7 October 2011

Horsing around

Living my dream. The horse may disagree.
What is it about little girls and those of an equine persuasion? Like countless other little girls, I loved horses from a very young age. I can't remember ever not loving them. When I was given a piece of paper and asked to draw something while my mother registered me for kindergarten, I'm pretty certain I drew a horse.

I was an avid reader from a tender age, and horses were of course my favourite subject. Every time I went to the library – which was often, as I talk about here – I made a beeline for any book that had an illustration of a horse on the cover. Black Beauty was the book I read, and reread, umpteen times, throughout my childhood. I wrote my own stories about horses, lavishly illustrated.

I had a vast collection of toy horses, mostly from Breyer. I think at its peak the collection boasted a herd of around 40 horses. There was a leader – the largest horse, a palomino named Thunderbolt – and his wife, a gentle and wise bay named Brownie. They had a son, Cloudy, who was a rearing palomino stallion. Cloudy was rebellious. Every one of the horses had a name, a character, a back story, and a drama played out endlessly in my room with my equally horse-obsessed friend.

There was a farm down the road from me with a few horses and I visited whenever I could. I nagged and begged my parents for riding lessons, and for a horse. I couldn't understand why we couldn't keep a horse in the back yard of our suburban house. I was one of six children, though, and riding lessons don't come cheap, so my equestrian dreams were never fulfilled except through my own imagination, the books, the horse herd soap opera, drawing after drawing and story after story.

When I went to university, the school had an agricultural college attached. They bred their own Morgans and I discovered I could take lessons relatively cheaply. There followed a few of the happiest horsey years of my life as I donned jodhpurs, boots and hard hat and learned how to ride.

As I grew older, and entered a world where I had to pay bills and such, the riding lessons waned. I never progressed beyond walk/trot/canter although I still took lessons when I could. In one such lesson I came off the back of a spooked horse who managed to kick me squarely in the back of the knee, leaving a perfect hoof mark, a bruise from bum to ankle and the lasting legacy of a torn knee cartilage which haunts me to this day. Many times I've walked away from a riding lesson in tears, wondering why I just paid someone £25 to scream at me and make me feel stupid.

Even that has never destroyed my adoration of the beasts. I still coo "Horses!" when I see them, and feel the same surge of admiration and fondness I did as a child. I never grew out of my girlhood love.

I just went on a riding holiday and it was the first time I'd been on horseback in a long time. I felt very anxious, particularly in canter; because of the mishap my tendency is to grip and lose my stirrups, and for my first canter through the forest I was thin-lipped with fear, bouncing gracelessly on the poor horse's back. By the end of the week, though, my heart was pounding with exhilaration rather than fear. Even when my horse spooked at the terrifying sight of …speed bumps, I could manage, and even when he unexpectedly veered into the woods at a gallop with me yelling "WHOAH!" on his back, I stayed on.

And I've had the unforgettable experience of sitting astride a galloping horse on an empty*, golden stretch of Spanish beach, the surf pounding as hard as my heart, hearing the thud of the hooves on the ground, hat being pushed back by the wind, huge grin on my face. Nothing can beat that.

As an adult I've lost most of my childlike wonder and excitability. I have the steady-as-she-goes calm of someone who's been around for a while and is rarely surprised or shaken out of her normal life. But if you told the little-girl version of me that some day she would gallop on a sleek Andalucian horse on a Spanish beach, she would not have been able to contain her joy. And I was so pleased to discover that I still have that childlike joy and excitement within me.

*Empty except for a few naked men. Turns out there are no nudity laws in Spain.