Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Equine Initiation II: Escape from the shed

A few weeks and several lessons later, a much reduced group of friends set out for the riding school – just three of us. My companions were Miss C and a new acquaintance, Miss K. Leaving The City, we traveled together with Miss K at the wheel, which was an experience in itself (she covered about 15 miles with the hand brake engaged, was in the habit of making terrifying turns at the last possible second, and very fond of pot-holed verges). It was possibly the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures reaching the high twenties – quite unusual in these parts – and the humidity which had been stifling us for the last few days had finally given birth to huge clouds of thunderous aspect, moving over the country around the city like wandering mountains. The air was thick and heavy with heat and haze, with ominous (but beautfiul) tints of purple and orange beneath the clouds. I wondered about the horses, and whether they might not find lightening a little over-stimulating, and feel inclined to dance about on two legs.

Arriving at the riding school, we found only one other rider was to join us for the class, an older lady who claimed 35 years of riding experience. She was wearing a safety vest, which Miss C and Miss K did not find encouraging, with its suggestion of chest-crushing mishaps waiting around the corner. However, I was very pleased - we had spent all our previous lessons riding circuits inside a large shed, practicing walking and three types of trot – sitting, rising, and standing – and I was sure that our instructor would have to do something more stimulating for the sake of the veteran rider.

Sure enough, when all students were mounted, the instructor entered the arena on his own mount, then wheeled and let us out by the stables. My own horse, and Miss C’s, seized the opportunity to snatch hay from a bale as they passed: they knew we were green, and took advantage. We rode uphill, away from the shed and into the surrounding fields, in the warm, soft light of the evening sun. In the distance, the thunderheads trailed columns of torrential rain towards The City.

At first, my mount and I got on fairly well. However, the hedgerows of the fields we passed seemed to present him with innumerable temptations, and he began to snatch mouthfuls of this and that. Glancing back, our instructor told me that I mustn’t permit it, and told me to keep a tight rein. I tried to do so, but perhaps not firmly enough, as I had several times to tug very hard indeed on the reins – not so much suggesting as forcing my mount’s head up. After a while, I began to get wary, and anticipate this incidents: but my mount had another trick – he stopped. I tried the mild heel-kicks which I had used in the shed – but those had always been supplemented by the commands of the instructor, who is obeyed completely by all the horses, and were quite ineffectual.

Feeling rather foolish, I remained standing there until the instructor called us on from the next field, and told me to kick hard. I did this, rather gingerly at first, but eventually hard enough to leave bruises on a human opponent, and my mount managed first a brisk walk, and then even a brief trot. Moving on, our class managed a few trots between the longer walks, one along a hedgerow whose branches were low enough to force me to duck low over my horse’s head. The confidence and balance we had developed indoors stood to us rather well , although Miss C did not quite like the downhill stretches, where she felt I might slide straight down my mount’s neck – which really should not be a danger at all, if I make proper use of my stirrups. I rather like that she worries about my bones much more than I do. Another interesting point of the ride was when we passed some houses which backed onto the field we were circuiting: I had almost forgotten about the extra height being mounted gives one, as all my friends were similarly placed – but now I felt like a maharajah on an elephant, being able to look down over a bank and right into all the kitchens.

Adventure threatened to overtake us at one point, when I saw two pheasants, a cock and a hen, feeding only a little way off. I had been out shooting once, and thought they might take off in their feathery-rocket way and spook the horses: but they stayed put. A nice thing to see, and one which reminds me how little time I have been spending in the country.

Our excursion ended uneventfully enough, with all of us very pleased to have got outside, and all looking forward to the next session. I’m not really sure what to expect as we progress – perhaps we’ll learn to canter? My lesson on this ride: total control is very important – one must not allow any doubt to develop behind those big dark eyes about the respective roles of rider and mount. Mine would be quite happy to be given his head, in which case he would stand still, and eat till he burst. He is also quite happy to be commanded, and can step up smartly when he feels there is no room for dissension – but he finds a loose rein confusing, and it lets out the mischief in him. Rather like some people I’ve taught.

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