The trials and tribulations of being mum to a pony rider

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Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Great No-Pony Plan

The advantages of not buying a pony:

A list so lengthy, including the saving of £10,000 and involving parts of a horse you'd rather not know about, that I snipped it.

Advantages of buying a pony:

A (possible) rosette for the Clear Round Jumping at Sudeley Show next summer.

Talking of buckers, bolters, slugs and nippers... here are some stars of NagsR'Us (all names changed to protect the guilty)

Clootie is nearly 30 and still gathers speed for the jumps like Shear L'Eau. An intelligent chap, he can sense a stable door left ajar for one second only and then he bolts like the clappers for the open fields. He’s the only pony at the stable who has to be led in a Chifney bit – so much hardware in his mouth it looks like a mediaeval torture chamber. Last week he escaped the farrier, was caught, full of turnips, in a turnip field and farted uncontrollably for hours.

Pantso is fat and totally desensitised to small heels thumping ineffectually at her sides. Last seen achieving canter in 1992.

Thuggie bucks his riders off at every opportunity, for no better reason (and it’s quite a good one) than they demand, weeping, to be put on another pony for the rest of the lesson while he is led back to his peaceful stable in disgrace. Fortunately Thuggie is small and close to the ground so serious injuries have been few.

Gnasher is what they call head-shy, which sounds charmingly fey. What it means is that if you go anywhere near the front end he will sink his large yellow choppers into your fleshy parts with the speed of a striking snake. (To be fair, I was wearing a beige anorak and RPD said I probably looked like a mobile haynet.)

Gorgeous has the grace of an angel with his golden coat, flaxen mane and tail, and wickedly slanting eyes. The experience of riding him combines the frustrations of a slug with the excitements of the Apocalypse; he will go all right, but only when you least expect it. Loves the cross country field – you won’t see much of it yourself though.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

A Verse to Whisper....

..... or should that be 'averse to Whisper', since we certainly were, haha. J and I wrote this to lighten the mood a bit at the depths of our despair, it’s a bit silly maybe… but we were keen to humanise a pony we had come to dread. Nervously creeping up to her stable door and peeping over: 'I think she looks quite docile today, do you?' 'Oh yes, yes - tired even...' 'Too tired to ride do you think?’ ‘Ohhh yes, maybe we should let her rest a bit longer....' etc

To be read aloud at a steady working trot. All horses named are real.

Dramatis Personae:

Mr Parker, a steady cob
Leo, a lordly thoroughbred with impeccable manners
Rusty, Tilly and Clyde - some very naughty ponies

Old Mr Parker looked over his door
And saw a young pony he’d not seen before
The next thing he knew he was out in the field
Cos his stable to her the poor lad had to yield.

Then - great excitement - a rider got on
But two minutes later the rider was gone!
Whisper kicked up her heels and off the girl came
“Oh dear,” frowned our Pat, “Here’s one we must tame!”

The rider remounted while counting to ten
But five minutes later it happened again
Bad little Whisper galloped away
Pam groaned, “Let’s agree that’s enough for one day”

At feedtime, old Parker, he asked of the mare
“Pray tell us how you do it, my dear, if you’d care”
She tapped her grey nose with one finely oiled hoof
“Oh, these silly humans, they’re easy to spoof!”

And while they all guzzled and chomped on their feed
The horses told Whisper the things she should heed.
“I’ll tell you a good one” said Parker, “at tea -
“They bring it much quicker if you kick the door, see?”

“Most disrespectful,” sniffed Leo, as Clyde
Suggested escaping when the stable door’s wide
And clever old Rusty knew a trick sure to win
“Keep your teeth clamped tight shut and the bit won’t go in.”

“If you want them to look most amusingly silly
Chase them all round the stable,” said naughty young Tilly.
“Most disrespectful!” Leo looked down his nose
When someone suggested trampling on toes.

Amid all this racket Magic peered over her partition
She wasn’t at all pleased to see competition
“Oh my,” she thought, “a cute mare on the yard”
“To outdo that Whisper I’ll have to try hard!”

She fluttered her lashes and shook out her tail
And just to look dainty brushed her mane on a nail
Then Whisper passed by as she preened to and fro.
"That's a waste of your time, dear, they're geldings, you know?"

Bad Whisper caused havoc for all of a week
“It’ll take quite some time to make this one be meek”
Pat muttered grimly “I said 'have a cob'
Instead they have given us such a hard job!”

Pat glanced out the window and said “Quick girls, hide”
“More of their questions I just can’t abide!
“’Where is the water tap, where is the hay
What shall we do with this bucket gone astray?

