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By Falling Off

By Anamika Mukherjee

I had always been fascinated by horses, ever since I was introduced to Black Beauty (the book, by Anna Sewell) at the tender age of 3 (or so). I remember watching a string of stray horses wander past the gate at the bottom of the garden one day when I was of the age that enjoys hanging upside down on trees like a bat. I immediately scrambled into an upright position and went and stood on the slanting grilles of the gate and watched them pass by. They had no attendant and I was sorely tempted to open the gate and let at least one or two of them in. I’m sure I would have done so, but for the stern admonition of my sister, two years older than me and so much wiser. (Besides, she didn’t see what was so wonderful about horses anyway.)

Fully 20 years later, I was still enamored of horses. A casual word from a friend and a phone call from Amit and there we were, at the Bangalore Amateur Riders’ Institute (or something like that; BARI for short) at the ridiculously early hour of 6 a.m. standing nervously in front of a real, live Black Beauty. Her name was Saucy Suzy. She was small, round, sweet natured and about 20 years old. She was a very special horse.

I wondered if I would feel fear. I put my hand out to pat her and was surprised by the roughness of her skin and mane. I got on top of her and was surprised at how high off the ground I was – and more than a little embarrassed by the difficulty of getting on and off. But no fear came.

At first, I just sat there, while a chap on foot made the horse go round at a walk or a trot and I tried to get used to the concept of rising in the stirrups at every step. As days turned into weeks, I was allowed “off the leash” – I was given the reins and sent into the coral to join the string of horses and aspiring jockeys in their morning exercise. I was excited; apprehensive; but still no fear came.

With horses, there’s never a dull moment. What with their kicking and biting and rearing and stopping and trying and succeeding in throwing off their rider and going for a sprint, there was always something to look forward to. The greatest excitement was when we were allowed to canter! Then our long string of 10 restless horses and 10 nervous riders would turn into a shambles. Some horses would refuse to move, others would try their best to race, or perhaps to escape, others would get too close to those in front of them and would be kicked in the face for such impropriety, and the show stoppers would hurl their riders to the ground and attempt to kick in their faces.

Amit was the first of the two of us to fall off. His conqueror was named Executive Decision and he was a tall, broad, dark horse with a tremendously powerful neck and an unpredictable temperament. Amit was unfortunate enough to fall outside the railing of the small enclosure, while his horse remained inside. And, he was even more unfortunate in that his foot got stuck in the stirrup, so that for a brief moment he was trailed along the ground like a rag doll, or like the good guy in an old-fashioned Hindi movie. Luckily, the stirrup leather broke! This is in general unheard-of, but in BARI everything is re-used to the death and it turned out to be the saving grace.

There was also the minor matter of the solid cement flower pot kept by the railing, on which he mercifully did not crack his skull. But why keep flower pots in a horse exercise field?

My first fall was equally dramatic. I was on a horse called Beach Boy, who, when it rained, had an irresistible urge to lie down and roll in the mud. When I was astride him, it hadn’t been raining. He was, at the best of times, a rather “naughty” horse – like a seven-year-old boy who is irritatingly mischievous can be – and large enough for it to matter.

We were trotting peacefully in the inner enclosure, when the order to canter was given. Beach Boy cantered in line for all of 30 seconds and then veered out and headed for the narrow gate of the enclosure, apparently oblivious of the fact that at least two other sturdy horses were blocking his way (one of which was Amit’s). I was so taken aback by this sudden maneuver that I felt the safest thing to do, in the circumstances, would be to fall off. Which I duly did, voluntarily or otherwise.

Now falling off a cantering horse is not really pleasant. I landed on my back, winded, and just lay there. Amit leapt off his horse and came racing to my side (which caused our riding instructor to question our relationship at the first opportunity). I got up and tottered around for a minute, trying to get things in my head and body to settle down. Then, because you have to, I got back on the horse. Beach Boy, quite pleased with his stunt, behaved well enough after that, and ten minutes later the batch was over.

The next day, though stiff and sore, I was back – because you have to get back, because if you don’t, you just won’t.

That day, I was afraid.

The next few days I continued to ride, and the fear abated. But I didn’t ride Beach Boy again and somewhere inside I knew – I was scared of him. I felt uncomfortable with myself and not really happy about riding, but I didn’t want to admit to myself why.

Then, one day, two weeks or so later, while Amit was away in the US, I got on to Beach Boy again. And the fear went away. I knew now what he was capable of and I was determined to be on the alert for whatever stunts he might have in mind. I kept him on a very short leash and in that one session, I began to recognize the signs when he wanted to bend his neck and buck. I also found that shouting at him worked quite well.

I fell many times after that – I counted a total of nine. But it never hurt so bad. I remember falling off Add Together, a notoriously stubborn horse who appeared to be stupid as well, but was in fact extremely sly. He always knew the caliber of the rider, and unless he was convinced the rider was worth his while, he just wouldn’t move. If, however, he felt the rider deserved better, he would behave perfectly – cantering and even jumping on order without a word of protest.

How exactly I fell off him, I don’t recall, but I do remember lying on the sand and covering my head with my arms as I watched his hooves fly just inches from my face! But, I was not afraid.

Then there was the thin, dark, Arab horse, First Citizen (what silly names they give these horses), who was nervous like a cat on hot bricks. If he thought there was another horse five feet behind him, he would kick; and if anyone came up beside him, he would shy away like a virgin. Wretched fellow that he was, I do believe he threw me without intending to. In his usual nervous fashion, going at a fast trot he suddenly stopped. And I, caught off-guard, found myself sailing over his shoulder in what must have been text-book style. Did I feel stupid or what?

There was a small dark filly, called Pakshinethram, who, for reasons unknown, hated me. She was one of the few who managed to get away from me even before we reached the field. I was walking her along the race track, from the stables to the field – a walk of a good 500 m or more – when she yanked and pranced and after almost dislocating my shoulder, she got her way and went sprinting down the track in the wrong direction – rather unnerving for the jockeys on the track, but not, thankfully, an event entirely unheard-of. I hadn’t high hopes of ever seeing her again, though I attempted half-heartedly to give chase; and I must add that I was not entirely pleased when some hangers-on finally caught her and brought her around looking for her rider.

The reason I think she hated me was that, apart from this one incident, on two separate occasions she subjected me to the sheer indignity and frustration of not budging an inch while I sat on her and talked and pleaded, coaxed and cajoled, and finally shouted and whipped her. All to no avail – like a 15-year-old car, she rolled a step back, a step forward, swished her tail, and stood mute.

There was Eye-Opener, who was a real eye-opener when he started to canter, because he wanted to overtake every living, moving thing, or at least so many of them as he could see. It was all I could do to hold him in check by forcing his head sharply to the railing. He was a small, dark, sweating bunch of muscle, whom you should never ever show the whip to, even in the extreme corner of his eye.

All these enigmatic equines and countless others rode I over several years at BARI. Eventually, the early mornings just became too tiring and I stopped. But overall it was a wonderful experience.

The great thing about riding horses – or about animals in general – is that they have a personality, and they have a will, and they make every effort to let you know it. You may ride them, but only at their will – and you can never master them, except with their assent.

And, you only learn by falling off.

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Comments and information welcome. Write to anamika dot mukherjee at amukherjeeworld dot net
Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.