I’m sitting cross legged on a veranda, in deepest darkest Africa as I write this. In fact, here – look at my view.
Not bad, huh?
And, why am I here? Well, largely for a horseback safari. Here, Sosian Lodge in Lakipia, Kenya, is one of the world’s premier horse-riding safari locations. And, it’s simply magic. There isn’t really another word for it. But, it makes me think, why do you ride? Why did you learn your skill?
Everyone learns a skill for a different reason. Some people are happy reading nothing more than road signs, while others use that reading skill for Shakespeare, War and Peace and Lord of the Rings. Some people learn to play music to simply practice doing scales, while others play Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi. Some people learn to drive so they can go 2 blocks to the shops, while others undertake epic road trips across continents. And riding for me? Well, I didn’t learn to ride to go around and around for hours, “getting the horse’s head down”… Riding (for me) is about getting out there, challenging myself, challenging the communication and bond with my horse. Some riders are happier refining heir dressage skills, thinking that is the art form. I started my competing mainly in three-day eventing, the ultimate test of training, fitness, stamina, endurance and rider stickability. Now, I don’t compete anymore, but coming to places like this, this is where some of the greatest riding happens.
It always makes me a little sad, when people say oh, sorry, I’m just a trail / hacking rider. Why would you put your self down like that? Trail riders face so many obstacles that riders who stay safely inside an arena fence wouldn’t even dream of. Clamber down the bank and scramble up the other side. Watch the bird who flaps across in front of you, or the dog (or lion) who leaps out of the bushes… Leg yield out of the way of the oncoming car, and hold a straight line past the scary rock, or black plastic bin bag.
Riding out challenges your balance in a way that arena riding just doesn’t come near. It also, very definitely, tests the bond between you and your horse. If something doesn’t quite go to plan in an arena, maybe your half pass doesn’t come off. If your horse questions your timing or judgement out on a trail, you can come seriously unstuck.
I’m not knocking competitive riders, or riders who love schooling. There is absolutely a place for it, and honestly, riding out is so much more pleasant on a well-trained, nicely balanced, thinking horse. And if you are happy spending hours going around and around, go for it. (As long as your horse agrees about going around and around for hours…) but to me, that is the practicing playing scales before you can play a concerto. It’s a means to an end. My horses had to be light, quick thinking and responsive, so they could clear a testing cross country course. War horses were schooled in Haute Ecole so that they could be ridden into battle. Fortunately, horses aren’t ridden into battle anymore, but dressage means training – training to enable them to do whatever their main job was. Training to decapitate foot soldiers, or guard the king, or carry a lady out through the park for taking the air.
Why do you school your horse? Why do you ride? Is it to improve your fitness? Your non-verbal communication? Your bond with a living, breathing, non-human being? Is it to do the party ticks, to tick the movements off a to do list? Or is it so that you can go out for an adventure with a four-legged friend?
This morning I had a great ride out on a lovely mare called KQ. She was light, balanced, easy and a pleasure to amble with. She’s not overly confident when faced with a herd of giraffe, which is exactly what happened this morning, and yet she stayed with me, walking quietly, heart racing and snorting a bit, but staying in walk, paying attention. Would her schooling be tested to that degree in an arena? No. Did she need training and schooling to do that? Absolutely.
How brave is KQ?
And watching our guide – controlling his horse with one hand, organising us visitors, watching a herd of elephant and reading their movements, and, at the right moment, cracking his stock whip to make sure that a young bull elephant stays back – all while not moving in his saddle – that is a massive skill.
Is this heavy metal music compared to dressage riders playing Beethoven? Who knows, but I do know which I love doing!
So, how do you test your riding?