Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First hunt of the season!

Harry and I have our first hunt of the season - and absolutely love it! I always forget how thrilling the first sight of hounds is - Harry seems to agree! I also always forget about getting Harry in, scraping the mud off him, plaiting, boxing and actually getting to the meet - and that fact that, although I don't actually feel nervous, my bowels disagree!

But we make the meet on Ranmore Common with no problems. I gulp down a stirrup cup while Harry stands like a lamb, eyes wide and shining, taking it all in. Then we're off, trotting down the road like the clappers! It's been raining for what seems like weeks so the going is wet and slippery, and one rider has a fall on a steep turn in some woodland even before we jump into the first field!

We hare around the common, up and down hills, through bushes and woodland. It is really, really muddy. At one point we're galloping towards a right turn with extremely deep going, and coppiced trees on either side. Harry spots a very narrow gap between trees and alters course to avoid the mud. "No!" I shriek. I have a morbid fear of getting my knees caught. He swerves, and hits one of the saplings chest-on. It falls like, well, a falling tree, and we stop dead. Harry takes a few deep breaths, steps sideways, and gallops on!

After three and a half hours of this, we call it a day and head back to the car park with two other riders. My adventures are not over. By the time we reach the lorry, Harry has bonded with his two new mates and refuses to load. It doesn't help that I stand limply on the ramp, pulling at him weakly and saying "pleeeease get on, Harry." When I finally remember all the advice I have heard and read about loading ie look where you're going, say it like you mean it, don't get in front of the horse etc, he gets on and tucks into his haynet, no problem.

We head for home, knackered, but happy. Roll on the next one!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Harry the show cob!

It's our local riding club's Open Show, so I bathe Harry three times in two days, plait him the night before and put on a rug with a neck cover - he looks so cute, he must be in the running in the cob class!

Even better, he is still pretty clean on the day of the show. Then we see 'the opposition' - an immaculate piebald cob and rider, picture perfect and with the manners of an angel (the cob, I mean). However, Harry is really good in the ring, we're pulled in second, and I try to keep some distance between us and the perfect pair - we look so dirty and hairy in comparison (both of us). Harry gives the judge a good ride, so we stay second, and I'm very pleased, especially when I find out later that the winner is a HOYS qualifier.

Next up, working hunter. There's really nice jumping course, including rustics with live tree branches intertwined in the wings and a bank to jump off. This causes some problems, but I warm Harry up vigorously, then do the course in a very smart canter - hunting pace I think they call it - and we actually go clear. Hooee!

There are four other clears, so we enter the ring for the show judging phase, and Harry starts to get bored. Walk and trot, fine, canter – "do I have to keep doing this?" I get very red in the face, and we end up in 4th place, but I am delighted. It's the first time we've ever gone clear and got anywhere near the placings in a working hunter class.

Now if I could just improve my turnout by about 2,000 per cent!!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Eventer's special

Harry and Red and Jane and I have an evening lesson with Fiona, our trainer, who is an eventer - and she builds us an Eventer's special course in the school!

First we try a corner, a bit like a parallel, but at one end the poles rest on a single barrel, forming a long V-shape to jump across. First we do it right in the middle...Harry is cool with this, as is Red. The we try it much closer to the narrower, pointy end of the corner. Harry charges into it with his usual enthusiasm, I lean forward - and he swerves a bit, half jumping the barrel. It's a good thing there wasn't a flag on it, or we'd have taken it with us! Once I have reminded myself to stay upright and riding forward until we get to the fence, we are fine.

We try a dog leg - two angled jumps with a loop between them. I have to wrench Harry between the two as he's not that quick on his feet - not pretty, but he jumps tham. Fiona points out we could have made the loop much bigger, and jumped much better - we try that, and she's right! We tackle a stile type skinny fence, and then a course - great, great, great. Finally we do a water tray under a jump – no worries, though Red has a good look right into it before jumping it.

We have to stop because it's going dark. Brilliant fun, and with just a few poles and wings!

Fabulous sponsored ride

We take the trailer to the Hamptons sponsored ride and, hallelujah, Red has settled! It is a fabulous course – they're right when they say it's 10 miles of glorious Surrey countryside, the views are stunning. And as we go fairly late in the day, we have this beautiful estate to ourselves most of the time.

Some of the jumps are quite big, (well, to us) at a good solid 2ft 6ins or so. I miss a few of the biggest ones near the start, then as Harry gets his jumping boots on we try some bigger ones, and he does them really well. Red is calm, too - no bucking or shooting off. He has a great jump and flies some of the fences in great style. Harry hardly ever stops cross country, but at one biggish, solid hedge, he swerves away several strides from it - he seems scared of a large, white-painted tyre that forms one of the jump's wings. "I'll just have a look at it" I say to Jane, luckily - the hedge has a great big drop on the other side. We take the smaller option, just a little step down.

Harry flies the last few fences and finishes with his neck and chest covered in foam – I must stop using so much saddle soap on his breastplate. I give him a huge cuddle and lots of mints...he's such a star!

