Historic Equitation 2014: Part 1

22 10 2014

So, this weekend, we returned to Historic Equitation – for my second visit, and Damian and Amy’s third.

I felt a bit sorry for Amy, actually. She was kind enough to drive us there and back again, she had to go to work on the following day, and aside from this, her riding is far above the level of my own and of Damian’s. She could probably do so much more with her time there given her advanced skill, but because she humours us goons – me with my bad habits and overthinking, Damian with his spot-on attitude to horse-handling, natural calmness and empathy but comparative lack of experience – she more or less has to go at the pace that we do, just better. Still, there don’t seem to be any hard feelings on that front, and Dom is good enough to let us all train in the same things. I suspect she enjoys having the company, too.

Still, we went, all very excited, and this time accompanied by my friend Stu as our photographer, since it’s difficult to get a picture when you’ve got a training lance in one hand and the reins in the other. We arrived dead on time, more or less, had a sit down and a cup of tea in the farmhouse (HE has moved to new premises, and while they haven’t finished all the work they’d like to do on the new place, it was easy to see how much more awesome it’ll be once they’ve finished everything they’ve got in the pipeline), and then went out to greet the horses, give them all a good groom and tack up. After some discussion it was decided that I would ride Briar this year, since of all the horses there, he’s the most even-tempered and predictable; Dom didn’t want me to be put off by a horse who was too strong for me, as I had been the previous year riding Marduk. I was grateful of the level of sensitivity with which he broached this.

So I took Briar, and Damian took my former mount, Marduk – the black warmblood stallion. I was informed that Briar had had a good jousting season, but that he had gotten a bit overweight since. He was very muddy when I found him tethered up in the barn beside his friend Duke, but I soon took care of that. Initially he refused to give me his hooves to be picked out, but after I’d gone over him with the brushes he obliged without question. I was very soon endeared to this towering, majestic warhorse, billed on the website as ‘a fierce jouster and excellent destrier,’ for his being caked in mud, obviously from rolling around in it, and for giving me baby horse looks at intervals and wobbling his bottom lip as I groomed his face and talked to him as I went around him. I could easily see how he’d gotten overweight; to his left was an unattended pile of haylage he’d clearly been helping himself to.

We had agreed upon starting the proceedings with a hack to the next village and back to warm ourselves and the horses up. Damian later said that he would have happily traded the time for extra time doing drills, but I for one was glad of the hack as it gave me a good chance to get accustomed to Briar and what he responded to (both Amy and I agreed at lunch that we’d had the same problem initially, in that our ask for a leg yield had been interpreted by our respective mount as a push to go forward) and to stretch my hip flexors over his barrel-like frame as he was easily the largest horse – in all dimensions – I have ever ridden. This was helped by the fact that the stirrup leathers the stock saddle I had been given were fitted with were faaar too long for me, meaning I was better off riding the whole way and back again without them. Giving instruction to Briar became easier when I put these up using the straps on the saddle to keep them out of the way, because of the lack of confusion from feeling something knocking against his side constantly, I think.

We had a lovely walk (with the odd trot to get back into two-by-two formation after adopting single file to allow a car to pass) along the country lanes, during the course of which Dom let slip to me that he could do with someone to come over and exercise Briar every day over winter, in reponse to his grumbling and wheezing as though he was either unimpressed at being made to work or needed a cough. (He did eventually have a good cough.) I might have said, ‘If only I lived closer!’ I would be more than happy to exercise Briar, for nothing more than the experience!

Once we’d passed some airborne kites, circling low enough that we were able to see their plumage, an array of thatched-roof cottages and a traditional British red telephone box, we returned to the farm, dismounted, tethered the horses and went inside for a hearty lunch. My legs were pretty nicely stretched at this point – so much so that while sitting down wasn’t an issue, standing up again might have been. Then, once we were nourished and refreshed, we returned to the barn to mount up again and head out for some drills. I was amused, if not surprised, to return to find Briar with his nose in the haylage. Heh.

During the hack, there was some discussion between myself and Dom about my swapping Briar for Duke in the afternoon. Duke is a pure-bred Friesian, and as Dom explained to me, he is perfectly well-behaved under saddle, but could ‘get a bit prancy’, which he didn’t want to put me off. Much as I would have loved to have ridden him, I elected to stay with Briar; I’d gotten used to him, I was reassured by Dom’s having said that you always know what you’re going to get from him, and above all else, while I was feeling confident that I wasn’t going to let any nerves get the better of me this time, I wanted to enjoy myself. So I decided to play it safe, knowing that lovely Briar would take care of me.

To be continued…


Hacking and Coughing

31 10 2013

I do have a real penchant for a terrible pun – I don’t know whether regular readers will have picked up on that or not. Anyway, today’s title is a prime example, and I’m not remotely sorry. What I am sorry for, however, is the tardiness of this update – I’ve been trying to post this since Tuesday, but WordPress has been being flaky until tonight!

The sore throat/cold I spoke of in my previous post persisted, and continued to get steadily worse over the last week. It undoubtedly peaked on Friday, when I was sent home from work by my line manager, who said I deserved the early finish for having a tough week and for sounding like a duck. I went home and straight to bed. I didn’t feel much better when I got up on Saturday morning, but it still wasn’t enough to keep me from an early start to go riding.

