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I Learned to Ride at 50, on the Wild Coast of South Africa

Just how many people in their 50s decide to take up horseback riding seems to be an unspecified number, even for Google.

There are plenty of tips and warnings for older riders, some rather insulting—we’re old, not dead. But there is little information regarding exactly how many midlife beginners there might be. Though given the number of websites encouraging it, there must be more of us than one might imagine.

Anyway, wisely or not, I am one of these people.

Riveting, painful, humiliating, hilarious—any of these words might apply to the experience. For me, it has been exhilarating and sometimes sidesplittingly funny.

The setting of my equestrian adventure: a 150 ha pristine nature reserve of hills and dales on the east coast of South Africa. Notoriously, and for good reason, known as the Wild Coast, it’s a place where one can ride horses among zebra, giraffe and antelope, pass through a tiny village and head out onto a magnificent stretch of beach for a canter.

©Brenton Geach Photography
©Brenton Geach Photography

I imagine that two likely scenarios seem plausible in this setting: either this is a wild, no-holds-barred set-up where one takes one’s life into their own hands, or, it’s an elite, prohibitively expensive, all-wishes-catered-for African safari, which are so frequently advertised.

But Haga-Haga Horses is neither.

Firstly, even most South Africans haven’t a clue where Haga-Haga is and, secondly, it is nothing like an elite horse safari experience that caters to tourists and their every whim and very attractive currency.

No. Here you catch your own designated horse, groom it, tack it up yourself (with help if all the buckles are beyond your capabilities, as they were mine), and set out to ride with the deceptively slight owner of these 15 horses, Heather Arnold.

She also has a three-year-old toddler, so when I say she has phenomenal endurance, you can take my word for it.

And a word of warning: Heather never gives up, no matter the task or issue at hand, no matter the howling gale, torrential rainstorm, or the infamous African sun. So, in the words of the incorrigible Boy Scouts and their founder, Robert Baden Powell, “Be prepared.”

The Haga-Haga Nature Reserve where these horses live out is also home to some five zebra, a family of three giraffes, and scores of antelope of different varieties, all of which you are almost guaranteed to spot on your ride. In fact, it is astonishing just how close the zebra and giraffe allow a person on horseback to approach, all the while keeping a watchful eye on you as they stare quizzically at the passing spectacle.

©Brenton Geach Photography
©Brenton Geach Photography

Now, I first came to Haga-Haga Horses to experience an indulgent but rare outride. What I hadn’t counted on was Heather’s persuasiveness and rational argument, which was simply that I would enjoy the experience immeasurably more if I actually knew how to ride properly.

Some might say it’s not a wise move to start horse-riding at the age of 50, the truth is I’ve fallen in love with the dark and mysterious Charlie. Charlie is the horse, to be clear. A Thoroughbred-cross weighing in at some 400-plus kg. Besides, one does not simply say “no” to Heather.

Unsurprisingly, Charlie thought I was an imbecile from the outset—I mean little children ride better than I do. Or did, because over the last six months I have gone all out and started taking proper lessons and controlled outrides.

It’s not that I’ve never ridden before—I have, often. Since I started earning my own money in my 20s, I have treated myself where and when I can. (My mother is terrified of anything equine and forbade me to even ride a pony at children’s parties.)

However, I have never been taught any of the vital aspects properly: not a correct seat, or how to tack up a horse and, importantly, not to expect to fall off every time I canter or gallop, which has happened more times than I care to remember in the past.

It didn’t stop me from wanting to ride. I just thought that the best I would ever be was clinging to a horse’s mane, having lost complete control as we thundered down the beach.

The reasons for this have become patently clear to me now. I have always ridden at establishments that cosset the rider by doing all the pre and post-ride work for one, while not offering any criticisms or instructions to the clients for fear of offending them and losing their precious lucre.

But then I met Heather and Charlie and everything changed.

Heather and Charlie. ©Brenton Geach Photography

Charlie, experienced at being a horse, and me, not experienced at being a rider, had a lot to teach me. As does Heather.

For example, amongst many other afflictions, I appear to be rather spatially challenged and am taking a disturbingly long time learning my way around a bridle without tying it all into an unravel-able knot.

I put Charlie’s halter on in such a manner that he was blindfolded. I managed inexplicably to attach his noseband underneath his chin. Then to the throat latch.

I didn’t know how to tack Charlie up. I was never taught that on my previous excursions.

I brought him disagreeable snacks (I swear not even Gordon Ramsey has managed to curl his lip in such distaste).

I didn’t know how to pick out his feet, which he took full advantage of by kneeing me in the face. Twice.

I tried to close one of the game-reserve gates while seated on him, and accidentally, but predictably, whacked him on the behind, an indignity he rewarded me with by unceremoniously dumping me in the mud and heading for home at speed, where people knew what they were doing.

©Brenton Geach Photography

Nonetheless, after my first outride in years, I was on a potentially dangerous and addictive adrenalin high, and immediately booked another session with Heather and Charlie. Only this time with the desperately needed lesson.

The first was straight-up slap-stick comedy. I didn’t know any of the terminology, and know precious little now, I’m sure.

I had, of course, boasted to Heather that I am still rather flexible for a quinquagenarian. So when she instructed me to point my toes at Charlie’s ears, I actually physically lifted my legs—hands akimbo as instructed—and ludicrously put my feet on his ears.

As you can imagine, Charlie was less than impressed to have a stranger’s filthy boots on his head. What Heather thought of my behavior, I’d prefer not to know.

This type of tomfoolery happened at every session without fail.

But now, after six months, while I still have issues with the tack, I am rather more confident in my ability to canter and be able to keep a modicum of control. I have even progressed to small jumps.

My horse-riding days are those I look forward to the most, and I regret that the thought of taking it up in a more constructive manner didn’t occur to me until a mutual horse friend introduced me to Heather.

What now has me in a quandary is that Heather says I may soon be able to ride Jet, a beautiful grey Anglo Arab that could make a living from hair conditioner adverts, so beautiful are his mane and tail. But beauty does not equate to tolerating fools. Jet, a former eventer, is apparently a little less forgiving than Charlie and has little patience for low levels of expertise.

I am also devastated to hear from Heather that not only is this not considered cheating on Charlie, but that Charlie has had other clients all along and couldn’t give a damn what I do with myself or who else I ride. He’ll probably be more than happy to hand me over to Jet for the indignities I put him through.

I’m simultaneously heartbroken and excited. What a bizarre feeling.

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