I went on a horseriding holiday very early on in my career, which, now that I look back, was fairly daring. I’d do one again in a heartbeat and while I have successfully pitched feature stories about cattle driving in Montana, I have yet to have a tour operator snap me up…
This post is about the first day hacking in Epona Equestrian Centre, outside of Seville. The journey to get there took most of the previous day, and entailed almost not getting on the plane at all; hanging about in Malaga a late train; collecting a few fellow tour-attendees from somewhere; and then driving for what felt like forever…
The Reins In Spain
STAY MAINLY IN… ER… LOS MANOS? NEVER MIND: 24 DECEMBER, 2007 Breakfast at nine, first trek at ten. I hate to eat first thing in the morning, and this morning, forget it: too nervous. We’re all chatting away at table— there are eight of us, the perfect number that I’d had in mind— and I nip off early, one more loo break, some deep breathing… I feel like I haven’t ridden a new horse in months, and it is kind of true; I had some lessons during a visit to the States in September, but the unfamiliarity linked with the fact that we’d be on the trail for three hours, and given my inherent dislike of being on the road… what had I gotten myself into?
I drifted out to the forecourt of the hacienda. A string of horses were being tacked, held in place by their head collars. One of them, a big bay, skittered around a little, yanked his head, snapped the rope, and had to have his head gear replaced.
Hope I don’t get him.
Fernando, proprietor of Epona and tour leader for the week, started dispensing horses. One by one, my fellow riders mounted the block — a wall, really, that allowed one deposit oneself in the saddle without so much as a stirrup — and then my name was called out. I leapt up onto the block.
One of the women lead the big bay over.
‘He’s called Barry,’ she said, smiling up at me.
Irish? Okay. Well, he’s big enough.
‘It’s short for Barishnikov,’ she added.
And dance he did, the minute I took the saddle: he jigged and skipped and the woman, Karin, recommended that I make him stop, and I shortened the reins, and he pranced some more, and I sat back, but I thought I cannot make this horse stop.
A combination of Karin’s weight on the bridle and me finally communicating some sort of whoa resulted in a pause in Bari’s capering, we adjusted my stirrups— and we were left alone.
He responded to every twitch I made. I’d shift, he’d go. I’d shorten the reins for dear life, and he’s nip around in a circle. I began to feel the feeling I hadn’t had for fifteen months: sheer nerves, terror, anxiety, call it what you want, almost as bad as the very first lesson I’d ever had. I was completely aware that I wasn’t breathing. Bari felt like a spring, coiling, coiling, ready to explode—
And then we were moving out. First step, second step, and my God, he felt like he was seriously going to just go, and given my issues with my home horses, with Rebel, and Tango, what could I be given to complain about?
Plenty. I hung on to the reins, and we made our way down the road behind the centre, past low lying houses covered in glorious mosaic, and all I could do was, yes, once again, stare at the back of the horse’s head, frozen. He kept leaping a little, trying to break out of the ride, and I felt a cold trickle of sweat roll down my back.
‘I’m nervous,’ I said to Karin, who was in the ride behind me.
‘Let out the reins,’ she counselled.
Let them out? But at home we ride with really close contact—
Not at home. I let them out an inch.
‘A little more,’ said Karin.
Another inch, maybe— wild woman!— two.
‘A little more… he thinks you want him to do something, to trot… a little more… just a little more…’ urged Karin, gently, and I felt as if I was holding the bloody things at the buckle.
We crossed a small bridge, Bari with a hop and skip that would have done Fred Astaire proud, and I concentrated on my breathing. And it all slowly started to come back: how ’bout those legs, Sue? Nice and long? Heels down, are they? How’s that seat working?
Not so well, on all counts, and after the first trot, in which Bari felt like Secretariat pounding the home stretch, I was sure that I couldn’t hack this, that it all was a terrible mistake.
And then we got to the river.
To me, in fairness, it looked like a creek, maybe fifteen feet wide, not exactly Liffey-like proportions. But it was deep enough. And it was wet.
We followed Fernando in orderly fashion, and I had a choice: sit back, leg on, longish rein, or I’m going swimming.
So I sat back, dropped my heels, and let Bari do the work. I rocked, hips suddenly loose, and swayed with his sure-footed movements, and it became clear to me that he absolutely loved slogging through the rushes, that he was not going to put a hoof wrong, and that he was made ecstatic by the length of rein I’d given him. We shimmied through the rushing water, surging up the bank, a steep enough rise, and as I rose in the saddle to give his back a break, Bari and I seemed to find an accord.
His brisk trot required that I only rise that little bit in the saddle. He liked to eat, and once we stopped for what Fernando called ‘McDonald’s’, I was far more relaxed, letting him wander, investigate the vegetation, all the while sitting back in the saddle and keeping that rein long. He moved around, got too close to another horse, I twitched the rein, left, and he moved off, zeroing in on more delectable greenery.
We rode in pairs, Karin kindly keeping the chat going, I began to breathe— had to, if I was going to respond— and I began to take in my surroundings, miles of olive groves that we walked through, trotted through, rich red soil showing the first of the shoots that would explode into sunflowers in March, an endless and bright cloudless blue sky… Bari stepped up the pace, I sat back and squeezed the reins, he slowed down, sort of, but I wasn’t as bothered. Here was a horse who wanted to go! Lively and fresh, full of life, seven years old and keen on the work at hand.
We slogged through another body of water, fully in tune. We trotted in pairs, and I looked around, looked at our shadow, Bari was stretching out, his tail aloft. ‘He’s in extended trot for you!’ Karin called, and I breathed and breathed and breathed.
It was over too soon. Making our way back down the track, we headed up a small rise, and Bari decided, Hey, let’s canter!, and it was exactly like that spring coiling and releasing, exploding, but it felt… great, and I managed to get him back to trot and then to walk in no time. I rocked with his walk, posture perfect, and upon alighting, legs a-wobble, gave him a good auld rub on the withers, the neck, and he dropped his nose on my shoulder.
‘Excellent, Bari, you’re the best!’ He seemed not to mind being spoken to in English. It was going to be an amazing week.