Calibration Curve

Piper & Reuben at Showplace Productions at Ledges in August. Andrew Ryback Photography


In my daily life, I’m regularly annoyed by my inability to calibrate the way I tie my shoes.

When I go running, I am forever tying them too loose, too tight, and my feet, too swollen and too uncalibrated in my tying, often ache. As a child, I was deemed annoying with my regular complaint: “They’re so loose, they hurt!” But I stand by the discomfort of pounding on badly-fitted or poorly-tied shoes that are the wrong size in either dimension. Sometimes I get it right, but never over and over—a daily precision keeping my runs focused on what should really matter.

As a child riding, I don’t really remember trying calibrate much. I remember trying to slow down; there was usually only one direction of speed error for me and my mounts. I don’t remember trying to achieve a pace other than slow very often. All of my queries about calibration and determining where exactly I should be on any different speed curve have come as an adult.

Piper & Reuben at Showplace Productions at Ledges in August. Andrew Ryback Photography

I remember one of the first times I rode with Carleton Brooks and I was shaking at the in-gate, petrified. I tried to calm myself down by saying, “So the lines will just be right there, right?” I hadn’t actually jumped a line in years at that point. He looked at me and laughed and said, “Not with that canter. Press away from everything and you’ll be just right.” I landed and pressed with my the extent of my non-riding might and it was just right.

As an amateur, I have learned the joy of horses calibrated for me. The ones who know that the diagonal line is a 5 and back themselves off. The ones who rock back on their way to the two stride. The ones, frankly, on whom you can be nervous or scared or a make a mistake and most people aren’t the wiser.

And then I met Reuben. Reuben doesn’t mind if I’m scared or nervous. In fact, when I’m really not sure I am able is when he steps up the most and shows me how to jump around the colosseum or the Alltech or that I actually can walk across the cross country field at the Kentucky Horse Park. He is always kind, loves his job, and is genuinely thrilled to Adult Hunter and forgive whatever is occurring in real time.

But calibrated, he is not. As someone who normally has pretty sufficient feel, I picked up the canter for the first time on him and had no earthly idea what lead I was on. In any given long side, his head looks in about 12 unique directions, the belly swings wide to accommodate doing precisely what you ask, no more, and also looking at whatever he finds interesting at the same time. His legs move in planes that one would not think possible. Ears pricked, he happily bounces from a stride length that will double or half whenever ADD sets in. We lovingly call him the “octopus accordion,” the legs are going everywhere, and he is just so thrilled at his own adjustability and elasticity at any given moment.

Piper & Reuben at Showplace Productions at Ledges in August. Andrew Ryback Photography

From lacking feel and understanding, I spent much of a year not sure if I was too fast or too slow. I was not sure what to do if I could even determine if I was too fast or too slow, and where to find that distance that was seriously right there one stride ago and has now vanished into the ether.

I went from the same frustration over my shoes not being tied correctly to really seeing the opportunity that this horse is giving me. Every ride, at home and at the horse show, became about calibrating what’s underneath me. Or at least trying my best to do so.

Because in the absence of feel, instinct, or calibration, what do we do? Well, we learn to ride.

Piper & Reuben at Showplace Productions at Ledges in August. Andrew Ryback Photography

Originally from the October 2020 issue.