Sunday, 1 May 2011

32. Risky Riding

...conformation and temperament of the driving horse is imperative, should one wish to compete in speed trials or showing classes alike. Most horses take to the harness well, nevertheless, some breeds are more inclined towards it; take the Welsh (all sections) and the Irish Connemara for instance-

‘...and...CANTER! Inside-leg-on-the-girth, outside-leg-behind!’

Abigail looked up from the well thumbed pages of one of her favourite vintage horse books and frowned. Rosie and her best friend Sarah were holding their own miniature riding lesson on the floor of the office and their less than subtle impressions of their instructor were beginning to get tiresome.

‘Would you two mind keeping the noise down a little? Your mum will be here to pick you up soon Rosie so you’ll need to put those horses away before she arrives. As for you Sarah, shouldn’t you be getting ready for your lesson? The others will be here in a couple of minutes!’

The girls responded with a dull, monotonous ‘Yes Abigail’ before continuing to canter their ponies across the floor, leaping over hoof-pick fences and crop-handle trotting poles.

Rolling her eyes exasperatedly, the yard owner turned back to her book.

-Both are attractive and easy to handle and also make excellent riding ponies for young children. Admirers of the more romanticised aspects of horsemanship should look no further than the Romany Horse, or ‘Gypsy Cobs’ as they are often known-

‘...Keep him going round the corner, leg on, leg ON!’

Abigail lowered the book to the desk slowly and tutted loudly. The two girls looked round, eyes twinkling with glee. They knew the best ways to wind her up and had mastered the art over a period of months. There was no malice in it, just a very childish sense of humour.

Scowling to herself, she attempted to get back into the text.

-Colour and conformation vary, yet a good specimen cannot be faulted in terms of disposition and willingness to work. The Friesian horse, originally bred in the Friesland province of the Netherlands...-

‘Abigail! We’re here! Who are we riding?!’

Fiona Moffet and Heather Spalding, two of the yard’s newest clients, materialised at her desk, enthusiastic grins plastered on their faces.

All chances of settling down to finish the chapter gone, the yard owner stood up and turned her attention to her unruly charges.

‘Oh, very well. Heather, you’re on Tully again this week. He’s been out on a lot of hacks recently so he’ll need someone to wake him up a bit.’

The taller girl nodded and smiled to herself. She didn’t like going all that fast either so she and Tully were well matched.

‘Sarah, Sarah can you hear me down there? I’ve put you back on Tegan as the two of you seemed to hit it off last time and as for you Fi...hmm’

She eyed the girl up critically for a moment. Although Fiona had only been riding at the yard for a couple of months, she was very impressed with her attitude. Twice she’d fallen off Banksy when he spooked at a crisp packet someone had stupidly left lying on the yard and again, out on a hack when he bolted at the sight of an unexpected cat in the hedge. Both times she’d got straight back on and even jumped him a couple of minutes later on one occasion. She was very good with some of the more challenging horses and therefore she felt the time was right to try her out on their most unpredictable schoolie...

‘I’ve put you down for Lady, how does that sound? She’s a bit of a handful but I think you’ll manage her just fine.’

The girl nodded eagerly and handed over the payment for her lesson which Abigail took gratefully and headed off in search of the moneybox, which, like many things in the office, had gone walkabout again.

‘Good luck!’ said Heather, sniggering behind her hand. ‘It’s been nice knowing you!’

‘Eh? What are you on about?’ Fi replied quickly. ‘There’s nothing wrong with Lady!’

‘Ha, you’ve never ridden her though, have you? She’s fine most of the time, y’know, with the beginners, but as soon as someone with a bit of experience gets on she chucks them off in minutes!’

The younger girl frowned and put her hat on. ‘Yeah, well, whatever. I think she’ll be fine!’

It was a quiet afternoon at the yard and as there were no bookings for later on, there was no rush to get the horses ready, which gave the young riders plenty of time to groom, polish, fuss and tack up their mounts. Because she was so small, Sarah needed help to put Tegan’s saddle on; a task that fell to Sally, who had come to the yard for work experience and then continued on thereafter.

Fi couldn’t stop smiling as she led the petulant bay mare out of her stable and tied her up outside it. Ever since she’d arrived at the yard she’d wanted to ride her, show the others that although she was a cantankerous old grump at times, she was a brilliant little pony at heart, with loads of potential.

She picked out her feet, groomed her and tacked her up, all the while planning what to say to Heather when she finished the lesson on a high.

