Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Backwards in time

It should be no kind of secret to anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or follows me on Facebook that I love many things, but I especially love history. Living as I do in central Virginia, I'm pretty much in the cradle of the beginnings of this country. From the Jamestown colony, to Colonial Williamsburg, to the American Revolution, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the White House, the Civil War, and many, many more of the most significant locations, houses, battlefields, and events of American history exist within a day's or less drive of my house. I've been to many of these places, but a significant amount of time that has passed since I have had a chance to visit many of them again.

It's spring break week here, and with three kids, I like to plan at least one structured activity or day trip for the week. We tend not to travel much, so day trips are perfect. The original plan was to go to Washington, DC, about two hours away, and visit a couple of the Smithsonian museums, a place very dear to my heart. Alas, the fickle spring weather in Virginia wasn't conducive to a fun trip. Instead, we opted for a trip closer to home, to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

TJ's place is situated on over 2,000 acres on the top of a small mountain just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. We opted for the guided tour of the house, but toured the grounds and gardens ourselves, maps in hand. Noah was especially enamored of the map and took great care to make sure he knew where we were, and compared it to the illustrations on the map, at each stop we made. He loved it!

The view is stunning, even on a cloudy, cool, and otherwise dreary day. Our guide told us Jefferson had no outbuildings built at Monticello so he would have a completely unobstructed view from the house.

All the dependencies are built into the terraces under the house -- the kitchen. smokehouse, stables and carriage house, house slaves' quarters, and storage rooms are underneath wings of the house. The vegetable garden is immense and beautiful, as well as the vineyard and berry patch. Behind the house, the west lawn is expansive and bordered with tons of flowers -- tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths now in the early spring. The kids were all over the place, loving the peek into the kitchens and other dependencies, especially those with artifacts like dishes and bottles and sewing tools.

Inside the house, no photography (as with most house museums), so I can't share the wonderful things inside the house. Jefferson truly was a genius, in the layout and decoration of his home. Floor to ceiling windows, alcove beds, and huge skylights in octagonal rooms were my favorite. The details are simple and amazing, even down to the molded friezes over the doorways. His dining room is Mars yellow, a shockingly bright color that makes the room just glow,`and the tea room off to the side, surrounded by windows, is where I would spend all day, if I could. Our excellent guide told us that 60% of the furniture and artifacts in the house actually belonged to Jefferson, including some of his books. Oh! The books! Two shelves of his own personal books, plus hundreds of others that were of the era. Shelves and shelves of books in his library. And all I could think as I walked through the house was, Thomas Jefferson actually lived here, walked here, held these books, slept on this bed, wore these riding boots, sat in this chair....

And his books and papers, things he actually touched, silhouettes of family members that are hanging still on the walls in the South Square Room, it makes me want to see everything they have in the collection. I know because I work in a museum that there is so much more not on view to the public that is held by the Monticello Foundation and in the Thomas Jefferson library. Can you imagine? Ledgers for the farm and plantation, recipes, correspondence, sketches...I could sift through the papers and artifacts for days without getting bored. Our tour guide was really good, and I soaked in all the information he was telling us, and his enthusiasm for the place and the stories, and I just felt so happy. One of my favorite things about working at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is getting to tell people who come on my tours all about the history and the stories behind the works of art. I would love to teach in a house museum, too. I think I love material culture and archival 'stuff' -- papers, photos, other ephemera -- as much or more than I love the artworks. It's the stories about people and how they lived and who they were that fascinate me.

Some days I know I really missed my calling. I should have gone to library school, or gotten the history degree I had planned on. I would love nothing more than for my second career to really be about my passion for preservation and history and the stories of the people who came before us.

I hope I at least pass on some of my interest in history to my kids.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Come to Jesus

So, Joe, who I have been riding since right before Christmas, and who I am now leasing for my training and competition mount this year, and who I spoke about in this post, well...he and I have been having a little difficulty seeing eye to eye on this whole work thing.

It's a challenge, sometimes, to handle a BIG guy who doesn't think you've got the stones to make him do the job he is signed up to do in this life. Given that he's rather opinionated as it is, and then he discovers his new regular rider off a bad fall with injury, and trying to get my balance and strength back, and learn the buttons to push to get Joe to work at the level he is capable of, well, sometimes it doesn't go as planned. Like anything with horses, really.

A few weeks ago, he started stating a very strong opinion about actually going forward when asked to do so by his rider. This opinion he made known by kicking out with one hind leg or another, and if the rider were persistent enough, he'd plant his front legs and throw in a huge buck. He declared working as a school horse to be completely out of the question, and then he decided that that short, middle-aged woman with the loud red hair was not possessed of the mettle necessary to convince him he really needed to do his job.

