Tricky Elle was sold, which I am pleased about, because all horses deserve their own person. There are also new school horses, including tricky Bella, to keep me on my toes. Bella is a bit smaller and a lot skinnier than the other horses I have been riding, with a somewhat upright shoulder and not much muscle on her neck. (Note that these conformational observations are purely technical; it is equally correct to point out that she is a fabulously beautiful copper-bright showjumper mare.) Although for quite different reasons, because she’s unquestionably a jumper and not a hunter, Bella, like Elle, pulls me all out of balance. And this is a bit scary but it’s mostly very challenging and interesting and makes me appreciate all over again what fun it is and what a huge privilege to ride a bunch of different horses at this exalted level.
In the horse world where I grew up, school horses of this quality simply didn’t exist. I went to a couple of very good riding schools, and when you reached the top standard – a half-Perch or an ancient OTTB – your only real choice was to go get a horse of your own and have private lessons, which is what I did, firstly with Alfie and Tina Wommelsdorf, and then many years later with Noah and David Murdoch. All the Olympians. Now these were peak experiences of my life, so let’s not go imagining that I am ungrateful. But the arrangement had some drawbacks, in that my progress in riding was intimately bound up not only with the capacity but also with the physical condition of one specific animal. Alfie was old, and then he got arthritis and had to be retired; Noah was hot, and then he got a stone bruise, and that was me out for months and months.
Today, instead of having a horse who is boyfriend-and-unborn-children-and-sporting-partner all rolled into one, I have been absorbed into a busy, efficient, successful East Coast-style hunter-jumper A barn, where excellent grooms clean and tack up the horses for me, and excellent trainers condition them, and excellent vets advise on their nutrition and health. The place just absolutely buoys my spirits with its attention to detail, with the many small meals the horses are fed, with the cleanliness of the tack and the aisles and the jumps. And like a proper unsentimental adult amateur in the European tradition, I have ridden four different horses in as many months. I have revelled in the clockwork generosity of Austin and Cassie, and I have worked hard to meet the challenges posed by Elle and Bella. It feels like gross disloyalty to say so, but I can’t help feeling I’ve learned more by switching around like this than I did in whole years at Samurai or Glenoaks.
Today, for example, I had several moments when I thought I was having a very bad lesson. Bella and I got into an unconstructive loop where I was worried about my crest release and kept slowing and slowing her down and looking at the fences or the ground near them instead of up and over and away. And she is little and fast and likes to go go go, and she got more and more irked with me and ended up having a bad chip in front of one oxer. Same old lesson: let go. I had to ease up and trust her speed. I had to look up and over the fences and trust that she would get me where we were going.
And as soon as I did all this, of course, I found my balance on her and she forgave me for everything and we went racing around and over the jumps in glorious style, and the sun came out and I listened to Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba all the way home and my blood turned to apple brandy in my veins.