Living the Dream, an Equestrian Journey

For me when I think about “living the dream” I can’t help but let my mind wander to horses.  Nothing surpasses the love I have for my family of course, but I feel so fortunate to have a “cherry on the top.”  Through all the different hats I’ve had in life, different jobs, living in different places, buying and selling houses and living out of suitcases, from the first chance I had I got back into horses and horses are family.  At least this is what I keep telling my long suffering husband who is deeply allergic to them!

I was a typical Pony Club kid living in the sticks.  Baler twine holding up my jodhpurs and hand-me-down kit three sizes too big.  I loved it.  I always had ponies on loan and we kept them in and out of the back garden, rented paddocks, mate’s farms, wherever we could squeeze them in.  I used to hack bareback in my school uniform to a local scrub of field we rented, hide my bridal under a water butt and then run down a track to the lane where I could flag down the school bus.  I loved the smell of horses on my hands and hated school!

I joined the local Pony Club, which back in the 80’s was a fabulous Thelwell style gang led by a lovely lady called Bunty Crump and her second in command Irma Froggat who was always flanked by two gigantic Labradors with a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth barking at us to “get cracking.”  It was fantastic.

As soon as I had left Uni and got myself settled into grown-up life with a house and a job my mind immediately turned to horses, horses, horses. I jumped straight in as I have a habit of doing. It doesn’t always work out well.  The first horse I bought was wild and wildly unsuitable for a beginner like me. I had to admit that whatever skills I had at Pony Club were long, long gone.  Happily, a friend of the yard I stabled at swapped my volatile bay beauty for a far more suitable cob.  I was in my mid-twenties and had literally gone back to Pony Clubbing; puddling about on a 14.1hh mare called Chocolate or affectionately known as Lottie.  I started from the beginning hacking about on my new steed in the Cheshire suburbs hitting the local village pubs where I had a half of lager and she had a bag of crisps.  My equestrian journey had begun again.

Eventually I landed a job in London and moved South.  By then I had met my husband to be and we moved in together.  I rented my house out, (which was now in the Midlands having sold up in Manchester) and moved lock, stock and pony to Bedfordshire. My new yard was very exciting.  Lottie and I turned up scruffy as usual and feeling quite shy.  The yard manager was a professional show jumper.  I watched her sailing over fences higher than my shoulders and felt more than a little bit lacking.  Gulp!  I hadn’t really done much more than potter about on bridleways and skip over the odd cross pole.  Driving away I turned to my other half and said I don’t think I can stay here, they are going to think I’m rubbish.  I don’t know what I am doing and I don’t fit in.  Sometimes the best advice comes during these throw away conversations.  Advice that sticks.  He said: but you want to ride well don’t you and you love it.  If you really want to do something and do it well, surround yourself by the best and get on with it. 

So there we were at the very beginning, Lottie and I.  It was a long, long time ago now.  I was horribly unfit.  I remember now the alarm I felt when I first tried to jump a course of tiny show jumps.  I had gone past the “lung burning” stage into the “going to throw up” stage that comes with sudden exertion when you are woefully out of shape.  I was plagued with sciatica as my hips and legs adjusted to life in the saddle, but my floppy core was slowly firming up and my balance and steadiness improved.

All the hard work and endless practicing paid off.  Within 12 months we were competing BSJA, jumping 1.05m classes and causing some hilarity.  Me as a ‘grown-up’ on a little pony, the smallest in the field.  We did fine and I started to train fastidiously every week having regular lessons and buying a truck that could tow the old Ifor Williams my Mum used when we were kids.  My lungs no longer burned.  I started to make plans and wanted to compete more.  I realised I needed a bigger steed as I was asking too much of my lovely girl.

Eventually I met my next horse.  Lottie went to a lovely local family for their youngest daughter and thankfully we kept in touch.  Ghost was a 15hh Irish sports horse.  He looked like a moomin.  He was more pink than grey and had a habit of bronching (or fits of bucking).  I instantly loved him and snapped him up.  I announced in my usual “fools rush in” fashion that I had always wanted to go eventing and to that end I had booked into the Milton Keynes Three Day Event, which was a brilliant amateur affair with roads and tracks and a steeplechase section, everything a day dreaming equestrian could ever want.  I had only had him a week or so and the event was in six weeks time.  I hadn’t ridden cross country or performed a dressage test since my Pony Club days!  There was an awful lot of practice to squeeze in.

In the end the event was fantastic.  We got around everything clear and I was overjoyed.  We had a cricket score of time penalties, but I didn’t care. I had meandered from fence to fence drinking in how wonderful it was to finally be out on a course doing real life eventing.  I was finally doing everything I had wanted to when I was a kid and Ghost was a super star.  My sister came with me.  We slept on sun loungers in the back of my trailer with a torch hanging from a piece of string and bottles of red wine and magazines.  Ghost was a dream and for a few years we jumped BSJA, eventer challenges and some British Eventing too if I remember rightly.  We even knocked out a few decent dressage tests.

