Monday 22nd – Sunday 28th September, 2014
There was only one day last week that I didn’t spend time at the yard. Saturday was our Pony Club Centre’s display at the local village celebration, and alongside my normal work we had to pack in a lot of rehearsals to prepare. I’ve written about the display, but spending the week with the horses got me thinking about how it all started. How, shortly before my ninth birthday, I’d started requesting riding lessons and my tearful joy when I got my wish. And although over the years I’ve had some incredible instructors, the real teachers have always been the horses themselves.
As such, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to the horses who have truly touched my life. There have been more than I can count, but after a lot of consideration I have narrowed my list down to just eight, who have provided me with some of the most important life lessons I will ever experience.
Sasha wasn’t the first pony I ever rode, but she was the first I truly adored. Sash was the steadiest and most gentle pony you could imagine; nobody was ever scared of her. She taught me how to feel safe on the back of a horse; she taught me control in the saddle, and how to have fun. She gave me aching legs and a smile. Seven years later I shed tears for her passing, but my memories of her kindness and honesty will stay with me always.
If I had to choose just one horse, the one who impacted my life more than any, it would be this mare. Bred for mounted games, she’s tried her hoof at almost anything you can imagine and is always successful. By the time I stopped riding her at fifteen or sixteen she was nothing but fun and hilarity with her ridiculous speed and excitement. But when I first climbed on her back at nine years old, with my legs only just long enough to fit around the saddle, I was shy and nervy. I didn’t know that moment would genuinely change my life, or that she would alter my personality forever.
I was always safe with Zigs, but I didn’t always know it. She taught me how to feel scared, and, eventually, how to control fear. Years of riding her gifted me with a quiet seat and gentle hands, because any tension would send her mad. With her I learned one of the most critical lessons I’ve ever been taught: that it’s okay, even fun, to feel out of control. She taught me to laugh at myself. She taught me to fly.
When I first arrived at Manor Farm, Midnight wore a grazing muzzle almost constantly because she would try to bite anyone who walked past her stable. Over time, she got better, and when the school came under new ownership in 2009 she was given a lot more focused attention by the elder daughter of the new owner. By the time I left seven-and-a-half years later, she was normally happy to be groomed and petted over the stable door.
But when it came to tacking up, she would often try to strike out. She particularly detested having her girth – the strap which runs under the horse’s belly, keeping the saddle on – tightened. Her tack fitted and she wasn’t in pain – instead, she was remembering a past pain. In the past, Midnight had been treated badly. She’d been tacked up roughly, and now every time we went to put her saddle on, she would remember that pain and involuntarily try to stop it from happening.
Time was invested into Midnight because she is the most amazing pony to ride. She’s responsive and comfortable and has the most incredible jumping ability. I was always happy to get on Middles, because she would always try her heart out. Considering her past, her willingness to forgive us astounded me. She taught me how frightening human beings can be to these animals, and how amazing it is that they trust us at all. From her, I learned that some pains never completely go away – and that’s okay, so long as we are surrounded with people who understand us.
Diva came to us in 2010, and we all fell in love with her instantly. She captured everyone’s hearts with her adorable face and cheeky nature. She was a youngster, just four years old, and we planned to bring her on slowly for eventual use in the riding school, but it was not to be. Diva was only with us for around nine months when on a wintery night in early 2011, she came down with a bad case of colic. She made it through the night, but it became clear during the following day that nothing could be done.
I had been out at the cinema with a friend when I arrived home to see that all the helpers at the riding school had changed their Facebook profile pictures to a photo of Diva, and I knew instantly what had happened. Although I never rode her, or really worked with her, she was the first horse we lost, and through her I learned what grief feels like.
I hadn’t been at my first riding school long when Charm arrived – I was maybe ten, and on a Pony Club activity evening I was instructed to groom him. He seemed enormous to me, but also very sad. His whole skeleton protruded from underneath his skin, and his head drooped. But despite the obvious neglect he had suffered, he let my small self tie him up and attempt to brush him. His deep eyes were totally trusting, and I loved him.
As I got older I began to ride him, but we never really connected. At first I was too small and he was too excitable- he would launch at jumps like he was in the Grand National. He frightened me. But once I grew enough that I could handle him, his age and past caught up with him and he became very arthritic.
Our manager took the decision to have him put down before the winter; she knew he wouldn’t make it through to the spring. It was hard, because he seemed happy to totter about the field, but as time passed I understood her decision. Now I completely respect it – it was far better for him than to suffer in the cold. Charm taught me what it means to put a horse’s welfare before my own feelings, as difficult as that can be.
