One of the things I love about writing is that it’s always driving you to research new subjects and learn new skills. I once learned to ride for a book.
The book was The Sterkarm Handshake, which is about a multi-national corporation from the 21st Century (developing a time machine, and travelling back in time to exploit the past’s untouched natural resources. They fetch up on the borders of Scotland 500 years ago – a time when, in fact, there was no border between England and Scotland, but only a lawless ‘debateable land’, where the ‘riding-families’ or ‘reivers’ ruled by blood-feud.
|The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price|
The Sterkarms are one of my riding families; and my problem was that they spent their lives surrounded by dogs and horses. I was fine with the dogs – I spent a lot of my childhood with dogs of various kinds and sizes, and could well describe them. But the more I wrote about the Sterkarms, the more acutely aware I became that I didn’t know much about horses.
I had to admit that the horses in my book might as well have been bikes. My characters got on them when they needed to travel, and got off them and forgot them once they’d arrived. But I well knew, from being around dogs and cats, that a close relationship with a living animal isn’t like that. They’re dependent on you: you have to think about their well-being. And they have characters of their own - gentle, aloof, affectionate, or stubborn or mischievous - to which you have to adapt.
I decided that I would learn to ride a horse. I had no ambitions to be a horsewoman, but I did want to learn the basics. So I looked around, and found a Northumbrian riding-school which offered week-long courses, in riever country, on exactly the sort of horses which the rievers rode – cobs. I signed up.
On the first day I was introduced to the cob who would be teaching me to ride. He was was stumpy-legged, thick-necked, barrel-bodied, shaggy, and as black as the bottom of a coal-mine. He was called ‘Misty’. Why, I’ve no idea. I, for one, would have looked at him for aeons before anything like ‘misty’ occurred to me.
The way to get on Misty’s good side, I was told, was to feed him polo mints; so I armed myself with a packet and doled out a few. I can’t say that it made Misty any fonder of me, but he was certainly quick to learn that I was a source of his favourite sweets. He frisked me at every chance, with gentle inquiring nudges that nearly knocked me over.
I learned how to put on his head-gear – after pursuing him across three fields - and his saddle, and had my first gentle rides around fields and lanes. Misty plodded along without enthusiasm, and I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about carrying me around either. Some excitement was created by Misty’s habit of stopping dead every few minutes, to eat grass; which nearly sent me over his head.
When we got back, I was instructed to feed him, and to lead him to the yard for grooming. This is how I first learned what ‘horse-power’ means. I pulled gently on his reins to lead him away from the last of his oats – but Misty didn’t want to go. With one flick of his head he lifted me right off my feet, dismissing my efforts to move him as if I was an irritating fly - and I am no light weight.
I came off three times. The first was when we tried a gallop over the moors. Us three learners had to go, one after another. Misty and I were last – but Misty wasn’t prepared to wait. He’d done this hundreds of times before. He knew what was coming. So away he went, out of turn. I lost a stirrup in the first few seconds and, as Misty moved up through all the gears, I lost the other. I knew I wasn’t going to stay on. It seemed to me that if I waited for the inevitable, I was going to go under his hooves – so I leaned out and abandoned horse. The deep moor turf was quite soft and welcoming – but the safety helmet the school had insisted I wear delivered a stunning blow to the back of my head. I was slightly sick and giddy for the rest of the day.
Later in the week, we were taught how to take our horses over small jumps. I think this was sheer madness – however, Misty deigned to hop over the first jump quite neatly. At the second attempt he stopped dead, and I went forward and hit his neck with my face. It was like hitting an iron bar; and off I fell. The sand of the jump-school wasn’t nearly as soft as the moor turf – but up I got, and climbed back on dear old Misty’s back. I hold this against Misty – he knew what he was doing. He could have gone over those jumps if he’d wanted to. But I’d run out of polo-mints, you know what I’m saying?
|A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price|
He refused the third jump too; and I hit the dirt again. This time I sat up and said, “Enough!” so fiercely that even the drill-sergeant of an instructor quailed, and said nothing as I limped back to the digs - but Misty sneered.
The next morning, when I woke and tried to put my specs on, they wouldn’t sit right. I went into the bathroom to investigate, and discovered that I had a fine black-eye and a swollen nose. Thanks, Misty. After the riding-school, I went on to do some more research in Carlisle. (The by-laws of the town still forbid Armstrongs (aka Sterkarms) to be within the town walls between the hours of sunset and sunrise.) By the time I booked into my hotel, I looked like I’d been in a brawl. Everywhere I went, I drew lingering, pitying glances. I could see people thinking: Why doesn’t she leave him?
I never have caught the horse-riding bug, but I learned what I needed to learn – how horses behave with people, how strong they are, and something of their care and maintenance. In the finished book they seem, I hope, a little more alive than bikes.
But I prefer cats…
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