Lessons in life… from horses

Anyone who knows me now, knows I love horses. I’m crazy about them, I try and ride twice a week, go on riding holidays, attend Olympia Horse Show and the Royal Windsor Horse Show religiously each year, have far too many clothes and items of jewellery that reference horses, etc.

Their appeal isn’t just because I think they are cute though – it goes much deeper than that.

When you’re sat on their back, and see those ears cock forward, and feel this half a tonne of animal, which could easily kill you if it decided, respond to the signals you’re sending them, whether that’s cantering across open ground, sailing over jumps or just doing walk-trot transitions in an arena – you feel invincible. There is nothing else outside of the bubble of you two, there is no room to worry about that work task or whether you need to change energy provider or anything like that. There’s no space for it when you feel like you’re soaring, when you feel victorious, because what incredible teamwork you’re exhibiting! You’re not even the same species and you are somehow speaking to each other!

The mythical creature the centaur – half man, half horse – is everywhere in classical and renaissance art. Wander into the British Museum and look at the controversial Elgin Marbles and they are there, bodies powerful and bristling with energy, battling with man. That’s how riding makes you feel.

And then there’s the softer moments, when a velvety nose is nuzzling you for treats, when you are stroking their soft coat, perhaps resting your head against them, inhaling that wildly comforting scent of eau de horse. As you groom them, buckle them up in their rugs to keep them warm at night and generally fuss about them, there’s a maternal tenderness there. There’s a reason horse owners refer to themselves as their horse’s mum.

Of course it’s not all plain sailing with horses either, there’s lots of tears, injuries and frustrations. Plenty of times when you just go ‘why am I investing this much, time, energy and money into this?’.

Being around horses is an ongoing, complex journey of emotions, and you end up learning one hell of a lot along the way, which is why I wanted to document some of those special horses on my journey and what they have taught me.

Dylan

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Dylan was my first. The first horse I ever truly loved. I have a lovely framed picture of him and me that a friend took and gifted to me by my bed still. A grey – he’s a dazzling white (when clean), short and stocky (I’m not sure what height he is, but I’m guessing he can’t be over 15hh) and with a bit of an attitude of a recalcitrant teenage boy about him. Albeit one who was scared of the red yard hosepipe and who would leap into your arms Scooby Doo style in fear if he could (in real life this equates to barging into your personal space, hooves stepping on your feet).

The first time I rode him, I thought I was failing because I couldn’t get him to canter for sustained periods. Sweating and cross, as I circled him back around to where my instructor was standing, I was startled to hear her say “You should ask for him again, [when requesting a horse to ride in a lesson] because I’ve never seen him move like that for anyone”.

That was a lesson in learning that even if you think you’re struggling, you’re probably doing a lot better than you think.

It’s quite gratifying to hear that appear to have a special bond with a horse – that you appear to be some kind of Dylan whisperer. So I did ask for him again, and again. And other instructors would go “you clearly know him” and I’d feel pride that there was clearly some sort of understanding between us, that he’d be better for me than for other people. That this animal thought there was something special about me.

Dylan was also a lesson in bending the rules. In an arena, you are taught to keep your whip always on the inside – aka the side of you and the horse turned into the arena rather than the side against the fence. You are also taught to pass riders coming the other way ‘left side to left side’ as you move in circles around the edge of the arena. If I ever had the inside of the arena on my right, my whip should theoretically by on my right side and I should pass the other rider by moving further into the arena allowing my left outside to pass their left inside.

Dylan, as I’ve mentioned, epitomises the surly teenage boy. He would delight in suddenly veering sharply to the left as you passed another rider and bashing your knees together in an attempt to get you off, the cheeky little sod. I was despairing about what to do and my instructor told me to forget the rules about the whip and improvise, keep if always on my left. So I did. And my left knee thanked me for it.

So Dylan – a lesson in learning to adapt to people and learning to adapt the rules when the situation calls for it.

Jemima 

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I hate it when women say they get on better with men than they do with women, because they are bitchy. Where do I even begin with that hot mess of a statement, with all the stereotypes and misogyny wordsmithed within it?

I must admit though – that I find geldings (male horses with, ahem, certain crucial features missing) easier to ride, and easier to love than mares. Generally speaking, they can be easier to persuade and a bit soppier for cuddles. Or to put it another way, you need to earn a mare’s trust and affections, while geldings will do as they are told, however sulkily.