Sorry Pat, but this bridle, it just won’t lie flat
And which way round should J wear this darned hat?’
I think if I see them again I’ll go mad
But thank god for small mercies, they never bring dad.”

Dressage Gala

Last Sunday there was a Dressage Gala at NagsR'Us. Now you might think, because I thought till very recently, that dressage is a prissy thing to amuse rich people who have nothing better to do than make horses do silly things with their feet. I can see now it’s all about control of the horse – the basic paces done as and when the rider decrees, in the neatest, most controlled way possible – the basics, in fact of all riding. Anyone more knowledgeable who reads this is welcome to add a comment putting me right :)

The riders were mostly taking Prelim 7 and Prelim 10 which are two of the easier tests. It was interesting for us as most of the participants were either stable girls or young girls who take lessons with J, though quite a few adults also took part.

We were there as helpers, which amply befits the status of the newest, most hopeless pony-owning-wannabes at NagsR’us. Humble scurrying at people’s beck and call is something I do rather better than pony-lungeing, I’ve discovered.

The huge top school was laid out much as the one you’d have seen at the Olympics, with potted plants on stands. These ferocious plastic carnations caused much panic among the horses, who shied and side-stepped nervously when they were ridden into the top school. There is a naughty pony at the school, George, who bucked and careered round the arena before his owner, aged about 10, got him under control and serenely cruised through the dressage test. It was exciting to see rosettes being handed out, especially if they went to small riders on not-very-special ponies instead of the upper class visitors who turned up in horseboxes bigger than your average bungalow with lordly 17H warmbloods with three names, and a smaller, matching pony for Hugo-the-heir. On the whole though, people were not nearly so competitive and bitchy as they are, say, in the ballet world. (There were no blogs when I was a ballet-mum. Pity).

Now this was at last ‘fun’, the fun the endless mucking-out and spills and bucket-scrubbing leads to.... Eventually.

We’re a long way away from that though.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Redefining the Perfect Pony

Our new search criteria, after the terror of owning sweet Whisper for a week, are thus:

14.2 HH (no more and no less)
Old and safe
done a bit of everything
up to £3000 (after bargaining and hopefully including tack)

We have narrowed the height to 14.2 exactly because: smaller will fall foul of Pat, and larger would mean double the livery costs and stepping up a class at local shows. We no longer have the deluded fantasy of bringing on a younger horse as we now know we are too hopeless, not brave enough, rich enough, etc for that. We've put up our price a bit to reflect the greater experience we're now looking for (but not as much as we possibly would were it not for Reluctant-Pony-Dad who has to sign the cheque.)

We still don't want a piebald cob.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

When does the fun start?

J kept Whisper for a week. No amount of reading up prepared me for the sheer hard work of getting to the stables every morning before 9am, fetching a barrow (inconveniently kept a long walk from the yard), forking out the muck and urine- soaked straw (Whisper was a highly productive pony), struggling back to the muck heap (an even longer walk), getting fresh straw, bedding it down and forking it up to bank along the stable walls, scrubbing out the water buckets and refilling, packing a haynet then lugging it back. Then realising with dawning horror that it all had to be done again in the late afternoon! No wonder toffs have grooms.

The next job, since the pony was not being turned out this week owing to not yet having established its place in the pony-pecking-order, was exercise: we learned to lunge a pony. A scary experience: they tend to go wild in the lunge pen, kicking up their heels and charging around. I didn’t feel we were ever totally in control to be honest - the pony didn’t seem to know it was supposed to stay at the other end of the lunge rope at all times and kept veering towards us. But it was infinitely preferable to the terror I felt whenever J mounted one unpredictable ton of live and bucking bronco.

Having said that, Whisper behaved herself beautifully when ridden after the first disaster: but having witnessed it…. seeing my child thrown off and that heartstopping moment when she was lying in a crumpled heap…… well, to be honest I don’t think I will ever feel quite the same about riding again. But what can you do? As people always say, You can get killed crossing the road, etc etc.

In this seemingly endless way the week passed: we had all decided that should the vet pass her, we would go ahead and buy her. I know Pat had misgivings – the biggest problem was that J couldn’t, for the time being, ride Whisper in her lessons and that we were having to pay for full livery while Pat helped us with the pony’s taming – er training. Would the fun start soon? Fun was not how I'd describe it so far.

