Learning to horse – an ode to the art of staying on half a tonne of stubborn animal

DSCF0645If I’d relied on first impressions, I’d probably be a lot wealthier than I am now as my first experience of horse riding was certainly a less than positive one.

I remember turning up at the university riding club to find they weren’t expecting a beginner and what then ensued was a bouncing blur of humiliation that only grew with each groin crunching jolt. The instructor with the cut glass accent and perpetually upturned nose gave me the quickest introduction to trot before towing me and my horse, Miller, behind her on a rope while she supervised a more advanced class of ladies cantering merrily around the Cambridge countryside. Luckily I wasn’t expected to canter but the rising trot is no easy thing to master, especially when you’re already feeling pretty self-conscious. Miller, however, had no sense of shame and was happy to not even trot and instead leisurely prune most of the hedges we passed.

The indignity of the situation reached whole new heights when we passed the uni polo team relaxing post game – the rest of the class got to canter by these not bad looking boys, hair flying in the wind, while I bounced along behind, sweating profusely, sliding around on this rotund beast.

A few years later however, with an impressive case of humiliation amnesia, I decided that I would love to get back on a horse again and dragged a friend to ‘Have a go’ session at Lee Valley Riding Centre. I bloody loved it and I haven’t really looked back since.

Well that’s a lie actually, horse riding has been a trial and there were moments when I was though “seriously, am I really spending more than a pound a minute to be dragged around by a horse”, but ultimately I stuck with it and the reward is a hobby that makes me extraordinarily happy even when the horses can be unforgiving. Anyone who says horse riding doesn’t count as exercise has clearly never tried to control half a tonne of animal with just their thighs before.

The instructors can be unforgiving too. There is one who shall remain nameless who left me feeling humiliated and upset in my one private lesson with her and the group lessons I had to endure with her (after two of them I vowed to just have private lessons with the instructor of my choice). There is constructive criticism and then there is just pointless, sarcastic comments that aren’t designed to do anything other than make the other person feel bad and small. And you know what, the horse can sense you’re upset and knows it can take the piss even further.

However, I regularly have lessons now with a lovely instructor, Fiona, which makes a massive difference. I mean she doesn’t hold back from telling it like it is – memorable quotes include: “I’m trying to see a bright side [to this attempt at a 20 metre circle] but I just can’t.” – however she gives praise the few times it’s due and criticism is always constructive. I’d like to think she’s taught me a valuable lesson actually in how to treat others – people blossom with praise and wilt under constant abuse.

The fact that a horse is a living creature, not a machine, (although sometimes I wish there were brakes or an accelerator) teaches you so much too. Nine times out of ten, if your horse isn’t doing what you’d like it do, you’re the one at fault – horse riding requires subtlety in your movements and a respect for the individual nature of the horse you’re on for it to go well. It’s a brilliant lesson in patience and not just reacting to a bad situation with “well it’s X’s fault” and instead thinking about how to remedy it by improving yourself.

That said, sometimes you do have to accept the fact it is an animal and sometimes it just won’t want to play bloody ball and do whatever the hell it pleases. Case in point being a jumping lesson I had the other day – it wasn’t a jumping lesson I’d signed up for, I don’t canter well enough for that; my horse had other ideas though.

Upon entering an arena with jumps still out, I expressed my concerns to Fiona that Baron might decide to do some jumping. I was quickly reassured that Baron was far too old and wouldn’t even do that sort of thing even if asked. Well, you might as well have shown a red flag to a bull… Once we moved onto the cantering part of my lesson, he jumped over a couple of poles laid out on the ground. I survived, Fiona naturally made a comment that technically jumping lessons cost more than what I’d paid for rather than enquiring about my nerves. I just hoped that was the end of Baron’s attempts to prove his point.

Of course it wasn’t, the next time I kicked Baron into going for a canter he aimed for an actual jump, I just about stayed on, screaming, but still on the bloody minded horse. I had a small moment of euphoria that I’d done a proper jump, albeit lacking somewhat in elegance, and then that smugness was cut abruptly short when I saw what Baron was cantering towards next – a large pile of planks all sticking out at weird angles. With a leap to rival his glory days of old, Baron cleared said pile while my screams of “no, Baron, no” were cut abruptly short as I went sailing over the little shit’s head.

As Robert Downey Jnr said, as Sherlock Holmes, horses are “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle”. Let’s face it, though, learning to control that kind of mad is pretty much what makes horse riding such fun.

(My instructor by the way , true to blunt form, just expressed horror that I wasn’t even using the right equipment for jumping – “it’s a dressage saddle”.)

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