“Horses make a landscape look beautiful.”
― Alice Walker
So I’m hanging on by one foot in one stirrup with my body under the horse so I can place a tennis ball on an orange traffic cone. I hope my patient, long-suffering horse stands still for just one more second or I’ll slide right off. OK, done! Now we’re trotting around slalom poles, dropping little cans on top of sticks, and if you miss, you have to get off, pick up the can, pop it back on, and remount. In a previous Pony Games session, I did miss, and being my height and my age, I couldn’t get back on. My team lost! I was still hopping on one leg with the other foot in the stirrup when the other équipe crossed the finishing line. When I volunteered to be on the home team for an extra Pony Games competition, my instructress put her head in her hands. OK, I make lots of mistakes but honestly I do try. ‘NON! LEEEEN!” rings out if I canter instead of trot or circle left instead of right. She doesn’t yell at the others. That’s my story, anyway.
Saturday morning riding lessons at Trois Fontaines are usually sober-ish. We have a new instructor, Theo, who uses carrots as well as sticks and I’m getting on better. There are between six and eight of us, depending on who turns up, which in turn depends on other commitments, and the weather. The recent gales and torrential rain have so far timed their arrival to drown and blow us on Saturdays. And the horses can be skittish in the wind. It’s a friendly, horse-loving group of competent learners, aged between thirteen and…um…our age. There were two blokes until the young one turned expert in a couple of months and is now off eventing for real and for medals. That leaves my husband as the only male. We women natter about our beloved mounts and roll our eyes when asked to do the difficult and the impossible. Keith sit on his high horse, a very able, confident rider who owned his own pony until he outgrew her and had to sell her. ‘The worst day of my life,’ he says.
This is the routine. We arrive at 9.30 am. We wait to be told which horse we’ve got (there is some begging and pleading at this point with A only willing to ride the slow and steady Mambo) then off we trudge, clutching headbands, to catch our horses who are in various paddocks and fields. Some put their heads in the noose willingly as we tramp knee deep through the mud. Some not. Back at the stables, we line the horses up, noses to the wall, tied to a not very reassuring bit of string, and try to brush and scrape away the layers of dirt and dust. At the moment, the greys are black and all the ones that have rolled have an inch of encrusted mud. Manes and tails are dirt-clumped. They’re sweet, well trained beasts and obliglingly lift one leg at a time so we can scrape out their shoes. Then the bridle. I’ve always been a bit spacially challenged so it’s taken me about six months to get it the right way round with the various straps in the right place. Then back to the tack room for the saddle. First though, large and small blankets to protect our horses’ backs. ‘NON! LEEEN!” Damn. Now what? One blanket is on back to front. It’s not that serious but I have to take everything off and start again. The instructress shakes her head at me. She’s raven haired, raven eyed, misses nothing and makes me feel like a naughty child.
Our lessons, in one of the paddocks or indoor school if it’s raining, can be ranked on a scale of 1 for easy (rare) to 5 for nearly impossible, but we never know what’s coming. A No 5, led by the raven-haired one, had us jumping first with left hand on head, then right hand on head, then both hands on head so no hands on reins or ready to clutch the horse’s mane. Jumping! I refused the third option and got black looks and marks. Remember we’re dealing not just with a very long list of instructions, but all of it in French, so sometimes I get it wrong: ‘Canter from the first corner to the barres au sol, transition to trot over the barres au sol, then canter en équilibre (sort of standing up in your stirrups) to the next corner then transition to trot, circle once, and walk.’ Got that? Me neither. The trick, I’ve learned, is never to go first. Always hang back, even it means pretending to tighten your girth for the seventh time, and watch someone French with a good memory. And not all of the French riders get it right all of the time. Honestly. We whisper to one another, ‘Je n’ai pas compris!’. And everyone is really supportive. It’s not a compettition. We cheer one another on and give sympathy to those who get it in the neck. Or fall off.
Occasionally, instead of a lesson, we walk out at a leasirely pace through the beautiful grounds with the red metal bridge at Canet and mountains in the background. Imaginative, amazing jumps are dotted across the fields for the trials and eventing, and at the far edge, the river Herault runs fast and furious in winter. Trois Fontaines is used for some of the biggest national shows because they have superb facilities. Recently five hundred temporary loose boxes were put up to house the competing horses. The place was packed with their travelling boxes, caravans, and people in white jodphurs, shiny black boots and brushed black caps. We wandered among horse flesh to die for. No, not literally.
When I was twelve, I rode often in the army barracks when my father was stationed in Germany. The stables were a short walk away from our house so I more or less lived there. The horses were enormous mounts for the cavalry, and we kids were trained by a masochistic sergeant who knew no mercy. In the indoor school, he had speakers playing very loud music hung at every corner so that your horse leapt sideways and you had to cling on. Usually we rode bareback and if we fell off, he yelled at us to get straight back on. It was baptism by fire and I loved it.
But I’m not twelve now, and not so willing to fall off. I’d love to have my own horse to ride through woods and vineyards but the cost is prohibitive so for now the Saturday morning lessons will continue with Olet or Joyeau or Rock putting up with my incorrect aids and back-to-front blankets without a word of complaint.
They are truly magnificent. Magnifique. At the end of the lesson, I stroke their big soft noses and whisper in their ears. I put my nose to their necks and breath in the damp hay and sweat and saddle smell. Then lead my horse back to the paddock.
A bientôt. Until next time.