We mentally pat ourselves on the back as we head for home – our double cross country weekend could have been an exhausting nightmare, instead it was exhausting, but exhilarating!

Hot cross country

Jane and I ride the hour hack to our cross country competition venue, in a further attempt to tire her horse Red out so he won't act up.

It's boiling hot, and we have to walk the course when we get there, at top speed – I look like a beetroot, and feel like a boiling beetroot! We have quite a wait until we go, and warm up gingerly. Because of this, I start to feel nervous, and transfer it to Harry, who swerves about a bit and does his 'Tasmanian Devil' act – opening his mouth, sticking his tongue out and snorting like a dragon. Red seems fine for a while, then someone finishes the course and shoots past him, whereupon he shoots off, too, and proceeds to buck and play up.

Happily, both horses settle down as they proceed round the cross country course. Red has just one stop, as does Harry - caused by me turning and talking to one of the jump judges, doh! I quite enjoy it, but resolve to only warm up fairly briefly next time so we stay calm and relaxed.

I lend Harry to a friend to ride back to the yard and feel relieved to be in a car going home. Cross country is great, but on a hot autumn day it can make you (and your horse) sweat like a pig!

Trouble looming?

My riding mate Jane and I planned a v busy weekend... cross country training Saturday, Hamptons sponsored ride Sunday. Too much fun to miss, but quite tiring separately – knackering one after the other!

We have a lesson the Thursday before, and my cob Harry is really quite good – Jane's horse Red, really quite bad! He's a cheeky boy and has been bucking quite a bit recently. He bucks and naps in the lesson, and trainer Fiona says Jane must be firm with him and keep riding him positively forward. This she does for about 40 minutes, then Fiona takes over, much to Red's annoyance. 'We must work him hard before the weekend, and nip this naughtiness in the bud" she says.

The next evening, Friday, they both ride him again in the school to wear him out a bit - will it work on Saturday?!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two clear rounds - yay!

Harry and I go to a new venue to do a bit of show jumping at the local Pony Club's annual show.

It's an early start, groan, but a lovely sunny day, the horses load well, and the course looks great. It's 2ft 3ins, so eminently jumpable, but solid and well-build, thank goodness - Harry has little respect for spindly jumps!

He is very calm and well behaved as we warm up - often, he has a bit of a squeak and a nap to start with. His friend Red is the naughty boy this time, bucking and shying - I wonder if they decide who's turn it is to embarass Mummy on the way to the show?

Harry does a lovely calm clear round, our first for a while, and I'm delighted. Red carries on being naugty, bucking before, after and during jumping, which looks horribly unseating. Sure enough, Jane is unseated as he swerves away from one jump. Undeterred she climbs back on, and finishes her round – respect.

Harry gets another clear in the jump off, but we are way down the placings, eighth I think - our round took about twice as long as the winner's! Pony Club kids - they're just too hard to beat!

Embarrassing injuries no 3

I've already blogged about Harry's first two embarrassing injuries - to his willy and his bum! He recently had another one, in his armpit!!

The 'injuries' aren't glamorous performance ones. They always seem to happen when I'm just thinking 'hmmm, Harry's getting a bit smelly, time for a bath'. They're caused by scratching - on a post, his field shelter, with his hoof etc. I think he did this one with his teeth, just in front of the girth area and behind his right elbow, as I first noticed it when he kept swinging his head round out on a hack and hitting me on the boot.

It was nothing serious, just a few scabs that healed very quickly, so I Hibiscrubbed them and dressed them with aloe gel, which usually does the business.

Memo to myself: don't just listen to what Harry tells me, smell him, too!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Roll 'em, roll 'em, roll 'em!

Show jumping day is lovely, bright but not too hot. Harry climbs into the trailer without hesitation, then is surprised - I think he hardly noticed loading until he was in!

We enter the 2ft 3ins class and are quietly confident, thanks to our great schooling session two days earlier. Too confident, it seems...we have the second, third and fifth fences down! "I'll just follow you around, shall I?" says the ring steward, collecting our scattered poles. Having pushed and pulled too much in the past, now I think I'm trying too hard to not interfere, so Harry makes very little effort at all. We're getting too close to the jumps, then rolling the poles on the way up - guaranteed to bring 'em down.

Our partners in crime, Jane and Red, perform brilliantly! They are in the 2ft 6in class, which Jane is slightly apprehensive of, but they do a lovely clear, then a fast four faulter in the jump-off, and are second!

'Why don't you take some tips from Red?" I ask Harry as I give him a cuddle before we head for home. He just frisks me for mints!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jump to it

Harry's had a week off while I was on holiday, we're show jumping on Saturday - and haven't jumped for ages, eek! So today we have a jumping lesson with Fiona, our trainer. I always think 'trainer' sounds rather high powered for what we do, maximum 2ft 6in jumps, but hey, we can think big.

We do some poles and gridwork, which Harry loves, but he has a tendency to barrel over them like a steam roller, knocking poles flying. So Fiona changes the grid frequently – hard work for her, but it keeps Harry concentrating.

