Five-minute memoir: Anjali Joseph recalls a life-changing horse ride
In 2003, I'd just split up with my first serious boyfriend. I began going out with someone older. He was the kind of 41-year-old who thought the line about being as young as the person you're feeling was funny; I was the kind of 25-year-old who read into the joke irony that wasn't there.
He was an artist. At weekends, he visited his father in Suffolk, where he was learning to ride. I was a trainee accountant, hoping to fail my exams and be kicked out of the firm where I'd unaccountably – innumerate, uninterested in business – got a job a year earlier at the encouragement of my then-boyfriend.
I went to Suffolk for weekends. The second time, we went riding together. It was a strange culmination of all the pony books I'd read as a child, growing up in Warwickshire. Horse riding at the time was glamorous but an unattainably expensive hobby. The nearest I'd got to a horse, about a decade earlier, was visiting a friend's stud farm in India, where I'd held out to a prize stallion, as instructed, a flimsy plastic basket containing chopped-up carrots. As an enormous head and disproportionately gargantuan teeth bore down on the carrots, which rested partly on my fingers, I'd squeaked and let the bowl, and carrots, fly. My friend had looked on with disappointment.
That, other than watching my older brother sit on an underfed pony and be led around the Cooperage, a small park nestling amid tall apartment buildings in South Mumbai, had been my closest encounter with a horse.
Now, one was saddled for me. I borrowed boots, and a hard hat, climbed a block, and got in the saddle. The horse's name was Jack: he was a solid, slightly mischievous-looking chestnut. The pretty riding instructor led us both into a paddock. I wondered, swaying atop Jack, if this would be the place I broke my neck and died.
Perhaps the week before, I'd had a chat to the instructor. She'd asked if I did any other sports. "Yoga? Oh, then you'll be fine. You'll be strong and flexible." I felt dubious.
The important thing, she'd impressed on me, was to keep my balance. She pointed at my solar plexus. "You want your balance to be here. That should be your centre of gravity."
I tried to imagine a cup of water, in my solar plexus, that I had to keep unspilled. The trainer began to click her tongue, and encouraged me to squeeze Jack's enormous sides with my heels. Gingerly, I did: hundreds of kilos of horse ambulated around the paddock in a bored, slightly fractious manner. I examined the world from this higher vantage point, and tried not to feel breathless. Later, I learnt to half-rise from the saddle in time to Jack's trot. At the end of the hour, when he made eagerly for the exit, and I dismounted, I fed him a Polo. If a horse could have spoken, he would probably have said, "Whatever". Still, I hadn't died. It was exhilarating.
The relationship with the artist fizzled within weeks, but I found myself missing the riding lessons. I located a stable in London, almost at the end of the Piccadilly Line. For a while, I spent cold Saturday afternoons on a Tube to Oakwood, then walked to the stable. The office was filled with mothers and children having their hard hats strapped on. I'd rent some kit, leave my stuff in the office and go for my group lesson, level B (trotting, steering, bareback trotting). The stable had, online, its portfolio of available steeds. The horse I frequently got was Molly: she was small, portly, and recalcitrant. I developed affection for her, drew her portrait in charcoal, and posted it to the artist. I considered my centre of gravity.
Despite the charms of the stables on a winter evening, the horses' breath making soft clouds in navy-blue air and yellow lamplight, it was time to go. I handed in my notice and moved to India. There was a month before I started work at a newspaper in Bombay. Near my parents' house, I found a stable. This one had open land, under blue skies, and the horses were tall, perky and beautiful ex-racehorses. I rode Blaze, a grey.
"Have you cantered?" asked the young man teaching me. "No," I said. In London, there were strict rules about when you could start cantering. "Let's try it," he said. Blaze, it turned out, didn't need urging; I clicked my tongue and he ran, just for the joy of it. He went faster and faster around the large paddock, and I, organically part of him, flew along. But suddenly he stopped, pawed the ground, and snorted violently. I yelped with fear, and turned round to find the trainer doubled over. "Anjali," he said when he had stopped laughing. "The horse just sneezed."
'Another Country' by Anjali Joseph is published by 4th Estate, priced £12.99
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