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People are very brave when they are on the ground….

The only people who do not display false bravado from the floor are usually grooms. The jury is still out as to whether this is because they don’t want their pay check to be paralysed, or because they have insider information on how badly the horse you are sitting on behaves.

Work riding is not for the faint-hearted, but even the stoutest (or most alcoholically-courageous) heart will at some point encounter a sadist who pushes the boundaries. My favourite phrases to come out of trainers’ mouths are things that never crossed my mind up until that point, like “Oh, just sit down reeeeeeally carefully when you get on. And, er, don’t sneeze.” This is assures that you spend the next hour not breathing, not moving, as the half ton under you twitches every time a leaf crackles under foot. Death is imminent at every hoofbeat. Or “Did the groom tell you to ride him in two running reins? No, I only did that because I, um, couldn’t decide what colour I liked.” Yeah. Sure. I’ll have that put on my gravestone. And my favourite: “By the way, do you have a body protector? No? Oh, no, no reason, come hop on.” Bastards.

In fact, I find that if you want some honesty, the best person to ask is the groom, especially when they blanche a little as you ask them to fetch number twenty-two. I think it’s partly because they take pity on us – surely the only thing worse than cleaning up behind a dealing horse is being on top of one?
One of the skill sets they don’t teach you in the EQASA courses is psychology – I’ve become an astute reader of that first reaction. There is disbelief (“The boss really told you to ride this one? It had saddle on for first time yestaday?”); amusement (“Ey! You crezy! This one jumped out of the lunge ring this morning!”); or on the odd occasion irritation at my trusting enthusiasm (“Why do you think we wait two days for you to come ride? We had four grooms holding just to clean the back feet. But sure, good idea, let’s ride. Where is your medical aid card?). None of these are good. Stay on the ground.

It’s easy to romantise being a working student. In reality, freelance work riders are in many ways worse off than grooms: they get no set salary, so are cannon fodder – if they are injured the employer is under no obligation to look after them, and they don’t earn at all. As they are usually paid per ride the temptation is to get maximum mileage out of them for minimum cost, so horses are often rushed. The riders aren’t on any medical coverage from employers, such as grooms who are on workman’s compensation, or have any other coverage (oh, like a roof over their heads). In the meanwhile, dealers or trainers just load another cannon and find another kippie to hop on.

It finally landed up that the person I rode for the longest was the one who would ride everything first. This was a stamp of approval and respect for me, despite the fact that she was an adrenalin junkie, and would do three rodeo rounds through the garden and then dismount, grinning, and hand me the reins – “You’ll love this one!” Oh dear lord.
I suppose the moral of the story is this: it’s easy to be brave from the ground, so always take those folks with a pinch of salt and put yourself first. If you want riders to suck it up, they better see you being brave from on top. And if all else fails, I remember this quote from Stephen Leacock:

“It takes a good deal of physical courage to ride a horse. This, however, I have. I get it at about forty cents a flask, and take it as required.”



Vot ze sheet iz zis zat you gif mee?”

Horses are the ultimate ego leveller. When the horses are appeasing your ego, you are but a mere German trainer away from suicide.

My boss, who could get on a retired donkey and coax passage out of it with a barely visible squeeze of a buttock, was visibly devastated. The rest of us were quite amused, not from any malice, but because we all thought the horse was looking pretty spectacular.


Being a working pupil is hard, because it feels like everyone is purposefully out to get you, horses included. It takes subsequent years to realise that no one is out to get you (except the horses), the industry is just that hard. With horses, whenever something goes wrong, there is always and only one person to blame: the human.

Oh, you can try blame the food – “Vell who iz feeding ze hoss?” – or the tack – “But vhy, did you not hav ze saddle checked?” – or, in desperation, the shoes – “Und WHO hired ze farrier?” … but it all comes down to the common weakest denominator. You.

It’s hard not to take it personally, because, well, it is. So I was heartily cheered to see my superwoman boss choking back the tears as her impeccable seat was picked apart. What a relief to see it happened to everyone! If I had any good sense I would rather have been depressed by the realisation that in SPITE of her forty years experience (and thus my thirty five year shortfall), and in SPITE of sitting on the local version of Totilas, she was STILL struggling. I should have unceremoniously drowned myself in the nearest water trough at this point.

But, as testament to Jilly Cooper’s sordid literary success, horse riders are masochists. What do horses cost? Everything. Will I ever be good enough? Never. Does everything have to hurt? Only if you’re doing it properly.

But it’s not really that simple, is it? Because occasionally, we do get it right. And when it is right… well, there aren’t any words for it, because if there were then everyone would ride horses. In that second, that exceptional second where everything is soft and yet powerful, where we are moving as one with half a ton of free-spirited animal, when we catch a glimpse of a lovely picture in a mirror and go “Oh, I wish that was me, holycrapyayitIS”, suddenly no cost is too great, and every ache is celebrated. We’ve earned our elation, and my god, is it spectacular. And for this reason, we are not masochists, but rather the ultimate optimists. We would sacrifice our weekends and our fingernails for that one perfect transition, that one clean stride, for that exclamation – “JA! WOL!!” – that makes every other minute worth it.

Especially when the next minute involves “Aaaah nein, zat vos sheet.” We live in eternal hope of the next good moment, so keep your heels down, and your chin up, and remember it’s always your fault, but that’s totally okay.