One of the benefits of running a business like nnoodl is that I can use it as an excuse to try out new things myself. Something I have surprisingly never done, but always fancied was horse riding, and so what better way to try it out than to take a group of nnoodlers on my adventure with me! This is obviously where the participant form that everyone fills in when they join comes into it's own. There are restrictions around weight and also health conditions like back problems which could make this activity unsuitable for some people. However, no-one that had signed up to this month's activity had any issues in this area, and I was also relieved to see that nobody had expressed a fear of horses (or equinophobia as it is apparently known!) So, joining instructions were sent to people to wear a long sleeved top and leggings, pretty sure that this wasn't enough to give the activity away in advance.
Where to meet to go to Lee Valley Riding Centre though was a slight challenge. Clapton station seemed like the best option, and I thought might be random enough to put people off the scent! Along the short 15minute walk to the centre, people began their usual guessing as to what the activity might be....kayaking on the River Lea?.......ice skating at the Lee Valley Ice Rink? This is the point where I always worry that people might enjoy these activities more than what I have actually booked! There seemed to be genuine relief as we walked past the ice rink though (probably from myself too having previously broken my arm ice skating), and genuine excitement as we approached the Lee Valley Riding Centre. Phew.
We could only book 10 people on this activity and I was really pleased to learn that only one person in the group had ever tried horse riding before, and that was apparently as a child, and so they were also keen to give it another crack. The closest I had come to getting on a horse was when I was on holiday with a boyfriend about 24 years ago. We had in fact booked and paid for an hour's lesson, but when we got to the stables the guy in question bottled it saying that he "didn't like the look of the horse" he had been allocated. I should have carried on and done it myself (and dumped him sooner than I did, but that's another story!)
The centre lends out hats and boots, and so one we were all kitted out we moved into the space next to the arena and watched as the group before finished up. There was an unusual vibe here as I have never witnessed a group of people being so quiet. I couldn't tell if it was trepidation, or respect for the horses that made everyone act like this. Our instructor soon put us at ease though. Embarrassingly I can't remember her name, as I then became overwhelmed with names of horses. The horses were led in and we were directed to the horse which seemed most appropriate to our size. Our instructor explained that she would refer to us by our horses' names, at which point I immediately felt sorry for the woman who had been allocated a horse called Chunky. In came Buttons, Darcey, Splash, Bill and many more until I was allocated Madison. He was a lovely chestnut horse and I was told he had a very good temperament and was quite nice and steady/not too bouncy. You will notice that there aren't many photos from this event, as I was very aware of anything that might make what we were doing unsafe, and maybe freak the horses out. But that said, I did squirrel my phone away down the front of my leggings, which almost proved to be a mistake on the dismount later...
The group were directed one by one onto a stepped block to mount their horses. As I stepped up I was aware of how high off the ground I seemed as I mounted Madison. Jasmine was the young girl who was looking after us. She told me she had been riding for 7 years, and I asked whether she had her own horse. No, this was quite a luxury she told me as they are very expensive, starting at £3,000 and going up to about a million pounds (I'm not quite sure if that was an exaggeration!) As we lined up next to each other, Madison became a bit edgy, with Jasmine telling him gently not to be grumpy. She explained that horses are like people and have their own horsey friends - it seemed that Madison was next to one of his 'not such good friends'. Ok, stay calm buddy, let's move away....
A slightly comedic moment followed where Darcey, the first horse to move off, seemed to be breaking wind in time with the walking movement, much to the embarrassment of the rider, Emily, who was giggling and saying "It's not me!". We started by just walking around the arena, getting used to the feel, where to hold the reins, and how it was important to stay calm and regulated with your breathing as the horse can sense any tension. Our first skill was to practice changing rein, and so we were directed towards one of the letters on the wall, where we would then turn the horse left by pulling on the reins with the left hand and squeezing the horse with your right leg. The only challenge here was that the horses seemed to want to follow their friends and so Madison was starting to veer off and cut the corner to follow his pack instinct. No, no, stay straight I was trying to say. We did a couple of rounds of this in both directions before it was time to move onto something more challenging, a rising trot. First we were asked to just stand up and sit down on the horse in a smooth action on the spot. Well this seemed ok, but of course the challenge was going to be trying to keep this timed with the horses trotting action, and not crashing down on his back. Our instructor pointed out that this could be very uncomfortable for any male riders. The first couple of riders did really well, so the pressure was on. Madison moved off quite slowly, so I was managing ok and found my rhythm, but then he picked up the pace and I had a bit of a bouncy moment until I settled into it again. I could tell our male riders were being particularly determined to avoid the bouncing motion, and the little horse called Buttons was particularly spritely, giving Tony, his rider, a bit of a challenge to stay in time.
Using our change of rein skills, we then moved onto a mini slalom style course of buckets which we had to weave our horse around. We had to do this manoeuvre one at a time, and so with the eyes of everyone else on you, the pressure was on again to perform. Despite me trying to remember, left hand, right leg and so on, as we weaved around the obstacles, Madison did me proud. I was loving this horse.
To perfect our trotting skills, we were then tasked with moving away from using the short saddle strap to balance, but instead trying to stay upright and move up and down in time either by holding loosely onto the long reins, or with no hands at all. Well you know me by now, I love a challenge, and so went for the 'no hands' option, determined to succeed with everyone else watching on!
All too soon the session came to an end. Our final challenge was to get our horses to all line up next to one another in the middle of the arena. Well I say final challenge, that was actually getting off the horse! I hadn't realised that we would be just dismounting onto the ground rather than back onto the block. This is almost where I came unstuck, or more accurately 'stuck' as I swung my leg over and my phone down my leggings got caught on the saddle, oops. So a slightly ungainly manoeuvre and I was on the ground. Quickly I retrieved my phone and passed it to Jasmine whispering "Could you take a photo of me with Madison please?". He seemed quite non plussed by it all. There is something odd looking at this photo after the event, and one or two people commented that we has a small horse. Trust me, when I was on his back, it seemed like a loooooong way down to the ground!
As everyone gathered to put their boots and hats back outside the arena, it was like a rush of adrenaline - suddenly the centre was filled with chatter as everyone excitedly spoke about their horse riding adventure and how much they had enjoyed it. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.