Although everything that follows is true, some names have been changed to protect the identity of the horses.
Back in the Saddle
‘Get back on the horse and do it again.’
Mortified and miserable I clamber to my feet. Cheeks flaming, but thankfully concealed by my cheap, ill-fitting jodhpurs, I dust myself off. A few feet away the ever patient Ronnie waits, having come to a stop the moment he realised we had parted company. I gather up his reins and pull myself back into the saddle and he throws me a look reserved for those united in joint misery. He’s not enjoying this any more than I am. I cluck him on, and as he makes the transition from walk to a trot at the far end of the indoor school, I turn him to line him up at the centre of the double cavaletti that just caused my downfall. As his stride lengthens my equally badly fitting hat slips down over my nose in a series of pixilated hops in prefect sync to my rising trot. I shove the hat up and my bottom down, pushing Ronnie into a canter. As he gathers himself for the jump, I send up a silent prayer. Please, please, this time let me stay on. Please, please, this time let me do it right. Please, please God, don’t let me land on my butt trying to impress the only man I’ve ever loved. I am ten years old.
‘You’ve got to get back on the horse and go for it again.’
I’ve just spend months mired in heartbreak following my latest tumble into the romantic equivalent of Beecher’s Brook having fallen for an emotionally unavailable man who over the course of several months managed to persuade me and most people who knew us, that there was more to come without ever having to give anything away. Having dated but not actually been in love for several years, this was a Grand National romance and I fell and fell hard. The resulting impact would have seen me carried by stretcher off the course and in traction for several months afterwards. I am forty five years old.
Emily hands me a coffee. I’m sitting in her happily chaotic house, ruled by its four legged occupants – her two lurchers, three cats, several chickens and constant procession of rescued hedgehogs, all of whom view its human inhabitants as mere purveyors of food, treats or walks depending upon their persuasion. Emily and her menagerie are straight out of a Jilly Cooper novel, except this isn’t the Cotswolds – this is Newmarket. Horse central.
Emily is right. Since my run-in with Hazmat as he came to be known, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Of men in general and my own relationship to them in particular. It’s hardly been a Happily Ever After. More like a permanent ‘Once Upon a Time’. And not a very good time at that. Maybe it’s time to own that and return to my first love. If you fall off the horse, the only way to get over it is to get right back up there again. No matter how much time you spend in traction in between.
‘I am,’ I declare. ‘I’m buying one.’
‘Kick him on.’
‘Make him do what he’s told.’
The miserable hour-long riding lessons of my childhood were peppered with this kind of advice. The horse it appeared was an ill-tempered, stubborn and contrary beast who constantly needed to be reminded of its place (beneath me), by application of heels, harsh commands and whip. Each weekend I spent sixty interminable minutes and ten pounds of my parent’s money, walking, trotting, cantering and usually falling off Ronnie, a rock solid bay schoolmaster, in the indoor ring of a riding school just outside of Brighton. The best moments came when Giles my riding instructor, he of the Hugh Grant hair, perfect bottom and object of my pre-pubescent affections, abandoned me to pop outside for a fag/flirt break with one of the many sylph-thighed girls who frequented the school. Their jodhpurs fitted. What’s more they could stay on their horses. Funny thing was – so could I when Giles wasn’t around.
Despite my badgering my parents for them for months, I hated my riding lessons. I loved/hated Giles, alternating between feelings of jealousy and relief whenever he would stride from the ring, usually with a sigh of exasperation or a comment: ‘You’re just not making any progress, Helen.’ My insides would knot with a combination of humiliation and hopeless longing as I imagined him outside, sharing tales of my terminal lack of even basic horsemanship with some baby-bottomed, perfectly kitted out equestrienne. This was usually fast replaced by an upsurge of relief I was finally alone to just ‘be’ how I wanted to be with the horse, a change Ronnie would instantly reflect by putting his ears forward and picking up his pacing.
I loved horses. I wanted to learn to ride and ride well more than anything else. I had no idea how things had gone so badly wrong; a feeling I was to experience again and again throughout my adult life as I stumbled from one ill-stared romance to another.
‘I’m giving up men,’ I explain to Emily. ‘I’m returning to my first, true love and true love lasts a lifetime. A horse is a far better prospect than a man. Think about it. A horse is never going to tell you he’s been seeing other riders behind your back. Or that he’s leaving you because they not only understand him, but are younger and have a smaller bottom than you,’ I pontificate in Emily’s kitchen.
‘Well, he may well have been seeing other riders but chances are you know about it. I personally don’t mind if my best friend rides my horse. However, I’d have something to say about it if I caught her riding my man.’
‘And you know what it’s like out there,’ I continue. ‘Middle-aged horses don’t lose their hair and gain a beer belly but delude themselves into thinking they’re still attractive.’
At this Emily snorts derisively. ‘Like you’d know about men who are fat and balding, Ms. Cougar Town.’ It’s true. Hazmat was ten years my junior and there have been those who have been younger still.
‘I don’t go looking for them – they’re the only ones who ask,’ I point out in my defence. Emily rolls her eyes. ‘And,’ I add warming to my subject, ‘if your horse has been in a previous relationship with another rider, when they split up he didn’t have to hand her the stable in the divorce settlement or keep paying maintenance on his foals.’
‘You’ve really put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you? You really do have way too much time on your hands. You definitely need either a horse or a boyfriend. Or both. So what is it you’re looking for?’
Good question. I may not have been able to find myself a man but I know exactly what I’m looking for and need in a horse. Mare or gelding between 14.2-15.2hh. Maybe at a push 15.3, but certainly nothing over 16 hands and absolutely no stallions. Under any circumstances. Sensible but not a plodder. I may be coming back to riding after a break, but I certainly don’t need a novice ride. Besides, there are all those gallops around here vacant after 1pm. It would be nice to open up the throttle occasionally even if most of the time all I want to do is hack out. Forgiving. Kind. After so many years out of the saddle I’m going to make some mistakes at the start of the relationship, and I want a horse who won’t hold that against me. Then there’s my health. I have advanced endometriosis which results in excruciatingly painful attacks which give no warning of their onset. If I have one while riding I’ll change from rider to passenger in an instant and while I’ll be able to point the horse in the right direction it’s then going to be up to him or her to get us both home. So, add smarts, reliability and the ability to take charge when required yet relinquish it without it becoming a battle of wills.
In terms of qualities, I’ve just described my perfect man. But this isn’t about the search for the perfect mate but the perfect horse. Or at least the perfect horse for me.
‘That shouldn’t be too hard. Unlike men – 98% of horses are nice.’
If you take a fall you need to get back on the horse. Which begs the question: Can a woman of a ‘certain age’ get back in the saddle again? One thing I did know – I was up for commitment. Honest and faithful right up to the end. The four legged kind that never lets you down. In the words of the David Christie song: ‘Check out of Heartbreak Hotel, saddle up your horse and ride like hell!’ My search for my ideal partner – and not necessarily one with two legs, had begun.
Written by Helen Watts – Hereford Equestrian Blogger
Helen Watts was the winner of the Hereford Equestrian Blogger competition held in December 2018.