This past Sunday, Mars and I competed at our second rated show together. The judging was harsh. This week I’m wondering when and if I’ll ever have a more independent seat, softer elbows, and a more elastic connection. The one positive comment was, “Attractive pair.” It’s not nothing.
Last summer, just before I moved out of TriBeCa, I went to visit Vogel Custom Boots, in SoHo, to be fitted for my first pair of dress riding boots. I changed riding disciplines in the last few years, moving sideways from the hunter/jumper world to the other, even more froufrou, dressage. The tiny Vogel store front sat on a narrow, quiet street in a neighborhood of exquisite historic cast-iron buildings now bustling with high-end retail stores; it fit in nicely with its carved wood sign with gilded lettering, and custom shoes in the window, displaying the full spectrum of English riding boots.
My trainer likes to remind me that the word “dressage” is from the French, meaning “training.” It’s the flatwork, the not-jumping part of riding. At the Olympic level, the horses seem to dance, and they perform freestyle choreography to music. At my level, you learn a test, in advance, that is written out on paper, with different gaits and figures performed at the letter-labeled points of the ring. The test takes 5 or 6 minutes, a long time for an athlete (horse or rider) to concentrate and really give a peak athletic performance. It looks like plain old horseback riding, and it’s judged by a person with a scorecard, giving you marks for the different movements and then a written score at the end. You can read where the judge thought your horse hollowed or fell in or bulged or hurried, where you needed more bend or impulsion, and you are welcome to use it to become a deranged and obsessive perfectionist about your riding and your horse’s way of going. Or, you can use it to reflect on those things you need to work on, and get to work improving.
The way a test is written, “3. K-X-M Change rein; 4. Between C &H Working canter left lead. 5; E Circle left 20m,” is not how it always rides. At a recent (unrated) schooling show, for example, my 6-year-old horse Mars whinnied violently at M, beginning at step 3 of the test, and then again, each time he passed the corner marked M or even got close to it: at step 5 when we circled at E, between step 8 & 9, at step 11 when we circled at E again, and then, again after step 13. I think another horse somewhere on the property was answering him.
A horse can whinny gently and quietly, almost under his breath. This wasn’t that kind of whinnying. This was like the horse equivalent of screaming. You can feel it emanating from the bowels of the horse, rumbling up under the saddle, vibrating through his chest, and then erupting from his great jaws. What are horses saying when they whinny? Maybe the horse version of, “WHERE YOU AT?” and the reply, “WHERE YOU AT, BRO!?” Whinnying during a test does not do much to earn a horse “submission” points, added to the end of one’s dressage score, for “willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” Alas.
Coming from the hunter/jumper world, where flatwork is to prepare a horse and rider for jumping courses, it was my experience that trainers had limited patience to teach me flatwork in a way that I understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and how I might do it better. I was vaguely aware that I was bad at it, that flatwork, with my stiff, arched back and turned-out toes, my unforgiving arms and hands always at odds with the horse. But I didn’t have the slightest clue how I was supposed to get better at it until I started serious dressage lessons. And I’m still working on it, every ride.
Dressage was also a way to use my older, semi-retired horse, whose old injuries have meant that she will only be sound for trail riding and light work. Soon, though, I had ordered a new, black custom saddle, made in France, of course, specifically for dressage. And I had a new, young horse; a project we named Mars. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Of course, I owned tall boots for riding already, but they are field boots, with laces at the top of the foot, going a short way up the ankle. The subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in equestrian disciplines start with big, expensive things like boots and saddles, but also include variations in show apparel, and fundamental differences in the rider’s position. A dressage rider will wear a white stock tie, with a pin, as a foxhunter would; a showhunter wears a backwards collar called a rat-catcher. A dressage rider has a long stirrup and an open hip angle; a hunter jumper will run her stirrups up and crouch in the tack. It will take me years to develop new riding instincts.
Now, I had been to Vogel before this visit, when I had my trusty old field boots serviced the previous year, getting new soles and heels and having a ripped boot loop replaced. But it’s such a small shop with only a few chairs for customers that it can be quite awkward to walk in. The Vogel showroom was a few steps above the street, and smelled intensely of leather and leather dyes. I stood there in the small showroom, my messy, dirty hair going in strange directions, my wrinkled shirt untucked, and asked the first person in the back who noticed me if I could be fitted for some dressage boots, please.
“Do you have your riding pants?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She took me through the crowded work area to a small changing room in the back, where I put on my riding pants. When I returned to the front room, there
were two customers being measured for custom shoes. Both were sizable men, with shiny, combed back, black hair. One wore a suit and tie. They were peppering the salesman with questions. “Why would it take so long? Why didn’t they make a mold of your feet? Why are the soles leather? Which pair is the most comfortable?”
Somehow, in New York City, there are still people who aspire to dress and talk and comport themselves publicly like mobsters. They purposely ask dumb questions, demand to know why everything is so expensive, excessively quote mob movies, and constantly assess whether others are with them or against them. For the purposes of this story, I am going to call these guys in the custom boot shop mobsters.
The younger mobster of the two asked, “How long do these shoes last?”
And the salesman said, “Well, it depends how much walking you do.”
The older mobster pointed to his fat stomach and said, “If I did a lot of walking would I look like this?”
I was introduced to Jack, the guy who fits the equestrian boots. He asked me if I’ve had boots made by them before, and I said I have. We reminisced about Olson’s, near Seattle, where I bought my boots a number of years ago, and Mike, who he’s known since he was a young employee there, long before he was manager or owner. I go back that far with Mike, too. Jack went to look up my earlier order, and came back out with a clipboard, pencil and tape measure. I was still standing.
Jack sat in a chair next to the coatrack; one of the mobsters had left his coat draped over the seats, instead of hanging it up. Jack took down my address and email, perched on the edge of the seat so as not to crush the coat.
The mobster grandly offered to move the coat, and now that Jack had their attention he was able to find me a place to sit. Jack took a lot of measurements, all with me sitting, tracing my foot onto a piece of paper. We talked about my bunions, and the scary surgeries suggested by the two podiatrists I’ve seen. He told me no one he knows is happy with their bunion surgery. I concurred. He made me pull up the leg of my breeches, over my knee. Underneath my legs were really hairy, of course.
The mobsters were still discussing leathers and soles. They were not coming to a decision. They said they’d call with their final decisions, but it seemed they’d be making no purchase that day. Though they’d said nothing to me, as they left the younger mobster called, “Good luck with your horse.”
He didn’t even say it like he believed I have a horse. He said it like he thought I made up the horse, the way that a kid in elementary school who didn’t believe your uncle was an NFL kicker would say, “Yeah right, sure.” Also, tucked under the “Good luck with your horse,” was, of course, that scene in the Godfather movie, where revenge came in the form of a horse head in a guy’s bed.
I learned my left calf is bigger than my right, and I’d have to have an elastic gusset if I didn’t want a zipper. I chose a squared toe, and a spur rest. I didn’t want mine as stiff as the sample he brought me, though I liked the stiff souls and the ribbed bottoms. As I paid (a sobering $1366 with tax), I asked how long it would take. I was told 10 to 12 weeks. I didn’t say that I wouldn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore in 10 to 12 weeks because I couldn’t face that at all. Moving in New York City is another tale of mobsters; with complicated rules of daily tipping and separate insurance and the always suspicious requirement that the whole thing be transacted in cash. I promised to lend Jack my orthotics for a few days without a word about my move.
Only six weeks later, I got a call that my boots were finished, and was told Vogel was two days away from packing up the place and closing. They were moving to Brooklyn. Someone made them an offer for their location; it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.