When I was a girl, I had several friends who were into horses, so their games would revolve around booking lessons and discussions of horses’ names, what they looked like alongside talk of tools for grooming and mucking out. It was all a bit lost on me, but I played along. Riding sounded fun. My older siblings had been on pony-trekking holidays with my parents while we little ones enjoyed a bucket and spade vacation.
My mother had been evacuated to Exmoor during WWII, where she lived on a farm and rode a pony to school. It sounded idyllic. She sometimes got out of maths class by telling the teacher that her horse had become untethered so she needed to go outside to catch it! When she was 21 my mother took a trip to America and stayed on a ‘Dude’ ranch, where she rode with real cowboys, hence riding held a romantic appeal.
The year I turned 14 my parents booked a pony trekking holiday in Northumberland for me and my younger brother. We had lessons at a local riding school in advance, and I was kitted out with new riding jodhpurs, boots and hard hat. I was raring to go. It had seemed a little dull and walking round an indoor riding school, but there’s a lot to learn. Sitting on a horse’s back feels relatively unstable, compounded by the realisation you’re seated on a living creature which can be spooked or excited by anything.
On the first full day of our holiday we went directly to the stables after breakfast to enlist for pony trekking. I was curious to observe my mother, who usually wore dresses and smart shoes, in this new habitat. Having discussed our levels of experience, it was arranged we’d all go out that afternoon on quiet horses.
My father couldn’t ride as a child due to having horse and hay allergies, but as a grown up he’d taken to it and had a ‘natural seat’. It’s important to get your horse ready properly. Adjust the saddle so that it fits the horse firmly and can’t swivel round, the rider is in big trouble if this happens. Horses can be tricky, expanding their ribs during this tightening process, so the riding instructor showed us the correct technique then checked our saddles and tack before we set off.
Northumberland is a beautiful county, the last before Scotland. It’s wild and hilly with dry stone walls and quiet country roads that become corridors of greenery in the summer. Sitting high on the back of a handsome horse, my spirits soared as I took in the scenery from my new viewpoint. I could look over hedges and walls and was moving slowly enough to take in the panoramic beauty. After a while I got the hang of holding my back straight but letting my hips sway with the undulating movement of the horse’s stride. My mother did, indeed, look comfortable on horseback and my brother and I were a bit giggly with the novelty of the experience.
These horses were calm and steady, picked more for their biddable natures than their jumping abilities. They probably walked these ‘trekking’ routes routinely most days in the holiday season, giving families gentle tours of the area. My horse, however, wanted to eat plenty of long grass and buttercups along our route. Our leader instructed me to discourage her, to squeeze or dig my heels into the rib area to keep her moving along. Despite feeling more confident in my ‘seat’ I found this a hard thing to do.
My mother got a little irritable with me. She explained that it’s hard work to clean the ‘bit’ if a horse eats while wearing it, because all the grass and stuff gets pasted around it. She expected me to stop the horse grazing, I could not. This horse was stubborn, the walk was a bit dull to her and snacking en route was a perk to which she felt entitled!
We carried on, with my horse dawdling and munching, to the point that our trek leader rode beside me so she could pull the horses head away from the greenery to keep her moving. The reins are traditionally the way to steer a horse, a little pull on the left side and the horse should turn left, a tug on the right and the horse turns in that direction. Your horse may suddenly pull its head down, or toss it, so if you’re holding too tightly, you can be pulled out of your seat and fall off the horse, something I didn’t want to happen.
We came to a river, it wasn’t deep and our trek leader wanted the horses to wade through to the other side. The horses stood in a queue so that they could descend the bank with due care. My horse saw a golden opportunity to take another nibble at the long grass while we waited. I couldn’t spur her on, so I tried pulling her head away from temptation. I shortened the reins and pulled to the left.
On our left was a foot bridge, so my horse thought I wanted to use it. Her shod hooves made an echoing clip clop sound as she plodded up the steep incline of the bridge. Surprise rendered me powerless to stop her. It felt very high up on the bridge, both exhilarating and scary to be above the heads of my family whose horses were still crossing the river. I could not stop laughing as they stared and called out to me.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Are you afraid to get your feet wet?”
Once I’d crossed the bridge and arrived safely on the other bank, I wiped tears of mirth from my eyes and tried to explain why my horse and I’d taken a different route.
Years later my own children showed an interest in riding. I arranged for them to have lessons before booking our own holiday to Northumberland. We stayed in cottages on a farm which offered pony trekking amongst its activities. We enjoyed two vacations there, making happy memories which I treasure alongside my earlier ones.
This post is linked to an initiative being hosted on Mrs Fever’s blog which encourages writing in a memoir style, the prompt this time was Ride. Follow the link to see what others have submitted but be aware hers is a site accepts adult content.