Dawn Palethorpe was a leading showjumper in Britain in the 50s and 60s and wrote a wonderful book, My Horses & I, which I read as a child and never, ever tired of. I'm not sure if she's still alive but I certainly hope that she is, because when it comes to horses, I owe a lot to her.
|28 Mar 1956: Women of the British Equestrian Team practice at Windsor for the Olympics in Stockholm. (l-r) Dawn Palethorpe, Mary Marshall, Pat Smythe and Susan Whitehead. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive|
At the risk of sounding like Dawn Palethorpe, I rode four horses this morning for thirty minutes each. It was mostly trotting and cantering, and leg-yielding and bending, and most took a lot of leg (ie, it was hard work). None were mine. After I rode, I walked the dogs through the creek with the watercress beds and let them splash around for twenty minutes as a reward for waiting patiently in a stall (loose box) for two hours. I come to my desk now red-faced, sweaty, exhausted and exhilarated. I will eat a bowl of red lentil soup, I will shower and I will lock myself away in my hut for a few hours till the school run beckons, anon.
My friend is a trainer and has asked me for help with exercising. As my horse (Fred) is leased out, this creates a perfect situation Tuesday through Friday of each week. I get my exercise and L gets her horses ridden. The weekends are filled with customers who don't ride during the week, so I spend my Saturdays and Sundays at the barn watching my daughter's lessons or walking the dogs through the Little Tujunga Canyon taking pictures of oak trees and the subtle signs of fall in Los Angeles.
It has not escaped me that I am extremely lucky to have such a situation. Riding other people's horses makes you a much better rider. Unlike the dynamic with your own horse, you're not connected to them emotionally and so there is far less likelihood of pushing each other's buttons or pissing each other off and so the whole experience is more workmanlike, more zenlike, and surprisingly rewarding.
Aidan, the black horse, for example, is in my humble opinion, depressed. His owner doesn't come out to see him much (she is lovely but as a rider, a little timid) and I spend most days wondering how to cheer him up. He is lugubrious, rather like Eeyore (although he used to be a very smart show jumper). Today, after our flatwork, I took him into the big ring and let him gallop as fast as he wanted on a nice, loose rein. I swear when we walked back to the barn, he was swishing his tail from side to side in happiness, his ears pricked forward, and an unusual brightness in his eye.
Tux, another black horse, who used to do very well in the Children's hunters and medals, has an injury and so tends to be a little sore and rickety coming out. I've discovered if I walk him around the property once before we start to work, he feels 100% better, and his tendency to spook almost disappears.
Irish is my favorite. He must 18 hands and is a former showjumper. He is incredibly well-schooled (or "broke" as they call it here). He has a huge stride, goes forward into your hand, and listens to the tiniest aid from the leg. I adore him. I feel as if I can sit up on him and look pretty. It takes no work. Everyone else complains that he is uncomfortable at the canter, but because he's so huge, I've discovered that if I sit just slightly back in my saddle and move my legs back an inch, I can find a lovely comfortable spot to relax into. He'll turn on a dime in the tightest circle, do a flawless turn on the haunches, and has a huge extended trot, rather like a Lipizzaner.
Prince, who is a very 'fancy' children's show horse, was more of a challenge, but I love challenges. "You'll need a dressage whip and a large spur" said L. "He hates flatwork but totally cheers up when he sees the jumps. He'll go round like a miserable old school horse if you give him half a chance." Prince is gorgeous. He's 16.2, bay, goes around on the bit in a lovely frame, but will do his damnedest to be behind your leg (which irritates me more than anything). I didn't grow up riding lazy fat ponies for nothing, and after a somewhat furtive canter, he gave up, and went beautifully, using his hind end, even though he didn't want to. He is straight and sits perfectly between your hand and leg (and goes in a snaffle). It was a pleasure.
The mist was hanging over the hills in Little Tujunga Canyon this morning, like a foggy day in London when you walk through the Park and marvel at the grey elegance of everything. Mist makes everything very quiet. It's just you, and the sound of the horse breathing underneath you, and their hooves in the dirt. There are straight lines and serpentines and figure eights, and small circles, and large circles, and walking through the sycamores with just the buckle of the reins in your hand.
As I waited today for my next ride to be saddled up*, I stood with Fred in the cross ties. He has a way of standing that I've never seen in another horse, where he balances the tip of his back left hoof on the ground, rather as if he were about to spin his hat around on the end of his walking stick and break into some soft shoe. I put my face next to his muzzle and closed my eyes. I could feel his breath against my cheek, his soft skin next to mine, his breathing slowing down. I imagine the experience must be akin to visiting one's guru. Horse energy replenishes (this statement puts me on the same level as a crazy cat lady; I do realize the risk I'm taking here), brings you back to the real rhythm of the natural world, centers you. There's nothing like it.
*Riding in Southern California is incredibly spoiling. The horses are looked after by grooms who brush, clean and feed them, and tack them up ready for each ride. There are people I know, accomplished riders, who've never had to put on a bridle. A big shout-out to Juan and especially Caesar who taught me that "vapor" is the Spanish word for "steam."
Speaking of Dawn Palethorpe, this is marvelous: