Episode 17

“Today we will be getting to know each-other!” said Elise as she marched briskly into the barn where I was grooming Poppy for our lesson. “Come on let’s get going!”

“Oh!” I jumped as I was in a bit of a daydream. “I’ve not tacked up yet!”

“Hurry up! Come on we’re going for a walk – in hand!” Elise could be very ‘sergeant major-ish’ when she wanted to be so I hastily got my hat on and put Poppy’s bridle on and led her out of her stable.

“Walking is one of the best ways to improve your relationship with your horse,” Elise turned and strode out of the barn, at top speed, and Poppy and I followed. “Can you tell me why? Oh hang on this is the awkward field isn’t it?” we had arrived at the gate of the pony field and as usual the two annoying Fells were looking for entertainment.

“Right, we’ll have none of their nonsense. I’ll go in and sort them out and I’ll meet you on the other side.” she said opening the gate.

“The other side? That sounds a bit final!” I laughed.

“The other side of the field you ninny!” replied Elise, rolling her eyes. “Bloody hell this gate’s a bit awkward isn’t it?”

Elise managed to get the gate open and we all walked through. Bobby and Simon (the two Fells) came trotting towards us with a menacing gleam in their eyes.

Unfortunately for them, they hadn’t reckoned on Elise’s strength of character. Although she wasn’t much more than 5foot she had a very big personality. She marched straight at the ponies, stared them in the eyes and kept walking.

“You two can bugger right off!” she commanded and amazingly they turned, gave a small flick of their heels in mild protest and trotted away fast.

“Right that’s them sorted!” said Elise with great satisfaction as she met me on the other side of the top gate.

“That was impressive!” I said.

“Not really,” replied Elise. “It’s all about attitude that’s all. So many people have begun to label things with fancy names like ‘Natural Horsemanship’ and this, that and the other. In my day it was called ‘Common Sense’!”

“Now, where were we?” she continued. “Ah yes walking. Can you tell me why it’s so good for bond building?”

“Errr… umm .. no!” I tried to think but couldn’t really see why we were going for a walk. It felt a bit funny like I was walking a giant dog!

“Because you aren’t asking anything of her,” said Elise. “You are next to her, she can see you so she can relax. You are not busy worrying about falling off so you can relax too! Simple!”

“Yes I am feeling relaxed!” I laughed as I realised that walking this way meant I could enjoy where we were and finally see my surroundings. I hadn’t taken much notice of this particular pretty lane due to the fact I was always busy concentrating on what Poppy ‘might do’.

The lane wound round the surrounding farm which had fields full of cows and sheep. Normally, Poppy would jog along this part of the lane because of said cows and sheep but today she was more settled and walked nicely.

“She’s taking confidence from you.” Elise explained. “Remember that in her brain, you are a hunter. She is a prey animal therefore she is ‘dinner’. However, because she is a domesticated horse she automatically looks to you for protection and here you are at her shoulder protecting her.”

“Wow! I’d not thought of it in that way that’s fascinating!” I exclaimed.

“Furthermore,” Elise continued, “when we sit on their backs that feels similar to having a predator attack them so it’s incredible that they learn to accept it. It’s no wonder a lot of horses are jittery under saddle.”

“God yes wow!” I loved my lessons with Elise I always learned something valuable each time.

“Ok now can you see that she’s feeling a bit nervous here? Her neck’s like a giraffe and she’s sniffing the air.” said Elise.

“Oh yes, I think it’s the cows.” I replied, feeling a bit uneasy.

“Now all you have to do is let her stop and look at them while you relax and talk to her. She’s young she needs to learn that if mum’s ok about cows then she can be ok too.”

We stopped to let Poppy have a good look at the cows who were craning their necks over the fence to get at the cow parsley and sticky weed.

Poppy seemed a bit disgusted by them at first, she probably thought they were very smelly but I stroked her and went to stroke the cows and that helped Poppy to calm down and start eating the cow parsley too. I lifted her head to stop her.

“It’s ok let her eat, it’s a reward for being relaxed!” said Elise. “Good girl Poppy they’re only cows. Now you won’t have to worry next time you ride past.”

