Finally, a window of opportunity opened for me to practice using the new bitless bridle I had bought in Wales. The yard was quiet and the only sound in the air was that of a tractor on the neighbouring farm. Peace at last!
I was too self-conscious to attempt to try Poppy with a new bridle in front of anyone in-case it all went horribly wrong and they all thought I was an idiot. Looking back, I don’t know why I was so bothered about other people’s opinions but several people at that yard were successful competition types and I was a mere ‘happy hacker’ so I felt a little inferior.
The two annoying Fell ponies were busy sleeping in the sunshine so the walk up to the horse field was, pleasantly, without incident. I had a loaded water gun with me though, just in-case!
I felt full of enthusiasm as I walked into the field to get Poppy and she must have sensed it because she stopped grazing and watched me with her ears forwards looking ‘interested’. Poppy stood very still as I walked to her shoulder and I told her about her new bridle.
“Let’s go and try it while no-one is around!” I said, and she really looked as if she replied with “Ok!” because she actually lowered her head for me to put her headcollar on which was a first.
Water-gun at the ready, we slipped into the dreaded pony field and I closed the gate as quietly as I could, which of course wasn’t quiet at all because it was metal and made a very loud clanging sound. Why there wasn’t a fence to keep the ponies off the path was beyond comprehension.
Unfortunately, the two menaces woke up and decided to behave like idiots once again. They came careering over, snorting and bucking but I was armed and ready.
“Take that you little gits!” I shouted as I squeezed the trigger and a fountain of water jetted out at them. I wasn’t expecting their reaction. They stopped and actually appeared to enjoy it! So I sprayed them again and they turned around as if to say “Do this side!” It was very amusing. Poppy seemed amused too because for once she stood quietly and just watched.
“I’m afraid that’s your lot!” I said, as the water ran out. And can you believe it, the two ponies just began cropping grass quietly.
“Well! I think you two just pretend to be wild when it suits you!” I said to them, as Poppy and I walked off.
Not a soul was around as I tied Poppy at the bar for grooming, which was great because it gave me the opportunity to try out the stuff Julie had taught me, about allowing Poppy to learn self-release.
As usual, Poppy was dancing around, pulling back on the rope. I took a deep breath, threaded the smooth, tubular rope the way Julie had shown me (a flat lunge rope or ordinary lead rope won’t work) and I made a conscious effort to remove my ‘energy’ and my ‘self’ from Poppy and her stress. It would take too long to describe the full process here, but it was interesting to observe Poppy thinking about the situation.
Julie had taught me to ‘reward the try’, so I had to be very aware of the exact moment that Poppy thought about how to free herself from tension.
As soon as Poppy’s face appeared to think, she stopped pulling back and I instantly released the rope.
I took up the slack again and Poppy felt the pressure. This time, she didn’t pull back, she took a teeny tiny step forward. I instantly released the rope but continued to keep myself out of Poppy’s ‘conversation with the situation’.
Again, I took up the slack. Pop took a smooth step forwards towards the bar as I simultaneously released the pressure on the rope. She’d got it! Hurrah!! Poppy had used her own thought processes to work out what she needed to do to make herself feel comfortable.
“Wow! Well done! Clever girl!” I said, shedding a few tears of “mother’s pride”. Poppy had a very pleased expression on her face which was so lovely to see and she stood very happily for a change. She still moved about a bit but nothing like the crazy dancing and pulling that she usually did.
Grooming was so much easier as I didn’t have to keep moving the grooming kit out of the way of her massive feet. I put her saddle on, she still nipped my leg but it was a half-hearted attempt. More like a habit than any real need to express herself. And then we headed for the outdoor school.
We began by walking around together as Elise had suggested and I made a conscious effort to be more self-aware. I focussed on where I wanted to go and what speed I wanted to walk at and Poppy responded very well, so we were ‘in harmony’ as it were.
“Right Pops! It’s now or never!” I said to Poppy as I slipped the reins over her head and removed the headcollar. “Welcome to your new bridle! I hope you like it!”
I opened up the bridle and pulled it up over Poppy’s ears. A look of surprise filtered into her eyes as it began to dawn on her that nothing had gone into her mouth. Poppy breathed a deep sigh of relief and happily stood quietly as I faffed about getting all the straps the correct length so the bridle sat properly on her absolutely giant head. The bridle was extra-large and even then it only just fitted her!
I wished I’d video-d her initial response to the bitless bridle. Her loud sigh said it all.
