Messy Christmas

11 12 2013

Since I really haven’t been making the most of my stable-visiting rights since I was made an official volunteer at the riding school, this weekend I saw to put that to rights. I won’t lie – on Sunday morning I snoozed after my alarm went off and struggled to get myself moving when I eventually did get out of bed, meaning that in the end I didn’t make it to the stables until about 11am, but it didn’t really matter in the end – when I got there, they just seemed really happy that I’d come at all.

As it turned out, it was a really good day to show up. Unbeknownst to me, the school was having its Christmas fayre, and they were really busy as a consequence. Admittedly this meant that I saw some things that made me cringe and feel sorry for what the poor equids had been subjected to – mostly, there were horses pulling carts decked out to look like sleighs while wearing antlers, and two of the small, white ponies were on display in temporary stalls with tinsel plaited into their manes, Santa hats secured under their head collars and red and green glitter glue on their hooves. Poor things.

The day proved to be utterly delightful in spite of that, and I bit my tongue and told myself that much as the horses concerned deserved to have had their dignity spared, the day was helping to raise the profile of the school and make money that would go towards their keep. My first job of the day was leading pony rides, which was a nice job I could live with, and all the better for it bringing me into direct contact with the ponies!

I was paired up with Paddy. In terms of appearance, he is practically indistinguishable from Elvis, so I mistakenly thought that that was who he was to begin with (and apologised to him afterwards when I realised my mistake). I have ridden Paddy once before. He is a very cheeky and random wee fellow. The Interchangeable Emma who handed him over to me warned me that if I didn’t watch him he’d try to ‘get’ me, and demonstrated that he just really loved attention, specifically in the form of you pulling your cuff over your hand and vigorously rubbing his lips with it. She demonstrated, and it was clear that he really did love that, so I did the same and got a similar response. From that, when I was stood not giving him attention, he would attempt to nip at my arms with his teeth, but I gently bopped him on the nose before he ‘got’ me and t0ld him off for being rude. After that he decided to lean on me instead, and one of the Interchangeable Emmas told him off for being lazy. Heh. He was an awkward bugger when I was leading him, frequently stopping and having to be dragged on forwards, but I was surprised by how easy I found it to talk to the children as I was leading them around, which was a requirement of the job. Many of them hadn’t ridden a horse before and were understandably quite nervous, but I think they all left with a smile on their face, which is good.

Following that we led the ponies back in and untacked them, and had a break for lunch while the raffle and nativity took place in the indoor arena. I looked in on a bit of that while I ate the homemade soup I’d taken with me, but as soon as I had finished eating I went charging off to be around the horses again, partly to be around in case anything needed doing and partly just because I wanted to be around the horses. Here, I interacted with Blue, the friendly-but-spooky horse who only the instructors are allowed to ride, who was watching all the people intently, and locked onto me as soon as I neared his stall, nuzzling at me as though for reassurance. I gave his neck and withers a rub and his lips went all trembly, and he inclined his head towards me, until he’d obviously decided he wanted me to change sides, at which point he made this clear in the same way cats do when you’re scratching them behind the ear.

A passing child who seemed to know all the horses rather well told me that the reason why Blue is so nervous is because Benno had kicked him. I think he’s probably just an insecure young horse, really, but Benno kicking him can’t really have helped much, especially as he’s relatively new to the school. Benno was in the next stall sticking his nose out, so I went over to say hello, but all I got was haughtiness, so I went and fussed Dandy instead, the tall, inquisitive bay horse I spoke of in my previous entry on volunteering. He was similarly receptive to me as Blue, and that was lovely. I overheard someone saying that Bramble was in the outdoor stables, so I went off to say hello to her, calling in on Paddy on the way past, who pricked his ears up and walked over to brofist me with his nose. I think I made a friend!

When I called in on Bramble she had her hindquarters to me, but the horse in the stall next to her, who I didn’t know, had his head out, so I went and said hello to him. His (he might have been a she, I don’t know!) reaction to me was very much, ‘Ooh hello, a person!’ – he seemed delighted that someone had come to see him, but since I was no-one he knew and I didn’t have any food he quickly lost interest and went back to his hay.

Bramble’s reaction to me, however, was off the scale, and was really what made my day, all in all. When I returned to her stall door, she was facing me, but was stood having a wee. I’d already called out, ‘Hello, Bramble!’ before I’d realised this, and her eyes were fixed on me as she went about it. She looked so pretty in spite of the activity she was engaged in, and I got my phone out to take a picture of her once she’d finished her business, only she didn’t give me a chance to take a picture, for as soon as she was done she marched forwards to the stall door, stuck her head out and demanded my affection, nuzzling at my hands, resting her poll on me and gently nibbling at me with her lips, sniffing at my face, companionably exchanging breath with me and inclining her head with trembling lips as I stroked her withers. She seemed genuinely happy that I was there, and considering that she is known for being a grumpy and obstreperous mare, that was really lovely.

Eventually I tore myself away from Bramble to go and see where I could help out. The visitors were already dwindling in number by this stage so it was mainly a case of commencing clearing up. I went around to the RDA yard (this is the one on the opposite side, which had been closed to the public for the purposes of the day) to see if there was anything I could help with; Li’l Legs, the smallest pony, was being manhandled back to her stall, and let’s just say it was fairly clear that she wasn’t happy at having been made a laughing stock with her embellishments. Only when they took the tinsel out of her mane and sponged off the glitter glue did she calm down, after which she retired to her stall, where she stuck her nose in some hay on the floor and quietly sulked, leaving her roommate, wee chestnut mare Lily, to handle the PR. In the next stall was Maddy, who was not in a good mood. She pinned her ears when I said hello to her, and was attempting to bite Lily through the bars in front of her stall (although she couldn’t actually reach her).

So, I helped by sweeping up all the discarded tinsel, glitter and other rubbish. I was amused, as I did this, by the way that all the horses were intently watching what I was doing. As the public filed out and the fayre drew to a close, I moved on to sweeping up outside while the Interchangeable Emmas mucked out the stalls, and pushing the wheelbarrows to the muck heap. The muck heap is quite a feat of engineering; it’s just a pile of manure that’s been strategically built up so it has its own ramp for you to push the barrow up along to the top. Quite the baptism of fire for my new Doctor Marten’s boots. Heh.

Other than that, I was mainly involved in sweeping, filling water buckets, cleaning out feed buckets and putting them out to dry. With it not being a normal day, we finished early so I was able to walk home in the light. Of course, I did all my my chres with frequent breaks to fuss and talk to the horses. Heh.

I promised a happy anecdote about Duke, didn’t I? Well, mid-afternoon we took another short break. Feeling slightly awkward as I did about spending this with a bunch of people who knew each other really well in which I was the odd man out, I made an extended trip to the bathroom. When I came out, I could see through the glass of the fire door to the yard that he lives on that he had his head out of his stall (which I have never seen before) and was looking right at me. Quarry was doing the same in the next stall along, and they looked funny both looking at me, so of course I went to say hi to both of them in turn. While it was nothing like the reception Bramble had favoured me with earlier in the day, Duke seemed genuinely happy to see me, and graciously accepted my fusses. (Quarry did too, but there was nothing unusual about that.) Furthermore, later on as I made my final water-check and went in to top his buckets up, he actually looked up from his hay and acknowledged me as I entered his stall.

I am sure that all the affection I received from the horses on this day was really just a result of them being a bit stressed about the yard being busier than they’re used to, and seeing a calm and familiar person who was on hand to give them some attention was of reassurance to them. Nevertheless, it’s still nice, and I’m loving that I’m getting to know all of their personalities.

I suppose you’d like some photos?…


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

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.