When I was eight years old, my mother let two sisters, a sixteen and eighteen year old take me to the other side of the city to a riding school. In 1966, the world was a different place.
Each week I went with them to spend the day at the stables. I’d muck out horses, groom them and polish the tack. Although, mostly I just played around.
It was a wonderful time and I grew to love horses. My teenage years were spent talking about horses, writing horse stories, and living for the weekend to spend the day at the stables. For the next twenty years I was horse mad. When my first child was born, I stopped riding, by the time the second one came along, I was too busy being a mum. That love of horses stayed with me.
Being a writer, I indulge myself in having some of my characters enjoy the pleasures that were once mine. It’s almost as good – almost.
National Day of the Horse reminds me of those happy days, and now I can recall a scene from my book Joanna’s Destiny where Joanna goes riding in the French hills. I once rode in the Welsh hills with a my sister and a Welshman, Joanna rides with her sister and a French man.
Joanna’s Destiny, excerpt
As the horses walked through the countryside, Jean-Claude continually watched her. “Keep your ‘ands down, tighten up the rein; keep your ‘eels down.”
Eventually, Joanna became exasperated, and gasped, “For God’s sake Jean-Claude, can’t we drop the pupil/teacher bit? This is supposed to be a ride, not a lesson.”
Kim laughed. “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”
It was a hot balmy day with a blue, cloudless sky. The rhythm of the hooves clipped-clopped along, and a faint breeze blew over. It brought with it the smell of the ocean. Joanna had never known a place like the countryside of France; it was a different world from Manchester and its busy streets full of people. The ride was slow and lazy for a while. Nobody spoke, each enjoying the sounds of the surrounding countryside.
In the distance, the sea was pounding against rocks. There was the occasional cry of a seagull and the bleating of sheep. The riders turned up a track leading to a hilltop, and the sheep scattered. Joanna couldn’t resist shouting, “mint sauce” as they passed. Kim laughed but had to explain that mint sauce was what the English ate with lamb.
“Oh,” said Pierre.
“It’s a joke,” Kim grinned.
“Oh,” he said again, as Joanna and Kim giggled. Jean-Claude trotted on, and the others followed.
Joanna whooped with delight, remembering to bounce with the trot. They reached the top where they stopped to admire the view before heading downwards again.
In the valley below, Jean-Claude once again trotted on and then broke into a canter. Joanna slipped from side to side at first, but managed to steady herself.
“Jean-Claude! Jean-Claude!” she called. “Wait for me.” He slowed down until she had reached him.
“I thought you did not want my ‘elp?”
“Ah well, it’s a bit bumpy. I feel safer with you.”
“Come then, we go together.” They cantered with Jean-Claude shouting instructions again.
When they came to a halt, Joanna turned to him. “Stop telling me what to do all the time. I can manage.”
“Oh, I see, suddenly you are a good rider, yes?”
“I can do it on my own.”
“All right, if you are so clever, do it then.”
“Ok, I will!” said Joanna, feeling her stubbornness take root. “Come on Kim, let’s go.”
Joanna kicked her horse on, and they sped off. The rhythm of the hooves changed as they broke into a gallop. It was smoother. Joanna yelled and turned to see Kim coming up behind followed by the lads. She and Kim rode together for a while before Kim slowed. As Joanna’s horse fell back, she lost her stirrup. Kim shouted, and she lost her other with the reins slackening all the time. There was nothing she could do as she slipped and tumbled to the ground.
Kim was powerless to help, and Pierre raced after the startled animal. Jean-Claude pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted.
Joanna, who had come to a stop, had hurt herself and was embarrassed. She lashed out when Jean-Claude asked if she was all right.
“Do I look all right?” He helped her to her feet, and Joanna felt her bones groan.
“You should not ‘ave been so smart,” he retorted as Kim approached.
“Clever? Who’s the teacher ‘round here, Jean-Claude?”
“You are a smart-arse, no?”
“Smart-arse!” She slapped at the grass and stones that clung to her clothes. “Call yourself a teacher?”
“Call yourself a rider?” he answered haughtily.
“A pupil is just as good as her tutor,” she told him.
“You are pig ‘eaded, Joanna,” he said, as Pierre arrived back with her horse.
“Well, you’re just a pig!”
“Get back on your ‘orse.”
“You’re joking! I’m not getting back on there. I’ll walk.”
“You ‘ave to get back on, Joanna,” said Pierre. She glared at him and looked at Kim, who nodded. As she was outnumbered, she climbed back on and turned the horse around.
“Where are you going?” called Kim.
“Home,” she shouted over her shoulder. “You can tell Jean-Claude that his pupil thinks he stinks!”
She rode back to the stables on her own, unsaddled, groomed the horse, gave it water, and took Kim’s car back to the villa.