She builds some quite tricky sequences: three cross poles with placing poles and ground poles between the fences. They look quite daunting – all those poles glinting in the sunshine - but Harry tackles them with gusto. At one point he takes charge and meets the first completely wrong, I cling on for dear life and we jump through the grid with speed but a complete absence of style.

Then Fiona builds a double which looks nice and inviting, but tells us we'll be coming into the side of the double and jumping the second jump only, at an angle, then changing the rein and approaching the other, at an angle, before we can jump the complete double straight on. "Don't do the first jump at an angle and pass the second jump, or you'll teach him to run out," she says.

Well, guess what I do? Jump the first at an angle...really nicely, but wrong! We try again and Harry is an angel – he seems to love the challenge, popping over them all without attempting to run out.

Phew, thank goodness sometimes my horse is cleverer than me!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tea for three

We're supposed to be going on a picnic ride with the Riding Club, but our hostess was, apparently, 'slightly struck' by lightening, poor thing! So Harry and I hack out with Jane and Red, our regular companions, plus Kelly, editor of www.horseandrideruk.com, and her Portuguese firecracker, Alvito.

The last time the three boys met was out hunting, which Red and Alvito found almost ubearably exciting. Considering this, they are very good and more or less contain themselves for a fabulous, long ride over Hankley and Frensham commons.

Red occasionally gets his head down and his heels in the air, but with a few 'Get ups' and Oh, no you don't's', Jane stays in the plate. Alvito prefers going sideways when things get hairy, at one point hiting a tree trunk with an audible 'thwack'. Harry of course considers this behaviour a ridiculous waste of effort, and stays up with his colleagues. Occasionally he employs his amazing, super-fast trot when the others are cantering quite quickly. His feet hardly touch the ground and you hardly have to rise to the movement – I swear he must be part Icelandic!

We bring our picnics - what's left of them. The dog ate most of Jane's, Kelly consumed hers before she started and my one ham sandwich doesn't go far. The horse's sniff but refuse delicious fruit salad - pineapple, yuk!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Endurance excitement

For a bit of a change - an endurance training session. “This can’t be too difficult, like a hack in fast trot,” I tell Harry. How wrong can you be?

We arrive at the car park on top of the common and it’s windy, very windy. There have been two pupils before us, with very big horses. The trainer straps a heart rate monitor to each horse, and tells their riders to go off for a play.

Well, their heart rates must have gone sky high! One rider came back without her horse: he had spooked and she’d taken a tumble. The other horse and rider returned safely, but he kept backing rapidly around the car park. A bull terrier with a massive studded breastplate keep erupting from a camper van, making us all jump. And horror, the riderless horse had disappeared on goodness knows how many thousands of acres of common.

Harry and I, and Kelly and Alvito (Horse&Rider’s Website Editor and her horse) make a pathetic attempt at finding him, but he’s gone without trace. The trainer and owner finally track him down: he has crossed a really fast road and is halfway home when someone caught and stabled him. Phew, reprieve!

So Kelly and I have a go at endurance, both a bit spooked now, too. Harry stands like a rock while the monitor is strapped on, but his heart rate shoots up – interesting, perhaps he thinks it’s the vet! Alvito leaves the car park and Harry’s heart stays hammering away while we follow them at some distance at a brisk clip.

WHAM! Harry slams the brakes on as a red deer pops out in front of him. Thank goodness, he keeps his head up so I don’t fall of, and we proceed. EEK! Kelly appears at gallop behind us (she must have been on a parallel track) – she has seen a pervert in the bushes!

We proceed together, post haste, and meet up with the trainer, where she shows us how to use ‘slosh bottles’ to cool our horses – so that’s what fabric conditioner bottles are really for! Harry loves this, Alvito doesn’t.

We ride back together to the original car park, calming down quite a bit. We decide it’s not endurance riding that’s scary, just the circumstances that we encountered it in.

We’ll try a 12 endurance mile ride for starters: let’s hope the deer, bull terriers and perverts stay at home.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Harry and the sabre-toothed tiger

Harry is fantastic in traffic. Battered pick-up with rattling trailer spilling all sorts of junk, no problem. Long line of whirring bicycles, no problem. Massive tractor with claw-like attachment, no problem. However, when said claw-like attachment is left on the common, it’s a sabre-toothed tiger!!

Harry spots it from afar… “what the *%@$*!” His head is so high he could be a baby giraffe (he’s the right colour). His ears are so stiff they could have been starched. “Let’s just approach slowly,” I suggest. “No way, missus!” I persuade him forward. He offers the slowest possible mince, head swinging to give it one evil eye after the other, snorting like a grampus. We have a few pretty impressive full passes away from it – bet we couldn’t do them in a dressage test!

I turn Harry to face ‘the claw’, and he stamps his forefoot at it! Gives a deep, coughing stallion snort!! Harry is challenging the sabre-toothed tiger to a duel!!!

I take the safe option and give it a very wide berth. Unusually, it takes Harry some time to calm down. I offer him a mint, and he forces it down hurriedly whilst still keeping his body on Red Alert and his eyes out on stalks.

To this day, Harry is wary at the same place on the common : ‘Here Be Tygers!’

