Writing about horses: how to ride a small piano

HTWB thelwellIn the good old days when I weighed a mere 8 stone (112 lbs, 51 kilograms) I could ride smallish ponies without collapsing their lungs or creating S bends in their spines. This fact did not go unnoticed by my Belgian godmother, a successful national showjumper, riding instructor and livery yard owner who still lives just outside Brussels, Belgium.

Having taught me to jump on some of her horses, all of whom were the size of elephants but beautifully schooled, she decided that I was the perfect choice to help teach her young son’s pony a few manners.

This pony, unlike his larger stable mates, was not well schooled and like many vertically challenged individuals (at 12.2hh or approximately 1.20 metres) had all the social skills of a cornered rat.

He was the image of a “Thelwell” pony, of indeterminate breeding but with a strong hint of Shetland, a sturdy brown Belgian beer barrel with a piano leg at four lower extremities and a profusion of grey mane and tail that was the texture of electrical cabling. His name, for reasons I do not know, was Moké, pronounced “mock-eh.”  Prophetic, it was.

On this particular warm sunny afternoon my godmother first of all led out the horse her husband was to ride. This was a vast chestnut gelding of a shade under 18hh, with the build of a Woolly Mammoth rather than the Norman origins he laid claim to.

Il a tué deux hommes,” (he has killed two men) my godmother had cheerfully quipped when I’d asked why she had been able to buy him so cheaply. In fact I rode that horse myself several times and he was the original gentle giant, but as my godmother said, “c’est extraordinaire, il adore les femmes.

Happily for “moi” I thought as Yves, her husband, now hunted round for a stepladder to gain access to the saddle and I wondered just how “extraordinaire” this hack was going to be.

Next came “Hombré,” an evil bright bay TB stallion whom my godmother had owned since he was a weanling and who could jump like a stag, although it was usually over straw bales, spectators and the occasional car in his haste to leave the showjumping ring in pursuit of a mare in season.

She handed the brute’s reins to me so she could fetch the pony, and I waited anxiously as Hombré sank his fangs repeatedly into my forearm. Anything, I thought, would be better than him.

After a few moments along came my godmother leading Moké who jogged along beside her looking like a very fat lady running for a bus in high-heeled shoes.

Voici,” my godmother grinned as we exchanged reins.  Hombré and Moké pulled faces at each other while I struggled to tighten the girth at waist height and pull and tug on the stirrup leathers to find the last hole. Even then I could tell that once I was in the saddle my knees would be perilously close to my chin.

Eventually we were all airborne and set off into the magnificent “Bois de la Cambre,” a huge deciduous forest that wraps itself possessively around the southern side of Brussels.

Allons-y au petit galop?” called my godmother from up front on Hombré, who was already cantering sideways anyway.

D’accord,” I shouted back, wondering what on earth canter would be like on this hairy, heaving piano of a pony. With the two horses ambling on ahead in slow canter, to give Moké his due he had to gallop to keep up.

And then there was a fluttering paper bag in a bush.

“Merde!” said Moké, leaping sideways.

Not Moké, but a pretty good likeness...

Not Moké, but a pretty good likeness…except the real Moké was a lot fatter…

“Sh*t!” shouted “moi,” ever the translator and sliding slowly out of the saddle on the nearside before meeting the ground with a soft bump. Fortunately my right foot had come out of the stirrup, but my left foot was still stuck firm.

The two horses had pulled up to walk, but old Moké was still jogging to keep up. And with each tiny stride my shoulders bumped gently and painlessly along the leaf-strewn ground. The reins having been wrenched out of my grasp, I was helpless.

And so were my godmother and her husband up ahead, turning around in their saddles to watch.

Helpless with laughter, that is.

In fact they both nearly joined me on the ground, clutching the pommels of their saddles in an attempt to stay on while screaming with mirth at the sight of a capable teenage rider being dragged along mercilessly by a 12.2hh pony-with-attitude.

Once they controlled their giggles they turned around and boxed Moké in so I could wriggle out of the one remaining stirrup, brush myself off and remount. And later during that school holiday, I actually did manage to teach him some manners and get him going quite nicely. Little b*stard.

None of us ever forgot that of all my godmother’s own horses and liveries that I rode over the years – must have run into dozens – old Moké, at 12.2hh, was the only one who ever managed to unseat me.

Masochist that I am, however, I came to love the little so-and-so … and cried heartbroken tears when, at the age of nearly 40, he finally had to be sent to that great piano storeroom in the sky.

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Image credit: with many thanks for the ongoing permission to share this Thelwell drawing (above right) to the Estate of the late Norman Thelwell. Please be sure to visit the website and check out details of their latest releases and activities.




  1. That really is a beautifully written article. I’m starting to write more myself as I’m putting together a site for reviewing womens riding boots. (This may lead on to other horse riding products in the future but riding boots were always such a tough decision and it was difficult to get impartial advice on the subject.

    • Hi Stacey! Tell you what … if you send me a pair of your riding boots (UK size 7, USA size 10) I could review them on here for you! 😉

      • Hi Suzan,
        If I were selling them myself I would. I actually review riding boots myself on my website. It’s a new site and I’ve written a ton of reviews so far but need to get them all online. I have posted the first one though for Baroque dress boots which are a good entry level dress boot. The link was below the last post (and maybe this one?)
        I would love to know what you think to the review and writing?

        • Hi again Stacey

          I think the review is OK, but I’m wondering whether you had professional advice about the site’s home page? I can understand that your keywords are “riding boots” but with the changes Google has made recently to SEO, you may find that you have overdone those words.

          Check back here with us tomorrow (Tuesday June 11th) as there will be an article by an SEO expert bringing us up to date on what Google expects of us now.

          (I like those Baroque boots, by the way – cheap, too! However I usually prefer ankle boots with leather gaiters…more comfortable and more flexibility around the ankle.)

          • Hi Suzan,
            I’ll be sure to check back tomorrow. I follow some people on seo and copywriting but there is a lot of conflicting information, even when your reading the most up to date opinions. The strategy for the reviews is to deliver high quality information to my readers. Whilst I’d rather not focus too much on seo, I would like the site to be found for relevant terms such as riding boots and alike. I do look forward to reading your article tomorrow.

            They are a great boot. I know what you mean about lower boots but the tall boots are typically required for dressage.

          • Yes, Google’s criteria are changing. My feeling is that you have somewhat over done the “riding boots” keywords on your home page and now, with the new algorithms etc., that may be regarded as “keyword stuffing” which is an SEO no-no. I’ll see if I can find out the real “skinnny” on this as it stands with the new criteria and get back to you if I manage to dig up anything useful.

            Re: boots … I only ever competed in unaffiliated dressage here in the UK so we could wear ankle boots and gaiters!