Saturday, 29 April 2017

The value of a horse

Zed is a field ornament these days.

A week after I bought him back into work he started to feel unsound on his left hind so I turned him away with a plan to reevaluate from month to month.

At first I felt pretty frustrated, but as the weeks have passed, so has the annoyance.

Now I enjoy my daily pilgrimage to his field to give him a scratch and count his legs. Sometimes I only stay for a couple of minutes, sometimes much longer. It depends what mood he's in. When he's busy eating and socialising, I keep it short. But some days he wants me to stay, and puts his head on my arm. I talk to him and fuss him and he yawns and pulls faces. 

Today he was asleep in the warm sun, flat out, with his friends, so I sat and scratched his neck till he fell asleep again.

That frustration from the early days of his semi-retirement came from a stew of complicated beliefs: that a horse should earn his keep, that a horse standing in the field is a waste of money, that sitting around waiting for him to mend was somehow making a mug of me.

And below all that, the belief that animals are here for us to be used as we please, and that their existence hangs in the balance of whether we deem them valuable.

Every now and again something horrific pops up on my FB timeline about what happens when humans treat animals as things. Usually slaughter methods verging on the psychopathic. When that happens my stomach turns and I usually cry and dwell on it for a long time: how can we do the things we do? 

But maybe these horrific acts are just at the far end of a spectrum that I myself am part of, when I think about my horse, and deduce that his value is less because he can't currently do what I want him to do?

Pretty sobering stuff! To forget that every living thing has its own validity, totally independent of our reckoning.

And I think it's pretty limited for me to say Zed is only useful if he's in work. If we love horses because of the qualities they encourage, then an injured horse actually has a lot to offer.

Patience, stoicism, generosity, and the chance to step back and think what really matters - these are all things I can dwell on while I watch my horse peacefully eating with his friends.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Princess Hetty on tour

Princess Hetty poised for action
I've been wondering for a while now where I fit into the equestrian world. 

Quite simply, I don't have a 'thing' that I do.

I'm not an eventer. Not a showjumper. Don't do endurance riding. Definitely don't dream of white boards. 

Nothing I do ends in rosettes or accolades - with an official Well Done for Doing this Particular Sport well. I don't compete in anything.

Morning snooze, interrupted
The day dawned fair, contrary to all forecasts
Nor am I a happy hacker. I don't buy and sell. No hunter am I. Not an instructor neither. 

Yet so much of my life revolves around where do I fit? 

The question had got me bamboozled, the faint waft of an identity crisis was blowing around the corners of my mind. 

Yesterday though, an answer started to rumble around.

Hetty's owner L, had suggested a trip to the Nicholson estate, which is several hundred acres of superb riding just outside of Durham.
That's a proper ass
There are four livery yards around the estate and about eight years ago I loaned two horses there, and have remained friends with some of the liveries ever since. 

Eight years seems like a lifetime, and I have some fond, though slightly strained, memories of hacking out on the estate on Sunday mornings. Grey-faced and feeble with alcohol poisoning we would clutch our reins like drowning men and fight desperately not to fall off or vomit down the sides of our noble steeds. 

Hetty deciding that Jack was not allowed to flirt with her.
Monday morning started with no such peril. We met at the yard at eight and by half nine I was riding from Low Cocken to the next yard up where I would re-meet up with L and her friend, P. L was going to ride P's youngster, Jack, and P was going to ride her own mare, April.

It's worth having a refresher on Hetty at this point, I think. I've been loaning her for a few weeks and have nothing but respect for her. She is safe, trustworthy and genuine: with a wicked, tangy topping of hoity-toity sassy sprinkles. If she were human she'd be the friend who guarantees you a brilliant time, but texts to make sure you got home safe. If she were a pizza, there'd be pineapple involved.

Prepare for a hellacious quantity of ear pics
So I had zero trepidation about riding her solo in a strange place, on a very busy road/bridge and then past cows, ducks, construction work and a raunchy pheasant threesome. 

Ears pricked, she trotted the two miles in minutes. The sun was shining stubbornly, against all weather predictions, and I had that gleeful adventure feeling. 

Once we'd collected L and P, we all set off into the estate, which is peppered with friendly cross country jumps. More than I remembered in fact, and all in good repair.

Our first was a log/rail thingy and Hetty gave it air to spare. Our next attempt was less impressive, and we ended up clambering over it. After another attempt, which ended in a refusal, we jumped it the other way and that seemed to go much better. I'm still having a bit of trouble with jamming my lower leg forward so I can't actually use it when I need to and I think it had her confused. 

splosh, sploshy, splish

Then we followed the river for a while, which was glorious, before heading for Cocken Tops, a set of sleepy, wooded hills that fence the estate on one side. Over the next couple of hours we did a lot of chatting, several gates, and some serious meandering. All of the horses were very well behaved and seemed happy to be out.