Whisper passed the vetting but was discovered to have sweet-itch. This is a nasty thing, an allergy to midge bites which can cause the pony to rub its neck and tail area raw, become very irritable, and even roll to ease the itching. The thought of an even more irritable Whisper was appalling and in any case Pat said she would be unwilling to use such a pony in the school, because of the rolling possibility. Not very likely, perhaps, and sometimes sweet-itch does not cause too many problems – but we couldn’t take the risk. To be honest I think we were all heartily relieved – though that didn’t ease to sadness of loading her into Pat’s husband’s box (bless him) and cleaning out her stable for the last time…. or J quietly removing Whisper’s carefully made name plates from the tackroom and crumpling them up without saying a word to anyone (I found them in her coat pocket.)

A happier sight was seeing Whisper turned out into the field back at her old stables and greeting each of her pony mates with a poignant brushing of muzzles.

J and I have been much taken with her suggestion that we carry on visiting Fox’s saddlery, picking out matching pony-wear, planning where to put the showing rosettes, but – here's the crucial bit - never buying the pony - !

The search continues....

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Farewell, Whisper

Whisper is to return home tomorrow morning at 9:30 am. It wasn't her fault. She has sweet-itch (confirmed after her vetting today) and both the vet and Pat advised me not to proceed with the sale.

It's been a long day and there is much to write - but tomorrow.

Goodbye, Whisper. We wish you a good home.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Thrills......and spills

The learning curve in this pony lark is steep. One week ago I had never so much as filled a pony’s water bucket.; now I can groom the dear beast with efficient sweeps of my dandy brush (I am getting nearer and nearer the dangerous tail end every day!) and find the muck heap with my barrow of dung, on a good day.

The day after the bucking off incident: J was very brave and rode Whisper around the school for 10 minutes, alone. She behaved beautifully but J was understandably tense. Had a long chat with Pat who reassured us that it was just normal ‘young pony’ behaviour and that by Christmas, ridden 3 times a week by experienced stable girls, she will have lost a lot of that ‘silly nonsense’. This was an incredible relief to hear, since up till then I had been worrying desperately about how we, me a total novice, and J, a competent but not especially brave rider, were going to achieve the steadiness necessary before she is ready for J to safely ride her, yet alone for her to be used in working livery (i.e. considered as safe as any other school pony).

Of course this ‘help’ comes at a price. The pony will be on ‘full livery’, at a cost 3 times that of working livery until such time as she is ready for the school. The first three months are going to be hard, since J is not enjoying riding the pony at all – which is exactly what Pam warned us might happen if we chose a young pony with potential, rather than a safe old nag.

However, so reassured were we, so confident is Pat that the pony WILL be just fine, that we went ahead and made an offer to the seller, who accepted it.

Of course my real dread is not so much that it will all be a disaster and we will have to give up and sell the pony on – one can get through that and only have lost money. It’s the real dread I now feel when J mounts (a dread I have to conceal). Nothing’s worth being seriously injured for. But no horse is entirely ‘safe’ – in that weird way humans have of being comforted by the disasters of others, I watched and was reassured today three school ponies today ‘spook’, bolt and buck in no less alarming a manner than Whisper – the difference was that the riders were outwardly matter-of-fact about it and continued to ride as if they expected their horse to behave normally thereafter. Whereas we are now continually on edge, expecting ours to misbehave. Almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, since horses are adept at picking up on behaviour and body language – no mysticism this, not a ‘my pet is psychic’ bit of mumbo jumbo – as flight animals, they are programmed to sense tense behaviour as this possibly indicates some danger nearby which they should flee from.

Oh well, there have been some lighter moments – we’ve been shown how to lunge Whisper in a round pen – this gives her exercise and works her fizz off – J looks quite the part as she flicks the whip like a ringmaster and the pony canters around the perimeter. Pony-mum meanwhile gets the dumb jobs – on hand to go in and remove the muck if the pony performs – she is quite capable of making deposits every two feet in a perfect circle around the ring – without missing a spot!

Big day tomorrow, a Dressage Gala at the stables. Whisper won’t be taking part of course but J is helping all day, being a gofer with the scores, writing down marks for the dressage judge, etc. Preparations have been intense for this event with most livery owners entering, involving private lessons to learn the tests, many visits to the saddlery for smart outfits for rider and horse, lots of discussions ‘you mean we have to ride without a martingale??’. People were plaiting manes and tails as we left tonight, all very excited.

That’s what it’s all about – having fun. Maybe we will be among them next year….. maybe.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A fright - and hard decisions....

We have been shaken up today and reminded in no uncertain terms that horses are unpredictable and riding can be dangerous – you watch children riding round and round on trotting nags day after day and you forget that things can change in an instant and you can be catapulted into disaster without warning.

