06 August 2008

Horsing around

Horse riding for an amateur is a quite a different thing to what you see on TV. Here's one rider's tale.

Horse riding has a regal air about it. On TV it looks like such a graceful activity - the riders sporting blazers and velvet hats, and the horses always shiny and manicured.

But for those folk who didn't grow up in the saddle, visiting the stables and attempting to ride the beast can be quite an eye-opener. Here's my experience:

The first challenge is getting into the saddle. It's like climbing a 1.5m randomly shifting step. For those of us not used to climbing giant moving steps, this is impossible, so most riding facilities pre-empt the humiliation and have a bench of sorts enabling aspiring riders to get up.

Once on top the "fun" starts. The guide tells me to steer the horse, named Sporty, out of the camp. But Sporty is going nowhere. Sporty is eating hay. In a very unflattering effort to retain my balance while pulling on the reins with all my might, I eventually dislodge Sporty's face from the haystack and get him facing in the right direction.

I double-click my tongue at him and say "hayha!" like they do in cowboy movies, but Sporty merely swats his tail at me as if to say "shoo fly".

"Kick him!" yells the guide, who's already leading the rest of the group into the pasture. So I kick. Sporty swats again, this time with a little more gusto. "Like this!" shouts the guide while he digs his heel into his horse's thigh. "Oh?!" I say sheepishly and, lo and behold, Sporty's finally on the move.

Riding a horse is nothing like riding a bike at all. First of all, a bike doesn't stop at will to eat wildflowers – a bike has no will of its own whatsoever. Secondly, a bike immediately responds to any and all instructions and doesn't swat you with its tail at the mere suggestion of a change in direction.

So we're walking, Sporty and I, and it's good. It feels like someone is twisting knives in both my thighs, but it's good - the air is fresh and crisp, the outdoors is beautiful and Sporty has only had to stop for a poop once, and we've almost completed our first trip around the course. Yup, life's good!

"Are you ready to canter?" asks the guide. I nod. "When the horse goes faster you have to get into the rhythm and move your body like this," he says thrusting his hips into the air, then down and up again. "Oh my goodness, that's obscure!" I think to myself. "I can't do that here. Not in front of everybody!" I'm feeling panicky. But before I get a chance to object he shouts "C'mon Sporty!" and we're going (and Sporty doesn't swat at him).

Now we're really going. It feels like I'm going flat-out down a dirt road in a car with no suspension. My teeth are clattering and I'm hanging on for dear life. "Move with the horse," shouts the guide. "I am moving with the horse you idiot! Does it look like I got off? Do you think I like chewing on my own tongue?" I shout back, but only in my mind: I haven't got breath to talk. "Move your lower body with the horse," he says again.

Cautiously I start pushing up out of the saddle – feeling a little awkward. I bounce and push, bounce and push, my teeth stop rattling. My bouncing and pushing synchronises with Sporty's movements and together we're cantering. What a feeling! A freedom I've never felt before. The wind in my hair, the sun in my face. Just running for no apparent reason. Just running because we can.

I realise I should have worn my sports bra…

At this advanced speed we soon reach the end of the trail. I carefully get off and lead Sporty back to the stable. My legs are numb – I don't know if it's from the excitement or the exercise, but I have a feeling that I'm going to regret it in the morning. But it will all be well worth it, I'm positively exhilarated. This is so much better than any old movie, this is R100 well spent.

As I turn to go I say to Sporty "So I'll see you next week, pal" and he swats at me.

(Wilma Stassen, Health24, February 2008)

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