The following morning, I arrived at the yard early in order to avoid seeing people. As soon as I drove through the gate a wave of nausea welled up in my stomach.
“Oh my God!” I said out loud to myself.
I walked into the indoor barn where all the stables were and realised that Poppy was the only one stabled. All the other horses were out 24/7 as it was summer. (Obviously, I use the word “summer” in the loosest sense of the word as it is England and summer generally only lasts for two days.)
I looked at Poppy. She looked at me. I didn’t have a clue what to do! I had never had to do any of the actual looking after of a horse ever in my life. The previous ponies I loaned were on full livery so all I had to do was groom, tack up and ride.
“Oh my God!” I said once again.
“What’s up luv?!” said Jack in her Yorkshire accent, as she walked into the barn with her arms full of tack.
“Oh, thank God you are here!” I said, so relieved I could have cried. “I don’t know what to do! I’ve never had to look after a horse before!
“Are you serious?!” laughed Jack.
“Yes! I have literally no idea!”
“Bloody hell you big lump!”
Poppy kicked on the door and gave me a very meaningful stare.
“She’s hungry you’d better give her a haynet.” said Jack matter-of-factly.
“How do I do that?” I asked, feeling like a total imbecile.
“Oh my God Grace! Have you really never made a haynet?!” Jack was very amused by my ineptitude so she laughed and took me over to a bale of hay on a pallet which had a sign next to it saying “Poppy”.
“Each horse has its’ own hay so this is Poppy’s.” Said Jack. “Now you need a net, you can borrow one of mine.”
I am embarrassed to admit that at the age of 35 I had my first lesson in filling a haynet.
And then came the dreaded moment of having to go into the stable to tie it up – again something I had no clue how to do.
As soon as I was back in front of the stable with the haynet, Poppy started kicking the door and stamping her feet, flailing her head around very expressively. It was terrifying!
“What happens if I open the door and she runs out?!” I yelled. “You go in! You’re tougher than me!”
“No way! I’m not going in there she's your horse now!” exclaimed Jack stepping backwards.
“But you got me into this mess!” I replied.
“Go on I dare you to just do it!” said Jack with a malevolent grin.
There was no other option. I took a deep breath, decided that I was ‘the boss’, slid open the bolt and opened the door. Poppy stepped backwards- phew!- and allowed me to go in and then she sprang forwards and dived into the hay eating hungrily, pulling at the net madly. It was a battle to keep hold of it and tie it up while Jack shouted instructions.
I dashed out of the stable, relieved to be in one piece.
“Phew!” I said and just at that moment in came Veronica, this time wearing pink, silk pyjamas with silver stars and muddy, green wellington boots. It was a very interesting ‘look’!
“Good morning! Good morning!” she greeted cheerily in her posh voice and then she tottered off to the tack room singing ‘The Long and Winding Road’ in an opera style.
“Quick!” said Jack, excitedly. “Let’s tack up and follow her!” and before I could reply, she dashed out of the barn to get her horse.
“Oh my God!” I said to myself yet again. I was not relishing the thought of grooming and tacking up let alone actually riding Poppy but the realisation dawned on me that I had no other option. Nobody else was going to come and look after this horse- it was my responsibility now. So I took a deep breath, set my mind to it and walked into the stable with determination. Poppy ignored me and continued eating. Phew!
Poppy had one of the few ‘posh’ stables which had its’ own tack and feed room at the back and her owner had left her with everything she needed thank goodness.
Step one – get her head collar on. That felt so weird because I just wasn’t used to dealing with a) such a giant horse and b) such a sporty horse. Luckily, she wasn’t bothered as she was so busy eating that she didn’t really notice me putting the headcollar on.
Step two- groom her. That proved to be quite a difficult experience because she seemed to hate it and came at me with her great big scary teeth! Yikes!
Step three- clean her feet. I was very nervous about that bit, I had visions of getting my head kicked in but thankfully she understood what I wanted to do and gave me her feet very politely. They were massive feet, like dinner plates!
Step four- tack up. This was not so easy as she had all sorts of faffy gadgets that I wasn’t used to. Her bridle had a weird looking bit and an extra strap thing to keep her mouth shut which she clearly didn’t like at all. She waved her head around, rolling her eyes, and cracked me in the face.
“Ow!!” I yelled, rubbing my cheek. I was cross, but in her eyes, I could see she was very unhappy, so I unbuckled that strap and she relaxed.
The next bit of kit was a martingale, traditionally used to stop the horse from throwing its’ head up. I didn’t have a clue how to put that on and I didn’t like the thought of it anyway so I didn’t bother with that!
