A writer’s weekend with the wrong kind of horse power

small__7275334132When I was young, slim and foolish, there was this man I really wanted to impress. If I met him now I would dismiss him as pompous, bloated idiot with an IQ level in single figures but way back then all I could see was a handsome guy with a big grin and a Porsche. His parents had a weekend home in the New Forest in southern England, “just a little cottage” with about 20 acres and a mile of beach frontage and more en suite bathrooms than I’d had hot dinners in a week.

After we had driven down from London on a Friday night in the aforementioned Porsche and endured his father’s anecdotes about the insurance industry for three painful hours over dinner, I awoke the next day to a sunny morning and the sound of my dream man on the phone to the local riding school. “Right, she’s at least 5 foot 9 and is a very experienced rider. OK?”  Well, yes, I thought, I was a very experienced rider but at this time I hadn’t sat on a horse in over a year. However rather than argue the point I said nothing.

Off we roared in the Porsche shortly after breakfast to this large yard, where my steed was waiting for me, being held by two helpers while he pawed at the concrete and flames blasted from his nostrils. A big chestnut (sorrel) chap he was, at least 16.2hh of solid brickwork.

medium_4368399580“We’re getting him fit for hunting,” said one anxious helper, side-stepping neatly as he threatened to break all her toes. “He’s a bit sharp but you’ll enjoy him, as you’re an experienced rider.” I glanced nervously at the harsh gag bit and noticed that both helpers suspended themselves from his reins to keep him still as I hopped on board.

“You OK?” said the Big Grin as he came alongside me on his horse. The chestnut sat right back on his hocks in the run-up to a perfect “levade” and as we moved off he shot upwards and onwards like a vertical takeoff fighter jet.

“Fine,” I said through gritted teeth while I tried to bring him back off the forehand. But the chestnut wasn’t having any of this namby-pamby dressage nonsense. Hardened hunter that he was, he leaned the best part of a thousand kilograms on my hands and trotted on like an express train.

This being the appropriate time of the year in the New Forest, the heather was in bloom and I would have loved to appreciate its brushy charms, had it not been for the fact that as most of the ride was at full gallop the heather rushed past so fast it could have been dead grass for all I knew.

Eventually we happened upon a small wood where some of the trees had been cut down recently, and someone had the bright idea of jumping the horses over the logs.  When my turn came, the chestnut snorted with glee and everything in front of the saddle disappeared as we headed flat out towards the first log.

Well, I’d had enough by this time. Somewhere in the dim and distant past, I thought, someone must have taught the horse some manners and also how to go forward without sticking his nose between his knees, so having discarded my normally calm and easy-going riding style I gathered this hysterical elephant together and pulled him up from gallop.

small__4407325381“No, you don’t,” I snarled as he tossed his head and clamped his teeth around the bit.  I pushed him forward and caught the energy in my aching hands, then pointed him at a row of still-upright trees. I remembered my days of bending races in gymkhanas and pushed him on in trot weaving through about twenty young pines, turned him, then went back the same way.

I think it was Gerald Ford, the former US president, whom – it was said – couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time. Well, this chestnut horse couldn’t lean on my hands and bend around trees at the same time, so he came back off the forehand and settled down into a reasonable trot.

“Right,” I grunted. “Now let’s see what you can do.” Putting my leg on slightly I aimed him at the first log again and to my amazement managed to keep him in a half-respectable canter. We jumped. We cantered. We jumped. We cantered. And at the end of the course we stopped and actually managed halt and immobility, albeit only for a few seconds.

“That was good, Suze,” said the Big Grin, “but a bit slow, yah?” He kicked his horse on and galloped at the first log, which his horse jumped and then carried on at top speed in a straight line out of the wood and disappeared off towards the looming fields of heather. Cantering and turning obviously weren’t in the Big Grin’s horsey repertoire.

It took the Big Grin several minutes to pull up and come back to the pack. “Er, shall we get back to the yard now?” said the leader. “Yah,” I sniggered, beginning to wonder what on earth I was doing there. We hacked back to the yard and when I dropped off the chestnut in an exhausted heap, I noticed that my hands were bleeding. No surprises there.

Late that night after we had been out to dinner in the Porsche, the Big Grin let me drive it home. Now here was a thoroughbred steed! I nursed the car carefully around the narrow lanes and opened it up on the straights, thinking that all the agonising over horses had been worth it for this drive of a lifetime.

BOTB pony 4We arrived at the gates of the Big Grin’s parents’ “weekend cottage” and as I was in the driver’s seat I stopped and waited, expecting the Big Grin to get out, shoo away the New Forest ponies which were lurking around, and open the gate for me to drive the Porsche through.

But there he sat. Motionless.

“Er, Suze,” he said eventually, “do you think you could get rid of those ponies? You’re so good with horses, they won’t hurt you. I have a bit of a problem with them, actually.” His two rows of perfectly capped teeth Big Grinned sheepishly in the moonlight.

Now it’s worth mentioning here that New Forest ponies, though ostensibly wild, only ever give humans the odd little nip if they don’t like the brand of margarine you’ve used in the sandwiches they’re stealing from your picnic basket. Other than that, they’re as harmless as flies.

“Right,” I said, heaving myself out of the Porsche’s cockpit. I walked up to the gate and gazed at this gaggle of small ponies, saying “shoo, scoot,” clicking at them and clapping my hands. They trotted off, swishing their tails in resignation. I got back into the Porsche, drove it through, shut the gate behind us and resolved never to see the Big Grin again.

And I didn’t. Despite my youthful ignorance and fondness for Porsches, a 6’2” man afraid of a few little ponies was never going to be man enough for me.

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