I don’t care much for horse racing. I appreciate that to say so during the Spring Carnival is tantamount to sacrilege and by merely uttering such a sentiment, I am at risk of being immediately deported, despite having been born here. I suppose when you’ve ridden horses at the elite level like I have, it’s hard to get that excited about a bunch of people dressed like Christmas presents galloping around in a circle.
I rode horses as a child. Whether my parents erroneously believed I’d stopped growing at ten years of age and was a chance of becoming a professional jockey, they never said. I don’t recall asking for horse riding lessons. But our parents believed that if we were growing up in the country, we ought to be able to ride a horse. Perhaps they were skeptical as to whether the whole ‘car’ thing would catch on, and being able to ride would give us a substantial advantage over all those suckers who thought the horsepower of a Ford Cortina was better than an actual horse. Fools!
The lessons were in a paddock in Mount Eliza. Mostly, I remember being completely terrified. Not of Mount Eliza, but at the idea of having to ride a horse. It was always a grim affair. We’d arrive for our lesson and the stable hands were always possessed by the type of dismal countenance that made you want to turn around and leave. Glumness hung heavily from their faces as they walked the horses from the stables to the front yard.
I can’t remember the name of the owner, only that his primary means of communication was shouting. Perched on a saddle, you never knew when he’d turn his attention towards you and unleash a torrent of abuse about the most trivial of perceived infractions. He had strong opinions on posture, bridle grip and how tight the strap on your helmet was. I suspect he had opinions on everything, from interior decorating to international currency exchanges. He was ahead of his time. Nowadays, ill-informed but keenly felt opinions are in high demand on Sky News.
At horse riding lessons, I wasn’t there to learn. I was there to hang on. Nothing can describe the sense of churning terror I felt whilst riding – maybe a Goya painting, but not much else. Whilst we were encouraged to relax, I kept a firm grip on the saddle at all times. Things only got worse when we had to trot.
Trotting on a horse requires that you bob up and down, or otherwise run the risk of bouncing around before tumbling from your mount. I could never get the timing right, so was always bouncing around in the saddle. Cantering was faster but less jarring. Occasionally, one of the horses would get spooked and would take flight with the rider hanging on for dear life. It was the random nature of these events that frightened me most. One moment, you could be trotting along, the next, you were hurtling at the speed of light towards the windbreak.
I let my parents know how much I was enjoying horse riding lessons by crying incessantly whenever it was time to go and begging to be left behind. But they were determined. They had seemingly decided that horse riding lessons ranked somewhere between learning to swim and green vegetables in terms of importance.
There was only one way to end the madness – by buying a horse. I appreciate that getting a pony for Christmas might seem to many like a dream come true, but this was more like the moment in the horror movie when you realise the scary person on the phone is, in fact, calling you from inside the house. There was no escape.
Magpie, as he was named, was probably the meanest horse that ever lived. He was the kind of horse that, if he’d had fingers, would have administered a nipple cripple for no reason other than that he could. If it’d been up to him, he’d have been swathed in tattoos. Magpie took great pleasure in trotting towards the nearest tree with low-hanging branches in the hope of ridding himself of the unwanted passenger on his back. I begged not to have to ride him. To no avail.
Things only changed when we were moving house and we had to transport him from the neighbours to his new home. Magpie didn’t have a saddle or bridle, but my father insisted I ride him anyway. I refused. Intent on teaching me a lesson, my father climbed on the horse and trotted off down the driveway until they disappeared. I was left to follow with nothing but my shame for company. Until, of course, the horse returned up the driveway without my father, who had fallen off and broken his arm in the process.
It was a pivotal moment. One in which I realised that defying my father had ensured my personal safety.
Magpie lost a champion in my father that day. And I officially retired from horse riding. Magpie would long have gone to the great paddock in the sky, but I still think of that horse sometimes. He was the first real enemy I ever had. And to this day, I can’t bring myself to watch horse racing. It’s too painful. Perhaps if they introduced some low-hanging branches I might take an interest. But until then, I’ll leave it well enough alone.