I’ll just leave this here.

***

‘Whither’!

I should have just taken the fall. Read the rest of this entry »

01 KITCHEN WINDOW
That is Three Rock Mountain, as seen, with zoom, from my kitchen window. Located in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Co Dublin, and accessed through Tick Nock Forest, the summit is 444 metres/1,457 feet high. I rode it up once, and was preparing to ride up it again. Given my dread of hacking, the first time had been a big thing — somewhere in the back of my mind at least.

Exactly in the back of my mind, in fact, in my hippocampus, where all the data to be assessed for flight-or-fight resides. It was in there, that info, but from the moment I said ‘Yes!’ to the ride out, it just sat there, and didn’t interfere.

And fair play to it, because it has now been joined by a new memory, one of exhiliration, ease, and pure awesome sitting-on-a-horse, going-up-a-frickin’-mountain joy.

When we decided to go out again, the conditions were not those as reflected in the above photograph. Read the rest of this entry »

A DIRECT AND MEASURABLE RESULT of all this riding: I can haz long boots.

THE LONG BOOTS

I have had to shop, and very gladly with it, at justchaps.com, because they were the only crowd that catered to folks like me who are not in possession of assembly line calves. They do carry spectacular half chaps adorned with hi-viz stars, so I was happy enough — thrilled, in fact.

But, oh! how I wanted a pair of long boots. I had stopped trying them on as even the wide widths weren’t remotely near to zipping entirely closed, and I shelved the dream.

Only to take it down again when it became apparent that the first round of my chaps, which lasted years, were starting to creep down around my ankles. There was no more velcro left at the top to tighten them any further, and so I dug up a tape measure — no idea where I got one of those from — and came up with a number that that surprised me. I had gone down three categories. Maybe it was time to start looking for long boots once more?

The Dublin Horse Show as near as dammit has it all, and I wandered the shopping halls, searching for my long boots. Some of the boots on display were thinner than my feckin’ arm, and I kept walking. These ones were also amongst the most expensive. Funny how that works.

I’ve lost track of the number of vendors who knelt at my feet, yanking up zippers, and I was ready to give up. I bought a new pair of newly smaller neoprene chaps, and then wandered into the Holmestead stand. I had eyeballed a pair of Toggi Calgary boots on the Wednesday, and I don’t why I didn’t try them on then. No matter. One more beleaguered shop worker — God bless her — down on the ground, patiently insistent that the zips would close —

AND THEY DID. I bought them in a haze of delirium and panic — they were only €109, but I had only recently come through a tough financial year and one hundred euro was as much as one thousand, in my mind; I was wearing leggings, not jodhs, and it was tough enough to close them — but sure, they were leather, they would stretch, and these seemed so well made, they’d last me ages; even if they lasted only three years, prorated at only €36.33/year, that was a bargain! [<< WUT? Well, it make sense to me.]

I wore them round the house for a couple of days, ordered a long boot bag, sprayed them with leather protectant, and when I took them out for the first time, couldn’t believe how vital my ankles are, in the big scheme of things. The initial jumps in the lesson were not the prettiest, but we got there in the end. The soles are that tiny bit thicker than I usually prefer, but I’m getting used to that too.

All in all, I am so delighted to be wearing them, and fingers crossed, am looking at a winter with far less frozen feet.

LONG BOOTS TOO

… which is not entirely inappropriate, as our Mercury was a famous TV star, playing Henry VIII’s primary mount in The Tudors. The shrieks that ensued the first time I saw him on the telly! [Mercury, not Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.]

The sad news was shared in the yard today: Merc, who was probably around a thousand years old and crippled by arthritis, was put down this week. He was the first horse I ever rode in a lesson, properly; fittingly, here’s the first post I ever wrote on this blog, below. It’s seven years to the week that I took to horseback, and if it wasn’t for Mercury, I wouldn’t still be here writing about it all. Heart U, beastie.

***

9 SEPTEMBER, 2006 The wee girls circle round and round, legs pounding the sides of their ponies, and I am feeling breathless.

