I am nine years old and have been horse-riding for as many months. Sporting my favourite beige jodhpurs, thick magenta coat, pre-loved boots and cosy gloves, I skip down the path a little before ten on Sunday morning and through the gate to the yard. It’s early in the year but the sun shines gold on the bright stables. Reaching the office I study the whiteboard on which I find my name and, next to it in little capital letters: Ziggy.
I know of Ziggy; she’s notorious. An ex-games pony, the manager’s daughter’s old hunting partner before she was outgrown – Ziggy is strong and quick and at nine I ask my instructor, “Am I really ready for her?” “More than ready,” she replies. Half an hour later I am beaming because I have a new best friend in equine form.
I’m ten and it’s early summer; few lessons have passed since that winter Sunday morning when I haven’t been assigned Ziggy and my riding has gone from strength to strength. This Sunday morning my instructor lays out poles – a familiar exercise – and then, something new, she raises them slightly to a cross-pole fence. “You’ll be fine,” she reassures me with a smile. Zigs is fast, but she takes me over my first few jumps and many more after that.
Later that year my lessons change to a Thursday evening and I ride in the cold under the orange floodlights. Ziggy is different in the dark; she races, thrusting her head in the air so high I can see the whites of her eyes. My hands tighten and my knees clench and she gets quicker and quicker, throwing woodchips up behind us as we hurtle to the back of the ride. She never slips and I never fall, but I feel, for the first time in my life, out of control. For a while I work to change it but my lessons become tearful, fear-filled, and I decide to stop riding my beloved mare and gain my confidence back on other ponies.
I am eleven and a poster appears in the office: PONY CAMP, it reads. There are limited spaces and few ponies are available, but Ziggy is one of them, and the following week I slip into her familiar saddle and ride her again. I am back in love, safe and happy and where I should be. For three days that summer five other girls and I finally live the dream of owning our own horses. We ride twice a day – dressage, jumping, hacking, gymkhana – and on the last day we have a show. Ziggy wins me second place and, more precious, the Most Improved Rider rosette.
I am twelve and Mum has sent me on a treasure hunt around the house. The final envelope reveals that she has taken advantage of the riding school’s loaning scheme, and that Ziggy is entirely mine for four days a week for the whole summer holiday. She falls asleep when we groom her and puts up with soapy baths on warm days. We build jump courses and discover that when you count down three-two-one-go she leaps to canter without a moment’s hesitation. One day I forget to tighten her girth; when I ask for canter her saddle slips right underneath her stomach and suddenly I’m on the floor, but she stops right next to me and I swear there’s something like laughter in her eyes. That summer is one of the rainiest on record, but I only remember sunshine.
I am thirteen and begin volunteering at the riding school in the school holidays, and for ten hours a week during term-time. I will continue this routine for three years, and miss it more than anything when I’m forced to stop because of sixth-form commitments. I ride Ziggy less now – there are new horses and I am a little tall for her, but if she is scheduled for a lesson I try to be the one to tack her up and walk her out. She is always a little bit ‘mine’.
I am fourteen. If there’s an unfilled lesson slot us helpers are occasionally allowed to claim it in exchange for our work, and one Sunday Zigs is available. Halfway through the lesson my instructor pops up a jump. By the end it’s a combination – a 1’6″ to a 2′ with a stride in the middle – but I set our approach up all wrong. Ziggy takes a flying leap over the first fence and I don’t have time to regain my balance before the second, over which I lose my stirrups. Had she kept going I would probably have been fine, but instead she feels me slipping and stops in her tracks. I fall awkwardly, twisting my back, but I’m laughing before I hit the ground. Her face clearly asks, “What on earth are you doing down there?”
Later that year I end up, by some miracle, in a free private lesson with a new instructor. Ziggy is known for her speed, for holding her nose so high in the air you can touch her muzzle from her back, and recently I’ve been thinking that this can’t be comfortable or productive. By the end of the lesson my instructor has removed the flash noseband which holds her mouth tightly shut and the martingale which is supposed to prevent her from putting her head up. We only walk and she is quieter and going better than I’ve ever seen her. I don’t know it at the time, but that lesson foreshadows my move, two years later, to Nine Acres.
I am fifteen and something has damaged my confidence, though I’ve never been sure what. Jumping, in particular, scares me. But a new horse has arrived at the yard, and by strange coincidence he is only one letter away from my first equine love: his name is Tiggy. One day I am given the option of riding him or Ziggy, and for some reason I pick him instead of the horse I feel safer on than any other, and it changes my life. My confidence builds quickly, and I enjoy watching the proprietor’s daughter learn with Ziggy what she taught me at the same age.
I am sixteen and part-loaning a challenging gelding called Charlie. Every lesson I learned with Ziggy is suddenly critical to every minute I spend with him, but even then I’m still not quite ready. The day after my high school prom I log into Facebook and see an RIP tribute message to Tiggy, and I break down. The next time I visit the yard I know in my heart that it will never be the same for me, and when I start sixth form I make the heartbreaking decision to move away from the place, people and ponies which shaped me from the age of nine. That winter my computer hard-drive crashes, and I lose all my photographs from 2012 and before – everything from those five years at the riding school, those five years with Ziggy (those in this post are from my Facebook account).
I am seventeen and in my first lesson on a chestnut mare called Solly. Though she stands a full foot higher, she reminds me very much of Ziggy. Her way of going is very similar, but Solly and I – much like in that transformative lesson three years prior – only walk, with a snaffle bit and no martingale or flash. I start to understand how differently I could have ridden Zigs, but am grateful I ever had the opportunity to know her at all.
I am eighteen and work mornings at my new yard. In the fields one day I stumble across a new addition; later I find out his name, but his face is so startling similar to Ziggy’s tears prick my eyes. I know I will never see her again – but I also know she is safe, well, happy and so, so loved.
I am nineteen. It’s probably ten years to the month since I first rode Ziggy, and on Thursday night I received a very kind and thoughtful Facebook message carefully letting me know she had been put to sleep. I’ve known it was coming ever since I left the riding school, and I think it’s partly my physical distance and my personal emotional development which enabled me to respond calmly, but as time has passed and more tributes have appeared on social media it’s become more painful.
Ziggy was always my favourite, and in the last few days I have tried very hard to work out why she was so important. I understand now – at university, away from home, in this strange, liminal space just before real adult life begins – that she came to personify childhood. Not just mine, either, but for so many, and there is some comfort in the knowledge that her impact went far beyond me.
Ziggy was little and fast and tricky to understand at times, but she was a teacher. She taught her riders to be quiet and calm; she taught the importance of breathing and talking and listening. As I grew older, she just became pure, easy, unadulterated fun. But more than anything, she gave me a gift that nothing else ever had and ever could. Ziggy was my very first taste of true freedom, and I guess that now all I can do is be glad that she has been granted hers.
With thanks to staff and volunteers at Manor Farm Riding School for their kindness, compassion and endless love for their horses, which gave them the knowledge and courage to make the right decision for a much-loved friend to so many.