Monday, July 6, 2009

A week away

I have a week away in France, absolutely fabulous, but have put on about a stone thanks to gorgeous food and drink! Harry is ridden by my trainer a couple of times while I'm away to keep his hoof in. Apparently he was really good - he hasn't much choice, she's a fantastic rider!

He whinnies when I go to catch him, which is really sweet. He's got a very loud voice, and makes people jump out of their skin if they're standing right next to him. As always after a break, I'm amazed at how solid, alive and well, beautiful, Harry is in his stocky, powerful way.

We go out for a hack. It's hot, windy and a bit rainy. He seems very alert, but behaves impeccably. I had my back 'crunched' by a chiropractor before I went on holiday, which did it the world of good and now I feel absolutely great, cantering along in the sunshine.

It's good to be back on board - and Harry seems to agree!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Harry puts his hooves up

Visit Harry the day after Riding Club Camp with my husband. It's a lovely, hot day and he's in his field shelter, chilling out and avoiding the flies. As he hears our approach he pops his head and forelegs out.

Apple? He takes it appreciatively, and embarks on minutes of noisy munching and chomping, producing gallons of green foam - we stand back. Then he comes right out of the shelter, giving the rail on the ground a merry bang with one of his hind hooves. "You said he was a bit careless!" comments hubby.

Harry proceeds to investigate him for more treats, and Rob's a bit wary - a nip in the wrong place could be painful! "Hold your hands out flat to show him you've got nothing left" I suggest. It works! "He's a clever b****r" says Rob.

We leave him in peace and he accompanies us to the gate, as though he was seeing us off the premises, then returns to his field shelter. "Nice to see you, now I can go back to sleep."

Riding Club Camp

It's been more years than I care to admit since I went to Pony Club Camp, so I jump at the chance of going to Riding Club Camp with Harry - it's just a day this time, with no chilly old ex-army tents and horrible food.

I feel slightly worried I won't last for all three training sessions - dressage, show jumping, cross country. I usually need a nice lie down after just one lesson with my usual trainer! I needn't have worried. Harry is ace in the dressage...well, as good as he can be - it's not really our forte! In the show jumping he's OK but a bit careless, knocking quite a few poles. The trainer says he's "jumping by braille!"

"I hope he doesn't do that cross country" commented one of my companions. "He won't - he knows they're solid!" I reply, and thank goodness, Harry proves me right! He jumps virtually everything on the course beautifully, fast and clean. He won't have anything to do with a very spooky coffin - "a cob fall in and never get out of there!" But he goes straight through the water, and tackles everything else with great gusto, even some of the bigger options.

It's confirmed - Harry is a cross country cob!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A new best friend

Harry’s field mate, a lovely but ancient pony, is put down. She is very thin, despite masses of feed and good grass, she has asthma and worst, she’s starting to lose the use of her hindlegs. After much heart searching and discussion with the mare’s vet, her owner makes the decision: it’s sad, but the last, kind thing you can do for a much-loved equine.

Harry seems unperturbed, probably because he stayed in his field while she was taken to the vet in the stable yard, quite a way away. He can see all the other horses around him, and soon gets a new friend – another skewbald cob. Ernie is a very smart boy who is part-stabled and kept beautifully trimmed. Harry looks pretty lairy in comparison, with his curly mane and tail, untrimmed feathers and big white face.

But the two skews get on fine. Harry and Ernie: they sound like a couple of old boys down the pub!

Lovely day

Ride out alone on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I’m still being quite cautious after my fall, but no need: Harry is an angel!

It’s so bright that there are weird shadows and highlights everywhere, a very noisy cement mixer and a lot of Harry’s least favourite colour - bright pink in the shape of foxgloves and heather. But he doesn’t shy, just gives them a hard stare and minces past.

Every time Harry’s extra brave I give him ‘Michael Peace Big Pats’. We’ve been featuring this amazing horse trainer in Horse&Rider magazine, and ‘Big Pats’ are one of his tactics for reassuring and rewarding horses. They seem to work well!

Confidence regained

First hack after I my tumble. I’m not really nervous, but I don’t want it to happen again, yet! I make sure we ride out with Harry’s best friend Red, the weather is warm and sultry – too hot for massive spooks - and everything goes absolutely fine

I’ve only fallen off Harry four times in the seven years I’ve owned him, a testament to what a steady boy he is. My first tumble was when we were cross country schooling at Peper Harrow. He was being really good, then I pushed my luck. I asked him to jump a steep step down into the water complex, and after a few objections he obliged, but slipped as he went in and I fell onto the bank. Poor Harry looked bewildered, wading about in the water as I watched from dry land – it took me some time to persuade him that water complexes were not scary after that!

The next fall was out hunting. Harry swerved as we approached a fence, stopped, then jumped from a standstill, catapulting me over his head. I was winded, but he stayed around, thank goodness, I got back on again and did a couple more hours.

The third time was very much like my most recent fall. We were on familiar ground, I was feeling very relaxed in canter, then I went out the side door when Harry shied at a Labrador popping out of the bushes.