That’s correct – riding on a Saturday. I think I’ve mentioned before that the school at which I have my usual lessons is generally too busy on the weekend to be able to secure a booking (unless you’re lucky enough to call on a Friday afternoon after they’ve had a cancellation), but I’ve found another riding school that’s closer to where I currently live, and I wanted to try it out. Not so much for the lessons as they’re more expensive and I’m quite happy with what I’m getting at the moment, but because they have access to bridleways for hacking, which I’d like to do more of.

I’d called them in the week to ask if they had any availability that weekend, half expecting them to say no (given that in mine and my friends’ experience, riding schools are invariably either over-subscribed or shambolically disorganised). Instead, I got a ‘yes’ straight away, and was booked on a hack for the sociable hour of 11am that very Saturday.

After a lovely (but muddy) walk through the woods and along the river to get there, I arrived. The one thing about my experience that slightly concerned me was that as warm a reception as I was given and as promptly as they checked I had a hat, boots and gloves, they never asked me to complete a rider registration form or sign anything. Nevertheless, from what I saw the place looked tidy and well-organised, and the ponies I met seemed healthy and contented.

Unfortunately, due to heavy rain the night before, I was told early on that we wouldn’t be allowed to go fast, so there was no cantering, although along the way I could easily distinguish the paths that were ideal for it. The route didn’t just take us through the woods of the park, but along a lot of quiet, residential roads as well. Some of the trees with their low-lying branches were a bit hair-raising, to add a bit of excitement to the proceedings, and there were some steep declines on the way back to the stables that seemed quite perilous on the back of a horse who was palpably eager to get home.

Speaking of whom, I rode a gorgeous 14.2hh Haflinger gelding by the name of Boheme. He was very stockily-built with a very luxurious blond mane that I was actually quite jealous of. He was lovely to ride – just the right balance of responsive and cheeky, and very eager to transition upwards when we went into the trot – and I got the feeling he’d be lovely to canter, too. As soon as we hit the homeward stretch, he started trying to trot on when we were in walk, but while he grumbled, he listened when I brought him back to me. Like most horses, he tried it on when passing every tasty bush, at one point with what could have been disastrous consequences for me as my head got caught up in the branches before I had time to lean forwards to dodge them. Fortunately I didn’t get caught up in them, but this did invoke a lecture about the importance of ducking under the branches for personal safety from the hack leader. Hah.

What really won me over about Boheme, though, was his behaviour after I’d dismounted. We rode our ponies back into the courtyard in front of the stables, to a low wall with some head collars and lead ropes tied up along it, each lined up in front of one, dismounted, removed the horse’s bridle and replaced it with the head collar. While I was doing this, a member of staff came and finished untacking him for me. I fussed Boheme for a little while and took some pictures before repairing to the bench outside the office to change back into my walking boots, chatting to the young man who’d led the hack as I did so; as we were talking, he stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘Oh-oh, Boheme’s off.’ I looked over, and Boheme had slipped off his head collar and, far from making a mad dash for freedom, was casually sauntering into the stables in the direction of the feed. He was intercepted by staff before he got there, who said that this was something he often did, and that he never went very far, only off looking for food. I cheerfully declared that I liked him, and smiled.

I’m very happy to have found a place that looks good where I can make an appointment at short notice and go for a pleasant hack on a weekend. I can’t really financially justify going there every week (much as I might like to), but it’s going to be a nice thing to be able to do maybe once or twice a month, and I really hope that they’ll be going out throughout the winter.

And now for some photos!

Exmoor Pony Trek

18 09 2013

While I was travelling from Leeds to London on the first leg of my travels down South for my much-needed holiday, I received an email from The Moorland Mousie Trust asking me if I wouldn’t mind swapping the day of my trek from Tuesday to Wednesday, or coming an hour earlier on Tuesday if this was not doable. So I swapped days. I never found out the reason for this, but I don’t suppose it matters. Anyway, that’s why this is a day later than intended.

I had a wonderful time out on the moors with the Exmoor ponies this morning. I arrived slightly late due to us getting lost on the drive in to the centre, and unfortunately this meant I missed out on grooming my assigned mount for the day, who was a sweet-natured mare called Abbi (who can be seen on their website on the ‘Pony Profiles’ page), the tallest of two in the Anchor herd at a mighty 13hh. She was perfectly receptive towards me as I went over and introduced myself to her, but was difficult about lifting her back legs up for me to pick out her hooves. She was otherwise well-behaved as I tacked her up, at first placing the saddle too far up her back due to an inability to detect her shallow withers through her thick winter coat. She didn’t take the (snaffle) bit into her mouth willingly, but she didn’t refuse it, either.

As I was doing this one of the centre staff came and chatted to me. She explained that she had a policy of not riding anything over 14 hands, and I told her that I rarely ride anything under that – so this was quite a change for me! I remarked on how lovely Abbi seemed, though, and the lady candidly told me that the purpose of the treks was to demonstrate to people what a nice breed Exmoors are in the hope of raising their profile. She also explained that Abbi was very responsive and would go from a squeeze, but that if I kicked her she wouldn’t do anything. I said that this was fine by me. We all took turns to mount up from a block in the middle of the tiny sand school, and followed our trek leader out onto the moors through the paddock that the Anchor herd currently inhabit.