As excited as I was to take my first horse riding lesson, I’d actually have to be on a horse to take it, wouldn’t I, and they’re big, aren’t they, and watching those kids flying around the ring, I feel increasingly fluttery and anxious. As little as I know about horses, I knew this anxiety was a bad thing. On top of all this, I was already feeling under the weather: I had a headache, a scratchy throat, exacerbated by the heat of the day that had turned the number 63 bus into a trundling sun trap… ah, hell, I could always come back another time…

I can’t come back another time. I spent the entire week, in the run up to this day, talking about it to the girls at work. I have been yearning for this for years. A month ago, I got the yen yet again, and the day before I finally Googled equestrian centres in Dublin, I saw: horse statues on a house on the coast road that I’d never seen before; a horse trailer; an actual horse; and on the way home from work, my iPod opened the evening’s commute with Land from Patti Smith’s Horses.

Okay, okay. I get it.

So I’m here. I walked up the long, long road to a long, long hill. I don’t know where anything is, I don’t know who to make myself known to, I don’t— I need a helmet, I know that much. I wander a little; I’m an hour early, thanks to the bus. I’m intimidated by the thoughtless ease with which a clutch of girls in white hard hats inhabit the entrance to what must surely be the barn. I can’t go near them; I don’t have the right.

I drift back to the door of the inside thing, the ring, whatever. Parents chat amongst themselves and happily compliment their daughters as they pass. These kids are jumping, effortlessly. Jesus God. I drift away again.

Then an older bunch of riders come back from somewhere, the horses enter the inside ring place, everyone slips effortlessly to the ground, ponies are lead away, voices are raised simply to be audible, I back away — I need a helmet. I go to the portakabin again, and the guy in charge is there, I say who I am, he says, “You’re late,” and a helmet, stinking with hours and hours of strangers’ sweat, is jammed on my head and I’m told to go back to the arena (ah), and I do, and the teacher asks me who I am and have I done much riding, and I tell her my name, and none, and she says get on up on a black horse, and I do, and she shows me how to hold the reins, and I hold them, and she tells us all to walk on, and—

And the horse takes one step, and I think to myself, “Fuck,” and he takes another and I think, “Fucking hell get me the fuck offa this fuckin’—” and another step and another and I am no longer a human woman but a sack of frozen potatoes sporting a fetid black hat.

I don’t even know the horse’s name — how am I supposed to bond?

I can hear myself breathing, air is whistling in and out of my nose, and it’s about all I can hear. I hear a voice shouting but it’s not language: it sounds like short, sharp raps, there’s a sensation that it’s the same series of sounds over and over — rap rap rap. The other people understand and are obviously responding to these sounds, because one minute, we’re going in one direction, and then we’re not, we’re threading our way from one corner of the arena to the other and going the opposite way — and I’ve yet to fall off.

And with maybe fifteen minutes to go (I can’t glance at my watch, because if I move my hands, or waver in my unstinting regard of the back of the horse’s head, something bad will happen) it occurs to me to maybe relax my stiffened legs a little, like, even grip the sides of the horse, with my calves? Is this is a good idea? It may have looked like I was doing it— my legs weren’t sticking out at ninety degrees from either side of the horse— but it sure hadn’t felt like it, so I do it, and I’m no longer hyperventilating. The teacher doesn’t seem bothered that I won’t do anything but walk (“Sue, want to give the trot a go?” “No.”) and I can sense that my lesson mates are still where they’re meant to be, on the back of their horses, not writhing around on the ground clutching shattered limbs… and I relax.

This relaxation, and the action of the calf tightening, the action of this intuitive (common sensical!) decision, results in a somewhat straighter spine. I’m sitting better, and I can hazard a look around, and drop my elbows, a little, although my arms are so tense you could break concrete breeze blocks on them, my hands so thoroughly clenched on the reins that I have surely broken all my finger bones.

Suddenly, those staccato sounds become language: “Turn in and give them all a big pat— feet out of the stirrups— swing your leg around the back— drop down,” and I’m on the ground and a there’s a name tag on the horse’s bridle and I whisper in his ear, “Mercury. Mercury! You are great!”

