“That’s too much horse for you!” greeted a complete stranger as I walked into the stable yard with Poppy.
As you can imagine I was rather taken aback by this comment and so my response was short and sweet.
“Oh, right?” I replied.
“Yes, I know all about the yard where you’ve come from. You used to ride little ponies didn’t you?” continued the strange, unfriendly woman in a very patronising way.
“Yes, I did and who are you?” I was beginning to feel extremely irritated by this woman for several reasons.
Firstly, who the hell was she and how did she know about me? Secondly, her authoritative tone was triggering all my self-doubts about my ability to deal with Poppy. And thirdly, why was she so perfectly presented?
The mysterious, rude woman was dressed in immaculate cream breeches with a beautiful sapphire-blue, silk shirt. Shiny, black patent leather boots that hurt my eyes to look at them and of course her hair was perfectly coiffured. She even had manicured nails, for God’s sake.
In contrast, I was wearing a pair of scruffy jeans, slightly muddy brown (comfy) boots a faded, pink t-shirt and, what I like to call, my ‘tramp fleece’. My ‘tramp fleece’ is bottle green and very practical and I am proud to say it’s now 25 years old and still going strong! Anyway, I digress.
“I’m Louise and I do dressage.” said the unpleasant, snooty woman. “I expect you’ll just be hacking if you can get to grips with that type of horse? She’s a big step up from a cob so you’ll have to have some lessons, if you can be bothered to stick with her of course.”
I was stunned and rendered speechless by her absolutely appalling manner so I couldn’t reply, I just walked into Poppy’s stable and luckily Poppy walked in with me without any embarrassing nonsense.
Louise sauntered off and came back a few moments later leading her unfortunate horse - a 15.2hh dapple-grey thoroughbred - which she mounted, rather heavily, and trotted off in the direction of the arena.
“All the gear and no idea!” came the laughing voice of Sally who had just walked in. “She’s a right cow isn’t she?!”
“Yes! I can’t believe what she just said!” I was so relieved to see her.
“Oh that’s nothing, you should have heard what she said about Malcy being too scruffy to come here! She actually asked the yard owner to bar me, silly cow! She did the same to your friend, Jack!”
“Never? What an awful woman!”
“She’s not even that good a rider either. She’s never won anything and she’s always banging on about dressage competitions. I think the best she’s ever got is a 4th prize and that was because there were only 4 people in the class so actually she came last!” Sally laughed her head off.
“She made me feel really crap just now and I’ve got the saddle fitter coming this morning.” I said, feeling anxiety welling up in my chest.
“Don’t let that evil witch put you off. Ignore her! You keep doing what you’re doing and bloody prove the silly hag wrong!” I loved Sally’s attitude and it rubbed off. I suddenly felt very determined to prove the ‘evil witch’ wrong.
“Yes, you’re right I bloody well will!” I laughed
“Go for it!” grinned Sally and off she went to get Malcy.
“Right madam,” I said to Poppy, “time to give you a hair brush.”
As usual this involved many a black glare from Poppy and several nips.
“You shouldn’t be such a pushover,” said horrible Louise, who had come back to get something from her stable. “You should give her a firm smack on her nose and a crack with your whip. My horse would never dare to treat me like that!” And before I could reply she marched off back to the arena.
I was boiling with rage!
“Who the hell does she think she is?!” I shouted out loud.
I looked at Poppy, she looked back at me and in her eyes, I saw no malice, just fear and sadness.
“What good would it do if I gave you a smack?” I asked her. “Nothing,” I continued “it would just make you worse wouldn’t it?”
Poppy remained silent and continued to look at me. I’d like to think that she had understood the conversation that had just happened and that I chose not to hit her. I will never know, but I did make some interesting observations.
Poppy was fine when I groomed her left side, but she hated her right side being touched, mainly behind her shoulder and mostly where the girth would be. So I brushed her more gently and she breathed a sigh of relief and began to eat her hay.
I felt that this was a good step forward so I continued, still very gently, and she wasn’t bothered at all by the time I’d finished.
When it came to brushing her face that was a whole new ball-game! She became very nervy and snorty and stretched her head up high, like a giraffe.
“Hmmm,” I said, “Did somebody hurt your face I wonder?” I put gentle pressure on her headcollar and eventually she lowered her head.
“I’m going to gently brush your face,” I told her and I very gently brushed her cheek twice. Her eyes were wide with fear and she pulled away so I stopped and stood back.
“That wasn’t such a terrible ordeal was it?” I asked her.
Poppy looked thoughtful but happy and that made me feel happy too.
“Ok that’s enough on your face,” I said “we’ll work up to that slowly.”
“Grace! I’m here!” called a voice, making me jump. I looked over the stable door to see Leon, the saddle-fitter.
“Well this is a step up for you!” he greeted (in a friendly way, not patronising like horrible Louise. I’d known Leon for years)
“Yes! Oh my God I can’t believe I’ve ended up with this horse!” I replied and then poured out the whole sorry tale.
