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I just came across this, as a draft labelled ‘2013/02/06’* Is that June 2nd, or the second of the sixth? No, I think it’s February, as this is an American platform, is WordPress. I wonder why we do the dates differently, here? Today is the 24th of the fourth, or 24 April. As we would say.

Anyway, we did this last year. The lesson was indoors, so yeah, probably February, although after the weather we ‘enjoyed’ this winter — rain, rain, rain, which made sandy goop of the lower arena, which made no odds as we went out in it anyway — it must have been incalcuably miserable outside.

The fences weren’t big, but they were tricky:
THE SET UP

Because after the crosspole, you kind of had to jump sideways. Or maybe you ended up jumping sideways because you didn’t approach it correctly.
THE FLOW

What is amazing to me is that I look at it and I remember it, but I know if I had to do it again, it would be easier to do than trying to write about it.

If you do as you’re always told, and look at the next fence, your body sends much of the information the horse needs. Keeping the inside leg on would help here, as well. I remember there was a bit of confusion on the part of Connell and I the first time we attempted the right rein straight, a ‘Where did that come from?’ moment that ended in a cat-jump.

Looking where I was going really helped with the left hand straight. ‘Looking where I was going’ seems like a no-brainer, and it is, but you’d be surprised what happens when you get up the back of a horse, how common sense often goes flying out the arena door.

Going down to A and all the way back around to the right hand straight at M was easy peasy and made sense to both of us, and then made it easier still to do the whole thing over again, a little bit higher {probs no higher than 70, 75cms} {maybe 80?} — but then the added twist of having to take the crosspole in reverse pissed Connell off, who was using his head quite enough for one evening, and I actually couldn’t get him to do it.

I remeber it was one of those nights when a person new to the lesson was all, ‘I’ve never seen Connell go like that!’ — in fact, ah! he wouldn’t do the crosspole in reverse, and was feckin’ speeding away from it, and I said, ‘He feels too strong,’ and the person new to the lesson was gobsmacked. Which is good and bad.**

I remember also that the straights felt like they were that close to the wall, but there really was loads of room.

I love these sorts of exercises, because I do have to look where I’m going, and when I look where I’m going, I’m not so focused on trying to read the horse’s mind, and we just do the thing, and it’s liberating, and it feels like total collaboration. It’s like, we’re both just minding our own business, and it’s fun.

Less than a week to go…

***

*YYYY/MM/DD is in fact the international standard, says Google Answers. Huh!

**Good in that he was listening to me and being forward going, but bad because I wasn’t accustomed to said forward-goingness and I wasn’t very good at bringing him back.

***

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I should have just taken the fall. Read the rest of this entry »

… which is not entirely inappropriate, as our Mercury was a famous TV star, playing Henry VIII’s primary mount in The Tudors. The shrieks that ensued the first time I saw him on the telly! [Mercury, not Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.]

The sad news was shared in the yard today: Merc, who was probably around a thousand years old and crippled by arthritis, was put down this week. He was the first horse I ever rode in a lesson, properly; fittingly, here’s the first post I ever wrote on this blog, below. It’s seven years to the week that I took to horseback, and if it wasn’t for Mercury, I wouldn’t still be here writing about it all. Heart U, beastie.

***

9 SEPTEMBER, 2006 The wee girls circle round and round, legs pounding the sides of their ponies, and I am feeling breathless.

As excited as I was to take my first horse riding lesson, I’d actually have to be on a horse to take it, wouldn’t I, and they’re big, aren’t they, and watching those kids flying around the ring, I feel increasingly fluttery and anxious. As little as I know about horses, I knew this anxiety was a bad thing. On top of all this, I was already feeling under the weather: I had a headache, a scratchy throat, exacerbated by the heat of the day that had turned the number 63 bus into a trundling sun trap… ah, hell, I could always come back another time…

I can’t come back another time. I spent the entire week, in the run up to this day, talking about it to the girls at work. I have been yearning for this for years. A month ago, I got the yen yet again, and the day before I finally Googled equestrian centres in Dublin, I saw: horse statues on a house on the coast road that I’d never seen before; a horse trailer; an actual horse; and on the way home from work, my iPod opened the evening’s commute with Land from Patti Smith’s Horses.

Okay, okay. I get it.

So I’m here. I walked up the long, long road to a long, long hill. I don’t know where anything is, I don’t know who to make myself known to, I don’t— I need a helmet, I know that much. I wander a little; I’m an hour early, thanks to the bus. I’m intimidated by the thoughtless ease with which a clutch of girls in white hard hats inhabit the entrance to what must surely be the barn. I can’t go near them; I don’t have the right.