Hetty and me did some more jumps and although I wasn't terribly pretty, she looked after me and flew over everything like a pro. Before long we'd reached the perfect canter spot and all the horses strode out nicely. A few fields later and it was time for Hetty to turn for the trailer and L and P to go back to P's yard. 

Behold my awesomely crapola photography skills
Hetty called once when we turned off but after a few minutes she settled down and we walked dreamily back to the trailer while I pondered my existential identity crisis. 

This is the long-winded conclusion:

Hetty is, quite simply, a great horse. She is bombproof in traffic, can do any gate, jumps anything, goes first or last, can be ridden alone or in company, loads, fine with clippers, pleasant to do, the list goes on and on. Her answer to most everything is 'Yep, S' fine'.

Failing completely to convey the loveliness of the estate
Any horse person would have ten of her. She's safe for a novice and fun for a rider who wants to do more. 

Her owner has worked really hard, for several years, to help her be like this and stay like this. By which I mean, she is ridden most days, has lots of variety in her workload, and is expected to meet a high standard.

I am currently enjoying the fruits of this labour, and doing my best to keep up the good work. 

So my 'thing', my sport, my discipline, is that I'm going to try and be a Hetty. A bloody good allrounder, who doesn't lose much sleep about having a particular I Do This Badge. 

I'll keep having lessons, keep working through my BHS stages, and keep working hard. I'll keep schooling, jumping, and hacking, and if I get a chance to do other stuff, I'll give it a bash. I'll keep taking every ride I'm offered and I'll keep being enthusiastic. 

It's a bit woo-woo, and I don't think there'll be any rosettes involved, but it makes sense to me. 

I wanna be a Hetty Betty 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Skiddaw, from Dodd's wood

I 'skiddaw' you. Ugh, puns. 
Our day on Helvellyn stirred the pot, and we wanted more.

So yesterday we decided to go and build some blisters on Skiddaw, the sixth-highest summit in England (stats, in the second sentence, hold onto your hats folks). 

It's an incredibly popular walk, so we decided to try and come from the quieter side of Dodd's wood, and miss some of the crowds.

There's a picnic area with parking (£6.30 for the day) toilets (unholy aroma included in parking charge) and a cafe just off the 591, and then various routes wend up through the wood, with every few hundred feet giving an ever-more tantalising sniff of the views to come.

Which are classical Lake District - soaring, yet somehow homely and comforting. Especially on a belting sunny day like yesterday, with not a rain cloud in sight. 

practicing for catalogue work

We trickled slowly up the side of Carl Side, through heather, on turf paths, getting a little lost here and there and watching Nancy loll joyously about. At the summit of Carl Side we got our first taste of crowds, and stopped for cheese and biscuits.

It felt like we'd already climbed a few flights of stairs, but in front of us rose the weird moonscape of Skiddaw. A procession of ant-like anoraks trailing up to the top.

It looked horribly steep, almost vertical in places, but I was highly reassured by the army of small children gearing up to take it on. As a general rule, parents seem quite attached to their offspring, so I reasoned that it couldn't be all that difficult.

And nor was it. It was a sweaty slog, and my pride hurt when Holly and Ewan skipped past me like mountain goats in glittery sandals, but I sternly reminded myself not to be bitter towards the next generation. FYI - for anyone who thinks kids can't be separated from phones and iPads, I humbly disagree. There were bloody millions of them on Skiddaw, having a whale of a time. All is not lost. Possibly my favourite sighting was a man in a  thick bobble hat on the summit, with his young son (perhaps six, wearing penguin-themed millinery) nestled in his arm like a chick under a wing. They were deep in conversation, and having a quietly wonderful time. 

New boots did well on their first trip out. Here's to another ten years of this nonsense
At the top we set up our own little camp and marvelled at the blue skies and staggering views. Blencathra in front of us, Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water behind us, and a ring of fell mountains circling us.

summit selfie

Nancy was so tired she could only watch a lone crow hopping about, rather than run at it wowling like Old Yeller, which is her normal process. We restored her with dog biscuits and water and then sadly turned for home.

On a mountain side,with not a tree in sight, where did this stick come from?
Down is always worse than up, and our knees were screaming, but soon enough we were back at Carl Side tarn, where Nancy had a final cooling plodge. Due to my unusual map-reading abilities (Phil is a patient man, and that's all I'm going to say) we went back a slightly different route, but the upside was that we found the White Stones outcrop, which we'd missed on the way up.