I walk down the long hill to the long road, my hair having fully absorbed, via the helmet, the honest sweat of women like me, women who have ridden a horse. I haven’t got a trace of flu, of a headache, of a sore throat, nor of a single critical thought, of a single bad thing to think about the thing I’d just done, swaggering like a cowboy (there’s a good reason why they walk like that) and all I think is I did it, I did it, I did it!

I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so delighted with myself in my entire life.

***

MERCURY and ME

Merc: well known for his dapper mustache.

***

I knew something was up, that something was out of joint: I have been out of ‘real’ time for the last while, between bereavement and jet lag — a lethal combo, do try to avoid it as best you can, is my advice to you — so I knew I was in trouble the moment I opened my eyes Tuesday morning.

I woke up, and immediately began worrying about how I was going to get to the yard later than day.

I had a launch to attend in town and I knew I’d have to do a drive-by as it was far enough away from the LUAS to be an issue; but the 44 bus has a stop near the hotel in which the launch was being held, so maybe I could grab the bus there and then get a taxi? But that was a total waste of money, even if it was going to save me a few steps. ‘Steps’ entered into it, as I am back on shanks mare {ha, ha} and walking up the laneway again; ugh, but having to walk alllll the way from the LUAS? That’s like 20 minutes, up a gradual incline of despair, which I was not in the mood for; if I skipped the launch, I could just get the bus to the end of the lane; but I said I would meet some pals at said launch; but; but; but —

Then I considered skipping the horses altogether, but I had overslept on Saturday, and missed the bus, and missed the lesson, and I really needed to go, to have a go, to move myself forward in some fashion.

Even once I decided to head into town and figure it out as I went along, well, I kept figuring out all the variables, and it was exhausting, and I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to have the energy to ride the horse. Which horse? Ha! Add this into the equation. I was fed up with Connell when last we met, and had gone back to Simba, but I still felt wobbly, and reckoned I’d rather have Connell if we were doing flat, but was not going to jump him, no way, in which case I would take Simba — or maybe even Delilah, because she knows when you’re a bit off and can take good care of you, but only if she’s in the mood —

So: I raced through the launch, got to the LUAS, used my Hailo app to get a taxi from Ballyogan to up-the-lane, rocked up to the office to pay for the term, only to discover that my usual lesson was cancelled.

{Cue laughter, somewhat demented.}

Would I just go in the 8pm lesson? Uh, no: it was 6.20.

Could I just mooch around on Connell? Yes, okay.

And thus began my very first time as a lady who is on her own, on a horse.

***

The very first time ever in my life that I had to get up on a horse all by myself was when I showjumped, also for the very first time; that was a lot of ‘firsts’ in one go. I can get up on Connell on my own, so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was: what was I gonna do? With him? Like, what? Mooch, as I had said, up and down the infamous laneway? Go down to the outdoor arena, and then mooch? It was perfect mooching weather, bright and clear, and not too cold, as excellent a spring evening as one could conjure.

But Connell can be a real slow coach on a walk, and I didn’t fancy the outdoor, even though it was gorgeous out. I didn’t really know WTF I was doing, and I didn’t want to make a big show of it.

Except I found that I did know what to do.

Connell greeted me with perked ears; I rubbed my face all over his neck and he thought that was hilarious, and demonstrated this by nipping me on the bum. He was saddled, I bridled him, I joined a Livery Lass in the indoor, I got up there, and I started going.

I decided to practice riding a little longer in the stirrup than I have been. I mean to do this every lesson, but then I feel the pressure of being in the lesson, so I don’t. The thing is, a longer leg means better aids, and better response, and better posture, but I always feel too wobbly. So I took the time to do a longer leg, at my own speed, and worked on my balance, and we went great. Then I did a whole bunch of transitions, and then I did the reining-back-into-canter thing, and then the Livery Lass, who’d put her horse back up, came in again and asked did I want to jump, and I said yes.

So I jumped, and he only stopped once, which is still enormously irritating, but in the main, we did really well. There was no one there to tell me what to do to get him to do something, so I had to do the things myself, and it was incredibly satisfying, to be able to do something — anything! — because I thought of it myself.

Then he was so sweaty and steamy that I took him for a walk, in hand.

