Friday, February 20, 2015

I don't want to be somebody who used to ride

by Kate Lattey

I have always loved horses. As far back as I can remember, I had pictures of horses on my walls, read book after book with ponies in them. I even strapped a pillow to the bannister of our staircase for a saddle and tied a rope around the upright to create a bridle, and the unimaginatively-named “Brownie” and I headed off on many adventures.

My first taste of the real thing came when I was about seven years old, at a Kindergarten fundraiser that offered pony rides. “Pony” wasn’t the most accurate description of the huge Clydesdale mare, but I dutifully paid my 20c and perched up on top of her as she ambled around the park. The pony books I’d already devoured went flying through my head, as I imagined myself on par now with those heroines and heroes who galloped recklessly across the countryside, the smell of fresh air and heather in their nostrils. I took a deep sniff myself, wanting to have a personal experience to apply to such descriptions, but all I got was (as later recounted to my mother) “a sort of poo-ey smell coming from the horse!”

I began riding lessons when I was ten, presumably to prevent me from wearing the bannisters out completely, and two years later my parents agreed to buy me a pony of my own. A palomino mare turned up on trial, and it seemed as though I’d tumbled headfirst into my daydream. My very own perfect golden pony out in the paddock, visible from my bedroom window…it was like something out of a book! I was lucky enough to have grown up on a farm, although my parents weren’t horsy folk, and I’d spent the past year working at the riding school every weekend, leading scruffy ponies through the mud and learning how to tack up and untack and pick out hooves and avoid being bitten, so although I was still very green, I had a solid foundation to start from.

As it turned out, that palomino mare was not my dream pony. She was extremely moody and stubborn, I could barely get her to trot let alone canter, and when she bit me while I was out talking to her in the paddock one afternoon, we decided we could probably do better for a first pony. She was sent back, and the search resumed.

It didn’t take long. After one disastrous attempt trialling a beautiful dark bay pony who bolted on me, I learned to judge by more than appearance, and we found a pony just down the road from us who was apparently as quiet and safe as can be. For the nervous child that I was back then, he seemed to tick all the boxes, and as soon as I sat on Whisper’s back I knew I was in safe hands (or hooves, as the case may be). Dutifully purchased and ridden home across the neighbouring paddocks, my life with ponies and Pony Club began.

Early days at Pony Club on Whisper (left)

Whisper was followed quickly by Tessa, about six months later, who came from just a little further down the road, due to Whisper’s unfortunate health problems. (He stuck around for another couple of years, but passed away in the paddock about three years after purchase. He was the sweetest pony though and I was very lucky to have had him.) Tessa was a solid-built chestnut mare with a heart of gold but no great enthusiasm to go any faster than absolutely necessary, and she gave me an immense amount of confidence.

My first One Day Event on Tessa

Two years of Pony Club went by, and I went from being the nervous kid who was barely brave enough to canter, to one whose reluctantly cobby pony was holding back her ambitions. And so Tessa was put on the market and we started looking around. A local family were selling a gorgeous pinto pony with the wonderful name of Mr Mistoffolees, but he was deemed by my parents to be “too expensive”, and we shortly afterwards bought a mare for half the price, after travelling for 2 hours to see her. (To this day, it’s the furthest I’ve ever gone to buy a horse!)

Minnie was a feisty, hot Anglo-Arab mare with a shining bay coat and a pretty head with a white star. She loved to move, hated to stand still, loved to race, and hated to jump. Unfortunately we had bought her as a jumper, but my ambitions to compete in eventing and show jumping competitions were quickly scuppered as she refused to jump, again and again. And as I fell off, again and again. I was eliminated at the first fence in most competitions we entered – in fact, in the ten years that I owned that pony, we only ever managed to jump two clear rounds (they were so rare that I remember them both clearly!).

Minnie warming up for a XC round -
we had something like 20 refusals this day!

It was a bitterly disappointing time, and sometimes I still look back and feel regret that we had bought a pony who had not been what she’d been sold to us as – a bold jumper who would never refuse. A bit of investigation post-purchase revealed that she had a reputation for refusing and had been doing so for many years. A harsh life lesson to learn about believing what you’re told!

I did discover, however, that Minnie’s strength lay in mounted games, and we started competing seriously at gymkhanas, raking in the ribbons. Flag race, barrel race, bending, tin can, potato race…you name it, she'd win it - and when she didn't, it was usually my fault. Now it was me letting my pony down, and we practiced hard to reduce the chance of that happening! We still crashed and burned in the jumping events, but we won almost everything else.

Then one of my friends who was grazing her stunning grey Arab pony at our farm turned 17. In those days, the day a rider turned 17 was the day they could no longer compete on a pony in most New Zealand competitions. (Here, almost everyone starts out on ponies and only moves on to riding horses when they are either far too tall, or have turned 17 and aged out of pony classes. Ponies are highly valued and can go for a lot more money than a horse of similar age and ability, and we have some exceptional ponies competing in this country.) My friend offered me the ride on her pony until he was sold, and said I could take him to a show on the weekend.

