I do this for love

14 07 2012

Yesterday carried on in much the same vein as Thursday. I rode Kit again, we did trotting practice. The second-year sempai who instructed me gave me minimal input, only telling me when to trot, when to slow, when to speed up and when to stop or turn, occasionally telling me I was leaning too far forwards or backwards and just saying, ‘Good,’ when I got myself in the correct position. At the end he said I was doing well, and that was it. One of the high-school students rode him directly after me, and we untacked, washed and groomed him together afterwards. He deferred to me because as (technically) a university first-year, in terms of rank I am above him. I wasn’t really comfortable with that, because while I’m confident that I know what I’m doing now, he’s been there longer than me and probably knows better than I do on a lot of things.

Today was a long but rewarding day. I didn’t ride myself, but we were hosting a dressage and show jumping competition at our riding school. This meant that our horses had all been shifted about in the stables to make room for the opposing university’s horses, who were all in situ in usually-unoccupied stalls when I arrived (late, because of a rare train delay). It started 15 minutes early with the usual chores, which were hurried because all the horses that weren’t competing had to be taken for walkies – at which point I kept out of trouble by hanging up washing and putting away clean towels.

The games themselves were full-on dressage, dressage in the smaller dressage arena for the less experienced (but still eminently capable) dressage practitioners and then show jumping. For me, this mainly meant standing around a lot, and then running in to help whenever the wooden poles needed adjusting or obstacles needed setting up.

It was a very long day, over the course of which the temperature crept up above 30 degrees and the humidity was crushing. We’d all been promised lunch, but in the end we didn’t get given it until gone four o’clock, by which time I was in such dire need of both sustenance and a sit down that it was taking all my powers of concentration not to pass out where I stood. I had crept off to eat a rice ball I’d bought at a convenience store before I arrived just to break a note for some change during a break in competitions when there was nothing to do, but a third year found me eating it and told me off, saying that eating during club activity time was forbidden. I apologised, explained I was so hungry I had started to feel sick and defiantly ate the last few mouthfuls in front of her anyway, but rice balls are only really very light snacks and it didn’t really help to keep me feeling full for the four hours that followed.

Nevertheless, it was nice to feel a part of what was going on, and I did feel proud when our team won most – but not all – of the awards. Our horses were obviously a bit stressed at the commotion, although many of them were also pleasantly inquisitive about what was going on, and while on a normal day they can often be recalcitrant and a bit belligerent, from the way they reacted whenever I approached one of them I felt as though on seeing me they were taking comfort from having a familiar person close by, which was lovely for me. Even Hokon let me beep him on the nose without grumpily trying to bite me!

Oh, and one of the opposing team’s horses appeared to be an Arab! It had the distinctive Arab head-shape. I was excited at seeing this, as I have often been carried away with the romanticism associated with the breed, but I saw why so many people have a problem with them and refer to them as ‘spooky nutters’. The horse in question was difficult about the simple act of being rode into the arena – apparently because it was far too interested in everything else – and then, after demonstrating it could do the rider’s bidding beautifully if it wanted to during the warm-up, flatly refused to jump with a haughty air about it when the time came and everyone’s eyes were on it and its rider. Having said that, I have completely fallen in love with the thoroughbred breed. Masochistic? Me?

In the end, when the other team had left and taken all of their horses with them and we’d finished clearing up the mess, our team captain gave us all an ice lolly, and called the event over. We started at 06:45; we finished at 17:30, having had a 45 minute break at around 16:00. I don’t even want to think about how many hours that was. And I don’t even get paid for this!…


‘Hisashiburi’, as they say in Japan

15 06 2012

Apologies for stating the obvious, but it’s been a long time since I posted, hasn’t it? I’m sorry. I’ve had a lot to deal with in my personal life on top of my riding commitments just recently, so I either haven’t had the time to update, or the energy, or both simultaneously. I remain safe and healthy, however, and the precise details have no place here.

