A little girl's dream becomes mucking out the stable at 7am

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Name - Liz Goodliffe, 28

Day job: Science teacher at Aylsham high school, Norfolk

Other life: Dressage rider

"I was once a little girl with a vast collection of My Little Ponies. Every Christmas I'd ask for the real live version. I even took a degree in equestrian science at Wye College in Kent. These days I can happily report that I'm living my girlhood dream; my pony is a 10-year-old chestnut mare, called Lady. She's an alpha-female, she can be terribly stubborn, and she loves to show off. But we're the best of friends.

Lady and I live in a relatively rural part of Norfolk, and we compete together in local dressage competitions, in which you ride the horse through a series of set manoeuvres, and receive a score. Ideal stuff for a perfectionist like me. Still, owning a pony isn't quite the glamorous affair many little girls might imagine it to be. At least, not the way I do it.

First, Lady's home - Alby livery yard, near Norwich - is a DIY stable. That means I do all the work; the stable is just a bed-and-breakfast. Without the breakfast, really. I couldn't afford to keep Lady in the Ritz-for-horses; my current stable bill is already pound;100 a month, and then there's the small lorry I splashed out on to take her to competitions, as well as insurance, vet's bills, and entry fees for competitions. True, all horsey people are a bit mad, but I suspect I may be worse than most.

Juggling full-time teaching with full-time pony ownership is a fine art.

Every morning I'm up at 6.45am, into my riding gear, and straight down to the stables. I turn Lady out, which means I get her out of the stable and into a field, and then muck her out, which means shovelling poo. It's a 30-minute job, then I'm in the car and off to work, where I'm famous for walking around in muddy wellies. I'll perform a miraculous change in the style of Superwoman (in the toilets) and store my gear in the science prep room. There's an unmistakable smell of horse in that room. After school, I go back to the stables to feed Lady. And then the fun bit: I try to ride her three times during the week.

Competitions usually happen on Sundays. Dressage is all about accuracy of movement, at walk, trot, and canter. Judges give you a percentage mark after each competition, so really you're competing against yourself. But it's always nice to win, as we did at a competition at Ferry Farm, Woodbastwick, last month. Yes, you get ribbons, but I've rationed myself and only display one in the house. Practice is the key; I can get a bit obsessive about it. Trouble is, chestnut mares are known to be stubborn.

Lady has stroppy days, and definitely gets hormonal. True, I do sometimes call her "fat guts" when things aren't going well. But there are plenty of apples and carrots, too, and kisses and hugs. And her favourite: Polo mints.

There's a photo of Lady on my desk at school, next to a picture of the other big time commitment in my life: my husband. I took him riding a few times and he was annoyingly good at it. But then he got a boat. Still, Lady has been good for our relationship. Before I owned her, I'd often come home and offload on my husband after a stressful day. Now all that stress disappears while I'm with my pony after work. When I'm off on a hack - riding her through the open fields - there's this wonderful sense of freedom, and I feel so lucky. She's even taught me to find a new worklife balance. A couple of years ago, just before I got Lady, I became so stressed that I had a bad asthma attack on the eve of an Ofsted inspection.

But the time demands involved in looking after Lady have made me focus on what I can realistically achieve at work. I've learned that I can't do everything; there'll always be more. I don't feel guilty these days when I can't get it all done.

What's more, I've realised a crucial fact: horses and children aren't so different. All, of both species, have their own, distinct personalities.

All need to feel safe and valued if they are to learn, and all respond to firmness, fairness, and consistency. Horses, like children, are extremely adept at picking up emotional cues, at reading body language, so anyone who is around a horse often learns a lot about the way they relate to others.

That can only be a good thing when you're trying to teach a classroom full of children. Really, perhaps all teachers should own a pony."

Liz Goodliffe was talking to David Mattin

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