This is how I heal.
I checked the forecast late last night to see which clothes to set out for riding practice. It was going to be cold and wet.
I’ve ridden in below-freezing temperatures. I’ve seen my horse’s breath freeze on his whiskers, but I was also doing that in a dressage arena that had a roof, in a split-back coat that doubled as a blanket for both of us.
Fast-forward to today. All of my semi-waterproof coats restrict my shoulders. With a few minutes to go before on-time turned into late, I made do with a turtle neck, leather vest, and a hoodie.
The drive up was slow. The hilly ranch property had been reduced to mostly mud with a few patches of neon-green spring grass gilding the edges between the paddocks and the paths. The long boots I wear in lieu of half-chaps kept my legs mostly dry. When I went to catch my horse, the near-freezing rain stung my cheeks. My hoodie was wet from the rain, and I was already sweating under the leather.
I slip-stepped up the hill in an ankle-deep mixture of mud, piss, and manure, wondering if ancient battlefields were made of similar ooze.
The owner warned me that this is abscess season. The mud soaks into the horses’ feet and softens them, so they’re more likely to get nicked on pebbles and catch infections from the shit-and-piss mud they walk in all day. These sores are pretty painful for the horses, and to drain them the vet has to slice them open as though they were carving a pumpkin.
The weather’s tough on everyone.
The lesson went well, regardless. We rode in a smaller arena, and after working for a few minutes the cold was unnoticeable. We walked, trotted, cantered, and worked on transitions between the three. Then my instructor gave me my bow and arrows back.
There was no target. My instructor instead traced a circle in the center of the arena with her boot, and told me to aim at the ground. What I really like about this sport, and what was intimidating at first, is how readily you have to adapt to changing conditions. You have to be able to shoot ahead, to the side, and behind you. You have to be able to shoot at targets on both sides of the horse, and develop your archery skills with ambidexterity in mind. You have to be able to move your upper body (shooting) independently of your lower body (riding). You need to keep in constant communication with your horse, so neither of you get hurt.
Because we used the small arena, we could experiment a bit more. I’m starting to get the hang of turning my horse without using hands or reins at all. I’m learning how to kick my horse to keep him moving, while standing up in the stirrups. My flow for knock-draw-fire-reload still needs a lot of work.
Every detail, right down to where you hang your quiver on your belt, matters. Squeezing your shoulder blades together matters. Not squeezing with your knees matters. Maintaining equal weight in your stirrups, down through your heels (not your toes) matters. The amount of rain on your fletchings matters. Using a thumb draw rather than a Mediterranean draw matters. The way I wrapped my thumbs with hockey tape that morning matters. The fact I was still sore from a dance class that involved a lot of squats a few days prior turned out to matter quite a bit.
I was only able to cluster my shots together when I thought about the shot. I inhaled to draw, exhaled to shoot, and let my draw hand relax and flow back past my shoulder. I imagined I was on a cliff or high hill, picking off enemies far below me.
When I stopped worrying about all the details, and trusted my body to continue shooting, it became effortless. I blinked the rain out of my eyes, and forgot the cold. My feet kept the horse moving, and me stable. My arms kept the shots flowing, and my bow off my horse’s flank. I didn’t wear bracers under my sleeves, and I didn’t need them today. When I’m at a lesson, at a dojo, or in an arena, everything comes together.
All the details I had fretted over synthesized. It was much easier to keep balance and direct my horse when I was thinking about the shot, rather than form. This is how I get better, inside and out.
Breathe. Draw. Fire.
Breathe. Draw. Fire.
Take. The. Shot.