It’s been nearly two weeks since I last rode a horse. The trotting practice I did on Kit that I wrote about a couple of entries ago was the last time. This has turned out to be a combination of things; firstly, it being a time of many competitions and therefore the riders who are actually competing getting priority, and secondly it turned out I was being punished for taking time off for being ill. This happens to everyone. For every day that you have off sick, you have to come in early and clean out one of the horses’ stalls before the register is taken – and then, when your name is called out, tell the team captain which horse’s stall you’ve done. I have now succeeded in clearing my name, but it took me a while as – due to being a bit obsessive-compulsive and wanting to take my time over this sort of thing to make sure I do it thoroughly, I think – I made several attempts but in many cases didn’t get the job finished by the time the register was taken.

So most of my days have been about mucking out, sweeping, watching others practice, cleaning up the horses’ waste material after the other riders had finished practising and hanging out/putting away laundry. I’ve had the odd chance to finish grooming horses when others have had to leave before they’d finished the job, but other than that and trying to shovel up soiled sawdust and hay around them my interactions with the horses have been mostly limited to petting them through the bars of their stalls after they’d been put back.

Apart from Hokon. I’ve been tested on my ability to tack him up three times now. The first time I wasn’t mentally prepared for it and I made a complete hash of it, and he was difficult with me all the while, which didn’t help. The second time he reduced me to tears. To begin with, he wouldn’t even let me near him, cornered me and tried to kick me with his hind legs, bit me twice and issued me a very nasty wound on my solar plexus where he lunged at me and bit me, which was very swollen for the rest of the day and still hurts now. His difficult behaviour continued throughout that test, and I failed it due to taking too long. Below is a picture of the mark I was left with:

It’s not very clear, but those are individual tooth marks you can see, and broken skin.

Now, I’ve thought about what I must have done wrong. He doesn’t behave that way towards other people, and I wasn’t handling him any differently than I do the other horses. The only thing I can think of to put it down to is that because he’s a hot-blood and a stallion and I’ve hitherto been soft and mushy around him, he has been acting to remind me that my position in the herd is below his, and that as his lunges and kicks have made me become more and more nervous, he sensed this and became more and more aggressive. It’s only a theory, though.

I received an email yesterday from the club telling me I would take the test again today. I emailed the sempai who’d sent it back, requesting that I be supervised throughout the test this time and explaining what had happened, and she came back to me saying that she would arrange this, but that horses can feel it if you’re afraid and I needed to be more confident and firm, and not worry. So that was the mindset I went into it with for the third time.

This time, Hokon was less belligerent with me, and I thought I did quite well. However, at the very end, I made a complete hash of getting his bridle on, and I was told afterwards that I’d fixed his saddle too far back on his back. So I failed the test again, and what happened next was completely unexpected: I was made to run uphill through the woodland to the side of the riding ground, into the main university campus, around one of the buildings there, then back down to the riding school, and repeat this circuit for three laps. As a punishment for making a couple of mistakes.

Initially, I felt resentful of being made to do something so degrading… until the very Japaneseness of the whole affair struck me, and I ended up laughing for most of the last two laps.

The thing about running is, even though you tire out quickly and think you can’t run any more after a while, if you just keep going anyway at a steady pace, that passes and you stop feeling yourself getting tired. When I returned to the stables, I went straight into the girl’s changing room to make a note of the mistakes I’d made in the test for next time, and the second-year who’d been tasked with showing me where to run tentatively made a comment about running being good exercise. I looked up at her; I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she expected me to be upset about it, and was trying to make light of the situation, but I returned a smile and cheerfully said, ‘Sou desu ne!'(It is, isn’t it?) She proceeded to tell me that she’d been made to do it before, too, and so did another first year who also happened to be there.

Joining the riding school hasn’t just been a wonderful opportunity to have a brush with horses in arguably the most urban metropolis in the world, it’s lent me a really clear insight into aspects of Japanese culture many Westerners only ever read about in books. Heh.