It was still gorgeous out, maybe even better since the sun was starting to set, a misty red haze in the west. We both took our time, and both stopped at one stage to look at something. I can’t even tell you what, I mean, the mountains are always there to be looked at, so I guess we both stopped at the same exact time and looked at the exact same mountain? It was the most peaceful thing ever. Just standing, shoulder to shoulder, setting sun, brisk air, green fields.

I chatted with other riders along the way, and it was like… it was like I was Livery Lady, doing the Livery Lady thing.

I rode for the guts of forty minutes. Now, when I warm up the Big Horse of a Monday, when I volunteer for Riding for the Disabled Ireland, I am only getting warmed up in my own brain after fifteen minutes, then it’s time for me to get down and hand him over. Just as I am beginning to understand what might be good to do — leg yielding, maybe? Work on that wonky rein back? Canter transitions? — there’s no more time to do it in. This was the perfect amount of time to do an amount of work that added up to a good work out.

Le repertoire, though, he is limited:  I would need to be stocking up on things to do, on my own. Swot a dressage test, maybe? I’ve got a book of jumping exercises, with many, many things to do with poles on the ground, working your way up to actual jumps… There’s a mental fitness that you get, I am thinking, when you have to think for yourself. I am sure that there is a many a day when you just want to hang out with your horse, and do some serious mooching, but there’s also all sorts of planning that enters into it, which I hadn’t known.

If you had told me, seven years ago, when I wasn’t even able to get up into the saddle by myself, when I didn’t even know how to pull the stirrups down the leathers, that I would have gotten to this stage — well, I don’t know what I would have said. Not out loud anyway — but in my heart I know I would have been shouting Yes, pleeeeeease! How soon? Is it now yet?!? I would have immediately begun worrying about whether or not I’d ever be good enough, and how long it would take, and how could I get there more quickly and easily — and as it transpires, it took no ‘time’ at all. It’s now, now, and it feels like it hasn’t taken that long, after all.

***

John James Conley: 22 June, 1941 — 12 March, 2013

It’s winter, January, and in Ireland, the sun is already going down at 2 in the afternoon. The light is blue and chilly and sharp, and yet you can see, just around the edges of the sky, a bit of warmth, a bit of what in the fullness of time will become spring.

I’m sitting in the back of a car, and my friend AM is up in the front, and her dad is dropping me down to the bus after horseriding. Sometimes AM and I talk about the lesson, talk about the horses, talk about how we went or how they went or how we all went together. Sometimes she talks to her dad, and there’s a lovely, proprietary air about it, that says: this is my dad and we are talking about our life, and working out what’s going on for the rest of the day, about where I need to be if I need to be somewhere, and if he’s going to drive me there. I feel privileged to be let in on their negotiations and wrangling, as I remember it so well, because our dad drove us everywhere.

Anywhere we needed to go, our dad took us. I was brought to art lessons, choir practice, football games. He drove Katherine and I to a Rick Springfield concert at the Capitol Theatre, in Passaic, in a snowstorm. He dropped us down, and we ran off inside, with never a thought to what he was going to do next, and never a doubt that he wouldn’t be there when it was time to go. He drove John and I to endless Cosmos games, all the way up the turnpike to the Meadowlands, hours and hours — and hours — before match time, so that we could hang out at the team entrance and shout at Franz Beckenbauer to give us an autograph — hours and hours during which he just sat in the stands waiting for us, never doubting that we’d eventually take our seats, enjoy the game, and then he’d drive us home.

He drove Michael into Brooklyn to see me of a Saturday, and then drove all the way back to collect him on the Sunday. He drove our mother to work in Rutgers, every day, there and back. I’m sorry he won’t be around to teach any of his grandchildren — John, Joseph, Matthew, Michael, Sarah, Thomas, Mary Grace, and Daniel — how to tend to the engines of their cars using his innovative combination of duct tape and shoelaces. My dad took us all to the places that we needed to go, and set us down in the fullest confidence that we were where we wanted or needed to be, and we’d do or enjoy whatever we’d got there for.