None of my falls have done much damage – thank goodness – but at my age, boy, do they hurt!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Beaten by nine-year-olds!

Jane and I go to a show at a nearby riding club, aiming to do the 2ft 3ins and 2ft 6ins show jumping classes. That might sound titchy to all you affiliated bods, but it’s big enough for us!

Loading, fine. Arrive in plenty of time. Stayed calm during the warm-up. Just one fence down in the first class – hooray!

Last time Harry and I jumped here he behaved like a loony - piaffing in the warm-up, alternately trotting or galloping in the ring - so this is a great improvement.

Jane and Red do a lovely clear, with a couple of cheeky bucks, but there are so many kids with fantastic jumping ponies in the class that she's not placed.

The bigger class actually looks pretty daunting to me: not only are the fences higher, they're wider, too! But we have a go, and have two jumps down. I'm pleased, as Harry stays calm and rhythmical all the way around, and seems to enjoy himself. We just need more practice. Jane and Red do another lovely clear again, but again are unplaced.

So, yes. We've beaten by nine-year-olds again!

Taking a tumble

I get myself organised and ride out quite early, as I have a wedding party to go to. We're on a tight schedule, and I don’t want to take any chances with getting lost, so I stick to our most familiar route. Big mistake.

It’s cold and windy (where did summer go?) and Harry is quite tense, but I feel very relaxed and rashly ride on a long rein, even in quite a fast canter.

WHACK! I’m flat on my back in the heather. It was like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Harry just disappeared out from under me, shying at a deer that popped out under his nose.

I’m winded, so I lie there for a while, checking my limbs still function, and wheezing. Harry hasn’t gone far, I can see him sampling the plant life out of the corner of my eye. Then as I roll over a big pink nose comes down to investigate: "What are you doing down there?", he seems to be saying.

In a way, this is a good thing. It's the fourth time I've fallen off Harry, but the first time we’ve been alone when it happened. He didn't run a mile, indeed, he was pretty chilled about it all.

Mental note to self
Keep a contact when you’re cantering, and never get complacent. Sudden deer appearances can scare a cob, even if he sees them in his field all the time!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The highlight of our equestrian calendar

Frensham Sponsored Ride – one of the biggest highlights of Harry’s and my equestrian calendar, yeeha! It’s a 10 mile cross country course with around 40 solid, inviting jumps, most of which are eminently jumpable by a stumpy-legged cob!

We’re riding with my friend Jane and her lovely Irish Sport Horse, Red. He finds these occasions very exciting, so we decide follow our trainer’s excellent advice by riding later in the day to avoid the crowds, and starting slowly, only jumping when we’re settled.

Well, that’s the theory. It has worked before, but this time we throw caution to the winds and start jumping immediately, and carry on jumping everything but an enormous bullfinch – we figure Red would probably try to clear the whole thing, whilst Harry would try to stop and eat it!

The sun was shining, the countryside is glorious and Harry was jumping like a little skewbald stag, standing right off the fences, making me whoop with delight. As the course switchbacks over ditches and rails, Red throws in some pretty big bucks but Jane gamely hangs on.

Part way round the course we stop for drinks and treats for the horses, which Harry mugs for shamelessly. Then we whiz over a ditch and up a really steep hill, which slows even Red momentarily. We let Red go first, and he likes to give some of them a really good look. Harry, when given his head, stops at nothing. It must be quite alarming for Jane and Red to hear us thundering up behind!

We all finish with huge grins on our faces... We collect our participation award, and then we had to drag our weary bodies home!

Dressage and the video stars!

Harry and Red are going to be video stars! ‘Models’ were required to ride a prelim dressage test for the horseandrideruk.com website, and Jane and I were happy to do it, though dressage is, ahem, not our strongest discipline.

Jane says she never knows whether she’s done a good test or a bad one. Harry is great in walk-trot tests, but finds the cantering a challenge – “what’s a cob to do with his feet on these tiny little circles?”

Jane went first, and Red behaved beautifully. I am her test caller, and as I’m not very familiar with the dressage markers, I sent them off in the wrong direction a few times. Harry, left stuffing himself with haylage while we filmed Red, wanders in. He started off well, but by the second test he’s bored - keeping him going forward was like pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill!

However, the website crew get their film, which is being sent off to dressage judge Judy Harvey for comments. I have a sneak preview, and am relieved to see we all look fine - not too bad, and definitely not too good. Carl Hester needn’t worry about us yet awhile. Watch out for our dressage performance - coming soon!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Harry has found his calling - Musical poles

I have to miss the Riding Club gymkhana – it’s my hubby’s birthday, and I suppose he has to be the priority sometimes! Last year Harry and I went to the gymkhana, with Jane and Red. Our fortunes were mixed.

Because we do lots of different things with our horses, we thought that gymkhana games would be a cinch. Faced with the club’s ‘A Day at the Seaside’ gymkhana theme, Harry and Red disagreed.

In one race, you had to pull plastic balls out of a paddling pool full of water with a fishing net on a long pole. I couldn’t even get hold of it without Harry throwing a wobbly, cantering sideways and leaping forwards with melodramatic snorts. Hanging wooden fish on a frame for another game gave him palpitations, too. There I was, leaning forward to hang the fish up, and there was Harry backing away from it in horror!

