Geeing Myself Up
Health and beauty editor JUDY RILEY takes the bit between her teeth when it finally occurs to her that life is for living.
There is a photograph of me, aged about 10, that I'm still embarrassed to look at.
I am sitting on a pony that I'm too big for, looking gawkily awkward in a pair of shorts and a riding hat that flattens my ears, with my toes pointing out to the far reaches of east and west.
Even at that tender age, with no horse riding experience, I knew that this was a damning indication of my ineptitude. I'd read all the books and comic strips in which kids gallop around bareback chasing and cornering robbers as they try to make off with important state secrets or priceless jewels. I had all the equitation theory but it wasn't until I got my first job that I had the money to put it, rather more successfully, into practice.
Throughout the course of the next 10 or 12 years I rode fairly regularly. I took lessons, went out hacking and even spent a week on a riding holiday in Cumbria - there is something particularly nice about trekking from pub to pub. When my children came along money got tight, the hours in the day got shorter and the riding more infrequent.
"One day I suddenly realised that it had been a good couple of years since I had been on a horse."
Then, you know how it is, all of sudden it was twenty years. The boys had left home and panic, along with middle age, had set in. While one part of me (that bit that still wanted to gallop bareback across the moors in pursuit of jewel thieves) longed to go out on a gentle evening hack through the North Beds countryside; the other part (that sensible middle-aged wimpish bit) was only too well aware of the lurking dangers. Falling off, getting trodden on, being kicked in the head - all a possibility and all liable to result in lasting damage if not instant, and total, demise. Intimations of mortality lurked behind every idle horsey day-dream.
Then, completely out of the blue, I had one of those moments of pure clarity. At any time I could fall under a bus, get blown-up on a tube train or trip over the dog and crack my skull. Do I want to be ALIVE or just alive? And, in one of those odd coincidences, on the very day that I started to re-assess my levels of personal pluckiness, I received an email from Teresa Noakes.
Teresa has enough pluck for a battalion of middle-aged wimps like me. Her business, Bedford Riding School at Moor End in Radwell, has 17 horses - of varying shapes and sizes - in premises that, if it were an estate agent's blurb, would be described as 'romantically bohemian'. But slowly and surely she is bringing order to the chaos and there's no doubt that the horses are all lovingly and expertly tended.
Teresa herself is an astonishing mix of down-to-earth grittiness and bubbly glamour. And she has an infectious sense of humour. Which is why I found myself, on one of the warmest days of the summer last year, standing on an upturned plastic bowl about to hop up on to a horse for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
'Hop up', of course, is a bit of a misnomer. But it wasn't the embarrassing scramble to climb aboard that it might have been. And coached for the next half hour in the outdoor school by BHS qualified instructor Tess, if it wasn't exactly as easy as falling off a log, at least I didn't fall off.
From the moment that I first saw her, Tess reminded me of someone. That mix of authoritative instruction and relaxed informality - the baseball cap, the sunglasses, the natural golden sun tan and the pearly white teeth ... then I got it! Tess is one of those fictional galloping horsey heroines from my childhood. This is who they become when they grow up!
Ah Tess, a shining example of cool and collected - with just the right amount of compassion - to pony-mad little girls everywhere. If, rather than being a feature in your local magazine, this really were one of those exciting kids' stories I would now be describing how I rounded up the baddies and handed them over to the local constabulary, entered the all-important gymkhana on a horse previously destined for the knacker's yard and won a red rosette and the cheering plaudits of the assembled throng.
As it is, all I can say is that I think I have conquered some of my personal cowardy-custard demons. Though hot, sweaty and in the full and certain knowledge that I would find it difficult to walk for a few days (I did) I not only survived my first riding lesson in more than 20 years, I loved it.
I'm hoping that a few more returning rusty riders will take courage and join me in a group class at Bedford Riding School on one of the less busy days of the week. There's no hiding place from Tess' expert eye in an individual lesson. I'll try not to embarrass you, myself or the horse by thrusting my toes out at an angle of 180 degrees. And if we stick at it then who knows what we might not accomplish?
Just watch out all you jewel thieves.
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