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..
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.