Tiggy deserves his own blog post. When he arrived, my confidence had dropped so low that I was on the brink of stopping riding altogether. I had a nonsensical fear of jumping, so much so that I was afraid of trotting over a pole on the ground. I was getting ready for my lesson when it appeared that there had been a mix-up with the horses, and I was told I could either ride Ziggy, or the new pony, Tiggy. In a final burst of self-help, I chose him.
My instructor didn’t really teach me that lesson; instead she allowed me to get used to Tigs, to work him out for myself. And in those thirty minutes, I fell in love. A mere two weeks later I was jumping again, and it was all down to him. He pulled me out of the difficult and depressive state I was in as I entered Year 11. He gave me something to get up for in the morning. He was a new pair of ears to listen and understand; an escape from the turmoil of my mind. He showed me how to trust horses again. I truly felt that he saved me from myself, from those shadowy days when I was not truly myself.
It was the day after my Leavers’ Prom, and Tigs had been with us for a little over a year. I logged onto Facebook and saw an RIP message underneath his photo, and I fell apart, screaming. I was lost for a few days. The last time I rode him I fell off, and the only way I could get through it was by telling myself that he knew he was going, and that he was testing me to show me how far I’d come. A year earlier, a fall would have spelled the end of my riding – because of him, I hopped back on, laughing at myself, and tried again at the combination of jumps.
Tiggy taught me how an animal can mean more than the whole world. He taught me about trust and confidence, and he gave me happiness when I’d forgotten what that felt like. I learned what life-altering loss feels like, and I spill tears for him even now. His time in my life was so heartbreakingly short that sometimes it feels as though I dreamed every moment, but I know I am forever indebted to him – and I am grateful to have known him.
I was offered to share Charlie by one of my instructors in March of 2012. He was one of the most stunning horses I had ever seen – a chestnut roan Welsh cross – and is also the most challenging horse I have sat on to date. I only rode him for around six months, but they were beautiful. I learned with him never to give up on a horse even if things don’t go right. He taught me the importance of listening and reading what a horse is trying to tell you, and when to say “that’s enough for today, let’s try again another time”.
But because with him I was a little out of my depth, he showed me that I needed something more than what I was receiving at my current riding school. The place had meant the world to me for seven years, but Charlie told me that if I was ever going to be good enough for a horse like him, I needed to move on. Thanks to Charlie, and by extension the instructor who offered me the share, I found Nine Acres, for which I am hugely grateful, though not a day goes by when I don’t miss my old riding school and the wonderful people and horses I met there.
‘Solly’ is short for Solero, or ‘Sunshine’ in Spanish. I can’t think of a more accurate name for this mare, for she makes my life sunnier on even the surliest days. I first rode her after I’d been riding maybe a year at Nine Acres, perhaps a little longer, and I struggled with her. But despite our difficulties I felt she was something special and this summer I have been proven completely right. At Nine Acres, Hazel took me right back to basics – how to sit in the saddle. Even after almost two years she’ll ask me to shift my left ribcage or alter the position of one side of my pelvis at least a couple of times a lesson.
It wasn’t until I rode Solly, though, that the importance of all of this came into play. With her, I’ve learned the importance of straightness – she is so sensitive that the tiniest amount of extra weight on one side will alter her movement entirely. She’s shown me the irrelevance of the word ‘outline’, because a horse will work in such a way entirely naturally if the rider is correct. With her, I have learned to take everything that all of these horses have taught me and shift it to fit an individual.
But I have also learned that it’s okay to give your heart to more than one horse. This mare means the world to me and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to ride her in the way I do, as often as I do.
Of course, there are countless more I could have mentioned here. Perhaps one day I’ll write a post about them, too, or on my wonderful first riding school where so many of these horses live(d). It’s strange to think that of the eight horses I have written about four have sadly passed away, and of the four that are left I will probably never see three of them again.
But even if I don’t – even if I never rub their foreheads or kiss their muzzles or pat their necks – I will never forget the lessons each one has taught me. Horses, more than anything in the world, have made me who I am. They are so intertwined with my identity that a life without them is unimaginable – and I wonder which animals I’ll be able to add to my list after another nine years in the saddle.
Horses have taken me from shy to outgoing. They’ve taught me how to be in control, and how to let it go. They’ve given me freedom and routine; work and friendship; love and loss; grief and growth. They have made me who I am, and I am forever grateful.