In the saddle

I became one of those horsey kids when I was 11. I remember it clearly, because it happened like some kind of religious awakening. One minute I was eating a Le Snack and idly watching ABC after school, the next minute the first episode of The Saddle Club started rolling and my life was no longer my own.

I sat glued to the screen while Stevie, Carole and Lisa cantered easily up hills on gorgeous thoroughbreds, had tense arguments with Veronica and hugged horses emotionally every few seconds.

The next day, I sat next to my best friend on the bus, and told her that I was going to get horse-riding lessons, and that she should too. In the meantime, we spent every lunch time and recess at primary school galloping around the school oval on imaginary equine friends, our weird lolloping running trying to mimic the gait of a horse with only two legs and no balance.

My parents were amenable to me taking horse riding lessons because a) they didn’t realise how expensive it would be and b) they thought it would be a week-long phase, much like when I started stamp collecting after one of the Sweet Valley Twins did it in a book, or when I pretended my stuffed owl toy was my familiar after reading Harry Potter.

The day my mother drove me out to Mugga Lane Riding School – two dusty arenas, ten or so tired looking quarterhorses and a tiny office – I was a ball of adrenalin-fuelled anticipation. I was wearing the only stretchy pants I had that were close in style to jodhpurs, and had bought boots that I thought looked like riding shoes to try and fit in.

As soon as we got to the reception, the lady behind the desk peered over at my shoes, and tutted.

‘You’ll need to get riding boots for next time, love,’ she said. ‘Those have grips on the bottom – you’ll get your foot stuck in the stirrup if you fall off.’

At this, my mother looked alarmed, and I looked bewildered. Fall off? Stevie, Carole and Lisa always managed to stay in the saddle. I had no intention of falling.

The horse I rode that day was a chestnut mare, whose name I don’t remember. The lesson consisted of me and five other first-timers riding in a line around the arena, while the instructor called to us to put our heels down, thumbs up, shorten our reins, look where we wanted to go and keep a horse-length between us. And keep our heels down. And shoulders back. And elbows by our sides.

I left feeling sore, exhausted and exhilarated. Despite my aching legs and bruised bum, I was addicted.

For the next six years, I went riding every weekend. My parents finally invested in jodhpurs, riding boots, gloves, and my own helmet (after I got nits twice from riding school helmets).

I switched from Mugga Lane to the much more polished and established local Equestrian Centre*, and soon I was volunteering as a stable hand on weekends, and trying to nag my parents into getting me my own horse.

In retrospect, working as a stable hand was definitely a bit of a rort. I got there at 7am each Saturday, and with four or five other starry-eyed horse lovers, would make up feeds, catch the horses, groom them and tack up, and then spend the rest of the day mucking out stalls, polishing saddles, and generally doing menial labour.

The reward? One hour of free riding on a horse above our riding level. All of the horses at the Equestrian Centre were allocated to levels of ability, and the higher up you went, the better the horses got. I was intermediate, so the chance to ride one of the exciting advanced level horses was too much to resist.

I remember a 16 hand tall, pure white gelding Jamie, who I just adored. One day, Jamie stepped into a rabbit hole in the paddock, and broke his leg. After he was put down, we stable hands cried for hours, holding each other and sobbing in a way reminiscent of Justin Bieber fans at the end of a concert (but for a more worthy reason, I would venture).

My favourite horse, though, and the one I rode the most often was Dyson. He was a lolloping, goofy bay gelding, who had the personality of a friendly dog, and an inability to respond to any of my cues when I was riding him. We were an excellent team, and I saw him as one of the few friends I had in what was otherwise, a rather snobby, bitchy environment.

I was one of the only kids who worked as a stable hand who went to a public school. The others girls were prim, well-dressed private school girls who were all friends, and who saw the slightly chubby Indian girl who often wore a Harry Potter t-shirt to riding class as a bit of an embarrassment.

I tried to fit in, but every Saturday morning, I would feel so anxious on the way to the Equestrian Centre at the thought of the snide comments, and lonely lunches, that I began to wonder if it was worth it.

When I was 16, I finally decided to quit horse riding. I had stopped working on the weekends a few months earlier, but the subtle bullying from the other girls still plagued my Saturday lessons. There was nothing too overt, but I had had enough of the snapped commands, the sideways glances, the subtle digs at my clothes, or hair, or weight.

I finished my lesson one day, and decided then and there not to book the next one. It was a difficult decision, but one I deliberately didn’t examine too much. I knew I would miss the horses, but I also felt that I had to stop eventually – who took lessons as an adult, my naïve young self thought? If I wasn’t going to get my own horse, I might as well quit while I was ahead.

That weekend, I advertised all of my riding gear in the newspaper for $100, and sold it to a woman about to enrol her daughter in lessons.

That was it, I thought. There was no going back.

The culture of snobbery in horse-riding might not be a universal issue. Perhaps it was just that school, and those girls. Horse-riding is an expensive hobby, and lots of kids are priced out of lessons. In that way, there is a class divide, and I’m sure that fed into it. But I always felt that the ostracism I got at the Equestrian Centre was partially class-driven, and partially the usual bullying that happens when any group of teenage girls are thrown together. I wasn’t pretty, or particularly interesting, so I was relegated to the bottom of the ladder.

By the time I quit, I was having other misgivings too. I had recently become a vegetarian and was concerned about the ethics of horse-riding. Logically, it stands to reason that any animal would not choose to have uncomfortable, restrictive harnesses put on them, and be forced to carry a human around on their back.

That said, having ridden for years, I also knew that a real bond of trust and understanding exists between good riders and horses, where there is never any need for kicking, or pulling on the reins – rather there is a subtle communication between both parties that’s unrivaled by any other relationship.

It’s a difficult thing to justify, and I still don’t know where I stand on horse-riding in terms of ethics, but I have decided to start riding again.

I’ve had several private lessons at a different school, and the feeling of being back in the saddle is a strange but exhilarating one. As an adult, I am untouched by any snobbery that might exist at the school (and I haven’t noticed any myself).

But more importantly, taking it up again on my own terms has meant that I can direct my horse-riding journey based on what I want, and what I’m ready for.

People who aren’t ‘horsey people’ are often weirded out by how intense those of us in the know can get about horses. It’s ok – we know it’s hard to understand. I mean, I don’t get why people want to drive Formula 1 cars, but I respect that there’s something about it that just pulls you in.

For me, it’s the connection you can build with a horse – not that different from the relationship you might have with your dog, or cat, or pet iguana. There’s a sense of trust, and understanding that grows. Why else do so many fairy-tale heroes have a trusty steed?

It can be strange to think of the things that have shaped you throughout your life – inevitably, when people find out I ride horses they exclaim, ‘I didn’t have you pegged as a horsey kid!’

My obsession might have started from a chance encounter with The Saddle Club one afternoon, but it definitely feels like it’s here to stay.

*Name changed slightly.

Image: Zoya at age 15 with Gypsy

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