The adage says that if you fall off a horse, you should get straight back on again. The theory behind this is that it doesn’t give you time to think about being scared you’ll fall off again, and that the longer you leave it, the harder it’s likely to be to get back on again. I’ve fallen off plenty of horses (and was always made to get straight back on again!) but not for over 30 years. Not because I’ve become such a good rider that I’ve stopped falling off, but simply because I haven’t actually ridden for around 30 years.
As a child, I don’t think I realised that I was living the supposed every girl’s dream – to have my own pony (well, shared with my brother), which lived with us (we lived in a school, so there was plenty of space to stable a pony and plenty of grass for it to eat), and to have as many free riding lessons as I wanted (courtesy of my mother who had grown up with horses and who loved nothing better than to spend as many hours in the day with them as possible). There are lots of stories about her life with horses in Kenya elsewhere on this blog. I don’t think I had any choice whether to learn to ride or not, for I was around them since the age of 0. I was always a little bit scared (both while actually riding and just generally being in their vicinity, especially if alone).
From the age of about 3, my brother and I plodded around on our long suffering Welsh Mountain pony, Brandy, and learnt all the basics. Apparently he wasn’t well behaved enough for us to be let off the leading rein with us so young, so we weren’t! We then gradually progressed through two grey geldings, Pippin and Grady respectively, who were slightly more temperamental in different ways. Pippin wasn’t a great fan of jumping, and his favourite trick was to stop dead at the very last second right in front of our home made Cavaletti jumps, often depositing his rider gracefully over his head in the process. On one occasion, this resulted in me landing face first on the pole and knocking all my front teeth out (luckily baby teeth, so they grew back). How I avoided concussion and/or a broken nose, I’ll never know! Grady, on other hand, had an intense dislike of water. Even the tiniest puddle would terrify him, and he would go to any lengths to avoid getting his feet wet, which likewise involved either stopping dead or shying violently away from the water and finding a route around it. Again, the unsuspecting rider could easily come a cropper and be treated to a muddy bath!
From the age of 11, however, we moved, went away to boarding school, and had to get rid of the horses. Apart from occasionally borrowing friends’ horses, I never rode again until a work trip took me to Iceland. Looking on the web for interesting ways to spend a weekend in Reykjavik, a trip with the Icelandic Mountain Guides company, called Horses and Glaciers, caught my eye. This comprised a morning of riding Icelandic ponies, followed by an afternoon of glacier walking. I was instantly hooked and, intrigued to ride an Icelandic pony for the first time, I asked my friends if anyone wanted to join me. Marieke and Paul agreed, and we were all set.
I didn’t think much more about it until the day arrived, and the realisation of what I was about to do hit me. Not only was this the first time I’d ridden in 30 years, but the first time I’d ridden since losing my sight 15 years ago. I figured it would be a bit like mountain biking — not too difficult while going slowly, but harder when going fast as there is so little reaction time between seeing something and being able to get out of the way. On the other hand, unlike a mountain bike, a horse generally has a good sense of self-preservation and is unlikely to fall into a hole or crash into a wall that its rider hasn’t seen.
As was the norm for my Icelandic trip, the weather was atrocious that morning as we drove to the stables — cold, grey and raining steadily. We were handed a full set of bright orange waterproofs which made us look more like North Sea oil workers than riders, and which certainly weren’t ideal for riding since they were baggy and the trousers rode up the leg constantly, but at least they kept us dry. Since I no longer own any riding gear, I was wearing my hiking boots in preparation for the afternoon’s activities, which kept my feet dry but were also not exactly ideal riding footwear!
We were divided into two groups: beginners and experienced. The classification criteria was “more than 4 years of riding” which to my logical brain seemed a ridiculous distinction. Someone might have ridden a couple of times a year for 5 years, and be considered experienced, while someone who had ridden every day for 2 years would be considered a beginner. And plodding round a yard on a leading rein as a small child is very different from galloping over open country as an adult! As someone who had ridden several times a week for about 10 years, but not been on a horse for 30 years, I was a bit alarmed at the thought of being considered experienced, and had visions of everyone gaily galloping off into the sunset, but on the other hand I didn’t want to be stuck entirely with the numpties who didn’t know their withers from their fetlock, and who would need to be shown how to hold the reins and how to mount and dismount. I decided to be brave and go for the experienced category, hoping that I’d be given a nice placid horse nevertheless. I did mention that I hadn’t ridden for years and was very out of practice, but the guides seemed to think I was worrying about nothing. They assured me that it would all come back to me as soon as I got on, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. I considered mentioning that I was registered blind, but decided it wasn’t really the time and place. Besides, the fact that we were all encased from head to toe in bright orange meant that I was unlikely to lose my companions, and even if I did, they’d still be able to spot me from miles away!
