Autumn is waving hello in my Streatham home: leaves are starting to turn (not literally in my home, the windows aren’t that bad), and then to let out a delicious crunch and crisp when you walk across them. Horse chestnuts are lining the pavements, and the sun is taking those tentative steps to golden – when it’s not tipping down with rain, that is.
It’s nearly two years since I took up riding again, having idly googled a riding school in Wimbledon that I remembered my aunt taking me to when I was 15. What a serendipitous search it was! Ridgway Stables advertised a “get back into riding day” for nervous riders. I duly coughed up, and was taken for the most glorious ride around Wimbedon Common with my instructor who regaled me with tales of the A-list actors who’d all fibbed about being able to ride on their resumes, and who she and Ridgway Stables had had to get up to speed pdq.
I had plenty of spare weekdays then, and I started hacking on Jay, a lovely black mare with a pathological horror of plastic bags and flapping plastic (a nightmare when the Wimbledon Literary Festival set up a huge spooking white tent slap bang on our nearest corner).
When my friend Will ended up with spare days too, we started riding together: the Funemployment Riding Club saw Will picking up riding again with the easy confidence of an Argentinian polo player, and me slowly, slowly getting less nervous.
When I started working again, that was it for the weekday rides: Ridgway Stables’s weekends are packed with children from Wimbledon and the wider Merton area, so adults are kept to weekdays. I moved to Trent Park Equestrian Centre in north London, where I’ve been riding happily ever since.
I owe Ridgway Stables, and Julia, the manager, a huge debt of gratitude. So I was shocked to hear that it is due to close this autumn. The landlords have decided they have a different use in mind for the land. It would be a huge loss to the community, as Ridgway particularly specialises in affordable riding on Wimbledon Common for children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to enjoy the huge thrill of cantering in such a stunning space.
The Ridgway Stables Facebook page has been inundated with memories from riders, past and present, many of whom learned to ride there as children and now own and show their own horses. There is a petition to keep the stables open, and I, along with all those who have benefitted from Ridgway over the years, would be hugely grateful of your support and your signature:
“The treasured site dates back to the 1800s and has been a riding school for many years and run by Julia for the past 35 years. Ridgway Stables has always aimed at being an affordable place to ride and a place of learning for children. The lease cannot be renewed as the private landlord will not consent to it and therefore Ridgway Stables is due to close in September 2017 and the horses and ponies re-homed.”
I was particularly thinking of Ridgway Stables a few days after learning of the threat against it. I’d been out for a jolly dinner with my husband, and got back to find a brown A4 envelope in the kitchen. In the window, I could see, “Congratulations on your recent success in your BHS exams.”
I let out a gasp that a pantomime dame would reject as overly theatrical, and ripped open the envelope to find four certificates, and two declaring that I, Kat Brown, had passed my BHS Stage 1 exams with distinction in each.
At that point, the pantomime dame gave up entirely, and I burst into tears and had to have two brandies to celebrate and calm down. I was SO THRILLED! I had a couple of niggles in my exam (I’ve somehow got through the last two years without cantering circles, so when asked to canter a 20m half-circle to the back of the ride, my mathematically inept brain basically gave up the ghost and rode from E to B instead) so I was convinced I’d have to take a section or two again – but to have passed! And with distinction! I never even managed that in my music grades (although arguably the scales of training are way more exciting than musical scales).
As I stood there, second brandy in one hand, dreams of exactly how ornate a frame I’d put them in for the downstairs loo, I felt truly proud of myself. I have been glued to my revision books for the past six weeks, much to the bewilderment of my husband, who gave me a test one night and kept asking, “But why does EVERYTHING make horses die?” and “what is turning out and why would you want to do it?” I feel like I’ve worked really hard, and done the legwork to pass.
A few days after my exam, I treated myself to a day of jumping at my stables. After some work on the canter track, and showjumping (I was so thrilled at jumping a 75cm oxer that I grinned like an Enid Blyton character and promptly forgot to jump the last fence of the course), I had my first go at cross country. I’ve really wanted to have a proper lesson at this so that I might feel comfortable trying a fence or two out hunting this season (ahahahahaha, this will never happen, I’ll spend half an hour galloping downhill and remember that’s quite exciting enough to be getting on with!).
And I LOVED it! Oh my word – it turns out that cantering up and down banks and hills is INCREDIBLY fun! That said, as much as I was concentrating on my line and good positive forward movement (well, the horse’s), each time I approached a roll-top or the brushes, a tiny voice in my head would go ‘Gosh, this looks solid. You’ll probably die!” or “Gosh, this looks high. You’ll probably die!” and then my horse would go ‘AHA! You’re not on board anymore!” and run out.
However I have been incredibly lucky with my instructor – Célia took our Stage 1 course, and she has been the most brilliant help with jumping too. “I wouldn’t let you jump anything, or ride anything, I didn’t think you were capable of,” she said while I was busy wurbling with worry. So I went round again, and we FLEW over those brushes (literally, hooray for having got used to letting my reins slide out hunting!) and we TOTALLY GOT OVER that roll-top (my word, I really need to do some canter circle work because my turns are aaawwwfullll) and I ended the day on a complete high. You do the work, you get to bomb around a field flying over fences like a real boy.
The last few months especially have made me feel like Pinocchio, so, so nearly on the way to becoming a Real Boy. I’m getting to do all the things I dreamed of as a child, and with less of the terror, fear and worry that plagued me last year. And it all begins with Ridgway Stables and that nervous riders course. I hope that you will join me in raising a glass to Julia and her team – and sign the petition to save the stables for future generations.