He didn’t teach me how to drive — he taught Auntie Sue, and I don’t think I can repeat that story in a church. It didn’t go so well. He did go driving with me when I got my learner’s permit, and one time we were heading out towards 130 down Wood Avenue, and he shouted ‘STOP!’ — and me being me, I demanded ‘WHY?’ and kept on driving. I mean, we were going 25 miles an hour, we were the only ones on the road, and he was like, I want to test your reflexes, and I was like, whatever Dad.

When he lost his ability to manage a car, it was, for me, the saddest thing that he had to lose in his struggles with his health. As the aphasia got stuck in, and the words didn’t mean what he thought they meant, and his spatial and motor skills went astray, it was hard and sad, but really the worst thing, from my point of view, and I think for him, was that he couldn’t take us places anymore. Despite our own independence, it was still nice to get into a car and drive with our dad.

Bless him, though, he turned into the world’s worst backseat driver: at Christmas, Mom and I and he were in the car, heading for home, and he did not agree with the route that had been chosen, and let us know it. If there was a way to get someplace without encountering more than one traffic light, Dad knew it. I think he would have rather stuck red hot pokers in his eye than drive down Route 18.

This tendency used to drive me demented, because it seemed to me that going round about on minor roads was a waste of time, but he always proved me wrong. I have a punctuality fetish, the nurturing of which probably began in seventh grade, when I wanted to leave for basketball, now, and Dad wouldn’t go until it was time. He was always right, I always got there on time, in fact in good time, as he would say. I remember this to be one of his favourite phrases: all in good time. The upshot was that I would get to Saint Augustine’s exactly ten minutes before practice began, which was exactly when I had wanted to arrive in the first place, and he’d look at me somewhat archly and say, ‘All right?’ Yes, Dad.

'All right, babe?' 'Oh, Dad...'

‘All right, babe?’ ‘Oh, Dad…’

Dad gave us plenty of time to say our goodbyes, two or three years worth of downshifting, plenty of time to adapt and accept, even if it doesn’t make the lack of his presence any more acceptable. He gave us time to gather together, to allow us to work as one to help him in any way we could — more, I think, for the experience of all of us being able to do something for him, as a family, than because he wanted anything for himself.

We’re all deeply grateful that his passing was as calm and as dignified as the man himself; that he was known in the world as son, nephew, cousin, husband, brother-in-law, father, father-in-law to Sharon, Melanie and Scott, grandfather, and friend; that in the end, there was nothing, no thing, that could ever get in the way of his strong, unflappable essence; that the big man with the gentle spirit has joined all of our family and friends above, and is probably giving people lifts in heaven, and already knows all the back roads.

It is spring, now, and the light is coming back, only now, with the little extra something that is our dad, the little extra help from spirit that will be his influence, a voice in our hearts that is his, and the sure and certain knowledge that John James Conley always knew how to get around the stop lights and get us where we needed to be — all in good time.

1965

1965

NEW CHAPS

Very much liking. I was actually terribly bummed last week, when, between the rain and the gales and not wanting to walk up the long, long lane in the weather, I had to wait to wear these.

These are, as ever, from my favourite chaps place, justchaps.com. The craziest thing happened! I got an email telling me I could track my order, and I realised that I hadn’t given them my full address. So I rang.

‘Hello!’ says I, and then proceeded to introduce myself. ‘I didn’t give you my full address!’

A tiny beat of silence, and then: ‘I am working on your order right this very minute.’

We were both delighted, and slightly freaked out.

Obviously, they arrived, safe and sound. They fit really well, and are being admired enthusiastically wherever I go.

I do miss the hi-vis stars… may have to see about buying another pair of those. Or maybe the ones with the bright pink hearts?

I also got a new hat, which is okay. It all up to safety standards and all that, and it is light, as new helmet technology seems to be going in that direction. Except it is so light that two weeks ago, I was late getting out of the house, and actually did not have my hat in my rucksack. That’s how light it is. Now, I maniacally check, because it had been years since it was necessary to don a yard hat… and I hope never to have to do it again.

So that’s me, really, for the rest of the year. Well, except I’d like a new stick. And I’m on my second-to-last pair of cotton gloves, which are the only kind I like these days. Oh, gosh, and I’d really like a new long-sleeved top…

***

My foot is not on the seat, it’s just balancing on the sticky-out seat frame.