She was a good friend, she thought, as she struggled to hold onto the hind foot that the mare was trying determinedly to pull out of her grasp; but had a mean streak that rose to the surface occasionally – mainly out of jealousy she thought, as riding didn’t come as naturally to her as it did to Fiona.

Now fully tacked and ready to go, the pair headed off to the indoor arena, followed at a much slower place by Heather and Tully. Sarah had gone on ahead with Sally and Tegan as with the extra help, she hadn’t taken nearly as long to manage.

‘What’s the most important thing to remember with Tully, Heather?’

‘Err...keep the leg on and don’t let him stop?’

Abigail nodded and smiled at her. ‘Exactly. He’s a grand horse, but he does have a bit of a lazy side to him! Anyway, your girth seems tight enough to me, on you go, out onto the track.’

Heather did as she was bid and nudged the grey forward into a long striding walk, out towards the far side of the arena.


‘Yes Sarah?’

‘Can you check my girth too? I can’t reach the buckles!’

‘Haha, yes, alright.’

‘Would you like to try a jump on her today? You managed very well on Kestral the other week.’

‘Oooh, yes please!’

‘Ok then, I’ll make sure they’re nice and low to begin with – she’ll probably just step over them.’

She turned to the rest of the ride who had filed into order along the track, Tully and Heather at the front followed by Fi and Lady.

‘Right then ladies, I thought we’d warm them up to begin with and do some pole work to get their legs stretching up and over before I lay out a couple of jumps. When you reach ‘A’, Heather, put Tully into trot and carry on til the end of the ride, then it’ll be your turn Fi, and so on.’

After a couple of minutes, it became apparent that David, who had taught them the week before when Abigail was busy, hadn’t been reminding them about their positions in the saddle.

‘Heather! Stop slouching! You’re all over the place, no wonder Tully isn’t going forward!’

As she spoke, the gelding ploughed his way through the trotting poles she’d so carefully laid out in the sand and she clapped a hand to her forehead in despair.

’Right everyone, that’s it! Drop your reins and hold your arms out to the sides.’

Awwww, what?!

‘Nooo, Abigail, why?’

‘Don’t worry about the horses, they won’t do anything – this will help you to sit up straight and have much better balance...come on, arms out!’

‘Keep them walking on, don’t let them stop!’

Despite the mutinous grumbling and aching arms, the girls did start to see an improvement after a couple of minutes and it wasn’t long before Abigail let them pick up their reins again. This time round she raised the poles and watched proudly as all three trotted over them perfectly.

They had a canter on each rein before jumping – Tully took several attempts to strike off on the right leg and Lady nearly crashed into him when it was her turn, she was going so fast.

Well sat!’ exclaimed Abigail. ‘She nearly had you off at that corner!’

Fi laughed and leaned forward to ruffle the mare’s unruly mane. ‘Nah, it’ll take more than a little canter to get me off!’ Almost as soon as she said it, she knew it had been a mistake. She felt Lady’s back tense beneath her and within seconds, the little mare’s hind end exploded with a barrage of whirling kicks and bucks.

No sooner had her feet hit the ground than she was off again, rearing and twisting, arching her back and throwing her head around. Fi clung on tightly but she knew she was losing her grip...

She hit the ground with a muffled thmp and a quiet cry of pain. Lady cantered to the back of the ride where she was caught by a very shocked looking Heather who had leapt from Tully as soon as she saw her friend start to slip off. Abigail sprinted over and knelt down to examine her.

‘Are you alright Fi? Where does it hurt?’

Fiona shrugged and got to her feet delicately, brushing sand from her clothes as she did so.

‘Don’t worry about me, I’m ok. Where’s Lady?’

‘Oh she’s fine – well done for catching her Heather, thank you – but are you sure you’re all right?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry! I just want to get back on.’

‘Hmm, alright then, just take it easy and here, have this’ She handed her a crop from the pile by the gate. ‘You might not need it but its handy to have if she starts acting up again.’

True to her word, Fi didn’t push her luck and stayed in trot for the remainder of the lesson. After Lady realised that acting up earned her a smack and a good telling off, she soon started to listen and quietened down. At Sarah’s excited request, Abigail laid out a row of blocks for them to jump. It was low enough for Tegan to pop over without any trouble, yet high enough that she actually bothered to jump it.

‘If she wants to take it in canter just let her, she often prefers it that way. Right, give her a wee kick on and jumping! Oh well done, VERY nice jump!’

