“Surely you’re not riding today?” asks my partner, raising an eyebrow in disbelief, as I head to the shed for my riding boots and coat. “Of course we are. It’s only weather,” I trill as a blast of wind nearly rips the kitchen door off its hinges.
The rain is blowing horizontally as the padlock on the shed door jams in my hands. Cursing, I think for once he might just be right. I’ve been secretly checking my mobile all morning, praying for that cancellation text, hoping that our instructor Anna has finally seen sense, but nothing has come and the phone has remained annoyingly silent.
My boots are still caked in mud from last week and my coat smells damp. My plan to clean them fell by the wayside and I just threw them back in the shed to fester for another week. I pull my dirty waterproof trousers over the top and tuck everything in. Cutting a dash, I look like an enormous muddy barrage balloon.
He stares as I traipse through the kitchen, a waft of horsey aroma drifting behind. It’s that heady combination of hay, horsehair, dust and manure and usually I’m impervious, but today even I can smell it. “Lovely,” he mutters as he puts his head back into his newspaper.
The drive up to the stables gives me time to think, and worry. Riding, as a woman heading towards 60, comes with consequences and the weather has put my senses on high alert. There are monsters everywhere, things flapping in the hedges, empty crisp packets on the grass verges. What on earth are we doing? Three women, all the wrong side of 50, one even nudging 70. We should know better. Just to worry me even more, Bob Dylan comes on the radio and the strains of his classic ‘Blowin in the Wind’ ring out so I change the channel sharply. My mount Patch isn’t going to like this. He’s easily scared, particularly on a day like this.
Anna is waiting, all smiles. She is calm and serene and seems oblivious to the Force 10 that is whistling through the yard like a wind tunnel. But it would take more than a bit of wind to ruffle her. She’s the epitome of style, all smart jods, matching tan leather boots and a smart long mac. Very Cheshire Set. You could be forgiven for thinking she’s snooty yet she’s the kindest, most patient person you could meet. In fact that’s her problem. She’s so kind that she has attracted all the doddering middle-aged women of the neighbourhood, looking to rekindle their childhood horseback memories. And that includes me and my friends. The Knackered Riders Club. So, rather than leading out hacks with teenagers full of talent and potential, she spends her time nurse-maiding a string of old biddies. And now we have got the bit between our teeth again, she can’t get rid of us. We book in every week without fail, some more than once, all hooked on our fix of horsey heaven. And creaking bones and various ailments aren’t a bar. Instead, we just compare notes on who has the worst bad back, whose knees are aching the most and how to reinstate the feeling back into your stiff knees, hips and ankles at the end of the ride before daring to dismount.
Patch is ready. He’s a sweet boy — 15.2hh, coloured, with narrow shoulders. Perfect. My days of riding wide cobs are over now that I have the lower back of an 80-year-old. Anna helps me mount, checking my stirrups and girth like a protective mother hen. I think of the days when I used to leap on bareback or spring up from the ground. Now it’s a cautious step off the mounting block.
“It’s like craning Henry the Eighth on to his charger ready for battle,” I joke. Anna just smiles and soothes before doing the same for the others.
Eventually we are all ready and set out behind her across the golf course, like a paddling of tiny ducklings behind their mother. Somehow the weather doesn’t seem as wild now and the view stretches out around us. We start to relax and enjoy ourselves. There is nature all around and I spot a hen harrier hovering overhead. It sweeps in a great circling movement then swoops and disappears behind the tree line. Exhilarated we trot on and I can’t help but smile. Patch behaves impeccably apart from one spook at a pile of gravel left by a farm gate but I sit deep and we pass the others and take the lead. I feel 13 again, heading out for a day’s riding with my friends. Riding does that, it makes you feel young and free and alive.
We pass through rugged countryside, with views of the Manchester skyline to one side and the expansive Derbyshire hills to the other. The four of us move with ease, taking it in turns to take the lead, our horses all happy in each other’s company. We finish with a canter across the track through the golf course, Anna in front on her own magnificent warmblood, and the rest of us, maybe without her dressage-trained collected canter, but loving it all the same.
Back at the yard, the horses are tended first, of course, stables skipped out, water buckets filled, hay nets and feeds prepared. Patch is going out so has his outdoor rug on then finally we all sit down with a welcome cup of tea. There’s nothing like the contentment of the horses being done, and the feeling that you have earned that 10 minute rest. It’s how I remember as a child. Chatting in the tack room surrounded by saddles and bridles. Horses were how we all met in the first place and the years simply met away.
Three hours later, I get back in my car. My back feels stiff and I lift my right leg into position. A hot bath should help. I catch sight of my face in the mirror. I have mud splattered over my cheeks and a piece of hay in my hair. It reminds me of my teenage self and I feel happy. I can’t wait until next week. Oh well, only another 165 hours to go and I’m definitely counting.