Once on board she walked very nicely, in a forward yet relaxed manner. She was alert and listening for instruction. Wow!
I tried a few turns using the reins just to check that it did work and it did – phew! Then I tried a halt and that also worked – phew!
Then I decided to have a go at using my energy to direct Poppy, instead of relying on hands and legs. However, the gate clanged in the next field which startled me and I looked around to see that gorgeous Danny was in the jumping field with his impressive, bay sports horse, Boudicca.
Danny rode round the field a few times and smiled shyly as he passed. He really was fabulously good looking in his faded, boot-cut jeans and a tight t-shirt. Yum hahahaa!
He was also a very efficient rider and it was a real treat to watch him and Boudicca fly over the jumps with such wonderful balance and timing.
Danny then trotted and walked Boudicca to cool her down and came over to say hello.
Unfortunately, just as I opened my mouth to reply, the unmistakeable foghorn voice of Morag hit us both at full whack.
“Ahoy there you people!” she called with a cheery wave. “How about a group ride out in this lovely weather?”
As I mentioned previously, Morag had the type of commanding voice that was almost impossible to disobey. I can only put it down to her years in the tough, Scottish army.
I wanted to say, “No thanks! I am really keen to continue with some schooling” but when I opened my mouth I found myself saying “Ok!”
“Damn why did I say that?” I thought to myself, but it was too late.
Danny and I dismounted and led our horses over to the stable yard where Morag was busy instructing a youngish woman, named Judy, how to fasten her girth. I’m sure Judy probably had a fair idea how to fasten a girth as I had seen her before at the Otley show, winning a jumping competition, so she was certainly no novice rider.
“It’s always best to hold the strap upwards instead of at an angle and then it’s more comfortable for the horse, you see?” said Morag in her forthright way.
“Er yes, thank you Morag!” answered Judy in a resigned sort of a way.
“Right everybody! It’s a super day to all go out and get to know each other better!” Morag was very enthusiastic which began to rub off on me, as it is always nice to get to know the people you are sharing a livery yard with.
Morag introduced me to Judy who had a lovely skewbald horse named Jigsaw.
“Now then do we all have high viz? Grace have you got hi-viz? Judy?”
I went to get my pink, hi-viz tabard while Judy went to get her yellow hat band.
“Tch tch tch” tutted Morag “Is that all you have? That won’t do at all. Danny where’s your hi-viz?”
Danny smirked, he was used to Morag and didn’t seem to mind being chivvied along by her.
Morag marched us all to her stable’s back room in which there were dozens of high-viz garments of all shapes, sizes and colours. It was like an Aladdin’s cave of safety wear.
“Here you are Danny, you can wear this,” came the muffled voice of Morag as she bent over, rooting though a box. Morag stood up and handed him a neon pink tee-shirt.
“Grace, here’s a hat cover for you,” she announced, handing me a terrible, large plastic, fluorescent yellow thing. It was like a giant, day-glow shower cap! I was horrified. Danny laughed.
“It’s no laughing matter, Danny. We must all be as visible as possible or our insurance is null and void! Here Grace, let me put it on for you.” Morag stretched the ghastly cap over my riding hat and I was so stunned all I could do was mutter, “thank you!”
“Here’s an orange hat band for you Danny. Oh and Judy, you can wear this green waistcoat.” Judy’s face was a picture!
“Now let’s get the horses properly attired.” Morag marched towards the horses carrying an assortment of brightly coloured items. In no time at all, Morag had all four horses covered in colourful neck straps, tail straps and leg wraps. All four horses stood stock still while this was going on as they too daren’t argue with Morag.
“Right! I think we’re all ready, so let’s mount up and away we go! Come along everyone!”
Morag was unstoppable and we all silently obeyed, it was very comical.
We rode out of the yard in our multi-coloured, fluorescent outfits which I worried would probably make us more dangerous than ever as surely it would dazzle car drivers and stun them completely?!
However, I soon forgot about what a prat I looked when I realised we had suddenly arrived at the entrance to a massive open field. My veins turned to ice as they say in horror novels – this was my biggest fear right here in front of my face!
“I’ve never ridden on an open field with Poppy!” I squeaked.
“Well it’s an opportune moment to get the experience now!” replied Morag, enthusiastically.
I felt sick. I also felt really, really inferior and embarrassed.
Danny, Morag and Judy were such competent riders. All of them did regular show jumping and cross-country competitions and, in comparison to them, I felt like a beginner. It was such a horrible, uncomfortable feeling.
