I was on my way up to the farm one morning this week, thinking about what I would do with Aero. A bit of groundwork, fine-tuning his recall and his liberty work, I thought, followed by some gentle ridden work. (Gentle for my benefit, my back is still not right. I might have to give in and go to an osteopath if it’s still bugging me next week.) I planned to ride in the rope halter and then mess around with no reins again, assuming all went well…
…and WHAM!!! that very thought brought me back to the past, more than thirty-five years. I’ve done this LOOK NO HANDS stuff before, but I had completely forgotten!
In 1977, my family finally moved from Shannon into our newly-built house in the country, where my mother still lives. The site was just over one acre, with half an acre fenced for the house and garden. My father started work on this half acre straight away. He planted potatoes in front of the house to break up the soil in preparation for a lawn, he planted hedging at the front and the side, and he started carving out flowerbeds beside the drive. The back half acre was left wild for the first couple of years. It was rough and scraggy, with patches of ancient meadow grass breaking up an expanse of brambles and bracken.
One day, a small black pony with a narrow white blaze appeared in the back half acre. Had my parents finally caved in and bought me a pony? Sadly, no. A little investigation revealed that the pony belonged to a local farmer who did a bit of dealing in horses as well as cattle. If he saw an unused patch of ground, he’d put an animal or two into it first and ask questions second. Luckily for him, my parents didn’t mind the pony being there and the farmer said the pony was very quiet so I could ride him if I wanted. But he had no tack and my saddle and bridle were too big for him. (Yes. I had a saddle and a bridle even though I never had a horse as a kid. Long story.)
He was a nice little pony, friendly and calm. So one warm summer’s day, I did the obvious thing, sat up on him and asked him to walk on. I think that was the first time I ever rode bareback. We meandered in and out of the brambles, the pony marching on determinedly, me delighted with myself as I rode along, clutching a section of mane. I recall I had no steering and it was difficult to halt, but he did stop eventually and I slid off. I would have to figure out how to steer, I decided. Remember, this was back when all I knew was pull the right rein to turn right, pull the left rein to turn left. I knew nothing of leg or weight aids.
My solution was to get a nice, long, straight stick from a hazel tree in the hedge. Next time I hopped up on the pony, I had my hazel stick with me – a magic wand, perhaps? The pony – I never knew his name – ambled off once again. I tapped the left side of his face with the hazel wand and Hey Presto! he moved to the right. I tried pushing his body with my left leg and that worked too, although if I needed to insist I had to resort to the ‘face tap’ again. We circumnavigated a clump of brambles in this manner and then I tried turning the other way. That worked too! I had steering! Not only that, but he now seemed to understand when I wanted to stop – I’d say “Whooooa” and relax my legs and he would stop.
I wish I knew then what I know now of natural horsemanship, or I wish I’d had someone to guide me. I would have had a lot of fun with that little guy that summer, even if he was a bit small for me (I think he was about thirteen hands, 133cm). As it was, I ended up being able to walk and trot around our scrubby little half acre with some semblance of control and I even went over a couple of low jumps using the ‘face tap’ method of steering. He was a sweet, tolerant little pony.
He disappeared one day, as suddenly as he had appeared, presumably sold. I hope he went to a nice family.
PS FLASHBACK INDUCED FLASHBACK!
I had another flashback while I was proof-reading this – the little black pony wasn’t my first ever LOOK NO HANDS riding experience. Four or five years before, my friend Gabrielle and I had gone to stay with her Granny way out in the wilds of west Clare. The Granny’s neighbour had a donkey, Bimbo. It’s funny how I knew his name, but not the little black pony’s…
Anyway, I’m not sure if Bimbo was a pet or if he was expected to pull a cart and bring turf in from the bog – probably the latter, given that it was the early seventies. Gabrielle and I ended up playing with the neighbour’s children and we all went to have a look at little Bimbo. They dared us to ride him, probably thinking us Townie Kids wouldn’t be up for the challenge. I climbed on board first and Bimbo took off at a brisk donkey-canter across the field. I quickly discovered just how bony a donkey’s backbone is as I bounced along on his narrow little frame – OUCH! I’m not sure if he got tired of my bouncing and tipped his heels up or if I just slipped off, but I eventually hit the ground in a fit of laughter, with Gabrielle cracking up at the spectacle, too.
The other kids were pretty shocked that we found it so funny. I think they were expecting me to cry, being a puny Townie Kid. I’m glad I disappointed them. It’s a matter of Townie Kid pride.