I recently went on the most brilliant horse riding adventure – cantering glossy American Quarter horses through the surf, with humpbacked whales breaching just off the beach . Yes, seriously, it was that idyllic. The sun was shining, the skies were blue and the company was excellent.
In fact, the only pimple on the face of all this gloriousness was me – in my rather unfetching black riding helmet, looking just like I had escaped from a local sanatorium.
It’s one of those moments where cultures collide.
In Wales, where I learned to ride, helmets are mandatory. This could be because the horses (rather like the women, I always think) are sweet and long-lashed to look at, but hide a somewhat independent and sarcastic streak. Thus your role as a rider is always under sufferance, and never guaranteed from one moment to the next.
Then we have Kenya, where the riding school horses tend to the long legged and nervy, typically former racehorses that didn’t make the cut and now spend their lives trying to prove their critics wrong by showing random turns of alarming speed with hapless young children or ashen women aboard.
This behaviour is handled (in true Kenyan fashion) by shouted instructions from the sidelines “don’t let him get too near the fence or he’ll start racing the trucks”or” keep him away from the gate, he likes to jump it”.
Those of you with any experience with horseflesh will understand that keeping 1000lbs of muscle, bone and sinew under control with not much more than a couple of leather bootlaces is an exercise in optimism at best.
Hence the riding school’s policy of sending out 3 grooms with every horse on children’s hacks – one to lead and two to catch. It’s a sad reflection of my mothering skills that I only know this when I overheard my children discussing how many times they had been bucked off one Saturday, in gleeful tones.
Regardless of the location, the one non-negotiable nod to safety was the helmet. As someone who has been launched skyward on a number of occasions, I can testify that no matter what hits first, the head always hits sometime. It’s what makes spectating these sports so wonderful – there is nothing quite as entertaining as a battered heroine leaving the field of battle sporting the odd clod of mud or broken branch still attached to her bonce. It’s as if fate is reminding you that yes, things go wrong, but this time, you get to laugh it off.
Which brings me back to the sunny beach, the glossy horses and the fact that in the US, complete and utter novices can be hoisted astride a towering behemoth with nothing but crossed fingers, blind trust and a disclaimer between them and the ER. Apart from myself, who looked like a complete idiot amongst the rest of the flowing haired party.
While my companions – including some who had never ridden before – were sized up according to weight and twinkle in their eyes and given steeds with names like ‘Major’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Lightning’, I was issued Tater. And just to be clear, the horse in the photo is not Tater. Tater had a wonky eye, knock knees and and a somewhat bony build. If the word gawky or awkward were ever applied to a horse, Tater would be the accompanying image.
There’s nothing that says ‘skilled equestrienne’ like a Tater. Or, as we say in Wales, a humble spud. When even the guide describes him as ‘homely’, you know you’ve not got the best looking nag of the bunch, and by quite a significant margin. But what he lacked in looks, he made up for in temperament and composure – gliding effortlessly along at a happy pace, with nary a sideways glance.
As my companions were learning the hard way that horses can decide to be frightened of anything at any given moment, no matter whether they have seen it a thousand times before, Tater and I ambled on in amiable silence. And while they hastily reconsidered their abilities, decision making skills and cavalier attitude to the small print, Tater and I were the poster children for cautious optimism and daring carefully.
Because here’s the funny thing. No matter what words we all used when describing our abilities, experience or expectations, the people who made the decisions trusted my actions more than my words.
I let them know that I had ridden before; others were equally honest about their novice status. But once I had made the (very visible) commitment to my own wellbeing, others took my welfare more seriously too.
I was given the most trustworthy mount. I was placed at the back within spitting distance of rescue, should I need it. I wasn’t put next to irritable horses, was told up front that he had a lively pace and liked to use it if given the chance, and was watched carefully until it was clear that I was safe and happy.
There’s a lesson here. Too often we pay lip service to our own safety without actually taking action. We talk about how important our children are, without planning for their care if something happened to us. We are quick to claim a role as ‘partner’, without having that reflected in ways that matter when something goes wrong. We give others sole responsibility for our welfare, without so much as taking the minimum precautions ourselves.
There is good news here. We get to learn from other people’s mishaps. Strapping a helmet on was easy – it was provided, it was comfortable, and it kept my head warm. And if that meant I was doing something different, so be it.
The same rule applies for safeguarding expat life. Not enough people are talking about security at its most fundamental level – and how it applies to you. Yet the solutions are usually simple – we’re just so busy taking care of everyone else, we’ve forgotten to take care of ourselves.
Hence the How Protected Are You quiz. It’s not difficult, no-one’s watching and you get a Starter Kit that tells you just what steps you should be taking first. It’s not the answer to all life’s problems, but it will help you create a cushion for when things get bumpy.
Or, as they say in the Horse and Hound…
There will always be times that life throws you off – it’s how you land that counts.