“So many people don’t let their horses stop to look at things,” she continued. “They get their knickers in a twist about always making the horse keep moving. They insist the horse must be listening to them all the time. They don’t like to let their horses have time to think. But I think the way to create a calm riding horse is by slowing down, let them look and learn for themselves what’s scary and what’s not.”

The end of the lane opened out onto a busy road so we turned back and headed for the school. We had twenty minutes of riding under Elise’s eagle eye and it was obvious the walk had definitely improved Poppy’s frame of mind as she moved very nicely.

I felt very chipper as we walked back to the barn after the lesson and decided I would hack out.

The main driveway led to a very busy road but I was feeling brave so we headed that way. Luckily the road was quiet so we crossed it easily and went into the large council estate opposite.

“Let’s turn right,” I said to Poppy and off we went. It felt a bit weird because it was a street I’d never been down before.

Poppy was very forward but this time she was much more relaxed. It was a stark contrast to the first time I had ridden her which was horrifying to say the least. The walk and the lesson had definitely changed something between us, we were more connected and for the first time I could almost relax.

“That’s looking a lot better today!” called out a familiar voice. I turned to see Jim, the traveller, walking along with a bag of shopping.

“Hello!” I grinned, “Yes it’s loads better we’ve been doing a lot of work!”

“Well done lass! That’s what it takes.” Poppy stopped to have a nosey in his shopping bag.

“Poppy!” I shouted, “Stop it!”

“It’s alright,” laughed Jim. “Reckon she can smell the apples. Here you are darlin’ sounds like you’ve earned it.” He reached into his bag and gave Poppy an apple which she ate very messily, spitting apple juice all over Jim. Luckily, he found it amusing.

A group of kids ran across the road to see us and they all wanted to give Poppy a stroke. It was like being with a film star!

“Oooh she’s beautiful!” they all said and Poppy loved the attention.

“Now don’t you be getting lost again hahaa!” laughed Jim as he went on his way.

Riding through the council estate was bizarre in that it was a busy place and not in the least bit pretty. But what it did have was the most courteous drivers I’ve ever experienced. They all slowed down and passed wide and seemed genuinely pleased to see a horse. I’ve never had so many smiles and waves. Why can’t all drivers be like that?

Poppy continued walking and then we tried a bit of a trot. Her trot was so weird, she almost exploded into it and thundered along like a carriage horse with a very big action. It wasn’t in any way pleasant.

“We’ll have to work on this!” I gasped, slowing her back to a walk. “Your trot is faster than most horse’s canter!” I wondered if she had a bit of Standard Bred blood in her.

Just as we rounded a corner we came across another large, chestnut horse which was prancing around on the spot. Poppy whinnied and the horse looked over and whinnied back. I recognised her from the yard but I’d not met her owner.

“Oh thank God you’re here!” called the rider, “I was about to get off! Do you mind if we tag along?”

“Not at all!” I replied, pleased to have some company.

“I’m Sarah! Are you Grace?” she asked.

“Yes, hello!”

“This is Garnet. She’s only three and she’s being really annoying. I knew I shouldn’t have come out on my own! Stand still for God sake!” Sarah sat really well despite Garnet’s dancing, I was very impressed.

“Poppy’s only 5 so this should be interesting!” I said, expecting Poppy to revert to being an idiot but she didn’t. She stood very calmly and that helped to calm Garnet.

“Phew that’s better, which way shall we go?” asked Sarah.

“Actually, I haven’t really got a clue where I am! I always seem to get lost in here!” I admitted feeling slightly embarrassed. Luckily Sarah knew where we were so we continued down the road.

Suddenly, Garnet jumped into the air like a cartoon horse with her legs going in all directions at once. Sarah managed to stay on which was astounding and Garnet snorted and tossed her pretty head.

“Garnet! For God’s sake it’s only a crisp packet!” exclaimed Sarah, very exasperated.

But there was no way Garnet was going to go past that particular monster! Amazingly, Poppy didn’t react at all so I pushed her on past Garnet who calmed down instantly and followed us.

“Poppy’s so chilled out! It must be so nice to have such a laid-back horse. I hope Garnet will end up like that!” said Sarah.

“Well to be honest this is the first time she’s been like this! Up to now she’s been really nervy.” I was so surprised at how chilled out Poppy was. She was so ‘grown-up’ for want of a better description.

