Thursday, October 27, 2005

Goodbye to Sky

We rode again last night.  No jumping this time, but still some excitement, because I changed mounts.  Sky was a recalcitrant animal who’ll never canter without considerable encouragement from the crop – this time, he was given to a beginner, Miss D (the fact that he is almost completely oblivious to tugging, flogging and the heel is actually a virtue in his job, as it makes him very safe for new riders).  

My new mount was led out, taller than all the other horses, a white coat heavily flecked with gray. This was Gipsy, and straightaway even I, a novice, could feel the difference.  Gipsy is what our trainer calls “easy”. The merest hint is enough to steer her.  As for pace, a touch of the heel, and she broke into a faster trot than Sky or Flint will ever do.  Repeat this nudge, and she moves smoothly up to a canter that seems halfway to a gallop.  Stopping is just as effortless – just say the word.  The reins seemed almost superfluous.  Such a fast and easy ride I had - a completely different experience.  

The instructor had a word with me as I dismounted – “Ask for Gipsy in future. You’re able for her now.”

Moonlit Funeral

A Sequel to the Mouse Hunt

Early this morning, I checked our traps and found a very dead little mouse – even the tail board-stiff in rigor mortis.  The little creature had eaten perhaps a third of the chocolate button bait when the wire came down.  Burial was immediate in our weed-waste garden. An angry gale whipped the trees to frenzied motion, the pre-dawn interral lit by a waning moon that floated in a weirdly clear sky.  I felt like a murderer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Mouse Hunters

October now, with the hunter's moon half-full and, appropriately enough, we’ve been hunting. Our new home turned out to have existing residents – mice – and we don’t feel like sharing.

The first encounter came when we heard a suspicious rustling noise from a large box full of assorted foodstuffs in the middle of the kitchen. Careful listening convinced us that we had a visitor. Miss C’s plan was to remove the rodent, box and all, to the back garden - but as we began to move, a small brown streak erupted from my end, crossed the floor and shot to safety through a tiny gap at the base of cupboard – all before I could move an inch in pursuit. Round one to the mouse.

We were agreed: the beast must die. Off we went to the local hardware superstore, which turned out to stock only one type of mouse trap – a humane trap, based on tilting and a locking door. Deployed with temping morsels of chocolate and nuts, this trap was triggered twice in an evening, bringing us running to examine our catch - but turned out to be empty on both occasions. Foiled! Score: mice two, humans nil.

Back to the shops for more traps – two spine snappers. Before we could deploy them, a familiar sound issued from the still-packed food box. Our blood was up now, and we determined to end the battle on the spot – a hunt seems much more sporting that traps and poisons.

Miss C guarded the north end of the box with a steel-tipped walking pole, while I barricaded likely exit routes. Siege! Donning disposable gloves (germ proof, but probably not bite-proof), I began to empty the box, starting at the southern end. Out came jars, bottles, bags – all examined for stowaways – as I worked my way slowly along the box. Gradually, more and more of the floor of the box was visible: the available cover for our prey was shrinking fast, and the tension built with every item removed. Miss C was all for bashing away the remaining heap, in hopes of scoring a lucky hit. I vetoed the strike, partly on humane grounds – I believe in a clean kill – and partly because of the mess – I wanted a tidy victory, not airborne mouse guts.

Suddenly, as the tension became unbearable, with only a few spice jars remaining, our victim came into view, cowering at the end of the box. It stayed very still for a few seconds, black beady eyes all agog with fright. Just for a moment, I felt very sorry, and something of a bully: then, he broke and ran right towards me, making an amazing leap for his old escape route. No luck today – I had blocked it, and anyway, with the box empty, he couldn’t quite get the height. I grabbed for him as he tried the corner, and felt him squirm upwards, still climbing for freedom – he took a surprising degree of force to restrain. With a hand full of warm and wriggly mouse, a mousy Alcatraz was urgently needed. He was promptly decanted into a small pedal bin, which was immediately bagged and double bagged – no chances with this one. At last, score one for us!

