By Elizabeth McQuillan
Olympia this is not. Puissance this is not. But it does involve a horse and rider hurtling towards jumps, with the outcome never guaranteed. Conducted over a course of ten natural obstacles – if you consider tyres, hay bales and flower planters such – the simple aim is to get a safe clear round and jump with a little style.
For me, at my local show, the 70cm jumps look to be about twice that size. I’ve said two Hail Marys, my guts are churning and the minute or two it takes to jump the course pass in a haze of adrenaline. I charge past the finish line alive, still aboard and ultimately feeling a bit big and clever. The arrival of the official A5 photograph from the event two weeks later reveals a petrified woman, freeze-framed midway over the tiniest jump imaginable.
A national equestrian survey by the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) 2005/6 indicated that many more people are getting into horses as a leisure pursuit. A surprising 7% of the British population are involved in riding, with some 2.8 million households containing at least one rider. Mature riders in particular are either rekindling an interest or taking up riding as a new and interesting challenge, and with a disposable income many are embracing horse ownership and the trappings.
Horse riding has certainly gained popularity in recent years as a recreational pursuit with adults like myself who, during childhood, worshipped pullout pony posters tacked to their bedroom wall. Not the Pony Club brigade here, but more often those who grew up on a ration of fortnightly riding lessons, an unerring passion for all things equestrian and a dream to one day own a pony. My parents relented at my incessant nagging when I reached 12, allowing me to have riding lessons but convinced that he passion would wane, just like the Highland dancing and ballet.
Seven miles in each direction, I duly made the trip under my own steam every Sunday. Horrified to find that my enthusiasm only intensified with this regime, my parents withdrew funding and helpfully suggested I find an after-school job to fund a hobby they considered elitist. Undeterred, the paper-round gave way to a more lucrative position at the local chemists, and thus things continued until eventually finding that alcohol, cigarettes and riding lessons were unaffordable on a student loan.
In my thirties, and having earned some cash, buying a horse seemed a natural progression. Then I bought another. Now my daughter has a pony. Cash and time poor, I find myself part of a growing band of slightly more “mature” riders attempting to make some sense of a sport steeped in tradition.
Take the wearing of cream jodhpurs, for example. Perhaps cute on Pony Club kids, and sexy on slim 18-year-old girls, they are obscene worn by any man and the nemesis of most women. However, tradition dictates that they are compulsory for competitions, so the choice is to display an immensely obvious and unflattering VPL, or wear a G-string. The more vain mature lady rider often favours the latter, but the cheese-wire effect when in the saddle makes any event one of endurance.
Taking up riding later, although great fun, is more taxing in many ways. Aside from the questionable riding wear, physically it can be quite demanding and does call for flexibility through the back and hips in particular. To those armchair critics who suggest that riding is not a truly physical sport, I suggest giving it a go.
Owning a horse alone means mucking out, handling 50lb hay bales, moving bags of feed and bedding and traipsing up a field reminiscent of the Somme to catch the cuddy. And that’s just the preparatory graft you need to do before getting on board. When riding correctly, as opposed to riding like a sack o’tatties, the core muscles of the abdomen and back are engaged, and the legs and arms are all working.
Fears about the consequences of riding are certainly intensified with age, and confidence is a friend hard to find when you start reaching outside the comfort zone. My personal riding comfort zone is delineated by break-neck speed and hooves leaving the ground (or my hitting it), and these justified fears are only heightened with the knowledge that comes from having been a radiographer at a spinal injury unit.
Falling from a horse hurts, and the embarrassment is even more painful when climbing back on presents a problem. At local country shows this summer, look around the perimeter of the arena and note the many tall mounting blocks and folding steps waiting in the wings to assist the slightly older rider to get back in saddle after they dismount to let the judge ride their horse.
Younger riders generally don’t exhibit the same fear, are not as fazed by the speed or the height of fences, and can vault on to their horse without too much effort. Perhaps there was a time when throwing myself over cross-country fences at speed would have been a carefree activity – now battling with extreme nerves is the norm.
With age, however, comes stealth and determination, and so I persevere. I attend the odd cross-county event, battling it out against able children on small ponies, with my heart in my mouth. I’m easily identifiable as the adult with the alabaster complexion, fixed terrified expression and white knuckles. Weirdly, that soon turns to feelings of absolute elation on completion of the course of jumps. Perhaps it is simply relief at having battled adversity and come through unhurt.
Dressage does attract a higher proportion of us returning riders over 30, since all four hooves can stay on the ground, and a controlled canter is as adrenaline-fuelled as it gets at the lower levels. Ostensibly, dressage was originally intended as a way to prepare horses for close-combat warfare – but, for us older cowards, it simply offers a safer option. It isn’t riveting to watch, but it is effective for the gymnastic training of a horse, and any horse with four legs can do the basic exercises.
A horse comes with a price tag. Not for the penniless, fainthearted, or half-hearted – full livery for a horse will cost upwards of £380 per month, with shoeing required every six weeks at around £60 each time. Purchasing tack, rugs, entry costs for competitions, wormers, lessons, insurance, and regular dental and veterinary checks make ownership an expensive business.
Buying the horse itself is the easy bit, but costs can vary anything from 2,000 to tens of thousands of pounds, depending on bloodlines, age and ability. According to the BETA survey, £417 million was spent on buying horses over the one year in the UK, with £4 billion spent on horse care and riding, and £732 million going to pay for riding lessons.
I don’t grudge the money, but I can’t vouch for my husband. He sees the endless money spent, then has to listen to my nervous ramblings about some competition I’ve signed myself up to do during a braver moment. I wring my hands and question whether it’s a stupid idea to do that cross-country: we aren’t well enough prepared, and the jumps seem quite big. He says “Don’t do it if you don’t want to.” I say “But I do want to.” He says “What’s the problem then?” I say “I’m scared.” He says “I really don’t understand why you do this to yourself.”
And to be honest, neither do I. All I know is that I love having my horse, and it’s a real pleasure and a privilege to sit astride this powerful and majestic animal. Why should it be just the kids who have all the fun? I want have a go at all the equestrian activities that eluded me as a child, no matter how bad I am at them.
Coming to riding and horse ownership later has proved to be an antidote to settling into a safe and predictable life. Sometimes it takes every ounce of courage I possess to go out and jump my horse at a competition, but riding makes me push myself to be a little braver. The photos taken at the event may well depict an ashen-faced rider tackling the equivalent of a twig, but I confess to being immensely proud of my modest achievements on horseback.