During 2014, my husband and I went for riding lessons in the suburb of Box Hill, some 42 kilometres (approx. 26 miles) north-west of Sydney in the Hills District region. Once a month, we would pack up our riding gear into the boot of our SUV and make the 2-hour drive from home to the rural outskirts of Sydney.
Our riding instructor, Sandy was a trim, agile woman in her late sixties. She still competed in the local gymkhanas and was sometimes called upon to be a competition judge herself. One of my work colleagues, who was learning the finer points of dressage from her, had directed us her way. Lessons with Sandy included the benefit of her dry wit, keen eye for detail, patience and a no-nonsense approach to horses. "Be firm, but kind", that was her motto.
Sandy was well-respected in the local equestrian community and stabled several horses for other owners on her property. They would let her use their horses for the occasional lesson as it kept their horses exercised and accustomed to being ridden. We learnt the correct way to approach a horse that was several times our size without startling it, adjust the length of the stirrups, the proper way to put a bridle onto a horse and to check if the girth is secure on the saddle. On windy days, when the horses were a bit skittish at every fluttering leaf, we practiced tying knots to secure a horse to the railing, how to get a horse to raise its hoof so we could check for stones and use a currycomb to groom a horse (the horses loved this part).
We loved our monthly hour-long sessions. Shoulders down, back straight, eyes front, heels down, toes pointed straight-and-forward in the stirrups. Sandy would laugh at how I found it easier to keep my seat without stirrups. She made us do that at the start of each lesson to ensure that we focused on our balance. I usually rode Jessie, a pretty red chestnut mare about fifteen hands high. She was easy to mount with the help of a tree stump. But I found her trotting rather choppy and it took a few tries before I could get into sync with her gait. I just wasn't very good at trotting.
Ellie was my husband's regular mount and she was a sweet-natured Aussie draught (draft) horse. I think she had some Clydesdale (like the Budweiser ad) or Shire, crossbred with a bit of Thoroughbred thrown in. She was a big beautiful girl, with a dark glossy bay coat, about 19 hands and taller than his 6' 2" build.
One day, while Jessie was away with her owner, my husband and I had to share Ellie for the day. After dainty little Jessie, Ellie was HUGE to me. As I'm only 5'1", she towered high above me. I needed to climb up the 2 steps on a proper mounting block just to get into the saddle.
It was strange at first sitting astride Ellie; I felt very, very far from the ground. Her back was much broader than I was used to and my legs didn't quite wrap around her sides. Still, Sandy insisted I had to do my usual circuit around the paddock, hands on head, feet out of stirrups. Sandy held the lunge rope to lead the horse around - it was safe enough.
After a while, I felt really comfortable on Ellie and began to enjoy myself. Her stride was long, flowing and smooth. It was like sitting in an armchair, while being moved around. I closed my eyes and let myself settle into an easy rhythm, moving with the swaying gait of the horse.
Sandy was quite pleased with my progress that day. She said that my seat had improved and my back was nice and straight. I preened a little at that. Our riding instructor doled out praise with a sparing hand. If she was happy - that was rare and good.
When my lesson ended for the day, Sandy asked my husband to stand next to Ellie and help me dismount. It is the usual practice to dismount from the left. But for some reason, he stationed himself on the right side of the horse. I hadn't heard what Sandy said, so I didn't realise that he was meant to be there for me.
Before either of them could stop me, I swung my right leg over Ellie's rump, took my left foot out from the stirrup iron and promptly released my hold from the pommel of the saddle -
It was a long, loong, looong way down.
A strange calm settled over me and I heard a quiet voice in my head reminding me to stay calm and relax. I breathed in deeply, exhaled again slowly and a curious melting sensation went over my limbs. It was as if my body suddenly went "boneless".
Remember the expression: "Time seemed to stand still"? Those seconds felt as if they stretched like a rubber band into several minutes. It seemed to take a fair while to touch the ground.
At length, I landed on the hard-packed sand of the riding paddock. My right shoulder took the main impact of my bone-jarring fall.
Two pairs of dark hairy hooves as large as saucers appeared right in front of my startled eyes. I distinctly heard the urgent command: "MOVE!"
Without thinking twice about it, I tucked my arms and legs into a ball and immediately rolled away. A moment later, those great iron-shod hooves stamped restlessly with a resounding thud-THUMP.
My husband and Sandy frantically rushed up. Sandy quickly secured Ellie while I took my husband's offered hand. I got to my wobbly feet and gingerly checked that all my parts were still in one piece. A fall like that, when a person's on the wrong side of 50 years, was not to be taken lightly.
My right shoulder ached. I carefully rotated the joint. To my relief, there seemed to be no problem with movement. Sandy and my husband were fully expecting that I would have suffered a sprained or fractured limb.
'It's a miracle,' they both declared to me.
As I rubbed my sore shoulder, I ruefully thought of the proverb warning us that pride and a haughty spirit go before a fall. But still, I was fortunate that a caring spirit had been watching out for me.