I will admit that while I came to the centre enthused at the idea of meeting adorable Exmoor ponies in the flesh at long last, I arrived with certain preconceptions about riding ponies. I expected Attitude with a capital A (not necessarily a bad thing), a short stride and poor suspension in the faster gaits, and for them not to be especially comfy to sit on. Nevertheless, I thought that riding Exmoors in their native environs would be exciting, to say the least, and was willing to work with the things I find less agreeable about ponies than larger horses in order to enjoy that. I was for the most part proven wrong, however!

In spite of her short stature, Abbi did not feel at all unlike some of the heavier cobs I’ve known to sit on, and her movements felt extremely similar to those of a horse more like them, too, in spite of her short strides. Due to heavy rain the previous day many of the pathways and tracks we covered over the moorland (which was mainly just open for the majority of the route we travelled) were waterlogged and so we were unable to trot on them, but to make up for this our leader took us back along a route that included more flat or uphill spaces for us to canter in (which was fantastic!), and along some roads, which we trotted the length of. I know I am wont to employ the words ‘lumpy jackhammer’ when describing what it feels like to ride a short pony, but Abbi actually had a lovely, smooth trot that was easy both to rise with and to sit to. She transitioned to canter beautifully, and although I could see the outward flick of her little legs in front of her each time as though she was throwing them out into the transition it didn’t feel like a sudden leap forwards as it might have done on a different equid.

We took in some stunning views along the way, travelling uphill past The Cleaves (which, as an acrophobe, I found it a bit daunting to trot alongside, but okay as long as I ignored the deep valley to my right and kept looking where I was going) until we reached the highest point of the moors we could reasonably access on horseback, and then wove our way back down again gradually by a different route, with our trek leader having to pick a route for us carefully as the moors form bogs after heavy rain that are capable of taking cows. Fortunately, we didn’t recreate any scenes from Never Ending Story. We also passed the Caratacus Stone, which is housed in a little shelter the ponies all wanted to stick their noses into as we passed it, and in the first field (with cows) we passed through I saw some manner of World War II bomber pass over our heads; I at first thought it was a de Havilland Mosquito from the shape, but subsequent internet digging has shown that neither of the two airworthy Mosquitoes surviving today are anywhere near the West Country, so this would seem unlikely. I will keep digging to see if I can work out what it must have been! Regrettably, we didn’t see any wild Exmoors; apparently this can be quite an experience, as they will regard their cousins under saddle with curiosity, but are never aggressive towards them or their riders.

Abbi proved to be willing and responsive, but not especially forward-going, preferring instead to plod along sedately behind the leading pony, Peter, who our trek leader said was the same in her experience, in spite of having a reputation for being a ‘pocket rocket’ for his performances in their sand school. In fact, both Peter and Abbi were terrors for suddenly and strongly pulling their heads forwards to snatch a mouthful of ferns as we went along – almost as though the minute you relaxed, they were taking liberties. In fact, at one point I had issues getting Abbi to go forwards to trot because she had a mouthful of ferns she was unwilling to surrender, and each time I asked her for the trot while she was still chewing on them, she grumbled at me defiantly as if to say, ‘Will you cut that out? I’m eating here!’, eventually catching up to Peter when she’d swallowed them all. Just enough to keep me on my toes! The more forward-going ponies of the group were actually at the back, and their names were Rama and Yorrick. Yorrick is apparently the largest of all of the Anchor herd at 13.2 hands.

At the end of the ride, we rode our ponies back into the centre, into a fenced-off concrete rectangle, so that they were each facing a metal ring mounted on a post with a loop of string threaded through it. As we dismounted, we were each given a headcollar and a body brush to tether, untack and groom them before returning them to the paddock. Abbi seemed to really enjoy being groomed, but looked like she enjoyed being released in the paddock even more, walking away and putting her head down to graze as soon as I unfastened her headcollar.


Abbi is the larger, darker of the two on the right.

I’m really surprised at just how taken with Exmoor ponies I am. I fully expected to enjoy myself, but I didn’t expect to come away from it actively wanting to own one, nor to be finding myself later looking online at prices to buy one. I recall that based on illustrations such as the ones found in illuminated manuscripts and the Bayeux Tapestry, it’s assumed that early medieval warhorses would have been similar in stature to an Exmoor, and I found myself wondering if they might be any good at jousting. Daydreams spiralled out from there.

Unfortunately, just as I had arrived late due to the centre being a little hard to find, I then had to leave in a rush after turning Abbi back out due to catching a lift back to my parents’ with them and it being a rather long drive. While I was changing back into my normal boots, however, I met Winston – one of their other ponies, and one I’d been hoping to meet after reading in his pony profile, ‘He likes everything!’ Sadly, he is now missing an eye (which is present in his profile picture, so this must have been a fairly recent occurrence) – although he seemed no less friendly or cheerful in his demeanour for it, and politely snuffled my hand as I held it out to him by way of saying hello. I wonder what happened to it?

Winston and Friend

Winston is the one on the left. I was seated on a platform above them. I don’t recall the other fellow’s name, but they were grooming each other’s withers so they must be good friends.



What’s Eating Domino Ponyy?

