I’m ashamed to admit that I said that when riding this week. The word “can’t” is heavily stigmatised in sport, and I was brought up to believe that too. My mother’s standpoint is that what you actually mean is “won’t”. And she’s right, particularly when referring to someone as stubborn as I am. To my credit, I gave up at the end. But I’m still annoyed that I did. Here’s what happened…
Every day I’ve ridden this year (which, sadly, isn’t many) it’s been dry and most of the time it’s even been sunny. My luck ran out this week: it was tipping it down. Not too big of a deal, because the place I ride at has an indoor arena, but I’m not particularly fond of it. Anyway, I was introduced to yet another new horse and off I went.
I was disappointed not to be riding the horse I had last time – I’d enjoyed him, and I felt like I could make some progress on my riding if I was allocated him again. My instructor had other ideas. The horse I was given this time is older, and I was told that it can take a bit of work to get him going, but that he knows his job and, providing you ask correctly, is capable of a fair bit. I could tell from his conformation that he’s not young, but that end of the age spectrum isn’t something I take issue with. As long as the animal is fit and kept well, I’m fine with riding an older horse.
We got going and I knew I was in for a bit of a battle when he swung around with his nose on the floor – totally on the forehand, and probably used to having riders collect him up in a lazy way by shortening their reins, rather than trying to engage his hindquarters. I did shorten my reins, but pushed him from behind too. Once I’d warmed up, I got told to take my stirrups away. I had a feeling it was coming, but having made a quick assessment of the horse, I really wasn’t looking forward to it: because he’s old and skinny with a high rump and a slight sway back, his trot is bouncy.
It’s a very long time since I’ve worked without stirrups, and even longer since I’ve done it on a strange horse in a dark indoor arena on a day when I’m not feeling particularly together. I used to love working without stirrups – my sister and I would have battles of grim determination to see who could last the longest, sometimes riding our loaned ponies for a full hour stirrupless in a fit of sibling rivalry – but I’m so out of practice that I was worried about how much I’d embarrass myself. What I found out didn’t actually surprise me: that my seat has become horrible and my riding has slipped so far backwards that I don’t actually recognise it anymore. That’s probably where I started to really go downhill – the true realisation at how I’m not the rider I used to be, nevermind the one I want to be.
It’s honestly the least secure I’ve felt in a saddle in a very long time, probably not helped by the fact that I freaked myself out with the exercise, rather than relaxing. I cornered horribly: I’d been trying to gather the horse up more and ask for some bend, but I felt like I was at risk of sliding off sideways, which stiffened me up even more and it took me a few laps to relax and figure it out. Karma came to get me for real when my instructor shouted over the rain on the metal roof that I should take a rising trot – I actually shouted “I hate you!” at that point, though looking back, it could’ve been worse, as I could’ve been sliding around in the rain!
She didn’t make me do it for long, which makes me wonder if she’s still trying me out with things, seeing how I cope and where exactly I’m at. She knew I was joking when I’d groaned about it, as I got on with the job ultimately and gave it my best, even though again, it was nowhere near as good as it would’ve been a few years ago, when I used to do it for fun.
I took my stirrups back and, after some more exercises designed to get me focused on bend and using my seat now that I had my stirrups again, it was time for some canter work. Or it would’ve been, had the horse not slammed the final nail into the coffin for me. Although I hadn’t been riding for long, I was actually feeling pretty tired. Possibly the effort of getting the horse going, definitely the mental effort I was having to exert to try and pick myself up and generate a decent shape around corners – I was finding it difficult to really focus this week and keep doing everything that I needed to do.
As usual, my reticence to use my hands became my downfall. The horse didn’t respond the first time I asked for canter, so when I tried again, I gave him a flick with the schooling whip I was carrying. And the old git did what neither my instructor nor I were expecting: he bucked into canter. Of course! I’m riding, what else will a horse do?! So not only did he buck through the transition, but he also decided it’d be appropriate to bolt down the arena. I gathered him up by the time we’d raced down the long side, and recovered myself for the remainder of the lap, but he sped up again in the same corner I’d asked him to strike off.
And enough was enough: I was sick of it. Sick of having to anticipate naughtiness, expecting bad things from a horse rather than good. I’m fed up of the thought which runs through my head, the one which reminds me that I’ve sat every buck despite my horrendous position at the moment, but that my luck has to run out eventually, which means that I’ll hit the deck on a freezing February day, stiffen up on the drive home, crawl into bed and have to drag my aching muscles to work the next day (and all of this is said and thought with the full knowledge that horses will always surprise you, and that if you want something that doesn’t bolt, buck or rear EVER, you should stick to bicycles). Not cool, my brain decided, and it turned my legs to jelly and refused to let me do any more.
The horse knew he’d got the better of me. I did a few more trot exercises, changed the rein and asked for canter again, but my heart wasn’t in it and my bottle was gone, so I got a running trot and a few tears instead. They were tears of frustration: I knew before I started this that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to improve again, if I wanted to be something other than a person who sits on a horse and leads trails. And I know that the environment I’m in, where I don’t have a horse that I ride regularly and trust isn’t something I can afford. Where all I can afford is 30 measly minutes every fortnight, and it’s one of those moments where I’ve really questioned whether it’s worth it, or whether I’d be better to press pause and walk away, wait until I’m in a position where I can commit a lot of hours over a period of months to make it worthwhile.
But my body is addicted, and it has been for a long time. Horses are my drug, I need them like I need air. To be without them makes me even more miserable than the frustration of a naughty horse who bucks and makes me question my enjoyment. It was never going to be easy, or smooth, or quick. I just wasn’t prepared for quite how infuriating it would be.