Jemima and I did not get on at first. She lives at a different riding school, the other side of London to Dylan, and as I’d moved south of the river, I needed to find a new riding school. It was my first time there and I didn’t like the instructor – she was of the posh ilk who clearly didn’t particularly like teaching and thought riding school horses were effectively victims of the plebs who couldn’t afford to buy their own horse to train on.

(And she wasn’t the only instructor like that at this particular school – there’s nothing quite so demoralising as being in a lesson where an instructor loudly tells the other lady in it, that’s it’s such a shame for the horses at the riding school to be here where there are ridden and ruined by so many people and there’s no progression for anyone on riding school horses, and that she is doing the right thing by leaving and getting a horse share. Small word of advice, maybe don’t be rude about the people who help pay your salary?)

Anyway, that first lesson on Jemima was not a success – Jemima didn’t particularly fancy moving, and could probably tell I was pretty stressed about being honked at by this particular instructor.

However, I persevered at this riding school for a while (with thankfully some nice instructors, who sadly all seemed to leave relatively quickly which says a lot) and that meant being paired up with Jemima again and again, because she was at the end of the day a schoolmistress horse.

A schoolmistress or a schoolmaster is a horse who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt and is generally believed to not be likely to kill its rider. Given her tendency to use her massive head to savagely headbutt me every time I came up to her stable at the start of a lesson, it could be hard to believe. Her colouring – a piebald who is mostly white with black patches and one black ear and one white – meant I often referred to her as Cruella de Horse, too.

She turned out to not be evil incarnate though, she was just a mare whose trust you needed to earn and quirks you needed to learn. Jemima for instance will buck the first time you smack her with the whip to get her listening to your leg aids and moving faster. It will never be a big buck, but a buck nonetheless, so you learn to be ready for it and sit it and not be scared because you know she won’t do it again.

You learn that as a grand old lady, her joints aren’t as good as they used to be and you need to be really confident about the jump when approaching it otherwise, she’ll use your fear as an excuse to veer away from the jump and save her joints (very sensible really).

You learn that she struggles to step off on the right hoof when you’re circling clockwise around the arena (the right canter lead) but if you move her nose to the left before asking for the canter, she’s more likely to set off on the right foot.

You learn she really does deserve her schoolmistress title, because as grumpy and unaffectionate on the ground as she is, she will look after the human on her back. She bloody hates other horses though – she once almost ruined a beautifully straight line towards some jumps by trying to veer off to murder another horse in the arena.

What a madam. What a lesson in perseverance and learning how to achieve teamwork with someone you might not necessarily warm to straight away. 

Bradley

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Christmas Eve 2017 I was thrown off a big ginger mare three times in an hour while hacking out in Richmond Park. I didn’t shatter any bones, luckily, but my confidence was in pieces.

I needed to get that carefree confidence that nothing bad could ever happen to me when riding back.

First step was finding a stables where they do give their horses turnout, so they are slightly less volatile when out hacking, and finding a horse there who would help me. And thanks to a friend, I found Wildwoods Riding Centre and Bradley (yes, another gelding, I did admit a preference for them).

Bradley is about 16.2hh, a bit of a chunkster, who is mostly black but has a massive white face and one white knee and I think he’s the handsomest thing on this planet.

Riding him is like riding a sofa; he’s so solid and dependable. Few things phase him and when he does get spooked, he generally decides after a short canter that he’d rather get eaten anyway because this is too much effort and slows down. That’s not to say he’s a plod – he loves his hacking, he strides out and likes to be at the front, admiring the views, breeze rippling through his mane, ears moving around taking in the sounds. And he’ll get excited when we get to points he knows we normally canter – so excited you think he’s going to tank off, but he never does, he slows down to a steady pace after those initial first few strides, looking after you with every step.

Bradley, and the patience of my friend and hack leaders, have now, more than two years after that fateful Christmas Eve just about restored my confidence with hacking out.

What has this taught me? That kindness – because Bradley is a very kind horse, just look at that face – is so very important in life and can reap all sorts of miracles.

And, that you are often braver than you think. I never once thought, I’d stop trying to ride, I just wanted to figure out a way to be confident again and went out again and again on hacks where I was so scared to start with. And, without wishing to seem like I’m blowing my own trumpet, that is actually kind of a little brave and so grateful to Bradley for helping me be even braver.

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