All saddled up
Shelley, who helped me with my riding lessons, is 16 hands high and 20 years old and lives at Brampton Stables in Northamptonshire. In mellow maturity, he was entirely content to allow me to be a passenger while he walked and trotted round the stables' indoor school.
"Come nearer," called Steve, The TES photographer optimistically. He should be so lucky. "Don't tell me, tell him!" I called back.
I spent two days at Brampton, sampling the rarefied world of horses and their riders. I went along entirely untrammelled by previous knowledge. The old line goes, "I know two things about the horse, and one of them is rather coarse. " That was me.
But Brampton was the right place to go. It is run with enormous efficiency by its owners, Derick and Jenny Ward. Derick is a modest, quietly spoken man, who was once a Corporal of Horse in the Lifeguards. Jenny is an international dressage competitor, instructor and judge. Together they have built Brampton Stables from scratch into a major equestrian training centre, with 50 horses and ponies, 10 employees and, at any one time, around 40 students.
So here was all that professionalism and expertise - a distillation of centuries of man's relationship with the horse. Here too was my instructor, Cameron Macintyre, who once looked after the polo ponies of the Sultan of Brunei. And then there was me, a prat in a borrowed hat, desperately trying to get on Shelley's back for my first lesson.
I had enough trouble raising my left foot high enough to go in the stirrup. Swinging my right leg over Shelley's back seemed a physical impossibility. Then I got it - "It's a matter of bouncing on the right leg!" And so it was, and next time I was up there, lowering myself into the saddle.
We started with walking. Karen, a student, plodded through the sawdust alongside Shelley's head, holding his bridle. Cameron checked my upper body position - "Ninety degrees to the horse's back - well done!" Cameron, I had already noticed, was very good at contingent positive reinforcement - "Good! Excellent! Thank you!" - there's nothing like a good teacher who says just the right thing at the right time.
After a while, I was invited to try the "rising trot", where you go up and down from the saddle in time to the horse's stride. It is a basic piece of technique - you see it in action all the time wherever there are horses and riders. My limited knowledge told me, though, that there is a knack here that can be difficult to catch hold of, and I was a bit apprehensive.
"The horse uses diagonal pairs of legs. You go up on one pair and down on the other," explained Cameron.
I gave Shelley a knock with my legs. Karen went "click, click" with her tongue, as we used to do galloping home on imaginary broncos after the Saturday morning cinema, and off we went. I tried the up-down movement, while Cameron called out the time - "One-two-up-down."
I could do it, but it didn't feel comfortable and I knew I had not quite found the rhythm yet. I tried to feel the movement of the saddle and then suddenly, on about the third circuit of the school, there it was - the saddle was gently tossing me up and catching me, and it felt entirely normal and relaxed. Cameron spotted it. "That's it! Feel that, do you?" At which point, of course, I lost it again and was back to working against the movement rather than with it.
Essentially, my basic aim through the rest of the session, and the one the following day, was to discover how I could reliably find and hold on to a comfortable rising trot. Obviously, as time went on, I was gradually getting it right more often, but even at the end I was frustrated by the knowledge that I knew what I was looking for but lacked the physical insight to home in on it.
Meanwhile, Cameron made me do various reinforcing activities. I did lots of "transitions" - halt to walk, walk to trot, and back again. Which is like doing scales when you learn a musical instrument.
I also worked with hands off the reins and without feet in the stirrups, at walk and trot - the aim being to feel everything through the seat. "At one time," Cameron explained to me later, "it was all about gripping the horse with the legs. When I learned, I had to practise gripping a coin between my knees. Then it all changed. Someone came back from Germany and said, 'No, it's not gripping any more'."
So far as I could tell from my limited experience, the technique is all to do with sitting deep in your saddle, feeling the horse's movement through the bum, and applying sensitive but firm control with legs and hands. The legs are close to the horse - "painted on the horse," as Cameron put it - but not clutching it. The art of teaching, consequently, is to help the student to achieve this through a high degree of sensitivity and intuitive response.
"It's all about feel," as Cameron put it. "Some people have a lot of natural ability, and the teacher has to be careful not to destroy that by too much correction of technique. If the natural ability is there, the technique will come."
On reflection, it was the technique that interested me most. I hardly had time to forge the kind of relationship with my horse which is at the heart of riding for many people. I confess that, in truth, I have never been gooey about animals. My mother used to tell friends that, as a child, I had eaten my pet rabbit in a pie before I even noticed that it wasn't in its cage any more. Still, there was something attractively uncuddly, unsentimental and well, huge, about Shelley that could have won me over eventually.
But I did love riding. Everyone said I would be very stiff next day, but honestly I wasn't. Even in the indoor school, with an unseasonably cold wind blowing through the gaps and rain hammering down on the roof, I had a glimmer of what it is that turns people on to riding horses. I may even go again.
Enquiries to: The British Horse Society, Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LR. Tel: 01203 696697Brampton Stables, Church Brampton, Northamptonshire NN6 8BH. Tel: 01604 842051What does it cost? A one-hour private lesson for an adult at Brampton Stables costs Pounds 22. A group lesson costs Pounds 15.Where to go? Any establishment that charges people to ride horses must be licensed by the local authority. Be cautious, though, because some manage to evade this by one means or another. Do not touch any unlicensed riding school. In any case, the local authority licence ensures only that the horses are properly cared for; it says nothing about the standard of training or the qualifications of the instructors. Best then to go to a British Horse Society-approved school. The BHS inspects and approves stables and lists them in detail, showing exactly what they offer and the qualifications of the instructors.