What to do with the prisoner? Miss C had been all for execution, but I asked clemency for the defendant: could we not commute the sentence to transportation? The quality of Miss C’s mercy is not strained: it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the earth beneath – so we set out along the road to the city, to find a quiet new home for the prisoner. Some miles from home, I put the little bin down in the glare of Miss C’s headlights and opened the lid. A small whiskery face looked up at me for a moment, and then this tiny creature made an amazing standing jump, clearing the top of the bin, and ran for the verge, and freedom.

Back at the house, we set the spine-snappers anyway, just in case. This morning, neither had sprung - but our chocolate bait was gone.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

One small step - for a horse

Last night I returned to the riding school after a week off (when I did something even riskier and more exciting – but that is a story for another day).  It was nice to be back in the saddle, this time on Sky, who is usually much better behaved than my old mount, Flint.  The lesson began as usual with walking while the other students mounted up, then rising and sitting trots.  Next it was the standing trot, which I found quite awkward – we hadn’t been asked to do that for a while, and I wondered why it was being reintroduced.

On to the cantering, which didn’t go too badly - I felt very comfortable and secure in my seat.  However, although Sky did get up to a good speed, the canter never felt really smooth, and I had to be pretty stern (the crop got plenty of use – even my own leg did not escape unpunished).  When waiting for my turn to canter, I love to watch the two ponies (Pepe and Rambo). One is black and glossy all over, while the other is a very light tan, except for the mane, socks and tail which are all black.  Tiny but perfectly formed, seeing these ponies at a canter always puts me in mind of tales of fantasy and magic: they seem otherworldly, as if they had escaped from some story-book enchanted forest.

With ten minutes remaining,  our instructor did something unexpected: he pulled out a couple of plastic blocks – until now, we had only ever seen these used for mounting – and crossed them with poles (thick, smooth, wooden, painted red and white) to make two low jumps.  The ponies were let out, one at a time, to canter around and try the obstacles.  The rider must lean into the horse’s neck just before the jump is reached – this is partly to keep the rider steady as the horse leaps, and partly to control the timing – contrary to what one might expect, the rider decides when to jump, and not the horse.  At first, the ponies simply took the poles in their stride – but then, something wonderful happened, and all four of Pepe’s hooves left the ground together… the first jump!

The ponies turned in eventually, and you can imagine with what excited anticipation I waited to see if we older (but less experienced) riders would get our chance.  To our surprise, get it we did – we all turned out together, and took the jumps at a trot.  I’m afraid that my technique was not very good, and I could not seem to get the lean right.  Still, I didn’t fall, and we did clear those poles (mostly!).  

I hadn’t really expected to begin jump training so soon – in fact, I hadn’t any intention of learning to jump at all.  Now that we have begun, I’m very excited about it, and looking forward to the next lesson.  The adventure continues…

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Further Cantering

Riding again last night, and very good fun it was too. Recently, our instructor seems to have begun to take a much more active interest in us, and we are spending more and more time cantering, to the point where walking and trotting are only being used to rest the horses between times. Whereas we trot as a group, we canter singly or in pairs, so the instructor’s advice, observation and criticism are that much better for being concentrated on fewer riders – and those who are waiting for their turn get a chance to see techniques (good and bad) demonstrated.

The new pace seemed dangerously fast at first, but we are coming on so quickly, to the point where a canters seems hardly more daunting than a trot. When we first started to canter, we were a little nervous of it and didn’t feel at all secure in the saddle, bouncing and rolling with the sort poise and grace you might expect from a sack of potatoes. Now, although we won’t be winning dressage competitions any time soon, we are all pretty stable, making proper use of knees and stirrups. With better confidence and balance, we can use our crops and our knees to spur the horse on, and can hold the reins more “quietly” – we have stopped tugging on them for support (which would at best confuse the horse and at worst, hurt it).

