Horse Feathers

Added on 04 February 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently working on this year's comedy crime blockbusting sensation, The Final Cut. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 9th June 2004:

We were sitting in our apartment in Dakar, Senegal one night, in those simple days before children, when all one had to think about was how much tonic to put in the gin, and whether or not it was cool enough to give Mgangway, our ten year old punkah wallah, the night off. We were into our fifth or sixth hand of bridge, the insects were buzzing serenely in the trees outside, and it seemed another perfect night of African idyll. Suddenly we became aware of a bright light outside and we dashed to the window to have a look. There was a vehicle speeding dramatically off up the road, the petty criminals within having set fire to a car parked at the foot of our apartment block.

Now, I had seen cars set on fire in no end of movies and knew that within seconds the thing would explode dramatically, and all those huge windows we had on our apartment around the veranda would blow inwards, spraying glass and metal into the air and cutting us into bloody shreds where we stood, so that in the morning all anyone would find were two human bodies, scattered over the floor like so much cherry blossom after a stiff spring breeze, identifiable only by the brutal dental work of the Lebanese guy along the road. So, quick as a flippin' flash, we dashed around the room lowering all the blinds. There were seven French windows leading to the veranda, yet we had them all down in under ten seconds of controlled panic. We then huddled together beneath the table, our warm, shaking bodies dripping with nervous sweat, wrapped around our gin glasses lest they should suffer badly from the enormous, imminent explosion. Breaths held, every sinew taught and strained, we waited for the impending disaster.

The car never did explode. Five minutes later the fire brigade arrived, which was unexpectedly quick - course, it was Africa, so they didn't have any water - but the situation was quickly under control and, to quote every single episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, luckily no one was hurt. In the end our only regret was that they hadn't also set fire to our knackered old Peugeot, which had been parked ten yards along the road. So, the moral of the story is, don't believe everything you see in the movies...

Which leads me onto horses. I've never had the slightest interest in horses. To me they've always been huge great stinking brutes that'll kick you in the face as soon as look at you. However, being in possession of a daughter, and living in a country where horse riding lessons are the price of a few Mars Bars, last autumn we gave into the inevitable and started to take her and her wee brother along every Sunday. I hated it as first, and resented my children for making me do it, even more than I normally resent them. The winter was long and bleak, and at least three or four hundred Sundays it seems were spent bundled under not enough clothing, as a chill wind blew down off the Russian Steppe across the bleakest of paddocks, watching our angelic spawn plod aimlessly and endlessly around in a circle, on top of a poor little bugger called Desdemona. Those were bleak times, with only gruel and cold tea for supper, weeks when it seemed that one had only just warmed up before it was time once more to put on fourteen quadrillion layers of clothing and head back out into the teeth of a Balkan bleak midwinter.

However, at last the winds stopped, the air warmed up, and spring plodded slowly into Belgrade. Suddenly the whole horse riding thing didn't seem so bleak after all, and we could look on proudly as our wee five year old trotted along nicely, posting like a veteran, and we could sit back, sipping Pimms and lemonade and chatting aimlessly about the upcoming flat racing season as if we knew which end of the horse was the front. And then, as the weather improved and the cherry blossoms burst forth, all the international mums who had suffered miserably through the dreich, Stygian gloom of winter, suddenly began to revel in the Falstaffian beauty of spring, and they too began to take riding lessons. Mid-week, while their off-spring were holed up in school.

And so, last week I finally bowed to the inevitable. I am in effect, after all, an international mum, so, in the name of the blessed Blue Peter, I thought it was about time I tried some new adventure and sat on a horse. So, just in case there's anyone out there who's as ignorant about horses as I used to be, now that I have this new affinity with these magnificent beasts, we'll start with a few basic facts about them just to fill in your background knowledge.

1. Horses are huge great stinking brutes that'll kick you in the face as soon as look at you.

2. The front end of the horse is known as the head. The rear end is called the bottom or, to give it it's proper equestrian term, the "arse".

