Trail Riding and Writing

I’ve been away too long from my blog entries. Why?

Maybe it was the 60-mile trail ride that my husband and I took last August in Montana. Maybe it was riding here in Minnesota over the summer when the horse flies and deer flies weren’t swarming. It could have been practicing lead changes with my horse and actually winning my first blue ribbon at my first horse show. Or giving into the golden aspen leaves and setting off to trail ride on a lingering autumn day.

Have I been wasting my time trail riding? I don’t think so.

Every hour I spend with my horse seems to benefit me as a writer in two main ways: 1) using the five senses and 2) allowing my subconscious to work.

Custer TrailHorses can be dangerous. They’re flight animals, ready to escape any situation in which they feel threatened by fleeing. That means that it’s important to employ all those senses the moment you approach a horse. With my eyes, I pay attention to his body language. Are his ears upright and turned toward me with curiosity and trust, or does he have them flattened back in warning that something’s amiss?

I use my eyes and also my ears. Is he pawing impatiently, revealing restlessness? Or is he pounding in his trailer stall? Is his tail swish-swishing with irritation? If so, I need to be alert. He’s giving me signals of what’s on his mind.

Then there’s the sense of smell. The earthiness of horse manure. Sweet bales of alfalfa hay stacked to the ceiling. Grain—a mixture of oats, molasses, and other good stuff. And the horse sweat, a reassuring smell to horse lovers.

I approach my horse by letting him smell the flat of my hand. His whiskers brush again my palm, his breath is hot. Then I run my hand across his neck, a gesture of reassurance, as mares often stroke the neck of their foals to comfort them. I use a variety of brushes to groom him, from a curry brush to soft bristle face brush. I lift his feet to pick out his hooves, but at the same time feel for hot spots in his fetlocks (or ankles) to make sure that he doesn’t have some sort of injury or inflammation.

Eventually, I saddle up and hit the paths through the woods. If it’s a long ride, I’ll pack a saddle bag with water, chocolates, a nut mix, sandwich and two apples: one for me, one for my horse. And there’s the sense of taste.

While I’m trail riding, my senses are on alert. I try to anticipate what my horse may encounter. A ruffed grouse crosses the trail ahead, and my horse spots it, too. But I make sure I’m ready when it takes flight. It does, an explosive sound of thundering wings. My horse flinches, but doesn’t bolt out of fear. He’s seen them before. Yet I never know what lurks around the bend: a fox, a bear, a moose? In short, I need to be listening and watching every moment in order to ride safely.

Not only does trail riding add pleasure to my life by drawing on my senses, but it also provides a chance for my subconscious to work. I do not actively think about my writing when I’m with horses. That’s a good thing, because something amazing happens in our brains when we step away from actively problem-solving. The deep recesses of our mind work while we’re unaware: to find the right specific detail, to know how to revise a scene, to come up with a fresh metaphor, etc.

When I return home, I feel refreshed. Restored. Ready to write. And the ideas that I need as a writer begin to rise up, asking to be considered. The questions I had struggled with when I last stepped away from my manuscript are still there. But so are many possible answers.

Now, I realize not everyone is interested in horses. Yet there are countless other activities that writers can turn to use their five senses and engage in the moment. Maybe it’s simply walking for a few miles and truly paying attention to the world around. Perhaps it’s watercolors and swirling brushes in paints and water. Or maybe it’s lifting weights at the gym or swimming laps at the pool, pushing your body through chlorine-scented water.

Whatever the outlet, it’s good to get away from writing to be a better writer. It keeps our senses activated and allows our subconscious to do its important work.