Once we were assigned our horses, there was much milling around while the guides helped us adjust the saddles and stirrups and show the beginners how to mount. I remembered to check the girth before getting on, and was amazed to find how easily I swung myself up into the saddle without even having to think about it. Amazingly, no one made the classic error of swinging themself up too violently and falling straight off the other side (I’ve seen it done many a time). We finally set off at a sedate walk, and I soon felt as though I’d never stopped riding, although I was still a bit nervous of what we might be expected to do.
Before long, the guides explained about the special gaits of the Icelandic horses. I’d read about this but, having never ridden an Icelandic horse before, had never experienced it. Theoretically, the Icelandic horse has 5 gaits, which is slightly confusing because they count the canter and gallop as a single gait (for reasons apparently only to themselves). In addition to the normal 4 gaits (walk, trot, canter and gallop) there is the tölt, which is ridden like a sitting trot (you stay in the saddle and push your weight firmly downwards so that you move as little as possible). Unlike a sitting trot, it’s surprisingly comfortable once you get the hang of it, although a sports bra is a good idea if you’re female, as it’s a very jiggly motion! It’s a lateral gait, which means that it uses the same foot pattern as a walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front). The oddest thing about the tölt, however, is that it can be performed at a wide range of speeds — anything from a fast walk to a typical canter speed. I didn’t realise this part for a while, as we only performed it at a fast walking pace to start with.
The guides were excellent and kept moving through the line of riders to check we were all OK. I could hear my mum’s teacher voice constantly in my head, telling me to sit up straight and keep an imaginary line through my shoulders, hips and ankles (I hope that’s right, as it’s what I was doing, anyway) and to keep my head up and my shoulders back. I didn’t need her physically there to instruct me, as her instructions all came flooding back! She had obviously done a good job all those years ago, as all the instructors at various points complimented me on my riding ability and said I clearly knew what I was doing and had been taught well! When I tried to explain I hadn’t ridden for 30 years and didn’t really know what I was doing, they almost didn’t seem to believe me, and I don’t think any of them realised how nervous I actually was! However, the fact that I was more nervous about not sitting in a perfect posture, rather than worrying about falling off or anything else, was probably a good thing!
After an hour or so of gentle walking and tölting (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but it is now), we reached an impasse where the heavy rain had totally flooded the route, so we turned around and went another way. By this point we were all able to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, even if the weather was still grey and foggy.
At this point, the group was split into two, and the more experienced riders set off for a longer route with a bit more speed. I was a little nervous when they asked if we were ready to go faster, as I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was still a bit nervous about galloping off into the sunset! But it turned out that going faster meant simply doing progressively faster versions of the tölt until we were pretty much at cantering speed. I actually found this pace more comfortable than the slower one, and my trusty steed seemed to agree, as he was keen to stretch his legs a little. The one thing I found a little weird was actually just riding in a group, as I had never ridden with more than one or two other people at the most, and was used to setting my own speed, whereas in a group you’re very constrained by the pace of the horse in front of you, as overtaking isn’t really encouraged, and we were on a fairly narrow track with only just room to pass.
The horses were incredibly responsive, and I found I needed only the tiniest squeeze of the thighs to step up the pace. That was the interesting (and enjoyable) thing about this gait, that you could go through such a range of speed without changing the gait, just by aqueezing with the legs, in much the same way as the tiniest pressure on a car accelerator. It’s a concept you don’t really get with other horses, apart from when at a gallop, and certainly not even then to such an extent. It was fascinating and great fun to be in so much control of a horse’s speed in this way. The other interesting thing was watching the guides performing the tölt – it’s an incredibly elegant gait, with the feet raised high on every step, and being expert riders and tölters, the guides were statuesque despite the bouncing motion. I did my best to emulate them, but I’m pretty sure I was jiggling around far more than they were!
Incidentally, the 5th gait of the Icelandic horse, which we didn’t try, is the skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”. It’s used in pacing races, and according to Wikipedia is fast and smooth, with some horses able to reach up to 30 miles per hour. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted or for the novice rider, and takes practice for the horse as well as the rider. The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls; each side has both feet land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front).
All too soon, our morning was over and we found ourselves heading back to the stables. I wished we’d been able to spend longer, as I was really settling into the ride by this time and would have liked to try something a little more adventurous. I kept wondering why I hadn’t ridden for the last 30 years, and am completely inspired now to look out for more riding opportunities. I think I might actually have enjoyed riding an Icelandic horse more than a British one, although I’d have to try riding again in the UK to be sure of that. I’ll still be nervous next time I ride, but definitely keen to give it another go, and could even consider doing a full-on riding trek now! Watch this space.