessons over, we dismount our horses and take them into the stable. Once inside, there was a bottle neck and just like cars – the golden rule is to not keep the horses too close in proximity for safety sake, because they have a tendency to nip each other’s butts if being that close.

I’ve seen this happen and I sometimes wonder if we were wild animals just as they were, if anyone would have the tendency to nip someone else in the rear when in very tight quarters (like an elevator, a line or a crowded train)? I guess instead of nipping, people have the tendency to push. 

So trying to hold back QT from walking straight into another horse’s butt, I tried to do my best to keep him at a distance but the horse just has its own mind. Not to mention he has the tendency to walk towards the left (towards me). 

Next second you know, I felt a sharp and extremely painful sensation on my right pinky toe. Yes folks…. QT just stepped on it while we started moving forward. 

What the hell. 

I screamed out in pain but of course, it’s not like I can get angry with the horse – I probably just had put my foot in the wrong place and in line of fire. But the pain was unmistakeable – a familiar pain for poor Zombie Toe, of all toes – and I had a feeling for sure this time it was broken. But all I can think of was head straight to the freezer box and retrieve an ice pack and start nursing it.

That’s exactly what I did. 

I thought that this totally sucks and I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to miss the other classes (geez, we just started!!!) but I had God’s blessing and luck on my side and despite the accident, I found that I can still hobble around better than I had last time it was stepped on, so I took some Advil and decided to keep on truckin’. 

Poor Zombie Toe. It did not like being stepped on by a HORSE, second time around.

Happily for me, the afternoon class was all about riding the horse bareback, which…. It was the first time for many of us but attention to my Zombie Toe took away the initial fear of falling off from the horse. Also lucky for us, the horse we rode for this exercise was very sweet and well natured and all we did (and we could handle) was walk calmly around the indoor arena, where the ground was softer and we were in a more protected space. 


Never a dull moment at Kripalu:  

I had scheduled a lovely hot stone massage session (good call, being that riding is such a hard practice on your body) and after sticking Zombie Toe into the icy cold pool next to the hot whirl pool, having a massage was really a good planning on my part.

Oh…. did I also mention that every time I come to Kripalu, I end up eating like a starved kid on a Fat Farm? Being that they serve buffet style, I can never leave the cafeteria without having EVERYTHING I can possibly lay my little hands on and shuffling out the door with an overflowing tray of food.

So…. the massage ended around 9:30PM and the place had quietened down completely. I paid my gratuities and was hobbling back to the cafeteria (to get TEA, not more food) and as I was walking down the stairwell, suddenly there’s a blaring alarm going on.

CHIRRRRRRP….. CHIRRRRRRP…..  CHIRRRRRRP…..  CHIRRRRRRP…..!!!!

Suddenly all the doors that were open in the stairwells started closing. I felt like I had triggered some sort of alarm and that the place was contaminated so the doors were automatically shutting (which they were). 

Oh good lord. What now. 😑 🙄

I came out of one of the doors on the second floor and saw that the hallways were now flashing this typical fire alarm strobe light. 

Great.  Fire drill…    What. The. Hell.

Well…. Obviously it wasn’t a fire drill but a real fire alarm so I saw all these people and their children quietly pour out of the rooms and big meeting areas, flowing into the one stairwell that lead out into the back courtyard.

Once outside (and luckily for us, it was a nice cool but not too cold temperature) – we all waited in the dark, watching the building glow with flashing strobe lights flickering through the windows. 

It took about a good 10 minutes before the fire truck showed up – which was indeed a funny sight because it was literally chugging up slowly (as if it had all the time in the world) up this very long driveway. Because it was so dark, you can barely make out the shape of the small truck and its headlight. 

I laughed at how slow the thing was moving and the lady next to me commented, 

“well geez….. if that was a real fire, we’d all be burnt to a crisp by now!!” 

Indeed. 

Another 10 minutes go by as the firemen went through the building to check for any real fires or hazards. It was funny sitting out there in the dark courtyard with a few hundred other visitors – quietly waiting while this fire alarm kept bleeping.

At one point I could’ve sworn the fire alarm sounded like a giant cricket that some how got unleashed inside Kripalu building and that the fire men were looking for it. How funny and annoying that would be if that were true.

