High and Dry. Yeah.

It’s been raining for, oh, I don’t know, decades? And as my Union Square Stables readers know, I live in a swamp. Sort of. It’s a flood-plain of the bicentennial variety. Evidently this is the big bicentennial, and they just forgot to send out the notices!

My “high and dry” (that’s a cheerful Florida real estate euphemism for anything that isn’t physically underwater 12 months out of the year; that is to say, not much) back paddock has served as riding arena for several years. It’s rectangular, it’s wide enough for jumps, it’s next to the round pen, and it has the charming advantage of being next to the neighbor’s garage, so if you want to desensitize a horse to the blinding light of a welding arc, or to the sudden shrieks of some sort of high-powered drill, you should really consider boarding with me.

For the past nine months or so, it’s been at least partially underwater, and that’s really put a cramp in Final Call’s style. Literally, he’s feeling cramped and uptight. Our little riding arena has gotten smaller and smaller, and we’re practically trotting in twenty meter circles for entire rides..

Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Riding out there, in a tight twenty-meter circle between a mud-bog and an impromptu lake, I’m reminded of the riding arena at Claremont Riding Academy, the now-closed livery stable on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I used to walk up there and watch riding lessons through their open door, on those evenings when I was feeling horse-sick (that’s like homesick, but infinitely more understandable). The fact that anyone could achieve a working canter in this place, let alone jump fences, always astonished me. Yes, that picture really does show all of it. That picture is, in fact, generous.

I wrote the following about watching a riding lesson there one evening, breathing in the smell of hay and ammonia from the stalls upstairs, which canceled out the diesel and exhaust and tar scents of the streets all around:

‘There was a riding lesson going on and the arena doors were propped open. I peered inside and watched a middle-aged woman in full-seat breeches and custom dress boots riding a flat-backed gelding with his head in the air. The woman see-sawed at the reins and ground at his back with her crotch, mistaking it for her seat bones, and the gelding obliged her by putting his head still higher, his mouth gaping open, his ears back and listening to her, waiting for a signal that made some sort of sense. The instructor called for her to lower her hands and she called back, “I can’t, he’ll run away!” and I felt a sense of tragedy that she thought she could be run away with on the lower floor of a New York City apartment house, on a Thoroughbred who had probably once been in his element on a mile-long oval, deep in soft sandy loam, with his rider’s hands low on his neck, pressing into the mane, asking him for more, more, and still more -‘

The claustrophobic Thoroughbred is going nowhere but up. And poor Final Call, looking for the open stretches of track that defined his youth, is unhappy with his twenty-meter circles. His movement is stilted by the lack of space. There’s no worry of being run away with – the real effort is to get him to move forward. “But there’s no room!” he tells me. And leg, and leg, and leg. . . until eventually he starts to understand that there are other places to go besides straight, and forward, as quickly as possible. Claustrophobia, as a training aid. Forward doesn’t always mean as straight and as fast as one can go, Final Call.



Filed under Final Call, Training Diary, Training Theory

7 responses to “Claustrophobia

  1. Lucky seems to prefer if my hands are down, but maybe he’s just weird. He’ll bounce if he’s busy looking at something. Circles are a compromise–he gets to trot forward, he just has to turn while doing it. And the more we trot, the less I have to sit in the new saddle. I forgot what a PDN feels like to sit on. At least HE likes it….

    And I hear you on the rain, though it wasn’t footing that kept us from riding (the outdoor’s actually really well-drained), just a drenched horse. I spent half an hour just rubbing him down and trying to get him as dry as possible (on the plus side it took a lot of his winter coat off.) Then it took five people to do the other horses and get them all in, too. Of course they’d all been standing out in the rain when they have perfectly good run-ins they could have been standing under, which makes it a little harder to feel sorry for them.

    In sympathy to that lady, though, I’d rather a horse bolt in the open with plenty of room to run than in a tiny ring where he’s off-balance and has limited options. The only time old OTTB ever really took off on me was in a field, and we had plenty of room to slow rather than slam on the brakes. But then I never liked the idea of horses in New York City anyway. Lucky and Dino share a HUGE paddock where they’re turned out as long as weather permits, and are only in their stalls at night or if it’s just too wet out. I can’t imagine having to keep a horse in a tiny stall all day and then only riding in a dinky ring or at a walk on trails (after going through the filthy city streets.)

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh wet horses – forget it, I won’t ride. Deal-breaker.

      I agree that being run away with in a field is much preferable to a small space. Small spaces require you to bail out or hit a wall, generally speaking. The point of that little story, and it was just a story, based upon some things that I’d seen there, wasn’t so much the size of the arena vs. the ability of the horse to run away, so much as the obvious challenges the horse would have faced in going from his former life to this one, in that tiny arena. And you know, it wasn’t a nice-looking life, and I’m not sorry that the place closed down a few years ago. I’m sure the horses were well taken care of. But in a book called “Dark Horses and Black Beauties,” which was pretty bad and I don’t recommend it, the author talked to a woman who kept her horse there. When she asked what the woman thought her horse would like most, the woman said, “He’d like a pasture to run in,” or something to that effect. Well – freaking move the horse to New Jersey then! That bothered me.

  2. Barb

    I always knew that stable was there in NYC, and thought it might be nice to ride in the park, but I was Very young and innocent of what dangers lurked in the park, or that horses really preferred to be turned out. Thanks for the pic.

  3. Am I allowed to mention that I read about that school in Michael Korda’s wonderful (to me) book?

    It is hard for any animal that wants to run, to find that he can’t. It’s so senseless, to them.
    My puppy is astounded by the fences in my dad’s suburban back yard.
    Where can I Go?
    I already BEEN there.

    That’s why the EcoD is so wonderful as a thing to do. Glad he didn’t do it on your last ride, though:)
    nutbar out.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      I liked Michael Korda’s book, too, I admit it. Although anyone who buys a Barney’s saddle as their first introduction to their own tack is automatically my enemy. When I think about that craptastic little AP that I got used for about a hundred bucks…

      Good puppy description! I love it! I always think kids must feel like that too sometimes. I used to go out into the woods and get very lost. Wasn’t that the point?

      He may be growing accustomed to the ECoD 🙂

  4. Oo, I like this idea. It helps me with Bar in ways that are yet undefined. 🙂

    Judging from pictures, my hands are at least (usually) down on his neck, and he really doesn’t try to run off anymore. Bar prefers my hands there, too, but it could just be that when my hands are there it means I’m more relaxed which means he can relax.

    I’m not quite as experienced as you, Natalie, but I’m determined so that might make up for some of it.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      I ride with my hands on the the neck most of the time, and I get good results from it. It goes back to defining what the horse’s experience and expectations are. I know that a lot of dressage instructors are going to tell you to raise your hands with the horse’s head, but I really don’t like the reaction that I get to that – a Thoroughbred will just go up – and up – and UP.

      Watch them galloping out after a race – how do jockeys stop them? They stand up and raise their hands. The racehorse’s head goes up, his mouth opens (charming!) and he reluctantly whoas. So when you raise your hands, whether to counter a sudden up-turned nose or whatever, you’ve just told them their forward motion is at an end.

      The neck strap can be a nice way to keep your hands down, I always think, as well as a nice anchor if you’re uncertain of a horse.

      Jessica, don’t flatter me, I blush.

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