My own story began as a child having moved from London to ‘the country’ and being given my first pony at a young age. My parents didn’t know much about riding, even though horses had been in my family for years – my Grandad was what was known as a ‘totter’ in South East London. He used a horse and cart to pick up unwanted junk from people’s houses and making a modest living. None of my family were riders and so the experience of my first pony Buttons was being plonked on his bare back and being led around our small paddock. The picture is a happy memory and must have started my love of horses. I don’t remember what happened to Buttons, but my next memory of horses is as a teenager talking to my friends about their horses and the possibility of going out riding with them. It never happened, but I do remember helping to exercise a horse just up the road from me. Looking back this seems a bit odd as I didn’t know how to ride – I’d never had a riding lesson and yet here I was sitting on a 16hh horse going down the main road! I cringe thinking about it now. From there I remember my next pony Goldie – a fat palomino who loved to jump. She really was a point and jump pony and my Dad would show off to his friends who’s teenagers could ride, as I cleared the little jumping course we’d set up. I remember her getting strangles and nursing her through it, but again, I don’t remember what happened to her.
By this time we were at a small livery yard and my younger sister had a little Shetland pony. I can remember going out for a hack at this yard with some adults on a pony that I borrowed for the ride and feeling completely out of control. Remember at this point I’d still never had even one riding lesson. The pony bolted with me and I remember screaming ‘how do I make him stop?’. This is probably the starting point of my 20 year fear of riding – a significant point as it’s where the unconscious belief that riding equals danger started.
At this point you might be thinking that my parents were completely irresponsible and in part I’d have to agree. However, my parents were not horsey people and were ignorant of the need for clear instruction. As nothing bad had actually happened – I hadn’t fallen off and broken anything – to them there was no need to worry. I didn’t let on about my growing fear of riding, but I did keep on about wanting another pony.
Another move later and I bought myself a nasty little arab. I say she was nasty – in reality if I had known how to ride properly I’m sure I would not have thought of her this way, nor had the experiences that I did on her. She was always a bit flighty – not a good combination for a teenager who was fast developing a fear of riding. I had no control over her – I’d take her out for a hack and dread it. She was wilful and totally in control of me. The worse experience I had on her was riding across the village green where there was a riding school opposite and across a main road. She decided that she was going into the riding school no matter what. I decided I wasn’t going with her and so threw myself off her as she bolted across the green, across the main road and came to a halt at the riding school gates!
This experience did several things – it gave my brain major evidence that riding is dangerous to add to previous experiences and growing the limiting belief that had already been created; it confirmed my lack of riding ability; it made me realise that horses are herd animals and hate to be kept on their own – which she was. After her, I made a small effort to carry on riding by buying a youngster – a hackney, just 2 years old! I know, I can hear you groaning aloud. Was I mad? I was very young, inexperience and loved horses. Bless her, when I finally came to pick her up she has some skin complaint and all of her hair fell out. I never did get to have her broken or ride her as by this age I had learned how to drive and boys became more of a priority than horses!
What followed was a gap of around 15 years where I didn’t ride at all. As an adult climbing the career ladder I found myself in the position that many of my clients are in – disposable income and spare time. And so I took up riding again. However, I was older and wiser now. I was determined to do things properly. I went to the local riding school for a hack, which made me realise very quickly that I really needed to learn how to ride. And so began years of weekly lessons.
After about six months I decided that I wanted to buy my own horse, not satisfied with the riding school plods or the quality of teaching. Being told to ‘sit quietly’ didn’t really mean much to me, particularly as I wasn’t saying much whilst riding anyway. With the help of a dealer I bought a ‘cold-backed’ cob who bucked me off the first time I tried to ride him. He went back to the dealer. I then had a sweet, but green, moustached cob named Jess. She did nothing for my confidence and I can remember coming off her in the woods, being dragged along by one foot caught in the stirrup before finally being freed as she galloped her way back to the yard with me following desperately behind. She then went on loan.
Next I rescued an ancient 14’2hh pony called Lady. Nobody knew her actual age. She had spent years and years in a field with her herd. She’d had several foals and hadn’t been ridden in years. She was taken from the field and allowed my sister to ride her straight off. She ended up in my hands after some unfortunate turn of events and she was an absolute star. She did my confidence the world of good. She was just what I needed. I had her schooled for a few weeks, only to be told she was dead to the leg and dead to the mouth. I didn’t care. She was great. We’d go out hacking for hours – she was spritely, forward going, not afraid of anything and as safe as houses. I loved her to bits.
Here is where my vanity kicks in – she wasn’t a showy handsome type of pony. She was an old bay, nondescript mare and my vanity got the better of me. I wanted more. I believed I could now ride. I had lots of lessons, my confidence was high on Lady and I thought I was ready for more. And so came Ted.