“We’ll follow you! I think that will be better for Garnet,” said Sarah and I took the lead.

We went through a small area of woodland and still Poppy was like a steady school horse. It was astounding it was like she’d turned into Buddy.

“If we turn right here, that will lead us back to the yard,” called Sarah.

“Ok!” I replied.

We had come to a crossing with traffic lights. It was such a bizarre experience to wait at a red light on a horse! Garnet was tossing her head, pawing at the ground and then began trotting on the spot but miraculously, Poppy was completely un-bothered by it. She almost looked down her nose at Garnet as if to say, “Hmmph. I am sooo much more mature than you!” It was very odd but I was very relieved!

The lights changed to green and over we went, Poppy walked very calmly as if it was something she did every day.

“Garnet! Stop it!” Garnett danced sideways across the road much to the amusement of the car drivers.

The next road was quieter and eventually we turned onto to a very steep country lane that led to the farm at the back of the yard.

“We need to be careful of the naughty boys!” called out Sarah as we turned onto the lane.

“The what?!” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly over the clattering of hooves.

“There’s a school up here for boys who’ve been kicked out of ordinary schools and sometimes they escape and scare the horses for a laugh!” she shouted.

“Oh great!” a sudden wave of fear washed over me. “What should we do?”

“Don’t know! We’ll have to play it by ear!” said Sarah.

The steep lane was very pretty with woodland to the right and a park on the left which was popular with dog walkers.

Poppy was not particularly thrilled to be marching up a lane in walk and kept trying to go into trot.

“Are you ok to trot?” I called to Sarah and then suddenly we noticed a gang of teenage lads looming ahead.

“Oh shit what to do?!” Sarah shouted.

The gang of boys started shouting obscenities. Nearby was a very ineffectual teacher who was calling for them to “come back inside now” in the most pathetic way. The boys ignored him, obviously, and walked out into the middle of the road and began chucking stones at us.

“F***!” squealed Sarah. “Little ba***rds!”

I saw red. My temper flared up and I let Poppy go into her crazy fast trot. I was so enraged by the boys that I aimed Poppy right for them. Their cool demeanour fizzled away as it dawned on them that I wasn’t going to stop. Oh God, their faces were a picture of horror as they leaped out of the way, just in time I might add because we almost crashed into them.

“You f***ing nutter!” one of them cried out “You could have killed us!”

“That was the idea you little s***s!” I shouted, completely furious.

Garnet quite literally rose to the occasion, rearing and waving her front legs crazily and the boys shrieked in terror and ran off to the safety of their school. How Sarah stayed on was miraculous to say the least, she must have been glued to the saddle as she expertly clung on and managed to get Garnet back on all four legs.

We continued at full speed pounding past the school, zooming around a bend and then it felt safe to slow down. I was shaking from the adrenalin.

“Hahaa! Oh my God that was so scary they won’t do that again!” exclaimed Sarah.

“I feel sick!” I replied.

“Wasn’t Poppy amazing? She was like a police horse!” laughed Sarah.

I had to agree, Poppy had been incredible. She had ploughed on undeterred, despite the idiot boys throwing stones, like a war horse! I was so proud of her and surprised at myself for being so determined under such awful circumstances.

“You were amazing to stay on when Garnet reared!” I said, full of admiration.

“I haven’t a clue how I managed that but at least it scared them off!” said Sarah very modestly.

The rest of the journey back to the yard was, luckily, un-eventful and the stable barn was quiet when we arrived.

“Well, thanks for that!” said Sarah. “What a ride!”

“I think I’m in shock!” I laughed. My legs felt like jelly and my hands were still a bit shaky.

I managed to untack and brush Poppy and then I walked her back to the field.

I was quite overcome with emotion, Poppy had gone against her natural flight mechanism and had thundered into a dangerous situation because I’d asked her to.

I felt guilty because it could have been a different story, she could have got injured but in the moment, there seemed no other option.

I also felt very sorry for those poor boys. They had made me angry because they were behaving like idiots but really, what hope did they have to be any better than that?

I gave Poppy a very big kiss as I turned her into the field and she looked me in the eye and made a lovely little wiffly noise. It felt lovely! There was definitely a connection beginning to blossom….

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