The months since last we spoke have been spent in the sort of montage more usually seen in an upbeat romcom, only with more jodhpurs and bruises, and fewer “awesome dresses for Prom”. I had a divine trip to Cheltenham with the Jockey Club, in which I made no bets other than that I would lose my train ticket home if I so much as looked a bookie in the eye, and in April, I took Vegas, the marvellous hireling I’d ridden last season, to Frensham with The Solicitor for our first sponsored ride with jumping. And oh my good lord, it was AMAZING.
I absolutely loved it (see first pic!) and was mildly terrified (my FACE in that second pic!) in equal measure – but it was just incredible. I felt like a golden god on the greatest horse in the world, and I was even more cheered to hear Mudchute Equestrian Centre being name checked in the prize giving – shout out to my London riders!
Back in London, my BHS Stage 2 course ended in May and I realised I was completely not ready for the exams, let alone to get my passport signed off – a new invention since I took my blissfully passport-free Stage 1 exam last summer, that means you basically have to pass each part of the exam before you even take it. This is fine if you’re on a working yard, but when you’re juggling your coursework with a full-time job, it means coughing up more money for further lessons, and a kind assessor to come and check that you can plait/load/lunge and the whole other shebang.
Safe to say, I cancelled all non-horsey expenditure, and nearly screamed on finally doing a respectable (still not signed-off, mind you) tail plait.
My mane plaiting is SIGNIFICANTLY improved since my poor friend Rebel ended up looking like he had had golf balls surgically attached to his head – shortly after Cheltenham, I did my first one day event at the stables I train at, and to my unending delight, Rebel and I came THIRD! (Adults section, if you’d counted the teenagers I would have come somewhere near a pile of dust).
Our dressage was only marginally rusty, our showjumping was clear and fabulous, and our arena cross country could only have been better had I actually paid attention to what we were doing instead of going into a sort of joyous trance and beaming so wide that we nearly missed the route to one of our jumps. Thank you Rebel, you utter sainted legend.
This more than made up for a disastrous jumping lesson in which another horsey pal, of known opinions, took wildly against some otherwise unobtrusive fillers, and I ended up being wiped out against the wall. The bruising went down fairly quickly, but I’ve still got a scar on my knee – and the indignity of being eliminated from the lesson after having come off twice. Oh well. What doesn’t kill you, or leave lasting bruising, makes you stronger, right!
I also needed to fit in my Ride Safe exam, the new incarnation of what was previously the Riding and Road Safety exam, but after taking the course (££££!), and making yet more very expensive phone calls with my debit card to book the exam (££££!) I was feeling pretty confident. This inevitably meant that I failed it absolutely abysmally. Seriously – I wasn’t even allowed to proceed to the riding on the road part. I was mortified. How the hell was I going to break the news to my debit card?! Instead, I wept copiously on my Instagram Story, to the extent that one of my dearest old colleagues from my GLAMOUR days still feels bad for me now.
The next day, I got my s**t together, had a jumping lesson…. and got a tattoo. Now, here I should probably say that I had already *booked* the tattoo (in times of crisis I turn to food rather than ink) but still: the incredibly delicate beautiful piece that came out afterwards was lovelier than I could ever have imagined.
It was, of course, a horse.
Not just because I love horses, but as a sort of “onwards!” symbol, and a mark of being in the middle of so many boring, hard things, some to do with my brain, and some to do with my body. I absolutely love this tattoo. I feel about it rather like I did when I got my cat: I wish I had known how wonderful it would be so that I could have done it years ago.
I really wish I had that sort of absolute confidence about my jumping. Jumping has been something I have been almost obsessed with since I started riding again. I have been working on it every week and have managed to overcome an awful lot of random fears – sharp turns made me burst into tears, for a good while. In fact, my response to most panic is to burst into tears, which is a whole other world of mortifying, but also probably why I’m on quite a hefty dose of antidepressants!
But in the past few months, I’ve been having the odd cross country lesson with some great mates on hirelings, and when on occasion my horse has run out, I just have absolutely not known what to do. Do you wallop them? (I always worry with crops that you’ll end up giving your horse a quick whack and then they’ll have bolted and bucked their way to Essex.) Because then what happens, is that I start to SEE the run out, or the stop, before it even happens, and even if I keep my leg on, my confidence runs out like sand from a sieve.
On Saturday, I went xc schooling again, and ended up in absolute frustrated floods because of yet more run outs. I knew that if our instructor could get on, that she would be able to get the horse to snap out of it, but understandably, he didn’t respect me. And that REALLY made me feel dreadful. I’ve been putting the legwork in, reading all I can, doing all I can, and still I’m a mimsy old rider who bursts into tears and gets panicked.
It’s days later, and I know perfectly well I’m being hard on myself – having actually been quite reasonable on myself at the time! But dear lord, it’s just simmering away. What do I do? How do I really improve? I’m riding loads of different horses, and trying to build everything up, and yet somehow, my anxiety and panic just sneaks through the gaps. I need to get used to riding faster, and more often. And do some hacking! But that’s the thing about being an urban equestrian; when you’re having to pay to ride every time you go, it’s very difficult to ever have just a “gentle” ride, or take the pressure off: because really, every ride does have a certain amount of pressure attached in the form of pound signs.
So last week, I decided to treat myself with some different pound signs and at the Festival of Hunting, I ordered a beautiful navy blue hunt coat from the Hunting Stock Market, using some money my grandma left me. We aren’t much of a riding family, or so I always thought, until Grandma told me that her mother, whose wedding ring I was married with, used to hunt in Dorset. How marvellous! My great-grandmother might have been one of life’s natural horsewomen – who knows. I know I’m certainly not, but when I get it right, it feels wonderful. And even when I get it wrong, it’s a darn sight better than being anywhere else!
“Horses are like therapy, and riding’s the best therapy,” said a new pal while we were watching the working classes at the Festival of Hunting. “Whether it’s work, a dodgy marriage, or something else, everyone is using riding to help with something.”
And it’s so endlessly true! And actually, looking back over pictures from the last few months as I’ve been putting this column together, I am overwhelmed by lovely times I’ve had: jolly hacks, ranging from sunny to totally rainsoaked; great lessons; endless pony patting; and great outings with friends. I am very lucky. So why focus only on the stuff that doesn’t go brilliantly!
My next challenge? I’ve booked up some sponsored rides, a hunting newcomers weekend with the Royal Artillery, more lessons, more plaiting, and hopefully some hacking. But honestly, my challenge is the same as it always is – to chill the F out. And if you’ve got any advice on how to help with that, I’d love to hear it, because I’m still finding it the hardest challenge of all. But GOD everything is so exciting!