Now Ted was an interesting acquisition – simply in the way that I acquired him. Before the days of eBay the internet at this stage was just starting to take off and I was right there. So I spent hours scouring the web searching for the perfect horse. The first time I saw Ted in the flesh was when he was delivered to me by the owners who had carted him in their trailer all the way from Cumbria to East Kent. Yes, I bought a horse off of the internet without ever seeing him!
At this stage you might think I could redeem myself by telling you that I had bought a very sensible type of horse – one suited to my needs of recently emerged confidence on my old girl Lady; a horse that was sensible, bomb-proof and of quiet disposition – helping me to retain that hard earned confidence. Alas that is not the case. Ted was an Irish Thoroughbred! Yes, I’m sorry to say that my impulsiveness completely got the better of me. I fell in love with Ted as soon as I saw pictures of him on the web. He was beautiful. I asked a zillion questions from the owners and the vet who looked after Ted. I was convinced I’d bought a sound horse – which I had. I was convinced I’d bought the right horse for me – which I had not, in hindsight. Such a wonderful thing hindsight!
I grinned from ear to ear for days after Ted was delivered. He was the most beautiful horse in the yard. The yard owner drooled over him and I thought I had fallen on my feet. This horse gave me something other than the four legs on which to ride – but more of that later.
And so came the day, after a period of letting him settle into his new home, of taking him out on our first hack. To say that the experience was awful would be an understatement. To say that I was emotionally thrown right back to my nervous rider self would be accurate. After about 10 minutes into our hack, with a friend on my old girl Lady, Ted started to play up. We were walking through an open field and he was jogging, trying to get his head and basically scaring the life out of me. None of my lessons had prepared me for this and I was beginning to panic.
The sensible thing would have been to turn around and go back to the yard and not take him out again until I knew how to ride him. No, we carried on. Persuaded by my friend who was a very competent rider, we continued our hack. This brought us onto a busy road where cars were unable to pass easily. By now Ted was jogging sideways up the road. Cars were getting frustrated, I was close to tears and just wanted to get off and walk. Pushed on by my friend, after what seemed like a million hours later, we decided to dive into a very small pub car park and switch horses. My friend took charge of Ted and I climbed back on to my trusty Lady and we headed home.
To say I was like a balloon that had just had all its air let out would be fairly accurate of how I felt, coupled with fear, anxiety and bitter disappointment. I was now stuck with this beautiful horse that I was afraid to ride. So, back to my lessons. Surely my weekly lessons would cure me of my fear and anxiety. My goal since childhood was to ride cross country and so I grimly clung to this dream over the years as I had lesson after lesson, week after week. Ted was school and coming along nicely in his flatwork. He was naturally a jumper and knew his job well. My few attempts to jump him over the years were a case of hang on and hope for the best. I found myself yet again in the position of my horse being in control of me.
Interestingly I found that I wasn’t riding Lady at all. I couldn’t pass her on to anyone else after what she’d given me and at an estimate age of 28 I wanted to make sure her last days were good ones. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case. She got a hind leg stuck in a gate and it never healed properly. She had a permanent limp after this and was duly retired as a companion when we moved yard. This didn’t go down well with the yard owner as Lady was very protective of the youngsters and herded them around as if she was their mother. She game old gal also took great pleasure in attacking the owners dogs, who would screech at me that the pony was a lunatic and ought to be put down. Lady also hated Ted with a vengeance and would regularly flatten her ears, curl her top lip and lunge at him! Poor Ted was such a sociable boy that I don’t think he knew what to make of Lady’s onslaught.
I was still having weekly lessons and Ted was being put through his paces once a week by someone who could actually ride. He was doing really well. I, on the other hand, made some progress in my riding ability but still had my fears and anxiety eating away at me like a disease. Things became so bad for me that I felt I couldn’t ride with other people at the yard. I felt really stupid having this beautiful, talented horse that I couldn’t ride. I used to feel sick at the thought of riding him around other people. I felt they were judging me, making snide comments behind my back and generally laughing at me. I have no evidence to back this up, I think I became paranoid in addition to my fear and anxiety. That said, anyone who’s ever stabled a horse at a livery yard will know exactly what I mean when I talk about yard politics and gossip!
My answer – buy my own land and build my own yard. So I did! I bought 9 acres with some derelict chipboard stables and created my own lovely new yard. New stables, new manege, new fencing, automatic drinkers in the stables and fields – the works. It was very handy having a builder husband at the time! I ran my yard my way and rode when I wanted and didn’t ride when I didn’t want to. I have to say the latter was very often the case. My excuse was that I was so tired after working all day that coming back to muck out and see to the horses was so tiring that I couldn’t ride.