Today started brilliantly with J grooming, mucking out and bustling around the yard: it’s a whole new world in the day, the world of the livery owners. I met some lovely people – 3 other mother and daughter pairs as it happens, all of whome were as friendly and welcoming as you could hope, and all only too willing to answer my bubbling-over questions that I haven’t liked to bother Pat with, all volunteering their experiences and information about showing, hacking – things I really burned to know.

A really good day. J rode Whisper twice in the bottom school and jumped her over some small poles. She is a friendly and unthreatening pony to handle, which gave a nervy new pony-mum a lot of encouragement. We even shampooed her tail, which is white and flowing, in striking contrast to her dark grey coat, and which is positioned of course very close to those large and frisky iron-shod back feet – she was calm and patient. Everyone at the stable of course took an interest in ‘J’s new pony’ and were gratifyingly admiring of her looks. So far, so fun.

J has a lesson on Tuesdays with a small group of rather competent teenagers with Pat herself teaching. I yesterday asked Pat if J should have a private lesson this week to assess the pony to see if she were OK to ride in a group lesson – Pat thought this was unneccesary. Pat is extremely competent and experienced and I am not, so I went along with this. J was a little nervous as the lesson takes place in the Top School, which is much larger than the other, and the pony hadn’t seen it before. We did intend to take Whisper up there today but the school happened to be in use at the time.

After ten minutes of the lesson Whisper spooked at something unknown, bucked J over her head in quite a balletic flight through the air, and galloped off across the arena. J was unhurt but shaken. She remounted and rode again. Not five minutes later she was off again. This time she was extremely shaken and Pam didn’t try to get her to remount.

Pat’s verdict is: the pony is a delight with lots of potential. She said that either of the two things which happened today were not necessarily indicative of problems with the pony’s nature – just that she is very ‘green’. She can’t be ridden in the school on working livery until she has had more schooling. The way Pat put that came out like ‘I couldn’t risk my pupils on her yet but it’s up to you if you want to take the risk’. That isn’t what she said but you get the picture.

How would anyone feel, faced with a decision like that? Now we are really torn. My instinct is to keep the pony longer and see what happens. I felt all along it was a mistake to put her into a group lesson but what do I know?

The trouble is, we have no 'longer'. The pony is only lent to us until Friday and her seller will want to take her away if we can’t commit ourselves – she has 4 more potential purchasers lined up for the weekend viewing.

Thinking this through I think we would be mad to take her on. J, while competent and sensible, is not very confident and her joy in the pony is badly knocked tonight. We should maybe go for something slower, safer, and much more schooled. There are cons with that too. What joy is there in riding a bomproof school-type pony who reached any potential it had years ago? Why buy one at all? why not just carry on having lessons?

Yet what joy would there be in 3 months or more of uncertainty and waiting for the same thing to happen again? I felt terror tonight in that split second of wondering if J would ever get up again, if her lovely, fun hobby had become a death sentence – or a life sentence. Christopher Reeve died this week.

Monday, October 18, 2004

She's here!

The pony arrived! We hung about nervously all day and finally got the call around 2. Off we went to the stables and found that our favourite riding school cob, Joe, had been turfed out of his stable into the field to make room for her – he was staring bitterly over the fence (a lovable thug with a hogged mane). I was still sweating on Pat taking one look and barking ‘Too small!” -the last potential pony we had on spec seemed to have shrunk 4 inches when it came to Pat’s inspection, but this one stepped nicely down the ramp, tossed her head and stood as tall as 14.2 hands allows (i.e. not very, but believe me, they all look huge when you’re the one holding the headcollar.)

I stood by while J forked over the stable straw, filled a haynet and buckets of water – these are all simple skills any Pony-Mum is expected to learn, but you will know just how novice I am when I say that to welcome the new pony I was wearing a white jacket with pale pink embroidery. This was not a smart move, and I felt like Margot in the Good Life as I teetered about bearing buckets and armfuls of straw, brushing haybits and slobber off my coat. This must be why all country people wear those greasy green things that cost about £200 and make you look like a fisherman.

The pony looked as beautiful as we remembered, especially with her dainty head poking out next to Fred the walleyed cob, and was as friendly as you could hope, sweet and easy to manage in the stable, not like the one who chased me round the stable once baring his big teeth and throwing up his back legs.

The first financial shock of the pony-owning experience came when I telephoned for some insurance for the trial week: everyone recommended the NFU and breezily said ‘a week will cost about a fiver’ – I ended up agreeing to £280 a year for quite basic cover of liability, limited vet’s expenses, and pony death. This does, it’s true, work out to not much more than the promised £5 a week – but it sure as heck sounds it, and had to be glossed over for Reluctant-Pony-Dad’s benefit since I had told him ‘about £50 pa’.