5 02 2013

Suddenly I find myself with absolutely loads to write about! In the space of three days, I’ve been horse riding in Nottingham, to a donkey sanctuary, and resumed my riding lessons in Leeds, this time having (just) made it on time! However, this run of equine good feeling sadly came to an end today as the news finally reached me that my adoption horse, Will Scarlett, sadly passed away on 29th January following an onset of severe colic. In the short time since I’d adopted him I’d grown rather attached to him and was beginning to form plans in my head to visit him and Felicity at their home sometime this summer, so needless to say I am greatly saddened by this news.

Nevertheless, life does go on, and I mustn’t allow this tragedy to overshadow what a lovely time I had over this weekend with a selection of delightful equines who are still very much with us. Because both Ellie and I were back in town, a trip to see the horses at Woodside was organised between the three of us; other friends were invited but unable to attend. This time, I didn’t actually know which horse I was going to get ahead of the event, because my prior observation that Domino always looked fed up in the stables but cheerful while she was being ridden had made me curious to ride her myself. When he made the booking, Damian asked for Tara or Domino for me; it was confirmed that we could have the horses we’d requested, but not which one I would have!

In the end, it turned out that I had Domino. Naturally, Ellie had Urby and Damian had Saxon. Amy joined us on her rental horse, Nirvana. We took a fairly sedate hack through the woods. Domino, in spite of being a similar height and build to Tara, had noticeably different conformation, but seemed perfectly active and forward going, at least to begin with. She was a bit bouncier in her walk, but had a lovely smooth trot that I eased comfortably into rising with very quickly. She is quite clearly not as clever as Tara, however; whilst Tara would negotiate the steep decline at the start of the trail by looking to see which route was the shortest, Domino seemed to purposefully pick the longest, walking right along the very outside of the track, and her more judder-y gait made it, well, quite terrifying, frankly. On no other horse/pony before have I been so glad to get to the bottom of that slope!

Our first couple of dramas involved Nirvana. Following the recent snow, she was wound up like a spring and just wanted to go. Because of this, Amy was given the lead and allowed to canter off along a nice flat stretch. We caught her up at a trot, but it was obvious she was struggling to slow Nirvana down, and the two of them would shoot off ahead of us and pirouette in the middle of the trail while we caught them up. The fun really started when we approached a mound that I understand to be where the more advanced riders practise cantering and galloping, though; Amy went shooting over this at a very fast canter, and we lost sight of her completely. We walked on to catch her up, but as we reached the other side of the mound another hack group appeared and advised us to stay where we were while they galloped up the hill as a ride. As Domino was unfamiliar to me and I was unsure how she’d react, I preempted any trouble from her by turning her around to face into the bracken so that even if the sound of hoofbeats excited her, she’d have nowhere to go. Saxon, on the other hand, saw his friends running up that hill and wanted to go with them. Thankfully Damian maintained good control of him, but it excited the other horses, who all also took this as a cue to run, and was not helped by the emergence of Amy fighting to transition back to a walk on Nirvana. Heh.

The final drama was between myself and Domino, I hate to say. As we came off the road and back into the woods, I started to feel her mouth moving through the reins; obviously I couldn’t see what was happening, but it felt like she was trying to work the bit out of her mouth. Unable to bear the thought that her discomfort might be my doing, I loosened the reins; all this did was lead to her tossing her head. So, I tried shortening the reins. The chewing and the head-tossing continued. I squeezed on both reins and gave her a light tap across the shoulder with my whip, which stopped her temporarily. However it really started up again when we came to take that steep incline again from the bottom up this time. At this point she started violently tossing her head up and down and it started to affect my balance in the saddle, so I found myself holding onto both the reins and the saddle for fear of coming off on that steep slope. Having steadied myself I sat up straight, leaning forwards into the incline and pushing down into my heels more than before and placed my hands either side of her neck, still holding the reins. This did nothing to control the motions of her head, but it made me feel better balanced. A couple of times following this she just stopped and refused to walk on. Once we were on flat ground again I asked her politely not to bolt or do anything silly and gave her a long rein, but this just lead to larger swings of her head, ultimately resulting in a drop of pony saliva going flying into my mouth. Had she been any other sort of animal I probably would have been grossed out.

We rode the horses back into the school and dismounted. Domino had a lesson with another rider, who came to collect her from me, straight away afterwards. She asked me how she’d been, and I reported the general active-and-forward-goingness to her along with the excessive head-tossing. The lady said that the active-and-forward-goingness (that’s an adjective now) was uncharacteristic of Domino, but that the head-tossing was something she is known to do a lot.

So, I think I’ve cracked what’s been making Domino sad: She doesn’t like her bit. My lottery-jackpot horse acquisition fantasy has now extended to her, as I think I would buy her, retire her as a riding-pony and keep her as a companion pony. Or, just get her one of those plastic bits for foals and see if that helped; apparently Nirvana still has to have one, and she’s 16!

As is obligatory for these visits, we hung around the stables afterwards being horse-groupies and fussing Saxon and Urby. Urby is still very spoiled, but seems more amenable to Ellie than he is to others. I could tell from the look of recognition he gave me that he remembered I had had Polo mints for him before, and he lost interest in me after frisking me and finding I had nothing similar about my person on this occasion. Saxon, as always, was like a gigantic puppy who was just glad of any and all attention from anyone. Heh.