I gripped tightly on the reins and my legs were like clamps around Poppy’s sides. Everything I was doing was the polar opposite of what Julie had taught me but in that moment of colossal fear, all I could think of was “Help! I am on a super-fast horse that could bolt at any second!”
The worst of it was I didn’t feel able to speak up because I hardly knew these people.
“We’ll just walk,” said Danny who had noticed my ashen face.
“Yes, good idea Danny!” agreed Morag, “Let’s walk around the whole field twice so that Grace and Poppy can get the most out of the experience!” I was horrified.
Instead of taking a direct route straight across the edge of the field, Morag guided us all around the entire perimeter – twice.
My heart was in my mouth, I could literally feel it beating in my throat. And I couldn’t understand how Danny and Morag, who were both in front of me, were so chilled out about it. Both of their horses were very full on, jogging sideways and snorting the entire time and it was really stressing me out. I was certain that their jogging and snorting would wind Poppy up and make her explode like a rocket into the next county.
And then just as we approached the final edge of the field, it dawned on me that Poppy was not stressed out, she was not remotely affected by Boudicca or Morag’s striking grey horse. Poppy was ignoring them and was walking very steadily.
I relaxed my legs and my hands. Poppy sighed, no doubt saying “Thank God for that what on earth is your problem?”
Poppy walked like a chilled-out cob across the field behind the two very joggy horses. “Wow!” I thought to myself as I realised how wrong my thoughts had been. I was stunned by how relaxed Poppy was – not to mention relieved!
We arrived in the village and trotted along some very pretty lanes. I was feeling much happier and more relaxed so I enjoyed having a nosey at all the quaint cottages. Then slowly, I became aware of Judy who was riding behind me.
In all of my anxiety on the field, I had completely forgotten that she was with us, but suddenly I could hear her taking a few sharp breaths.
I turned around and saw that she looked terrified.
“Are you ok?” I asked, surprised.
“No! I need to get off!” she wailed.
“Oh no! Are you not feeling well? I’ll tell the others to wait!” I called out to Danny and Morag to stop.
“I need to get off!” repeated Judy.
“Oh no Judy not again! Come on now, you’re doing so well!” exclaimed Morag, turning her horse and coming over to stand by Judy.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, completely confused.
“Judy is terrified of hacking!” said Morag “which is why I thought it would be great if we all rode out together!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Judy, a fearless show jumper who went to so many shows, was scared of hacking?
My feelings of inferiority instantly melted away along with all the paranoid thoughts that had been buzzing around my head the entire ride, such as “I’m such a rubbish rider compared to these people.”
Poor Judy, I felt very sympathetic as she attempted to slither off her horse. Morag went alongside her and blocked her from getting off.
“Now come on Judy, remember you asked me not to let you get off! So I’m not going to let you!”
“But I have to get off! I feel sick!” replied poor Judy, her face as white as a sheet.
“No you don’t!” I said firmly, suddenly remembering a ride I’d been on a couple of years ago with a very nervous rider. “You’re going to stay on and we are all going to sing as we walk slowly along.”
“Sing?!” exclaimed Judy, looking at me as if I’d gone mad.
“Yes sing! All of us!” I repeated. “Ok let’s get going!”
“The wheels on the bus go round and round…” I sang loudly. “Come on! Everybody!”
“Round and round, round and round!” sang Morag and Danny, grinning.
“Come on Judy! You too!” I insisted.
Judy joined in and we all began to walk very steadily down the lane, all of us singing The Wheels on the Bus!”
Very soon, Judy forgot her fears and sang louder.
We got some funny looks from passers-by what with the excessive, multi-coloured hi-viz clothing and singing a children’s song, but it worked! Judy stayed on all the way home.
“We made it! Well done everybody!” laughed Morag, as we clattered into the yard.
“Thanks for helping, everyone!” said Judy, very humbly. “I wouldn’t have managed without you all.”
“And thank you for helping me with my fear of riding on the field, I was absolutely terrified!” I said.
“You didn’t show it,” said Danny, “you were fine, you only looked a little bit worried!” which was very nice of him to say considering I was on the verge of vomiting.
I walked back up to the field with Poppy, my head full of the events of the morning.
Firstly, Poppy had learned some self-release, which had been a pivotal moment.
Secondly, I’d faced my fear of open fields and Poppy had been amazingly relaxed like a totally different horse.
Thirdly, I’d ridden with people who I thought were so much more competent than me who had turned out to have fears too.
And the bitless bridle had been absolutely fine! Hurrah!