Am I imagining it, or did spring finally peek out at us last weekend? To celebrate the (slightly) warmer weather and much hoped for sunshine, I went for a hack in the countryside with an old school-friend.
Everyone I meet who doesn’t ride assumes that it is for ‘posh’ people who breakfast on swan, spend their days riding down commoners, then return home to sleep atop a vast mound of treasure like Smaug (voiced, incidentally, by the mouthpiece of the upper-middle classes, Benedict Cumberbatch). After eighteen years of riding at different stables and privately with friends, I can promise you that this isn’t the case. I’ve come across a few swanky establishments, where the yards are spotless, the equipment flashy and modern, and the horses worth a lot more than I reckon I would be if you put me up for sale. They’re professional, but they’re definitely not a typical model, and they don’t suit me. I grew up reading stories about old-fashioned, run-down stables, scruffy ponies who tried to kill you, hard work, sweat, mud and tears. It sounded like heaven to me.
Just look how much fun this lot are having! Three great books above.
The best pony-stories were written in the 1940s and 50s, when you could keep horses in gardens, and take them on adventures, and people with lots of money from fancy stables were spoilt and hateful (and always got their comeuppance). I was lucky enough to get a good technical grounding (riding round and round and round in circles surprisingly paid off), combined with a lot of private experience riding on my own or with friends. I’ve ridden horses through rivers and houses, cross country and in the show ring. Although I’ve fallen off literally hundreds of times (being dumped on my arse in nettles more often than not) I’ve got a knack for coping with naughty ponies. Bucking, rearing, bolting, scared of traffic, scared of cows; no problem. My school-friends and I used the refer to my old pony as The Creature, because he was very good at throwing people off. If he knew his way home he’d also leave you where you landed. Ours was a tempestuous relationship.
The above images are all by Thelwell, and if any of you are riders I can guarantee you’ll at least be smiling right now. They’re supposed to be satirical; but they look pretty accurate to me. This is what horse-riding is like, and it’s the best. It can be exhilarating and exciting, peaceful and therapeutic. Horses are beautiful animals, and looking after them is a joy, but galloping so fast the wind brings tears to your eyes, knowing there’s no way on earth you’re going to be able to stop until you run out of grass, or meandering through woodlands and across fields at dawn or as the sun sets, are pleasures beyond compare.
Riding in London is very expensive, though owning your own horse is a lot more so (unless you keep it in the field next to your house and are given it for free because it bucks everyone else off onto electric fencing. Ahem. Then it proves to be a lot cheaper). Luckily for me, my lovely friend Hannah lives in London, and (most importantly) she knows where horses are to be found. She picked me up from Stanmore tube station, right at the end of the Jubilee line. I was standing outside the station, feeling slightly self-conscious in my beige jodhpurs and leather riding boots as spotty youths stared at me, clearly perplexed, when I got a text saying: “I’m out the front, in a red postal van”. This was… unexpected… but what a sexy little van it is! Who needs a sports-car when you can have an ex-postal van?
This is not Hannah’s van, but it is what it looked like in my head (source)
We arrived at the strangely quiet stables (later discovering that everyone else had spent the last four hours trying – and failing – to persuade a horse to load onto a trailer) and it was perfect. I don’t know if the smell of a yard or stables can be universally appreciated, or if it simply evokes happy childhood memories for those who grew up riding, but to me it smells wonderful. The combination of hay, leather tack, mud, horses, oats and fresh air produces a sweet, earthy bouquet, that instantly makes me feel at home wherever I am. It would surely sell very well if it were bottled.
I don’t have any photos of us riding, because we were riding, but took a few on a brief (and very necessary) er, pit stop.
To the pub!
Samson and I on the left, Hannah and Padraig on the right. Rocking the sexy reflective gear.
Me trying – and failing – to compete with Samson’s forelock.
I admit that riding in the rain or the freezing cold is not much fun but, fingers crossed, spring has finally remembered that it has a job to do, and we’ll be getting some warmer weather soon. If it does, the best way to explore the countryside is on horseback.
Does anyone else ride in or near London? I’d be very interested to hear of your experiences!