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.