He was unperturbed by the dressing up game, standing patiently as I struggled to pull a pair of rather small beach shorts on over my breeches. We might have done better if I hadn’t been rendered helpless with laughter at the sight of the one male member of our Riding Club thundering down the field wearing a pretty flowery dress over his riding gear, plus snorkle and googles crammed over his moustache.

Harry excelled at one game, musical poles. You ride a circuit around a cluster of poles, and when the music stops, you turn in, make for a pole, grab it and hang on. One pole is removed after each go, and whoever is left holding the last pole is the winner.

Well, as a bit of a barger, Harry was a natural at this. When our opponents saw him making purposefully for our chosen pole, feathers flailing , a determined glint in his eye, they kept clear – there’s no riding Harry off.

One poor little girl fell off when her pony shied at the sight of Harry ‘on a mission.’ We were on a roll, and only beaten by an amazingly nippy pony who snatched victory from under our noses.

Never mind, it was a blue ribbon and my first gymkhana rosette for 40 years!

The eternal tourist

I squeeze in an early hack, and I’m so glad I bothered. The weather is cool and cloudy, but still and quite bright. The common is blissfully deserted; Harry and I have it to ourselves.

He’s in a great mood: calm but eager, perfect equine company. The eternal tourist, he looks at everything with intense curiosity. He draws my attention to things I would never usually see: a couple of tiny muntjak deer grazing unconcernedly near the path; a distant dog walker with two bounding red setters, a white house on the horizon. He whinnies at that – perhaps he thinks it’s his field companion, Snoopy, who’s a little white pony!

At times like this I love to ride Harry on a really loose rein. It’s such fun cantering him ‘on the buckle’, feeling like a cowboy, seeing him turning his head this way and that as things catch his eye. Even when he’s startled by something his reaction is moderate, he recovers quickly and carries on. Being allowed to behave naturally must be less stressful than being checked and ‘ridden’ all the time. I make a mental note to allow as much rein as I can when Harry is tense.

Heading for home, we gallop up and over the brow of a hill, with half of Hampshire spread out beneath us. This is the kind of thing I dreamed of when I was a little girl. I thank my lucky stars that now I have my own lovely horse and can live my dream –though I’m not a little girl any more, by any stretch of the imagination!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I’ll kick off by introducing myself and my horse, Harry.

My name is Alison Bridge and I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Horse&Rider and a fifty-something riding returner. I rode from age seven until I went to University and then only occasionally up until three years ago, when I caught the horse bug again. My horse bug resulted in the purchase of Harry, an eight year old, 14.3hh skewbald cob.

Harry is like no other horse I have ever ridden, more like a chunky, overgrown pony with attitude. It took me a while to get used to him (and vice versa), but now I absolutely adore him. He’s cute, clever, cheeky and brave – he’s had a bash (literally, sometimes!) at everything I’ve asked him to do so far, from sponsored rides to dressage.

Harry lives out 24/7 with his pony friend, Snoopy, and I ride him two to three times a week, or more if I can. Recently I’ve kept it to short hacks in the rain – I hate getting wet right through to my pants! And of course I spend lots of time poo-picking his field, not a lot of fun in the rain, either.

But a couple of days ago, finally the clouds parted and I had a wonderful riding lesson. My trainer Fiona is an event rider, and a great confidence giver, which is just what my training buddy, Jane, and I needed. We’d both had falls jumping, but Fiona has been brilliant, getting us happily tackling poles, grids and jumps again. This week she put up a couple of new grids. The first was a jump with a placing pole either side to trot over.

Harry was a bit puzzled at first – "is it a very high trotting pole?" I could almost hear him thinking – so he didn’t so much jump as scramble! He soon got the idea, but found it quite an effort: although he is quite powerful, he’s not a natural athlete.

Then we did a combination of two jumps, four long, or five short strides apart. I tried for the long strides first, legging him on in between the fences, and nearly got them.

Then Harry put in a fast short stride just before the second jump and shot straight up like a helicopter - cue my first shriek of the day!

We managed four strides on our next attempt, with Harry barrelling towards and over the second jump with gusto, then getting his head down and giving a few little humps – his version of a few cheery bucks – which my companions found hilarious!

Now Harry was really on a roll and thought he knew what he was doing, so when Fiona asked us to jump the combination in five strides, I had to take quite a vigorous check between fences. It worked, and we did a few more variations.

We ended our session by doing a spread, then a single fence on four long strides again, which he absolutely flew over without touching a pole. More humping from Harry, more shrieks from me, more laughter from my unsympathetic colleagues!

I was knackered – our session went on for an hour and twenty minutes – and I had minor whiplash, but I haven’t had so much fun for ages.

Roll on my next ride!

DIY clipping goes wrong

Harry is looking a bit rough at the moment. Back in autumn he had a ‘go-faster’ clip (otherwise known as a chaser clip – my husband says it reminds him of Starsky’s car).

