Epyk Tale of Volunteering

12 11 2013

As threatened, here it is: The write-up of my first day of volunteering at the riding school! This post has been several days in the making, and I apologise both for its tardiness and its length. This has not been helped by the fact that yesterday evening, the draft I had saved to my WordPress dashboard and finished therein, failed to post to my blog, and I lost everything I’d been working on. Sigh! Still, here we go…

In spite of having been late to bed the night before on account of attending a metal festival that finished a little after 23:00 AND the darkness of the early morning, I managed to get up in time (the motivational power of horses!) to walk to the stables in the first of the morning light. I treated myself to a zero-calorie Monster along the way to pep myself up a bit and coasted for most of the journey there, but at intervals, when I remembered where I was going, I would impulsively exclaim aloud, ‘Yay ponies!’ with a spring in the correlating step.

Upon arrival I made my presence known to the first recognisable member of staff, who asked me to wait and said that she would fetch her colleague to give me my induction. While I was waiting I caught the eye of a curious mare with a very fluffy black winter coat, who had pretty white markings dotted around the edges of herself. Naturally, I went over to say hello. She lapped up my attention, nuzzling at my arms, inclining her neck for scratches and stamping her foot when I moved away to say hi to another horse, until I went back and fussed her some more. Her name was Misty, as it turned out.

My induction, taken by one of the full-time riding instructors I’d not met before, was brief, and involved a tour of the school, including all the bits I’d never seen before, a quick outline of the things I might be asked to do, fire assembly points and an explanation of their way of doing things as we went along. She didn’t bother talking to me about clothing because I was already suitably dressed with my hair tied back. Then we went into the office to complete and sign forms, and I was surprised when she asked me if I wanted to order any pizza from Domino’s for lunch with her. (I’d taken a sandwich, otherwise I might have done.)

Following that we went back out onto the yard immediately outside the office to prepare for a hack. I tacked up Chilli and had my inductor check what I had done, explaining that I had been shown how to do it, but that as it’s not something I often do I’d appreciate her supervision. She said I mostly did a good job, only correcting me on the placement of the saddle pad. Then I led Chilli out and held him for the client while she mounted up and adjusted her stirrups and girth, before going back to fetch Misty for the instructor, who was leading the hack, and then opening some mysterious doors I’d never noticed before from the inside arena to the outside to let them out on their way.

Once I’d done all that I moved on to helping the weekend staff – all largely indistinguishable girls in their late teens (Damian is fond of referring to the likes of them as ‘interchangeable Emmas’, a fitting term borrowed from Terry Pratchett) – prepare the horses’ night nets, which essentially amounted to finding a large net with big holes in it and stuffing into it as much hay as feasibly could be. The girls were pleasant and polite towards me while not asking me a lot of questions or making much effort to include me in their conversations, but that was fine by me. I was intrigued, from eavesdropping on their conversations without meaning to, that they were all basically from the same background; in sixth form college, from horsey families and each owners of their own horses. Theirs seemed a completely different world to mine.

Following that I was involved in various tasks throughout the day, mostly sweeping, picking up things that had been left on the floor and moving them somewhere more out of the way, keeping water buckets topped up, taking rubbish out and leading horses. I won’t dwell too much on the mundane things I did nor the order, as it was all pretty much the kind of run-of-the-mill stuff you’d expect.

I had some nice interactions with the horses as I went about my errands, however; there was a friendly wee chestnut mare called Leigh, who regarded me inquisitively whenever I was on her yard, and put her nose up to mine when I went to say hi to her, breathing down my nostrils so hard that I became breathless; there was little Jacko, a smaller pony who didn’t look dissimilar to Bramble, albeit smaller. Speaking of Bramble, I saw her in one of the outdoor stalls as I was being shown around in the morning; I cheerfully said, ‘Hello, Bramble!’ when I spotted her, and she looked up and made a funny nickering sound in response. Dylan, the largest horse at the school, was friendly and inquisitive towards me throughout the day, and I met a very handsome chap of comparable size to him on the other yard whose name I can’t remember, but who was watching me and the Interchangeable Emmas the whole time we were stuffing hay nets, and demanded fusses from anyone who passed. I had no direct interactions with Maddy this time, but I was amused to see what looked like some sort of girls’ riding group in matching uniforms all grooming her on the yard outside her stall, while she stood perfectly still for them with a seriously blissed-out expression on her face. Awww.

