Sunday, September 2, 2012

Different Muscles for Different Folks

by Maggie Dana

Ever since Linda Benson invited me to write a guest post I’ve been tumbling from one idea to another like sneakers in a dryer. Should I blather on about how choosing shoes is like choosing your book’s cover, share my thoughts on how book design affects readability, or explain how and why I began writing? Then I read Linda’s riveting account of her 1985 Tevis Cup ride and a bunch of flashbulbs went off. Finally, I had my article.

And it’s all about muscles—riding muscles and writing muscles.

Back when I was still married (in the Jurassic Era), my then-husband and I rode into the Grand Canyon. We’d just endured a 64-mile drive over rocky dirt roads to reach the rim by 8 a.m. where our guide, an intrepid Havasupai Indian, was waiting with ten ornery looking horses that had been on the job since dawn. They’d already climbed the eight miles up from their village; they didn’t look too keen about going back down again.

My husband was a fighter pilot. He didn’t know one end of a horse from the other, and I had only ever ridden in English saddles. This would be my first time riding Western. There were three others besides my husband and me. We were told to mount up, and I guess it was pretty obvious I was the only one who knew how to ride because the guide told me to take the lead; he would catch up with us when the rest of his customers arrived.

“Where do I go?” I said.

He pointed. “Over there.”

Unfortunately, ‘over there’ was a panorama of blue sky anchored by the canyon’s south rim. Did the guide want me to leap into outer space? I edged my reluctant horse closer to the edge. Shale and loose rocks tumbled down the terrifying drop-off where a narrow trail gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘hairpin.’ For someone used to riding in a dressage arena or through the gentle English countryside, this was mind-numbingly scary. Up to that point, the scariest thing I’d ever done on a horse was jump a three-foot fence bareback when I was a whole lot younger.

I had a feeling this little venture was going to be a whole lot scarier.

My husband, who was much better with dizzying heights than I was, suggested we’d better get going, so I shoved my feet into a pair of unforgiving wooden stirrups and took the plunge. Down we went, scrambling for footing. Then came the first corner and my horse changed his mind. He whirled around, stumbled, and teetered on the brink of destruction. My world tilted sideways. Breathtaking scenery rushed by, but I was too busy trying to stay in the saddle to pay attention. Finally, my horse found his feet. We got ourselves sorted, but I wanted to go right back to the top and stay there. Sadly, that was no longer an option. There were nine other horses blocking my way. So down we continued, descending fast enough to make my head spin.

Four wearying hours later, we arrived in the Havasupai village only to learn that if we wanted to see the spectacular waterfalls (the reason for this arduous journey) we would have to ride another two miles.

So we did, and the falls were, indeed, spectacular. I wanted to jump in, fully dressed, to soothe my sore muscles. I wanted to join the other joyful swimmers in the blue-green water that foamed and cascaded over rocks the color of terracotta plant pots.

But no. We couldn’t stay. For some inexplicable reason our guide insisted we had to get back to the village.

And when I finally got off my horse, I no longer had ankles that worked. I landed in an unseemly heap on the ground. Given I hadn’t ridden in a few years, I fully expected my legs (inner thighs, especially) to be screaming for mercy, but I didn’t expect my feet and ankles to give out as well. I blame those malevolent wooden stirrups. They forced my outward-turning feet into a straight line and kept them there for the best part of a day. These particular muscles had never been abused like this before, and boy, did they complain.

After a restless night beneath a scratchy blanket on a canvas cot in the village’s one-room hotel, it was time to mount up for the ride back out. I did NOT want to get on that horse. I seriously doubted my ankles would survive the journey. I actually envied those who were walking out (yes, I was that demented), then told my husband I wanted a helicopter ride to the rim. He looked at the cloudless blue sky, scrunched up his pilot’s eyes, and said, “No helicopter will be landing here today.”

He was right. It had to do with something incomprehensible about thermals and clear air turbulence.

So we rode out and my ankles have yet to forgive me. But this really brought home to me the difference between Western and English stirrups and how they can cause unexpected trauma when it comes to muscles, especially those we rarely think about and take for granted.

It’s the same with writing.

The muscles we use for writing full-length fiction are different from the muscles required for writing short stories. Think about it. A novel is like a marathon; a short story is a sprint. Usain Bolt is an Olympic gold medalist, but he could never win a 26-mile race.

Several years ago, one of my favorite British authors wrote a short story that appeared in a popular women’s magazine. The story wandered. It had no beginning, no middle, and no discernible end. It sort of fizzled out. Luckily, this didn’t put me off her books. I still buy them, sight unseen, because she’s a brilliant novelist.