Now he’s growing his new summer coat and casting his old winter one, and between times has really long cat hairs all over his once-clipped areas, plus what looks like an outgrown beard. He also sports massive feathers harbouring goodness knows what, and a lot of girly, curly mane. However, his tail is a bit thin, thanks (or no thanks) to vigorous and frequent scratching on the stile in the field.

Time for a trim – well, that’s what I thought.

Harry is usually clipped by our friend Nicky with her ancient but quiet batter-powered clippers. I try to do it myself with Ali’s new ones, which seem noisier and more vibrant – or should that be vibrational? Whatever, they’re different, I’m not the world’s most dextrous clipper, and Harry doesn’t like it. I get most of his body hair off, although he waggles his hindlegs, pulls faces and swishes his tail. I even get the hair off his cheeks, but he hates his chin being clipped at the best of times. “With those new, buzzy clippers, by this amateur – no way!” Harry breaks the baler twine his lead rope is attached to as if it was cotton, and departs post haste, taking a little canter around the paddock and ending up climbing the muck heap.

We catch him and try again. No way, again. So I cut my losses and take Harry out hacking before I run out of time. At least he’s cooler – less fluff on his undersides, and a cute, goatee beard.

Getting the wind up

I ride Harry out on the most blustery day of the year. The wind is roaring like a jet plane, but he holds it together for a while, until we approach a salt box on the side of the road that he’s always suspicious of. I encourage him to walk close by, and just as we pass, a plastic bag flies up behind it. EEEK! Harry startles violently, then minces on, eyes on stalks.

We reach his friend Red’s yard and Harry breathes an audible sigh of relief. We proceed on our hack, trying to keep to sheltered areas, but both boys are bothered in their particular horsey way. Red, mostly Thoroughbred, tends to spook and swerve; Harry, the cob, tends to stop and stare, and then let Red take the lead. So we make our jerky, nervy way around the common, and breath a sigh of relief when we’re home.

I lead Harry out to his field, and he spots another plastic bag in the fence line. Gradually I coax him to approach. Snorting like a stallion, he gives it one evil eye, then the other. He finally touches it, and YIKES, a massive gust blows it into the air – it’s happened again! He scoots a few yards away, then looks at me aggrievedly: “How could you?”

An extra strong mint once we’re back in the field means we’re friends again, but we agree we don’t like wind…not any kind!

The bottom line

Most horses I know, if they get injured, it’s in a vaguely glamorous, sporty way. Harry so far has had two injuries: one to his willy, one to his bum, and both were self-inflicted.

He’s a really itchy cob, especially when he’s moulting. The vet reckoned he managed to actually get a hoof inside his sheath to cause the first injury, which turned out to be a minor scratch, but we were both impressed by his dexterity.

The second injury must have been caused by scratching his backside too hard. He has a powerful, agile bottom, and has been known to open gates with it – our website Editor Kelly says he has ‘opposable bums!’

So Ali and I have had the pleasant task of cleaning and applying soothing gel to Harry sore spot, which he really doesn’t like at all. Let’s hope his nappy rash clears up soon!

Angelic Harry Story Number 2

To the Riding Club for a Mini-Prix – a course that combines show jumps and cross country. I’m quite nervous. This time last year we were eliminated – twice!

The weather is perfect: warm and still. Both Harry and Red load reasonably well, with a bit of token protest from each. We’ve left the time a bit tight, so mount quickly and warm up, and I try to work out the course – I haven’t had time to walk it! It looks good, solid and inviting and just a bit challenging.

I go fairly quickly, before I can get us both into a state. Harry is a star, staying calm and focused so that I relax quite soon and ride with commitment ie without clutching at the reins, and actually breathing occasionally, which is handy on a longish 19-jump course. We clear everything including a tiger trap over a ditch (from trot, Harry wanted a good look!), a treble with the course bogey – plastic bags laid out on the ground between poles – and a wall that last year Harry refused, pushed over and then jumped. All too soon our round is over and we’ve had just one show jump down – hurrah!

Jane does a lovely clear, even though Red was quite lively, so we’re both delighted. Even more so when Jane gets equal second in the class, and first Riding Club member – and I get a pink rosette as sixth-placed Riding Club member. Harry doesn’t seem to object as he poses for a photo in his girly ribbon, and we head for home. What a great confidence boost – I love jumping again, roll on the sponsored ride!

Angelic Harry Story Number 1

Today I really appreciate Harry, and I never even sat on him!

My nephew’s wife has asked if she could come for a ride. She’s a seriously horsey lady, disguised as a married lawyer with an 18-month-old son who’s admittedly adorable, but she needed an equine fix. She rides Harry, I ride a friend’s horse, another skewbald cob, and what a difference!

Harry is quite jolly, his friend is quite manic, insisting on staying in front, then spooking and refusing to go forward. He bucks if Harry gets too close, every time we go into canter, and part-way through canters, too! His saddle is much too small for me and a dressage one, which of course is not his fault, but I am acutely uncomfortable for most of the ride. Tiki sits back on my great big, squidgy GP and enjoys the scenery. “I’m so glad I’m riding Harry,” she comments as my borrowed cob throws in another buck.

