I stepped out of my car and was greeted by a strange, thunderous, deep bass rumble.
“What the heck was that?” I wondered, looking around. The noise happened again.
I walked past the stables and scanned the whole area and to my surprise I realised that it was Poppy!
The carpark was at the front of the yard, near the indoor stable barn. The horse field was up a very long track which was at least a couple of hundred yards away, yet there was her big, ginger face poking through the hedge, greeting me with an incredibly loud nicker.
I stood for a moment, stunned. I felt very emotional but in a nice way.
How did she know that I was there and how did she create such a loud noise?
I grabbed Poppy’s headcollar and hurried to get her. Unfortunately, the mad feral ponies were back in their usual place so the first obstacle was to get through their field, in one piece. Damn those ponies! They were so annoying when you were in a hurry. It was a great game for them to come snorting at anyone who dared trespass into their territory and they would spin around and threaten to kick out with both barrels. I wasn’t as athletic as Sally so cartwheels and ‘Flash Dance’ were not in my tool box but I did have some maracas which worked a treat! I shook them vigorously and the ponies turned tail and bolted off to the far end of the field. Phew!
I jogged up the track to the horse field and there was Poppy, standing by the gate, as if she knew I was coming to collect her. It was so bizarre!
As usual though, she moved away as soon as I attempted to put her headcollar on, however it was an improvement because this time she just walked away, she didn’t trot.
“It’s like a dance!” called Sally, startling me. I hadn’t noticed her doing yoga on the inside edge of the field.
“Life is actually like a dance when you think about it,” she continued, stretching up on one leg with her hands clasped behind her back. She wobbled then fell over but credit to her, it didn’t stop her stream of chat. “Sometimes you’re close with your family and sometimes they piss you off so you step back for a while. Think of you and Poppy like a dance!”
Sally was completely bonkers but at the same time it was actually good advice so I considered her words as I followed Poppy around the field for the umpteenth time.
“Whoa” I said, quietly but firmly and once again that worked. I had to say it a few times and keep standing still but I managed to get her headcollar on quicker than previous attempts.
I led Poppy down the track to the barn, aware that my general feeling towards her was that of anxiety. She was so big and athletic, unlike all the ponies I’d ridden as an adult. I was aware of her ability to run very fast and I was aware that we barely knew each other.
The ‘new-ness’ of a horse had never bothered me before and I had been able to connect fairly quickly with the two ponies I had recently finished loaning. But with Poppy there was some invisible barrier and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I was jolted out of my thoughts when suddenly a loud whinny heralded the return of the feral Fell ponies. They ran straight up to us, snorting! Poppy started spinning around as I shook my maracas at them but thank God that worked again and they went haring off. It took a few moments to settle Poppy but finally we got through the ridiculous broken gate and into the safety of the yard.
Grooming and tacking up was, again, a stressful experience but slightly better than before so I felt a bit more positive as I led Poppy to the outdoor school for our first lesson together.
“Well this is a bit different for you isn’t it? She’s a beauty!” greeted Elise, my riding instructor, who was waiting for me in the school.
Elise - who was actually retired but did the odd lesson now and again - had been a race-horse trainer and was very ‘old-school’. She was very tough, straight-talking and brisk but she had a lovely soft centre and always knew how to help you to get through your fears. Elise was, as always, very smartly dressed in dark corduroy trousers and her signature tweed jacket however, she had also decided to wear what I can only describe as the maddest hat I have ever seen in my life. It was a fleece, multi-coloured Jester’s hat but with more ‘tassly’ bit’s if you know what I mean and was completely incongruous with the rest of her outfit.
“That’s an interesting hat!” I said, unable to stop myself from laughing. It was such a ‘zany’ hat, quite the opposite of Elise’s military-style manner.
“It’s fun isn’t it?” agreed Elise, “I love it, it keeps my ears warm!”
Luckily, I didn’t have much opportunity to be distracted by the crazy hat as Elise asked me to start walking with Poppy so that she could see how she moved.
I led Poppy around the school and she became very nervy at the top end which was flanked by a tall, thick hedge line. It was difficult to keep hold of her and I found it quite scary as she snorted and leaped about but then she settled again when we turned the corner and came back down.
“Right well we know where the hotspots are, I thought she wouldn’t like that hedge.” said Elise and she asked me to walk round again, “and be ready for that hedge! Just ignore her behaviour, talk to her and tell her she’s brave!”