Then again, there’s Frederick Forsyth, best-selling author of novels such as The Odessa File, The Fist of God, and The Afghan, who also wrote No Comebacks, a series of brilliant short stories that’s being reissued as an e-book, along with a novella, The Shepherd. He’s a multi-talented author who pulls off all genres with success, and I bet he has no trouble with English or Western stirrups, either.

[Author’s note: Linda has re-educated me about Western tack. It no longer savages your ankles, and because of this, I might be encouraged to try it again. If nothing else, I am now old enough to appreciate a pommel you can hang onto.]

Thanks so much for sharing that great adventure, Maggie! I hope your next experience with Western riding turns out better.Yes, a good, broke-in saddle won't hurt your ankles, and there is always that horn. LOL

To learn more about Maggie Dana and her great fiction for young horse lovers, called the Timber Ridge Riders series, or her hilarious, heart-warming (and a little bit steamy) women's fiction, visit her website right here: or find her on Facebook.

Thanks for stopping by, Maggie!


Gayle Carline said...

Oh, Maggie, you brave woman! I ride (Western) and there's no way I'd have gone over the ledge like that. My horse trainer and her hubby took the mules down a couple of years ago. She's in excellent shape, riding-wise, and she was sore! Said they were draft mules, which is kind of like straddling an SUV while lurching down the canyon.

I also must add, rent-a-string saddles are the worst. I took a trail ride this summer and missed my custom-made saddle so much - the saddle I was in was like sitting on a wooden plank for an hour.

Fun post.

Maggie Dana said...

Gayle ... THANK you for understanding. It's often so hard for English riders to come to grips with how comfy and wonderful a Western saddle can be; also, for Western riders to get over their horror of riding in a flat saddle.

We have so much to learn from one another.

Love your comment about 'rent-a-string' saddles.

Laura Crum said...

Is that third photo a view looking down at the trail? Yikes! And what a lovely photo of the waterfall.

I've done many mountain pack trips--always in my own saddle--and still, after thirty miles I pretty much collapsed in a heap at camp. Its tough to ride for that long when you're not used to it--even if you ride all the time.

Great photos and post--thank you!

Maggie Dana said...


I found the Grand Canyon/Havasupai photos on Wikimedia because I didn't have any of my own. They're all as I remember this trip, especially the one looking down on the hairpin turns. It was a heart-stopping moment.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

So Maggie totally gets why my coworker and I put English stirrups on the endurance saddles we're using at work! GIVE ME ANKLE FLEXION OR GIVE ME DEATH!

Speaking of death...

I would never go into the Grand Canyon on horseback or muleback or burroback or piggyback.


Dreaming said...

When I visited the Grand Canyon we opted for a gentle walk on top of the canyon and watched the riders head down. Both hubby and I decided being able to move comfortably for the rest of our vacation was a priority.
I do love your pictures and y1our comparison of riding and writing muscles! Thanks

Linda Benson said...

Maggie - my daughter and I rode mules down into the Grand Canyon from the other side of the canyon, and while the trail was just as hairy, the experience was awesome. The National Park Service mules were so amazing and well-trained and trustworthy, there was never any fear. But at the time, I was certainly glad I was on a mule and not a horse, especially one that was spinning around. Yikes! Glad you both made it out safely. And gosh, I would have wanted to swim at Havasupai Falls, too. What a beautiful place!

Alison said...

Your post made me holler "ouch" and I wasn't riding. Now that I am older, even short rides can play havoc on the old muscles, so I winced with every step you rode on that poor, woebegone horse.

RiderWriter said...

*waves hand* I survived a Canyon ride, too! However, it wasn't nearly as arduous or frightening as yours. I rode a Park Service mule halfway down from the North Rim. I wasn't scared, but hoo boy, was I ever sore just from that. And it wasn't even my ankles - nope, it was my BACK. All of the lurching from side-to-side going down just did me in. I can't imagine how you ever managed four straight hours down, poor sleep and then a long ride back up. UGH!

I find that in Western saddles it's my knees that hurt afterwards, I assume from torquing the fenders. Even a 1-hour trail ride will leave me with very ouchy knees. My feet stick out horribly, too... so it's interesting that your ankles are what gives. Luckily, the last couple times I've ridden Western it was in a synthetic saddle with nice, soft fenders so this wasn't an issue.

I also can't deal with non-padded seats in ANY saddle, due to a very bony rump. Don't know how I managed as a kid but if I did a lot of riding nowadays I'd have to get one of the French "couches" that are so popular in H/J these days!