As I mentioned last week, I’ve lost my nerve with riding twice in almost 23 years. I’m calling that a win, by the way, because it possibly deserves to be a few more times. And in a way, it is. Because when I said I was over the first time, that’s not quite the truth.
I mainly attribute my first loss of confidence to a specific incident, but there was another near-miss which occurred around the same time which seriously shook me, and continues to have an impact on me as a rider now. Again, I’m able to avoid it most of the time, and much like my current issue with jumping, it relates to something very specific. Here’s the story.
When I was almost 12, it was decided that the pony I was loaning was no longer suitable for me – I wouldn’t argue with this: lovely as he was, he was very old (we think over 40) and I needed to move on. Unfortunately, no other ponies were available for loan at my yard, but there was an ex-racehorse (a particularly lazy and not very big one) on livery whose owner was looking for a sharer. As I was tall for my age and – until I became scared of the horse – calm in the saddle, my instructor talked me into it. Looking back, it was a recipe for disaster: I was reluctant, I received little to no advice and support from my instructors and the owner wasn’t able to help me. Oh and it was the middle of winter.
Despite my reservations, I tried with this horse. I can comfortably say I didn’t enjoy riding him – it felt like a chore – but I did it anyway, because it felt like my only option at the time. I’d ride for perhaps half an hour in the sand school, usually getting bucked off at least once before miserably admitting defeat. Hacking out was worse: there are few bridleways in the area and, particularly given that it was winter, we were limited to the country roads around the yard. I felt vulnerable out hacking – my nerves transferring to the horse, making him more skittish and me even more anxious. I had always been the leader of our group of friends, the oldest, wisest and the one in control. I no longer had the answers.
The ride which still haunts me focuses on our approach to home. We all knew the roads well and were aware that, recently, our horses had been getting wound up by an animal which lived in a field next to the road. Unfortunately, said field was also next to a small river, where people liked to fish at the weekends (goodness knows what they managed to catch in January). Combine a pesky horse in a field with skittish horses under saddles and fishing equipment galore plus, therefore, many parked cars on a downhill narrow country lane and you’re asking for trouble.
Sure enough, the horse in the field cantered up and down when it saw us. My horse began to prance beneath me. My fear transferred through my seat and hands, compounded by an oncoming vehicle, parked cars and the fact that I was supposed to be looking after my younger sister on her pony. The incident probably wasn’t as calamitous as it is in my head, but my abiding memories are of the sickening sound of horseshoes skidding on tarmac, an ex-racehorse rearing beneath me, a parked car and hard surface swirling below.
The sound of horseshoes failing to gain purchase on tarmac still gets me. You know the particularly skiddy kind, slippery when it isn’t even wet or icy, feels like it has no friction? The feeling I get is definitely one of panic. If I’m on a horse I know and trust and the sound is a result of steady progress with the occasional, unbalanced but quickly corrected slip, I can cope. If it’s because – as was the case twice this summer – I’m riding a horse which I am asking to stand on sentry in a situation which makes me uncomfortable, I struggle. The horse canters again in the field. The men stand fishing on the river bank. We begin to cross the bridge, alongside the parked cars with the oncoming vehicle creeping towards us, and my horse rears, skids, almost topples onto the parked car. I am, once again, 11 years old and I am not ready for this.
And at 26 now, I definitely need help.