I’ve been revising stable management, which has in turn involved a lot of procrastination on riding forums. And I’ve noticed a lot of chat around what constitutes a novice in horse riding. Whether it’s how you’re categorised for hacking, or eventing, or if you’re planning a share, there seem to be enough definitions to fill a pub with arguments for a full week. And most of the horse share or loan adverts I see in London specify “no novices” – so what is one?
One message board argued that a novice was someone who couldn’t groom, feed and school a horse, or hack out on their own. Another said it was someone who’d never ridden in a non-riding school environment before. Another said it was if you weren’t happy working without stirrups at canter (who *ever* throws a party about this, really…)
I’m pretty okay with embracing my novice “whatever-that-means” status because it’s generally safer. There is no point me going “Hang on my good man, I think you’ll find I’m totally an intermediate?” because I’d rather keep the horse safe and, ideally, me.
But it can be difficult to advance without your own horse, and if you are not putting your lessons to work in a different environment. With that in mind, I went off to Kent for my first experience of trying a horse to share; a sweet-natured chap who sounded incredibly jolly, and whose owner asked plenty of questions of me too, and didn’t put the phone down screaming.
I don’t have a car – if I need one in London I tend to hire – but I really could have done with one when Google Maps directions told me it was going to take me well over an hour and a half to get to the yard from Streatham. Luckily, this part of Kent still just about counted as the Greater London area, which meant three hours plus of return travel barely cost me seven quid on my Oyster card. Thanks TfL!
I’d been running through in my head what to do when I arrived with his owner, but the horse, a gorgeous chestnut Shire, had already been tied up by some others on the yard. His headcollar was very loose. Oh…maybe they like it hanging off his head, I thought, and didn’t correct it, thinking maybe it’s some weird Kentish tradition.
“His headcollar is far too loose,” said his owner, promptly retying it, while I kicked myself for having all the self-starting attitude of a pampered French aristocrat. I’ll do better on grooming, I thought, and set about gathering brushes.
He had a lovely short coat, which in my world of clipped, stable-kept horses now shouts “BODY BRUSH” at me. “Should I use one,” I asked.
“Just the dandy,” said his owner, “a body will take all the oils out of his coat which you really need in a grass-kept horse.”
I kicked myself with the other leg – this is literally on page 1 of my Stage 1 book – and nearly fell over when it came to picking out his feet. He was leaning enormously, and I just couldn’t pick them up. You are six feet one! I said to myself. Find some bloody upper body strength! His owner, who was definitely not six feet one, moved him over with a Jedi mind trick that I promptly stored for next time and had his feet gleaming in minutes. If I’d done this last year, I would have nearly cried at having got something wrong, but now I know better. Learning stuff – and going out in different places – is great.
The next week I came back to try him out hacking. We let all the horses in for their breakfast, and it was like being in Spain, as inquisitive noses trotted in from paddocks and into their stables and in search of food bowls, including a fairy-sized one for a baby miniature Shetland. This time, I limited my screw-ups to taking an actual ice age to brush out his mane and tail, and forgetting to brush behind his ears around the head collar.
“Riding school people always tend to forget one thing so don’t worry,” said the girl I was riding out with – this said in a kind way, I promise – while I worked on picking out his hooves properly (result!), and apologised in advance for breaking his vast body into a million tiny pieces (Katherine, please stop doing this). Then we went out for a hack and had a glorious romp through Kent, while I collected scratches from pretty much every fruit bush in the county – on that note, if anyone can identify a solid, small yellow fruit hanging from a tree (not an apple, jokers, I’m from London, not the moon) please tweet me.
Hacking out was fun, but it made me realise how much goes into planning your route and feeling comfortable with where you can up the pace, and where other riders might come past. So I guess you just go out with others more, and then maybe do a little trial on your own? How do you go from hacking out with others, to doing it by yourself? Practise makes perfect? As with the yellow fruit, answers on a postcard please. Also, if anyone has one of those calming syringes, do they work on humans?
There’s one definition of novice which I remember very fondly. It comes from that seminal equestrian film, The Sound of Music. Fraulein Maria is a novice: someone who is training; serving an apprenticeship. There is a huge joy in learning new things, and putting old and new knowledge in to practise, and even more so when you get to reap the benefits by being more competent, or turning old curtains into exciting outfits for a family of mad children.
When I was a runner, I was never first, tenth, or even hundredth, but I was there, working at it, and loving it. Being someone who was learning didn’t stop me from running races or taking part. Provided I wanted to be, and I put the hours in, I could still join in with a wonderful sport and give it my all. I have a fistful of medals that say “I wasn’t the best, but I was there” – one of them is for the London Marathon.
One day, if I have a horse of my own, I think I’d like to do a Wobbleberry challenge. It’s nice to have an aim, right? But first, it’s time to carry on climbing mountains, fording streams and following every rainbow until I remember: however short their coat is, it’s always a dandy if they’re living out.