It occurred to me recently that I’ve previously written about the horses who have shaped my life, but not the people who were also there… which probably says a lot about my priorities. It goes without saying that my family were instrumental throughout the process: two years ago, I was at an event for sports coaches, and one of Team GB’s coaches put it fantastically – that for a child to be successful in a sport they need, “parents, Pounds and petrol”. His meaning was that children of a young age cannot organise themselves (parents or guardians needed here), they also don’t generally have their own source of funding (Pounds, Dollars, whatever your currency here), and they also don’t have the means of getting themselves around (petrol). My sister and I had the three Ps in abundance, even though our parents didn’t share our passion for ponies (and that’s another blog post by itself).
Our parents taught us many things, but they couldn’t teach us to ride horses. Here’s a little about the people who did…
I started having riding lessons at the age of four. Advancing years, learning many other things since and probably excitement from just being on a pony mean that I don’t remember my first instructors – I know there were a few. Our parents were always keen for us to have the best that they could afford and offer, so if we moved house or something about our riding school changed, there was always a bit of shuffling around and trying new things before settling on the next person to be trusted with our backsides and a saddle.
We lived in Kent when I was little – the furthest south-eastern corner of the UK – and were incredibly lucky to be able to attend a utopian riding school. It’s (I use present tense as I believe it still exists) a family-run riding school in the old fashioned but perfect way: there were no liveries, so all horses belonged to the riding school and there were no riders who were more privileged than others. The Pony Club had no place there, and the school ran their own little shows and gymkhanas regularly, providing my first taste of competition. Somewhere, I have a clutch of bright rosettes, hard won in races where I had to walk up the arena and trot back, turning a circle if my pony broke his gait. The school also gave us the opportunity to sit the most basic ABRS (Association of British Riding Schools) exams, from which I still have my certificates (some complete with gold stars to mark that I’d done exceptionally well) and badge, though my coloured felts to pin with them are long gone. Some of my best memories involve my Dad, for this place was run by his favourite of my many instructors.
My doting parents helped my sister and me to make hat covers for our oh-so-Nineties jockey skulls for our annual fancy dress during our last lessons prior to Christmas – I clearly remember my Dad chasing a piece of brown paper we’d decorated to look like a Christmas pudding across the yard when it flew off my helmet (the 10 ponies who stood firm in a sideways gale as he chased the paper around all deserve a carrot). Parents were also invited to participate in a Chase Me Charlie class during our gymkhanas, and I believe Dad once took home his own rosette, won on his own two legs.
Two decades and many instructors later, the man who ran this establishment lives on strongly in all of our memories. This is the man who taught my sister and me the importance of making much of your pony – I still remember lining up facing the fence in the yard after our lessons and being instructed to pat our ponies and say thank you before dismounting. His adoration for mint humbugs vastly outstrips anyone else’s, and he was a true horseman, often to be heard crying, “I see you kick that pony like that again and I’ll kick you!” or, “Don’t you lean on my fence, I’ll come over there and lean on you!”
We moved west to Sussex when I was eight, and the whole family were sad to lose this gem of a place. I’ve been taught by nobody like him, and feel privileged.
I don’t know what it was about S, but we all adored her. She was the instructor I was allocated when we settled on a riding school in Sussex, and I feel like I rode with her forever. The other instructors joked that she shouted the loudest, but she was never unkind. Her classes were always full, because they were fun – she wasn’t afraid to teach kids to canter and jump at an age when all we wanted to do was go faster and higher.
If we got moved to a different ability level, the first question any child taught by S asked was would they still be taught by her? We were always relaxed in her classes, which is probably what helped us to become confident. It was a sad day when S announced she was leaving the riding school to pursue a different career, and her poor replacement – a new recruit – didn’t stand a chance. Either way, it was time for something very different for me…
The Other Half
Through a friend at school, we were introduced to a private yard, run by a mother and daughter. They had about six private liveries, plus three horses on livery who the daughter competed at low-level eventing, as well as one they owned and competed. Of the four ponies at the yard, there was a similar deal: one was theirs and the others belonged to friends who no longer had riders for them – the ponies were available for lessons or for loan at the yard. My sister loaned the pony they owned, I had one of the others.
Without realising it, we were on a steep learning curve – it was lots of fun, hence the lack of realisation. We had to learn far more about pony care than we had when previously just showing up for lessons and getting the chance to help with the odd bit of untacking or our annual “own a pony” days during the summer holidays. We could groom ponies, but we didn’t know how to muck out or feed them. First aid, shoeing and vet visits were still looked after by our instructors, but we had to muck out the “pony house”, poo pick the paddock and generally look after ourselves.
It was the first time we were able to go out hacking without adults – oh the freedom! – and our first experience of more serious competitions. Suddenly, we were bumping into all sorts of Pony Club types, and learning how the other half live. These instructors pushed us in a way others hadn’t – they were very much into their jumping and, as we progressed, the teaching was less friendly and more, “This pony jumped fine until you got on it.”
The end came for me when my ability outgrew my elderly pony’s, and I was coerced into sharing one of the liveries – a horse I was desperately unprepared for. It wasn’t long before I scuttled away from the unsupportive environment back to my previous riding school, returning temporarily the following year for the summer competition season – a triumph by my standards, as I conquered a pony who I hadn’t touched previously whilst she’d been on loan to a friend, but with my re-built confidence, I was able to ride successfully. The second departure was a happier one for me, leaving on a good note.
With S gone and my confidence shot, I took a deep breath and picked a new instructor at my old riding school. Enter J, who would look after me for the following six years. J saw me through my “reluctant to trot” phase, as well as the build up to and recovery from my fusion surgery. She succeeded in helping me to rediscover my love for jumping, as well as showing me that not all horses are OTTBs that I wasn’t ready for.
J offered my first experience of a collaborative relationship – which is probably a bad thing for all those who have followed her – giving me the confidence to express my thoughts on how to progress, taking on board what I wanted and needed at the time in order to make sure we succeeded. But the bigger lesson was that, unlike my previous experience, she reminded me that the best instructors place the student’s confidence and safety at the top of their list of priorities.
When J and I parted ways as I left for university, I’d finally become an adult. My relationships with instructors since have naturally been a little different, and are still closer in memory to have less engaging stories. But there’s one relationship without which there would have been no J, no S, and nobody else…
My Mum tells the story of how she met my childhood best friend’s Mum brilliantly, but I don’t know how the pair of them came across Nicola. It can’t have been hard, though: the three families lived in the same cul-de-sac with a handful of numbers separating our houses. Between the three families, there were five children of similar ages, which meant many summer afternoons playing in the gardens and winters indoors singing along to Disney videos (I hope the poor parents had some sneaky drinks to power through that).
One afternoon, we weren’t in my sister’s playhouse and we weren’t singing “Tale as old as time”. Instead, we were in a field gazing up at Nicola’s friend’s horse, Mickey. She was looking after him as her friend was away and, that’s apparently the moment in which I decided I wanted to learn to ride. I was three years old, I don’t remember it happening, but I know that beginning wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.
Mickey was far too big for me to ride, and I was too young to start having lessons at any riding school, so I had to wait, but a year later I was in the saddle. Over 20 years later, I’m still learning to ride, Nicola’s family still convenes in our garden when the weather allows, and it’s her young daughter who’s now pottering around on ponies and learning to pick out hooves. And Nicola is forever the woman who shrieks with laughter whilst participating in balloon races and accidentally set me up with the love of my life.