BY ELIZABETH ONESS
I’ve realized something I’m not good at––riding through transitions––both in the horse sense and the life sense. “Not very good at” is not very accurate. It might be better to say that I’d barely considered them, and this is part of the problem.
In the horse world, we describe a certain type of well-trained, seasoned pony, as a “push-button” pony. It means just what it sounds like. Dressage riders know that transitions happen at certain letters: Halt at X. Trot at E. I try to ride transitions correctly—keep the horse’s back relaxed, keep them round and soft in my hand. But what actually happened was I’d try to get the gait “correct” and then push the button. I got used to the idea of setting the horse up and then giving an aid, rather than actually riding “through” the transition between gaits. If you can drive a stickshift, you can imagine what this is like. You don’t do everything at once, you drive through the transition: put your foot on the clutch, shift into the next gear, slowly release the clutch, then put your foot on the accelerator.
Whether you ride or not, we’re all in a transition time now. For me, it feels as if there’s a constellation of events that take a bit of time and reflection to comprehend.
I’m a professor. Back in February 2020, I thought: ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t come back after spring break, if we just went online & slowed down?’ I felt guilty for the thought. I hadn’t been thinking about Covid deeply. I was preoccupied with teaching, riding horses, the horribleness of politics, and I hadn’t fully considered how much work it would be to get online—which was what my university did.
But after the scramble to get online that spring, there was the summer scramble of figuring out the technology for teaching the following year online. Even though last summer had moments of opening up, everything seemed weather dependent and iffy. It was hard to feel serene. George Floyd was murdered. There was a lot of unrest. Reading the news and navigating social media felt like playing dodgeball.
A fall semester of teaching online followed––a privilege compared to doctors and nurses and essential workers and literally hundreds of other harder and more harrowing things to do, which people had been doing for months. Even still, teaching on zoom is like shouting through a shower curtain.
During winter break, teachers used what they’d learned in the fall to modify and prep their spring online courses. Lots of college professors had it easy compared to public school teachers and the ping-pong of policy, hybrid teaching, and local regulations.
By this spring, many people—most people—we were worn to a frazzle with being patient for so long.
I was lucky enough to get vaccinated in March and April, so my freedom to see people and relax and give folks a hug coincided with the end of the semester. The minute I turned my grades in, I had appointments with the vet, and the farrier, and a music jam I was thrilled to return to.
We know the image of racehorses breaking from a gate: from the outside, it looks like pent-up energy being released. But images can be misleading: horses don’t do this naturally. Many horses don’t want to get into the gate in the first place. I had an OTTB who didn’t want his ears handled because he’d been yanked into the gate by the ears, a somewhat common practice, I’m told. So, it’s claustrophobia and the herd instinct that sends racehorses rocketing forward.
As I was able to move about more freely, I didn’t understand why I felt so tired. My friends felt this way too, and this is where transitions come in. It was ill-considered for me to imagine that I could flip a switch and instantly be in go-go-go back to ‘normal’ mode—which wasn’t normal at all really. It didn’t allow space for transitions.
If we look at the natural world, transitions between the seasons are gradual. There’s great variety. It was almost 90 in MN two weeks ago, and it was 34 last night. But before Covid, I had allowed no space in my life for transitions—everything was push push push. More caffeine, a protein bar, beat the clock, get this thing done so I can get that thing done.
I used to joke about “chain smoking ponies”––riding one, then another, then another. I was training ponies for sale as a way to support my “habit,” the way I did as a child. While I learned a lot from this process, I now wonder why I put such pressure on myself. I have a job. I work hard on the farm. I didn’t have to add a pony business on top of it all. I quit selling ponies a few years ago. All four horses I have now are keepers.
But transitions. I’m learning to make room for them, but it’s easy to forget, especially with the prevalence of technology. The constant pinging of our devices, or in my case, sitting down to my laptop to see what’s happening on Facebook, robs us of actually riding through the transitions of our day.
For so long, the news was a barrage of bad. It was hard not to look and think, “Oh, this is too much. This is too awful. People are going to realize it.”
I think of checking the computer as a “break,” somewhat like the idea of a cigarette break. In theory, the idea of pausing, taking some really deep breaths, getting a little “hit” should feel good. But cigarettes are filled with all kinds of poison. They’ll kill you. What could be a healthy impulse: to breathe, to take a break and relax for a minute, is subverted by added chemicals.
Technology interferes with my ability to take time to reflect. I’ve gotten through the pandemic partly by staying in touch with my friends on Facebook. It was my only social interaction for 14 months, but in the months before the election I unfollowed liberally. The group of friends I have are, in general, spiritually-seeking and kind and concerned. We’ve been a support network for each other through a difficult time. I liked the idea of checking in on what people were thinking and doing, though for much of the past year people aren’t often “doing” anything other than hiking.
But checking my computer instead of centering myself didn’t actually help. Instead of just being in transition—between horses, farm chores, and zoom classes—checking in with social media robbed me of the transition itself. In my mind, it represents relaxation, taking a breath, but of course it’s not.
It might feel as if the world has resumed its “go go go.” Faster, better, more. It might be easy to fall back into being racehorses, breaking from a gate. But we don’t have to superimpose that image on our need for rest or centering ourselves.
I am working on riding through the transitions, both on my horses, and on myself. I try to be conscious of shifting gears. We’re not going to give up computers. Chances are, you’re reading this online right now, but I’m trying to take the time to move between my various tasks more thoughtfully. I can take a deep breath, drink a glass of water, and take in the shifting horizon around me.
Elizabeth Oness lives on a biodynamic farm in Southeast Minnesota. Her stories have received an O. Henry Prize, a Nelson Algren Award, and the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize. Her books include: Articles of Faith, Departures, Twelve Rivers of the Body, Fallibility, and Leaving Milan. Elizabeth is a professor of English at Winona State University, and when she’s not teaching, she’s usually riding horses or playing music.