Sarah trotted to the back of the ride, beaming. Tegan never put a foot wrong and whenever she rode her she felt like nothing could ever go wrong. A far cry from the other welshie in the lesson...

At Heather’s request, she and Tully just went for another canter instead of jumping. She didn’t really like it all that much and, thought Abigail, as her position wasn’t very good at the moment, it was probably for the best. Finally, and with only a few minutes of the lesson left, it was Fi’s turn to jump.

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ said Abigail, who looked worried. ‘She’s in one of those moods today and I don’t want you coming off again!’
‘I won’t!’ said Fi, grinning widely. ‘I know I said that last time but I know what to expect now!’

Her instructor rolled her eyes and waved her forward. ‘Oh go on then, just keep your leg on and don’t let her take the mickey!’

The girl smiled to herself. She had no intention of falling off this time. Yes, Lady was a challenge to ride – much stronger than she’d been expecting, but she knew what made her tick now and jumping, as far as she could tell from watching the others ride her, was something that she usually enjoyed. They broke into a fast and choppy trot down the short side and Lady threw her head up at the sight of the jump. Fi closed her fingers tighter around the reins and brought her head down, legging her on at the same time to keep the impulsion going. As they turned towards the fence, the head went back up, as did the pace.

Less than a stride out, she slammed on the brakes and Fi hurtled forward onto her neck as the mare skidded to a stop, hocks well beneath her.

‘Argh, git ON!’

After all the nonsense earlier, she wasn’t standing for this and as soon as she’d regained her balance, gave her a short, sharp smack with her crop.

Lady appeared not to take any notice for a moment before jumping from a standstill and landing on an almost perfect canter stride.

‘Oh WELL DONE! Not the tidiest of jumps I’ll grant you but very well done for getting her over it! Do you want to try again, see if she’ll do it properly this time? I’ll put up some guide poles so she doesn’t try to run out’

She really needn’t have asked. Fi circled her in trot and made the transition to canter just as she reached the next corner. This time Lady didn’t fight the contact and strode towards the fence, perfectly calm.

Abigail gave her a little round of applause as she cleared it well the second time and motioned for the others to walk around on a long rein to cool off for five minutes before calling them all back into the centre to finish off.

‘You all did very well today, I’m really pleased with your progress. Sarah, your cantering has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of weeks and your jumping was top notch. I think you’ll be jumping spreads and doubles before you know it!’
The little girl beamed and flung her arms around the little chestnut, who flicked her ears up in surprise.

‘Heather, you know yourself the problem areas – we discussed them last time – but you’re definitely improving! I’ll see if I can get you up on Giovanni next week – don’t worry, I know he’s considerably bigger than you’re used to but he’s a lot more forward going than Tully and I think a change in pony’ll do you good. You’re a lot better than you think you are, just give yourself a chance!’

She turned to Fiona, who sat on Lady with all the confidence of one who felt totally at ease with their mount. She noticed too, how relaxed the mare was, standing quietly, resting a hind leg.

‘As for you Fi, well, something tells me this won’t be the last time I put you on Lady! To be perfectly honest, after that fall I wasn’t expecting you to get back on her. When she bucks, it’s frightening and I wouldn’t have blamed you if you never wanted to so much as look at her again but I’m very glad you did. You’ve definitely got the knack for the difficult ones, I’ll give you that!’

Fiona laughed and ruffled Lady’s mane gently. ‘Ahh, she’s not difficult, she just likes to have her own way, that’s all!’

‘Haha, well you reached a very good compromise then! Anyway, off you get everyone. Run up your stirrups and put them and their tack away please and Fi, you’ll need to come and see me in the office afterwards so we can fill out the accident book.’

Untacking didn’t normally take long, but by now, half the yard had heard of Fi’s miraculous ‘sticky bum’ and she kept getting interrupted by kids coming over to ask her what had happened.

Izzy wandered over to congratulate her as she gave Lady a quick groom to rid her of the loose hair, dust and sweat she’d accumulated during the lesson.

‘...sounds like you coped with her nicely! She’s not an easy pony to ride at all, is she?’

‘I don’t know, you do well on her don’t you?’

‘I used to, I’m almost too big for her now so I only ride her on hacks and things or the odd show if I’m lucky. I thought she might have to be sold as I was pretty much the only one who liked riding her so I’m really glad that you love her as much as I do’

Fi smiled. ‘Yeah, she’s a bit of a grump but she’s my grump!’

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