I dropped in on Tara on the way out, of course. She was doing her usual damsel-in-distress act waiting for the feed bucket to arrive, and completely ignored me until after it had come and she’d eaten, at which point I returned to say a last goodbye, having changed out of my riding boots and poured myself a hot chocolate from the insulated flask I’d taken with me. She snorted on my face a couple of times, and then, when I turned away, slurped up all of the hot chocolate out of the flask lid cup I had in my hand before I saw what was happening. Then she went back to pointedly ignoring me. Hah.

Photos as usual are courtesy of Damian; my camera is broken and his phone takes better pictures than mine!

OWN A PONY DAY, YO (part three)

10 01 2013

This is my second attempt to write up this entry! I did it last night, but WordPress seemed to be having some technical difficulties and ate my entire post. How rude!

Anyway, back to where we left off: On our return from lunch, we put the horses’ bridles back on them and lead them out into the main school again for mounting. Tara was much calmer and quieter this time. I felt all at once proud of myself (for getting something right) and sorry for all the little ponies when the chap who came to tighten my girth for me told me that Damian and I were the only people who had actually done this prior to going on lunch!

We were split up into groups again, but this time our little group was to go out into the woods for a hack. Just a steady hack in walk and trot this time. Tara, it seemed, could hardly wait to get out into the woods, and although she wasn’t as impossible as Barron had been on that previous occasion when I’d had a fight on my hands to keep him in the school and stop him following the others going out on the trail, we still ended up second in line for the entire ride as a result of her keenness to get out there, with Damian on Saxon somewhere near the rear at first. Again, she surprised me with her contrariness; whereas the idea of getting her hooves wet in the school before lunch had seemed like it was unthinkable to her, now she was marching through the puddles like it wasn’t an issue. Unlike Barron, who our leader was riding on this occasion; she cursed him mildly as he mounted a steep (and not entirely safe-looking) camber to avoid getting his hooves wet!

Once we were in the woods, I was impressed once again to see Tara demonstrating her intelligence. A fairly short distance into the woods there is a steep decline. Usually, when negotiating this, I’ve given whichever horse I had a long rein and just relaxed in the saddle while trying to keep my back straight, and let the horse handle the manoeuvring. Every other horse I have been on than Tara has dealt with this by blindly following the horse in front of them, but Tara pauses at the top, looks down and picks out the route she thinks looks the shortest, purposefully taking the inside corners, all the while taking her time and looking where she’s going. When we got to the bottom, I couldn’t help but pat her on the shoulder and tell her what a clever girl she was.

We took a slightly different route through the woods this time, in areas of the country park that were all familiar to me but that I’ve only been through/past once or twice before. We had a nice, long trot along the road, which took some getting used to because of the decrease in palpable shock absorption, and I lost my stirrup at one point but Tara, being forwards and just loving to run, kept a fast, steady pace up while I recovered it and resumed rising with it. We went past the other riding school situated in the country park (which was a bit strange, but nice to see the other horses looking curiously at us as we went past) and the old winding engine house from the days in which the area was a centre for coal and iron mining.

Sadly, it was after we passed this rather attractive piece of history an upset occurred. I’m not entirely clear on what actually happened, but it seems that one of the younger girls’ ponies kicked out at one of the others with both back legs, throwing her off and into the undergrowth at the side of the path. Of course, we all stopped, and our leader dismounted so she could go and check she was all right. I glanced over, not wanting to stare for knowing that it can make you feel uncomfortable if everyone’s looking at you in a situation like that, but I did see that she was sat upright on the ground clutching one of her hips with both hands, and I imagined she’d landed similarly to how I did when I fell from Kit that time in Japan. She agreed that she would continue, but she swapped ponies with a young lady who, if she wasn’t one of the volunteers, at least carried herself with the sort of confidence you’d expect of a regular at the stables and a proficient rider. Damian praised her for being brave.

In this time, I had permitted Tara to graze on the long grass and bramble leaves (which she seems to have a particular taste for) at the side of the path, and dismounted to try and grab a hold of the pony who’d kicked off and was now standing riderless, at Damian’s suggestion, as I hadn’t realised s/he had been left unattended. I was beaten to it by the young lady I mentioned previously, but this led to amusement when I tried to mount Tara again from the ground and she – obviously eager to get moving again – took this as a cue to start walking on, leaving me laughing and hanging onto the saddle with both hands, bent double over her. Heh. We got there in the end. Our leader led Barron to a bench and mounted him from that, which seemed rather like cheating after all of the rest of us did it from the ground!

We continued at a walk for the remainder of the ride, understandably; Damian came to the front behind me and the younger riders on their smaller mounts were allowed to trail behind in a group together. Every time we stopped to let them catch up, Tara forcefully lowered her head to any bramble leaves that were visible, and Damian remarked that she was like a supermodel; slender and beautiful, but completely obsessed with food. We could tell when we came up to a path where the horses would normally trot or canter, because both Saxon and Tara tried to just go for it, irrespective of what Barron was doing in front of them. I found that just sinking my weight into her back gave her the right message. Towards the end, I found the small of my back really hurting; I did a few things to correct my posture, but there was nothing wrong with it. I guess I’m just not used to riding for two hours in one day.

