It’s amazing how hypnotic a horse’s ears can be as they bob slowly in front of you, stretching forwards and back rhythmically as your mount strides out. For me, going for a programme a horse may be a exciting combination of journey, joy and deep relaxation. Your mind wanders as you explore country lanes, woods, bridle paths and cinder tracks. You go at your own pace – a sedate trot or a full out gallop, should you fancy it. The overwhelming feeling is one of freedom. You are, quite literally, on the hoof.
I no longer own my own horse. I have two small children and I work full-time, so I don’t have the spare time or the spare cash. But as a toddler i used to be astonishingly lucky to own a horse-mad mum, and I had my first pony, Patch, a very cheeky Welsh Mountain pony, before I could walk. It’s all concerning your relationship along with your horse and that they all have such completely different personalities. We discovered that Patch loved jam sandwiches when he once wolfed mine from the boot of the car. He was a real character – very difficult to catch when he was out in the field, and he had to be rounded up, western-style, even in deep snow in the depths of winter. He had an inexplicable hatred of Shetland ponies and would try to buck me off whenever he saw one.
I grew au courant Patch, so I had a succession of ponies and horses till my early 20s … dust-covered (fluffy angora jumpers were in after I had him in the 1980s and he liked resting his nose on my big roll necks), Tiger (a brilliant jumper who would turn his top lip inside out to “laugh” when you bathed him with a hosepipe in summer), Music (it was very embarrassing calling his name in the field but he had the comfiest, bounciest canter) and Jubilee (so handsome and with serious attitude and presence – he was a stallion until just before we had him, so he really thought he was the bollocks even though he no longer had any).
Once I was old enough I spent all my school holidays up the yard while my mum was at work, going on glorious hacks as well as making camps in the hay barn, having water fights and getting chased by the cockerel (which has left me with a life long fear of birds). I still escape for very treasured hacks on my friend Philippa’s giant horse Brickett occasionally and, should I ever win the lottery rather than buying a fast car, the first thing I would do is buy a fast horse!
Sat in the saddle you’re only a few meters off the ground but crucially this affords you a slightly different perspective on the world. You spot things you wouldn’t normally spot and, from your perch on a horse’s back, you are totally immersed in the natural environment. You can reach out and pick catkins off the trees as you pass, you can pause to watch a robin wolfing berries or bring your horse to a halt to admire a lovely view of a valley. You can’t help but live in the moment, at one with your horse and nature, because there are no other distractions.
It’s this close proximity to the natural world that provides such a sense of escapism and relaxation. Suddenly, you notice the tiny stuff (that Robin, that view) and, because you ride all year round, you become highly tuned to the seasons.
Each ride has its own appeal. It’s hard to beat a hack through the woods in autumn, ducking your head to avoid stray branches adorned with golden leaves, the sound of your horse’s hooves muffled by those who have already fallen down and lined the ground in a very jewel-like carpet. In the winter, I love cold crisp days when the hedgerows sparkle with frost and your horse blows huge clouds of steam from his nostrils. Dismounting when your feet have gone numb is agony, as is uncurling hands that have frozen tightly around the reins, but it’s worth it. Even riding within the rain has its charm – splashing through puddles, seeking shelter underneath large horse chestnut trees and bolting home as quickly as you’ll be able to flee a downpour.
The paths you trot along may be mostly familiar but you never know quite what you might find around the next bend. In my 30 years of hacking across country my steeds and I have stumbled across naked lovers entwined on a rug in the middle of a field (awkward, for all of us), found abandoned diaries on a river bank (I am afraid to say that my friend and I did look, but in our defense we were only 13 and reading illicit extracts from a 20-year-old’s diary was deeply thrilling) and discovered a magical, misty dell hidden deep in the woods that was like a scene from Tim Burton’s film Sleepy Hollow.
I have been caught singing at the top of my voice to my pony by a group of walkers who managed to sneak up on me because I was making such a din. I’ve gone blackberry picking on horseback. I’ve trespassed in woods where I wasn’t meant to be, then got lost and felt gnawing panic rise as it started to get dark. How did I get out? I gave my horse Jubilee his head and let him lead the way – he was an equine Lassie!
While riding alone is a strangely philosophical experience, hacking out with a friend is all about fun, for you and your steed. The horses enjoy having company and will vie for the front position and egg each other on, going faster and faster as you canter through the countryside. If one horse bucks, chances are the other will too, leaving both riders struggling to stay on and in fits of giggles. You can take a packed lunch and head off on longer treks to explore new paths or routes and there’s someone there to hold a horse while the other leaps off to drag a log out of a hedge to create an impromptu fence.