The other difference is that we are all getting much better at controlling the animals for ourselves (when our lessons began, the horses had always to be told what to do by the instructor, who calls them by name and can control them by voice alone). Now, we can turn, start and stop, more or less at will, which is just as well, since our earlier frustration at the apparent obstinacy of the poor beasts tended to be relieved verbally and with some passion, and the animals were learning a most unsuitable vocabulary (unless they are thinking of becoming sailors or rappers, in which case they probably owe us for some very useful lessons!).

Why am I learning to ride? Apart from enjoying the lessons, I have vague intentions that Miss C and I will one day actually apply our riding skills in cowboy or gaucho country. Monument Valley, say, or the pampas, on horseback – now that would be something!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

In darkness, spinning

So, I went back to the cove on a very overcast evening.  No camera this time, because I was sure there would be no light to photograph with.  Regretting it now though – I passed a large and very dramatic fire in a field en route.  

The cove itself was dimly lit by the skyglow of a nearby town. The phosphorence was strong, green glows appearing spontaneously on the surface of the cove. At first I thought these were triggered by fish – but, searching with my torch, I found only drifting clumps of seaweed.

A fresh southerly breeze was sending small sloppy waves to slap about the walls of the cove – not the best for visibility.  However… I decided that I had driven too far to turn tail now, and slipped in.  I found myself gasping through my snorkel at the shock of the temperature – tried to put my face down, but recoiled from the chill – the water cold enough on this autumn night to cause actual pain.

At the mouth of the cove, on the eastern side, there lies a sea cave with a very exposed entrance.  I approached very cautiously indeed, keeping to the sides (although my gloved hands found few grips – sea caves are generally worn very smooth below the high-tide mark).  Deep water mitigated the surge and backwash, however, and it was quite easy to penetrate safely (in a controlled way) to a largish round chamber with a very high roof.  A narrow neck led from this to a small and very low-roofed inner chamber, where the sea was making a terrible din. The booming might lead an imaginative sort to imagine an imprisoned monster beating at the walls of his cell - but not me, obviously!  I decided that I liked having a reliable supply of air overhead, and retreated to open water.  Advice for readers: when entering a strange sea-cave, equate loud booming with very limited airspaces.  

About this time, I decided to try my theory that swimming fish would be easy to find, on account of the phosphorence.  Switching off my torch, my own mask could be seen to make sparks, but the water beyond was abyssal-black.  Hanging in the darkness and cold of a moonless night, I became severely disorientated with frightening speed.  Although completely stationary in a cruciform face-down float and moving only slightly with the passing waves, I began to feel that I was spinning and tumbling over and over,  the sensation strengthening with each second, and (imaginary) speed increasing.   At first, I thought that I might wait a while, and see what other phantoms my senses might produce when deprived of external references – but common sense prevailed, and I switched on my torch – and the “movement” stopped.

Cold, mildly disorientated and, yes, slightly daunted by my experiences, I retreated to the slipway – where I was very pleased to find the backup torch which had slipped off my wrist at an early stage of the swim.  Total sea-life spotted: one small crab, one fish.  The new torch is very powerful, but the beam is also very narrow.  Lessons: find that hood.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Iceland - The End

Conclusion of the Icelandic Saga

Awoke at Lanmanalauger. These huts are in a sheltered valley with hot springs, grass, sheep and scenery galore. Unfortunately, we were a little caught for time – but we did manage a short walk, which took us to the view below (old lava fields, etc.).

Leaving the hills, we passed several lakes and rivers – this is a very scenic area, well worth visiting, and accessible (from the west) to ordinary cars. See this previous post for an extraordinary panorama over one such lake.

We were sorry to have to leave, but we had a fantastic holiday and saw as much as we could reasonably have hoped to manage in the time. Very likely we’ll do more holidays like this one (self-driving in a jeep through wilderness). Do I recommend it? Absolutely, but you’ll need fairly deep pockets to do everything that we did.