Amira suited her name, every inch the princess. If anybody had ever said no to her, she hadn’t taken the slightest notice. The Royal Stables was now a livery stable/riding school, and Amira had come to learn to ride, preferably on an Arab stallion.
“You take her!” said my French boss, Claude.
“I would like to see my horse please!”
I sighed. She had been persuaded to wear a riding helmet, but could not, would not remove her abaya. We did have a horse who could cope with that, but he wasn’t an Arabian stallion. He was a hairy British pony in whom a Sheikh’s child had lost interest, and whose main role was now as a safe conveyance for children with disabilities, or absolute beginners.
“I do not like him,” Amira decided with a pout.
I hadn’t thought she would. Nonetheless “the first thing we have to do is to make you safe,” I told her.
“Billy might not look beautiful, but he’s very safe and very sensible, and we’re very lucky to have him to work with. And,” I added meaningfully, “he won’t be frightened of your abaya. Most horses would.”
She gave me a glare that would have broken rocks, expecting me to back down. I didn’t.
A shrug, a short sigh and she smiled grimly. “To begin, then.”
“To begin,” I agreed.
I showed her how to adjust the stirrups to fit her, shooed the grooms away lest they see her jodhpur-clad legs – being Pathan, they completely understood – and began the lesson. She was quick, I had to give her that. By the time the forty-five minutes were up, she was already beginning to trot. By the end of the second lesson, she was confidently posting the trot off the long line.
I explained to her that at the old cavalry riding schools where they turned absolute beginners into confident and competent riders very quickly and efficiently, the procedure was to put a new rider on a horse controlled from the ground by the instructor on a long rein, so that the rider had neither stirrups nor reins. “That way,” I said, “you can focus completely on yourself. It’s the quick way to become steady in the saddle.”
She agreed happily, and over the next six weeks of twice-a-week lessons, only fell off twice. Under all the wrapping she was wiry and athletic, and physically fearless. And by now she was thoroughly sick of Billy.
For all his many virtues, he was a lazy beast unless he was being asked to jump, which he enjoyed, and if Amira was sick of having to kick him to raise a trot, and keep kicking him to maintain a canter, I was even more sick of hearing her whine about it. But I could only shift her to another horse on one condition.
“No!” she stamped her foot. “Explain to horse!”
We could, in retrospect, have habituated all our school horses to being ridden in long flappy drapery, but the overwhelming majority of Muslim women who ride do so in standard western dress, the only usual concession made being a headscarf under the riding helmet to guard the hair. Amira’s abaya was going to have to go.
“The horse,” I explained again, “will not understand. He can’t understand. I don’t expect you to dress as I do,” in breeches and a teeshirt, “but a shalwar kameez that comes above the knees would do.”
A grunt and a lift of her chin, and she turned her back on me. But at the next lesson she was indeed wearing a loose, pull-on long-sleeved shirt that stopped short of the knee by a couple of centimetres.
“Perfect!” I told her with a smile.
But once again, the grooms had to be sent away. As a reward, I settled her on a little chestnut former endurance horse, much more responsive than Billy, and if not quite purebred Arabian, much closer to what Amira saw herself riding. She enjoyed the lesson thoroughly.
Claude sidled by as I was tacking up for the next lesson, grinning all over her face. “Well done! Amira, she is only half the size I thought she was.”
I refused to take any credit. “It was Billy,” I said.
“Aha, Mister So-slow! She does not love him any more?”
I’m sorry to report that we shared a sisterly snigger. The next lesson, Amira showed up with a heavy designer silver bracelet. For me. Refusal was not an option.
“You’re my teacher! I learn so much!”
I knew it was loose change, and had probably been a gift to her from somebody else, but I still felt like I was being bought. So I went out of my way to be uncompromising in my lessons. I made sure she was doing everything right, even if she blew off my advice as too hard. But Amira was cantering by lesson six, yes, on slow-poke Billy, and after three months she was jumping with increasing confidence.
She’d begun her lessons in September, while the days, though not quite as ferocious as mid-summer, were still long and hot. By January, she was at that dangerous stage every beginner rider gets to, experienced enough to be confident, inexperienced enough to ruin a horse. She began to talk about the rides she was going on with friends who did endurance racing, the exciting horses they had, and what fun it would be to have a horse of her own. I smiled and nodded and made encouraging noises. What I’d seen of the local endurance scene did not fill me with respect or confidence.
The first lesson in February, she flew at me with a hug, alight with excitement. “I find my horse!”
I hoped she’d found a nice, experienced gelding, but no. When her animal arrived at the stables, it proved to be a four-year-old Arabian stallion, who rolled his white-ringed eyes at us as he paced his stable.
“Take him back,” I told her. “He’ll kill you.”
But no, she wouldn’t. “You will help me with him?”
It wasn’t a question. It was an order. “How did he behave when you rode him?” I asked.
Her answer was the goofy, myopic grin she gave when embarrassed. It was the answer I dreaded. She hadn’t.
Two weeks later, she asked for a lesson on her new horse rather than one of ours. She was tense, and had the horse on a tight rein in walk. I asked her to let the rein out, slowly, on a circle around me. She did, and the colt lowered his head slightly. I had taught her to leg yield on our lesson horses, and I asked her to now, just a few steps in and out on the circle in walk on the longest rein on which she could maintain contact, and as the minutes passed the horse began to relax.
“Now trot,” I said. The horse jogged, Amira bit her lip and pulled the rein.
“Again,” I said, “and keep him on the circle.”
There’s a reason why horse people will tell you that “green on green equals black and blue”. This was a very worried young horse, undoubtedly very sweet-natured at his core, as most Arabians are, but in need of skilled, calm, consistent riding. Amira had less than a hundred hours of riding experience. It wasn’t enough. And she knew it, now.
Pride alone would not let her relinquish her new horse, so the answer was to keep things slow, calm and easy. We worked, over the coming weeks, in walk, and sometimes trot. Sometimes a canter would happen, and I would talk her down, remind her to make the circle smaller, keep smiling. Summer came, and Amira’s little stallion still hadn’t killed her, nor she him. Slowly, ride by ride, she rose to meet the challenges her horse set.
And I learned why. I praised her progress one morning, and she grinned at me, eyes glittering.
“My father, he says riding is not for girls. I want to ride all my life, and he says “when you can pay for it.” So I get a job, I buy my own car, and then I buy riding lessons. Then I buy my horse. MY horse. My father did not give, cannot take.”
I smiled. “Neither can he take what you can do. Next season, you will compete, and, Amira, you will win.”
What is courage if it is not standing up for yourself against everything that has made you?
Also by the same writer Two Corners
For another horsey story see Horsemanship