I started to worry maybe the universe was trying to tell me something, after a string of other mounts just didn't work out in a pretty persistent and obvious way. I started to worry that maybe he hated me, or that I was annoying him in some way, or that he was just not for me. Then, worse, I started to think that maybe I *didn't* have the stones necessary to be the pack leader, so to speak. Bucking isn't always a big deal, but it can escalate, and I've been bucked off enough to know how much it hurts, and how easily a horse can throw you off their back if they want to. THEN I started to worry about getting hurt again. Joe is HUGE, well over sixteen hands, and the distance from his back to the ground seems like falling off a building. But I knew that attitude, keeping that fear in my mind, would color every ride I took from here on out, no matter the mount.

And I don't want to be a timid rider. I don't see myself as someone who can or will just get on any horse at all, but neither do I want to be limited by my own brain to horses who don't have at least a little brilliance in them, if that makes any sense. So, with the help of my fabulous trainer, we set out to solve this issue. It took a team on Sunday, people cheering me on, encouraging me, my trainer getting on, a couple people to work with Joe on the longe line, and then me getting back in the saddle and reminding him how this whole situation was going to go. I got off after we did some nice work together, and although my legs were jelly with nerves, I knew I could handle him.

My weekly lesson was today, and my trainer warmed him up for me, through a couple of bucks and a bit of resistance. When I got on, I just grabbed mane and let him know I was running this show. One buck and a little bit of horsey whiny drama, and we were working together beautifully. It was incredible. I felt him just like I did back in December, before I got hurt, all smooth and rhythmic and forward. I could stay with him, sit up tall, hold my position, tell him where to go and how to arrange his feet and it was beyond wonderful. I could feel myself riding, really riding, instead of bracing for drama or getting flopped around like a sack.

My confidence shot up tremendously. I felt like I could ride and ride and ride forever. I can make plans for the show season now, and think about the things we will do together. One good come-to-Jesus meeting in the Church of the Arena, and we are well on our way. It turns out I *do* have the stones, and they are big ones. Today I (re)learned to never underestimate what I am capable of in the right setting.

I love this guy. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Me time

It's a Saturday morning and it's not a horse show day. I'm sitting on the couch, in my pajamas, with my coffee, reading the internet. 'Reading the internet' is my own code for scrolling through my Facebook feed, checking out Pinterest, opening tabs in Chrome for  articles I find I want to read, and doing some Amazon browsing for books and other stuff. It's not necessarily an ideal Saturday morning, but it's fairly peaceful. Nobody else (but myself and Noah) is up yet, so it's quiet. I've fed the dogs and the guinea pigs, and I am intermittently working on some things I need for a meeting this afternoon.

I am a person who highly values my time alone. I have always been this way, but never really realized how important it was, or how much of an impact it had on my well-being until later than I would have liked. 'Know thyself' has always been one of my personal mottoes, but it probably should have been 'Life is a constant state of learning to know thyself', because that is more like what has happened over the years I have spent so far.

My "perfect" Saturday morning would include some solitude. Depending on a number of factors, I would choose to be riding early in the day, or working on some creative project. In the winter, it's easier to want to spend the time at the sewing machine or with paint or clay or glass. I don't like to be interrupted, though, and my best, most favorite times are when I can work alone for a few hours until the creative drive is generally assuaged.

The state of "flow" is one of my most comfortable places to be within myself. I spend a lot of time in my head, so this isn't surprising. I've found this remarkable state while running, riding horses, sewing, and working glass, and for the uninitiated, it's a hard thing to describe. I guess if I had to commit, I'd say my ideal Saturday morning would include time spent in that state. It's an addictive place to be, because it makes me feel powerful in a way my daily life doesn't really allow.

Today, I'm not there. Today, I'm here, on the couch with my coffee. I'm writing, so that's something, but soon I'll have to get up and get started on this day. I think I'll consider a project that I can start tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Yep, Still Winter...

After more than a week off because of almost a foot of snow and frigid temperatures, I was back in the saddle today for my lesson. I was really glad I put the chemical heat packs in my boots because I did not once have to concern myself with frozen toes. You know it's cold, though, when I keep all my layers on, including my down vest, which I normally do not ride in. Too sweaty. But not today. It was maybe 20 degrees when I got tacked up and into the (indoor!) ring.

Joe is still wonderful. I love a big horse, I really do. And I think I do prefer geldings, even though sometimes their work ethic can be questionable. I know all my mare-loving friends always gush about how a mare will lay down her very soul for you sometimes, but maybe I haven't been riding the right mares, because I have never had that experience. Oh, I've had mares tolerate me and do what I asked only because they sighed heavily first and got on with it, and I've had mares scare the ever-loving hell out of me by telling me how the job is supposed to be done, regardless of my input, and I've had mares for whom the word 'consistent' just doesn't seem to be a part of their working vocabulary. The only consistent thing about some of the mares I have ridden was that I had no idea what kind of day it was going to be -- smooth, excellent working relationship, great work, or crazed terror, dump-you-on-the-ground-and run-like-hell, or hell no, I ain't doing any of that no matter what you say. That, for someone who likes to be prepared and organized, can be something of a nightmare, especially when riding alone, or going to a horse show.

