Albert Yoga

I remember the first time I rode a horse…ever. Mini-dresses were fashionable – it was the 60s, and I was five. We lived in Boulder, Colorado, where a few buffalo still roamed. My father arranged for us to ride together, and I showed up wearing a mini-dress. Man, was that uncomfortable. I remember the ride was so special to me, that I wanted to dress up and could not be persuaded to wear pants. After that, I rode once or twice, but only learned to ride when my daughter started riding lessons in 1999.

I remember the first time I did yoga…ever. Bodysuits were fashionable – it was the 70s, and I was ten. My mom used to watch Lilias, Yoga, and You on PBS in the living room. I would sometimes join her, wearing her silky, navy blue bodysuit.  I remember that I pranced around Mom more like Olga Korbut than Lilias Folan.

The 70s, 80s, and 90s flew by without much thought of yoga, until 2000 when a horse named Achy Breaky threw me, and my sacrum cracked. After the injury, a regular yoga practice built up the muscles in my lower back and improved my riding. I was stronger, more flexible, and more likely to remember to breathe in my riding lessons.

Eventually, I figured out that before I ride if I move through a short standing pose sequence (Warrior II, Side Angle Bend, Warrior II, Triangle, Pyramid, repeat) or a Forward Bend-Chair Pose-Forward Bend sequence my tough-to-relax body loosens up. If I’ve taken my yoga moment before a lesson, I’m less likely to to ride in a tense ball, and I have greater fluidity, too.

A couple of years ago, I started taking my lessons with Albert; we were transitioning him from being my daughter’s horse to being my horse. (Not something he volunteered for!) We had also “retired” Albert from teaching and jumping because of his vision loss and his arthritis. Then his eyes caught up with him. We tried to save his eyes, using every treatment option we knew, but he was in so much pain, and he could no longer see from his left eye. In 2008, an equine surgeon removed Albert’s cancer-filled left eye and saved his right one.

Three-months post-surgery: Albert is spookier without his eye.  While I’m hand grazing him, a bay across the fence suddenly comes into view of his poor right eye, and Albert literally jumps into my arms. I hold him.

When we flush out warblers our our walk, he startles. I pat him. I sing Me and Bobby McGhee to him. I change the words of REM’s The One I Love and, instead, sing: This one goes out to my one-eyed love…This one goes out to my one-eyed love

But, I don’t ride.

Albert seems stressed and worried, so I baby him. When I run into the field to get him, he whinnies. He whinnies for me. I hand graze him along the wooded path – a path I hope we will ride down one day – and I keep singing.

Four months post-surgery: One August night,I’m at the barn late to pick up the horse girls. A solicitous, full moon lights up the gelding field. I hear the kids still swimming in the pool, so I wait for them by the fence and call to Albert.

Can he see me through his dim right eye?

Albert hears me, and when he walks up to me, I climb over the fence and sit on his back—no reins, no helmet, no saddle. I just sit on my horse in the moonlight and breathe.

But I don’t ride. He still seems fragile, and he’s had arthritis for years, and really, I don’t think he likes being saddled. Or, I’m making excuses.

Five-months post-surgery: Somewhere, in all of my coddling after his surgery, I forget who Albert is: a vaulting horse, a therapeutic riding horse, a school horse, an Appaloosa. He is the horse who is so strong, so broad, and so quiet that I— and a host of little girls and little boys— have stood, knelt, and turned around-the-world while he walked, trotted, and cantered. He is the gelding on whom a child with Spina Bifida grew strong enough to ride and steer without assistance.

He is still Albert.

I lead him back into the ring. I set poles on the ground; he walks over them. He trots over them. We stretch his back: I pull his tail, and he leans forward.

I stand at his haunch, facing his head, and hold out a treat. Even on his blind side, Yoga Pony bends around and takes the peppermint from my hand.

When a barn friend suggests that I ride Albert bareback, I think, of course, and finally, I ride.

I tie Albert’s halter into reins and hop onto the same reliable, patient, independent horse that he was with two eyes. Yet, he is different now – softer, more interactive, and more reliant on my voice and physical presence to help him know where he is, and what he can do.

Today, Ten-months post-surgery: We only ride bareback, and, mostly, we walk. After a warm up, we spiral in both directions then serpentine the length of the ring. We trot for a bit, and,  in the middle of the ring, do our vaulting and yoga (mostly modified twists and forward bends, while he’s standing still or walking, and around-the-world because it’s so much fun).

I’ve been thinking some about Albert’s vaulting days. I wonder if I put a surcingle on him, could I do arm balances like crow? Would a regular yoga-vaulting routine help Albert feel like he has a job again? If I add a bareback pad, could I include Cat-Cow, Warrior, Mountain Pose, Child Pose, or Camel? Vaulters perform much harder tricks, so it’s possible, right? How better to deepen our trust and communication than through Albert Yoga?

Sometimes, I feel I’m running so short on time I have to choose between yoga and riding. Maybe, Albert Yoga is also a way to integrate yoga with my life, rather than keeping yoga separate or absent.

I think Albert Yoga will better prepare us to get back on the trail. I hope it will strengthen my core, make us both more flexible, and bring a stronger awareness of where we each hold tension and imbalance.

My Albert Yoga plan is to:

  • finish reading Yoga for Equestrians and read Whoa-ga Eight Limbed Yoga for Horse/Rider Balance to help me design a routine for my benefit and Albert’s,
  • buy a pair of ballet shoes or some kind of soft, grippy shoe so I won’t fall when I’m in Mountain Pose on Albert’s back, and so I won’t hurt him,
  • wash out our old bareback pad, so Albert stays comfortable when I try kneeling or standing poses,
  • put a surcingle on my birthday/Christmas list,
  • take it slow and follow the safety principles of the American Vaulting Association,
  • persuade my daughter or husband to stand in the ring with me, and
  • I probably need new outfit.
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