We returned to the school, dismounted and lead the horses back in. Unfortunately for me, Tara was booked for an evening lesson, so while I was able to remove her bridle and give her face a gentle brush, I couldn’t participate in the final activities of the day: Feeding and grooming your given pony, dressing them in their rug and returning them to the paddock. Tara could see the other horses being fed, and was distraught. She kept looking towards the direction the feed buckets usually come from and then giving me accusing looks, as though she thought I was being mean or stupid and neglectful. I felt bad. When her evening rider came for her lesson and took her, I said goodbye, and went over instead to watch as Damian groomed Saxon. The depth of the affection I saw displayed on both sides made my heart melt.

Once Saxon had been given a deep groom and had his rug put on him, I accompanied him, Damian and one of the stable volunteers out to the paddock to return him. The young lady opened the gate for Damian, and as he led Saxon in, called after him to lead Saxon back around so he finished up facing the gate, explaining that this was to ‘teach him some manners.’ Damian did exactly as instructed, and Saxon went obligingly where he was directed. When Damian removed his head collar and gave him a last pat and hug to say goodbye, Saxon just looked at him enquiringly at first, as if to say, What are we doing now, friend? As we walked away, I have no idea whether he wandered off to regroup with his herd or watched after us, because I couldn’t bear to look back. After that, Damian cleaned out Saxon’s stall. I offered to help, more for something to do with myself than anything else, but he insisted he wanted to do it for himself. In retrospect I’m kicking myself for not hanging back until Tara returned from her lesson.

It was a cold, damp, very mucky and tiring day, but I had a really lovely time and thinking about it is still making me feel happy. I had to go and find one of the staff members to thank them personally before I left. They smiled awkwardly and said I was welcome; I guess they must not get that much from 30-year-olds. Heh.

Since we didn’t get any ‘action shots’, obviously, due to having our hands very full, below is just a selection of photos from the day I particularly liked and wanted to share with you 😀

Now I just have my first lesson back in Leeds, which took place on Monday, and some other (potentially) exciting news to update you about! However, since I’ve raked up such a hefty word-count, they can wait for another day…

OWN A PONY DAY, YO (part one)

29 12 2012

So yesterday I got to own Tara for a day, and it was AMAZING! I’m aware of my own tendency to write 1,000 plus-word entries about one hour lessons/hacks, so I’m going to break this up into more than one entry. Here goes…

To be honest, I’m still feeling all a bit overwhelmed about what an awesome time I had. It was cold and dark and overcast all day, and it had rained really heavily early in the morning, so since both schools are outdoors and uncovered the place largely resembled a bog, but I didn’t care in the least. I really, really enjoyed myself.

Damian and I arrived promptly after a brisk walk the long way around the muddy country park, the only adults in a large group of young children. This turned out not to be nearly as weird as either of us expected and if anything it was the one or two parents who hung around for the day rather than going home and letting their kids get on with it who annoyed us. (Really annoyed us, in fact, but less on that.) The children were all perfectly pleasant and polite, and for the most part we had our hands too full with our horses to really interact with them much anyway.

The first tasks of the day were laying out the hay in our given horse’s stall into a bed, then stringing up a hay net for them, filling their bucket of water from the big steel trough, and finally getting a bucket or sinkful of feed ready for them. Standard, really, but it was nice to be doing work for horses again, and I was excited to see Tara again as it was. So excited, in fact, that when a particularly little girl excitedly shouted, ‘Are we going to get the horses now?’ to one of the staff after we’d all been issued with head collars and lead ropes and I laughed, Damian said, ‘You’re laughing because that’s your internal monologue, aren’t you?’ I couldn’t honestly contradict him.

When we approached the paddock, which I’ve never seen before, we were split up into two groups: Those assigned to ‘boy’ horses and those assigned to ‘girl’ horses. They had been segregated by gender into two sections; I understand that the riding school horses are all gelded so I have no idea whether or not this is common practice. I remember feeling giddy when I spied Tara up ahead through the trees (the paddock was wooded and had a steep incline immediately after the gate), wearing a fetching burgundy winter rug. She turned over, looked in my direction (probably just wondering why there was a group of people standing there), and my heart skipped a beat. Then, in typical Tara fashion, she turned her attention back to the cage of hay she’d previously been nibbling at.

I felt disappointed when it was explained to us that because the field was especially muddy, they were going to go into the paddock and fetch the horses for us. (It later came to light that this was not because of the mud at all, and was in fact because the staff didn’t want dozens of excitable children buzzing around the horses while they were outside.) So I watched as they went in and collected and lead the ponies, two at a time, to the gate, thereafter handing over the lead ropes and instructing them to take them back to their stalls.

I turned my attention to the other field with the boy horses. They didn’t need to be collected; from what I saw, Saxon lead the herd down to meet the party of individuals who’d gone in to fetch them (including Damian), and they all seemed quite eager to go out. Saxon was unbothered about having his head collar put on, and the only hitch for them seemed to be that his half-brother Harvey (who wasn’t participating) wanted to go with him and blocked their way out of the gate. Heh.

