Ocean Sound

Stuff that matters

I loved my driving theory test. It involved a video game of old people and dogs, the idea being I had to try not to kill them, like a reverse Grand Theft Auto. I assumed that driving a horse would involve a similar amount of sit-down theory, perhaps an instructional DVD. Yet, within minutes of my arrival at Silvermere Equestrian Centre in Surrey, instructor Charly Press has told me to throw my leg over and sit on top of Bumble, a real horse. I’m not qualified for this, and, incidentally, never passed my actual driving test. I’m too good at Grand Theft Auto.

“Don’t you have any trousers?” Press asks. It’s a hot day, and I don’t. “I guess we’re doing this cowboy-style.” She doesn’t mean I have the swagger of a vaquero – in my shorts, helmet and polo top, I look like I’ve been airlifted off a mountain at the taxpayers’ expense. I climb some little circus steps, and get on to a horse for the first time in my life. It feels so wrong. I grew up in south London where only the police or imagined aristocrats rode horses. But times are changing, and the number of people who tried horse riding in 2019 rose to 3 million. (That statistic is from the British Equestrian Trade Association, though obviously one wishes it had been Gallup.) There’s also a less “proper journalism” reason for my visit. I’ve heard that horses are excellent therapists, and my usual therapist is away for the month.

I tell the brown-and-white beast to walk, and miraculously, it does. I’m riding! A horse! It’s more comfortable than I’d imagined. Bumble has a broad back, a slow wave of a gait. I hadn’t anticipated this, the easy rise and fall, the sleepy smell of sweaty flank. It should be alarming to be up this high, but it’s weirdly calming. Does being lifted from ground level elevate your attention, to a stratum where larger thoughts reside? I smell clean air. I whisper into Bumble’s fluffy forelock: “I don’t know if I want children.”

Without warning, he stamps his foot, three, four times. I’m pitched up and down. What can this obscure communication mean? Humans have an emotional relationship with horses. They personify freedom, pride and power, their liquid eyes reflecting deep understanding – or maybe we’re guilty of hopeless anthropomorphism, projecting mystical depth on to everything they do. Plus, horses are weird. I read that all racehorses are born on New Year’s Day. I’ve been told all horses have at least two names. I heard that every horse’s favourite song is Ride Wit Me by Nelly, who was actually an elephant. “You’ve had a scratch now, stop that,” Press commands Bumble.

Press teaches me posture, stirrup position, how to nudge with my heels to keep up the pace. Bumble knows the contours of this lesson inside out. Aware he doesn’t have a firm rider on board, he slows down, cuts corners, takes a nap. I find this very relatable. Still, I can’t believe how quickly we’re progressing. Within 20 minutes, Press has taught me to post: to rise and fall in time with Bumble’s trot. I hadn’t grasped how rhythmic this all is, the move between tempos, the syncopation. I bet DJs would make excellent riders. Maybe that’s why they’re so fond of horse tranquillisers.

Politics is depressing, but apathy is moral dereliction. How do I care for myself and the world? I lament into Bumble’s back. He veers right, worryingly. I was meant to direct him to do this – to cross the arena from one alphabetised point to another – but forgot, so he’s more or less teaching me at this point. But I can pretend I’m in control, and I’m starting to get the hang of posting, catching the music of the ride. When I do, we’re the Marlboro Man and Tiger Roan. For a flourish, Press tells me to ride a full length of the ring, alone, at a trot. The scent of a post-lesson snack in his nostrils, Bumble obligingly gets us there. I laugh out loud. Impossible to rein in this elation, standing in the saddle, in tune with a gentle giant. And all in a 30-minute lesson. Forgetting to keep my head up, I watch the noble flanks working beneath me, ground streaming by. It’s moving in more ways than one.

As a child, I blamed God for the mess down here on earth, I think. Now I know it’s people that are to blame, and I don’t know which is the lonelier feeling. Bumble comes to a halt, as if to say: give it a rest. He’s been right about everything. While our path is rarely clear, it’s important to move together. Children or no, there’ll be ups and downs. As for theological torment, the answer is to lift your head and see that it’s a sunny day. The meadowsweet is in flower. Does Bumble have another name? I ask. “Yes, Ladywell Boy,” Press replies. I’m stunned. It’s the same name as the tiny area of south London where I grew up. I’m a Ladywell Boy, too – maybe I do belong here. It’s a symbolic, even mystical moment. I just wish I wasn’t wearing shorts for it.