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.”