I had previously posited that horse riding cannot be all that difficult. My opinion was formed standing at a number of local Meets on foot.
Why did I think this? Well, some of those mounted appeared so ancient I doubted they could tackle a stepladder let alone a living animal. And at the other end of the spectrum were those so young it seemed unlikely they could toddle through a line of cones on their own two feet yet, again, here they were mounted and having a great time.
This unlikely lot then finish their drinks, grab a sausage roll and bounce off into the open countryside. There is no fleet of following firemen, first-aiders or ambulances so they must all manage. It’s self-evident. If they can manage then so can I.
So where does this leave me? Mid-thirties (*cough), fit (*cough cough) with relatively good coordination (*coughing fit). They say the hunting fraternity admire those who learn to ride as an adult. They also universally agree your parents are to be soundly criticised as failures. Learning to ride over the age of 16 is tough, I was told. I said "nonsense!". We all know it can only be a question of persistence and time in the saddle.
Ah, those were the days. I have since come to understand that, while my assumptions were broadly true, the new learner is hampered by the unavoidable fact the damn animal will move under its own influence.
I will fall and I will not bounce like those nine-year olds. I will slip dramatically and suddenly over a shoulder and slam unceremoniously into the ground; no tuck and roll. Oh no sir, not I. No agile correction and a relieved chuckle. Just thwack! And it hurt. But I cannot spend time in the saddle if I quit after one toss. True, I will never sleep peacefully on my right shoulder ever again but at least I can now get on and off a horse (planned and unplanned) and I can, in some sense, get the thing to move with me on top. Man and beast together in an uneasy union.
I have since learned that a horse's movements are not entirely random and/or malicious. On that occasion the poor animal was reacting to a confusing array of foot, hand, weight and audible cues. It must be very confusing from his perspective;
"Charge!" said weight and foot.
"Slowly!" said the reins.
"Please GOD stop!" was the actual screaming or, as we riders say, my ‘voice aid.’
No, there is no dignity in a middle-aged man learning to ride. It is humbling. Children mounted on rocket ships giggled as I once rode into a fence post. On another occasion the horse became so confused with my directions it stopped moving entirely (in hindsight this was a kindness). I’ve had hand-shaking fear as I leapt a four-inch Peppa Pig show jump (and fallen before it many times). I've been bucked off in my own paddock, and stood on while thanking a horse for a lovely afternoon walk. I’ve had cold sweats and woken in the night shouting "whoooa!". Honestly, it has been traumatic.
But perhaps the very worst experience was bearing the ignominy of my wife circling back with my horse while I clung to a tree overhanging the bridleway we’d just ridden down. I can still see her sheer joyous pleasure in witnessing the sight before her. My legs dangling from the branch, my arms wrapped over the crossing branch, suspending me in the air. #Humiliation.
So, just privately between us, I've been forced to acknowledge that riding is bloody difficult and not at all natural for me. Quite why the horse puts up with any of it is beyond me.
Fairly early on in my lessons it also becomes very clear there’s an added complication if going hunting is my goal. I can complete a British Horse Society introductory course, hack the tri-county area and even learn to pop a log or two (ideally when no-one is looking) but there remains the immutable fact a horse is going to behave very differently when 80 of his friends are all moving at pace through the open landscape following horn and hound.
Hunting is an extreme sport (you raise an eyebrow? Check the death and injury statistics. Snowboarding, heli-skiing and open-ocean paddle boarding are, in an actuarial sense, for wimps). In the end I'll have to go hunting and only then will tyre touch tarmac as they say.
How is one to solve this conundrum? Well this is where I found division in the hunting community’s opinion. Some want you to become very proficient in the saddle before attending a hunt Meet. Others were of the "if you survive you'll learn more in one morning then you ever did before" opinion. Not unsurprisingly I found the people responsible for your and others’ safety (or handling your accidental death) such as hunt secretaries generally hold the former opinion. And the ones who don't held the other.
I decided to split the difference and do as much arena work and hacking as I could between March and August this year. An earnest attempt to cover the basics.
And what was the balance of payments by August? I had the ability to walk, trot and canter (sometimes on my own instruction) in either direction around an arena. I had made it over a few small jumps (and not all of them decorated with Peppa Pig). I could tack up and hack my own ride to a certain degree. Gateways had been handled although not quickly. I’d had one gallop on the beach and a couple of outings on the Downs with the accompanying hacking party ‘geeing things up’ to try and create a bit of a Field atmosphere.
So it was time to decide. Should I chance my luck? Or plod along for another year until the following Autumn when I had more experience?
Faint heart never won fair lady, I say.