Sep 11, 2009

The Perils of Riding a Racehorse

Okay, so I didn't actually ride a racehorse at Saratoga, though I was offered a couple of opportunities to mount up on a pony or even exercise a horse.  But fuck that!  Seriously.  I do not stick to narrow thoroughbreds at high speeds.  And for God's sake I've tried, but that is one thing I know is totally beyond my abilities.  Put me on a nice wide-barreled horse and I am good to go, but thoroughbreds are a different story. 

However, I did do something I had been desperate to do ever since my last visit to Saratoga. I finally got on that racehorse simulator at the Racing Museum. Actually, I need to put a caveat in at this point. I was desperate to do it, but was also scared silly, especially at the prospect of many people gathered around to watch me.  But my parents, as always, sort of pushed me to do it, all at my drunken request the night before.  And that's how we got to this point:

Do not hate.  I may not have the jockey physique or form down (also, yes, I do have a hair net on), but I am of the utmost seriousness when I tell you that THESE SIMULATORS ARE NO FREAKING JOKE!  Your balance and strength are tested like you would not believe.  And the patented jockey crouch is no help while cantering and galloping along.  At one point, I believe I sat down and tried to adopt a pseudo-dressage position (well, as best I could with tiny stirrups) just to remind myself that, why yes, I did know how to ride.  But the kindly simulator operator did not stand for such circus riding; it would be the jockey way or the highway, miss.

For those of you who've never done this before, the museum puts you on the non-robotic horse first.  That's the one pictured above.  They just want to test your strength and ability to get the rhythm of a galloping horse.  The above horse is the Equicizer -- you can find more information on it here.  It is not a mechanized horse; the only way it moves is via your own motion, so you are completely in control on this particular animal.  And honestly because of that, it felt much more comfortable to ride.  I think it also helped that the stirrups on this model were of a more realistic length (i.e. shorter) so that I could better imagine what it was I supposed to be doing.
And just when I got the hang of that, we switched over to this bad boy:
See what I mean about the stirrups being a lot longer on this model.  They've wrapped them around the iron to make them shorter, but the museum really needs to shorten them even more.  I struggled more with this horse, not only because I was no longer in control of the motion, but also because my stirrup length was sort of a very short jumping position.  So, the entire time my mind kept snapping back to my old days of two-point sessions.  The bottom line is that I think I prevented myself from being able to share the full experience because the entire time I kept telling myself: "Sit up and away from the horse.  Heels down.  Eyes up."  When in reality I should have jammed my toes down, thrown my seat way back, flattened my back, hunkered my head down and launched my arms well away from my body.  But old habits die hard and damned if I have ever tried to do anything like this style of riding before. 

Anyway, the above-pictured horse is, I believe, the one made by this company (albeit an older version at this point; I think the racing museum's simulator was installed nearly three years ago).  This version is mechanized and was controlled by the afore-mentioned operator.  To add to the excitement, it also has a video monitor that gives you a visual reference for the movement that you're feeling.  First they do a couple of seconds of a slow gallop, just so you get your bearings on this new machine.  Then, they load up a training ride, which is essentially an exercise on the Oklahoma Training Track.  It all seems good and not that fast and you're totally tricked into thinking at this point that it'll be fairly easy and fun.  But as soon as you're about 15 seconds into the training ride, the operator said I should save my legs for the real stuff - the two and a half minute race simulation.  Okay, it's true I was feeling the twinges of fatigue in my legs, but I'm thinking that I'm totally strong and I workout and ride and all that.  Who wouldn't be able to do this?

Yeah, right.  The screen flips to the confines of a starting gate and the mechanized animal is shifting slightly.  At least I think it moved; the video tricks your senses into feeling things that aren't perhaps there (I learned that while during the training ride, my horse veered sideways and I was all prepped to follow when I realized the animal beneath me was still straight as an arrow).  And it suddenly dawned on me that I had literally just finished reading a poster in the museum that said a horse could jump from 0 to 50 mph in just over two seconds.  Fear gripped me suddenly.  What was I thinking; this robot packed the equivalent strength and power of a real animal and I was far out of my league on how to handle a full-out galloping horse, while propped up on my stirrups.

Dear reader, when the gate opened, I cannot possibly tell you the sheer force that propels you forward.  All my riding instincts just kicked into survival mode and didn't let up for the rest of the race.  I held my stomach as tight as possible, plunged as much weight through my heels as I could bear and held on for dear life with my calf muscles.  Not pretty, not my typical riding methods, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.  Within 20 seconds, I think I wanted to cry.  Within 30 seconds, my legs started to go numb.  After about 45 seconds I started to think that maybe this was a huge mistake and I was not going to make it.  It's funny --- to my parents (and the rest of the several dozen people gathered to watch) it looks deceptively easy.  But I kid you not.  There is a massive amount of speed and force being thrown at you that you have to try to process so quickly and stay with.  At the minute mark, I had to quietly order the operator to slow the machine down.  He hesitated, let me know that it couldn't be sped back up, and I (think) I barked, "I don't want it to go faster!"  So, slow it down he did, but to my fatigued muscles it felt like no respite at all.  To cope I started to blow the air in and out of my lungs, slowly and steadily, just trying to focus on something besides the excruciating pain of movement.  By the 2 minute mark, the horse lunges forward and your muscles are so numb that you're hanging on by sheer force of will. 

And then, something snaps.  The finish line comes into view on the screen and you know you're at the homestretch and you suddenly get this wave of euphoria.  You suddenly want to win and despite the intense fatigue, you throw your entire body into the rhythm, handriding all the way to the wire.

My muscles are dying here, as you can witness by my hunched-over upper body.

But I have never been prouder of myself than having conquered that entire race.  I found physical reserves that I never thought I possessed.  I might have had sweat pouring down my back, legs that were like jelly for hours afterwards, a heartrate that would have spooked my doctor (and which took at least a half-hour to normalize) and the thirst of a man stranded in the desert for several days, but I did it.  Let no one ever laugh at the physical stature of any jockey within my presence.  I had a taste of their job and it is intense, to say the very least.  Every step for days afterwards served to remind me of that.

Also, I would DIE to have a riding simulator at home now.  I WILL find the werewithal to finance such a thing one day.  I just have to.   

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