You’ll be totally unsurprised to hear that the real star of my day, however, was Soapy, and by cheerful coincidence rather than by design on my part, I ended up spending more time interacting with her than any other one of the horses.

I didn’t really see her until after lunch, when I went around to her yard to see what I could assist with since there were more staff on the opposite side. It was when I finished water-topping-up duties that she stuck her head out to watch what I was doing, and I went over to say hello. When I offered her my hand she would softly nuzzle it, but I noticed that she was less keen on being petted; at one stage, as I went to touch her neck, she withdrew her head and moved over to the opposite side of her stall away from me. I pretty much just left her alone after that, but when I looked up she would have her head out of the door and be watching what I was doing. At one point, I heard banging as she started stamping one of her back hooves. I went to see what was going on, and as what she was doing didn’t appear destructive, decided she must just have an itchy leg and left her be.

It transpired sometime around mid-afternoon that all of the horses, with the exception of Soapy and Dylan, were turned out to the grazing field for a couple of hours. (I was amused to note, as I observed Maddy being led out, that I’m not the only person who feels a compulsion to address mares as ‘Princess’ as a matter of course.) Apparently they do this every day, but the horses aren’t allowed to stay out any longer than that because there isn’t enough grass. I don’t know why Soapy and Dylan didn’t get to go out, but instead they were let into the large indoor school to stretch their legs, and I was amused to see that they were given a large pink Swiss ball to play with.

I was on the other yard at the time, but once I’d finished up there I wandered over to the other side to see if the outdoor thingy needed sweeping again. It did – the current time of year being autumn, I suppose – but, being at this point unaccustomed to doing hours of manual work, a tight spot on my back I’ve recently been seeing a physiotherapist about began to ache. Soapy had her head hanging over the door of her stall, having been watching what I was doing, so since we were effectively alone I decided to go and hang out with her for a few moments. Establishing quickly that she was glad of my company but didn’t want to be touched, I leaned my back on the door with her head resting by my side. She seemed pretty happy with this, her lips trembling, and it was nice for me to feel as though the two of us were just companionably sharing each other’s space.

Following that, I went back inside onto the yard, where I bumped into one of the regular staff members, who asked if I was okay. I said I was fine but I’d run out of things to do, so she suggested that I go and give Soapy and Elvis (who was back by this time) a brush. You can probably imagine my reaction. Soapy was surprised to see me entering her stall with the dandy brush and the body brush, but she obligingly stood still for me as I worked each brush over her, taking care only to use the dandy brush on the areas where she hadn’t been clipped. She carefully made it clear that she didn’t want either of her right legs to be touched as I worked down them, so I moved on to carefully brushing her face, which she didn’t appear to enjoy much but put up with. Elvis was another matter, raising his head haughtily when I showed him the brushes, and permitting me to brush one side of his body but then flicking his tail and swinging his hind end towards me when I tried to move around to do his other side. I decided I wasn’t going to stand for this as I dislike leaving a job half-done, but he wasn’t impressed about it at all. Still, there were no dramas, and he seemed to enjoy having his face brushed.

Then, knowing that the two of them had a lesson coming up, I went into the tack room to get their tack. I wasn’t 100% sure which was Elvis’s as it was unnamed, so I left his, figuring someone else would come to do them before the lesson began, and slung Soapy’s bridle over my shoulder and picked up her saddle and numnah. She was wiggly as I tacked her up, wanting to stick her head out of the front of her stall rather than have her bridle put on. She made funny, exaggerated chewing motions with her mouth open wide and her tongue out when I held it up to her face, and I was compelled to ask her out loud if that was how wearing a bit made her feel. Heh.

Once tacked up, I led her into the school behind Elvis for a semi-private lesson for two young sisters. This was probably the most interesting part of the day, although not entirely in a good way. The instructor taking the lesson was the one who had given me my induction earlier, but she wasn’t their regular one, and she decided that she would have the two girls swap ponies for this lesson. First drama: As the girls’ father came to lift the younger of the two off the ground to place her on Elvis’s back, she started screaming and bawling her eyes out that she wanted to ride Soapy. I quietly joked into Soapy’s ear, ‘See, Soapster? Everybody loves you.’ The parents tried to reassure the little girl and insist that she should have a go at riding Elvis, but she continued to wail and splutter for long enough that just letting her have her way seemed preferable to wasting half the lesson arguing about it.