Without officially starting the lesson, Elise had taken us both into her capable hands and was teaching me how to gain Poppy’s trust in such a simple way. Just by walking together.
We walked round and round while I spoke to Poppy and soon enough we were able to stop by the hedge and have a little chat. Eventually, Poppy wasn’t nearly as worried about the hedge and I noticed she was much more relaxed. She still gave it ‘a look’ but no other reaction.
“Right! Time to get on!” called Elise, she was standing in the middle of the school with her legs astride and hands on her hips rather like a sergeant-major except for the mad hat that kept bobbing around.
Mounting Poppy was a whole world easier thanks to that simple exercise of walking around together. For the first time, Poppy stood still at the mounting block.
“Wow!” I said “This is the first time she’s stood still while I got on!”
Elise pulled a stern face, “You’re lucky to be alive then, aren’t you?”
I’d not really thought of it before but I realised she was right, unfortunately I couldn’t take her seriously due to her hat, so I just laughed.
“Ok let’s see a walk on a nice loose rein.”
The thought of a loose rein brought fear into my veins even though that was precisely what I had done during the ‘test ride’.
“I daren’t do that!” I squeaked.
“Why?” asked Elise
“Because she might run off with me!” I felt sick at the thought of it.
“Well she won’t run far in here, you big muppet! Look at the tension in her neck. Can you feel how short and choppy her strides are? She’s telling you you’re holding on too tight.”
Elise was absolutely right of course, so I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I’d done it before so I could do it again.
I let go of the reins. Poppy instantly relaxed, lowered her head and took longer, more comfortable strides.
“You see! Now that’s better isn’t it? Well done!” Elise clapped her hands.
We walked around the school several times and everything was going well so I wandered into a bit of a daydream and then suddenly Poppy lurched into a canter, turned sharply across the centre of the school, ran straight for the fence and just as I was thinking “Oh my God she’s going to jump!” she stopped dead! In slow motion I shot forwards out of the saddle. In front of me were the two menacing faces of the ghastly feral ponies who had come to spectate without me noticing. I snatched hold of Poppy’s mane and ended up on her neck and thankfully she froze as I pushed myself back onto the saddle, still clasping her neck for dear life.
“Oh my God!” I was so shocked and relieved to have not fallen off. I was amazed I’d managed to stay on.
“Well done!” said Elise, quickly grabbing hold of Poppy’s bridle. “Where on earth did they come from?”
I was a gibbering wreck for a few minutes but I calmed down eventually. In the mean-time the ponies had a sniff of Poppy and she had a sniff of them and then they all lost interest in each other. The ponies went back to grazing and Poppy appeared to be ready to continue with the lesson. I needed a shot of brandy!
“Right let’s do some walking again and this time be relaxed but alert!” said Elise.
The fact that I’d managed to stay on helped to give me confidence and I realised that in future I needed to remain focussed and not let my mind wander which was a common thing for me.
“Now, let’s get rid of those stirrups, your legs are gripping too tight.”
“What?!” I was horrified.
“Come on you can do it get those feet out!”
I glanced at the ground.
“Yes, it’s a soft landing!” laughed Elise, “Feet out!”
“Oh my God!” I looked around for the ponies who were now busy grazing and not interested in us. I took a deep breath and slid my feet out of the stirrups.
“Great, now just relax and keep walking in the bottom half of the arena so you don’t need to go past the hedge. I’ll make it easy for you!” Elise walked next to us which helped me to feel more confident (not to mention amused by the funny hat). I allowed my legs to let go and relax. After a few circuits, Elise walked back to the centre of the school and silently observed us.
The transformation was incredible. Poppy walked quietly round and round, in both directions, while I relaxed deeper into the saddle and I began to feel much more at ease and happy (with one eye still on the ponies).
“Perfect! Now come towards me and halt,” called Elise. Poppy turned into the middle of the school and halted easily.
“Give yourself and her a pat for being so good,” said Elise.
“Good girl Poppy!” I said, leaning forwards and giving her a big cuddle.
“Right you can dismount now.”
“Is that it?” I was surprised.
“Yes! That’s enough for today. Look how far you’ve come and she’s only young.”
“Is she? I actually don’t know how old she is.” I said as I jumped off.
“She looks about 5 to me. Didn’t her owner tell you her age?”
