My first horse riding lesson was on a recent midweek summer's evening, at an equestrian centre out in the country which sits on a hill with a wonderful view of The City, at just the right distance - close enough to admire it, far enough away to make it peaceful and silent, existing only as a backdrop and visual counterpoint to the gentling rolling lanscape which surrounds it. I travelled to this place with Miss C and several of our mutual friends, rattling along country lanes, which in these parts are a kind of fragrant green maze, sign-posts as gratefully received by the traveller as oases might be in the Rub Al Khali, navigating collaboratively by car-to-car phone calls.
Alas, we had only a passing gimpse of the scenery - on this occasion, we were not to be trusted out of doors, but confined to a large shed, part of which functioned as stabling, and part of which was set up as an arena - almost certainly, the dustiest, most cob-web infested arena in the land. The fine brown dust lay thickly everywhere - upon the rafters, and the walls, on shelving, and on the floor. It even hung in the air as a barely perceptible haze, thrown up by young riders from an earlier class who were still riding slow circuits. There was a good deal of nervousness among our group as we watched and waited, most of our number never having ridden. Two among us, Mr B and Miss A, an affianced couple, had had several previous lessons and brought their own crops, boots, helmets and so on - which gave them great status in our eyes.
Having chosen helmets from a selection which showed variations in size and design - but not in colour (dust, of course) - we were ready to mount. This was done very slowly, the trainer eyeing us up and down, assessing us (I presume) for length of leg, mass, and perhaps temperament. One by one, our companions were led to a succesion of horses which stood placidly beside a make-shift mounting block, while nervous novices struggled aboard. Each rider, once mounted, joined the others in walking slow circles around the arena, nose to tail. Miss A led the riders, sitting high on a fine white horse, the largest animal there, and apparently the leader.
After what seemed an interminable delay, I too found myself joining the circle. My horse, like all the others was quite tame and well-behaved, its only fault one common to man and beast - laziness. Now the lesson began: one by one, our postures were critiqued - we sat too far forward or too far back, our legs were not under us, our feet were not properly set in the stirrups. In the course of this education, we also learnt to respond not to our own names, but to that our of mounts, a very practical system, if not terribly flattering to ourselves. If the trainer had a command for all the horses, he would speak directly to Miss A's huge mount, whose line and pace the others would follow.
Trotting came next: and this was where I realised how well the horses knew their work, because the trainer had only to say a word or two, and all the mounts moved up to a trot instantly, requiring no input at all from the riders. They seemed to like it too - no more lagging. A trot is much more challenging than a walk: the motion is quite different, and the rider must learn to adjust to the rhythm, which is very jarring when at first you cannot catch it, and get it exactly wrong. I enjoy the trot - it gives the rider something to do, and when done well, or at least not very wrong, the shared and co-ordinate motion gives the rider a sense of common purpose with the animal (also, it feels rather riskier than the walk : I always feel that risk improves a sport in much the same way that black pepper improves mashed potatoes, giving a more intense flavour to an experience which might otherwise be pleasant but somewhat bland - however, one should add pepper in a measured way, and never too much).
I found my horse to be quite biddable, willing to be turned if I made my intention clear, although somewhat resistant to encouragement from crop and heels. However, all our mounts emonstrated a clear independence of thought where calls of nature were concerned, ignoring our signals to wander out of the circle, and stand meditatively while relieving themselves, with the novelty of the thing providing great entertainment for the class, and the luckless rider blushing at the shamelessness and conspicousness of it all. Thinking back on it, the horses, in their straightforward and practical approach to this, are perhaps thinking more clearly than their riders. As to the behaviour of the riders - in controlling the animals, we were very careless and ignorant - we would dig our heels in, out of nervousness and to get a better grip, and then become alarmed when our mounts obeyed the accidental command and would not stop. Or, we would hold the reins tightly, for support, and the poor beasts would slow up, only to receive a slap from a crop for idling!
The lesson ended as follows: the riders, or rather their horses, were summoned one by one to The centre of the circle, where the rider dismounted. We were called in reverse of our mounting order, so that last mounted was first off. Very disappointing, after the wait we had earlier, to have our rides cut short. The reason the trainer gave us was that the horses were creatures of habit, accustomed to following a familiar bottom, and, like the aristocracy, not fond of novelty in matters of precedence. Looking back on it now, I did not lose much by having the shortest ride - only strolling circuits, which are not very interesting. Here is hoping that in future lessons, we may perhaps mount up simultaneously and venture outside the shed - very pretty country thereabouts. Miss C and I hope to keep up our lessons, for the pleasure and the exercising, and the meeting with our friends. So, let's say, to be continued...