We stop at the pub to greet the family, and Harry stands patiently while various kids climb on and off him. Occasionally he moves, but very slowly and gently, like a tanker turning, and everybody goes ‘whoah’ and hangs on to their drinks. As we lead the cobs home, Harry behaving beautifully with a teenager who used to be terrified of horses, I bless him for being such a steady Eddie.

Rain stopped play

Sunday afternoon, and we are scheduled to have a mini one-day-event with our trainer, Fiona. Frankly, I’m sceptical about my chances, as Fiona has ridden around Blenheim, my friend Jane and her horse Red jumped everything clear last week, whilst Harry and I knocked up a cricket score - he discovered the jumps were plastic pretty quickly and treated them with appropriate contempt.

The yard where Fiona is working has amazing facilities, and the plan is to hire them for the afternoon and have a ‘play’, doing a dressage test, show jumping and cross country course. However, rain and wind stop play – the show jumps are flat on the ground and trees sway menacingly.

Thank goodness, there is also a fabulous indoor school - and boy, do we like it! Harry whinnies as soon as he catches sight of himself in the mirror – “who’s that gorgeous cob there?” I feel less gorgeous, but love the feeling of space, the ability to check out at our performance (if that’s what it can be called) and the fact that it’s warm and dry.

We practise our lateral work, and I am taken aback to discover from our reflection that in leg-yielding Harry crosses his forelegs like a good ‘un, whilst his hindlegs meander along like he’s walking down the field. So much for strengthening the inside hind! After some some adjustments, “git overs” and vigorous leg aids, we are more or less moving sideways. Phew!

Then thank goodness it’s jumping, and Harry tackles the small grid with characteristic enthusiasm – “whee, let’s go, I know what I’m doing!” Poles crash again, the ignominy, but as Fiona puts up more demanding grids, Harry starts to jump beautifully – what a fantastic feeling! I say Harry’s paying attention because the jumps are bigger – Jane says it’s because he’s admiring himself in the mirror!

A date with Harry

Harry's generally a guy who likes to get out there and do stuff. There is one day a year however, when Harry would just prefer to stay in his field: the day for his annual flu/tetanus jabs and dental check.

It’s a wildly windy day, but he’s calm as I bring him in from his distant field, accompanied by his ancient girlfriend, Snoopy. The only mare at the place, Snoopy is received with an enthusiastic ‘phwoar’ from the geldings on the yard. To us, she might look like a pony Norah Batty - to these guys she’s Elle MacPherson!

Stuart-the-vet arrives with a roar of tyres, leaps out, accepts coffee and approaches Harry. They eye each other knowingly. “He might be bargy,” I warn Stuart. I have a bridle on him (Harry, not Stuart) but still he makes a few token breaks for freedom before he succumbs to the needle, giving a theatrical start as it hits the mark. “That was easy,” says Stuart “It’s the anticipation he hates!” There’s more. I have requested a blood test to discover whether Harry has a tendency to lamintis, so Stuart jabs him again, and this time Harry is resigned. Extra strong mints help.

Bridle off, head collar on, Harry has his mouth washed out, scattering little bits of mint and grass stored in his cheeks. Then he has his teeth rasped – strangely, he seems to like it! He even doesn’t mind the dental gag that holds his mouth open while Stuart goes at his back teeth. Job done, Harry stretches his jaw this way and that - a chap feels a bit odd after a dental check-up!

Snoopy gets the once-over from Stuart, then I lead them both back to the field, through a hailstorm, with a huge warmblood galloping in circles in the field next to us. Harry tries to drag me past the scary monster at top speed, Snoopy hardly notices it and anyway, never goes above a gentle amble. I’m being pulled apart by two not-very-wild horses! We reach their home field, and I give them a load of hay. They munch happily whilst I pooh-pick in the hail. The joy of horse ownership.

Back to square one, or more circles anyway

I took my cob, Harry, to a local show jumping show recently. He was an angel to catch, groom, load and unload - then turned into a little devil in the warm-up!

The venue was new to both of us. I thought it was lovely, a nice big open field, surrounded by trees. Harry obviously thought it harboured all manner of dangerous things, and the other horses innocently warming up were mad brutes who might go for him at any moment. He passaged around the arena (if a cob can passage), then every time I turned him for the practice fence he put his head down and charged!

Our first attempt in the ring was the opposite of the ideal show jumping round. Far from maintaining a nice, rythmic canter, we were either trotting or tanking, but amazingly we got a clear round, and a rosette! Having put in a huge effort trying to stay in control, I felt as though I was going to burst into flames - Harry hardly turned a hair.

Our next attempt was somewhat better, but we badly mistimed one fence and had it down. Then the proper competition started, over the same course, and of course Harry thought he knew what he was doing and got careless.

Again, I didn’t get the stride exactly right at two fences and had them down. But I felt more in control, and we did get a good canter for most of the round. It really was a fun evening, and we loaded up and went home happy, especially as Harry’s friend Red had come third in the class.

Back to the drawing board - or should I say, the manège!