Her father carried her around and placed her, now quiet again, on Soapy’s back as I held her. The possible reason Soapy hadn’t wanted me to touch her right legs while I groomed her then became apparent as she began to stamp her back right foot again as she had been earlier; not hard, but vigorously. The little girl started screaming her head off again. This time, both parents and the instructor had a hard time calming her down and reassuring her that Soapy was only doing that because she had an itchy foot, and that she wasn’t being bad or trying to throw her off or anything, explaining that she can’t scratch herself because she has hooves. I looked at Soapy’s face; she looked upset, her head lowered, ears drooping and little brow wrinkled. I couldn’t really blame her. It must be horrible having a screaming brat on your back.

As the instructor came around to adjust Soapy’s girth and stirrups, she asked me if she could have ‘a leader’. I replied, ‘Certainly,’ and went back to fetch a lead rope, then running over to one of the Interchangeable Emmas to inform them. She told me I could do it, so, surprised by this, I returned to the arena and clipped the lead rope onto Soapy’s bridle, and began to walk her around. The little girl clung onto the front of the saddle as I did so. Conversely, her elder sister was already walking around on Elvis by this stage, confidently and without assistance.

Not really sure what was expected of me, I walked silently beside Soapy, guiding her forwards and along. There was no point at this stage trying to give the girl a slack lead to enable her to do things for herself, I decided. Once we got walking, the girl seemed to calm down, and from her stillness and quietness I assumed she’d begun to enjoy herself. After all, she was sat on a lovely pony, and that’s awesome, right?

It was around the time I registered that thought that the instructor called us to a stop, and came over. She told the little girl that now, she was going to pick the reins up and ride for herself. I just stood still and said nothing. Then, disaster struck again when, in reaching down to pick up the reins, the girl’s wrist brushed Soapy’s mane and tickled her, causing her to shake like a dog. The little girl started screaming and bawling her eyes out again.

The instructor tried to reassure her, but she didn’t initially calm down. She tried tickling Soapy’s mane again to make her shake herself out again just to demonstrate that nothing terrible was happening, but that only made it worse. In a very professional, firm-but-fair manner, she handled this by assertively telling her that she was being silly now and needed to snap out of it. Initially this was met with intensified crying until, after a silent pause and some repeat instructions, the girl eventually picked up the reins and we went on forwards.

Before the end of the lesson, we managed to get her down each long side of the school in trot, with me either running or walking fast beside her, and minimal further dramas. I was impressed by how well the instructor handled the little girl and her tantrums, and I took my cues from her about when to let the rope slacken to give her a chance to try and ride for herself, and when to guide her. To be honest, though, not being the best with either small children or the sort of people who cry a lot, I found the whole affair rather awkward, and the enjoyment I did derive from it was, for the greater part, due to – silly as I know I am for this – feeling like I was somehow acting in support of Soapy, just by being a calm and sympathetic presence by her side. I found that frustrating in itself, though, because all I really wanted to do was give her neck a reassuring pat and tell her everything was alright, and that she was a good girl – which I realised was not appropriate in the circumstances.

Needless to say, when I got her back into her stall after that terrible ordeal, I untacked her and made an almighty fuss of her, cuddling her and telling her that she was a very good girl and that I was sorry children were so horrible. That insight into what riding school ponies have to routinely put up with left me feeling rather sorry for their lot, and with a somewhat pathetic desire to somehow make it up to them. I am also enduringly now in awe of what equids will put up with from us humans generally.

And that, really, was the end of my day, as the school closed shortly after that. I was thanked very graciously by everybody for my help as I left, and one of the ladies even gave me a lift to the bus stop. In spite of the mixed feelings I had about leading in the children’s lesson, I did thoroughly enjoy myself overall, and I am looking forward to going back there for more this coming weekend.

I’m getting so behind on my entries. Stay tuned for a write-up of my regular Monday evening lesson… eventually. ;P

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One response

12 11 2013
theInelegantHorseRider

Some epic volunteering there, sounded like a great experience and I am sure Soapy appreciated you being there during that lesson.

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