White Stones
Once we were back on dry land we headed down to Keswick to meet up with our friends, who'd been camping there. Nancy immediately inserted herself in the middle of a tribe of children fighting over her while we had a catch up and a cuppa by the lake side. 

Lost, despite map
On the way home we ordered pizza. And ate the whole lot. And felt like we'd found the answers to life. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

John Smart Clinic: Day 2

Today it was time to get back in the ring for soiree number 2 of the John Smart Clinic. We were all on and warming up early and the air was all tingly with zip and anticipation.

With the exception of one mad canter transition (rider error, natch) Max was calm and focused from the off. And the real click came when John told me to keep breathing and I started singing through each exercise. Sure, everyone's ears bled, but if a bit of tuneless humming is what's needed - so be it. Whatever it takes, right? John did say we were on a fact-finding mission to find out how to get the job done so it was clearly his fault on some level. 

Going under cover as a 14.2hh 
We started with a refresher from the day before, which built into a bounce grid of four. Max is a big horse but he's so mentally sharp he didn't struggle at all and nipped in and out of it like a gymkhana pony. 

Everyone else was getting a lovely ride too - I think the two consecutive days really worked because it stays fresh but any nerves just kind of get burned away in the mix. 

Engage beast mode
We then tinkered with some fillers, before cantering into an upright with fillers and making sure we didn't over cook it and spoil the rhythm or stride. All the horses nailed it, and we finished with a straight bar on the diagonal on the right rein, switching onto the left rein and swooshing down the long side over an oxer. 

Our go wasn't perfect (he was on the wrong leg after the first, then changed in front, but remained disunited behind) but John said it was good that we'd ridden positively to the last jump. 

My riding instructor is always battling to get me to organise between jumps rather than just ploughing onwards so it's definitely my present Everest. Note to self, Keeping Calm and Carrying on is no good if your canter is dolly. 

Just doing flying changes, cos he can
Not that I'm complaining about having things to work on. The clinic was incredible fun. I had the cheesiest grin on my face pretty much all the way through and I didn't want it to end. So much so that I watched the next session and then volunteered to help move wings and rails for the one after. 

I was so grateful to get the ride on Max. His owner had him beautifully spruced and trailered him over which was just lovely, and very generous. I love all the horses I ride, but he really is something special - clever, keen and genuine and up to the rafters with ability. Fingers crossed I'll get to ride him again one day soon. 

For now I'll just watch the videos over and over and dream of jumping while I'm browsing the veg aisle in Lidl ....

Saturday, 1 April 2017

John Smart Clinic: Day 1

In all the excitement and enjoyment of riding Max, I sort of forgot we were getting ready for an actual date in the diary.

Remembered to turn up. Good start, Alison
Lynne, Max's owner, had suggested the John Smart clinic, hosted by Bishops Riding Club, a while back, which started the ball rolling. I was immediately keen to do it as I was a helper a couple of years ago and really liked John's teaching style and manner.

For background: John Smart has jumped on the British Nations Cup teams, been in the ribbons at all the major shows (you know, just HOYS and Hickstead and little things like that), and is also a Badders pro. 

But what I really like about him is that he's a true teacher, and the horse comes first. It doesn't matter if you're on a wobbly four-year-old or a seasoned showjumper, he knows how to glue horses and riders together so everyone is winning. 

We were in the first group this morning and it was a really nice gang of four, with lovely horses and smiley riders. John started by setting his stall out and explaining that he likes to get horses and riders feeling good and succeeding and then stitching those moments together to build confidence and momentum. 

After a warm up, Max started with his normal stratospheric enthusiasm as we can began working down a grid of canter poles and small straight bars. I swear I could almost feel him asking for bigger jumps! He was definitely enjoying the party.

But as usual he began to settle as the session went on, especially when I started breathing again, getting my mindset right, and negotiating the speed without pulling on his mouth.

This horse had his ears pricked all. the. time. I've never ridden such a keen bean!

It's hard to explain but sometimes my attitude is right, but I don't back it up with my body, and then sometimes it's the other way round. But this morning I felt (at times) that I could keep both right at the same time and get a really good go at the jumps. So I'd be able to feel the rhythm in my head, but also in my body, and be mentally relaxed but still sit up tall and not let my shoulders collapse. Does that make sense? Possibly...

Anyway, it was really helpful that Max could come in to the grid in a really steady (almost slow) trot, which gave me time to think and act, without there being any doubt that he would jump and jump well. He's very scopey and honest and that gives me a lot of head room to improve myself. Thank you, lovely horse. 

The lesson finished on a high note, with all of the riders and horses cantering into an upright and getting the stride correct. Dare I say it, John even seemed pleased! 

Looking forward to tomorrow.