This…. folks is how my imagination keeps me fully entertained during emergencies like this. If you think this is funny, you should go back and read what happened the first time I was at Kripalu and we were hit with two major rain storms.

Riding Lesson Day Two:  

Woke up and poor Zombie Toe is all black and blue… and miserable and angry with me for not looking out for it. It’s totally traumatized by the big horse’s foot (bigger than my friend’s foot was) and there’s a sense of “will we be alright today?” lingering in the air. 

But we march on.

Day two was harder than day one, because now all the insecurities and the instructions and the application of what we learned are rolled into this one big matzoh ball like obstacle and is consuming me. It also doesn’t help that it’s hot, I didn’t bring enough tops to keep myself cool and dry, and to make things even more interesting, my horse is totally out of control.

Today’s session was about keeping control over the horse while hanging the corner on the rails in the arena. QT kept wanting to go towards the inside of the arena, heading towards the jumping bars and straight into other horses. It also got spooked because another horse nipped him in the butt or that another horse would come up right behind him in a canter and so QT would start picking up his pace to run with the other one. Of course it didn’t help that I was in one big twisted mental mess and so that didn’t help things at all.

The funny thing was that when I approached our instructor for some advice and possibly encouragement (or support), he looked at me and smiled, and said

“It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?” 

Ha. I guess the sweet coddling was not what I needed but a firm kick in the butt to get the hell back out there. I was instructed to go around the arena on QT in a walk (while all others were trying their drills and trotting, sometimes cantering) and I felt like I was the kid who had to go take a time out. 

But as he said, “you learn in the in between moments and pauses” – which really spoke truth in this case and with a few rounds of walking around the arena and calming myself down, I naturally got back into the game and challenged QT and I to try trotting around the rails again.

And this time…. I made it. 

The sense of accomplishment when one finally “gets it” is an euphoric feeling. It’s a sense of getting to the top of the mountain, but after having taken a little break before the last climb.

Paul would call out on us to try a once about around the ring – to test out and show the rest of the group our accomplishments. To his call out my response was always, “Okay, I’ll give it a try” and his come back was always, “there’s no try. Just do it or don’t”.

From this, I secretly nick named him “horse back Yoda”. 

Riding Lesson Day Three:  

By day three (and our last day), our legs and sit bones are so sore that to walk in a straight line is a challenge. 

I swaggered around the building like John Wayne. My friends laughed at my bow-legged walk but seriously, between the sore inner thighs, sit bone, sore ankles and a still traumatized and miserable Zombie Toe – it’s a miracle I’m still walking, much less attempting another hot sweltering ride in the sun atop QT.

And a ride we did.

Third day’s a charm I say, and this morning we continued our drills of coasting on two point atop our horses while the horses trotted. Harridas – one of Paul’s assistants – called out to me and said,

“Try it on a six beat” 

Six beat means that the horse trots about six steps and you stay standing all the while. 

What the hell.

I can’t even get my ass up on the 2 beat much less SIX. Suddenly I felt like I was challenged to do some sort of acrobatic act like Cirque Du Soleil atop a trotting horse, just like in the circus. 

Is he NUTS? 

Well… it’s a step up from me being the monkey hanging atop the horse, but still….. But I see everyone else is doing it and so of course…. I must persevere and keep on trying. 

May I also insert a small note here: For the life of me I could not remember Haridas’s name till the very last day and mentally I kept wanting to call him: Haggis / Hagrid / Har-something. It finally stuck when I thought of Paribas bank with an “H”. Thank God I did not call him “Haggis” by accident, but there you have it. Then again, my name also gets called in all different versions: Rai-ko, Reeko, Reiki, Rika (which my ballet teacher has settled on calling me)….. Paul called me “Reiki” a few times and I laughed at that while still trying to maintain balance on QT. In his words: “It’s all good”. 

So with a few rounds of regrouping and trying with trotting, I suddenly found pockets of moments where I was smooth sailing atop QT. Well whaddya know. Of course, QT still had his moment of suddenly bolting off into a canter but again, I’m a lot more prepared this time and was able to reign him in. 

