Continuing the ever popular series Stories from The Stables, Carolyn Ward tells of falling (un)gracefully
It was a cool spring day, and we were out in the big field doing a show jump course. I was riding a little piebald called Toby. He was sweet, the total opposite in temperament to crazy Ziggy; yet physically quite similar, about 15hh and a bit tubbier. Instead of the sandy patches that Ziggy had, Tobes was all black and white. He was less shaggy surfer-pony, more neat and polished; and was a little gentleman in the stable, too. He was slow at times, but if you really ‘got after him’ (horse speak for ‘kick him in the ribs a lot’) he would pick up the pace.
My riding teacher was a cute guy called Richard. (Us stable girls would always flick our hair whenever he strode past, although, thinking back; he was like a squirrel on stilts.) He supervised us, and had set up a nice little course for us to bob around. I went first, my Benetton jumper glowing orange in the April sunshine. (Early 1990s fashion.)
Toby did great on the first few, some small crossbars, a bounce combo, a small water jump; and then I wheeled him around to the left to tackle a bigger straight. He took one look, and sitting down on his rear legs in a frog position, skidded to a wobbly halt at the front of it, jingling his bit crossly.
I, however, continued to fly over it.
After soaring through the air in slow motion, I landed really hard, and was properly winded. If you’ve never been winded, it is dreadful. You have all of the breath knocked out of you, and the first thing you need to do is draw in a massive gasp of air. But the shock of the bump can mean it takes ages for you to be able to. Consequently your face does a great impression of a newly-caught trout.
Bear in mind that I was mortified at falling off; even more mortified to hear Richard shout ‘Oh No!’ and come pegging over on his gangly stork legs. Then beyond mortified to realise that I had bitten my tongue really hard. And gobbed quite a lot of blood and spit up my face and across my glasses. All the while, gurning and wheezing just like a dying fish.
Then he zoomed into the grass in front of where I lay and asked if I was alright. ‘Noooo!’ my mind screamed.
‘Yeatthhhhhh,’ I tried to smile, hiding my spitty specs with one muddy hand. Toby stood over me, snorting more horse snot onto my hat as an attempt to apologise.
After he knew that I wasn’t dead, Richard made me immediately jump it again. ‘You gotta get straight back on and keep trying.’ He said. Some of the best advice I ever had in life.
Needless to say sheepish old Tobes discovered the jump was actually quite low and easy, and cleared the rest of the course. I patted him, and wiped my glasses clean on my gloves. I still don’t understand how some ladies manage to ride and still look elegant.
In the cooler weather, I already mentioned that I had my trusty Benetton jumper, but the horses sometimes needed their own version.
Rugs are a necessary evil to keep horses and ponies warm when they are out grazing. They are big pieces of heavy cloth, with complex twangly metal buckles and straps to hold them in place; as half on or off they could be dangerous if the animal caught a hoof in the wrong place. Some of the livery crew had designer Burberry ones, or pink fleecy ones.
The trickiest bit was getting something the size and weight of your mum’s double duvet accurately pitched across the broad back of a moving target, about the height of your mum’s head off the ground. Even in the confines of a loose box, many horses sway, roam, and push about, impatient to get out to the grass.
Letting them out was the loveliest stable job. Leading them by head collar and rope, them all perky and eager to get out and play, all rugged up safe and warm. You looking at their tummy, somewhat anxiously checking the twangly bits were all flat and joined up correctly.
You get to the gate, check no other horse is waiting to barge back in to the yard, and swing it open. Lead the horse through, turn around and shut the gate. Lead the horse bit further into the field, and carefully remove head collar. Duck out of the way as horse goes crazy with delight, whirling and kicking up heels. That same beast who was reluctant to do a slow trot with you on board bursts into a flat out gallop, tail at half mast, disappearing over the horizon. You smile to see horse speeding to join his friends, all neighing welcomes to each other. The sun is setting, and another day is done. You pile into your mum’s car, watching your sister’s expression of disgust at the way the Benetton jumper smells. Nothing like fresh country scents.
15hh – this refers to the height of the pony or horse in ‘hands’ from the ground to the withers, or shoulders – the highest non variable point of the skeleton.
One hand = 4 inches. ‘hh’ literally stands for ‘Hands High’. A ‘pony’ is a mature horse that measures less than 14.2hh – 14 hands plus 2 inches. (This is 58 inches, or 1m 47cm to the withers, to give you some idea of scale.)
‘Got after him’ – I explained that this means extensive kicking in the ribs. But really, to make a horse move forward, you put the ‘leg on’ (got to love horsey-speak) putting the leg on means to squeeze the horse’s sides with your calves. For really ‘getting after him’ the pressure from your calves would be strengthened by strong nudges with your heels. You want to avoid ‘flapping’ though, lifting your calves away from the horse’s sides to kick hard. The lack of contact for that second that you flap can cause the horse to slow down. Keep that leg on! (Great exercise.) The real elegance of experienced riders is that they are able to ask a lot of the horse without themselves really moving. Watch some pro dressage on Youtube and see how still and elegantly the riders sit.
Head collar – a simple bridle-like contraption made of canvas, with a rope that you can detach. Some horses are let out in the field with the head collar on (especially if they are little swines to catch) and the person just unclips the rope.
Loose box – another name for a stable.