I drift back to the door of the inside thing, the ring, whatever. Parents chat amongst themselves and happily compliment their daughters as they pass. These kids are jumping, effortlessly. Jesus God. I drift away again.

Then an older bunch of riders come back from somewhere, the horses enter the inside ring place, everyone slips effortlessly to the ground, ponies are lead away, voices are raised simply to be audible, I back away — I need a helmet. I go to the portakabin again, and the guy in charge is there, I say who I am, he says, “You’re late,” and a helmet, stinking with hours and hours of strangers’ sweat, is jammed on my head and I’m told to go back to the arena (ah), and I do, and the teacher asks me who I am and have I done much riding, and I tell her my name, and none, and she says get on up on a black horse, and I do, and she shows me how to hold the reins, and I hold them, and she tells us all to walk on, and—

And the horse takes one step, and I think to myself, “Fuck,” and he takes another and I think, “Fucking hell get me the fuck offa this fuckin’—” and another step and another and I am no longer a human woman but a sack of frozen potatoes sporting a fetid black hat.

I don’t even know the horse’s name — how am I supposed to bond?

I can hear myself breathing, air is whistling in and out of my nose, and it’s about all I can hear. I hear a voice shouting but it’s not language: it sounds like short, sharp raps, there’s a sensation that it’s the same series of sounds over and over — rap rap rap. The other people understand and are obviously responding to these sounds, because one minute, we’re going in one direction, and then we’re not, we’re threading our way from one corner of the arena to the other and going the opposite way — and I’ve yet to fall off.

And with maybe fifteen minutes to go (I can’t glance at my watch, because if I move my hands, or waver in my unstinting regard of the back of the horse’s head, something bad will happen) it occurs to me to maybe relax my stiffened legs a little, like, even grip the sides of the horse, with my calves? Is this is a good idea? It may have looked like I was doing it— my legs weren’t sticking out at ninety degrees from either side of the horse— but it sure hadn’t felt like it, so I do it, and I’m no longer hyperventilating. The teacher doesn’t seem bothered that I won’t do anything but walk (“Sue, want to give the trot a go?” “No.”) and I can sense that my lesson mates are still where they’re meant to be, on the back of their horses, not writhing around on the ground clutching shattered limbs… and I relax.

This relaxation, and the action of the calf tightening, the action of this intuitive (common sensical!) decision, results in a somewhat straighter spine. I’m sitting better, and I can hazard a look around, and drop my elbows, a little, although my arms are so tense you could break concrete breeze blocks on them, my hands so thoroughly clenched on the reins that I have surely broken all my finger bones.

Suddenly, those staccato sounds become language: “Turn in and give them all a big pat— feet out of the stirrups— swing your leg around the back— drop down,” and I’m on the ground and a there’s a name tag on the horse’s bridle and I whisper in his ear, “Mercury. Mercury! You are great!”

I walk down the long hill to the long road, my hair having fully absorbed, via the helmet, the honest sweat of women like me, women who have ridden a horse. I haven’t got a trace of flu, of a headache, of a sore throat, nor of a single critical thought, of a single bad thing to think about the thing I’d just done, swaggering like a cowboy (there’s a good reason why they walk like that) and all I think is I did it, I did it, I did it!

I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so delighted with myself in my entire life.

***

MERCURY and ME

Merc: well known for his dapper mustache.

***

I knew something was up, that something was out of joint: I have been out of ‘real’ time for the last while, between bereavement and jet lag — a lethal combo, do try to avoid it as best you can, is my advice to you — so I knew I was in trouble the moment I opened my eyes Tuesday morning.

I woke up, and immediately began worrying about how I was going to get to the yard later than day.

I had a launch to attend in town and I knew I’d have to do a drive-by as it was far enough away from the LUAS to be an issue; but the 44 bus has a stop near the hotel in which the launch was being held, so maybe I could grab the bus there and then get a taxi? But that was a total waste of money, even if it was going to save me a few steps. ‘Steps’ entered into it, as I am back on shanks mare {ha, ha} and walking up the laneway again; ugh, but having to walk alllll the way from the LUAS? That’s like 20 minutes, up a gradual incline of despair, which I was not in the mood for; if I skipped the launch, I could just get the bus to the end of the lane; but I said I would meet some pals at said launch; but; but; but —

Then I considered skipping the horses altogether, but I had overslept on Saturday, and missed the bus, and missed the lesson, and I really needed to go, to have a go, to move myself forward in some fashion.

