Fool on the Hill

Written By: The Lowdown - Dec• 31•12

When they throw down the last shovel of red dirt on my box, or preferably kick the remaining splinters of hyaena gnawed bone under a combretum bush, I would ideally, like someone with a large handlebar moustache in a voice not unlike that of Sam Elliot playing The Stranger in The Big Lobowski, to spit a long chaw of tobacco juice on the ground and drawl “Well, at least he could sit a hoss”. More likely my name and the rear end of a horse will be linked as an epitaph, but one must hold fast to dreams.


To this end I have tried in 2012 to achieve some meagre level of competence in the equestrian arts. Since riding rates as exercise and my views on the narcissistic and perverse nature of this shameful practice are clear, these attempts are largely covert. I do not and will never, take any form of physical display into the public arena, so fragile is my self esteem and so clumsy my attempts at grace in all athletic endeavour. However there is much to be gained in waging a private war against ones own failings and it is character building to try and overcome an adolescence spent wearing the nickname Captain Inepto and having ones peers rather field a short  team in any sport, than pick you, the last man in the line-up.


My polo playing has improved not at all, though I haven’t made an unscheduled dismount once this year. My string of ponies remains in the singlest of figures, at one, I am afraid, as every time I buy or borrow a second horse, some ancient curse seems to kick into play and the poor, willing beast meets a sticky end becoming destined to join the Munda Wanga lions for lunch. It’s just been bad luck, colic and in one case a spiteful kick from a stable mate, rather than poor husbandry that has sealed their fates, but fatal nonetheless. So I remain with one fine chestnut mare who despite her advanced years still has a heart as big as an orca and brakes that remain out of my reach most of the time. She has taught me all she can about this noblest of games, apart from, unfortunately, the rules … another reason I prefer to play casual games with kids than take on the real champions of the sport from Lilayi, Mazabuka and beyond.


I had hoped that if I made myself familiar with the game it would be something my sons and I could enjoy together and we could dispense with the unnecessary expense of a private education and instead turn them into international polo bums who would soon marry sickly and short-lived Argentine ranching heiresses, thus providing for me in my premature retirement. Unfortunately the boys have already assured me that horses and women are not safe to be around, in their experience, and that they want nothing to do with either. I hope their lack of interest in the latter may change as they approach their teens, but disdain for the former appears to be deep rooted and is probably based on sensible, self preservation having witnessed the many times I have ended up dismounted, bleeding and bruised (off the former, not the latter … which they have never witnessed).  There seem to be plenty of people who take up polo in their 30s and 40s and are soon sporting -1 or 0 handicaps and by their second season are 2’s and 3’s. I am not one of these people; partly because I never play a proper match where a fluke series of events might lead to a handicap, but mostly because I have become a near geriatric incumbent on the field best suited to practicing ride-offs against and using as a target in the goalmouth for number 4 penalties. The young bloods take up the game, hone their skills and move off to greener pastures and I, too guilt ridden to abandon the family every weekend for six months a year, remain and fester in ignominy.


I have a friend, a Frenchman of aristocratic blood. “Actually I’m a Comte.” he once admittedly shyly. “Don’t be so hard on yourself” we told him. In addition to half a dozen other full lives lived, he spent years from an early age, as a student of classical equestrian art. In the riding schools ofParis, under the wing of cavalry trained instructors, in the tradition ofVersailles, and in the monochrome and brittle, crystalline tableaux of snowboundNormandyoak forests, mounted on fleet French Trotters in pursuit of wild boar. He is a horseman to the bone, but better known these days as a talented photographer. He is also obsessive about most things he does and courts a challenge, which he has found in me and my somewhat recalcitrant appaloosa gelding.


Luckily the Frenchman and I have mile-wide streaks of masochism and the horse is surprisingly forgiving. Not widely considered to be ideal dressage material the appaloosa is often scoffed at for being pony-like of pace and lacking the right conformation of the warmblood breeds more suited to the gymnastic nature of Haute-Ecole and the “airs above the ground” that are required. But some do break the stereotype. I don’t know my piaffe from my elbow and am kept mostly in the dark as it appears that the horse understands French as well as the Frenchman, and I do not. However, following the maxim of Beudant, an Honorary French Cavalry Captain, each day under the merciless discouragement of my mentor I try to “Ask for much, be content with little and reward often” and whereas three months ago I was told that mounted, I looked “like a frog sitting on a matchbox” I now ride more like a sack full of eels, some of which may still have enough life in them to impel the horse to some action. My aids are becoming more discrete my hands more still and less like those of an officer of the Italian Polizia Municipale in the throes of palsy. My stirrups have dropped a good six inches, my posture is less like Quasimodo and at times I even appear to have a neck. The horse, bless him, puts up with it all knowing that the barrage of instructions and insults, all delivered in English accented with more than a touch of ‘Allo ‘Allo!,  are for me and not him. It is a war of attrition played two or three times a week in which the prize is to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and the costs to myself in sweat and blood and the Frenchman in his sanity, almost assure  that any victory will be Pyrrhic. I have a sneaking suspicion that the horse alone, in the early hours and for his own amusement, secretly circles the yard in perfectly collected travers, renvers and half passes, executing the occasional capriole without the handicap of a fool on his back. Still I will continue to evolve what is a battle of wills into a “dialogue of courtesy and finesse” and hope that one day I might feel I am riding in my horse instead of on him. It’s all been said many times ……


“There’s nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse” ~ The Duke of Beaufort

It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.  ~Mexican Proverb

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.  ~Winston Churchill

If the world was truly a rational place, men would ride side-saddle.  ~Rita Mae Brown

God forbid that I should go to any Heaven in which there are no horses.  ~R.B. Cunninghame Graham, letter to Theodore Roosevelt, 1917

Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it.  ~John Moore

I’d rather have a goddam horse.  A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

In my opinion, a horse is the animal to have.  Eleven-hundred pounds of raw muscle, power, grace, and sweat between your legs – it’s something you just can’t get from a pet hamster.  ~Author Unknown

I wish you all, riders or not, a very merry Christmas.


by Jake da Motta

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