“She doesn’t know. Her brother-in-law bought Poppy and there’s no age written on her passport but the guy who sold her said she was nearly 10.”
“Rubbish! She looks very young to me but a dentist will be able to tell from her teeth. I’ll have a quick look.”
Elise expertly removed Poppy’s bridle and put her head collar on in 2 seconds flat, opened her mouth, moved her tongue out of the way and had a good look at her teeth. I was very impressed. There was no way I’d voluntarily put my hand inside Poppy’s bitey mouth!
“Yes, she’s definitely around 5 from what I can see. But get a dentist anyway, some of her teeth look a bit sharp.”
I was dumb-struck.
“5?!” I exclaimed. “I’m riding a 5-year-old massive, fast horse?”
Elise laughed. “Yes! She’s between 4 and 5, probably closer to 5.”
“Oh my God! What am I doing? I’m not experienced enough for this!” My brain began firing off all the terrible possibilities of what could happen.
“Nobody is experienced until they’ve had the experience. You’ve done well so far, you’re still alive!” Elise laughed heartily.
“Only just,” I muttered.
“Look, remember that ground-work will be the key to creating your relationship with her. Let’s do a bit of lunging to see how she moves.” said Elise who was forever capable of encouraging me to see what I could do rather than what I couldn’t.
I took Poppy’s saddle off and Elise attached the lunge line to her headcollar and started her off at a walk. I was wondering if Elise would think Poppy was ‘mechanical’ but I said nothing and just stood quietly next to her as she worked Poppy in walk, trot and canter.
“Well she certainly doesn’t need to be told what to do,” said Elise “she moves very nicely.” I watched Elise as she watched Poppy going round and round perfectly.
“I think I’ll just try something,” she said as she asked Poppy to halt – which she did immediately like a machine.
Elise walked up to Poppy and moved her lunging whip close to her. Poppy snorted and leaped sideways into the fence then rebounded and pranced around for a few moments, her eyes white with fear.
“Hmm that’s a bit sad isn’t it? What a reaction!” said Elise. “I can’t be 100% sure but it seems as if Poppy hasn’t been started in a particularly nice way. She shouldn’t be so scared of the whip at any rate.”
“I lunged her last week and noticed she was very mechanical,” I said, feeling a bit sick at the thought of what sort of home Poppy had started out in.
Elise was very sympathetic yet practical and quietly put the lunge whip near Poppy’s shoulder, speaking calmly all the time. At first, Poppy was quivering and she flinched when the whip touched her body. It was horrible to see and it made me feel sad and angry that someone could have been so nasty to her. Elise stood quietly but kept the whip on her. She then ran it over her back, all the while telling Poppy what a clever girl she was. Everything she did was slow and calm and it wasn’t long before Poppy settled down and stopped jumping and quivering.
“She needs to know that this whip is just an extension of your arm and not something to be afraid of,” said Elise, “so I suggest you do this for a couple of minutes each time you bring her in here until she takes no notice of it.”
“Ok” I replied.
“To be honest I think that right now you’re a bit over-horsed but if you put the time in it really won’t be long until you can have some fun together,” she continued.
Elise gave me some exercises to do for homework and made a plan of how to progress.
I felt so relieved that I almost cried. Elise laughed and said she wished she was 20 years younger because she would love to ride her.
“She’ll be excellent at dressage,” she said. “Let’s aim for that, it’ll be great for your balance.”
“Dressage? There’s a really bitchy woman here who does dressage!”
“There always is,” said Elise.
“And coincidentally, here she comes now.” I grimaced.
Louise had a lesson booked immediately after mine and as usual she looked down her nose at me as we walked past each other. I couldn’t care less though as I was feeling so much better about my progress with Poppy.
“Right, you practice what I’ve told you every day no more than 20 minutes and I’ll see you next week. And keep hacking, it’s good for both of you.” said Elise giving me a cheery wave as she walked away with her crazy multi-coloured hat wobbling madly.
I felt very satisfied as I looked at Poppy. She looked back at me and I noticed a faint smile in her mouth. We walked quietly up the track to the field and stopped by the gate. The feral ponies eyeing us with suspicion but from afar thankfully.
“You were very good today and I hope that you enjoyed it.” I said to her. She looked at me thoughtfully so I gave her a kiss and scratched her shoulders and she looked very happy and relaxed as she walked away to graze….