The saddle was weird. It was like a cross between an English saddle and a western saddle and was very heavy. Poppy bit my bum when I put it on so I figured she didn’t like the saddle either.
“I’m sorry!” I said to her. “I’ll get you a nicer saddle but today this is all we’ve got.”
Poppy stared at me and nipped me again as I tightened the very stiff, leather girth. It was a gentle nip, so, again, it felt like a communication of “I’m not happy”.
All this stuff had come from the previous loaner, not the owner.
Eventually she was ready and it felt like my first small achievement.
Jack was ready with her horse, a beautiful brown and white Gypsy cob called Buddy, standing quietly in his usual zen kind of way. She tied him at the bar in the middle of the barn and helped me get Poppy over to the mounting block.
Poppy was very nervy and wouldn’t stand still. She was dancing around like a young racehorse and it took several attempts (with both of us holding her) to get her to stand near enough to the mounting block for me to get on. The first attempt was going well, Jack was standing near her head, I put my foot in the stirrup but just as I lifted up, Poppy did a wide sidestep leaving me doing the splits in mid-air momentarily followed by a terrible flop onto the ground. Ouch! Looking back, I am amazed I got on her. I must have gone into auto pilot mode. Something inside me made the decision that it would be ok and that I could do this, so I did. As soon as I was on she immediately settled. It was a relief! Phew!
Jack leaped on in her usual cowboy style and off we went.
“Oh my God this feels so weird!” I said.
“She’s massive isn’t she? Are you ok?” asked Jack.
“I think so!” I replied.
Poppy was very forward going, unlike the chilled-out cobs I was used to, and she was very nervy, looking around at everything which I found a bit unsettling.
Opposite the yard, on one side, was a road which led into beautiful countryside and a very pretty village with quaint stone cottages. On the other side there was a large and quite bleak, council estate. This is where we were heading.
“Why are we going this way?” I asked as Poppy decided to do a little jog on the spot for no apparent reason. I took a deep breath to settle myself and that settled her.
“This is where Veronica will be going,” Jack replied “so we’ll hide in the bus terminus and then we’ll follow her!”
“The bus terminus?!” It sounded completely mental but we literally pulled into a large bus shelter and waited for Veronica.
It was actually a really good experience because I was terrified at the prospect of being near buses with Poppy in case she went berserk. I took another deep breath and focussed on where I wanted her to stand, relaxed my hands and legs and miraculously she didn’t turn a hair! Buses came and went and she stood quietly even though Buddy was a bit on his toes. Poppy watched people coming and going and enjoyed the attention from passers-by. I began to feel slightly more confident.
“There she is! Oh my God she’s still in her pyjamas!” Jack guffawed and nearly slipped off her horse.
I was gobsmacked. Veronica was riding along, on a very pretty black horse, in public, wearing pyjamas and still singing The Long and Winding Road. Every now and then she would call out a hearty “Good morning!” to amused on-lookers but strangely she didn’t appear to notice us. Jack was in orange high-viz, I was in pink and we both had large horses. How she didn’t see us was a mystery.
We followed at a distance on the wide grass verge of a very busy road and I focussed on my breath and letting my legs relax. Lorries and buses sped past and Poppy was absolutely amazing. She literally was not bothered at all it was incredible. I was so busy thinking ‘Wow!’ that I didn’t notice we were turning into a large shopping centre until we were in the carpark.
“What the hell are we doing here?!” I asked in surprise.
“She’s going shopping!” Jack laughed.
Sure enough, Veronica got off her horse, tied her to a dog ring in the wall, and went into Tesco.
“Oh my good God what is she doing?!”
“She’s bloody mad!” Jack was crying with laughter. “Oh no I think I’ve pee’d myself! That’s what comes of having three kids!” And she laughed even more as a streak of wet travelled down her jodhpurs.
A group of kids flocked around Veronica’s horse and patted her and presently out came Veronica (in her pyjamas) with a bag of shopping. She got back on her horse and rode back to the yard still singing and still apparently unaware of our presence.
It was the weirdest hack I’d ever been on.
Once back at the yard Veronica suddenly seemed to see us and she asked if we’d had a nice ride! It was most peculiar. However, by that point I didn’t care about mad Veronica because I was so full of joy at the fact I’d successfully ridden scary Poppy through a busy council estate to a shopping centre in heavy traffic and not ended up in A+E!
I gave Poppy the first kiss of many and she almost smiled. She looked me in the eye and [probably] said “Well you’ve passed today’s test but you’re still on probation”……