Even once I decided to head into town and figure it out as I went along, well, I kept figuring out all the variables, and it was exhausting, and I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to have the energy to ride the horse. Which horse? Ha! Add this into the equation. I was fed up with Connell when last we met, and had gone back to Simba, but I still felt wobbly, and reckoned I’d rather have Connell if we were doing flat, but was not going to jump him, no way, in which case I would take Simba — or maybe even Delilah, because she knows when you’re a bit off and can take good care of you, but only if she’s in the mood —

So: I raced through the launch, got to the LUAS, used my Hailo app to get a taxi from Ballyogan to up-the-lane, rocked up to the office to pay for the term, only to discover that my usual lesson was cancelled.

{Cue laughter, somewhat demented.}

Would I just go in the 8pm lesson? Uh, no: it was 6.20.

Could I just mooch around on Connell? Yes, okay.

And thus began my very first time as a lady who is on her own, on a horse.

***

The very first time ever in my life that I had to get up on a horse all by myself was when I showjumped, also for the very first time; that was a lot of ‘firsts’ in one go. I can get up on Connell on my own, so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was: what was I gonna do? With him? Like, what? Mooch, as I had said, up and down the infamous laneway? Go down to the outdoor arena, and then mooch? It was perfect mooching weather, bright and clear, and not too cold, as excellent a spring evening as one could conjure.

But Connell can be a real slow coach on a walk, and I didn’t fancy the outdoor, even though it was gorgeous out. I didn’t really know WTF I was doing, and I didn’t want to make a big show of it.

Except I found that I did know what to do.

Connell greeted me with perked ears; I rubbed my face all over his neck and he thought that was hilarious, and demonstrated this by nipping me on the bum. He was saddled, I bridled him, I joined a Livery Lass in the indoor, I got up there, and I started going.

I decided to practice riding a little longer in the stirrup than I have been. I mean to do this every lesson, but then I feel the pressure of being in the lesson, so I don’t. The thing is, a longer leg means better aids, and better response, and better posture, but I always feel too wobbly. So I took the time to do a longer leg, at my own speed, and worked on my balance, and we went great. Then I did a whole bunch of transitions, and then I did the reining-back-into-canter thing, and then the Livery Lass, who’d put her horse back up, came in again and asked did I want to jump, and I said yes.

So I jumped, and he only stopped once, which is still enormously irritating, but in the main, we did really well. There was no one there to tell me what to do to get him to do something, so I had to do the things myself, and it was incredibly satisfying, to be able to do something — anything! — because I thought of it myself.

Then he was so sweaty and steamy that I took him for a walk, in hand.

It was still gorgeous out, maybe even better since the sun was starting to set, a misty red haze in the west. We both took our time, and both stopped at one stage to look at something. I can’t even tell you what, I mean, the mountains are always there to be looked at, so I guess we both stopped at the same exact time and looked at the exact same mountain? It was the most peaceful thing ever. Just standing, shoulder to shoulder, setting sun, brisk air, green fields.

I chatted with other riders along the way, and it was like… it was like I was Livery Lady, doing the Livery Lady thing.

I rode for the guts of forty minutes. Now, when I warm up the Big Horse of a Monday, when I volunteer for Riding for the Disabled Ireland, I am only getting warmed up in my own brain after fifteen minutes, then it’s time for me to get down and hand him over. Just as I am beginning to understand what might be good to do — leg yielding, maybe? Work on that wonky rein back? Canter transitions? — there’s no more time to do it in. This was the perfect amount of time to do an amount of work that added up to a good work out.

Le repertoire, though, he is limited:  I would need to be stocking up on things to do, on my own. Swot a dressage test, maybe? I’ve got a book of jumping exercises, with many, many things to do with poles on the ground, working your way up to actual jumps… There’s a mental fitness that you get, I am thinking, when you have to think for yourself. I am sure that there is a many a day when you just want to hang out with your horse, and do some serious mooching, but there’s also all sorts of planning that enters into it, which I hadn’t known.

If you had told me, seven years ago, when I wasn’t even able to get up into the saddle by myself, when I didn’t even know how to pull the stirrups down the leathers, that I would have gotten to this stage — well, I don’t know what I would have said. Not out loud anyway — but in my heart I know I would have been shouting Yes, pleeeeeease! How soon? Is it now yet?!? I would have immediately begun worrying about whether or not I’d ever be good enough, and how long it would take, and how could I get there more quickly and easily — and as it transpires, it took no ‘time’ at all. It’s now, now, and it feels like it hasn’t taken that long, after all.