Joe, though, he is consistent. He consistently kicks out if I use the whip too much or too hard. He pins his ears when I hug him around the neck (even though I have told him I'm a hugger and he'll just have to get used to it). He can get cranky and kick and buck (a little, nothing too major) when I ask him to do work, especially if he's not warmed up, or if I've taken too long of a walk break and he thinks we should be done. He can be stupidly spooky about really dumb things, but he doesn't run off in a panic.

But he's also consistently a beautiful mover with a lovely, easy to ride trot and canter. He understands his job, even if he doesn't always feel like doing it. He bends like he is on rails, and can cross his legs in the leg yielding as though he had ball bearings in his joints. He likes apples. He does listen to my voice and seems to like being talked to and sung to (poor Joe, I can't sing worth a damn). He enjoys having his picture taken and actually hams it up for Travis' camera.

Today's lesson gave me a few more insights into this guy. I realized the reason my reaction to all the pictures I have of me riding him has been "OMG, just shorten your reins!". He needs a lot more contact than I had been using. Today when I really asked for balance and flexion and attention, he gave it to me. And that outside rein? Yeah, that's the one that tells him to carry himself. We even worked on some trot lengthenings and actually got some glide. I sat through a tantrum and a period of backing up, and once I yelled at him, he actually got his act together and moved on. I feel like I turned a huge key in one of his locks today, and when I did, he was so gorgeous. Rideable, comfortable, smooth. I hope I can keep that key and find more. He really is fantastic. And I do know what to expect from him. There's really no brilliance without some quirks.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New Year, New Perspective, New Horse

Well, 2015 did not start out the way I had hoped, what with a fairly significant riding accident, and what I planned to be doing this month has not yet come to fruition (lots and lots of riding). 2014 definitely was the Year of the Horse for me, even though I didn't end up purchasing my own horse as I had hoped. I rode more in 2014 than I have in years, and improved so much, that I am thrilled. I even lost a whole bunch of weight (just about 18lbs), which I am desperately trying to keep off during this month of forced (relative) inactivity.

Since the early spring of 2014, I have been focused on improving my dressage skills, and because of the generosity of a new friend, I was able to lease Silver's Destiny, a 14h Welsh/TB cross pony mare with the capability of First Level work. It took a while for us to build our partnership, but we were able to do some really good things together, earn some respectable scores, win a couple of classes, and try out the First Level work. Unfortunately, she and I are not continuing into 2015 together, but I have been so very grateful for the opportunity to ride and care for her for the large majority of last year. I can't wait until the Virginia Dressage Association - Central Chapter end of year banquet tonight to find out how we did in the placings overall for Introductory Level!

Toward the end of the year, I started riding a mare, Something Victorious (AKA Flicka), a 15.1h Arab/TB cross that belongs to my trainer. Beautiful, forward-moving, graceful, she was MUCH different than Destiny, and I loved riding her. Another teenage girl at the barn has been riding her for the past couple of years, too, and I considered taking this mare on for 2015. A little less well-schooled, definitely NOT bombproof in the least, but still safe and willing. We did some nice work, rode out on the trail, and I never had a problem catching her in the field. I rode her in the last schooling show of the season, receiving not-terrible scores, and learned what to do when your horse totally freaks out during your test (answer: keep moving forward). She is the mare I was riding the Sunday after Christmas when I fell. Totally NOT bombproof, indeed.

I also rode my trainer's gelding, Reiner, a Dutch WB/Arab cross, about 16.something hands, grey, lovely mover who covers some serious ground. A little lazy when he isn't fit (and he isn't fit, really), but comfortable and fun to ride. He's TALL, and it's been so long since I rode a horse over 14h that he feels like a skyscraper, but I like the way I look on him, and he seems to fit me. I've only ridden him maybe two or three times -- once in a lesson -- but I think he might be my guy. Not loving the Arab in him, since I generally think Arabs are nutty, flighty creatures (and this was fairly proven the Sunday after Christmas...), but the warmblood part of him seems to be more prevalent. Of course, I rode him in a lesson, we did some First Level work, and then he was lame. Thankfully, it was only an abscess, which blew out of his heel a week or so ago, and now he is fine. He'll be who I get on, when I get back to riding.

And so far, tentatively, that day is Tuesday, January 27th. I'm going helmet shopping with a friend on Saturday the 24th, and then on Tuesday, I will ride. I can hardly stand it, the not riding. Thursday, I spent part of the afternoon watching my trainer and others have their lessons with Debbie Rodriguez, and I just wanted to ride so badly. Ugh. Soon, soon.

2014 was a great year for my riding. I can't believe how different I look, how much better I have been riding, and how much things have changed. I found two pictures of myself that Travis took, one in April of 2014 and one this past December. I was completely astonished by the difference in the way the photos look. Two different horses, yes, but everything about me is different in the December photo. Amazing. That's what good instruction and lots of practice gets you. Thanks so much, Wanda. I'd never have gotten this far without your excellent guidance. I can't wait to see what I look like at the end of 2015!