Finally, when all the little girls had their ponies, my former instructor asked me if I wanted to go in and collect Tara myself, so of course I said yes! It wasn’t too muddy going up the incline to where she was stood, but as I reached her and she turned to look at me, giving me that acknowledging look that horses you’ve met before do, I stepped in a particularly marshy bit of earth and my foot sank in ankle-deep, and I had trouble recovering it. It felt like one of those moments in an American teen movie where a nerdy boy embarrasses himself in front of the girl he likes. Tara didn’t move away or try to make a break for it as I had been worried she might, so I took my position under her chin and went to put her head collar on her. She was fine with this at first, but as I was going to fasten it over her head decided she wasn’t playing and backed out of it, then walking around the other side of the cage that had hay in it. My instructor exclaimed, ‘Oh, Tara,‘ and tried to herd her back to where I was standing, but I decided instead to walk towards her in the other direction around the cage and meet her head-on. This worked well, as by this point she was paying attention to what the instructor was doing and not me. She was no trouble as I led her back to her stall, not even – to my surprise – as we passed a large tractor driving past us through the yard. I had the biggest grin on my face as she walked along beside me. I walked her into her stall and to her feed. I barely had time to remove her head collar before her nose was in it.

We were instructed on how to groom the horses while they ate their feed. It’s interesting to note that although the basic principles are all the same, they do it ever so slightly differently from how I was taught to do it at Gakushuin; here, they do the main grooming to get all the dirt off prior to riding, as opposed to afterwards, and where I was previously taught to always have a hand on the horse when moving around them so they could tell where I was all the time, here I was told to talk to them continuously (which came naturally to me as I’m always chatting to horses anyway. Heh). When I returned to Tara’s stall she’d had her head collar and lead rope put back on and was tethered above the hay net, happily chomping away. I carefully took her rug off, showed her the curry comb and went about it. She was angelically well-behaved, but unlike Saxon (I was later told), didn’t lean bodily into the brushes as she was being groomed. She did, however, adorably stretch her face across my chest as I went to groom it, resting her chin against me. I melted.

One lovingly-groomed horse.

One lovingly-groomed horse.

Next, I cleaned her hooves. This confused me. I’d previously been taught to do all four stood on the horse’s left side, basically lifting the opposite-side’s hooves up and underneath the horse to do it. Tara wouldn’t give me her right hoof from her left side, and I initially mistook this for stubbornness. However, when I did her back-left hoof she gave it to me without any trouble, not trying to kick or anything like that. So I tried going around the other side, and what do you know? She gave me both hooves without any dramas. It felt really weird using the hoof pick with my left hand, though.

The next thing to do was tack her up! I made this much more difficult for myself than was really necessary. A young girl who I recognise as being one of the stable volunteers very kindly brought me her bridle, and I retrieved her saddle, girth strap and numnar with Damian’s assistance. However, the ensemble had already been put together, meaning that all that really needed doing was for the saddle and numnar to be lifted onto her back together and the girth strap secured on one side. I didn’t realise this as I’d been taught to tack up in stages, so instinctively I just took everything apart and placed each item on her back one after the other. I had more difficulty getting her bridle on her, but this was merely because she didn’t want to take the bit in her mouth. Thankfully, one of the instructors saw me struggling with this and came in and taught me a trick for getting the horse’s mouth open by pushing your finger into their mouth behind the teeth.

Then, she was finally ready to be lead out for our lesson…

An Argument of Sorts

19 12 2012

Obedient, willing, forwards and responsive. All traits I had come to associate with the prettiest princess horse called Tara. This Saturday, she was none of those things… but still great fun to ride.

I had gone down to Nottingham for the weekend as a couple of events were happening, so Damian and I decided to book ourselves on a hack at that nice school down there. On this occasion we failed to persuade any of our other friends to join us, apart from Amy, who rents a horse (a chestnut mare called Nirvana) from the livery stables connected to it, located elsewhere in the country park in which it is situated.

Damian and I had been successful in securing our preferred choices of mounts: Saxon and Tara. I was very excited about seeing Tara again, hoping I’d be a better rider for her after all the additional lessons I’ve had since I last rode her. When we arrived she was out in a teens’ group lesson, and they were jumping! When they’d finished, I waited for the two young girls on smaller ponies either side of her to lead their ponies back into the stables; when they stopped, seemingly unsure as to whether they were to be taken back or not, I decided to just pass them and approach anyway. Before handing her over to me, her previous rider gave her a handful of Polos, saying, ‘Because she’s been a good girl,’ as she did so.

As I mounted her, she was perfectly well-behaved. I took great delight in telling the chap who came to adjust my stirrups and girth that she was going to be my horse for a day at the upcoming Own a Pony Day. In spite of him at first not believing me, this seemed to amuse him. ‘What, with all the other seven-and-eight-year-olds?’ he asked, and laughed at my enthusiasm. Heh.

We were on a hack with others rather than in our own little group this time. As soon as we set off, Tara proved a bit of a handful; no sooner had I been asked by the instructor leading the hack if I was there for a hack (I feel like I’ve typed the word ‘hack’ too many times for this paragraph now), she was off without me doing anything about it. I looked over my shoulder and saw that Damian was still having his stirrups adjusted, and tried to pull her back into the school and stop so we could set off together, but it was obvious that she knew what she was doing and was determined to just get on with it. Eventually I stopped fighting it and let her go (which was a mistake), leaving the others to catch up. We ended up in a row with the instructor on Harvey and a more experienced rider on Barron in the lead, myself behind them, a young girl behind me on a pony I don’t know the name of and then Damian and Amy at the rear.