***

I’ve written about this before, but things have changed. Read the rest of this entry »

I know that weather is only weather, but holy wow, the weather. It is horrible. As of this writing, the sun is breaking the stones, but that’s just for now. Who knows what it will do later? It could — because it has — turn into November in July in the snap of a finger.

Not that is stops me, or any of us, showing up on Tuesdays.

On Tuesday afternoon, it had looked like the gray, the suffocating gray that has been hanging over us like a shroud, was about to blow off, out to sea… and then it didn’t, it started lashing rain about half an hour before we were to begin, and ach, looked like we’d be stuck indoors.

Now, this is a huge improvement for me, and I am not sure when this happened, but I used to prefer riding indoors. I think the walls made me feel safe. It’s not so much that I feel unsafe indoors now, it is more like I now feel safe out of doors; also, the outdoor arena is bigger, and I felt like jumping. Not like we can’t jump indoors, because we do, but — bleh. We’ve been very, very lucky in our Tuesday night weather, even throughout the winter, and this just — it was crap, just like the weather.

And it’s not like we all haven’t ridden in onslaughts and downpours. Did I post about that time I went on a ride out in Bath, England in a deluge? Yeah, so once, I went on a ride out in Bath, England, in unbelievable, relentless rain. I was doing a residential school week in Bath University as part of my psychology degree with the Open University, and we had free time, and I went to the equestrian centre to which I had gone the previous year at the other res school week I had to do for the degree. I got the same horse, Colt, and off we went, myself and the ride leader, and it was insane, complete and total lunacy, but I needed to be out on a horse; too much head-stuff going on, doing the course work. I was soaked straight to me knickers in three minutes. We passed a car that had helpfully stopped to let us go by; the driver rolled down his window, looked up at me, and said ‘You’re mad.’

That is one of the best memories of my life thus far.

Anyway: so, it’s been done, riding in the rain, but who wouldn’t rather be outside in clement weather?

We went out anyway. The rain had turned to mist, and as we warmed up, it was an exceedingly pleasant feeling to have cool water falling on the skin. Plus, Connell and I were on it: bending like nobody’s business, clean strikes off the right rein in the canter — brilliant. We started jumping, and it was… it was effortless. I was in the space where I was doing what I was meant to be doing without really thinking about it, and Con was juiced to jump. In fact, I had to circle him before we headed for the fences, he was so juiced.

I was happy with all the jumps, which hardly ever happens, and I was doing the thing where I look in the proper direction whilst in mid-air over the second fence, and hey, it really helps the horse get the correct lead upon landing.

It was such a great hour. I think I’ve still got the endorphins floating around in my system. It is so great when it is great. It’s okay when it’s not, even though great is preferable; it’s okay when it’s okay because it’s still being there, on the horses. But when it’s great! When it’s great, nothing matters. Locusts could have started raining down upon us, and it would have been fine. Well, the horses might have been bothered. Right, okay, no locusts.

But is it so great when it is great, when it is effortless, when everything I’ve learned to date seems to be there in my actions, and I don’t have to think, and everything goes.

Wish I could be out there now, in the sunshine…

Something unexpected happened on Saturday.

On Saturday, I was still feeling a little ‘boo hoo hoo’ because my weekend away in the South of France was now in the past; a little sleepy — this ‘living closer to the yard’ thing is great, honestly, but I see now that I really used the second bus journey to wake up; a little stiff from having fallen off Con on Tuesday. It was not a big one, although my back was sore. So what do I go and do?

I ask if I can take William. Read the rest of this entry »

Driving around the South of France: it’s a pleasure no matter what, in fairness, but when you are gazing out the window of the car, and see a horse? Bliss times a million.

Every single time I see a horse, even if it’s not in the South of France, it’s like my whole body ‘gasps’: Ah! I actually do gasp, and point, and say, ‘Oh!’ And I say something about them, like the massive draught horse we passed, I said, ‘Hey, big guy! Look at you!’

Happily, there was another pony mad woman in the car, and more often than not, she’d say ‘Susan!’ as I would be saying ‘Oh!’ and sharing the joy made it even more fantastic.

But every single time, it is like I have never seen a horse before — is that it? Or it’s like: There’s a horse! I haven’t seen a horse in like a minute/an hour/a day! But there’s one right now!

Or: Hey! Other people love horses too and there’s proof!

I don’t know. All I know is, every single time I see a horse, my whole being just floods with happiness. It’s great, and I will always feel it, and that’s all I need to know.

I have one more chapter to go in my horsey-divorcey book, and I  — I don’t even know how to get my head around that.