Finally it came a point where we were asked to go around the arena again. First time around, I wasn’t ready to canter, even though Paul thought I could. Second time around though was different – I was getting used to QT’s gait and rhythm now so I nudged him on to pick up speed. Mind you…. QT requires a bit of CLEAR INTENTION as this horse does not like to MOVE once it stops, nor does it want to STOP when its bolting, and it decides to cut corners at all possible times. It’s like driving a manual car with a finicky engine and rickety stick shift (not that I would know because I can’t drive, but I can only imagine). Once QT started cantering (which was a few paces), Paul yelled out in delight: 

“Yayyyy Reiko!!! Now keep KICKING. KICK!!! KICK!!! KICK!!!!!!!!!” 

Oh Good Lawd.

I just got the hang of balancing myself on the horse and handling the reigns so he start cutting corners and run over the crowd watching in the middle, but now he wants me to keep kicking, LOL. 

For those of you who are not horse riders, I will tell you that if you are not balanced on your horse on the balls of your foot, the feet start either sliding in too deep into the stirrups or fly out of them, thus you’re left with just your body weight and thighs to keep you on the horse. Being that I am just getting used to all of the other fundamentals, this “kicking” to goad QT on is a little beyond my abilities right now…. so I stopped. Happily we tried this twice and on both occasions I experienced cantering on a horse for a few seconds, for the second time in my life and it was great. I’m sure QT was annoyed with all the starting and stopping. He may not “think” but I’m sure “annoyed” emotion is still a primal thing.

As a child, one of my fantasies was to ride the great plains of Montana or the lush fields of England (usually sprawling prairies come to mind), galloping at full speed. I guess it’s from watching all the western movies and shows about horses that gave me this idea. Though apparently one must get to the point of being comfortable MAINTAINING balance and CONTROL on a horse first, much less galloping across the wide fields. I also fully know (now from experience) that in reality, I would be most likely hanging on to the horse for dear life because it decided to charge off, not initiated by moi. I guess it’ll take a long while and a lot of riding before I can get to that place 😀 

Oh…. and I must add this. 

Being that Zombie Toe got stomped on by QT the first day of the lessons, I was scared the second day to lead him back into the stables. The third day I figured I’d learned my lesson to keep my foot out of his way so I braved leading him back again. Mind you – I learned that QT has a habit of walking towards the left (towards me) when I lead him and of course being the novice rider that I am, I am still not aware of how to handle horses when they do that so I’m trying to keep my distance from him and my feet. But here’s where God laughs at you and hits that “smyte” button:

QT tripped a little over a rock on the way back and he accidentally (?) stepped on the side arch of my right foot…. this time narrowly missing Zombie Toe…. AGAIN. 

What. The. Hell.

QT just looked at me with his pale blue eyes, with a look of “what…..?” 

Ice please.

So what became of Zombie Toe?:  

So much lessons were learned and absorbed, appreciated and new friendships made but the most surprising thing out of this whole trip was that after being stepped on TWICE, I went to go see my foot doctor as soon as I got back to the city to get it checked out…..

To both our shock and surprise: No broken bones. 

He couldn’t believe it. Not only that but now the fracture was healed into a bone of its own, bringing my toe bones count to a normal 3 bones instead of 2 bones (one set being fused). So this means that my friend (male, average height and build, wearing leather shoes) did more damage than the horse (male, average weight about 1,400lbs, wearing metal horseshoe). 

Amazing. 

Of course, doctor recommended taping Zombie Toe again while it was healing and of course, Zombie Toe kicked the tape off the moment I put it on so…. there it is. Slightly thicker at the joint and stubbier than its sister on the other side, it is doing well these days and we are back to dancing in class.

In conclusion:  

I was so jazzed about the lessons learned each time I got up on the horse that I am hoping that I can go back there again to challenge myself – this time to be more comfortable in cantering. This time I will probably invest in some steel toed boots to go riding in as well.

If you ever happen to see or hear an 80 year old Asian woman atop a horse, galloping with the wind in her hair through the plains of the mid west countryside, you’ll know that I made it happen on my bucket list (and the news).

Hi-Ho Silver!!! And Away!!!!!

Little (naturally bowlegged) Reiko and “stubby” Zombie Toe*

*Turkey is taking a break since this entry was all about Zombie Toe, but Turkey was in rare form at the cafeteria, when faced with all the food laid out in buffet style.

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