Then the dragon arrived on the yard and everything changed again.  Lux the dragon, Lux the wild thing.  When he arrived, as a hopeless case, everyone dropped what they were doing and came to goggle at his antics.  Head in the air at one end, snorting, tail vertical like a flag, legs in all directions at once.  Having him on one end of a lunge line or lead rope was more like flying a kite than anything else.  He was out of Kannan and a jumping machine, but by all accounts also out of his mind.  I was fascinated.  He was on the yard either to sell or to see what would happen with him or just because no one wanted him.  The pro who had him didn’t like him. I’m not sure anyone knew what to do with him.  I certainly didn’t, but I liked him. 

Ghost had pulled a muscle after slipping in the field and was out of action for a while and I was missing riding.  One day it was suggested that I should ride Lux.  I said no way, I wasn’t brave enough.  I liked staying in one piece, but as the days went by I became more and more bored and more and more tempted.  One day it was set.  Fine, I would get on him, on a lead rope and that’s what I did.  I scrambled off at the end after my ginger walk around the school, triumphant to have survived.  It was enough to get me hooked.  I started riding him more and more and handling him in the stable where he would cower at the back and shake.  What had happened to this lovely creature to make him so terrified and wild? 

It took months.  I fell off him every week.  I fell off him so much I didn’t worry about it anymore.  It became normal.  He bolted and span so often that I got used to it and little by little he started to unwind and relax.  We bonded.  I didn’t really have an agenda; it was just a challenge and I love an underdog.  He was so magnificent and yet so troubled.  He was so tricky, but so lovely.  Once he stopped cowering he was so cuddly.  I couldn’t muck him out as he was constantly glued to my side with his nose in my pockets. 

Then I had an awful decision to make.  By then I was married and we wanted to start a family.  I still had Ghost and couldn’t afford to take on two horses.  Could I find a nice family for Ghost and buy Lux?  Could I buy Lux and risk riding him if I was pregnant?  No one would describe him as particularly safe.  Who would ride him for me if I did get pregnant, for sure there were no volunteers!  This was the chance of a lifetime and I couldn’t let him go. 

Again a throw away comment firmed my resolve.  I had never ridden a horse like Lux.  He has gears on gears.  As fast as the wind with a jump so huge I feel like I am going into orbit before coming back to the ground again.  The first time he bolted I was instantly terrified.  It was in the school at the yard and I’d never felt speed like it on a horse.  I clung on with no idea what to do.  When we finally drew up to a dancing halt an onlooker commented on my ashen, horrified face and said “… and you want to be an eventer“?!  It was like dropping a hammer.  I squared up in the saddle.  Yes, I did.  I shortened my reins again.  Yes, I really did.  I had to man up.  I did want to be an eventer, I had done since Pony Club and this horse could do it.  I was convinced.  Not many were to be honest.  He was such a frothing, dancing jumble of silliness in the early days.  He wouldn’t walk over a pole on the floor.  If a pigeon ruffled it’s feathers within a hundred yards he would disappear in a puff of chestnut hocks and white stockings.  However, and this is the thing, I believe he was slowly starting to realise that actually there really wasn’t anything to worry about in his life and genuinely he has so much power and so much form that everything is pretty easy for him.  It was crunch time.  I wanted to event him.  It had to be done.  We were going to the cross country course.  This would be the true test.  What would he do?  Could I stay on?!

As you can probably imagine he was a total clown.  I did manage to stay on and half way through our session the penny dropped.  He stopped planting his hooves and snorting at everything and I think started having a good time.  Jumping over things is easy for him.  I wasn’t pushing him.  All the fences were little and inviting.  He started flying over everything.  The next chapter had begun.

After that there was no stopping us.  We did as much British Eventing as I could afford to and some BSJA too.  We went to the Hickstead All England jumping show and won my most precious ever rosette that I stuck on the wall at home with a lovely picture of us jumping the famous Hickstead red planks.  We got around the Rockingham pre-novice which was full of glamour and glitz and were regulars at all my local BE haunts.  I loved it.  Yes of course there have been times that have been dreadful.  I’ve forgotten dressage tests right in the middle.  Missed entire fences on cross country courses, jumped show jumps (eek) backwards and in completely the wrong order.  I actually did that!  I’ve forgotten gloves, even my hat once!  Been eliminated and occasionally humiliated, but overall it’s all been very, very good.  Lux and I have been together almost ten years now and have learnt everything together from our first paddles in water jumps and first leaps over ditches to spending forever trying to convince him that a skinny arrow head brush is actually a jump and not an obstacle to dodge. 

Horses are very levelling.  They teach you so much.  Just when you think you have everything figured out they throw you a curve ball and remind you that you don’t know everything and aren’t necessarily in charge.  They have huge hearts, such power, so much grace.  I am so lucky to have this partner.  A family member once remarked about my horsey obsession, how much she wished she had something that she loved that much.  No matter how much I put in, I swear I get more out of it and even if I am not competing and not managing to ride much amidst the general chaos of life, when I do manage to get to the yard and saddle up, it is the ultimate way I can relax, work out and fill my heart with joy, all at the same time.

I now have two lovely young children and a very good natured Labrador (yes we are that family).  It hasn’t always been a walk in the park with a busy family, home, work and Lux as well, but sticking at things has paid off and I hope I can continue to hang on to him.  I realise how lucky I am and maybe just maybe I will get one more chance to ride at Hickstead.  One thing is for sure I’m looking forward to getting to the yard and giving my “other-other half” a big kiss.