We spent most of the day settling her in, dashing off to F.O.X saddlery to buy last-minute essentials like a rosepink numnah and some glittery Hoof Oil, but J did take her for a little ride around the school. Here those advertised ‘flowing paces’ were in evidence, though she was clearly nervous, but not half so nervous as I was when the stable girl handed me the keys to the tackroom and showed me with 15 cursory flicks of the wrist how to set the alarm system when we left. This terrifed me so much I was a trembling wreck. We are still very much newbies as livery-owners and not at all sure of the simplest protocol, such as ‘can we just ride into the school to use it when no-one else is? Is there a booking system? Do Lady Carrington-Smythe and her 17-hand dressage horse get preference?’ The trouble is there are just too many questions and we can’t be a nuisance and pester someone every time we have a simple query like ‘can we take any colour water bucket?’ This is where a printed sheet of guidelines would be very handy, but no such thing exists. We’ll have to lurk a lot, peer beady-eyed at the oldtimers, and try to pick things up as we sneak about.

Pat was busy all day and has as yet not seen her. So we’re still sweating.

The pony’s name is still under discussion. Her show name is Pure Assonance, but clearly Assy will not do for a short. We are considering Whispa.

Can't sleep...

I'm too nervous to sleep. What if Pat says she's too small? Or spots something obvious that we missed, like only three legs? That will be so awkward - the seller is such a nice woman and is putting herself out to drive the pony to the stables for us to try out for a few days. Quite trusting, to let us have her (though she knows the pony will be well looked after by Pat and her team of stablegirls).

Check list for the morning: phone an insurance company to get temporary cover for the pony - just in case. Phone Pat to say the pony is definitely coming sometime midmorning. She's a bit short of stables right now and will have to shuffle the current horses around. Contain J's surging excitement until we can drive to the stables to be there waiting when the pony arrives, Somehow hide my nerves as I wait for Pat's verdict and watch J's anxious, expressive face as she steels herself for the thumbs up or down. At this point, 1 o'clock in the morning, I am dreading it all ...

A pony is a big investment and a huge commitment financially and just about every other way. Are we mad???

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Exciting Day Tomorrow!

Well I only created this blog today, meaning to recount all the steps that brought us this far on our dizzying 4 week journey, but that will have to wait – we have a pony arriving at the stables tomorrow! We are ridiculously excited – I wasn’t this thrilled when I went into labour, to be honest – J is walking round the house trailing a lead rope (no change there then) the pristine, unused grooming kit is all over the bedroom floor (ditto) but the difference is that …..tomorrow morning ……..wait for it…… our very own, first ever pony is arriving at NagsR’Us Stables!

The pony’s name is something awful (not as bad as Simon, which was one of our ‘possibles’) but it’s apparently OK to change a pony’s name if it’s too young to notice. He is no longer a he, but a she, which at least means we won’t be needing Natural Sheath Cleanser (shudder) and she is a beautiful 14.2 HH Connemara cross, dark grey with a beautiful white mane and tail. She does have the lovely flowing paces, the neat bold jump and the beauty we considered essential, and in my headstrong way after J had been riding her for 10 minutes I was ready to press the cheque into the owner’s hands saying ‘are you sure that’s enough’ and gallop off into the sunset that instant, but apparently that’s not the way it’s done and we will be having her on a few days’ trial.

I’ve alerted Pat, the owner of NagsR’Us our riding stables, to the pony’s arrival tomorrow: she was a touch surprised – this poor woman has lived with our excitement for the last 4 weeks and is probably heartily sick of us telephoning every few days with another pony alert and dragging her off to view it, so it is in her best interests to approve this one. However……..

Yes. There’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there. I have one nagging fear. Pat turned down the first pony we fell in love with as being too small at 14 HH - J is tall, though shaped like a stick of spaghetti - and, I fear, may say the same about this one. But if J has anything larger than 14.2, it will be classified a horse instead of a pony and she won’t be able to ride it in the pony classes at local shows, which is her dream. Tomorrow will tell all……..

The Beginning......

This is my diary about my first year as a completely novice pony mum.... from choosing and buying him, the first days of learning to live with a pony in the family, buying his tack and wardrobe (this is going to be the best-dressed-pony-on-a-tight-budget EVER) right through the first year, hopefully to culminate in lots of rosettes at next year's village show.... :)