Monday, June 30, 2008

"Hold that Smile"

(me and my buddy 'Marcoe')

The scene: Dressage competition in Santa Rosa, CA

I was trying to take myself more seriously, because this being a dressage show, everyone was taking themselves too seriously. That's what you do at dressage shows, after all. In the following order, you:

1.) get nervous, causing horse to be excitable and jumpy
2.) blame everything not quite right (including weather) on groom, spouse, or show management
3.) transform features of your face into constipated-looking frown
4.) view the outcome of this competition with a level of intensity normally reserved for World Wars and global warming.

Anyway, there I was in the warm-up arena preparing my mount for his first dressage test of the day. After dodging two erratic riders wildly out of control (and completely unaware) who would have otherwise smashed into me, I reminded myself to sit up and assume the 'dressage position.' This might best be described as appearing that you sat down on a broomstick. I screwed my face into a stern frown, sat ramrod stiff, and conducted myself with an air of terrible importance.

This did not, however, disguise the fact that I was riding a Haflinger pony, which is akin to arriving at a Champ car race with my Mazda protoge. Or showing up at a figure skating competition on roller skates. But priding myself on being a little different and always giving underdogs a leg up, I found myself unabashedly competing my client's pony. The beauty of this scenario lies in the fact that this hairy, chunky, charming pony has no clue he is the most atypical dressage competitor in the state. He has the heart of a lion and loyalty of a best friend. He doesn't realize that our fellow riders in the warm-up arena stare at him not for his good looks but because they're pondering "What is that horse doing here?"

In fact, they stare at us without shame from under the brims of their top hats, as if their parents never taught them to not stare. They crane their necks, their mouths open, they look around confused, like maybe they and not me are the ones suddenly lost.

Part of them wants to look down on us for being such a counter-part to their stuffy over-priced competitive realm. But at the end of the day, it's hard to hate Marcoe and me. I'm always failing to take myself too seriously, dissolving to laughter whenever I can-- grinning, chatting, and waving at folks like my friend Pam who come to watch me ride. And Marcoe, well, that little guy is just darn cute. Impossibly cute, actually. He melts your heart... and he knows it.

So, I ride past my fellow competitors at only half their height and I flash them a toothy grin. This settled it. Their constipated show nerves dissipate. Not knowing what else to do, they actually smile back. They relax. They start to have some fun.

They can thank us later.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

You do... What?

My friend Karen asked me last week what exactly I do for a living. And it was in that moment that I realized how tricky it was to describe my industry to an outsider. Being a city girl, Karen held no fond pattering in her heart for animals or dirt, and trying to explain to her that an entire culture existed around these two things made for an interesting conversation to say the least.

"Well, I train horses." This, to me, seemed pretty straightforward until someone like Karen points out a fact that we horse-obsessed humans overlook: horses are a heck of a lot bigger than us and in many ways smarter. So, who's actually doing the training, horse or human?

"You do...what?" she asked again.

"I work with horses."

"Wait, you work with horses? Or the people who own the horses?" Leave it to a journalist to go for details.

"Um, both, I guess. Yeah, both."

"And what exactly are you trying to get them to do?" she asked.

Here is where things get strange for an outsider, because at this point I have to explain that I train "dressage," which might be most closely compared to something like human figure skating or ballet in terms of how the horse performs and then this usually leads to all kinds of confused questions about whether or not the horse wears a tu tu or dances around to music. Here I back-pedal, explaining that I was merely making an analogy, but no seriously, in "dressage" the horse learns to use his body a certain way and move his legs a certain way and--

"And they want to do this?" asks my friend.

A legitimate question indeed. They may not dream of it at night in their stalls, but yes some horses quite enjoy it. But maybe the more important thing is that their owners (who keep me in business) derive large sums of satisfaction and--

"So, you actually make a living doing this?" asks Karen.

This is the part of the conversation where answers start eluding me. Those of you reading this who work in reputable industries and make honest livings would be surprised how tricky it is to describe why you might choose to work in an industry where you did not make livable wages.

"Well, no, not exactly. I mean, yes, I pay my rent and all that, but, well, no.." Then, finally, I stop my stammering by making the broad pronouncement that "No, nobody in the horse industry actually makes any money, but...."

The confusion ensues. After a polite pause, Karen interrupts again--

"If nobody makes any money, why do people do it?" Another legitimate question.

In my entire lifetime with horses, I have not found an answer that satisfies outsiders like my city friend Karen. The best I can say is that we horse folks have a heck of a lot of love for those four-legged beasts and somehow we don't mind draining our wallets, working relentlessly for no pay, and falling asleep exhausted at the end of a day. I looked at Karen, smiled, and replied:

"We're all freaks. That's why."