When I first started to ride in the early 1970s, horses were expected to be bay or perhaps chestnut with a few dark bays (blacks) and greys to be found out on the fringe. A rider would never meet with hounds mounted on a ‘coloured’ horse. Being an owner of a very pretty palomino I could never understand this attitude. Of late I have started to think that to be a pretty horse is a burden which the horse has to carry throughout its life. I even wonder if that is why in the olden days horses were expected to be bays.
My dapple grey mare DiDi looks spectacular when she is poshed up. Her jet black mane is a bit short , and a her predominantly blond tail is, by Andalucian standards, a bit sparse. She has very little feather but what she does have is jet black. However, wherever she goes, it is her looks which attract attention. A five foot nine inch height rider looks very much in proportion with DiDi’s modest 15h hands to the wither and it is only when she is stood alongside a 16h3 giant that DiDi appears to be small – almost pony sized.
Invariably, the onlooker first notices the colour of her coat and then her height. No one seems to notice the size of her butt, nor the broadness of her back, the depth of her barrel of a chest , nor the gap between her front legs. DiDi has foal bearing hips, that’s for sure. When she walks or trots, her nature given impulsion becomes apparent especially now that she adopts a rounded outline with her head in the ramener position. (That’s ears up and nose down to the uneducated).
At shows occasionally I hear expressions like, ‘what a beautiful horse’. I look around and regard the speaker. Unless they are wearing the gear of an expert dressage rider I know that they would have difficulty riding my girl. At show time she is like a cat on a hot tin roof and it is as much as The Countess can do to stop her misbehaving, especially if her ‘season’ is beckoning and there is a fancy gelding near by. Stallions we have to give a wide berth to at all times. My Girlie would offer them a good time, that’s for sure.
Regularly I have to stop and ask myself if it is time to find her a new home and in my mind I begin to form the words of an advertisment. I know that when any prospective viewer comes to look at her they will be thinking: ‘what lovely horse’. But the worry is that they will not look deep enough to know that this horse is ‘sharp’ and, I mean, ‘razor blade sharp’. The slightest touch and this horse will notice and respond. There is to be no slouching in the saddle, no temporary lapse of concentration. The rider must sit upright, balanced but relaxed, at all times. The reins must be held so that there is a light contact through the bit with the jaw. The only clues one has to the next movement by the horse is the position of the ears, the tension or lack of it on the bit and the sensations which come up to the rider through the thighs and the saddle. At any milli-second, whilst in the arena or out on the lanes, DiDi can come off all four feet and skip three feet to the side – before even the most experienced and sensitive of riders has recognised that a shy is imminent. The move is too fast for the cognitive side of the brain of a human. The rider is reliant utterly on the reflexes initiated by the silent brain to keep him or her in the saddle. The inexpert invariably comes off.
At such times DiDi expected the rider to stay in place, to counter the shy and to give a stroke on the mane together with kind words of comfort. For the rider to fall, invokes a snooty look from DiDi, who suddenly realizes that her rider is incompetent and not deserving of sitting on her back. I can sense her thinking that the rider is supposed to be a competent leader and leaders don’t lead by falling to the ground.
Now , this unquestionable insight is completely hidden by DiDi’s demeanour. Whilst being introduced to a strange human, DiDi can be so, so sweet. Of course what she is doing is sniffing the stranger to see if she is carrying treat biscuits or maybe a mint or two. She will allow a stroke of the fore head. She’ll even tolerate a brush of the lips on her nose but make no mistake all she is doing is building a profile of the stranger who may decide to mount her. She’s listening to the voice, she is smelling the breath, she is sensing the pheromones. She is feeling the hands and judging the touch. She’ll be watching the body language. And were the stranger to even think of mounting her, she’ll be recording the grip of the hands on the reins, the spring of the knees off the stirrup irons and the lowering of the butt onto the saddle. She’ll have the measure of the rider before even the he or she has taken up the reins and brought the heels alongside her flanks. And the stranger should beware of their vulnerability when he/she lifts the saddle flap up and reaches down to tighten the girth. The adjustment will invariably be necessary because DiDi always, repeats always, blows up her stomach at the time of the first fitting of the saddle so as to make the final girth adjustment necessary. One never ever carryies a whip with this horse – even the sight of it will call for a strop. And be oh so careful when asking the horse to walk on – be very gentle with the pressure – too hard and you’ve made an enemy, too soft and you are a weak rider.
In the meantime the unsuspecting rider will no doubt still be thinking – ‘what a pretty horse’.
But I know this alha mare of a horse. She’s sensitive, intelligent, skilful, unpredictable, moody, alert, cunning, crafty, devious, dominant, wilful, demanding. And it is all hidden behind a disarmingly placid demeanour and the glistening black, grey and white coat.
Oh ,yes, she has the measure of me. I am not deceived. I am no cuckold. I am there to pay the bills, to bring the treats, to offer up the pears and to stand in her corner and to defend her against The Countess. I am DiDi’s – she owns me. She is her own mare. I know my place.
Yet as I write this article I am well aware that the horse which gave me the most enjoyable riding experiences in my riding career was a straight forward plain bay gelding – a Welsh/ Hannoverian cross. No one would have picked him out from the herd. Anyway he didn’t like strangers. He adopted, a low profile at all times.
My Dad used to say to me : “Son, beware a pretty face dressed in finery”. He never thought to warn me about alpha mares.
And that is the trap which many horse fanciers fall into. A horse is a performance creature, it is what it does that counts, not what it looks like.
DiDi is indeed rewarding to the human because of what she can achieve. The problem for most riders is that they have to be aware that they may not be clever enough to handle her and to bring out the best in her. Their skills must match hers. And that is the curse DiDi has to bear, which is exactly why she is what she has become.
Prima Donna, Carnival Queen, Ballet Diva, Snow Princess, Belle of the Ball, Princess Dianne. Top of the Pops, Fancy Pants, etc etc etc. (Dad did tell me about these honey traps)