22 05 2012

Second awesome Tuesday in a row!

Today’s break from the norm was a team of blacksmiths coming in to fit the horses with new shoes! Aside from their world-standard attire of mechanic’s trousers and overalls, they were just as you’d expect a team of Japanese blacksmiths; serious, professional, and with long hair and a headband tied around the forehead. Heh. They all seemed like very nice men, and I was impressed with the way the handled the horses; gently but firmly, and I never heard a single one of them shout ‘Hora!‘ at any of the horses, instead just looking up at them and speaking to them softly when they tried to kick or yank their hooves back. It was very interesting to see them work, anyway.

The oldest of them at one point stopped suddenly in front of me as he was walking past and just looked me in the eye for a few moments. I’m unused to being approached in this way, so I stood my ground and returned a puzzled, enquiring smile. Then he asked me brusquely which country I came from, which lead to a chat about the Olympics. In spite of his abrupt approach, he struck me as being friendly and jolly. Heh.

Anyway, today I rode Shirika again. Shirika’s long name is Kaorizakura, the first part of which can mean ‘sweet-smelling’, which I personally think is a fitting name as I like the way horses smell. She is still a funny one. It makes me chuckle when she raises her head high as I stand close to her and looks down on me with one eye; I can’t read the emotion behind it, but I’m going to start referring to it as The Northern Look, because there is definitely a hint of disapproval in there. Heh. In any case, once I was on her back she was just as magical to ride as last time.

Once again, it was pouring with rain, but I did not mind this one bit. I actually like how the rain makes it seem a bit more dramatic. Particularly as today I was practising trotting again. I was started off just trotting as normal, but after several attempts and lots of pointers about improving my riding posture and then being made to do it again, my sempai suggested I trot without stirrups – which I have done before, but never without being on a lead nor on a horse without a strap on the front of its saddle for me to hang on to! The point of the exercise, however, was to help me get used to doing it with the right posture, and to demonstrate that it’s okay to just relax in the saddle.

However, before it actually happened, when he suggested it as the next thing I would do I initially panicked, afraid at the idea that I might fall off. This feeling vanished, however, when he then asked me what I thought and if I would be scared, to which I thought to myself, No way, bitch! and just went for it. (I’m like that.) As I went round and round, keeping all of the advice I’d been given in mind (back and neck straight, legs relaxed, looking straight ahead and not down at the horse, straight line through my arm to the horse’s mouth), I was genuinely surprised by how not-scary it was. Yes, there were several moments where I thought I was going to fall off, and I did have to do the odd bit of nudging with one leg to keep her going around the edge of the pen and not straying into the middle of it, and I am not saying it was by any means easy, but I surprised myself by how well I coped with it – and by not falling off. My sempai asked me as I was going round how it was and if it was scary, and I replied that no, it wasn’t, and I was surprised by this. Heh.

Then I rode Shirika out of the pen, through the yard and back into the stable, where I dismounted. I briefly assisted in washing her, but then had to leave for a class.

Today’s lesson really made me happy. While I love horse riding and cannot get enough of it, I have never claimed to be any good at it and I thought I was picking it all up really slowly. Today made me feel as though my competence might actually be increasing, and that has done wonders for both my self-esteem and my motivation.

Serious Business

14 05 2012

Weekend was nothing to write home about in terms of riding itself, really. No riding on Saturday due to attending the sumo tournament in Ryougoku (which was excellent fun!) and on Sunday I didn’t actually have any time in the saddle. We had a meeting straight after club, however, in which it was explained that because so many new people have joined this year it simply isn’t going to be possible for everyone to get a turn every day unless the club gets a new horse, which is fair enough. More than once a week is still better than I’m likely to get when I return home, and at the risk of repeating myself, equine company alone is its own reward.

However, the riding club had its ‘Nyūbushiki’ (entrance ceremony) for the first years (which technically includes me as an exchange student) on Sunday. Attendance of at least one of the two events that made this up was mandatory, I was told in advance.