I had a friend who came with her horse to my yard and occasionally we would go out together. She pushed me to explore the surrounding woods – something I would NEVER have done on my own. We wandered off down the lanes and gradually I was becoming a little bit more confident – or should I say a little less nervous – on Ted. I was still having lessons and still feeling stuck in a rut.
Over the years I had some great experiences on Ted and some pretty horrible ones that stick in my mind. As a typical thoroughbred he was always a little bit flightly and on his toes – really not a good combination for me. And yet on my braver days I would take him to the gallops at the yard we were at at the time and gallop him along the 6 furlongs, turn him around at the top and calmly walk back to the yard. Amazing! I still smile thinking about that and get quite emotional thinking of what a wonderful experience if was. You may think it’s a trivial thing, but remember, I’d had years of nerves and restricting myself to a ménage and the occasional hack (if I could psyche myself up enough) so to experience not only the pure exhilaration and joy of the gallop, but the amazement and awe at Ted for being so calm on the walk back, was a major deal for me.
On the down side, I remember being at another yard and feeling the pressure of others to get over my nerves and push myself through these feelings. I found myself one day having a very tough lesson on Ted and then insisting that we go for a hack. I was determined to master this. Teds’ normal routine was to either be turned out after a hack or to go back to his stable and be fed, depending on the time of day. His sheer disbelief and exasperation at being then taken for a hack was clear to see. He stomped up the road, stomped round the field and was waiting for the first opportunity for me to give in to my nerves and lose my control over him. He was waiting and he was so quick and sharp that I should have seen it coming. It started with cantering on the spot, which I’d not dealt with before and clearly didn’t know how to handle. That was his signal – he was off. Bolting across a track next to a field at full gallop! My riding hat slipped over my eyes I was clinging on for grim death, I felt him jump some branches in his way and knew that at the end of the track there was a gate that was open out on to a road. I knew what was going to happen – he wouldn’t or couldn’t stop and we’d be going at a full gallop straight onto the road. I was in a blind panic. Pulling on the reins did nothing. Trying to pull his head round did nothing. He had the bit between his teeth and he was going for it.
You can imagine my surprise when, fearing the worse, Ted take a last minute swerve at the gate and comes to an immediate halt to the right, still in the field, throws his head and neck up to balance me and we’re both at a standstill panting like mad! The little bugger knew exactly what he was doing and wanted to punish me by scaring me half to death – yet he wasn’t a nasty horse, he didn’t want me to come off.
I have only ever fallen off him once, in the early days, when I was trying to canter without stirrups. Bless him, he stood still, looked down at me as if to say ‘what are you doing down there you dozy bird’ and patiently waited for me to get back on. He really wasn’t nasty, I just think that day I had pushed him too far that day and he was so frustrated it was the only way he could show it.
The years went on with our ups and down – more downs than ups, but I loved Ted so much that I just couldn’t give him up. Everybody loved Ted and he was mine. And he was beautiful and shiny and cuddly and I was very ego driven back then. I loved the fact that the most popular horse belonged to me.
As a last ditch attempt at saving our marriage my husband decided to buy me another horse. A green 7 year old that I really didn’t want. She was sweet enough in her own way but I didn’t have the connection that I had to Ted and really didn’t have time for 2 horses, let alone the knowledge and skill to bring on a green youngster. My friend rode her quite a bit and after my divorce I decided to sell her and the yard and move Ted once again. Poor Ted – since me owning him he’d been moved to 5 different yards. The 5th was his last move and I’m happy to say that he stayed there for 5 years until the end of his days.
It was at this time that I met Frances. She was the yard owner and took to Ted immediately. Who wouldn’t? He was so lovely – like a big dog really. He used to lay his head in your arms whilst he licked you and nibbled you with his big parrot teeth. He was such a cheeky, sweet, affectionate chap that even my mum, who doesn’t like horses, would muck him out and lead him in and out of the fields.
Frances ran a very tight ship. It was and still is one of the neatest yards I’ve ever been to. It’s a small private yard with a focus on dressage and what impressed me about Frances was her care and devotion to all of the horses. She really understood their individual needs, as well as my concerns as an overly anxious owner handing over my precious ginger baby to someone else to care for. It was here that I realised Ted wasn’t the magnificent specimen of a horse that I thought he was. It was here that I was introduced to quality horses – not that it changed my mind in any way about Ted, but it made me realise the level of my naivety and again reinforced my lack of riding skills and paranoia.
