My first horse riding lesson: How I faced my fear and tried something new after 50
December 18, 2014 | By:
It was her childhood dream to go galloping along the beach on a horse but as the years passed, the fear grew. Finally at 50-something Celia Dodd had her first horse riding lesson

It’s many little girls’ dream but for Celia it didn’t come true until now

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to ride a horse. As a child I worshipped Black Beauty and drooled over Palominos. As an adult I dreamt of romantic horse-trekking holidays and galloping across beaches at sunset.

But somehow I never got round to actually getting on a horse. As the years passed a sliver of uncertainty inevitably crept in. Would galloping on a beach really be as wonderful as it looked? Wouldn’t it actually be rather frightening?

I was seized by headlines about life-changing falls. Carey Mulligan’s concussion while filming Far From the Madding Crowd gave me serious second thoughts.

Then my sister forced the issue by giving me an hour’s one-to-one lesson for my birthday. It took me several months to get the nerve to book a date. Then a man in my yoga class made a remark that swung it for me: “If you’re an anxious person the horse will calm you down,” he said. Turns out he was right.

In the saddle for the first time

So one damp October morning I pitched up at Wimbledon Village Stables in jeans (first mistake – just think friction) and a big mac: “We ride out in all weathers,” the brochure said firmly. The reassuring staff kitted me out with a hat, boots and chaps.

I’d been expecting a nice quiet amble round an indoor paddock, well within my comfort zone. If I’d known what was actually in store I might have baulked.

Having shown me how to swing up into the saddle my instructor disappeared to find something, and for a few minutes it was just me and the horse. I sat rigid, praying he wouldn’t move. It felt so much higher up than it looks.

We then headed off in a big posse through the Wimbledon traffic. The other riders looked so easy in the saddle, so stylish in their lovely jodhpurs. But all I could think about was the carnage and concussion if my horse bolted. I had no idea how to make him stop.

I clung to the thought that these people must know what they were doing – mustn’t they? After all, even the pedestrian crossings in Wimbledon have special signals for horses.

Who’s more nervous, me or the horse?

Of course the truth was that my lovely long-suffering horse, Louis, was well used to nervy novices like me. In any case, Louis was firmly attached to my equally patient instructor’s horse.

When we got to Wimbledon Common, the other riders headed off on more adventurous hacks while we set off down a wooded path, splashing through mud and puddles.

I had to concentrate fiercely to hold on to the simplest instructions: always hold the reins above the saddle, keep your heels down and your calves in contact with the horse. (I made notes over hot chocolate afterwards). “If the horse gets nervous, just talk calmly to him,” my instructor said.

“What about if I get nervous…?”

Gaining confidence on the horse

In fact it wasn’t long before I began to feel more confident. I’d learnt how to stop, turn left and right. Keeping my balance while standing up in the stirrups felt precarious at first, but then we started trotting.

The first few attempts were strictly sack-of-potatoes stuff, and at times I felt I really might fall off if I didn’t focus. But with a bit of encouragement I relaxed into the rhythm and it was heaven. Still a bit scary, but even that was OK.

I couldn’t stop grinning. I’d never dreamed my first lesson would feel so much like proper riding in the English countryside.

On the way back through the Wimbledon traffic I caught a glimpse of myself in an estate agent’s window. I looked and felt much more relaxed than when I’d set out – exhilarated, rosy cheeked, full of fresh air.

I used to wonder how riding can be good exercise. For the horse, maybe, but for the rider? But the whole thing felt like a serious aerobic workout – both energising and exhausting.

The real icing on the cake for me, who can get anxious about pretty much anything, was that by making myself do something scary, and enjoying it so much, I ‘d taken a big step forward. As soon as I got back I booked my next lesson and found out where to buy those fabulous jodhpurs.