At first I couldn’t get Tara to listen to me at all. She was too active in her walk to begin with, meaning her nose was right up against Barron’s bum, and then when I finally did get her to slow she wasn’t active enough. The first drama happened when we reached what I can only imagine must ordinarily be a canter path; our instructor called out behind her that we were going to have a trot and then a canter later on, but as soon as we approached the flat ground Tara (and, based on what I heard going on behind me, Saxon) enthusiastically leapt into a canter without my say-so. I pulled her back, and she groaned. We began an active trot, but the younger girl said she didn’t want to trot. She seemed to be an experienced rider – probably well above the level of myself and Damian – so I’m not sure what the reason for her reluctance was, but it may have been that she was nervous at having Saxon just behind her.

So we slowed to a walk. At this point – it was suggested to me fairly recently that horses are telepathic, and the more time I spend around them the more I could believe it – Tara and I seemed to enter into an unspoken dialogue. I started trying to push her on with my leg and trying to dictate which side of the path she should be walking on. She refused at first (and it definitely felt like a refusal to listen as opposed to wilful ignorance), and at a couple of junctions she tried to take a different turn to the rest of the group, really testing my control as I battled to keep her in line with the other horses. Eventually we reached the canter path; the more experienced rider in the group cantered on along this path ahead of us, but before she even set off Tara had started a canter herself. I pulled her back, trying to get her to stop behind the others, but she resisted me strongly; realising I wouldn’t be able to bring her to a stop, I pulled her head out to one side so she had nowhere to go. Upon realising what I’d done (and now standing at 90 degrees to the rest of the group), she growled back at me aggressively, and although she had no space to move into in front over her kept shifting on her hooves until the rest of the party walked on, at which point she fell back in line with them and walked on, obviously disgruntled. It was as though in my mind I was willing her to do as she was told, and she was transmitting the message back to me, Look, I know these woods better than you do. I know what we’re meant to do here and you’re doing this all wrong. Shut up and let me drive.

After this exchange – towards the end of the hack – she started to respond to my asks and I finally remembered to relax in my saddle. Tara became more manageable after this, and I had a sneaky trot without stirrups as we neared the school again. I gave her a long rein at the first opportunity, just because I could tell she was wound up and wanted to show her I wasn’t unsympathetic. We spent some time munching shrubs at the side of the bridlepath before being let back into the school to dismount, whereupon she tried to return herself to the stables before I’d finished putting her stirrups up. I later learned that this was because it was feeding time.

I was not the only person to experience difficulties on this hack, however. Our instructor carried a whip with her (unusually for a hack) and used it several times on Harvey. Amy reported that Saxon had bucked with Damian on his back (although Damian apparently didn’t realise what a big buck this had been, and remained calmly in the saddle). The experienced rider on Barron had difficulty at one junction getting him to go the right way, and at another (where she had ended up in the lead) she was told to go right and called out in response, ‘It doesn’t matter, he’s going that way anyway!’ It was as though the youngest member of the group was the only one who didn’t have any trouble with her mount, in spite of her concerns. I saw none of dramas involving Saxon, but was greatly amused to hear him making adorably grumbly noises. Heh.

After the hack we hung out for a short while with our respective horses. I was honoured to find that Saxon remembered me, in spite of not having seen me for nearly two months, and was affectionate towards both myself and Damian. While I was stood fussing Saxon, however, Tara was back in her stall, craning her neck around the corner and looking forlornly at me, so I returned to her stall to make a last fuss of her before I departed.

Saxon, here looking like a baby horse.

Saxon, here looking like a baby horse.

She’s a funny one. When I got back to her stall she didn’t show the slightest bit of notice to my attempts to fuss her, and was looking past me to where the feed bucket – approaching from the opposite end of the stable – was. It was as though she felt better for me being stood there, but she didn’t want me to do anything. The chap who’d been amused by my glee at telling him I was coming to the Own a Pony Day came and untacked and started grooming her, and I chatted to him about what a funny horse she is. Eventually the food arrived, and after some standing with her front hooves on a ledge just inside her stall and bracing her knees against the stall wall as though to try and climb out to where the food was, she settled with her muzzle in the feed. She started waving her foreleg as she was eating. I asked the man grooming her if she always did that when she was excited; he said that some horses do it when they’re enjoying their food, but that in that instance he couldn’t tell whether she was doing that or threatening to kick him because she wanted to be left alone to eat. The whole time she was stuffing her face, she kept one eye on me, until we left to meet Amy and walk her back to the livery stables where Nirvana is boarded.

Myself laughing on as Tara attempts to climb out of her stall to get to the food before it gets to her.

Myself laughing on as Tara attempts to climb out of her stall to get to the food before it gets to her.

When we reached the stables (it was strange walking on foot back through the woods in the dark), we (well, mostly Damian because he hasn’t had many opportunities to do that sort of thing) assisted Amy in untacking, grooming and dressing Nirvana up in her rug. Nirvana looked very confused when at one point I leaned against her and rested my head on her back to inhale her lovely, horsey scent, but this was a lovely way to round off what had turned out to be quite the eventful outing.

Inhaling Nirvana's lovely horsey smell.

Inhaling Nirvana’s lovely horsey smell.

Many thanks to Damian for the loan of these images, which were all significantly better than the ones I managed to obtain using my own camera. Heh.