For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking recently of the many horses and ponies I have known throughout my life. Part of being a passionate rider is your relationship with the animals: it doesn’t end when you dismount and shove them in the stable – it truly is a loving relationship. Where are they? Are they alright? Are they cold/hungry/happy/sad? Do they behave better for other riders than they do for me?
To those who haven’t experienced it, this could still sound familiar – it’s the same as the feelings you have for other people, whether they are friends, family or something else. You can’t help but wonder what happens when you walk away. These characters mould you, and for good or bad reasons, they are an unforgettable part of your history as a rider.
So I thought I would introduce you to the horses and ponies of my past – and possibly my future. I had hoped to have at least some pictures here, but sadly I fell out with my blog’s media tool a few weeks ago and we have yet to be reconciled. Instead, I’ll hope to paint some pictures with my words…
The One I Left Behind: When I was eight, my family moved from Kent to Sussex. We’d lived in the area since I was a year old, meaning that I was halfway through primary school with a group of children I’d known since before I could talk. But what upset me the most was having to leave my riding school. I had to leave behind a place where I felt comfortable and inspired, as well as the pony I was completely in love with. Peanuts was a yellow dun gelding – he was the first I’d seen, and little did I know at the time that it would be almost 20 years until I’d see another – and now, that’s about all I remember. Back then, it felt like the end of the world.
The One Who Broke Me: I’ve mentioned Stanley on my blog before. He was the bay ex-racehorse who was mostly dead to the leg and lazy… except when near a puddle or feeling my fear of him. He was a wind-sucker with terrible conformation as a result, and was supposed to by my stepping stone into the world of “proper” horses. Instead, he sent me back down the helter skelter, retreating into the safety net of ponies…
The One Who Fixed Me: Cherry wasn’t what most people would call special – to me, all riding school horses and ponies are special, but I suspect I’m in the minority. She was the pony I chose when I ran away from the scary ex-racehorse and back into the arms of my previous and friendly riding instructor when I lost my nerve. I vividly remember my first lesson back at the riding school on board this bay mare: I was 12 years old, had been riding for eight of those, and had left two years previously as a confident young rider. I returned broken, choosing to spend most of my hour-long group lesson in walk, being cajoled into a trot at the very end. I went from a leggy Thoroughbred to a 13hh Heinz 57 mare who didn’t bat an eyelid despite the other ponies whizzing around the indoor arena that evening. Step by baby step, she got me back on track.
The One I Won On: Twinkle was a 13hh grey mare. She was excitable, and I initially didn’t enjoy her, preferring the steady pony I had on loan. But following the re-building of my confidence, I began to understand her. When I mounted up for a small local indoor show one morning full of nerves, they transferred straight down the reins to the hot-wired mare. I had no idea how I was going to hold her back, and my instructor sent me into the arena clinging onto the leather part of her rubber reins, just a few inches from her mouth. My round went in a blur, and it was only when I heard the bell ring – the venue were trialling a new system of riding your jump off immediately after your first round, so that riders didn’t have to be re-called – that I realised I’d finished the course and would have to jump again. Twinkle and I were the fastest pair to clear the course, and it is thanks to her that a first place red rosette is displayed proudly amongst my clutch of runner ups, fourths and fifths.
The One I Worked On: I didn’t particularly enjoy riding Peggy, but when I was offered the chance to ride her for free, there wasn’t a moment when I would turn the opportunity down. I was asked to exercise her as her owner had recently had a baby and didn’t have time. It was kind of perfect – I was having lessons at my riding school, but missed the independence I’d had when loaning, and all the owner wanted was for her horse to be hacked out. I found Peggy to be lazy and frustrating, so although I didn’t have the chance to school her in an arena, I would push her whilst we were out on the roads, asking her to step through more and work with impulsion. When her owner began to ride again, I was allowed to continue, but the owner was shocked at the difference in her horse. Inspiration didn’t yet take root, but this was perhaps a glimpse into my future.
The One Who Had My Back: Prior to having my scoliosis surgery in 2005, I set myself a benchmark – the day I got on a horse again was the day I would consider myself “back to normal”. The day came far sooner than I had been advised it would. Rather than having to wait the usual six months, I was allowed back into the saddle less than three months after surgery. Meg was a skewbald mare, again of the Heinz variety. I trusted her completely, and holding my breath as I asked her to pick up canter around the familiar outdoor arena is something I’ll never forget. She knew what I needed, that day and every other. She was the horse I chose without hesitation when, four months later, I decided it was time to jump again.
The One I Trusted: Some of the horses I encountered at camp this summer suffered from a spectacular lack of training. One, however, was a total star. Most riders would disregard him – he has drawn comparison with both whales and boats due to his stature – but some of my colleagues and I spotted his talent immediately. Aussie may be wider than he is tall, but he locks onto a fence like few other horses I’ve seen – certainly ones of his advancing years. He was lame for much of the summer. I was fortunate enough to ride him prior to his going lame, and to use him to teach when he had recovered. I was using him for a jumping lesson one day and, having issued my student with instructions, stood back to watch her take the next fence. My boss watched in horror, and almost intervened, as she knew the horse better than I did and was unhappy with what I had asked of my student. Aussie loves to jump and can get excited, rushing his fences, but despite this I had asked the rider to canter around the arena prior to putting him at the fence. My boss thought that the better tactic was to simply canter the last two or three strides. It was too late for her opinion to matter, and we both watched as horse and rider sailed comfortably and calmly around the arena, clearing the fence perfectly. No rushing, no fuss, and a big grin on the girl’s face. My instinct was right, and my student found “her” horse.
The One I Want: my horse probably hasn’t been born yet. I hope that he or she stands at least 17 hands high. I’m partial to bright bay Thoroughbred-types – I grew up scrubbing stable stains from grey ponies on the morning of shows, never again – but I’m open to suggestion on colour, gender and breed. I hope that my horse is intelligent, kind and trusting. I hope that we understand each other. Most of all, I hope that we find each other, even if it is only for a short time.