Real life

Is not riding the new riding?

Stable yards where once people came to ride their horses are becoming petting zoos

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

Shoot me if I ever let slip I’ve been mucking out with rubber gloves and a dustpan and brush.

As God is my witness, I have just left a stable yard where the clientele were all ‘non-riders’ — women whose only joy in horse-owning was to make the mucking out last as long as possible. This is because horse-owning is changing, I fear.

Stable yards where people once came to ride their horses are becoming petting zoos where women who have never grown up, possibly because daddy didn’t love them, store a horse they call My Minty, who they believe will fulfil their emotional needs by allowing them to overfeed it.

These women can’t ride. And because they can’t ride they tell themselves riding is cruel, so as to navigate the awkward problem of their horse not getting any exercise. When they see another woman, like me, riding their horse, they puff themselves up in self-righteous indignation: ‘There she goes again, getting on that poor pony!’

These women are committed vegetarians. ‘I would never put a leather saddle on My Minty!’ declared one of them, after I offered to sell her a spare saddle of mine, seeing as she only had a cheap synthetic one.

She told me she had ‘rescued’ her Irish hunter from hunting.

‘You do know, don’t you, that hunting doesn’t mean you hunt the horse?’ I asked her. But it’s no use because they think it’s cruel to trot down the road, never mind leap over a hedge with a seven-foot drop the other side.


As stable yards are full of these women, their bullying capacity is immense. They all get together over cups of tea, and sometimes Baileys, which they keep in the yard fridge, and slag off the girl who rides her horses.

Some of them are horribly fat while others are suspiciously thin. Some give the impression of being desperate alcoholics. In their storerooms you will see wine boxes among the sacks of pony nuts.

Shaky, uncertain, unskilled in all things equine, they totter into the yard each morning and start the business of mucking out, which they have redesigned for maximum complication.

Armed with a pitchfork, the builder boyfriend or I muck out my two horses in about half an hour. The non-riders, meanwhile, snap on a pair of rubber gloves, get down on their hands and knees and start lifting out each poo individually.

After several hours of this, stopping regularly to gossip with each other about the cruel girl who is yet again tacking up her poor horse, and after feeding all the yard cats, weeping over dead mice found in their storeroom and so on, they then take up a tiny household dustpan and brush and start sweeping up bits of fallen bedding, sawdust flake by sawdust flake.

When we had turned out, mucked out, gone to work, come back, brought in, ridden, put the horses to bed and gone home for the night, the non-riders would still be perfecting the right angles on their shavings beds and preparing buckets of feed so big and complicated there isn’t room on this page to describe them.

But imagine the most dangerous foodstuffs to feed a horse and then you’re getting somewhere near. Unsoaked Lucerne nuts was a staple. To this they would add carrots, sugar beet and vast amounts of chaff. But not just any old chaff — chaff harvested at the foot of the Austrian Alps and wind dried for extra expense and ordering complication. The man from the feed store would turn up in his van and heave sacks of the stuff out and laugh himself silly as he set it down.

The poor horses got fatter and fatter, stuffed full of food like foie-gras geese.

Instead of riding, the non-riders attempted something called ‘loose schooling’ — letting their horse run round the manège on its own as they stood in the middle trembling and crying with panic. Which was all very amusing to watch.

But then their lunacy started to affect me.

While nightly filling vast tubs with water into which they dipped their haynets briefly then tipped the water away over the floor — ‘because My Minty likes it like that’ — they got the idea that I was wasting water by filling my horses’ drinking buckets to the brim.

Every day, as I held the hose in my stable tubs, they complained that I should fill them halfway as they did, so that there was nothing left in the morning.

Finally, enough was enough when the owner of My Minty put bird-feeder balls on the tracks to the fields. A non-rider’s horse ate the fat balls and collicked. It pulled through, just.

And I found alternative accommodation. Happily, the rules at my new yard state: ‘No loose schooling.’

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