The last chapter to go is the penultimate chapter, which is weird, but not. It’s kind of the ‘biggest’ one of them all, and the actual last chapter was really easy to write, I think it was the fastest one of all.

I think there may also be an epilogue, maybe.

Sorry, totally talking to myself! I had started about three posts this last week, all with variations on the theme of ‘life-lessony stuff’ and I didn’t get anywhere with them.

I also started to post, at least twice, about how spectacularly well Tuesday evening’s lesson went. I’ve usually got a little bit of the fear after a fall, but holy wow, I went at those fences like, I don’t know, A Really Determined Equestrienne. They weren’t massive, and I can’t resist pointing this out, the second fence of the two, organised as a related distance*, was 80cms, and: not a bother on me. Tiny bit of a bother on Con, who wasn’t only nominally in the mood, but I managed to convince him to rise [LOL] to the occasion, and we went really well. Really well, especially after such an annoying tumble on Sunday.

My impulse had been to write about making excuses: I had been going on and on in my head about Oh, those fences looked so high. And maybe they were ‘so’ high. And another part of me goes, So what, just ride… In a gentler way, a few days later, I can agree with that. On Tuesday, we were coming around to the first fence (a turn which seemed really tight to me…) and we did it really well! and then I got caught in the thought, That went really well! and in the seconds during which we approached the second, I realised at the last minute that I wasn’t very well prepared for it, I was just sitting there, and sure enough, Con stopped. [I didn’t fall off!]

It doesn’t pay to focus on the triumphs any more than the failures, apparently. One of the things I really want to get in the book, and that’s why I think there’s an epilogue-y bit, is something one of my instructors said to me a couple of years ago. It was under very similar circumstances: I had Delilah in a private lesson, and we were coming around to a related distance, and as is her wont, she cut the corner extremely tightly, and as I berated myself for letting her, we barely made it over the first fence, and as a result, struggled with the second. When I said I had realised the turn was too tight — trying to justify why the jumps had been poor — my instructor basically said: get over it and get onto the next thing in front of you.

If I could needlepoint, I’d stitch that on a pillow.

The next thing in front of me isn’t the thing that made logical sense, and I went ahead anyway. I’m tip-toeing around it a bit — let’s say, I’m still warming up. I’ve got it all in line, and with all going well — nope, I can’t even write when I think it will be done, because it’s really soon. Don’t want to rush my fences…

* From equestrianandhorse.com: A related distance ‘refers to a distance in between two fences that the course designer has set to be ridden with a certain number of strides in mind, this is where the skill of knowing your horse comes in so that you can judge how best to ride the distance, for example if you have a four stride distance and are riding a short striding horse you may adjust your horses stride so that the distance becomes five strides instead of four.’

I have been many places in the sunshine, and there is really no better place on earth than Ireland when the sky is clear, blue, and cloud-free. And there is no better thing to be doing than racketing around the fields, up in the hills, on horseback.

If you’re not me. I have had an enormous fear of the fields from day one, and in the past, there has been nothing worse than a ride out. But then, we went out a month or so ago, and it was okay. We didn’t canter or anything, and Connell was pretty annoyed by that, he started throwing his head and snorting when it became apparent that we were heading back to the barn after a desultory amble over hill and dale {what’s a dale, anyway?}*

So that was pretty good. I remember chatting to Con afterwards, about remember how nervous I was that one time we went out last year? Ha!

This Saturday was even pretty good-er, because, I don’t know, I just got up there, and we trotted down the road, then trotted back up the road and the lane, and we went into a field, and we jumped a log, and then went into another field, and had a canter round the place, and then had another canter in another field, and then went up to the tippy top field and cantered there, too.

It was fun! Like, cinematically enjoyable: sunshine, eight horses pelting up the side of a hill, Dublin Bay stretched out before us, in all its glory.

Why wasn’t I afraid? I have no idea. Cumulative experience? General sense of well-being? It may be because I felt like I was completely balanced in my light seat. Also, after Connell bunched, and then went into the gallop {it really was a gallop-y canter}, the first six strides were like running for the roses, and then I think he went Hey, wait a second, this is tiring and then he started to slow down. To the degree that during the last few runs I was egging him on: Go, Connell, go!

I can’t tell you how great that was.

I can’t tell you how crap the jumping was on Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »

FIGURES OF EIGHT

Twelve years on from my first ever riding lesson, these posts are still wandering round and round, a figure of eight starting with today, probably, and yesterday, definitely. It’s the antithesis of how I usually do things, but… that’s horses for ya.

TACK ROOM

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