Leon laughed his head off and told me I was an idiot!
“Never mind, I’m sure it’ll work out ok and if not, run for the hills! Bring her out and tie her up here, let’s have a look at her.” he said, cheerily as I led Poppy over to a long bar, in the middle of the indoor stable barn, where everyone tied up their horses to groom etc.
For some reason, Poppy took an instant dislike to Leon and she refused to stand still. I was very embarrassed as it showed me up for the inexperienced person that I was. It was like she was doing a tap dance and I had to hang on to her lead rope with all my strength.
Amazingly, Leon managed to get her measured and luckily the saddle I’d bought, for my previous loan pony, fitted Poppy really well with only a few minor adjustments. So we were ready to go!
“You’re not seriously going to ride that horse are you?” asked Leon in disbelief.
“Yes I am!” I replied. Even though Poppy was behaving like a stressed, young racehorse dancing around and bashing into things, I instinctively felt that she would be quiet as soon as I was sitting on her.
I felt it was now or never to take the plunge and ride out solo - obviously not a decision I would have made if I’d had more time to think it through!
Leon waited, his face a picture of horror, while I led Poppy to the mounting block and got on. Luckily my intuition had served me well, as she instantly relaxed and walked out of the barn like a seasoned trekking pony.
I felt like sticking a finger up as we passed Louise who was on her way back into the barn but I kept my dignity and ignored her. The look of surprise on her face was enough pleasure for me!
“Oh God! What am I doing?!” Fear suddenly pinged into my head as we approached the road outside the safety of the yard. “Oh my God I am riding this massive horse on my own!” We managed to cross the road and I realised we were heading for the Council Estate.
Fear caused me to unconsciously grip tighter with my knees and my hands and of course - as you all know - this transferred instantly to Poppy. She grew several inches taller as she raised her head in fear of whatever it was I was scared of and her strides became quick and choppy.
“Oh my God this is terrifying!” my brain was exploding with all the millions of things that could go wrong. By now I was also aware that I didn’t have a clue where we were, as we had ventured quite far into the estate.
Poppy went up another gear, marching along at top speed, snorting, ears pricked looking for danger. The veins in her neck and shoulder became prominent and beads of sweat began to appear on her smooth hair. I looked at my hands and suddenly understood what the term ‘white knuckle ride’ actually meant.
“Breathe, Grace! Breathe!” Instructed the sensible part of my brain. So I breathed deeply, relaxed my legs and relaxed my hands.
Thank God, after a few minutes, Poppy responded. She began to slow down and I continued to breathe deeply.
“Now that’s a fine-looking horse!” said an old man who was walking along the pavement nearby. “Had a mare similar many years ago!”
There was a nice energy about the man so I asked Poppy to halt and miraculously she did. The man came over to see her.
“You were looking a bit worried!” he laughed. “New horse is she?”
“Yes!” I squeaked, relieved to talk. “And I’m only used to cobs!”
“Ah well you’ll be alright it just takes time to adjust. She’s a beauty what’s her name?”
The pleasant chatter soothed my nerves and we walked along together while the old man, who was called Jim, told me all about his life as a traveller and breeding horses and how he now lived in a house in the council estate. He certainly knew a lot about horses and presently we arrived outside his house.
“Come and have a look at my wagon!” he said and without thinking I dismounted and led Poppy down his drive. I don’t normally wander into strangers’ gardens, but the man had made me feel so relaxed, I felt it was ok.
In his back garden was the most beautiful, traditional Gypsy caravan. He was very proud of it as it had been in his family for generations. His wife came outside and she was very taken with Poppy.
“This lass has just got this horse and she’s a bit nervous!” Jim informed his wife. She laughed but in a kind way and brought me a piece of cake which Poppy ate before I could get a mouthful.
The old couple found that very amusing and made a big fuss of Poppy. It was really very lovely and Poppy clearly loved the attention.
“I suppose I’d better be heading back,” I said, nerves rising again as I remembered I was lost.
“I’ll walk with you if you like? It might help your nerves!” said Jim.
“Oh God that would be great because I haven’t got a clue where I am!” I admitted, feeling embarrassed.
The walk back to the yard was lovely and relaxing thanks to Jim’s stream of chatter about horses. Poppy was relaxed because I was relaxed and I felt so much better.
“Right here we are, now don’t get lost again!” laughed Jim as he went on his way.
Poppy and I meandered leisurely up the driveway to the yard feeling very happy and it was perfect timing as Louise was just leaving. I smiled sarcastically at her and she pulled a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp which gave me tremendous satisfaction!
Of course, I knew I owed it all to my new friend, Jim, but Louise didn’t know that.
“We survived!” I said to Poppy as I led her into the stable to untack her. She lowered her head and blew on my face which made me cry with relief and happiness. It felt like such a huge achievement to have gone out alone and come back alive! Thank God for Jim!