My first lesson in riding a horse, one of many on trust & surrender
Awesome, quite literally.
Liberal use of “awesome” has diluted its meaning to a catchall term for anything vaguely cool or impressive, and sometimes even just a one-word confirmation of plans made over Whatsapp. But what horses do is fill me with awe in the most literal sense of the word: they inspire an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, and fear.
As one of our most basic emotions, confronting fear is a theme we consistently face in life, but so is surrender and trust. These are always the lessons at the crux of my personal and professional work, and so was the case when I had the privilege of having my first riding lesson earlier this week.
I always wanted riding lessons as a child. Having grown up in Hout Bay where riding is commonplace, people are often quite shocked to learn how inexperienced I am with horses. Given my proximity to the myriad riding schools in the valley, surely I would have had a lesson by 24 years old? Despite the desire, I was occupied with other extracurricular activities growing up and we simply didn’t have the funds for any more. Prior to my first lesson, I’d been lucky enough to be on a horse twice though. Once when I was eight years old and visiting some family who lived on a farm, and another 8 years later when I was sixteen and going through a bit of a tough time. A friend of mine who was an experienced rider had organised an outride for me as a therapeutic venture. I had an incredible and beneficial experience in all the ways my friend had hoped; but beginning to understand how soothing horses can be for one did not mean I was now equipped with the skills to ride them properly.
Do not underestimate this: Horse riding is a skill. It is therapeutic, as well as phenomenal exercise. If you are prepared to get on a horse, you must also be prepared to live with a little soreness in the following days, just like you would after starting any new physical activity in which muscles are utilised you may otherwise not know exist. The pain in my legs, and most surprisingly hands (from learning to correctly and consistently hold reins) is tolerable and most certainly worth it. If you are considering getting on a horse for the first time and are in any way apprehensive, I assure you all you have to lose is your fear.
I was excited to enter the property my first morning and my minor anxieties were soon soothed by the tranquillity of the farm. I said hello to a turkey and even stroked him, my first new opportunity of many that day. While I settled into the feeling of the farm, I first connected with Ruby, a beautiful brown-spotted Dalmatian with different coloured eyes who introduced herself to me by weaving her way in between my legs. I was immediately in love. A piece of me wanted to stay seated on the lush grass with her forever, not just because she was utterly gorgeous and loveable, but because I know and understand dogs. They’re safe. I was very aware that I didn’t know what to look out for if I were to entrench myself too much into a horse’s personal space.
I didn’t know how to go about loving them or where I could kiss them. There would be no roll over with a presentation of a belly for me to rub. If I’m honest, when it came to horses, I felt a little confused, maybe even lost. It was only when my dear friend, Nikita, who introduced me to The Whole Horse and arranged my lesson, reminded me I was getting distracted with Ruby, did I realise I was hesitant to move out of my comfort zone and get to know the horses. I had my dog at home, and as much as I can’t wait to see Ruby again, she wasn’t why I had come that morning. I said goodbye and moved on to say hello to the other beautiful creatures there.
I greeted Phil, a Sadler I’d met before who Nikita leases. I’d had the pleasure of listening to her fall in love with him, and now I had the privilege of watching her with him. They both clearly love each other. Nikita has been patient while learning with Phil as he heals, as I’m sure Phil has with Nikita too. She knows where he likes to be touched and where not. I could sense that while we both enjoyed being around such a majestic creature, there was a level of comfort Nikita had I lacked. She picked up on this too and gently guided me through the experiences of feeding Phil apples and saying hello. When Nikita left me with Phil and his meal of hay, I thanked him for all he’d done for her. I watched as he nimbly nibbled away at his food. I’d never witnessed a horse eat before. It might sound mundane, but I was enthralled watching his lips move. Thus began a journey of observing all that is idiosyncratic to horses.
When I first met Romy, the beautiful thoroughbred ex-racehorse I was set to ride that day, I couldn’t believe how long her lower eye lashes were. I was still in for the most pleasant of surprises when I kissed her and discovered just how soft a horse’s muzzle is. Tamsin shared with me it was one of her favourite parts of a horse. I not only see why, but now share the same feeling.
When Tamsin asked me how I felt once I’d finally found myself seated on Romy, I let her know I had a healthy hesitation as I was trying something new, but I was excited and ready. It soon dawned on me not only was I now beginning a relationship with Romy beneath me, but Tamsin beside me too. The strength of my individual relationships with each of them rested upon the two first having a relationship of their own: an established connection of trust and respect.
I realised quickly a successful riding lesson would rely on the interplay of numerous contracts of trust within the indoor arena. Fortunately for me, I had an advantageous set of circumstances in that I was already familiar with this blog. Having previously read about Tamsin’s work, I had an understanding of her approach and compassion with regards to horses that left me feeling secure in her hands; quite literally too as she was to lunge me around the arena. Not only did I trust Tamsin, but I trusted her relationship with Romy.
I had the opportunity to witness a photoshoot of the two take place the morning before my 30-minute lesson. I saw the confidence as she mounted Romy, eventually standing on her for a shot. Romy was utterly at ease. She was happy to let Tamsin lay across her back too. While those photos are still to be uploaded here, seeing the connection and comfort behind set between this particularly gentle human and sturdy equine assured me their relationship was concrete.
But a feeling of safety between an instructor and a horse is not the same as feeling safe with a horse oneself. Of course Tamsin and Romy were comfortable with each other; Tamsin had been training her for years. Not only had I just met Romy, but my experience with horses was limited to say the least. I needn’t fear long though as Romy soon proved to live up to her nickname of “Tank girl” as a vehicle came into the arena to rake the ground quite early into our lesson. Romy didn’t even flinch. My mind told me she would at the very least be perturbed by the noise. Though I perceived it as too much commotion, Tamsin let me know Romy wouldn’t mind and made sure I was comfortable to continue with the background soundscape of a motorized engine and scraping ground.
Romy is robust; she is a beautiful, reliable creature, both in terms of physical comfort and disposition. Sitting on her is a breeze and her indifference to what I was sure would be a disturbance is a testament to her dependable nature. My trust in Romy was solidified, and the checklist seemed complete.
Feeling safe with my instructor: ✓
Knowing my horse did too: ✓
Trusting the beautiful creature under me: ✓
Further on, I realised the last ‘check’ I needed was placing trust in myself. Trust that I was strong enough, trust that I wasn’t making Romy uncomfortable as I tried to find the right rhythm to trot, trust that when I lost my feet from the stirrups that I could find my placing again. In no time, I was at ease with myself and the whole experience.
My lesson was amazing to say the least, and I’ve been told by Tamsin I did quite well too, which was incredibly affirming. I leaned forward to give Romy the biggest hug when it ended. Any hesitation I’d entered with had abated, and I certainly know I’m not going to wait another 8 years to get back on a horse.