Back in the spring, when it was still raining buckets and summer seemed a distant dream, we decided that in addition to the open days, we’d run two play days at the stables. These kind of events are pretty unique to the natural community, and definitely sound strange when I explain them to non-horse people, but to others they hopefully make a little more sense!
Essentially, they’re like playdates, but without babies and toddlers (children are welcome!) and with horses. A host will volunteer themselves, round up their toys, create an obstacle course, perhaps throw in a small jumping arena, prepare a few cakes and invite humans and horses over to play. As with all things natural horsemanship, the only limit is your imagination. There may be friendly competitive elements, and people and horses of all abilities are welcome. It’s a chance to meet like-minded people, get new ideas and hang out with some horses.
When we set the dates, Jo decided that she wanted me to feel comfortable to ride Prince if I wanted to. I had 11 weeks to get ready, at which point I’d sat on him once. It seemed a tall order.
Once I started working again, the time flew by and the date had suddenly arrived. I’d ridden Prince only a handful of times with varying degrees of success. I wasn’t too bothered, as the day after the play day, we had an instructor scheduled to come over and help us out with some lessons (brilliantly, she also came to the play day, off-duty and accompanied by her own green horse, which was great to watch). So I walked into the play day with little expectation from Prince. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the day working or stewarding, rather than playing.
We helped our visitors to settle in, showed them around and left them to play, assisting when they wanted the clear round course changed or offering a score when they wanted to be judged on their abilities with the obstacle course. We’d managed to come up with some inventive things: we’d built a small ball/sand pit for the horses to explore, created a “log walk” (designed to mimic the conditions you might meet out on a forest trail) and rigged up one of my favourite holiday souvenirs (a sheep bell from Greece) for people to park their horse next to and ring. It’s all about figuring out what you and your horse can do, whether you do it online, at liberty or ridden.
Having watched our visitors get going, I was starting to itch for a play, so I retrieved Prince. We got off to a terrible start: I had to walk him through the “warm up” field where some obstacles were laid out, and he took particular exception to an umbrella. I honestly didn’t think I’d get him past it at first, and once I did, my game plan changed. I spent some time grooming Prince and plaiting him up (even though I had no intention of riding) before taking him back to avenge the ghost that was the umbrella.
Some snorting ensued, and I almost had a 15hh, 550kg cob jump on top of me (not cool, I told him, as I promptly sent him back out into his own space, to prevent myself from being crushed). It was Prince’s first experience of a play day too, and I was glad it was on his home turf, though it meant that home had changed significantly with the addition of lots of obstacles and some strange horses. Fortunately, with a few clever games played, he settled quickly and soon touched the umbrella with his nose! After he marched confidently through our “car wash” obstacle (which he’s seen and completed before – it’s a plastic frame with strips of fine plastic hanging from it which were blowing in the breeze), I knew he was ready to take on the new obstacles, so off we went to play.
Prince began to really impress me by staying relaxed and connected – nothing fazed him. He happily tackled the sand pit (we think most of the horses were fooled into thinking that the balls were apples), successfully negotiated the log walk, weaved in and out of the straw bale squeeze with me stood on top of one (he wiggled all around in every direction I requested), and rang the bell using his nose!
As we were working our way around, my brain was ticking over, and I wondered what would happen if I changed the game slightly… I tacked him up. We tackled the obstacles from the ground: complete relaxation, no change in approach, no big deal for Prince. So I fetched my helmet and climbed on.
Under saddle, I met more resistance, but only with open spaces. If Prince had an obstacle in front of him, we were absolutely fine, and he did me proud. Walking to and from the arena was different – all jolty stop-start gaits that I’ve experienced my last few rides, and I was glad our instructor was there to see what I meant!
The final challenge I gave Prince was a bit of a laugh – we tackled the clear round. All of it was small enough to step over, or hop from a standstill. I wasn’t expecting even a trot out of him, and sure enough he demolished most of it. However, I did manage to get a trot going at one point, and the little horse surprised me yet again by rewarding me with two proper jumps! Our friends who were watching cheered as if we’d slid down the Derby Bank and successfully cleared the rails at the bottom, and I suspect the grin on my face told the same story. Prince and I received a rosette for our efforts, my first since I was a teenager!
The day was an enormous boost to my confidence in terms of my relationship with Prince and what we might achieve. No, we still haven’t been out on a hack (a lack of companion is partly what’s slowing us down there), but he remained calm and did everything I asked of him last weekend. I really couldn’t have asked for more. It felt like the holy grail of my horse saying, “the answer is ‘yes’, what was the question?”.
Six weeks until the next play day, and this time, I’ve got aspirations for an actual clear round…