***

I only noticed what a wreck these half chaps were the other day. I mean, I knew they were getting some wear and tear, but they are actually in utter bits.

I am very proud.

Not only because I’m not going off and spending money where I needn’t — sure, these’ll go another three or four months at least — but also because I’ve had them for years, and I guess I must be doing something right, because I think they are worn out in all the right places.

I bought these … at least, wow, five years ago? I remember going to meet my lift from the LUAS, and struggling to zip these up before I got to the yard. Now, they’re getting to be that bit too big, a combination of five years of breaking them in, and the loss of a few centimetres on my calves.

I’ve got another pair with blue stars. I got those mended because they are only starting to wear out — they are amateurs compared to these — and I’m saving them for when these are done.

Given the state of them, you’d think they were done, wouldn’t you? I think I am waiting until they unravel in the middle of a lesson!

I am proud of them, and myself. I have begun my seventh year of horseriding, making new gains, still working on some of the same issues [I can still be wobbly, and my hands can still be a bit loud] and these — these are proof to me that I have hung in there. That they are indeed worn out in all the right places, so I must be improving.

I had no idea, even though I loved the horses straightaway, even though I wanted to improve and learn, that I would be here long enough to completely blow out a pair of half chaps. I’ll hate to see them go! Long may they — ha, ha — reign.

A couple of weeks ago — see, I didn’t even bother writing about this, because honestly, this is like the eleventy billionth post on this topic.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the building at the yard where the lockers are, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye, as I was taking off my outerwear, that the walls looked yellower. Paint job? I wondered to myself — but maybe they had always been like this, except I never noticed? No, yellower, deffo, I thought as I simultaneously thought Oh, craaaaaaap. Sure enough, the long stick was nowhere to be found. And the tower of lockers that contained mine own had been shifted around, too. You know that weird feeling you get, when you know that something is changed — it’s like, your body knows something is weird, it is standing there with a key in its right hand and it knows that it is not going to fit into the lock, and it waits for the mind to figure it out so it can whatever comes next.

Located my locker, not the stick. Asked around, snooped around — nothing.

That was that, finally. All gone. The thing was, it wasn’t horse people moving stuff around, it was painter people, so, not a hope that they’d even just pitch it into the indoor arena.

I had this other long stick, I talked about it here, and I grudgingly brought it along the following Tuesday — and then realised when we were halfway home that I’d just left it on the ground! I frantically texted my instructor to please find it for me. There was no way I was going to lose two sticks in one week!

Then today I decided to take along a sort of medium-long stick instead of the red — okay, so, clearly, we are not deprived of whips in the Conley household. But the long stick was ‘the’ long stick, the Lassie Come Home of schooling whips, a veritable prodigal son of riding crops. I wanted that one, dammit, because, because — because I managed to keep it hidden, in an active yard, for almost two years!

It’s about its history as much as its length.

I walked down to the lower arena, to watch the end of the lesson and to save Connell the walk back to the indoor. His rider had just taken the fence at B, and was heading towards A. All the way at the opposite end to where I was standing. She had a stick in her hand. She had my stick.

The lower outdoor arena is 50m x 30m. 50m = 164ish feet. And I knew it was my stick. I experienced the moment of doubt that anyone would, from a distance of 50 metres, but: it was my stick. I knew it! I recognised the way it was frayed at the end. I felt — I felt a bit annoyed, as well as exultant. Annultant? I claimed it back nevertheless, because for crying out loud, this thing is like a homing pigeon. I gave my medium long stick to AM for the hour, and brought both of them home.

Have I lost my nerve?!?! I don’t think so. I think I’ll leave in back in its hiding place. It really is fiddly to carry about. Also: comments from the outside world have degenerated to the degree where I got honked at from a car on my way home. This allows me no time for a come back. Unacceptable.

I absolutely dare it to disappear again. I dare it!

FIGURES OF EIGHT

Eight years on from my first ever riding lesson, these posts are still wandering round and round, a figure of eight starting with today, probably, and yesterday, definitely. It's the antithesis of how I usually do things, but... that's horses for ya.

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