The day began with embarrassment; I’ve been told about it many times and received dozens of emails to my mobile phone about it from the club’s mailing list, and my understanding had been that practice would go ahead as normal in the morning and the event – for which it was stipulated everyone would have to wear a plain black suit and white shirt (this had to be a skirt suit for girls, with stockings and pumps) – would be held in the evening. What I didn’t get was that I would be expected to take my suit with me and stay at the stables all day – on the way there I ran into two of my sempai, who were already wearing their suits and were surprised to see me wearing my riding gear as usual. I’ve checked back through the emails about it, and the only suggestion of this I could find in any of them was ‘we will walk there from the stables’ in one of the messages I’d saved, so although it was a bit embarrassing I don’t feel like that much of an idiot for not realising.

Club practice was followed by lunch in the office, a meeting (which was minuted – SERIOUS BUSINESS) and a lecture about horse therapy, which to be honest I didn’t understand a lot of.  After all of this was over, I excused myself and went home for a quick shower, a nap and to get changed into a suit a friend of mine had kindly lent me, then I headed back out to meet the others at the stables.

It was strange seeing the stables full of people in suits. Everyone looked very smart, and while I wasn’t initially very comfortable dressed as I was (in everyday life, I favour combat trousers, boots and plain, tight-fitting tops), walking into a stable full of Japanese girls in suits shouting your name followed by ‘Kakko ii!’ (stylish/attractive) in unison will soon put that to bed, I find. Heh. From there, in a long crocodile, we set off.

The first event was a very nice hot-pot meal at a not-cheap Japanese restaurant. The upper year students and guests will have had to pay for this, but because the event was put on for us (the first year students), we didn’t. In addition to the hot pot we had a salad, sashimi, tempura and some strawberry-flavoured mochi with ice cream inside. We were also told we could order whatever we liked to drink, which lead to one or two casualties quite early in the evening (the legal drinking age in Japan is 20, so this may have been one of few opportunities many of the students will have had to drink alcohol unsupervised). This detail was a bit lost on me being a teetotaller, but since it’s perfectly acceptable to order tea in a Japanese restaurant and there is invariably a selection available, iced or hot, I was happy.

Although I had initially felt uncomfortable being dressed in a suit, once we were all out I started to enjoy being part of a group, and the uniform definitely contributed to the sense of belonging. The other students, although they didn’t talk to me that much due to the language barrier, made efforts to include me in their conversations, and I actually felt like I belonged – quite novel for me, as while I am well-liked by many individuals back home, I don’t fit into any of the groups they seem to belong to.

The worst part was the self-introduction. This is normal for any kind of event in Japan that brings a large group of people who don’t all know each other together. You have to stand up and give a little speech about yourself in front of the whole group. I always find this terrifying, but I think I managed fairly well on this occasion, explaining my ethnic and academic background and merely adding ‘I love horses, so I’m very grateful of this opportunity – yoroshiku onegai shimasu [please look after me].’ – before sitting back down really fast, shaking. This being an Equestrian Team event, I’d had my security blanket pulled away from me, since usually nowadays henever I have to do this I just stick to saying where I’m from, why I’m studying Japanese and simply ‘I also like horses, tea and heavy metal – yoroshiku onegai shimasu.’ Heh.

The second part of the event was a two-hour stay in a nomihoudai (all you can drink) izakaya. Again, I have a feeling that the spirit of this may have been rather lost on me, but it was nice to hang out a while longer with the group and drink more unlimited free tea. Here I also got to speak to some of the club coaches, past and present, which was nice, although I wish people would stop telling me my Japanese is really good – it’s not at all!

So, yes – that’s another facet of belonging to a riding club in Japan. There are obvious similarities with being a member of a riding club at a British university, but I hoped to highlight the differences – the main one being the formality and strictness (as opposed to ‘We’re having a pub social, come down if you can make it’). It’s not got much do with horses, but it’s kind of relevant, so I thought I’d include it here.