Putting the horse before the car

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The Independent Online
Learning to ride isn't easy,

at least for adults. It's a psychological game of control, mostly with yourself - but the horse has some input too,

writes Eric Kendall.

The wind's in your hair, in the horse's mane, and in his tail if you dare to look round. Man and beast are syncopated, rather than synchronised, in a sort of lumpy trot which is about as fast as you'll go on your first time out.

Harlequin - a very large cart horse, to the untutored eye - is a reassuring first ride, to whom the concept of galloping is as distant as it is to me. Designed for pulling ploughs rather than carrying people, he cultivates the agricultural look by wearing his hair long at the ankles. He's ideal for a steady ride as long as speed isn't on the agenda. Despite his enormous height, his proportionate breadth makes sitting on him a bit like being on an elephant, in terms of the secure feel of his huge back. But it's a long way down, whether measured in hands, feet, or fractions of a furlong.

Half the battle when learning how to ride is keeping your nerve and maintaining a big pretence - not letting the horse know you might be scared. There's also the question of balance. You think you've got it, and then some smart Alec tells you to trot on a horse without a saddle and with your arms in the air, at which point you discover that your head is heavier than your bottom, your feet and your boots combined. To make any progress, hours on horseback need to be clocked up in pursuit of the rider's Holy Grail: a good seat.

Well before that stage, certain movements become second nature - being pulled briskly down the neck of the animal whenever it gets within range of ground-level greenery, and jiggling along at a trot before anyone's explained how to "rise". And you don't need an A-level in equine science to recognise the rearing head, bared teeth and laid-back ears of a cross horse that's been run into once too often by one of its stablemates - it can only mean trouble, especially if your "seat" still eludes you.

Other than rearing and bucking, the bolt is the main thing to lose sleep over. It's a swift and unstoppable progression through the gears from zero to flat out, and is the most telling moment in a would-be rider's career. You discover how fast a horse can go when it really wants to, rather than when you're asking it to. There is a difference.

You don't have to be interested in fox-hunting or polo to want to ride. For many, it's the sensation of speed and a power that's almost part of you, experienced in deep, quiet countryside - a bucolic adrenaline kick. There's also the practical side, even in this age: horses as transport, particularly in areas where it's hard on foot and impossible in a vehicle. The logical, adventurous extension of this is to reach Britain's and the rest of the world's unspoilt corners on horseback before someone arrives with the Tarmac. Even areas that do have Jeep or car access can be infinitely better seen from the saddle - on a horseback safari you gallop with the herd of zebra, rather than watching them from a minibus through a telephoto lens.

Learning to ride

The British Horse Society (01203 414118) approves and monitors riding schools throughout the country. Contact them for details of approved local schools. A good alternative to "normal" country riding is on the coast. Long beaches offer potential gallops on miles of hard-packed sand: Pakefield Riding School, Suffolk (01502 572257); Rose Acre Riding School, Norfolk (01263 720671); Trenance Riding School, Cornwall (01637 872699); Clyn Du Riding Centre, Wales (01554 832546).

A number of companies offer riding holidays all over the world. Most cater to experienced riders; on safari, "you must be able to gallop out of trouble". Other, more mountainous areas need less riding experience, as the altitude and terrain restricts any potential for equine high jinks, and the likelihood of coming across threatening wild animals is remote. Ride World Wide (0171 735 1144) includes opportunities for expert and novice without just mixing them together in a big group (sometimes a problem on large US dude ranches). Their trip to the Chilean Andes (where endurance is the key, with four to six hours a day in the saddle) has been enjoyed by riders with as little as four months' riding experience.

Kit

One of the most appealing aspects of riding abroad is dressing up in real cowboy gear. Likewise, the typical British outfit must be responsible for more people not taking up riding than any other factor, though the latest generation of helmets should further reduce the risk of head injury in a fall or, more amusingly, during low-branch encounters.

The idea of jodhpurs is that the seams are in the right, non-chafing, places. Their figure-hugging aspect also ensures that folds of material can't ruck up between you and the horse. Jeans will rub the insides of your legs but will do initially; gloves are useful. Most vital is a pair of boots that won't easily allow your foot to slip through the stirrup (they should have a heel).

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