Frances is the best riding instructor I have come across – and I’ve had quite a few over the years. Some good, some not so good and some just downright stupid! Frances has an innate ability to articulate what she sees, in a way that you can understand it and put her advice into action. She makes you want to try harder and under her tutorlidge both Ted and I improved our riding enormously. It was because of Frances that I learned about Ted’s nature and characteristics. Yes, I knew his little foibles and habits. What I didn’t know until I went to Frances’ yard was that Ted was a very sweet, generous boy who was very anxious about getting things wrong. I really didn’t know that he wasn’t doing things deliberately to make me feel nervous – it was his disposition and character. I didn’t know that he was actually very safe and wanted to look out for me. It was only when I learned this through Frances (she rode him and schooled him very week over the years) that I could look back at all of my negative experiences with Ted and see them in a different light.
I have to say, that knowledge massively changed how I viewed riding. It really helped to reduce my fear and anxiety – unfortunately it didn’t make it go away completely. I still had major nerves when it came to riding outside of the school. I was even scared to ride in the outdoor school as there are no fences. My riding world had shrunk and was still shrinking. My dream of riding cross country was getting further and further away. I started comparing myself again to other riders, beating myself up over things that I couldn’t do (and would never be able to do as a hobby rider).
In 2006 several major events happened in my life. My Dad died at the age of 64. Around the same time my personal and business partner and I split up, with him taking all work from me overnight, leaving me with massive financial commitments and no income. My dog Max also died very suddenly of cancer. Three years earlier I was booked to go on an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Practitioner course. For three years I put it off as it wasn’t the right time. After these events, I found myself on the course, not in a very good place and very sceptical about what I would learn.
This was a real turning point for me. I hadn’t really known what to expect, other than to learn some advanced communication skills. What I got in reality was not only skills and knowledge, but a complete personal transformation of how I viewed myself, my life and what I was capable of. This included my riding. I used my riding as the topic focus on initially. After 20 years of being a nervous rider, I really wanted to break the pattern of: psyche myself up to ride, feel sick while riding, feel relief when it’s all over, beat myself up for feeling that way, start all over again!
I sat in the training room for 5 days thinking I’d heard all this before. On day 6 my life changed – literally! I’ve never been the same since. To my amazement this NLP stuff actually worked. Not only did I experience something that turned my life around, I also overcame my lifelong fear of riding. It was incredible. I came back from North Yorkshire a changed person and a changed rider. I did another 5 day course a few months later and found myself doing things I’d never done on my horse. For example: I had a real fear of open spaces when riding. I had to have hedges at least on one side at all times. Now we were off through open fields – no hedges for miles. You can’t believe how freeing that felt, how liberating. One day we went out for a hack and got lost. We were just exploring the countryside, the woods the lanes. We returned a few hours later (bearing in mind my usual hacks were 30-40 mins max as that’s all I could cope with). The yard was up in arms thinking something had happened to us and we rode in relaxed and happy having had a whale of a time.
I started jumping lessons on Ted – much to the amusement of Frances and Ted, but hey, I’d always wanted to do it again. Ever since those days as a teenager on my point and jump pony. Only with Frances, she insisted I be in control. Yes Ted knew his job, but I had to learn to be in charge. That wasn’t so easy and it was really hard work.
I’m proud to say that we did actually go cross country jumping too. Just the once and for me that was fine. I had done it – I’d achieved my lifelong dream. That one thing that I’d always held in my mind, that I’d longed to do and never really dared hope that I could actually do. I will always have the image of watching my sister at a cross-country event and off in the distance came a very large woman on an equally ample horse. You could hear her squeals of ‘woohoo’ a mile off as she cantered across the fields. When she got to the jump I was standing at, I could see the smile of pure joy on her face. Both that woman and her horse were to me the epitomy of what I was missing. She didn’t give a hoot about what people thought of her – she was having an absolute blast. I was so envious.
And so I had done it – that one thing I’d strived to do all my riding life. I didn’t have the squeals of woohoo, but I did feel totally amazing afterwards. Yes, when I was there, I was still a bit anxious as it was a combination of wide open spaces, big jumps, other riders, being out of our own yard – lots of things that individually would have freaked me out in the past, were all together in one event. I have an absolutely cracking shot that a friend Juliet took which I love. It’s not the best jumping position ever, but it envisions my dream. I’m really proud of myself in that photo.
It was such a great day – some nerves, lots of clear instruction, direction and motivation (from Frances), Ted having an absolutely fantastic day and me achieving something I’d wanted to do forever. One funny thing that stays with those who witnessed it was going through the water and jumping out the other wide. Only Ted got stuck half way. His front legs were on the bank, hide legs in the water and me in the saddle. And we both just sat there not really sure what to do, waiting for someone to come and rescue us and to take charge of the situation we both found ourselves in. Luckily ‘aunty’ Frances was on hand to tell me to elegantly slide off Ted and then allow him to scramble up the bank and get back on before too many people saw us! What a memory.