3. Never walk behind a horse, as it might kick you and kill you.

4. Never walk in front of a horse, as it might head butt you and kill you.

5. Never walk at the side of a horse in case it gets nervous, falls on top of you and kills you.

So, last Tuesday I strapped on somebody else's sweaty helmet - as life experiences go we're already several points in the red - and sat on a horse for the first time. I had barely had enough time to get used to the fact that I was fifteen or sixteen feet off the ground on top of something which was a) alive, and b) had a mind of its own, when Merko the trainer got the thing to move. Whoa!! as they say in the movies. Here's the loose connection to the opening anecdote. You know those moments you get in films, when some superhero or anti-hero or regular-hero, who's never been on a horse in his life, has to jump on one and gallop off at a hundred and forty miles an hour, and for the first five seconds they look a bit shaky and from then on it's like they've been in the saddle since before they could walk? That wouldn't happen in real life.

I realised this as I clung on for dear life for the first half hour, as poor old Nesha - a boy horse, or "stallion" - minced along like a tortoise, bored to his socks. We spent most of the lesson mincing, as Merko told me where every single part of my body should be positioned. Massive information overload. I am just not capable of thinking about that many parts of my body at the same time. All I wanted to know was where the seatbelt was, but apparently they're not mandatory over here. These horses don't even come with an airbag fitted as standard. So, Merko gave thirty minutes of instruction, while I acquainted myself with the fact that there was no safety harness, no cup holder, no brake and no hi-fi system built into the saddle. Then we started to do exercises, much in the manner that I had spent the previous eighteen years of my life watching my children doing.

One of the fundamentals of riding, and something you pretty much always notice when you're watching the Birmingham Horse Trials, or wherever they are, or some horse movie like 'A View To A Kill', is posture. Straight back, head up, blah-blah. I have awful posture. I'm a hunchback without the hump. So, Merko got to spend the next fifteen minutes shouting at me about my shoulders, spine curvature, etc. That was another fun part. After a few exercises and some practicing standing up and down in the saddle, the big fella decided that it was time to let the horse do some trotting. That's a bit of a faster mince. Now, here's the thing. Next to the paddock, on the road outside, there was a council worker cutting the long grass. He wasn't using any Black & Decker strimmer, however. He was using a scythe. A scythe, more to the point, which he decided to sharpen just as Merko set my boy horse off at a trot. The horse glanced over, recognised a tool which had probably been used at some stage in the past to cut one of his brothers up for supper, and bolted. Yes, bolted. Not a trot, or a bit of a faster mince. An actual bolt. Like in films. Fortunately, the lad Merko was still holding onto the long rein that he'd been using to move the great hulking beast around in a circle, so in fact the blood-curdling scream which I let rip from the very pit of my terrified stomach, as I clung to the horse's neck like some grotesque parody of Denholm Elliot in an Indiana Jones movie, was a bit unnecessary. The horse only really got to bolt for about two seconds, but hey, that would have been enough for half an episode of Blue Peter.

Yesterday I got to sit on a horse again. This one was a girl horse - a "mare" - and therefore much more sensitive and considerate, without any rash need to go bolting off all over the place. Which was just as well. One of the things which I had expected of horse riding lessons, having watched the children, was that eight months after I'd started, the trainer would still be leading the horse around, as he does with the kids. This seemed sensible. Big hulking mass of sweaty muscle with me in control? I don't think so. And yet, on only my second lesson, with barely an hour spent sitting on an actual horse - or Great Beast Of Terror - he left me in charge. You know, he didn't actually walk off and go to the bathroom or anything, but he turned his back, made a call on his cell phone and completely ignored me. I was in command of 2000lbs of brutal man-eating flesh, as we meandered aimlessly about the paddock, with the rider completely unable to instruct the horse in even the most basic of movements. I tried the whole Horse Whisperer routine, saying things like, 'Please, please, please, please don't bolt, I beg you!' and 'I'll give you a million pounds to walk really slowly in a straight line' and 'I promise I'll never again buy a tin of dog food or eat dinner in Belgium.' Occasionally she glanced around at me with disdain yet, despite her complete and utter contempt for the novice on her back, it was a warm lazy morning, the guy cutting the grass - The Scythe as he'd be known in a comic book - was not in attendance, and she clearly just couldn't be bothered working herself up into a sweat, even for the morbid pleasure of scaring the life out of a pathetic human.

So, two lessons down, six more to go before I finish my first block. Who knows whether I'll have the enthusiasm to continue after that, although the massive school holidays will no doubt interrupt my budding equestrian career so that, by the time September swings around, I will probably have forgotten everything I've learned so far, and will once again be walking tentatively up to the horse's tail and offering it a carrot.

Next week, I free dive to ten thousand feet in the middle of the Pacific and wrestle a giant octopus.