The trials and jubilations of learning to ride as an adult

I had practically no interest in horses or riding as a kid. The only girls who I knew that did it were mean, I’d heard the local riding school wasn’t nice to its horses and my parents have an inverse snobbery towards those who ride. So no, it held absolutely no appeal.

However, if you fast forward a few decades, all my (very non-horsey) friends probably think I am a horse. Certainly once a week I smell like one and can be found at the stables. I started riding about three and a half years ago and I’ve never been so keen on a hobby since my teenage days as a Kuk Sool Won student (Kuk Sool Won being a martial art rather than something to do with cooking, I am NEVER enthusiastic about cooking, eating on the other hand…).

That time has been spent at a few different riding schools with the occasional riding holiday thrown in and it’s been an up and down experience. There’s been some amazing highs, but there have also been some ridiculous lows, when you just leave the stables on the verge of tears and vow never to spend another penny on a horse or instructor again.

So in the interest of at least leaving this article on more of a high than I did today’s riding lesson, let me  end on the jubilations and start with the common trials of an adult rider…

  • Supreme envy of the Pony Club crowd, with their chummy camaraderie as they learn from scratch together – most other adult riders I encounter rode as children and are returning to it and are thus miles ahead of me, which always puts me on the back foot as I try not to let my inept riding destroy their lesson. I also have a lot of envy of the fun Pony Club trials and gymkhanas. I am in no way too old to take part in an apple bobbing race with a horse. Ahem.
  • The embarrassment when your instructor tells you to get off the horse that has been ignoring your aids for the last 20 minutes and the minute they get on, it turns into bloody Valegro. You’re left there dying of shame, thinking: “I am a team leader at work – I manage lots of people – I speak at events to hundreds of people. I apparently can’t manage a horse though. I’M SUCH A FAILURE.”
  • Confusion when what one instructor tells you contradicts what another instructor has been telling you, as inevitably as an adult rider trying to manage riding around work means you can’t always have the same instructor. If you’ve been given a bollocking for kicking a horse rather than squeezing, you’re are going to be a little reluctant to then return to kicking on the urging of another instructor. Then both think you’re a moron. And then you just end up in paranoid confusion about what to do when you encounter either instructor again.
  • Feeling slightly like an outsider. Most adults who ride have horses and compete. And it often runs in the family. They have their horsey uniforms and horsey jargon and tend to view riding school horses as poor harassed creatures ruined by the idiots learning to ride them. I’ve had words to these effect said directly to me and have had the sentiment unconsciously be made known to me by people who are lovely and probably just didn’t really think about what they were saying. Either way, it’s a pretty effective method for making any soft-hearted riding school learner feel like a kind of horse murderer.
  • A deep sense of frustration, that often coincides with a look at your bank balance or a bad lesson or both, about where exactly you’re going with this riding malarkey. Jane Shilling in her memoir ‘The fox in the cupboard’ sums this up best (and this is the page I always re-read in these moments of frustration):

“Misgiving shimmered constantly at the edge of my mind. I was too old, I’d started too late. I simply hadn’t the muscle power for what I was trying to achieve, at a rate of one lesson a week. I kept thinking of poor, mad Zelda Fitzgerald and her loopy attempts to train as a ballet dancer, years after it was too late to begin. In any case, if I did eventually master the basics (as presumably I should at some point, even given my snail’s rate of progress) what then? What did I think I was learning to ride for? I was too restless to be content with ambling about the toll rides, however pretty, on the back of a borrowed horse, and not good enough to do anything else. The combination of an excess of temperament with limited ability was a tricky one. I’d had trouble with it before and knew how it could leak a faint, sour taint of disappointment into the whole of life. Perhaps I should give up, before that started again.”

That “sour taint of disappointment” has not yet overpowered the various jubilations that do happen in the horsey life, though.

  • Because when you’re living in London and work in a subterranean office, there are few things that cheer you up as much as trotting and cantering out over Richmond Park. Hooray, vitamin D! Huzzah, a tree! Good lord, do I sniff fresh air? I feel like I’m flying!
  • On those few occasions when a lesson does go well and you’ve miraculously got a horse to actually move forward, your circles don’t look like wonky eggs and you’ve even managed to go over a small jump without looking like a sack of potatoes, the sense of achievement you feel is out of this world because it’s been such a bloody hard slog to build that harmony with a horse.
  • Olympia Horse Show and Windsor Horse Show. These horse shows give you the same euphoria as a good training session and come with a bonus. You’ve been building up stamina by rushing between shops buying a whole range of exciting looking horsey things  you are convinced will make you at least look like someone who knows what they are doing, learned good techniques by watching the pros and you have lots of new purchases as a reward!
  • Of course the main reason, is the horses themselves. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with cuties like these?

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