A hasty last-minute entry and I turned up to Levin Sports with two ponies in the float, feeling quite serious and professional. Minnie turned her usual tricks, refusing most of the jumps and getting us eliminated in every class, but Caddie was quite the opposite. Although we didn’t manage any ribbons, he jumped four clear rounds for me that day and I went home on cloud nine. It wasn’t my fault that my pony wouldn’t jump. It wasn’t because I couldn’t ride, or didn’t want it enough, or wasn’t aggressive enough, or any of the other myriad reasons that I (and other people) had given me for why I was failing so spectacularly with my other pony. It was not my fault. I think I’d known that, deep down, or at least had wanted to believe it. However those doubts had already instilled in me a determination to be the best, most accurate and balanced rider possible, to give my pony every opportunity to excel, and that determination still carries me through today.

Breezing around the XC on Caddie the day after I bought him
 I wanted to buy Caddie then, more than anything. His owner wanted me to have him, knowing it would be a good home. My parents said “But we already bought you a pony. It’s not our fault that she’s no good at jumping.” So we brainstormed a solution, and it was this – they would buy Caddie, and I would pay them back by working at our family plant nursery every weekend for the next year.

So I did. I got up early on Saturday mornings and washed pots and potted plants and weeded gardens and hated every minute of it. Then I got up early on Sunday mornings and we trundled off in the horse float with Caddie (and sometimes Minnie too) to One Day Events and show jumping competitions. The day after we bought Caddie I took him to a show, and finished 2nd in the Pre-Training (80cm/2’9”) eventing class, with the first clear cross-country round I had ever jumped in my life. One year later, at the same event, we won the Training (95cm/3’) class with one of the best show jumping rounds I’ve ever ridden in my life. 

Caddie was sold shortly afterwards before I went to University, and went to a loving home where he lived well into his 30s. Minnie stayed with me – nobody else wanted her – until she broke her leg in a paddock accident almost ten years to the day that I bought her. No matter the heartache she’d caused me over the years, it was one of the worst days of my life when I found her in the paddock with one leg held up, looking at me with such relief that I was here now and would fix it.

After I graduated, I was supposed to get an office job and live in the city. This was my mother’s plan for me, and what was expected of me, and I did both of those things. But I also got a job teaching riding on weekends, and for a year and a half I commuted back and forth every weekend to trudge around the paddocks chasing reluctant ponies, and stand in the middle of the indoor school chanting “Up, down, up, down” at small children. It was hard work, but it was rewarding and it was fun.

When I decided to go to a summer camp in America, half of the appeal was the chance to go over there and ride. Pony Club Camp was always the highlight of my year and the thought of three months of pony camp instead of just one week was an intoxicating one. My first summer in New Hampshire set the tone for what was to be a huge part of my life. I returned to the camp four more times, have visited twice since, and am currently planning to return in a couple of months’ time. It truly is my home away from home, and is where I met the horse that I will always remember as my soulmate.

Bittersweet, the best horse I've ever ridden

After camp, I started going on to work somewhere else - but still not far from horses. No point in going to England to work in an office when you can work on a livery yard, right? I spent nine months living in a trailer in Epsom, working 10 hour days looking after other people’s horses for a pittance of a salary and a day and a half off a week, learning about dressage, and hacking around the Common in the frosty mornings.

Riding Kaneel, one of our livery horses in England

Later, I worked in Ireland for nine months, in a tiny village on the outskirts of a castle, taking tourists for rides around the castle grounds on homebred Connemara ponies, and spending hours drinking mugs of strong tea in the kitchen of the family home (the only warm room in the house!).

A rare sunny day in Ireland with Connemara pony Spruce
 Since returning to New Zealand, I have bought myself a lovely Welsh Cob x Thoroughbred gelding, who originally came to me as a greenbroke six-year-old who just needed some mileage. He’s now a serious prospect in Show Hunter (Hunter Jumper) competition, and with his cheeky personality and “pony brain”, he’s a blast to have around.

My current horse JJ (Fox in Socks)
I have always read pony books and have been writing pony stories since I can remember. I used to cut photos out of magazines and paste them into a special blue hardcover notebook that I had. Each page belonged to a different character, and showed all of the ponies that they "owned". Some of those characters (and their ponies) are still around in my stories today - Brad & Pip Harrison, Pete & Susannah Andrews, Steph Marshall and Abby Brooks all had their origins in that old notebook.

Writing is hard, and time consuming, and infinitely rewarding. I write the books I want to read, the stories that I couldn’t find as a pony-mad child. Books that reflected my own experiences, about people growing up in New Zealand, riding down the beach to get to Pony Club rallies, and camping out in their scruffy old horse trucks at shows every weekend. Chasing sheep and jumping gorse bushes and riding with just a piece of baling twine around their pony’s neck, dumping each other in water troughs and riding in gumboots and shorts, building jumping courses out of old metal drums and spindly tree branches. Being responsible for their own ponies, learning from their mistakes, getting knocked down and getting back up again. Not always winning, not always succeeding, but learning to put their pony first, no matter what.

Horses are inescapable. They get into your blood and you can’t walk away. There’s a line in my first novel “Flying Changes” that I wrote many years ago, when I was battling to continue working with horses instead of spending my life in an office. They are words that I’ve lived by since, and hope to continue to live by for the rest of my life.

I don’t want to be someone who used to ride. 

Check out my books Flying Changes, Dare to Dream and Dream On on Amazon, and visit my website at for reviews and upcoming releases!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Kate, for this tale of the various horses who help you develop. Especially those early horses, who were confidence builders. Learning on a solid, slow horse is so important, and we've all known those who have skipped this step, had a bad experience and got turned off to horses for life. Welcome to the blog, and I look forward to more of your posts. :-)